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What Does One Say?
Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other. The fighting in Ukraine continues. The Islamic State bombs a Shiite Mosque in Afghanistan killing worshipers. Republicans in Congress, divided on who they are and what they want, bring down their own leader and can’t decide who should be next.
The routine of daily life at the end of a gravel road in Western Wisconsin doesn’t change.
And yet. There is the sense that things are unraveling. Divisions are hardening. The desire to impose one’s will on others grows. The building blocks of community, inclusion and tolerance, dissolve.
A high school girl seen in a video dancing at an after-homecoming party is removed by the principal from being president of the student body for not living up to “God’s ideals”. A Black student is sent to disciplinary school for his hair being too long. Drag shows are outlawed. A college concert is cancelled over a gay singer. The Southern Baptists expel one of their largest congregations for having a female pastor. Books are banned.
A university professor has a job offer rescinded because of a blog post several years ago opposing the use of “diversity statements”. People are fired for their statements about the Israel-Hamas war.
A Fox news host says on air, “Elections don’t work. We know that. We know they don’t work
… What does that leave you with? It leaves you with, you need to make war …You have to force them to surrender.”
The words of the Pledge of Allegiance ring hollow, “… one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We are not one. We are divided. Too many don’t experience the liberty and justice promised to all.
What contributes to where we find ourselves today?
Perhaps foremost, an increase in the attitude that the end justifies the means. A conviction that what I believe is so true, so important, so good for society that “whatever is necessary” must be done to achieve it. It is not just that I believe it. It is The Truth, rooted in ideology or religion, Truth that sets forth what should be done and how all should live and act.
Today, the words seem rather tame but at the time were controversial. In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for President in 1964, Barry Goldwater asserted, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
There are no brakes in that formulation. It has been downhill since, as liberty and justice are redefined and appropriated by select groups only for themselves.
Stirring up fear and hate against those who are not among the favored, is a conscious strategy.
From the beginning, Donald Trump vilified opponents and ratcheted up prejudice and fear. Yet, with some wonderment it seems, he told Tucker Carlson, “There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen. There’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen and that’s probably a bad combination.” What did he expect?
Ron DeSantis’ declaration, “We are going to start slitting throats on Day 1,” is the logical extension of, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” That sentiment is not Republican, not conservative, not populist, but totalitarian. Our enemies will be eliminated. The absence of pushback is a measure of where we are today.
Community, perhaps the most important purpose of democratic politics and government, is fading. Community was the vision in 1776 when our founders included “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) in the Great Seal of the United States.
We cannot achieve the One without first recognizing we are many. Community, not conformity, is the goal. Community that accommodates all of our various diversities. Not an easy task, as we have seen. Politics, at its best, is how we get there.
In his insightful book In Defense of Politics, Bernard Crick argues persuasively that politics is the activity of recognizing and reconciling the diverse interests and traditions of different groups, “an attempt to strike a particular harmony.”
“Politics allows various types of power within a community to find some reasonable level of mutual tolerance and support …enables us to enjoy variety without suffering either anarchy or the tyranny of single truths.”
Those who would divide us, in pursuing their goals by whatever means, destroy community and democracy. Our natural diversity, the differences that come with being human, gives way to an enforced conformity that makes community impossible.
For democracy to thrive, our would-be leaders must act in ways that maintain community, that avoid the stirring of fear and hate.
Too many have not done that. They have seen that controversy sells. That controversy gets clicks, coverage, notoriety and contributions. “I was outrageous as much as I could possibly be to get people’s attention.”
The tendency is to reply in kind. “You can’t take a knife to a gun fight.” We get into an arms race of mutual demonization. The thought of the other side winning terrifies both sides.
Is there an escape from the downward spiral? Is there a possibility of self-restraint, a possibility of refusing to engage in the politics of fear, hate and division? A possibility of appealing to the “better angels of our nature”, a possibility Lincoln suggested even in the bitter aftermath of the Civil War.
If there is an escape, it lies in recognizing the goal is not to wrestle with the opposing leaders, but to influence the thinking of their followers. Not by attacking their leaders, which they take is an attack on themselves, but by offering them something better. By meeting them where they are, understanding their fears, and showing a better way forward. By “calling them in, not calling them out”.
Self-restraint is not behavior we can order. It is behavior we can model, a road we can start to walk.
Politics will always be fought hard, and fought to win. Self-restraint would not require us to overlook our differences or fight less vigorously. It would require, however, a reduction in the harshness of our rhetoric, a respect for differences in perspective, a sense of self-doubt, a sense that the world is not black and white, an understanding that no answer is perfect, and a belief that we are all in this together. That community matters.
The inevitable question comes. Is that any way to fight the devil?
Perhaps it is. Perhaps there is an opportunity waiting to be seized. What we are doing now is not held in high regard. People want something different. Half the voters identify with neither political party. Some 70 percent want politicians to work together to solve problems. Almost 85 percent think they are bad at doing that.
Nobody has ever told me they want more conflict, more division. Self-restraint could be a winning strategy.