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Facebook Dialogues (#2): Just How Divided Are We?

Here's a classic song from the 1960's about the social changes of the time. The video is a slide show of images from the Vietnam War.

Writing only comes to life when it finds readers. The most fascinating aspect of this whole blogging experiment is seeing the different ways that people respond to what I write. Every posting is an adventure, and when I read new comments, it’s like opening a package on Christmas day. Positive comments, of course, are always encouraging, but the more critical responses are often the most useful. Sure, I sometimes get a little frustrated and defensive when people either misunderstand what I was trying to say or simply disagree with me. But if I allow myself to “listen” to their comments, I sometimes see ways that my writing could improve, and I am forced to further develop and clarify my thinking.

New blog posts, in fact, have often been generated through dialogues I have had on Facebook, Hubpages, or on this blog. Occasionally, I “borrow” ideas from others and see where they lead. More often, however, in the course of either arguing or trying to clarify my position, new concepts, topics, or techniques for expressing my thoughts emerge. I used to feel that online discussions about controversial subjects were generally a waste of time. But as time passes, I realize just how productive these sometimes frustrating conversations can be.

One of these recent dialogues started a few days ago when I put a link to my last blog post – titled “Individual Responsibility” – on Facebook. Five or six Facebook friends would eventually get involved, and it was not long before the discussion drifted away from the main topic of the original blog post. We eventually had two separate discussions going, with one focused on religion and the other the seemingly intense divisions between political factions in the United States. I decided to include snippets from the political discussion that I had with one of my Facebook friends here. Too often, after all, some thoughtful discussion just disappears into the Facebook void.

Michael Ferguson is someone that I (virtually) met earlier this year. He is a blogger and an ambitious visionary who is starting a new media outlet called “Polymathica” (in which I hope to play some role). Here are links to The Polymathica Institute blog, the Polymathica Facebook page, and the Polymathica website. They are all worth checking out.

Michael:  Paul, you ask in your commentary, "So given this fact, why are there so many people who drift toward extreme views regarding individual responsibility?" Because, Paul, as I have told you before, America, and the West in general, is headed for a divorce. We are at the stage where the husband and wife have abandoned all pretext of reasonable discussion. They are simply flinging outrageously over stated invective at each other out of anger. They polarize beyond any point of reason. The other is no longer just wrong; they are stupid, moral reprobates and evil. Are the two sides overstating their case? You betcha. In both cases, they have a vision for their 'nation' and believe that the other side is trying to thwart them and take it down the path to ruination. In an effort to demonize the other side, they make themselves sound ridiculous. That is the current state of the marriage in America. As most of the world wise know, when it gets to this stage, there is no going back. The irretrievable breakdown in the marriage has already happened and the marriage is simply waiting for the two to get tired of the futile arguments.

Me: …..Fortunately, most people don't spend a lot of time thinking and talking about politics anyway. They have other, seemingly more important things to do. So maybe we should not make too much of the screaming and shouting between the small percentage of people who actually get riled up by political issues. Few Americans are likely to come to blows over this stuff.

Michael: Yeah, I'm sure that is how King George and Louis XVI the got themselves to sleep at night. I'm sure that people are far more complacent now than they were in the sixties. Riots, shootings, assassinations of major politicians and religious leaders….such things won't happen, couldn't happen. Nope, today we are too evolved to find ourselves in those situations again. Ahem....... Actually, Paul, as you may have guessed, I was there in the 60's. I saw it as it happened, more often than I would like, in person. Today is spookier.

Me: I'm not saying that people are more evolved. I'm saying that they are generally disengaged. We have two wars going on which few Americans can give any details about. We just had an economic disaster happen that few Americans have spent much time trying to understand. Most of the students that I see spend their time texting and tweeting, and it is not generally about politics. Times are tough, but the United States is still one of the wealthiest nations in history. (And as you have argued several times, we may soon be getting much wealthier.) Few Americans would even consider the possibility of taking up arms for some type of political cause. If anything, a situation like "Brave New World" seems more probable than violent conflict between different factions. Instead of "Soma," people have Iphones and Blackberries. And as long as enough people stay entertained and can get their hands on the latest materialistic necessities, they won't complain too much. If Americans have any real passion, it's shopping. Right now, a lot of people are just pissed off because they can't buy as much stuff. The only question is which political party they blame for their problems. I am starting to wonder if social networking and the information age in general make the conflicts seem worse. Only hardcore people spend any time debating political matters online. Since these tend to be passionate people, it can make the divisions seem even worse. Personally, I'm still not sure if the partisan divisions of today are all that unusual. We just have more mediums available to vent and to find people who feed the frustrations (Beck, Limbaugh, Olbermann, Maher, etc.)

Michael: I remember the race riots, the civil rights marches, the anti-war riots. My parents never saw them coming. It flabbergasted them. They were stunned and shocked by the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It wasn't that they were saddened. It was surreal to them. They lived in a cocoon of middle class America that simply missed the whole dynamic of cultural upheaval until it blasted into their lives through vivid news images. 30% or so of Americans support the Tea Party. That number is growing and will continue to grow. 6 percent of voters say they have attended a Tea Party meeting, rally or march. That is a huge number. You miss a lot, Paul. You are like my parents. You will wake up one day and be shocked by what has transpired….

Me: Michael, you may be right. I may be missing something. Then again, the Tea Party may become another footnote of history, just like many other political movements of various times. I suspect that if Republicans gain complete control of Congress and the Presidency again in 2012, the Tea Party will fade a bit. It's a movement that thrives on being out of power. As I have said before, governing is much harder than complaining about government. If America's problems magically fade away once Republicans gain control, there won't be so much reason to be angry. If, as I suspect, problems do not magically go away, Tea Party people, like Obama supporters at the moment, will become disillusioned. There may also be some parallels between today and the sixties. Of course, in the sixties, there was a war going on in which any young person could be drafted to go fight it. No one is considering a draft today, which is part of the reason why most young people don't care about Iraq and Afghanistan. Decades of segregation and white superiority were also being challenged, which brought about a predictable effort to resist change. I don't see any challenges to the social system today that quite match that one; although the Obama election has clearly struck some nerves. Also, you had a tremendous generation gap between parents who grew up with the Depression and World War II and their children who were raised in the greatest period of economic prosperity in American History (up to that time). We still have plenty of adolescent rebellion, but not on that scale. Also, there were so many people hitting college age by the mid-1960's due to the Baby Boom. I wonder how many young people today believe that they can change the world? As I said before, they are too busy texting to try.

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