It all depends on how you look at it. That’s what a friend was saying about how the telling of history shapes the way we see things.
One way of looking at the Watergate period, for example, was that corruption was rampant and the tragedy of the Vietnam War was tearing the nation apart.
But a different way, according to my friend, was to see it as a time when idealism rose up to challenge corruption - idealism among reporters exposing gangsterism in the White House and idealism among protesters resisting the lies of the war.
Lately, the policy of grabbing children at the Mexican border may be subject to divergent views of the same sort. For most of us, the policy, before it was changed, was an occasion for outrage and despair, underscoring the inhumanity of the current administration.
Then again, people’s outrage may be seen as a sign of the humanity and idealism of a broad cross-section of the American people. In this case, the outrage has forced the president to retreat. According to one columnist, President Trump now seems to be made of papier-mache.
There are other divergent views at work here. For the 30 percent who remain stalwart Trump supporters, the snatching of children is no outrage at all. It’s the toughness needed to curb a dangerous flood of illegal immigration.
From within the anti-Trump bubble of Vermont, it’s hard to grasp that people genuinely believe that. But one author, Arlie Russell Hochschild, spent years of research in Louisiana, trying to understand the mindset of people in Trump country.
There were paradoxes at work - people who knew they were being poisoned by polluting industries but who also opposed federal regulation - within their world, their views made sense. It was important to be tough, to be willing to stand up for one’s values. They resented the high-minded preachments of liberals and Northerners.
Congressman Peter Welch returned from the border in Texas last week, where he viewed what he called the “appalling” imprisonment of hundreds and hundreds of children. But he had sympathy also for the dedicated federal workers charged with carrying out the policy - good people who were also appalled at what they were being forced to do.
A complex story is being written each day in this country, and the decency of the people is playing a part - which is important to remember - amid the outrage and despair.