Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Color-Line 2.0

Another year, another election, another victory for the politics of polarization. Or so say some social commentators about the meaning of this past Tuesday. Jim Wallis, evangelical activist put it this way:

"Civility has died in America, and urgent pleas for a more truthful and respectful public discourse from both religious leaders and former lawmakers from both parties have been ignored by a media that just loves a perpetual conflict narrative. But many in the country still long for a more moral and civil tone in our political discussion. Could civility become sexy in the repetitive shouting match which is now American politics?" (Read the whole thing here)

Charles Blow of the New York Times refers to this phenomenon as the "Great American Cleaving":

"We have retreated to our respective political corners and armed ourselves in an ideological standoff over the very meaning of America, having diametrically opposed interpretations of its past and visions for its future. Talking across the table has been reduced to yelling across the chasm." (Read the whole thing here)

The Boston Globe features a story describing the election as indicative of a "Gaping Divide":

"This year’s tumultuous midterm election cycle cut deeply into the ranks of moderates on Capitol Hill, helping usher in a Congress that scholars say could produce the most partisan voting pattern since the Civil War era. The lack of moderate voices has led to fears that lawmakers will be deadlocked over an array of issues, even though a large swath of voters tell pollsters they want compromise — and progress." (Read the whole thing here)

W.E.B Du Bois famously identified the problem of the 20th century as "the color-line". While Du Bois was referring to race, which is certainly in the running as an equally central challenge facing the 21st century, I'm beginning to think that the color-line may have a new twist over the next 100 years. The new color-line will be about the divide between people based on politics and ideology, the color-line 2.0 if you will.

We have all become acquainted with the new color-coded America divided among the red and the blue. I'm not sure where this color-code started but it has become a fixture of public discourse. What's more, for many of us it has become internalized as a kind of "color-consciousness", a way of sorting who's in and who's out, who we should love and who we should fear, and who's America is more "real". I remember once a few years ago over-hearing a co-worker saying that he would "never live in a red state". I wondered at the time what the implications might be of people choosing where they live based upon their neighbors' politics. Might this become the new segregation?

I have often referred to the many tragedies and injustices related to race as the inevitable consequences of the color-line. The color-line 2.0, what 'Abdu'l-Baha has referred to as political prejudice, has it's own inevitable consequences:

"All prejudices, whether of religion, race, politics or nation, must be renounced, for these prejudices have caused the world's sickness. It is a grave malady which, unless arrested, is capable of causing the destruction of the whole human race." (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 146)

I believe that political prejudice may prove to be the defining challenge of 21st century America. If so, avoiding its inevitable consequences will require the same commitment and systematic effort to counteract its influence as has been required to address other forms of prejudice. It will require that we question the notion that political prejudice is somehow the acceptable prejudice, that we strive to become lovers of the light, transform the discourse of disunity and put the disunity industry out of business. It will require that we recognize the truth in Baha'u'llah's assertion that, "The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 286)


  1. Anonymous1:00 PM

    I totally agree with you about political prejudice and it seems to be worsening. With all of our problems, there is no way to have an open discussion about the facts because of the name calling 'you're a liberal, a conservative, a liberal fascist, a socialist, a Nazi, communist, or whatever is the new hate word'. It is a major obstacle to problem-solving when people aren't able to express their views or factual data and one is immediately discounted because they see a problem from a different angle.

  2. Anonymous, thanks for the comment. It is true that political prejudice and its associated attitudes and behaviors tend to obscure the truth. This makes it next to impossible to find real solutions to the problems our country is facing.

  3. I was in the public library and passed a book with the title something like, "How To Talk To a Liberal If You Can't Avoid It." Also, comments people leave under news items seem full of hate. I don't think people realize how they sound.

  4. Anonymous12:09 AM

    Curious. Do you think it was better when people were killing each other for the side they belonged to or what color of skin they had?

    I'd rather have people calling each other names and expressing vocal hatred to each other than killing each other. We don't do that anymore and you don't recognize that fact.

    Things are not getting worse. It still sucks and it still impedes progress but overall we are on course.

  5. Anonymous, I suppose that can be considered progress but it's setting the bar a bit low. I think that we can do better. And actually calling people names has and will continue to contribute to violence. How we talk to and about each other matters. And it's not just about people calling each other names. Political prejudice impacts the ability of our democracy to function, for governance to take place, for policies to be developed and enacted. We see this everyday. I hope that your view that we are on course is right. I also believe that progress is being made. However, in the mean time there is much harm that can and is being done. I think we need to take that seriously.

  6. I'm not that politically savvy, and the whole american thing is a bit odd to me. However, I don't think it's quite as black and white as you portray Phillipe (to excuse the pun). For example, in Boston, one would think it's easier to find a unicorn than a Republican. Yet MA as a whole, whilst a 'blue state', votes 40% Republican fairly consistently. Perhaps they feel so put upon by the 'liberals' here that they keep their heads down until it's time to vote? What is polarised is media coverage of politics. It's just easier to make the situation more extreme than it really is.

  7. Anonymous12:46 AM

    Thanks Brother for this post. I have been having similar conversations with people I encounter. Though I do not have the elegant words to describe my feelings I wish to share my thoughts. I have often wondered how it is possible to have a working government when politicians must worry about staying on their party's side. It seems that when one makes a decision that is the opposite of their political party they are ostracized. Like peer pressure to the millionth power. Why not a system of free thinking individuals that come together for a common goal? Shouldn't we vote for the person we believe will best represent us regardless of their political party? I guess just like back in school people feel a need to fit in, to be a part of a group. That may be simplifying it too much but its how I see it. When I see the political sides arguing I feel like the child stuck in the middle as their parents are battling it out on the brink of divorce. Reminds me of the saying "Divide and Conquer".
    This will be signed as "Anonymous" but you should know who it is as we share the same bloodline.

  8. Babak, I would agree that media coverage of politics is polarized and things are not as black and white as the media portrays them. However, I do think that these media created divisions are working their way into popular consciousness in potentially harmful ways. I think that the consequences of political prejudice are underestimated. We do so at our peril.

    Anonymous who shares my bloodline, I hear you about the political party thing and it's impact on government.

  9. Anonymous1:01 PM

    I lived in the Northeast USA most of my life and for a short time period in Idaho. What struck me the most about life in Idaho was the lack of diversity and the impact on attitudes towards diversity. The population was almost all white with Northern European and Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Most people were either Mormon or Evangelical Christian. If you didn't fit into one of those two groups, you became the 'other'.

    As I looked at the blue and red states, I wonder it these states are similar to Idaho with few minority residents. Is there more diversity in the blue states? Does the amount of interaction with diverse groups result in some of the 'superstitions' being discounted because of regular interaction between people?

  10. Anonymous, I do believe there is a relationship between the color-line 2.0 and the traditional color-line. You're on to something.