Twelve score and four years ago our fathers (and mothers) brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.
Readers will recognize this first paragraph as an update of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Some of you, as I did, had to memorize it for fifth grade history class. I wonder how many fifth graders these days are compelled to learn it?
We are now engaged in a great political war, testing whether this nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. In a few weeks we choose a new president. The difference between the two candidates couldn’t be clearer. One is oriented toward authoritarian rule, openly dividing “blue” states against “red” states and families against families in a twenty-first century version of a civil war. The other is a soft-spoken, less than perfect, life-long civil servant, who speaks of being a president for all of America, not just those who support him.
The Civil War was fought over several issues, but a primary one was whether slavery would become a permanent fixture in American life. Would one race continue to profit from the misery of another race and maintain the political and economic power free labor bestowed on an elite few.
Eleven states decided to separate from the United States and form their own government. Twenty states stayed in the United States, or the Union as it was known. The ensuing four year war killed between 640,000 to 700,000 US citizens. All those deaths came about because a third of the US states couldn’t or wouldn’t accept that black lives mattered.
Here we are as a nation, 244 years old still fighting over the same issues. We have Black Lives Matter demonstrations and counter demonstrations. We have citizens that feel they are not part of the United States but are a state within themselves. They can decide whether they should wear a mask to slow the spread of a pandemic. They can carry lethal weapons anywhere they wish even if it is into a house of worship or a suburban mall and kill scores of innocent people. We have citizens who will support political leaders in their efforts to inhibit free and fair elections through weakening the US Postal Service just before an election, limit polling sites and purge voter roles. Citizens who support a president who says he will only consider the election fair if he wins and won’t guarantee an orderly, peacefully transfer of power. I am beyond stunned when a sitting president says this, his supporters cheer him and his political party remains completely silent.
I wonder how many sports fans would find it acceptable if their favorite team’s opponent said that the only way the Super Bowl was fair is if they won? If they lost, it was because the referees were biased or there was rampant cheating.
Lincoln said in his Senatorial debate against Stephen Douglas in 1858, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” He was not the first to say this. You can find similar quotes in the Christian Bible. In Matthew 12:25 Jesus says, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”.
In a democracy we can have many different opinions. We can have spirited debates. To maintain a democracy we can’t have the disenfranchisement of whole ethnic groups or the delegitimization of entire states. We can’t have the demonization of a free press, and violent suppression of peaceful protest. The “house” becomes so divided that a civil war can erupt.
In Aug 1972, I had the opportunity to attend the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. A family member had obtained tickets through his work with a Congressman. My family and I were driven to the convention by a woman who was a lobbyist for a major consumer products brand. As we approached the convention site, we were engulfed in a crowd of protestors who at some point were banging on the hood and roof of our car. It was a little frightening. At one point the driver says, “I’m just going to floor it and drive into them!” Fortunately, the front seat passenger, my relative, kept his cool and immediately reached over to the diver and grabbed the wheel and said, “No, don’t do that, we’ll be OK”. That was enough to dissuade the driver from actually carrying out her threat.
As we walked toward the convention hall, we were surrounded by masses of protestors. They were a rather scruffy looking lot and they were shouting anti-war slogans but to our relief, no one became overtly aggressive toward us. I had been at a couple of other anti-war protests and clearly remembered the horrific events at Kent State University in Ohio only two years before where the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four innocent students in their fear of being attacked.
I mention the 1972 Republican Convention because several months later I learned that there were agent provocateurs among the protestors who were there to instigate violence so the police and military could take lethal action against them. This came out during a trial of what became known as, “The Gainesville Eight”. All but one were Viet Nam veterans who were indicted on charges of conspiracy to disrupt the 1972 Republican Convention. The trial revealed that it was not the members of Viet Nam Vets Against the War (VNVAW) but FBI agents who had infiltrated the organization. They were there to discredit the VNVAW by attempting to incite them to violence. All eight defendants were acquitted by the jury after only four hours of deliberation.
Our current president is running as a law and order candidate as was Richard Nixon in 1972. When I watch the demonstrations in our cities around the country now which often start peacefully and then turn violent, I can’t help but think of what happened in Florida in 1972. Are agent provocateurs again being used to discredit or undermine the protestor’s goals? Is this violence being exploited to further the current presidential campaign? I think history should at least make us ask these kinds of questions.
When I was learning to fly an airplane, I was taught that it was imperative that you constantly look for an “out” should something go terribly wrong in flight. My instructor would periodically ask, “What would you do now if you lost power”? “What would you do if you lost your radio or your instruments?” My instructor would even occasionally pull back the throttle and say pick a spot to land. All this was to prepare me for worst case scenarios.
There is one scenario which no pilot wants to be in, no matter what type of aircraft they are flying. This is the loss of power just as you are climbing on take off. When this happens the impulse is to try to turn around and land. This almost always results in a crash. The other impulse is to pull up the nose of the plane to lengthen your glide. This usually results in a stall, that is, the wings lose lift and the plane tends to fall over on the left wing and dive into the ground.
What I was taught, is to always maintain control of the aircraft. Depending on how much time you have, you call “mayday” on your radio, close the throttle, crack the doors half way open and look for the best place to land given whatever options are available to you. The mantra in that situation is “fly the airplane”, do not relinquish whatever control you have no matter what is happening. This increases your chances of survival.
Currently, the US is experiencing a presidential election. It is, metaphorically, a kind of “take off” of the ship of state. We are in that highly vulnerable part of the take off that makes us fear we might lose control of our nation. There is no turning back. The campaign, “the runway”, if you will, is more and more behind us. The future, is above us.
I am nervous about the outcome of the election as are many people in the US and around the world. We have a president threatening the legitimacy of an election. This is something no other president in US history has done. If his threats of not participating in a peaceful transition of power should he lose are genuine, it puts America and the whole world in danger. If the United States of America should cease to be a democracy, many other countries teetering on the edge of losing their democratic governments will fall.
No matter the results, it is important that we continue to, “fly the plane”. We cannot let ourselves panic and make decisions that could be truly fatal for our nation and perhaps for ourselves. Abraham Lincoln reminded the nation of this after the horrible tragedy of the Battle of Gettysburg*. He assured the nation that in spite of the losses of this terrible battle, if we stay true to our values and we remember that great sacrifices have been made for all of us, regardless of political affiliation, race, religion or country of origin, “…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
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Be safe. Be well. Love the people around you, even those who have different political views. Only the weak are cruel. Love takes courage.
* Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The battle involved the largest number of casualties of the entire war, (46,000 to 48,000). It is often described as the turning point in the war.