United we stand?
A few weekends ago, at the Museum of the City of New York, we watched an interesting video about the history of New York City. It ended with 9/11 and a rousing affirmation of our national unity. At the same time the far right wing of the Republican Party had shut down the US government and was threatening to make our government unable to pay its bills. Some unity.
The whole episode makes very clear that our political system is based on conflict, on overpowering one's opponents. Politics, in our democracy, has something in common with games and a lot in common with warfare.
Games have rules. These rules determine what are legitimate moves in the game and what sorts of actions are banned. Most sports allow a considerable amount of violence but there are definite limits to it, set by the rules of the game, and the rules are enforced by the umpires.
The same is true of war but here there are no umpires. Enforcing the rules, especially eliminating the use of certain kinds of weapons is therefore a much more complex undertaking. The many years of diplomatic and political pressures on Iran serve the purpose of limiting the number of countries possessing atomic weapons, in the hope of banning future uses of them. The imminent threat of bombing Syria similarly had to do with the desire to eliminate the use of chemical weapons from warfare. Syrian transgression of that rule needed to be punished in order to keep the rules in force.
Politics is like warfare except that bodily violence is banned. Not everyone observes that rule – several doctors performing abortions have been murdered in acts of political violence, so have several presidents, and leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. There is a great deal more political violence in dictatorships and in times of revolutionary conflict. But everyone, I think, agrees in principle that physical violence does not have a place in politics.
Politics therefore has its own methods for resolving conflicts. By and large the political process consists of enforcing compromises on those members of the society less powerful than one's own group, as well as accepting compromises enforced on us by those more powerful. If the search and pressure for compromise fails, we are accustomed to take a vote and the majority wins. Instead of hauling out our six shooters, or today more probably our machine guns, we take a vote and settle the conflict in that way. The rules of our political system say that once a law as been voted in, and once it has passed muster of the Supreme Court, the law stands and the discussion has come to an end. It can of course be reopened at a later date and then we go through the whole process again.
The recent government shut-down and a possible repeat early next year arose because the far right is violating the rules by trying to enforce a compromise after the vote has been taken and the court has spoken. That is clearly improper behavior but it is not that uncommon.
This is very familiar and would not need repeating, were it not for the other story we tell ourselves about how we stand united, are "one nation indivisible." We all pledge allegiance to the same flag; we sing the same national anthem, possibly with tears in our eyes, and a hand on our heart. But that, the current impasse shows, is pure pretense. We are anything but united. Our country consists of different teams whose conflicts are as bitter as can be, often on the edge of violence, barely controlled by rules that are violated again and again.
What unites us, if anything, is hatred and distrust for other groups. Most Americans have their favored groups of fellow citizens whom they would like to exile to a different country or at least deprive of citizenship rights. As the condition of the country worsens, so does the level of animosity between groups.
Please remove your "United we Stand" bumper stickers from your cars.