Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, retired Marine Corps Gen. and former defense secretary Jim Mattis, and Microsoft President Brad Smith all have new books out, each of them rich in the perspective that authors gain from decades in positions of authority.
I have interviewed the three men recently either on the radio or at events at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, or both. Even after interviewing tens of thousands of people over three decades, I was struck by these conversations and how vital they could be for understanding our growing national crisis.
Let me sum up the conclusions that follow from having read these books by Gorsuch, Mattis and Smith and having spoken with their authors at length in the past month:
Public service is noble, but the nation's current politics are broken. The titanic change brought about by the internet has completely transformed so much so quickly that we are only dimly aware of the massive collapse of all norms and approaches to human interaction. The United States is genuinely threatened by powerful enemies abroad and by a brittle, creaking body politic and vicious rhetoric at home.
The law endures, but not deep respect for the law. Some friendships across the political chasm endure, but some have fractured and many are under extraordinary stress. Venom is everywhere in public life, a desire to wound and embarrass as frequent a motive as that to bring together or earn a genuine laugh untainted by another's pain. And to repeat: Enemies of the United States are very real and would like nothing more than for our differences to become permanent divides and our disagreements the occasions for intramural violence.
We mistake the agent of these acids if we pinpoint individual political figures. Politics has never been beanbag, as the saying goes, and the actual words and deeds of the central players don't excuse or absolve individuals of agency for their actions. That has been the case throughout the nation's history, whether with the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago even as hatred raged inside, or with the attack in 1856 on the Senate floor, amid irreconcilable differences over slavery, when Rep. Preston Brooks used his cane to brutally beat Sen. Charles Sumner.
If you insult on Twitter, it's not because of President Donald Trump or his counterparts. If you strike out wildly at opponents and their colleagues, families and friends, their provocation, large or small, doesn't justify your response if intemperate. If you are encouraging violence, even if using oh-so-subtle nudges, you own the blood.
Gorsuch, Mattis and Smith have in recent weeks traveled about the country appealing for - wait for it - civility. I was in junior high school when the 1960s rent the country, and voices calling for calm then were ineffective even when raised. I don't recall anyone other than Robert Kennedy on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder who indelibly attempted to dial it down rather than up.
If back then there were individuals such as those we have today in Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia and Archbishop JosĂ© GĂłmez in Los Angeles - religious leaders who could be considered both conservative tribunes of traditional values but also deeply and sincerely committed activists on behalf of the poor and immigrants - I don't recall them.
Adults may have been perpetually on edge, with rage and violence rising as the Vietnam War divided the country, but everyday people in the lives of students who opposed the war didn't act like Yosemite Sam if he were facing off against Wile E. Coyote, which is much of online life today. Most of real life at the time - save for the 30 minutes of nightly TV news or the covers and content of the newsweeklies - was relatively pacific. "Gilligan's Island" wouldn't have succeeded on Netflix.
What will the politics of 2070 look like if the trend lines of rage and spittle from 1969 to 2019 continue? Sheep dip everyone under age 12 in this culture and project their behaviors 30 years out. The rule of law cannot blithely be assumed to endure. Our military cannot continue to protect us from our internal follies when funded on declining shares of gross domestic product.
China, already in fact if not awareness, our better in total purchasing power parity, will soon surpass the United States by every measure of economic performance. The collapse of courtesy is already complete. How can a culture fall off a floor? We will find out soon enough.
Then ask yourself: Are you on the side of the angels?
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