Finding Our Way Back From the Brink

How does one even begin to write about the storming of the U. S. Capitol on January 6? Even as the riots were unfolding on television, I asked myself how to address the chaos—whether it was worth attempting a blog post in such an unsettled and unforgiving atmosphere. My initial reaction to the insurrection has been the most lasting—one of shock and sadness. Not since the War of 1812 has our Capitol been breached; and this time the attackers were not British redcoats but American citizens waving Trump 2020 flags. It all defies imagination. Worse, it leaves many of us questioning just how great, how exceptional, American democracy really is—and how it can so easily be threatened by mere demagoguery.

As I watched the news, I was reminded of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny, in which he warns, “The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” Back in 2016, those who fretted about Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies—which he made little attempt at disguising—were met with assurances that our democratic institutions could withstand such an assault. After all, our 244-year-old republic has survived a civil war, the Great Depression, two world wars, three impeachments, and four presidential assassinations. We have checks and balances. We have the constitution.

Yet, on January 6 we witnessed how fragile our democratic institutions really are. And it was terrifying.

Like many people, I wonder how we came to this place of profound political division. A news commentator the other day opined that, while America is the greatest power on earth, we are by far the most politically divided and dysfunctional. The second part of that assertion presages, I fear, the terminus of the first. How can America, thus divided, remain the preeminent power in the world? And yet, how can we possibly overcome our divisions?

I must admit that, when I hear Joe Biden talk about “coming together” and “healing our wounds,” I’m inclined to snicker. The enmity between Right and Left is too toxic and runs too deep. It is embarrassingly naïve to hope that, for example, QAnon conspiracy theorists and Bernie Bros can ever peacefully debate their positions. The fact is, we can’t even agree on what is truth and what is fantasy. As I’ve heard it said, when truth is entirely subjective, only sheer force will prevail—force to impose one’s beliefs on everyone else. Which is what we’ve seen happening—on the Right and the Left. As the Right tolerates and even cultivates conspiracy theories about lizard people and Satan-worshipping pedophiles, the Left self-immolates in a call-out culture that “deconstructs” universal truths and smothers dissent. “To abandon facts,” writes Snyder, “is to abandon freedom.” He rather ominously adds that, “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” As 2021 dawns, the wallets have never been bigger and the lights never more blinding.

In the meantime, if we can’t agree on the existence of facts, of certain immutable truths, what the hell can we agree on?

Curbside Diplomacy

The other day, my wife and I were walking Lando, our six-month-old Saint Bernard puppy, when we passed a man standing by his pickup truck, apparently getting ready to unload something. This guy was big, maybe 6’ 2”, with a buzz cut, ball cap, and wrap-around sunglasses—a look that I (probably unfairly) assumed meant he was a Trump supporter. He was parked near a construction site, so I figured he was just arriving at work. When I said hello, the man turned and saw Lando trotting toward him on polar-bear paws. 

“Is that a Saint Bernard?” he asked. I confirmed that it was, and he remarked, “He’s going to be a big boy.” 

“We’re guessing about 150 pounds,” I replied. “But we’re hoping for 125.”

He laughed, his eyes wide. “My brother has a Saint Bernard-Great Dane mix,” the fellow said, now more animatedly. “He’s got short hair like a Great Dane but he’s the size and color of a Saint.” As he spoke, he watched Lando busily poking holes in the crusty snow with a runny black nose.

“Is your brother’s dog a good boy?” I asked, secretly wondering what my future with Lando holds.

“Oh, he’s amazing,” he said. “What a great dog.” Then he gave us a smile and said, “You all have a good day. And enjoy your puppy.” Then he resumed unloading his truck.

Later on, I remarked to my wife how dog-walking allows me to find common ground with folks I might otherwise not engage in conversation—or whom I might regard suspiciously. It’s an obvious point, I realize—even a cliché—to suggest that cultural or political divides can somehow be bridged by focusing on those things we have in common. I’m not so credulous to believe any such utopian reconciliation is possible. But what did occur there, on the sidewalk by that pickup truck, was a genuinely humane exchange between perfect strangers who very likely hold different, even opposite political views. Had his truck been sporting a Trump 2020 bumper sticker, and had I been wearing a Biden-Harris hat, we might have glared malevolently at each other in traffic. Instead, the presence of that goofy puppy allowed two potentially antagonistic forces to interact peacefully. And though our exchange was brief and inconsequential, we didn’t clash. There’s something to be said for that these days.

Coexistence or Opposition

I have read so many articles decrying a loss of civility in our culture. Very few of them point a path to mutual respect or even forbearance. Until and unless we can re-establish the existence of some universal truths—goodness, morality, compassion—I’m not optimistic we’ll ever treat each other with decency. The project of re-constructing shared beliefs must be urgently and courageously undertaken in our schools—where shrill ideologies demand unquestioning compliance—and the halls of government, where personal ambition supplants adherence to facts. In the meantime—if there is a meaningful meantime to consider—we’d all do well to embrace an unsung but potent element of everyday discourse: the coordinating conjunction “and.” Why can’t we believe that African American lives have for too long been undervalued and that our policemen and -women can be forces of good in the community? Can we believe that American democracy is a noble undertaking and that some citizens have yet to share equally in its largesse? Can a conservative legislator object to proposed social services expenditures and applaud the intentions of his progressive colleagues? Can we allow that law-abiding citizens have a right to own firearms and that reasonable requirements for gun ownership have a place in civilized society?

Where and allows us to co-exist, or thrusts us into opposition. And forces us to embrace complexity and to eschew easy conclusions. That fellow I met by his pickup truck may have held political views that are anathema to mine (he might have been a Biden supporter for all I know) but he was kind, if not downright warm, to a complete stranger. As our nation works its way back from that sad, dark day in Washington, D.C., and we sort through its many troubling implications, I plan to look for those pacifying conjunctions everywhere I can find them. In doing so, perhaps I’ll be slower to assume that a man with wrap-around sunglasses is a mean-spirited conspiracy theorist. Even better, I might conclude he is both a conservative and a decent human being. What a concept for those on the Left to consider. And he, in turn, might view me not as a “lib” to harass but a fellow dog-lover who happens to lean left in his political views. Then, perhaps, over time, the great, slow pendulum of history will swing us somewhere close to civility once again.