Friday, May 19, 2017

The Terrible Temptation of "Christianity and..."

Years ago, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters warned against the dangers of what he called "Christianity and":
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. 
My Facebook feed (because of a comment by a friend) served up a striking example of this phenomenon today - a graphic accompanied by the following text, posted by a FB group called "Our President and Savior":

Of all the sacred institutions upholding our democracy, none is as important as loyalty to the President. What better way to show your loyalty than by making a formal pledge in the sight of GOD, for all to know? Voluntarily pledging in the comments will demonstrate superior integrity than if you wait for the pledge to become mandatory. Don't delay; pledge your loyalty to President TRUMP today!

The Donald J. Trump Presidential Pledge of Loyalty:

"I swear to GOD this sacred pledge that to the President of the United States and people, Donald J. Trump, supreme commander in chief of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave patriot I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this pledge."

In the (unsurprisingly extensive) comments section came this particular addition from the poster of the original:
Our President and Savior ATTENTION LIBERALS: This is a CHRISTIAN page and foul language will NOT be tolerated. We permit you to be here for your own benefit, but cussing and profanity are strictly FORBIDDEN. You have been warned!
I am baffled. Under what reading of the Christian Bible does it become "mandatory" to pledge allegiance to an earthly ruler? What kind of theology allows you identify as a Christian and call Donald Trump (or any other President) "Savior"? Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light" - I'm pretty sure he didn't make mention of the President of the United States, or the Emperor of Rome, or the Governor of Syria, or Pilate, or anyone else.

I'm also not sure what understanding of "democracy" regards "loyalty to the President" as one of the "sacred institutions" that upholds the system. Our government was founded on disloyalty to a ruler, and is clearly designed to protect the rights of anyone who wants to speak out and oppose those elected to office.

Somewhere, Screwtape is laughing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ideological Purity and the Loss of Tolerance

I've written before (here and here) about the dangers of trying to create an ideologically "pure" environment. Our politics are problematic in part because there are some folks on both the Left and the Right who refuse to have anything to do with anything that smacks of the other side. These people are doomed to live frustrated lives, since they will never achieve what they seek.

In academia, the forces pulling in this same direction can be even stronger. There is something about academic training, about dedicating a large portion of your life to seeking truth in a particular area, that seems to engender in us the need to Be Right and to vanquish all of the Wrong Thinking in the world. Academics are not much known for humility.

In this context, the latest wave of opposition to campus speakers has become particularly fertile ground for this sort of quixotic quest for purity. In the minds of some, to host an outside speaker on campus is to allow anything and everything that person has ever said to taint you. The institution itself becomes unclean by their presence, requiring rituals of purification. You could write these sorts of strictures up in Leviticus and they would fit right in.

One of the latest of these incidents involves a kerfuffle surrounding an invitation extended to James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who, along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, discovered and articulated the structure of DNA. He had a hand on one of the signature scientific achievements of the 20th century, on which a vast amount of biological and medical knowledge has been built. He is, as the saying goes, one of the giants in the field.

He has also, at various points, expressed some outdated views about race, gender, and other social issues. He has expressed concern that people in Africa are less intelligent than people in other parts of the world. He has said various things about women, about body types, and about homosexuality which most people these days don't agree with. He has also apparently been a supporter of eugenics, at least at the individual level. He is, from many points of view, on the wrong side of history on a number of social issues.

So here we have a man who has led a stellar scientific career, contributing to some of the most impactful scientific advances of the modern age, who also apparently holds some retrograde views on issues of race, gender, and sexuality - views not that uncommon, it should be noted, for white men born in the 1920s.

In other words, James Watson is a human. He has done things that are laudable, and he has done things that are condemnable. He has said things we wish he hasn't said, and he has done things we are extremely grateful for.

So when he is invited to give a talk about science - about the thing for which he clearly deserves praise - and then is disinvited because of things he has said unrelated to his scientific research, I not sure what the standard is. Can we only invite speakers who have led exemplary lives and have been saints since birth? Can we only host speakers who have never said anything that might offend someone's point of view? If so, our list of campus speakers will be very short indeed.

From a Christian point of view, this kind of intellectual purifying of the academy is nonsense. We are all sinners, and there is no coherent theological justification to suggest that some sins (racism, for example) are more egregious in the eyes of God than others (pride, or lust, or greed). People love to read the Beatitudes, but the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 makes us profoundly uneasy (Cut off your hand! Tear out your eye!)

I am therefore a little perplexed when people write "I am ashamed to be faculty at Illinois" because some part of the university - which is a large, complex organization with many parts, not a unified whole - has decided to host Watson for a talk about his research. Such a person must be perpetually ashamed of many things, because we are all connected to institutions and social structures that do things that we find objectionable.

None of this is to defend racism, or sexism, or homophobia. When Watson argues that one "race" of people is inherently less intelligent than another, he is doing so on the basis of prejudice rather than careful scientific study. The bases of intelligence are complex and multifaceted, and it is entirely likely that his own intelligence is a result of the nurture of his upbringing and circumstances (of having "won the ovarian lottery", as Warren Buffet puts it) rather than what's in his genetic code. As we seek the roots of intelligence we find a very complex web indeed. We would also do well to carefully untangle judgments about intelligence from judgments about moral value, lest we fall into the trap of moral elitism - "smart" people do not have a greater inherent moral value than "dumb" ones.

But it is one thing to disagree with an argument or a point of view. It is another thing entirely to assert that, by inviting a speaker to talk on one topic, you are in some sense endorsing his views on others - an assertion that, when brought to light, is clearly silly. It is still another thing to claim that, by that person's presence on campus in some kind of invited capacity, the institution as a whole is morally tainted - a modern version of the Levitical code of purity.

Ultimately, I think our problem is that we are confused. We see ourselves as individual moral agents - as responsible for our own moral choices. Yet we also imbue our institutions - which are, after all, simply collections of individuals - with a sort of moral status of their own. In itself, this can be useful,  because we want to feel that we belong to and contribute to something greater than ourselves. But we are unclear about the moral rules surrounding our institutions. We seek to hold our institutions to the same standards as ourselves - forgetting that we are not alone, and that others may have different ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate.

All of this, of course, is just a description of what it means to live in society. My concern is that we are forgetting this - we forget that one of the chief qualities that enables us to get along with each other and improve our individual and collective lives is tolerance for difference and ambiguity. The quest for purity is really just the reduction of the moral world to a zero-sum game: either I win, or you do. Either we are not racist, or we are. We are either a conservative place or a liberal place. Throughout the history of humanity, this approach has always led to suffering, and never to the victory that its adherents sought. Maybe we should step back and look for a better way to listen to each other without so much throwing of stones and slurs and signs.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Limitations of Surveys

In perusing the higher education press this morning, I came across this story:
Americans see value in higher education, survey finds, but are unhappy with current system
The results of this survey are likely to be seized on by various constituents and interests. No doubt state legislators will see it as further evidence of the need for "reform" in higher education.

I don't intend to argue here about whether universities need to reform or not. In a certain sense, that's a silly question - all universities at all times can do things to make themselves better, and should. We can all find ways to better serve our students, to help our students learn and grow more, to be more efficient and cost-effective, and so on. This is the normal state of affairs.

One thing state legislatures and the general public don't often realize is that, despite our desire for simple answers, the kinds of change needed are usually university-specific. Even within one state or public university system, the issues and challenges facing any two universities within that area are likely to be very different. I have recently made the transition from one public university in Ohio to another. Both are sizable comprehensive universities serving metropolitan areas that in many ways are mirror images of each other. Both need reform. The kind of reform each needs, however, is radically different.

So a survey that says "things need to change!" isn't useful at all. Very few doubt the need for change on any campus, and those who do tend not to be in positions of authority or influence. Yes, there are rear-guard actions by groups of faculty or (less frequently) staff, but these are increasingly ineffective. Most good faculty leaders I know understand the need for reform. We just need to agree on what kinds of reforms are needed.

But the survey referenced above isn't just useless because it makes an obvious point. The observation that "58% believe colleges put their own interests ahead of students", or that "just one in four respondents feel higher education is functioning fine the way it is", reflect genuine opinions. But where do those opinions come from? As has famously been said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Legislators or others with an agenda will argue that these opinions are evidence that things have gone wrong in higher education, that there is a "crisis". They assume, in other words, that people's opinions reflect reality. Unfortunately, that's not true.

If you call me up and ask me what I think of the nature of the health care system in the US, I have to construct an opinion on the spot. Like most Americans, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about "the health care system". I occasionally interact with that system, because (like most Americans) I tend to be generally healthy. Moreover, even if I like my particular doctor, I may not see that one data point as representative of the system as a whole. I'm likely to simply think that my doctor is a good fellow, or that my doctor's office is a nice and reasonably well-run place.

So where does my opinion come from? If I read stories all the time about how health care is "failing", how people can't get treatment, how drugs are too expensive, how hospitals are terrible, and so on - those things are likely to be "top of mind" for me when the pollster calls. We have known for a long time that in public opinion polling, people base their answers on the most recent relevant information in their memory banks, even if that information isn't that representative or even all that relevant.

So when somebody does a poll of 1600 people nationwide and asks their opinions about college, I know that the vast majority of those respondents are unlikely to have had a significant interaction recently with a college. Moreover, even if they have, we tend to differentiate the individual cases we know from the broader "system" we're being asked about. This is the same dynamic that leads most Americans to despite Congress, yet like their own individual representative. So the "raw material" we're likely to base our opinion on when asked about "the higher education system" is the general stream of stories and headlines we're exposed to in media coverage and our social media streams.

Polls like this, in other words, are self-fulfilling prophecies for politicians who have been railing against higher education for years. They don't reflect the reality of higher ed; they don't even reflect the reality of individuals' experience with higher ed. They reflect the narrative we have constructed of a "system in crisis" - a narrative that has been built to serve specific interests, mostly in service to political ambition.

The media (including the higher ed press and the social media sphere - bloggers included!) play into this. A handful of stories about interrupted speeches on college campuses created a narrative that we have a "crisis" of free speech on campus. Stories of free speech rights being appropriately exercised and protected don't make the news or the blogs, although I have personally seen more of that than of the "bad" cases. In my own small way, I'm guilty of perpetuating the problem here.

None of this is news. We know this is the way public opinion works, and have at least since John Zaller published The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion back in 1992. But polls make good headlines, which then further feed narratives.

For those of us in higher education: we need to stop playing defense and responding to specific charges, and build a different narrative. We have the tools and we have the facts. The reality is that American higher education is the envy of the world, which is why the United States brings in far more students from overseas than any other country. We need to tell that story, and enlist allies to help us tell it broadly and publicly.

For the broader public: we need to develop the skills that everyone keeps saying we need - critical thinking. The level of education needed to develop a little critical distance and not swallow a particular story wholesale is not unattainable. It probably doesn't even require a bachelor's degree. What it does require is training and practice (which higher education are designed to provide), and a willingness to think a little. That latter point is up to the rest of us.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Political Conflict on Campus Today

I write a fair amount about academia and higher education. I also write a lot about conflict. Sometimes, I get to cross my realms of expertise and write about both.

It was in that conjunction that this article from this week's Chronicle struck me:

From Video of Campus Forum, Virtual Venom Flows

The Reader's Digest version of the story is this: some folks at Northern Arizona University decided to have a public campus form titled "The Specters of Fascism?" It's the kind of thing that universities do - bring their expertise to bear on questions of public interest and hold open discussions about them.

In this case, the forum was mostly about Fascism in Europe, with the added question of whether there were lessons from those historical experiences that might be applicable to the United States today. It's the sort of question that historians, political scientists, sociologists, and others have discussed for decades - interesting, relevant in a high-level sort of way, and amenable to scholarly inquiry. In today's highly polarized political and tribal environment, however, it attracted a different sort of attention than one might expect when academics hold a scholarly forum.

A NAU student affiliated with a group called Campus Reform filmed the event and shared that video with the organization, which posted a segment of it on their website. Campus Reform, which bills itself as "America's leading site for college news", is a conservative project that "exposes bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses". It is an offshoot of the Leadership Institute, an avowedly conservative organization whose mission is "to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process".

Needless to say, university professors speculating about whether European fascism has any parallels in American politics today proved to be red meat to conservatives, who boiled the whole thing down to "liberals equating Trump with Hitler". Abusive and threatening emails started flying almost immediately, aimed at faculty members associated with the event (often for things that they didn't say, as the video was apparently unclearly labelled).

Interestingly, the student who took and posted the video also came in for a fair amount of online abuse and some pushback from people on her campus, some of whom accused her of being a racist and of belonging to the "alt-right". She characterized her treatment (perhaps a bit hyperbolically) as "full-on bullying from the university".

The usual frame by which these kinds of stories are viewed is the "academic freedom/freedom of speech" frame. In this view, everyone has the right to say what they like and to express the views that they like. The forum was an exercise of free speech, as was the taping of the forum and posting it online. The subsequent abuse and death threats are merely an unfortunate byproduct of our exercise of our free speech rights.

While correct in itself, this frame is largely useless for understanding what's going on here. What this episode shows is one manifestation of a much larger conflict taking place across society, on campuses as well as in other ways. Once we place this in a conflict frame, we have the chance to make progress towards both understanding and mitigating if not resolving these issues.

Like all conflicts, this one has at least two sides, each of which is a coalition of actors and entities that agree with each other to varying degrees. What holds the sides together is not agreement about facts or ideas, but a sense of common identity - "us" versus "them". The student who posted the video may not like being lumped in with the alt-right, but she's planted her flag on that side and so, in the eyes of her adversaries, she's one of "them".

Like all tribal conflicts, the dynamics are pretty predictable. Each side defines the other as both monolithic and defined by its own worst actors. Each side is reduced to simplistic, usually dehumanizing, epithets by the other ("libtard", "redneck", etc.) Each side has only a vague notion of its goals and objectives - though individual actors may have specific plans - but in broad terms, the conflict is seen as zero-sum - either "we" win or "they" win.

It is this last point that gives rise to the deplorable kinds of behavior that we see - the online bullying, dehumanization, and threats. Because people the conflict is perceived as zero-sum, each side focuses on "winning". There is no notion of compromise or accommodation - such thoughts are heresy, and those who entertain them usually branded as heretics and forced to recant or tossed out of the tribe. In the terms of my own research, each side is pursuing a Unilateral strategy.

Sometimes in international conflict, Unilateral strategies make sense. One thing my research has turned up is that Unilateralism is contagious - if one side gets it, the other side pretty much has to follow suit. It's very difficult for me to try to reach accommodation with you while you're trying to kill me. This is why Zartman has spent so much time researching the notion of "hurting stalemates", because once you're locked into Unilateralism on both sides, it's very difficult to get out.

Some of the rhetoric within our domestic political conflict has taken on this sort of flavor. Dig around a little bit and you can find conservatives (often of the alt-right variety) talking about a "genocide" of liberals, while on the Left you have liberals talking openly about secession (Calexit?) from the rest of the country. Both of these assume a universe in which members of both tribes cannot coexist, at least not in the same political space, giving rise for the need for one or another kind of "final solution".

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. My partner-in-crime on secession research Steve Saideman recently pointed out that Blue State secessionism is nuts and anti-democratic. And the idea that "conservatives" can somehow identify and remove (via death or forced migration) all "liberals" is both wildly unrealistic and horrifying.

The reality is that within the United States, Unilateral strategies are a waste of time. They will never succeed. The only thing they are good for - and this goes a long way to explaining their popularity - is helping some politicians get into power and stay here. The side effect of this political strategy, of course, is that the body politic as a whole suffers. And so a college professor and a college student are both made to suffer so that demagogues who have no interest in resolving conflicts can go to Washington.

The Atlantic recently ran an article covering research that suggests that one side effect of Americans drifting away from organized religion (in particular, the many branches of the Christian church) is that they are become less tolerant of each other. While Christianity is often associated in the public mind with intolerance (towards gays, Muslims, single mothers, and others, mostly because of particularly vocal denominations), it turns out that the universalism within Christian theology (a universalism reflected in most major theological systems around the world) does tend to make adherents less rigid than we usually think. You can only sing "In Christ there is no East or West" so many times on a Sunday before it starts to occur to you that maybe God really does love everybody, even the people you disagree with.

The flight from religion is particularly pronounced on college campuses, both among academics and faculty (who tend to share a culture of cosmopolitan secularism) and among students (who tend to share the young adults' gravitational pull away from the religion of their parents, who increasingly don't have one anyway). So it's not surprising that when the broader conflict surfaces on campus, its manifestation tends to be particularly intolerant. Each side, of course, uses this to accuse the other of hypocrisy, thus making the whole thing worse.

The thing about viewing this as a conflict is that it helps us think about the important questions. What would a "resolution" look like? What is the conflict about, and what kinds of solutions to those problems are possible? Because we tend to think that the conflict is about "ideas" ("liberal" ideas versus "conservative" ideas), we then erroneously think that the solution is for our ideas to "win". That is not, of course, how the "marketplace of ideas" works. Change tends to come evolutionarily. Nothing "wins" or "loses" in whole, but the interaction changes all sides and produces new (and hopefully better) ideas. Hegel was right - the conflict between Thesis and Antithesis produces, at its best, Synthesis.

As long as people are sending death threats to each other, of course, this kind of progress is going to be very slow. And as long as students (of whichever tribe) think that they need to help their side "win" - whether by posting videos of views they don't like to like-minded websites or by shouting down speakers they don't like at public events - not much is going to change.

When you're in a conflict, you should be thinking about how to end it - about what realistic conclusions are possible and about how to get from where we are to one of those, as fast as possible and with the least cost. Right now, people on all sides aren't thinking this way. They're trying to "win" an unwinnable war. If you don't like the idea of strangers flinging death threats around, heed the advice of Joshua: the only winning move is not to play:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Quixotic Quest for Political Purity

I have written before about the dangers of seeking "purity" in public life - that is, of trying to dissociate one's self in all ways from things one disagrees with. This is as true about politics as it is about religion or any other belief system.

In this light, I read with a combination of amusement and concern this latest effort at "purity" of a particular political viewpoint by members of the NY State Senate:
New York Senate Passes Anti-BDS Bills
The idea here is that, if you work as a faculty member at any public university in New York (there are some 64 SUNY campuses, plus the CUNY system) you would not be able to use university funds to, say, travel to the conference of an organization that has passed a BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) resolution with regards to Israel.

Now, whether I agree with BDS efforts or not is irrelevant here (I'm not a fan, mostly on practical grounds). I am a member of scholarly organizations that have, at times, debated such resolutions. If one of these organizations were to pass such a resolution, and I worked in NY, what is the purpose of forbidding me from attending its scholarly conferences? All that does is punish the faculty, who now no longer have access to the means of sharing their work with the scholarly community, whether those faculty supported the symbolic BDS resolution or not.

The notion that allowing such a faculty member to use professional development funds to travel to such a conference constitutes the state "funding attacks against Israel or supporting hate", or that a conference appearance would be "inappropriate and offensive", suggests that the sponsors of this legislation are trying to purify the world according to their own world views. People disagree, about Israel and a great many other things. If you find such disagreement offensive, I'm not sure it's the world that needs to change.

This is, of course, a symptom of the deeper tribalist instincts of American politics, instincts that have been much emboldened of late. This is another example of a Politics of Force - an attempt to impose one's own worldview of everyone else, in this case on an issue that is purely symbolic and which has no direct practical significance. BDS resolutions by academic associations will not change Israel's behavior; withholding New York State funding from scholars seeking to attend those associations' conferences won't change theirs either.

As I have argued before, this is the real battle for the soul of American politics - not which side of this or that issue you fall on, but what kind of politics we want to have. If we opt for a politics of force, we doom ourselves to endless conflict and, likely, violence. This is the Trumpian zero-sum view of the world, and it leaves everybody worse off. Our alternative is to learn to live with differences even as we debate them, which means we have to become a little less comfortable with our own righteousness and a little more willing to engage in contact with the "impure".

Friday, March 3, 2017

What Does Free Speech on Campus Mean?

I am no fan of Charles Murray or his work. I suspect that if I read it exhaustively, I would find much to criticize. I have read The Bell Curve, and I'm unconvinced by his arguments.

That said: this behavior reported here by a group of Middlebury students is appalling. If free speech on a campus means anything, it means that people who are invited by members of the community - people who apparently thought he had something worth listening to - be allowed to share their views with decorum and civility. Shouting a speaker down, and then jumping on his car as he attempts to leave, are inconsistent with this notion.

The open letter referred to in the article linked above tries to square this circle by arguing, essentially, that there are certain views that are outside the boundaries of free speech protection and which therefore can and should be censured. It also argues that the airing of those views in and of itself constitutes a threat to other members of the community, a form of (their word) intimidation.

This is precisely the kind of division I spoke of in my most recent blog post. It will not get better by shouting and pounding on cars, or even by the more civilized means of "de-inviting" speakers. It will only get better through real dialogue. Whether a public lecture is the best form of that dialogue is another question, but I suspect that the students protesting made no real attempt to have an open conversation with their fellow students who had invited Murray in the first place.

I also suspect that the students who invited Murray in the first place knew darned well what they were doing, and that some of them are likely quite pleased to have provoked their liberal brethren into an overreaction. This is combative politics that divides. Rather than invite a controversial speaker to demonstrate your power, why not have a direct dialogue between student groups?

The students in question (on both sides) probably don't see it this way, but this is a politics of force. It is a politics that says, I am right and you are wrong and I am going to use all of the power at my disposal to impose my will on you. It is as anti-democratic as anything they are protesting against. I do not envy my colleagues in the Middlebury administration as they try to untangle this mess.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Thoughts About American Tribalism

I have just returned this past weekend from the annual conference of the International Studies Association. For scholars like me who study international politics in a systematic way, this is the largest gathering every year - a way to see people we interact the rest of the year only in writing, to meet new faces and get exposed to new ideas. It is a collective expression of a scientific community trying to figure out the world - often raucously and discordantly, although there are some things that the community agrees strongly on.

This year's conference got me thinking about tribalism, in part because:

• I tend to think about tribes a lot anyway (search this blog for the "tribalism" label to see a lot of my past stuff)

• The community of ISA scholars constitutes, in many ways, a tribe of its own, with various sub-tribes embedded therein

• The national (United States) conversation about immigration is really a conversation about who is "us" and who is "them" and how "us" should treat "them" (with the answer to the latter question, far too often, being "badly")

• I am reading Jonathan Haidt's work The Righteous Mind, which has an extensive discussion of how "groupish" humans are and why

• There is an underlying tribalism within the United States that worries me greatly, and which I think almost no one is dealing with very well (or at all) right now

This last point is what concerns me most. The specific issues we're arguing about at the national level - immigration, the role of the press, foreign policy, tax policy, and many more - are all suffused with a tribal divide. To put it plainly: there is no longer any room in our national conversation for Americans, only for tribes within America that each regard the other as an existential threat.

I see this mostly from the Left side of the divide, because that's where most of my social contacts have their home. There is plenty of opposition to Trump (reasonably so - every President faces opposition) and other individuals in his administration. This opposition seems reasonable, even obvious, to those who share it. It also seems treasonous to the most committed folks on the Right.

I suspect that there is a similar dynamic on the Right, though I don't see as much of it myself (again, most of my friends are on the Left). Polling data suggests that there is a committed core of folks who view Trump's actions so far as positive, who were excited by his electoral win and his inauguration, and who view the opposition to Trump's appointments and pronouncements with deep suspicion if not outright hatred. The Left, in turn, wonders if these same people are going to take over everything and destroy our democracy.

These groups of people seem to inhabit very different worlds - not only in social circles, but in the very reality they see. One side sees a massively dysfunctional government careening back and forth between evil and unprecedented incompetence. The other sees a hero battling valiantly against the forces he campaigned against. Even basic facts have become a matter of partisan identity. And everywhere, people are convinced that if Their Side doesn't win, it will spell the end of our civilization as we know it.

To say that this is bad is a massive understatement. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Unlike in 1858, we can't even sort ourselves into states on different sides of a contiguous line - we are more like Yugoslavia in 1990, intermixed in geography but inhabiting separate nations. I recognize that neither of these historical analogies ends particularly well for the people involved.

Last night President Trump gave a speech to Congress that was widely hailed, at least in the mainstream, as being very different from his first month of governing. And in truth he did call for bipartisan cooperation in Congress - though cooperation in service to his agenda and his ideas. In this, he did what every other President before him has done. He did not address the real divide among us, a divide he has done much to increase.

A part of my participation in last week's ISA conference involved chairing a discussion of a recent book, Nationalist Passions, written by my friend Stuart Kaufman. Stuart looked at a number of different societies with significantly diverse ethnic and identity groups - some that had gone down the road of violent conflict, some which had suffered through dysfunctional politics, and some which had managed to operate with normal political systems despite significant differences across their populations.

Stuart's advice for today's divide in America? Surprisingly (given the decidedly liberal bent in the room), he said that we should acknowledge diversity but we should celebrate what we have in common. We need to stop emphasizing our differences, and instead hold highest that which binds us together.

This is what our entire national conversation seems incapable of doing, on both the Left and the Right. Nothing that President Trump has said, even last night when he was being "reasonable", has suggested that he has any vision for what binds Americans together or what we might have in common. Nor have any national politicians, either on the Left or the Right, made this kind of claim. Everyone is backed into their corner playing defense and lashing out at the other side.

This is a question largely separate from the very real debates we are having over particular issues: immigration policy, terrorism and national defense, education, health care. All of those, bombastic rhetoric aside, are routine arguments we have perennially. They are things about which we should be expected to disagree.

Part of the reason why these debates feel different from previous iterations is the lack of a "center" - not centrist positions (those do exist, though these days they are rare), but a central touchpoint which we all agree exists and which connects us all to each other. In my view, we have reached the point where there isn't one. We are no longer "one nation", under God or otherwise. We are not one out of many. Pluribus has overtaken unum.

My work, and that of many much smarter scholars, on identity-driven conflicts suggests that there is no easy road back from here. Some of our work suggests that there may not be a road back at all. Violence and attacks have so far been limited mostly to threats and vandalism against minority groups that have been subjected to such things before (recently in particular, Jews but also foreigners). The more violence there is, and the more separated the sides become, the harder and harder it will be for any kind of reunification. What happens when somebody gets attacked for being a Hillary supporter? (Oh, wait - that has already happened...)

At this point, we cannot look to our leaders - neither Republicans nor Democrats, not Trump nor Pelosi nor Ryan nor Schumer - to provide us a way out. The President and members of Congress all have more immediate agendas for shaping legislation and influencing policy. Each will call for "Unity!" when it serves their purposes, and they will sow division when that works better. The health of the US body politic as a whole is too big, too distant, too easily put off into the future to make it onto their radar screens.

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out before, we have a tendency to expect our Presidents to solve all of our problems. Almost always, they can't - think of the hopes placed on Obama to bring racial healing (and who better positioned to do it?) President Trump has done his best to pour gasoline on our fires of division, so there is no hope there.

The problem, I think, is not just that we expect our Presidents to do things they can't. It's that we don't believe that we can do anything ourselves. But this is one problem that only ordinary Americans will be able to solve. Community leaders can help, if they are people who care more about bringing us together as a people than about getting their way. Look for these people where you live. If you don't find one, become one.

How do we do this? Talk to each other. Not argue on the internet, not get into Twitter fights. Talk with real people, about our real lives - our whole lives. Listen. A lot. Find the common ground, and celebrate it when you do. Decide that our relationships with one another are more important than winning this or that point.

This doesn't mean you can't call your Congressman, or join in a march, or write letters to the editor, or vote for your favorite candidate. All of those things, and many more, are good things to do. It does mean that as we do them, we should try to take care not to contribute any more to our widening divisions. We can be honest in our views, but we shouldn't be snarky. We can be open about how we see the world without disrespecting those who see it differently. How we do things is, as I have argued so many times before, ultimately far more important than what we do, because the How has a much greater impact over time than the What.

Tonight I join with millions of fellow Christians around the world in the celebration of Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. Lent has historically been a season of penitence, of introspection, and of discipline in preparation for renewal. Whatever our faiths, our theologies, and our beliefs, it seems like now is a good time for these things.