INTRODUCTION: This essay was first published in early August 2011. It is reprinted here with few changes such as “Harbinger of Civil War?” added to the title.
Occupy Wall Street had not yet erupted. The Arab Spring was in the throes of a Summer of Conflict. The UK was in flames and the rest of Europe was rumbling. Inside the U.S.A. disenchanted and angry people by first hundreds then thousands rallied and marched as the Tea Party in 2009, 2010, and 2011. That wave seemed to crest with rallies in Washington, D.C., some with over a million participants.
In Madison, Wisconsin in February 2011 an uprising among the workers, sparked by teaching assistants against the harsh cuts of Republican Governor Scott Walker, broke out that electrified America. It was primarily non-violent and was embraced by so many different groups of Americans including Police officers. This uprising lasted well into April and at one point over 100,000 people and then 185,000 poured into the streets. In many ways the Wisconsin Uprising was a precursor of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
As “the Empire Strikes Back” against the Occupy movement with heavy handed militarized police, we see the current escalation of violence and intimidation. At the same time Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt erupts into days of at first peaceful protests against the military dictatorship with dozens of demonstrators killed by militarized police. In the following article we revisit the underlying tensions leading to the widespread protests we see today.
November 23, 2011
Several essays I read recently by different pundits and news analysts gave me pause. They addressed different points of the same view. Much has been written about the rising vitriol in American public discourse with the spread of far-right and far-left extremism to infect the great middle.
Note the resurgence of armed militias and racist groups with the rampant rise of violent hate groups first under President George W. Bush with many more under President Barack Obama. The tragic shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D) and others around her this past January triggered a national debate that went beyond passion to inflammatory rhetoric. We have become a nation polarized and divided that refuses to get along with itself.
There have been calls for a military coup, threats of martial law, and fears of riots. Even the specter of a possible civil war or revolution has been raised as our nation reaches levels of polarization not seen since the 1850s with the possible exception of the 1960s. The uprisings sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East with rioting and protests in Europe and elsewhere, including the American state of Wisconsin, have been hailed as harbingers of similar upheaval here at home. London burns as I write. So many cities across the United Kingdom are in flames the term “riots” has given way to “insurrection.”
The recent “Budget Deal” reached early this August between Republicans and Democrats was another case in point. Yes, a deal was reached. A deal was duct taped together after long, rancorous, and extremely ugly arguments in Congress and the White House and across America. It was so bad even Representative Giffords came out of rehab to cast her first vote since she was shot in the head back in January 2011. And it was a deal no one liked and everyone hated. Much was made of “Look at us! At least we made a bipartisan deal.” The agreement was bipartisan in name only and the U.S.A. was promptly stripped of its sterling AAA credit rating, the stock markets crashed and crashed again as gold soared, and other nations from China to Europe scrambled.
There was a time Republicans and Democrats were able to wheel and deal to get effective legislation accomplished. Of course, they did not satisfy the ideologues chomping with dismay in the wings of both parties, but the vast majority of Americans were pleased. Years ago, President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and Senator Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, were famous for fierce debates over many issues. After the votes were cast this way or the other, however, both would go out together for beers and laughter. Former Senator Teddy Kennedy was another stand-taker who mastered the art of compromise.
Now compromise is a bad word. It was noticed recently that President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner, political polar opposites, are among the last waves of baby boomers passing through American politics. They have not mastered the art of compromise and both come across as “nice.” While Boehner has run a company, Obama has not. Neither developed the experienced of going nose to nose and toe to toe with opponents in management, in the labor unions, in the military, in combat, or against the Soviets.
The generations passing and for many already passed are the ones that grew up in the World Wars, survived the Great Depression, and went eyeball to eyeball with the Soviet Empire with fingers on the nuclear triggers. Many ran large companies or colleges and universities. Most of them were military veterans, and many had experienced the horrors of combat.
These men and women knew in a crisis to all come together for the national good, not tear the country apart. They had heard enough of that from their elders regarding the horrors and the aftermath of the Civil War. These men and women also knew that for different folks to all work together everyone has to compromise. Compromise was a form of sacrifice. It was good.
Now compromise is shunned, even ridiculed. Politicians behave as spoiled children fighting over toys in the playroom oblivious to their own house burning down. People talk of “cooperation and collaboration,” but we see this more among NGOs and today’s business enterprises as entrepreneurs and big corporations alike struggle and adapt to survive the Great Recession. We don’t see it in government. This paralysis extends up into the international and down into the state and municipal governments as well. As the country runs out of cash, credit, and amasses even more debt the more people argue with politicians eyeing the next election campaign rather than the deep and broad reforms not only required, but also demanded.
As the memories of the Second World War fade, including the horror justified as “total war,” many today forget that many times in the past, not just World War II but others as well, that surprisingly often more soldiers would die in one day of battle than in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq put together. There were many battles with extremely high casualties, not to mention the widespread slaughter of civilians by both sides. Few really want to repeat total war, obviously, but many forget its cost. Now there is sloppy and callous talk among war planners in government of using mini-nukes and bunker-busting nukes in military first strikes or even on the battlefield.
We have politicians in power who don’t or can’t relate to these matters. Instead of compromising, they go positional over values. They make values more important than reality with real results. The polarization between our politicians is a reflection of the even greater polarization and anger among the general public. There is a lack of leadership, leaders that can compromise and that means being strong enough and possessed of enough liberty and self-confidence to compromise their own values.
Values don’t exist out in reality. They live in our speaking. They dwell in our inner worlds of our minds. They are anchored by beliefs, and beliefs are made up in our minds. Facts are used or discarded at whim to fit not reality but whatever people want to believe to thus justify taking extreme stands on their values.
Of course values are important. They are ingrained in our Declaration of Independence, in the U.S. Constitution, in the traditions of all the world’s religions, and in the ethics of secularists and others. A sense of values was what brought past generations together to push through the wars and calamities of 1914-1991. They also had enough sense not to let these same values get in the way of working through their own differences to achieve even greater results.
In surveying all this, I realize one possible reason my wife Kristina and I sometimes have differences over issues in a way that perplexes me. She often uses the word “values” in our arguments and conversations. I do not. I certainly take stands on issues, but I am also quite willing to change my mind and work with others, especially when shown evidence that is contrary to any of my beliefs. We are almost ten years apart in age. I’m among the last of the baby boomers, too, and she identifies with Generation X.
Recent studies indicate GenX and subsequent generations place much greater emphasis on values than prior generations did. They are more extreme in taking stands for their values. I recall conversations about morals and for ethics and getting clear as to what our credo was. Beyond that I don’t remember a heavy emphasis on “values.” I also grew up in the revolutionary and turbulent 1960s. Instead of being polarized between two extremes, there were multiple factions quarrelling with one another. The term “values” was tossed out as an archaic concept. There were more important things, such as eradicating war, poverty, racism, and sexism.
I for one don’t want any more violence here at home or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. I certainly don’t want to see the United States of America fragment into revolution and civil war. My stand is we return to civil discourse and hold our politicians accountable to do the same. As American citizens we elect our politicians, and they hire our bureaucrats. Our military would be wise to remember their sworn oath is to uphold the Constitution, not pledge personal loyalty to any one person or office. And our political leaders must begin to demonstrate leadership. Along with the love, what little they show, they also must demonstrate spine. Some backbone! Keep in mind a healthy spine is strong and flexible. A sick spine is soft and swollen or rigid and brittle.
If we are to really be a stand for values, then allow for the values of compromise, agreement making, cooperation, and collaboration. These values in turn will safeguard most others. We have too much at stake as multiple crises converge upon our species.
We can work together. We are already doing so in realms as diverse as business and activism. The spread of new portable technologies facilitates these actions. Our politicians, however, seem content to bicker until some fabled earthquake brings down the temples of government. I certainly oppose corporate control of politics, and as businesses prove themselves more adaptable and resilient what will happen? Perhaps we need new models of self-government, one grounded not in ossified traditions of the past but in newer models of local-global cooperation, resource sustainability, and engaged, and collaborative leadership.
What will it take for you to take a stand for what you believe, and be willing to compromise the same for higher values such as the survival of our country and our world so we can transform our differences to build a truly prosperous global civilization?
William Dudley Bass
August 8, 2011
NOTE: Originally posted on At the Brink at http://atthebrinkwithwilliamdudleybass.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html.
Copyright © 2011 by William Dudley Bass.