A Fictional Letter

JS Letter 1

(Photo: The aftermath of battle at Antietam; U.S. Civil War)


Letter to my Closest Friend During Rumors of Civil War          

Note: The following letter is fictional. It’s what I wish I could say to my closest friend, if only I had the courage.

We’ve been best friends for more than half a century. One of my most cherished photographs is of you standing beside me as I blow out the candles at my sixth birthday in 1969. Some of my favorite memories are of the two of us sitting in the back of our classes at university passing notes and competing for the highest marks. We were best man at each other’s wedding. You were there for me when my brother committed suicide, and you were there for me decades later when I went through a heart wrenching divorce when I might have gone the way of my brother. And although we have lived far apart for much of our lives, we have always been close. We know each other’s history and soul better than almost anyone else on earth. We have always accepted and appreciated our differences: I the more liberal; you the more conservative. I’ve never told you this, but you have always been my Jiminy Cricket—the sober conscience I turned to whenever I needed advice about doing the right thing.

But things have changed.

Over the past few years, we haven’t been able to really talk to each other. We talk about the weather and how our spouse and kids are doing, but it’s shallow, superficial . . . chit chat. Our political ideologies have made us strangers. To be honest, I’m uneasy with your politics of hate, exclusion, oppression, and anti-Democracy. And though you haven’t said it directly, I think you are anxious about people like me. A thousand times in my mind I have rehearsed what I would say to you if only we could talk honestly without the threat of hanging up the phone and never speaking again. I would tell you how concerned I am whenever you talk gleefully about a “Coming Storm.” Perhaps you didn’t pay attention in history classes, otherwise you’d know that 1.5 million Americans were either killed or wounded in the Civil War, which included women and children and an estimated 750,000 soldiers on both sides. During those savage years, brother killed brother, neighbor killed neighbor, and Christian killed Christian. As the population of the United States in the 1860s was only one-ninth of what it is today, by extension, as many as 7,000,000 Americans might be killed in a modern day civil war with millions more injured. And millions more may be murdered in the name of racial or religious cleansing. Instead of a war with geographic boundaries—North versus South with skirmishes along the borders—this war would pit neighbor against neighbor. Those who would want to harm you would be everywhere: on your street, at work, in your church, in the malls, and in the hardware and grocery store. In the unforeseen brutality of such a war, all lives would be imperiled: mine and my wife and two children; yours and your wife and two children.

Be careful what you wish for.

In these past few years, I have witnessed a side of you that I never knew existed. As Army brats growing up on Army posts in the 1960s and 70s, we grew up in one of the most pluralistic communities in America. Back then, our elementary classes were models of the promise of American multiculturalism. We grew up in the same place. We went to the same school. Our fathers had the same employer. How did we turn out so different? Where did the hate come from? I am convinced it comes from a media that relentlessly pits Whites against Blacks and against people of other ethnicities. To you, people asking to be treated fairly after centuries of injustice and oppression are reason enough for a call to arms. In an indifferent and oftentimes blind and deaf nation, they only want to be seen and heard. “We are Americans, too!” is their protest mantra. And although our nation long ago abandoned the idea that only landed White men can vote, you applaud the recent attempts by some states to strip people of color of their voting right, while no one is trying to take away or impede yours—a middle-aged, White, male, conservative. Can’t you see how racist that is? Can’t you see how un-American it is? America does not belong to a single group, be it ethnic, political, or religious.

JS Letter 2

(Civil Rights march 1960s)

Republican leaders increasingly and openly call for violence and Holy War. “The democrats must be destroyed or else you won’t have a country anymore!” they scream. “Trial by combat!” another one shouts under the false belief that might makes right. Some political figures have called for armed “Shock Troops”—akin to Hitler’s Storm Troopers—to seize government offices at gunpoint. Ads of one politician show her pointing an assault rifle at the heads of democrats—all women of color, while another posts a Christmas card of her entire family—children included— holding assault rifles. What do you think the message is? In such a poisonous media, every democrat is a communist or socialist or atheist who hates God and wants to outlaw religion and take away your guns and every freedom.

I am a democrat. I am liberal.  I am for none of these things. I am not your enemy.

In recognition that there are two sides to every argument, I’ve struggled to understand your viewpoint and your attraction to conspiracies. I’ve listened in despair as you defend the news you read as the only true news and all others as “fake news.” With a nervous laugh, I try to change the subject to more benign topics. Can’t you see that the information you consume has an agenda? Getting at the truth is not part of it. Your trusted news sites haven’t even reported that the recent re-counts and “audits” found that not only did Biden win in those contests, but he won by even more votes than originally counted and that no fraud was discovered that could have changed the outcome. Neither have they reported that Trump’s lawyer told him to just lie and say he won, regardless of the truth. “Lie enough and the people will believe you.” And you probably haven’t heard that Trump’s own legal team and his hand-picked Attorney General told him that there was no fraud and that he lost fair and square. His own director of national cybersecurity reported that the 2020 election was the most fair and secure in American history. Every state in America certified their elections as true and accurate. I bet you haven’t heard that Trump’s election lawyers admitted that they had no evidence of fraud whatsoever when they announced at a news conference that election fraud was rampant. In her defense, one of Trump’s lawyers stated in a deposition that her public comments about election fraud were so preposterous that no sane person should have believed her. But she was an attorney for the president. Of course people listened. You listened. You railed about election fraud and about how someone cast an illegal vote for a dead woman. I bet you never heard that it turned out the husband did it in order to cast an extra vote for Trump. He was arrested. You cling to the “Big Lie” even though court after court across the land, including the US Supreme Court, dismissed every case as frivolous. Republican-sanctioned fraudit after fraudit confirmed that Trump lost in those battleground states. Because of a bruised ego, Trump would not concede the loss, and so he and his allies planned and incited a violent insurrection against the United States of America in an attempt to overturn the election so that he could hold on to power.  People died as a result. Over a hundred police officers were injured. Can’t you see that it’s wrong to forcibly take over the government simply because you don’t like the results of an election? Violently imposing your opinions on others is not democracy. Governing can’t be the nihilism of all or nothing. Even as children on the playground we were taught to share and co-operate and that no one gets everything their way all the time. We were taught about sportsmanship and honesty and about standing up to bullies. I know. I stood up to the boys who bullied you when we were children. It seems to me that you’ve forgotten all those lessons we learned about how to live in a society.

You never question the sources of what you read or view. You have no filter. You exist in a bubble of lies and deceit. With each anxious click, analytical echo chamber algorithms take you deeper down the social media rabbit hole of divisive hate speech, racism, nationalism, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Never once do you question how dangerous what you read is to our society and our democracy or how the social media companies profit by keeping you engaged and enraged, thereby earning more money from advertisers. They profit from your anxiety. Never once do you question the motives of politicians who condone violence against fellow Americans while lining their pockets with donations from the fear they stoke. The greatest peril to any free society is ignorance. I suspect, like millions of others, you will believe in the lies until you can no longer explain them away. Too many people believe that the greatest disgrace is to admit to a changed mind. But only a fool would cling to idiocy.

Just the other day during our first phone call in half a year, we were talking about the deaths of over 800,000 Americans from Covid-19 when you said if someone had told you five years ago that American businesses would shut down all because of a “little flu” you wouldn’t have believed it. You said that even as hospitals in your state are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, 95% of which chose to be unvaccinated. But I say if someone told me five years ago that thousands of republicans would wage a violent insurrection against the United States Capitol simply because their candidate lost an election fair and square, I wouldn’t have believed it. You told me that democrats need to control their emotions, but I can’t erase from my mind the twisted, hateful, and bloodthirsty expressions on the faces of the insurrectionists as they beat Capitol police officers with the American flag and called for the murder of politicians. To a person, indicted insurrectionists have told judges that they “Just got caught up in the emotions of the moment.”

JS Letter 3

Doesn’t our individualism allow for our differences? Must I like the same things you like? Must I believe the same as you believe? Must I vote for the same politicians you vote for? Isn’t that what makes America great? Isn’t that what democracy is: that we Americans abide by the decision of the majority of votes and that the losers accept the loss and concede and try again another day? One party can’t have it only their way. That’s not democracy.

It has become so simple for you to say that you and those like you are righteous and patriotic, and that I and those like me are evil anarchists and enemies of the state. But I love this country as much as you do . . . even more. I took the oath to protect and defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. You never did. Are you certain you know who your enemy is? Is there even an enemy? Are you certain you would be the “Good Guy” as you harm neighbors who have done nothing to you? In their reckless hatred of the Other, hooded Klansmen called themselves “Patriots” and said they were “Saving America.” They too thought they were the “Good Guys.”

Perhaps America’s real enemies are the politicians and talking heads who incite you to violence so they can take and keep power. They say power corrupts. We democrats want what every American wants: to have opportunities to succeed in life, to have equality, security, and the freedom and happiness that the Constitution promises, which includes the hope that we can live in peace and harmony. We are not your enemies. Like you, we want to live our lives without fear of our neighbors. The path you are on is dark and ominous. But it’s not too late to step off and set aside our differences in order to work together to create a bright future full of hope and optimism for all Americans, for our children and grandchildren. Examine the source of your anger. Turn away from the sources that fuel your anger. I am not your enemy. I love you as a brother. I love your family. But I don’t know who you are anymore. I no longer trust you to be temperate and rational, to know the difference between right and wrong, or reality from conspiracy. Trust is everything in friendship. Increasingly, I’m afraid of the harm you might do in the name of a lie. In all my life, I never imagined a future in which you might want to harm me or my family. But nowadays, it seems a possibility.


JSmelcer 4

John Smelcer is the inaugural writer-in-residence of the Charter for Compassion, the world’s most comprehensive compassion movement promoting peace, nonviolence, religious tolerance, social justice, and environmental stewardship. Aside from a Ph.D., he studied literature at Oxford and Cambridge and world religions at Harvard. He is the author of over sixty books, including Enacting Love: How Thomas Merton Died for Peace (July 2022).

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