Tonawanda News

January 23, 2013

DUVALL: Becoming 'We The People' again

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — There is a special tradition in presidents’ second inaugural addresses. Abraham Lincoln’s was just 701 words long — probably shorter than this column will turn out to be (and a pertinent reminder that brevity stands next to poignancy).

In that regard, I thought President Obama’s remarks were well received. He was plainspoken and relatively brief. He eschewed lofty rhetoric for the most part and didn’t shy away from talking in specifics rather than metaphor. 

I thought it was a reflection of our new age, where talk is endless and meaning in words is more and more difficult to find.

I don’t disagree with the general reaction in the punditry that this was a simple defense of progressivism and a call to civility in an increasingly myopic, me-first society.

But it also marked a change in Obama’s overall direction. He called us to action invoking the Declaration of Independence’s first three words, “We The People.” But he did so in a way that set aside the “hope and change” mantra of his first term. This seems to be a new president, bound to bring Americans together in common cause in spite of a political environment that seems bent on gridlock and the resulting mutual destruction.

Obama has realized something many of us had hoped he would see far sooner, that bipartisanship in Washington is, in itself, not a worthwhile pursuit without a resolution to the aching and growing chasms in American society. 

Yes, our politicians are divided and seemingly inept. But in many respects our lawmakers are a reflection of average Americans who disagree disagreeably over a wide range of issues. We watch the news that tells us what we want to hear about the world. We huddle with friends in houses of worship and in corners of the Internet, shielded from the other side, telling each other how right we are about everything.

If the paralysis of Washington is ever to cease we must first find a way to break through this social pattern and again engage with the outside world.

The Internet was initially thought to be a brilliant way to exchange information with people from all over the world and from all walks of life. What it has turned into instead is a perfect way to find like-minded people and become even more insular than we were before. 

Think about it: Facebook has a “hide” function, allowing us to block postings from people to whom we feel some nominal social obligation, but whose politics or personal ticks irritate us — without their even knowing.

It begs a question: Are we hiding them or hiding from them?

We are not One Nation Under God. We’re 300 million people living inside the lines we’ve drawn to delineate ourselves from others, arguing about god and everything else under the sun.

There are certainly policy prescriptions that can help cure this ill. Resolving immigration and expanding gay rights will bring two groups out of the shadows and into the public square once and for all. His inclusion of Stonewall and the fight for marriage equality was a watershed moment and at the same time almost unsurprising. 

It stands as testament to the fact that things can change — that we can change. A decade ago it would have been unthinkable for a president of either party to mention gay marriage rights in an inaugural address.

And yet, it almost seems anti-climatic. 

What’s it worth being invited into the public dialogue if the conversation is so toxic, so disconnected and misinformed that it cannot produce a conclusive common purpose?

We’ve always been a diverse nation with a wide range of views and a raucous political system. But the vitriol the right feels for Obama — and the vitriol the left felt for his predecessor — makes any other debate impossible to have.

This is the greatest challenge Obama must face. It’s also the single largest problem facing every individual American.

How do we get to be We The People again?

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com.