Protests and riots over racial injustice. Angry demonstrations in the U.S. capital. An inflamed political climate. A yawning divide between left and right.
The late 1960s were a troubled time in the United States of America. The Vietnam War had divided the country – Middle America versus the cosmopolitan cities, rednecks versus hippies. Anti-war protesters taunted president Lyndon Baines Johnson with the chant: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Conservatives told them: “America, love it or leave it.”
An anti-war march on the Pentagon in Washington pitted a sea of demonstrators against thousands of soldiers at the headquarters of the U.S. military. Rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. devastated the inner cities. Americans watched on television as police armed with billy clubs beat demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At times it seemed as if the country was about to fly apart under the force of its divisions.
The sixties spilled over into the seventies as the war in Southeast Asia dragged on and the Watergate scandal pulled down president Richard Nixon. Inflation soared, the stock market tanked. The country saw 2,000 bombings a year between 1972 and 1974 as political militants abandoned peaceful protest for sharper tactics.
Yet the United States survived and rebounded. A Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, took office promising to create “a new national spirit of unity and trust.” The president who followed, Ronald Reagan, persuaded many voters that it was “morning in America” again.
That sense of rebirth filled the chill air of Washington this week as Joe Biden took the oath of office. Speaking outside the building that only days earlier had been invaded by a mob of jeering zealots, he vowed to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” As a new presidential term begins, he said, “We look ahead in our uniquely American way – restless, bold, optimistic – and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.”
Vice-President Kamala Harris drove home the point when she spoke that night about what she called “American aspiration.” In the United States, she said, “We not only dream, we do. … We are bold, fearless and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up.”
American political speech can seem overblown and even boastful to Canadian ears. After watching the sorry spectacle of the past four years with horrified fascination, many in this country have lost faith in our overweening neighbour. To them, America seems broken as a democracy, finished as a world power.
I don’t think so. I grew up in the sixties and saw the United States pass through that crucible. The faith that Americans have in themselves is their greatest strength. It gives them the power to renew themselves in hard times. They have done it many times before, recovering from civil war, depression and world war with their political and economic system intact.
That system looks tattered and tarnished today. From the plague of gun violence to the curse of racial inequality, Americans have much to overcome. Though the Trump nightmare may be over and sanity back in the saddle, the discord and disunion that helped cause it remain.
But the other great American virtue is an unquenchable desire to make things better. If Americans often seem overproud, they are also intensely self-critical. As Ms. Harris put it, they are driven to “keep refining, keep tinkering, keep perfecting.” The very preamble to their Constitution speaks of forming “a more perfect union,” a phrase that was on many lips this week.
Americans rededicated themselves to that cause through the ritual and rhetoric of this inaugural week. Only the rash would bet against them. They have emerged from trials in the past and, armed with their questing faith, they will emerge again.
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