Symbolism, Civility, and Anger in America


“Between the idea and the reality Between the motion and the act Falls the Shadow” – T.S. Eliot

Another day, another violent tragedy, and another outpouring of calls to reject hate. The American homage to civility – for at least a short time – rises above the American hunger for partisan, payback politics. The shooting of Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise, his colleagues and protectors appears to have been driven by political hatred, in this case the Left against the Right. To their credit, leaders of both parties in Congress immediately pledged support to each other, to the importance of unity, and to what George Washington called “the American experiment” in self-government.

We have seen this before. After every major act of America’s self-inflicted wounds, we reaffirm the commitment to civility, to coming together. Such speeches are as predictable as the tragedies that spawn them.

It would be comforting to see the shooting at a Virginia baseball practice as just another aberration, the act of a single, deranged man, part of a fringe political element in our culture. It would also be short-sighted. On the same day, another mass murderer in San Francisco shot dead three of his co-workers over a dispute that apparently had nothing to do with politics.

It would also be comforting – for some – to see both tragedies as the result of America’s gun culture. That would also be short-sighted, mistaking the instrument of violence for the human emotions that led to it. While stronger gun control might reduce senseless murder, it will not reduce hate.

Hatred in America seems a growth industry. Whether encouraged and expressed in political partisanship, workplace animosity, racial divisiveness, gender pride or prejudice, religious intolerance, social media rants, cable and radio talk show story slanting and sarcasm, or road rage, Americans’ obsession with self-righteousness, self-certainty, and self-protection continues to loosen the bonds of emotional self-control.

There are solutions, but they are not in paying temporary homage to coming together. Symbolism does not produce civility. It is a band-aid on national anguish. The work of lowering the temperature of anger in America is much harder.

That work must begin with personal soul-searching, an admission that we each have the responsibility to control ourselves. We must reduce our need to find fault with others, which is easy, and increase our ability to forgive them. Irrespective of what others do or how justified we feel in meeting hate with hate, we must live Gandhi’s statement that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Personal morality must be accompanied by local and national responses. This work is taking place in some communities, but not nationally. Since Martin Luther King, Jr., we have had no one with the legitimacy and statesmanship to call America to its better self. The weakening of major institutions by their moral failures – church, political, government, business, media, financial – since the 1960s has left a void too easily filled by distrust and recrimination. Strengthening these institutions so they can play a productive role in restoring morality and civility to our social life requires public voices and consistent actions that put country above profit, policy and politics. Too many leaders in these institutions have equated legality with ethics, power with justice, persuasion with truthfulness. They have dissociated words from their consequences.

The Republicans vs. Democrats charity baseball game went on, a nice display of resolve and collegiality. How much nicer would it be if all legislators started socializing together again and living with their families in the nation’s capitol so that they come to see each other more as human beings and less as partisan enemies? How much nicer would it be to see a bipartisan effort to end negative campaign ads, rein in the power of big money in politics, and put redistricting on a nonpartisan basis so that the center rather than the extremes can put more people in Congress?

How much better would it be if religious leaders got out of politics and focused instead on the call for personal and public morality to match the moral teachings of their faiths? How much nicer would it be if wealthy business leaders gave much less to partisan think tanks and political campaigns and instead used their wealth to improve education, job training, and social welfare in local communities? How much more useful would it be if cable and radio networks focused on truly informing the public and less on inflaming them for their own profit and sense of self-righteousness?

All of this is possible. None of it is likely. The American temperament will not change until we and our leaders change. The charity baseball game was played by rules that honor fairness, integrity, teamwork, and sportsmanship above selfishness. The rules that predominate in politics and too much of our national life don’t honor those same values. Until they do, we’ll get symbolic calls for civility but not much else.

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