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The State of Our Union Is ...
Tonight I sat and watched President Barack Obama give the ninety-second State of the Union address, outlining the plans for what he hopes will be his legacy: a safer country, fulfilled dreams, and a thriving economy. In short, his speech was full of the kinds of things every President has promised and every parent has prayed would come true for their children and grandchildren. As the father of two children, I join in those hopes—that my daughters will enjoy better days than I have seen and that their future will be secure.
As much as we agree on the future we want, however, and no matter how confident the President's declaration that we can get there from here, I'm still left asking myself what the state of our union really is. Are we strong? Are we determined? With all our many differences are we really prepared to face the future as a truly united United States?
The state of our union is divided.
Getting to a better future will not be easy. Regardless of all our shared hopes, we face a country today that is deeply divided on the questions of just how we should go about making those big beautiful dreams of freedom and prosperity a reality. We may all agree we want to reduce poverty, or address injustice or cure any other social ill, but let some poor fool actually come up with a plan and there is sure to be an immediate outcry from at least half the country on the way it is funded, executed or regulated.
Simply having an opinion on taxes, guns or the reality of climate change is enough to start a war these days. On the virtual battlefields of the Internet the casualties can be counted in followers lost and friendships broken. If you managed to get through the last election season without having to mute the posts of a particularly strident set of acquaintances then you are made of sterner stuff than I.
The weapons of this war are cutting words, captioned photos and dubious statistics—not to mention an endless stream of quotes wrongly attributed to Lincoln or Gandhi. As I sit looking at the rubble of yet another flame war between people who used to be friends, I have to wonder if it was worth it. Why do otherwise kind and reasonable people feel they need to act this way when it comes to politics?
The state of our union is afraid.
With the rhetoric rising to a fever pitch, it bears asking why we seem to see our political differences so quickly escalating into personal conflicts. Whatever happened to civil discourse? Is agreeing to disagree simply a lost art?
As an ancient philosopher once said "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." The fact that the philosopher in question was small, green, and fictional makes his observation no less true. In an environment where fear has too often become the default motivator in our political process, it's inevitable that anger and hatred are not too far behind.
Here's how fear works: If your neighbor disagrees with you on gun control then she is personally responsible for putting your family at risk. After all, if she's for more gun regulation then she obviously wants your defenseless spouse to die at the hands of a home invader. On the other hand, if she's against more gun laws then she'll be the one to blame if an insane gunman opens fire at your local mall. Either way, her position on the issues is bound to personally hurt you. Being angry at her is not only an option; it's practically a duty if you care about your family at all.
The beauty of these fear-based arguments is that they can be made on both sides of just about every issue out there today. Depending which talking points you listen to, we're all either going to end up impoverished and enslaved our foreign creditors or (as a delightful alternative) impoverished and enslaved to big corporations and television evangelists. It's enough to make one start rooting for an alien invasion—just for a little variety in the enslaving department.
The state of our union is ... actually not that bad?
In the face of this escalating conflict, my personal response has been to
launch a year-long project
giving up the Republican identity I've held my entire life and making the intentional decision to live my life on the left. I want to see how the other half lives and learn if there's really any reason to be afraid. That decision to try to understand has confused many people and caused others to warn me that I'm bound to lose my soul. Empathy is dangerous.
In the weeks since I chose to switch sides and began the process of listening and empathizing with people I would otherwise have ignored I have already made a startling discovery: the divisions in our country are often a lot smaller than we've been led to believe. In fact, there are a lot of things we don't really disagree on at all. At the very least, most people on the political right and left have enough shared vision that it should be possible to start a meaningful dialog if they can only set aside their fears.
We all want our government to be accountable and less wasteful.
We all like the idea of a social safety net that helps people who need it.
We all want companies to play fair and pay decent wages.
We all want a military that keeps us safe from foreign threats and a police force that keep us safe from domestic ones.
We all want every kid to have a shot at a good education.
We all think most of our neighbors are basically decent human beings and we don't have any interest in regulating their religion, their sex lives or their personal choices.
These ideas don't just belong to the left or right. They certainly don't just belong to politicians in Washington. The problem is that in order for both sides to realize they really aren't that far apart, they have to do this crazy thing called "talk to each other." That's hard.
Talking seems so hard because buried in any attempt to communicate is the assumption that the person on the other side of the issue has something worth saying. That's a risky thing to assume, especially in a climate where thoughtfully listening to opposing viewpoints can be considered an act of political treason. Be wary of telling your friends and family you found someone from the other side of the aisle who has some good ideas. There are consequences to listening. But I think it's worth trying anyway.
The state of our union is still hopeful.
As President Obama ended his fifth State of the Union address, he said these words:
"We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens."
This we have in common: Americans are at their core an optimistic people. We believe what is broken can be mended. We believe good can win. We believe that as a united people we can overcome any difficulty, meet any challenge and come out stronger for it.
Those on the left believe this. Those on the right agree.
The state of our union is strong.
is the creator of
Stuff Fundies Like
and is currently also writing about his year as a lifelong Republican switching sides and looking at life from the left at
My Obama Year
. You can follow Darrell's journey on twitter (
) or on
Editor's Note: This image was taken by an officer or employee of the government and is considered public domain.
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