Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

A segment of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2017, in front of the Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Newseum, featuring exhibits highlighting the history of journalism and freedom of the press, closed at the end of 2019 after 11 years. The First Amendment prevails. Photo © Jim McKeever.

By JIM McKEEVER

On Jan. 7, the day after pro-Trump insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol, my West Coast brother went on his regular shift driving for Meals on Wheels.

The first client he spoke with, a man in his early 80s, asked how my brother was dealing with the shock of what had happened at the Capitol, where five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the violence.

“I’m sad,” my brother answered. 

That’s when the 80-plus-year-old man started bawling.

My brother then met with another client on his route, a man in his 90s who flew bomber missions in the Pacific during World War II. His reaction the day after the Capitol was breached?

“He’s pissed,” my brother said.

Then my brother asked me, “What can we do? What can people like us do?”

By “us,” I think he means people who understand the gravity — and the truth — of what happened that day, and who respect the principles of democracy and peaceful governance. 

My brother and I share a pessimistic outlook about the future of the country, and a profound sense of sadness mixed with contempt for the perpetrators and enablers of the violence of that day.

My only answer to “What can we do?” at that moment was to continue to offer some degree of comfort, understanding and empathy to people like the two older gentlemen my brother told me about. 

Of course we can pressure elected officials — as was done leading to Trump’s second impeachment — and try to share factual information and rational opinions from respected journalists and thoughtful leaders from across the political spectrum.

Beyond that, I don’t know.

Last week after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump for the second time — amid rumors of further violence before Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president — I asked more than a dozen people I know: “What can we do?”

Below is a random, edited sampling of responses. 

My 95-year-old dad was in the Normandy invasion, and said he never imagined he’d see a day like this. On the day of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. As simple as that. Our nation had been attacked. 

Last week, my daughter told him to turn on the TV, and he and my mother were shocked to the core to see our nation once again under attack, this time from citizens. 

The first goal is to attempt to accomplish something. Help raise money and/or donate to the best candidates. Pick up a pen, phone or computer and praise the corporation, restaurant chain, big bank and individuals who do the right thing. And if one of your favorite retailers has not acted yet, politely suggest doing something good.  You don’t need to be a golfer to understand one of the quickest and hardest hits, post-Jan. 6, from the PGA. 

On voting, work on registering others, fighting voter suppression. On election days, if you or your team have a car, give folks a lift to and from the polling places. And in between elections, show up: attend online meetings for now, and post-vaccine, consider joining a community effort to do good things.

On the day-to-day front, try to actually listen after you ask the cashier at the checkout line how it’s going. Maybe take an extra five seconds to pass along a positive thought if you sense someone’s not having the greatest day. And if you’re chatting with someone on the other side of the political fence, consider that they might have a good idea or two, and, by providing a thoughtful audience for them, perhaps you’ll have a good opportunity to discuss, disagree or weigh in with ideas of your own.

Finally, a bit of perspective on the question of whom to support in this historical time. My father was a prisoner of war in WWII after being shot down on his 43rd mission. He said his decision to sign up was quite easy. He was risking his life daily to overcome the evil of a master propagandist who ruled by lies and murder. In recent years, I’ve heard of another masterful propagandist who in 2015 made this remark — on camera — about ex-POW John McCain of Arizona:

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

In closing, one footnote: my dad escaped.

I saw that veterans (wrote to) the Eagle Bulletin (weekly newspaper), expressing dismay … the raw emotion and sense of betrayal seems palpable. A friend who was an intelligence officer was saying that we have to fear domestic terrorism and a civil war like the conflicts across Afghanistan, where allegiances are fractured and there is great confusion about alliances. But we cannot let anti-Semitic and racist values join forces with those who worry that government officials are corrupt. I feel like veterans are in a good place to highlight this. 

My niece is an immigration lawyer and has introduced me to a young man from Honduras who has been in ICE custody. He holds down three jobs and supports family back home, including his father who is battling COVID-19. My niece is helping the young man in his asylum hearing, a long, torturous process. I have been sending money to support him. When I feel overwhelmed by events and think, “What’s the point?” I try to remember that HE is the point. He deserves the same advantages as any other young man. 

Everyone needs to avoid stereotyping, snap judgments and arrogance, putting aside calculations of winning, being ahead and demonizing those with differing opinions, beliefs, skin color, class status, etc., and regard each other as fellow human beings and fellow Americans.

Also, attention must be paid to the problems that led to the grievances that propelled Trumpism. Can things like a living wage, available jobs, affordable housing, available health care, etc., help people who feel abandoned by their leaders? Can progressives refrain from looking down their noses at Trump supporters?

On a personal level, can we engage in a respectful way with those we disagree with, keeping the lines open, not taking or offering the bait for a fight, and maybe talking about subjects other than politics and online stuff? Can we bridge the gaps through sharing a recipe, petting a dog or saying how nice someone’s yard looks? 

This is not going to be fast or total — there are still people who say Nixon did nothing wrong.

A strong dose of humility and humanity, avoiding any cruelty, should be the drivers personally and politically.

For both sides it has become about power and not about the people. I do not feel there is a desire or ability to unite our people via the parties or politics. It has become a country of “YOU against ME” instead of a country of US. I don’t believe that responsibility lies with one person, one party or one entity (politics, news, even the world of entertainment, etc). I do believe the responsibility does lie with all entities and in every person. 

I do not believe anyone is listening to anyone else. I don’t have any more faith in the new order voted in, then I had in the old order leaving. I know very good people on both sides of the fence and their feelings are all valid. I think there are more like me, who have no faith in the parties/the politics/the agendas and are stunned by all of it. But I have faith in people. As much as people frustrate me, they also inspire me, encourage me, embolden me. When we the people start talking to and listening to one another, that is when changes for the good will occur.  

I’ve got a friend in her 80s who thinks she’ll never in her lifetime see our country free and at peace again. I imagine people who study history can talk about how we emerged from dark times before. 

I think it’s crucial Trump be held accountable. I’ll bet the agents who work in counter terrorism never imagined they’d be investigating such a big group of Americans.

This is not a one-off, but an ongoing struggle that will be years or decades in resolving itself (no guarantees which way it will go). I remember well that the coup plotters in Chile staged a trial run to gauge public sentiment. So a loud public rejection of this can help push back any military who might be thinking of hopping on the bandwagon next time.

Stop talking about American exceptionalism. It can happen here.

As the nation prepares for the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as its 46th president, many of us struggle with often debilitating and conflicting emotions — anger and despair, empathy and hope. Anger and despair come easily; empathy and hope do not. I believe the cult members who fell victim to propaganda and their own misplaced sense of victimhood and reality are beyond reach. I fear what the more desperate and violent among them will do. They are terrorists, and terrorists plot, as they did leading to Jan. 6. As one of my good friends said the other day, “Some of us are going to die.”

All of us must do whatever small thing we can to make the country safer for the vulnerable among us, for our children and subsequent generations. I think often of something my friend Carlo from Tijuana told me when we teamed up on a volunteer effort to help migrant laborers at the U.S.-Mexico border: When it seems overwhelming, and it feels like you’re not making a difference, remember that you’re making a difference in the life of that one person.

Please feel free to add thoughts and suggestions in the Comments.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

5 thoughts on “What Can We Do?

  1. Katherine Polhamus says:

    One of the things we did after Trump was elected was join the CNY Solidarity Coalition. While my attendance at biweekly meetings, now via Zoom, has waned. I always read the Action Alert emails every week to stay current. One of last week’s action alerts included Katko’s email with a request to pressure him before Wednesday’s Impeachment vote.
    So last Tuesday, I sent a short email to John Katko asking him to do the right thing and vote for the impeachment of Trump. I told him Republicans can do better than this and now is the time for the Republican Party to cut ties with Trump.
    I doubt if he read it but I would hope that enough people pressured him to do the right thing. My mother used to say “You can move the world with a pen.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      I love your mother’s wisdom, Katherine. Yesterday I watched a video of youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman reading her “An American Lyric,” and the phrase that sticks with me is, “The tyrant fears the poet.”

      Like

  2. Nina Wickett says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t write something for your column, Jim. Every time I tried, all I could think of was my late beloved father in law who was a Pearl Harbor survivor. I was so glad that he wasn’t here to see this tragic day. It would have broken his heart. 💔

    Like

  3. Jim McKeever says:

    So true, Nina … it speaks to just how shocking and horrible the events of Jan. 6 were. The videos from the New Yorker and Washington Post are especially upsetting. But I do have the sense, after yesterday’s inauguration, a huge sigh of relief (not total) and a restoration of adult behavior — and decency — in the White House.

    Like

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