Ford Foundation president calls for Americans to overcome a ‘toxic culture of absolutism’
The bitter tribalist divisions plaguing the United States in 2022 are even more intense now than they were during the 2000s and 2010s. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, discusses those divisions in an op-ed published by the New York Times on the Fourth of July 2022 — and makes it clear that as worried as he is, he hasn’t given up on the United States’ ability to overcome them.
“The heart does not exactly swell with patriotic pride this Independence Day, as the gut absorbs one dizzying, disorienting blow after the next,” Walker laments. “Our sense of who we are, our very identity as Americans, feels assaulted and violated. Amid profound, painful regression on issue after issue, we are left gasping for breath. Our nation seems more irreparably divided than ever before in my lifetime, barreling down a parallel path, perhaps, to the one our forebearers traveled in the 1850s.”
Walker continues, “What we do now matters urgently. And the American identity that we still share matters too, not least because it must inform and inspire a common effort, across our differences, to find our way out and forward. I believe we still can agree on a set of ideas — values and aspirations — enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, 246 years on.”
The Ford Foundation president goes on to lay out some reasons why he hasn’t given up on the United States’ ability to find a common purpose.
“Our founders bequeathed to us something radical, something unprecedented: the tools with which to build a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the privilege of American identity to all,” Walker explains. “My love of America — of the American idea — is unwavering. This laboratory of liberty is worth saving, worth improving. But I fear we are mired in a culture of absolutism and tearing ourselves apart at the seams.”
Walker continues, “Everything right now, it seems, is black or white, all or nothing, perfect or unacceptable. Every venue has become a theater for performatively asserting our own virtue or righteousness, or for denying someone else’s. The so-called microaggressions keep getting smaller, the disproportionate penalties bigger. Nuance and complexity, let alone compromise, are nowhere to be found. In their place is a pervasive, paralyzing cynicism. And in turn, our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.”
The U.S., Walker warns, is suffering from “a toxicity that threatens to asphyxiate our democracy.”
“Across our country,” Walker observes, “a foul spirit of nihilism has displaced a forgiving spirit of grace. In our distorted media, the few loudest voices garner the most coverage and clicks, while the conglomerates and social networks reap the rewards.”
Walker adds, “These extremes beget more extremes, coarsening our discourse. In our politics, we delineate districts and finance campaigns and decide elections in a way that favors purity over persuasion, thus further dividing our national community. Worse, a minoritarian stranglehold — a tyranny of the minority — is suffocating both our democracy and our trust in its institutions.”
Walker proposes that one way to counter this “toxicity” is to establish “new open places” where “people of good will, operating in good faith, can speak and listen…. without fear that they’re using the wrong word or phrase, without self-censorship.”
Walker wraps up his op-ed by stressing that Americans need to celebrate their “differences” rather than viewing politics as a “zero-sum game.”
“The road to enduring justice runs through reconciliation, and the road to reconciliation runs through truth,” Walker writes. “One of our hard truths is that, as the poet says, America has never been America. Another truth is that it can be still, and it must be, and it will be — if we renew our fidelity to the values that bind us, both despite and because of our differences.”
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