Malice toward none is hard
UPDATED EDITION. But as careless talk of division grows, we need to step back from the brink.
Our forebears called us to unity, which increasingly seems to be an elusive goal. (Photo by Rex Smith)
I’m continuing on a two-week break, so here’s an essay from a while back that I hope you might find useful. And I”ll see you next week!
In the same way that athletes are recharged by a gym workout, or that people of faith find a church service restorative, a patriot can draw inspiration from a visit to national shrines. Probably that’s why I found myself on the National Mall one crisp morning recently. So much about American life these days is discouraging, but the memorials to our long-ago leaders have always bucked up my spirits.
Being a “patriot,” by the way, doesn’t equate to being a jingoist. I’m no rah-rah militarist or apologist for either the iniquities of our political forebears or the inequities our society sustains. But I love the concept of our democracy, the striving that has produced a great nation out of diversity and the promise that America presents on its best days. I pledge allegiance to the dream of the United States of America, and to the hope on which it stands.
So when an errand took me to Washington last month, I set aside a few hours for a long walk through words now chiseled in stone; I figured reminders of Americans’ triumphs over earlier challenges might give me some encouragement in these tough days. Surely it would help to again read Lincoln’s second inaugural address — “with malice toward none, with charity for all” — and the soaring rhetoric of Jefferson, who vowed “eternal vigilance against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” And on land between the monuments to those two presidents, the essential and unfinished work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt are now memorialized, reminding us of tasks awaiting, exhorting us by the model of their brave persistence.
But what struck me most on that particular bright day, as the 50 flags surrounding the Washington Monument snapped in a stiff breeze, was a seven-acre expanse between two memorials — one to an 18th-century founder of our union, the other to its 19th-century protector — where we are reminded of the service of those who preserved American freedom in the 20th century. The World War II Memorial opened only 17 years ago, so perhaps you haven’t visited. Let me warn you that it might break your heart.
It is stunning to consider the dissonance of these days as you are reminded of the unity of purpose that characterized America eight decades ago. During that wartime, some 16.5 million men and women served in the armed forces, including one-third of the male population over age 15. Families gave up sons and fathers, for months or forever. But the shared effort went far beyond the battlefield. Farmers boosted their production to feed the troops, leading more than 20 million people to plant “victory gardens” to provide produce on the homefront. Industries jumped into support for the war effort, and not only the automakers who famously started churning out warplanes: The Kellogg Company, in Battle Creek, Mich., converted factories that made breakfast cereal into production for millions of K-rations for troops, and in Wisconsin, Kimberly-Clark switched from making Kleenex to producing machine-gun mounts. “This was a people’s war, and everyone was in it,” said Ovetta Culp Hobby, the first commander of what became the Women’s Army Corps.
No community was untouched by tragedy, no family unaffected by the sacrifice the war required. More than 400,000 Americans were killed. Everybody was engaged in some way in defeating the Axis powers. On Labor Day in 1942, when the war was just a year along and its outcome uncertain at best, President Roosevelt saluted American workers in saying, “They have given their sons to the military service. They have stoked the furnaces and hurried the factory wheels. They have made the planes and welded the tanks, riveted the ships and rolled the shells.”
Those words are among the inspirational quotations inscribed on the World War II Memorial’s walls, which are surrounded by 56 granite pillars — one for each U.S. state and territory.
You might forgive an American walking among those state-by-state pillars today if a flash of hostility crosses the mind. As I passed the pillar of my home state of South Dakota, for example, I thought of its current governor, whose resistance to COVID masking and vaccination initiatives surely helped to make it a coronavirus hot spot; as you notice Kentucky, you might think of Mitch McConnell, who has stubbornly blocked the U.S. Senate from some of the fundamental tasks every one of his predecessors from both parties have accepted as a responsibility. Wisconsin evokes an idiot senator who this week asserted that mouthwash could combat COVID.
Of course, those sentiments reflect my progressive political outlook. A conservative is likely just as annoyed at blue states. But it’s not anti-science apologists from the left who are pushing back against public health policies that could save hundreds of thousands of American lives; progressives aren’t changing state laws to make it harder for people to vote and to put partisans in charge of counting ballots. Notably for those of us who consider ourselves patriots, it’s only one side in the political debate that is standing squarely behind the first president in our history who refused to accept the results of a fair election, and whose flagrant lies actively encouraged an insurrection aimed at undermining our democracy.
Yet my hostile feelings as I surveyed the pillars of our states on that November morning shocked me. In fact, as I made my way on toward the Lincoln Memorial, I felt shame. What would Lincoln say? What would Americans of the Greatest Generation do? Surely they would find a way to rise above the hostility.
Yes, our nerves are frayed by the political standoffs on vital issues and the continuing burden of the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine coming together nowadays for any cause, as a generation before us did after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. If we cannot unite to fight a global pandemic that has sickened 269 million people and killed 5.3 million, or to combat the climate change that literally threatens the world as we know it, what will bring us together?
I’m not sure. But I’m annoyed by the small cottage industry that has emerged of people who are eagerly predicting how the United States might soon divide. Many of them are sort of latter-day Ayn Rand acolytes, or essayists whose greatest hope is surely that their essays will be quoted by other essayists. (Sorry, folks: not here.) But the noise is growing louder. A University of Virginia poll this summer found that more than half of Trump voters and 4 in 10 Biden voters at least partly agree with this notion: “The situation in America is such that I would favor (Blue/Red) states seceding from the union to form their own country.” It’s a tiny bit of tragic agreement across the political divide; on most other issues, there’s scant sharing of views.
The director of the UVA Center for Politics, Larry J. Sabato, summed up the poll’s results with a warning: “The divide between Trump and Biden voters is deep, wide and dangerous. The scope is unprecedented, and it will not be easily fixed.”
Yet it must be. And Sabato, a favorite of reporters for his pithy observations on public affairs, isn’t right that today’s situation is unprecedented; in fact, America has seen worse than today, and has recovered, over and over again, to emerge as a thriving, progressing society.
The Civil War yielded a death toll equivalent to 7 million Americans dying today at the hands of other Americans. During the Great Depression, one in four Americans were out of work; by contrast, in the week before Thanksgiving this year unemployment claims fell to the lowest level in 52 years. World War II killed about five times the toll of COVID so far, with social and economic effects felt even in the countries that emerged victorious. We have come back from all that.
But how can we do that now? Beyond agreeing that Britney Spears’ conservatorship was a bad thing, it’s hard to find common ground, or imagine where to begin a march toward it.
Perhaps our hope on a broad scale is in what works individually. Psychologists tell us that people most typically come together after division by the stimulus of a sense of compassion, or empathy, for each other. On a one-to-one level, it’s easier to accept that the emotions that we each feel are quite similar to what others feel, even if our circumstances are very different or our political views quite divergent. We all have known frustration and sorrow, loneliness and fear; we worry about our loved ones and want the best for them. It’s not hard to imagine others, even our political opponents, as sharing those deeply-felt emotions. Once we begin dialogue on those grounds, we may extend it further.
Our challenge, then, is to support and follow only those leaders in every sphere — in politics, academia, religion and business — who are willing to engage just that sort of compassion and understanding. Leaders matter because they model behavior that their followers adopt. (Witness the spread of the jaunty nastiness in politics that Trump first displayed.) America needs empathetic leaders. Our task is to convince our neighbors to join us in rejecting divisiveness and its advocates.
As a first step, it seems important to lay aside the sort of anger that I felt surveying the columns of the states. The consequences of failing to step back from the brink of division are awful, after all, and the opportunities that will follow a coming together could be great.
On that morning last month, a bit out of breath from my pace across the Mall, I stood in that temple to democracy, the Lincoln Memorial, and read the words of the man whom we honor as perhaps our greatest president. It’s inscribed in stone precisely so we will never forget his determination and his good heart. With the end of the terrible war in clear view but with the tragedy of the insurrection so deeply felt, Lincoln vowed “to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
It is a sentiment to cherish, and a goal to yet embrace.
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VIEWED FROM UPSTATE
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share dispatches from:
Fort Collins, Colo. (The Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradan.com)
Milton, Mass. (The Patriot Ledger, patriotledger.com)
El Paso, Tex. (El Paso Matters, elpasomatters.org)
Burlington, Vt. (Burlington Free Press, burlingtonfreepress.com)
NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Legislation aims to provide mental health care to rural areas
About 120 million Americans live in places where mental health care is hard to find, even as the pandemic has pushed more people to the point of mental health crisis. According to reporting in The Coloradoan by Jacy Marmaduke, that’s the target of a bipartisan proposal in Congress that would reform state-by-state mental health licensure and fund interstate mental health networks. It confronts a problem that especially plagues young people: Over the past two years, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado, demand for behavioral health treatment has grown by 90 percent.
Middle school students walk out in racial protest
Milton is a wealthy suburb of Boston, the birthplace of George H.W. Bush and Buckminster Fuller. More than three-quarters of its residents are white. This week more than 100 students in the community’s only middle school walked out to protest racist graffiti found in a rest room and a video posted online of a student using a racial slur. According to reporting by Joe Defazio in The Patriot Ledger, the 20-minute protest by a racially diverse group mostly involved 8th graders. In a letter to parents, the school superintendent said the youngsters were protesting in support of "clearer policies around hate speech and explicit and consistent consequences for its use."
Vanishing groundwater poses threat to borderlands
The Rio Grande is a key source of water for the city of El Paso, as well as for wildlife and agriculture in the region, but persistent drought has put that water supply in peril — and fears are rising as an unseasonably warm fall and early winter have reduced snowpacks in New Mexico and Colorado, which are essential sources of water in the river. Now there are rising concerns, too, that the groundwater pools that provide water for the region, both in Mexico and the United States, aren’t fully recharging. That’s according to reporting by Danielle Prokop in El Paso Matters, a non-profit newsroom founded in 2019 that focuses on investigative reporting. Due to the LaNina weather pattern, drier and warmer temperatures are expected through February, suggesting a third straight year of low water in the river. And human-caused climate change has produced one year after another that is dryer than people have ever seen before, local experts tell Prokop.
Burlington clears homeless encampment — again
With New England winter bearing down, police and city workers in Vermont’s largest city unexpectedly appeared early one morning this week to once again clear a homeless encampment that had been used for years until it was initially taken down in October. As reported by Lily St. Angelo in The Burlington Free Press, six people were removed from their makeshift shelters and three were taken into police custody. Prospects for the residents of the camp weren’t clear: While anyone in Vermont who makes less than $24,000 a year is guaranteed free motel space until March 1, the Free Press reports, there are few rooms available in the Burlington area, and many unhoused people resist the offer of accommodations in another city. “As a community and as a region, we must and we can find a better way,” the mayor said.
Thank you for reading, and for joining me on *our common ground, this America.
We are truly in need of more voices like yours Rex. What will it take to restore greater compassion and a shared vision of America amongst us? For myself, I turn to the lessons of Watergate. After years of strife, the institutions of America succeeded in restoring faith in government. Perhaps most of all, we must credit journalism in its role in righting the American ship.
Yes, indeed. Let us bring empathy, without which we are merely legislating.