The Lost Middle
In his farewell speech, George Washington said that our national union was key to our collective and individual happiness. This was the ‘middle’ that bridged differences. It is all but gone. Here are some thoughts about how to find it again.
A sense of unease — there for years, but growing steadily, with time — has been eating away at me without providing any adequate clues as to how to understand, address and — critically — lighten it.
Sometimes, it feels as though I’ve been watching an imminent yet nearly imperceptible car crash, in excruciatingly gradual, slow motion.
And yet, as long as I’ve been living with this feeling, trying to understand it better than I do, I continue to scratch my head over it. While I understand ‘what’ it is, I have yet to solve ‘why’; at least, enough to do something about it — to be part of the solution, not just an alarmed and forced participant.
The ‘what’ is the wholesale destruction of the American middle: a kind of ‘Middle Way’ for modern times, within the United States. While historically, those words describe a Buddhist doctrine of tolerance and moderation that include, among other things, the right speech (no lying or verbal abuses), right livelihood (gaining one’s living without harming others), right intention (no ill-will or cruelty), and right conduct (acting with virtue), it could easily describe what America has lost, of late.
Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps the ‘end game’ of human competition — for resources, power, control, winning, and the moral high ground — inevitably leads here: to the wholesale destruction of anything between the extremes of victory and defeat; my way, or the highway.
There are, no longer, any major shades of gray, here. To be tolerated without enmity, we must — must — now be either with, or against. Depending on which of those we are, we are either saintly, or evil. Human, or sub-human. Safe, or a threat. The answer, or the problem. Friend, or foe. Dogmatic, or flaky. Left, or right.
There is no longer quarter for asterisks, nuance, uncertainty, balance, tolerance, inclusivity, or open-mindedness.
Each of these things is seen as a threat to the lives of those who have decided there is now only one way to think, to be and to act; and with it, one dogma to follow, champion and fund; and out of this, one group with whom to socialize, support and defend what’s true — one group with which to retrench, and resist the enemy.
We have lost not only our ability to hear one another, but even the interest in doing so. Worse still, we have deemed anything outside of our own hyper-customized world view to be an existential threat to our lives.
Gray, in all its gradient forms, is now traitor, saboteur and to be met with sedition.
Editor, columnist and author David French, whose new book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation just came out, argues in a recent Time Magazine that we are seeing the outcome of a “big sort”, in which “Americans are increasingly clustering in like-minded communities.” He adds, “Surrounding yourself with people who think like you has a profound effect. As [legal scholar] Cass Sunstein articulated, when like-minded people gather, they tend to grow more extreme.”
French states “As geographic separation increases, ideological divisions are magnified,” then goes on to share that among all 50 states, only Minnesota has a divided (multi-party) legislature. Everywhere else lives under ‘one-party rule’ that conspires to (or is the result of) an extremely divided, increasingly like-minded, increasingly xenophobic and resultingly extreme-thinking populace.
Left unchecked, there’s only one place this can go.
I’ve felt this viscerally for some time. To speak to anyone on either side of the political, social, educational, demographic or economic divide is increasingly to see people who not only can’t stand one another, but — and this is the point — don’t even know one another anymore. Not that this stops us from having heartfelt convictions about anything and everything to do with those unlike us. We have an embarrassment of those.
That’s because we’ve stopped asking questions of — or trying to understand — one another, for any reason other than to assess the risk we each pose to one another’s world view, and safety.
The less we truly know about one another, the less tolerance and empathy we can feel, and thus the farther apart we are doomed to grow. When we live in communities because they are ‘safe’ and ‘familiar’ — whether it’s 1% Connecticut or South Central LA — we are caught in an echo-chamber of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ prejudice-fueled vilification that is difficult to see for what it is, and which alarmingly, over time, becomes less and less jarring, until even the most open-minded and once-dissenting members begin to drift ever closer to the prevailing dogma.
This is why, in a police force comprised of largely good humans, you see the same toxic behaviors play out time and again. For Vox, Arthur Rizer — a former police officer and 21-year veteran of the US Army — writes, “That whole thing about the bad apple? I hate when people say that. The bad apple rots the barrel. And until we do something about the rotten barrel, it doesn’t matter how many good fucking apples you put in.” What Rizer (and many others, these days) are saying is that it’s the culture of policing that is corrupt, not the individuals — black, white and otherwise — who go in believing they are going to champion the safety and welfare of the population.
This same phenomenon is why, in nations like Afghanistan, Chad, the Philippines and Colombia, among fifteen other countries, according to the Goldin Institute, happy-go-lucky children who don’t even understand how to hate yet are turned into soldiers. Indoctrination — essentially, living in an echo-chamber of like-mindedness and fervor, good people go bad, because they are both encouraged and pressured to, however covertly or overtly this plays out; and to fuel it, they are taught that differences are worth killing or dying for.
For years, I’ve said that the only thing that scares me anymore is zealous behavior. In its absence, where reasonableness and curiosity are still held as values, discourse can still offer a path — or a bridge — between people and ideologies. It’s when we shut our minds to these and other inherently inclusive values that things become dangerous.
With Americans, French points out that what we’re seeing today has played out before, with like-minded fervent groups rebelling against dissenters. It happened in the 1770s, when Colonialists sought to secure liberty, and again in the 1860s, when Confederates aimed to secure slavery.
French warns, “Over the past decade, I’ve heard committed partisans say out loud that they would be “happy” to be rid of states like California. I’ve heard (and read) men fantasizing and theorizing about a second Civil War. Right-wing insurrectionist groups have even formed for the purpose of fomenting civil strife. Look at the smoke drifting from U.S. cities from coast to coast. Watch far-right and far-left protesters square off in street battles. There is a crackling tension in the air.”
The ‘crackling tension’ is palpable. It is the unease I feel, and have watched, as a curious person who wants to understand how and why people think the way they do, not to judge them, but to expand my own myopia.
To see better.
Take reading. Not to listen to, or read about, ideas and viewpoints that you don’t already have is quite literally self-subterfuge. It is an act of willful ignorance, which disempowers those who do it. We used to know this. There was even a saying among war-mongering populations: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Yes, this may have been for the goal of winning wars. But the point sticks: you cannot know your enemy if you do not try to understand them — to get into their heads.
And here’s the thing: once you do, you may discover that they’re not so different from you, or that the reason they are different is that they’ve been taught different things along the way — things that fed a value system that is no more part of their blood than yours is innate.
These things are all taught. And they can be untaught.
Because they’re not truths. They’re opinions.
And opinions are, by and large, cobbled together by what we’ve interpreted from the things to which we’ve been exposed. The less we know, the shallower — and most costly — our opinions are. About this, early 18th century English poet Alexander Pope famously wrote:
“A little Learning is a dang’rous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Perian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”
In the same piece of writing — his Essay on Criticism — he gave us two more now-famous quotations: “To err is human, to forgive divine,” and “Fools rush in where angels dare not tread.”
What Pope was trying to tell us was that the only antidotes to the dangers of ‘intoxication’ — rushing to judgment or action without due investment of time, energy and research — are knowledge (which requires learning) and forgiveness (which requires tolerance). Both of these things are in low — and decreasing — supply in the United States today, forcing the consequences of our own conviction-fueled hubris into ever-more dangerous territory.
The central fear that French articulates in Time is focused on our analog behaviors and decisions. That is, that we now live among, socialize with, and learn from people just like us, in our like-minded communities. He doesn’t even get into the Internet and its pseudo-informational rabbit holes. I wrote an essay on those, in The Two Internets, to address the social media echo-chambers that are also pushing us farther and farther apart. Our resistance, at the hand of powerful algorithms, remains to be seen.
French is not alone in his belief that a Second Civil War may yet be the outcome of this hyper-fragmentation. Fervent and opposing convictions about the nature of Man and humanity — at the bayonet tip of limited perspective — fueled the first one, as well as most wars before or after it.
A Way Out
He believes, at this point, that the only way to prevent one is for three things to happen, not one of which is easy. First, we need to embrace pluralism, not just socially, but politically. As in, break the deadlocked “good-evil / hero-villain / us-them / win-lose / black-white nation-killing” two-party mindset we have been stuck with for ages. I’ve wondered why this has been the case for years, since arriving here in the 1980s. The moment even just a third ‘real’ party existed, let alone a fourth or fifth, a new dynamic would emerge that tempers all sides, instantly. Two against one essentially forces the ‘one’ with the minority opinion to consider another viewpoint, even just optically, if not ethically. Moreover, it forces the ‘two’ to negotiate with one another in order for their minds to meet. Both of these things represent an important form of checks and balances. And forget politics; this is how people normally work, psychologically. Pluralism itself is a form of tolerance: of multiple viewpoints, platforms, perspectives, goals and histories.
Second, French — a Republican attorney and fellow at the conservative National Review Institute — believes that we need to revitalize the Bill of Rights, because our worst actions “have always included denying fundamental constitutional rights to America’s most vulnerable citizens, those without electoral power,” leaving “countless citizens without recourse when they face state abuse.” To accomplish this, he believes in addition to embracing pluralism, we need to limit presidential power, and that a pluralistic set of leaders on a more granular state and municipal level need to have enough power as to be responsive to their citizens’ needs.
Third, he believes that in order for those two things to change hearts and minds, “Defending the Bill of Rights means that you must fight for others to have the rights that you would like to exercise yourself. The goal is simple yet elusive. Every American — regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, religion or sexual orientation — can and should have a home in this land.”
He ends with a quote from the Book of Micah in the New Testament — one that George Washington himself used freely, employing it over 50 times in his correspondences:
“Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
To accommodate these ‘infinite grays’ between black and white extremes — which overwhelmingly once comprised a middle majority — Washington himself shared lucid thoughts on the matter after serving as the new nation’s first president. In his farewell address, he said in effect, passing on the torch to his successors, in life and in power:
“it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness.”
Said simply, a nation divided cannot be a prosperous nation; and its citizens cannot be prosperous, individually.
If this is true — and I believe it to be incontrovertibly true — then at what price are we currently indulging ourselves by screaming at one another about politics, race, abortion, policing, education, drilling, fuel, taxation, economics and truth? Do our collective attitudes toward those things today, and the actions they fuel, not represent a clear and present danger to the United States itself? Isn’t ‘united’ the first word of our very name?
How can we claim to be ‘united’ if we are in fact divided? It’s farcical. Except that it’s not funny.
Whether or not you believe French is right — or Washington, for that matter — if we want the country to survive, we must begin giving more than most of us are, right now. It starts with the commitment to learn something about people who are not like us, who don’t believe the same things we do, or look, act, value or have access to the same things. There is no other way to unity than tolerance of a diverse population. This is pluralism. And tolerance is the typical outcome of learning. The more we understand things, the less we fear them, and the less foreign they seem. That’s true of things, and it’s true of people.
Once we are sufficiently welcoming of difference, a pluralistic society and its institutions becomes possible. The U.S. is incredibly diverse, and only getting more so. While that’s scary to some, it’s the way it is. That’s because the governing documents of our nation — the ones that guaranteed the rights of all people, whether or not they were lived by, fully — are what has attracted most of those people to our shores, including your own ancestors, if not you, directly. Your family, too, were once newcomers. Unless you’re descended from one of the 562 Native American tribes we displaced, we came seeking safe harbor, and inclusion.
A nation of 330 million individuals cannot be of one mind, or history. The only way this works — the only way the United States gets to remain a country self-authored unity and shared prosperity, rather than self-destructive internal strife and warfare — is if we agree on something larger than ourselves. If we don’t, there is no nation, only war, and diminished welfare. So the focus needs to be on finding common ground, for the sake of the nation. To find common ground, we need to engage one another using infinite values, like tolerance, accommodation, understanding, empathy, humility, inclusion, trust, respect, compassion, connection, civility, sharing and community.
These are ancient words — stemming from Ancient Greek and Stoic virtue and philosophy, and they are the foundation of any (successful) societal undertaking. Luckily, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and the Constitutional Amendments that have followed them over the years, have brought us closer to fulfilling that dream. Only we, in our actions, stand in the way of our continued progress. By some perspectives, as I began these musings, we are getting worse, not better. Certainly, that’s how I see it, without prejudice to either side of the current ideological divide. Rather, I lament the loss of the middle — the middle that formed the bridge between either extreme, for much of our history.
We need to invest in our future, and realize that it is no more than the sum of the hearts and minds of the people who live here, and the actions they take, that will determine what that future will bring.
“Your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and … the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”
Of the ‘spirit of faction’, which he metaphorically termed ‘a fire’, believing it was human nature to be divisive, he said:
“A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
These words were uttered in the fourth year of the nation’s history, by the man who first led us, and whose voice and ears were at the literal table of the nation’s birthing. Not to heed them is, truly, to be against that which the United States was created to be.
The middle is where prosperity lies. Ours is nearly gone. We need to rebuild it — to find a new Middle Way — in the name of our current and future wellbeing. Doing so starts with the decision to leave the edges and dwell in difference — in the middle — until doing so eventually feels less foreign, less threatening, more expansive, richer, even, and more pluralistic.