The Foundational Cause of Our American Discontent

(What follows is an updated version of an earlier post)

Every day our news feeds provide evidence of something that has been in front of Americans since our nation’s inception, something to which we are apparently and collectively blind:

Liberty and Equality are diametrically opposed!*

While unfettered Liberty (freedom) declares that every person can do whatever he or she wishes, unfettered Equality (from antiquity onward, equality has been considered a constitutive feature of justice ) declares that every person must place the good of all others ahead of their personal liberties (or freedoms). The Declaration of Independence unintentionally confuses us by melding together these two essential but conflicting concepts in this often quoted sentence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

How many of us realize that we are talking out of both sides of our mouth when we praise America as a country that champions Liberty and Equality? This may be a revelation to many given the fact that most Americans can recite the last phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance: “… with Liberty and Justice for all.”

Further, how many of us realize that, in effect …

American Conservatives are the Army of Liberty

American Liberals are the Army of Equality

Conservatives fight to be free of governmental interference in what they say and do, including what they do with their wealth: high quality education and health care, and a living wage are earned privileges and not rights in their Land of Liberty (Conservatives, however, do welcome governmental interference when it comes to the control of women’s reproductive rights and the right of all Americans to vote).

Liberals fight to use taxes to redistribute wealth and create laws to protect the economically and politically disadvantaged: high quality education and health care, a living wage, a woman’s opportunity to control her own body, and the opportunity of all Americans to vote, are rights and not privileges in their Land of Equality.

The Armies of Equality and Liberty have been at war figuratively and literally (The Civil War) since the beginning of the Republic, but for most of our history, we have avoided armed conflict. Why?The answer is suggested by the motto of France, which was born (along with other refrains) during the French Revolution:

Liberté égalité fraternité

Fraternity incorporates the concepts of brotherhood, kinship, solidarity, and union. Said another way, fraternity is that which holds a tribe together. When there are disagreements within a tribe, fraternity is the emotional something that fosters resolution through compromise.

Although the leaders of the American Armies of Liberty and Equality have long advocated their particular sides of their diametrically-opposed points of view, those leaders were able to negotiate and reach workable compromises since the Civil War because they understood that regardless of the army to which they belonged, they all belonged to the American Tribe.

Until 1987.

In that year, Ronald Reagan vetoed a law that would have required the application of the Fairness Doctrine.

The fairness doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented. (Wikipedia)

And then came1996.

In that year, Fox News and MSNBC were created as propaganda machines, unfettered by the Fairness Doctrine, that could be used to recruit soldiers for each army, which these networks did with success. In 2004, Facebook provided the means for individual soldiers to not only recruit more soldiers for their side; Facebook provided the means to alienate, shame and diminish those on the other side. In 2006, Twitter joined Facebook in exacerbating the intellectual (I use the term loosely) combat between the Armies of Liberty and Equality.

By 2008, the American Tribe had been effectively split into two rival tribes, and like other primates who seek shelter within the protection of their clans when they feel endangered, millions of Americans abandoned the American Tribe to join one of two other tribes, each of which claimed (and continues to claim) allegiance to what they profess is the one true American Tribe.

Within each tribe evolved quasi-secretive sub-tribes that have the goal of, someday, carrying out a coup that will replace Puritan John Winthrop’s biblical metaphor of the city on the hill that will be “the light of the world” with a dark and evil city in which the opposing tribe will feel the swords of retribution and persecution. The most dramatic manifestations of such attempts have been the Trump Insurrection on January 6 of this year and the violent attacks on government facilities in the summer of 2020.

Today, like howler monkeys in the canopies of Central American forests, we scream at members of the opposing tribe from the relative safety of our devices, continually escalating our screams because we believe our survival depends upon “winning” wars identified by the Media (e.g. the War on Christmas, Culture Wars, the War Against CRT, et al). But the more one tribe howls, the more the other tribe howls, and all to little avail except that the escalations have created a deafening cacophony that increases the anxiety in all of us.

A howler monkey, resting before rejoining the war between Liberty and Equality

There is little that is “sapiens” (Latin: “wise”) about the behavior of America’s Homo sapiens today. Our primate brains have taken control of too many millions of us, including those in positions of power, when we scream—literally and figuratively—at one another. If one tribe begins to feel an ascendancy over the other, or the threat of extinction by death or assimilation begins to feel real, the screaming escalates into what we have all witnessed either in person or on our devices: physical violence against “the other.”

Our American Tribe has been split asunder, perhaps for all time, by obeisance to one or the other of two diametrically-opposed concepts that we, in our collective ignorance, do not realize have actually created in the past (and could continue to create) opportunities for unifying compromise within the American Tribe, compromise that once reconciled differences and provided the power that once illuminated our nation as well as nations beyond our borders.

The Great Irony of the American Dream is that we have failed to understand the importance of the compromises required by the cornerstone concepts of our Democracy: Equality and Liberty. This failure is the Foundational Cause of our American Discontent because:

Compromise is possible within a tribe because of the power of fraternity …

… but compromise is not possible between two tribes when there are millions of individuals screaming back and forth at one another from their respective treetops.

Becoming one tribe again, as we had been before Ronald Reagan’s decision in 1987, may require nothing less than desperation born of devastation, but it also could be brought about by a unifying Savior. 46 has told us that bringing differing American tribes together is why he ran for President, but 45’s insurrection and the summer of 2020’s violence against state and city governments have made it clear that reuniting Americans is a daunting challenge.

Because of the myth of American Exceptionalism, we Americans keep telling ourselves that we have the courage and competence to persevere against any challenge, but we cannot begin to heal our nation until we are—even if we are still howling and screaming—all in the same tree. And we cannot do that until we acknowledge that we are all—despite our disagreements—brothers and sisters of the same tribe.

* I first encountered the concept of the diametrical opposition of Equality and Liberty (or Freedom) while reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Noah Harari.

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(The images are from Pixabay; copyright infringement is not intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the images.)