Clearwater, Fla. — According to Google Maps, I’m 147 miles from the University of Florida in Gainesville, but that didn’t keep people here from being on edge as a white supremacist was prepared to speak there. A protester threw “at least one punch,” bloodying a man who was wearing a swastika emblem, according to the Miami Herald; but nothing like August’s violence in Charlottesville happened in the Sunshine State.
As a surrounding county faced its state of emergency, people here seemed to take the incident as a prompt for an examination of conscience. At a morning Mass at the House of Prayer here, the priest, the pastor of a neighboring church (St. Catherine of Siena, a lifetime favorite of mine), talked about his own prejudices. They were nothing reaching white-supremacist levels, but that’s the point: It’s a long road to where we can wind up. Nip that stuff in the bud early. Shine a light on it — acknowledge it — and eradicate it in your own heart. That’s a great first step to contributing to the common good. That’s part of common decency and good citizenship, too. It’s being a good steward and is civic justice one person at a time.
The same day, former president George W. Bush gave a speech in New York. And in one of the weird turns in contemporary history, it was well received — because it was deemed an attack on President Donald J. Trump. But that’s a cramped way of reading Bush’s speech. He had wise words to offer — they were not about him but about us and what we need to be, individually and nationally, for the sake of ourselves, our neighbors, and the world:
We are gathered in the cause of liberty this is a unique moment. The great democracies face new and serious threats — yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence. Economic, political, and national-security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand. . . .
We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future. We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity. We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just and the weak are valued. And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.
The human freedom point is the point. For way too long now, we’ve fallen into a bipartisan habit of waiting for politics to solve the problem, whatever it is. And while there are certain policy and global questions that are necessarily in the realm of political leadership, good and evil aren’t among them, not exclusively. We have this reflex when something bad happens in the world, such as a mass shooting like we’ve seen all too often and most recently in Las Vegas. Talking heads say that there ought to be a law, or there ought to be more guns in other hands, depending on your ideological tendencies. But there also ought to be families flourishing and neighbors looking out for neighbors and schools and churches, and communities nurturing people on real practical hope and the resources that keep it within reach. It’s all part of being good stewards of human life, a democratic republic, and freedom.
President Bush keyed in to the main problems:
There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young, who never experienced the galvanizing moral clarity of the Cold War, or never focused on the ruin of entire nations by socialist central planning. Some have called this “democratic deconsolidation.” Really, it seems to be a combination of weariness, frayed tempers, and forgetfulness.
I haven’t heard such an accurate triplet — weariness, frayed tempers, and forgetfulness — in a long time. I remember loving an ad campaign more than a few years back now — an ad about “mourning” in America. Obviously trying to capture something of Ronald Reagan, the ad acknowledged the weariness we felt as we traveled down the road to frayed tempers. People had already become so cynical about politics, but it was turning into something else: Disappointment becomes anger and a desire to try something different because the same hurts, and badly.
So where does moral clarity come in? In not forgetting who we are and who we want to be, not reacting from anger and defensiveness. In remembering that life and freedom are our most prized possessions, gifts that we have a responsibility for and that not everyone has, though all need and want them, even when the fog is too stifling to see.
Florida moves on from a big, nerve-wracking news story about a day that cost a lot in security. But we have no security going forward if we don’t each realize our power in the bigger story of the future health of this place we call home.