In the last post, I talked about how fiction transforms my conflicts and struggles into story, and that is probably why I’ve found my home in contemporary fiction. However, occasionally non-fiction strikes home, too, and Ezra Klein’s, WHY WE’RE POLARIZED, examines an issue I’ve struggled with all my adult life. The culture conflict that divides Brian’s and Annika’s families in END OF THE RACE is one of a number of stories that deal with the struggle to find identity in a polarized society. The toxic division of cultures that has brought our democracy to the brink of destruction began long before the last presidency, and Klein, though he focuses on the political, delves deep into the instincts that carry humans to the brink of war.
Ezra Klein’s central thesis, the result of much research, is that we vote not on issues so much as on identity—who we are—and we identify ourselves as members of groups—racial, religious, geographic, political, and many other factors, any one of which we’ll defend against rival groups. I’m a Chicagoan still, though I haven’t lived there for sixty-odd years, and grew up defending my birth city against those arrogant Easterners—especially New Yorkers. As Klein says, and we are all familiar with, any one factor will rise in defense, depending on the situation. Our basenji dogs are willful and spoiled, but we’ll defend them vehemently against the prevalent opinion that the breed is incorrigible. In less-polarized years, the intensity of our commitment to one factor might override another—the origin of many a religiously mixed marriage. But today, as Klein says, all of those factors have been drawn into the political, and it’s no longer rivalry. What happened?
Klein refers back to the Fifties as a time when divisions were less toxic and politics more bipartisan, and having lived those days, I would agree. I grew up in the Depression and World War II, powerfully unifying forces, when all divisions were subsumed under “American.” I remember election-night parties where there was much shouting and much laughing. Politics were an energizing challenge, but didn’t override friendship. I think my own love of politics came from those intensely-felt but laughter-filled fencing matches. They were parties.
I would argue, though, that the McCarthy era brought a jarring shift in this temperament. Because he targeted academia, where I was born and raised, I may have felt this more acutely than some, but to the generation coming of age at the end of World War II, cries of “Communist,” and “Un-American” had the force of “Traitor!” The Senate did arise to clip McCarthy’s wings that time, but the split, I believe, was more enduring; cries of “Un-American!” Socialism!” remain war cries of the right to this day.
The Sixties, Klein argues, brought more far-reaching and profound polarization, and this I can attest to from personal experience. Many remarked, this last fall, that the only time the country felt as it did this past fall was 1968—the year both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Klein focuses on the polarizing force of the civil rights movement and the racial upheavals, and I would add the concurrent Vietnam War protests because in college towns across the nation they fused to create a generational split—a perfect storm. The assassinations, coming in the midst of protests did indeed feel like the nation coming apart. Klein, a political journalist, gives an insightful and fascinating analysis of the role of race in media and political polarization since that time. From my far more personal perspective, confrontation politics and the generational split also had a profound effect.
My husband was a university professor, and we were raising our children in Ann Arbor, one of those college towns. We were politically active Democrats who’d chosen to live in an integrated neighborhood. My husband was a city councilman, and I ran political campaigns and worked with the League of Women Voters to reform racist voting laws. We identified wholly with the goals of those marches for justice and peace. But the movements fused into a rejection of the world the previous generation had left them, so we (over 30), not the Republicans, became targets. We were the corrupt patsies of the establishment who had betrayed them. My husband, running for re-election, was vilified and lost to a student activist. New teachers from campus taught our children the evils of our generation—or created different schools for the new age.
If this sounds like a personal, idiosyncratic, story, it is, but when the adolescent fury passed, it left behind a college generation that rejected all aspects of the previous generation, from the food they ate, to the non-confrontational style of politics, to their tolerance of racial injustice, to materialism itself. Then as now, they dressed differently, they shopped at different grocery stores, they were a new age. All are fused to the political; the new age became a moral edit.” They discovered the power of confrontation, and they brought about changes my generation could not have hoped for. But as years passed, they remained a closed society at war with the parental culture.
War demands unity and dissent is a threat. The movements (adding the Women’s and Gay movements) gathered strength on university campuses where I later taught and polarized campuses as well. Faculty in the social sciences and humanities soon became promoters of the new age. Voices that protested that the movements would balkanize the culture were condemned as “establishment.,” silencing debate. The closed-minded rigidity completed the alienation begun in Ann Arbor. Dissent was sacred in the academia of my upbringing and to democracy This itself. Confrontation politics achieved major changes for the better in government and law, but it polarizes. and created the media and political changes Klein, a journalist, has discussed extensively. I’ve applauded the achievements and the goals even as I’ve watched the attitude of liberals increase resentment—and feed the right.
One golden thing came out of this conundrum; I became a writer. My novels are all written from the no-man’s-land between the hostile blocs, but suddenly it’s filling up. Americans of all stripes are alarmed by the attacks on democracy itself, and the election of a president with a memory almost as long as mine is occupying the space between—a great boon. Ezra Klein’s book gives great insight into what we, the voters, have contributed to this state of affairs as well as to the political leaders and media who’ve led us. My addition is a plea to liberals (now two generations beyond those college revolutionaries) to look to themselves. Stories have the power to shift one out of one’s home perspective, to see the world from a different place. Try both.