Review: Divided We Fall

Divided We Fall, David French. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020

Summary: An argument warning that the political divides in American life could lead to a dissolution of the nation through secession and may be averted by a tolerant federalism.

One of my enjoyments is reading the history of the American Civil War and the events leading up to it. In recent years, that history has increasingly disturbed me as I recognize the troubling parallel of the deep political divides and inflammatory rhetoric that led to armed conflict, and our present time. I’ve wondered where this could lead: authoritarian government, civil unrest and breakdown, or a war of red versus blue.

If there is any comfort in Divided We Fall, it is to learn that a thoughtful political commentator has similar concerns. David French believes we could well be headed toward another secession of states, one he does not believe will lead to military action, but to a greatly diminished America, both domestically, and in global affairs, a prospect perhaps as troubling as armed conflict within our border.

What leads him to moot this possibility is the character of our divides. For one thing, they may be charted along regional lines. His thesis is that geography plus culture plus fear may equal secession. One particular culture subject to the kindling of fear is the religious subculture. While some fear the intrusion of the state on religious freedom and decry court decisions contrary to religious morality, others fear the intrusion of one religion into a very plural public life, limiting the freedom of others.

Chapter 5 on “How an Academic Article Explains America” may be the most important in the book. It introduces us to an article titled “The Law of Group Polarization.” that proposes that when groups are formed with a “predeliberation tendency,” rather than making better judgments than on their own, they will move toward the extreme of their bias. In our present setting, even moderates put off by one side (left or right) will tend to move to the extreme version of what they favor, intensifying our divisions. Sadly, French observes in the following chapters, churches have followed this, largely following the cultural and geographical alignments within which they are embedded, and that political alignments have trumped other alignments, where political identities primary and ultimate.

French traces the breakdown in our capacity for discourse. No longer can friends agree to disagree–they become enemies. Free speech has become subject to “safetyism” and cancel culture. French, who has worked extensively as a lawyer on free speech issues, makes a passionate appeal for the critical role of the First Amendment as critical to giving marginal groups a voice. Instead, the effort of our contemporary discourse is to use power to silence the opposition, which only inflames opposition.

He sets out two fictional secession scenarios, one led by California, the other by Texas. California’s is over immigration and gun control. Texas secedes to protect from a blue backlash. He explores the resultant unraveling of the Pax Americana, the various security guarantees that prevented armed conflict in many parts of the world, including China, the Middle East, and eastern Europe.

French’s proposed remedy is Madisonian federalism that accepts faction but vigorously protects free speech. He believes that it is possible for competing communities to exist in different parts of the country. He argues that the First Amendment protects these. He contends that genuine tolerance protects difference–we only tolerate that with which we disagree. He longs for moments of grace leading to movements of grace, citing the example of the reconciliation between SNL’s Pete Davidson, and Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressional candidate. When mocked by Davidson for a war wound, Crenshaw accepted a later apology and then appeared on the show, talking about what “never forget” meant to both of them–speaking of Davidson’s father, a fireman who died on 9/11.

French argues this healthy federalism protects individual liberties while allowing public policy to be shaped more by state and local governments than a “one size fits all” approach that may work in a utopia, but not in America. He contrasts Arizona and California’s approach to use of state resources with regard to immigration enforcement and argues that each were responses to what they thought best and should have been equally upheld under healthy federalism. He similarly cites state-based universal health care proposals as opposed to a nationalized system.

In the end, what French calls for is courage to engage what he considers the more critical culture war of the age–not between left and right, but between decency and indecency. He believes there is a need for a better political class, one committed to Micah 6:8 virtues of justice, mercy, and humility before God.

I find myself both affirming much of this analysis and questioning parts. I agree with his analysis of our divides. I had not thought deeply about secession, but having seen more and more commentary from others, it seems possible. Yet I wonder. Many states are more purple than red or blue. My state of Ohio is like that. What happens to the element not in power, though demographically significant, in this scenario? Or what happens when a state like ours “flips.” All in all, I am more fearful of civil disorder within many of our states and growth of militia and vigilante actions. I think there is much in his proposals of a tolerant federalism in our pluralistic society, but how this works to protect individual liberties seems to be the challenge. While some states provide for universal health care, what about those who don’t, when access varies along economic, racial, or even partisan lines? Finally, I wonder from where we get a better political class committed to justice, mercy, and humility?

I agree with French that we need such a political class and recovery of the kind of federalist toleration and First Amendment-affirming political discourse for which he advocates. French has been courageous in using his own voice to advocate for a better America, resulting in vicious criticisms, and threats against his family. The critical question is whether enough others will join him and those of his like to make a difference.

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Disclosure of Material (and Personal) Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author, who served as a wise advisor during a campus religious freedom issue with which I was involved in 2005. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Redeeming Social Media During an Election Year

Source unknown

Redeeming social media. Many would consider that a quixotic endeavor, especially in an election year. The meme above, which has been circulating on Facebook is an example. I posted it yesterday on Facebook and indicated it reflects my own social media philosophy.

Post wisely over the next months. Someone who commented suggested pausing before speaking, especially when in doubt. I’ve reminded people on my Bob on Books Facebook page that we don’t have to say everything we think. Herbert J. Taylor formulated a 4 Way Test for communications in his company, Club Aluminum back in the 1950’s which was eventually adopted by the Rotary.

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Imagine using this test on everything you post on social media.

Contribute to discourse, not division. We have to seriously consider the implications of all our “us versus them” rhetoric, and often how we pigeonhole and caricature “them.” Are we really interested in dialogue? Do we just exchange slogans and gaslighting tropes? Or do we ask questions, explore reasons, and find out if there are common ground concerns? For example, I think both left and right are concerned about where the country is going. What if we accepted that we all love the country and then listened to each other’s concerns?

Check your facts. So many news stories being circulated on social media are based on dubious information. You might check several fact-checking sites, and if there is evidence that they are false, even if they conform to your political ideas, posting is passing along lies. Realize that much of this material may be generated by foreign entities trying to shape the election. I use reputable news media from different perspectives from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post. When they agree, there is a pretty good basis for them being accurate. If you see blatant falsehoods, report them to social media admins.

Resist memes and cheap digs. Other than the one above, I rarely post memes, and never cheap ad hominem attacks. I don’t comment on them unless it seems beneath the dignity of a friend posting it because that just draws attention to the meme. Stuff doesn’t stay in a newsfeed if no one likes or comments on it.

Create beautiful content. This is a challenging time to think about beauty with fires, disease, and political discord. On my book page, we just stay away from all that and are reminded of the good, true, and beautiful in literature. I post prayers to give words to spiritual longings, and humor because I think it helps to have a good laugh. Sometimes I post music, looking forward to the day I will be able to join others in song. Remembering beauty is an act of faith expressing the hope that beauty will prevail.

We can transcend the bitterness and be better, even when we disagree. Some would have us believe that those who disagree with us are nasty or deplorable. Our current political climate thrives on creating tribes that believe they are the only real human beings around and the others subhuman at best. If we believe all are created equal, that all are created in the image of God, that every human being, imperfectly to be sure and to various degrees, reflects something of God, then we already have something in common. Indeed, we have the most important of what makes us human in common. We all have dreams, hopes, and struggles, no matter our politics. In truth, our disagreements are often just about politics, which, despite the rhetoric, is only a small part of daily life. Could it be that we give it too much space in our lives, in our heads?

There will be people who use social media to foment discord and spread deceptive stories and malign those who differ. We don’t have to join them. I would suggest we “socially distance” them when they engage in this kind of behavior, and look for ways to build bridges with those who are our friends, when there are chances–an illness, a new baby, a beautiful family picture. Discord and division spread through those who misuse social media to pass toxic material along, in the same way viral infections spread. We can’t eliminate the infection of political discord in social media, but we may “flatten the curve” by consistently pursuing the social hygiene practices in this post.

A Battle Between Good and Evil?

Wesley

A friend posted this meme, a quote attributed to John Wesley that seemed quite appropriate to our mid-term elections. I am writing this on Tuesday afternoon, while the polls are still open. So I don’t know anything about winners and losers and whether there has been a shift in political power between the time I am writing this and you are reading it. Actually, it really doesn’t matter to what I’ve been thinking about.

What I want to question is whether we will continue to frame our political discourse as a battle between good and evil–with those in opposition the “evil” party? These thoughts have been sparked not only by the Wesley quote but also by a book I’ve been reading, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They talk about three bad ideas that have crept into education that actually undermine both personal and societal well-being. The third of these is life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

It seems to me that this has been the thesis of much of the political advertising and rhetoric in recent elections, and particularly this one. The knight in shining armor in one party’s ads is the incarnation of evil in the other’s. This is not particularly new.

What does seem new is that we have extended the penumbra of evil to cover the supporters of these candidates. It troubles me that there is an increasing perception that America consists of two opposing sides, each seeing the other as evil and detrimental to the nation’s future. The sides mirror the views of the candidates they support. One sees it in the ugly images of angry faces shouting at each other across barricades. More quietly, it sometimes means that someone decides that another can no longer be their friend.

The reality, of course is far more complex. People who vote for different candidates actually have many common concerns and aspirations–a desire to make a living, to see their children educated well, to have good heath care when we need it, to live meaningfully. Many of us struggle when voting, because there are some emphases in each party with which we agree, and we must choose between them. Most of us don’t see one party as all right, and the other all wrong, when we assess the policies they advocate against our own deeply held values.

What concerns me is that the narrative of a battle of good against evil may not end with words. In fact, some, whether in violent confrontations, or violent acts have taken the battle beyond words. For now they are outliers–kind of like John Brown was prior to the Civil War. The question that disturbs me is how long we can continue using this narrative in our national discourse without increasing instances of our social fabric descending into civil disorder–or resorting to authoritarian measures to maintain order.

We cannot stop politicians, advertisers and political advocacy groups from using this rhetoric. But we can stop enabling it. We can refuse to support appeals that divide us from our fellow citizens, or even our fellow human beings–that propose that some particular class of humans is evil and ought to be opposed. I wonder what would happen if we wised up enough to turn our backs and walked away from any politician who turns their opponents (and their constituencies) into evil enemies.

Any of us who have worked on teams realizes that good teams use all the different skills and perspectives within the team. Differences can be good, because none of us is as proficient, strong, or smart as all of us. I’ve sometimes been at loggerheads with another until we did the hard work of understanding why the other thought the way he or she did. Not simply or quickly, but often, in the end, we ended up with a better solution or program than either of us could have designed alone. I would contend that it is unpatriotic to rob our country of the gifts and contribution of all of us, just to favor a particular political base.

You may ask, “are you saying there is no evil out there?” Hardly. Rather, apart from sociopaths and the corrupt, I would contend that a truer portrait is the one that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offered when he said, “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” The most dangerous people, I believe, are those who fail to reckon with the line of good and evil running through their own lives. I become that person when I attribute that evil to a political opponent, and virtue to myself or my party. A far saner approach, it seems, is to see all of our parties as imperfect human structures, striving for proximate rather than ultimate goods, which belong to God alone.

For those of the Christian faith, I am also reminded of Paul’s word to the Ephesians when he said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV). Paul reminds us that we make a great error when we battle against other people, because that is not where the real battle is.

At bottom, these are my reasons for refusing to adopt the narrative that life is a battle between good people and evil people.” I neither want to be found blind to the evil in my own life, nor be found to have misspent my life fighting the wrong battles. Will you join me?

 

Is Collective Insanity Possible?

Ecstatic NationI’m in the midst of reading Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877What the book raises for me is whether it is possible for a nation to descend into a fit of collective insanity, or at least ecstasy, in which it takes leave of its senses, with dire consequences to follow. In the first part of the book, she chronicles the increasingly incendiary rhetoric of political leaders and advocates both for slavery and abolition that seemed to stir a growing spirit of fear and anger in the nation that overwhelmed calmer voices like Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and even Alexander Stephens from the South who recognized the terrible conflict toward which the United States was headed.

Certainly, a survey of recent history suggests other examples of national collective insanity. The massacres in Rwanda stand out, where neighbors turned on neighbors in a horrific bloodbath of tribal warfare. People I’ve talked with from China speak with muted tones of the painful experience of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

This makes me wonder whether it is possible that this could occur once again in our country and what form this might take? There is anger and fear and even deep resentments or hatreds in many quarters against ethnic minorities, immigrants, the majority culture, and over those who differ with each other in matters of sexual expression. Efforts to work toward some form of a more perfect union are often trumped (!) by the soundbite smackdown.

I have to admit to being personally concerned that much of our national discourse, and the social media discourse that parallels this is indeed an exercise in playing with fire. We don’t seem to think that words can be dangerous or that speech freedoms might be abused. I will always defend our speech freedoms as a special gift and privilege. Yet the use of that freedom to sow fear and anger and intransigence contributed to the American Civil War and drowned out other voices like those of Lincoln who made this plea in his inaugural:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

I don’t think another Civil War is likely, but I think that civil anarchy is possible, a situation akin to the Wild West where power comes from the end of a gun and the rule of law is increasingly impotent to check disorder and violence. Do we realize that the American experiment of the past 239 years can quickly descend into either anarchy or into a reactive tyranny of repression?

I believe the way forward is to listen neither to the voices that foment fear and anger, nor to the voices of easy solutionism that promise that America’s greatest days are before us (which is why I’ll never be elected to office). I wonder if we need more voices warning of the abyss toward which we could be heading and calling on us to stop, and lament what has been or is in danger of being lost. I wonder if we need voices calling us back to both our highest national and spiritual values–the recognition that all are created equal and have dignity, and all are gifted contributors to our national greatness.

Our words matter as do deeds of justice, mercy and compassion. Those who play with fire often don’t realize they could burn down the house until they do. And that includes our national house.