By Martha Quillen
Years ago, Art Linkletter, an old variety show host, asked young school children to recite the first line of the Pledge of Allegiance and explain what it meant, and several of the kids called it “one country invisible,” and one thought he was pledging “a legion” of soldiers to protect the flag.
That program made me think about the stupid things I’d gotten wrong. For instance, for a long time I wondered why everybody talked about knocking on Evan’s door. “Who was Evan?” I’d ask, and they’d laugh. But no one ever took me seriously enough to tell me it was Heaven’s door. Today, I still think a lot about what I’m getting wrong without knowing it. And occasionally I wonder why people would want to knock on Heaven’s door.
But this matter of one country indivisible? For me, that’s truly inspirational. In 2016, we seem to be one country completely divided, with accusations and anger for all, be it on the national campaign trail or here in Salida. Why is this?
In the July/August Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch frets about the people’s “reflexive unreasoning hostility toward politicians and the process of politics.” He criticizes establishment politics for trending toward extremism and failing to provide effective governance; he likewise blames reformers for accomplishing too much and thereby eliminating political ploys such as back-room deals and pork barrel pay-offs that actually worked; and he also complains about Sanders, Trump and various other candidates.
Rauch concludes that even though political parties and professionals have plenty to answer for, he regards the public’s abandonment of politics as “our most pressing problem today.”
I worry about the consequences of people’s disillusionment with politics, too, but I view the people’s hostility toward one another as considerably more disturbing than their disputes over public policies. I’ve worked as a public servant and a journalist (an equally public and unpopular vocation). And as I see it, most angry complainants are merely upset about what went wrong for them, and they usually calm down pretty quickly if they think you’re giving their problem due consideration.
No matter what your job is, when you act as if you don’t have time to listen to customers, and don’t care about their concerns, they are going to protest. And protesting what you think is wrong is a good thing, except…
I don’t think our biggest problem is the people’s hostility toward government; I think it’s the people’s growing hostility to everyone and everything, and it’s no great mystery where that’s coming from. News shows, political parties, social media, citizens, and candidates are all constantly manufacturing and spreading resentment.
Half of modern politicking is about putting the other side down, calling them names, and maligning their character. The Donald, for instance, offends American Muslims, immigrants, and Mexicans, threatens foreigners, insults his critics and makes fun of his political opponents, and his followers contend he tells it like it is.
And they’re right; Hillary is far more subtle. She generally sticks with the liberal catechism, which merely implies that people are too stupid to understand economics, believe in global warming, or know what’s good for them, so they clearly need a village and a bevy of experts to make their decisions for them. She probably won’t have the budget to provide that, so too bad. You lost your job, your home, your hope, and sense of purpose. But, hey, the economy keeps climbing right back up no matter whom you vote for or how badly they manage finances.
Whether we want to admit it or not, both sides can be maddening, unreasonable and insulting. And both sides tend to neglect citizens who aren’t likely to vote for them. So it’s clear why people are hostile. How can you stay calm when Congress is messing with your paycheck, Social Security and future?
And now our newfound excellence at charging our fellow Americans with lying and idiocy has led to our most disturbing problem: the citizens’ growing resentment toward people outside of their own group or social order – be they immigrants, Muslims, blacks, homosexuals, poor, or just odd.
Add to that the incredible hostility that has developed between Washington insiders and rural outsiders; progressives and conservatives; the police and their communities; fundamentalists and secularists, MSNBC and FOX; Salida old-timers and newcomers, and our situation looks bleak. But is it? Really?
That depends. Citizens are currently clamoring for the government to respond more decisively against Americans they distrust, and that’s not just Donald Trump’s followers. All of us tend to expect government to decide whether people should be allowed to display confederate flags, smoke or get abortions.
But our founders didn’t institute a government that let Congressmen or voters impose their own religious and personal standards on their fellow citizens. To do that would have merely replaced the autocratic nature of monarchy with the rule of the mob – and they had just fought a revolution to be free.
So today Americans are free to make offensive comments. But that doesn’t give them the right to make other people pray in school or pledge allegiance to a flag. And it sure doesn’t justify taking action against individuals for what “people who are like them” are doing. Nor does it justify trying to silence citizens or keep them from the polls. That’s just plain unfair, and we all know it. It’s bigotry, it’s dangerous, and it’s escalating.
So why do we keep attacking one another? Whatever happened to the us in the U.S.?
Well, nothing. Americans didn’t start out as one people. In the beginning our founders instituted a democracy that only let white males vote. It was another ninety years before both black and white males could vote, and before long, black men in the Old South quit voting – due to poll taxes, literacy tests, and other “disincentives” such as lynching.
Women’s suffrage wasn’t established until the twentieth century, and at that point, neither women nor blacks enjoyed full citizenship – and being homosexual was downright illegal. During the first part of the twentieth century, citizens marched for better pay, working conditions and public facilities. But in the latter half, they wanted inclusion. Blacks wanted to sit at the same lunch counters as whites. Women wanted to get into ivy league universities. Jews wanted to attend the same colleges and play at the same golf courses. Asians and other immigrants wanted to live in mainstream communities, and minorities of every persuasion wanted to have more say in their own governance.
And that, I think, is what America should be about, one country indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. That also strikes me as where we are headed, in our slow, meandering, back and forth fashion.
So here’s to the day when we finally get there. And for those who think our old American Dreams are naïve, and that what we really need to do is stamp out archaic superstitions and religions? Or socialist and Marxist philosophies? Or ethnic identities and prejudices?
History has offered one lesson repeatedly: Whether your method is crucifixion, inquisition, torture, crusades, or war, you can’t eliminate ideas. Ideas survive dark ages, dank dungeons and prison cells, and flourish with the dawn. The only thing you can do is challenge them with better ideas.
Martha Quillen seeks new ideas and perspectives in books and online, and the most curious thing she encountered this month was the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, whose stated mission is “Using Objects of Intolerance to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice.”