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The Lessons of 1968 and the Healing of a Nation

Posted by erweinstein on November 6, 2018

[Author’s note: I wrote this on July 4, 2018. I made some edits in late October and early November 2018 to add links and fix typos.]

On July 4, we reflect, as we ought to, on the fact that we are very fortunate. We have been given, as our inheritance, something of great and immense power and of inestimable value. A functioning and prosperous polity, a nation called the United States of America. We inherited a nation centered not around the bloodline of one particular royal family, not around the history of one specific race or ethnic group, or around the theology of one especially venerated religion, but around a set of ideas.

As many others have said much better than I can, these ideas speak of universal rights and the dignity of every person, not just for those people who lived in a sacred place at a certain time and not just for those who speak a certain language and not just for those who have a certain desirable ancestry. Truths so radical in their humanism, and so disruptive to an older order founded on the divine right of kings, and yet so profound and so deeply in tune with the underlying reality of human nature, were proclaimed “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence–even though at that time they were not self-evident, but rather disputed by many, even by some who signed that noble document. The truth that every person is and must be equal under the law. The truth that all people–irrespective of their manifest differences–have inalienable rights that exist prior to any interactions with society or with the polity, and thus cannot be and should not be abridged by fellow citizens or by the government.

One of the great challenges of our time–as it has been for many other times–is to more fully and properly realize those universal values and to therefore more fully live up to the high standards and ideals our nation’s Founders declared and codified after risking their homes, careers, and lives to start a new nation. We must remember that our fellow citizens might disagree with our particular interpretation of our nation’s ideals, or might disagree about the most expedient way to go about realizing them, and those disagreements by themselves cannot be a reason to look upon our neighbors and our fellow Americans with hatred and fill our own hearts with venom. Those disagreements have existed all the way back to the doubts that prevailed among–and compromises made by–those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our self-betterment as a society and as a polity has accompanied the ability to resolves these disagreements peacefully and with some measure of civility–even as those who are motivated and passionate rightly channel their fierce resolve towards the promotion of a cause or towards the election (or defeat or recall or impeachment) of an official. As we have fixed and ameliorated the flaws of our nation, so too have we become more civil and decent and understanding to each other. That a United States Senator would be physically assaulted by a Congressman after giving a speech denouncing the attempt to expand the practice of allowing some Americans to own others as slaves–the infamous beating of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks in 1856–occurred at that particular time in our history is not an accident. We have come a long way since then as a nation, and we should not only be proud of that, but also properly value that accomplishment as fragile and in need of care and protection. If we really don’t want to go back to those days, we need to understand what we learned in the past that allowed us to leave it behind, (rather than simply assuming that people back then were just ignorant selfish bigots).

In past eras, we have seen our values clarified in times of crisis. As we survive difficulties, we do not always grow stronger, but we do gain a greater appreciation for those ideals we all hold as our self-evident truths. These clarifications have not arrived only from debates on the floor of a legislature or from discourses on political philosophy–although these less “exciting” moments have not been as irrelevant as some people might claim today–but from moments when we responded to nearly insurmountable challenges. From dedications of a cemetery honoring those lost in a war, from struggles to rebuild after an economic recession, from sacrifices made by our troops sent to aid our nation’s allies overseas during a World War, from speeches insisting on basic freedoms given by our president near the Berlin Wall, and from a powerful essay written from the inside of a Birmingham jail cell. The clarifications did not appear from nowhere–they were brought into being by people of vision and courage. From a stubborn, lanky Illinois congressman who would not concede to the prejudices and divisions of his day because he knew there was a better way, to white Army officers who laughed at the idea that it was somehow dishonorable to serve with and command groups of black soldiers. From writers who risked jail time because they wanted to produce works of art disagreeing with our nation’s foreign policy in nineteen-teens, to children and teenagers whose desire to attend non-segregated schools turned the act of going to class into an uncommon act of courage. A man born in 1833 whose own views were not especially liberal on issues of race, but whose love of truth and justice made him the only Supreme Court Justice to dissent from the infamous acceptance of racial segregation under the banner of “Separate but Equal”. A woman who would not move to the back of the bus one more time, when the alternative was to help lead a movement that would expose the moral depravity of treating citizens of different races so unequally. And a man of education and wealth, who lived his entire life as part of a famous American family, who fought against ossified but still-living hatreds, who turned the mirror of the media and public opinion back upon those who asserted that his status as a member of a religious minority group made him somehow less trustworthy or less loyal to the United States of America.

Today, we face the most notable epidemic of attempts and desires to trivialize and ignore our nation’s shared values of universal rights in 50 years. This desire to “tear (or burn) everything down and start over” has been openly advocated by extremists of both (or all) sides, but today we should be especially concerned that disinformation campaigns supporting this institutional nihilism are crafted and orchestrated by the agents and the military of a hostile foreign government. The “information age” nature of this problem and other aspects of how a murderous human rights-abusing tyrant interfered with our nation’s elections are not yet fully appreciated.

But as those with relevant knowledge (or memory) remind us, things were worse 50 years ago.

Between roughly 1967 and 1973, people on both “the left” and “the right” decided that they did not want to play by the rules of our political system. People believed that the system had failed, that the status quo was “rigged” against them, that playing by the rules would only guarantee failure, and that everyone else (members of other groups, to be precise) could not be trusted, so they acted out. The people “acting out” I’m referring to included those who set their own cities on fire as well as those who supported white supremacist politicians at the ballot box. It included people who aided domestic terrorist organizations as well as those who sympathized with foreign enemies seeking to overthrow the US government. It included extremists who hid among protestors as well as extremists who hid among police officers. It included our national leaders, who recklessly lied and connived to avoid blame for a devastating war they had led us into, and chose to mismanage and cover up rather than admit their mistakes. Unless we have a time machine and the ability to read minds, we cannot go back and prove with certainty whose grievances were the most strongly held. But far more than today, “the center could not hold”.

Although the fabric of society frayed, and zeal for bad causes was in abundance, and good money–and lives–were thrown after bad, we survived. And not by accident. With hard work from many ordinary Americans, with widespread determination that wrongs could and should be righted, and with shining examples from a few particularly great Americans, we rebuilt and renewed our nation.

In that era of domestic strife, there were esteemed leaders who preached civility and compassion towards those with whom we disagree–not in spite of, but as part of an overarching strategy to accomplish social and political change. For some time, they were marginalized. But like the (incorrect) quote that summarizes the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, after being ignored and ridiculed, they started being taken seriously as agents of change, and their message had become difficult to ignore. Their strong, clear voices, and their radiant examples of personal ethics and good character, helped point us to a better way through our nation’s difficulties. But fifty years ago, at what could have been the apex of their influence on our nation’s history, two of the most noble and decent leaders in modern American politics were murdered.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy fought valiantly and organized strategically for the causes they saw as just. They did not stand on the sidelines of history, convinced that it was someone else’s fight or that some other generation was at fault or bore responsibility. They did not keep the company only of those who already agreed with them, satisfying themselves with snarky banter and throwing tantrums to “troll” or “trigger” their opponents. They lived their faith–through prayer, attending church, reading and understanding and believing the bible and the wisdom of past religious leaders–and they used faith to inspire others, and to greatly strengthen their calls for freedom and justice, but they did not use religion as a way to isolate or anathematize other believers (or non-believers), nor to pick fights with those of differing creeds or conflicting interpretations. They and those who marched with them were not advocating small or frivolous changes. Yet up to the very hours of their deaths, Dr. King and Senator Kennedy were condemned for the relative moderation and deliberation of their approach to politics and their philosophy of social change (as opposed to the relative moderation of the specific policies they advocated, which is a different question).

Dr. King and Senator Kennedy advocated a better way to change hearts and win minds than the endless cycle of one-upsmanship and tribal fear-mongering which was prevalent in national and global politics then, which is sadly becoming much more common today than it has been in the past 25-30 years. Both of those leaders possessed the great wisdom that, appearances to the contrary, hate is not stronger than love, and the pen is not weaker than the sword. You cannot beat and torture people to make them love you or to make them accept that you are better than them. You cannot imprison and persecute entire families to make them stop believing an idea or to make them abandon a tenet of their faith. And King and Kennedy not only spoke this wisdom, they lived it. They modeled to the world the change they wanted to see. They demanded nonviolence, dialog with opponents, and respect for those not yet allied to their cause not because that was the path of weakness, but because that was the path to victory. And not just any victory. Not a party-line vote or a 5-4 court decision, or a hastily-passed reconciliation bill to be soon reversed after the next election, but a stronger and less fleeting victory, what Abraham Lincoln called “a just and lasting peace”. And this is not just about clever phrases. Barely one hundred years ago, not long compared to how long humans have lived together in tribes and cities and nations, Mahatma Gandhi began to show the world that the force of the truth holds the edge over the threat of violence, and many have learned from his example. We can look at our world’s history and already see the results. Two decades after we lost Dr. King and Senator Kennedy, other leaders of democracy movements–most notably Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa–showed the world the hard-earned fruits of Gandhi’s approach, creating peaceful transitions from tyranny to a new order of civil rights and democracy in societies where there was a grave risk that such a change would be accompanied by widespread violence or even civil war.

Following the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. King said in his speech at the Alabama State Capitol on March 25, 1965:

…Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it…

…The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going…

…And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.

Senator Kennedy said, in a speech to the Cleveland City Club on April 5, 1968:

Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily–whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence–whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

“Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.”

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul…

…We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

In this year 2018, we remember the pain of that summer 50 years ago. We remember all those unjustly hurt and killed, not just two great leaders. But just as we must strive, in every age, to be true to the ideals of our nation, it takes work to properly remember the most valuable lessons of the lives of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy. Fight for change, for what you believe in, and for what you sincerely think would be best for our nation and for the world. Defend timeless truths, the rights of those you see as wrongly accused, and the freedoms spelled out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But do not forget why you care about those ideals, even though you will be pressured to act out of anger rather than calm. Do not forget what and who you are fighting for simply because it is easier to focus on what and who you are against. And do not be content simply to “win” if it means that you become the very enemy you were trying to defeat.

On the eve of the 2016 election, I wrote:

Our nation, though flawed like all human endeavors, is already great. Angry extremists of the far-left and (particularly this year) the far-right show they either don’t understand, or actually disagree with, the sources and the nature of that greatness. There will always be those who profit from scaremongering and scapegoating, those who benefit from the creation of dysfunction and disorder, and those who just like to watch things burn.

I warned of supposed “cures” being,

far worse than the vastly exaggerated disease, and the process of enacting them would cause us to lose something essential and valuable about being the United States of America.

I ridiculed people who were promising “to lead us back to a greatness they say we lost an undetermined number of decades ago”, warned of “chaotic retribution they will get to unleash upon disfavored groups in order to supposedly bring us there.”

And I urged us to “reject their narcissistic carnival of institutional pyromania” and hoped we would “mock the pretension that they speak for some greater good as boastful foolishness, because that’s what it is.”

To those points I would add another one on the subject of the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence being undervalued today. Those who doubt the worth, applicability, or centrality of our nation’s ideals, our American creed, must reckon with one of the strongest and most inspirational forms of testimony in favor of that creed: the great multitudes of people throughout our nation’s relatively short history who have been willing to risk so much to come here and become Americans. We all know the story, because it is the legacy passed down to us in this Nation of Immigrants, by our own ancestors, or it is the more recent story of our grandparents, our parents, our friends, our coworkers, or ourselves. Before subjects of King George III rebelled over being heavily taxed while being denied legislative representation, people came here fleeing legal persecution due to their particular form of Protestant Christianity being insufficiently close to what was mandated by the Church of England. Early Americans, both during and after Colonial times, also immigrated here for economic opportunity, which was not much different than fleeing for one’s life and liberty in societies where harsh debtors’ prisons awaited the bankrupt and loss of house and occupation–usually via exile if you were lucky–awaited those with too many political enemies and too few friends among the nobility. And this has been the story throughout all 242 years of the independent United States of America (and counting). We have made mistakes as a nation, and we have worked to fix them, and help others learn from our errors. Sometimes we have done a shoddy job of these fixes, or taken too long to accomplish them, or overreacted and replaced one mistake with another. We have forgotten, time and again, that the newest immigrant group to arrive might speak a different language or worship in a different way than previous groups, and even so that doesn’t mean they will be unable to make the same contributions to our nation as all those who came before them. But even with these mistakes, people keeping coming to America. People who travel here on visas to learn and to work, even if they plan to return home later and don’t seek to put down roots, are honoring the greatness of our nation as an engine of economic prosperity, and as a global powerhouse in the creation of knowledge and culture. And a substantial, staggering, sobering number of those many, many millions who come here want to stay. They want to become, as Craig Ferguson best put it, American On Purpose. When the stakes for themselves and their careers and the futures of their own family are the highest, immigrants choose to join our nation, to embrace our ideals, to become Americans. We don’t need expert-level knowledge (or even modest proficiency) in American history and world history to understand that means something. In economics we call that “Revealed Preference“.

Just because we can identify potential or actual problems with our immigration system–or with the way our society does or doesn’t welcome immigrants and help those who desire to become Americans–doesn’t mean this revealed preference isn’t a hugely meaningful indicator of something we’re doing right. It has been done right in many eras of our nation’s history, but because accomplishments are fragile (those who forget, doomed to repeat, etc.) we are in danger of misunderstanding (or mis-underestimating) how important that is, and weakening one of our nation’s greatest strengths. That would be a mistake we have made in the past, but, like the global trade war set off by the Smoot-Hawley tariffs that made the Great Depression worse for everyone, it is one we should not be eager to repeat.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were right when they told us–reminded us–repeatedly, that, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

And Ronald Reagan was right when he painted a picture for us in his Farewell Address, describing his idealized United States of America, via Winthrop’s metaphor of a “Shining City on a Hill”, as “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Please reflect on these beautiful words, and reflect on the fact that they are so beautiful–and they sound so persuasive–because they carry the weight of truth–of the truth about our nation and its history.

We live in an age of ironic detachment, of bitter cynicism, of ignoring your own faults as long as you can find someone else who is worse or more at fault. Please consider, amidst all of that, amidst all of the confusion and distraction and pain, the reasons why we celebrate the lives of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and why we learn (or re-learn) the lessons of their final years, months, and days. Please ponder why we are so moved by those eloquent speeches of past (but still rather recent) presidents who praised rather than denigrated the universal values and human rights that our nation stands for and the advancement of which we all share as Americans, presidents who were seeking to persuade us to listen to them rather than seeking to scare us into inaction or into overreaction.

If the force of the truth is powerful enough to end Jim Crow, powerful enough to end the draft, powerful enough to force a president to resign after he tried to cover up crimes committed against his political opponents, powerful enough to end apartheid in South Africa, and powerful enough to defeat the Soviet cruelty that so memorably divided West Berlin from East Berlin and trapped hundreds of million behind the Iron Curtain, perhaps it can help us in our current time of troubles. Help us to fight for what is right, and to be our best selves while doing that. To not fear what we don’t understand, nor to be satisfied that we have all the answers. To speak the truth boldly and live by our principles, but to do so with humility and decency towards those who disagree with us.

Because love cannot be conquered by hate, and the pen cannot be silenced by the sword.

We can do better. We can fix what is wrong with our nation by embracing what is right.

Please keep this all in mind, and please be good to one another.

And please vote. The midterm elections are tomorrow (or today in some time zones) Tuesday, November 6.

I’m going to tell my kids a bedtime story
A play without a plot
Will it have a happy ending?
Maybe yeah, maybe not
I tell them life is what you make of it
So beautiful or so what

Four men on the balcony
Overlooking the parking lot
Pointing at a figure in the distance
Dr. King has just been shot
And the sirens long melody
Singing ‘Savior Pass Me Not’

Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”

One Response to “The Lessons of 1968 and the Healing of a Nation”

  1. one day At A time reunion

    The Lessons of 1968 and the Healing of a Nation « Chicago, Athens, and Jerusalem

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