The Middle

This was my favorite ad during this past Sunday’s Super Bowl game. Not a hard call.

“The Middle” with Bruch Springsteen

A marketing rep for Jeep said, “It’s a prayer. We wanted it to be the most spiritual commercial in the history of Super Bowls.” And that’s exactly how I took it, as a prayer for America.

It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear. Now fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few. It belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, it’s what connects us, and we need that connection. We need the Middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground. So we can get there. We can make it to the mountain top, through the desert. And we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there is hope on the road up ahead.

Beautifully done by Springsteen.

I like how Springsteen refers to the Middle as a “place.” The Middle doesn’t have a unified political view. People who see themselves in the Middle don’t share all the same views. The Middle is mostly made up of those who lean one way or the other but aren’t extremists.

What makes us part of the Middle isn’t an agreement on all the issues, it’s a simple willingness to move toward that place where we stand together on common ground.

The Hampton Roads Conference — 156 years ago today

Historians call it the Hampton Roads Conference. It happened 156 years ago today. Not far from where I live now, near Fort Monroe, Virginia, on February 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln met with commissioners from the southern Confederacy to discuss a possible peace agreement.

The conference is dramatized in the Oscar winning movie Lincoln. The movie, of course, cannot give us all that was said during a roughly 4 hour meeting. What the film maker does in this scene is give us the core sentiments of the negotiating sides, creatively summed up in this short scene:

Hampton Roads Conference scene from Lincoln

“How have you held your union together? Your democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration. Your union sir, is bonded in canon-fire and death.”

Lincoln’s reply brilliantly turns those words back on Alexander Stephens. Yes, the sacrifices had been immense, but these sacrifices will ultimately be proven worthy because they were made not just for our democracy but for democracy as an idea itself. “But say all we’ve done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos. That there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union. Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to? Eventually to become worthy of? At all rates whatever may be proven by blood and sacrifice must have been proved by now.”

Again, the movie clip above is a creative dramatization. Stephens and Lincoln didn’t, as far as we know, actually say these lines, but if you read the correspondences related to this meeting and the various written recollections, you can see how what’s said could be interpreted as representing the central position of Stephens and Lincoln.

By the time of this meeting it was clear the Confederacy was defeated. It was over. The Hampton Roads Conference wouldn’t lead, however, to the Confederate government surrendering. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, would continue to allow southern troops to fight and die in a hopeless cause. The Civil War would end only when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.

JFK and civic virtue

President John F. Kennedy, Middleburg, Virginia

Above is a picture of President John F. Kennedy walking his dog at his home near Middleburg, Virginia, in the early 1960s. The picture reminded me of a couple of things. First, that JFK epitomized style and grace. Watch some of his speeches, like his “Peace Speech” at American University, or read his pulitzer prize winning book, Profiles and Courage. Watch some of his press conferences. What you’ll see and read are a man of elevated intellect, artfulness, and civic virtue.

Secondly, while JFK had his personal vices and sins, as all flesh and blood men do, I believe it’s wiser to judge our public leaders more by their public persona than by their personal lives. I’m thinking of the importance of civic virtue. I think the more important question is: What example does a public leader publicly model in both speech and action? Are they careful with their words because they’re trying to not overstate or understate something? Words matter and they know it. In other words, are they trying to be honest and responsible in what they say? Do they show good will toward their political adversaries? The need to find common ground and compromise, to build political capital in a Democratic-Republic, is critical. Do they exhibit humility? Is their sense of pride and self-importance in check? Is the public leader just in action and see themselves always under the law? As the Roman lawyer Ulpian wrote, “Justice is a steady and enduring will to render to everyone his right.” Do they demonstrate wisdom? Do they recognize the limits of what they know and yet be able to discern the inner quality and relationship of things and make a good judgement? Are they courageous? Kennedy, already wounded himself, risked his life in WWII to save other men. For a public leader courage may be shown in taking a stand that’s contrary to his own party’s position (a “profile in courage”) or public opinion because the leader believes (and can argue intelligently) why his position serves the larger interests of his community or nation. Does the leader exhibit self-control? Are they governed by their fears, desires, and passions, and show it openly (let it slip out) or are they a man or woman who tries to govern themselves?

As a President and public leader Kennedy demonstrated all of these civic virtues. Many Presidents have embodied these civic virtues. Another good Presidential example would be President Ronald Reagan. He too was a man who demonstrated many of the civic virtues I discussed above. Civic virtue is the life blood of our Republic because it’s about the common good. A good public leader (or citizen) feels the weight of his or her office (his or her citizenship), the judgment of history, and the obligation to bring order, unity, purpose, and inspiration to the nation that he or she leads (is a citizen of) for the short period of time they hold office (or live). The hope of freedom and democracy is that our democratically elected leaders (and each of us as citizens) will recognize that the office they hold (our citizenship) is much bigger than any one person or any one generation.  

Mark Twain’s Christmas wish

“It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us—the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage—may eventually be gathered together in heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss—except the inventor of the telephone.”

— Mark Twain, Hardford, Ct. Dec. 23, 1890

Encounter in a breakfast shop

I woke early yesterday morning. I decided I’d help the struggling economy so I went out to eat for breakfast. I went to a nearby breakfast shop for some pancakes and a little alone-time sipping coffee and reading a little of the new book I’d recently got. At least that was the original plan.

I was there just as the doors opened. The manager, I’ll call her Lisa, sat me in a booth. Besides the cook, she was the only other person working. I was the first and only customer and would be for about 30 minutes before any other patrons—and one of the servers—started trickling in.

While pouring my coffee Lisa noticed my new book. With a tone of curiosity, she read the title out-loud: “First Principles. Sounds interesting. So what’s it about?” I said it was a history book about the education of our first 4 presidents and the classical principles which they, and all the Founding Fathers ultimately, had constructed our nation upon.

She told me she loved history but didn’t have time for reading. She had 6 children and a busy life. She gently added, “These are interesting times for sure.” She was slow and cautious with her words, not knowing my views. “I can only imagine how historians,” she smiled slightly, “will see these very revealing times.”

Of course it was the word “revealing” that pulled me in. I began to probe.

“So where are you from?”

“I was a military brat of sorts growing up,” she said, “but basically I’ve lived in this area most of my life. Since I was about 5.”

“Do you like this area?”

“Hmmmm,” studying my face closely, “that’s a complicated question, sir” she said. “Some days I do….and some days I’d like to move far away. I know I can’t escape it all entirely, but the hate is thick in the air here.” I could tell she was watching my reaction to her words; waiting to see what her words might provoke…or reveal.

I assumed, correctly, that she was referring to the debased status of American politics. I told her, “Yes, well George Orwell once said ‘all issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia,’ and I think that statement has probably never been more true in American politics than right now.” Her gaze fixed on me, “Gosh, that is so true right now. I mean I’ve experienced deep hatred before while growing up and I know it’s always there, lurking, but I thought maybe our nation was making some real progress…..but I can see I was completely wrong.”

I was meditating on her words, “If I may…’deep’ hatred? What do you mean exactly? Hate is pretty strong and deep already, isn’t it?” Understand that Lisa is a woman of mixed race. She had told me during our chat that her mother was white and her father black.

She went on: “Well what I mean is when I was growing up my [maternal] grandparents never allowed me or my mixed race brother into their house. My brother and I had dark skin so we weren’t allowed inside the house. We had to sit on the front porch, but our half brother and sister, who were white, were allowed inside. My white mom had me and my brother with my dad, who was black, and then they got divorced and my mom remarried a white guy and had two white children with him. My grandparents were very racist. The white grandchildren were welcome in the house, my mixed raced brother and I weren’t. My grandparents made that very clear. I never understood it, it was so cruel. I mean it wasn’t mine or my brother’s fault that my mom slept with a black man and had us.”

The time period we’re talking about is the mid 1990s, in Virginia Beach, VA. That struck me. Lisa’s grandparents lived in a middle-class neighborhood. I had grown up in Va. Beach myself and left in 1991 and just recently moved back. The city was–and still is–largely a white, middle-class city, that constantly ranks in U.S. News magazine as one of he best places to live in America. It was a great place to grow up. At least it had been for me.

Stunned, I said, “So you were never allowed in your grandparent’s home?!”

“No, my brother and I, being black, had to sit on the front porch. My white half brother and sister went inside and visited.”

“So you sat out there on the porch the entire visit? Even if the visit went for hours?” I said.

“Yes, my mom would bring us food and we’d eat there on one of those rocking chair benches.”

She could see the look of searching disbelief on my face, “Even in the cold?”

“Yes. My brother and I were never allowed inside the house. After a while we’d sometimes wonder over to the neighbor’s house. They knew what was going on and gladly welcomed us to play with their kids, who were about my brother and I’s age.”

“So what did your mother say to you and your brother about all this?” I said.

Lisa paused, she seemed to be trying to balance something inside. “I don’t,” she began slowly, looking down, eyes darting back and forth, as if she was searching for something lost, “recall my mom objecting to it. She seemed to see it as something that was-what-it-was and we had to live with it. You have to understand that at first my mom might not have been racist. I mean she married my dad, but in the end she’s her parent’s child. I think she just accepted the situation with her parents and her mixed children because she somehow understood how they could be racist. I’ll never know I guess. Her and I have had it out numerous times recently about some of her Facebook posts. She’ll post openly racist stuff! She never use to do that. It’s like she doesn’t care how that might hurt my brother and I. She just doesn’t care.”

I asked Lisa why her mother might feel it’s okay to say or post these things that might hurt her children.

“You know before,” Lisa said, “my mother always sort of struggled, I think, with something inside about race and her life and her beliefs, but she use to have some restraint because of me and my brother. Not saying she handled it well, obviously, but she wasn’t this bad. But there’s no doubt the election of Donald Trump completely unleashed something inside her. Trump has unleashed something in the hearts of many Americans that is dark and hateful. It was always there, smoldering, Trump just threw fuel on it. That’s why I’d like to move away from here. But I know you can’t run from it.”

“So,” I asked, “your mother says and posts blatantly racist stuff and it hurts you and your brother. How do you get past it? How is it that you’re still able to maintain a good relationship with your mother?”

“Well that’s a very good question,” she said. “It does hurt, and we argue badly about it. A lot. But what do you do? It’s mom! There’s a lot I could hate my mom for but I refuse to do that. I guess what my racist grandparents taught me by their poor example was that hate is an awful thing. It can eat you up. They taught me how cruel and mean and ignorant hate can be and I’ve always said I would never be like them. My mom wasn’t born a racist. She learned to be racist from her parents. I think my younger mom had at first resisted….she married my dad for example. But that didn’t work out and she fell back into what she’d learned as a young girl. So I’ve tried to understand my mom and have some sympathy for the fact that her parents taught her to be racist. I keep hoping to reach that part of her that I know is there. Hope is all we got.”

“Yes, that’s true Lisa, for a lot of things in life all we can do is wait and hope.”