Jim Jenkins

Let’s make room again for a civility that’s above politics

Supporters and opponents of president Donald Trump face off in front of the Ohio state house in Columbus, Ohio, in March 2017.
Supporters and opponents of president Donald Trump face off in front of the Ohio state house in Columbus, Ohio, in March 2017. AP

It was an unlikely spark for a New Year’s resolution.

The sender presented the message matter-of-factly, passed along via Twitter, without much comment. Its origins in time and place were unknown to the friend who sent it my way. It was apparently a response to an invitation to an anniversary celebration. The response was, “Sorry we cannot attend your party – I have nothing in common w/liberals...” Not mean, just matter-of-fact.

A series of responses came in, with some appearing to be tongue-in-cheek, asking the recipient of the note just how liberal he was, etc., with some joking sarcasm. Tweeting, including that of the president of the United States, seems to be unchartered territory even now in terms of boundaries of what’s … well, inside those boundaries.

A buddy who passed along the message said it just made him sad. “Is this,” he wondered, “what we’ve come to? People can’t get together for something like this, something harmless, something to celebrate without having political philosophy push them apart? We have to learn how to get along.”

He was absolutely right, and at one point he said, “You ought to tell that story, again, about your father and Jesse Helms.”

The story, oh yes. I believe it was on the occasion of Sen. Helms’ death in 2008 that I relayed the story that Jesse Helms and my father became friends while at then-Wake Forest College in the late 1930s, both working a couple of jobs to scrape together enough money to stay in school, both struggling through the Great Depression, both shaped by small-town life in the foothills of North Carolina, and both having membership in the Greatest Generation that believed in hard work and family and old-fashioned values. A generation about to go to war.

What they didn’t share, and agreed for the sake of friendship never to discuss, was a political philosophy. But as they grew older, they didn’t worry about it.

Lots of people of their generation did the same, managing to maintain friendship no matter their other differences, because they recognized that the shared values that should bring people together have little to do with politics. The values that matter are heart, generosity, compassion, concern for the children and parents of true friends, loyalty, character, respect. (Jesse Helms had those personal values, by the way.)

I wish the person who declined attendance at that anniversary party could reconsider, for I expect it will be a joyful occasion, and perhaps the last one at which some old friends will see each other. That’s not a sentimental New Year’s thought; it’s just the practical truth. And we’re rarely sorry for compromising, for suppressing our discomfort, in the name of doing something that will make someone else feel good. Almost always, we say to ourselves later, “Glad I did that.”

Sure, sure. That’s perhaps an unrealistic hope. But that tweet, or the message therein that so upset my friend and others reflects an all-too-common great divide where we’re being driven apart by the angry nature of our politics. What a waste, if longtime friends are alienated when they ought to be sharing pictures of grandchildren and remembering their days of youth.

If all could pause, when readying a fierce tweet or text or email or note, and take it down a notch, maybe not even send it at all, and subtract from exchanges within a family over holidays or at reunions any mention of politics or liberal or conservative philosophies – who knows? Some might venture a step across that once-great divide.

“We have to learn how to get along,” said my friend, again. We need to be drawn together by all that we have in common, and not divided by the inconsequential things that drive us apart. Now there’s a resolution worth keeping. A happy and harmonious new year to you all.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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