Don’t believe them when they tell us we’re more divided than ever.
Our country has been divided from the start, on the question of whether or not “inalienable rights” applied equally to every human being, or only to white men. We fought a civil war on this very question.
My understanding of history had been that although this fundamental paradox was written right into the Constitution, the forefathers were blinded by their time and culture, where white male power was sacrosanct. The history shared by my teachers, church and family said, yes, these inequalities existed at first, but we have all worked over time to overcome them and create a more inclusive and tolerant society. Tolerance is what makes our nation great. The melting pot(!) and the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice(!) and so on.
I believed that, even after I got out into the world and saw examples to the contrary. Examples of imperialism, commercial exploitation and our government’s blatant interference in the political processes of other countries. I told myself that the United States was mostly a force for good in the world, despite these ugly examples. That we Americans were always trying to be better.
The election of Donald Trump has deeply shaken my belief in the goodness of our country.
I have been unable to comprehend how anyone could choose Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton. All questions of policies aside (not that his policies were ever made clear), his violent temper, self-aggrandizement and aggressive bullying forced me to conclude he was unfit for office.
But what this election has shown me is that at least half of the country believes the America of the past was better and they are willing to pay any price to go back. I can’t believe that they looked at candidate Trump and thought “This is a man who looks incredibly even keeled and well prepared for the job of running the country.” I can believe they thought, “If he can’t pump the brakes, no one can.” They believe their values are under assault, and they voted for someone who seems like he’s not afraid of a fight.
They believe our country was more moral when it didn’t tolerate gay marriage. They believe it was more just before the Black Lives Matter movement. They believe it was more prosperous before the crash of 2008. (Hard to argue there.) They are angry.
Donald Trump’s anger and sneering displays of power reflected their feelings of frustration and catered to their alienation. This does not mean that every single vote for Donald Trump was racist and evil. I imagine many people cast that vote with deep misgivings, but knew the alternative would continue down a path they don’t wish to accept. And like it or not, we have to accept those votes and voices as part of the democratic process. Freedom means each citizen may draw their own conclusions.
For my part, I want to see The United States of America live up to the very simple, very lofty ideal set forth by our founding fathers. The glittering ideal they expressed before they gave in the dull status quo of white men only.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What beautiful, immortal simplicity. We are all equal, intrinsically, basically, incontrovertibly. And yet, how far we still fall short of this elegant principal.
I believe that our country is never closer to this ideal than when we guarantee equal rights to all people, regardless of their color, sexual orientations, religions of physical abilities. We can’t guarantee equality under the law by favoring conservative Christian viewpoints above all others. Ask the citizens of Iran how enforcing religious laws has worked for their country. Equality under the law preserves freedom of religion, but not just for people whose ideas we agree with.
Equality under the law for all people means that gay couples should have the same rights enjoyed by other legal unions. Equality under the law for all people means that black communities deserve the same careful, consistent policing that white communities enjoy. Equality under the law for all people means minority kids get the same educational opportunities and resources white suburban kids get. Equality under the law for all people means that Muslim Americans need not fear deportation.
The only comfort I can find is very thin indeed. It’s vigilance, plain and simple.
Vigilance is personal. Vigilance is making decisions every day about how to model the values I hold. How can I support the tolerant, open minded society I want to see? What charities do I support? What jokes do I call out? What do I let slide? What do I model for my own child? How can I have more diversity in my social circle? What do I share with my students in my classroom about this beautiful, frightening, inspiring world?
Vigilance demands my engagement in my community, self-discipline and spiritual practice. Only having left leaning friends won’t help me bridge the gap. If diversity and tolerance are important to me, I have to step up and talk to people I disagree with in a constructive way, with love.
Maybe that comfort isn’t so thin after all. It demands a great deal of growth for me and anyone else who wants to continue moving forward together.