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Brattleboro Reformer: William J. Mathis: The Insurrection -- Will the Center Hold?

They say it started with Kansas irregulars attacking Missouri. Missouri replied in kind. It was an unneighborly kind of war. Little mercy was asked and little was given. The Osceola raid, supposedly counted but one survivor. But with the rush of hot-blood, truth is often the victim. The partisans vowed righteous vengeance on each other, heated their rhetoric and twisted their courage for the oncoming civil war. It left 215,000 laying on the ground.

We fumble through our historical rolodex for comprehensible parallels to the insurrection of January 6; looking for something that explains, something that restores, something that fills the emptiness.

Such conflicts are not innocent unexpected surprises by play-pretend soldiers. Aggressive words lead to aggressive actions. People die.

Then, as now, crises were foreshadowed. Jayhawkers and Harper’s Ferry were not accidents. Our Constitution neglected the humanity of 4 million enslaved African Americans. Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, concluded that Blacks could not be citizens because they were not. Ranked the worst Supreme Court decision in history, this judicial miscarriage was influenced by President James Buchanan who, until our times, was widely criticized as the nation’s worst president. Alienating both North and South, he could have prevented the Civil War – but he didn’t.

We have great accomplishments but we also have great fiascos. Benedict Arnold sold out when his ego was not stroked. Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and launched a “filibuster” or invasion of Mexico. Acerbic Andrew Johnson got impeached and U. S. Grant’s administration is known for corruption. But Grant’s real sin was the wink and nod he gave to the oppression of native Americans. After teaming up with red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.

These shames pale in comparison to Donald Trump. What the former president has in common with this rogue’s gallery is a selfish disregard of people and an enormous regard for himself. His minions flatter their Emperor and compliment his new clothes while ignoring his buck nakedness. It took a 26-year-old woman’s courage to say the Emperor was dressed a little light for the weather.

Meanwhile, black-robed justices summoned older spirits, “’tis time! ‘tis time! Double, double toil and trouble.” In one infamous week of opinions they overturned laws on women’s health, religion in the schools, scuttled environmental protections and approved carrying a gun in a society suffering the sickness of repeated mass murders.

Compounding these benighted events, the worst inflation in 40 years placed the greatest burden on people of limited means. The more affluent saw their investment portfolios crash faster than their travel plans. Hit with COVID, a cautious population isolated itself while Russia weaponized oil. The blockade of Ukrainian food threatens the world food supply.

Will the Center hold? We have survived many crises and in turn, been strengthened by them. But the past is not always the augury of the future.

The turn of the tale will be in our ability to come together as a nation and as a society. Is it really a “United States?” The East and West coasts are solidly blue while the South and the mid-West are red. The economic and migration patterns increase and sharpen the inflection points. Will we see “Bloody Kansas” again? What is this beast that slaughters people claiming protection of a Constitutional right?

The “greatest generation,” those who came of age in World War II, and gave us the baby boom are coming to the end of their lives. We see the fading of the institutions that for one small flash made the American Dream a reality for some. We promised equality and access to opportunities.

Instead, wealth and educational gaps increase while politicians gerrymander voting districts to freeze political power to their advantage. School privatization claims “freedom of choice” but the least reflection shows the reality is segregation and inequalities. At the same time, the exploding costs of elite higher education institutions, make them inaccessible to children on the wrong side of the wealth gap. People advantaged by this system want to keep it that way.

We have survived the litany of our devils and prospered by the actions of our saints. Yet, the purpose of a democratic society is to build and sustain a fair and just society. In the elections, our obligation is to select leaders based not on the thin chaff spewed in election season but on the principles and wisdom by which the candidates have governed, their passionate commitment to the strengthening of the commonwealth, and their manifest compassion to embrace all citizens.

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William J. Mathis

Following a decade as the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, William J. Mathis serves as a Senior Policy Adv...