Obama: A Call for Civility

OK. I’ll admit it. Apparently I’ve reached the stage in life where I can just as easily doze off in front of the TV during a presidential address to the nation as I can while attempting to watch American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. Shameful.

But I managed to catch the replay of O’s talk about the tragedy in Tucson — and its implications for politics and policy in the weeks ahead — when I rolled out of bed as usual around 2:30 a.m. to begin the ritual that gets me on the concrete or treadmill belt long before Mr. Sol opens his eyes.

O’s message was inspirational and impressive. I expect he — and others — were expecting to attend a somber memorial that turned more into a pep rally or celebration.  And I might feel much differently about that type of a venue and crowd reaction if it had been my son or daughter, wife, mother or father, or friend who was killed by that sick fuck on Saturday. But it struck me to be right — and helpful to us as a nation at this point.

For me, here are some of the key points from his prepared remarks:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

And:

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

And:

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life. “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.”

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

While chasing the treadmill belt I heard Chris Wallace on Fox News opine that we have had plenty of teachable moments — including the Oklahoma City bombings, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and now the massacre in Tucson — but as a nation we never seem to learn the lesson. And next week we’ll be back arguing about health care, immigration, government spending and so on. I agree with Wallace — but there is a part of me that genuinely hopes he is wrong. That it will be different this time around.

And I believe we learned again last night, that when speaking from the heart Obama is an effective campaigner. Now the question is — can he become an effective leader?

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