Yesterday someone ripped the Obama bumper sticker off my wife's car. Two days earlier, someone uprooted the sign in our front yard.
These were minor acts of vandalism, but they expose an underlying problem: Americans can no longer discuss politics.
Once we held debates. We discussed issues and candidates in town centers, in theaters, in bars. Now we silently keep our opinions to ourselves, sharing our ideas only with our close friends and family, if even them. The media's sole useful purpose is to expose abuses of power and contradictions in authoritative declarations; but even the media is afraid to report on the doublespeak so often utilized today. After all, they could be considered "leftist", "treasonous", "insensitive". That job is left to The Daily Show, Bill O'Reilly, and The Colbert Report. Yes, we cannot accept the truth in its raw form: we require it predigested, as humor or bombast.
It's because we are intolerant. We cannot bear the existence of other beliefs, so we avoid anything even remotely uncomfortable to our views. If we must confront something, we berate the presenter, declaring them idiotic, uninformed, or even dangerous. With a straw man thus constructed, we can easily dismiss it, along with the uncomfortable issue.
We refuse to examine anything too closely for fear it could contradict our faith, so we simplify complex issues to single, often unrelated points. The financial crisis? Greedy poor people. Greedy bankers. Deregulation. Democrats. Republicans. War? WMDs. Oil. Honor. Terrorism. Democrats. Republicans. We pick our "side" and denigrate anyone with the temerity to disagree. We characterize them as liberals, conservatives, terrorists, warmongers - then we can dismiss them, their opinions, and even their data.
By our characterizations, we dehumanize our opponents. And that turns them from opponents to enemies. Then, if they refuse to capitulate, to accept our own views as the one and only true and correct way, we can retaliate.
And the retaliation is cowardly. How can I respond to the vandals who destroyed my property? (Granted, it was very minor property, but it was mine nonetheless.) The anonymous acts left no room for discussion, no opportunity for understanding, no chance for growth. Just damage. Not necessarily monetary or visible damage; today I'm just disappointed that someone in my neighborhood could be so petty and unthinking.
There's fear in that thought, as well. If today someone can dismiss me easily enough to tear a bumper sticker off my car, tomorrow will he break my window to take the decal I replaced it with? Later will he rip the t-shirt from my back? How many steps are there between disrespect and contempt?
We need to learn to accept differences. If we cannot, we must at least tolerate them, in the tradition of our great country. Otherwise we will eventually, perhaps violently, eliminate both our differences and our greatness.