For a time, finding a middle ground with stated opponents was the concept of the hour, advanced by a young, idealistic President who seemed to really believe that a Washington, DC, set in its ways was ready to come to the table in a spirit of fellowship. I seek not to be the latest to declare the effective end of a noble experiment or to register my frustrations at the true believers of the pratice, but rather to encourage the concept where, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, reason is left free to combat it. Like so many revolutionary ideas, finding that which unites is not a passive endeavor and requires a equal proportion of self-reflection and sweat. Indeed, it is this same effort that must be undertaken by each of us if we are to develop effective vaccines to combat racism, classism, sexism, and other infectious diseases, while knowing full well that they will mutate with time. If only research and development could be a term-limited matter, but alas, it is not and may never be.
Much partisan and ideological nastiness comes from simple misunderstanding, one which assumes that surface differences define the whole. A country as large in area and diverse in population as ours could hardly be expected to adopt or develop a kind of overall uniformity. Even countries a tenth the size of ours possess a variety of dialects, religious identifications, customs, and means of expression. Face value is skin deep.
As Politico’s Glenn Thrush writes,
Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) has bucked Nancy Pelosi on nearly every vote – including health care – and is said to dwell deep in the Pelosi doghouse.
But he had nothing but kind words for the speaker during an appearance in his district this week – telling a meeting of high school students she was “the most misunderstood person in Washington,” according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.
“She’s very misunderstood,” the congressman said. “She’s a devout Catholic. Don’t get in a Bible discussion with her.”
Religious expression in the South is a very public matter, as are open confessions of faith. Indeed, I do not cringe internally or grow uncomfortable when I hear scriptural references invoked to underscore larger points or become offended by those who profess their faith in Christ, but I know some from North of the Mason-Dixon line who do. Regarding my own greater understanding, had I not deliberately befriended others who had grown up with different cultural expectations and practices, I would not have been able to correctly understand their notable discomfort and might even have assumed that Northerners as a bloc were strictly secular or that they all spoke and believed with one voice. One such a strongly held misconception exists among some in the South, asserting if one takes a certain controversial stance, like say, the right of a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy, one cannot possibly be religious or possess any spiritual grounding whatsoever.
Abraham Lincoln pointed out this irony in his Second Inaugural Address, given shortly before the end of the Civil War. Who better to address this issue than a man born in a border state, Kentucky, which held divided loyalties during the conflict. Though Lincoln himself led the eventually victorious Union forces, several of his wife’s close relatives were Southern sympathizers and many took up arms in the service of the Confederacy. This left Mrs. Lincoln open to charges that she was either a Confederate spy or a traitor, charges that while unfounded, were nonetheless easy to make. The Washington of their time was also a city of split personalities, indebted to both Eastern and Southern culture. Lincoln’s remarks that muddy day in March have application to any protracted struggle where both sides of a conflict claim sole ownership over the moral high ground and direction of the debate.
Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.
Sixty years prior, our third President had emerged victorious in what had been the first, but certainly not the last contentious election for the highest office in the land. As a child of the Enlightenment, he advanced a school of thought common to those times whereby a belief in logic and rationality could by themselves suffice to end religious intolerance and resulting persecution. Though the theocracy so many fear has never taken firm root in American soil, Thomas Jefferson’s focus was on a virulent strain of this same repressive attitude that might find firmer footing and a breeding ground on our shores. In his first Inaugural Address, which I have quoted earlier in passing, Jefferson sought to unify a nation which had, within just four Presidential election cycles, become a two-party nation in flagrant disregard of the wishes of its creators.
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.
As for these times, we are justified in registering reservations and in so doing, refusing to be railroaded or ignored. We are well within our rights to apply steady pressure and fight for our causes. However, if we wish to make the Democratic party a more perfect union, rather than the disorganized, dysfunctional family it often resembles, it will require more than sloganeering, sweeping pronouncements, and digging in for the inevitable siege. Behold, a Blue Dog sticking up for the oft-reviled Speaker of the House! Will wonders never cease? A slightly different way of looking at supposedly unresolvable differences led a member of our party from a different school of thought to assert strongly and unequivocally that, though the packaging and wrapping may be different, commonality exists. That which one is accustomed need not blind us to see friends and allies not immediately like us or, worse yet, to confuse, as Jefferson wrote, differences of opinion which are not differences of principle. The shovel-ready projects in front of us require us to do more than propose and purchase the needed tools. We must also dig into the earth, for it is only then that we can move mountains.