Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Senator John McCain and Other Men of Honor

For more than twenty years, somewhere in my classroom, students could find a placard that read: "I wondered why somebody didn't do something. Then I realized that I am Somebody.” Those unattributed words spoke to me, and I hoped they would speak to my students, too. I hoped that those words might remind them to act and not to lament, gripe, or simply protest. I hoped that those words might give them courage to speak against wrongs rather than stand by as silent witnesses, sharing in the blame because they said nothing. I hoped that I could find the same courage when the need arose.

And I often did. I still do. When a young brain, still in development, said or did something stupid, I intervened. I called homes, summoned principals, assigned detentions, spoke to the class. Sometimes my words made a difference, at least according to a student teacher I once mentored. He recalled a school assembly when drama students performed a skit in which non-Latino boys pretended to be Latino boys with the afflictions and comic styling of Cheech and Chong. The boys weren’t funny, and one real Latino boy decided to show them just how offensive they had been. He stormed from the bleachers onto the gym floor and planted his fist upon the nose of one performer. He was, of course, suspended. The drama teacher was never again allowed to plan or approve assembly skits, and the performers spent three days at home thinking over their prejudices.

In the previous school year, I had enjoyed teaching the vigilante and the incorrect, insensitive performers. I knew them all, and I liked each one very much. All three had clever minds, good writing skills, leadership potential, and curiosity. The vigilante had the most promise for at the tender age of sixteen, he was already in possession of strong reasoning and debate skills. The performers were, as one might expect, more given to fiction and imagination.

I said something in praise of them when my new crop of sophomores returned to class after the assembly uproar. I also said some things about respect, about holding in and not acting on every emotion or impulse. Yes, I echoed the honorary father of this blog, Atticus Finch, when he chastised Scout so gently and lovingly after she fought in the schoolyard. I would have been remiss if I had said nothing. I would have committed the crime that Atticus fears: not doing the right thing in the moment and then, becoming disqualified to lead. It is this fear as much as his belief in Tom Robinson’s innocence that compels Atticus to defend Robinson in spite of the opinions of others or the problems that might follow. Atticus has high moral and ethical standards, and he strives to live up to them every day in spite of setbacks and hardships.

There are such men in this world. Real men. Men who have the podium and microphone. We should celebrate them, and I have tried to do so with this blog, honoring courage as lived by Sister Helen Prejean; Mrs. Leymah Gwobee; Ryanne Noss; Alabama and Voting Rights advocate Judge Johnson, on the bench in 1965; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nelson Mandela; and Sister Simone Campbell. I have also criticized some rogues.

Georgia Congressman Paul Broun is one of those rogues. At a February 2011 campaign rally, someone in the crowd threatened the life of President Obama. Broun did not object to such violent speech; he said: The thing is, I know there's a lot of frustration with this president. We're going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we'll elect somebody that's going to be a conservative, limited-government president….

Broun didn’t ask the crowd to hold in, to restrain itself. He oiled the political machine of divisiveness, polarization, and disinformation. He took the easier road less fraught with consequences for him.

Former presidential candidate and senator Rick Santorum chose a similar low road when an older woman, again during a political rally, repeated a lie: "He [President Obama] is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn't something being done to get him out of our government?" Santorum could have stopped a lie in its tracks; he could have told the woman that President Obama is not, in fact, a Muslim, but he did not and later defended himself, declaring that he has no obligation to correct people who say things with which he does not agree. But what Santorum did say was a tacit endorsement of the lie. He said he was in the process of trying to remove President Obama from government.

One man who is not a rogue is Senator John McCain, a man for whom I have never voted, a man with whom I disagree often. He has demonstrated honor on the national stage twice, and we should applaud him.

Of course, McCain’s experience in Vietnam should inspire respect in us all. Even if we disagree with the causes and practices of war, surely we can grant that men and women swear oaths and endure unimaginable hardship in order to uphold those oaths.

But McCain has also displayed courage on the political battlefield. In 2008, during his own presidential campaign, an older woman called candidate and fellow senator Obama, an Arab. With conviction and an apparent belief in doing the right thing, McCain said, “"No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]" ( Unlike Santorum or Broun, McCain does not believe in allowing lies to persist.

This month, Senator McCain proved himself once more. He used his office and a microphone to oppose unfounded attacks against Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. He did not seek to oil the political machine created to insure that President Obama does not achieve a second term in office. He did not stand on the sidelines and wonder why someone didn’t step up to correct disinformation. He recognized that he is somebody and acted according to his beliefs. He lived the words of a peacemaker from the nineteenth century: Thoreau.

o   If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. Men will believe what they see.
o   If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I [Thoreau] say, break the law.

Let us live as Thoreau advises--like Atticus Finch and John McCain. Both acted in defense of truth and human decency.