America has long spoken the dulcet tones of intelligence and civility. But, in recent times, we’ve lost sight of them and our ear to hear them.
After enduring last week’s histrionics culminating in the second Presidential debate, I felt physically ill. So I uncorked a bottle of Chateau Montelena and stayed online looking for some reminder that our country’s best days are yet to come. I’m glad I did because while browsing I found a video with a whopping 56 views. It turned out to be a two-minute video of my father—a physician, a one-time immigrant, a veteran, a proud American. An American who has used Facebook twice (that I’m aware of) in eight years, yet somehow managed to find his son looking for inspiration on YouTube.
This unlikely virtual father-to-son connection was a much-needed reminder that Americans do still speak with poise and civility. But civility and quiet patriotism don’t make for headlines that bait clicks or boost ratings.
As Americans, we’re used to that. From the second sons of disgraced English aristocracy who arrived in the Old Dominion then spread south onto large plantations, to the Protestant Reformers and Catholics who marked the first groundswell of immigration to the northern colonies, our history is rooted in the unwanted underdog. Whether slave, indentured servant, or Irish potato famine survivor, we are a country built by people willing to endure hardship with grace in the hope of something better. Never so cultured as the European elite, we gathered our strength from one another. And we did it well. The bonds that cemented the people of this new Republic made even haughty French intellect De Tocqueville jealously yearn for a country such as ours.
So, where did it go all of a sudden? Replaced it seems with a level of toxicity and visceral hate unknown in modern American memory.
Watching the Presidential debates and news from China, along with hundreds of millions of Chinese, the issue of abject disrepair, violence, and economic malaise in America’s inner city struck home. My father says without compunction that he is a product of “Affirmative Action.” Yet, as one listens to him, it strikes home the fact that my father’s understanding of Affirmative Action remains true to the concept’s original legislative and social intent. A policy created with bipartisan support where law would provide eminently qualified persons entry into workplaces and educational institutions where for myriad historical reasons they previously could not go. It was a real solution to a real problem. That was 45 years ago.
Back then, this was a policy most Americans, despite the complex issue of race, could agree on; it remains an issue that, when polled from its original context, most Americans still agree on today. To hear Dad speak of his country with sincere gratitude, and to hear him do it in that ephemeral, civil, American tone, warmed me. It is a tone I have heard before, a tone that from Roosevelt and Hoover, Eisenhower and Adlai, MLK and LBJ, Mondale and Reagan, always remained. The tone of self-governed civility; until recently, rarely abrogated. And when abrogated, it was the exception, not the rule. But what we have witnessed over the last 16 months is something altogether different. Something that risks squandering two-and-a-half centuries of incremental steps toward forming a more perfect union. Indeed, it begs the eternal question of whether a government “so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” This sea change in American civil discourse is not some trending topic; it is a national emergency. Gentility. Civility. Honor. Legacy. Where have they gone?
Even in the age of Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, we must hold fast to civil tongues as the last bastion of old-fashioned habit. We must demand it of our office seekers, elected leaders, and ourselves. Civilized self-discipline is as much a part of our national heritage as Lady Liberty, Peach Cobbler, and Apple Pie.
If we can understand how this almost total corrosion in our ability to vehemently disagree without being vehemently disagreeable happened, we may look askance years from now at this tweet-from-the-hip, shoot-from-the-lip era and ask, “What the hell were we thinking?” We dismantled the Republic!
How did America go tone deaf? When did we forget or stop caring that the world is watching? When did the cords of common bond and trust that hold a self-governed people together fray to the point of breaking? Fine cords composed of nothing but the degree to which a free people are willing to keep talking, to continue compromising with people whom we sometimes vehemently disagree. This, the very essence of self-government. Coup d’état is not an alternative in America; a corporatist autocracy (though perhaps on the horizon) or splitting into smaller more homogeneous states is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. So we are left with the civil exercise of communicating and compromising with our political opponents. It is our solemn bond, and it goes further than that. We must be willing to give all, up to and including our lives for people whose ideas may differ but whose belief in the value of a free Republic on the American continent are shared to their core. If and when we lose that shared faith as a community, we will have lost the Republic.
So yes, even in the age of Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, we must hold fast to civil tongues as the last bastion of old-fashioned habit. We must demand it of our office seekers, elected leaders, and ourselves. Civilized self-discipline is as much a part of our national heritage as Lady Liberty, Peach Cobbler, and Apple Pie.
Let the politicians keep their slogans. No doubt, we are stronger together and we most certainly can make America great again, but only if we choose to be intelligent and civil. It’s reached the barrel dregs, folks. It is our solemn duty as informed citizens to lift our politicians (and ourselves) out of this infernal verbal gutter. We must again speak and listen with mutuality and empathy. We must dismiss misogyny, xenophobia, and duplicitousness from all serious dialogue, real or virtual. And while it’s pretty clear we aren’t too happy with the choices on the menu, we shall have to make one.
And so I’d like to thank my father for reminding me, as only he can, that the invective-laced, misogynistic, xenophobic shouting match that social media has goaded us and our politicians into engaging is as daft as it is damaging.