©2004 Hannibal B. Johnson

At our own peril, we as Americans place entirely too much reliance on poles…and on polls…and on pols. We frequently seek that which affirms our beliefs and opinions, while simultaneously rejecting that which challenges them. We readily cede our common ground—fertile field for collaboration and compromise—in the interest of partisan turf. The resultant isolation and insularity breed division and disrespect.

By “poles,” I mean polar political opposites, or, more accurately, the manufactured perception that such polar opposites indeed exist: Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, religious or irreligious, good or evil, and such. That little “or,” the disjunctive, divides imprecisely down the middle, coaxing both “us” and “them” into an oppositional posture. The vast gray expanse—the mighty middle—shrivels and cowers in silence, seduced by the sound and fury of false choices.

By “polls,” I mean political polls that tell us from which direction and at what speed the wind blows—at least today. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind; the answer is blowing in the wind. These popular political polls turn, at least in substantial part, on “spin,” the impassioned perception created about this or that, often in spite of dispassionate analysis. We, and particularly our political leaders, too often sway with the polls, loosed from our moral and ethical moorings. (Quite properly, much has been said and written about those other “polls”—the ones with the voting booths into which many Americans never step. That, however, is another story for another day.)

By pols, I mean politicos and pundits—those who proffer opinions, both considered and otherwise. Why think for yourself when you can tune in to a disc jockey or talking head—an opinion shaper—to discern what your opinion ought to be? Why dine in when you can simply take out?

The fast food approach encouraged by poles, polls, and pols chokes off free thought—the hallmark of a great democracy like America. We need not abandon them entirely. We merely need to see poles, polls, and pols for what they are: artificial constraints that, left unchecked, stifle collaboration, creativity, and capacity.

Forming an opinion, like creating a worthy recipe, requires the proper mix of the right ingredients: looking at the facts, weighing the evidence, considering alternative perspectives, and evaluating the consequences of one’s opinion were it to carry the day. By contrast, take-out opinions come prepackaged. They require no discernment, no deliberation, and no devotion to principle.

I still prefer the old fashioned home cooking: marinating over the important challenges our society faces; percolating provocative issues and ideas; and stirring up the past—history—for insight and perspective. Enhanced fulfillment and long-term savings more than make up for the slight inconvenience. I will continue to dine in, thank you, and create my opinions from scratch.

Become fully engaged in your community. Figure out firsthand where to find both the shining examples and the sorry excuses. Collaborate with others on ways to enhance your community’s assets and shore up its deficits.

Above all, think freely. Refuse to be shackled by parochial interests, however “special” they may be. Life is far too complex to be reduced to a series of disjunctives.