Saturday, July 9, 2016

It's not 1968

As bad as the latest news as been, it's not 1968, as Jonathan Chait reminds us:
In his January 2008 speech following his defeat in the New Hampshire primary — the one set to music — Barack Obama insisted, “We are not as divided as our politics suggest … we are one people, we are one nation.” That conviction, to say the least, has been sorely tested during Obama’s presidency. It has been especially strained during a presidential campaign in which Republicans nominated a race-baiting demagogue for president. And last night, when a gunman murdered police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, it appeared to reach a kind of breaking point. In the feverish late-night heat, race-baiters at the New York Post, Breitbart, and Matt Drudge stoked a race war they clearly craved. It was 1968 again, more than a few observers said. Everything seemed to be coming apart.

But the old, tattered ideal of unity may be healthier than it seemed. The demonstration in Dallas was the very model of a functioning liberal society — a peaceful protest against police conducted under the protection of the police themselves. Even the most radical of the protesters deplored the shootings, and the police honored the right to protest.

Probing deeper, into more tender spots, one could even detect a formative consensus about the underlying cause of the protest: the routine violence by police against African-Americans. Videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have not only galvanized African-Americans who have grown accustomed to the constant threat of police brutality, but they also shocked no small number of white Americans. ...

Among Republican leaders, the impulse to restore calm prevailed over the impulse to stoke racial hysteria. Paul Ryan praised the values of peaceful protest. Newt Gingrich -- Newt Gingrich! -- conceded, "It's more dangerous to be black in America. You’re substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you." Even Donald Trump obliquely, and with a characteristically shaky command of the facts, conceded the need for some solution to police abuse: “The senseless, tragic deaths of two motorists in Louisiana and Minnesota reminds us how much more needs to be done.” Whatever Trump actually believed — the identification of Trump’s real convictions always being more art than science — he at least felt compelled to make some nod toward the perception that the police had gone too far. It was not inspiring, it was not ideal, but it was also more than one would have gotten from, say, circa-1968 George Wallace.

That's not to say that we don't have our George Wallaces, even today. Former Congressman Joe Walsh (Republican, Illinois) tweeted "This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you."

Meanwhile, the organizers of that Dallas protest, those "black lives matter punks," condemned the shooting in unequivocal terms. It was a peaceful protest, as guaranteed by our Constitution. The shooter appears to have been a lone, heavily armed crazy. We've certainly seen enough of those, haven't we? Is the fact that this one was black really significant in any way?

A reader at TPM describes 1968 this way. I remember it. I was still a teenager, far more concerned about myself than about the world at large, but I remember it. Despite the absolute hysterics about our first black president, we've progressed since then. Indeed, the fact that we elected a black president is a pretty good indication of that.

Sure, there are racists who gleefully predict a race war. Yes, there are lunatics in our country. And, of course, they're all armed to the teeth, thanks to the NRA, hysterical gun nuts, and cowardly politicians. But sane people still make up the majority in our country.

If you don't know how bad it's been, it's always easy to think that the current day is the worst ever. Indeed, I have people tell me that - people eager to predict the Christian end times, people woefully ignorant of history. It's not true.

The problem these days is that random lunatics can do more damage than ever, thanks to the ever-increasing availability of military grade weapons (and the capability of those weapons to kill large numbers of people). That's a problem we haven't been willing to address.

It's not just guns, either. As our technology improves, the ability of small numbers of people to kill vast quantities of other people also increases. There's always the possibility of truly horrendous acts of terrorism.

Unfortunately, it's not a problem that will ever be completely solved. At best, we can only try to minimize the incidents. Don't get me wrong. We should definitely be doing that. But we won't ever be 100% successful, no matter what we do.

But random lunatics aren't going to destroy our country. We have to do that. And despite everything - despite Donald Trump, despite Joe Walsh and the people like him, despite the hysteria on the right - I'm confident that we're going to survive 2016 just like we survived 1968.

There are people who want violence. There are people who push violence. And there are people who will use violence for their own political advantage. But that's not America. Most of us are better than that.

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