Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Our Divided Nation - Part 1

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”   Abraham Lincoln

It is no secret that our nation is a highly divided one. At times, it is quite bitterly and antagonistically so. People seemingly cannot find agreement in much of anything. Except for calls for stricter background checks on gun purchases, an end to Donald Trump tweets, and the low esteem held towards Congress, almost everything else is within no more than a sliver of percentage points for/against.

Unfortunately, little is being done to end this divide – or at least lessen the degrees of division. Few are willing to budge from their positions; compromise is a deadly sin; right and wrong are absolute, with no gray shadings. I win; you lose. I could care less about your needs and concerns as long as I get what I want. My life and success is defined by obtaining wealth. Selfishness is supreme. This is what it often feels like in American conversations today.

The situation can feel quite hopeless, that this is the worst America has been, and there is no way out. But in fact, the way out of this negative environment starts with recognizing that we have been here before, sometimes in even worse circumstances and fractured divisiveness. Nevertheless, we are still around, alive and kicking, still trying to figure out how to make this “representative democracy” thing we call America work.

America has always been divided. Whereas most other countries have a relative homogeneous culture, America was populated from the outset as a common home for uncommon peoples. It provided a place for immigrants from diverse histories, cultures, ethnicities and ambitions. From that combustible mix, differences are part of our national legacies. Whether we, or any nation, can synthesize such a combustive mixture into a shared cooperative whole – “united we stand” / “e pluribus unum” (out of one, many) – has always been our national challenge.

The “United” States of America is some part actuality and some part myth. Our first two English-based colonies were driven by completely different goals: Jamestown, a pursuit of wealth; Plymouth, a pursuit of religious practice. (Reciprocal religious tolerance was not a high priority; at various times, religious discrimination by parts of Protestant America has been directed against virtually all other religions and varying religious thought.) Those two ideas – the secular and the religious – have been fighting with each other (and within themselves) since our beginning. During our Revolution against England, around half of the country were Tories favoring staying with the King. Our admired and unique Constitution barely passed the votes of all thirteen colonies. The slavery issue, the continual fights over balancing small state/big state representation, and the degree of power to be given to the new central government, almost broke the back of Constitutional unity. But we found the necessary compromises, and our Constitutional Nation was able to begin.

Political parties – never envisioned by the Founders – showed up just a couple of years into Washington’s first term (to his continual frustration), thereby formalizing and institutionalizing our divisions. The remaining old guard Founders were aghast when the government was turned over to the “common man” in 1828, a political revolution led by Andrew Jackson. After years of trying to compromise on slavery and states’ rights, we had our most divisive time in our history – the American Civil War. It was a “hot” war, not a political debate, pitting families against families, neighbors against neighbors. 11 of 34 states pulled out of our Union; 600,000+ died (our most costly war); the southern economy and its political and social systems were wrecked; we had our first presidential assassination. Separation and mistrust were embedded into the Southern cultural DNA. 150 years later, the after-affects are still influencing and distorting today’s conversations. But we did reunite; our union was preserved; together we limped forward.

Division continued. The mega-wealthy “robber barons” of the late 1800s gave rise to the Labor movement of the working people trying to rebalance economic power. There was racial and immigration ugliness throughout the next century. Then came the Great Depression, an unequaled economic devastation of this country, fueled by the unbridled and unregulated pursuit of wealth gone awry. We were deeply divided over how to end that Depression, with competing economic theories that are still debated today. It was an event that defined that generation’s thinking, and redefined the formal structures and expectations of government forever after.  The Depression ended; racial and ethnic intolerance did not.

We were divided as World War II spread over the globe. Do we get in, or do we stay out as the “America First” peace and isolation movement demanded? Pearl Harbor answered that question and reunited the country’s divides. Our swagger and self-confidence from our victory in that War gave way to a Cold War and Iron Curtain, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fear of Communism. “Reds” were everywhere as citizens turned against fellow citizens out of fear stoked by self-serving demagogic politicians. It was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joe McCarthy’s “big lies,” “red baiting,” blacklists / unproven accusations / reputations and careers destroyed by innuendo. In spite of the dark times at home, America led the free world, though often using highly questionable methods.

Our modern civil rights movement began with President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate the military in 1948, followed by the Supreme Court’s outlawing of school desegregation in 1954 (“Brown vs. Board of Education”). The promise of equality encountered the demand to actualize that equality. It was yet another re-scrambling of the social order and our sense of social right and wrong. Racial division and the drive towards integration were bitterly fought among the general populace and established order. For the first time in our history, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy used federal troops to protect protestors instead of the usual power structures in place. At times it was a violent fight: crowd beatings, murders, bombings, burned out Freedom Buses, political assassinations. The movement gave a venting to 300 years of African-American inequality, and opened new movements of their own: gay rights; women’s equality; Native-American rights. America was split apart on numerous fronts, the way forward elusive if not hidden.

Our civil rights fights segued into an anti-war movement that became its own war in the name of peace. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” became the defining oxymoron of the times, and America often felt like “the village” being destroyed. There was generational division between young and old, between older vets and young draftees, between government and citizens as more and more war lies were revealed. The meaning of patriotism itself was intensely debated. The hostile times led to a Constitutional Crisis; President Richard Nixon and his first Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned over their separate criminal actions, and a number of inner circle players went to prison. The public has never since trusted its government – or each other –in the traditional way. Division, and a loss of faith in our trusted institutions, became entrenched. Yet the country and its institutions held, thanks in no small part to the reconciliation efforts of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

So why this trip down the darker alleyways of America’s Memory Lane? Certainly not to denigrate the American Stories of inspiring accomplishments and the expressions of our greater humanity. These improbable stories are even more extraordinary when viewed against the hurdles and resistance they often had to overcome. The meaning of Roy Moore’s recent defeat for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat is even more significant in the context of former-governor George Corley Wallace – the poster boy for segregation during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Our past is the fuel that drives us to our future. Left unchecked, the past is our future. If we remind ourselves of our history, and ground our decisions within that context, then how do we assess where we are now? Where do we go from here? That will be the discussion in the forthcoming Part 2 of this blog posting.

©   2018   Randy Bell     


Jane Kniffin said...

Thanks for encapsulating history in this clear way. Very helpful for me.

Anonymous said...

One of the major Supreme Court decisions, Plessy vs Ferguson, 1896, was a water shed moment, setting "separate but equal as the law". From that time, thru the 20s, 30s, 40s, the NAACP was fighting this thru the courts. It was finally overturned in 1954, with another Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs Board of Education. Surely both court decisions are part of the "modern" civil rights fight, since one overturned the other. yes?