In the late-1960s, our country was torn apart. Protesters marching for basic civil rights met brutal resistance from police. Rioters looted and burned inner-city businesses. Young people speaking out for change rebelled against traditions that comforted their elders. The White House called for law and order while students were gunned down by National Guard troops at Kent State. Good leaders were assassinated and cult followers murdered Hollywood elite. Crowds ran from tear-gas canisters here in America while American soldiers piled up in body bags in Vietnam. All this mayhem was a daily feature on a still relatively new social medium called “television” that brought it directly into our homes. They were turbulent times.
My father and I lived through those times as polar opposites. Close-cropped hair slicked back, creased black dress pants and white shirt were his standard wear as he settled into his recliner after a day of work. He was committed to his government “right or wrong.” He believed his settled, familiar way of life was under attack by crazed-out hippies on drugs. Shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle, I’d hunker down in my bedroom in bell-bottomed pants and tie-dyed shirt, blaring my stereo system and guitar over the shouts of “Turn it down!” from other family members. I constantly questioned accepted norms, always seeking to press the envelope to bring about change. Each of us considered the other’s camp as a crowd of ignorant idiots as we partitioned ourselves into our respective tribes.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, well, it should. Our country is once again divided into tribes that have no tolerance for each other. A new social medium, the internet, competes with television to bring hate, bigotry, distrust and fear to the fore. Far too many seek comfort within the tribe that thinks like they do. A misguided few use whipped-up rhetoric to justify violence.
And it’s not just at the national level. Here in Vermont, we have divided ourselves into intolerant tribes as the political campaign season reaches fever pitch. It does not matter who started it, or who does it worse than whom, or what party you believe will preserve Vermont or put it in the wastebasket. We’ve walled ourselves into tribes who have forgotten how to conduct civil discourse.
But there is hope. History shows we have it in our power to provide ourselves relief. In July 1969, at the height of what we then all thought was surely the end of time, a spaceship approached the moon with some very brave Americans aboard. My father and I set aside our differences to sit together with the family, glued for days to a fuzzy black-and-white image that united us as Americans like nothing else ever had. From launch pad to splashdown, we found a common reason for civility.
We who were alive at that time need to assure those lamenting current events that America will survive these times and likely come out stronger when we find a common objective. Despite any faults it might have, America remains a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. We Vermonters are uniquely positioned to demonstrate that civility is still a noble concept. Those with different opinions, religions or skin color are not the devil incarnate, they are our neighbors. Let’s move beyond these tribal wars and remember with pride that we are still the only country that put a man on the moon.
Joe Benning is a state senator representing Caledonia County.