It has been said Nero rejoiced in the destruction of Rome. That might be pushing it a bit… I think he reached a point of being so overwhelmed he lost his capacity for rational thought. His “joy” may have been, in a sense, a self-defense mechanism.
We now find ourselves similarly situated.
Rome is burning… or to update the metaphor… Rome is rotting.
This is not the first time we have found ourselves in this predicament. At one point in our nation’s history we actually fought a full-scale war against each other. What came out of that war, however, was not reconciliation… not by a long shot. We attempted to institutionalize our differences, and through the use of art we sought to marginalize the more destructive aspects of our human character. For the most part it worked, at least to the extent that we kept ourselves from the wholesale killing of one another.
But the system has once again come under too much strain. We now find ourselves… once again… on the great precipice where decisions must be made. The fact we have the capacity to make these great decisions is unique to our identity as Americans. We can assuredly screw it up (we have a unique capacity to do that), but we can also make the right choices (there is historical precedent for that too). Continuing on the current path, however, has become untenable. Either we will break, or the path will. This is, so to speak, the “end of the line”.
I have mentioned this in the past, and forgive me for repeating myself, but the United States is unique among countries in how we developed. Most nations morphed into what has become the rough equivalent of “states” after the Peace of Westphalia. After our Revolution we were nations that morphed into a state. Even this is not entirely true… the concept of true nationhood would not really happen for roughly another hundred years after the Revolution, at the conclusion of the Civil War.
France has been “France” long before the modern map stamped “France” on that chunk of real estate. The French were a “nation”… a culture… strip away the political acrimony, the type of political structure, or the trappings of government, there was still the concept of “France” and the people who lived there considered themselves “French”. A nation existed far earlier than the manifestation of the “state” of France.
In the United States we did not have that same homogeneity. The citizens of Massachusetts had very little in common with the citizens of North Carolina. Their ideas of “freedom” and “liberty” were also fundamentally different. Yet, gradually these multiple states coalesced into a single nation. Nationhood… American Nationhood… is not grounded in geography, a common language, or even a common religion or a shared experience. American Nationhood is grounded in a philosophical idea centered around the belief in limited government, individual liberty, and the protections of personal freedoms as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
But then, to keep the Nero metaphor going, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.
As we began to institutionalize our government, we did so at the expense of individual liberty. Some saw this as fundamentally necessary; others saw it as an abandonment of our animating principles. These two “camps”, if you will, started a process of divergence.
To be sure, the vectors are not linear by any stretch of the imagination. The institutionalized camp has adopted identity politics and tribalism (which is fundamentally at odds with collectivism), and the individual liberty camp has, at times, flirted with authoritarianism and theocracy. (We saw this in the run up to WWII, as well as the 1980s.)
There has also been sort of a weird religious war that has established. Though, candidly, one side of the divide would be appalled to hear their position as being one of religion.
Just as the Catholics and the Protestants have made war upon each other, there is a divide now between the “religious” and the “non-religious”. The “non-religious”, for many, is a fundamental misnomer. They are indeed religious. They have their orthodoxy, their priests, and their religious enforcers. They claim to be devotees of science and rationalism, but their adherence is animated by faith. Faith that those who have been inculcated in the system and have become subject matter experts in their field, have knowledge that is unassailable. The doctors, the directors, the academics have their own version of papal infallibility, and heresy will not be tolerated.
The “religious”… the other camp, so to speak, have become so antagonistic to the other side they will reject even the most obvious, and oftentimes imagine conspiratorial fantasies that explain desperate events as being controlled by a cabal, or lizard people, or whatever.
There is a famous interview between Woody Allen and the Reverend Billy Graham. It was probably filmed in the late 1970s or 80s. Allen, who is clearly moved by Graham’s simple and elegant religiosity is unmoved by the underlying subject matter of Graham’s faith. Oh, Woody Allen clearly has faith, but it is not in God… it is in something else.
During the interview it becomes apparent that Allen may be just as religious as Graham, might have just as much faith as the Reverend, just in a fundamentally different “thing”.
Yes, we are at the precipice. Our two camps have diverged to the point where full separation appears to be inevitable. That separation, if manifest, makes our lives cheaper, and makes the world a more dangerous place. That separation brings with it the rise of authoritarianism, genocide, and a more violent existence for most on this planet.
There is a way back from the edge, though, way to embrace our differences, in fact rejoice in them, and become a stronger country: a fundamental, full-throated embrace of the philosophical underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence and the fealty to the Constitution. Both are, in their essence, the ultimate protection of minority rights, not tribal rights, not collective rights… minority rights. For we are individually the ultimate minority, be it a religious minority, a non-religious minority, a political minority, a racial or a sexual minority. (Not sure about the lizard people yet, though… the jury is still out on that one.)