As I watched President Biden’s powerful and heartfelt Inauguration Address, I couldn’t help but painfully remember Trump’s “American Carnage” speech given at that same podium four years ago. Like many Americans still in shock over the attempted Insurrection and Sedition on January 6th and deeply mortified by the accelerating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden’s speech was much like a comforting strong cup of coffee in the morning before a hard day’s work. Eloquent in its simplicity, sobering, but encapsulating an enlightened moment identifying the challenges ahead and committing to ethical, deliberate action.
Most resonant was Biden’s plea to end the “Uncivil War.”
President Biden implored to those cynics caught deeply in extreme partisanship by saying, “I understand that many Americans view the future with some fear and trepidation. I understand the worry about their jobs, about taking care of their families, about what comes next. I get it. But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you do, or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
This “Uncivil War” will only end if we can learn to intelligently discuss politics and controversial issues without vilifying our opposition or resorting to inflammatory propaganda and other destructive tactics.
It’s strange to remember that there was a time when the news was just the facts and somewhere in the program there would be a segment clearly noted as commentary or opinion. Today, we don’t actually get news, we get personalities that give real-time obsessive commentary on selected news based on competitive ratings.
The point is that fact and opinion are distinct. Yet, valuable, insightful opinion is predicated on fact and relies far less on hyperbole and exaggeration. It is this type of opinion and its respectful articulation that is the hallmark of statesmanship implied in Biden’s plea for unity.
The challenge is to disagree without being disagreeable- to remember that we have more in common than we may realize. To accept victory and defeat with equal humility, grace, and integrity.
To end this “Uncivil War”, we must abandon the intellectually lazy habit of cynicism and painstakingly recognize our own prejudices by taking the time to learn the truth and listen to opposing perspectives.
Make no mistake, this “Uncivil War” is dangerous and hot at this very moment. White nationalist extremists have been emboldened and they believe outlandish lies in the face of all genuine evidence to the contrary. They have not abandoned their vitriolic practice of demonizing their political opposition or inciting hate and violence. Conservative media that flirts with delusional conspiracy theories and wild allegations, particularly talk radio with its caustic rhetoric, still flourishes.
Ending the “Uncivil War” means defending the truth and remembering that, as Americans, we’re all on the same side. It also means holding people accountable in a fair and dignified manner in the public square. Perhaps, Michelle Obama said it best, “When they go low, we go high.”
Ending the “Uncivil War” also means adopting new respect for our government’s norms and institutions- a collective remembrance of the blood that was shed to secure our precious rights and freedoms.
We must learn to have hard and complex discussions again- to not just hear, but to thoughtfully listen. It’s time, as a nation, to collectively hit CTRL-ALT-DEL.
Hopefully, the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will be remembered as an existential turning point as our nation reflects on our shared values and common purpose.
It felt like Joe was speaking personally to me when he said, “Now we must step up. All of us. It is a time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And, this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children? I believe we must and I believe we will. And when we do, we will write the next chapter in the American story.”
You’re right, Joe, it’s time to step up.
Clete Wetli is former Chair of the Madison County Democrats and a liberal political activist.
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