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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Smith: The two Americas

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This nation is divided along many lines. Historically, the most important line has been that of race, which has sparked the greatest social unrest — including our deadliest war.

Freedom fighter Frederick Douglass wrote an article titled “The Color Line” in 1881, but scholar W.E.B. DuBois is most closely associated with that phrase. DuBois wrote the following prescient statement in his seminal 1903 work, “The Souls of Black Folk”: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” (Three years earlier he had been a signatory to a document titled “Address to the Nations of the World,” which called for racial equality. Given that DuBois had drafted the document, it’s not surprising that it referred to America’s “color line.”)

Roughly one-fifth of the 21st century has expired. What has been the primary American problem during these years? While race was a strong contender for the first 15 or so, I would argue that there is a separate (though related) line that is — arguably — more dangerous today. On one side of that dividing line are people who can discern objective facts and who recognize that there is a process for verifying the accuracy of information; on the other side are those who don’t. I call this phenomenon “the reality line.”

The dangerous side of the reality line is comprised of people who are susceptible to conspiracy theories (no matter how insane they become). They believe that their version of common sense — which they often confuse with logic — is just as valid as empirical data. They frequently don’t understand or embrace science, yet cling to debunked “scientific” studies. They voraciously consume news from sources that have little or no credibility, while railing against “the mainstream media.” They are convinced that they’re right, even when every shred of available information proves that they’re wrong.

While it may be comforting to argue that this divide is based on one’s level of education (especially whether one has earned a college degree) or one’s political party, that simply isn’t the case. There are three crucial factors in determining the side on which one resides. (Though, admittedly, some people straddle the line at some point.) One factor is the ability to think critically, which is a skill that should be taught as early as kindergarten. A second, which is related to the first, is the intellectual honesty to obtain information from credible sources. The third factor, which is the most difficult, is the psychological maturity to avoid being ruled by emotion and confirmation bias. (Literally no one is immune from this challenge, though there are ways to mitigate it.)

Recently, I have written about how misinformation led to the Capitol insurrection in January (and that this assault is only the beginning) as well as how the abandonment of truth by right-wing media and politicians has imperiled our nation. Democracy is fragile and we are facing an existential threat. Sadly, before we devolve into the dystopia that I and many others are afraid of, we will increasingly exist in social silos and reverberating echo chambers — which reinforce the reality line.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission, which he created to examine the racial divide in America, issued a report shortly before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It says, in part, that America is “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The commission also suggested that the nation would become a “system of “apartheid’” in our major cities. 

That prediction has come true. Our neighborhoods and our schools are in a state of de facto apartheid. In fact, several predominately white enclaves (e.g., in Cincinnati) have literally sought to secede from the (blacker and browner) cities in which they reside. This is the inevitable result of racist laws and public policies, combined with misanthropy and a lack of respect for human dignity. Unfortunately, that’s not the only apartheid.

There is a nexus between involuntary racial apartheid and the voluntary ideological separation that is intrenched in our body politic. That body politic is sick with the disease of misinformation and disinformation. America has long had a very unhealthy tendency toward anti-intellectualism; the reality line is the inexorable result. As is the case with climate change, we still have a small — and closing — window to change course. Tragically, it’s not clear that we will.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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