Sunday, January 9, 2011

A house divided

A few months ago, I happened upon an old farmer giving a soliloquy to a couple of other guys in a local store that included the opinion that, “Obama voters and other liberals should all be shot between the eyes”—presumably since it was their fault that that socialist dictator Obama was in the White House.

It was obvious that the guy didn’t know who I was, because I’m pretty widely known in this community as a “liberal,” having been a columnist in the local newspaper for seven years, with my picture in the paper every week. So naturally a statement like that, coming from someone in the community, attracts my attention, and I hung around to listen to the conversation. The other people there knew me.

(Personally, I don’t self-identify as a “liberal,” because how that term is perceived in this political culture, in this particular era, is an inaccurate and too mild picture of my political beliefs. But I do fit into the broader dictionary definition of “liberal” as “generous, tolerant, broadminded, and favoring reform or progress,” so I accept the designation when it’s applied.)

When the guy finished speaking, I asked him, “Who owns the government?” He had been talking about how “the government” was doing this and that, and I wanted him to think about who that actually was. He looked at me like I was stupid. “The people,” he said triumphantly.

“The people?” I scoffed. “What about the corporations?”

You could immediately see the look of confusion cross his face. He tried to recover by talking about government regulations, but I knew I had him, because around here, everybody of every political stripe knows that corporations own the government, because they’ve seen firsthand how that fact has over the years decimated the county agriculture industry, with farmers abandoning the orchards that previously dominated here for cattle farming, the last refuge of the independent small farmer.

After a few more questions, he fled in terror at this ever-so-brief glimpse into the dark infinity of his own cognitive dissonance. I followed him out of the store, announcing that I was a liberal and didn’t like to hear people talking about shooting me between the eyes, even if I didn’t vote for Obama (I voted for Cynthia McKinney), and pointing out the “Impeach Obama” bumper sticker on my tailgate. He just looked at me, still confused, and drove off.

It never occurred to me until later that he could have been going out to get the gun in his truck. That would have been embarrassing--me standing there, talking like a fool. That story would have made the gossip rounds for decades. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

I couldn’t help but think about that incident yesterday, when I heard the news about the shootings in Arizona. We don’t know at this point if it was just a troubled kid who killed and wounded so many, or a deliberate act of terrorism. Law enforcement is searching for a second suspect at this writing. But in either case, you cannot reasonably deny the influence of a toxic and unstable national political environment.

Parallels between this era and America in the 1850s, the decade before the Civil War, have been talked about for some years now—including very eloquently last night by Keith Olbermann, on his MSNBC show. He was shocked and subdued as he confessed his own part in the increased incivility of media rhetoric. Violence has no place in a democracy, he so rightly said, closing his comment with the reminder that, whatever our politics, we are all Americans. But of course, so were the Americans of early 1861—exactly 150 years ago, the year the Civil War began.

At the heart of this tragedy is our nature as a republic. We are a nation born in violent separation from our mother state; a nation established on ancestral lands stolen by force from the native population—lands developed and harvested by African slaves, brutally wrenched from their home continent—a nation whose global power rests on a proven and continuing willingness to do violence to those we perceive as enemies.

We have a military budget that almost exceeds that of the rest of the world combined; we are the world’s number one arms merchant; one of our biggest national exports is violent entertainment and grotesquely bloody video games, the favorite pastime of our scarred youth; for sheer firepower, we have the mightiest military empire the world has ever seen, over millennia of human carnage. Violence R US.

A “Christian” nation, indeed. You know…Prince of Peace.

As a nation, we have undergone a half century of culture war—a war itself inaugurated by the 20th century’s version of abolition, the civil rights movement—a war that expanded to broaden rights for others, but a war that has always included a racial undercurrent. We have been fortunate that, unlike the 19th-century culture war, ours has not yet degenerated, despite isolated episodes of violence, into actual civil war. Not yet.

But we have been partly protected from that eventuality by fortuitous circumstances that, in this era of declining empire, national indebtedness, climate change and global economic convulsions, have largely disappeared. We are a nation ripe for chaos, to be quickly followed by military dictatorship, at this very unstable moment. Our only hope for averting that is ourselves, united. We, the people who started this thing.

As an outspoken “liberal” living in a very conservative community here in the politically volatile and well-armed state of West Virginia, I have to hope that the horrific tragedy of people being gunned down in the very act of democracy serves as a wakeup call to all Americans to remember who we are, and rededicate ourselves to the highest ideals that animated our founding—including the freedom to disagree, without putting ourselves in mortal danger because we are seen as the incarnation of evil.

In order to do that, we need to rebuild our national civic culture—from the ground up. In order to do that, in this sensitive and overstressed political culture, we are going to have to come to terms with the violence in every American soul.

Perhaps we’ll find the answer—as Abe Lincoln hoped, during the last great national division—in the better angels of our nature.

--Michael Hasty

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