The War of Ideas

I thought I’d grown numb to gun violence, until it finally happened close to me. In my county.  Maybe it’s just another indicator of the distance we feel from one another, from east to west. Maybe it’s natural in a land as vast and diverse as our own, an impediment we must continually seek to understand and overcome. People have often said these are uniquely American problems. Distance. Lack of mutual understanding. Lack of common cause. No doubt these deficiencies lie at the root of many problems throughout the world, let alone those in America.

I can preach endlessly the need to draft common-sense gun legislation that would keep people from owning automatic or military-grade firearms, or keep those placed on the no-fly lists, or the mentally ill, from owning those weapons. But I don’t think I can add anything new to that conversation, certainly nothing that high-school kids aren’t currently making clear themselves in public protest within Broward Country and throughout the country, better than I’ve seen anyone do yet.

Their message is simple. They don’t want to get shot.

Like most Americans, I am convinced that proper gun legislation will alleviate the ongoing scourge of violence in America; but I am not convinced it will fix it outright. There is a deeper, more behavioral problem we have allowed to manifest in our collective mindset over generations that lies at the root of so many of our more visible, more institutional problems.

Americans don’t know how to live. Or rather, we’ve forgotten. And the more we continue to forget, the more we lose a war that we proclaimed to be fighting seventeen years ago. Never a war in the traditional sense, it would not be measured in death and destruction alone. It was, and continues to be a war of ideas. The War on Terror.

As of now, we are losing it.

I don’t know—nor do I want to know—when we reach the point where we can declare that it’s been lost. Neither would I know that point where we might declare the opposite. I’ve always thought the only way to fight a war of ideas is simply with another idea, a better idea, one that is more to the benefit of all people. Such a war can seem hard to define, unique in its apparent perpetuity; since, with enough people out there believing in something different, you might technically argue that the war is still being fought, and that the other side still poses a threat to the prevailing way of life.

The goal of terrorism is of course indicated in the word itself. The goal is to terrorize; and I think that we, generally speaking, are a terrorized nation. We embrace our fears far more readily than we do our love for one another, let alone for the outside world. Our collective state of panic has reached such an extent, that we are now considering the building of a gargantuan wall along our southern border to combat what we perceive to be the menace of invasion.

One of the lessons I’ve drawn from human history is that walls are only built to one day collapse, decayed as they are by timeless truths of human existence which decree that it’s always better to face the thing you’re trying to keep out, to engage that which you fear or perhaps don’t understand. Such is the mark of true courage.  You can fence yourself in from the world for so long, after all, but you can never fence the world out.

And yet, if you wish to see how we’re doing in the War on Terror, look to the state of our union over the past fifteen years, within these borders of ours deemed so sacred, and observe how the terrorism occurring with the greatest frequency is occurring from within, by our own actions against one another.

America is no longer a safe place to be not because of immigrants or even foreign terrorists, but because we have let fear dictate our lives, fear of external forces that we’ve deemed existential threats. In our paranoia, we have steadily become our own greatest terror, a danger to ourselves. This is not to say that everything is just fine throughout the rest of the world. Of course it isn’t. But how we perceive and question the state of the outside world, as well as ourselves and anything unseen or not quite understood, is crucial in adequately engaging it.

Resistance toward the unknown has long been a weakness of mankind, one that has manifested itself on every scale and within every subset of human interaction ranging from international, geopolitical affairs to how we simply communicate with each other as friends, family, neighbors and strangers.

I’ve noticed it take shape in how we engage in political arguments, where both parties are more eager to be right than to actually learn anything. Our fear of being proven wrong leads to not listening. We don’t listen and so we don’t understand. We don’t learn, but stay nestled within the shadowy confines and comfort of our own opinions and biases. As the cycle repeats, the disconnect intensifies, accommodated by social media which we personalize to those biases, and a news media which caters not simply to our political opinions, but to conflict itself. The good news of the world, after all, does not sell papers, nor does it do anything for television ratings.

Fueled by our fear, the resistance that we, as Americans, project toward the outside world is but a macrocosm for the more subtle, yet equally damaging walls we’ve slowly built within our own selves. The state of our world mirrors the state of the soul, and in recent years we have only grown more isolated from one another.

In turn, upon the stage of our national discourse, the virtues of love and compassion are commonly dismissed as hokey, abstract ideals best left for naive young lovers, starry-eyed poets, strange mystics and space-cadet, tree-hugging hippies—among others—who so many of us quickly dismiss as being divorced from reality.

But what reality? A reality of competition for competition’s sake? A reality that places its highest premiums on income level, class status and material wealth, and—most crucially—on the notion of achievement over fulfillment? It seems that love and happiness have grown overly-complicated to the point of anxiety and subsequent belittlement, while success has become overly-simplified and worshipped.

This paradox didn’t come from nowhere. In accordance with the classical American embrace of individualism, it has been taught repeatedly over generations.

As is typically the case with problems of such magnitude, the blames lies with most of us, if not all of us; we who have allowed education, both in schools and at home, to take minimal priority, whether by our own misguided creeds or lack of example. This includes parents, guardians and educators of all kinds, anyone at all who has ever stood in a position to educate another human being who insists that the keys to success be memorized and not explored, who takes it upon themselves to define the nature and meaning of success and then proceeds to download their scripture into the minds of the young.

Information has taken priority over understanding. Kids are trained to regurgitate the information at the expense of understanding why it’s important. I am only now beginning to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, for example, and why it has remained our universal language, how it has been utilized in every facet of engineering and has remained our single-greatest tool in understanding the basic mechanisms of our universe. I learned equations, but I never learned why they mattered.

More to the point, I was endlessly told by guidance counselors that I must succeed in those classes. After enough years, the implication had become very clear. Get good grades by memorizing information, so that I might get into a good college and thus truly be set for success, whatever that was. The unending training to memorize and recite laws that had no apparent meaning to my life was a sad, mind-numbing and agonizingly stressful experience that made me hate high-school. The seeds had been well-planted, the seeds of anxiety and fear founded on a lack of understanding, or one that was ambiguous at best. Youth was marked by indoctrination, not exploration of the self and the surrounding world.

Still, I am thankful for my education. My family, along with a few wonderful teachers in school, helped me understand these contradictions in the system, and helped me foster a sense of clarity that many other kids weren’t as lucky to find. Relatively speaking, I went to a very good school, as was surely decreed by it’s being in an affluent neighborhood. That being said, I know that it could have been so much more; and these problems I encountered merely suggested a much larger, more prevalent problem that stretched far beyond the fences of any one school, set of schools or institutions, and deeper into the broader collective consciousness of modern society.

The bigger problem is that—no matter what sphere of life—there is little time or conversation given to the notion of “Why?” This is not surprising, since we are a civilization that prizes answers over questions.

What is equally not surprising is that many kids—including myself at one time—often ask “Why is it important to learn the things I’m learning in school?” Also not surprising, though no less troubling, is that this collective sentiment expressed by children is seldom addressed by those in a position to address it. That burden shouldn’t fall square onto the shoulders of teachers alone, though they might be more inspired to share in the responsibility if they were paid fairly.

In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations and confirmed offenses currently sweeping the nation, I’ve often heard people asking what we can do about it. The answer I’ve typically heard is, “Whatever we can do to make sure that women feel brave enough to speak out.” I don’t disagree, though I am always inclined to add one amendment.

Parents need to raise better children, I usually think to myself. Specifically, in this case, young boys who otherwise seem to grow up with a warped understanding of what masculinity is, much less how to treat and relate to a woman.

A more elevated understanding, therefore, can only be learned by children whose parents make sure to communicate with them constantly, who engage with them in conversation built less on mundane condescension and more on genuine interest, transparency and respect.

Parents must take accountability in communicating with their kids as to why the things they learn in school matter. Such involvement would personalize education and further help to reveal its greater implications and overall significance in the grand scheme of living.

In our schools, the lopsidedly regimented way of measuring one’s education, through the lens of memorization and standardized testing, has come at the expense of this more personal approach, which limits any room for more dynamic discussion, any potential for more clearly understanding what it means to be a citizen, a man or a woman, what it means to be alive here and now.

Of course, something like that is difficult to grade; and one might argue that these ideas are too abstract and too personal anyway, that they cannot be taught to children at such a young age. Only experience can do that, they might say.

I most certainly agree that there is no better teacher in life than experience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t address these complexities with greater openness and commitment than we do currently.

For as much as we proclaim to cherish our children, we don’t really seem to respect them. We don’t respect them enough to have the more complex discussions regarding the importance of participation in a democracy, for instance, or the existential mysteries of the universe, or even the nature of true love.

It can be no surprise, then, that young people lack a deeper understanding of what an extraordinary gift life can be—most significantly, school shooters who additionally lack the necessary attention and treatment for their own mental illness. Furthermore, it can be no surprise that so few young people vote, and thus only add to the growing number of disenchanted, uninspired, non-actors in a democracy; a democracy that can only ever thrive with the participation of its people.

These deficiencies in our current collective understanding are vital, as they perpetuate the ongoing trends of low voter turnout, low participation, and rising violence. These trends are the product of a people slowly forgetting how to relate to one another, failing to understand the stake they share in their community, in their country, in their planet, in one another.

We have forgotten who we are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to remember. We have to deconstruct our own myths, the myths we have taught ourselves through fear and lack of communication. If we were armed with a greater sense of ourselves, that is, a more deeply-founded, more personal understanding of the natural stake we share in one another as human beings, we might be further reminded of our own effectiveness as citizens and engage in our world with renewed, more profound appreciation and enthusiasm, guided by a faith built on love for all that we share. It just has to be taught.

This shift in national awareness would carry over into every aspect of our society and our institutions.  The gun crisis would be resolved through common-sense legislation, while the mentally ill receive the proper care and attention they require. News of sexual harassment would slowly become a thing of the past not necessarily because of specific laws and regulations, but simply because Americans would, over time, fundamentally change in the way they view one other and themselves, as men and women.

Of course this change would would take time. Again, we’d have to deconstruct our own illusions before we even begin to remember Who We Are. That being said, we can begin by changing how we invest in our future. We begin with education.

Every time there is a school shooting, we are reminded of the most painful consequences of our own negligence, and yet we are simultaneously shown the solution crying out to us through the ether, staring at us plainly, facing us in the most clear light of day.

While humanity has mostly advanced through the vision of idealists who were once crazy enough to believe in the world as it would one day turn out to be, it’s necessary to note that the world only turned out that way because enough people were willing to rally behind the idea.

Interestingly enough, idealism, as well as imagination and creativity, are often associated with youth.  I wonder, then, if these tendencies were more deeply explored and developed both in school and at home, whether more people—young and old—might actually rally behind those visions so crazy they just might change the world yet again, pursuits which inherently, by the integrity of their own merit, light the way to a more fulfilling and happier life for communities across this country, and for people throughout the world.

If there is but one singular calling for we who walk this earth, surely it amounts to leaving it in a better state than that in which we found it.  Like the most skilled grower who plants a seed into the ground, nourishes it with food and water, and tends to it with persistent care and devotion as it flourishes into adulthood; so too must we care for those who follow us in life, those to whom we pass the torch as they lead us all into a better, brighter future.

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