Long ago I lived in a Chicago area apartment and parked on the street. After heavy snowfall, teens rescued strangers’ cars spinning tires on ice. They helped neighbors shovel out parking spaces and stake claims with a couple of chairs. Anyone fool enough to park on someone else’s claim might wake the next day to find their car totaled.
That’s when I first noticed the way challenging times bring out the best and the worst in people. Volunteers travel miles to rebuild hurricane damage or save birds after oil spills. On the downside, I see parallels between the military draft for Vietnam in the late 1960s and the current pandemic. Both crises disrupted and threatened lives. Stress went up. Trust went down. Compassion gave way to scapegoating. Rivals became enemies. To connect across the chasm was to collaborate with the devil.
A poll last year found half the respondents who’d voted for Biden in 2020, and three-quarters of voters for Trump, saw no real difference between the opposing party and Fascists or Socialists respectively. Voters in both parties agreed overwhelmingly that elected officials in the other party were “a clear and present danger to American democracy.” With the perceived stakes so high, it’s a short step to condoning death threats and violence in order to save the nation.
I’m spooked by the attack on Paul Pelosi. I'm spooked about next week’s election. Will the ongoing challenges keep bringing out the worst in our body politic? In nooks and crannies of the nation, I pray we'll also see glimmers of the best.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.