I cannot recall a time in my 58 years when American society was so polarized and driven by fear and negativity. It's not just the Hannitys and O'Reillys of Fox News, but their liberal counter- parts on MSNBC.
Americans have always enjoyed spicy and controversial entertainment. Before talk radio, cable news and reality TV, it was daily soap operas, local gossip sessions and a few extreme religious groups. But the media has taken it to new heights over the past two decades.
There is a glimmer of hope that this era of hate-based talk shows may be running out of steam as evidenced by the flood of advertisers leaving Rush Limbaugh's top-rated radio show. Rush may have finally discovered the limits of what the average American will believe. Or better yet, maybe Americans are just getting smarter. Five minutes of negative thought is unhealthy. One can only imagine what several hours per day will do.
But not only does it threaten our mental and physical health, it also weakens us as a nation. While the typical talk show topics may be of some relevance to some people, there are far more crucial problems facing our nation that get ignored. And even when we try to tackle these more significant issues, the less important ones have so divided and depleted us, were not up to the task.
Plus the talkmeisters can't help but oversimplify the issues. Most issues are complicated and evolving, but that doesn't make for good listening. So they have to be simplified and dramatized. And they usually need a villain. This approach will never solve problems, but it keeps your attention.
Obviously, negative and polarizing talk radio and cable news shows are making a few people very rich. But at what cost to the rest of us? It's also dominating our politics and becoming a winning campaign strategy for politicians who are good at it or wealthy enough to hire those who are.
Of course, now that we've perfected the science of mass marketing, polling and election forecasting, it's almost impossible not to be exploited by companies and groups with billions of dollars and terabytes of data. In the 21st century, we're all very predictable and enticingly vulnerable to media manipulation.
But I, for one, have decided to resist as much as possible. When the talk turns to hate and divisiveness, I'm joining millions of others in changing the channel or changing my vote. Obama (or Newt or Mitt or Rick) is not evil, and they all want what's best for America. The problem is no one knows for sure what is best. That's why we must demand deep, honest and reasonable conversation that listens and learns from all sides.