I hope you won’t take me to be an alarmist. I try not to be one.
But I’m concerned we’re hurtling headlong toward a permanent breach in our country. Perhaps even a blood bath.
I’m not a professional historian. But since I was around 9 years old, I’ve been an avid reader of American history.
And the more I listen to the rhetoric of our moment, particularly the bent it’s taken since the 2016 presidential election, the more it reminds me of the 1850s, the years preceding the terrible Civil War, which killed 700,000 Americans and nearly destroyed the nation.
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Today we’re not divided between North and South. We’re divided between right and left, rural and urban, white and dark, rich and poor, men and women.
The Republican and Democratic parties have become proxies for all these seething sub-groups.
It’s not bothersome that we can’t agree on much. There’s rarely been a time when Americans agreed.
It’s the way we disagree.
Last week, I wrote a column about the possibility of individual change and redemption. I used the U.S. Senate hearing for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — now Associate Justice Kavanaugh — as a news peg for that discussion.
A California academic, Christine Blasey Ford, had testified that when they were teenagers Kavanaugh assaulted her. Kavanaugh vehemently denied that. There were also allegations the youthful Kavanaugh may have been a heavy drinker; he disputed that, too.
The question I hoped to explore was more-or-less philosophical: whether, in general, people ever truly change. If a person is a miscreant at 17, does that automatically mean he stays a miscreant the rest of his (or her) life? Or do most reprobates eventually reform, either through individual effort or by simply growing up?
The scores of responses I received, on social media, by email, in personal conversations, were real eye-poppers.
Honestly, when I wrote the column, I’d considered Kavanaugh and Ford peripheral to the conversation I was trying to start, which was about the nature of personal transformation. Obviously, I misjudged my own column (not the first time that’s happened, believe me).
Some folks did actually get the thing I thought I was saying.
But largely what I encountered I would describe as raw rage.
The rage seemed not aimed at me (for once), but at those who my respondents considered to be on the other side of the Supreme Court issue.
One fellow I know to be a compassionate Christian, an attentive father, a helpful neighbor, said of his perceived adversaries, “I just want to tell them all to go to hell.”
I might be mistaken, but I suspect he may have meant that literally.
At the same time I was parsing the reactions to my piece, I was also reading stories and columns online about Kavanaugh and Ford from the national media. The readers’ comments there were at least as bitter as those my column drew, maybe more so.
We’ve crossed a cultural Rubicon, I fear, not only on the recent Supreme Court nomination, but on anything controversial, especially if it’s political.
We don’t just disagree with our opponents anymore. We don’t just criticize them.
We demonize them. We mock them. We hate them.
They’re not just wrongheaded or short-sighted.
They’re traitors. They’re fascists. They’re communists. They’re enemies of the people. They’re ignoramuses. They’re racists. They’re feminazis. They’re deplorables. They’re sluts. They’re rapists.
We don’t just wish them to see the error of their ways.
We wish them destroyed. We wish them imprisoned. We wish them humiliated. We wish them banished. We wish them consigned to the bottom rung of hell.
We see no good in the other side. We occupy entirely separate realities. We oppose whatever they favor, just because they favor it.
Down this highway lies a direct route to disaster.
As I said, this is the 1850s come back to torment us. We already know how that turned out. With blood running in torrents.
It might help to start reminding ourselves that most folks are, down deep, pretty human.
A person can totally disagree with you on Kavanaugh, or immigration, or Russia, or Trump, or Obama, or abortion, or Me Too, or public education, and still be a sentient being possessed of an eternal soul.
Nobody is just one thing. Nobody is just a Republican. Nobody is just a Democrat.
That guy can be a Trumpian and still volunteer at a soup kitchen. That woman can be a feminist and still be a boss who’s generous toward men and women alike. He can still be a kindly little league coach. She can still be terrified that lump is cancer. He can still be worried about his addicted daughter. She can still be a devoted Bible student.
They both were still created in the image of God.
It’s time to ease back from the bile and dismissal. Time to soften our hearts even as we perhaps hold to our doctrines.
We must rekindle kindness and compassion and hope toward our fellow Americans, even those who are our opponents, even those who don’t act kindly or compassionately or hopefully toward us. We must pledge to overcome evil with good.
We must do this before it’s too late. If it’s not already too late.