Several years ago, when I visited Oklahoma City National Memorial, I met a woman who made regular visits to pay her respects to the victims who died on the site in 1995. Worried about the tragedy being forgotten to time, she even went so far as to suggest that many Americans might believe Islamic fundamentalists were to blame for the bombing, so unwilling were they to believe that domestic terrorism was a threat.
At the time, I pushed back against her suggestion, refusing to believe that more than a handful of lunatics could possibly believe such a thing. Today I’m not so sure.
It took a single day for the conspiracies to fly about a series of pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures. No surprise there. The crazies have always been around, and they tend to be . . . well . . . crazy. I mean, people used to believe (used to) that Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode was and actual vampire. The concerning thing is how rapidly these theories spread to the masses. Conservatives proposed that it was (not that it might be, mind you– that is was) a false flag operation, organized by liberals to make them look bad ahead of the midterm election. Liberals opined that Russia might be behind it. What better way to disrupt American democracy, they argued, than to further the notion that politics is civil war rather than collective bargaining?
This would have been bad enough if it had not come on the heels of more unfounded lunacy regarding the so-called “caravan” making its way north from Central America. It’s funded by radical liberals, led by notorious boogeyman billionaire George Soros! There are terrorists tagging along! And MS-13! And those who aren’t either of these things are sick! Tuberculosis! Polio! Scabies! Brown Person Cooties!
Normally I would note the startling fact that some of these ideas have been spread by federal representatives and even the President. But that, of course, is nothing new in today’s warped socio-political landscape. The problem is that these people continue to have an audience for them. And no matter what side of the spectrum you identify with on any given issue, it is impossible to deny that the growing appetite for lunacy is doing un-quantifiable harm to our country.
My experience with Americans, drawn from hundreds of encounters in every corner of the mainland, is that most of them have a natural instinct towards friendliness, hospitality, and the fair exchange of ideas, provided they receive respect and an open minded ear in return. But these things are increasingly difficult to promise in a world where facts have less and less to do with the nature of discourse, and crime and tragedy are often viewed as political opportunity. There is no value in forming conclusions based upon incomplete, unverified, erroneous, or downright fabricated information, but this is what a growing number of Americans do, simply because their ethos has become too rigid to accommodate outliers and exceptions. It is ludicrous, for instance– not to mention dangerous– for Rush Limbaugh to suggest that “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” as if conservatives are universally righteous and liberals fatally flawed. Neither is it useful for liberals to pit conservatism as the enemy of progress, and conservatives as deluded bumpkins who are too stupid and weak to police their own. The former makes liberals more apt to believe the latter. The latter makes conservatives all the more certain that their principles are under direct assault.
I want to make clear, this is not a call to a kumbaya moment. Ideas are worth fighting for– some more than others– and there are people standing in the way of a clean, livable world and a nation of egalitarian ideals. But none of us are getting closer to these things if we give in to tribal idiocy. Of all the things necessary for freedom and democracy, truth is most required. And holding accountable those who use falsehoods to secure power is the first safeguard of those things– not accumulating the numbers to protect your own shortsighted understanding of political might. In New York, the fight over who gets to say what truth is has led us to a gubernatorial race between two horribly corrupt candidates, led Republicans to endorse a representative currently indicted for ten felonies even though he himself has suspended his campaign, and forced another congressman to refuse to denounce PAC ads that depict his opponent as a gang-banging, anti-American rapper (if you have seen the ads, you know that they would prefer the last of these words be replaced by one starting with the letter “N”). This is not good for my state. And the far less restrained national version is certainly not good for my country.
If you’ve read my book, you will probably agree with me that I know America better than most, not so much because of my travels and extensive study of its culture, but because I know that I know so little about it despite these things. More and more I fear it is a lesson the majority of my countrymen have not learned. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so hasty to seek out narratives that support pre-ordained points of view. The crazies would merely be crazies– not political bases. And I wouldn’t feel like my devotion to truth and reason is a drop of water amidst an ocean of waves that are only interested in crashing into one another.