The past is like a foreign country — they do things differently there.
Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about those words lately in light of Russia’s present invasion of Ukraine. It is impressive that people so outgunned and outmanned are pulling together to seriously bloody the Russian nose.
But this also got me thinking: what if war ever comes to our shores? Could we pull together like the Ukrainians are doing? Could we do as our fathers and mothers and grandparents generation did during World War II?
I would like to think so.
Reading newspaper accounts of the Japanese Empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, one sees how the people of the United States were able to put themselves on a collective war footing almost overnight. Small, sleepy towns and enormous cities alike put their shoulders to the wheel. It took time to get the industrial boiler up to full capacity, but everybody pitched in.
Sadly, I am no longer so optimistic that we could do what our forebears did. History tells me it always has been the fate of democracies to be undone by factionalism.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that at present, we are a nation split into factions, that too many people are at each other’s throats, riven by a division deep and with no signs of closing.
Among many causes for the current malaise, I would hazard lingering bitterness over the Vietnam War, a deep cynicism of government bred in the 1960s that was amplified by Watergate in the 1970s, and subsequent scandals that have eroded faith in our governing institutions.
Crucially, there are also bad actors intentionally fanning the flames of hatred and division for their own selfish reasons, including too many in the press. Too many appear to lack any sense of the long-term consequences of lying their heads off to the American public, day after day. What they care about are the ratings.
Like millions of others, I watched in horror on Jan. 6, 2021, as people who had always described themselves as pro-police and pro-authority — with red, white and blue flowing by the quart in every vein — hurled themselves at the heart of our government, turning American flags into weapons against police at the U.S. Capitol.
Long-simmering bitterness on the political left over mistreatment of minorities and myriad grievances had broken out in our cities to create a season of riots the previous summer.
And I listened in dismay to pundits attempting to white-wash it all, telling us up is down, white is black, black is white, until we no longer know whether the sun rises in the east or the west. This erosion of basic truths we once agreed on, but no longer do, is killing us. In effect, what I have seen with my own eyes, they tell me with straight faces, never happened. This is nothing but gaslighting on a grand scale, and there seem to be no consequences for these wretches for so doing.
We are as divided as we have ever been since the Civil War. Given this, it may already be too late to express my concerns about being able to pull together in a time of emergency to meet the threat of foreign hostiles. We have met the enemy, as Pogo said, and he is us.
My guiding light is Abraham Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on Jan. 27, 1838 — 23 years before the Civil War — called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow?” Mr. Lincoln asked. “Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years.
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide,” Lincoln said.
A house divided against itself cannot stand, Lincoln also famously said, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
When I tuned in to the riots and the insurrection, I heard his prescient words in my head. They applied then, they apply now. The ties that bound us in past generations and allowed us to fight and win are unravelling. I can only hope that they will listen to the better angels of their nature.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.