The Great Divide

“Trump is like the catalyst of an earthquake that just divided two continents of thought. Once the Earth divides like that, there’s no going back. This is a marked time in our history where people had to jump from one side to the other. And depending on what side you choose, that is going to be the trajectory for the rest of your life,” she said.

A North Carolina woman is quoted as saying that in an NPR article, “‘You are no longer my mother:’ How the election is dividing American families.” She does not believe the rift that has erupted between her and her mother will be healed regardless of the election results.

She was not the only one in in the article to express an opinion like that. A 77-year-old woman who separated from her husband in 2016 because he voted for Trump expressed the same opinion.

“I think the legacy of Trump is going to take a long time to recover from,” she is quoted as saying. She is also estranged from two of her grandchildren and other relatives as a result of the Trump presidency.

A professor of psychology and neural science at New York University said the “political sectarianism” has become moral, which will have permanent ramifications.

“Because Trump has been one of the most polarizing figures in American history around core values and issues, people are unwilling to compromise and that is not something you can make go away,” he is quoted as saying.

As bad as this sounds, I was relieved to stumble across this article this morning. For years and years I’ve been railing against the polarization which has been dividing our nation. I believe very strongly that as a nation we can only stand if we are united, if bipartisan committees at both the state and federal level bring the strengths of both parties to the table and hammer out real solutions to our problems.

I’ve railed against every group that I’ve seen furthering that divide. Although I’m Catholic, I’ve railed against anti-abortionists for their either-or thinking. When Jesus was challenged by the religious leaders of his time to make an either-or decision, he found a life-giving third option. Don’t believe me? Prayerfully read in John’s gospel the story of the woman caught in adultery. I have said over and over that we cannot prevent abortions with either-or thinking; we must find a life-giving third way. And I’ve been slammed as a result of my position.

I have railed against politicians who are furthering that great divide, which lately has been the Republican Party. In Congress, we see them propose a bill and when it fails to garner support from Democrats point their partisan fingers at their colleagues when they should be looking at themselves in the mirror and experiencing deep shame. If they had the common decency to sit down with their colleagues to hammer out solutions together, bills would pass and the finger-pointing could cease.

So, feeling this way, I’ve been ashamed to discover that I’ve been cutting people from my life simply because they’re Trump supporters.

No, I should have worded that sentence differently. The chasm has not developed because they are Trump supporters but because we don’t have a shared reality. We cannot discuss issues of great importance because we can’t agree on what is true.

My sources are mainstream media sources that are highly credible because their reporting stands up to fact-checking. I read articles from both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal because each has a different perspective. I read articles produced by the Associated Press and Reuters because they do not attempt to lead readers with loaded language and because their writing is almost always sourced. Obviously, I also check NPR which leans slightly to the left, but ranks very high when it comes to credibility.

The Trump supporters from whom I’ve become estranged believe — ACTUALLY BELIEVE — the alt-right sources they prefer present factually accurate information — EVEN WHEN THE STORIES DON’T STAND UP TO FACT CHECKING. Like Trump, they believe the truth is fake news. THE TRUTH.

I’m yelling. I’m sorry.

For the most part, I’ve maintained relationships with Trump supporters who are near and dear to me by avoiding political discussions. I know that for the most part, they aren’t so much Trump supporters as Republican and he is their candidate. I can respect that, though as a moderate who has voted for both Republicans and Democrats over the years, I have to honestly say I don’t fully understand that perspective. Shouldn’t you look at more than the candidate’s party? Shouldn’t you look at their political record? Shouldn’t you look at their values to see whether they align with your own?

But, I digress.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to maintain all of the relationships that have been important to me over the years. A longtime friend, who like me has straddled the fence for years, became emotionally involved with a Trump supporter and she is now as fanatical about Trump as he is. Even though I am an award-winning journalist, she believes he knows more about media credibility than I do. I want to shake her and scream at her and hope that his influence somehow rattles lose and rolls away. However, I know that women in love do not betray their paramours for common sense. Ask the friends and family members of any abuse victim; they will confirm that statement.

So, I just avoid having contact with her — which also means reducing the amount of contact I have with her brother, who has been very dear to me in recent years. Putting him in the middle isn’t fair, and truth be told, I suspect he would pick her if forced to choose. So, I walk away because that’s easier than being rejected.

Doing so is difficult. Losing my beloved friend is also difficult. Reading about families across the country experiencing the same kinds of trauma is painful. As a woman of faith, I must have faith in the Lord; I must believe his hand is leading me. As a woman of faith, I must have hope and I must somehow promote peace. I have to believe God keeps bringing to mind a passage from the Prophet Isaiah for a reason.

Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
” (43:18-19, NIV)

I have to believe the ever-creative, healing power of God can do a new thing, can help us bridge the great divide which separates from one another. I have to believe that we can forget the partisanship which is destroying the foundation of our great nation.I have to believe God will lead us through the wilderness that surrounds us today.

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Open Letter to Kristi Noem

Dear Kristi,

I haven’t seen you for a while. Our last encounter was last September when the Madison area was dealing with what I believe was called a 500-year flood. I was in the Emergency Operations Center. Calling me by name, you asked how I had been affected. I told you my ice cream was melting because I was without power. You suggested we go eat it.

Of course, since you are now courting the national spotlight, it’s not surprising you no longer have time for the local media. My stories won’t launch your political career to new heights. Considering how you have mishandled the COVID pandemic in South Dakota, I personally hope you discover that in seeking national attention, you’ve made a tragic misstep and you soon find yourself floundering like a fish out of water, struggling for political life the way I struggle for breath as I write this.

Does that sound melodramatic? At least it’s honest. I don’t pull some less than credible study out of my hat and lie not only to the people of South Dakota, but to the whole nation. The science on masks is not mixed. The science on masks is clear. They make a difference. I know your political idol, a man who claims to be a business genius but actually managed to bankrupt a casino, has encouraged folks not to wear masks, but he has not studied infectious diseases and he has not listened to experts in the field.

While you have simply failed to act appropriately, have failed to promote masks and social distancing, he has sabotaged the nation’s response to the pandemic. But, of course, you already know this and don’t care. Standing with him has resulted in the kind of contacts and donations you covet — and need if you are going to launch your career onto the national stage. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart,” and it’s clear your heart is not with the people of South Dakota. Your heart is with the political operatives who promise to make your dreams come true.

If this sounds personal, Kristi, good! Because since we last talked, I’ve been battling Stage III cancer. It’s been a rough journey. I had a bad reaction to one of the drugs in the standard chemo cocktail, and had to take a fairly significant doses of dexamethasone to tolerate the alternative used. The side effects were grueling and I had to cope alone because of the pandemic. While we did not get a cure, the chemo knocked back the cancer and my oncologist was pleased. He said the results were better than he had expected when we started.

Now, I am on immunotherapy. Every three weeks, I get an infusion and every nine weeks, I get a CT scan. These days I shudder just thinking about the CT scans because the iodine in the two pints of water I must drink tastes metallic and leaves an aftertaste that lasts for hours, tainting the flavor of anything I eat or drink. But, it’s a necessary evil.

Because I am immunocompromised, I’ve been self-isolating since the first community spread in South Dakota. With two exceptions, I have worn a mask whenever I’ve been indoors with others present. Twice, since resuming in-person interviews, I have forgotten to grab my mask from my purse before entering a building where others were present — twice in six months. I have eaten in a restaurant once — and only because I had scheduled my car for routine maintenance after a CT scan, which means I hadn’t been able to eat for hours and was hungry. Had the outdoors tables not been full, I would have eaten outdoors. I’ve only entered one business on a regular basis — the local grocery store about every two weeks, always wearing a mask.

My point, Kristi, is this — I have been taking precautions. But the people around me have not. When I go to the grocery store, few people are wearing masks. When I cover a county commission meeting, only one or two others in the room is wearing a mask. When I do in-person interviews, few volunteer to wear a mask and some think it’s odd that I do until I explain I have cancer.

Unfortunately, my mask protects others. They are doing nothing to protect me, thanks to your poor leadership. You have managed a public health crisis as though it were a political issue, and failed to provide the kind of leadership we have needed. I’m not saying you should have closed businesses. I am saying you should have advocated wearing masks, limited gatherings, and worked to creatively address the economic ramifications rather than relying on an easy answer — increase tourism.

Because of your poor leadership, I’m sleeping in a recliner so that I can breathe, wearing my warmest pajamas and swaddling myself in blankets even though I have the thermostat set at 75 because I have the chills, and am suffering with a severe headache that OTC medications don’t break. I have a low-grade fever and runny nose. The possibility exists that I have a cold, but the bread I was baking earlier this week burned and I didn’t smell it — not the bread, not the burning.

I won’t know until next week whether I do have COVID. I was tested yesterday. The nurse, dressed as though she were dealing with a hazmat situation, was clearly unhappy with being asked to swab yet another nose. She dealt with it in a perfunctory manner, and my nasal passages are still sore from the experience. I don’t know if she was unnecessarily forceful or if that is the way the test is routinely conducted. I do know that in a year filled with blood draws and medical procedures, that test was memorable.

So, Kristi, the next time you see me, don’t try to pretend we’re friends. You have demonstrated with your callous disregard for human life that I am nothing to you. If I die, you won’t care one iota more than you have cared for the hundreds of families who have already lost loved ones to COVID or the thousands who suffer as I do.

You, Kristi Noem, don’t care about South Dakota or South Dakotans. You, Kristi Noem, care about being in the spotlight and you will sacrifice all of us if that will give you a few more minutes of fame. Shame on you.

Sincerely,

Mary Gales Askren

Media Bias & Reader Bias Reflect Our Humanity

A month or so ago, I was sitting in the local coffee house, chatting with a guy I had met while putting together a story. He shared with me a quotation — which I don’t remember — that he felt was an insult to my profession. He didn’t share it to insult me, but because it reflected a bit of his worldview.

I surprised him. I agreed with the accuracy of the observation, and then I shared with him a story. During the last gubernatorial election, both my colleague at the newspaper and I exercised significant influence over what local readers learned about the candidates.

When Candidate A came to town to speak at an event, I covered it, noting key points and trying hard to accurately reflect what the candidate said without using language which reflected bias. My colleague, I had noticed, often used the word “claimed” when reporting on a candidate whose political positions weren’t consistent with his own. However, candidates he supported always “said” or “stated.” I didn’t want to be guilty of that crime.

When Candidate B came to town to speak at an event, my colleague was assigned to cover the event. He managed to do so without even mentioning the candidate. He did not snap a picture. He did not talk to the candidate. If the candidate spoke, he did not make note of it. It was as though Candidate B had never been there.

That set the tone for the rest of the election coverage. Candidate A had been pleased with my coverage and subsequently notified me when a campaign event was to take place. I never wrote another story, though I did — sometimes — show up to take a picture. More importantly, my colleague did not cover these events either. I argued — successfully — that it wasn’t fair to cover one candidate’s events and not cover the other candidate’s events, that to do so reflected bias.

When Candidate B came back to town, I covered the event, arguing that my colleague had already shown bias in his coverage and would undoubtedly do so a second time. I managed to write a story about Candidate B’s second visit that was recognized with an award by the Associated Press.

Every time a reporter tackles a story, the reporter brings to the story his or her own humanity, his or her own experiences and worldview, his or her own — yes, I will use the word — bias. That bias — that humanity — is reflected in the stories the reporter chooses. (Some are assigned, but most editors have more to do than drum up stories for their reporters.) It is reflected in the details a reporter includes and in the details a reporter excludes. Bias — humanity — is shown in word choice, in the structure of the story, in the way research is conducted.

I recently wrote on a controversial topic. I started by reading coverage on the topic by major newspapers and the Associated Press. Then I spoke with someone who had been advised not to speak with the press. Fortunately, I have an established relationship with this individual, who has a great deal at stake, and was able to have an informative, off-the-record conversation.

At that point, I talked with the editor and we outlined the issues we felt needed to be addressed due to the local impact. I contacted a couple key players, both of whom felt they had been burned by the press. I was able to convince one to provide written answers to questions. With the other, I was luckier because I have previously dealt with them in what they felt to be a fair manner. I was granted a personal interview.

After the interview, I started thinking about what I had learned. I could circle back and rehash the same stuff that others had already gnawed over with thoroughness — or I could find another angle. I made my arguments for both approaches with the editor and we decided together to go with a different angle.

If, as my sources alleged, they had been misrepresented by one of the major newspapers, I had nothing to gain by going head-to-head with that reporter. They are big; we are small. Big wins, hands down in the U.S. of A. The basic premise is they have more resources to do investigative work, and therefore are infallible. By approaching it from a different angle, I could explore some of the same issues without — to use a colloquialism — getting in a pissing match. I contacted one of the people who is responsible for mitigating the local risk and allowed his informed opinion to help me weigh the rest of what I had learned.

I was satisfied when I had finished. Questions still remain, and will for sometime yet, but I know I did the best I could at this point. I educated myself about the issue, but I did not go into my interviews with any agenda apart from getting the facts. I recognized that my sources were going to spin the information — that’s human nature — so I asked the same question from several different angles until I felt I understood the heart of the matter. Then, I did what I could to mitigate my bias by checking with my editor as I worked, and I closely edited my work, keeping it overnight to look at it a final time before filing it.

Here is the flip side of media bias: readers have biases, too. They come to stories with their own humanity, their own experiences and worldview, their own preconceptions. And so, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — media bias is actually reader bias. The reader says, “This does not agree with what I think, with what I have heard, with what I believe, and therefore the reporter is biased.”

Sadly, that has led lots of folks to seek out self-reinforcing “news” sources so they don’t have to consider ideas with which they disagree. This, in turn, has increasingly polarized our world and led to either-or thinking, which saddens me. We need one another, because we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. If we pull together instead of against each other, we will be able to build on all of our strengths and mitigate all of our weaknesses.

I think recognizing our personal biases is the place to start.

Our Dangerous World

We live in a bleak world right now — bleak, because the ground beneath our feet is shifting; bleak, because the winners and losers are easy to identify, but more often than not, the true enemy is within; bleak, because we are increasingly isolated from one another.

Today, as I cleaned my kitchen, I was thinking about a political discussion I’ve been having with a friend. At one time, we agreed about most things. However, as our ideas have been influenced by different information sources, we have grown apart.

On a personal level, this has been difficult. Shared values create a strong foundation for friendship, and ultimately, politics is about values. What do you believe is important? How do you believe our nation’s resources should be invested? What legacy do you want to leave for future generations?

When that foundation is damaged, everything changes. The sanctuary of frank conversation no longer exists. The habit of easy discourse and laughter must be broken so new patterns of interaction can be developed that respectfully circumvent topics leading to discord. Underlying those efforts is the fear that even prayer and good intentions won’t be enough to salvage something.

As I was mulling this over, I found myself thinking of a movie from the 1990s called “The Swing Kids.” Set in Nazi Germany, it is about the friendship between three young men. They all love jazz — two love dancing; one is handicapped, but is an amazing musician.

Because jazz is verboten — forbidden — they each encounter problems with the authorities. One, the handicapped musician, ends up killing himself. One of the dancers is influenced by the materials used to indoctrinate Hitler’s Youth and embraces Nazi ideals. The other is repulsed by his experiences and makes a public statement of opposition by jazz dancing at a dance hall. He, of course, is arrested.

It’s easy with the 20/20 hindsight of history to know which one made the right decision — the young man who was repulsed by Nazi ideals. But, we don’t yet have 20/20 hindsight about the times through which we are living. We don’t know how the nationalism — so like that which led the world into war in the 1930s and 1940s — will shape our world in its current incarnation.

What we do know is that we can all be pawns of powers which hide behind the curtain and manipulate us with messages. The Internet makes it easy. Any individual can put any idea out there and be believed. The idea doesn’t have to be true. The idea doesn’t even have to be plausible. The idea only needs to resonate with a few people who pass it on to others and suddenly it is being embraced as real and true.

As a person who works professionally with words, this dynamic scares the living bejesus out of me. If we can’t trust the written word, what can we believe?

I try to stick to mainstream news sources — reading both those which lean left and those which lean right to have a more balanced perspective. By doing so, I hope to avoid the greatest risk of being manipulated, but even then I am not immune. A while back a video clip taken out of context made the news. As the full story emerged, the incident reflected bad judgment, but not the message it had been edited to imply.

I had jumped on the bandwagon of consternation, and experienced remorse for doing so. That raised alarm bells for me. If I — alert to the dangers posed by the Internet these days and taking preventative action — can be so easily misled, how might others who are less cautious be influenced? And how might they act on what they believe to be true?

That’s what frightens me the most. How might people act on what they believe to be true?

We live in volatile times. Gun violence is becoming normalized. Elected officials role model bullying. Changing weather patterns are creating personal stress on wide swaths of the world’s peoples. Making things worse, the Internet seems to fan sparks into fire all over the place.

I don’t know what we can do on the personal level to address any of the big problems, but I refuse to concede that nothing can be done. Maybe we can at least be kind to one another. Maybe we can hold our friends in our hearts with love, even when we have differences of opinion. Maybe we can resist all that threatens to destroy us by doing good — in our families and in our communities, knowing that by doing so we send ripples of hope into the world.

Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll be making an effort to shine light into the darkness of these times.

Wisdom of Solomon

Then the king said: “One woman claims, ‘This, the living one is my son, the dead one is yours.’ The other answers, ‘No! The dead one is your son, the living one is mine.'” The king continued, “Get me a sword.” When they brought the sword before the king, he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.” The woman whose son was alive, because she was stirred with compassion for her son, said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby — do not kill it!”  (I Kings 3:23-26)

When I was growing up, I didn’t want fame or fortune; I wanted wisdom. From the first time I heard the story of King Solomon and the two women related in I Kings, my heart yearned for wisdom. This longing was reinforced in junior high when we studied Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Great Stone Face.” Wisdom, it was apparent to me, was the most desirable attribute we could cultivate in this life.

Wisdom is one of the spiritual gifts, which is convenient for me, since my spiritual journey is the defining characteristic of my life. Wisdom, as a spiritual gift, is the ability to see things from a divine perspective, to see the big picture beyond all of the earthy ephemera. Or to put it another way, wisdom is what exists when you shove aside the veil of dollars and cents that colors our perspective in this world.

My dear friend Merriam-Webster defines it in a slightly different way. He says, wisdom is “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand,” or “knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, good sense or judgement.” That definition will enable some folks to say that dollars and cents are a big part of what makes the world turn and must be considered in every decision.

So, it’s clear that there’s not even any real agreement, from an objective point of view, about what I yearned for as a child and never stopped seeking. From a subjective point of view, though, I will say that I lean toward the initial definition.

This is important! I am not splitting hairs here because I enjoy mental gymnastics. I am establishing the very foundation of my point: perspectives differ. That is part of the human experience, part of life’s richness, part of the savory stew of existence that God created. He wanted this diversity so that we can learn from one another, and grow by reconciling our differences in order to find healthy ways to exist together.

We’ve never quite mastered that knack, though. The bible is full of death and mayhem, and history is full of death and mayhem, and our times are filled with death and mayhem. Some days I do no more than read headlines because I simply cannot bear to know the details. “I cannot do anything about this, Lord,” I will pray. “Please inspire those who can do something to step up and make a difference, and forgive me for having such a small heart.” At other times, I see something which calls me to action, and I devour the details as though I were starving and needed to know everything in order to live.

More and more I become aware that the gift of wisdom I yearned for as a child and sought as an adult has become a necessary skill. When I was a child, the line between a credible news source and an unreliable news source was a hard line and easy to discern. Daily newspaper – credible; National Inquirer – unreliable. We could trust what we saw on the news; we may not have liked what we saw, but we could trust it was reliable. Similarly, news magazines might have a liberal slant or a conservative slant, but both reported essentially the same facts — interpreted differently, but with the same foundational information.

The internet has changed this. Anyone can post anything, whether it’s true or not, and that psuedo-information can go viral, with thousands — even millions — believing what was bogus in the first place. During the election, I saw a post on Facebook that said the Pope endorsed Donald Trump — total fabrication. In fact, when asked about some of Trump’s rallying points during the election, Pope Francis indicated those positions did not reflect a Christian attitude. That is clearly not an endorsement.

This past week, I posted an article from a credible news source with a quote from the article and a statement about why I felt it was an important article. A friend responded in a manner that baffled me. I had never thought of this person as an extremist, but the comments were so far right, it was past alt-right. In my responses, I kept trying to clarify my position, because I was sure some kind of miscommunication was occurring. Finally, it dawned on me that either (a) he had not read the article I posted in the first place, or (b) he had read an article from a fake news source about the same issue which was intended to elicit the kind of response he demonstrated.

This saddened me more than I can express in words. My heart ached.

When two women came to King Solomon with one living child which both wanted, Solomon could test the veracity of their statements. Both claimed the child was hers; he tested those claims. Today, our news sources are like those two women. Both credible news sources and fake news sources are engaged in telling the American people the other is attempting to mislead them. Most people are simply choosing to believe what reinforces their existing biases. They are like slave owners before the Civil War, reinforcing one another’s belief that African Americans were animals not people. They are like industrialists before child labor laws were passed, reinforcing one another’s belief that children needed to work rather than to be educated.

The similes could go on and on, and they would not be flattering. We cannot afford to simply believe something because it reinforces what we want to think. We must challenge ourselves to be smarter than that, to be wiser than that. We must challenge ourselves to pursue the truth — even if it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient. We must, in other words, sober up. Right now, we’re like a bunch of drunk drivers — which is a disaster waiting to happen.

We have the ability to stop that disaster from happening, but will we use it?