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  • Scotte Burns

Us and Them

Like so many Americans, we struggle to fathom events in the news and lament the ongoing resurgence of racial tensions in our country. On the road, we meet people from every corner and culture in our country as individuals, and acceptance is easy; the exchanges are human and inspiring. And yet, the clash of tribes in the wider world continues and seems to worsen every day. It’s easy to blame politicians, institutions, or factions for this, and many do indeed have a direct hand in it all. There is something more fundamental at work, though, and in keeping with the Law of Unintended Consequences, today’s challenges also offer tomorrow’s rewards. In other words, there is hope.

Consider: change is the natural condition of things all around us, and that is as true in the physics of the universe as it is within individual human lives. So, as we revisit our histories over time, we understand that judgments and perceptions of people and events will inevitably evolve. Opinions on the appropriateness of nudity in art, acceptance of the heliocentric model, the relative quality of craft beers, the morality of violence in sports, short shorts for men - all have changed in our social and moral perceptions, though the objects of each remain objectively constant. Other things evolve in and of themselves; the objects themselves change. Living things undergo life stages, music and art develop creatively, technology advances or is abandoned in different times and places. Whether it is our perceptions, or the things that we perceive, though, change remains inevitable.

And that’s going to piss some people off, every time.

Because no matter the present state of things, some folks will prefer that state so long as its conditions favor them, agree with their concepts of how things should be, or are at least comfortable and predictable - which are often the same thing. And if conditions change too slowly to perceive over the course of a lifetime or two, say over several generations or more, many will begin to see those conditions as the way things have always been and the way they should always be. But again, things don’t actually work out that way; our lives and our world are inexorably dynamic. And today, the forces of change are no longer slowly evolving. They are accelerating, and the literal face of our nation is changing.

Within our lifetimes, America will have no racial or ethnic minority per se at all. Immigration from Mexico is declining, while that from Asia is rapidly increasing, as is that from the Middle East. As Boomers exit the stage, aging GenXers and Millennials are becoming the dominant generations, bringing with them more liberal and secular politics that don’t identify with either currently existing major party. Don’t get too comfy with that thought, though, youngsters. GenZ is right behind you, and once again represents different social and political sensibilities from both you and your parents. Genomics and other medical technologies are also advancing at a dizzying rate, making the elimination of most disease possible and 130-year lifespans the norm, not sometime in the distant future, but within a few years. This will mean the end of every previous expectation of a linear lifespan in which we expected everyone to be born, go to school, get a job, retire, and die on schedule. The death thing will remain a certainty, of course, but until then, tomorrow’s Americans will have explored several careers, gone to school differently and multiple times, and will have dismissed the traditional concept of retirement. Financial planning will never be the same, but then money as we currently think of it will be crypto-blockchained into the dustbin of history as well. Family structures, perspectives on gender, the size and definition of the middle class, what it means to be old, how we eat and farm, and religious affiliations are all changing, accelerated by deliberately self-evolving technologies like machine learning and AI.

As our people’s composition evolves, and the nature of life in America fundamentally changes, as it must, an evolution in our perceptions of its authors also unfolds. We’ve come to see that Manifest Destiny harbored some brutal conceits and that our founders’ assumptions hinged on a slightly more nuanced idea than we were told as children - all white male landowners were created equal. But though our judgments of the men involved may shift over time, and their adherence to them was far from absolute, the principles they espoused retain their integrity. Truth is still that which is in accordance with fact and reality, duty remains our moral obligation to act according to conscience, and freedom is the natural state of humankind; granted by our Creator, not through human decree or law. Acknowledging their shortcomings in uniformly honoring these principles is not a condemnation of our founders. They, like all of us today, were flawed though being products of their times, environment, humanity, and experience. It was their triumphs from which we still benefit and their mistakes from which we can learn to build a better America for posterity. An unvarnished view of them, and our connections to them, offers profound hope for our country’s future. In examining and being willing to address our faults as our faces change, America can still be the place that ultimately demonstrates how those ideals are universal among human beings; they have nothing at all to do with color, ethnicity, age, or gender. Seeing this, we can build a nation based on the principles we have in common, the desire for which is why so many have come here in the first place, to join in that common hope.

With change, however, come the familiar historical challenges and threats from the intractable forces that have most benefited from, or at least been most comfortable with, the previous order. We see this in the hate marches, insurrections, and violence of recent years. The better angels of America’s past and present can be our guide through these struggles. The ideals of natural rights, equal opportunity, civic duty, a social compact to protect even the views of those with whom we disagree - all the things codified in our Constitution and Bill of Rights by those great and deeply flawed men - remain the last, best hope for humanity.

For this, we will need more than our founder’s intellectual greatness, though. We will need to learn to love one another - not in a Pollyanna chorus of kumbayas, but in the kind of transcendent, patient, unyielding love that can move mountains, especially majestic purple ones. Love is the irresistible force demanding that there can never be an us and them as Americans. No matter the hue of our faces or the cut of our clothes, there can be only us. What should make us truly exceptional is not that we believe ourselves better than others, but that we never look at another human being and say, “Everyone is welcome at our table...except you.” As Dr. King, a man who knew something about both love and hate told us, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Loving those who hate us is hard, yes, but we’re a nation built on audacity and courage and faith.

Dammit, we do the hard stuff.

Some of our people are frightened by the changes America is undergoing; they feel displaced within the land of their birth and legacy. We need to offer our fellow citizens who feel this way our understanding and compassion, not our scorn. And to those who come here hoping for the freedom and promise we so often take for granted, we must live up to the responsibility of having proclaimed for over two centuries, E Pluribus Unum - Out of Many, One. Such a promise is uniquely American and demands that we love and include fellow citizens feeling threatened by the changes and challenges we face, just as we seek to welcome and bond with those who yearn to breathe free in this place we’ve built together.

Because once we learn to do that, there can be no more them, only us. Americans.

“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 they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” - Abraham Lincoln

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