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Published: Wednesday, 9/15/2010

Take two aspirin and call me after the elections

You can run but you can't hide from the political flu. It's highly contagious. Before it's over, everyone may be infected.

This year, the strain is even more virulent. Forget antibiotics. This bug is drug-resistant and already at epidemic levels across the country.

The political signs are everywhere. Be afraid. Veteran politicians are most vulnerable, succumbing to the sweeping influenza from Delaware to Alaska.

It's stunning how many establishment favorites from both major parties have been sidelined by the potency of the malaise. Unfortunately, there's no consensus about how to heal the fractious nation from this ailment, and none appears forthcoming.

Excessive divisiveness is so prevalent that it's unhealthy for democracy. The condition is serious. Americans are writhing from within about real and imagined fears, and the agitation is making them sick.

They want relief, but can't agree on what kind or who should deliver it. The diagnosis is entrenched polarization on every issue, from health-care reform to immigration, deficit spending to tax cuts, and wars without end.

The afflicted lose their ability to collaborate on new ideas, negotiate workable compromises, or carry out bipartisan solutions in the public interest. It's sad and scary.

The battle to win supersedes all other goals, including pulling a recession-weary nation back from the brink. The greatest democracy on Earth would rather put help on hold while enemy combatants fight like children over protected turf.

It's unhealthy behavior for adults who should be sharing a common goal to cure what ails them. But the country is so worked up about doomsday scenarios and power grabs that any healing through civil discourse is out of the question.

Political adversaries blast each other with broad generalizations and stubbornly maintain zero tolerance for different opinions. Why bother debating other points of view when your side already has all the answers?

Assigning labels to ideological opposites makes it that much easier to dismiss them. Incendiary propaganda, preached to the choir, is regarded as gospel truth. And the more feverish the followers, the more fuzzy things get, as fact and fiction blur beyond distinction.

Alarm is a common symptom of those who fall for hollow political hype. It overwhelms the huddled partisans in fortified right- and left-wing bunkers who each suspect the worst of the other.

The fearful see only a black and white world, without room for gray. Some consider their tunnel vision a calling, obsessively clutching the Constitution, or flying “Don't Tread on Me” flags and planting pre-election signs that say: “Save the Republic.”

More than a few foot soldiers from those crusades sent me a barrage of love letters after last week's column on Glenn Beck's “9.12 Project.” Missing from the slings and arrows was the substance I sought (and am still seeking) about particular grievances amid complaints about government overreach that demands revolution.

The delirium that grips wistful, modern-day sentries restricts them to regurgitating the rhetoric that Beck and Co. promulgate as part of their professional gigs. It fires up those who are already hot under the collar. But to what end, outside of cathartic venting against change?

Those on the far left suffer similar bouts of unfocused, irrational angst. Watching the Tea Party flex its muscle in the weeks leading up to the November election practically upends those who are convinced that America's intellectual nihilism is at hand.

They worry about the complex being discarded for the simplistic, and shallow distractions replacing informed decisions.

In his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges suggests that a disdain for depth ultimately dooms a society:

“Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by clich s, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous.”

That's the fever talking. But you can beat it — and the baseless imaginings of paranoid fatalists and pompous elitists who spread duplicity like a communicable disease.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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