Then and Now: Can America Heal Itself?

Robert Samuelson writes in the Washington Post that, for all of the talk of tea party madness and hateful rhetoric, and its potential contribution to Gabrielle Giffords’s shooting in Tucson a little over a week ago, things were at least as bad in the 1960s. As he points out:

Precisely the same sort of breakdown occurred in the Sixties, and although the causes were very different, the consequences as measured by public divisiveness and anxieties were as great or greater. “The country was more divided than at any time since 1861, just before the Civil War,” says historian Allen Matusow of Rice University, author of the acclaimed Sixties’ history “The Unraveling of America.”

He’s probably right. In a sense, the 1960s can be viewed as a minor civil war, or at least a societal revolution, not only in terms of racial politics, but also more generally in terms of the reactionary forces of yesteryear doing whatever was in their power to stymie the march of the forces of societal progress. For Christ’s sake, segregation was still the law of the land in vast swathes of the South! Even New York still had anti-sodomy laws! George Wallace, the king of racial hatred, won five states, 46 electoral votes and 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 presidential election! Open discrimination against women in the workplace was legal, tolerated and open!

Looking at then and now, we can find cause for triumph. On this, Martin Luther King Day 2011, while much still has to be done to further the cause of minority, women’s and gay rights, an African-American is now sitting in the White House, having narrowly beaten a female candidate. LGBT Americans can now openly serve in the military. The South now boasts two Indian-American governors (both Republican). There is much for which we can be thankful.

The horrific shooting in Arizona cannot be forgotten. A Congressman was shot through the head, and still lies in a serious condition in hospital, despite remarkable progress. Six people lost their lives, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge. Yet none of this compares to the deaths of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – all in the space of less than five years, from November 1963 (JFK) to June 1968 (RFK).

The country has moved on from the ’60s. This does not mean, however, that we can dismiss the events of the past weeks, months and couple of years. While Gabrielle Giffords will probably pull through, there is a climate of hatred in America that cannot be ignored – and it is directed mainly at the current president, and all that he represents and stands for. Consider this, from the North Iowa Tea Party:

Or this, from Sarah Palin:

Or any of the fearful conspiracy-theory nonsense about President Obama’s socialist, Muslim, communist, marxist, fascist, nazi, black supremacist, Chicago thug agenda, and the people who support it, like Gabrielle Giffords (who, by-the-by, was a moderate, pro-gun democrat from a red state).

There’s a great video of Reverend Wright, Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, talking about America’s chickens coming home to roost. He, of course, was talking about America getting its comeuppance for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He could just as easily have been talking about the right wing’s cynical manipulation of the natural paranoia that lurks in the hearts of so many Americans, and its inevitable, bloody, tragic consequences.

For two years, talk radio hacks like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News hate-mongers like Glenn Beck have tried everything in their power to convince Americans that their current head of state lacks all legitimacy, and is actually working to destroy the very country in which he was born and raised. Their violent rhetoric, and their supporters have responded by brandishing guns at political rallies. Then, when a sitting member of Congress is gunned down in broad daylight, they express shock and horror that anyone would even think that their words could have pushed an already insane, paranoid individual to pull the trigger.

I am not accusing Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh of wanting a congresswoman dead. What I am saying, however, is that if we want to avoid seeing another generation of young idealistic leaders gunned down by nuts, the right must realise that violent words beget violent deeds. While we live in a more tolerant society than ever before, we seem more politically divided than ever before, and less willing and able to understand and speak to one another. While we watch the same television and read the same magazines, we no longer speak the same language.

This does not mean that we cannot disagree. Respectful disagreement is the foundation of political debate. Part of what I cherish in a friend – and I believe that I am not alone in this – is the ability to spar over politics and ideology while still enjoying one another’s company. But what if we were a little more like the West Wing – where disagreement does not mean demagoguery and dishonesty – instead of the West Bank, where we lob bombs at one another?

Perhaps the situation that I am describing is completely unrealistic. Perhaps it is naïve. Manipulating the people is always easier and certainly more effective in the short term than being honest with them. I simply fear that without a realisation of the consequences of our words and acts, the coming decade will be as divisive and bloody as that of my parents’ childhoods. And maybe Martin Luther King Day is the one moment where we can actually come together and say no to hatred and division.

Probably not, though.

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