I recently viewed and became enamored with a 2006 video of Tom Petty singing “Learning to Fly.” What has so captivated me about the video is not just that it’s an amazingly well-written and performed song but that during the audience participation section near the end damn-near every person in the audience claps in unison and joins in the refrain with the type of full-throated joy found — and perhaps only possible — in communal participation and celebration. It is a type of shared joy, participation, and celebration that has been rendered nearly extinct in modern America — certainly exacerbated by Covid-19 restrictions — but mostly due to our political divide, one which too many of us either refuse to or have forgotten how to fly above and cross.
Similar euphoric experiences of united behavior may be found today at a Trump rally or a BLM march, but those are sub-cultural gatherings in which a large portion of the satisfaction found in such participation is derived from what participants are against and to whom they are opposed rather than in a spirit of nurturing the general good. I’m not suggesting that either of these events are inappropriate but that we all need to recognize that our larger allegiance must be to one another as members of a community whose strength is in its diversity. It is vital that we remind ourselves that many once-great institutions and nations have been laid low, not by external assaults but by fractures opening from within. We must consciously choose to disprove the warped take on Commodore Oliver Perry’s famous declaration that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Occasionally, I hear zealots (I loathe zealots of any sort.) speak of Americans being already engaged in or on the brink of a sort of civil war, and it makes me cringe. Let me remind them that there is no such thing as a “civil” war. That word-pairing is an oxymoron, with an emphasis on “moron,” and a statement of mocking irony directed at anyone who promulgates civil war of any sort. Sadly, we live in and too many of us contribute to a political climate in which being willing to compromise or to build consensus is perceived as weakness, but we can’t have all things our way all the time, and we can’t continue to view those who disagree with us as our personal rival or as enemies to our country. We don’t have to fly our flags, don our hats, or wear our partisan t-shirts all of the time. To do so is to keep your hands on the sledgehammer of divisiveness that is driving the wedge between us as Americans. In an ideal America, not only would we unclench our fists and stop shouting at one another but also open our ears and listen to what those who think differently than we do have to say. I’m not asking anyone to change their ideology, just to recognize others’ right to their own opinions, values, and beliefs. The possession of which does not make them the enemy nor deserving of scorn.
When I was a football coach, my players competed fiercely against one another daily for starting jobs, but on Friday nights, they united as a team. As citizens of a democracy, during election cycles we should compete vigorously against one another for the primacy of the ideals we hold dear, but once the election is over, we must be able to reunite as a country in common cause. If teenage athletes can do it, why can’t adults?
Every spring, I go on a guys’ camping weekend with my brothers-in-law and our boys. The politically right-leaning among the campers far outnumber the left-leaning, who are easily identified as me and whichever of my kids is able to join us. During the trip, politics are typically set aside, and if they are discussed at all, it is with respect for the others’ point-of-view. Although I disagree with them on nearly every political subject and social issue and they with me, we all agree that the greater good of preserving family cohesion far outweighs engaging in political arguments that may cause fractures within that family structure. We love, value, and respect one another even if we don’t view the world in the same fashion. Similarly, Republicans and Democrats alike, need to remind ourselves that our first allegiance is to our country, not our party.
Finally, when I watch that Petty video, I see an audience that is most certainly comprised of people who can be placed all across the political spectrum from far right to far left to everywhere in between, yet for a few hours, they are united in their love of good music, and for the enjoyment and betterment of all in attendance, they leave their partisan flags, hats, t-shirts, and attitudes at home and set aside their differences and sing along with one voice. It’s possible that this is one of the primary functions of the arts in society and that, once we arrive back at closer to normal in the post-pandemic world, the arts will help to salve the wounds we’ve inflicted upon one another in recent years of political acrimony by providing us opportunities for collective joy and celebration.
We are approaching an inflection point in the American experiment with democracy, and the whole world and posterity is watching. It’s time we return the zealots to the periphery and find common ground in moderation. If we do not, I fear for my grandchildren. Will we leave them one indivisible nation or has that ship of a united state already sailed? Either we “learn to fly” above our political differences or we may fall from the nest and break our wings on the hard ground of factional partisanship.
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