An ardent plea to our better political angels

Lew Feldstein gave a terrific “Thanksgiving Breakfast” talk touching on themes of the common weal, politics, and the need to find common ground.  This talk was given November 22, 2011 to the New Horizons for New Hampshire (a Manchester non-profit that helps the homeless).  With his permission, I’m posting it.

148 years ago, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery  in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. 15,000 people.  A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke .

The Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words.   Only 10 sentences.

Among the first lines are these, familiar to us all:

‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

‘Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war….’

And so we are, now, in the late Fall of 2011.    Here,  in Manchester, soldiers may not be killing one another, bullets are not flying, but can any of us doubt that, at least metaphorically,  this country is at war, that armies are arrayed against one another,  that…as President Lincoln put it:  ‘we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated,  can long endure.’

‘We are’, as President Lincoln said, ‘met on a a great battle field of that war.’   As we meet today, a war that tests our county is being fought out across this land in its most disheartening, and discouraging form, by our elected reps in Washington, but also here, in Manchester, right now, and in every town and city, in every state in the nation,  as competing sides gird themselves for the coming elections.

As surely as tanks and cannons can destroy a nation, so can a nation  be destroyed from within, by the unwillingness or inability  to resolve structural problems that, left unresolved, will destroy  the economy and the nation with every bit as much destructive power and finality as bombs and bullets.   Obstinance, adherence to the certitude that I am right and you are wrong, the inability of our leaders to resolve differences, to find common ground, can all be fatal.

We don’t have to look any further than the daily news to see the impact on other nations of their failures to change their ways.

Or, to bring it home, today’s lead story: the failure of “the Super Committee.”

That we reach this point at this season, at Thanksgiving and the Holidays, is especially painful.   That I make this the subject of my Thanksgiving Breakfast talk may feel inappropriate, or uncomfortable, or just plain bad manners.

It is uncomfortable.

But to gather at this time, to mark the eve of  Thanksgiving and  not speak of this, not acknowledge it, would be far worse than uncomfortable.

It would be  criminal.

It is not enough for us, as citizens, to just listen to the news,  curse the enemies, wring our hands,  and then retreat to the cocoons of our daily lives.

We need to be heard.  We need to tell those we elect that they must change how they represent us.

What hubris!  What arrogance!  To believe that your side is so right,  that you have all the wisdom.

We say to them: Will you destroy this nation in the name of saving it?

It is not acceptable to lay all the blame and responsibility on the other side.

We must tell our leaders that they must move.

They must find common ground.

This morning is not the time nor the place to work thorough the competing sides, to assign rights and wrongs.

Thanksgiving starkly juxtaposes the threat that this ugly, unyielding, and unnecessary stalemate  poses to all that we have to be thankful for.

We can do it. We can get through this terrible logjam. We can find our way to a better future.

What could be better evidence of the promise of the American people, the innate goodness and willingness to row together , than this extraordinary institution, New Horizons, which brings 1,000 of us together this morning.

Here we are in the state that:

  • For the past five years has been rated “the most livable state,”
  • For the fourth straight year has been rated the best state in which to raise a child;
  • Has the lowest poverty rate in the country;
  • Has the least amount of income inequality;
  • Has the lowest tax burden; and
  • Has the highest average income.

And yet where one out of four Manchester children are growing up in poverty.

Where scores of families are without shelter every night.

And hundreds of our neighbors cannot feed themselves throughout the year.

As a community we have come together to meet these needs: to house, to  feed , to shelter, to care for our neighbors.

This community takes care of one another.  This is no mean feat in these times.  This is a city infused with high social capital — you know I would work this in — high trust in one another, strong norms of reciprocity,  where helping out is the most natural of things.

And thus it has always been in Manchester going back more than a century.  The city has changed, the business base has changed, the countries of origin of the immigrant and refugee groups that have moved through it have changed, but the strong ties of mutual support, the underlying social capital has remained, strong and enduring.

No small feat.

This trust, this social capital, is the core of why this city is special.  It speaks volumes about the city’s capacity to prosper in good times, and to work through the kinds of big ripping changes in the industrial base, as the very economy of this city has morphed.

I end with thanks, and a prayer.

Thanks  for all who step up to help their neighbors, who put aside differences of  politics and religion and race, even differences between Sox fans and this lonely Yankee fan [Feldstein speaking of himself],  to give of themselves for the common weal, who have built this great agency as testimony to what we can be, what we can do.

And the Prayer that we find common ground.

That our leaders  – on all sides – step away from their certitude, look inward to acknowledge the limits of man, to be far more modest about our individual wisdom, to see for what it is the weakness that compels blind adherence to a single point of view, and look outward to acknowledge that the public that elects them is  far more nuanced  – and far more conciliatory –  then the extremes held up by our elected reps, who through their acts and our own have driven our nation to this terrible impasse.

Please please find common  ground.

Abandon your certitude that only you are right, that only you know the answers.  Don’t destroy our nation.  But take us  together to a better place.

We have done it before.

Get us there again.”

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