Our Civil War

This is an emotional time for Americans — what with the markets crashing and the waning days of the presidential campaigns. The airwaves are full of commentary into the meaning of every small move on either subject. And at every turn there is another saturating barrage of side-taking opinion. It is so apparent that our country has a great deal of work to do now to recover itself and to reclaim its stature as a nation that represents some kind of leadership. At one time the notion of this country leading meant something about our economic well-being, military strength, and, most importantly, our felt commitment to creating a better world. Perhaps there was arrogance in that notion of leadership, too, but I certainly grew up believing in the deeper intention.

In contrast, today it is so clear we are in a period of extraordinary “values crisis.” The sides are about even and are polarized and are fighting. The stakes in terms of national identity are extremely high. We don’t know who we are as a country — we do not have a unified, lived view — only separate sides defined by our values sets, conservative and progressive. The truth must be that the world is watching us as we really are, caught in this self-absorbed civil war. Perhaps it is not yet a “hot” one with violence in the streets, but if it gets to that, I don’t think anyone will be surprised, given the levels of anger surfacing in the campaigns. We are in a war with ourselves about the values that we hold most dear, that we believe will keep us from harm, that will offer a sustainable direction, that may even be a legacy.

Last weekend, I went for a long, quiet walk in one of Washington State’s most beautiful rain forests. Instead of the television and the competing voices all there was to hear was the sound of intermittent showers and in between them the sounds of creeks and the drip of water from leaves of the turning maple trees. In such a place, consciousness of the war went away for awhile, replaced by what is timeless and beautiful and profound. I was reminded how in the interstices of the world the heart grows, and how important it is to listen to that heart.

This a time in which it is imperative to feel and think for ourselves aside from all the chatter. What seems clear is that it is time to locate the raw earth of a newly unifying American identity. We have to cut through the current polarization the way the silence of the forest cuts through it — to see it for it is, simply an argument that neither side can win — to find out what we want to actually stand for. That process could take us forward to our own definition of what is a good country now. I have a feeling that if we all completed this exercise the common principles that would be articulated, such as justice and freedom, would be much the same as they have been since the Founders, but the “how to to get there” might be very, very different, particularly in our relationship with the rest of the globe.

In 2000, Ian Frazier published his exceptional book, On the Rez, about the Oglala Sioux and the Pine Ridge Reservation. Along the way, he makes this commentary, which in times like these I find comforting:

America is a leap of the imagination. From the beginning, people had only a persistent idea of what a good country should be. The idea involved freedom, equality, justice, and the pursuit of happiness; nowadays most of us probably could not describe it a lot more clearly than that. The truth is, it always has been a bit of a guess. No one has ever known for sure whether a country based on such an idea is really possible, but again and again, we have leaped toward the idea and hoped….The idea does not truly live unless it is expressed by an act; the country does not live unless we make the leap from our tribe or focus group or gated community or demographic, and land on the shaky platform of that idea of a good country which all kinds of different people share.

I believe deeply that this is a time for the next leap out of our “gated community or demographic” onto that “shaky platform.” Maybe that platform isn’t even about a “good country,” but more about a “good world.” We can’t go backwards to rely on old rules no matter how much we revere them. Instead we have to build on those rules and we have to decide for ourselves, defining a more authentic America that can be a realistic part of our actual interdependent community of nations, not some protectionist fantasy of belonging to a private, “gated” empire. I’m not suggesting a revolution, just an effort to get our heads out of the sand. When I look at the candidates, it seems such a clear decision between past and future. One of them seems to me to understand much better than the other how to create that bridge between our roots and the future we all have a responsibility to help define. I dearly hope you see things the same way.

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One Comment

  • Dan: thanks for sharing your calming words during these troubled – and troubling – times. Your photo and story about a walk in the rain forest reminds me of a quote by the poet, Wallace Stevens: “perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake”.

    I believe we always have fundamental tensions within us – each with a thousand pilot lights that can easily be fanned into the flames of internal or external war. Recent incendiary statements made by the McCain / Palin campaign, Fox News and other supporters reflect the “win at any cost” strategy that has served the Republicans – but not the country – well over the past few elections. I hope that we can, as Hillary Clinton has recently predicted, once again “rise from the ashes of the Bushes”.

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