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A question of character

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Kathleen Parker
December 6, 2009
— Americans are more divided than ever, and both Democrats and Republicans are to blame.

So say a majority of citizens polled as part of USA Network’s “Characters Unite” campaign, a community affairs program launched in January aimed at addressing social injustice and cultural differences within our borders.


You may have seen one of the network’s ads, featuring a rainbow of Americans making a pledge for unity and speaking out against stereotypes. An Asian man says he doesn’t own a laundromat; a Hispanic man says he’s not a gardener; another man with a thick accent says he’s never been a cabdriver.


One can imagine the dozen or so other categories. I’d like to add that I’ve never been a soccer mom.


My usual cynicism toward rubber-bracelet virtue—or in this case, pledges to be a better person—is somewhat muted by my having recently participated in a “Characters Unite” panel led by Tom Brokaw at the Newseum. It isn’t so easy to be a critic when you’re in the arena.


The other 11 panelists covered the landscape: black, white, Asian, Hispanic, straight and gay leaders representing education, finance, entertainment (Jon Bon Jovi), Congress, media, the military and academia. Missing was anyone representing the faith community, but that probably would have necessitated another dozen panelists, lest someone’s deity be offended.


Topics spanned the usual—health care, immigration, education, the economy—but the focus was on the “unum” that follows “e pluribus.” How do we become one out of many, as America’s Great Seal promises?


According to the USA Network poll, more than seven in 10 Americans think that we are too divided along political lines (75 percent) or economic lines (73 percent). Smaller majorities say we’re too divided along racial and ethnic lines (53 percent) or religious lines (52 percent).


In other findings, 51 percent believe that prejudice, discrimination and intolerance are a very or somewhat serious problem. A majority (55 percent) say that lack of unity among Americans has gotten worse in the past decade. And 65 percent believe that recent angry displays at town hall meetings—as well as Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” and Rep. Alan Grayson’s claim that Republicans’ health care plan is for seniors “to die quickly”—are part of a larger problem rather than isolated examples blown out of proportion by the media (35 percent).


The operating premise of the USA Network campaign—and of our immigrant nation, for that matter—is that diversity is good and ought to bind rather than separate us. It’s a nice thought, but not so easily realized.


Amid two wars, a recession, high unemployment, immigration issues and the ever-present threat of terrorist attack, it is easy to hunker down into one’s own bunker, among one’s own kind. It’s easy to place blame elsewhere. “Those guys” are the problem comes especially easily to the lips of those who feel their country becoming less recognizable as demographics shift.


And, obviously, there are broad philosophical differences about how to solve our problems and what role government should play. Finding the twain is proving tricky.


Perhaps the answer is in what the USA Network team calls the “American character”—the principles that bind us rather than the issues that separate us. Is there still such a thing, or have we all become leading divas in our own passion plays? Has identity politics overtaken the shared values we used to tote in our mental backpacks? Among the sample questions distributed to panelists in advance of Wednesday’s event were: Who outside of politics today best represents the American character? Who is today’s Joe DiMaggio?


Names mentioned in my own informal survey included Oprah, Brokaw, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. What they have in common are characteristics we value as “American” traits: self-made, personally responsible, entrepreneurial, honest, hardworking and generous. Throw in fair-minded, God-fearing (read: humble) and devoted to family, and you’ve got a pretty complete definition of the traditional American character.


I’m not sure pledging to greater unity will eradicate bigotry or partisanship any more than pledging allegiance to the flag improves national security. But a call to eliminate stereotypes is necessarily a call to bury identity politics.


That alone would be a giant step forward from pluribus to unum.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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