After the impeachment trial, I’ve been pondering the great divide, why each half of the country is fixed in a static state of rigid conviction of their own rightness, to the point it seems the nation is paralyzed and incapable of compromise.
Let’s look at history to gain some perspective.
In 1620, a small community of people embarked on a journey, fleeing the state-mandated religion imposed by their mother country, in search of a utopia of religious freedom, a place they could practice their faith freely without fear of retribution. And find it they did, in a part of the new world that became known as Plymouth, Mass. Having risked their lives on a journey to the unknown, one would imagine that having suffered religious persecution themselves, they would be filled with empathy and big-heartedness toward others yearning for the same religious freedom. Rather, they created an insular, exclusive community, unbending in its ideology, forcing the new immigrant Catholics to set up a new colony called Maryland.
As time went by, this new world progressed in material gain, though perhaps not in moral righteousness, for much of the material gain the country was enjoying was built on the backs of others. These Christians, including the excluded Catholics, had imported the economic theory of their long ago forebears from whom they drew their Judeo-Christian heritage: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But instead of identifying with the “Let my people go” enslaved Jews, they instead adopted the code of their historic enemy, Egypt, and began enslaving people themselves. And thus began the great march of shame.
Only to some were the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness granted, for the mythic alchemy of turning lead into gold had manifested itself in ways no one could have predicted. Cotton, tobacco and rice were processed through the chattel machinery of black men and women, and the riches poured forth. Atlanta, Charleston, and Washington, D.C., built by slaves, were monuments to this new divided world. Hence, divisions of religion escalated to now include divisions of race. Some examples of this divide, codified in the Constitution, were the three-fifths compromise and the right to vote only for land-owning white males. Examples of personal animus were also seen: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams famously didn’t speak to each other for 12 years, while Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s conflicts actually culminated in a duel, tragically killing Hamilton.
Of course, the greatest example of a divided nation came in 1861 at Fort Sumter and finally ended in 1865 at Appomattox, but not before communities and even families were torn apart, brother against brother, wearing blue and grey. Peace came to the land, along with hope of justice as President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Sadly, the hopes of Reconstruction were shattered by domestic terrorists, the Ku Klux Klan and their powerful backers, the black codes, or Jim Crow laws, in which segregation and systematic discrimination were justified by law, and slavery by another name was born.
Moving forward 100 years, the 1960s saw a rebirth of abolition, this time called the Civil Rights Movement. The great wall of division began to come down, and as Martin Luther King Jr. intoned, “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Healing had begun.
So here we are 60 years later. What have we learned? Division does seem inevitable, but how destructive it is is up to us. Civility is not dead. The 18th century brought the Enlightenment; education, science and the arts are tools we have to build a better world. Justice for all is possible. Equality before the law is possible. Kindness, brotherly love, compassion and empathy are all possible. The choice is ours. The hand of friendship is more powerful than a wall of division — the enduring flame of hope continues to burn.
Patsy Ouellette, of Bakersfield, is a retired teacher.