Late night television host Craig Ferguson was the entertainer at this year's White House Correspondents Dinner (ht: My Three Sons). Mr. Ferguson was born in Scotland but just recently became an American citizen; toward the end of his remarks he said the following (highly unofficial transcript):
"I knew that when I came here that this room would be full of contentious and contrary people, people who argue all the time, and may I remind you, as a new American: we need that. That's what this place is all about. So please, never, ever, ever agree with each other, never stop arguing, never stop fighting, you cranky magnificent [expletives]."
And you know what? The man is right.
All too often in politics we hear a cry for civility, for an end to government gridlock, for a new era of cooperation--in a word, for change.
But the cry for "change!" never really means all that much. At best, it means, "You people over there should shut up and put up, so that the rest of us can enjoy peaceful political discourse with everyone who agrees with us, and can work to implement all the programs about which we, without your nagging and divisive voices, agree completely."
It's richly ironic that the candidate who was pushing the most for change, who spoke the most often about the need for civility and respect for each other, has ended up being a symbol of divisive and disrespectful speech if only because of his association with his long-time pastor whose views are truly noxious to most Americans.
Noxious--but perfectly all right to express; or else freedom of speech means nothing--not to mention the freedom of religion and the right of the people peacefully to assemble.
But just as it's fine for Jeremiah Wright to express his racist views without fear of being arrested or punished, so is it fine for the American voter to decide that there's something wrong with a man who sit and listened with all the appearance of amity, if not acquiescence, to those views for more than twenty years.
And it's fine for one side of the political establishment to nod their heads in agreement with what I just wrote, above. And it's fine for the other side to insist that this is unfair, unjust, or even just a huge misunderstanding about a certain type of rhetoric sometimes employed in African-American churches today.
And it's fine if we never agree with each other. And it's fine if there's gridlock and uncooperativeness and even outright hostility--so long as that hostility is directed towards evils, like abortion and torture, or ideas, like government health care or tax increases--but never toward people, who are made in the image and likeness of God and deserving of our charity and respect.
Craig Ferguson is right. Let's not change the one thing that makes Americans really different from other peoples--the right and even duty to bicker and argue and protest and quarrel over all the political realities in the nation, to declare and insist that we're right and the other side is wrong, to vote and speak and act and march and gather and write and complain. And then, the next day, to invite representatives from the other side over for coffee to discuss the neighborhood's plan for putting in speed bumps, or to sit beside members of the other side at a town football game, and find that our respect for each other as Americans is strengthened, not diminished, by our propensity for divisive politics.