Yet elections do not define a country. Shared values do. Despite our divisions, we have an opportunity to express those shared values by resisting both extremism and the explosive rhetoric that demonizes political opponents. We must also reaffirm our commitment to universal human rights—the moral principles that acknowledge the dignity of every person, regardless of background or beliefs. That commitment has no boundaries and acknowledges no borders (or border walls).
No genuine liberal or conservative, especially a Catholic one, should believe that bigotry and violence are the proper responses to our political divides. The fight against extremism is not for a single political party. It is a fight for all Americans.
I have been particularly disturbed by this kind of extremism since the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It is hard to imagine in a world that suffered through the Holocaust we would again see such wanton violence against Jewish people, in particular. But perhaps such violence has again become possible because there are fewer and fewer people still alive who remember those dark days. We need those voices of the past to inform our present. They can help us understand that we have a choice in the days ahead.
Perhaps such violence has again become possible because there are fewer and fewer people still alive who remember those dark days.
The Tree of Life mass shooting reminded me—disturbingly—of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. In that novel from 2004, aviator and isolationist Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and prevents the United States from entering World War II. The book is terrifying, in large part because it shows how anti-Semitism can quickly burst into the mainstream but also because of how the fictional Lindbergh’s “America First” policies erase the expected in American life: religious and ethnic pluralism, the rule of law, public accountability and civil debate.
Similarly, in Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, the United States, beaten in World War II, has been divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Any Jews still alive in America are in hiding and live in fear of not only their fascist overlords but of their fellow Americans turning them in. Many of the main characters have this creeping understanding that life is not what it’s supposed to be. The title character is, in fact, an author who has been “tuning in” to a parallel universe in which the Allies had won the war. (The television adaptation of the novel, currently in its third season on Amazon, is an expanded but equally chilling view of this dystopian world.)
Both of these novels of alternate realities provide readers with a dark mirror of what the world would be like if other decisions had been made, if people who should have been alive suddenly were not, and terrors filled the vacuum left behind. Both authors lived through the hard years of World War II and knew how close the world had come to being like their worst imaginations.
World War II is falling out of living memory. Yet if the bigotry of our era demonstrates anything, it is that we need to be continually reminded of evils to prevent evils.
Our modern nation is not like either of the Americas described in these books. Yet many people across the political spectrum—like the characters in Dick’s novel—instinctively feel that life right now is not meant to be like this.
This feeling may be due to our recent history. We came through the Cold War filled with the optimism that democratic values were beginning to flourish in places that had never known freedom. We saw the emergence of technology that helped to bridge national and cultural divides. It felt as if we were moving toward a world that was slowly embracing American ideals as its own.
And yet here we are. Nationalism is threatening to replace patriotism in our country and in countries across the globe. Tribalism rears its head. Democracies all over the world—widespread as they now are—find themselves struggling to maintain pluralistic ideas in the face of these headwinds.
The question of how we got here is almost beside the point. The question of who is to blame for the viciousness of our politics is also beside the point. We are here, now, in this ugly present. And we need to figure out what to do with it.
Moral lessons were learned by previous generations who vowed “never again.” But World War II is falling out of living memory. As are the days of Jim Crow. Yet if the bigotry of our era demonstrates anything, it is that we need to be continually reminded of evils to prevent evils. Literature helps us do that. But we also need to teach and practice American ideals in order to maintain American ideals. That begins with committing ourselves to practice in daily life a respect for every person’s individual human dignity.
An alternate reality of our present is out there, waiting for all of us. But we have to choose it, each of us, just as previous generations chose to make their worlds better ones.