Divided We Fall


It is now amply clear that a decade into the new millennium our culture is divided. Reminiscent of the two-faced Roman god Janus, looking both back and ahead, our dualistic character puts us at risk for tearing ourselves in two.

Our saving grace is that the country has not further fragmented into a European-style multi-party system dependent on coalitions, a format that produces unstable and short-lived administrations subject to pressures from an electorate which tends to change its mind with the seasons. The danger remains that we eventually succumb to the temptation to limit our allegiance to the lowest common denominator: the ancient tribal impulse to relate to “our people” in the most limited sense has returned in the 21st century.

In the early days of American life, a broader perception of unity allowed diverse colonies—English, Dutch, and German; Puritan, Quaker, Anglican, and Huguenot; North and South; merchants, tradesmen, and farmers—to band together in a supreme, and divinely guided, effort to form the first nation ever to be founded on the ideal of freedom.

That sense of unity held the fractured nation together through the Civil War even as other aspects of our national character were tested or overturned. World War II required people from coast to coast to set their own lives aside for the goal of protecting their hard-won liberty from the iron cross hounds of hell, once more reminding us of the need to fight for the wonders of the American experiment.

When the push for civil rights brought front and center the unresolved issues of past national tests—racial inequities beyond the reach of negotiation at the time of the founding, and the cultural and economic differences that separated northern and southern states—we worked it out. Time and again, we have faced our differences and reunited on the other side of a literal or figurative battlefield, and most of the time we have celebrated and benefited from our exceptionally richly textured culture.

The nation is now divided between the secular who place man at the pinnacle of the universe and the religious who look to a higher power; between those who seek to check out or tune in through drugs and those who trust in the divine to provide enlightenment; between the collectivists who think what’s yours is just as much theirs and the individualists who regard the right to their own thoughts, words, and property sacrosanct; and finally, between the statists who think the government is better equipped to make decisions for them than they themselves are and the self-reliant who believe that a nation is only as strong as its citizens are free.

As we know, water and oil do not mix. Or, at least, they do not blend harmoniously unless united by a stronger force. Something more powerful than the chemical or magnetic repulsion of the two opposing elements—either an internal impetus or an external threat—must be introduced to create a singular substance.

An emulsifier—in particularly the binding agents of love and goodwill—is the preferable ingredient. If that fails, however, nature has another way to fuse elements: intense pressure and heat from an external source. Even the most cursory glance at history will let us glimpse two facts about human nature: one, in every culture there is a period when the choice is offered, and two, if rising above internal strife to a minimal state of harmony is not achieved in time, just one option remains, and hardship follows.

Half of the nation holds to the conviction that the nation was inspired by a higher truth and guided by the hand of providence. It makes the American experiment—not intended as a pain-free realm with easy access to material goods but as a land of opportunity for individual liberty and self-responsibility—a precious gift to those who treasure their right to live according to their own conscience. They recognize that, if God gave humanity this rare chance at exercising free will at the highest levels, they are walking on holy ground.

The other half, less interested in religious ideas or higher principles and more concerned with feeling safe and provided for, are content to trade their personal freedom for free stuff like “universal” health “care”—read equal access to whatever treatment the state-run health bureaucracy allows, which is frequently too limited to provide good health and too little and too late to save lives.

This second group likewise has no problem exchanging the right to find their own way through life, which they see as a chore, for a micromanaging government that takes the hassle out of thinking about daily survival. Important decisions—anything more challenging than which Internet service provider or cellphone carrier to go with—are just so boring. Coping with 500 daily mouse clicks or finger pokes to choose Yes or No is sufficiently taxing that, at the end of a long day in the virtual world, facing the real world is just overwhelming. Consequently, this half of the country is, in essence, asking, Is there an app for that? The state is happy to text back a link to .gov.

Like the two-headed Janus looking in opposite directions, we must find a shared vision to occupy our attention or we will inexorably drift apart. This separation based on diverging views and objectives can be seen everywhere. Business offices are divided into two cultural camps. Churches come down on one side of the ideological line or the other, or they divide internally along the center aisle, like Congress. Professional organizations and charities lean one way or the other, serving different constituents.

Political philosophy, not unity, is the new organizing principle, ensuring a departure from the ideal of a single nation under God and a gradual arrival at the station of looking out for numero uno. Do as you please has replaced the will of God. Multiculturalism has devolved from making room for everyone at the table to the various factions fighting over the turkey. Contrary to Dr. King’s noble goal of a color-blind nation we have instead set up quotas that lead to downsides for all ethnic groups. An economy choking on redistributionist policies and regulations is putting equal strain on businesses and employees.

Listening and compromise, the way healthy families resolve their differences, have fallen by the wayside. With everyone pointing fingers at everyone else, trying to out-shout each other, there is no peace to be had. Calmer heads have no chance to prevail, so those endowed with common sense simply leave the table and go home.

Benjamin Franklin, the paragon of practical wisdom and writer of classic headlines, said about the Founders’ treasonous act at the signing of Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Some eighty years later, at another crossroads in American history, another man of wisdom spoke at the Republican State Convention of 1858. Abraham Lincoln, not to be outdone in the communications department, put the principle thusly: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The effort to achieve unity seems to bog down over a fundamental misunderstanding of what unity is. It does not entail giving up one’s point of view or relinquishing cherished principles. In fact, differences can be so fundamental as to leave little on which to agree. What it takes to unite groups that don’t see eye to eye is not agreement on substance but an agreement to live together in peace even though they disagree on most things.

All it really takes to achieve unity is that intrinsic respect for the other outweighs any distaste for their values or lifestyle. The idea is simple: we don’t have to like each other, or even understand each other; we only have to respect each other’s right to be who we are. We don’t have to share much except a desire to remain the rich and varied tapestry that America has always been since the beginning.

If we won’t continue to create unity on our own, life will surely offer us a less palatable way to hold together. Under duress, structural weaknesses will emerge that threaten national cohesiveness, even as new bonds are formed under the pounding of the blacksmith’s hammer. Pain, both psychological and physical, is an effective teacher for those who refused the lesson under lighter terms. As we tell our children: to do it willingly now takes less time and energy than to do it later under parental coercion.

Those who balk at the hard work ahead should know that uniting by choice is the easy way; every other way forward comes at a greater cost. It is also the only choice, as divided we would indeed fall. To survive times of trouble we must come together, and to maintain for ourselves and our grandchildren the hard-won land of the free, we must stand united.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

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