What just happened? We have divided ourselves

and Contact ReporterSpecial to the Gazette

I started this letter on Dec. 31, and it has had multiple revisions except for this first sentence: Shortly after the election, I attended the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

This was at the behest of my youngest son, the only one of my four children to serve as a combat soldier. Though he did not make this his career, serving for eight years and fortunately the mission to Bosnia resulted in no active hostilities, he came away with a great appreciation of the sacrifice of and reverence for those in the military before him. Two years ago, we went to England to follow "The Band of Brothers" to Normandy on June 6 and through the European Campaign. The highlight was meeting and speaking to the veterans who served in both places.

Admiral Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor and who knew us well from his time in the states, when he learned that the aircraft carriers were not destroyed, said, "We have aroused a sleeping giant." It was then less than 80 years after the Civil War and veterans of that war were still living, veterans who killed and maimed each other, that Americans came together as never before to form that sleeping giant.

It is now only 15 years since 9/11 when the country was attacked at its very heart. Now, we are divided more than ever except for the Civil War.

How did this happen?

Many have expounded on this subject. Perhaps we should look closer to home, to the human brain. Though I don't intend a scientific treatise, this isn't just an allegory; we are all subject to "this mind" that has evolved over eons.

It is our brains, sorry to say: the left side (so-called concrete reasoning side) and the right (so-called symbolic side). Both sides receive a steady stream of information from our senses. Before our left brain can begin to analyze the data, our right brain is presenting emotions to be analyzed by the left side. We also store away our feelings, which are stirred in with ones that have arrived consciously or not for years. Our brains have have evolved for eons to respond in certain ways. Without these adaptations, our species might not be here. At times, we have to react before we understand. Understanding takes work and may be unpleasant but necessary for important decisions.

Anyone who remembers a time before cell phones, computers and social media, remembers getting a little bit of news before going to work, a little during the day and more from Walter Cronkite later that evening. We also had the time to discuss it. Is there anything in the evolution of our brains that has prepared them for the onslaught of emotionally charged information that we now receive every moment of the day?

This only scratches the surface, as we have not even touched on whether the information is correct. Have we made up our minds long before correct information arrives?

Then there are the information providers. Which ones do we trust? More important, are we programmed to trust some and not others? How do we get out of this mess? Are our choices predetermined?

No, but we must understand our human nature and then make the best-reasoned decision using the best information we can discern.

Now is the time to admit I have biases, but so do we all. We need to realize that we are being pressured on all sides. As my parents, who never had the chance to go to high school, used to say, "Don't believe anything you hear and half of what you see." The right brain is a prime target for demagogues.

The term "demogogue" is [from the] ancient Greek. In a description of a long and bloody war, a famous historian wrote, "The sufferings … were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same … Reckless audacity came to be considered courage …; prudent hesitancy cowardice; moderation … a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any."

I hope I am wrong, but are we entering a time to equal the greatest challenges to our Republic comparable to World War II and the Cold War, hopefully not a Civil War, citizen against citizen. The Greeks slaughtered each other. Remember, Athens was a democracy. Athens overreached and was destroyed.

We don't need Russian President Vladimir Putin to divide us; we have done it to ourselves, a self-inflicted Pearl Harbor. He has just jumped in at the right time.

There was a time that we were Americans first and partisans second. As my son recently said, "Americans aren't on the same team anymore." How did we come to hate one another? Perhaps we are looking for a leader with all the answers. The brain for eons has feared "the other" instinctively. We say we live in the "land of the free and home of the Brave," but we fear refugees and their children.

We need to let the left brain reason calmly and as for the right, I see a lot about God on license plates but little "Love thy Neighbor."

Dr. Ruszkowski lives in Williamsburg.

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