Thursday, June 02, 2016

It Can Happen Here

The Sibling Rivalry venture is largely animated by the concern that my brother Scott and I share about the poisonous nature of what passes for political discourse in this country.  Columnist William Raspberry put it well:  "Our public debates . . . have become the civic equivalent of road rage."

My brother and I don't see this state of affairs as merely distasteful.  We see it as a clear and present danger to the republic.

Because despite the endless predictions of certain ruin if one's political opponents get power, my brother and I have the impression that no one really believes it.  But the fact is, republics have been rare in the history of the world.  Republics that have actually succeeded have been even more rare.  The United States existed for less than a century before it collapsed into a horrific civil war that killed 2 percent of its population and nearly killed the republic.

It took a number of things to bring about that war, but one of them was the apocalyptic tone of the political rhetoric that preceded it and the extremism that such rhetoric bred.  In the decade before the conflict, things got bad enough the U.S. congressmen carried weapons into the House and Senate chambers and challenged each other to duels.  In one infamous case, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts nearly to death.  Brooks used a cane for the purpose.  Witnesses said that he brought it down on Sumner's head repeatedly with a swing that resembled the slashing of a dragoon's sword.  Most everyone present in the chamber made not a move to stop it.  The few who did were held back by a South Carolina congressman who had encouraged the beating.

Afterward, Brooks received congratulatory telegrams and gits of canes, with one of them inscribed, "Hit him again."

In the same month, in the newly formed Territory of Kansas, Americans had already begun to kill one another over the question of whether Kansas would come into the Union as a free state or a slave state.

None of this is news.  You can find this information in any American history textbook.  We excuse it as something unique and acceptable because, after all, the central issue was slavery, and if any political controversy involved ultimate stakes that couldn't be compromised, surely slavery was it.  Surely if over 600,000 Americans had to die so that 4 million Americans could gain freedom, then the civil war was worth it.

Except that the 4 million Americans did not gain freedom. We fought the Civil War, not to bring about a truly free society, but--as matters turned out--to bring about the Jim Crow South.

On the occasions when I remind people of what once happened when Americans talked politics the way we do today, these same people--who routinely speak of Obama as a dictator and Trump as a fascist and Hillary Clinton as a "c-nt"; who call Islam an evil religion, pure and simple; and say that illegal immigrants are rapists and murderers; and that the "1 percent" is deliberately hell-bent on creating a plutocracy--think that what I say is "a bit much."

Whatever happens, surely we're not going to have another civil war.

I don't think we will, either.  But my brother and I do think that there is more than one way for republics to die.  Right now Americans are choosing--or tolerating--a pretty good one.

If we Americans think the republic falls, we think it will be those awful other guys who will do it, and we have to stop them.

We're wrong.  If the republic falls, we will have all done it:  those of us who engage in a rhetoric that makes reasoned discussion impossible, and those of us who merely look on, shaking our heads in dismay.

Twenty-five centuries ago the Greek dramatist Aeschylus offered a warning:

Far-stretching, endless Time
Brings forth all hidden things
And buries that which once did shine.
The firm resolve falters.  The sacred oath is shattered.
And let none say, "It cannot happen here."

My brother and I are just ordinary people.  We know we're not all that important in the grand scale of things.  But we know that we are citizens, and we have to do what we can.

Gandhi once said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Well, we want our children to grow up in an America in which citizens discuss politics in a civil way.  And the only way in our power to help do that is to model the change we wish to see.

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