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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Keeping the peace in troubled times

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Angry disagreement now dominates our national discourse, with emphasis on the “angry.”

We feel, with William Butler Yeats, that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

I believe that however we define America, whatever principles we think it stands for, it’s worth preserving. So are our families and friendships.

Whether you think that America “was never great” or you yearn for a lost era of innocence and patriotism, no one can deny America’s achievements. No one can deny the ideals that our country has imperfectly tried to follow. People vote with their feet. Middle Eastern migrants don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia, which is much closer but won’t take them, anyway. They want to come here.

The good we have achieved, and the good we can still achieve, are things that we don’t want to throw away. America can survive a controversial president. It can’t survive being torn apart.

This is a difficult time for all of us. But we can get through it if we keep our heads and follow some common-sense rules – both personally, and as a country.

Keeping Our Personal Sanity

The personal rules are easier to follow.

First, don’t sever relationships that matter. Our relationships with family and close friends should transcend most disagreements. That also applies to other people we respect, who might have some ideas we find repugnant. If we know they’re good people whom we admire for other reasons, then we shouldn’t close the door on them permanently.

Online or in real life, I never “unfriend” family, close friends, or people I respect. Every family has its Uncle Frank who’s a staunch right-winger and Aunt Sally who’s a staunch left-winger. When they walk through the front door, we should greet them warmly, embrace them, and avoid conversation about their hot-button subjects. We can talk about the kids or the weather. Online, we can mute their posts so we remain friends but don’t have to see their political rants.

Second, forgive hurtful things that people said in heated arguments. If you’re ever in doubt, forgive them anyway. Forgiveness should be our default response. The only people exempt from this rule are those who have never said anything stupid or hurtful. Which means: nobody.

Third, remember that we all sometimes have crazy ideas. Remember that people, including us, tend to base their political beliefs more on emotion than on facts or reasoning. As a result, good people, smart people can believe things that we think are absurd. Don’t abandon them because of it.

Fourth, remember that we all sometimes change our minds. People who bitterly disagree with you today might decide tomorrow that you’re right. Or you might decide that they’re right. The fact that we feel absolutely sure of our own rightness doesn’t guarantee that we’re right, only that we’re sure.

Keeping Our Political Sanity

It might surprise you to learn that we’re not the first generation to have this kind of disagreement. In the late 1700s, the United States – referred to in the plural until the mid-20th century – were sharply divided on issues such as religion, local autonomy, and of course – to our shame – slavery.

Does this situation sound familiar?

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power … have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

That’s from Federalist Paper #10 by James Madison, published in 1788. The bitter national dissension we see today is an old problem that was solved (as well as it can be) a long time ago. We just forgot the solution.

The American Founders needed to unite the colonies into a single nation in spite of their disagreements. They did it with the last article in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (10th Amendment)

In Federalist Paper #45, Madison explained the meaning:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce …The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

We’ve heard a lot about the disagreements between California and other parts of the country, most notably with the Trump White House. It’s what’s got some people promoting “Calexit.”

But what if the federal government had no power to tell the State of California how to run its internal affairs, except for basic human rights and issues affecting the entire country? Then it wouldn’t matter what the president wanted to do. He or she wouldn’t be able to do it. Calexit would be superfluous.

Going back to the Constitution isn’t without cost. Apart from the legal hurdles, it requires a willingness to “live and let live.” Arbitrary power seems like a great idea when you’re the one who’s got it. But when it’s in the hands of people with whom you disagree, it’s suddenly a lot less appealing. If we don’t want people in Kentucky dictating how people live in California, then we must give up the idea that people in California may dictate to people in Kentucky how they are required to live.

The U.S. Constitution can solve our political problems, if we’ll let it.

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