Be For Something

Being against seems to be the popular stance these days. And perhaps nothing is so in vogue as being against our very own government.

As historian and filmmaker Ken Burns observed during his commencement address to the graduating class of Stanford University yesterday (rarely do I read such addresses):

[I]t is terribly fashionable these days to criticize the United States government, the institution Lincoln was trying to save, to blame it for all the ills known to humankind, and, my goodness, ladies and gentlemen, it has made more than its fair share of catastrophic mistakes.

But then he added:

[Y]ou would be hard pressed to find—in all of human history—a greater force for good. From our Declaration of Independence to our Constitution and Bill of Rights; from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Land Grant College and Homestead Acts; from the transcontinental railroad and our national parks to child labor laws, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act; from the GI Bill and the interstate highway system to putting a man on the moon and the Affordable Care Act, the United States government has been the author of many of the best aspects of our public and personal lives. But if you tune in to politics, if you listen to the rhetoric of this election cycle, you are made painfully aware that everything is going to hell in a handbasket and the chief culprit is our evil government.

He went on to say:

Part of the reason this kind of criticism sticks is because we live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents. But that free agency is essentially unconnected to real community, divorced from civic engagement, duped into believing in our own lonely primacy by a sophisticated media culture that requires you—no—desperately needs you—to live in an all-consuming disposable present, wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.

Our spurious sovereignty is reinforced and perpetually underscored to our obvious and great comfort, but this kind of existence actually ingrains in us a stultifying sameness that rewards conformity (not courage), ignorance and anti-intellectualism (not critical thinking). This wouldn’t be so bad if we were just wasting our own lives, but this year our political future depends on it.

I wonder if the biggest problem with government these days is us. Might the problem be we’ve fallen into a pattern of negativity, fear and blame, an anti-culture, and stopped being for something?

Personally, I’m weary of listening to people being against everything or everyone.

I hope you don’t fall for it, Vera. I hope you don’t think you’re making a positive difference by being a constant critic or immovable object.

I hope you don’t embrace the naive idea that democratic government (the community of citizens acting collectively) is evil or that everything would be just fine if everyone was left to live in their individual cocoons without regard to the interests and needs of others.

I hope you don’t choose to sit on the sidelines. Or think you’re contributing my constantly throwing barbs and insults.

I hope you stand for something.

When looking back through history, it’s undeniable we are living in privileged times. But, of course, neither us individually nor us collectively (including our governments) are responsible for getting us to this place.

None of us is perfect, and neither were any who preceded us. But life isn’t perfect. It’s messy. It’s full of conflicting ideas and motivations. It’s full of unknowns. It’s full of flawed people. Indeed, each of us is complex and flawed and knows far less than we think we do. We’re neither all good nor all bad. Purity is a child’s concept.

Read history. Don’t accept the erroneous kindergarten account of our nation’s history so often spewed across the airways or internet. Read. And learn. And for heaven’s sake, think. Don’t blindly accept the hollow vitriol that bombards us from all directions.

And if you ever doubt the power of propaganda, visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Never overestimate the rationality of humanity. And never underestimate the ability of some people to turn other people’s hearts to stone.

Be wary of charlatans with easy answers. Or those who seek to appeal to our most selfish desires. Or who seek to turn us against each other.

Think for yourself. Think compassionately.

Try to understand how life really works. And don’t demand perfection from either people or their institutions. I repeat: purity is a child’s concept.

But, above all, please be for something.

Be a builder, not a demolition expert.

Be someone who tries to make our institutions, communities and other people’s lives better.

And be courageous. Stand for what is just even when it entails risks. Stand strong for what is right even when the crowd is hostile. Try not to succumb to the foul-mood of the populace in times such as these.

Be someone who stands for and pursues something other than their own immediate temporal pleasures.

In being for something, Vera, go about the task of making a contribution, not only for you and us, but also for those who have yet to be born.

Be for something bigger than yourself.


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