Monday, January 17, 2011

Doctor King and Lessons In Civil Discourse and Civility

Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 82 this past Saturday.  As the nation honors his birth, one cannot help but recall the way his young life ended. In his prophetic last speech, King seemed to have his own mortality on his mind. He stated "like anyone I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I'm not concerned about that now." He would fall to an assassin's bullet the following day.  

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." ---  Thomas Jefferson 

With the horrific tragedy in Tucson still fresh on our minds, the memory of Doctor King only reminds us further of the dangers our political figures face when preaching from the pulpit. Thoughts of the Kennedy brothers, Reagan, King and others cross our minds as we wonder what could have led a human being to such extreme measures.  How can someone become so detached from normal societal norms?

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords touched off a firestorm of debate.  Many people, including myself, wondered if heated political rhetoric led to the shooting.  Had history repeated itself yet again? To be frank, was the initial gut reaction of people surprising?   Look at it objectively.  A major political figure with a cult of personality around her places gun scope cross hairs on a rival candidate and tells her followers not to retreat but reload.  Another tells her followers that they may have to exercise their second amendment rights.  A third candidate holds an event where participants can shoot an M16 targeting Giffords out of office. Right or wrong, when the Congresswoman got shot, is it any surprise that so many wondered if some nut took their "metaphors" to heart. 

One only need to go on social outlets like Twitter to gauge the deep seeded anger people have for some public figures.  The amount of false information and anger I encountered on Twitter was staggering.  Do you know there are still people who insist that the President of the United States is a Kenyan born Muslim?  I encountered people that honestly believe Obama is trying to keep milk away from children.  They are convinced the president is forming FEMA concentration camps to imprison conservative dissidents. They maintain that his communist administration is wantonly killing birds and that death panels are after grandmothers. They buy $150 super seeds from Glenn Beck sponsor "Survival Seed Bank" fearing that the end of days is approaching. (Editors note: The milk thing? They were referring to an FDA regulation on the interstate transport of non pasteurized milk. The regulation actually went into effect in 1987 during the Reagan administration). When I shared my own views, I was called a communist, a nazi,  and one self proclaimed militia member in North Dakota threatened to put a bullet in my head. 

Being uncivil has become commonplace.  Congressmen shout insults in open sessions of Congress.  Governor Paul LePage (R-Maine) told the NAACP to "kiss my butt" when declining an invitation to speak at a MLK Jr. celebration. When a picture surfaced of the jumbotron at the Tuscon memorial service, the "twitterverse" was abuzz with allegations that the President demanded applause from the audience.  Their "proof" was a photo of the closed captioning service indicating that the crowd was clapping.  Other pundits claimed that the memorial was really a kick off event for Obama's 2012 presidential run.  Were people really criticizing a memorial for the dead victims of a shooting massacre?  I can only wonder what some of these pundits would have said about Robert Kennedy as he stood on the back of a truck imploring the nation not to turn to violence over King's death.  He was, after all, in the midst of a presidential run.  Have we really become so distrustful of human sincerity?

As we enter the next chapter of our American life, I think its important to recall the words of Robert Kennedy following the death of Dr. King.  What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another. 

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