Affliction or affection? Our civic choice is a fundamental one

As long as we share a commitment to our tried-and-true American values, we can work through the constant rebalancing that is required for us to remain one people. Trust, friendship, shared beliefs – the bonds of civic affection – can feed that rebalancing, Charlyne Berens writes.


It doesn’t look as if America will be experiencing a civil war anytime soon. Obviously, we are deeply divided along some ideological fault lines, and, granted, we had a major scare when a bunch of crazies invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

But the collective reaction to that extreme act was, generally: What in the name of the red-white-and-blue was THAT about? It was an aberration, we concluded, not the start of a shooting war.

So, we are likely to remain one nation.

On the other hand, the tectonic plates that support America as a people could continue to slip apart. Could we be one nation with one Constitution and a unitary role on the international scene and not be one American people?

To quote Civic Nebraska’s Steve Smith, it is the bonds of civic affection that make us one people. And those bonds could use some shoring up.

Research indicates that Americans value equity, efficiency, security, welfare, and liberty. Of course, none of those exists in a vacuum. Each must be balanced with all the others, and sometimes those balances shift, depending on people’s needs and on individual and collective circumstances.

Frequently, for instance, we trade a little liberty for what we see as necessary security. Sometimes we trade the general welfare for efficiency, the need to just get something done. Now and then equity gets neglected in the name of individual liberty.

But as long as we share a commitment to all of those values, we can work through the constant rebalancing that is required for us to remain one people. Trust, friendship, shared beliefs – the bonds of civic affection – can feed that rebalancing.

Those bonds and the resulting “peoplehood” are never more prominent than when Americans reach out to help those suffering from a disaster. We pour money and supplies into a community devastated by a flood. We show up by the droves to help those whose homes were destroyed by a tornado or a fire. We donate record amounts to food banks when thousands lose their jobs thanks to a pandemic.

On all those occasions, we are a “people,” helping heal a part of the collective body. Ideological divisions don’t matter; political disagreements take a back seat. We, the people, do what needs to be done, flexing and strengthening the bonds of civic affection.

Now, we need to preserve that same spirit for the “small” things by recognizing that the ties that bind us together in a disaster also bind us in the day-to-day. We may not agree on the best way to balance equity with liberty or welfare with efficiency in a given case.

But because we are bound together as a people, we can figure it out together – with respect and friendship and relying on our fundamental shared beliefs.

Don’t expect that we will ever sing in unison, nor should we. But think of the harmony we can produce as we join our disparate pitches and timbres into the voice of the people. Sometimes off-key, sometimes dissonant, we are – still – the people. We are America.

Charlyne Berens is an author and retired professor and associate dean of the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications. She also spent 14 years as editor and co-publisher of the Seward County Independent.

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