In 2010, President Barack Obama spoke at the University of Michigan and said,
“We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it…It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning –- since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”? It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out…. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.”
Yet for much of 2016, leading up to this past November’s presidential election, and subsequent to it, America has been embroiled in a deeply destructive time precisely of tearing each other down, demonizing people, and coarsening our culture. No side was without blame. No side came out unscathed.
We waded through a mucky and noxious campaign season drenched in media bias, misinformation, unsubstantiated dossiers, brutal ad campaigns, a contentious and tainted Democratic primary, divisive fear mongering, calls of Russian interference and hacking, battering debates, and constant name-calling between candidates and between citizens on opposing sides.
We endlessly talked AT each other and PAST each other and never truly WITH each other.
And now, just a day away from the inauguration, these attacks continue unabated directed towards the U.S. president-elect as well as party against party and citizen against citizen. Many dozens of congressmen and congresswomen vow to boycott the inauguration. Some entertainers have bowed out as a result of significant personal threats. Protests are scheduled. All this, during what is traditionally the unique moment when our democracy undergoes a peaceful transition of power.
Even as a life-long liberal and Democrat, I cannot in any way condone the current state of events. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. Most significantly, I’m fearful for our democracy.
What is our collective responsibility to the growing divisiveness in our country? How can we easily distinguish between the tolerant and the intolerant? Where do we draw a line between civil disobedience and serious acts of disrespect? Where do we likewise draw the line between elevating the level of discourse and sending, as President Obama fearfully stated, “signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response”?
Many in the country are hurting. America has 43 million people living in poverty. We have been at war for over a dozen years. Soldiers have endured multiple tours of duty and suffered grave injuries. To this day, we bomb upwards of seven countries, with over 26 thousand drone bombs dropped in 2016 alone. We routinely waste government monies that could go to people in need. Many cities and suburbs suffer with failing schools and economic downturns. Opioid addictions and deaths are frequent. Gun violence devastates many communities. Police violence makes our nightly news. A single life-threatening illness can financially crush a family. We see the children of lead-contaminated Flint entering their third year of drinking from bottled water with no end in sight, while infrastructure elsewhere is also failing.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Stanford University that resonates as strongly today as it did 50 years ago. He said,
“There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And in a sense this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity…Tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infected vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
America is a country of many such islands. Separate and unequal. A complex mix of diverse peoples, diverse challenges, and varied political leanings. There is no one political party with all the answers. It would be arrogant to say otherwise. There is also no one political party who is responsible for all this country’s successes or its failures. Ours is an imperfect union, but a union just the same. We are a country of immigrants, its origins born of unfathomable violence, with a complex relationship with itself and its many precious peoples. We are all threads in our human historical tapestry, and for the sake of our future existence, we desperately must find a peaceful common ground.
As a portion of the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again” states:
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.”
America has survived many difficult times. We must survive this period as well. But to do so, we also must take steps to begin our healing journey:
- We must take care of our own emotional needs while still honestly focused to always put ourselves in another’s shoes. We must reach out in empathy & understanding.
- We must practice mindfulness. We must direct anger into energy to work against core issues, but never against any person or persons.
- We must practice gratitude, respect, tolerance, and inclusion. We must resist the pull of intolerance, disrespect, exclusion, and hatred.
- We must practice forgiveness. We cannot move into the future while holding too firmly to the past. Letting go is sometimes the path to a new life.
- We must be cognizant of risks to our democracy while at the same time being willing to give individuals an honest chance to be their best self without pre-judgment.
- We must never give up the belief that one day the American dream will be attainable for everyone.
Most importantly, we must acknowledge and take to heart the profound words by President Abraham Lincoln when he said,
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I still believe in America. I believe we’re better than our divisiveness. I believe in Maya Angelou’s brilliant words that say,
“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.”
America’s mighty dream: To someday become a UNITED States of America. Make it happen.