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The Not-So-Great Generation: War Among Old White People is Killing America

The papers are crammed these last few days with thoughtful essays about the split in the Republican Party. I read them all with a certain shrug. Yeah, fine, but what about the split in my life?

Earlier in the week I ran into a lady I have known for 30 years. We're not close, I guess, but our personal lives have crisscrossed on numerous occasions. She said at one point, "I feel so alone. I can't talk to anybody anymore."

She told me a very sad story about a lifelong friend and colleague she had to just stop talking to recently. I told her the same thing had happened to me. I had to tell a guy I have known and liked for 30 years not to call or write any more.

Look, I know it's only anecdotal, but I hear these stories more and more, as if we were in an America of 150 years ago torn by civil war. And who are we? Old white people. These are just very hard times for social and even familial relationships among old white people.

On the one hand you have the Tea Party types, who are absolutely convinced the country is headed for hell in a hand-basket. On the other side you have people like me who think the Tea Party is the hand-basket.

More and more, it just isn't even possible to talk across that line. Of course I'm tempted to blame it all on the other side and say the Tea Party people refuse to speak rationally and turn every discussion of every single issue into an opening for personal invective and character assassination.

But in the wake of the last week, I have to admit the feelings of people on my side of the line are pretty damned personal. We are beginning to take the Tea Party people seriously as a threat to the stability and well-being of the nation. We see them, I guess, in just the way people on the Union side viewed the rebels. As traitors.

That's personal. But it's also very important. If it's true, if Ted Cruz is the leader of a constituency committed to the destruction of the nation, then Ted Cruz and his followers are traitors.

And, please, let me hasten to say I do understand the other side of it. They think I'm the traitor -- people like me. They think we're the hand-basket.

Is it really mainly about old white people, or am I just viewing it through the prism of my own experience? I think it's about old white people first, and it's a question of which ones got the memo.

We were born into a world at the middle of the last century when white people inherited a huge free pass on life compared with everybody else, almost as if we could show up at the State Fair, and they'd say, "Oh, you're white, you don't have to buy a ticket. G'wan in."

All of that has changed. The world is much more diverse. The playing field is flatter. The gates are open wider. Those of us old white people who lived through the change didn't always handle it with grace and aplomb. But I really don't think many or any of us would go back to the way it was if given the chance. A lot of old white people are a lot cooler than some people might think.

But, wow, some old white people definitely did not get the memo. They walked outside the day Obama got elected and said, "Hey, what are all these colored people doing around here?" I don't know how they missed the memo, but they did. And now their attitude seems to be that they would rather pull the country down than accept the world as it is today.

That's serious. People who want to pull the country down are serious. We can't go on as if this were all a friendly political debate over the backyard fence. And maybe there is no demographic group for whom it is more serious than old white people. Maybe we are the ones who must make the split and identify the enemy so everybody else can.

Yeah, I know, you're not supposed to use that word, enemy. It's all supposed to be about peace and reconciliation. But think about it: We just barely stopped them -- barely and at the last minute -- when they had torches to the house. I'm not sure you can go straight from torches to peace and reconciliation.

It's all very painful at a deeply personal level, friend against friend, family member against family member, just as it must have been in 1863. Maybe that's how it has to be.

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