Our Hidden Civil War

rollin coal

Maybe you saw this recent little news item:

“Rollin’ Coal” Is Pollution Porn for Dudes With Pickup Trucks Diesel drivers in rural America have been modifying their trucks to spew out black soot, then posting pics to the Internet. They hate you and your Prius.

I thought that a few millennia might teach us not to use nature to punish our enemies. Only the medium has changed, perhaps because most of our water comes through pipes. But not entirely as open water reservoirs are a prime terrorist target. Seriously, it is a pretty sad day when people in our presumably civilized country start to exchange rhetoric for real ammunition. We castigate less advanced nations for their tribalism and consequent violence.

I find it very hard to keep thinking about flourishing amid the angry exchanges taking place around the world, particularly because, for me, flourishing can only exist in a global, systemic sense. As hard as we, or any group or nation, try to paint ourselves as different, we are part of the same world. Every newborn carries the same basic genes that turn it into a human being, not some other species. Every human beings relies on the earth for life. Every human being relies on every other human being to flourish.

Our separateness in the United States, which seems to be growing, is due to many factors. I will pick only on one to comment here, our fundamentally polarized two-party political system. We have deliberately chosen not to adopt the more common parliamentary, multi-party system of our European parents. Over the years, we have boasted about the speed at which we are able to enact our laws and run our government, compared to these other nations, but these days we cannot continue to boast. Multi-party systems may be inefficient, but they force compromise and coalition-building at the top, actions that have a chance to trickle down to the rest of the party members and their partisan supporters.

Here in the US, this polarization was built-in almost from the start with a two-sided argument about the way the country should be shaped. We were able to move forward only because the argument extended to and was settled by an honest public debate. In defense of the polarized state of today, some historians argue that we were always a politically contentious and divided nation. Perhaps, but much of the country was ignorant about the goings-on in Philadelphia and later Washington. There was no national or social media. What politics existed were, as Tip O’Neill said, mostly local. Any differences at the center of government were diffused by the time they got to Peoria, maybe even to New York.

Today, there is one big difference: the technology of mass communications. Differences in Washington are instantly felt in Peoria. Tip’s admonition must be badly strained today. It’s easier to overlook the importance of living in harmony with your neighbors when their individuality gets broad labels that have little to do with how they behave locally. It’s easier to organize partisan activities than to demonstrate solidarity. These same media turn serious business and the need for public conversations into entertainment and platforms for bloviating.

There are only two ways that I know of to settle differences and live side-by-side. One is to establish and enter into a conversation; the other is to get into a fight with the more powerful getting to call the shots. The reality of the world is that neither probably works alone or for long. Life is indeed very complex and not amenable to simple solutions. Maybe that’s why power is used more frequently than talk which has a less predictable immediate outcome.

Differences of opinion are inevitable and even desirable in a democracy like the US. Resolving them peacefully is always a matter of words. Conversations are powerful in that almost anything is possible, as words create possibility. The consequences of a conversation are virtually infinite. Technology is different; technology creates futures, but not possibilities, except when unintended consequences arise. Otherwise the futures made present by technology are bounded by the design. “Rollin’ Coal” is an example of the harm that technology can do. Not just the ability to modify a diesel engine to make it smoke, but the more insidious feature of mass communications that the sense of neighbors with different ideas becomes a generic image of otherness. The [Republican] Prius driver might simply have found it more economical than a smokin pickup.

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