Echoes From Gettysburg: How Americans Embrace Incivility and Ignore the Poor

Weeks before the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, four Americans gathered at a diner in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, only 40 miles from the site of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address."

They gathered to ponder the rising levels of incivility in America's public square.

And as they dealt with that question, they pondered as well the issue that had troubled President Abraham Lincoln some 150 years earlier -- the potential loss of that great experiment that the world, for almost 225 years, has called "America."

The shooting of Giffords -- and of 19 others -- lends urgency to the question, "Can America survive the level of incivility we have witnessed in recent years?"

I was among that group at the Harrisburg diner, a group that also included a black journalist, a black Pentecostal pastor and another white professor.

The Faces of Incivility

The four who gathered at the diner had experienced incivility and disregard for the common good in very different ways. In this second post in a three-part series on civility and the common good, we want to hear the voices of the two African Americans who gathered at the diner that day.

The journalist reflected on the deteriorating state of the journalists' craft. Having served for many years as a highly placed correspondent for several international news organizations, she knows the news business inside and out. And she knows what the news business was intended to be.

But the news business today, she told the group at the diner, so often has little to do with objective reporting of the news. Instead, the "news business" has deteriorated on so many fronts into shrill pronouncements leveled from hardened ideological silos on both the right and the left.

Vast segments of the "news business" have therefore become part of the problem, not part of the solution, and contribute to the incivility -- and the collapse of concern for the common good -- that define our time.

The Common Good and the Nation's Poor

The pastor focused on a different issue, one that stands at the heart of his world and the world of the journalist as well.

That issue is the fact -- so obvious to them but so hidden from the eyes of most privileged Americans -- that poor Americans so often bear the brunt of structural incivility and typically stand outside the most minimal levels of concern for the common good.

The people who most concern the pastor are these largely forgotten people -- people who live in marginal dwellings, who have little or no heat in the icy cold of winter and little or no cooling in the sweltering heat of summer, whose clothing is often threadbare and thin, who have little to eat and who enjoy no healthcare whatsoever, apart from their visits to America's emergency rooms.

These are the people whose needs are seldom acknowledged and whose welfare seldom registers in the public consciousness, even in debates on civility and the common good!

These are the people so many dismiss as lazy, shiftless and unwilling to work. But based on years of intimate experience with the nation's poor, the pastor knows better.

The pastor worries especially about the children of the poor and the way America's public schools routinely fail them.

He has watched, and he has grieved, as he has witnessed the tragic trend: how more and more Americans have embraced their private schools and turned their backs on public education, the form of education designed to serve the common good.

He also worries about the ultimate fate of these children -- how our society, having failed them, throws them away, much as we throw away razor blades or other disposable commodities.

They then become, in the pastor's words, "America's disposable children."

The process of trashing these children, the pastor said, begins early when a single teacher, for example, decides that "Johnny can't learn." And once that decision is made, virtually no one takes the trouble to teach Johnny to read or do math or learn any other basic skills.

Johnny may well graduate, but with an "empty" diploma, since Johnny is functionally illiterate. Why be surprised to discover, then, that with no marketable skills, Johnny has turned to petty crime or to selling drugs in order to stay alive?

And then, of course, the inevitable happens: Johnny is arrested and sent to prison where he joins thousands upon thousands of other disposable children just like himself. In truth, America can't seem to build its prisons fast enough to accommodate the staggering weight of this immense and ever-growing pile of failed and rejected children.

What most troubles the pastor is his awareness of the vast pool of talent and creativity these children represent. For he knows that as we lose these "disposable children" to ignorance, vice and the prison industry, the biggest loser is the American nation itself.

Indeed, the pastor wonders how any nation can long survive when it abandons such a large percentage of its workforce to the trash heap of human history.

So the pastor's question for the nation is both simple and clear: Can we find it in our hearts to care not just for the middle class -- those Americans who so often seem the objects of concern in debates on the common good -- but also for the poorest of the nation's poor?

As a minister of the Christian gospel, the pastor appreciates the truth Governor Winthrop spoke to the Puritans when in 1630, he offered these words of counsel:

The only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to talk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

The pastor's is a voice of realism, on the one hand, and hope, on the other. But other voices in America -- very influential voices -- are profoundly pessimistic.

The voice of the noted journalist, Chris Hedges, is a case in point. As a former foreign correspondent with The New York Times, Hedges helped shape the perspectives of the American public for many years. Today, his books influence the thinking of thousands upon thousands of Americans.

And Hedges is not hopeful. Indeed, he recently wrote that hope for this nation is largely a thing of the past. "There is no hope left for achieving significant reform or restoring our democracy through established mechanisms of power," Hedges wrote, "The electoral process has been hijacked by corporations. The judiciary has been corrupted and bought. The press shuts out the most important voices in the country and feeds us the banal and the absurd. Universities prostitute themselves for corporate dollars. Labor unions are marginal and ineffectual voices. The economy is in the hands of corporate swindlers and speculators. And the public, enchanted by electronic hallucinations, remains passive and supine."

With hope for large scale reform now dead, Hedges recommends "tiny acts of rebellion." Germans living under Nazi rule would have understood this point, Hedges notes. So would dissidents in the former Soviet Union and African Americans who endured the "long night of slavery." And for Hedges, that is the state of the Union today.

But there are still other voices, countervailing and deeply religious voices. Those voices speak deep wisdom into our current American crisis and shed abundant light on the path back home. We will hear those voices in the third and final post in this three-part series on civility and the common good.

Richard T. Hughes is Director of the Sider Institute at Messiah College and author of 'Christian America and the Kingdom of God' (University of Illinois Press, 2009).