My soul is aching.
As the Covid-19 death toll surpassed 200,000 last week, we mourned Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of America’s greatest daughters — an incredible mind with a voracious appetite for learning, a fearless, indomitable advocate for women’s rights and, quite simply, a good and decent human being, with an old-school sense of politeness that enabled her to deliver a penetrating verbal jab without personal insult.
Her death at age 87 came only two months after the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was 80. Together they represented a particular brand of leadership: strength obtained not through bullying, but through the depth of their moral conviction, their sense of justice and their commitment to telling the truth under all circumstances.
Each helped create a more equal society and a more perfect union, though they would likely say their work was far from over at their deaths. That would explain why they continued working through the pain of terrible illness. Surely they will go down in the annals of history as truly monumental figures. Their lives should serve as models for our own.
Lewis spoke of “good trouble,” agitating not simply for the sake of agitating, but to move the “arc of the moral universe,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it, further toward justice.
For both Lewis and Ginsburg, advocacy meant always speaking their minds, telling the truth as they saw it, without reservation, no matter the reaction, and the reaction was often harsh, brutal even. Lewis was beaten more than once during the 1960s civil rights movement for marching peacefully.
Both were ridiculed, mocked. Yet always they maintained their composure. For both, a deep and abiding religious faith — Ginsburg, Judaism, and Lewis, Christianity — informed their responses. They showed love and understanding toward even the most vehement of their detractors.
Lesser leaders might have thought of their critics as enemies, but not Ginsburg and Lewis. To them, their detractors were people who needed persuading, and they held out the hope that, with enough time and patience, those critics might realize the error of their ways.
The nation could learn a lesson or three from Ginsburg and Lewis. For decades, our political system has become increasingly partisan, to the point that people hate others without ever having met them, for no reason other than they belong to another political party.
As a society, we no longer take the time to reflect on the possible merits of one another’s positions. We assume hostile intent. That must end.
I know that’s a big ask in the middle of the most contentious presidential race in memory, but we should, at least, try, if only to honor the memories of Ginsburg and Lewis.
That doesn’t mean we cannot disagree with one another’s positions. That doesn’t mean we cannot criticize candidates’ policy platforms, or their records. We can. We should. There is no greater exercise of one’s civil liberties than to speak and write freely, as is one’s First Amendment right.
We should, however, train our slings and arrows on policies and practices, not on people. All liberals are not communists, any more than all conservatives are corporate raiders and robber barons. We should never throw around such invective in our political discourse. We should, like Ginsburg and Lewis, assume that those on the other side of the political aisle love their country, too, until proven otherwise. And we should be prepared to forgive those who trespass against us.
I was reminded of this last week. I recently wrote a column titled, “A maddening tale of two presidencies,” criticizing President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and comparing it with President Obama’s approach to battling the H1N1 flu pandemic early in his first term, noting that Trump admittedly lied to the American people about the deadliness of the Covid-19 virus, while in a speech at the start of H1N1, Obama laid out the facts, calmly and truthfully.
Five letters from Trump supporters came fast and furious, with three asking why I hate America, and one, as expected, calling me a communist. Three were unsigned. Their vociferous nature shouldn’t have surprised me given how heated the presidential race is, but it did. I was inclined to cry, not at the letters themselves, but at the state of our politics.
I thought, my goodness, these writers have no idea who I am — the proud son of a World War II Navy veteran, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who taught English and American democracy for two years in the Republic of Bulgaria, a formerly communist nation, and an Eagle Scout who learned right from wrong at the earliest of ages.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I swore allegiance to the U.S. Constitution in the garden of the American ambassador’s stately residence in Sofia, Bulgaria, in August 1991. That sacred document guided me then, and it guides me now as a journalist.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.