The American Divide

The American Divide August 5, 2013

This is not an essay about politics but I have to begin with politics because it stands between you and me and what I want to say to you, which concerns our darkened hearts and our dreadful tribalization of a country whose motto is E pluribus unum.

The politics are this: I have an unfashionable view of human rights and nature. I stand for localism and classical education and reverencing life; I stand against warmongering and utilitarianism and corporate cronyism. As a consequence, I have no place among Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians. If your guiding lights are not restraint and community and Holy Scripture, then I want no part of your goddamned party.

None of which is to say that you are a bad person for being a Republican or Democrat or Libertarian, or even one of those undecided Independents journalists like to interview before elections, as if inability to commit is evidence of wisdom. One or both of us is wrong, and it doesn’t matter; I’ve retreated to my rural corner and you may have the world for all I care, just leave me and my family out of it.

All this is to say, however, that I have no fondness for our current president’s worldview. Nor the one before him, nor the one before that one. It’s not their fault; they are harbingers of the times. They give us what we want, because our wants form the standard of justice. Politicians cobble together electoral majorities with empty words because we will tolerate no less and no more.

My lack of fondness for President Obama is only relevant because it accentuates the praise I want to offer him—while perhaps in the process damning a fair portion of the rest of us.

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, and a great many people set about disputing What It Means. With them came gleaming-eyed opportunists, and between the self-appointed spokesmen and the fury-stokers, a fair portion of the country is now angry.

The people who hate Zimmerman wanted President Obama to say something to condone their righteous anger. The people who hate Martin wanted President Obama to say something they could revile. There was no winning, but still he came forward, absent fanfare, and gave one of the most forthright, guileless speeches ever delivered by an American president on the subject of race.

Try to understand, he asked white Americans, what it’s like to be one of us. To be scrutinized in the manner we endure whenever we leave our neighborhoods. To be snubbed in countless ways. To be acutely aware that so many fellow citizens believe we have less worth in God’s eyes.

In this he faced an insurmountable wall. We whites are jaded from a thousand college and corporate sensitivity sessions, designed to trumpet the moral superiority of their facilitators. We’ve choked down the overused storyline in television shows and movies. We get it; we get it.

Which means we stopped getting it. We agree, most of us, that slavery and continuing racism are profound injustices betraying the principles on which this country was founded. We took it in, and many of us quietly began to resent being reminded of it, coming as it did alongside occasional but lingering insults—and sometimes outright assaults—from members of the group we are supposed to regard as permanently victimized.

The president’s personal words (“that includes me”) and his humble tone sought to penetrate this shell of resentful familiarity. Then he went farther—certainly farther than I’ve heard anyone on his political side go. He mentioned a reality that white writers (liberals, at that) have been denounced for observing, namely, that young black men commit crimes at a rate sharply disproportionate to their numbers.

It was an offering. I understand why you are afraid of men who look like me. All he asked in return was an equivalent offering. Please understand how it makes us feel when you make no effort to hide what you think of us.

It wasn’t going to make the strident voices on either side happy, but it was the right thing to say. Admitting this doesn’t require you to endorse his policy on killing people with drones, or embrace Obamacare, or approve of how the National Security Agency amasses mobile phone information. You don’t have to agree with anything else he stands for to acknowledge the fundamental decency in President Obama’s statement.

But we’re not inclined to acknowledge decency in our opponents. We’ve drifted backwards to this spiteful place because we haven’t been honest. We haven’t been honest because for too many, our righteousness is defined by the wrongness of our adversaries. They can’t have a valid point, not a one. Conceding that they speak truth in even the smallest detail is conceding defeat, because this isn’t about truth, it’s about self-righteousness. I can only be an angel if you’re a demon.

Thus do conservatives refuse to acknowledge the rage that accumulates in a lifetime of marginalization, while liberals scrupulously avoid data on urban social pathologies.

A black writer recently described “the talk” that black parents must have with their children, about the dangers of whites. A white writer retaliated. We have to warn our kids about you people, too.

We can’t listen to one another. But our children listen to us, don’t they? God forgive us for what they hear.

Tony Woodlief lives outside Wichita, Kansas, and is the author of a spiritual memoir, Somewhere More Holy. His essays on faith and parenting have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, and WORLD Magazine. His short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in Image and Ruminate. His website is

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  • Matthew Miller

    This is so good. Attentive to all the resentments and tensions at play, and smoothly defanging them. (And I don’t just say that because I’m of a similar political persuasion, though I am.)

  • Christina

    This is an excellent article! Thank you for writing it. It’s so good to hear such a reasonable and truth-oriented view… I’ve been spending too much time reading the comment sections of biased news sources.

  • Tony Woodlief

    Thanks to both of you. I was expecting opprobrium, though the day is still young…

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Tony, you have a gift for clear but nuanced reasoning on hot, divisive topics. Thanks for your boldness in taking on this topic, and for the elegance with which you make your point.

  • T.Martin Lesh

    Mr Woodlief – On the political side of this essay you and i are on the same page ( scary thought …. yes ? ) On the Martin / Zimmerman issue and Obama’s response though … not so much . Suffice it to say IMO the M/Z issue was a tragic bit of reality caused in part by both parties … with perhaps Mr Zimmerman ( due to his attempt to usurp police authority and causing a death in the process ) being a little more wrong than Mr Martin . The sad fact is Mr Martin chose to enter into a ‘ gated ‘ clearly marked No Trespassing residential area where color and race is not the issue … but rather .. right or wrong .. the desire of the neighborhood to keep out those who do no have a specific need to be there .

    Mr Obama by trying to play the ‘ race ‘ card ( which may or may not of been a motivation for Mr Zimmerman ) only served to fuel …. not a continuation of a discussion that has no where near been resolved ( Bigotry and Prejudice in the US .. of all kinds AND from both directions .. live in certain areas of KCMO , New Orleans , DC etc as a white person and you’ll see first hand how much bigotry in the US really is a two way street ) … but rather to fuel the fires of division in this country that so desperately need to be extinguished .

    As to the lifetime of marginalization … those of color are not the only ones that have faced the perils of bigotry in the US .. though perhaps they’ve dealt with it longer [ My fathers side of the family although white faced deep and violent prejudice for decades from the moment they arrived in this country ] But the simple fact is that They as much as Us must put aside the past once and for all or chose to re-live that past over and over again . Festering now over centuries old wounds and wrongs only serves to keep those wounds open and never able to heal . As well as .. its not ‘ Biblically ‘ sound behavior either

  • Tony Woodlief

    Mr. Lesh,
    Like you I remain skeptical of Obama’s willingness to refrain from stoking a sense of racial and class grievance when it suits him (a charge we could equally apply to politicians across the political spectrum). At the same time, I think we ought to acknowledge wisdom and humility wherever it maybe found, even when it only briefly shows itself. If we refrain from praising good words except when they come from saints, I suspect none of our words will ever merit praise. And perhaps they don’t…

    • Kent_Pittsburgh

      Tony, I agree. Your talk yesterday and this article have both helped me to see that.

      I disagree with just everything with this president and he has contributed more divide in this respect, which is particularly disappointing given all the expectation (at least by some) that the opposite would occur.
      My biggest issue by far is that every time I hear him speak I think of that Downs Syndrome baby in Chicago left to die and his repeated support by voting (three of the rare instances where he cast a vote) to continue that practice.

  • Cameron Strathdee

    One of the fundamental parts of debate and compromise is listening to the other side’s points and point of view. Acknowledging that, while we may disagree, I am at least worth listening to, and that you or I may be wrong on any given point.

    When you plug your ears and yell “LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU” when your opponent attempts to make a point, or when you ignore (Or fabricate) evidence to support or refute your points or my points, you have stopped debating like civilized men and started arguing like schoolyard children.

    I for one don’t want a country, ANY country, run by schoolyard children.

  • Cynewulf

    Great article. I’m not sure the demonizing of opponents spawns from self-righteousness, though. The media, particularly web-based media, is a battlefield. At some point, someone thought the best way to win the political war was to obliterate the opponent. No quarter can be given; it quarter is given, 99.9% of the time it is done with ulterior motives. Some would say the person who started this was Alinsky.

    Whether he started it or not, someone did, and this is the way it is now. Having participated in discussions on political sites for over a decade now, it is my opinion that the Left mastered this type of warfare long before the Right did. I would say the Right is still behind but has caught up significantly.

    Having said that, there are still people who will risk being assaulted by both sides for the sake of truth. My example of this, oddly enough, comes from the Zimmerman trial. Jeralyn Merritt of Talk Left (progressive legal site) had views of the trial that were in almost 100% agreement with those of Andrew Branca and William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection (conservative legal site). Namely, the Zimmerman trial had nothing to do with race and was a solid standard self defense case. It seems that lawyers, from both the left and the right, that actually watched the trial had a different take on the trial than that of you average Joe who got his trial information from watching the “news.” Go figure.

    Unfortunately, this example does not give me much hope that things will change for the better any time soon. For every Jeralyn Merritt, there are a thousand people still posting that Zimmerman disobeyed police orders to stay in his car despite being shown how completely false that statement is. The Narrative must survive, nay thrive, because for these people the Narrative contains a truth that is deeper than the run of the mill truth of reality. Perhaps there is an element of self-righteousness in there after all.

  • Tony Woodlief

    Great example, Cynewulf, and very thoughtful point of view.

    Cameron, I’m with you on your implicit call to action. I can see the campaign slogan now: “Time to put the kids to bed.”

  • Thanks for this post. I needed it.

  • Kent_Pittsburgh

    Excellent. I heard you on the radio yesterday (WORD FM, Pittsburgh) and found your talk riveting; you really fleshed out what you wrote here.

  • Tony Woodlief

    Kent — didn’t know that had gone out already. I’m glad someone was listening!

    • Cynewulf

      Tony, is that radio talk available online or, or is there a transcript of it?

  • Justine00

    Good article, but the president’s words, again, did nothing to unify the country.