Like many of my other fellow Americans, I spent this Fourth of the July watching the filmed stage production of Hamilton. Seemed fitting as it is about the founding of our country as we fought for independence from the British. Maybe we could forget about our pandemic woes for a minute and reflect back to a time that unified us all as patriots. Except if you were paying any attention at all to the story you would know we weren’t too unified back then. It struck me that as a country we were born out of conflict and perhaps it should not be so surprising that we’re a pretty conflicted bunch even still today.
Let’s review a few of our key historical moments.
- The Revolutionary War: Should we stay or should we go now? Not everyone agreed about that, and those that agreed on “going” didn’t agree on how or what the new thing would look like. And they thought it was a good idea to have the second place candidate be vice president (could you imagine Hilary as vice to Trump??). They would settle slights of honor with duels. And these white dudes were not asking women, Native Americans, or people of color how they felt about any of it. Oh, and the north and the south were already getting fussy with each other.
- The Civil War: After the 2016 election, I naively asked my history-professor father if there was ever a time in our country’s history that we were so divided. He said, “you mean like the Civil War?” Oh yeah, that ol’ chestnut. Part of me wonders if it ever really ended. Living in The South in my high school years, I was mystified to meet folks who were proud Americans, but would also routinely say “The South shall rise again” whenever they had the chance. I’m sure there is a lot to unpack there, but needless to say, people seemed to be a tad conflicted about just what they wanted.
- Women’s Suffrage: The movement for national suffrage for women took over 100 years to achieve success. Along the way, there was a lot of conflict over how to achieve this goal (whether over civil disobedience vs less inflammatory marches) plus the fight over women’s right to vote vs black men’s right to vote. Mix in the temperance movement and no wonder everyone was cranky.
- Civil Rights movement: There is much to discuss here, including Rev Dr Martin Luther King and his strategy of non-violent civil disobedience, Malcolm X, The Black Panthers, and now Black Lives Matter, but I think it’s fair to say we’ve come a long way – and we’ve got a long way to go.
- Roe v Wade: Anyone think we’ve reached consensus over this one? No?? Didn’t think so…
- Same sex marriage: It is legal in all 50 states, but that doesn’t mean a couple wouldn’t face challenges in getting a license, getting a cake, or getting a child through adoption.
I could go on and on about any of these topics and there are plenty of pivotal moments in our history I have left out. The point is that you can go backwards and forwards in our country’s history and we were pretty much always fighting about one thing or another. There are no “good old days” to harken back to – maybe just moments of calm between the storms.
I will note that as I talk with my liberal and conservative friends, I hear both sides saying the same things – everyone is emotionally exhausted from the chaos and fighting in our country, and we’re all yearning for ‘normalcy,’ whatever that is. I hear left and right alike talking about how hard it is to be on social media where the meme-based mud slinging is alive and well. Flag planting is commonplace, questions – let alone dissent – is not allowed. Nuance of opinion is strictly forbidden. I quit watching the daily news because the only thing it seemed to accomplish was raising my blood pressure.
I am lucky to have friends from around the globe. I can only imagine what they think when they see the politicization of the pandemic here in the US. I myself struggle with why the issue of wearing a mask is such a contentious one. There have been moments in time and today when I shudder at what we’ve done as a country. You could look at us from outside and say we are dysfunctional and broken. There are broken parts to be sure, but we are not broken – we are fighters. Our fights are messy, sometimes even deadly, but we are fierce in defending our causes. Whatever you say about us, you can’t say we take any of it lying down. Am I proud of that? Some days I am moved to tears by our tenacity, other days I am moved to tears by the pain we inflict on each other. I am not always proud of the things we do, but I am not ashamed to be a citizen either. If history teaches us anything about Americans it is that we won’t stop fighting for what we believe is right and, for that, yes, I am proud.
A couple of people have asked me when I was going to write about the election. Frankly, my mind has been too jangled up lately to say anything remotely coherent. While I certainly don’t have my feelings and thoughts all sorted out yet, a few have come into focus of late.
Like so many of us, my immediate reaction was complete shock, followed shortly thereafter by profound heartache. I never thought Hillary was perfect, but some small piece of me did think that perhaps the day had come when we would have a woman president. I did not realize just how important that was to me until she lost. (There is a throw-away line in the movie Strictly Ballroom where Scott Hastings’ mother laments, “It was our year! It was our year!” That was me on the Wednesday after the election.)
I spent the next few days in kind of a haze watching posts on Facebook get angrier and seeing people who supposedly were on the same side spew vitriol at each other. Comments from those on the right were at first confused, then annoyed, and then occasionally a little cruel. Everyone was furiously posting articles to prove their point. Like a hideous car wreck on the highway, I could barely stand it and at the same time I couldn’t look away. Meanwhile in “real life,” my friends and I talked and talked and talked about nothing but the election and what it meant for the future of our country. Questions were aplenty, answers were few.
I started wondering if my friends were still my friends, on the left or on the right. Was I going to be an activist enough for the left? Was I now too radical for the right? It was as if the country cracked in half on November 9 and you had to pick a side and immediately jump over to your selected edge of the cliff before falling into the chasm.
But my personal beliefs did not change between “before” and “after” the election. I am fortunate to have friends from all walks of life. There are plenty of things we didn’t agree on, but somehow we managed to coexist. In some cases, they were mere differences of opinion. In other cases, my feelings were profoundly opposed to theirs – in which case, we agreed to leave those subjects alone. Why, if we weren’t any less different today than we were a week ago were these people now supposed to be the enemy?
I am uncomfortable with blanket-labeling anyone I knew who voted for Trump as a racist, misogynist, xenophobe. On the other hand, I see the genuine fear in the eyes of my LGBTQ friends and my heart has simply broken in half on their behalf. How can anyone reconcile those two realities? The truth is that you can’t.
But here is the realization that came to me today. How does pointing and screaming “Other!” help anything? Will it convince the other side of your side’s “right-ness?” (Not if Facebook posts are any indication…) From my perspective, all that kind of thing does is reinforce the rhetoric that we need to be divided. It serves Washington, DC’s interests, not yours or mine.
And can we really divide ourselves neatly down the middle? I am very much against a Muslim registry, but I am also for women’s rights and the Muslim faith is not always so kind to women (although, then again, neither are the Southern Baptists). I am currently a Methodist and they are not so friendly to the LGBTQ community. And I can’t know what it is like to be pulled over for driving-or walking-while black, but I also abhor the idea of people running around randomly shooting at the police. Do I have to be anti-police if I am pro black lives?
Perhaps I am naive, but I have to believe there can be a world in which we have different ideas and ideals and can still figure out how to live with each other. And I’m not so sure I am all that naive. I went to high school in Memphis (aka The South) and watched a woman tell her daughter after a basketball game at an all-black school, “at least we are the WHITE minority.” I had a boss tell me “maybe you don’t think you are smart enough to get a MBA” and watched this same boss come to town and take my male colleagues to strip clubs. I have always known it’s a messy world out there.
Look, I am a straight white woman with a good paying job and health insurance and I know I have won the birth lottery several times over, but I’m not totally ignorant of the ways in which people can be cruel to each other. I have made my own mistakes that caused others pain and I have not always been proud of every choice I have made in my life. My thinking on many subjects has also evolved over time as I have learned and lived more. None of us is perfect, but I think more of us than not at least strive to tip the scales more towards good than bad. The thing we often don’t agree on is how to get there.
I will still fight for what I believe is right, as I would expect anyone to do, and I will cherish the places where we agree. Whether you are a Liberal or a Conservative, I know each of you love your families, that you want your children to be healthy and safe, and that everyone who has lived long enough has suffered pain and loss. I know that being in community (whatever your community may be) is what gets us through this life and brings us laughter and joy. We run races, climb mountains, start businesses, or start families – all with hopes and dreams of success. We lose loved ones, fight cancer, fight fires – all with prayers that we’ll get through it.
Truthfully, we also hurt each other and fight each other and sometimes start wars. So what do we do? In spite of our human potential for darkness, I am choosing to stay true to myself and focus on our light. I am a lover of people. I love your stories, big and small – happy and sad; liberal and conservative. I seek to understand and to learn. I do not always agree with you, and I don’t expect you to always agree with me, but I, for one, hope we’ll keep talking.