I read the text of President Obama’s speech in Tucson last night and watched it just this morning. If you haven’t actually listened to it yet, you probably should. It is, as he’s given to from time to time, a remarkable performance–humble and sad, visionary and inspirational, humane, all the characteristics of the Obama that drew us to him during the campaign and all too often get washed out by the noise of daily politics.
From cruising around the blogosphere last night after the speech, I gather that even some of the more conservative punditocracy were praising the speech. I haven’t seen any reactions from Republican members of Congress, but when Charles Krauthammer gives a Democrat the nod, the Democrat must have done OK. So let’s just say, for the sake of conversation, that Obama’s call for renewed civility and decency in our political discourse made a mark on the people with the loudest (that is, the most mass mediated) voices: elected officials and pundits.
Then I made the mistake (or, faced the demon–choose your metaphor) of beginning to read comments sections of stories about the speech. I don’t know if YahooNews draws an especially nasty crowd or what, but it didn’t take 2 minutes from the end of the speech before screeches of “traitor” and “communist” and “worst President ever” and “he wasn’t even born here” showed up. Today, out of the first ten comments, two of them say, “Google FEMA Concentration Camps and find out what Hussein means to do to YOU!” Nobody explicitly calls for his assassination or violence directly against him, but let’s just say that his call for decency seems to have fallen on some deaf ears.
One of my favorite bloggers, Ed at Gin and Tacos, wrote the other day that one of the big problems in our current political scene is that nobody seems willing to call out the crazies. What the hell is wrong with them? How can anybody listen to a neighbor (much less a Congressperson or respected “journalist”) propagate the kind of insanity that we’ve come to take for granted without responding to it? And I’m not just talking about the militaristic metaphors and the “climate of hate” that’s been flying around for the last few days. I’m talking about somebody I defriended on Facebook because they thought it was hilarious when Barack Obama got his lip split playing basketball and said something like, “Damn, I wish I’d learned to play basketball so I could have smashed his face in.” About the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! If one of us peaceniks had said anything of the sort about George W. Bush, we’d have been accused of being TRAITORS (gasp). In fact, some of us did say terrible things about George W. Bush (if there were an emoticon for a raised hand, I’d use it here) and were routinely called traitors. Of course, we were also called traitors when we said nothing at all about GWB, but that’s another story…
Anyway, so my question for now is this. If the big voices in our country got the message last night, and have begun to realize that the way we talk to each other is counterproductive, horrifying, unworthy of us, call it what you will, how do we get that message to the people who really need to hear it–our neighbors and co-workers, the people stockpiling weapons caches in case they need to revolt, the people who hide behind anonymity to threaten others’ safety and well-being, and so on? There’s an argument to make that it took decades of building up to this level of anger and viciousness and that it will, therefore, take decades to build it down. We don’t have time for that. How do we accelerate that process?
I guess another way of asking the question: how do we, as activists, organize in our own communities (physical, virtual, professional, …) to support a more productive, humane discourse? How do we even begin to talk about rebuilding trust, believing that what people who think differently are doing isn’t automatically an attempt to destroy us?
Once trust has been breached, it’s very difficult to rebuild. At least right now, that’s the biggest challenge I see.