The year 2020, not yet half over, probably qualifies as the worst year in American history since 1942. The year 1942 began a few weeks after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into a global war for which it was not initially well-prepared. Throughout the year, America and its allies got pretty well stomped by Germany and Japan. The Nazis continued to occupy France and much of the rest of Europe, with D-Day still many months away.The U.S. economy, only beginning to wake up from a decade-long depression, was further hampered by the needs of supplying the war effort, with broad rationing of gasoline and other essentials. There was a real question as to whether America could endure, militarily or economically, as a free republic, as it fought totalitarian regimes on two fronts and a seemingly intractable economic distress at home. 1942 was a bad year.
With honorable mention for 1968 (Nearly 17,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, race riots in 120 cities with 39 dead and thousands wounded), it’s taken until right now to rival the historic badness of 1942. In the first half of 2020, we’ve had the third impeachment trial of an American president, over 100,000 die from a pandemic, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and, now, rioting in numerous cities triggered by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. The year 2020 lacks the “will Western Civilization endure” drama of 1942, at least so far, but things have gone south really, really fast.
Moreover, the events this year are being processed through an exceedingly divided and antagonistic political culture.In an era in which even relatively minor events drive a lot of the loudest people in our country into their partisan political corners, the one-after-another seismic shocks (each one of which will warrant a chapter of their own in American history) have Americans figuratively, and, tragically, literally, at each other’s throats.
With that context, I’d urge you to take a moment and think about what we Americans have in common when it comes to the most recent tragedies of 2020: the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent riots.
My theory is that a large majority of Americans agree on four key moral judgments:
1. It is bad for a police officer to kill an unarmed man who, based on all available evidence, posed no threat of imminent harm to the officer or the public.
2. It is good for people to protest the occurrence of 1.
3. It is bad to physically harm or destroy the property of innocent citizens, even if done in the the name of 2.
4. It is bad for Americans to harm or otherwise treat differently their fellow Americans on the basis of race, especially when such harm is magnified through the organs of the state, like the police.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “I saw so and so post on Facebook about 3, which must mean she doesn’t agree with 1 and 4,” or the reverse. You’d possibly be right – in a big country, you’re going to have some people who are outside the mainstream, but I would argue most people agree on the four moral judgments above, but choose to emphasize some more than others, especially on social media. If you actually talk to them, you realize that their views are more nuanced and usually encompass all of those judgments in one way or another.
Which raises the question of why people tend to emphasize just one aspect of a complex situation with multiple moral implications. I think it’s often a way of drawing distinctions between themselves and people they think are on the other “team.” Something like, ” Well if Nancy Pelosi, with whom I have fundamental political disagreements, thinks George Floyd’s death was a tragedy and criminal, I can’t possibly say that too, so I’m going to focus on the riots, which Donald Trump has denounced,” or, once again, the reverse. The whole mess creates the appearance of even more division than actually exists and the cycle repeats itself, literally, ad nauseam.
If I’m right, and most of the Pelosi fans think the riots are bad and most of the Trump fans think the killing was bad, what we see in a lot of our public discourse is only a partial representation of the full moral judgments of most Americans. It serves us well to remember that as we consume and produce opinions on this and other topics.
And, more important to the long-term health of our republic, if I’m right, it means that most Americans continue to embrace the moral judgments called for in these circumstances by American founding principles as more fully realized over time with regard to race and equality. By all appearances, George Floyd was deprived of his life by a state actor without due process of law (5th and 14th Amendments). Protesters have the right to speak out against that deprivation (First Amendment). States have a legitimate role in preventing the further loss of life and property by rioters.(Tenth Amendment). The government can’t harm people or treat them disparately because of their race (5th (as modified by the 14th) and 14th Amendments).
It’s a very good thing if Americans remain broadly in agreement with regard to these principles, because they are a very big part of what it means to be an American. You may be thinking I’m too optimistic, and I may be, but I think if you scratch below the surface of fiery social media posts, there’s a lot more that we have in common than what appears.
There are people who gain political power and/or money from magnifying the appearance if not the reality of the divisions in our country, and unfortunately some of those people dominate our political discourse. The good news is, we don’t have to play their game. If we take a moment to tell a more nuanced story, and deliberately look for and even assume sometimes unstated nuance in the stories of others, we can inch toward a healthier debate about all that’s happening in this pretty miserable year.
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