HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 5, 2008
From Liberty Street

Splitting Apart

John Turner


Now it seems there are "brands" of patriotism and if you don't embrace the right kind some of your fellow citizens are going to dislike you. It's not enough anymore simply to wish your countrymen well and hope to see society improve so that all people can live well and in peace. You've got to hate in the right way and if you don't some people are going to hate you.

Barack Obama is supposedly in serious trouble because some don't agree with the way he expresses his patriotism -- he's not effusive enough, he's not soupy enough, he's too cool.

The notion that the people of the United States are tired of divisiveness and long to come together as one people is nonsense. They may be tired, but they're not tired enough to live and let live. The passions separating one style of life from another, one form of education from another, one process of criminal justice from another, one attitude towards the outside world from another, are stronger than ever. And there's no reason to think they won't get stronger.

We are not engaged merely in differences of opinion about the most effective ways to approach our goals. Instead, we have different and opposing goals -- ends and purposes that are at war with one another. Those kinds of separations don't go away easily and they certainly don't go away quickly.

Maybe our divisions are more rancorous now because we are better informed about what other people think. There was a time when I had no idea what various clergymen thought. The only clerical opinions I knew anything about came from people I had actually heard preaching. Now all I have to do is flick on my TV to be presented with dozens of religious statements. And I have to confess that most of them strike me as deranged. If I thought I had to live in a society organized and directed by many of the religious voices I hear, I'd take out running and never look back.  And what I can say about religious voices, I can say also about social, political, and economic positions.

There are symbolic occurrences in people's lives and I confess I had one last night.   I dreamed I was in a room full of Republicans, and all of them despised me with venomous hatred. Speaker after speaker advanced to a podium and denounced me with pure malice. And what had I done? I had written about education in a way they didn't like.

As far as I can remember, this is the first time in my life I have ever dreamed about people having a particular political identity. I've dreamed about lots of different persons in thousands of situations but never before had their politics entered my subconscious. Yet, I would guess, from now on whenever Republicans show up in my dreams, I'm going to fear I'm on the verge of being tortured to death.

Obviously, one can't live in perfect accordance with his dreams -- that is, unless he has stepped out of sanity. On the other hand, when political character invades your psyche so thoroughly you find it rising up in your dreams, something is happening. And I have no reason to suppose I'm the only one it's happening to.

We claim in America to prize diversity. And maybe we do. But if we're going to be diverse, we need to face the truth that it won't affect simply the music we listen to, or the style of dress we adopt, or the way we choose to spend our Saturday nights. Diversity goes to the core and I don't think we're ready for it. Rather, many Americans are ready to interfere violently in other people's lives if those people are engaged in what's considered abnormal behavior.

I used to work with a guy who told me that if he knew a white woman was having sexual contact with a black man, he would kill her, no matter what and no matter what happened to him as a result. I can't be sure how serious he was, but he sure sounded serious. I don't think his type has gone away or become less numerous. Maybe the ire of persons of that sort is directed at behavior which isn't precisely the same as it once was. But the simmering emotion is still there.

Exactly what all this means for the American political configuration I can't be sure. But it tells me no era of political unity is on the way. We are going to have to live with tumultuous political conditions for some time to come, and learning to manage them short of bloodshed is the most serious social challenge we face.


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