Andy Rieger

A 2016 Halloween party invitation asked the invited guests to wear costumes or scary masks. My flippant choice still hangs behind some rarely-used tools on my workbench pegboard. It was a few days before the presidential election.

The Donald Trump mask was never worn by me that year or for subsequent Halloween gatherings. Others much wiser than me deemed it politically incorrect and really not that scary.

Besides, they said, he could actually win the presidency. Then you’d be really embarrassed to have worn a mask of someone who would become our nation’s president.

Many are embarrassed and surprised but not shocked by the developments in Washington this week. A few of us are scared, too.

The violent clash at the Capitol left five dead and a divided nation badly wounded at a time when many are already suffering from a pandemic that shows no signs of reprieve. The president didn’t bring the bombs or break the windows, but he sure lit the fuse with his words.

• • •

The calls for unity will be many. They mirror what happened after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the Dec. 14, 2012, Sandy Hook school massacre or the Oklahoma City bombing. Our elected leaders will play nice for a few days and then get back to the business of loudly demonizing each other.

The coarsening of America didn’t begin in 2016 or even 2021. It began with our learned ability to easily communicate without face-to-face interaction.

Civility is often lost behind an anonymous keyboard. People who would never think of voicing an insult to another in person are quick to type such unpleasantries and share with the world.

It’s not just in our nation’s capitol. Protests last year brought dueling sides to a popular Norman intersection.

While waiting for a traffic light, we witnessed a young man step out of his vehicle in front of one protest group and raised the middle fingers on both hands toward them.

Such a salute didn’t even shock my fellow drivers at 24th and Main. A few did what many of the Capitol protesters were doing this week: Take the picture and share it on social media.

The same happened a few years back when a fight broke out at a local high school. Instead of jumping in to stop the melee, students pulled out their phones and begin filming.

Footage landed on social media for all to watch and was quickly shared with the newspaper. At recent city council meetings, the vitriol espoused by many in the “virtual” audience is shocking and unlike anything that would be allowed in the council’s public dialogue session.

• • •

Membership in civic groups and churches continues to decline. Fewer people are “joiners.” Sociologist Howard Putnam calls it the “bowling alone” syndrome. In the last few years, Norman has lost civic clubs, garden clubs and two dance clubs.

We live in silos, choose apathy and seek out opinions on which we already agree. Our choices of media are tribal, too. We consume news and entertainment from outlets that fit our politics.

Technology and a move away from civic engagement has hastened our coarse slide.

The pandemic has only exacerbated it.

Civic groups, churches and friends struggle with Zoom meetings. We all long for the days of guiltless hugs and handshakes without worrying if we brought enough sanitizer for all.

Sure, high tech works. But high touch is what is badly needed.

• • •

Here’s hoping what President-elect Joe Biden said about the mob at the Capitol this week not being reflective of America bears some truth. There’s a place and time for protests, but there is no place for violence and looting.

The world takes cues from our democracy. The republic will survive because we are a nation of institutions and not just the people who head them.

A co-worker upset with something I had done as his much-younger supervisor once told me as he was leaving my office, “a fish rots from the head.”

Only now do I truly understand what he meant.

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