A House Divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”—Abraham Lincoln.

I was thinking of Lincoln last week as I watched news coverage of the historic House vote on impeachment.

As member after member rose and went on record for or against, we saw the stark and dark divisions in our country laid bare for all to see. Of course, it was nothing new. We see it every single day and have seen it for years.

And I thought of Lincoln. And whether our better angels have departed for good.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham reminds us that we have been through worse and have always come back and for sure we have. But I have this nagging feeling that somehow what we’re seeing is different.

And I thought of Lincoln.

I went to the Internet to re-read his “House Divided” speech. I hadn’t read it in decades, since I was in school.

The House Divided Speech was delivered on June 16, 1858, at what was then the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, after Lincoln had accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination to run for the U.S. Senate.

The speech became the launching point for his unsuccessful campaign for the seat, held by Stephen A. Douglas; the campaign would climax with the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

At the time, even Lincoln’s friends regarded his speech as too radical for the occasion.

But when you read it, you can’t help but feel that it is tame by today’s standards. The language is almost poetic, the writing is outstanding and while he argues passionately against slavery it is devoid of personal attacks. Instead it is full of ideas and optimism.

It concludes with the following line: “We shall not fail — if we stand firm, we shall not fail.”

It is vintage Lincoln, acknowledging the high stakes and the possibility of failure, but ultimately ending on an optimistic note.

I don’t see that optimism today. That belief that things are going to get better, that problems are going to be solved and divisions will be repaired.

Not on the international stage where a teenager chastises the world’s leaders for doing nothing to save the environment and not on the national stage where we see a constant barrage of attacks, lies and accusations. Even locally, we see a ton of negativity especially on social media which can be a cesspool.

In such a world, is there a place for our better angels to make a stand?
Are people willing to put the world, nation and their own community ahead of their tribe?

What will it take for good people to rise up and say enough is enough?
Do we sit idly by as standards and rules that seemed to work for so long get obliterated?

Or will we continue to bicker and watch the heat and anger rise and take us to ever more dangerous places?

It’s a fundamental choice to make, but the path to something better is not clear.

As a hyperlocal blog, I invite you to cruise some local Facebook pages and see what you find.

It seems like almost every post that has to do with local government attracts a large share of cynicism and snark.

Pebb Capital, a fine firm with a deep track record of success in real estate, ponies up a whopping $40 million to buy the Sundy House and the first comment you see is a cynical prediction that the historic structures will be bulldozed and the historic neighborhood trashed. Followed by comments such as “Delray is shot,” no longer charming or in the least appealing. Really? Is that true?

Should we be concerned about historic properties? Of course. But there doesn’t seem to be any trust in the process or in the officials responsible for enforcing the city’s codes and land development rules.

In reality, with Pebb Capital in town, we will actually see the long-awaited investment promised. We won’t ever see 10 story buildings downtown and if you want to see real traffic try navigating Glades Road after 4 p.m.

To be sure, there is plenty to be concerned about in Delray and I have written extensively on those topics. I will note that you only spend time on the things you care about. So when we see columns on instability at City Hall, poor leadership, a lack of long term thinking, incivility, the lack of talent attracted to public service and rising rents downtown it’s not coming from a nasty place but from a love of this community and a desire to see it thrive and be a happy place. I hope the other comments I referenced on Facebook come from that place too. Sometimes I have my doubts.

While fixing the national scene may be a bridge too far, we can always start at home.

Groups like WiseTribe offer a great template for building community.

Another suggestion is to go back to the old playbook.

Delray made significant strides beginning in the late 80s when the city began to offer a slew of ways for citizens to get engaged. From citizen police academies and resident academies to visioning charrettes and neighborhood dinners, there was a concerted effort to find, recruit and bring citizens to the public square so they could work together and building a better city.

It worked.

As important as those initiatives were, they may be even more important today. We cannot let social media be the only or even the primary way for citizens to engage. For sure, there is a place for Facebook. But it is a poor replacement for face to face meetings and social media does not provide a meaningful way to facilitate important conversations.

It’s hard to demonize someone sitting across a table from you, but very easy to do so on Facebook, especially since the platform allows for the use of fake identities.

Sometimes the old fashioned ways are best; face to face conversations still have a place in our hyper connected world. If we lose the ability to relate to our neighbors we will lose the common ground that builds community and with it our sense of belonging.

 

Comments

  1. Joycelyn Patrick says:

    Jeff, I simply say thank you.

  2. Scott Porten says:

    Jeff, well said. There’s a whole lot of talking going on, but not much listening. Until each side shows a willingness to understand the other’s concerns, I fear there will be no meeting of the minds.

  3. Susan Ruby says:

    Community Unity was a goal that required tending in the manner you described. A renewed focus on the goal would be a positive step for the City.

  4. Chuck Ridley says:

    Well said my friend. The very 1st All America City application opening speaker who’s name I cant quite recall, but I think her name was Sandy said the following and I paraphrase: Delray had become a city that you could take a marker and draw a circle around each part of Delray, based on our divisions. We had become just tha polarized. What the All America process allowed us to do was to acknowledge our shortcomings, acknowledge we were not perfect and look for ways to work for the common good. Jeff we are still the same city. We still have people willing to find common ground. Those of us who know how must now get off the sidelines and help lead the way…ijs

  5. What a well done blog – I wish this could be mandatory reading for everyone – bill and ted’s excellent adventure (silly reference) reminded everyone that history can be a great reminder of times, good and bad, gone by. Community unity (consensus building) was one of those ‘good times’ that seems to have gone by. Our good times centered around a community of people who loved Delray and believed in working together to make it work. I fear we have strayed too far and attitudes/beliefs have become to firmly set – it seems people would rather talk/complain on social media than actually work together to protect and nurture our wonderful community. Sorry – evidently the older I get the more cynical I become. “Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes”

  6. Keith O’Donnell says:

    Bitter or better ?
    Live and love?
    Orator , facilitator, aspirational beautiful writer you are, Mayor Jeff.

    Thank you for always speaking without shouting.

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