156 years ago, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." He was referring to the institution of slavery and the upcoming battle of the North vs. the South, a war seemingly at odds with the notion that the United States of America was the new bastion of freedom.
Today, slavery is a prime example of what we might call "social extremism." Back in the day, it wasn't considered extreme, but rather a necessity by the cotton pickers in the South and some major landowners (including Washington politicians) in the North.
It was a hypocritical injustice that was ultimately resolved at a cost of over 600,000 lives lost on the battlefield: a greater number of casualties than all of the US wars that followed--combined.
Did it have to come to that? Were we that myopic, that insular, that ignorant? Social extremism never seems to be extreme at the time.
Consider the treatment of women in the United States in the first 144 years. From 1776 until 1920, women were not allowed to vote. This was considered to be normal to many people for some reason until women's suffrage movements changed the law of the land. It took another 45 years before African-Americans were finally guaranteed the right to vote with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which as Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson correctly predicted after signing it, "We have lost the South for generations." Social extremism doesn't go quietly.
So, after 238 years of trial and error are we finally where we need to be as a free, all-inclusive nation? Have we learned the lessons of social extremism?
On the contrary: twenty-first century America is not only encouraging social extremism--we are passing laws to legalize it.
The captivating, historical photos of hopeful immigrants passing through Ellis Island in the late 1800s -1900s have been replaced with current images of barbed wire fences and border patrols. Immigrants who have either entered the US illegally or who have been unable to earn the documentation they need to stay here are being deported. In many cases, families are being broken up and the born-in-America children of "illegals" are allowed to remain in the United States all by their lonesome selves. Current law requires these deported aliens to wait another 6 years before reapplying to enter the United States. More appropriate, comprehensive immigration reform bills are currently being stonewalled by members of the US Congress for reasons not unlike those who voted against the Emancipation Proclamation: they like it the way it is.
The Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court in 1973 struck down a Texas law that barred abortion as being unconstitutional. The court held that a woman had the right to choose to abort her pregnancy under certain circumstances. Now, twenty-first century America is attempting to re-write history by passing laws that, state-by-state, make abortion illegal or nearly impossible to perform. The personal or religious beliefs of one group of Americans are being imposed on all others. The animosities that have resulted from these intractable, opposing points of view are another nail in our "house divided."
Of all things personal and private, sexuality should be a given. But, no: twenty-first century America has been passing laws regarding proper and improper sexual connectedness. Whether it's in the military or at the altar, some people feel the need to force their particular views of sexuality onto everyone else. While some of these laws have been recently rescinded, some still remain and new prohibitive propositions are constantly rearing their self-righteous heads in some locales. At least these laws haven't gone as far as they have in Uganda, Kenya, Iran and other countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.
In twenty-first century America, women can vote--but they better bring their driver's licenses! In fact, everyone must bring a driver's license or some other form of picture identification, something that was never before required. In some municipalities and states, this is now the law, ostensibly, to prevent "voter fraud," but this is an attempt to solve a problem that doesn't exist. The real goal here is to keep certain people from exercising their right to vote. Minorities, the elderly and college students are typically the ones most likely not to have the required voter identification examples, which is exactly how the backers of these laws want it. They don't want the people who are likely to vote for their competition to vote at all. This is yet another form of modern-day extremism, and another brick in our "house divided."
National Safety Net Programs
National health care, food stamps, unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare -- are constantly under attack by those who believe they have earned their place in American society all by themselves. These people see no need for programs to assist other Americans and would be more than happy to repeal all of the aforementioned "entitlements." You may now put the finishing touches on our "house divided."
Twenty-first century America has managed to alienate more of its citizens from one another than Abraham Lincoln's America ever did. This dysfunction may not lead us to another civil war, but we are certainly in civil distress. We are at odds with each other, we distrust each other, we are estranged from one another. The dangers of social extremism are written all over our faces and etched into the heart of America.
"One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all" has gone by the wayside, making us vulnerable to the ultimate fate prophesized by Abraham Lincoln, when he warned: "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."
Author of Borderline Hero
Kenneth Konecnik splits his time between Foley, Ala. and Mundelein, Ill. He holds a bachelor's degree in marketing and advertising from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and now writes full time. His novel, "Borderline Hero," provides a glimpse of what life could be like if topics such as abortion and immigration become victims of extremism.
For more information, visit: http://www.borderlinehero.com
By Kenneth Konecnik