By John Krull
The mail I receive tells me an awful lot about what’s wrong with this country.
Relatively few people send me a note or an email because they like something I’ve written. No, they write because they’re mad or because I’ve touched a nerve or because they want me to know that people like me make this world a miserable place.
My angry correspondents seem to love labels.
A lot of their frustration with me seems to stem from the fact that I’m less enamored with branding myself and my beliefs than they are.
Often, they like to tell me that they’ve voted Republican since Teddy Roosevelt was a child. Or that they have supported the Democratic Party since the days of Andrew Jackson.
Sometimes, they tell me that I’m — and this is a direct quote from one particularly charming missive — “nothing but another scum sucking loathsome liberal.” Other times, they inform me, particularly if I’ve said something nice about a Republican or a conservative, that I’m a traitor to the progressive cause and all notions of decency.
My response to these notes is always a kind of befuddlement.
Perhaps because I’ve never married myself to one political party or the other, I have difficulty grasping the sort of rabid partisanship that prompts otherwise sane, moral people to defend indefensible acts simply because the people who committed those acts wear a donkey or an elephant label pin.
And, because I’ve never claimed to march under any flag but my own and that of my country, I struggle to understand how any reasonable person can believe that either conservatives or liberals have a monopoly on wisdom and virtue.
Truth, it always has seemed to me, is too big a thing to cram into a partisan or ideological box — and too rambunctious a force to remain confined even if one does try to lock it up.
What mystifies me the most about what is going on in our country is the way people consider problems, opportunities or challenges.
Much, much too often, they start by asking if a proposed plan is liberal or conservative. Or they want to know whether it will help Republicans or aid Democrats.
Far less frequently do they start by asking what seem to me more essential questions:
- Is it true?
- Does it make sense?
- Is it the right thing to do?
At least part of the reason we are such a divided nation right now is that an alarming number of people seem to think they know the answers before the question even has been asked.
We “know” so many things in this country right now — about health care, about education, about guns, about abortion, about immigration, about race — that we can’t even seem to have a conversation about them without screaming at each other.
What makes this confounding is that many of the things we “know” — the sacred principles we avow — all too often were the temporary, human and therefore imperfect solutions to problems of a departed era.
Part of what makes our politics and our public policy discussions so exasperating is there is so little that is new and fresh about them. Even though we live in a time of galloping, almost runaway change, our two political parties suffer from an intellectual fatigue that approaches coma-level torpor.
At their core, Democrats recycle ideas from their glory days of the 1930s. Conservative Republicans reach back even further to the 1890s, when America’s nascent corporate interests gained the ascendancy over populists and the incipient labor movement.
And America’s third party — the Donald Trump party — eschews any commitment to ideas or any duty to facts and devotes itself simply to nurturing and exploiting grievances, well-founded or not.
The sad reality, though, is that we’re not going to be able to solve any of the problems or meet any of the challenges confronting us in this era or in the ones yet to come if we keep trying to stifle honest discussion and shove truth into a partisan or ideological box.
The way we can serve, and even save, our country is by questioning things.
We can start with those things we “know” for sure that just may not true.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.