I was born into the Camelot era. Yesterday, with the burial of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, I saw its end.
For those of you who happen to be much younger than I am, “Camelot” refers to the mystique and perceived larger than life aspects of the extended Kennedy family. Back in the 1950s, particularly with the ascendancy of John, the extended and privileged Kennedy family became sort of like national rock stars, all larger than life. The Kennedys were a whole family of Barack Obamas, personable, stylish, accessible, passionate, outspoken, political by nature, but unlike Obama, rich. Yet, perhaps because of their Catholicism, they were sincerely interested in rectifying the inequities between the rich and the poor. When President John F. Kennedy asked us to give back to our country instead of take from it, we of the Camelot generation felt energized. Nationally we also embraced his ideas of American greatness by succeeding in quixotic national quests like putting a man on the moon by 1970. Moreover, we believed that through applied intelligence that were going to lead the world into a new, peaceful and utopian age.
The current sad and nasty debate over health insurance reform, the cause of Edward Kennedy’s life, shows how far we have come from the days of Camelot. For those of us still captivated by the Kennedy aura, there is nothing more natural or patriotic than to ensure social justice for all Americans. We believe this because only a few can meet their potential if they go through life economically and socially handicapped. No senator ever did more (or is likely to do more) to advance social justice than Edward M. Kennedy. Judging by Republicans in particular, the only socially acceptable way to “ask what you can do for your country” is to serve in the military. Otherwise, it is every man for himself, brother. The sanctioned game is no longer national unity or promoting the common welfare, but to see who can accumulate the most stuff and lord it over their less fortunate neighbors. To Republicans, government should not be redistributing wealth at all, except, of course, to farmers, small businessmen and very large corporations. To them, an important role for government is to make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else. Charity is okay only to the extent it is done by churches and non-profit organizations, even though such endeavors do not come close to meeting the need for services.
Bipartisanship, which was on critical support, also died with Senator Edward Kennedy. Kennedy was a consummate cross-the-aisle type of politician. He made friends with staunch conservatives like Senator Orrin Hatch and the late Senator Jesse Helms. The right is giving Orrin Hatch all sorts of grief for his having the audacity of even being a friend of Edward Kennedy, a liberal. How could he do this? How could he associate with one of them? How can anyone call someone a friend when they do not share the same political ideology? The mere idea!
Modern American politics is sadly resembling some lyrics from the musical Chess:But we’re gonna smash their bastard Make him wanna change his name Take him to the cleaners and devastate him Wipe him out, humiliate him We don’t want the whole world saying They can’t even win a game We have never reckoned On coming second There’s no use in losing
Senator Kennedy, partisan though he was, was not vindictive. In short, he was civilized. With his passing, it appears that political discourse must henceforth be all coarse, all the time. Any compromise is now perceived to be a sign of weakness and a reason to be cast from your ideological tribe. Anything to give you the upper hand is okay, even if it is spewing nonsense like the government is out to kill grandma.
President Obama, usually a very perceptive guy, seems to think that bipartisanship is still possible. He assumes that at some fundamental level politicians can be reasonable people. Unfortunately, our politicians mirror the nation at large, which is full of dogmatic, uncompromising, my way or the highway, plain unreasonable people. As in the book 1984, today we perceive ignorance to be strength. In doing so we merely hasten the time when our country moves from a first-class country to a second-class country.
We are rapidly devolving into the Divided States of America. More agile countries, like Canada, address societal issues like national health care with pragmatism and evidence-based approaches. We try to solve problems through turning our ideology into law.
It is unclear to me if this can be changed. I do know that with Kennedy’s passing I am very worried about our country. If we cannot inculcate and foster an evidenced-based society, our nation is doomed. If extreme partisanship is more important than using our common sense to step forward and solve problems on behalf of all the people, rather than just our own ideological tribe, our nation is also doomed. We need politicians like Edward Kennedy brave enough to cross the aisle, listen and engage in give and take, and know the other side as people. Right now, the divides in our Congress seem more intractable than those between Israelis and Palestinians.
Perhaps education will eventually turn the tide. This is essentially what I told my students yesterday. I teach part time in a community college where the percentage of students who attain their associate’s degree is only about forty percent. This is not at all unusual for a community college, which welcomes all including lots of students who lose nerve on their path toward a degree.
The country does not need a nation of relatively unproductive citizens in low skill, low paying jobs for the rest of their lives. To retain our greatness, increase the common wealth and successfully complete in the 21st century, my students need to hang in there and complete their degrees. In addition to learning advanced skills in college, they also need broad liberal arts courses so they have a better appreciation for how the world actually works. Knowing why things are the way they are will help them as our future leaders pragmatically address the problems of the day.
Perhaps as part of acquiring their degree, they should also pass classes in negotiating and listening. Ideological wars solve nothing. All wars, whether real or ideological, are karmic in character; all are zero sum gains and merely sow the seeds for the next conflict. Bipartisanship is hard but it is a worthy goal, but it is impossible if neither side will negotiate honestly and in good faith. Both sides must be willing to compromise.
If peace can come to Northern Ireland, perhaps we can find political leaders brave enough to stand up to the flack within their own party and cross the aisle. With the end of Camelot, that day seems very far off. While it continues, I worry that our great nation is moving down a slippery slope toward national dysfunction.