If We Didn’t, Who Did Start the Fire?

By TOM MEREDITH | Nov 28, 2018

I recently heard myself saying I have not been this afraid of the future since 1968, when I was 12 years old and thought the world as I knew it was coming to an end. That made me think of the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A few days later a friend recommended a book to read, The Soul of America by John Meacham.

The Soul of America has been reminding me that, as my father has often said, our country has always been in political turmoil. Our current round of it seems worse than others because it is happening now and we do not yet know how the story ends.

We seem so divided along political party lines that labels for people abound. I thought we had progressed beyond that during my lifetime with the Civil Rights Act, overcoming the generation gap, Watergate, the Vietnam War and the aftermath, economic highs and lows. But it seems Republican and Democrat views and vicious hyperbole are forced on us daily as part of an attempt to indoctrinate people toward a particular point of view.

I asked a longtime friend, a sweet grandmother and retired teacher from Jersey City, her thoughts on the current situation. She said she has never hated anyone as much as she hates the man in the White House.

I asked her why she hates him, as I cannot believe this person hates anyone. She said, “I hate what he stands for.” I asked what it is exactly that he stands for. She said racism. “He is destroying race relations in our country.”

My thinking was the prior occupant of the White House did more toward that end than the current one, but I was curious to know what our president had said or done to encourage racism. After thinking, she lacked a specific example and said, “Well, you hear it in the news so often it can’t be not happening.”

This is a smart, well-educated woman with a positive and friendly personality. I was stunned. Maybe I needed to look deeper into my own beliefs to ensure I am not simply buying into someone else’s political line of thought.

We have made tremendous strides in my lifetime and before toward equality, but we still have a ways to go. And like everything else in the human condition, perfection is unrealistic.

The evolution of political parties on just this issue is interesting to consider. The Democratic Party was very supportive of slavery leading up to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Ku Klux Klan when re-formed after World War I was a political force sought after by both parties. After World War II there was a movement by Southern states toward secession again. It failed quickly but was brought up on the Senate floor. Jim Crow laws and segregation existed well into the 1960s, when Vietnam overshadowed race relations but had a role in the struggle also.

The Civil Rights Act and a strong dosage of common sense finally took hold and we progressed. Affirmative action began. While well intentioned, it cannot make up for past inequities through numbers. We cannot change past history with good intentions learned from further experience, nor should we. How can a child, a person, a culture or a country grow if not by learning from mistakes? If we erase our mistakes, we will forget them, as I believe we are doing right now, and we will doom ourselves to making them again and again in differing forms.

All of the hate and fear being forced upon us by politicians, activists, news organizations and social media can be very destructive if we, while absorbing the rhetoric, do not keep it in balance when deciding our personal positions. So much bluster for simple political advantage.

I wonder how many elected officials of either party really understand they represent the people, not themselves. They get elected spewing specific views on specific issues; if enough of us agree, they get elected. That does not mean their particular viewpoint on all issues is representative of the people who elected them.

To me, important events in history to hold onto include how the Native Americans have been treated by the Europeans (whites in America), race relations with all groups, the balance of immigration and growth of our country, political cover-ups, mass deportations of the 1950s, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and McCarthyism.

Martin Luther King Jr. may have been the brightest light in America before being snuffed out when he said, “Let us judge a man (he meant men and women) by the quality of his character, not by the color of his skin.” If you can believe “color of his skin” to be a metaphor for someone different from you and can practice that concept with people different from you in color, political affiliation, religious affiliation, etc., you may reduce stress. If enough people can do it, we may regain our ability to reason with each other more productively. If we accomplish that, we may be able to elect some real leaders again by looking at the person, not the party.

No one’s inalienable rights hold sway over anyone else’s. This is important for us all to remember.

Tom Meredith lives in Little Egg Harbor.



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