During the Civil War, America was divided, a gaping, horrible, violent separation between the states of the North and those of the South.
Families were torn apart and the social fabric of the nation was ripped. For the first and only time in our nation’s history, the possibility that our great democratic experiment could fail was real. Had the South won the war, we would have been left with permanent separation, to the never-ending detriment of the entire continent.
“United we stand (and) divided we fall,” a phrase and notion dating to the earliest part of western civilization, has been used time and again in the U.S. during times of civil unrest. It’s a reminder that, despite cultural, religious and political differences, it must be remembered that we are all citizens of the same country.
Born in 1962, I grew up through the increasing agony of the Vietnam War. I was 12 years old before I knew us as a nation that wasn’t at war. Those born in 2001 are having the same experience right now, though absent the vigorous anti-war movement.
I well remember the Kent State University massacre in 1970, where four students were killed and nine others wounded when national guardsmen opened up with rifles on anti-war protesters. It shocked the nation and, to a degree, fueled an end of the war, militarily unsatisfying as it was.
This all came on the heels of the 1960s, a decade of unprecedented, rapid social change. Young people no longer accepted the government’s explanations and demands without question. Similarly, they began questioning their parents’ views about life, trying to figure it out in their own way.
Ironically, the nation’s economy during the 1960s was about as strong as it ever has been. The U.S. dominated the world economy and well-paying manufacturing jobs were widely available. Work could be had in cities and towns from coast-to-coast.
But social inequities were glaring, especially for women and people of color. The movement toward freedom and openness for gay people only began in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. It has taken decades for this beginning to bear fruit in terms of freedom from discrimination.
But no matter what, one has to look all the way back to 1865 to find a nation as divided as we are today. Nothing else compares, not even the 1960s.
The usual political divide between the right and left is now a chasm. People are entrenched in their political camps and reasonable conversations are seldom to be had. When people start referring to the New York Times and the Washington Post as “fake news,” you know things have taken a turn for the strange.
One of the things I liked about the late Sen. John McCain was the fact that, as a Republican, he was quick to reach across the aisle and work with his Democratic counterparts. This is a quality I also admired in the late Rep. Tip O’Neill, a Democrat who, as Speaker of the House, was able to accomplish much while working with the Republican administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Former Rep. Steve Neal of Winston-Salem, a Democrat who represented this area from 1975 to 1995, brought a sense of calmness and reason that added much to Congress. The late Republican Sen. Bob Dole from Kansas also spent his life putting the welfare of America ahead of political considerations.
Such steady voices are sorely missed, with a nation grappling between extreme views on the left and right.
We need people in Congress who are willing to condemn criminal misconduct and gross abuse of power, despite the threat to their re-election prospects. We also need representatives who are willing to say that the notion of socialism lies at odds with American ideals.