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There Are No Sides

No title could be more ironic on the day of U.S. mid-term elections of 2022, but it’s true. There are no sides. Americans have been duped into hating each other to a degree not seen since the Civil War in the 1860’s. This observation was by far the most jarring facet of culture shock I experienced upon returning to America in 2020 after a decade in Japan. A lot happened in America during those ten years, but as horrible as some of those things seemed to be for both of the supposed sides, they weren’t so bad when viewing the situation from afar.

“But you just don’t get it! Have you seen what the other side has done?!” It’s weird how people who identify with one side or another are as taken aback by a non-sider like me as they are by the other side they presume to exist. Sometimes they assume I am the other side, because not being on a side is too hard to comprehend. A few things about me might help to explain how such an audacious worldview came to be:

  1. I do not belong to a political tribe.
  2. I lived outside of America for a very long time.
  3. I do not use social media of any sort (since 2007).
  4. I have worked in Tech for thirty years.
  5. I have a natural tendency toward balance over conflict.
  6. I love individuals of all sorts, but hate groups.
  7. I am highly critical and skeptical of everything.
  8. I enjoy reading political science from one extreme to the other.
  9. I have a degree in political science (1993).

Item 1 came from item 2. It just didn’t make sense to belong to an American political tribe when seeing the whole dynamic from outside the fishbowl for so long. It wasn’t so much the geographic separation that allowed this perspective, but rather a separation from the daily brain droppings that people receive without thinking much about it, little thoughts here and there that form into opinions held by a particular “side”.

I can’t overstate how awesome it was to have a conversation about politics in Japan with American and British ex-pats from all walks of life, because none of them were afflicted by this mental virus. There was always a broader understanding, tolerance, and acceptance that doesn’t seem to happen anymore at “home”.

America has always been a Coke or Pepsi nation. In the mid-20th century, our commercialism took binary thinking and cranked it up a notch. “What beverage do you prefer?” The only possible answers are “Coke” or “Pepsi”. You can’t say that you don’t like cola at all, or you mix the two together, or you drink one on Saturday’s and the other on Monday’s. It’s either Coke, Pepsi, or fuck you. That’s how we roll. More to the point, it’s how we sell ideas.

There are color-coded signals to help us define where we stand. As much as this might seem like kindergarten, it’s true. There has never been much room for nuance in this country, only red and blue. Coke is red. Pepsi is blue. CNN and Fox, one red, one blue. Republicans and Democrats: red and blue. America has an infinite number of breakfast cereals from which to choose, as George Carlin once pointed out, but when it comes to the most important things the choice is always binary, this or that, red or blue. This is by design. It’s the most efficient way to get people to buy things, whether it’s a carbonated beverage or political ideas.

Then social media happened. Giving America social media in the early 21st century was like giving cocaine to someone already struggling with mental health. Social media is Coke versus Pepsi on speed, with its thumbs-up / thumbs-down, binary take on the world. It started with the goofy sales pitch of “bring people together,” but it achieved the exact opposite. As a set of technologies, it became the biggest and most sophisticated advertising (mind control) machine the world had ever seen.

Social media thrives on division, because that’s where the money is. There is no Dr. Pepper in this equation. Only this or that.

This artificially-induced mass-neuroticism seeped out into the greater culture, to those who didn’t use social media at all. Mainstream media bowed down to their new social media masters, and became Downstream Media instead. Real investigative journalism disappeared. There once was one truth, but now there were two: either red or blue. Pre-existing tribalism deepened, and social media companies doubled down. They engineered their technologies for more divisiveness, more outrage, deepening the tribalism even more. As a result, these companies became some of the richest and most powerful organizations on earth.

The U.S. president elected in 2020 was a product of this insanity, not the cause (though he would succeed in making the divisions much worse).

To complicate matters further, there are foreign powers who aggressively seek to undermine America at every turn, and they know how to use our technologies to social-engineer us on a mass scale.

America is still portrayed as being red versus blue. There are the traditional conservatives who are typically religious. I am not a religious conservative, but I support their freedom of religion 100% (as long as they’re not telling me what to do).

Then there are the Obama Democrats, who believe America can be united, that as a country we share a common dream. For the most part I put myself in the latter camp, but I tend to take it issue by issue, like the ancient Romans did, back when there were no sides.

There emerged two new camps in the ten years I was gone: MAGA and Woke, though I view them both as part of the same phenomenon. The MAGA / Woke dragon is forever chasing its tail. This horrific monster was summoned from a wicked brew, the final ingredient of which was Social Media. For now I’ll describe the dragon and its tail as if they’re separate because that’s how they’re known. It’s the best I can do in a two-truth world.

MAGA types have pledged allegiance to an obnoxious, would-be dictator who rejects the legitimacy of the current presidential administration (not to mention the legitimacy of the government itself). They don’t seem too fond of Democracy, though in my opinion the labels of “fascism” and “racism” are used too loosely to describe them. They seem to think anyone who opposes them are baby-eaters and pedophiles. (I still don’t know if this is a real belief shared by MAGA types, or some kind of joke.) They ended a 246-year tradition of peaceful transference of power in America. Whatever “making America great again” might mean, this is not it. They believe America is under threat by its own tail. Whether or not this perception is accurate or not does not matter. It’s how they see things, and I empathize with some of their concerns.

Then there is the new left, generally known as Woke. They don’t want to make America great again. They want to make America great for the first time. This camp sees America through the lens of oppressor versus oppressed, where those with the most grievances are most revered.

(Hey, wait a minute, this sounds suspiciously like the Marxist hierarchy of oppression described by to me by a self-proclaimed communist professor I had in my political science studies of the early 90’s, but I’m sure this is just coincidence.)

These days, Woke culture dominates American entertainment, media outlets, and the corporate world. It is divisive because it seems tailor-made to infuriate the people it ostensibly wants to convert and protect.

Woke reminds me of the religious conservatives I grew up with in Texas, the finger-wagging, Bible-banging Southern Baptists who just might let a Catholic boy into heaven (if I’m lucky). Woke is just another religion to me, except without the spirituality. If I virtue-signal enough in front of Wokesters (many of whom are rich white people) then this male of European descent just might make it into Woke Heaven (if I’m lucky). I don’t know what Woke Heaven looks like, but I’m sure it’s equally as horrible as spending eternity in a Southern Baptist church.

From a practical point of view, Woke is a catastrophe for Liberalism and for the Democrats’ efforts to win. It is impossible to convince those who would bring you to power by insulting them and calling them idiots for not understanding your ideas.

In order for Liberalism to work it must be tolerant, patient and wise, in the tradition of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. It must rise above everything and call for unity, as Obama did. If it included EVERYONE in the working class then the Democrats would never lose again. The left must never cancel people who express different ideas. This kind of anti-liberal approach is the biggest irony ever, as it leaves conservatives as the only defenders of traditional liberal ideals.

It’s possible I’m not seeing any of this clearly. I’m back in the fishbowl now, so it’s hard to tell. How many Woke / MAGA are out there? I’ve seen numbers that vary widely, depending on what source you check. Some numbers I’ve seen cannot be true. Whatever the case, the perception that there are inconsolable sides is the mainstream view. At the end of the day reality is based on perception, even if the perception is delusional and artificially formed.

I wish this worldview could be understood by all Americans, because it would instantly put everyone at ease. But it’s the kind of thing that must be experienced, not taught. For now all I can do is hope for the best, and treat all people with respect. The issues that supposedly divide America aren’t any more severe than in times when Red and Blue got along, and in many ways things are just plain better today.

Differences are good, sides are bad.