What I’m wondering is how long it’ll take us to untangle the knots we’re living. Three of them, in fact. Interwoven. Interlocked. Interperplexing.
The knot of prejudice. The knot of inequality. The knot of climate. One social, the other economic, the third environmental. There are others, but these form the core of our plight, and have for a long time.
Instead of working together to untie them, we have a history of pulling at them, which only makes them harder.
Reminds me of the story behind the gordian-knot phrase that has long been idiomatic, without anyone knowing where it comes from.
In ancient Phyrgia, today central Turkey, the kingdom found itself without a king at one point and the title was given to Gordias, a man who strolled into town with a cart and ruled the kingdom to the ground. He tied the cart to a pole with a knot so tight and convoluted that it would take Alexander the Great to slash it loose with a sword some 300 years later, and according to legend, he was then able to govern the land to renewed growth and vigor.
Fast forward to 18th and 19th century America. For more than 200 years, first the colonies and later the country lived in constant tension between North and South, rich and poor, slave and master, man and woman, local and immigrant. Division became an American tradition.
The social knot of prejudice and the economic knot of inequality became ingrained, with an enduring schism between the liberal intelligentsia and the conservative blue collar, talking past each other, the media and powerful shoving differences under the rug.
Progress happened with a bloody Civil War, followed by waves of confrontational reforms in the 20th century — labor, women, blacks, immigrants, consumers, the disabled, LGBT, the environment. Americans have rarely been good at deploying harmonious ways to pry loose the gordian knots that divide us. When we do loosen them, we evolve.
What Tuesday’s election showed us, the surprise so hard to fathom by so many of us, is that we remain knotted by division to a degree we were sure was behind us. We thought we had loosened society more than we really had. That we had united more than we had. That we had healed more, evolved more.
We like to describe the American experiment as exceptional, as the one place where people come from all over the world, live in harmony, work hard and realize their dreams. A beacon of hope. A model society.
To be sure, much of that does happen. We do come from all over the world. We do work hard and many do realize their dreams. And yes, that is exceptional. Not that we’re the only ones. The word exceptional means unusual, not unique and incomparable. Other countries are also diverse and exceptional.
Some are even more prosperous per capita, and better educated and cultured. Imagine that! So don’t listen to American presidents when they tell us we’re alone. We love this country because it’s ours, not because it’s the best.
That was our shock Tuesday night. We have so bought into the myth of exceptionalism that we’ve continued shoving our hard truths to a place unseen in the back of our minds, and Tuesday reminded us we’re not really as much of a model society as we like to pretend.
We’re better than before. We have evolved. But we’re still such a work in progress, and Tuesday told us how long we have to go before we live up to the myth.
We solved North vs. South, but not yet black vs. white, man vs. woman, rich vs. poor, educated and not. We’re split down the middle. Trump and Clinton each received 60 million+ votes, and the differences between both groups can hardly be greater.
After Tuesday, we can see more clearly how it is that a Republican Congress could be so resoundingly reelected after years of blatant obstructionism of what we thought was a reasonable, centrist, bridge-building president.
The apparent mystery has been uncovered. Since taking over the Congress in 2010, Republicans enjoyed the same support from constituents that Trump received Tuesday, following a campaign littered with blatant political incorrectness we liberals were certain would doom his candidacy.
And now this. The rude awakening. Untying the knots of our division tradition will take the one thing we’ve never been good at. Conversation. We must speak with one another, not talk past each other. We must SEE one another, to once and for all understand who we are. We must embrace our differences. We must heal. We must love.
But get ready. This will take a long time. Take the first knot. How do you persuade a Trump constituent not to be prejudiced? Removing prejudice from your heart takes learning the virtues of empathy and mutual help, seeing others as neighbors. As humans.
To grasp the difficulty of that one assignment alone, note that the entire human race has been trying to do that for thousands of years. Thousands.
The knot of inequality is equally daunting. Yes, there are structural reforms that would level the playing field and not leave so many so behind. But there is a lot we can do as workers and economic actors to be more competitive and improve our chances. Become more innovative. Learn how to profit from, not shun, complexity. Dive into the new tech. Play the niches.
If you’ve ever tried to help a co-worker or family member do just that, you’ve probably seen the resistance to change, or the inability to cope. Again, we’re human.
But of all three knots, that of climate change is clearly the most challenging, because unlike the others, this one has a deadline. Unless we get climate right in no time, we won’t have a planet left in which to untie any knot. That is science, not opinion.
Yet, try to get a climate denier like Trump and your neighbor down the street to get the science and adopt sustainable habits, even when the change is extremely favorable and profitable — savings, health, convenience, more — and they’ll probably respond with some form of cognitive disonance or confirmation bias, insisting they are simply right no matter the facts, using whatever argument they can to cling to what is consistent with their lifestyle and worldview.
It’s not much different from persuading someone to change a smoking or overeating habit, except that if we get the climate habit wrong, we all perish, not just the smoker or overeater.
And so here we are. Not only has this election shown how divided we remain, but also how long it will take to untie the knots that have always ailed us. Until we do, expect more social and economic tensions, tug-of-wars among competing groups, individualists vs. collectivists, supporters of openness vs. those of isolationism. A constant struggle on both sides.
Under Trump, these divisions will be out in the open, 1960’s style. Under Obama and decades prior — in fact, since the 60s — they flashed every so often, but were mostly tucked away. Latent. Repressed.
In this sense, all Trump has done is bring out the mirror, and now we know. Those gordian knots? It is who we are. And now, just as we always have, we must react by pressing on. We must insist on improving, on reforming, on evolving — peacefully, yes, nonviolently. But relentlessly, never ending.
Let us slash those knots with the sword of compassion and build a new American legend. Only then will we do like Phyrgia and self-govern this land to a next level of prosperity and vigor.