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Shame of the Nation

August 30th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I’m not one to post rants on my weblog. In fact, I take pains to avoid writing them, as I don’t particularly enjoy reading them. Nasty, bile-filled, hateful rants – those are the kind I am talking about. The truth is, my distaste for ingesting rants may have fueled the reaction in me that has produced this missive, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

I was emotionally moved this week, as apparently many others were, to hear of the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. Growing up Catholic in the 1960s, as I did, made Kennedy and his entire family iconic to me. There was a pen-and-ink drawing of John Kennedy hanging on the wall of the convent parlor next door to my grade school, where I clocked many waiting minutes in its thrall, just gazing at it and thinking about it. I was also raised with a healthy respect for what we considered and called democratic or liberal ideals: social responsibility, compassion, community awareness, the fostering and value of education, volunteerism. Of course, these aren’t ideals that are necessarily exclusive to people who vote Democratic, or who more often than not support Democratic Party candidates in elections. But, for me, they happened to coincide with my political leanings. I suppose that the bedrock of all of these views was the impossible striving to be Christ-like. I had that over-arching credo embedded in my brain through twelve years as a student at Catholic schools.

That’s what a Catholic school education can do to you. It can infiltrate and infect your young mind with the belief that part of your life’s mission on earth is to not only feel compassion for others, but also to show it. You could do a heck of a lot worse than being brought up to value the acts of visiting the sick, honoring the dead and – sounding as if it originated in the ‘60s decade from which I sprouted – performing random acts of kindness. I was feeling a resurgence of these lessons within me as I watched the news, listened to the radio broadcasts, and grieved the passing of one of my role models.

“Role model.” I know it sounds strange to hear me use that phrase in reference to a notorious person whom I never knew. Though I did shake Teddy’s hand once – at the dedication of the JFK School of Government in Cambridge – I did not know him personally. But, through the news, I know that he made mistakes, as we all do. His example was in his pushing past those mistakes and constantly striving to achieve some of the goals that matched his ideals. And it seemed that his ideals came close to matching mine. I’ve always respected his perseverance, and his humanity. Surely, the last thing I would expect one of my role models to do is to come to a complete stop after stumbling, never to rise and charge forward again.

I also understand that there are people who have demonized this man throughout his life, people who hold him in low esteen because of his privilege, his wealth, his opportunity, and his politics, people who hold him in contempt to the same degree (perhaps more so) that I revere him. These are some of the same people who would have you believe that Bill Clinton is a criminal, an unredeemable and morally-corrupt man – not merely a human being like themselves. “Let he who is without sin throw a stone,” etc., to paraphrase and abbreviate the biblical text. (Note that this is one of the few times you will ever hear me come close to quoting the Scripture.) It may never have occurred to many of his critics that Ted Kennedy acted as a mirror, showing them not only the best, but also the worst, in themselves.

But now he has died, and the life lessons I have learned dictate that I honor him by celebrating the good I have learned from him.

These somewhat temperate thoughts came smashing toward the front of my mind yesterday as I confronted head-on the 21st century ugliness festering in the comments section of my local newspaper’s website.  al.com had posted a midday story describing the Saturday morning funeral of Kennedy in Boston. Nothing elaborate, just a photograph and a description of the eulogies given by Teddy Jr. and President Obama with a few other details.  The first reader comment, left 24 minutes after the story was posted, read:

Good riddance to a murderer and a slug of a human being.

Three minutes later:

Remembered for his liberal,drunken,murdering,raping ways and whatever [first poster] said

And then, as if unleashed in a fury from some cellar of ill will, more such comments began rolling in.

Mary Jo Kopechne had dreams too, but hers were ended by a drunken philanderer who decided his career was much more important than her life. The liberal media always seems to dismiss that. It shows something that’s very important…..his character, or lack of same. Some liberal writers have even said that his good works in the Senate more than made up for her death. If she were my daughter, it wouldn’t have.

Lets remember Kennedy for all of the welfare cases and the illegals that Kennedy brought into this country.

“the dream he kept alive”
What an insult to the girl, HE DIDN’t KEEP ALIVE.
May he burn in Hell forever.

We should honor Senator Kennedy by naming the healthcare bill Chappaquiddick Care. When you need care the most, it runs off and leaves you to die under a wrecked car.

He was a beliver of the 4 gospels – except for the parts on murdering, and lying.
Anyone can look good giving stuff away to the poor. But he never gave anything of his away, only what he could take from others.

It is a crazy world when we endeavor to prosecute men who are just doing their duty by harshly interigating people that would cause the death to our children [a reference to the impending Federal investigation into torture].
What is even crazier is honoring a man that left an American citizen’s daughter to die as some kind of hero.
He just like his brothers was a selfish self centered womanizing cheater that would have never allowed most of the people on the forums that support him to be in his presence other than as servants.

civil rights? papa joe was the biggest anti-semite that ever lived!

There were some attempts by other readers to quell the tide of nastiness with reason, but it seemed that they were outnumbered by the negative comments.

Where were these coming from?  What could cause such reactions in people, and who were they?

My initial explanation was to assume that the overwhelming percentage of respondents had little else to do with their time than busy themselves with leaving comments on websites.  Sad, sorry, unemployed and – by the punctuation, grammar and inconsistent reasoning displayed in their submissions – poorly educated people.  Or perhaps they were merely lazy, both physically and intellectually.

The comments contained enough historical context for them not to have been written by little children, yet they had the tone of a rebellious note from a child.  Then it hit me: these people may have acquired random bits of information over the years, but they have never attained the sense of social decorum or general etiquette that usually comes with age and maturity.  In short, they are minimally educated, poorly socialized persons with a general axe to grind, and they are letting it all hang out under the cloak of anonymity that this website provides.

And they are from Alabama, the state where I live.

I shudder to think that I am surrounded by people such as this, people who haven’t the decency to allow someone to be laid to rest before charging the castle with torches, putting the desires of their own selfish and personal rage ahead of the social code.  Most of my neighbors – the ones I know by name – could never act in such a way.  At least, it is difficult for me to imagine them doing so.  We dine together, help each other with yard work, wave as we walk or drive by.  I feel as if I know them well enough to attest that their characters are true and developed enough to channel whatever inner turmoil they may be experiencing in appropriate ways.

And then I logged onto Facebook.

One of my friends had recently posted a remark, as his status update, that read:

Too bad Kennedy didn’t drown at Chappaquiddick. Would have saved the taxpayers millions. Maybe billions.

It was followed by a mix of comments, some of them chastising him for his meanness and insensitivity.  The slight majority of the commentary, however, sided with the original poster.  Two people even “liked” it.  Encouraged by the brazen nature of the update, these people were jumping on a bandwagon and embellishing the callous statement with their own indelicate thoughts.  Several of them chose to make the most of the situation, which had suddenly become a small public forum, and started a fiery debate about health care reform.

But I was stunned by the realization that this Facebook friend did not fit the educational profile I had created in my head when I’d read those al.com comments.  From a family headed by two physicians, he himself is a lawyer.  A large number of his friends (and, by extension, a large number of those who contributed to the dialogue on his page) are from outside of this state.

Despite being unnerved, I had previously been comfortable in assuming that Alabama – ranked 49th or 50th in most polls assessing educational levels – was the home base for this type of reaction.  While I believed that, I could fool myself into thinking that such small-mindedness was contained within one geographic area.  But that was just self-deception.  Alabama may be a national leader in humidity, obesity, political corruption, sweet tea, and bad education, but it in no way has the American market cornered when it comes to intolerance and hate.

I’m not advocating that everyone should think as I do (though sometimes that might be nice), or that I am, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect.  But there is a line that separates us from our less savory base selves, a line that we instinctively know not to cross over, beyond which we become something approaching feral.  In my view, the authors of the aforementioned comments at al.com, and all of their “relative” kinfolk nationwide, sprinted gleefully across that line, and I really have no idea why.

Tags: ideas · language · politics · self

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 TommyT // Sep 1, 2009 at 4:23 PM

    I “like” this post.

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