One solution to America’s political polarization, our national preoccupation with resentment of “differences” – historically our strength – is to look inward, where truth dwells. Rather than class warfare, racism, identity politics, consider the alternative, seeing ourselves in each other.
What am I talking about? About what the Founding Fathers believed, directed, and meant by “all men are created equal,” epic words in our Declaration of Independence.
I am talking about post-Civil War America’s “doubling down” with “equal protection of the laws” in our 14th Amendment, codifying Lincoln’s executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation.
I am talking about Theodore Roosevelt’s resolve that no political party would intimidate or diminish his belief in the individual, respect for all regardless of race, station, or power.
Republican TR took a different view on race from Democrat Woodrow Wilson. To TR, each person was a God-given soul, all his own and equal, deserving respect that fact commands.
While excoriated by opponents, TR was the first president to invite an African American to the White House, had a lifetime friendship with Booker T. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institution.
TR implored Americans to honor individuality, not group identity, saying a “wise and honorable and Christian” person treats all individuals with respect. He defended Minnie Cox, the first Black female postmaster, appointed Black Americans to high office, never quit those core convictions.
Wrote TR: “I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope – the door of opportunity – is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color.”
Convinced – before his wife, Edith – women deserved all America promised, he championed the 19th Amendment, women’s right to vote. Centering tenet: Individual liberty and opportunity.
A focus on an equal opportunity, judging all men by the “content of their character,” animated Martin Luther King. He opposed the opposite, hatreds and the social spiral of racial separation.
King’s idea was to make America’s promise real, not by separation into feuding groups, not by pitting races against each other, but honoring the individual – seeing ourselves in each other, recognizing each other by “the content of our character” not by varying skin types.
That aspiration has long resonated a powerful idea: Put labels aside, see truth as truth, have discernment, exercise power to distinguish between material and immaterial differences.
To do this is hard for humans. It calls out wisdom, not comfort in sameness, default to “group think,” forgetting groups are made up of individuals, each able to think for himself or herself, ultimately able to make choices and transcend tribal prejudices, if we encourage that.
Shakespeare may be the touchstone, confirming that – at our best – we can see the individual, can understand he is not the group, not the tribe, not the label – but is a separate, equal soul.
What happens in Romeo and Juliet? What does Juliet say to Romeo, the archrival family? “Tis but thy name that is my enemy …” She knows there is nothing in the name or group. “It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man.”
She says: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What Shakespeare knows – is that hearts bind to hearts, not groups to groups. Societal wounds heal through the power of individual resolve, an extend hand, not more tribal tropes.
No wonder, 35 years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan made “the rose” America’s National Flower. “More than any other flower, we hold the rose dear as a symbol of life and love and devotion, of beauty and eternity …” It grows in all States, was cultivated by Washington, rings the Rose Garden where Americans gather as “one.”
We are – oddly enough – each “a rose by any other name,” all different by shade, shape, and character, yet all the same. If there is a solution to polarization, it is smelling that rose, understanding that fact.
We gain nothing by teaching children racial resentment, preoccupation with what we are not, breaking ourselves into groups, using ideological cover; we gain everything by seeing ourselves in one another.