Division. Red v. Blue. American Tribalism. There has been a lot of talk lately about political partisanship in the United States. Publications as diverse as the Washington Times and the New Yorker have even suggested that America is on the brink of another civil war.
Sometimes I think political columnists and “pundits” (one of my least favorite words – time to put it to rest) have way too much time on their hands. I guess they have to keep the pot boiling, and their subscription rates rising, by offering outlandish theories they only discuss among themselves.
None of the issues we face today are as stark as the immorality and illegality of one human being owning another. The contradiction slavery posed to our most cherished ideals was obvious to everyone with even an ounce of empathy. Those who supported the institution used all manner of political, religious, biological, and economic arguments to justify its existence, but I suspect that even they, in their heart of hearts, knew it was evil.
So we’re not that bad off. And since then we’ve had 150 years of common history to further cement our sense of nationhood. If nothing else, the white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery should do more than anything to remind us that no one cared about blue or red when laying these patriots in their graves. Unless, that is, the blue signifies their loyalty and the red the color of the blood they shed.
At issue today is really just a garden-variety disagreement over the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Some want more government activity, some less – nothing new there. FDR convinced a majority of Americans to support the former; Ronald Reagan convinced a majority of Americans to try the latter. Back and forth the pendulum swings.
What might be different now is how politics has seeped into areas where it was previously unwelcome, or just unheard of. Who would have ever thought we would argue over the weather? Were the California wildfires caused by global warming or bad forest management? Disagreement reigns even there.
I bring this up because our company’s vision is to accomplish the one thing George Washington wished he had done before he died: create a national school where America’s youth, regardless of background, could be sent to “acquire knowledge in the principles of politics and good government.” I think by “politics” he meant civics, and what he had in mind was a civilian version of West Point – a place where the best and brightest could live and work together while learning what America stood for and how self-government could be maintained.
At its heart, it is an attempt to promote national unity and strengthen the fabric of our country. That is what Mile High Education Services is really about. We don’t gloss over the dark pages of our history or paper over its differences, but we always start with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” Note the wording – at once idealistic and pragmatic. Since perfection in human nature is impossible, we can only ever strive for something more perfect than what we are now.
What worries me about today’s climate, especially the example it sets for our youth, is the tendency for people to dig in their heels and not give up an inch of ground – over anything. If you have to defend everything, you protect nothing. Knowing which battles to fight is an important skill, maybe the most important.
One of the units we teach is built around a book written by William Shirer called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s the best history of Nazi Germany I know of. But Shirer also wrote another, lesser-known, book called The Collapse of the Third Republic. It’s an analysis of how France fell to the Germans in 1940. Having explained what made Hitler and the Nazis tick, Shirer wanted to find out why they were able to achieve in six weeks what their fathers had failed to do in four years – conquer France. It was not inevitable, or even likely. Together with the British, French forces outnumbered the Germans. They had better artillery and tanks, and actually had more combat aircraft available on the day they surrendered than on the day they were attacked.
So what happened? Shirer points the usual fingers at poor leadership, tactics, and decision-making, but then he goes a step further and says it was the decay in French society that was truly to blame. Not decay as we normally think of it – a society going soft from self-indulgence and hedonism. Those exist in every society. Shirer suggests that what weakened France was a lack of national unity. This didn’t happen overnight. It was the cumulative effect of sixty years of bitter and usually bloodless fights over nearly everything: Republicanism versus Monarchism, Church versus State, Army versus Government, Countryside versus City. Frenchmen could have survived any one of these dilemmas, but not all of them. In the end, says Shirer:
"They seemed to dwell more and more in two separate, hostile worlds, divided not only politically but by their fundamental attitudes toward morals and religion. There was no tolerance, no breadth of understanding, which might have led toward reconciliation in the interest of national unity. One more imposing layer was added to the wall which had been raised between the two Frances by the Revolution and which had been built up ever higher, layer by layer, by the successive crises of the June Days, the Second of December, the Commune, the Sixteenth of May, and Boulangism."
When the time came to meet a real threat – Adolf Hitler and his legions – the French had no appetite for the struggle. In fact, the day the Germans invaded, France didn’t even have a government, and its army had no field commander.
The battle was over before it even started.