Polarization 3
March 6th, 2012

Obama Not the Most Polarizing

Posted by: Walt Cummins

A month or so ago, Edward Morrisey, writing in The Week, not generally recognized for journalistic excellence, but great for guys like me with ADHD, denies The Washington Post's claim that Barak Obama is the nation's most divisive ever, a claim which he terms, “rather preposterous” and “not even close” to being accurate, but “certainly provocative”.

Like Morrisey perhaps, I get really peeved when people make broad based, generic statements of “truth” without the slightest fragment of empirical evidence to back up their claims.  “This nation has never been so divided!”  Damn, if you were awake during the 1960s, you know for sure that’s not true.  

No one remembers Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army?  Either read some history or get out from under your rock.  William Sloan Coffin?  Draft card burning? The SDS.  Robert McNamara.  Eugene McCarthy. Bombing Cambodia.  Kent State.  My Lai?  Tet offensive.  Ramsey Clark, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez.

1971 Poll:  “Do you think America made a mistake in engaging in war in Vietnam?”  Seventy-nine percent (79%!) agreed with that statement.

Anyone recall Nixon, Haldeman, Erlichman, John Mitchell, E. Howard Hunt, Gordon Liddy, Ron Ziegler, Judge Sirica, the Watergate hearings, Senator Sam Ervin, Eliot Richardson, Archibald Cox,  18 ½ minutes of missing tape, Nixon resignation and Ford’s pardon.  November 17, 1973, Nixon:  "I'm not a crook.”

Race riots?  How ‘bout Harlem, Watts, Hough. Newark, Camden, Detroit?

Remember Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.  (Dam shame, as they said in Mississippi.)  SNCC, CORE, SCLC?  Selma.

The Edmund Pettis Bridge

The problem with debating polarization is not so much myopia as it is a touch of amnesia cum Alzheimer’s, actually probably a chemical phenomenon in the brain.  The images and arguments that are the most recent are the most powerful. This phenomenon is called “adaptive memory” and behavioral psychologists and anthropologists describe it as a feature of memory that allows us to focus on the most recent events . . . sometimes overly focus.  

Selective memory and the relative importance of recent events is a is a survival technique, that is “Darwinian”.  The most recent memories are those that are the most important to the survival decisions we have to make today.  Theoretically, there is not enough memory space - or vivid memory space anyway - so that the mind is forced to – or opts to - to organize, retrieve and prioritize what we have learned and what we know in a somewhat chronological fashion.  To accomplish that task, old stuff fades and new stuff is bright, present and important.  Memory mechanisms are designed to help us prosper and survive and one way they do this is to accentuate the nearer term images and de-accentuate the past.  Near term learnings are consider – by the brain anyway – as the most important to lasting as an individual and as a species.

The Democratic National Convention Chicago, 1968

Apparently, Barack Obama does have the dubious honor of having the highest differential between the approval ratings of his own party and those of the opposition party . . . for a third year in a row.  If that is your definition of “the society has never been so polarized”, then so be it.  But surely, it leaves a lot of room for argument.  And Morrisey points out that the Post’s claim of "most polarizing" fails to match other data from the Post itself.   There is a strong case to be made for the prior administration, that of George W. Bush, as the “most polarizing” based on approval / disapproval poll spreads.

Morrisey refers to the “most polarizing” moniker being laid on Obama as downright “silly”, and says that “any such claim is rubbish on its face.”  He goes on the cite the most obvious example:  The American Civil War or War of War of Northern Aggression, if you prefer, (though we have noted before that Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, north of the Mason-Dixon line).  Morrisey also refers to the impeachment of Bill Clinton as an event that would hardly be considered uniting.

“In August of 1955, a 14-year-old Chicago youth was lynched while vacationing in Mississippi--just one of more than 3,000 free blacks killed by a mob since the abolition of slavery. But unlike the great majority of these victims, Emmett Till did not die in obscurity. Less than a year and a half after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools and threatened the rigid Southern color line, his death underscored for many the ruthless extremes to which some whites would go to preserve segregation. Till's lynching therefore spurred efforts to promote civil rights for people of color throughout the United States.”   

- “Who Was Emmett Till?  Answers.com

If you want to learn about polarization, take a few minutes to read about the Draft Riots of 1863 in New York City.   Those who could afford to hire a substitute or pay the government three hundred dollars could avoid service in the Yankee army.  The logical conclusion among lower class whites, particularly the Irish, was that the federal government had entered into a “nigger war”, as they called it, and they compared their worth of $300 (the price to gain exemption from the military) to that going price for a Negro slave of $1,000. (It’s got to be tough for anyone when one puts a literal price on your existence, but if you get such, you probably want a high number just for self-esteem.)  

In 1863, white rioters attacked the occupants and managers of the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifty Avenue and Forty Third, with clubs and bricks, bricks and burned it to the ground.  Through a week of riots, white harassed, attacked and killed black people and white “amalgamationists”” and “abolitionists”, as well as Negro porters, laborers, cartmen and dockworkers, wherever they could find them.

The mobs went on to beat, burn, stone and lynch blacks, and mutilate their genitals, dumping some bodies into the East River.  As blacks gained - albeit only slightly - socially and economically in the north, one writer says, “Unemployed and poor white workers sought to remedy their upside-down world through mob violence.”  After the New York race riots, the black population of New York City plummeted to its lowest since 1820.  This was not only a polarized city and state, it was a polarized nation, more than any ever before or since.  And Lincoln was inarguably the most polarizing figure – President – of any time.

I don’t remember the polarization of America during the Depression or the great debates about whether to enter World War I.  Yeah, I remember a bit of Goldwater’s ignominious defeat by Lyndon Johnson, a pretty polarized time.  And I remember almost nothing of the American Revolution, but from what I read, it was likely to have been a lot more polarized time than today.  A shooting war against one’s fellow countryman ought to be considered polarizing.  After all, an entire government was overthrown by a bunch of rabble rousers.  

Who knows?  Maybe that’ll happen again.

Thomas Paine had a few ideas, some of which I will share with you here:

THESE are the times that try men's souls.   Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly 

'Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them. Britain has trembled like an ague at the report of a French fleet of flat-bottomed boats; and in the fifteenth century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment! Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world. Many a disguised Tory has lately shown his head, that shall penitentially solemnize with curses the day on which Howe arrived upon the Delaware. 

'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.

Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to "bind me in all cases whatsoever" to his absolute will, am I to suffer it? What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my countryman or not my countryman; whether it be done by an individual villain, or an army of them? 

Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man. 


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