By now, we have all seen the video: the raucous school boys, the dancing, the jeering, the chopping, the chanting, the drumming, and the face-off. We have seen the young man, clad in “Make American Great Again” gear, standing with pious and self-righteous resolve in front of Nathan Phillips, a sixty-four year-old Marine veteran and elder of the Omaha.
We have seen the condemnation, the radicalization, the consequences of ill-context. We have seen the media’s overcorrection, the social media double-down, and the dying flames of America’s ability to reason, contemplate, and judge.
In a sense, this scene on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is a reflection of what has become of our United States. We have become a nation of noise, a country of cacophony.
No longer do we speak to each other, we speak past and over each other. We do not take the time to listen. We do not take the effort to learn. Instead, we let our own, individual value-choices drive our opinions. Fact is not fact, and that is a fact.
George Washington warned in his Farewell Address:
“[T]he spirit of party…sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension…is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and personal despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in absolute power of an individual….It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
These words ring true today, even 223 years after they were first spoken. The absolute dominance of party politics — the belief that my team is always right and yours is always wrong — has seeped into the minds of the American public from powerful politicians on high.
Resentment and hatred are deeply embedded in our current political consciousness. We are distrustful, disdainful, and disrespectful of one another. We cannot fathom that someone outside of our social or social media bubble might hold a difference of opinion. How could they? Don’t they know the evils of their ways?
But such divisiveness comes not from the people themselves. We do not naturally hate each other. It is not in our best interest to do so. From a pure biological and evolutionary standpoint, how can we survive as a species if we hold such deep-seated hatred for others of our kind?
No, the division comes from somewhere else, someone else: the people in power, the politicians.
Career politicians and political entrepreneurs shape how we interact with one another in ways that we don’t really understand. When a Republican politician shouts “You lie” to the President of the United States during a public address, that lessens the overarching political discourse and gives others on his side the clearance to treat those who disagree with them with disrespect.
The same goes for Democrats. When they refuse to agree with President Trump, even on issues that they traditionally have agreed with — tariffs, an end to unnecessary wars, attempts at peace — they’re followers, without delay, immediately condemn supporters of these policies as traitors and un-American.
The way our politicians behave in the public arena directly correlates to how we relate with one another on a daily basis. This phenomenon is what makes the episode on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial so fascinating.
Politicians have long shed any semblance of respect for their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. They are so desperate for a win that any respect that might exist between them has gone out the window. This has a deleterious effect on the public at large.
The media and social commentators, in reflecting on the incident, seem to miss the forest for the trees. What happened was not a matter of racism, it was not a matter of school-boy stupidity, and it was not matter of left or right. It was a matter of respect.
Growing up, I could not imagine having such defiance and gall to stand directly in front of an older gentleman like Nathan Phillips. I am sure that I am not alone in that feeling. As a child, I was taught to respect those who were older than me, to give them great deference and admiration. That was especially so when I did not know the person. It was, “Yes sir, and, “No ma’am.”
I was raised to stand when another person entered the room, to hold the door for others, to ask questions and engage with the grandfathers and grandmothers of the world. And through engaging and respecting, I learned how to be the best person possible. Those lessons, I am afraid, are lost in America today.
I am only eight years older than Nick Sandmann, the smirking boy in the video. I was raised not three hours from his hometown in Kentucky. We share a connection to the Commonwealth, her people, and, presumably, her value-set. We even share a common Catholic prep-school education.
But where we differ, from my own deciphering of the video, is how we understand respect. Respect means stepping aside when someone is walking. Respect means quieting your friends so that they can listen. Respect means appreciating others who are not like you. Respect means admitting that you were wrong.
What Sandmann did was not respectful. It may not have been racially motivated, and it may have only been adolescent stupidity. Yet even adolescents understand the basic concept of respect. His stance was pure disrespect.
America should take this moment to reflect on how we engage and interact with one another. That might be asking an awful lot at this juncture in our history, one where self-reflection and self-condemnation are anathema to our feelings. The disrespect and irreverence of our political leaders have poisoned the American mind, they have opened gateways for us to hate, revile, and rebuke each other. That is not the America I know.
If we hope to dig ourselves out of this current moment, out of this crevice of division and ill-discourse, we must learn to first respect ourselves and then each other. Our politicians certainly are not going to do that for us, so we must do it ourselves.
Once we discover that there are others outside of our own world-views that deserve dignity, reverence, and understanding, then we can heal as a nation. Then we can make America great again.