We can be assured that it won’t be forgotten, when America’s first black president takes the oath to begin his second term, that not quite 50 years will have passed since Martin Luther King Jr. stood not far away and described a dream world in which a man might be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. Every television talking head with a minute of airtime to fill can be counted on to relate one man and moment to the other.
For me, those 50 years are more or less all my life. I was three when King gave his speech, and accordingly unaware of it. But I was old enough by the time he was gunned down five years later to perceive not only the shocking crime, but to have an inkling of what King’s death might mean. I was old enough, a month later, to try to reconcile some context when Bobby Kennedy fell to another assassin’s hand. Not yet nine years old, it seemed to me that chaos reigned, that our nation was in jeopardy, that social studies class had it all terribly wrong. That was an impression only reinforced by what I saw at home.
At 14, my sister was radicalized beyond anything sensible for her age. She was enraptured and enthralled by what seemed to be the romance and thrill of a counter-culture offering not only the promise of a world to change but – vastly more important – the opportunity to shock and anger our parents. Every evening newscast, every muddy image of helicopter gunships, every campus conflagration had its echo in our home: in my sister’s angry denunciations, in my parents’ comminatory pronouncements, and in doors slammed by all parties. Two years later, when national guardsmen killed four Americans and wounded nine others on a college campus not 30 minutes from our house, those shots ricocheted around our kitchen table, leaving casualties of our own. Those wounds never healed.
There could be no resolution because my parents and my sister had no common language in which to reach one, no means to discuss the seething national conflicts that reflected and recapitulated their own. Every angry exchange about Nixon or Vietnam or hippies or civil rights was really a proxy for something else, something more prosaic, personal and small, and therefore infinitely more powerful. I came eventually to understand that it was a conflict they never wished to resolve. They had no common cause. At bottom, their mutual disdain was the only understanding they had, or wanted to have, of one another.
As for the nation, it is true that we find ourselves, 50 years on, having twice made president a man who, the summer King shared his dream, could not have shared a water fountain or a lunch counter with many of his countrymen. That would seem to be progress, and so I suppose it is. But if the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners now play together, no one can claim this is a nation unified. Our divisions are as deep as they ever were. What is worse, division has become our default, our reflex, the entire contour of our relationship with one another.
Our discourse no longer comprises intercourse, because our different opinions never get close enough even to contest with one another. Instead we pick our side of an issue, then plow broadening swathes of parallel rhetoric across from each other, like ever-expanding twin superhighways highways on either bank of a deeply run river, with never a single lane of bridge to link them. Should a fact inconveniently interpose itself, and by any means threaten to detour one course of conviction even a few degrees toward the opposing course, that fact is hastily dynamited or buried so that there will be no turning. One is not judged by the content of one's character, rather one is condemned by the color of one's beliefs or, indeed, by any single belief.
That sound you hear? That din? It's not the debate of men of good will. It’s all slamming doors. Or maybe it’s thunder. But no matter. Because no one’s listening anyway.