By Ken Feltman
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
– Abraham Lincoln
Facing a bloody and nation-wrenching Civil War, President Lincoln called on his fellow citizens to respond not to their prejudices but to the “better angels” of their natures.
But the people could not call upon their better angels. They were too angry, too divided. Their leaders shared their division. Some foreign leaders wondered why the central government could not slow or halt the march to war. They looked for action from the incoming president. There was precious little of that. Lincoln, a brooding realist, was already looking beyond the bloodshed to reconciliation. The horrible conflagration that will forever stain this country ensued.
Perhaps the foreign leaders, accustomed more to the devolution that was slowly taking place, especially in Europe’s older authoritarian systems, did not understand the politics of America’s wild democracy. As the American people became more certain of the durability of their democracy, they became more tolerant of no-holds-barred politics. In vibrant democracies, the ties that bind are strong enough to endure even destructive debate. Because we Americans are confident – perhaps to the point of arrogance – in the durability of our democracy, we tolerate a form of politics that is akin to a blood sport. Occasionally, we get too far from the bells.
The bells? Yes, the bell has been an important symbol for Americans at critical points in our history. The Liberty Bell was a symbol of the struggle for independence. Later, the bell became the symbol of the abolitionists as they fought to end slavery. After the war, the Liberty Bell was taken around the country as a symbol of common heritage and renewed unity. The bell was used to advance women’s suffrage. The bell, it seems, stands for our quest for freedom and equality.
But hold on a moment to reflect upon Lincoln’s words. Resigned to war, he held out hope that the “mystic chords of memory” would eventually prevail. Hope is seen by autocrats as a frail reed but hope has always been an uplifting theme of American politics, beginning with hope for a better life here than in the “old country” and continuing through hope for a better future for our children to hope for social and economic progress. These are worthy aspirations. They are worth tough politics.
Symbols of hope and liberty
In seeking independence, the colonists used many symbols. The stars that guided the ships across the Atlantic became the ubiquitous stars of our flags. The coiled rattlesnake and the Minuteman said “keep away.” Emblems of hope – the anchor, for example, which still emblazons the flag of Rhode Island – became commonplace. Some of the symbols faded into history. But we seem to return to the bell in times of trouble.
Perhaps we need the bell now. Precisely because our politics is so divisive, so chaotic and so brutal, we voters sometimes try to forget or ignore the political killing field. But when we do, we risk permitting more elemental aspects of human nature to assume control. We cannot do that. We must pay attention. We risk backsliding if we do not remember why we fought before. Precisely because our politics is so rough-and-tumble, we must know our foundation. We must know our history. We must know our successes and our failures. A former president makes that more imperative today.
To understand what former President Clinton has done, we may need to step away from our current political battles and look at the battles of our political history. Those battles reflect not just our past but our future.
Bells ring through our history, sometimes melodically and sometimes with a jarring clang. Are they clanging now? Our history, like the meaning of the root word for the cathedral bells, has changed as times have changed and memories have dimmed. Our Liberty Bell traces its lineage to the great cathedral bells of the Middle Ages. Look at one Italian root word for the bells that rang out in colonial America. We can learn a lesson from the original word and the way its meaning has changed through the centuries.
The Italian word campanilismo is usually rendered in English as parochialism, thus demonstrating the limits of translation. The subtleness of the word in its original Italian does not come through. Like other Romance languages, Italian soars on words that conjure up big stretches and ideas. The Romance languages seem to be telescopes searching the vastness. The Germanic languages seem to be better microscopes. Centuries of history and tradition can be contained in one quick French phrase, one precise Spanish word. Old feuds and battles, loves and labors, wines and recipes: All are wrapped up in an Italian’s understanding of a word such as campanilismo.
The word comes from campanile – bell tower. Translation misses the richness in the word’s roots in the Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance when Italian cities were competing to build grand cathedrals and bell towers. Some of the most impressive architecture in history comes from this period, which was also a time when people were traveling more than ever before. The towers combined with the travel and in a word became evocative.
Travel has never been without risks and inconveniences. For example, a Florentine was cut off from knowledge of what was happening in Florence when he left home. In fact, the break was abrupt. The loss of information about family and home came almost as soon as the traveler got beyond hearing the pealing of the tower bells. Thus, campanilismo came to have within its meaning the melancholy experienced as the traveler lost contact with home.
Over time, as communication improved and the ties to home were not cut so cleanly by travel, campanilismo took on additional meanings: Pride in home (and in our time, pride in the local football team), and regionalism. This modern expansion of the definition is the closest the word comes to parochialism. Those with no knowledge of the etymology of the word can experience only that modern portion of the whole definition. They lose the wisdom in the original definition. Adjusting for the ever broader reach of communications, campanilismo today recognizes that people have knowledge of things beyond their home but still have intense pride in their home, region or team. Thus, campanilismo is informed pride. Based on its etymology, parochialism connotes uninformed pride — exactly the opposite.
Prisoners of our language and our time
Our inability to be a native speaker of another language cuts us off even if we are supposedly fluent in another language. The traveling Florentine understood that he was cut off. Modern communications may lure us into a belief that we have more knowledge than we do. In fact, because we may not understand that we do not understand, we are imprisoned. In this case, we are prisoners of our language skills. Translation misses much.
We are also prisoners of our time. We live now and may have only dim awareness of times before. We cannot hear the cannons at Antietam, Gettysburg and Appomattox. But do we hear a distant clanging, brought to life in our politics today? Listen! That is the clanging of prejudice, of racism, raised today most cynically.
The man who has been called “the first black president” for his understanding and assistance to people of color has now played the race card. His wife has played it, too. And they might have gotten away with it except for their tendency to overreach. The Clintons are not subtle. Are they satisfied to defeat their opponents or must they destroy them? After South Carolina, the way to the nomination seemed favorable for Hillary Clinton. Why overreach?
Political consultants and television commentators used admiring phrases to tell how the Clintons sacrificed South Carolina to finally pierce their main opponent’s shield. Barack Obama was running a campaign for president in which Americans of every color listened to his message of hope and did not see his color first and foremost. Indelicately, the Clintons forced race into the campaign: Clang! Obama took the bait and protested and now every voter sees that he won huge majorities among African Americans throughout South Carolina. He repeated those majorities in Florida. Black women, especially, switched sides to Obama as they saw their favored Hillary Clinton reach low.
A former president has moved beyond the bells. Will we go with him to a time we thought we had overcome?
The distant clanging
Will the tactic work? Will white voters now sense that Obama is a “black candidate” with overwhelming support from the black community and not a unifying voice? Will enough whites, one by one, slowly but surely, switch to give Hillary Clinton comfortable margins on Super Tuesday? How easy it is to backslide into yesterday’s biases.
Make no mistake: Obama is not a perfect candidate. He has gone about as far as one can go with uplifting rhetoric and unfleshed-out proposals. His tendency to avoid specifics was starting to catch up with him. But now it may all be about his color, not his ideas.
“We the people” is the Constitution’s most quoted phrase. Then, the Constitution defines some people as lesser than other people. We lived with those definitions of ourselves as citizens and slaves, men and women, until Lincoln took us back to the loftier ideals of the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.”
Lincoln quoted the Declaration time and again. He ignored the restrictions of the Constitution. He frustrated and angered those who pointed out that the Constitution, not the Declaration, was our governing document. He believed that we could be better angels. He clanged off key like a broken bell. At the end of the War and his life, we were a nation not yet transformed but transforming. Still imperfect, we were firmly rooted in our original ideals, as impractical and foolish as many thought they were. The struggle would be worth it. Americans had heard the bells.
Will we hear them now?