If an alien landed in our country during the past year or two and began following the news, he or she might conclude that American is a nation at war with itself, based on the ugly level of public discourse that too often goes unchallenged. As I think back to my time as a teacher, principal and school superintendent, I would have never accepted the kind of rude and disrespectful behavior we’ve become accustomed to these days, without an intervention. As an educator, however, I also realize that our modern era’s fundamental challenge is that all the civics lessons in the world are useless when this type of public behavior is commonly ignored, condoned or even rewarded.
I’ve concluded that part of the issue is that the connective tissue that has historically bound us together in a common sense of citizenship, of what it means to be an American, appears to be failing, like an ailing joint in need of replacement.
For example, we are constantly barraged with labels that divide us – red states and blue states, flyover country and the coasts, conservative and progressive, etc. One author, Colin Woodard, has even written a book making the argument that America can be neatly divided into 11 separate nation-states, where dominant cultures increasingly define our voting behaviors and attitudes toward everything from social issues to the role of government.
That same book contends that America’s much vaunted mobility has been steadily reinforcing, not dissolving, our regional differences, as our neighbors increasingly sort themselves into like-minded communities.
Just recently, we learned that California has overtaken the UK as the world’s fifth largest economy, leaving only Germany, Japan, China and the US itself to produce more each year. If present trends continue, it feels like the American “experiment” may become destined to devolve.
This sense of division is driven home every day by what we hear, read and discuss. These daily skirmishes all seem light years away from my fond childhood memories of beginning each school day by reciting together the Pledge of Allegiance, which instilled in me a great sense of belonging, security and pride.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I distinctly remember the conversation around our dinner table growing up about the addition of “under God” to the pledge. My family belonged to the First Baptist Church in Seminole, a small town in West Texas. Our school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance being led by a student over the intercom. It was hard for me to understand why anyone would be against the phrase “under God.”
I’ve now concluded that much of the current ugly tone of public discourse and lack of respect for the views of others can be directly laid at the feet of our leaders. Many of us were sickened about how President Trump referred to certain African countries, or how Hillary Clinton defined Trump supporters as “deplorables.” More recently, we were disheartened at the horrific comments made about Senator John McCain and the subsequent lack of an apology from the White House.
So, where do we go from here? First, we must lead with the courage to confront rude and disrespectful behavior and comments from those around us and use public forums such as letters to the editor or social media when it comes to calling out poor behavior by elected officials.
Second, we must once again learn to speak in language that unifies us as citizens. Let’s focus on the common principals and life stories that unite us and are unique in the world – personal freedom, security, social and economic mobility and a sense that our nation can be a force for good in the world.
Third, we must model good behavior ourselves. The younger generation has grown tired and cynical about public pronouncements that are too often incongruous with private behavior.
Finally, we should run for public office or, barring that, vote out those who don’t represent us. The good news is that many Americans, perhaps the majority are tired of the blame game. Members of all parties, Republican and Democrats, moderates and conservatives don’t have to be so divided. There is another way. Groups are forming and individuals are coming together with the belief that our country is more important than any specific candidate, party or movement.
This week, my musical pick is “Let it Be” by the Beatles. This beautiful song was released in 1970, the year Larry deployed to Vietnam and I deployed to The Menninger Clinic diagnosed with Clinical Depression.
Its moving lyrics about how the world could be have always been a source of personal inspiration for me.
(c) Tyra Manning 2018