America celebrated another birthday Saturday, blowing out the Roman candles on its cake with the usual mix of barbecue and pyrotechnics.
Though it seems the fireworks have been lighting up the skies for awhile now. As we mark our collective independence, we also embrace independent thought and action, and that sparks passionate debates over issues such as gun control, Confederate flags and same-sex marriage.
In June, the nation underwent a social and political upheaval not seen since the long, strange trip of the 1960s. The parallels are striking: Then, the key cultural battles were over civil rights and women’s liberation. Fifty years later, the clashes are again over race and gender identity.
In another historic irony, the nation in April marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, which began in Charleston, S.C. That city last month was the scene of a horrific slaughter of nine worshippers in an African-American church, gunned down by a white supremacist who wore the Confederate battle flag as his insignia of hatred.
History ever repeats. A country that tore itself apart in the 1860s managed to stitch itself back together, only to split again a century later in a less bloody but culturally transformational way.
Now we’re again coming apart at the seams. Whether we can stitch this torn cloth together one more time is up to us.
In a memorable 48-hour period, Supreme Court decisions upheld the divisive health care law that’s been in the political cross hairs for five years and legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. A country divided among ideological fault lines is reflected by the high court justices, nine of the world’s most brilliant legal scholars who can’t come close to a consensus in interpreting the Constitution. If they can’t agree on hard-and-fast matters of law, how can the rest of us overcome differences on more emotional issues?
Hyperbole doesn’t help, which is how we go from removing a flag from a government building to proposing to sand-blast carvings off the face of Stone Mountain. Or how allowing same-sex marriage will lead to pedophilia, polygamy or bestiality. The fires of rhetoric are fueled by such overreactions and worst-case mirages.
The hope for a cease-fire as we look ahead comes from looking back at other turbulent eras when the boiling lava eventually cooled and hardened into a bit more awareness.
But first come eruptions from a debate in which no one listens to each other. In a world dominated by radio rants, TV tirades, blathering bloggers and antisocial social media, common sense can’t get a word in edgewise. It’s all about transmitting but not receiving, the sound raising the fury.
If we could somehow lower our voices and listen, we might find that though we may not agree, we can at least try to understand a little better.
The Charleston massacre sparked sympathetic feelings and admiration for the forgiving nature of the survivors. But soon as the debate turned to gun control and yanking the rebel flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, the skirmishes began.
One side sees that flag as a vestige of racism, slavery and segregation, the other as a proud banner of Southern heritage. Who’s right? Neither and both. Symbols are nothing but colorful designs until assigned a meaning by those who view them. Compromise comes from the effort to see what it means to others.
Thus, if our neighbors find the flag offensive, we should recognize the wound it opens and willingly take it down from the public square. But we also should acknowledge it means something different to many and concede its place in a historic context. After all, a symbol alone can’t hurt you, especially one that represents a failed cause and ideas.
In that same spirit, scrubbing society of all Civil War images and monuments is a foolish way to try and clean up a history we must learn from to avoid repeating. Americans should be secure and proud enough of our lasting values to take the “warts and all” approach to recognizing our past.
On guns, we may never bridge the gap between those who believe new laws will curb killing sprees and others who see the Second Amendment as a birthright and resist all limitations. The best recourse is to seek middle ground that fully enforces existing laws and severely punishes those who break them.
Same-sex marriage is an equally tough nut to crack. Deeply held religious beliefs prohibit many from accepting a redefinition of marriage as a form of individual expression rather than an institution created for the biological purpose of creating families. They can’t erase centuries of tradition regardless how the tide of public opinion has turned.
Yet the legal aspect of the ruling is over the freedom to make such a choice granted by a Constitution that, though founded on Judeo-Christian principles, allows citizens to live by the beliefs in their own hearts. How do we reconcile its promise of individual liberty with the codifying of faith-based values into laws decided by the majority?
It’s a big and sudden change. Even if it is seen as just and overdue, it’s not asking too much to give folks a little time to deal with it.
This nation was founded amid discord, and we’ve been jawing at each other over every big and little thing since. Yet we should remember we have real enemies who want to destroy us. Americans are not foes but family working out differences. Like a house full of bickering siblings, we suffer bruises and scrapes in wrestling matches on the living room floor, but come away a little wiser and, we hope, a little closer.
Perhaps when the next Independence Day rolls around, calmer heads will put away the battle flags and the rainbow flags long enough to rally behind one flag — the one sewn with stars and stripes together to keep us united.