Is there a more confusing time to be an American than every four years when the summer Olympic Games and a presidential election collide? One moment we are collectively awestruck over an athlete's accomplishments, perhaps even misty-eyed as the “Star-Spangled Banner” plays and red-white-and-blue rises over the medal podium. The next we are bickering over domestic and foreign policies, pointing fingers over the latest unemployment figures, and lambasting a candidate for his or her campaign ad. We are a country at once united and divided, depending on the time of day.
It could be that this year—after years of political discord and economic turmoil, after daily battles in the media and on the hill and in state capitols over health care, military policy, and marriage, to name just a few—feels more fraught with conflict than others in recent memory. A recent Pew Research Center report confirms that Americans are more politically divided now than at any other time in the past twenty-five years. And we have now been at war in the Middle East for more than a decade—a fact that taints everything, as it should. Even the reliable patriotism triggered by the Olympic Games, as well as the easy common ground these weeks of sport can provide, seems harder to come by this year.
On a much smaller scale, I see how the frictions and tensions I deal with daily add to the depth and texture to my life. Though they aren't pleasurable experiences, wrangling with a writer over the shape of an essay or arguing with my husband about finances are encounters that knock my blinders off and focus my attention on another person and his or her point of view. I engage with others in more complex ways when I am forced to confront new ideas and opinions.
Perhaps this is also the value of conflict on a larger scale. Might war, political divisiveness, resistance, and disagreement add to the warp and weft of our national fabric? Might we emerge from brawls—those over ideology and policy as well as those manifested in physical conflict—more committed to one another and to our communities?
In this issue of Oregon Humanities, we explore ideas of conflict and discord through photos and stories about war veterans, a history of American peace advocates, an interview with a former Army colonel, an essay about raising children who know how to fight, a look at several disagreements over water in Oregon, and story about the seemingly unbridgeable divide between those who eat meat and those who don't.
It certainly seems easier to check out and shut up, to keep your opinions and views to yourself, to keep the peace. But where would the electric shock of epiphany come from? The adrenaline of not knowing how an argument will end? The oddly exhilarating moment of wondering if, perhaps, you are wrong?
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