Individuals should still step up for honor

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on June 23, 2017.

David Bonderman stepped down from the corporate board of Uber after speaking disparagingly of women by saying putting them on corporate boards would be bad because “it’s much more likely to be more talking.” He must have felt entitled. He’s not alone. My daughter, who works for an architectural firm in New York City, says that during business meetings women get talked over all the time, and people just seem to accept it. Studies back her up. And you could see it during the Senate hearing while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was being interrogated. The only senator who was interrupted was Kamala Harris — a woman. Again, no one did anything about it.

Recently Bill Maher took heat and eventually apologized for using the N-word during an interview with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska. The consensus is that some people get to use that word but others cannot. Recently it’s even been debated whether Mark Twain is someone we will allow to continue using that word with each new printing of his masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Fortunately, the majority verdict on that seems to be “yes.”

A teenager in Massachusetts was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter for sending texts encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide. The girl, Michelle Carter, faces 20 years in prison for speech “that is considered reckless enough to cause harm.” The legal question on appeal will be whether her words can be considered the legal cause of the boy’s death or whether he was responsible for his own conduct.

Do you remember the old children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? I don’t think we truly believe it. After nearly 65 years of living, I’ve come to believe that words are the most powerful and hurtful of tools. We should be careful of what we say or face the insult of a slap across the face with a demand for satisfaction. But we won’t; dueling has been outlawed, along with honor. Deceased classics and humanities professor J. Rufus Fears said that “no society that has outlawed dueling can truly understand the meaning of honor.” His point was that words matter and often require a response. In a society that understands honor, silence is cowardice.

It’s surprising to me how few people remember one of the truly great movies, “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” made right after World War II, in the same year Joe McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate. Gregory Peck plays a newspaper reporter who pretends to be Jewish to expose anti-Semitism. In the most powerful scene his fiancée, played by Dorothy McGuire, from upper crust Connecticut society, relates to Peck’s Jewish war buddy that she was offended by a virulent anti-Semitic joke in otherwise polite, white-gloved company. The friend, played by John Garfield, asks what she did about it. She seems put off, saying she shunned the teller of the joke, but, when pressed, admits she had done nothing, had said nothing. It resonates with me because I remember a particular event, years ago at a country club, when in the presence of a Jewish friend I was similarly guilty of being similarly offended but doing nothing about it. I’ve sworn in the future I will not be shy.

The political right is often heard complaining about political correctness from the political left, but it seems to me there’s lots of that going both ways. Political discourse these days is devoid of decorum because it seems anyone can say anything without consequence. Our Constitution prohibits government regulation of speech. Just recently the Supreme Court struck down a law that denied trademark protection for names that might be “offensive,” like the Washington Redskins. So, it is left to us, as individuals, to stand against abusive words. It’s up to each of us to do something, to demand honor. That saying words encouraging another person to commit suicide can be a crime has frightening implications. However abhorrent the speech, making it a crime seems dangerous. Nor can we accept the lawlessness of dueling. But in the end, each of us remains responsible for refusing to tolerate injustice, whether in a workplace meeting, or at a country club, or wherever we find ourselves. Honor demands it.

Finding common cause is the only answer

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on June 14, 2017.

My last column was about Arlo Guthrie singing “This Land is Your Land.” The song says we’re all in this together, togetherness is necessary to our well-being, and such togetherness requires fairness and equality. It won’t work any other way. This land was made for all, not the few.

But now, less than 1 percent have more than 90 percent of the marbles. People don’t like paying taxes when others with more don’t pay a fair share. Think about Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment and President Trump saying not paying income taxes “makes me smart.”

David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times on June 2 after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Europe. Trump’s America is in with the Saudis because the money’s good, regardless of stark differences on human rights and democracy, and we’re out with the European Union despite common democratic institutions because it doesn’t pay. In a recent article top Trump advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn said: “The President embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

Brooks comments: “In this world view, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest.”

And, Brooks goes on: “The error [of this view] is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations … But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.”

The day after Brooks’ column, Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece about inequality in The New York Times. It seems that primates, both chimps and human beings, have innately low tolerance for unequal treatment. The mere presence of a first-class section on airplanes makes “air rage” more likely even than when passengers experience long flight delays. It works the same for chimps. Watching each other interact with humans they expect equal treatment. Just like our primate cousins, when people see others get better seats, better jobs, cushier deals, they resent it.

Trump was elected because many Americans think the game is rigged. I spoke recently with Norm Diggs, who lives in the country between Hutchinson and Wichita, who said he voted for Trump out of complete frustration with a system that endlessly favors a few and screws the rest. He voted against the status quo. I think Trump promotes unfairness, and told Norm so. But Norm said, “Why not give him a chance? It’s all crooked, Trump can’t be worse?” He felt he had to do something, and voting for Trump was the only something he saw. Violently as I disagree, I’ll give Norm this, the message resonates.

When Woody Guthrie said that you and I are in this together, he meant the entire country, from the Redwood forests to the Gulfstream waters, with all the endless skyways and golden valleys in-between. That’s bottom-up democracy; it’s also the idea of a Christian community. The United States got out of the Depression, and through World War II because we pulled together, remembered what we had in common, and gave our precious lives with uncommon selflessness.

I’ve been to Omaha Beach and to the American Cemetery in Florence, Italy. I’ve read the stories of Dick Winters, Eugene Sledge and Jack Neville, real human markers of a time when there was no room for selfishness. Families were treated equally, regardless of social or economic status, and rich and poor alike sacrificed their best. John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr., died piloting a flying bomb against a German submarine pen. Read their stories in Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn” trilogy, Steven Ambrose’s “D-Day” and “Citizen Soldiers,” and Drew Neville’s “Jack’s 45th.” These stories tell me that we’re all connected and are at our best, and happiest, when we are acting for the benefit of one another. We live in a time when we have to pull together. We are of and from this land, and as Woody wrote and Arlo keeps singing, “This land was made for you and me.”