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Have we ever really been united? by EARL BABBIE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | August 24, 2020 at 3:00 a.m.

Recent reading and reflection has brought me to the conclusion that the United States of America is a misnomer.

I'm not referring to our having no relationship to Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer to who lent his name to the new continents west of Europe. Rather, it's the "united" part that seems inappropriate. The past four years have been especially divisive, but that's not when it began.

We've rarely if ever been truly united.

In reading David McCullough's "1776," I've been struck by how divided the colonists were regarding independence from Britain. When British forces drove Washington out of New York, for example, a mass of New Yorkers flooded the streets to hail the "liberators," sometimes carrying Redcoats on their shoulders to parade in victory.

Later, when the Brits sought to break up the revolution by offering peace on an individual basis, thousands of colonists signed contracts to ensure personal prosperity under British rule in exchange for their loyalty.

Years later, when the British decided to write off the colonies as a bad idea, the successful revolutionaries discovered they were not of one mind on how to proceed. The Articles of Confederation were short-lived as an organizing document. There was certainly no unanimity on slavery, and some have argued that the British terminating slavery in its colonies was a major impetus for the revolution in the first place, as many of the early national leaders were slave-holders.

The issue of slavery, of course, dramatized our disunity as the Civil War.

Lest you believe that secession was about states' rights instead of slavery, you need to read some of the Articles of Secession. The first, by South Carolina, began with five principal complaints, four of which were about slavery and the perceived threats to that institution. One complaint did deal with states' rights: objecting to it. For example, Massachusetts had passed a state law prohibiting compliance with the federal Runaway Slave Act. South Carolina argued that individual states had no right to violate federal law.

Clearly, the Civil War has been our most visible exercise in disunity, but the Northern victory hardly brought about a United States. Though slavery was officially abolished, divided opinion and practices about race relations have persisted to the present day. Jim Crow, segregation, and all manner of discrimination mark the lack of unity. In 2020, there is disagreement as to whether the Confederacy was a noble or treasonous five years of our history.

A short list of disunities in my lifetime would include anti-communism, loyalty oaths, the war in Vietnam, climate change, abortion, immigration, whether Black Lives Matter, or whether to wear a protective mask during a raging pandemic.

I think Robert Kennedy put his finger on the reason for our persistent disunity: "There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed." (June 6, 1968) Some people look forward to social change; others fear and resist it.

The current pandemic presents us with an interesting challenge, which can be seen in terms of means and ends. My wife and I love classical music, for example, the enjoyment of which can be seen as a desired end in our lives.

Previously, we have achieved this desired end by attending the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra concerts in Robinson Hall. With the ASO rescheduling fall concerts during the pandemic, we face a choice. If we remain doggedly committed to the familiar means, we could demand that the ASO reopen. Instead, we are finding new means to the desired end.

For example, ASO musicians have posted videos on YouTube, performing excellent classical music, in their "Bedtime with Bach" performances. These are streamed free for anyone to enjoy. To be sure, it's not the same as attending a live concert, but a tradeoff is not having to dress up and drive to Little Rock. And there is no pandemic risk here at home.

Adaptation is what Darwin identified as the key to survival, and the pandemic offers endless opportunities for adaptation. When we are thwarted from familiar means to a desired end, the question is whether we are mature enough and clever enough to achieve our desired ends by different means.

Happy hunting.


Dr. Earl Babbie of Hot Springs Village is the Campbell professor emeritus in behavioral sciences at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.


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