Writer’s Note: Forgive me, but I find myself unable to write as I sit here completely perplexed by what is happening in my country. I am unable to focus on any one single thing on which to write. There is more going on than mere chaos; there is a steel-wall of hatred and anger that is separating the American citizenry.
This week I choose to share my thoughts about several topics that seem to be converging in these first two weeks of 2021. It is not intended to entertain nor to provoke. My intention is to offer some personal observations grounded in history during a very turbulent time in our nation’s history. — GP
Now What, America?
On October 2, 1780, John Adams wrote the following in a letter to Jonathan Jackson: “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Adams at the time was in Amsterdam and was writing Jackson about the reaction in Europe to the work on the Constitution. He also focused, however, on his own personal dread for the future of this new republic under two political parties. The USA was only 4 years old at the time, and already Adams perceived internal threats.
When I read Adams’ letter, I was struck by the prophetic nature of his thinking — especially in light of the turmoil our republic is in today. What we saw happen at the Capital last week heralded our nation’s division in unmistakable images and words such as have rarely been seen before. Now what, America?
The Destructive Power
I’ll bet more than a few of you reading the Adams excerpt above were reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous position concerning division in government and his “divided house” reference. Lincoln is often given credit for his famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He first spoke these words, according to historians, in June of 1858 when he addressed the Republican State Convention. Earlier in the day, the delegates had chosen Lincoln as their candidate for U.S. Senate. At the time, many thought Lincoln’s speech to be radical and incendiary. Lincoln’s opponent, Stephen Douglas, took no time in attacking the speech vigorously. He defeated Lincoln and became U.S. Senator.
What many who heard these words back then recognized — but, sadly, many today are unaware of — is that Lincoln had appropriated the words from the Bible. Specifically, he referenced the words of Jesus as found in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (See Matthew 12:25-29; Mark 3:23-27; and Luke 11:17-22).
The context of Lincoln’s speech was addressing the question of how to resolve the slavery situation within the United States. The rhetorical question that Lincoln was answering was whether the concept of “freedom for all” could coexist with slavery. Lincoln believed, and stated clearly, that the government could not survive if left “half slave and half free”. (See Bradford Vivian’s article “Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ Speech Teaches Important Lessons About Today’s Political Polarization” in The Conversation — June 14, 2018)
Lincoln was concerned — as had been Adams before him — about the great harm that could come to the United States if the two major political parties became so entrenched in their policy positions that civil debate would disappear and hatred and anger would fill the vacuum. Sound familiar?
What do we do now? How can the two major political parties find common ground; lose the pervasive, hateful invective; and work cooperatively to move the country forward again with policies that address the very real concerns of ordinary Americans?
The Power of the Press/Media
Adams is considered by some to have been America’s most prolific letter writer. We are fortunate that his letters remain today. Some years after writing to Jackson — March 1819 ± Adams wrote a letter to J.H. Tiffany concerning what Adams called, “. . . your pursuit of Correct definitions”. Adams wrote, “Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society”. According to scholars, Adams was discussing the abuse of words in the context of defining the government — i.e., Republic? Democracy? — by the people rather than by the press or media.
If we move his statement from the 18th century to today, and read it in terms of the current abuse of words through the press and media, they still ring true. Take broadcast media, for example. All one has to do is spend 15 minutes on each of the major news channels to hear very different descriptions of the same event, and very different perspectives being voiced by the on-air commentators concerning the meaning of said event.
The same is true if one reads different newspapers. There, too, will be found quite different “takes” on the same thing. Add in the amazing use of social media as THE major news source for people today (current estimates are that social media platforms such as FaceBook are the primary source of news for 70+% of America) and the amazing abuse of it by many mindlessly posting on it without regard for factual accuracy, and you begin to see the magnitude of the problem.
Frankly, social media growth has impacted all others sources of news. Because so many newspapers have transitioned from local (with an emphasis on local news) to regional and/or national and increased their presence on-line, many traditional “hometown” papers have been lost. As their numbers have been diminished, so have the voices of the people closest to them been diminished. Where once the local news dominated with healthy input from the locals, these larger “chain papers” have become more generalized.
Journalism — and journalists — have to take a step back and look at how the power of the press/media is being used and abused today. Journalists are known in the United States as the “fourth estate”. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the people and organizations that report the news. (The other three are the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners.) Historians trace the origin of the term to 1787 when Edmund Burke coined it while participating in a Parliamentary debate concerning Britain’s House of Commons and opening up its activities to the press. Interestingly, Oscar Wilde wrote that it was the only one of the four estates that had consumed the other three.
Look closely again at the definition: “It refers to the people and organizations that report the news” --- “report” the news. That is not the same thing as commentary, or giving an opinion.
Today there seems to be an overabundance of “commentary” and “opinion” and not enough “just the facts — form your own opinion” news. And that very influential commentary appears in print/broadcast/and social media with little differentiation from its opinion message and hard news.
I wonder sometimes if we have allowed ourselves to be so easily influenced by others that we no longer think for ourselves. Our society is on celebrity overload, I think, and we are more like the mythical lemmings (who deliberately self-destruct as a group) than I think we would be comfortable admitting.
What do we do now? How can we return to being the independent thinkers who envisioned this nation and created the Constitution that embodied the Rule of Law and — through the Amendment process previously and in the future — continues to represent the masses rather than the few?
Hope for the Future
Over these first two weeks of 2021, some have insisted that “America and Americans are resilient. We can get past this.” In a similar vein, others have said “America has been through this kind of turmoil before and survived. She will survive again.” I appreciate the indominable spirit associated with our country, and I am known as an eternal optimist (sometimes to a fault). Even so, I remain deeply troubled by what I am seeing now, and by what has gone on during the past number of years.
I remain committed to the Constitution and to the Rule of Law, no matter which political party is in “power” at the moment. I remain committed to the freedoms as outlined in our national documents, and I am especially disturbed by what I perceive to be unequal treatment of citizens — no matter their political leanings.
Finally, I am committed to free speech for all — even when I disagree with the content of that speech. More of us must agree to these commitments, or our republic is threatened with destruction from within.
Rev. Jesse Jackson — an American civil rights leader, Baptist minister, and politician — told a crowd at DePauw University in December 1992 that any covenant within government involves two entities — the leader and the people. He said, “At the end of the day, we must go forward with hope and not backward by fear and division, and to make a high moral choice at the crossroads.”
Jackson urged his listeners to work toward unity that would reach well beyond color or culture differences. That’s still a worthy goal, America. Let’s get to it.