But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight –Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight – lyrics from Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Bruce Cockburn
Last weekend I had a rather eventful shopping trip to Target. I loaded up the car with four of my six children and headed to Ames for some clearance sale shopping. Our mission was find some great winter boots for our son. The combination of a sudden growth spurt and a tardy arrival to a typical Iowa winter necessitated the purchase. We had no luck at Wal-Mart, so reluctantly we stopped at Target. I say reluctantly because I hesitate to shop there after the whole Salvation Army debacle. Thankfully we found some boots that fit. I am like any other American mom; I love a good bargain and the boots were on clearance. A good bargain wasn’t all I found. I found a symptom of the terrible cancer that is eating away at America. Did I witness a crime in the housewares section? Was there a drug deal gone awry in the sporting goods section? No, it wasn’t anything as obvious as any of those crimes.
Heading toward the finish line of registers after keeping my children from pulling things off the shelf and surreptitiously placing them in our cart, a glittery headband caught our 4 year-old daughter’s eye. Distracted for a moment in the glow of her beautiful smile when she comes across a treasure; I failed to scan the card display right across from girls’ clothing section. I usually stop at the greeting cards to pick up some for my parents. While caught up in hair accoutrements with Tessa, I heard Wyatt shouting, “Mom, Mom there’s Sarah Palin.” At first I thought he had spotted someone resembling her in aisles, but he begged me to come over to the card section.
I immediately spotted what my son was talking about. One of the cards in the Saint Patrick’s Day section, stood out from the rest. On the front was Governor Palin wearing a red jacket and skirt. The card company ‘cleverly’ emblazoned a glittery shamrock on one of the lapels of her jacket. I couldn’t help but pick it up. The front of the card read “Sarah Palin will be the next President of the United States. I opened up the card to read the inside, which read something like “Cheer up. There are worse things than running out of beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.”
Despite my desire to snatch every copy of that card from the rack and take a Zippo lighter to each one, I calmly returned it to its slot next to the card that mentions Saint Patrick thought snakes tasted like chicken. As I gathered my thoughts and calmed my Irish temper, I realized that it wasn’t just the card I was upset about, but what it stood for. I know some people will think I am being silly for focusing on something as small as a poorly worded greeting card. To be honest, for the past few days I have been thinking I shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff’ either. However, after spending the day reflecting on Andrew Breitbart and all he stood for, I knew I needed to talk about it.
For me, I believe not only is this card in poor taste, it also represents something bigger. Its just a symptom of the growing disease penetrating the political halls, the corporate conference rooms, the small towns, and the schools. Now I know I am not uncovering some deep, dark backroom deal of crony capitalism, but I still think what the Palin St. Patrick’s day card reveals is just as important. I think it symbolizes the death of common decency in America. The disease eating away at the fabric of the American Spirit is the utter disregard for people. Respect and common decency, the once strong threads that held our exemplary national quilt of spirit together are becoming threadbare in a society that views disregard for people as more acceptable than showing common courtesy to other people regardless of their race, religion, social status, or even political leanings.
Looking at the events in the United States in the past several years and at the growing polarization in the country, it seems we hardly recognize what it means to show common decency or offer others a common courtesy. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines decency as follows: Propriety of behavior; what is accepted as being required by good taste or delicacy; avoidance of obscene language and gestures and of undue exposure of person; respectability. The definition of the adjective decent, includes seemly, not immodest, and used colloquially: kind, generous, obliging. It comes from the Latin decentia / decere – to be fitting. Our beloved country is being torn apart anger. And fingers are being pointed in every possible direction – always away from ourselves. Paul might have been talking to Americans when he writes to the Galatians: If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
We are devouring each other in every arena imaginable. The American Un-Civil War continues to penetrate every possible facet of our lives. We live in a time when schools use metal detectors to keep out guns and knives. Universities insist on behavior and speech codes to stem the tide of hatred and disrespect. Legal cases become shouting matches. The Internet is littered with menace. Political campaigns resemble food fights and conjure images of one of the presidential candidates channeling Bluto in Animal House during the food fight scene. Back talk is an idiom of sporting events. Popular culture accosts us on a daily basis with antics that would do The Jerry Springer Show proud. At best it is a bad time to be enveloped in decorum and at worst, anarchy is just around the corner. Crude, rude, and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners. It is hurting our politics and our culture. It is dividing the national community and eroding healthy values like common decency. The death of values like common decency is brought to light by the political factions in our nation. The split is hardened and unbending. Its like the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. It is where Americans are so divided over something that there is never any possibility of having it come back together.Oftentimes, this goes so far that no one can remember what caused the split in the first place, because things have gone beyond that now. It has become hatred for the people; that group against our group. “Who cares what caused it? We will just remain in this camp, and never the two meet again.” It has crystallized. Have we not seen crystallized dissension, where people hold different views and end up not hating the person’s views, but him? In the case of new media mogul Andrew Breitbart, who died early in the morning on Thursday, there has been a surge of vile commentary spewing across the Twitterverse. From comparisons to Hitler to individuals tweeting that they are content the pundit has passed, the messages are disturbing at best.
This increasing incivility is evidence of a social breakdown and it is nothing new. History is littered with the disastrous attempts to push common decency aside. In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, we are told the story of the ancient Israelites. Jeremiah tells of a city where not one uncorrupted person can be found. Moral boundaries like common decency are absent and everyone free to do or not do whatever they wanted. There is utter chaos and as a result the Israelites end up in captivity for seventy years. The radicals of the French enlightenment promised equality and opportunity for all, but the nouvelle regime they created in the eighteenth century was a disaster because they left God out of the picture and showed respect for no one. Concern for the well-being of others was a major failing of the Soviet Union. Because of the corrupt system in which they were trapped, the people became corrupt, self-centered, and skeptical of everything and everyone. The government deprived the people of faith in God and the people lost their common decency. As a result when the Soviet economy was grinding to a halt in the 1980’s and 90’s, no one would risk his or her own safety for the well-being of others.
America will be added to the annals of history that describe these ill-fated ventures into disrespect if we are not vigilant enough to pay attention to all the small things. We will end up going the way of the French or the Soviets. In 1959 when then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushschev visited the United States, making a stop in Iowa, he had a disagreement with Ezra Taft Benson, United States Secretary of Agriculture. The Soviet Premier boasted to the Agriculture Secretary that Benson’s own grandchildren would live under Communism. Benson replied tartly that he expected to do all in his power to assure that Khrushchev’s and all other grandchildren would live under freedom. The Communist leader then responded in essence, according to Benson’s personal account: “You Americans are so gullible. No, you won’t accept communism outright, but we’ll keep feeding you small doses of socialism until you’ll finally wake up and find you already have communism.”
Small things are not harmless. Things like crude greeting cards in department stores, the ridicule a professional athlete who chooses to stop and give praise to God after a game is faced with, and even the disgusting messages about the death of Andrew Breitbart need to be paid attention to and not go unchecked.
The small slits like the death of common courtesy in America’s watertight republic might prove to be her undoing. In a 1997 article, a writer for USA Today wrote: Scientists now say that a series of slits, not a giant gash, sank the Titanic. The opulent, 900-foot cruise ship sank in 1912 on its first voyage, from England to New York. Fifteen hundred people died in the worst maritime disaster of the time.The most widely held theory was that the ship hit an iceberg, which opened a huge gash in the side of the liner. But an international team of divers and scientists recently used sound waves to probe the wreckage, buried in the mud under two-and-a-half miles of water. Their discovery? The damage was surprisingly small. Instead of the huge gash, they found six relatively narrow slits across the six watertight holds.
You and I can steer America back on course away from the iceberg of indifference when it comes to things like common decency. We need to follow Andrew Breitbart’s example. One of Andrew Breitbart’s most endearing habits: when angry progressives sent their hatred his way he retweeted it for all his followers to see. Andrew argued that we needed to show everyone the nature of the people working to destroy America. We need to expose the small symptoms of America’s decline like the lack of common decency in order to restore America. Albert Camus wrote in his book, The Plague – There’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.