We have become tribal and, in the process, become binary. Ones or Zeros. Yes or No. Pro or Con. We define each other through simple answers to complex questions. Such thinking, dividing ourselves in this way, is not in our own best interests.
That's not to say that there are no absolutes. I am not one of those who believes that being human means to think in shades of gray, that everything is relative, that there is no right or wrong, no good and no evil. I have my red lines. Red lines are healthy. They require us to think critically and make rational, informed judgements. But today I'm talking about the false dichotomies, questions that look as though they can be answered simply but that are in truth designed to force us to abandon critical thinking in favor of tribal fervor.
GUNS OR BUTTER
The Vietnam War shaped much of my geopolitical thinking. It seemed to me that it was foolhardy to think that, as the new kids on the block, Americans could do better in southeast Asia than the French, who had been in the business of colonialism for quite awhile. I have never had reason to doubt that simple analysis. Afghanistan, anyone? And today there are more hotels listed in Hanoi on the popular travel website TripAdvisor than are listed in Chicago.
At the time, when the War on Poverty was competing for funding with the Vietnam War, Guns or Butter? became a popular question to ask. It was not a new question. Eisenhower perhaps laid it out most starkly: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired
signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not
fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
Your answer marked you. Guns? Warmonger. Butter? Peacenik.
Our elected officials simply need to make sane judgements regarding our tax code and our spending priorities, in our decisions concerning war and peace, untainted by the influences of campaign funding and temptations of wealth and power. Simple, right?
COPS OR DEMONSTRATORS
Questions regarding our system of criminal justice are among the most emotional of the moment. Male black Americans are in statistically dangerous territory when it comes to being stopped by the police, charged with a crime, found guilty of a crime, and/or incarcerated. Such constant and contentious contact with law enforcement inevitably leads to frustration and violence on both sides. There are two factors at work here, neither of them pretty.
First, racism exists. It exists at all levels of our society. Don't argue. It does. This is one of those red lines that I talked about. Racism exists. Denying that racism exists is either racist itself or just stupid. Police and the court system are not immune.
Second, police cause crime, particularly in impoverished and segregated black communities. That's not to suggest that all police, or most or even a plurality, are criminals. Not at all. But 50 years ago, Malcolm X predicted the scenario that's being played out today. He pointed out that even then, when an incident occurred in Harlem, however minor, swarms of police responded, multiples of the number that would respond to similar incidents in other parts of the city. But more aggressive policing did not and does not lead to a community feeling a sense of safety. On the contrary, communities feel threatened. In the face of an increasingly militarized police, the threatened communities either exhibit the self-destructive rage of the powerless or feel the need to take steps, however futile, to protect themselves. Hence the demonstrations and the misdirected violence, both inner directed and directed toward law enforcement.
As the demonstrations and the level of violence and the ever more shrill reporting in the media of that violence mounts, we get the false dichotomy question: Do you support the cops or the demonstrators?
Cops? Racist. Demonstrators? Anarchist.
Now that's just stupid. We are a nation of laws, laws that protect individuals from the bad acts of other individuals. We need strong, active, skilled policing. Who else you gonna call? Ghostbusters?
But because we are a nation of laws, we are also protected from bad actors who act in the name of the government. And that includes cops. In the words of John Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court: "The government of the United States has been emphatically
termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to
deserve this high appellation if the laws furnish no remedy for the
violation of a vested legal right."
It is possible, logical, and downright American to support our police forces while condemning excessive behavior by individual police officers.
So where does this leave us? I submit that we are left with the necessity of viewing any number of issues that have been presented to us with less binary, more critical thinking. Israel or Palestine? Carbon-based or renewable? Flat tax or progressive rates? There are many such issues that have been used by cynical manipulators to divide us. It's time to look at each with fresh eyes. Stay tuned for a discussion of the flat tax versus a progressive rate tax code.