Some years ago, I interviewed Andrew Young, the civil rights leader, former mayor of Atlanta and former congressman and ambassador to the United Nations -- a wise and brave man. Something he said shocked me.
He said: Atlanta is a city more easygoing and tolerant than most, a melting pot, an incubator of pluralism. But it could turn into a powder keg in a moment. If the wrong things happened in the right sequence, it would blow.
He added that the social fabric is always less resilient and enduring than we think. We are always closer than we want to believe to ugly conflict, to violence, maybe even civil war.
I thought of that over the last week as we all watched, in horror, as events unfolded in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are about as progressive, and friendly, and peaceful, as cities get. And this in a state as enlightened as a state gets.
But there on our computer and TV screens was the horrific scene of police brutality and abuse. And, despite its liberal rep, the Twin Cities had similar, glaring cases of police misconduct in 2016 and 2017.
Then the death of George Floyd was followed by rioting. Minneapolis, of all places, was on fire.
What should and will happen is the assertion of the rule of law. The Department of Justice will investigate and take swift and decisive action.
But will that cool the furor, which multiplies upon itself? As if a riot or looting is a rational response to a grave injustice?
I think of the way the former Yugoslavia came apart and I think of what Ambassador Young said: The unspoken rules of behavior that limit us, and to some extent bind us, are more easily shredded than we dare to admit.
And I have a sense, maybe you do too dear reader, that they are fraying right now. I look at the way we react to each other and each other's offenses, especially on social media, but also in politics and media, and I see a society constantly writhing in outrage and vituperation.
There are more and more public, TV and supermarket, confrontations that go nuclear. Rage is the new normal.
What was Donald Trump's big line on his TV show? "You're fired." Now we have the cancel culture in which people are utterly destroyed for offenses they may or may not have committed.
We also had, recently, the case of the dog walker and the birder in Central Park. She would not leash her dog. He seemed to vaguely threaten the dog. She called 911 and said her life was is danger because an African American with a bike helmet was filming her on his phone. As if all this was not unglued enough, the social media kerfuffle to follow the actual kerfuffle resulted in the dog walker losing her job, her good name and even the dog. Two New Yorkers being New Yorkers became a major race incident.
We don't just rush to judge, we rush to punish, sometimes to obliterate.
And, after we judge and punish, we retreat to our corners of identity and ideology.
African American men in America today say a police war is being waged against them. What happened in Minnesota happens on a regular basis in this country. Cops feel the culture is waging a war on them. They will tell you that the harassment is constant and done with a feeling of utter impunity. They feel like meat on the streets.
And we refuse to talk this out. Liberals used to believe the answer to the race problem was conversation. (I think of James Baldwin and Margaret Mead holding a spirited "rap on race" back in the day.) The liberal position today is that the subject is too sensitive to touch. We may virtue signal. But we cannot honestly discuss.
"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold ..." wrote William Butler Yeats. That's how it feels at this moment.
Even the current mood about COVID seems this way. It is not a matter of rational calculation and risk but choosing between superstition ("I wear a mask in the shower and for dinner at home with my wife") or anarchy ("To hell with this, I am done with it").
The last time many of us felt this fraying was the 1960s, with some spill over into the 1970s. President John F. Kennedy was killed. And then, Martin Luther King Jr. And then Robert Kennedy. This was followed by riots. Large swaths of cities burned to the ground. Innocent bystanders (many were kids) had to hunker down to survive. Students on campus "occupied" administration buildings. We were presented with the choice of communes, free love and Haight-Ashbury, or Nixon, Hoover and Mayor Daley. Talk about a bitter and false choice.
The fraying today is different. It is generally more virtual than physically violent (not so in Minneapolis). But it also seems to me less forgiving; more final. When you are canceled you are canceled. Redemption is no longer a thing in these United States.
I don't know a way out or the way home.
But I have one thought: friendship. Friendship based on the content of another person's character (to invoke Dr. King's great imperative) and on his or her ability to laugh.
Americans are becoming a humorless people. I cannot imagine Sean Hannity or Elizabeth Warren laughing, really laughing. Certainly not at themselves.
I have mentioned in this space before my dad's good friend and neighbor. His name was Bill Timmons and he died a few days ago at 92, outliving my dad by many years. Dad was an FDR-Truman Democrat and Bill was a lifelong Republican who thought Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater went soft in Washington and sold out to the liberals. They debated everything. They agreed about nothing. But they had each other's backs in many difficult, real-life circumstances, large and small. Politics had its place. But it was not ultimate. They could accept their differences, and laugh at many of them. They judged each other on the content of their respective characters, which each man knew well. Their America is the one I want to live in.
About The Writer
Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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