There’s a phrase in my family that always brings a knowing smile anytime we hear it: “have you ever been to New York?” The phrase has its own back story but for our purposes today it means making judgments about a place without ever having been there. In other words, speaking without a full understanding of the topic being discussed.
It seems there’s a lot of that going around in America these days – people making judgments about places or people they know very little about. Millions of people lumped together into baskets of deplorables, for example. Value judgments that don’t rest on facts and experience, but on individual biases and prejudices.
We have a very incomplete view of America if we’ve only seen it from 40,000 feet en route from one coast to the other. A more complete understanding comes with a close-up ground-level view. When you travel by air you won’t see any “you’re now entering Nebraska” signs alerting you to the fact that you’re now in the airspace of the particular state miles below. When we travel over America and not through it, we’re not greeted by state mottos, slogans or people at the state lines and we can miss the richness and individualism that add color and understanding to the American Experience.
As hard as it is to imagine, the mainstream media that now either ignores or demeans middle America, once sent reporters into the red state heartland to take the cultural pulse of those living and working there – who were politically as well as geographically distanced from fellow citizens in blue coastal states. I fondly remember and looked forward to Charles Kuralt’s On the Road reports broadcast on CBS, and those came to mind when and Pam and I took recent road trips, first into the northwest: to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah, and then from southern California across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas before ending in Tennessee.
It was an education that brought an appreciation for those with callings and values rooted in an earlier time. We saw vast fields with fences and gates designed to protect and keep livestock in, not keep the unwelcome out as may be the case in more established and higher socio-economic neighborhoods.
No matter what day it was, we saw tractors in fields doing the work that would not wait until tomorrow.
We marveled at the seemingly endless trains that carried the necessities of life east and west to their destinations. To us.
And we saw trucks, endless streams of trucks, headed toward or away from the comfort of their own homes and families to transport the essentials of life to us. And we benefitted from the vast trucker support network of fuel, food and convenience stations selling virtually anything that could be needed. And then some.
Off the Interstates we drove through the business districts of what were once the centers of their regional communities. Buildings with architecture of a different era, some with boarded up windows and some with painted signs announcing the services still provided inside.
In each community we saw steeples, places of worship where the continuity of shared faith continues to be expressed as it has been for centuries, back to the time when people of common values joined together to form a new nation of United States.
And there were flags, lots of flags. Flags painted on buildings, flags flying on poles, flags rippling from the back of pickup trucks. Everywhere … flags … that expressed the values of people – Americans – whose viewpoints about the United States may be different from those in other regions, but who have equal standing to participate with those of different persuasions to create a blended American experience.
E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, One.
And as we drove and experienced new things, we imagined the stories they could tell. An unpainted, gray cinder block building, now abandoned, that once provided gasoline and clean windshields to travelers in northeastern New Mexico.
Weathered wooden homes and barns in Texas that have withstood decades of severe weather and now stand in disrepair as reminders of a different time. We wondered what kinds of celebrations had they witnessed when they were first built, or when the harvest exceeded expectations.
Then we walked on sacred battlefields in Tennessee, where Americans wearing both blue and gray prayed to the same Deity and died on the same blood-red soaked fields.
Can we look at our history today and make the necessary adjustments to preserve our future as United States? Can we, will we, learn before it’s too late, that the escalating tensions between Teams Blue and Red are a serious threat to those on both sides? And also to the world that will be catastrophically diminished if America’s lamp of freedom is extinguished?
Abraham Lincoln assessed the threat of his day with this warning: A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address delivered in 1796, saw beyond the horizon of his generation to see the dangers that threaten our generations today.
For a nation to survive, its citizens must share common values, because conflict is the inevitable consequence of unshared expectations. I believe President Lincoln was correct: we cannot survive as a house divided, And I believe President Washington accurately foresaw the problems that jeopardize our continued existence as a nation.
Either we will become all one thing or all the other. Which will it be? Our choices will determine our future.
That’s all for now, but I hope you will watch for the next blog post when I review several of the specific warnings in Washington’s Farewell Address and discuss how they are relevant to the political and constitutional divisions that are facing Americans today.