Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sound and Fury

There is a tactic that has been employed lately when the ethics or intelligence of our elected leaders is questioned. Our sitting president used it effectively when asked by Bill O'Reilly how he could respect a dictator and alleged killer like Vladimir Putin. The response was: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

It is an argument meant to stop the opposition dead in its tracks by turning the question back on the one who asked it, without ever answering it. It is a discussion stopper, not only because it's a pivoting over-statement and a deflective non-response, but because it makes the opposition appear naive, or unprepared, or un-American. It is "sound and fury" -- a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

I don't mind when someone who disagrees with me shares an opposing view. Discussion is the first step to understanding, and understanding is the first step to compromise. Compromise, regardless of what extremists on either end of the political spectrum might think, is a good thing. Compromise is the no-kill zone where reasonable people who disagree meet to fashion an existence in which both can survive and thrive, each having bent a little for the other's needs, preferences or beliefs.

Extremists, by definition, do not compromise, which is why they best serve any culture as outliers, yelling demands and threats from the cheap seats while moderates set the rules and play the game. In recent years, we've seen what happens when extremists rush the field. The rhythm of the game is broken and all progress grinds to a halt. And why? Because extremists don't back down. They don't acquiesce. They find fault in good sportsmanship, demonize their opposition, and label those among their ranks who are willing to compromise for reasonable gain as traitors to their extremist cause. They prize loyalty to their socio-political dogma over loyalty to country and they draw out the very worst characteristics in their support base by using paranoia, fear and prejudice as siren calls.

Extremists, however, are not the only problem that worries me. Equally troubling to me as the hate and bigotry bubbling up at Klan rallies, or the domestic terrorism of bomb threats to Jewish schools, more disconcerting than government-sanctioned denial of scientific fact, or the intentional dismantling of the national education system, or wild paranoid accusations bandied about as distractions when journalists start getting too close to the truth, is that argument of "You think we're so innocent?" (YTWSI). Several times on social media and even once in conversation the YTWSI argument has been thrown at me, as if I shouldn't question the questionable behaviors of our present government because, well shucks, the behavior of our government has always been questionable.

I understand the United States is not innocent. Our federal government, in its various forms throughout 241 years, has committed some heinous acts of brutality, denied human rights, persecuted the weak, and denied religious freedoms. We have gone to war too quickly for the wrong reasons and chosen to isolate ourselves when our allies needed us. We have reneged on promises, seized land, stolen property, ignored the needs of the common man and murdered the helpless in the name of manifest destiny, national security, social purification and intolerance.

But the fundamental flaw underlying the YTWSI argument is that it accepts these behaviors as inevitable and unavoidable. It turns the fact that we abused yesterday into justification for continued abuse. Even worse, it is used to justify turning a blind eye to the abuse presently being perpetrated in front of our very eyes. It's the "everybody else is doing it" defense a child might invoke when caught being naughty in some largely harmless way, which is why it's so alarming and disarming when a sitting president chooses to invoke it when speaking of murder. Our government and elected leaders might not always hold the moral high ground, but aren't they at least supposed to be striving to attain it for the good of nation?

Although I am concerned about the current state of government affairs, I am a long-term optimist. Our country cycles through periods such as these more often than people care to admit or remember. The United States of America has survived the Iran-Contra Affair, Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII Internment Camps, the Langer Affair, the Teapot Dome Scandal -- and those are just a handful from the 20th Century -- so I have little doubt the Putin Problem will one day be put to rest. I just hope it's sooner than later.