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GUEST COLUMN: Obama leads the way in kindness, civility

April 15th, 2012 Posted in Opinion

Citizens have an obligation toward civility. As the president wisely observed, ‘When we can no longer even engage in a conversation with each other over things that really matter, we lose something about ourselves and the democratic process in which we believe.’

By Helen Cannon

By writing this essay I don’t expect to persuade anyone to my point of view, but I would feel derelict if I didn’t express publicly what I believe with all of my heart. I write in defense and support of President Barack Obama, a man whom I believe to be the finest president in my lifetime of more than 70 years. That’s many presidents, including some who deserve high praise and an honorable place in our history.

I feel terribly sad that few come forward to defend and praise this president, and too many fail to treat him with the respect and honoring he deserves. In fact, even if he were less than deserving, is this the way we want to teach our children and grandchildren to disrespect the high office of President of The United States of America? Do we want them to believe that malice and rudeness befit their behavior toward the leader of our land? I grew up believing that the office and the man (or woman) holding it call for a certain deference and respect, regardless of whether I believed in the policies of that president. Instead I fear that our children are learning that basic civility and courtesy are not required behaviors.

Are our children to learn that in politics anything goes, especially if you’re wealthy? Should they be given examples of acceptable behavior such as when a President of the United States addressing the nation is interrupted by a congressional heckler (Joe Wilson) shouting “You lie!”? Is such an unprecedented and scurrilous example just how it goes in our political arena? I’ve wept over such savage and lying attacks directed at the man who leads our nation, and I’ve marveled over the utter guilelessness of our president under such vile attacks–over his gentility and calmness in the face of such terrible rudeness, and his civility in the face of awful incivility. Can anyone point to anything other than his courtesy and willingness to forgive? And, for that matter, in this world rife with infidelities and venality, can anyone point to anything other than exemplary behavior from this husband and father? (Not many who have held the office could boast a clean moral slate–not FDR, nor Eisenhower, nor Truman, nor Kennedy, nor Clinton.)

I wish that every critic of our President would read his two books–Dreams of My Father, and The Audacity of Hope. These two books are honest and straightforward and are not ghost-written, but are written in Barack Obama’s own impeccably fine style, and they convey the philosophy of an informed, bright, and honest man. The books make clear that the then-Senator Obama did not seek the presidency for glory, but rather because he believed that he could help a troubled nation and troubled world. Nor did he seek the office naively; he in fact foresaw some of the nasty opposition a Democratic president would meet, as well as the sure inheritance of an unprecedented national debt. And in The Audacity of Hope he makes clear how he knew that, to a great extent, Republican policy would embrace above all the protection of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and even the poor.

Furthermore and early on, Senator Obama was fully aware of and well-informed about international conflicts already in place. No other current candidate has such sure knowledge of the law nor of international affairs. I fear that in their hands America would be in danger of becoming hopelessly isolationist–no way to be in today’s world made small by communication and the need to recognize that, if we are to survive, we must all be brothers and sisters.

Our president came to office hoping to work with a cooperative, reasonable group of legislators and believing that bipartisan consideration of difficult issues might yield good and needful things. That hoped-for bipartisanship has not appeared, and as a result, bills that should have been quickly addressed have been made laboriously slow by way of the calculated Republican strategy of unrelenting obstruction. The President has been subjected to ridicule and calumny by a lunatic fringe of cable news reporters, and by bad-mannered, uninformed Tea Partiers.

It seems to me that we, as citizens, have an obligation toward civility. As the president wisely observed, “When we can no longer even engage in a conversation with each other over things that really matter, we lose something about ourselves and the democratic process in which we believe.”

Any reader of Dreams of My Father would quickly dismiss questions of the author’s authentic American citizenship, and the charge of his “elitism” would fall, as author Obama chronicles the difficulties and yet blessings of his middle class beginnings. We see how he admires his mother’s single parent determination to better herself in order to give this son chances for a good education and a relatively untroubled childhood. He tells of witnessing his mother’s efforts to get financial assistance for the cancer treatment she needed. (This witnessing may contribute to his conviction that we all need health care support. How unfortunate, that the legislation to secure this necessary medical protection has been so unfairly and erroneously portrayed; how sad that its critics, for the most part, simply don’t understand the plan nor that its origins were actually with Republican legislators, nor do they admit to its benign necessity in a world where health care is financially out of reach for all of us but the most fabulously wealthy.)

I am haunted by Dostoevsky’s parable of “The Grand Inquisitor” that appears in his book, The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s story seems made for our times, though it is set in 16th century Seville during the terrible times of the Spanish Inquisition when so-called heretics were being burned at the stake, and the people, in need of a savior, yearned and prayed for a Second Coming. And, as Dostoevsky’s parable has it, the Savior does indeed come. “The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they flock about Him and follow Him.” But then the appearance of The Grand Inquisitor changes everything. The Savior is condemned as the worst of heretics, thrown into prison, threatened with being burned at the stake, castigated as the One who would impose freedom and enlightenment on people unable to handle freedom and light and, finally, banished from the earth. “Dost Thou forget,” the Inquisitor queries the Savior, “that man prefers…even death to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.”

Can we accept the responsibilities of being kind and civil to each other as we try to make our precarious way toward informed and truthful understanding? Can we support our Chief of State as he tries to lead us, with all good intent, toward the light?

Helen Cannon writes from Logan, Utah, where she is an emerita faculty member of the Utah State University English department.


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  1. 2 Responses to “GUEST COLUMN: Obama leads the way in kindness, civility”

  2. By Star Coulbrooke on Apr 16, 2012

    Sincere gratitude to Helen Cannon for speaking in admiration of our president, a man who carried our hope for a better nation and who was met from the start with virulent hatred and ignorance from those who profit from instigating such behavior. I am exceedingly grateful to Helen Cannon for writing this heartfelt plea for decency and respect. These fine human qualities seemed to me to have been lost forever–until I read Helen’s letter. I wonder how our nation would change if its people looked for the good in others rather listening to the hate-mongers on TV and radio who make money by spreading fear and anger and blame.

  3. By Liz Butcher on Apr 16, 2012

    Thank you very much. You are a woman of great stature. If the rest of our nation held themselves to the same code of ethics that you do the world would be a much different place. All the best.

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