“To sin by silence, when they should protest,” it has been said, “makes cowards out of men.”*
We are seeing quite a bit of cowardice lately, along with hypocrisy, mendacity and just plain sleaziness.
The history of our Republic, as any number of commentators have pointed out lately, has forever been a struggle between our stated ideals and aspirations and the reality of our policies and practices. All men may have been created equal, but that didn’t necessarily make them welcome on our shores. It was okay to bring Chinese men from Guangdong here to build the transcontinental railroad, but not to let them stay or bring their relatives. Italians, Irish, Jews, Mexicans along with a lot of other “aliens” have all faced rejection and discrimination. Blacks were regarded as inferior when they were forced to come here, and in some quarters they still are.
This attitude is nothing new. What is revealing, however, is how few of Republican officials are willing to speak out against xenophobic, inflammatory rhetoric. When some of them do speak out, they too often express themselves with the vague opacity of “concern”. We are paying a price now and we will pay in the future for this moral failure. We pay now in the loss of respect and influence we are suffering abroad and in the dismay and division we are experiencing at home. E Pluribus Unum, the motto we see every day on our one dollar bills, “out of many, one”, is inscribed in the Great Seal of the United States. Rarely, if ever, have we achieved that goal, but until now we haven’t had a President whose sole purpose—for his own benefit—is to divide us.
In the face of that, the great majority of elected officials from his own party stand mute. In past elections, when Democratic candidates have pointed to inequalities and inequities in America, Republicans have been quick to condemn what they characterize as class warfare. They suggest that critical speeches weaken the ties that supposedly bind us together. But when their leader takes a meat cleaver to those ties, they have nothing to say; or they suggest that he’s being misinterpreted, or he doesn’t mean what his critics are claiming, or even that his words are no worse than (fill in the blank).
For those of us old enough to remember, the failure to stand up to demagoguery has deep and enduring consequences. Mob rule may start with one motivation, but it can quickly turn to mayhem and anarchy. Demagogues, and this one in particular, are insatiable; they are a fire that needs new fuel to keep on burning.
Our institutions—co-equal branches of government, checks and balances, etc.—aren’t automatic. They consist of nothing more than the men and women who fill them, their values and their vision. When those officials fail, out of fear or self-interest, to fulfill their intended institutional role, they flirt with danger not for themselves only, but also for us.
This is no time for timidity. After too many past elections that have been declared the most important of our lifetime, we are truly approaching that “most important” election. Hand-wringing isn’t going to get it done. Neither is ideological self-indulgence nor reaching for ultimate solutions. If we truly believe in unity over divisiveness, let’s strive for a broad coalition, making common cause with people we don’t agree with on everything. Let’s focus on first principles—decency, civility, empathy, equality, honesty and integrity.
When the time is right, I’ll get more specific about what can be done. In the meantime, we have to resist accepting the present situation as some kind of new normal. It’s distressing to see how many of our fellow citizens meet the avalanche of outrages with apathy and indifference. We simply have to keep reminding ourselves that we deserve much better than what we’re experiencing, and that the opportunity for change is coming.
*Ella Wheeler Wilcox