Long story short: in the Icelandic epic Njal saga Brennu, the nobleman Gunnar is betrayed by his fellows and exiled from Iceland. In one of the proudest moments of Icelandic literary heritage, Gunnar is thrown from his horse, sees the bucolic beauty of his farmstead, and decides to stay in his home. To the death, if necessary. America needs more Gunnars.
What Nordic lore has to do with our present state of affairs is this: the intensifying hesitation of Americans to engage in the political process is slowly but surely crippling political progress. In a decay greatly accelerated by the recent election, the cooperation and civility once prized in a healthy system of government has given way to ruthless and unexamined partisanship. The sacrifice of character to party interests, the borderline vulgarity of public discourse, and even allegations of foreign sabotage have shaken confidence in the place we call home.
The central issue is this: what do we owe a nation that we feel is no longer our own?
On the one hand, there is the old path: ever more partisanship, and ever more distrust. The political tremors of the past year, let alone the past eight, inform even the casual observer that in America there is a Right and a Left and nothing in between. For the Republicans, Merrick Garland’s greatest sin was being a Democrat. For the Democrats, Neil Gorsuch’s greatest sin was being a Republican. Do you call my people the 47 Percent? Then I’ll call yours A Basketful of Deplorables. And we all know how well that works.
This is perhaps the most childish moment in American political history. We let our petty partisanship blind us to the reality that, when all the votes are counted, someone will bear the result. Heaven forbid that a sensible policy—no, any policy—originate with the opposing party, because it is earmarked for resistance and revulsion. Of course there are matters in which there is a clear right and a clear wrong. But there is nothing right and everything wrong in insisting that whatever I do not believe in must be bad, full stop. Republicans want tax cuts to bring manufacturers back to America; or should someone in the Rust Belt stay on welfare for a little while longer? Democrats want more humane immigration reforms; or is it better for human beings to die of thirst in the desert?
A Republican sits in the White House. Should we deadlock any progress, because he’s “Not My President?”
What we need now more than ever is a new path: a dedication to doing what it was right, for human beings who deserve what is right; a dedication to working with others, and not against them, so long as we both want what is best. Where is the righteous passion that drove Freedom Summer? College students of every possible background were outraged by rights abuses, boarded southbound buses in droves, faced injury and death to help people they had never met—and yet we do nothing, oppose everything, do not offer solutions, give only empty defiance, because he’s Not My President?
Of course, there is only so much we can do; we must finish our time as undergraduates before moving on. But that is no excuse to give up. Being miles and years away from Capitol Hill or K Street or being at odds with the party in power does not resolve us of our responsibility for the future. Do we care about refugees? Volunteer with them. Are we pained by the plight of the urban hungry? Help feed them. Does the lackadaisical money-grubbing of some health and legal professionals sicken us? Train to be better than they ever were. Wrong prevails when good people do nothing and rejoices in dissension.
We must dedicate work toward a better future, in whatever ways that we can; but we must not refuse to work with others toward that goal because they fill out a ballot differently than we do. The 46 percent of Americans who voted Republican in this election will not be going anywhere; neither did the Forty-Seven Percent who were sure to vote Democrat. Are there people in this country who think differently than I do? It is a proud American tradition. Is an idea bad, just because a Republican or Democrat thinks of it? The First Amendment says not.
If we see that the country must be fixed, if we think that it needs remaking, we must do the good work; but we cannot go boldly toward that future and leave one half or the other behind. The “inconvenience” of our republic is that, whenever we move forward, we have a duty to move together. It will never be our-vision-and-nothing-else; it was never meant to be.
So then there is a choice, and that choice is entirely yours. Will you refuse to move toward anything better, because there must be compromise along the way? Or, will you see people as people rather than parties, at least understand what they want, and try to include them in this bold experiment called America?
No one is asking you to jump into Normandy, get on a southbound bus, or burn your draft card. All anyone asks is that you remember why countless people, of your own age, made such sacrifices: so that voices like yours, and like theirs, would at least be heard.
When the hour for action is at hand—and it is—what will you do? Will you turn your back on everyone you could have helped? Or, will you brace yourself, turn into the fray, and do the good work that only you could?
I leave you with this anecdote. After the close of the Constitutional Convention, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin and asked him what kind of government had been made. Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity junior.