Living on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina may seem like nothing more than a minor geographical oddity. But that’s only until the human element is factored into the equation. When that happens, the simple act of crossing a state line can change everything about a person’s political identity.
This is especially true in the year 2019, when the US is divided into tribes of hyper-partisan ideological warriors. We have always had a president, but until 2016 we have never had a leader who was both the Messiah and the Anti-Christ all at the same time — with the possible exception of FDR.
I spend most of my days working out of my home near Johnson City, TN. It’s a community made up of rock-ribbed Republicans and devoted Bible quoters who pride themselves on their conservative values. To my neighbors, the mere mention of the word “progressive” conjures up images of Hollywood celebrities thumbing their noses at everything that makes America great.
As for me, my unapologetic status as a die-hard Democrat makes me, if not an outcast, then certainly an oddball. Luckily, my ideological peculiarities have never caused those around me to treat me with anything less than utter civility, a quality for which Southern culture is noted.
I receive the same genteel reception whenever I venture across the state line into the thriving and picturesque town of Asheville, NC, which is known as the “San Francisco of the South” and with good reason. Asheville is the only place where I have ever heard President Obama criticized for being too conservative. The exact phrase used to describe the 44th president was “a warmongering fascist, a traitor to his people and his party.” I kid you not.
To my Tennessee neighbors, I’m a nice enough fellow who is nonetheless cursed with some regrettable opinions. To my Asheville friends, I’m a deluded moderate who is blissfully unaware of the role played by Capitalism and the patriarchy in driving us all to Armageddon.
Both Asheville, NC and Johnson City, TN have their share of hard-core zealots inhabiting the far fringes of the ideological spectrum. To these people, I’m either an America-hating socialist or a soft-shell fascist, depending on which state I happen to be standing in at the time. Either way, I’m a threat to the One True Faith — whatever that may be.
As for myself, I like to think that I’m a nuanced person who makes up his own mind on important issues. But nuance is regarded with abhorrence by both the Left and the Right these days; in fact, it’s probably the only sentiment that progressives and conservatives share in common.
The idea that truth could lie somewhere in the middle between two extremes is, in Trump’s America, heresy — the bastard child of an unholy union between Ann Coulter and Michael Moore. A monstrosity from some far and dark corner of the multiverse, the stuff of nightmares. A thing best ignored if not outright shunned.
All of this unadulterated rejection does have an upside, however. It’s given me the ability to notice things that the ideological purists among us are blissfully (and willfully) unaware of. These are, in no particular order:
#1: The fact that villains invariably see themselves as heroes.
The biggest problem with helping the good guys overcome the bad guys is that there are no bad guys. Ask the Trump supporters. They will tell you that they are the noble underdogs, the last remnant of human decency struggling for survival against an implacable enemy. They’re harassed, persecuted, demeaned, and misrepresented by the media. But by no means are they the bad guys; far from it.
The Trump haters will tell you the same thing about themselves. They too are the noble underdogs, the last remnant of human decency struggling for survival against an implacable enemy. They’re harassed, persecuted, demeaned, and misrepresented by the media. But by no means are they the bad guys; far from it.
This abundance of virtue from all quarters is at the root of today’s political turmoil. Modern America is dominated by two groups of altruistic heroes, each inspired only by the purest of intentions.
Yet for some reason all of these wonderfully moral people want nothing more than the chance to kill each other. If you doubt this, then just spend a little time on social media and read the comments posted by human beings in the throes of heated debate. We were designed by evolution to be tribal warriors, not dispassionate intellectuals. We act accordingly. Political pundits come and go, but Darwin is eternal.
#2: The fact that everybody cherry picks the facts to match their prejudices.
I noticed this dynamic during the furor over the caravan of immigrants that tried to gain entry into the US. To conservatives, these people were nothing but a gang of rapists, murderers, and aspiring terrorists; and the right-wing media backed their perception with facts. There are indeed members of the caravan who are, to borrow a phrase from Trump, “bad hombres.”
On the other hand, to progressives the caravan was nothing but a group of sincere, good-hearted asylum seekers fleeing murderous persecution. That was the image peddled by the left-wing media, which also backed up this perception with facts. There are people in the caravan who are honest, hard-working, honorable folks that would be a credit to any community.
The complete truth, of course, is that making blanket statements about any group of dissimilar individuals is a project doomed to failure.
Nobody in the media points this out because to do so would act against their common overriding interest, which is to garner as large an audience as possible. It’s a cardinal rule of Capitalism that you never, ever piss off your customers. If you do, they’ll just take their business elsewhere.
In today’s world, mainstream journalism is not about discovering truth. It’s about assembling custom-made worldviews from carefully chosen facts and serving them up with a side order of righteous indignation. That’s the world in which we live, no matter what state you happen to be standing in. Walter Cronkite is dead, PT Barnum has taken his place, and all of us are the suckers.
#3: Absolute evil, or absolute good for that matter, only exists on the big screen.
As a student of history, I see evidence of this fact throughout every event and epoch. The American Founding Fathers were brilliant visionaries who created a form of government based on the ideals of freedom and equality. They were also rank hypocrites who enslaved some people of color and slaughtered others. The ancient Romans built an enduring civilization and fostered the arts while butchering anyone who opposed them. The Greeks were all for democracy, as long as it only applied to men.
The great heroes of history are no exception to this rule. Abraham Lincoln was a kind-hearted soul who freed the slaves. He was also a cunning opportunist who manipulated those around him with deception and guile. Winston Churchill was a white supremacist who helped to save the world from white supremacy. FDR was the architect of the New Deal and a serial adulterer who never ventured far from his mother’s purse strings.
Examples of this type abound no matter what era of history you examine. Steve Jobs was a technological revolutionary who brought the world closer together. He was also a festering asshole who shit on his friends and went out of his way to park in handicap spaces. Moses led his people to the Promised Land and killed anyone who got in his way.
Regional divisions are also no exception to this rule. My Southern ancestors were distinguished by their gentlemanly chivalry and by their contempt for African-Americans. 19th century New Yorkers rightly denounced Dixie’s racism, while regarding the Irish and Italians in their great city as subhuman trash.
The conclusion to draw from this stroll through humanity’s strange and tormented history is both undeniable and unsettling. If we accept that a tiny number of us are impeccable saints, and an equally tiny number irredeemable monsters, then the rest of us are somewhere in between.
This includes the vast majority of those on either side of America’s current civil war. Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, Trump devotees and Trump denouncers — all of them have hopes and dreams and fears, a song to sing and a story to tell. All of them are right. And all of them are wrong.
The future is always uncertain. The disparate strands of our national identity may one day weave themselves into a tapestry of unified diversity. Or they may dissolve into a chaotic mishmash of self-assured psychoses. Which of these visions will become reality is anyone’s guess.
Whatever face our country wears in the years to come, I can only hope it will show less of the ugliness and more of the beauty in all of us. That’s something to ponder as I drive across state lines to visit my friends on both sides of the ever-growing Great Divide.