A much loved teacher, when asked about teaching, attributed her success to the “culture of respect” she had been able to develop in her classrooms. Respect, she explained, opens the heart, as well as the mind, to the lives of others, generates empathy, and transforms the classroom into a vibrant learning community. Children discover that each is large, interesting, distinct, and able, and that each has something special to offer the whole. Thus sustained, the outside world feels safer to explore. Communal support leads to generous, confident personalities, boosts acquisition of knowledge and attainment of skills, and imparts important life lessons.
Self respect is foundational, a basic human need. One has the right to grant oneself such-respect on one’s own account, but in the long run it must be earned and deserved to be believed. It’s wonderful, therefore, that self respect follows naturally from respect for others in a classroom, in a cycle of engaged hearts and minds guided by clear-seeing eyes. In respecting you, I enlarge my regard for myself. In admiring your unique qualities and limits, I clarify my own. Selves and societies, as George Herbert Mead put it, are “twin-born;” they emerge together; they co-inspire. Great societies are guided by informed, respectful, and thoughtful citizens. The small community of grammar school children kindles an ideal of what could and should be the model of adult civic discourse.
There is something else of fundamental importance this special teacher taught. “Respect,” she said, “is given away. It’s nothing material. It’s not property. It’s yourself— your self, a most accessible and available gift. Give your respect freely to others and good feelings will be returned your way. Disrespect others and you can expect resentment and unfavorable portraits in return.
Wow! Think about that! What happens if I withhold the respect you deserve as a human being? I actively injure myself as I insult you. I prevent a part of myself from being born. I atrophy myself by being unable to honor you. Something shrivels and hardens. Personalities and selves are not literally discovered; they are grown, developed, nurtured, cultured, and then embraced. It’s not the same as opening a box, and pulling out a doll. Genetics doesn’t take us all the way to personhood. Therefore, this wonderful, swirling concordance of self and society ever upward through respect granting cycles regresses hellishly into a sickening maelstrom of personal and social diseases as shouts of disrespect are cycled downward in “no, dammit, you’re the dunce” claims and games.
This teacher’s observations came to mind with a jolt when the Governor of Maine, Paul LePage, the former Mayor of Waterville and a Tea Party candidate, while running for election for the governorship in September, 2010, promised voters that he would, if elected, tell President Obama to “go to hell.” They have been coming to mind repeatedly this winter as the Republican candidates for President castigate President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and each other, in their various “debates,” better described perhaps as equal opportunity ‘debasements’—debasements of candidates, rivals, host networks, and questioners alike
Disrespect of President Obama, everyone must know by now, has been egregious and over-the-top from the conservative right of the Republican Party from even before the President took office. The President has been repeatedly accused of not being born an American citizen by the so-called ’Birthers,’ led by Donald Trump, the current front runner for the nomination of his party. The President has been battered for eight years with charges of being a foreigner, a Muslim, a terrorist, an infiltrator, a liar, a spy, a traitor, an incompetent, a fool, a devil, Satan, and the Antichrist. When the President delivered his otherwise kindly-received State of the Union Address to Congress earlier this month, with its theme of working together and national unity, several candidates skipped the event, and yet couldn’t resist the urge to opine or tweet various insults: “boring, … hard to watch.” (Trump); “Obama will … ‘demagogue’ his record” (Cruz); and, “you lie” (Paul). The dueling candidates seem to enjoy competing for novel epithets by which to savage the President
It is important to note that President Obama is nothing like that. None of the whacky aspersions fit. The people who voted for President Obama twice, as I did, electing him by comfortable margins both times, have a favorable image of the President now, just as we did when we voted for him. It’s obvious to me that he’s a nice person, a good husband, an engaged and loving parent, patriotic, intelligent, quick witted, thoughtful, dedicated, knowledgeable, informed, competent, articulate, an exceptionally good speaker, patient, caring, cool under fire, analytical, and pragmatic in making decisions. Isn’t this the least anyone should be able to say about him? I find him also to be honest and ethical, dedicated and diligent, visionary and realistic. I leave it to the reader to list his accomplishments and narrate his legacy, if that’s at all meaningful before he leaves office. His list of accomplishments, by any standard, are many, important, and consequential, not only for the nation, but for the world. He has done most everything I personally would have asked of him. I’d vote him a third term if that were an option. He surely is among our finest Presidents in coping with tragedy and loss, a form of leadership that has been required of him maddeningly and depressively often. He grieves, he cries, he comforts, and leads the citizenry in the search for meaning and justice. The larger point, though: He is a good man.
Against this portrait, It is incredible and ludicrous that millions of Americans routinely treat their President with scurrilous epithets. Beyond the debates, Obama bashing is a mass phenomenon and a favorite parlor game in many Republican households and gatherings. Shamefully, name calling is a staple on the 24 hour cable news channels and more than a few websites. Around 66 million people voted for President Obama in 2012, against 61 million votes for Governor Romney. Assume, for the sake of fairness and argument, that two-thirds of Romney voters speak civilly of the President; yes, they dislike his policy and programs; yes, they’re disappointed he’s President, but they don’t savage him with ad hominem attacks. Well, that would still leave over 20 million people who routinely diminish him as a human being. The disease is national; the atrophied selves are legion.
It is true that politics is a rough, tough contact sport. It’s true that most Presidents have had similar treatment from sizable numbers of critics and haters. It’s true that we have had and do have deeply polarized politics and dysfunctional government. It’s true that Presidents G. W. Bush, Clinton, L.B. Johnson, and Nixon, among others in recent times, have experienced mass derision and hate. Everyone knows what contumely Lincoln had to endure, a hate so great as to claim his life. Anyone can see that the belittlement mills are operating at warp speed to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first woman President. Not withstanding all of these diminutions, the treatment President Obama has received is special, if only because the technology and media climate allows spectacular excoriation at all hours of day, night, and weekend. Even a foreign President has been invited to Congress to take potshots at the President.
It’s not President Obama’s fault, it’s ours. As Pogo exclaims, in the Walt Kelly comic strip:
We have met the enemy and he is us.
Some hate the President because they are racist; others because they are ideologues, embittered hard-right “movement” conservatives; others because they are nativists terrified by immigrants and war refugees; and still others because they are petty religionists terrified by Islamic terrorists. President Roosevelt cautioned the nation that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” People associate this quote with our resolve in entering World War II. We won that war, but fear threatens to prevail in our country now. Fear is galavanting free all over the land of the free, like so many wild horses. Without fear, what would the haters dine on? What would they live for?
Respect, it is useful to note, is an eye metaphor—closely associated with looking, watching, and seeing, and akin to spectator and specs, as in eye glasses. The idea is to look back (‘re’), both literally and contemplatively, at an object (spec, specter, spectacle, person), and to give it good standing in the world. Yes, that’s a tree; that’s a cat, that’s a young child; and that is a man, President Obama. If you can’t see President Obama for who he is, you’re afflicted by more than cataracts, you’re blinded by dark phantoms of fear and hate. You lose the ability to love. The sighted person who refuses to look at the obvious lies to himself about what he sees, and thus becomes a public liar as well, a condition the great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky saw clearly and cautioned us against:
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Most Americans probably don’t realize that President Roosevelt’s message on fear is not a response to Pearl Harbor, in 1941, but rather appears in his first inaugural address in 1933. The reference is to fears associated with The Great Depression. His invitation to the nation is as relevant now as it was then. Roosevelt said:
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
In treating President Obama with respect we preserve a regard also for the Presidency itself, so that future occupants might receive the basic respect they will need to carry out their constitutional obligations and duties.
What is the import of this sober tale? Americans, listen up! Believe in your country. Govern thoughtfully and wisely. Be good to each other. Cut out the labels and insults. Let’s start treating each other with respect. Follow the little children. Open your eyes. Open your mind. Talk to the great people all around you. Give up lying. Have a little self-respect.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
January 26, 2016
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good