James E. Copple
“We, the people,” is a black veteran weeping at the grave of his white brother. The guilt, frustration and trauma he feels for seeing a comrade killed by an IED.
Their story was part of a 60 Minutes segment, and the “brother” was a white man from Texas. Their histories were different and their worlds miles apart, but in the villages of Afghanistan they were brothers. He thinks of his brother every day; misses him and his good humor. They were “We, the people.”
What is happening in our culture that students at an American university in 2015 can and will sing songs about lynching or use hate speech for the purpose of promoting segregation in their fraternity?
In nearly 250 years of Constitutional history, the United States has seen many great reform movements and reformers. Whether abolitionists, suffragettes, racial integration or the voting rights act, we have always sought self-correction. Often, it has been through war, mass demonstrations or through the courts. The tragedy of our history is that we ever needed these reform efforts or these reformers in the first place.
Our system resists change, but change seems to come when we reach a thermidore, as described in Crane Brinton’s “Anatomy of a Revolution:” a period of intense social heat when we seek to stabilize or overthrow oppressive elements of social change.
The wealth gap; a culture of mass-incarceration of the mentally ill and males within the black community; a national preoccupation with war and the excuses we use to fight could lead to the kind of social upheaval that will once again beg us to ask how this nation we celebrate every Fourth-of-July reached this point.
It isn’t about Democrats and Republicans; liberalism or conservatism, but a crisis of the spirit that finds comfort in conflict and isolationism. Our desperate need to be right or to justify the past (slavery, genocide, the oppression of women) leads a retreat into fortresses of racial and ethnic camps. And for the political class, it is all about getting elected.
We still don’t have it right, and that is underscored by Ferguson, Mo., and the police shooting of another unarmed teen in Madison, Wis. In fact, we are seeing a relapse in core values. Consider the Supreme Court overturning sections of the Voting Rights Act; look at Citizens United, where the court made campaign finance a playground for the rich and powerful. We are polarized, and that polarization is anchored in a growing culture of intolerance.
There is an America where we weep color-blind tears for each other; where we reach for our best selves to lead lives built on inclusive and unqualified recognition, appreciation and respect for the sacrifices borne by all our brothers and sisters. But that America only prevails if we can find bridges that transcend class, race, religion and culture.
President Obama said it well in his speech at Selma: This country is about “WE” the people, and it is only “WE” the people who can meet the challenges of a complex world. We, the people, must surrender labels and vitriol to seek justice laced in compassion.
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