Do you hate the neighbor down the road whose politics are different than yours? Are you afraid of her? Or of him? They might have a sign in their yard for someone whose policies or character or actions you just know have been–or will be—very bad for the Country. Maybe they wrote a letter to the paper you disagree with, want a statue removed when you don’t—or visa versa. Maybe they are of a different race, or see history or immigration differently.
So how do you feel about that person? Terrified? Hate them? Get a gun just in case? Prepare for the war?
No, me neither. That’s crazy stuff, even when we know the unresolved political issues before us are really important, and will affect our families for decades to come. But here in Talbot County in the year 2020, I don’t think hatred or terror are what anyone really feels towards their neighbors, even in these critical times and even with respect to people of a different or even opposite viewpoint. And I don’t think that is common almost anywhere in America.
But how do we reconcile that with the America portrayed on the front page? I sat on the porch on Sunday morning—as beautiful a morning as any I can recall–and read of looters, a pitched battle in Portland Oregon, a convoy of armed vigilantes, and another death. There was conflict in Oakland as well. And over the past month we’ve read of troubles on some nights in Chicago, and Washington, DC, and a few other cities. (Most of the players in the drama on the street seem pretty young, just as I recall it was in 1963 at 1968.)
Three reinforcing phenomena converge to push the conflict and carnage and even bloodshed right in our faces—not just “on the front page” (so few read the paper!) but, more impactfully, on the TV and IPad and the little phones that we seem to glimpse every few minutes.
First, every cell phone is a camera, so everything in the world is videoed. Second, there is always some small percent of people—say one percent, or a tenth of one percent—who are rabid on any issue, uncontrolled, undisciplined, looking for the fight instead of the resolution, often attracted to one another, some just dying to get on the news. Third, what makes it to the front page and to the screen is, by definition, the most sensational, salacious, dramatic event in the universe of all events. It sells.
There are twenty-four towns in the US named Portland, but things were quiet Saturday night in Portland Colorado, Portland Tennessee, and twenty-one other such places. Citizens in all those towns no doubt care about the same political issues as we do here in Easton, MD. But no looters, no vigilantes, no deaths.
Who among us here in Talbot County is for violence and looting and disorder? No one. Who among us does not want the rule of law, and the benefits of good order? No one. (The “graffiti” found on the Talbot Boys Statue last month was a note on school paper scotch-taped to the granite.)
It’s not that the violence we all abhor is happening nowhere, it’s that it’s not happening everywhere…or many places at all, really. The vast majority of public demonstrations that unfolded around America in the last three months have been orderly and peaceful, organic in origin, many majority white, including participants who are elderly and some in strollers. But a very small number have escalated out of control—and everyone in the Country can name the names of those few cities.
But let’s not lose perspective here. The Nation is not on fire and we are not really at war with our neighbors. Healthcare, the Coronavirus, infrastructure, unemployment, climate change are all among critically important issues we face—along with sound and equitable public safety.
One can sense a growing effort to build a Presidential campaign entirely around the fiction of an unraveling America at war— “Law and Order!” I believe our constitutional democracy may indeed be facing an existential threat, but I’m sure it’s not because we hate one another. Not here in Talbot County. And not all over America, either.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.