UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – We need to talk

One serious problem in contemporary America is simply a rhetorical one. Basically, the general discourse has become pretty crass and rather harsh. Many people can’t even talk to each other anymore, and when they do, their words are not what we’d call polite conversation. The language Americans use to speak about people with whom they disagree has become negative to the point of absurdity. Perhaps it’s time we put away the superlatives and simply talk in tempered tones. 

As a writer and teacher, I come by my language skills honestly, having learned the art of communication from my parents. My mom was a newspaper writer and editor, and my dad worked in personnel. And while my mom was an astute observer and master of the written word, my dad was simply a great talker. Working for many years in labor relations, he valued the art of communication, and he knew that if people were honest and earnest, anything could be talked out. “As long as we’re talking …” he would say. That was his credo: “Everything will be all right as long as we’re talking.”

That spirit of genuine conversation guided my dad in his job and personal relationships. He spent many years walking the neighborhood each morning with a close friend and neighbor who was also his polar opposite on many political issues. As they walked and talked, the conservative Catholic Republican and the progressive Protestant Democrat never resolved much or changed the other’s mind, but they were always friends at the end of the day. We once theorized that if our senators and representatives walked and talked each morning, the country might be in better shape. I actually wrote a column for Merion West Magazine, suggesting “Congress Should Live Together.” I envisioned a 535-family townhouse complex in DC where politicians and their families would all be neighbors. They might not always agree, but it’s harder to hate each other when your kids play together.  

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill were fierce political rivals. Their public comments about each other weren’t often kind. In fact, Reagan once called Tip after a particularly harsh comment in the newspapers, and Tip told him, “Well, buddy, that’s just politics. After 6:00, we’re friends.” The two political giants battled for many years, and probably didn’t hang out much. But they ultimately developed a healthy respect for each other, and at the end of their careers, Reagan said, “Tip, if I had a ticket to Heaven, and you didn’t have one, I’d give mine away and go to Hell with you.” Years later Joe Scarborough would opine that you could impeach Bill Clinton one day, and the next Bill would come up and ask you to go play a round of golf. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton led successful presidencies because they were, in their hearts, friendly, gregarious men.

Politics doesn’t have to be a combat sport, and political opponents don’t have to disparage each other. Disagreement about political issues doesn’t mean one side is stupid. It doesn’t mean one side is made of fascists while the other is full of communists. Neither political party hates America, and no one is destroying the Constitution. People just have different views, and they should be able to talk about them with tact and maturity. At one time in American history, the Senate was envisioned as the great deliberative body. Senate procedures and the filibuster were actually intended to slow the discussion and extend the debate. Like my dad said, “As long as we’re talking …” 

Of the many great documents in American political history, Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Addresses at the beginning and end of the Civil War are among our most treasured. As the nation prepared to go to battle, Lincoln actually finished his first address by reminding Americans “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Years later, as the conflict came to a close and the country faced a difficult reunification, he urged America to go forward “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” If Americans coming out of the Civil War could cease portraying each other as the enemy, then certainly two political parties talking about tax rates can do the same.

As the campaign season gears up, and voters prepare for midterm elections, let us hope cooler heads prevail, and someday soon we can speak to and about each other civilly. As Honest Abe wished for us, we should always seek to be guided “by the better angels of our nature.”

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com

We need to talk

One serious problem in contemporary America is simply a rhetorical one. Basically, the general discourse has become pretty crass and rather harsh. Many people can’t even talk to each other anymore, and when they do, their words are not what we’d call polite conversation. The language Americans use to speak about people with whom they disagree has become negative to the point of absurdity. Perhaps it’s time we put away the superlatives and simply talk in tempered tones. 

As a writer and teacher, I come by my language skills honestly, having learned the art of communication from my parents. My mom was a newspaper writer and editor, and my dad worked in personnel. And while my mom was an astute observer and master of the written word, my dad was simply a great talker. Working for many years in labor relations, he valued the art of communication, and he knew that if people were honest and earnest, anything could be talked out. “As long as we’re talking …” he would say. That was his credo: “Everything will be all right as long as we’re talking.”

That spirit of genuine conversation guided my dad in his job and personal relationships. He spent many years walking the neighborhood each morning with a close friend and neighbor who was also his polar opposite on many political issues. As they walked and talked, the conservative Catholic Republican and the progressive Protestant Democrat never resolved much or changed the other’s mind, but they were always friends at the end of the day. We once theorized that if our senators and representatives walked and talked each morning, the country might be in better shape. I actually wrote a column for Merion West Magazine, suggesting “Congress Should Live Together.” I envisioned a 535-family townhouse complex in DC where politicians and their families would all be neighbors. They might not always agree, but it’s harder to hate each other when your kids play together.  

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill were fierce political rivals. Their public comments about each other weren’t often kind. In fact, Reagan once called Tip after a particularly harsh comment in the newspapers, and Tip told him, “Well, buddy, that’s just politics. After 6:00, we’re friends.” The two political giants battled for many years, and probably didn’t hang out much. But they ultimately developed a healthy respect for each other, and at the end of their careers, Reagan said, “Tip, if I had a ticket to Heaven, and you didn’t have one, I’d give mine away and go to Hell with you.” Years later Joe Scarborough would opine that you could impeach Bill Clinton one day, and the next Bill would come up and ask you to go play a round of golf. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton led successful presidencies because they were, in their hearts, friendly, gregarious men.

Politics doesn’t have to be a combat sport, and political opponents don’t have to disparage each other. Disagreement about political issues doesn’t mean one side is stupid. It doesn’t mean one side is made of fascists while the other is full of communists. Neither political party hates America, and no one is destroying the Constitution. People just have different views, and they should be able to talk about them with tact and maturity. At one time in American history, the Senate was envisioned as the great deliberative body. Senate procedures and the filibuster were actually intended to slow the discussion and extend the debate. Like my dad said, “As long as we’re talking …” 

Of the many great documents in American political history, Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Addresses at the beginning and end of the Civil War are among our most treasured. As the nation prepared to go to battle, Lincoln actually finished his first address by reminding Americans “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Years later, as the conflict came to a close and the country faced a difficult reunification, he urged America to go forward “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” If Americans coming out of the Civil War could cease portraying each other as the enemy, then certainly two political parties talking about tax rates can do the same.

As the campaign season gears up, and voters prepare for midterm elections, let us hope cooler heads prevail, and someday soon we can speak to and about each other civilly. As Honest Abe wished for us, we should always seek to be guided “by the better angels of our nature.”

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com