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Can We Still “Stick Together” When It Counts?

October 25, 2018


That my mother hated Jews was clear, although why she hated them was one of those shameful mysteries I doubt she could have explained had I asked her. What I heard, growing up, sounded like jealousy and resentment. As a waitress in a catering hall, she would serve at Bar Mitzvah receptions and then come home seething about the amounts of money she imagined the young guest of honor had taken in.

Her resentment was palpable and ugly, and—as resentments do—it said much more about my mother than it did about any of the cracked-voice teens she smiled at through gritted teeth while serving dessert.  Her own German-Irish family had shattered itself with drink, greedy bickering, and capricious marriages. Stalled on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and keenly aware of all she did not have or would never accomplish, I doubt it ever occurred to her that what she was really resenting was precisely what had gone missing from her life: a sense of identity, communal trust, and support. “Those Jews really stick together,” she would rant, never pausing to consider how the pogroms and ashes of not-distant history were the costly components of so strong a glue.

When my mother served Bar Mitzvahs, she encountered doting parents, stable families of sober purpose, curious minds possessed of a singular identity, thirsting for education and determined to transcend the pain and deprivations of their past. All she could manage to see, however, was entitlement, privilege and grasping ambition, avarice and arrogant insularity.

Missing in all of that—or perhaps subconsciously feeding her hate—was the realization that rich or poor, educated or not, Jews would “stick together,” that they had each other’s backs because a people that has repeatedly faced slavery and threats of genocide will tend toward insularity. They had honed those tools and weapons—in this case education and prudent economics—that they had found to be both valuable and portable. 

Had her interest in her Irish roots gone beyond a willful embrace of hell-raising stereotypes, she might have found a similar emphasis in that history—with stealthy hedge teachers subverting suppressive penal laws to educate, and working immigrants sharing their bounty to bring others out of poverty. I wonder if, had she been more aware of the tribulations and perseverance of her own people’s culture, she might have identified more charitably with the Jews.

Somehow I doubt it. “They stick together” is the complaint of those who feel both excluded and threatened, and it is a sedimentary sentiment; it sinks to one’s depths.

Though the specter of anti-Semitism has diminished (but not been made extinct), it distresses me how often Americans level complaints against each other in the same manner as my mother did against Jewish people.

The haves and have-nots are watching each other with distrust, each saying “they stick together”—and the resentment mounts. As identity politics has come to the fore, things have only gotten worse. Distrust is rampant and everywhere the barricades are rising: among economic classes, races, age groups; between believers and secularists; and (perhaps most troublingly) among political partisans. 

Particularly if one spends any time on social media, one gets the impression that from class to class, community to community, few are capable of assuming good faith, or of reaching out to others in that assumption. 

As headlines moved yesterday from migrant caravans to the possibility of bombs being sent through the mail and directed toward politicians, a friend texted me, “I wish the former presidents would come out and make some kind of statement urging political tolerance.” She said she truly missed the time when people could disagree with each other without denouncing—without immediately resorting to simplistic caricature, or making kneejerk reductionisms that completely lose sight of individual human beings. “I miss the days when you could disagree politically with someone without being called a racist right-winger or a crazy lefty socialist.”

Younger people may have no memory of such a time because we have been trending toward such division for decades. Is it possible that the seeming comity of the past political eras was mere illusion? It did feel real. 

Either way, there is a sense in America that only one more line need be crossed before everything falls apart. 

The “great experiment” that has been America is looking a bit rocky, perhaps because we barely know ourselves anymore. And that’s troubling, because what nation can be sustained without a sense of itself as a people? Churchill identified the British as “our island race.” The French have decreed that a percentage of popular music must reflect the Gallic language and culture. Just try to tell Italians to take down their Marian shrines because they might give offense. It would outrage their sense of themselves as a people. But for America (the only nation, Chesterton noted, to be “founded on a creed”), it’s become hard to imagine what can still bring us together in common identity. 

In 2001, just weeks after the attacks of 9/11, we saw baseball provide one such expression of a shared national character. At Yankee Stadium, in the first game played after nearly a month of grief and loss, there was a powerful, palpable sense that even if we disagreed with each other, we were still cohesively together—that as a nation we still had each other’s backs. Too often when I think back to that event, I wonder if we could replicate it in similar circumstances now. And I have my doubts. 

But I don’t wish to be negative. Somewhere, between the weak dilution of a melting pot and a toxic concentration of singularity is the recipe by which e pluribus unum may yet thrive. That formula exists in the idea of community—but of communities not gated against each other and sunk into themselves but reaching outward. 

 “Sticking together” is not a bad thing—collectively shared interests can do much good from the place of strength they establish. But truly strong communities are the ones that can work with others and regroup as needed in order to “stick together” and responsibly serve the least among us; “stick together” to reform and charitably restore the worst among us; “stick together” to praise and emulate and promote the most diligent and honorable among us.

This is how self-segregated communities begin to acquire a shared sense of identity with others, and a measure of power born of such cohesion. Once they get to working together, these communities become an organism that says: This is who we are; these are our strengths and our weaknesses; we are looking out for each other because that’s how we look after the nation, which is still ours, all of ours, all the time. 

If our own Church, which is itself experiencing a bit of a divided moment, can manage to still reach out to each other, community by community, and share the name “Catholic,” there is a sense that Americans can do the same. In this way, a people become what they are called to be, whether as a legislative body, or a minority community, or a church, or a law enforcement unit, or a movement. Then, informed with that hard-won self-knowledge, they become together a people-in-full.