Toward a More UNITED United States
On the eve of Memorial Day weekend, 2016, my old next-door neighbor from back home, Kevin Buist, e-mailed three photographs to his family and a few selected friends (myself included). The photos were of his late father, Walter S. “Scotty” Buist, at three stages of his life: as a young airman serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II… in middle age, dressed in 18th-century colonial garb (complete with wig and tricorner hat), posed before the vast 48-star American flag that unfurled between a pair of trees in their front yard on national holidays… and finally, as an elderly veteran watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington. (See above.)
The last photo was especially poignant. Shot from behind, with only one shoulder and the back of his head visible, this image had us viewing the ceremony as if through my old neighbor’s eyes. I could only imagine the mixture of pride, humility and regret for comrades lost in long-ago battles over Fortress Europe.
Mr. Buist was a patriot, no doubt about it. He participated in numerous flying missions over Axis-occupied territory during the war, and his commander was none other than Col. James Stewart. (Yep, that James Stewart.) I always thought there was more than a little Jimmy Stewart in his own make-up: his frame tall and lanky, his manner folksy and unassuming but undergirded with the steel of irreproachable character… gentle and good-natured to the core… a devoted father and genial neighbor.
I never knew whether Mr. Buist was a Republican or a Democrat. It hardly mattered. What mattered about Mr. Buist was his decency. He was, just possibly, the most American man I’ve ever known — American in the way foreigners used to perceive us in the days before right-wing tea partiers and left-wing grievance warriors commandeered the national stage. Just one of those modest Yanks who stepped up to help save the civilized world.
When Mr. Buist left us five years ago, at the well-seasoned age of 86, his America had already split into warring factions — each spewing contempt for its mortal enemies on the other side of the cultural divide. I’m guessing that Mr. Buist knew nothing about the vicious tribal squabbles that had erupted during the last few years of his life — and if he did, I’m sure he would have scratched his thatch of white hair and frowned. He would have wondered what happened to the singleness of purpose that united us during the war, propelled us to victory and led to a half-century of mostly-benevolent leadership over the free world.
Of course, not everyone approved of FDR, our wartime president — and yet the America of Mr. Buist’s youth united behind him, respected his decisions, took pride in his firmness and eloquence. Today our presidents and other politicians rank somewhere between advertising executives and penny stockbrokers on the scale of public esteem.
It’s an angry and vicious place, this latter-day America. The extreme left and extreme right, like powerful electromagnets, have sucked the life out of the center with their damnable distortions, lies and foolhardy certainties. They’re diabolically skilled at winning converts and reinforcing their biases with hand-picked news (or invented news) designed to keep their precious narratives alive.
Those polarized narratives have finally crossed the hazy boundary between political grievance and paranoid hallucination:
Obama gave a conciliatory speech at Hiroshima? A week before Memorial Day? Sacrilege! What else can you expect from a socialist black Muslim Antichrist who wants to steal our guns and destroy America!
A columnist for the campus newspaper questioned whether the Black Lives Matter movement has gone too far? Defund the paper! Report the columnist to the Bias Response Team and give him a one-way ticket to the “re-education” camp!
Meanwhile, is there anyone left who can see both sides of an issue? Anyone who can chuck the obligatory script, find the nuances, and understand why some of our fellow Americans might put a different spin on our pet narratives?
The abortion controversy has at least two legitimate sides… so do taxation, immigration, automation, the wealth gap, race relations, the size of government, military intervention, healthcare, welfare, transgender bathroom (and locker room) rights, God, guns and free trade.
Do we have the patience to tease out the threads of truth on each side? Can we discuss these matters without resorting to mutual ridicule, flame wars, threats, and silly one-sided memes on Facebook? Preaching to the choir only entrenches our biases and makes us more likely to hate those who think differently. It’s time to step out of the choir and back into the real world.
Polarization has made at least two separate nations of us: sniffish white progressives and their minority allies on one team… obstinate lower-middle class and rural whites on the other. Eventually, as progressives mingle only with progressives and conservatives with conservatives, we might evolve into two separate and reproductively incompatible species. Wouldn’t that be an achievement!
This isn’t Mr. Buist’s America. Some will celebrate the passing of the old values and virtues. I don’t. I wish my old neighbor (and millions more like him) were still here, breathing their decency, friendliness and common sense into the communal atmosphere.
Do we believe in the primacy of the individual or the community? It should hardly matter. To men and women of good will, decent individuals will make a decent community. And decent individuals who think and work together toward noble purposes can reunite this fractured republic of ours.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.