Gary Horton | Have We the Guts for Introspection?

Gary Horton

My last column, “Are We Who We Think We Are?” touched a sensitive nerve. I’ve received letters of praise and I’ve read angry letters attacking the column and me. I’ve been called brilliant and insightful, yet also called “dishonest” by local notables. 

This column asked the sensitive question of, “Are we living up to the values and the American promise we’ve long held up as making us a unique and exceptional people?” It was prompted by Donald Trump’s recent racist rhetoric, calling (illegal) immigrants “terrorists,” “vermin,” “poisoning the blood of this country.” I contrasted Trump’s vile rhetoric with the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which proclaims:  

“Give me your tired, your poor, 

“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore… 

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, 

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

That column did not suggest open borders. Rather, that column was about how we speak of, and treat, fellow humans. Do we talk, feel and act with compassion, or do we denigrate the tired, poor and most vulnerable? While we may not have capacity to accept all comers; while we (hopefully soon) bring purpose and realism to our immigration policies, we can yet speak of these people — and all — with respect, upholding human dignity? 

Do we support human dignity? If so, our words and actions should reflect it. We are fellow humans, not “vermin.” 

“Are we who we think we are?” This calls for honest introspection – the kind that may hurt or even haunt, when looking deeply inward to assess your incongruencies. This introspection weighs our actions against our values. It asks us individually, and in our chosen groups, and politics, “Is what we are doing, is what we are supporting, and is what we are voting for – congruent with what we hold up as our personal standards and ethics? Or are we willing to bend? And to what end and why?”

If we say, “America is the greatest democracy on Earth,” then, do we vote for leaders who have and will uphold and defend that democracy? Or are we saying one thing, while promoting a man who praises autocracies and has attempted coups against the Constitution and democracy he pledged to uphold? 

“So, what are we going to do here folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break,” said Trump, during a one-hour gangster harassment of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. 

How can we say we support democracy yet support a coup-plotter? A man so corrupt, he refused to accept his loss with dignity to preserve the Union. If Trump acted so as a Little League coach, he’d be fired right on the field by any of us, regardless of political affiliation. Yet today, Trump remains God-like to some 30% of Americans, regardless of any of his offensive actions.  

Perhaps we don’t care about democracy so much anymore. Perhaps our fear of demographic change trumps our commitment to our Constitution.  

Why do folks clap in support when Trump disparages Nikki Haley’s heritage as child to dark-skinned immigrants? Why was Trump’s Obama birtherism so popular? Maybe deep inside, we fear “the other.” Why does Trump’s racial disparaging receive so much support? 

How can we celebrate, when Trump calls fellow Republican John McCain a “loser” for being captured in Vietnam? Or when he diminishes a Blue Star family who’d lost a son in military service? 

Maybe, when we look in the mirror, we discover we’re a meaner people than we’d previously admitted? Are we mean? Are we petty? Are we bullies? If we root for and support such stuff, maybe we really are. 

Are we what we support? Perhaps this is the greatest tip of the hat of our truer character. Maybe we like the swagger of that bully at the podium. Maybe we just want easy answers and street-hood mentality to ride roughshod, toppling the tables at the democratic temple, so to speak? 

The allure for a strongman to dictate this and decree that is indeed alluring after all the Washington dysfunction we’ve sadly endured. But do we have strength of character to resist this seduction that betrays the core values we say describe us? 

Said Hamilton, in the play of the same name, “If you stand for nothing … what will you fall for?”  

Following Alexander Hamilton’s logic, “If you have no conviction, then you are vulnerable to those who do have them.” 

“If you have no moral core … no iron in your spine, you will fall victim to those that do.” – Unitarian Universalist of Geneva. 

“Are we who we think we are?” 

Ultimately, is there “iron in our spine” to defend our deepest values, or will we fall victim to those with iron and agendas for far different ends? 

America’s future weighs in the balance. Issues ranging from local to national irritate and plague us. How we now respond, how we vote now – will be the true mirror of what we really think about what we say is most valuable and sacred to us.

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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