Gun Violence, Abe Lincoln, and Pollyanna

June 19, 2017

After last week’s shooting of GOP lawmakers and staff who were practicing for a charity baseball game, I think we can all agree that the divide between left and right, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, progressives and the alt-left, has grown so broad and deep it seems virtually impossible that two people on the opposite sides of the political spectrum can have a civil conversation about anything, including, say, pancakes versus waffles (waffles, by the way), let alone about what’s going on in Washington. Every news item that mentions President Trump, Congress, policy, or pretty much any aspect of government, is fodder for thousands of tweets, posts, and panels of screaming lunatics on (insert news show of your choice), and way too much of what’s being said is opportunistic and mean.

Too frequently, what passes for “political discourse” is over-the-top, hyperbolic rhetoric that, when squeezed, will produce a nice tall glass of contempt. There’s little respect, or tolerance, for any opinion other than one’s own, and yes, I’m guilty of that. There are too many people who are as convinced that they’re the smartest guy/gal in the room as they are sure that those who disagree with them are too stupid, and too pig-headed, to listen to and accept reason and truth.

I’m guilty of that, too.

But what to do, I wonder, when the stakes are so high, when the conduct of those who govern appears to be creating a legitimate threat to national safety, the fate of all carbon-based lifeforms, and women’s reproductive rights, just to name a few? How to avoid being shrill as violence against Muslims and people of color increases, as the United States, by and through its Commander in Chief, sends the clear message to the people of the world that they’re on their own, thereby undoing years of relationship building, credibility, and leadership? What words are strong enough to effectuate change (and, at the same time, communicate to those outside our borders that not every American supports the policies being enacted by our government), yet not so strident as to be pre-emptively ignored by those for whose ears those words are intended? Is it even possible to say anything that those on “the other side” would be willing to consider – me included?

In other words, how do we communicate with those who have strongly-held opinions that differ from our own? How do we do that when one side believes that anyone who voted for Donald Trump is a de facto racist xenophobic misogynist, while the other side thinks that anyone who doesn’t support Donald Trump is a lazy godless nutcase who hates this country? Smarter and more articulate people than me have said that we have to be more respectful of each other, and that’s a start. Contempt is a big part of it, too: Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book, “Blink,” discusses a study that looked for predictors of divorce, and the number one factor isn’t infidelity or financial problems – turns out, it’s contempt. Stated differently, if a conversation is underpinned by a lack of respect and an abundance of contempt – and that’s pretty much a given as far as political discussions go these days – there’s really no reason to have it in the first place, because no one is listening.

The only thing that has ever changed a person’s mind about an opinion they held to the point of utter certainty, is a shared commonality. Justice Kennedy and Dick Cheney are pretty conservative as things go, but they both have close relatives who are gay, and guess what? Neither one had an objection to marriage equality. A few months go, I posted an excellent article about a man who freely admitted that he used to hate Muslims. His opinions changed drastically when a Syrian family moved in next door and showed him that they weren’t so different, so much so that he babysits their kids and has dinner with them on a weekly basis.

This tells me that if I want people to be open to my thoughts and opinions, I have to find some common ground, and for starters, that means no more name-calling. That’s going to be a tough one, because I don’t happen to have a very high opinion of our president, and, as well, it’s so satisfying to get off a good one. But it has to stop, and it’s going to. That doesn’t mean that I will refrain from criticizing policy with which I passionately disagree (or that I am going to stop being passionate), but I’ll tone down the rhetoric. That’s my pledge. It’s a start.

Next, I’m going to propose that we look for commonality. I’m unlikely to find too many Republicans who will agree with me on healthcare, but here are some things I think we can all get behind:

  1. Pizza.
  2. Pizza.
  3. Koala bears.
  4. Pizza.

Okay, there’s more:

  1. Will McAvoy’s brilliant speech on the first episode of “The Newsroom” notwithstanding, the United States of America is in fact the greatest nation on earth.
  2. Our government, as conceived by our founding fathers, is, simply put, brilliant.
  3. When we get hit, we come together like nobody’s business. Remember how nice we all were to each other after 9/11? We have a tremendous capacity to love and support and share and give of ourselves. That goes for Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Socialists and Independents and the Green Party…it’s who we are.
  4. Russia trying to infiltrate our country – however they may or may not be doing it – isn’t cool, and we should all be concerned if that’s what’s happening, regardless of who may or may not be facilitating it.
  5. Pizza.

There’s a reason people want to come to America, and it has something to do with the shared sense of freedom and opportunity and doing the right thing. We don’t always get it right, and there are too many people in our country who are hurting right now, but we are a nation of people who love this country so thoroughly, so vigorously, so passionately, that we are willing to lose friendships over it – except that’s not good, either. So stop doing that.

We need to become what the name of our country says we are – the United States of America. Not black and white, rich or poor, Christian or Jew or Muslim, Republican or Democrat. Yes, we should celebrate our diversity, but we have to start acting like brothers and sisters. We just have to. We really, really just have to.

My favorite movie of all time is “Pollyanna.” Yeah, it sucks that her parents died and she never had a doll and her aunt is kind of a bitch and she falls out of a tree, but she nevertheless brings the whole town together. She shows them how to look for the silver lining and teaches them the Glad Game. She gets Reverend Ford on her side when she says that “no one owns the church,” and she shares with him the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln: “If you look for the bad in people, expecting to find it, you surely will.”

Let that sink in for a moment. (Every time you forget how incredible Abraham Lincoln was, something reminds you, and you say, “damn, that man was a genius.”)

And so everyone in town starts looking for the best in everyone else, and they rally together to build a new orphanage where the kids don’t get burned or drowned or electrocuted (something we can all get behind), and Aunt Polly and Dr. Childers rekindle their love, united in their resolve to help Pollyanna get better, and Mr. Tarbell stands up to Mrs. Tarbell, and Nancy and George get Aunt Polly’s blessing to get married, and then Reverend Ford sums it all up when he says to Pollyanna, as she’s being taken to the train station to go to Baltimore to get an operation so she can walk again (yeah, that actually happens), “We looked for the best in them, and we found it.”

Let’s start looking for the best in our fellow man, and maybe we’ll all come together and everything will be better. Hell, what with my newfound love of pruning, I’ll even fall out of a tree if it would help.

We are all Americans. We all bring something to the table. I love you all. Let’s make things better.

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