On the day following the second presidential debate, my brother telephoned as he always does on October 10 to share memories of my Dad, who died in his arms on that date when my brother was only thirteen. He is a grown man now, my brother, and one of the finest men I know. We live 500 miles apart and don’t see each other as often as we’d like. Talking by phone is how we stay in touch, and it is always good to talk with him.
Whenever we discuss my Dad, the thing that baffles and amazes us is how he managed to survive in the segregated South during a time when almost no one put the word “Mister” in front of his name. Not only did he and my mother survive those times, they put us four kids through parochial schools and college, shielding us as much as possible from the slights and injustices taking place all around us. They believed a better day was coming, and they did not want us to be embittered by a past that might soon be nothing more than a bad memory. We sometimes wonder about that strategy in light of today’s bleak realities. The better day my parents dreamed of did seem to be unfolding for a while. But as Vernon Jordan pointed out on the Charlie Rose program not long ago, the bad old days are trying to make a comeback.
I could give you a list. But you can name the reasons yourself beginning with the unconscionable number of blacks killed by gun-happy white police officers. The Charleston church murders would be on that list. So would the sniper-style assassination of five innocent police officers in Dallas earlier this year. Each day seems to add some new nightmare to the list as the world my parents dreamed off drifts further and further from view. They would be astonished that the 21st century has become a time when it would be necessary to say black lives matter. Because in the year 2016, an African-American would be president of the United States, and all that racial hatred—lynching, fire hoses, police dogs, church bombings—would be behind us. If my parents were alive today, they would ask, “Has the world gone crazy?”
After watching the second presidential debate, I would have to tell them that it has. When it was over, I knew a debate had taken place, but there was nothing presidential about it. When the two candidates do not shake hands at the beginning, you know it will not be a good night. When the unapologetic locker-room language of "pussy-grabbing" is conveyed in one candidate’s body language while the other is unable to explain adequately the deletion of 33 thousand subpoenaed emails, you know it is certainly not a good night. When the moderators are attacked and ignored, it is not a good night. When sexual misconduct is so central a part of the campaign that parents do not feel they can allow their children to watch the debate, it is indeed a very bad night.
Thank goodness the day after the debate was World Mental Health Day. I certainly felt a mental-health break was in order. So it was good that the day after was also a holiday—although even it reeked of contention over whether it should be called Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day. Regardless of its name, the holiday was a chance to step back, regain perspective.
Before my brother called, I had a chance to re-watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, which featured a wonderful take-off on his hit Broadway phenomenon Hamilton. Yes, American politics has always been rough, even sleazy, going all the way back to the Founding Fathers. And yet something quite good came out of those early conflicts—our flawed but well intentioned Declaration of Independence and the Constitution we still argue about.
Something good always comes out of my brother’s phone calls too. Usually it has to do with a book he’s reading. Last year, his reading habits got me re-reading Hermann Hesse. This week, he reminded me of Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love. It’s been a long time since I read that one, but I admired how Williamson applied the challenging lessons of A Course in Miracles to her own life. One of those lessons, if I recall correctly, has to do with the individual’s responsibility on the road to spiritual progress, which goes something like this: Unless you are able to see your fellow man in his elemental innocence—no matter what his ego-bound personality has done to you—you are getting nowhere. As Lao-Tzu wrote, “A bad man is a good man’s job. If you don’t understand that, you have learned nothing.”
So our task then, as the final questioner in Sunday’s town-hall-style debate made patently clear, is to look at the opponent and find at least one good thing about him. It was the only uplifting moment in a depressingly un-presidential debate. And it gives us pause.
We must find a way to forgive our trespassers—but we sure as hell don’t have to vote for them.
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