Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011 | 2 a.m.
We don’t need to be a kinder, gentler nation. We already are. What we need to be is a little smarter.
Americans, for the most part, are good and decent people. That is the way we see ourselves, that is the way we want to be seen and that is the way others see us. We know the upside of decency and goodness. But, as is always the case with a good upside, there is a downside, too.
In matters foreign, the downside of our being a country that lives by the rule of law and the golden rule is that our enemies know how to take advantage of us. They don’t play by our rules nor are they hampered by such concepts of decency, respect for innocent life and responsible membership in the human family. That’s why we sometimes abhor the necessary things we must do when it is time to enter the fray.
In matters domestic, it is even more difficult to live in the realm of the gentle and the kind. Not only are our laws far more strict in the way we protect our freedom and liberty, but also the opportunity for abuse at the hands of charlatans and crazy people is that much greater.
Witness the horrendous attack in Tucson last weekend in which six innocent Americans were killed, 14 injured and countless thousands of others traumatized by the actions of a person for whom words like paranoid, deranged and crazy help the rest of us understand the action but do nothing to bring peace to those directly affected.
That kind of senseless violence just doesn’t compute well for people who try to believe and want to believe in the goodness of mankind. As a result, we have to be able to put those events into some kind of context so we can carry on with our own lives still believing in the better angels.
I listened to President Barack Obama’s address Wednesday night at the McKale Center at the University of Arizona. I also watched the reactions of the people who had crowded into that hall for a memorial service that honored the fallen and gave hope for those in recovery. From all I could see and hear, the president struck just the right tone and said just the right things to give those people — the folks most directly affected by the tragedy — some reason and perspective as they tried to understand what had happened.
In doing so, President Obama decried those on the political left and right who have been trying to make something more out of these killings than they apparently are, and, in so doing, sought the kind of civility of thought and actions that would honor those who died. In short, he called for the same thing others have been yearning for years — more civility in our public discourse.
At the risk of doing what our president asked each of us not to do, I will contrast his speech Wednesday evening with the self-absorbed, over-the-top reaction that Sarah Palin had just a few hours earlier. Obviously tired of being blamed for the deaths of those innocents in Tucson — yes, there were critics who placed the blame squarely on Palin’s shoulders and Sharron Angle’s, too — the former vice-presidential candidate, who may want to be a presidential candidate, lashed out at those who would cast blame. She did so, though, in a most unusual and, frankly, distastefully thoughtless and self-serving way.
There is no reason to further explain, I will leave that to others. My point is simply to contrast the style and the words of two people who have sought and received attention from the American people. President Obama seeking unity of purpose, on the one hand, and Sarah Palin seeking some personal absolution on the other.
It has been noteworthy and heartening, though, these past few days that politicians on both sides of the aisle have all mouthed the words and thoughts of civility. It is hard to find a politician who doesn’t call for the kind of political dialogue that would befit a nation of kinder and gentler people — although before November it would have been hard to find one who practiced what he is now preaching.
I believe, however, that we are just fooling ourselves if we think those who hold public office automatically will make the changes required and desired by the voters and sought by the president Wednesday.
First of all, our Constitution anticipated a rather raucous and unseemly political dialogue taking place, especially during election season. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, especially when speaking to government, is the best example of that wisdom.
Second, the political scientists among us have proved beyond a shadow of doubt that negative speech, negative advertising and the negative nature of our political discourse actually works when someone is trying to get elected or trying to motivate American public opinion. As long as the reward for outrageous words and pictures (cross hairs over congressional districts when talking to gun owners and the use of “Second Amendment remedies” if the ballot box doesn’t work when talking to the same crowd) is the belief and the reality of winning elections, those who seek public office and those who advise them will act accordingly.
As usual in this country, if the American people want something to change, if we want a more civil society, if we want to show the world and ourselves that being kinder and being gentler will have its rewards, then we have to do it ourselves.
If we want the politicians to act like grown-ups, then we have to let them know we won’t vote for those who act like children. If we want those running for office to find solutions to problems and not create more problems with their divisive rhetoric, then we have to act like adults and punish those who refuse to grow up or grow beyond the name-calling.
And if we want to be able to encourage our children to seek a life of public service — in much the same way as 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green was excited to pursue — then we have to make it safe for them to do so and not create an environment that does the opposite.
In that respect, using words in the political process that exemplify killing, cutting funding for mental health, refusing to accept the fact that bad people with automatic weapons couldn’t possibly have been something our Founding Fathers wanted to protect and, yes, vilifying those who seek public office, is not the way to live a kinder and gentler life. And we do ourselves no good in blaming others (politicians and the media, for example) for allowing that to happen.
In the final analysis, the media wouldn’t print and the politicians wouldn’t say anything that the people of this country didn’t want them to print or say. The fact that we respond so well and so readily — like lemmings — to evil words and evil deeds means that we really don’t want to change.
I am torn in this regard. I don’t want to change when it comes to dealing with foreign enemies. In fact, we could stand to get a whole lot tougher in the way we treat those who want to do us harm.
But on the domestic front? Here I side with President Obama. We can be better, we can act better and we can have better. But first we must insist that we do better ourselves.
Little Christina died while trying to be the kind of American we all want to be when we are children. Somehow, adult Americans have lost sight of that dream, the one she had when she was cut down.
And somehow, and soon, we have to pursue that dream again.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.