Where’s the Commonality?

Well, yeah, pretty much, because I don’t think we have anything in common with ’em.  I mean, where’s the commonality? Rush Limbaugh

When I read Limbaugh’s comment made during an interview yesterday, I thought immediately of the last lines of my forthcoming book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. I conclude:

If there is ever going to be a reconciliation between the two dominant white American cultures, it is going to have to be through recognition by both sides that what they see of the other is not the entire story. There may be–there are–cults of individualism in America that are strong enough to destroy the country, but there is also a great deal more, even in the realm of individualism. Seeing this may allow each of us to emerge from our own cultlike beliefs long enough to reach out, one to another.

I hope that can happen.

When I wrote those words, soon after Obama’s second inaugural, I was feeling much more optimistic about the United States than I had in a long, long time. I thought we had turned a corner. In fact, I was worried that might book might no longer be addressing a present split and the problems represented, that I might be talking about something fast receding into the past.

Over the six months since, however, my optimism has evaporated. Instead of trying to overcome the real barriers between American cultures, we are building them higher. Not just between the “Borderers” and “secular liberals” (the cultural bases of the red state/blue state split) but between whites and blacks, whites and Latinos, blacks and Latinos… hell, between each and every cultural group in the country and each and every other one. The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is only one example of how people of all sorts are constructing fortresses around themselves, keeping out any hint of an idea that they, too, might be to blame. That responsibility for the state of the country is not just on the shoulders of recalcitrant “others.”

One of the reasons debaters sometimes pick sides of an issue through a random draw is that the practice of learning well the beliefs and arguments of a “side” not one’s own not only makes one better able to counter those arguments but also allows one to “grow” one’s own beliefs in light of what another might hold as true. We, as Americans, rarely do that today. We are so sure that everyone else is wrong that we are absolutely unwilling to try to stand in their shoes, even for a moment.

Yesterday, on the MSNBC show All In, Chris Hayes turned the tables on white attitudes toward black culture in his lead-in to an interview with Gawker‘s Cord Jefferson. He wanted whites to hear what they sound like when they talk about blacks. He did a good job of it, too. But few of the people who most need to hear what he was saying, I am sure, were tuning in. Like Fox News, MSNBC (leaving Morning Joe aside) has become a narrow silo in terms of content and audience.

Is Limbaugh right? Is the answer to his rhetorical question just as he imagines? I hope not. I hope that we Americans can find the commonalities that do exist between us. Yes, Limbaugh was speaking specifically of the political situation, but I do think it can be extended to culture as well… and I think we all need to be seeking answers rather than continuing to prove that commonality is a thing of the past.

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