NEW YORK – As I was perusing headlines that seem seldom to change – mosque, immigration, sacred ground, 9/11, more mosque – an unlikely trio intruded upon my malaise: Paul Newman, Rodney King and John Lennon.
I’m not proud of it. I wish it had been Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer and Freud, but there you have it. At least it wasn’t Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton and Sarah Palin, though they do make a later appearance, about which more anon. First to the quotes, a little pastiche, if you will, of Americana in a nation that has lost is “cana.”
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” from Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” was first to come to mind. Next was King’s “Can we all get along?” after the acquittal of the police officers who mercilessly beat him sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Finally, “Give peace a chance.” John Lennon, ’69.
I’m not typically attracted to pop-culture wisdom. But why not? Little else seems to be working lately as we sliver ourselves into a thousand shards of blithering self-interest.
Enter current characters in the American tragedy titled, “Screw You, No Screw You.”
A Muslim imam insults (some) Americans by wanting to build an Islamic center too close to Ground Zero; Muslim Americans feel hurt and marginalized by a growing chorus of mean-spirited rhetoric.
In Washington, Beck plans a “Restoring Honor” tea party convention on the very date and grounds that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. In town on the same day, Aug. 28, Sharpton will hold his own “Reclaim the Dream” rally.
Beck says he didn’t pick the date on purpose – it was coincidental but providential. King belongs to all Americans, he says, while Sharpton and others feel Beck is poking a finger in the eye of the civil rights movement.
Over and down yonder, Americans in border states are feeling under siege by illegal immigrants, while Hispanics feel hurt and marginalized by a growing chorus of mean-spirited rhetoric.
Notice a trend here?
No longer e pluribus unum, we are e pluribus pluribus – mean-spirited and marginalizing. A psychological profile, never more needed than now, likely would reveal an underlying fear that not everyone within our borders is on the same team.
Our fears may not be irrational, but our responses are.
Nowhere is it written that we must self-destruct. Here’s a concept: Let’s skip the part where cultures clash, tempers flare, we have a riot, compose the crisis-soundtrack, seek closure and celebrate healing. Somebody won’t get rich but, oh well.
The trick is getting back to that story line we seem to have misplaced. The one where everyone plays by the rules and embraces the same national narrative. Where we stop acting like morons – mirrors up! – and hit the pause button on outrage.
We talk about political narratives all the time, but we no longer have a consensual American story. Barack Obama’s hope and change message has gone stale. Ronald Reagan’s morning in America has a hangover. And Sarah Palin’s platform is a wedge.
Instead of unity, we have dueling marches; competitions over “sacred” grounds; debates over religion and language that never should have been invited to the party.
Who can articulate this misplaced American vision? Obama did so beautifully at the 2004 Democratic convention, but his words have lost power through their impotent application.
Given the leadership vacuum, responsibility falls where it must – to the transformative power of the individual. Enough of us retain a memory of what it means to be American, and it has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, religious belief or the date of one’s citizenship. It has to do with a batch of exceptional ideas and a few simple rules of conduct.
A primer on the latter: Be considerate; tend your garden; mind your own business; lend a hand; keep your clothes on and your hands to yourself; honor your family and your country; don’t air your dirty laundry or vocabulary in public. And for God’s sake, don’t talk about religion. Oh, and resist spectacle.
Taken to heart, these principles would preclude sneaking into the country without permission. They would encourage private worship and public concern. They also might be understood to mean consulting neighbors before planning a symbolically charged structure near a site of national mourning.
Our failure to communicate this part of the American dream has meant we can’t get along. Until we do, peace, alas, hasn’t got a chance.
Kathleen Parker, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071