Imagine the scene: a man, at the pinnacle of achievement, about to receive the greatest honor a man can receive, walking out of his hotel room, wearing a borrowed coat, and borrowed hat, shuffling along the street hunched over, to hide his unusual height. At the end of his walk, he boards a train, entering from the back, so nobody would see him, ushered in by one of his few trusted friends. His destination? Another train, in a city that would require another furtive excursion.
Why the secrecy? Because this man's security had determined that some of the many death threats against the man were credible, and he had good reason to be scared that he would be assassinated...
Before taking the oath of the office of the President of the United States.
Or picture another scene, a little further back in time. A man, the most respected man in the country, rolling his eyes and rubbing his temples - again - because two of his most trusted advisers were at each others' throats - again - in a staff meeting. These advisers, both men of extraordinary abilities, both with long records of great service to their country, so passionate about their beliefs that they refused to even try to find common ground. And the man, finally putting his foot down to hush them, knowing full well that as soon as they left the room, they would both scurry off to friends of theirs in the press to publish lengthy, inflammatory, and sometimes scurrilous diatribes against the other. Eventually the acrimony would get so bad that both advisers would quit their jobs (but not their writing about the other), and the man's final act would be to caution the country about the dangers of splitting into factions.
Of course, the two men I'm talking about are two of the most revered, respected men in American history, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
So, consider this: if Lincoln and Washington were both unable to quell the intense instinct of partisanship in America, what would make anybody think that any of the relative mediocrities we elevate in latter-day America would be able to calm it down?
Americans fighting for what they believe in is part and parcel of the American experience. I don't, personally, have any problem with people arguing for the values and policies they hold dear. And I don't a have a problem with those arguments getting heated, though I do have a little problem with the hypocrisy of some claiming to be all about peace and tolerance while lighting limousines on fire and forcing Metro State to go on lockdown.
I am, however, very troubled by the level of argument that we seem to be engaged in. Compared to the rhetorical broadsides Hamilton and Jefferson leveled at each other, our society operates at about a "I know you are but what am I" level. I know some of that is because most of our arguments have to be distilled down to 140 characters, and our attention span is roughly the same as a tsetse fly, but we should be able to do better. And we should certainly expect better of our "leaders."
So, the next time somebody says something that makes your blood boil, try this: refute their point without resorting to calling anybody names. That's it, that's all - focus on the issue, not the person (we'll try to get to a high school vocabulary another time).
And ENGAGE! I think you'll find that, once you are dealing with ideas, and not personalities, the violent tendencies might just calm down a little. Be passionate, be forceful, be disagreeable...
But be smart. Maybe if we lead, our leaders will follow. That is, after all, the American Way.
Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com