Although I vividly remember the 1992 Presidential Election, I was really too young to understand it or have an informed opinion about it, but the occasion of the death last week of 94 year-old President George H.W. Bush and the subsequent media commentary and coverage about the life and times of that first President Bush has been clarifying to me. Not so much about then, as about now. Three observations about our culture that the death of George H.W. Bush have made clear to me, and what I am going to do about it.
We Delight in Tearing Down; We Hold Others to an Impossible Standard
I found it ridiculous how many of the death announcements of President Bush began with some note about how he “only” was president for one term. Here’s a representative example from the lede in The New York Times obituary:
George Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs but was denied a second term after support for his presidency collapsed under the weight of an economic downturn and his seeming inattention to domestic affairs, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94. [my emphasis]
Note: President Bush was “denied a second term.” As if being elected to two terms is someone’s birthright, and as if being elected president of these United States only once is not good enough!? Think how easily that opening sentence might have read
George Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who, after a long career in public service, was elected to the presidency, from which office he steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs and faced the challenge of an economic downturn and the public perception of his seeming inattention to domestic affairs, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94.
I’ll admit it’s not a very elegant sentence, but that’s because I was trying to preserve as much of the obit’s original language as possible, but you get the point: to imply that being elected president once is somehow falling short is outrageous. The first sentence of the obituary shows that we delight in tearing down and pointing out how other people fail to meet the impossible standards of success we set for them. Examples are everywhere.
Some sports examples: Aaron Rodgers has “only” won one Super Bowl; LeBron should have one more NBA Championships with Cleveland; Peyton Manning “only” won two Super Bowls. Etc. It used to frustrate me when Tony Romo played for the Cowboys how some fans used to talk about how he wasn’t good enough. Here’s a guy who was undrafted when he signed with the Cowboys, and then went on to start at quarterback from 2006-2015. He played at a level that only a few dozen people who have ever lived could have played at, for multiple years, and yet he’s a failure in many peoples’ opinions, because he didn’t win enough.
We set an impossible standard for other people–he didn’t do enough, she didn’t win enough, etc.–and we make sure to emphasize where other people fell short, rather than drawing attention to all that they did achieve. I hate this tendency in our culture.
President Bush “only” served one term as president, “was denied a second term.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
So, what I am going to do about it? I am going to work hard to talk about the positive achievements of others first.
Our Media Commentators Are Totally Unaccountable
To his credit, Evan Thomas today regrets his editorial decision to imply, on the cover of Newsweek in October 1987, that George H.W. Bush was a “wimp”. I find it amazing that someone would call a man who was shot down in the Pacific Ocean at age 20 as other men were trying to kill him a “wimp”. But, there you are. Taking our pervasive tendency to tear down (see above) and then publicizing it, our media does this kind of stuff all the time, and the mainly faceless and nameless hacks who do this kind of thing are seemingly immune from accountability. To take a more recent example: on the same night that he won the Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the country, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray had to apologize for what the USA Today called “several homophobic tweets more than six years old.”
Get this: Kyler Murray is currently 21 years-old, which means he posted the offending statements on Twitter when he was 15(!). Other than yet more evidence that no teenagers should be on social media at all (I am not exaggerating), note the outrageous passive voice in the original USA Today story which “broke” the news:
Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray had a Saturday to remember. But the Oklahoma quarterback’s memorable night also helped resurface social media’s memory of several homophobic tweets more than six years old. [my emphasis]
When Murray was 15 years old, he tweeted at his friends (via his since-verified Twitter account) using an anti-gay slur to defame them. Four offensive tweets remained active on his account late Saturday night but were eventually deleted by Sunday morning — when Murray apologized for his insensitive language in a tweet.
His “memorable night also helped resurface social media’s memory”? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? These tweets did not “resurface” like a corpse washing ashore after a shipwreck several weeks before. Tweets don’t “resurface”–they have no agency. Instead, some nameless “reporters” at USA Today were running through a child’s tweets from 6 years ago, and then they publicized the results at exactly the moment that would cause a 21 year-old young man the most embarrassment and discomfort. Instead of being able to celebrate one of the great nights of his life with his family and teammates, Kyler Murray had to enact a familiar routine: the humiliating public apology we have all come to accept. Let me be clear: I do not approve of Mr. Murray’s comments. But, it seems to me that the USA Today reporters were more interested in tearing down a public figure than they were in drawing attention to the casual way teenagers bully and humiliate others.
It’s bad enough that the Internet means that any fool can say anything about anyone else and have other people listen to him; it’s that much worse that people in media can do the same thing and then use the amazing power of mass media to get millions of people to listen to them.
There are many many many more examples I could list of unaccountable media commentators doing this sort of thing, and precious few examples of those people ever being held accountable for what they say. Burns me up.
So, what I am going to do about it? If I have something difficult or controversial to say, whether publicly or in private relationship, I will put my name to it and stand by what I have said. If I later change my mind, I’ll own that, too.
We Don’t Like to Acknowledge the Sufferings of the Rich & Famous
By any standard, George H.W. Bush was born into extreme privilege. There is no question that his life was made easier because of wealth and connections, and that the things he achieved may have been impossible to someone with neither wealth nor connections. However, one of the tendencies we have to is downplay the sufferings of wealthy people. See, wealthy people suffer like the rest of us. George Bush, for example, had to watch his 3 year-old daughter Robin die from leukemia. Here’s a question for you: would you rather be rich and lose your little girl, or poor? Trick question. It doesn’t matter–losing a child will break your heart no matter how much money you have in the bank. Sheryl Sandberg, billionaire and COO of Facebook, lost her husband from an undiagnosed heart condition; he was 47. All the money in the world won’t bring him back. Joe Biden has lost a wife, a daughter, and now a son.
You may dislike those peoples’ politics or positions, but you have to acknowledge that they have suffered. I can tell you from personal experience that people with lots of money and power experience loss in the same way as the rest of us.
So, what I am going to do about it? I want to be someone who is aware and acknowledges the sufferings of others, particularly the people I disagree with. They are human, like me.
I said I had 3 observations, but here’s a fourth:
P.S. It Was a Memorial Service For All of Us
This is totally unoriginal with me, but one of the striking things about the funeral services for President Bush was how it illustrated how far we’ve come from a national faith. There was a time when most Americans would have had passing knowledge of the hymns, readings, and creeds that were part of President Bush’s services. Today, I doubt that’s the case. In some ways, the elements of the funeral service were as far removed from modern America as the elements of a royal wedding or the Queen’s coronation. I found it interesting to see the living presidents all reciting The Apostles Creed together, with President Trump not taking part. I doubt if Mr. Trump’s silence during the creed means anything at all, and I don’t really care, but I did find the moment symbolic: we modern Americans have less and less in common with our cultural past. It’s very hard for a people to stay together when they don’t share the same fundamental beliefs about Reality. I wonder how much longer we can sustain the American Experiment, now that we no longer believe the same things. I hope I’m wrong.
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