Polarizing protests show ‘nobody's right if everybody's wrong’
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Recent events in Charlottesville and Boston caused me to flash back to a song from my college days. Fifty years ago, Buffalo Springfield offered insights about a divided nation spinning out of control over Vietnam, campus protests, urban violence and the rise of the counterculture.

“There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear.” they sang. “There's battle lines being drawn, nobody's right if everybody's wrong.” The timely warning found in “For What It’s Worth” is as appropriate today as it was back then. “It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.”

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If we hope to avoid the chaos and violence of the late 1960s and early 70s, everyone needs to take a deep breath and calm down. America is dangerously close to coming apart. Once again, the nation is polarized — this time over issues involving race, ethnicity, gender, religion, immigrants and class.

 

Just like the 60s, each side today is demonizing the other, pointing fingers at who is to blame, who is right, and who is wrong. What gets lost in all the fire and fury are the ties that bind Americans together. Arguably, the tragic events in Charlottesville and demonstrations in Boston are a continuation of the mean-spirited election of 2016, which partitioned the nation into rival factions often more concerned about their own political agendas, particular needs and fears than the nation’s general welfare. Our fractured nation needs to heed Abraham Lincoln’s advice on the eve of the Civil War, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The U.S. Constitution begins with the phrase “We the People of the United States.” It doesn’t refer to Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, whites, blacks, or any other identifiable group. It assumes we are Americans first and foremost. Everyone across the land needs to pause for a moment and consider what it means to be an American.

Figuring that out nowadays is a lot trickier because demographics have changed, institutions that used to pull us together have become undone, and modern politics and mass media have splintered the American people into special interests and tribal groups. Yet, the basic American Character lives on. Americans are unified in their ongoing quest for liberty and justice for all. They remain dedicated to the belief that all men and women are created equal with "certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (whatever that means).

The Bill of Rights is at the core of our beliefs.  But, all the anger and division in contemporary America suggest how fragile freedom can be. Most Americans justifiably condemn racists, fascists and other authoritarians whether they come from the political right or the political left. But, they need to be careful. After all, the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone lawful freedom of speech no matter how repugnant their views. Americans have the right if not obligation to speak out against injustice and despicable beliefs and actions. But, if in the process they forcibly silence or disenfranchise those who oppose their views, they will wind up destroying the very civil liberties and democratic ideals they cherish.

Ironically, Thomas Jefferson, who authored the phrase “all men are created equal,” is buried at Monticello overlooking Charlottesville. Centuries ago, the former president said the slavery issue that threatened the nation scared him like a “firebell in the night.” 

The events in Charlottesville and Boston offer a similar wake-up call for contemporary Americans. Throughout the nation’s history no good has ever come from political posturing that demonizes opponents and offers simplistic solutions to complicated problems.

In the early 1800s, shortsighted politicians and demagogues plunged the country into a devastating civil war. Nativist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries powered the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other xenophobic groups bent on violence and discrimination against ethnic, racial and religious minorities. The Red Scare after World War I and McCarthyism in the 1950s fanned similar fires of paranoia, destroying the lives and careers of anyone deemed “un-American.” More recently, the divisions of the late 1960s and 70s unleashed civil unrest, violence and unrelenting culture wars.

In 2017, we are once again facing polarized politics, violent protests and growing fears over real and imagined threats. The anxious mood of the country is like an out-of-control political pressure cooker rapidly approaching the danger zone. No way can we keep going like this without the whole thing blowing. History suggests something unexpected if not catastrophic will happen unless both sides come together as Americans and ratchet back the toxic rhetoric.

Not even Nostradamus could predict how all this turmoil will play out. But, another classic ‘60s rock song does offer a clue. In 1965, Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” provided glimpses of a troubled America and concluded, “You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” 

Richard Aquila is a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University and a distinguished lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. A specialist in U.S. Social and Cultural history and former host of NPR’s Rock & Roll America, and author of the 2016 book "Let's Rock! How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze.”


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