Let's All Just Step Back From the Brink
I remember being at a party in 1968, not long out of college, and having some guy bet me $10 that America would be in a full-fledged civil war within 15 years.
Let's see. Sixty-eight plus 15 equals 83. And when 1983 rolled around, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, it was "morning in America," we and most of the rest of the world were at peace, and the country was launching into a period of unprecedented prosperity that would last, off and on, for more than 20 years. Not a civil war in sight.
My young friend was wrong. And he never did pay me my $10.
But had he been crazy to make such a prediction in 1968? In my heart, I had to admit that it didn't feel like such an exaggeration at the time, and that I knew where he was coming from.
I took the bet, but it was mostly a case of whistling in the dark. There were a lot of us back then, including older and wiser heads, who shared in the sense of alarm and anxiety at the state of things and where they might be heading.
After all, 1968 has to rank way up there, if not at the very top, on the list of most nightmarish years in American history. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered. The surprise Tet offensive by Communist forces dashed our hope that we had turned a corner in the Vietnam War. Black ghettoes in several of our major cities had exploded in deadly racial rioting. There were street battles at the infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago.
But, as dark as things looked, we somehow got through that bad spot in one piece, things calmed down, and the fabric of our nation proved more tear-resistant than we had imagined.
I have to keep reminding myself of that all these years later, when we as a nation find ourselves again in an ugly crisis mode. And once more, at this much later stage in life, I find myself troubled about the future of our beloved republic and again wondering if we can keep this train on the track.
On the surface, the year 2010 doesn't feel much like 1968, though we are locked in another endless, no-win war - two of them, actually. True, there are no hippies and hardhats confronting each other in the streets, our inner cities appear relatively calm, and there have been (knock wood) no assassinations. But on another level, things seem worse now than they were then. And at the moment, at least, that light at the end of the proverbial tunnel is looking pretty dim and distant.
I've never experienced such anger, hostility, polarization and incivility as one can feel reverberating through the body politic and across the Web as the election of 2010 nears.
Something about the mood out there is downright scary. Political attack ads have reached a new level of lying loathsomeness. The venomous tone displayed by some bloggers, radio talkers and Web commenters suggests that they already consider themselves at war with fellow citizens. If we can't get ahold of ourselves, it is not hard to imagine things spiraling out of control.
America has fallen on hard economic times, to be sure. But rather than place the responsibility where it largely belongs - on our own shoulders as an irresponsible society that lived way beyond its means for decades - we find it easier to look for simpler answers and aim our hostility at easy scapegoats and nurse sinister conspiracy theories. Hatred of Muslims and illegal immigrants is approaching a paranoid fever pitch.
It's quite a stretch to compare the United States of the year 2010 to Weimer Germany in 1930, as some contemporary observers have done. But there are inescapable parallels: A country with a nagging feeling that it is losing its greatness and its place of leadership on the world stage. A sense of military failure. An economy on the rocks. And some handy minority groups to pile the blame on.
Are we ripe for the rise of another Hitler, as has been fearfully suggested in some quarters? Again, I would bet my $10 against it. But I would do so with greater confidence if we would all take a couple of giant steps back from the brink, dwell more on what we have in common than what divides us, and quit playing so recklessly with fire.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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