Forget Politics, Here Are 10 Things That Really Divide Americans

Regrettably, we are entering the season in which nearly every cable TV news station, talk radio program, newspaper column and blog post will insist that America is deeply “polarized” and ineluctably “divided” along political party lines. This platitude has surpassed mere momentary talking point. It is vapid, ubiquitous tautology posing as substantive analysis — a thrumming, never-ending background noise that fills the silences when our monstrous Political-Media Industrial Complex pauses to take a breath.

The sad thing is, politics really isn’t that polarized. Despite the red-versus-blue summer-camp color war portrayed by the media, the last few years have seen a strong bipartisan consensus around bank bailoutswarscivil liberties policies,deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy (to name a few issues). Indeed, considering this kleptocratic duopoly, a little more political polarization might be helpful.

That said, there are genuine divides in America — the kind that are so deep and unbridgeably “with-us-or-against-us” that each side has trouble understanding, getting along with and/or socializing with the other. These splits, which represent the realchasms in America, are so profound that each side becomes immediately suspicious of the other when finding out which side they are on. Here are 10 of the biggest ones in no particular order.

1. Dogs

Upon his election to the highest office in the land, why was Barack Obama so intently focused on getting a Portuguese water dog? And why has Mitt Romney had to answer pointed questions about his Irish setter’s road trips? It’s because they both understand that dogs deeply divide us — and that there are many of us on the Dog Lover side of the gap.

But while there are 78 million owned dogs in America, there is unfortunately a vociferous minority of Americans who genuinely despise the canine. As USA Today’s Sharon Peters notes:

Some among us just don’t like dogs. I know it, you know it. Until last week, though, I hadn’t realized how deeply and intensely so many people are possessed of this feeling, how huge their level of outrage when they have contact with or even think about canines and the people who love them …These are people with such contempt for canines and their owners that they invest enormous energy in bad-mouthing dogs, seeking out like-minded people, writing down and distributing all the scores of reasons dogs are worthless, drumming up whatever support they can for their way of thinking.

These are the people who oppose dog parks, yell at dogs as they pass by their homes and try to ban dogs in public places. Speaking from the Dog Lover side of the fence, I’m immediately suspicious of self-declared Dog Haters — as I’m sure they are of me. That, of course, is the sign of a true cultural divide.

2. Marijuana Laws

According to Gallup, marijuana laws are — statistically speaking — about as divisive as they come. Fifty percent of Americans want to legalize pot, while 46 percent oppose such a move — a virtual tie.

And yet, calling this moment’s fight between drug reformers and drug warriors a “debate” is to employ a misnomer. As this recent exchange between U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Drug Enforcement Agency chief Michele Leonhart proves, the drug warriors are so committed to their position that they won’t even discuss basic facts about the cannabis in question. Indeed, they won’t even address why the federal government itself has broadcast ads labeling marijuana “the safest thing in the world.”

Such head-in-the-sand behavior is one of the hallmarks of true polarization. When one side won’t even acknowledge the verifiable truth — won’t even engage in the argument — it’s a sure sign that what’s at issue has become a matter of deep cultural division.

3. Coen Brothers' Movies

You either loved “Barton Fink” or you hated it. You either cheered on “A Serious Man’s” Academy Award nomination, or you were dismayed by it. You either think “The Hudsucker Proxy” is hilarious and biting, or you thought it should have been straight-to-video schlock. These are the reactions the Coen brothers’ catalog tend to evoke, proving that in Bush terms, you’re either with the dynamic directorial duo or you are against them.

My Coen Brothers litmus test is “The Big Lebowski” – love or hate the specific story, if you didn’t think this film was a virtuoso of writing, acting and cinematography, there’s something obviously wrong with you. Then again, I’m in the “with the Coen Brothers camp” – and no doubt members of the other camp probably think I’m insane for being such a Lebowski-phile.

4. Apple

Flash your Apple iPhone to a PC devotee, and you may be inducing a fight. Likewise, show a Mac owner your Windows-based laptop, and you are likely to be ridiculed. Such are the skirmishes in the 21st century Technology Wars.

Thanks to its insurgent success, Apple has become a cultural Rorschach test. Followers of the Cult of Cupertino see a company that has innovated its way to success, tearing down dinosaur oligopolies (record companies, cellphone firms, Microsoft, etc.) in the process. By contrast, sworn enemies of the company see in Apple a monster that seems to offer an easy interface, but really traps users in Steve Jobs’ inflexible operating system a la Master Control.

For years, I was on the PC side, but after one too many Windows crashes, I’m now on the Apple side with the zeal of a convert. That said, no matter which side you are on, it’s important to set aside emotion and realize that your position is as much a reflection of your technological requirements as it is a corporate-manufactured tribal affinity in one of the most intense branding competitions in modern history. In other words, whether you are an Apple lover or Apple hater, we’ve all been programmed.

5. Dane Cook

Arena shows are typically reserved for bands — and not just any bands. Major generation-shaping bands such as U2 and the Rolling Stones. So when a stand-up comedian sells out arenas, it’s no small achievement. So fine, kudos to Dane Cook for accomplishing something other, far more talented comedians have never come close to accomplishing.

However, as the Florida Times-Union notes, just because Cook has a devoted following doesn’t mean he’s not one of the most polarizing people in the entire entertainment world. “There are a whole lot of people who really hate comedian Dane Cook,” the paper notes.”There are also a lot of people who really love him. The haters cite his sometimes insensitive routines and his general Dane Cook-ness. Supporters just think the guy’s funny.”

I’m in the hater camp – and not because of any of Cook’s dog poop or joke-stealing controversies, and not because his grinning face should be next to the word “smug” in the dictionary. No, I don’t like Cook because the dude is just not funny. Indeed, not only do I find Cook utterly, soul-crushingly unfunny, I’m convinced people who insist he’s funny don’t actually believe that. I’m convinced they are merely pretending they think he’s funny for some other unstated reason. (A “dittohead” parroting of word-of-mouth zeitgeist? a hipster statement of taste? Something else?)

Now, I realize that’s a presumptuous assertion — after all, why the hell do Cook detractors think they have an unassailable definition of humor? We don’t — but the suspicion that nobody could really believe he’s funny speaks to just how divisive Cook has become.

6. Hotmail

A long time ago, seemingly in a galaxy far, far away, a Hotmail address was as standard as a Gmail address now seems (you’ll find out in a second why I say “seem”). Now, though, when you get an email from a Hotmail address your first instinct is that it’s a spam bot.

Occasionally, of course, a Hotmail message comes from an actual person. In fact, it’s more than occasionally — it’s fairly often, which means lots and lots of people still use the aging Web-based email service as their primary conduit of online communication. Indeed, as CNETreported in 2011, Microsoft estimates that “Hotmail is the world’s largest Web mail service, with approximately 350 million users.”

If you don’t use Hotmail, you may not have known any of this — you may have assumed that as a Gmailer, you were in the email majority and the Hotmailers in the minority. That just proves how separate the email camps are from one another — and how divided this part of cyberspace is. There are Hotmailers, and there is everyone else — and rarely do the two cross paths.

7. The Wire

I’ve never met someone who hates “The Wire,” which is, hands down, the best television show ever made. However, I have met plenty of people who have no idea what “The Wire” is. These encounters are what I imagine meeting an extraterrestrial would be like — there’s almost no way to communicate because we come from such utterly different worlds. I say “McNulty” and they look at me like I’m crazy. I say “Bunk” and they think I’m politely saying “bullshit.” I refer to a man’s “code” and they think I’m talking about a secret number sequence.

We are, in short, speaking entirely different languages because there are “Wire” junkies, and there’s everyone else.

8. Comicon

Having just broadcast my radio show live from the blockbuster Denver Comic-Con 2012, I came to realize that the term “Comic-Con” no longer just connotes the convention franchise hitting cities all over America. The word itself is now an all-encompassing term for the whole science fiction and fantasy world. And in America, you are either fascinated with or at least appreciative of Comic-Con, or you loathe it and/or think it’s worthy of ridicule.

Both sides of this divide know this to be true — they both know there’s no middle ground filled with people who only sorta like Captain Kirk or merely dabble in “Lord of the Rings” esoterica. So, for instance, Comic-Con backers know that in mixed company, if they mention their excitement about the event itself — or their affinity for science fiction and fantasy generally — they may get lambasted or ridiculed. Likewise, Comic-Con haters know that in mixed company, if they bust on Comic-Con — or “Tron” or “Star Trek” or “Lord of the Rings” — a Comic-Coner might start cursing at them in Klingon.

My theory is that this split has something to do with the nature of science fiction and fantasy. Because of its settings, these genres are probably the most difficult genres in which to produce entertainment content that viscerally connects to an audience’s emotions. Simply put, the believability factor is hardest to achieve in places like deep outer space, a different dimension, a mythical past, or the distant future, because none of us have ever been there.

Citizens of the World of Comic-Con clearly have a better willingness to suspend their disbelief and go with the story. Those who live outside of the World of Comic-Con don’t have that willingness. Thus, the chasm between them.

9. Talk Radio

As a host of my own drive-time talk radio show in one of America’s biggest markets, I’ve learned a big (and lamentable) lesson: There are almost no casual talk radio listeners. Either you see your radio as an instrument of spoken-word information (and, sadly when it comes to some shows, misinformation), or you see your radio as an instrument of musical entertainment.

Now it’s certainly true the nation of talk radio listeners is diverse. Some are into conservative political fire-breathing, some are into liberal political bomb-throwing, some are into straight news, some are into long-form NPR-style chitchat, and still others are into comedic podcasts. In fact, more and more are manic flippers, whipping through their presets and podcasts at a moment’s notice. But by and large, if you are a talk radio listener, you’re not listening to a lot of music through your radio.

The same holds true for the other side of the divide. The sound of the spoken word coming out of a radio speaker is like fingernails on a chalkboard to you — you tend to flip away from it as fast as you can.

How do we know this is a real divide in America? The next time you are at a party listen to the conversation. Someone will inevitably mention something they heard on a talk radio show (in liberal circles, it’s usually something someone heard on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that makes that person feel smart and superior; in conservative circles it’s usually something someone heard on “The Rush Limbaugh Show” that makes that person feel angry and aggrieved). Watch the expression on others’ faces: The people who nod along or have something informed to say in response are citizens of Talk Radio Nation. The people who look utterly perplexed or bored are citizens of Music Nation.

And here’s the thing — almost nobody is a dual citizen.

10. New York Yankees

I grew up in the Philadelphia area — a place where from 1984 to 2007, four major professional sports franchises failed to deliver a single championship trophy. That’s 92 professional sports seasons of being the underdog. I also attended Northwestern University, whose football team last won the Rose Bowl in 1949. So with such an underdog spirit so deeply embedded in my personal sports-fan heritage, I’ve never understood how anyone can root for a team like the New York Yankees — a franchise whose money, fame and geographic location have given it all the unfair privileges of permanent and perpetual front-runner.

By definition, then, I am on the hater side of the Yankees divide — a side that sees the Yankees as akin to the Empire from “Star Wars,” but even worse. The Empire was at least quiet and aloof in its planet-vaporizing dominance — the Yankees and their fans are ostentatious and gloating, always sure to let everyone know just how great they are (and I’m sure if I even whispered any of this criticism at a New York sports bar, I’d to go the way of Alderaan at the hands of Yankee fans’ Death Star-grade vitriol).

Clearly, this divide between Yankee haters and Yankee supporters is the biggest divide in all of sports, and its intensity is almost certainly a proxy for a larger conflict over New York City itself.

Whether expressed in television shows (“Sex and the City,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” etc.), movies (Woody Allen flicks, romantic comedies, etc.), “national” news programs (notice most of them are not “national” — they are in New York and filled with New York guests) or in person-to-person conversations, New Yorkers seem to feel the need to let everyone know just how awesome the Big Apple is, and how it’s obvious — so obvious! — that the city is the true center of the universe. Meanwhile, outside of New York, there’s a large transpartisan swath of America that can’t stand New York and everything it’s come to epitomize, from Wall Street greed, to Upper West Side elitism, to nauseating ostentation everywhere else in between.

In that sense, the iconic “I Love New York” emblem is as tribal a statement as a New York Yankees logo — wear either, and you are letting us know which side of the gap you’re on.

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