Monday, January 16, 2017

Who Do You Trust?

There are times where I feel blessed to be a Notre Dame graduate.  This past football season, as I have previously mentioned, certainly did not inspire this feeling, though.  The most recent issue of the Notre Dame Magazine  (Winter edition, 2016-2017) certainly made up for that.  There were several articles within the magazine that caused me to reflect on the current state of our country.  The most heartbreaking, for me, was to read the article entitled The Talk (readable at the following link:  The Talk).  This, for me, is almost a completely foreign topic; the need to teach your child how to communicate with police officers to avoid being shot.  The article, written by sisters who graduated from Notre Dame in the early 2000’s, presents the story of several Notre Dame graduates.  They reflected on their own upbringing as well as how they have addressed the topic with their own children.  None of the people in the story were classmates of mine; some attended before me, and some after.  All painted a clear picture of the struggle to maintain a sense of dignity in these interactions.

The only experience I can recall that comes even close to comprehending this experience goes back to my high school days.  I can remember a weekend where one of my classmates, the only African-American in our school, was taken into the country, stripped, and left to make his way back home in the middle of the night.  The incident was a shock to me, but even more so was the response of some of my classmates (not a lot, but enough to be noticeable), who thought the incident was worthy to laugh at.  I had no understanding of the presence of this kind of hatred and belittlement of African-Americans in our community.  

The Talk mentioned some of the experiences of Notre Dame graduates, including one (Jim Stone, who graduated in 1981) remembering a time when he took a date to prom, with both of them dressed up.  On the way, an officer pulled them over; he asked the girl if she was with him of her own free will.  During the interaction, Jim was "roughed up" both physically and emotionally by the officer.  I cannot imagine the powerlessness of this situation.  Nor can I imagine the emotions he must feel in regards to reflecting on similar experiences that his son has suffered through, and struggled to find a way to come to grips with it.  These incidents reflect a national malady that we are suffering from.

That was not the only national malady expressed in the winter issue of the Notre Dame Magazine.  In a separate article entitled Our National Malady, ( Our National Malady), the author focused on the gradual deterioration that has occurred in the credibility of what anyone says on a national scene.  This truly is a National Malady.  The author, David Shribman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, focused on the deterioration of trust that we have seen particularly in national politics, reflecting on the shortcomings and lack of complete truth-telling from President Lyndon Johnson on.  The author demonstrated the guilt of multiple actors in this loss of trust that has occurred.  There has been a loss of trust in news; in business; in our faith community; in individuals.  How can we get this trust back?  Certainly not by dealing in truthful hyperbole, nor in mischaracterizing someone or their actions in response.  David spoke of the need to rebuild credibility not by words, nor through cold calculation, but through character.  He referred to an interview he had with Frank Luntz, a former Republican pollster who helped build the Contract with America in the 1990's.  Luntz discussed the importance of living out your character, focusing on how our credibility is built and sustained by how others perceive you. 

I didn't see this specifically written, but the implication of what David Shribman was stating in this article was the need to be genuine.  Politics, and basic interactions, will likely always incorporate a modicum of self-interest and calculated decisions.  They need to also demonstrate a desire to genuinely care about the other person.  I don't know if this is the intent of the article, but I left the article with a question of how our loss of credibility can be overcome.  The only answer that I could come up with was to make decisions that show a true caring and respect for others.  We need to communicate in a way that doesn't look to score points, serve our own interests, or disparage others, but rather to build up.

The final article from the current Notre Dame Magazine that I wanted to address is entitled Hope At Risk (Hope at Risk), written by Anthony Walton, a 1982 graduate.  These were very personal reflections on what President Obama meant to him in terms of race relations, as well as the response to President Obama by at least a portion of our society (specifically in regards to questions about whether he was truly American or whether he was a Christian, among other things).  I was moved by the following statement of Anthony Walton in particular:  "In my view, the message that was sent, deliberately, by these tactics to blacks and people of color throughout Obama's presidency was:  Even if you make it to Harvard Law School, become a U.S. senator, win not one but two elections to become president and happen to be black, you are still illegitimate.  You are not good enough.  You are a usurper and a threat to all that is good and holy."  I can hear the sincerity of these feelings as I read his article, and have a little (from the outside looking in) understanding of the pain involved in feeling them.  
Having a political discourse that scores points by the tearing down of others is a losing proposition for us as a society.  That was the message that I saw conveyed through this series of articles.  Kerry Temple, the editor of Notre Dame Magazine, reflected on this subject about "the collapse of civil discourse in this post-truth age" in the introduction to this issue.  One of his thoughts in the opening went as follows:  "I came to work at Notre Dame almost 40 years ago because I was discouraged by the ways of the world, but I felt great comfort and resolve knowing I was part of a large group of like-minded people -- people animated by Christ-like thinking, compassion, goodness, justice and the requisite moral and spiritual qualities to do what's right in a conflicted, broken, fallen world."  

I am happy to say that I found that perspective, as well, during my time at Notre Dame.  Yet I am challenged to find how to bring it to the world I am confronted with on a daily basis.  I have it as my goal to pursue those same qualities mentioned by Kerry to the lives of the people I come in contact with.  That starts with my family, but it extends to this great community that we are a part of.  We have a need to meet each other as people.  We have a need to show love and respect, and to honor truth.  We have a need to not turn our back on problems, but to challenge each other to grow.  Anthony Walton mentioned the need to make the words of the Declaration of Independence real, the idea that "all men are created equal."  I can think of no more laudable goal this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The hardest part of this type of discussion is that we seem to have gotten so concerned about being right or showing where the other person is wrong, and are willing to tear each other apart (ignoring facts, or making them up, as we need to in order to accomplish it).  None of us view events the same way; none of us see them from the same perspective.  I have to admit, as I read Notre Dame Magazine, I am often not in agreement with the subject matter or perspective being presented.  But I learn from it, most particularly the perspective that someone else brings to the issue.  We need to find a way to quit judging the views, feelings, and worldview of each other.  We don’t have to be in agreement, but we need to not tear apart any hope of community in our eagerness to express our disagreement and prove our superiority.  David Shribman provided an example of this in his article Our National Malady.  He quoted a line from Senator John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, where he praised Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, a conservative Republican.  Their worldviews, and proposed solutions to problems, did not line up, yet he said of Taft: “He was known in the Senate as a man who never broke an agreement, who never compromised his deeply felt Republican principles, who never practiced political deception…. We need more intellectually honest men like Senator Taft.”  I pray we can find a way, even if we are on different sides of the aisle, to have that respect for each other as what was demonstrated between Kennedy and Taft.