America, America

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

I don’t know who “Steve” is or whether he’s really 6-foot-5 and weighs 265 pounds, but, whatever else can be said about him, he has to be credited with clarifying how bad things can get when dialogue breaks down.

As we wage war abroad, we seem to be edging closer to waging it at home as well: Red vs. Blue. It’s kind of a game. Both sides play it and the media promote and indulge it – this mutual and, to some extent, willful misunderstanding of one another. It’s just a short hop from there to denial of humanity and the fervent wish to terminate the existence of an ideological nuisance.

“I’ve run into you in the past. The next time will be a memorable event. Why? Because extensive reconstructive surgery will still not make you recognizable to your family members!”

This was followed by an obscenity involving my mother, in extra large type, then signed with a first name and the intimidating body stats. That’s the entirety of the message.

The only indication of what might have set him off was on the subject line, which contained a reference to the column I wrote last week elucidating the moral context of Sen. Richard Durbin’s comparison of U.S. torture practices to Nazism, Soviet gulags and Pol Pot. Retrieving the letter from my inbox was the low point of a Fourth of July spent in extended soul-searching.

I was doing that because I’d already gotten a lot of disturbing mail on that column, which I was trying to make sense of. Indeed, one writer had concluded a lengthy letter with that very suggestion: “I hope on this the Fourth of July weekend, you can do some soul searching and understand why your column is so insulting to all who have come to call themselves Americans.”

Not all of the mail was critical. A great deal of it was supportive. But the common thread of the angry letters was that, by defending Durbin – by making the case that this country could go down a terrible path just as Germany did, and that the torture scandal may be an early warning signal – I was defiling the troops and trespassing on sacred ground. One writer said: “It was the most biased, hate America, leftist opinion I have ever read.”

Again with the America reference. After reading enough letters with the same tone, the same invocation of this exclusive, mythical “America” – the America of purple mountains majesty but not of slave markets, Jim Crow laws or several hundred years of genocide against the continent’s original inhabitants – I began getting the weird feeling that I was being expelled, excommunicated, from a church I had never belonged to.

Except, well, that’s not entirely true. I do belong to the mythical “Church of America,” by virtue of having grown up in it and been stamped indelibly by it. I also belong, of course, to the real America, sprawling, flawed, violent, multicultural. I’m dissatisfied with, yet fervently believe in, both myth and reality. The two of them together are a work in progress.

And this begins to get at the nature of the soul-searching that consumed my Fourth. As I read each damning letter, I could feel a tearing in my own breast. It’s not that I mind having my views challenged or wince at debate. Usually I relish it, but on this day I felt that the stakes were higher than I could cope with. We’re losing each other, we’re shoving each other away – we citizens of the two Americas – and no good can come of this.

I thought about my daughter, who recently got back from South Korea and said to me that three weeks in that far more homogenous culture gave her a whole new appreciation for her country: America the Diverse, the world’s Petri dish of racial and ethnic commingling. We’ve achieved, after years of struggle, a basic, street-level acceptance of superficial human differences that have bedeviled the human race, and kept it embroiled in preposterous conflict, for millennia beyond counting. That’s something to be proud of.

Something has kept this country together through the shouting match of our becoming, and I guess I have always taken that “something” for granted – this sense, I suppose, that I have a right to be here and say my say with full-throated passion, and so do you. Why do I doubt this all of a sudden?

Perhaps because I’ve just gotten a glimpse of what a civil war would be like: two halves separating, each claiming full ownership of the treasure of wholeness.