Viewpoints: Letter to America - The Buffalo News
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Viewpoints: Letter to America

By Kevin Gaughan / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

To all citizens: As summer settles into its annual rite of picnics and parades, we’d all be forgiven for tuning out the high-pitched screeds that today pass for political discussion. And quietly asking ourselves: What has become of our country?

In the warmth of summer’s embrace, perhaps we discover the beginnings of an answer by pausing to ponder the American experience. To summon moments in our nation’s story that capture the American spirit, remind us of who we are and, in the midst of this graceless age of politics, show us a way back home.

•••

On the evening of May 30, 1776, in the Second Continental Congress’ 12th month in session in Philadelphia, John Adams sat down to write a letter home to his wife, Abigail. By then, the colonies had experienced and endured the Coercive Acts, Stamp Act, Boston Tea Party, British occupation and deadly skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. But support for independence was far from unanimous. Assessing the American mood less than two months before breaking from England, Adams wrote, “Our citizens are about one-third Tory, one-third undecided and one-third true blue.” He meant that two-thirds of Americans were either loyal to Great Britain or indifferent to the colonial cause, and only one-third sympathetic to the new Continental Army and its indigo blue uniforms.

•••

To Democrats, of which I am one, a suggestion: Let’s lower our voices, and raise our ideas. In all the words of “resistance” to the new administration, there’s been nary a syllable devoted to examining the minds and hearts of that one-third of Americans who support President Trump. These working families fear for their future, as white citizens become a minority group in our richly diverse, multiethnic society. That their fear is exploited by Trump’s intolerant language of “the other” – Muslim, Mexican, immigrant – belies neither the existence nor authenticity of these Americans’ views.

Perhaps we might start by turning off cable news and picking up J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” an intimate glimpse into rural struggle during this period of soaring stock markets, plummeting jobs, economic threats from unreachable companies and deadly threats from accessible opiates.

•••

In 1893, to supplement her income as a professor at Wellesley College, 33-year-old Katherine Lee Bates agreed to teach a summer course in Colorado. Her nation-traversing train trip took her past Chicago’s World Exposition and its “White City” (“Oh beautiful for patriot dream / Thy alabaster cities gleam”), over endless Kansas wheat fields (“Oh beautiful for spacious skies / For amber waves of grain”) and, finally, to a breathtaking view of the Great Plains from atop Pikes Peak (“For purple mountain majesty / Above the fruited plain”) where, upon arriving at her hotel, she went to her room and wrote her evocation of our natural wonders, “America the Beautiful.”

•••

Vianovo is a Washington consulting company, specializing in “helping the world’s most recognized names shape public opinion and media conversation.” The firm employs former pols, campaign managers, Capitol Hill aides and White House staffers who cashed in their service to make millions selling access to power.

In Vianovo’s world, every one of us is a candidate. Everything is a war to be won. Each decision we make, from a legislator’s vote to a teenager’s click, can be influenced. And most important, every fact, opinion, newspaper story or television newscast can be altered. That is, if you’re willing and able to pay Vianovo to do it.

Of the “commentators” who appear on cable news, many are employed by companies like Vianovo. Others are “fellows” at partisan institutes aiming to affect politicians’ decisions. The rest are the pols themselves, seeking less to explain issues and more to inflame emotions. Such are the elements of mean, meaningless cable news shouting matches.

And their apocalyptic language – “Republicans hate women;” “Democrats take away your rights” – has but one goal: agitating viewers so when, moments after the verbal fireworks and the pols and PACs send out solicitation emails, we click the donation button.

The news isn’t fake. But much of it is partisan. And on cable programs, the news is designed to serve purposes unrelated to informing citizens.

To journalists: You can be a reporter or a celebrity, journalist or commentator, partisan spokesperson or impartial observer. But you can’t be both. When you are, you’re as complicit in harming the system as the dodgy pol who refuses to answer your question.

•••

Frances Seward, a smart, beautiful Western New York woman married to American Secretary of State William Henry Seward, knew she couldn’t wait any longer. Four days earlier, on April 14, 1865, her husband had been brutally attacked, suffering knife wounds across his face, neck and torso by one of the conspirators who that same night took the life of his boss and friend, Abraham Lincoln. Frances knew she had to tell her husband, who’d been drifting in and out of consciousness, of Lincoln’s death.

Years earlier, Seward and Lincoln began as fierce rivals, with Lincoln outwitting Seward to capture the presidency. But after accepting Lincoln’s offer to be America’s chief diplomat, they formed a joyous bond, borne of deep mutual respect.

Frances waited until her husband was in less pain, and able to speak. Entering his bedroom and finding Seward sitting upright, she began, “Henry, I want to speak with you about your friend.” Seward made no response, so Frances continued. “I’m sorry, Henry, but he’s gone. Your friend is gone.” Turning toward her, Seward quietly replied, “I know.” Taken aback, Francis asked, “But how could you know?” “Because,” Seward said, “if he were still here he would have come to see me.”

•••

To Trump, and with all due respect: Get a grip. For a man of large accomplishment, you make yourself very small. The next time you want to insult, think of your children, and the esteem in which they hold their father. And perhaps take a lesson from President Harry Truman: Write your tweet on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope and place it in a desk drawer.

•••

Gently moving his daughter, Scout, behind him, to shield her from the angry mob, Atticus Finch straightens his shoulders and says nothing. Through the long night, Atticus had stationed himself on the porch of the town jail housing his client, a black man named Tom Robinson. Falsely accused of assaulting a white woman, Robinson is now the target of rural vigilantes, demanding that Atticus turn Robinson over to them. Scout and her brother, Jem, fearing for their father’s safety, had defied his orders, climbed out of bed and walked to the jail to be with their dad.

In Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” racial tensions of 1930s America are on full, ugly, violent display. Atticus implores the armed white men to go home, and permit the law to proceed. In the moment of standoff, Scout notices the father of her third-grade schoolmate among the mob, emerges from behind Atticus and says, “Hello, Mr. Cunningham, how’s Walter?” She asks about the poor man’s crops, devastated by summer drought, and tells Cunningham to say hi to his son for her. Shamed by the child’s innocence, and her decency, Cunningham lowers his head, and convinces the mob to leave in peace.

•••

To Americans, who hold what Benjamin Franklin described as our country’s highest office, that of citizen: Always remember that Scout’s courage and goodness dwell in us all. Not for the first time in our nation’s history, the fearful among us lash out at the unknown. Their intentions, protecting their family’s future, are honorable. Their fears, real. And their responses, regrettable. It’s our duty, like Scout, to place ourselves in their shoes, and help remind them of our collective humanity.

In her “Mockingbird” sequel, “Go Set A Watchman,” Lee revealed that in later life Atticus took on prejudicial views. By the 1950s, civil rights advances unsettled him. Both Atticus and America were confronted with the realities of the just principles they espoused: African-Americans and other oppressed groups were on a proper path to equality.

So as much as we aspire to Scout’s decency, we all have much of Atticus in us as well. In the wake of the achievement of electing our first African-American president – and bearing witness to the abilities and grace he exhibited – perhaps America again balks at the pace of change, leans back on what John Kennedy called “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,” and thinks that the arc of progress can be bent backward. But that is not so.

We may lose debates, partisan arguments and elections. But our task is to never lose faith in the system we hold dear. We will always remain, as Lincoln wrote, dedicated to a proposition. The proposition that Thomas Jefferson wrote during a summer long ago: that we are all equal.

Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader. His email is kevin@kevingaughan.com

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