Are you ready for a shock? As I sat down to write this, CNN had on the front page of its website an article putting Donald Trump in a dim light. Hard to believe, I know. And–are you ready for this?–Fox News is defending some of President Trump’s peculiar actions. In fact, Fox commentaries are almost primarily about supporting Trump, while late-night comedy shows seem to have changed their format from the classical approach of self-deprecating mockery of American culture to serial lampooning of the many dumb things the President says or does. The whole industry of American news and late-night talk shows has become a White House burlesque, meant to confirm (I think) how deeply divided American society is today.
I grant that the United States of America has deep divisions. Some of these are historical, so that much of the Red-Blue divide still runs along Civil War lines. Don’t imagine that something as thin as the Mason-Dixon line couldn’t divide a country a quarter of a millennium later. America is built on mythologies, a land formed as much by folktale as by ideology. The greatest social experiment in history (I believe) was, after all, shaped by revolution and by civil war as well as by philosophy and religion. There are also deep critical divides within what appear to be like-minded regions like the Northwest, the Rust Belt, the South, or New England. Livia Gershon’s suggestion that we might be in a “Cold Civil War” is tempting to accept.
But isn’t it true that, as we just saw, America has always been divided? As someone who came to age in the aftermath of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, America’s “victory” was dominated in my experience by culture wars. I was never sure that war ended in the 90s (or even began then), but 9/11 certainly created a cohesive moment that allowed everyone to take a breath. But, frankly, when was there a non-divisive moment in American postwar history? McCarthyism, the 60s, Vietnam, the Nixon scandal, Reaganomics, the Cola wars, repeated gulf wars, perennial culture wars, the Tea Party, the alt-right and the new left, Brad and Angelina–I don’t know that divisiveness is new.
I mean, all the Presidents have been deeply divisive. According to FiveThirtyEight, every President except JFK went below 50% approval at one point, and even Kennedy was descending steadily to that depth when he was assassinated. It is true that Trump’s disapproval rating is record-breaking, being the only President to have a lower approval rating than disapproval rating at inauguration, and the only one to never have a majority approval (thus far). However, Truman spent most of his Presidency with support below 40%, being popular only during his two elections and the 1946 mid-term. Obama, Bush Jr., Carter, and Ford all spent more than half their presidency with less than half of America approving of their work. On the 569th day of their presidencies, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Truman were about where Trump is now in approval–in the low 40s. In fact, the only moments of unity in America where approval was at 80% or above are classic ones: Truman finishing WWII, Bush Jr.’s initial response to 9/11, Bush Sr.’s victory in West Asia, and Johnson’s accession after JFK’s assassination. Violent are the moments that create unity in America in the era of modern comfort and wealth after WWII.
It seems to me that division is part of America’s story and I don’t know whether America is greatest when she is divided or unified. The unified response of America to join WWII after Pearl Harbour is offset by the divided feelings about entering WWI, and there is a case to be made that Wilson hoodwinked America into joining that global conflict. The critical unity of America after 9/11, filled as it was with public debate, disintegrated into a decade of desert war with thinning allies, certainly creating the conditions for the tragedy of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and one of the greatest refugee crises of history. The divisiveness of McCarthyism is no doubt a betrayal of American cultural values, and yet it was a challenge to American values of segregation that led to the beginning of a long revolution of understanding about race, from Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matters. All abolition movements, cultural revolutions, and religious revivals are divisive, and yet America has been great in global matters when unified.
So is America greatest when she is divided or unified?
I don’t know, though I think it is a powerful question. What troubles me about the “America divided” conversation is not the complex data that could lead to answers, but the media rhetoric about the question. Set aside the inherent hypocrisy on the left with the principle of inclusion and reasoned revolutionary speech, or the fact that Trump’s person and politics are a betrayal of American conservativism. In this, CNN and Fox News are each undermining that which they are trying to defend, as are superstars like Stephen Colbert or Glenn Beck. Every week millions of people around the world watch American news channels, political commentators, and late-night monologues. Youtube has hyper-realized our connection with these kinds of media. And, especially when you consider the clickbait nature of mainstream news, rather than bringing clarity they are unified in one thing: a certain vision of America. If we trust in Fox News, CNN, and BBC, or Stephen Colbert and his friends, what do we learn about what Americans are like?
Non-Americans not living in America are likely to imagine America as a swirling cesspool of bigotry and violence. I have heard it, heard the fear of non-Americans about travelling in the US or having US immigrants in their communities (there are millions of Americans living across the world, including 2 million in Canada). I have heard foreigners working in specialized trades in the US talk about getting out, and Canadians hesitate about taking jobs there (there are more than a million Canadians in the US, most of them working as hockey players or baristas in Los Angelos). No doubt the President’s anti-immigration rhetoric and interest in trade wars heightens the anxiety, but even without that the news is filled with guns, violence, racism, character assassinations, and the twin realities of hypersexualized idolatry and violence. What are people supposed to think about America?
This is where I think it is time to turn of the news and close the youtube app. I think it is time to turn off CNN and spend time with real Americans.
I have had the blessing of two trips into the US this year. I spent a week in archival research, a week in conferences and meetings, and a week vacationing, including a four-day music festival. During my time there, without fail people were generous, kind, engaged, and hospitable. Americans are legendary for their ignorance about Canada, but I found on these latest visits that people were especially open and even curious. At moments people were almost apologetic about the current political situation, and terribly cautious. Many were very interested in Prime Minister Trudeau, though living here I am only too aware that the tousle-headed ideologue is always smilier on the other side of the fence.
At both the festival and the conference, America showed its great diversity and commitment to human freedom–both in the culture of the programming and the messages from the stage. The festival in New Hampshire is a case in point. The programming was clearly meant to communicate the message that is their motto: Music, Love, Action. The artists and presenters spoke of social action, calls for justice, racial equality, and the global abolition movement that is trying to address the contemporary crisis of slave-trading today. The stage was filled with immigrants all week. And when the Compassion International presentations arose, they highlighted children who received American sponsorships and then went on to immigrate to America and become successful. The message of love and inclusivity flowed into the audience, which was the most polite 10,000 people crammed together you could meet. During torrential rains, shin-deep mud, tornado warnings and threats of flash floods, festival-goers kept their cool, helping one another out as Christian neighbours.
Although I spent all my time in four states this year, I have visited 31 US states. I have experienced the same integrity, kindness, and good-hearted neighbourliness almost without fail. This doesn’t surprise me. Most of my students are Americans, and they show intelligence and hard work in all they do, despite many challenges. Many of my colleagues are American, and though they are less diverse in political stance and heritage than my students, they show rugged integrity and an unfailing commitment to vision. Every year, our little province of Prince Edward Island hosts a population 7 times our size in visitors (including tourists and international students). Americans have always been a large part of our lives, and generally a positive one.
So, here we are. This is my rant. Not as clever as Stephen Colbert or as angry as Glenn Beck. There isn’t great clickbait here that shows the sexy side of news. However, if you turn off CNN and turn to real people you will find great examples of neighbourliness–not to mention the courage, ingenuity, and brawny dream-making that is America’s global gift. I think the free press is an essential element to political democracy, an element that is under threat today in America. It is under threat mostly, though, due to an internal sickness. I think media is important, but in today’s media culture it might be time to take a break.
I follow the news, but I’m increasingly drawn to C.S. Lewis’ view of the media. Most of what we see in the media, he says, will be proven “false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance” before long. In consuming the media, we “will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph” as we assess our world (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, ch. 10). He speaks elsewhere of how a reader learns from the media about “how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know,” and yet we think that it brings us together as a people (Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 16). Lewis was not critically aware of all that the media does for us, yet he was wary of what looks like a unified view of the world but what really brings alienation in the end. I think this is true today if it never was before.
So, please, ignore your youtube app, tuck your newspaper under your arm, close the screen on this blog post, and go meet real Americans. It might change your view of the world.