We’ve all heard the familiar standard by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Christmas Bells, and the familiar line, “Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” But most of us have never heard the poem in full. These are the last four stanzas.
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said: "For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!"
You see Longfellow wrote that dramatic poem in the final year of our Civil War – the most horrific time in our nation’s history. It was the real-world payment for the failure of our democracy. Then as now, two sides believed that they alone held the high ground of moral righteousness. They refused to listen to one another. They refused to give an inch for the greater good, and 644,000 people died as a result. That would equate to 6 million lives today.
Yet, since the election, talking heads have been posing the question of whether or not our people can go on living as one nation. It’s a fair question. Where do we go when two parts of one democracy are so divergent in their beliefs they can no longer see the value in continuing to work together? What do the two parts do when there is no trust, no common ground or even a civil or honest word between them? No one who watches cable news or follows social media can deny that things are bleak. There are even think tanks who have attempted to quantified what might happen if we actually did go to war with one another.
The big problem with all of this is that the dramatic division registered so clearly in our media is almost entirely an illusion. Less than five percent of users drive the content of every major social media platform today, and almost all of that five percent are paid influencers. They push the narratives, talking points and facts they are paid to push. Then the editors of traditional media outlets decide what is covered based on, you got it, what is trending on social media. It’s an absurd cycle of media malfeasance, and the result is that almost all national news follows a very narrow perspective based on marketing objectives, not actual news. The truth is that news today is not factual or real, and it is much worse than the “Fake News” about which we’ve all been warned. The entire nation and most of the world today is following a nightmare created by people who are actively trying to control what we believe.
The real question is: Does anyone really believe the illusion? Clearly, it’s a major influence, but aside from the wack-jobs who occupy a space on the fringes of both established parties and believe virtually everything they're fed by the creative writers on social media, the overwhelming majority of Americans only buy it to a degree. The Knight Foundation’s recent media analysis found eight in ten believe their news is inaccurate, and the same percentage believe that reporters intentionally misrepresent the facts on a regular basis. Older Americans who grew up with Walter Cronkite have more faith. Almost half of them generally believe the news, but almost no one under 30 trusts any of it. The bottom line is that only a very small percentage of radical believers at both ends of the political spectrum actually believe the illusion. But don’t take my word for it. Have a thoughtful conversation with your friends and neighbors who may not stand with you politically. How many of them really believe the radical message? I’ll wager it’s not one in a hundred.
That said, it's important to note that in spite of the obtuse nature of social and national media platforms today, local news still operates largely as it always has, and they are a major factor in maintaining our national sanity. Omaha is blessed to have a cadre of top-flight journalists with no illusions about their work. They report the news accurately and routinely go the extra mile in the community's interest. Even though their role is shrinking, they are the media we can trust.
We live in a time when it’s easy to say anything you want while hidden behind a video keyboard, but those who have the genuine courage of their conviction remain largely silent. Many of them have stood a post and understand the costs, and they won’t engage until they have no choice. Fortunately, that time is still far afield. Sure, you can find a hundred or so folks to walk down the street, throw rocks and shout about the system, but not many of them would have the courage of the kids at the Battle of Michigan Avenue and fewer still, the of the kids at the Battle of Antietam. We’ve got problems here in America, but people understand that they can be fixed with solutions empowered by democracy. More are paying attention now and soon enough will get involved to rein-in our crazy media and systemic corruption, and then begin to solve our real problems. So, for now, enjoy a Merry Christmas in a difficult time. We aren’t the first to face an uncertain future, and we won’t be the last. But sleep well tonight knowing that this nation has weathered many storms before and still we are a nation filled with love, generosity and character.