The events of the last few days, and in particular those of Wednesday when a mob invaded the Capitol building in Washington, are emblematic of a very disunited States. News channels round the world covered the events live. Scarcely has a less flattering image of the United States been transmitted in living memory. It reminded me of the scenes in the American compound in Saigon during the last hours of the Vietnam War.
What impressed me most was the significant disconnect between the television images of the mob and the individual motivations to do so. Individual demonstrators/rioters felt they were crusaders, the last bastions of truth in the world misled by fake reporting. They justified their actions in the kind of language that would have been familiar to the soldiers of the American Revolution back in 1783. They were freedom fighters, trying to make/keep America great. They saw themselves as patriots.
Of course others saw it differently. While Republicans were uncomfortable, uneasy at best with what they were seeing, Democrats were clear. This was an assault on democracy, an attempted coup, anarchy in urban America, domestic terrorism, even treason. Take your pick. Not only was it an unconscionable act of defiance but one incited by the president himself. Writing this four days later, it still seems hard to believe.
But significantly absent from any of the television coverage, focused on hyperbole, was a sense of perspective, an attempt to make sense of the events rather than project their consequences forward. News coverage focused on several perceived desecrations of the building and its assembly. Protesters relaxing, their feet on the speaker’s desk. That sort of thing. As the night wore on, despite a hurriedly imposed curfew, the arrests began, along with the inevitable post-mortem analysis of the level of policing.
This truly is a country divided against itself. Not since 1861 and the opening salvoes of the Civil War has there been such disharmony in America. And in an uneasy reflection of those times, the country once more is divided on racial and geographical lines. The southern states of the old Confederacy mirror Trump’s powerbase.
Clearly this stand-off is insupportable. A country divided against itself has two choices – revolution or reconciliation. It really is as stark choice as that. Either the US takes steps on the road to reconciliation urgently or faces the most terrible of consequences. And let’s be under no illusion about this. It is not simply an American problem. This has implications globally. Either America heals itself or the year 2021 will go down in history as the onset of the second Civil War. When brothers stand apart, rifles trained on each other, either they lower their rifles or they pull the trigger.
But how can such reconciliation be effected?
It has to start with a conversation. And that conversation cannot occur with guns held to each other’s heads, figuratively or otherwise. So start with those who are able to take that step. Start with those whose differences are more trivial. Talk about subjects you agree upon. Seek for agreement not disagreement. Find the many areas where you see eye to eye. Explain your vision of America.
I have always taken the view with social media that one should never make comment that one would not be prepared to endorse. Facebook and other social media sites invite polarisation rather than reconciliation. Differences of opinion swiftly descend from reasoned analysis into the abyss of name-calling and abuse. And yet I wonder how many would feel comfortable repeating their comments face-to-face. It is too easy to use the anonymity of the chat room to fuel disharmony.
So the path to reconciliation will never occur in the pages of Facebook with its currency of confrontation, pithy one-liners substituting for considered analysis. It requires real people to have real conversations about real issues. It starts with the singular understanding that conversation should lead to conciliation not confrontation. Confrontation creates winners and losers and, when the stakes are as high as they are now, ultimately only losers. Conciliation, or at least the desire for conciliation, creates only winners.
My position, in terms of American politics, has been adequately expressed in this blog/column over several years. There is no need to reiterate it here. But I recognise that victory of one party over another is less of a conclusion than a commencement. We have to get away from this tribalist approach to politics. There are no winners and losers, only losers. The path to reconciliation has to start. And it has to start now, with a willingness to engage. And this applies at a personal, national and global level.
I confess I can’t understand the position of my opponents. But I need to. And I want to. Because there is no other way forward.
How? It starts with a conversation.