Locked in Cages

I am an American. I was born in Annapolis Maryland, one of the oldest cities in the nation. I’ve lived and worked in her small towns, her big cities, and some of her beautiful rural lands. We own property in America, pay taxes, and are registered voters. I did tech support in the US Senate, where I shared an elevator and chatted with Ted Kennedy, helped Susan Collins with her Blackberry, talked with John McCain about his break with Jon Stewart, and with Joe Biden about meeting Robin Williams when he appeared with him on Real Time. I’ve met and talked to much of the staff and players in today’s politics.

But I’m also an expat, with a residency visa in Ecuador. Rita and I have lived mostly in Ecuador and other parts of South America for almost five years now. We have spent only about two months of each year in the US, visiting family and friends. In those five years we have been all over Ecuador and have spent time in Panama, Perú, Uruguay, and Argentina. Prior to that, between us we’ve been to France, Italy, Germany and Austria. We plan on traveling even more over the next few years.

Living in Ecuador, we do not watch a lot of American news programs. We don’t have cable or satellite TV. We just stream things like Hulu, HBO, Netflix, etc. We don’t get bombarded 24-hours a day by CNN, MSNBC, FOX, or any of the other alphabet channels for talking heads.

Instead, we read. We read newspapers and magazines online from all over the US and the world. I enjoy reading history books, and biographies of current and former leaders, artists, scientists, and philosophers. Oddly enough, I seem to be better informed about current events than those living in the US – at least, judging by the misinformation and general level of discussion on Facebook and social media.

As a result, I tend to have a different perspective on issues in the news. Looking at it from the outside, I am deeply saddened at the direction my Homeland is headed. I’m worried abut people locked in cages. And don’t worry, I’m not going to jump on the soapbox and talk about what’s going on at the border. That is really only a symptom of the disease I see sweeping the USA.

Here is what I see that worries me so. The American people are being subjected to a three-pronged attack; Fear, Hate, and Divisiveness. Let me also assure you that I do not mean to takes sides here. This is not a statement about mean Republicans and feckless Democrats, or vice-versa. That kind of bullshit is part of the problem. The assault is from all sides and every direction, no one person or group has sole blame.

FEAR – All day long, the media, politicians, and internet trolls alike, are all preaching a gospel of Fear. You are told Republicans want your health care and social security, Democrats want to take your guns and tax you, Blacks are out to get you, Police are going to beat you, and of course, immigrants are bringing rape, murder, and Sharia law.

Milk is bad for you, your water may be poisoned, the air is deadly, oceans are rising, stocks are falling, and terrorists are out to kill you and destroy your country. The roads aren’t safe, schools aren’t safe, airports aren’t safe, and remember, most accidents happen at home. And for goodness sakes, don’t even think about leaving the US! It’s even worse in those other countries!

I hate to break it to you, but in my experiences, this is not the way normal people live anywhere but the US. Sure, there are places where battles are being fought like Syria, Israel, Palestine, etc., but I can honestly tell you that we feel more relaxed, comfortable, and yes, even safer, in Ecuador and the other countries we have visited in South America and Europe than when we visit the US.

There are of course serious problems of poverty and crime in some countries, like Venezuela and Brazil right now, and there are pockets in any city of any nation to avoid. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of life abroad either – I’m well aware that we view it from a very privileged position as white Americans with a steady income. We see poverty, but we also see plenty of hard-working people who just want to live their lives. What we don’t see, is the fear.

Women breast feed on the bus or at the malls without society crumbling around them. Children ride the public buses alone without Amber Alerts. Parents strip their children to wash off sand at the beach, and are not arrested as pedophiles.

Rita and I walk city streets, hike in the countryside, eat and shop with the locals, take cabs, ride buses, and frequent airports without fear, armed only with common sense. There are assholes everywhere, but for the most part, we have been treated well everywhere we have gone. People around the world are just people. They want the same things you do; food, shelter, and a good family life. They like American music and movies, but they don’t want to be America. They are proud of their own nations, histories, and cultures. If you show that you respect that, and want to learn more about it, they treat you with respect as well.

Bad things can happen anywhere, and as I’ve mentioned before writing about the whole “is it safe in Ecuador” issue, life is 100% fatal. You’re going to die someday, but this obsession with fear and death is becoming a purely American phenomena.

HATE – Again, a topic I’ve touched on before, but it has only grown worse. I’m seeing so much open hatred in Facebook and in society at large. Comments sections are bloodier than a knife fight. People seem willing to spew venom and insults at people they have never met and know nothing about, simply because they don’t like a political or social position they voice. I’ve never seen so many callous comments, again from both sides, that are meant to dehumanize and demonize a person, a race, or a whole demographic.

And it seems to be ramping up. I bet if I posted a picture of a fuzzy puppy wearing a blue party hat, I would get torn to shreds by people complaining about victimizing a poor animal, that the strap is choking him, I’m forcing him to gender-identify to the color blue, I should have adopted a rescued adult dog, and of course, I must be a cat-hater.

In the immigration debate, I’ve seen comments that refugees fleeing death squads should just “go back and deal with it”, even recently a suggestion that anyone trying to cross our borders should just be shot to “save money”. Those on the other side of the issue sling their barbs at politicians with an almost vicious glee. Neither side wants to offer thoughtful, workable solutions – but they have plenty to say about how wrong, stupid, pathetic and sexually deficient anyone who disagrees with them is.

Which brings me to perhaps the most deadly tine of the three-pronged attack …

DIVISIVENESS – One of the books I read last year that had a big impact on me was a book by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In this book, he points out that one hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one—homo sapiens. What happened to the others? He also points out that other primate social groups top out at about 150 members, and that there is archaeological evidence that this was true for the other failed species of man. Why is this, when sapiens managed to form huge societies?

Dr. Harari argues quite well that the defining characteristic that allowed homo sapiens to out-evolve and surpass the other genus members is a cognitive ability. The ability to create “imagined realties” – things like money, religions, political parties or corporations – and then act like they are real in order to control behavior of large groups.

For example, let’s say you live in a condo building with 16 units, and you are going to elect an HOA president. You know all of the potential candidates, you’ve had dinner with many of them, perhaps even gone to social events. You’ve talked to them about their likes and dislikes, and feel like you have a good idea of their character. You make your nomination and cast your vote according to your personal knowledge of them.

Now, consider voting for Mayor in a medium sized city, say about 200,000 citizens. There’s a good chance you know nothing at all personally about any of the candidates. So how do you vote? You choose the one who’s imagined realities most closely align with yours. If you are a white male and think of yourself as a “liberal” and belong to the Catholic Church, you are probably not going to vote for a black female “conservative” who is an atheist.

If you knew them personally, you may find the the woman is a much better candidate than the man, but you will naturally assume you should vote for your team.

That’s a simplification of course. Many people actually study the issues, and vote independent of parties, but you get the idea. It started in tribal times as “we are people of the wolf spirit, and therefore stronger than the people of the prairie”. Next thing you know, they’re whomping the shit out of each other because the wolf and prairie leaders convinced their people it was what they had to do.

And that is the tool of Divisiveness that is being honed to a sharp edge now. I’ve never seen a time when the divisions were so sharp. People are being encouraged to divide themselves into camps. Blacks vs the police, liberals vs conservatives, wealthy vs the poor, and US against the world.

Here’s how bad it is getting, and why this is such a problem. The other day, I foolishly joined a comment thread about children in cages. Someone said other countries don’t put up with immigrants, we should turn all refugees away at the border. I commented, rather innocuously I thought, “We’re supposed to be the good guys. Aren’t we the Christian nation that stands for decency and compassion?”

I was quickly put in my place. I was told “that’s an old argument”. Not sure what that meant, I guess you could say it goes back to the teachings of Christ and Buddha, so it is pretty old. But one person really went off on an easily understood rant that called me a bleeding heart liberal, someone who probably kissed President Obama’s ass, and finished with – “You must have cheered when 9/11 happened!”

Remember, this was in response to my audacious support of decency and compassion.

This is how bad things happen to great nations. When lines are drawn so sharply, and people divide themselves up into us against them. When the imagined realities of party and politics becomes real.

There seems to no longer be any middle ground, where reasonable people can have disagreements yet find common ground. The current administration illustrates this every day. Listen to the President* speak to any group on any topic. People are either winners or losers. They are either strong or weak. His supporters are the best and the greatest, anyone who disagrees with any portion of any policy is the worst and a terrible person. How many times have you heard “Everyone agrees” and “Nobody wants”? 100% loyalty is demanded at all times, and if you question anything you are a traitor and un-American.

It hurts me to see this in the public in general. You see social media posts with phrases like “Liberals cheered”, “Conservatives hate this”, “BlackLifeMatters movement destroyed”. These are all imagined realities. Do you really think that ALL liberals or ALL conservatives have exactly the same beliefs and share ALL of the same traits? ALL minorities are the same?

People are the sum of their background and experiences, with a touch if individuality added and mixed well. If you sat down with a group of liberals and a group of conservatives and asked them a series of questions about their concerns and beliefs, you would certainly find some differences. But you would also find some common ground, perhaps more than you think. Almost no one is 100% on one side or the other, but Americans are being forced through Fear, Hate, and Divisiveness to think that way.

In short, they are being forced into cages. Locked away behind bars of Fear, fed a restricted diet of Hate, and held in solitary confinement by Divisiveness. I sincerely ask my fellow Americans to open up your eyes and see the walls that are closing in on you, to open up your hearts to your fellow man, and to open up your minds to new information. You are being put in cages, but you also have the keys to escape.

Here is something I read in another book, this one about Chinese human rights activist and philosopher Liu Xiaobo. In a statement he wrote to be read at his trial for inciting subversion, he said:

“I have no enemies …. Hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy.”

7 Comments

  • Donnie says:

    Well said Jim.

  • Leslie Maze says:

    Than you very much for your thoughtful post. I hope people read it with an open mind, not just rip it.

  • This is one of the best and most reasoned reflections on the state of life in this country that I’ve read in a long time. Thank you, Jim…

  • John White says:

    Beautifully written post. My wife and I will be back in Salinas in 2 weeks, and are also struck by the “us vs them” attitude so prevalent here in the states.

  • Dee Dee Jackson says:

    well thought out and well written piece, but as history has taught us, in reality, there are good guys and there are bad guys… and the good guys don’t lock children in cages. Hola to Rita and good luck to you all in your travels… and keep writing, I enjoy it. Dee Dee Jackson

  • Sue Watson says:

    Well said.

  • Scott Graham says:

    Jim, you got the hate part right. We usually disagree about policy issues, but we agree on the importance of a healthy mind, body, and spirit. Hate is toxic.

    I wish people could engage on the policy questions without losing their cool. We need to do so. I am not my ideology and am open to changing my mind. All I ask is for a cogent argument and some facts to back it up.

    We’ll be in Sherwood Forest this weekend so not far from your native Annapolis.

    take care, Scott

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