Many of us in the lower tiers of punditry — minor prophets, editors, pedestrian preachers and habitués of the internet — like to quote authority to bolster our claims and arguments. Some of us employ the Pentateuch as a torch to blister the behinds of LGBTQ folks and consign them to perdition; others invoke the inspiration of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. or Jack Kennedy; me, I lean toward literate smart alecks like Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and Samuel Johnson.
The common thread in all these invocations is the implication that each of us invokers is supported by a powerful big brother and a weightier intellect — as if Odin the All-Father were looking over each one’s shoulder. Credentials count.
But there’s one very quotable authority whose total socio-philosophical output amounts to one short, somewhat mumbled question. His credentials never amounted to a hill of beans, and in most people’s eyes he was a consummate loser. Yet his question keeps bubbling up in my consciousness more and more as Western society seems to be devolving into savagery.
“People, I just want to say, you know,” he said, “can we all get along? Can we get along?”
You may recognize the speaker. It’s Rodney King, a black man who was brutally beaten up and tased by a bunch of cops who’d finally run him down after a car chase. Fortunately (as is more frequent these days), a bystander with a camera recorded the whole scene. Subsequent trials and acquittals, widespread rioting and lawsuits ended with two officers in federal prison. King was awarded $3.8 million in damages, but finally, at the age of only 47, was found dead in his swimming pool. A coroner’s report listed drowning as the cause of death, “precipitated by cardiac arrhythmia, drug use and intoxication.”
That’s hardly an American hero to hold up for your children to emulate, and certainly no one to look to for wisdom. Yet, as we descend increasingly into tribalism and elementary school playground behavior, his simple question lingers: Can we all get along? Its tone suggests something different: Can’t we all get along?
Probably not, because there are two addenda to that simple question. First, I think it implies that we must leave each other alone: get off each other’s cases, if you will. Second, it isn’t easy.
The internet crawls with opinionated arguments and calumny that scream for rebuttal, and by the look of it, not many readers resist the impulse to respond. Cloaked in relative anonymity and unchecked by personal relationships, Americans of differing opinions and biases go at each other hammer and tongs for hours at a time. It appears to be their recreation. It’s almost all heat, with very little light, and often makes an onlooker feel there’s very little chance of many of us ever getting along. The notion that we’re all in the same boat and will need each other to get anywhere important seems as alien as the back side of the moon.
The recent case of the young missionary, John Chau, who felt called to convert the natives of the Andaman Islands to Christianity is a perfect example of getting onto others’ cases. In the face of centuries of their murderous hostility to aliens, and in defiance of Indian law, he went ashore, waterproof Bible in hand, to try to preach to the Sentinelese in Xhosa, a South African language. He did not survive. He is now regarded variously as a martyr for Jesus, a very brave young man, a delusionary, a felon (Indian law) or a flaming idiot. In a show of charity stunning for its incomprehension, his family has announced its forgiveness of his killers. The Indian government, charged with recovering Chau’s body on the beach, is hesitant; every outside contact, no matter how slight, threatens the very existence of this tribe. They really, really want to be left alone.
That’s an easy one for us armchair philosophers to judge, mainly because it’s far from home and our common experience, and we can react relatively dispassionately. But closer to home, in our courts and legislatures, on our streets, and in the various media, we are — to coin a phrase — engaged in a great civil war. The issue is human abortion and on this one there appears to be no middle ground.
Never mind that abortion, thanks to much-improved contraception and sex education, is at an all-time low. Never mind that it’s impossible to end the practice, but only to make it either illegal and dangerous or legal and safe. (A retired obstetrician tells me that childbirth is about 50 times as dangerous as abortion.) None of this matters, because the two sides are talking past each other: To one, it’s a matter of privacy and personal choice; to the other, it’s murder of an unborn innocent.
To me, it’s a perfect example of the need for poor old Rodney’s question. On one hand, if we but wait, the rising tide of young people, to whom abortion is a largely moot issue, will settle it. Wouldn’t it be a credit to us old folks if we could just get it done ourselves? But we’re entrenched, and the chances of that happening are about as dead as Rodney King himself.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.