More than once a call for decency has put the US back on the right pathby Steven P Murphy / August 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
My grandfather believed in America. His style and deportment were formed in the early part of the last century. He had impeccable manners, wrote letters thoughtfully, wore vested suits, and he spoke in a careful cadence I later recognized as that of his hero: Franklin D Roosevelt.
After putting himself through law school, he chose a life of public service. He became a lawyer for New York City in the 1920s, loyally representing the people of New York until his retirement in the 1960s. He conveyed to his grandchildren, repeatedly, and with great seriousness, a litany of lessons to live by: the importance of integrity, the role of the rule of law and the genius of our constitution. He brought his lessons to life through stories of American heroes. He had a particular fondness for heroes with the courage to speak out and to risk something by doing so. He stressed that we were obliged to proactively choose a moral course, reminding us also that as important as it was to have a moral intention, a moral end never justified an immoral means. In what was then the recent past, the story of Joseph N Welch became his favorite example of moral obligation.
In 1954, at the height of the Army-McCarthy hearings, when Senator Joseph McCarthy, that era’s seemingly unstoppable demagogue, had succeeded in rousing great portions of the nation through stoking the fear of a communist infiltration, Welch, an attorney for the Army, spoke out against him. It was the early days of televised proceedings and the nation witnessed McCarthy going one step too far and unfairly attacking a young man. This act compelled Welch to break convention, take the microphone, and call the bully out, saying famously:
“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
That sentence resonated and provided the tipping point that began McCarthy’s tumble down the other side of his populist wave. Welch’s call for decency woke America to the dangers of a demagogue, but more importantly, it tapped into our country’s better instincts.
Decency, today, doesn’t seem the strongest of words. We know it means moral behavior carried out for—and with respect for—other people. Yet the moments in America’s history of which we are most proud, those events when we have been compelled to join together to do the right thing, have not only been moments of triumph but also moments of decency. A culture of Decency describes how we should wish to be seen by people of other nations.
Khizr Khan, in his riveting speech at the Democratic National Convention on 28th July, provided us all with the Welch moment of our generation. His speech was an irrefutably authentic appeal for decency. Without fear of reprisal and with great courage, he called out the lie in Donald Trump’s demagoguery, a copy of our constitution brandished in his hand and said:
“Our son, Humayun, had dreams too, of being a military lawyer, but he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims…Let me ask you: have you even read the United States constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’”
And Trump, in his response, chose to denigrate this family in an interview with ABC by implying that the mother of a fallen hero had no voice because of her religious background:
“If you look at his wife, she was standing there…She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
Finally, like McCarthy, Trump revealed his true character and the hollowness of his con. Khan’s speech not only woke voters to their own better selves, but exposed in contrast the game show-inauthentic sham of Trump.
As with Welch, Kahn’s bracing honesty resonated, breaking the dam; and the trickle of Republicans distancing themselves from Trump’s campaign that followed his speech became a river, cresting this week with the respected Republican Senator Susan Collins renouncing Trump. More will now follow. Trump is also plummeting in the polls: Clinton had a lead of seven points on average in an amalgam of eleven recent polls. The past four polls for Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state, have shown Trump trailing the former Secretary of State by ten or 11 points.
All of us care about living our lives well, but we also care about what we are leaving for our children and in the end, how we will be judged by generations to come. In his speech at the unveiling of Mount Rushmore, President Franklin D Roosevelt mused:
“Our descendants, we wonder, what will they think about us? And let us hope that they will give us the benefit of the doubt, that they will believe that we have honestly striven to preserve for our descendants a decent land for us to live in and a decent form of government for us to live under.”
My grandfather, an immigrant, would have agreed. I believe we all must agree. It’s incumbent upon us therefore, to speak out, to honor the courage of Welch and Khan. We must take action against demagoguery, support and promote decency toward those in need, whether they be the working man and woman in our nation, people suffering abroad or immigrants seeking a better life.