Divided we stand

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

From the discussions surrounding the Spirit of America effort, I sense that much of the enthusiasm for this group is coming from people interested in healing the growing rifts between people here in the US, and elsewhere. Most of us have commented about the increasing polarization between people of differing views; and too many of us have felt the deep and exhausting anger that seems to accompany these divides.

Some of the blame for the polarization has been placed on terrorism and the war in Iraq, some on the economy, but many blame George Bush. I’ve read more than one person refer to George W. Bush as the most divisive president of all. A friend used that term today and I responded back immediately that, no, George Bush was not our most divisive president–that honor goes to Abraham Lincoln.

Just before Lincoln’s election, the US had established an uneasy truce between abolitionists and slave owners by maintaining a careful balance of free versus slave states. Though Lincoln was against slavery, he wasn’t a strict abolitionist and was ambivalent about freeing all slaves; but the mood of the country was such, that when Lincoln was elected, several Southern states immediately seceded from the Union.

The states believed they had this right to break away from the Union. Lincoln, though, believed that the Union was morally right and just, and refused to allow the country to break apart based on the issue of slavery. He ordered the militia to intervene, and thus began one of the most violent and bloody events of our history – the Civil War. For his role in this effort, Lincoln has the dubious distinction of being the ‘most devisive president of our history’.

However, even if Lincoln had not won the election the Civil War would not have been prevented. The issue of slavery, compounded by the growing confusion over the extent of state’s rights, polarized this country, and there was no moderate ground on which the two sides could meet. All Lincoln needed to do was be elected for the split to widen until it almost broke the nation in two.

Bloody years later, the South was defeated and the slow task of healing began, except now, there were no slave states and free states, and all people were free – though it would take about a hundred years to really begin the true fight for freedom, and its a fight that never completely ends.

If Lincoln could be seen as divisive, we could say that this divisiveness was necessary for the time. Though we paid a heavy price during the Civil War, the nation emerged stronger than before – with a surer sense of its own identity. The issue of which state would be slave versus which state free was finally resolved, once and for all. We could pick up the pieces and move on, and move on we did, right into the industrial era and into a time of increased prosperity and expansion.

Fast forward to today and though the issues may differ, we are again faced with a strongly polarized nation. However, this time the issues aren’t as clear cut and the lines of division not so neatly laid out geographically.

Some would say that is this country is polarized around the issue of Iraq; however, if you look back, before Iraq, before the Twin Towers, even before the election of GW Bush, you’ll see that our country had been deeply divided for some time and the only thing holding us together was the prosperity we enjoyed in the 1990’s.

Though Bush did not win the popular vote in 2000, he did win almost 50% of the vote and it was the closeness of this election that reflected the growing divide in the US. On the one hand was Gore–liberal, relatively socialistic in regards to economic programs, and a strong advocate of separation of church and state. On the other side is Bush–conservative, almost libertarian in his economic viewpoint, and I don’t think there’s any doubt about the nature of his religious beliefs and the government.

When Bush won, what should have happened is that equilibrium between the sides would have been upset by his actions. Once upset, forces from both sides of the issues would have become galvanized, and we would then be spending the next four years working these issues.

Is there true separation of church and state, or is God to become a prominent fixture of our government? How far can the states go in declaring their rights – to the point of discrimination against gays, or abolishment of abortion?

Does society have a responsibility to its citizens – to see that they have food, and adequate health care and good education? Or is a better to decrease the amount each citizen is taxed and allow local government and charity to fill in whatever gaps open when the federal government is reduced. In addition, how far does the government go to ensure its citizens have jobs and that trade with other countries is balanced? Again, is it healthier to keep our borders closed, or our companies competitive?

These are issue we’ve been pushing back and forth for decades without resolution until the election of 2000. This election was a reflection of the time as much as a call to action, and though the resulting wars would be fought with ink and paper instead of musket and cannon, they would be as fierce. However, when the dust finally clears, though the battles be painful, hopefully the country would emerge stronger, and with a clearer understanding of its direction.

This was the path our country was destined to take…until fate stepped in and we all watched as two planes flew into two towers and all hell broke loose in our lives. Somebody had come in and knocked both sides down, and when we got up again, we forgot where we were standing. Beyond the shared pain at the suffering of those killed and those left behind, this event shattered lines of membership, but did not do so cleanly.

Using the Civil War era as analogy, the Twin Tower bombings would be equivalent to a large, organized and armed group in Canada deciding to invade the US because of old angers on behalf of Britain, and choosing to do so by burning down Washington DC–just as Lincoln was elected and the South was ready to secede.

This event would have united our country to defeat a new common foe, while still leaving the old equilibrium issues to be fought at a later time; this is a state that is, at best, neutral; at worst, highly uncomfortable and strained–adding to the pressure of the unresolved issues would then be the additional conflict introduced when one is forced to take sides with another who was, just the day before, the enemy.

Bush’s election upset the equilibrium held together by spit and coin in the decades past; but when we could have used these last four years to fully face and even resolve the issues of Church and State, a society’s economic responsibility to its citizens, and the citizen’s rights to live life without interference, we have instead been given a new and unexpected challenge; a challenge that has forced apart groups once solidly united, and made partners out of those who can barely tolerate each other.

You might think that this could be a good thing: after all, if Canada had invaded the US and caused the South and North to join together to keep those crazy Canucks from stomping all over our fair land with their furry shoes and strange spellings, we wouldn’t have had a Civil War.

Okay, so the analogy is weak, and the best I can come up with during the too early hours on too little sleep. But I stand behind the premise: the issue of slavery versus free, and state’s rights would not have gone away just because we were united against a common foe; instead, the war would only be postponed, as the populace grows ever angrier because of the confusion of conflicting memberships.

Such is what we have today.

Four years ago we had those who supported separation of church and state and those who believed in bringing Christianity into the government, and the lines were distinct and each side knew the other. Now both sides may or may not share the same table at dinner because one member or the other has been forced to change sides because of their stand on Iraq or on the Patriot Act or the war on terror. How many liberals do we know that now talk of voting for Bush because of his fight against terrorism? How many Republicans shake their head when they hear Bush’s vehement stance against gay marriage? But not all is love among new compatriots – those unresolved issues still haunt us in addition to these new fears. If each side didn’t have those pushing from the outside, they would soon fall to fighting among themselves.

I don’t think true polarization could cause the anger we all seem to be experiencing now. If we were truly polarized, I think we would feel a sense of peace in knowing that our beliefs are shared by those standing side by side with us. Now, it’s all messed up. Is the anger caused by the polarization? Or by having to jump into bed with despised bedfellows?

Unfortunately, to make matters worse, our anger has grown beyond our border. If it had been contained within the US, other nations might look on in interest, but not feel engaged. But we moved the fight outside of our lands and we took it to the Middle East, and in doing so, we pulled in those from all corners of the world, and we’ve now, innocently or not, become the beast that’s upset the apple cart. Our war on terror became everyone’s war on terror; people are pulled in, but not cleanly and with this war comes the same sense of conflict, that galvanization across issues until, frankly, we’re all fucked up. And tired.

Tired of being angry and angry at being tired.

When something like the Spirit of America comes along, it’s with a shout of relief that ‘both sides’ declare truce in order to do a good thing. But the relief is short lived, because when some of us would question the premise behind this organization, we’re met with almost overwhelming anger; usually by the same people who four years ago, we would have stood shoulder to shoulder with.

The old saying in our country goes, “united we stand, divided we fall”. But sometimes there’s more peace in being cleanly divided.

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