We have become unhinged.
I don’t mean “crazy,” though perhaps we are crazy. We certainly think other people are crazy. Them. The other side. And it’s the other-side-ness I’m talking about when I say we are unhinged. Un-hinged.
We’ve always taken sides in political arguments, right from Day One, but the two sides used to be joined in the middle. There was a thing that held us together and connected us, that touched both sides but belonged to neither—a thing that formed a core or center around which the rest of us could freely swing, this way and that way. It allowed the two sides to function together to perform tasks that neither side, alone, could accomplish. A simple bolt can make two flaps of metal into a hinge. And something made separate people and conflicting ideas into a nation.
Was it the Constitution? The Declaration? The First Amendment? The flag? Was it a sense of shared history, or shared destiny? It wasn’t a shared ethnic identity, no matter what the screamers like Ann Coulter or Pat Buchanan want to believe. It wasn’t just white-ness, or WASP-ness, or even male-ness. We overcame substantial parts of those biases, and allowed outsiders to take part and feel ownership (albeit grudgingly). We may not have been ready to welcome this minority group or that one, but weirdly, maybe even perversely, they insisted on welcoming us. They demanded ownership in the country. They wanted the words to belong to them, as much as they belonged to us. They wanted to believe in the words, even when we didn’t seem to.
The power of the Civil Rights movement came, in part, from the demand that Thomas Jefferson’s words apply to all Americans, regardless of what Mister Tom himself might have wanted or intended. Throughout our years, groups of people of have read the words, “All men are created equal” and have said, “Make that real for me.” The work is far from finished—but that doesn’t mean it never began. A black man has been our president. A gay woman hosts a hugely popular daytime talk-show. A Latino man and his cast of black, white, Asian, gay, and straight actors has made the entire country fall in love with and sing about “the ten-dollar founding father.” Every generation, some new group of people reaches for the bolt that has held the hinge together, and has said, “I want to be part of that.”
But now…what is the “that?” What is the bolt around which we cling, today, to form the hinge around which we can swing? We use freedom of speech to broadcast contempt of each other; freedom of religion to excuse bigotry against each other; the right to bear arms to protect us against the existential threat of each other. These things were meant to hold us together. Instead, they keep us apart. We birthed ourselves as a nation by saying that the pursuit of happiness was one of our inalienable rights, and that governments were formed—by us—to protect those rights. And yet, today, when people struggle because laws or behaviors hinder them from the free pursuit enjoyed by their neighbors, we sneer at them, call their pleas for equity and justice “special pleading,” and mouth off about the self-reliance and independence of our forefathers…our forefathers who would have perished a thousand times over if their neighbors had not been there to help them in times of trouble.
Why are the people next to us no longer our neighbors? Why doesn’t their pursuit of happiness deserve our sympathy and support? Is it because we are white and they are black? Is it because we are straight and they are gay? Is it because we are Christians and they are Moslems? Did our forefathers run through a checklist of acceptable beliefs and behaviors before offering a helping hand to someone whose crops had failed, or whose barn had burned down?
No, of course not. They didn’t have to. The checklist was already assumed—pre-checked before the neighbors ever put down roots. If someone were living next door, it was because he had already passed muster as Acceptable. And anyone outside of that definition….lived elsewhere.
Is that what we want to go back to? And if so...how far do we need to take it, in order to feel safe? Will it be enough for white people to hide themselves away from black people—even more than they already do? But so many white people despise each other these days. Maybe that’s not enough. Would it be enough for Democrats and Republicans to live in separate neighborhoods—even more than they already do? But the moderates and extremists within each party hate each other almost as much as they hate the opposition. Should devout believers of various religions be protected from having to come in contact with or provide commercial services to people whose beliefs or behaviors contradict their own? Should we have special districts where only white, straight, conservative Christians live and operate businesses? And if we build such things, will we need some kind of guarded entry gate to keep the wrong sort from being able to go shopping in their stores?
Must every nut be separated from every bolt? Every screw removed from every hole? Every piece of wood separated and stored with similar pieces of wood, and all metals arranged by type and color? Has the wonderful, awful, maddening, glorious house we have built become so difficult to maintain that we have to tear it to the ground and return all of its parts to the store for safe-keeping?