Sunday, August 25, 2013

Superior Dignity

50 years ago this week, hundreds of thousands of American citizens descended on The Mall in Washington DC to march for jobs, justice and freedom. One of the organizers of the March on Washington was Asa Phillip Randolph, the preeminent African-American labor leader of all time. 

This morning, on Meet The Press, David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, praised Randolph for his "superior dignity" , not only in organizing such a march (Randolph's second such undertaking), but in the way Randolph handled the broader issues of social and economic equality. It reminded me how far away our current public policy dialogue has strayed from being dignified.

The Civil Rights Movement has been equated to the third American Revolution and the second Civil War in the annuals of US history. 58 years after Emmitt Till was murdered and Rosa Parks quietly defied segregation, America has transformed. Because of the movement, America is closer now to becoming that land of freedom and opportunity the Founding Fathers sought as they were defying the tyranny of a British king.

It was the dignity and sacrifice of Randolph, King, Young, Wilkins, Rustin, Evers, Hamer, Parks, Till and countless others that led to the success of that movement. While their dialogue and rhetoric at that time was revolutionary, controversial and discomforting to some, it was never disrespectful of the principles of public policy or the core values of this nation. It was a movement that respected individual dignity with the sole purpose of improving the general welfare of a nation. They successfully argued that both go hand in hand.

However, there are voices now, that were resonant then, that truly believe that America is strong solely based on the strength of individual liberty. You hear the stories all the time of how Americans pulled themselves out of the wretched grips of poverty. But one of the speakers at the 50th Commemoration of the March of Washington articulately conveyed the counter argument. He said a young man of color who has achieved a level of success told him that the movement had nothing to do with what was on his résumé. The speaker replied it was the movement that got you the right to have your résumé read.

The argument needs to continue, in a dignified way. There is merit in saying America is strong because of individual liberty. There is merit in saying that America is strong because of its commitment to promoting the general welfare. Both charges are spelled out in the Preamble. Those charges are the basic guidelines to shape public policy in the United States. Not belittling talking points, personal attacks or unwavering political partisanship.

It may give people personal satisfaction to have that zinger sound byte, but it does nothing to contribute to the positive discussion of the most pressing issues of our time. Not everybody that disagrees with me is a sellout or a racist. Not everybody that agrees with me is a degenerate or a heathen. There are intelligent people with superior dignity on both sides of any public policy debate. Unfortunately, superior dignity does not get a million YouTube hits or boost Nielsen ratings. That is a shame.

It is time to dispel the notion that civil discourse is a lost art. Now, more than ever, we need to be more civil as we have more ways to communicate our thoughts and research our opinions. It is time for dignity in public service to be displayed and rewarded. We have problems and challenges in America. We have glaring disparities in America. Those of us that want to discuss solutions in a civilized manner  are not unpatriotic or hopeless. On the contrary, it is unpatriotic to not discuss these issues. To believe in the notion that nothing can change or improve is hopelessness.

The personal goal of any public servant should be to have someone say that they passionately fought for the individual liberty of all Americans, that they constantly championed the promotion of the general welfare of the United States, and that they did it with a superior dignity that would make God and their fellow citizens proud. Thank you Mr. Randolph for leading by example and thank you Mr. Brooks for reminding us of it.