The cause of our national discord

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. – Abraham Lincoln

The debate is now about civility, the act of being nice. America so debased that we need Miss Manners to urge us to our nature’s better angels.

Once, when one was angry with another, he/she would yell, “Don’t speak to me!” Now, we do it without encouragement, unless we “speak” with raised voices and profanity-laced epithets. Compounding rudeness is shunning, a time-honored practice within cults and crazy religious sects. A nation of fanatics.

During the Civil War, the most uncivil of American interactions, there was a defined geographical demarcation between the combatants. Today, internecine war rages without borders.

We’ve talked about our collective anger to death without resolving it. Instead, we’ve become more intolerant, blaming others, creating scapegoats to put a sub-human face on our fear and anger.

To explain it, we point to contentious social-political issues—e.g., immigration, same-sex marriage, the urban-rural divide—as causes of the national fulmination. But while those and others certainly contribute to our dysfunction, they are not the prime causes.

For two and a half weeks, I traveled the country, a 4,000-long boomerang roughly following I-80 east and then I-70 home. Along the way, I enjoyed the company of and interactions with numerous relatives and friends, some rediscovered after a half century. I made new friends. One is a sister’s neighbor, a man suffering from ALS, now in his fifth and possibly last year, nobly enduring without complaint.

We began with quick summaries/synopses of our lives and took to each other quickly. Bill is a retired, 33-year Toledo, Ohio police officer. Based on that, to my discredit, and anecdotal stories he shared about his interactions with some of the more nefarious Toledoans, I began making assumptions about him and his beliefs.

Soon, though, my eyes were opened. Bill is not the man I had projected him to be. Rather, he is brilliant, a well-read, thoughtful, self-taught philosopher who had been born into poverty and essentially left alone to survive. He particularly loves the works of Jim Harrison, whose works include Legends of the Fall. I had read some Harrison, and with that commonality, off we went.

My journey continued eventually toward Virginia where I committed a major faux pas by following my car GPS rather than my friend’s instructions to take the back roads to his place outside of Washington D.C. I found myself in the thick of the D.C. beltway traffic, which served an enlightening purpose despite its withering assault on my psyche.

I watched my fellow humans well-encased and protected in private personnel carriers, mostly singly occupied like mine, inching and crawling turtle-like. I decided I was the only smart driver on I-495 and others were the problem. Of course, my neighboring drivers had concluded the same about me, that I was the idiot, the one causing the nightmare.

How could any human do this, I wondered? How could anyone maintain his/her sanity and humanity under such mind-numbing conditions? I concluded they couldn’t, that only by dehumanizing others, could one survive.

As I sat, inched, crawled, and sat again, taking two and half hours to cover 30 miles, the root of our national dis-ease dawned on me. It’s neither immigration, same-sex marriage, the increasing disparity in wealth, nor any other social-political issue. It’s soul-crushing rush-hour traffic.

During the rising industrial period and Gilded Age, when obscenely wealthy captains of industry created America’s second aristocracy, the late nineteenth-century realists wrote about the battlefield of human experience. Modern industrialized, capitalistic society effectively had begun to reduce humans to automatons, depersonalized robots serving one purpose: To feed the machine. Individuality and creativity went out the window and in stepped uniformity and conformity. Assembly lines and cookie-cutter homes became the norm. And the people? Machines driving machines, at war with their fellow robots and the artificial intelligence that governs them.

But not all. My new friend Bill, for one, being an exception to the rule.

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