As John McCain's election prospects dim, and his campaign relies on fear-mongering and name-calling bordering on inciting violence, and even voter suppression tactics borrowed from the Jim Crow era, it is clear we are back to the cultural crossroads we faced in the early 1960s: do we choose to be the nation of Bull Connor, who became the symbol of the stand against Civil Rights, or the object of his wrath, Martin Luther King?
Bull Connor's America was much like the right today. There was chest-thumping patriotism (or at least regional pride) and loud claims to be superior to every other races and culture while at the same time committing the most brutal acts of violence against those simply demanding that we live up to our own stated ideals. But to the Bull Connors, equality, due process, and democracy were the rights of only a certain tribe not all who were born or live here. Even the sanctity of one's own body and right to life belonged only to the tribe, and the people outside the tribe could be used for labor, sex, or even killed at the whim of the tribe.
That same hypocrisy at home led to even worse hypocrisy abroad--if our businesses needed something a country had, the government of that country damn well better give it to them on terms the business dictates, or we will take it by force and install a government that knows who's the boss. "They" are not part of "us," so they have no rights we need to worry about.
Bull Connor's America is how the world had worked for most of human history: those who had an edge in population, technology, or wealth used it to crush others and take what they pleased.
It is how the Bush administration worked as well. The rich and powerful took what they pleased, our jobs, our houses, our pensions, our tax dollars to bailout their cronies after their Wall Street scams collapsed, the lives of our children in a war to take from the Iraqis. All the while they claimed poverty when we asked for money for our schools, health care for everyone, or at least decent treatment for our injured troops.
Those who dissented too loudly weren't met with fire hoses and dogs (those were saved for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib), but we were watched, wiretapped, infiltrated, placed on lists to be stopped at the airport, corralled in "free speech zones," and if we had a high enough profile that people would listen to what we said, retaliated against and fired from our jobs.
Most of us suddenly found that we were outside of the tribe. We had become black in Bull Connor's America.
On the other side of the divide back then was Martin Luther King's America that thought the ideals in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence should be applied to all, and that our tribe is mankind, and that those ideas could triumph not by force but by stepping forward and claiming what was promised, and trusting that enough people believed the ideals that they would see the hypocrisy when the Bull Connors tried to take it back by force.
And MLK's America won.
At least at home. When he tried to extend his dream to what we did in the rest of the world, he was shot.
Today we have descended back to that primal conflict: are we a nation of ideals or a nation where the strong take what they want from the weak, where we mouth platitudes about democracy then enforce conformity with rubber bullets and tasers?
The saddest thing about this divide is that many of those who have chosen the Bull Connor side think they are part of the privileged tribe.
They are not.
At best, they are like the slaves the master appoints as overseer of other slaves, maybe given a nicer cabin, better food, and a shot of whiskey, but once the master's gambling debts get too high (or these days their last Wall Street scam collapses), they will be sold down the river with the rest of the slaves.
In the same way, those who go to Palin rallies shouting that they ought to kill the blue-lipped socialist terrorist monkey, go home to read their credit card and medical bills they can't possibly pay, wonder how they are going to avoid foreclosure now that that balloon payment on their mortgage has kicked in, and how they will ever be able to get out from under all of it when the only job they can find is selling corn dogs at the mall food court. But they will never wonder why their POW action figure and Caribou Barbie won't fix it because those slaves think they belong to the masters family.