By Doug Farmer  

My high school biology teacher used to call us to order, “OK class, there is a fungus among us.”

Since that was my only brush with biology, I don’t know if that was an inside biology joke or whether he was speaking literally. It did cause one to look askance at some of our classmates, but more likely he was speaking figuratively. In some fashion I always considered his words good life advice.

In today’s world one could say there are divisions among us, indeed divisions aplenty. As the bitter debate goes forward, one should remember a high schooler’s response to my biology teacher’s admonition and consider whether the divisions are literal or figurative. Are we simply talking past each other?

Most disputes can be reduced to a disagreement between a literal understanding versus a figurative analysis. The two different approaches miss each other entirely.

It is often said that Donald Trump’s critics take him literally; by that measure, he is lewd, rude and crude. Conversely, his supporters take him figuratively; by that measure, the arc of history rests on a sunny plain beyond the horizon.

Contained within the preceding paragraph exists the difficulty of a rational debate. What is called for is not courage, forthrightness, or pride of country. Each side has a self-congratulatory surplus of those qualities.

What is needed is the realization that these divisions are not unique to us. Everybody wants to live in extraordinary times. If we cannot, then we will create them, and we are working hard at it.

This brouhaha is similar to when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” His critics took him literally and insisted he was undermining détente, threatening peaceful coexistence and pushing the world closer to nuclear war—all proof the president was a “cowboy.” His supporters saw it figuratively and were relieved someone was finally calling out the Soviets for who they were. “To name it was to claim it” and diminish the Soviets credibility. I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe we can agree that since there was no nuclear war, the debate had a happy ending. One may argue the “cowboy” was lucky, but as Napoleon said, “Fortune favors the lucky general.” Good card players know when the cards are running with them.

Our times are not the second Civil War, which was also the great funnel of history. Everything before it leads to the Civil War and everything after it flows from the Civil War. By comparison, our times are ordinary.

What we have is a traditional argument in which each side is happy to talk past each other, if not also over each other, and stay stubbornly on their side of the same coin, amplifying the drama of the day. The president’s critics see his daily boorishness as an indication of something larger and perhaps fearful. His supporters await the verdict of history, having seen it prove other brash leaders worth following in the past. These two sides are not in the same decade, let alone the same debate.

Doug Farmer has worked at Park Bank since 1981 and spent 15 years on the State of Wisconsin Banking Review Board. He’s lived in La Crosse since 1971. You can reach him at

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