We have to have principles and standards of conduct in order to criticize others. For it is by those principles and standards that we are able to discern breaches and violations thereof — and condemn them. But how should we go about that?
It’s hard to live up to high principles and standards. It’s easier to condemn others’ defaults than our own. More than ever in my lifetime, Americans resort to labels when they talk politics and social issues. So-and-so is a “gun nut” or a “socialist” or a “baby killer” or a “Nazi.” In the wake of the 2016 election, people who are truly invested in President Trump, and those who are ardently invested in his fall, are perhaps more prone to this. Candidly, I fall into that ditch, too, becoming so angry at shenanigans by “the other side” that I call the rascals out for it. But we need to remind ourselves that the most important question — the one we should pose to ourselves first — is a deeply personal inquiry:
“What am I FOR?”
I am a capitalist, free enterpriser and free trader, laissez faire on social issues, a fervent believer in the first amendment as well as civility, a respecter of heroes, and a foe of dictators and autocrats. I am willing to impose the death penalty on cold-blooded killers who have rejected our social contract, and I support public and private charity for people who need help through no fault of their own. Not everyone shares that entire set of beliefs. But we should all stand perpetually in awe of this 242-year-old American experiment that enables us to have sets of beliefs and to advocate for them. Yes, what we enjoy in these United States IS an experiment, and even though we may think it is enduring because it has endured thus far, our democracy is still vulnerable to being upended and damaged by reckless leaders, just as a careless lab assistant can break a beaker and destroy years of research.
This last week of mourning for John McCain has provided us an opportunity for reflection — if we will take it. It calls on each of us to rise to our better natures. John McCain’s views on many political issues were somewhat beside the point – the point was his ability to reach decisions independently, to oppose bluntly without malice, and to keep as his guiding star the welfare of our country and our citizens. McCain withstood five and one-half years of torture and still refused early release from that hell. How many of us could do that? And then, having endured years of captivity and suffering at the hands of Vietnamese jailers, Senator McCain rose above that pain (and his continuing physical limitations caused by torture) to help lead the reconciliation between our two countries. What he did over his military and political careers is both dazzling and humbling.
McCain was a giant. At the very least, we should honor him by trying to emulate him, avoiding wherever possible the kind of meanness and selfishness that now pervades public discourse, and supporting public figures who embody at least a part of his towering values and character.
This November, as we are given the opportunity to engage in America’s most important and world-renowned tradition, we must VOTE.