Divided We Stand (for Something)

The latest tactic of a GOP congress unable to mount a relevant impeachment defense is to wring its hands over how “divisive” this whole thing is, how much the impeachment process is serving to divide the American people.

It became a familiar chorus in the Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing on December 4. Rep. Debbie Lesko devoted nearly all of her time to the perils of divisiveness, smugly pointing to Chair Jerry Nadler’s decades-old observation that impeachment should be a last resort because of how much the process divides us. Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes, and several other star GOP questioners have also complained that impeaching President Trump is needlessly divisive. It’s not just the GOP; throughout the past several Democratic primary debates, moderates like Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker have spoken in heartfelt tones of their visions to unite the country from this terrible division after all this is over.

They’re all of course entirely correct that the Trump Presidency has been marred by deep divisions between the left and right, and that the impeachment hearings have become a proxy war in this larger struggle. But they fail to see that division is sometimes the proper and healthy response.

Every time this country has come dangerously close to the jagged precipice of social progress, the voice of the status quo has renewed its call for unity. Those with nothing truly at stake, and lacking true empathy with those who do, have always been there, begging for an end to all the negativity and fighting, so we can be at peace as a nation. It’s curious, however, that this proposed unity is rarely framed as progressing to a utopia of tomorrow, but rather retreating to the comfort of yesterday, before all this terrible division happened.

In the very first issue of his newspaper The Liberator, slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison cautioned against heeding cries for unity and moderation. He wrote that in regards to the evils of slavery, “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

In the shameful heyday of American slavery, cries for moderation were never shouted to the slave owner, pleading that he stop beating the human beings he kept as his property quite as hard or that he be somewhat less fervent about furthering an economic model rooted in human suffering, exploitation, and murder. It was only those seeking to end this system that were told to “be reasonable.” History looks kindly on Garrison, but it has forgotten the names of those who told him to just get along.

I’d assume most are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or at least know that it was written. But not everyone knows that it was written in direct response to a letter from eight prominent (non-black) Alabama clergymen, men who carried the torch of moderation for their own generation against those engaging in sit-ins, protests, and demonstrations. They lamented that “we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. . . .we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.” Notably, they didn’t write Governor Wallace a letter asking for his moderation. Their stationery never graced Bull Connor’s desk. Only those seeking equality were counseled to tamp down the rhetoric for the sake of unity, and thereby accused of being the perpetrators of disunity.

In Dr. King’s famous response, he wrote that he was “not afraid
of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is
a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” In a celebrated passage, he excoriated the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He clarified that “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

The constant struggle for racial equality has been one of this country’s defining social issues, and is certainly the one with the longest history, but the loaded pleas for unity can be heard wherever progress is on the horizon; one need only listen. Feminists, the LGBTQ community, labor organizers, immigrants’ rights activists, environmentalists — all have faced constant criticism from moderates that they’re just asking for “too much, too fast,” and that all they will do is drive America further apart with their impetuous insistence that progress is not some far-off land but is a door, here waiting for those with a mind to open it.

If there’s one silver lining to the collective nightmare we have all endured for more than 1,000 days, it’s that the boils of injustice, hatred, resentment, fear, and greed, which have quietly festered beneath the surface of the comparatively “peaceful” American population of the past few decades, have been at last exposed, with all the tension their exposure creates.

In response to this exposure, the GOP has called for unity, for a peaceful end to our internal division. Divides have two sides, but of course a politics of unity put forth by the party of bad faith is not a call for peace, but a call for quiet.

Peace would require Donald Trump to stop putting himself ahead of the country’s interests; to stop demonizing people of color; to stop treating women like sex toys; to stop fighting progress on seemingly every possible front. Peace would require the Congressional GOP to put the future of the country and the world ahead of their hopes for re-election, and to say in public what scores of them have said in private. Peace is what you’re asking for if you’re acknowledging a wrong and seeking to make it right. Quiet is what you’re asking for if you’re telling the rest of us, as Mick Mulvaney did in a momentary fit of honesty, to “get over it.”

They don’t want unity, they want assimilation.

Division is the proper reaction when the alternative is complicity. There can be no unity between right and wrong. Or, as so many protest signs have artfully put it: no justice, no peace.

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Kyle Medin

Kyle Medin

Opinions are my own.

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