Have you been struck, as I have, by how often we read and hear the phrase “We are better than that!” recently?
Knowing how critical it is to use words with reverence, with respect for their meaning and not to twist them to our own purposes, can we agree to make the subject of this week’s walk together in our shared “urban village,” a sincere search for what “better” means to the people who invoke it?
The issue most often and poignantly arises in response to the spectacle of using innocents as pawns in a cruel game aimed at paying for a 4th century solution to a 21st century issue.
But that is not the only time the phrase comes into play. There are other points of darkness that call for the “we are better” response. This morning, when beginning to write, the voice of Christine Todd Whitman inspired me to consider a point of view that may be central to this effort to understand “better.”
Before being New Jersey’s first, and to date only, female Governor, she served as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Her progress from apologist for the safety of the environmental conditions surrounding the 911 disaster gradually evolved to subsequent growth in awareness, resignation and ultimately, her apology. The end of a tumultuous week that saw the resignation of a successor at the EPA whose mandate was to dismantle the agency, her words had simple, undramatic, but deep significance.
Whitman’s case for respecting the findings of dedicated scientists and giving them a seat at the table where policies should be hammered out was so simple. Doubters have a right to their place; but let theirs not be the only voices. As the “burnt child” publicly “dreading the fire,” she delivered a strong message about how to define “better.” It is critical to learn from mistakes. And perhaps more to the point, to start from the point of acknowledging them as mistakes.
It was equally intriguing to look for guidance at another, earlier moment in our national history. A legendary patriot named Nathan Hale was executed right here in our urban village for his commitment to the Revolutionary cause of democracy. In a later century, his grand nephew, the author/clergyman Edward Everett Hale frequently spoke and wrote of what it is that constitutes “better.” The author of the famous story “The Man Without a Country,” often spoke of what he understood to be “the better.”
The 19th century Hale wrote: “Nineteen centuries would have been worth very little if we had not made some advance in welcoming the stranger, in feeding the hungry, in clothing the naked, and in caring for the prisoner.” Hale’s words were spoken by one who championed the role of Irish immigrants to the United States by noting that they elevated their predecessor generations of immigrants by taking on less appealing levels of employment. He may not have guessed that the upward trajectory would, in less than a century, lead to the White House and a young child of immigrants who famously invited his fellow citizens to note that a rising tide lifts all boats.
So where do these two examples lead in the current search to define “better”? Listen for voices like that of a 21st century legislator Congressman Tim Ryan representing Ohio workers and farmers doing good by laboring for their families. When Ryan speaks of building “a better economy” he does so in terms that mean fixing a broken political system by realism, not placating promises; one based on unification, not division. If globalization and automation threaten jobs, harness new forces using turbines made in Ohio.
Contrast this effort to encouraging coal miners to dream of returning to the mines that have paid them with black lung and profits for those averse to change. Being bold and being innovative by investing in new skills will allow potential public/private partners to see this kind of boldness as a central ingredient of “better.” There’s enough good news to go around when demonstrating that a “green” manufacturing environment can provide work for the all the individuals applying for the jobs that will be needed to provide the parts that make the turbines operate. Ryan’s website says it this way, “Each wind turbine that spins in northwest Ohio has over 8,000 parts that could be built by machinists in Youngstown and Akron.”
Admittedly the words “We are better than this” are most often heard in relation to families and their children who have the audacity to hope and to look to history to prove that we can count on a nation of immigrants to be creative enough to find ways to justify that hope. They expect that instead of investing vast sums of money to detain, retain and separate them they will be able to trust that a country whose byword is E pluribus Unum is, of course, not going to spend its taxes on warehousing potential immigrants to generate income for zero tolerance profiteers.
Of course we are better than that. And more practical. We look at the outcome of pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. We fasten our seat belts and while acknowledging and lamenting the mistakes made along the way, take the cue from all the good folk of 12-step programs. We resolve to make amends and go on to become who we are miraculously able to become. Bottom line, we come to realize that you don’t profit from taking away, but much more from open-handed generosity.
It’s amazing how social commentators from the 15th to the 21st centuries sound similar themes. Machiavelli in writings about “the Prince” (or oligarch or would-be despot) warns that the wish to acquire more at all costs, is ultimately self-defeating. “Expecting to be praised for their efforts they will when they fail, be all the more condemned for their mistakes.” In the 21st century, Maureen Dowd puts it succinctly, cautioning those who seek for more while failing to note that it is so much less than it appears, “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.”
The observations of two giants of our country’s search to define “better,” might be the best place to end. They look at “better” from two differing angles and so encourage us to see that the phrase is easier to say than truly to understand.
Benjamin Franklin says it this way, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Abraham Lincoln, invoking “our better angels” cautions, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”
It remains for each citizen to define “better,” and take on board the responsibility to give it meaning beyond the simple saying of the word.
Photo by Pixabay