United We Stand Divides Us All
A few days ago, I was riding home from work and saw yet another of those nearly ubiquitous "United We Stand" bumper stickers. Now I've never been one for these so-called patriotic displays, preferring to spend my patriotic currency on crazy stuff like voting and speaking out against policies and actions inconsistent with the organizing document of our country (the Constitution). But for some reason on that day, I was particularly struck by the phrase "united we stand."
The way I figured it, most of the people with those stickers on their cars had never really considered the true implications of that statement in this day and age. As a bit of American phraseology, it's almost universally attributed to Abraham Lincoln (who did NOT in fact say it in the speech from which it's widely reputed to have come), in reference to the Union, and whether or not slavery would, or should be allowed to, dissolve said Union.
What Ol' Longshanks actually said was a direct reference to the biblical quotation that "a house divided against itself cannot long stand." His argument was that it wasn't as much a question of which side was right, as it was that civil war was was bad, m'kay? It was about how the Union being so divided on a black-and-white issue like slavery (sorry) was a threat to, well, the unity of the Union. This was not a speech about how everyone should have the same opinions, it was not a speech about defending ourselves from outside threats, and it was not an exhortation to blindly accept the policies of the government. It was a statement of his opinion that the country had to reach (reach,
not blindly accept) an agreement on the issue, or the worst would likely happen.
It's pretty easy to see where "united we stand" (ignoring for the moment that Lincoln appears not to have made the argument in those particular words anyway, negating some of the "patriotic-ness" it might have) might be entirely appropriate when talking about the issue of preserving the country in a time of obviously-impending civil war, but entirely inappropriate in pretty much any context in which it appears today.
When this phrase rears its misattributed head these days--without so much as a hint of what we're to be united about, or to stand against--I think what it's really saying is, "America, love it or leave it." It's a call for all right-thinking people to fall into lock-step because we'll somehow fall to some unnamed thing if we don't. It's also, more subtly, a statement that the car-owner (or doggerel-spouter) feels that folks who don't unite with his or her way of thinking are a threat to the stability of the country. All I'm getting from it is fear-mongering and/or divisiveness, and perhaps a sense that too many people think a quote from a famous person is as good as thinking for yourself.
So let me lay it down: "United We Stand" is not a patriotic statement, it's a political statement, a cudgel to use against those who disagree with the speaker's politics. Threats, even veiled and cloaked as the statement of a great thinker or politician are inappropriate and probably UN-patriotic, given what the Constitution says about how this country's supposed to run. And finally, if a bumper sticker is the best argument you can make, maybe you ought to just sit quietly until you can do better in your own words. You'll likely be happier in the long run, and I assure you that I most definitely will be.
OK. This was a crappy essay, hampered at least in part by the fact that it was originally formulated based on a different theory. I originally thought that the phrase was put into the "Sayings/Inspirational/American" category during the war for independence, when it would have been a totally appropriate statement for a country facing great odds, and in reference to States, not individuals. Asking for unity of purpose within a defensive structure just makes sense. Asking for unity of thought or speech in the populace of a country unchallenged and largely unthreatened as the mightiest power in the world is a totally different thing. See? That would have been better, but I guess the facts will out.
Plus, I was interrupted like a thousand times in the course of writing it.