Syria’s collapse into ethnic and religious civil war carries with it lessons for the United States perhaps far more important than current missile-launch debates.
Two lessons are critical:
- Segregated societies can be divided easily, just as Syria is being torn between Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Kurds and other religious sects in their different geographic strongholds.
- Politicians who exploit divisions, or fail to heal wounds of divisions, can quickly turn nations into bleeding grounds.
After substantial advances toward racial integration in recent generations, progress has halted in many parts of America and even moved toward re-segregation in many regions by race, ethnicity and, recently, language.
Syria reminds us that we need to answer different questions beyond those being debated today in order to create a more unified society. Following are six questions particularly worthy of introspection and debate:
- How can we ensure that children are exposed to and build relationships with children from a variety of backgrounds at an early age and throughout their schooling to build cross-cultural relationships? Sports, religion, community service and other activities have traditionally played roles in providing social interaction beyond immediate geography. Not enough of this intermingling occurs today. Why don’t we recast public schools to include more internet-based learning with classes created from a variety of districts? Can we change instruction templates so students from various schools gather regularly to work on full-day learning projects, developing friendships outside their home geography?
- What shared experiences, beyond military service, should exist to provide young adults with integrating experiences that enable them to build lifelong cross-cultural friendships? In prior generations, military service created a unifying experience for people from a wide range of backgrounds, but the percentage of Americans with military experience continues to drop. The stimulus bill could have been used to bring people from all walks of life together to work on public service projects, gaining a shared sense of sacrifice and accomplishment. Though that didn’t happen, many long-term government programs could be redesigned with this added objective. Accomplishing this will require creativity not in wide display today.
- How do we expose adults to the different challenges faced in different environments, helping to build empathy for the perspectives of others? Our media have a dramatic opportunity to improve here, but government leaders, particularly the President, need to lead the way. Rather than seeking to win through division, including falsely presenting the views of their political opponents, elected officials need to take responsibility for unifying our nation (yes, I realize this sounds ridiculously naïve, but political reforms could help elect more of these type of people). The media need to stop rewarding segregators with excessive coverage, particularly those media outlets using divisiveness to build their own niche audiences. There are also vast social media issues in need of new solutions. It’s clear to me that division drives social media forums more than fact-based problem solving.
- How do we create a political redistricting system that takes race and political party completely out of district alignment decisions? I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but it’s inexcusable that we don’t have districts drawn by computers starting with a randomly selected starting location to create the most compact, contiguous districts possible without the influence of race or political party. We can’t create a race-neutral society without race-neutral political geography.
- At what point do race-based organizations such as historically black colleges have to move toward racial neutrality to assist in societal integration? An administration spokesman recently said President Obama had a “bias” toward historically black colleges and universities, a statement that would have been widely condemned if made by any prior recent President toward a white-identification group. When looking at issues and events, it’s important to alter the ethnic or racial identification of people involved and consider whether the statement, issues or outcome still look the same. I don’t know the answer here, but believe the question requires discussion.
- How do we ensure our nation continues to respect religious diversity, but doesn’t allow one religion to impose its will on another, or government to unnecessarily impose its will on the religion? When government programs seek to force individuals to act against their moral beliefs, we create the conditions for a religion able to build a majority or at least a winning coalition to impose its morals on others through government. Our founding fathers created a nation “under God” but made clear they did not want a national religion to impose its views on all Americans. Religion should be allowed to attract converts, not force conversion or – as we see in Syria and many other parts of the Middle East – eliminate the unconverted. Government mandates that contradict religious convictions require great caution. Those forced to act against their beliefs see such requirements as similar in impact to a forced conversion.
The debate about Syria today is over whether or not the U.S. should intervene in that nation’s civil war. Beyond this debate, the devastation in Syria should also trigger debates in the United States about how we create a society with enough integrating points, and respect for those of different backgrounds, that we can’t be so easily torn apart ourselves.