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GLIMPSES from a Teacher/Historian: Another View on Polarization

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Author’s note: The following three premises are essential to this column.
1) None of us see the past or present with absolute clarity.
2) Each of us has the capacity for glimpses of informed insight that draw from and reflect our personal values.
3) Cordial, forthright exchange of those insights enhances our mutual well being.

We Americans appear lost.  

A slow recovery from a severe recession, unprecedented cultural changes and environmental challenges, and uncertainty about our global role undermine our characteristic optimism.

Even when we follow advice for one who is “lost” and reflect on how we came to this juncture, contradictory diagnoses and remedies for our condition often turn us against one another.

Yet observers from every side of the political spectrum using every form of media agree on one thing: American society is more polarized than it has been since the Civil War.

I do not reject that conclusion but urge readers to acknowledge the significant role of creative, constructive conflict in our nation’s story.

Conflict is as American as apple pie. It is deeply rooted in two distinctive traits that took root as soon as settlers arrived in Great Britain’s North American colonies: love of freedom and diversity.

Highly unusual circumstances —  an unprecedented abundance of land and relative shortage of people, separation from the mother country by the wide Atlantic, encounters with both natives and nature that demanded immediate, often aggressive responses, and British neglect — forged these “American” traits.

When mother Britain attempted to rein in her wayward children in the late-18th century, conflict erupted. A distinct Enlightenment outlook, inherited ironically from the same mother country, shaped the revolutionary’s rhetoric.

The founders’ commitment to “self-evident truths” set lofty goals for their new nation; ever since, Americans have debated how to best achieve those goals.

The distinctive American love of liberty undermined the upstart nation’s first attempt at national self-government. With practicality, perseverance and luck, the founders’ second try forged the Constitution. Then and since, this document has sought to harness the restless American spirit.

Rather than eliminate tensions, it at its best nurtures creative and constructive debate and collaborative decision making.

Yet conflicts about the Constitution’s meaning have repeatedly been at the heart of national debate ­— including our present rancor.  

The development of our other distinctive “American” trait, diversity, was less intentional but just as important.

Gradually and begrudgingly, we have broadened our understanding of “We the People.” Still today this ongoing debate is at the core of many of of our most divisive issues.    

Tragic encounters with Indians and the stain of African slavery and its legacies are only the most obvious examples that we have not always avoided divisive, destructive conflicts. But the brotherly feud that raged 150 years ago between competing regional factions of the Anglo-Caucasian majority has been the greatest crisis of America’s pluralist republicanism.

Extremists in our current round of rancor should pause to consider that the Civil War killed and wounded one of every 16 American males.  Sadly, the mutual disdain and dehumanization evident in the rhetoric that fueled that war echoes in today’s rancor.   

Still, we should not overlook the more positive results of our republican experiment. Cooperation between natives and newcomers repeatedly assured the initial survival of the latter.

Subsequent waves of cultural interaction between the self-proclaimed majority and succeeding generations of Indians, Africans and and an ever-more diverse array of voluntary immigrants produced a a mosaic of food stuffs, music and folk traditions that has been bewilderingly beautiful.

The lure of America has drawn creative, ambitious and diverse emigres who time and again revitalized our nation. Think Carnegie, Einstein and DiMaggio.

In the political realm, the founders bequeathed a tradition of compromise — i.e. creative, potentially constructive responses to conflict. Without the “Great Compromise” their constitutional convention would have failed.  The federal system it created along with the complex system of checks and balances between three distinct branches of government is cumbersome and has festered many conflicts.  

But they have also defused tensions and nurtured creative, effective responses to changes the founders could not have foreseen.

The nation’s growth in size and status and the incessant forces of modernization would surely have destroyed a less-flexible government design.

To be sure, not all of the founders’ compromises proved wise. Moreover, our ongoing commitment to fulfilling their vision has been less intentional, consistent and attractive than we prefer to recall.

Witness the political wheeling and dealing, so aptly captured in the movie “Lincoln,” that secured ratification of  the 13th Amendment and the end of  slavery.  Or consider the proverbial “political sausage-making” that unfolded in Washington 50 years ago this summer.

The Civil Rights Act that resulted finally pushed us toward fulfillment of the elusive goals unleashed by our bloody war for independence and affirmed by our even more costly Civil War.

Should we be surprised that it also sowed seeds for much of our current rancor?

Still, it is clear to me that principled pragmatism has brought us closer to our national ideals than purist, extremist visions.

Too often, we expect history to provide a blueprint for the future. But the essence of history is change and diverse human responses to challenges and opportunities that accompany that change. Because we too readily fail to acknowledge that, our efforts to learn its lessons have often proved disappointing and occasionally disastrous.

But in dark moments like our own, history can illuminate an alternative to today’s poisonous polarization. At its best, it should remind Americans that we have been “here” before and that the division inherent in our love of freedom and diversity need not destroy us.

The greatest legacy from our past is a tradition of creative, constructive conflict. At this moment all of us would do well to recall that past and consider Gerald Ford’s wise advice:  “We can disagree without being disagreeable.

Mark Banker is a teacher-historian. Since 1987, he and his wife, Kathy, have lived on a remnant of his family’s farm just south of Kingston, and he has taught at the Webb School of Knoxville. Banker has published works on American religious history, the American Southwest and Appalachian history.  His most recent book is “Appalachians All: East Tennesseans & the Elusive History of an American Region” (University of Tennessee Press, 2010).  You may contact him at mtbanker44@gmail.com.