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Brain damage

November 20, 2012
By RICHARD SBERNA - Wellsville Reporter ( , The Review

Nate Silver has nothing on me. Without the benefit of his complex computational algorithms and statistical models, I had the outcome of this recently-past presidential election figured out months ago.

I boldly predicted that no matter who was declared the winner on Nov. 7, the sun would still rise the morning of Nov. 8. Furthermore, I went out on a limb and guessed that, not only would the Earth continue to rotate on its axis, but that no plagues of locusts or rivers of blood would torment our great nation following either the election of Mitt Romney or the re-election of Barack Obama.

This lack of trauma may have been quite a shock to some of our fellow citizens who routinely tune in to hyper-partisan cable news channels, talk radio shows or web sites for critical information. Various apocalypses, both figurative and literal, had been predicted if the "Other Guy" managed to win the presidency. So far, none has materialized, and I'm fairly confident that we'll face neither brimstone nor zombification anytime soon.

It's no secret that a depth of mistrust regarding the motives of the opposing party beyond anything seen in generations has taken root in our society over the last decade or so. Look no further than to what was arguably the most shocking image to come out of Hurricane Sandy - a Republican governor and a Democratic president warmly shaking hands and touring the devastation of a major natural disaster together.

It would be easy and satisfying to point to Congress or the statehouse and say, "It's all their fault." Not surprisingly, many do and leave it at that. According to the latest Real Clear Politics aggregate poll, a staggering 75 percent of Americans disapprove of this outgoing 112th Congress. Yet people in districts across the country have voted for candidates on the strength of pledges to not work with members of the opposing party. The result is the very gridlock that most Americans decry.

The tone in Washington and Columbus is set by us, the voters who send those same representatives and senators there in the first place. The widespread reluctance among some of our lawmakers to even associate socially with members of the opposing party is only a reflection of the ideological warfare that plays out on the likes of Fox News and MSNBC every day, and which have made the pair the first and second most popular news channels on cable TV.

People tune in not only to be informed, but also to have their chauvinism validated. The resulting echo chamber effect, in which people only hear "facts" and opinions that match their own, results in groupthink. No outside ideas are permitted to penetrate the ideological walls of the partisan fortress.

Why is this bad? Because truly great ideas are the product of debate and the exchange of divergent notions, not everyone in the room saying, "Yep, sounds good to me." A story told by "The Godfather" author Mario Puzo serves as a fable to the current philosophical crisis.

Puzo's friend, a fellow writer and World War II veteran named George Mandel, had been shot in the head during combat. He was flown to a hospital stateside and found himself in a special ward filled with other soldiers who had also taken bullets above the neck. All their heads were wrapped in thick turbans of bandages as they waited to have metal plates implanted in their skulls.

With nothing to do but sit and think, one of them came up with what he figured to be a sure-fire business scheme, guaranteed to make him rich. He got up and walked to the next bed to tell his neighbor about his plan. The guy nodded in agreement, saying it was brilliant and that he should do it. Bolstered by the approval, the would-be entrepreneur walked to the next bed over for a second opinion. He also nodded, saying it was genius and would make him a million dollars.

Genuinely excited, the man eventually came to Mandel's bed and filled him in on the plan. Mandel listened and nodded, but said nothing. Anticipating more than that, the man said, "The guys here all think it'll work and make me a millionaire. What do you think?"

"Sure, it's great," Mandel replied, "but maybe you better ask somebody who ain't been shot in the head."

Knee-jerk partisanship, be it liberal or conservative, tends to have the same effect on the mind. Amidst the sound and fury of unlike opinions shouted at each other, when shared at all, what gets lost is the notion that we're all in this together.

The anger started with us before it was seized upon and exploited by people in high places with loud voices. It's only our votes and our ratings that keep it in place. And like mom and dad always said, it's not who started it that matters; just that it ends.

I'm not naive enough to expect some kind of mass "Kumbaya" moment to occur anytime soon. However, I'm a firm believer in the constructiveness of turning down the vitriol in favor of listening to the thoughts and ideas of others with an open mind, especially those I disagree with. All I ask in return is for them to pay me the same courtesy.

If you choose not to participate in the exchange and prefer to remain dug in, that's your right. Complaining when the gridlock subsequently paralyzes Washington and when more bitterness and hatred pour out of your television is also your right. Just so long as you recognize that it's also your fault.

(Richard Sberna is a reporter at The Review. Reach him a



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