I hear a lot of talk about “American Exceptionalism” but I see little progress in living up to that promise. When I walk the streets in most American cities I see boarded up buildings, people sleeping on street corners, and neighbors turning against neighbors. At the same time, I see glistening buildings that touch the sky, opulent shopping, and clean sidewalks. This dichotomy is a manifestation of a slow rot eating away at the foundation of this great nation.
During times of national tragedy leaders, pundits, and others call for us to re-think old paradigms. This is no exception; I believe Saturday’s tragedy in Arizona has driven a wedge into our national consciousness and has given us a short window to address this duality and the violence that it represents.
This is not a time for politics. This is a time for mourning, reflection, and discourse. This tragedy was neither borne of cross hairs on Sarah Palin’s website, Glenn Beck’s rants, or even the Tea Party’s anger; nor can it be undone by simply mitigating our political rhetoric.
The actions of a lone gunman transcend politics and represent something far deeper and more insidious then any single action, statement, or speech by a self-aggrandizing politician or pundit. This tragedy originates from our country’s unwitting acceptance of violence, the scope of which ranges from children maiming their peers in our schools to the violence that originates from fear, hatred, and deception. Bobby Kennedy, in an address after the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks to this violence:
[It is] slower, but just as deadly… as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Our recent national discourse has focused on “toning down” our political rhetoric. While this would represent progress in American politics, it misses the fact that this nation has fostered an environment that allows fear, distrust, and hate to run rampant through our streets. Apathy, division, and acceptance create a climate where these ills can thrive, and it is incumbent upon each of us to change our own attitudes so that this sickness can no longer flourish. It is not easy to talk about the fact that America’s institutions are failing a vast majority of citizens. Nor is it easy to talk about the fear and distrust that has swept the nation over the last few years. There is neither an easy set of policy solutions, nor words that will allow the President and Congress to immediately undo the destruction that has been wrought over years of neglect. Bobby Kennedy suggested over 40 years ago that we must re-engage with one another:
[We must] remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”
Kennedy offered us a roadmap and a plea, in the waning moments of his life, to recognize that “Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
If our nation is to remain great, the wielders of force, fear, and hate must lay down their weapons and remember those who lost their lives in Tucson. In order to end the bloodshed and the slow decay of our society we must accept and recognize that regardless of interests, ideology, race, class, gender, or creed, that those with whom we share this time on earth are our human brothers and sisters. This is about ending the acceptance of violence in our country so that we can end injustice and live up to the promise of our great nation’s exceptional, and humble, beginnings.
This afternoon, in typical Sunday afternoon fashion I found something incredibly trivial to do with my spare time. So, my girlfriend and I went to redbox and rented Milk. It was a great movie, and somewhere in the middle Harvey Milk speaks about the words engraved in the pedastel of the Statue of Liberty. Below is the full poem, I wanted to post it because I think that it truly reflects not only my own ideals and values, but those of our Nation.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” —Emma Lazarus, 1883
The words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” particularly strike me. She is not asking for the best of us, rather she seeks those with the least: she seeks those without education, food, money, shelter, or belongings. I fear that sometimes we – as a people – lose sight of these values. I fear that in the current economic climate that we will retreat into hostile populism and persecute those whom we assign some sort of ambiguous blame.
I fear that in the epitaph of human history that when historians look back to the United States of America that those words – engraved into the Statue of Liberty – will not ring true. It is with this fear in mind that I call on all of my contemporaries to demand statesmanship from those whom we’ve elevated to positions of authority and power. I propose that we demand our legislators to act as facilitators and mediators rather than mouthpieces for the lowest common denominator. Instead of telling or legislators how to vote or what they should do on AIG we should engage with them in a dialogue about the most prudent course of action. Let us find a way to include those of us who may lack in material posessions, but demonstrate a wealth of wisdom and compassion far beyond their educational attainment.
It is my sincere belief that it’s time for us – the electorate, the people – to demand that our representatives speak with us rather than to us. It’s time for us to stop quibbling about how we help those in need of substanance and simply do it. We, as a nation, must commit to one another. This will take time, energy, and struggle but I believe that unless we make the commitment now we will lose our soul in the process.
We have a choice, and it’s not just up to those who work in Washington. It’s up to each of us to re-define how we interact with each other, our government, and our institutions. The time has come for us to cease the talk and move into action. Change will not come without action, and action will not necessarily bring about change. Let us pursue those goals that reflect the poem above, let us take in the poor and the weak. Let us take in those who yearn to be free. Let us raise the torch of liberty higher than ever before for the whole of humanity to see. Let us humbly move forward and cease the frivolous bickering of ideology.
The cynical and those mired in the old paradigm will ask “How should do we do this?” My only response is as simple now as it was during the 1990s when Nike first coined the slogan, “Just do it.”
Funny how the conversation hasn’t changed all that much over the course of 70 or so years.
Take a look at the questions and watch the video (it’s one of my favorites).
Now that we have a new President how are things going to change?
How have things changed in our country over the last 10 – 15 years?
How can each of us be a part of affecting change?
Take a look at the video and then read about some of his accomplishments on his wikipedia entry. In both of these places you will find the story of a great man whose accomplishments have been largely forgotten.
As you watch the video consider the current economic state of the world from the context of Herbert Hoover’s response to the beginning of the Great Depression.