We Gave to One Another
Written October and December, 2005
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
1956 I was in elementary school. My Weekly Reader taught us about presidential elections. We learned that Americans were divided into two groups.
A grownup was either a Republican or a Democrat, depicted by happy little cartoons of an elephant and a donkey. What was the difference between elephants and donkeys? The Reader didn't make this clear. Both groups had similar goals, with only minor disagreements about a few issues. Apparently they signed up members by a process as arbitrary as the one that assigned some kids to Mrs. Greene's class and the rest to Mrs. Blue's.
Every four years, the elephants threw a big party called a "convention" to pick a "candidate" whom they wanted to live in the White House. The donkeys had a party, too. Then the two groups spent several weeks holding a contest. It was like the World Series, with lots of bunting and banners and cheering. Whoever won this friendly competition went to Washington for four years, while the other candidate got to go home.
1965 I was a college freshman. Two flags hung at the front of Oberlin's Finney Chapel. The American flag reminded us of our obligations to our country. The flag of the United Nations reminded us of our obligations to the world.
On the opposite corner of Tappan Square, we celebrated United Nations Day every October 24 at a circle of flags around the site of the Historic Elm.
1972 It was the time of "ping pong diplomacy." The United States had not been on speaking terms with China since that nation became Communist more than 20 years before, but now relations were beginning to thaw slightly, and athletes from the rival countries occasionally got together.
I remember watching a women's gymnastics exhibition on television. One of the Americans couldn't get the recorded music to play for her floor exercise. So, in what seemed at the time a stunning act of international cooperation, a Chinese pianist (whom she had never met) volunteered to improvise music for her performance.
Afterwards, euphoric gymnast hugged smiling pianist. We all had tears in our eyes over this revelation that our hated enemies, the godless Red Chinese, could be nice people too.
Now has time rewritten every line?
Our political parties are no longer friendly rivals. Nowadays they've become downright nasty, especially if the two groups are identified as "conservatives" and "liberals."
A conservative like Rush Limbaugh says that because liberals don't agree with him, they must be "insane" or "deranged." Or if they aren't crazy, then they must be evil traitors who want America to lose.
A liberal like Al Franken calls certain conservatives "nutcases," "stupid bastards," and "big fat idiots." Not to mention "lying liars."
Whichever party is in power installs its policies as America's policies, and then proclaims that any criticism of those policies is criticism of America itself. If we suggest that our country could be improved, we obviously hate it the way it is, so we're unpatriotic.
Americans tolerate other nations so long as they agree with us. But when France declined to send troops to Iraq to help us capture non-existent weapons of mass destruction, France became our enemy. Whoever isn't with us is against us, right? Offended Americans replaced French fries with "freedom fries."
In the Declaration of Independence, Americans admitted the necessity of "a decent respect to the opinions" of the rest of the world. But nowadays if anyone suggests that another nation might have a good point in its dispute with our nation, he's giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
And the United Nations, in the minds of many, is not a means to worldwide cooperation but rather a sneaky plot to steal from us Americans our sovereign right to do whatever we want.
Fortunately, however, not everyone thinks that way. There are signs that some are tiring of the extreme attitudes being expressed. There are signs that some realize that the different peoples of the world have something in common, as do the different peoples of America.
Even former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush put partisanship aside and got together to help flood victims, both on the other side of the world and on our own Gulf Coast.
In Time magazine for December 26, 2005, Clinton said that times are changing. "For more than 20 years, we've gotten into thinking that people we have disagreements with are people we have to despise or demonize. ...It's kept us from solving a lot of problems and doing a lot of things we could have done otherwise. So I think people see George and me, and they say, 'This is the way our country ought to work.'"
May it be so.