On Healing the Nation

President John F. Kennedy, September 30, 1962, on the court-mandated admission of African-American student James Meredith to the University of Mississippi:

There is in short no reason why the books on this case cannot now be quickly and quietly closed in the manner directed by the court.  Let us preserve both the law and the peace and then, healing those wounds that are within, we can turn to the greater crises that are without and stand united as one people in our pledge to man’s freedom.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, July 27, 1967, addressing recent mass racial violence in Newark and Detroit:

I know there are millions of men and women tonight who are eager to heal the wounds that we have suffered; who want to get on with the job of teaching and working and building America.  In that spirit, at the conclusion of this address, I will sign a proclamation tonight calling for a day of prayer in our Nation throughout all of our States … to pray for order and reconciliation among men.

President Richard M. Nixon, August 8, 1974, announcing his resignation-in-disgrace and the challenges faced by his successor, as Nixon saw them:

As we look to the future, the first essential is to begin healing the wounds of this Nation, to put the bitterness and divisions of the recent past behind us, and to rediscover those shared ideals that lie at the heart of our strength and unity as a great and as a free people.

President Jimmy Carter, October 20, 1979, in remarks dedicating the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library:

From Vietnam to Cambodia, from Los Angeles to Memphis, from Kent State to Watergate, the American spirit suffered under one shock after another, and the confidence of our people was deeply shaken.  We’ve undertaken a solid commitment to heal those wounds, and at long last the darkness has begun to lift.  I believe that America is now ready to meet the challenges of the 1980’s with renewed confidence and with renewed spirit.

President Ronald Reagan, November 11, 1984, dedicating “The Three Soldiers” statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial:

The war in Vietnam threatened to tear our society apart, and the political and philosophical disagreements that animated each side continue to some extent.  It’s been said that these memorials reflect a hunger for healing.  Well, I do not know if perfect healing ever occurs, but …  I believe that in the decade since Vietnam the healing has begun, and I hope that before my days as Commander in Chief are over the process will be completed.

President George H. W. Bush, March 9, 1989, in remarks at The United Negro College Fund Dinner in New York:

Black and white, together — we know that America will not be a good place for any of us to live until it is a good place for all of us to live.  Most Americans, I’m convinced, believe that government can be an instrument of healing.  There are times when government must step in where others fear to tread.  My friends, I share those beliefs, and as President, I will act on them.

President Bill Clinton, September 11, 1998, making a public apology before an audience of over 100 clergy and religious leaders at the White House Prayer Breakfast, following the release of the “Starr Report”:

I will intensify my efforts to lead our country and the world toward peace and freedom, prosperity and harmony, in the hope that with a broken spirit and a still strong heart I can be used for greater good, for we have many blessings and many challenges and so much work to do.  In this, I ask for your prayers and for your help in healing our nation.  And though I cannot move beyond or forget this – indeed, I must always keep it as a caution light in my life – it is very important that our nation move forward.

President Gerald R. Ford, December 21, 1998, co-written with Jimmy Carter, calling for a measured, bipartisan approach to the impeachment of Bill Clinton:

It is the genius of our constitution that [it provides a] charter whose legal mechanisms permit the nation to heal itself, so long as the end result is both justice and grace.  Clearly, the American people expect and desire an outcome that is firm, fair and untainted by partisan advantage.

President-elect George W. Bush, December 14, 2000, to Vice President Al Gore, when Gore called Bush to concede the election:

I look forward to working with you to heal the nation.

President Barack Obama, January 12, 2011, at the Tuscon, Arizona, memorial service for the 6 people killed and 13 others wounded (including U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords) in the sixth mass-shooting of Obama’s presidency:

[At] a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.

President Donald J. Trump, May 18, 2020, answering questions following a Covid-19 roundtable with restaurant executives (the word “heals” is in here somewhere):

I happen to be taking it— hydroxychloroquine.  Right now, yeah.  A couple of weeks ago, I started taking it.  Because I think it’s good.  I’ve heard a lot of good stories.  And if it’s not good, I’ll tell you right — you know, I’m not going to get hurt by it.

• • • • • 

For a nation as brave, courageous and exceptional as our leaders say we are, it seems that we are always in need of healing.  I guess that’s because, if we aren’t busy bombing others, we can’t help but fight among ourselves.  There is thus a sad logic to this president’s lack of interest in healing the nation — being that such efforts by past presidents have been about as effective as, well, hydroxychloroquine.


Note:  The transcript of the roundtable meeting between Trump (and Mnuchin and Kushner and Ivanka) and big restaurant executives makes for a revealing read, if you can stomach it.  Frankly, I am surprised that the White House published it.  Trump’s number-one proposal for rescuing the restaurant industry?  Full tax-deductibility of food and entertainment expenses for corporate business meetings.
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My spouse and I are finally contemplating visiting our children and grandchildren, with the proviso that no airplanes or hotels are involved.  We are lucky that the distances are driveable; I can manage gas pumps, and we can take along enough food and beverages to avoid dicey restaurant stops.  And at this point, I no longer care how many bathtub toys or potty-chairs we may need to navigate around during our stay.  So, as soon as the kids feel comfortable, we’re making arrangements.

The goings-on here at home are a different matter.  Our state and county are “opening up” despite an eightfold increase in the local COVID-19 infection rate over the past month, according to the chart I have been maintaining since the outbreak started:

In mid-April, the positive-test rate in our county had fallen to just one new case a day.  But since Trump’s call to “liberate the states”, it has climbed back to over 8 new cases a day.  This is not the “flatten-the-curve” situation that was supposed to give one confidence.

Its own CDC be damned (and ignored), Trump’s administration has sent a clear message: it is now every person for themselves.  What choice do we have but to act accordingly?

I guess the market, not medical science, will determine what the “optimum” crowd size is during a pandemic.  I for one will continue to avoid that market.

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Our Fair County and Our Place in It

We live on the outskirts of our city, a liberal enclave in a righteously conservative county, so we routinely interact with folks on both ends of the spectrum.  I’ve found that the tone of those interactions has a surprisingly sharp demarcation line, generally coinciding with our city limits.  This became apparent last week when we visited a landscape nursery five miles north of town to buy some roses and water plants. 

This trip was the most unpleasant experience I have had since adopting my coronavirus outing protocol.  Although the nursery had posted signs and created physical-distancing corridors, the place still felt crowded and there were long lines at check-out.  Half of the customers were not wearing masks — taking a cue maybe from the non-masked attendant in charge of making sure cars did not park too closely! — and those who were non-masked showed little interest (some arrogantly so) in distancing themselves from us.

The next day, we drove to our nearby Lowe’s — down the road from that nursery — to get some potting soil.  While there seemed to be a greater number of mask-wearers there, the young women at the checkout areas were not among them.  Lowe’s must have decided that plexiglas panels installed at the registers would suffice as pandemic-response theater.

My spouse drove our car up to the front of the store so I wouldn’t have to push the cart out to the parking lot.  As I was loading the bags into our car (my mask still in place), a female non-masked customer, who had checked out just after me, passed by and remarked to her partner, “You would think it was malaria!”

What I wanted to say to her was, “Hello!  Malaria is spread by mosquitoes.  And malaria has a cure.  And stop watching Fox News.”  But what I did say to her was nothing.

• • • • • •

The chart below provides the latest tally of reported COVID-19 cases in our county, along with a trend line of new cases per day:

The shaded area on this graph represents the period when anti-lockdown protests began to spread virally across the U.S.  The first signs of the “rash” popped up in Columbus, Ohio on April 9 and April 13.  The outbreak expanded to Michigan on April 15, infecting some 3,000 predominantly-white (based on video coverage) protesters.  Two days later, Trump expressed support for the feverish protesters.  Coincidentally, or maybe not, our local rate of COVID-19 cases re-accelerated at the same time, even though our lockdown rules and  our rate of testing did not change.

Local compliance with mask-wearing guidelines seems to be higher in the city, from what I observe.  The garden store that we visited today, for example, which is just within the city limits, had near-total compliance — but again with the notable exception of its employees.

  • • • • •   •

I have lost the last vestige of my handed-down faith that my fellow American gives a damn about me just because we both walk the same patch of continental crust.  This may have been a once-useful illusion for (white people of) my parents’ generation, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  (It never did, says Person-of-Color, Of-Minority-Faith or Lack-Thereof.)

We form alliances with our neighbors — if our neighbors have enough in common with us.  Alliances can be useful: you help me and I help you, if and when circumstances demand; and both parties keep a mental ledger of the gifts and receipts so that neither of us carries a long-term obligation to the other.  This is the classic Libertarian-American paradigm, neatly expressed by a former director of the Foundation for Economic Education:

It’s not complicated: you accept help when necessary but don’t make a habit of it.  My own mother, who comes from the stock and heritage that celebrated self-reliance, used to say to me, very simply: “never be beholden.”  If you owe others, you have given up that most precious thing, your independence, which means giving up some of your freedom.

First, note that the author of this statement is a white man (94% of libertarians are white) so you can guess what “stock and heritage” he sees as the self-reliant kind.  As well as the kind of neighbors he chooses to have and those he would rather not have, or help, at the risk of cramping his freedom.

Libertarians will counter, of course they want to help people in need.  But any casual dip into the pool of libertarian thought reveals that their overarching concern is the primacy of their own individualism.  Take the NPD principle.  (NPD stands for no positive duties, i.e., people have no positive moral duties to help others in need.)  One libertarian professor, after declaring NPD false, could not help but walk it back in his next paragraph: “We do have a moral obligation to help others in certain emergency situations where we are able to provide aid at relatively little risk or cost.”  How very nice of them!  Remind me not to  embark on anything that relies on a libertarian (or a not-so-neighborly neighbor).

It’s an old joke, but I do wonder how many libertarian firefighters there are.  They would have to be called second-responders since it would take them a second to decide whether it was in their best interest to respond.

  • • • •   • •

Ternary Diagram:
What Made You Who You Are?

On that note, I ask your indulgence to let me share a way of presenting data called a ternary diagram.  It is intended to show the relative contributions of three factors to a whole.

In this case (click to zoom), I offer a diagram of the factors people might mention when asked, “What made you who you are?”  I have grouped the possible responses into categories named circumstance, self-initiative and god and family.  One may choose any proportion of the three, but the total of the responses must add up to 100%.

Allow me to walk you through the diagram.  Note the self-initiative axis that runs from the left to the lower-right corner.  The more intense the yellow color, the more a person cited self-initiative as the basis for who she is.  Similarly, the god and family axis runs from the bottom to the top of the triangle.  The darker the pink color, the more god and family were said to play a part.  Lastly, the circumstance axis runs from the right to the bottom-left.  Those who think their situations were shaped mostly by the vagaries of life would gravitate to the blue corner.

One who believes herself to be a product of all three factors in equal measure would plot her point in the center of the triangle.  Where would you put yours?

I took the liberty of plotting some sample points.  A solid libertarian might place himself at the yellow dot (far right): 90% self-initiative, 10% god-family.  A stereotypical heartlander might favor the red dot: 60% self-initiative, 35% god-family, 5% circumstance.  A strict evangelical would likely pick the violet dot near the top, whereas someone like me would choose the blue dot at bottom-left.  Indeed, I believe that who I am is 85% (at a minimum) determined by the circumstances of my birth and culture.  Raise me in 1950’s Somalia and I would not be talking about ternary diagrams today.  Assuming I was alive today.

Why is this important?  I think how people answer the “What Made You Who You Are” question for themselves is probably a good indicator of how they view others and the extent of their empathy.  I maintain that there is a strong correlation between self-reliant and self-absorbed.  In fact, one might label the blue, red and yellow dots in my ternary diagram with the terms empathetic, judgmental and coolly indifferent respectively, but that would be a little unfair.  Besides, it would make my diagram more cluttered.

 • • •   • • •

In his article “Self-Reliance and Empathy: The Enemies of Poverty — And of the Poor” (Political Psychology, September, 2001), Robert E. Lane concluded:

The belief that people are authors of their own fates, while usually untrue, is good for individuals, markets and democracy.   [But] the priority given to self-interest over group interest has gone beyond the point where it is economically beneficial, and has now reached a threshold where societies … suffer socially more than they gain economically.

Our social penalty is being exacted now.  Those who refuse to wear masks in public places during a still-growing pandemic (and no, it isn’t malaria!) are sending an unmistakable f-you message to the rest of society:  If you get the virus then you probably deserved it, and I don’t owe you anything anyway.

Should we call such people libertarians?  I don’t think so — libertarian sounds too genteel. I would call them everyday ordinary selfish persons (EOSPs).  In fact, here is a list of some of the differences between libertarians and EOSPs:

1.  Libertarians often wear bow ties.
2.  Libertarians know there are more than two Amendments to the Constitution.
3.  Libertarians have nothing against you personally, it’s just the principle of it.
4.  Did I mention bow ties?
5.  Sorry, can’t think of anything else.

There are far more EOSPs in the U.S. than there are libertarians.  (Maybe because bow ties are so hard to tie.)  There are tens of millions of EOSPs, in fact, enough to elect a president who thinks like they do.  That is, mostly about themselves.

It will be interesting, in a sad way, to see how the U.S. public responds when a vaccine is finally available.  I don’t expect overwhelming compliance, unless vaccination is made a condition of employment and therefore a matter of self-interest to the EOSPs.

 • •    • •    • •

The War Between The States (as our 1950s Western Pennsylvania schoolbooks called it) was only proximately about slavery.  By this I mean, the U.S. civil war could have had another pretext, because what the Confederacy was ultimately defending was its economic interests.  Its leaders, such as President Jefferson Davis, would dress it up with words like honor, heritage and independence to make their cause sound noble…

The war… must go on … unless you acknowledge our right to self-government.  We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we WILL have.

But like all wars, it was about money, power, and the real or perceived threats to those.

The Confederacy was founded and then sustained by self-interest, greed, racism and fear. Clearly, this set of isms never died, kept alive by the likes of (and devoted followers of) Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Rush Limbaugh and now Donald Trump.  It is beyond ironic that our first African-American president would be succeeded in office by our second Confederate president.

Trump uses the pandemic to call himself a “wartime president” but the only war he leads is the uncivil war he agitates among us, between the selfish and society.  In this sad conflict, the EOSPs are winning.  The union is in peril.

Our best defense in this war is our offense — kindness and consideration.  Shall it prevail?

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