It’s often said that one of the most effective tools to unify a country is an outside threat — a foreign enemy — real or imagined. Even better: demonize and dehumanize the enemy. That dynamic, Us vs. Them, fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in World War II and both sides of the Cold War.
Enmity and the enemy — that was the hot topic one evening in mid-October, when a handful of LMU professors gave 60-second lectures on the subject “Us vs. Us: Why We Fight Ourselves.” It was the Honors Program and The Los Angeles Loyolan that put them under the gun: Beside a massive, ticking digital clock, each had one minute to address the central feature of U.S. politics today: hyperpolarization.
Richard Fox, professor of political science and international relations, pointed out that in the 1980s and ’90s it was not unusual for half the states to pick a senator from one party and vote for a president from another. By 2020, he said, no state did so. He also suggested unwavering political allegiance is now a precinct phenomenon. In today’s America, he said, “Your neighbor is no longer the person who cares about the community you both live in.” Politics is “a national cage match.”
Our previous issue of LMU Magazine (Summer 2021) received many positive responses. But it also elicited comments better suited to a proverbial cage match than a magazine letters page. A few years ago, they would have been dismissed as rare, fringe responses. Today, they seem common enough to be mainstream. One letter writer objected to the lack of white people in the issue but began by criticizing me for, of all things, having a hyphenated last name. As an editor, I prefer criticism, which informs me, to compliments, which don’t. But to take seriously criticism that begins so childishly is beyond me.
Several years ago, when I undertook the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I was struck by advice Ignatius offered to the person who guides an individual through the journey: Always give a positive interpretation to the words of the other and seek clarification if needed. I find that to be useful advice when with friends, relatives and colleagues, yet nearly impossible to practice when it comes to receiving the words of many political leaders.
I fear that our political system is irreversibly drenched in venom. If I understand Catholic teaching correctly, there is no sin that must leave a person unredeemable in God’s eyes. Has the state of our politics become unredeemable? Evidence isn’t promising: The United Nations seems a more collegial body these days than the U.S. Congress.
When it came time for his minute of fame, Eric Strauss, executive director of the LMU Center for Urban Resilience, paraphrased Father Michael Himes, a Boston College theologian: To live well in today’s world, ask three crucial questions: First, what do you love? Second, what are you good at? Third, what does the world need?
Himes’ advice seems hard, and fruitless, to live by. But, it’s clear to me that to live cynically is to live unhappily and hopelessly.