Why we're free -- at least for now

Posted: Nov 21, 2000 12:00 AM
"It could be worse,'' as the guy dangling by his fingertips from the 47th story window ledge observed. "At least it's not raining.'' Thanksgiving 2000 -- given our thunderous presidential perplexities -- could be a whole lot worse. -- Not every democratic flack -- just some of them, like Chris Lehane of the Gore campaign and Alan Dershowitz of the almighty and celestial hah-vahd law school -- pompously debase political discourse, calling Florida's republican secretary of state such names as "crook'' and "commissar.'' -- Internet traffic in Florida jokes has proved that humor and wit surface in the oddest contexts. -- The junior senator-elect from New York is a non-news item save when offering her proposal to help -- she evidently supposes -- fellow Democrats by abolishing the Electoral College. -- The republic stands, despite everything. This is first and foremost, but saving such a matter for last seems fitting. The strength of the republic is what holds everything else together, making it possible to live alongside louts like, say, Messrs. Dershowitz and Lehane. What louts say come under the heading of free speech. Free speech assumes a right of contradiction -- a right that is fully in play this Thanksgiving. Our republican form of government, likewise, is a stitch work of protections -- not least against government itself. I write not knowing something urgent -- how the Florida Supreme Court will decide the matter of the chads and the recounts, and the cabalistic interpretation of same. Nonetheless, I write with no expectation whatever of seeing barricades in the streets, French-style, on Thanksgiving Day. Barricades we don't do in this country, save for road repairs. Barricades would contravene the tradition initiated here, going on four centuries ago, with the Mayflower Compact and the establishment of English freedoms, English rights and English political institutions. Our Englishism keeps us free to this day. Hooray! Happy Thanksgiving! It makes sense to think on these things right now because our essential comity as a nation has been well-hidden these past few months. The anger just below the surface during the presidential campaign -- much of it ignited by President Clinton -- has spilled over, coincident to our new acquaintance with chads and the nakedness of particular political ambitions. My own views on these matters are known; anyway, I have taken no care to hide them. I feel no obligation to dish them up with the mashed potatoes and gravy. We need a truce for a few moments at least. We need peace. Peace, lasting peace, is founded on the observance of rules. Rules are not enormously popular in the 21st century, because, instead of giving scope to self-expression, they seem to squeeze it by the windpipe. That is not quite the case. We vote on our rules here. Those we like, we adopt; those we don't, we don't. Thus self-expression works, when allowed to work. The Austro-Hungarian empire, a relaxed and amiable place in most respects, never had such arguments as we have all the time. The Austro-Hungarian empire has been gone, nevertheless, since 1918, and we endure. There are reasons for this, not the least of which is our national capacity for absorbing differences. That same capacity is being tested as Thanksgiving 2000 rolls around. Strains upon it are enormous, although precedents are heartening. We have been at this national-family business a long while now, and most of the time it works. But not all the time. There was 1861. We should not bet history cannot repeat itself. Challenge the deepest held values -- no matter whether you think them rightly held and prepare for an explosive reaction. That is what makes our present impasse so nerve-wracking. There are signs that we are no longer one nation but two, divided by culture, outlook and affection. There are further signs that the two nations reciprocally distrust each other. The America of Al Gore and the America of George W. Bush seem ready sometimes to seek separate addresses. But not for at least one Thanksgiving more, during which time there is opportunity to relish the patient, delicate work so many generations put into making us free. Free we remain: thanks to rules, restraints and the great constitutional balancing act. For which let us rejoice -- "big-time,'' as one vice presidential candidate would put it.