White Nationalism, Nazism, White Supremacists, alt-right, alt-left. Words that have lit up social media and our everyday conversations and preoccupations. What the hell happened to America? It seems that overnight we’re fighting each other at every turn. Anger and resentment, entitlement and disillusionment, and most palpably fear have gripped the country. People are asking, what happened? Many are saying we’ve never seen anything like this before. For millennials, indeed they’ve never experienced such chaos and unrest. For the rest of us, we can only make such a statement if our memories are short or we don’t know much history, either this nation’s history or world history.
The hatred and violence witnessed at Charlottesville is nothing new in this country or in the world for that matter. There has always been strife and discord. Maybe it hasn’t always bubbled over to the extent it did in Charlottesville, but it’s never been far from the surface. If you don’t believe me, just take a quick look at our history. As we ushered in the second millenium, this country experienced one of the worst days of its history-9/11. In the 1990’s the LA race riots destroyed large swaths of Los Angeles and threatened to spill over into other cities. In the 1980’s, we experienced economic chaos and the Iran-Contra debacle that threatened the presidency. The 60’s and 70’s were filled with social unrest,the Cold War and the terrifying arms race, the Vietnam War, hippies, yippies, and of course, Watergate. The 1950’s didn’t escape turmoil either. For the first time in our history, we didn’t win a war (Korea) and Senator Joseph McCarthy had his own dog whistle, clamoring for the rooting out of suspected Communists. A decade earlier, we fought a World War which was not a sure victory until the very end. In fact, if Hitler had not decided to open a second front and fight the Russians, we may be speaking German and living under the Thousand Year Reich of Nazi Germany. Yes, we do have to thank to Russians. If they hadn’t stopped the Nazis in Stalingrad, we may not have won the war! Finally, prior to World War II, there was the Great Depression which left permanent scars on the country and changed the way we do business (the FDIC, to name one governmental entity) and the First World War.
All of this is to say that our country has faced this before. Events in Charlottesville should neither surprise or alarm. In a democratic republic, we enjoy the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, to name just two. From time to time, this will lead to protests, disagreements, and sometimes change. The framers of the Constitution understood this and sought to include in our founding documents provisions which would ensure freedom and guard against any one person or one ideology rule. It’s why we have separation of church and state and separation of powers. Representative democracy or republican (referring to the type of government not the political party) forms of government aren’t easy but they aren’t supposed to be. And that’s the rub.
When Madison, Jefferson, and the founding fathers wrote these documents they made one important assumption. They assumed that public discourse of any kind, including the one surrounding the events in Charlottesville, would be conducted in the best interests of the country. Debate and argument were supposed to take the place of knives and guns. They believed the rule of law would ensure this.
So, what happened at Charlottesville? Rather than dialogue, violence took over. Perhaps that was the intended goal. If so, that is definitely not part of who we are as a nation. It’s not what the Founders intended.
In closing, I will leave you with the words of an Inaugural Address of a President who found himself surrounded by a worse situation than we found in Charlottesville:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The words are from Abraham Lincoln in 1861. If we want to avoid the bloodshed and hatred of recent days, we have to take his words to heart each day by treating each person whom we encounter with love and respect, regardless of race, religion, color, gender, gender identity, or ideology. That’s the only way this changes.
To answer Rodney King’s famous question, “Can we all get along?” Yes, we can but we have to want to do it. Along with rights we have responsibilities. We have to let go of the “eye for an eye” mentality and see others as our brothers and sisters.