On May 22, 1856, South Carolinian Preston Brooks, a delegate to the U S House of Representatives, caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the chamber of the United States Senate two days after Sumner gave an impassioned speech against slavery during the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis. Sumner’s caning was a lightning rod for both northern and southern sympathizers and fueled the heated rhetoric, mostly from newspapers and politicians, that helped propel the United States of America into its Civil War.
For years I shook my head and marveled that something like Sumner’s caning could happen in a country like the United States. Now, as I essay the affairs of the United States, I wonder if we aren’t headed for a similar situation.
No one has been caned in the highest chambers of our government, at least not physically, but the level of rhetorical caning, combat, demagoguery and political hackism has risen to a level I don’t remember witnessing in my lifetime.
Turn on the television and the level of political and journalistic bombast and chicanery rivals something we might expect to see in a satirical comedy. But the level of discourse we now enjoy in this country is not particularly comedic, although a lot of this nation’s favorite pundits and commentators do seem to be nothing more than actors, paid to put forth a political philosophy that helps their sponsoring newspaper, television network, or website and the related advertisers sell more products to the people who watch those particular pundits and commentators, who, I might add, seem to be saying exactly what their listeners wish them to say and not necessarily anything truthful or that assists in the furtherance of finding solutions to our problems.
Rarely do I hear any reference to the necessary conjunction of ideas in the type of compromise that is generally related to the words Democracy and Republic. In my mind, those words indicate the coming together of men and women with varying outlooks that lead to solutions that best help the most people. Now we seem to spend most of our time worrying and fighting about what is “mine.”
Instead of compromise, what I hear from the pundits, but more foreboding to me, from the general public, are attitudes that reek of “my way or the highway.” There is little room for an attempt to work out differences with the other guy. Hyperbole and bile seem to rule the day. Left wingers don’t trust the right wingers. Conservatives don’t trust the liberals. Conservatives who have worked for the government their entire lives and benefit today from that association bash the government as being big, bloated and unnecessary. I wonder why I never heard that type of talk from them while they were gainfully employed in their civil service and state jobs. Similarly, liberals who spent their entire careers working for corporations and in private enterprise, now lambast the business sector even as they reap the benefits of that long association. I wonder why I rarely heard those types of attacks while these people made nice salaries in their private sector jobs.
I am crossing my fingers that we don’t have a Brooks-Sumner type of event as I watch us drift farther and farther apart. What hammers the wedge deeper between our left and right? I am no expert, but I think fear of the unknown, fear of the future has a lot to do with motivation for our behavior. But I can’t help thinking, too, that what ails us is money, or what it can buy. Specifically our own money. Or the money we want in the future. We, as citizens of the United States, seem to believe we are entitled to “our money.” Our Money. And of course what “My Money” might be is open for argument. So what we are entitled to seems to be a matter for discussion. But instead of discussion, we get demagoguery and argument meant to please a particular public. And if one man’s sense of entitlement caroms into another man’s sense of what he is entitled to, we have conflict and no one willing to step in and politically arbitrate.
Don’t get me wrong, I want mine, too, whatever that is. We all do. But in our chase for the buck and the security we seem to believe we can gain from having money, we need to remember those words written on our dollar: E Pluribus Unum, which translates, among other things, to “Out of many, one.” We are who we are because we have for the most part managed to compromise enough to overcome the obstacles that we have encountered the past two-hundred-twenty years.
As we pursue our futures and our drive for the security we think money and goods can deliver us, I hope we don’t become a case of “out of one, many.”