My kids were lucky though at the time but they didn’t know it. They had Civics class in elementary and middle school. I was glad because I learned a lot too.
Reading Jon Meacham’s book, “The Soul of America-The Battle for Our Better Angels,” published in 2018, has made me realize just how important civics is for children, and adults too, to know and understand our U.S. Constitution and to learn how it applies to our everyday lives. This column is not a book review but a wake-up call to encourage all of us to tune in to the political history of our country. By being aware of what other citizens understand and believe about that history, we can communicate across a polarizing society.
We are blessed with a president who seems to have almost no knowledge of the Constitution of the United States or any understanding or concern for how diplomacy works. It is fine to say that these things do not matter and that a fresh approach to dealing with friends and enemies on an international scale is important, but laws, treaties and tradition do matter. One participant in an international competition cannot successfully change rules, established over many years, in the twinkling of an eye. The result of this ignorance, whether real or attitudinal, is destabilization at home and abroad and a general unease that permeates everyday life on all levels. This contravenes the fundamental reason for the U.S. Constitution as stated in the preamble:
“…establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare…”
Not quite what many of us are feeling right now.
Meacham’s book was an eye-opener for me. I now realize that my understanding of this country’s history after the Civil War was based on what the northern states hoped for, and had little bearing on how southerners reacted to defeat, nor how they proceeded to try to re-establish their lives according to the “old” ways. In many ways, they were successful and still are if the white supremacist events and Ku Klux Klan presence in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., are any indication.
I now understand how it can be that, in a country of immigrants, immigration can be such a “hot-button” issue. It does still matter to some people where the immigrants came from. Back in the 1700s and 1800s, a period of great immigration, those who came were, for the most part, not the rich and famous but the penniless, unhealthy, undernourished and uneducated. They came hoping for a better life. Even many of the younger sons of the English aristocracy who came to Virginia and the Carolinas were, according to author David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed: four British Folkways in America” penniless, owed money to the Crown and were evading debtor’s prison back home! Tracing one’s family history before bragging too much is probably a good idea. The increasing use of the genetic tracing kits “23andMe” have in some cases produced surprising, maybe even shocking, results. As in many other mixed societies in politically stable, developed countries, in the U.S., barriers and friction exist between immigrant groups. There is little effort at present to celebrate difference and encourage bonding.
The use of catchy phrases on the never-ending presidential campaign trail has also stirred up some memories of unpleasant times in U.S. history. “America First” is one such phrase used by several American presidents either in campaigning, or to discourage American involvement in both World Wars I and II. During the latter it became associated with Antisemitism. It is therefore disturbing to hear it in frequent use by the President today, especially in recent times when synagogues have been vandalized and worshipers murdered.
Despite the strong words of President Franklin Roosevelt in his first Inaugural Address, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…,” one theme that seems to recur many times in U.S. history is fear of some force, idea or foreign agency. In the 1950’s it was communism with McCarthyism as the agency which destroyed the public lives of many fine Americans. In the 1960’s the John Birch Society reinforced that fear implicating, without evidence, people in positions of great power and influence in American politics and government.
The irony for me is that today, 2019, when there is ample evidence for real involvement, meddling and influence peddling by foreign governments in our national life over at least the past five years, those in power seem oblivious or even welcoming of it. Money talks, and apparently, if you have plenty of it to offer, integrity, national and international security take a back seat. If you are part of a collection of poor migrants looking for asylum here you are deemed a great threat and need to be walled out.
Meacham’s book does give cause for hope. In his conclusion he focuses on several important things that we need to remember. First, that the president whomever that may be and no matter what party they belong to, must be the president of everybody in the country. This is something that has become more difficult as politics have become splintered and polarized. Presidents like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson worked very hard to apply this unity to civil rights. Most presidents have used the power of language to unite voters in accepting challenges to make the country better, rather than to divide and polarize. This was especially important in times of crisis such as Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma bombing, 9-11 and the Charleston Church shooting in 2015.
Meacham has suggestions for all of us:
Be informed, ask questions, and vote; resist tribalism by trying to understand what other people are thinking, saying, and believing; respect facts and use reason; find a critical balance by reading or listening to more than one side of the issues. Lastly, keep history in mind and fight for our better angels.