Letter: America today — what a headache

Posted 4/15/22

To the editor:

Some tensions are part of our lives. But have you ever had a tension headache? Bad ones are really bad and you think you just might collapse. Well, I think America may be …

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Letter: America today — what a headache

Posted

To the editor:

Some tensions are part of our lives. But have you ever had a tension headache? Bad ones are really bad and you think you just might collapse. Well, I think America may be having a tension headache. The question is, will America collapse?

A collapse is a terrible thing, whether thinking about a person or a country or a bridge over a gorge. (Safe bridges depend on tension to withstand the forces of load, wind, and gravity. Proper tension is as crucial for a safe bridge as properly tuned strings are for a piano or banjo).

Like our bodies, a body politic experiences tension. Too little and it becomes passive and apathetic. Too much and it becomes cynical and even violent. Peace between competing groups can occur, but only if there is a structure designed to insure fairness. We call these structures governments which are expected to get the tension just right, also known as pursuit of the commonwealth. Tension is ever-present in governments.

The reason is that disagreements will frequently emerge, and their resolutions will gladden some and disappoint others. Only in a democracy is the notion, even the promise, of redress part of this tension. Our arguments are always about whether or not this tension — our laws — are too tight or too loose and whether they apply fairly to everyone. We need to keep this in mind. There is more.

Laws alone are not enough in a democracy. Norms fill the gaps. While norms change over time, we need them to have a happy and functioning society. One national norm is that a retiring president escorts the new president to the inauguration. Another is that political opponents are not called enemies. An important norm concerns general respect for authority, remembering that people in authority, such as cops, teachers, and town councilors, are our neighbors most often doing their level best. Sometimes, norms come from common sense, preventing our doing everything that the law allows. Sensible people, e.g., don’t carry firearms into public buildings, schools, or churches. Norms help us be good neighbors and good citizens.  Indeed, ignoring norms signals a selfish, uncooperative population.

So, a good measure of a healthy, democratic society is whether or not people obey laws, adhere to norms, and treat one another well enough so that our societal tensions don’t overly slack or stretch, giving us — or our country — those terrible headaches. We in our democracy cannot risk a collapse.

Will Newman

Tiverton

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