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Speaking as one requires the listening of many

Published in the New Bedford Standard-Times September 17, 1005

by Greg Stone

Disasters happen. They're not important. The only thing that is important for us as individuals, or as a country, is how we react to them. And the jury is still out on just how we will react to the disaster named Katrina.

Yes, I know what President Bush said Thursday night. And yes, I know that all sorts of people from celebrities to children have started fund drives for those victimized by this storm. But two things are obvious:

1. The government at all levels - whether headed by Democrats or Republicans - failed the people it was supposed to serve at a time when the people most needed it.

2. Americans - both liberals and conservatives - are a compassionate people with good hearts who when they see others less fortunate, will quickly reach out.

What isn't obvious is whether we now have the true grit it will take to respond in a meaningful way to this challenge because to do so we have to change. We need unity, but unfortunately "national unity" has come to mean that everyone should "fall in behind me." And who "me" is depends upon who thinks they are in charge at the time. But that isn't what "unity" is about in a democracy. Unity in a democracy can't be commanded - it has to be achieved through difficult and honest -and yes, frequently boring - discussion.

We have been avoiding such discussions recently. Instead we have become masters at fostering disunity and wallowing in it. Our politicians and our pundits encourage divisions. Who wants to watch an intelligent discussion of the issues on TV? Isn't it much more fun to see people throwing clever barbs at one another? Talking heads are boring - shouting heads draw viewers and advertising dollars.

A lot of my friends like to think this nastiness is the province of the political right. They started it and they are the unquestioned masters of personal vindictiveness, or so the argument goes. And part of me buys that argument. Part of me takes great glee when I read - or hear - someone cutting George Bush to shreds. But I don't like that part of me and I don't think that part of me is either healthy or helpful. So I've tried to understand it and change it - and I'm making some progress, but I need help. Particularly, I need help from those with a different point of view. I need to hear their concerns and solutions. But I can't hear them when they shout, or surround their arguments with personal attacks.

For years I have wondered why the right has such a visceral reaction to Bill and Hilary Clinton? The Clintons some solid ideas that need to be heard. OK, that's easy for me to say because I agree with many of those ideas.

But I began to understand this vicious reaction to the Clintons when I saw myself having a similar reaction to Bush and Cheney. For a couple of years I could not even watch Bush deliver a speech on television. The man simply irritated me by his body language as he walked to the podium. By the time he opened his mouth I had already decided I didn't agree with anything he was going to say.

That's irrational. I don't defend it. I simply observe it in myself and ask why. Why are we so polarized? Why are we unwilling to listen to one another? What has changed in our society to make us this way? I'm not sure. But I am sure it's counterproductive.

We seem unwilling as a nation to look honestly at ourselves, and we seem unwilling as individuals to listen to one another and yet a successful democracy demands both listening and self-examination. It is in this light that I see Hurricane Katrina as a test of our nation's maturity.

Katrina didn't simply destroy a city - it destroyed our image of a city and ourselves. It ripped away the fog that shrouded the despicable destitution that was the real New Orleans, hidden behind the show place that was the New Orleans of the tourist. It showed us that we are not all that we would like to be - that many of our citizens are left behind, and when the chips are down the weak, the poor, the elderly and the very young pay the steepest price for our failings.

President Bush wants to rebuild a region. Good. But that reincarnation has to be a lot more than bricks, mortar, and unassailable levees. Whatever rises out of the New Orleans ashes has to be socially better than before. And that's a tough order. We have failed in the past to solve these problems of race and inequality. Liberal solutions haven't always worked and conservative solutions haven't always worked. What we need now is American solutions. This does not mean laying an ideology - from the right or left - over the problem like it was some sort of magic template. There are no surefire formulas out there - no one has cornered the market on ideas that work.

But the first step towards reaching a solution may be the most difficult. We have to abandoned our petty bickering. We have to abandon our personal attacks. We have to listen to ideas, and make an effort to separate them from their sources and evaluate them on their merits. We can't continue to reject something just because we don't like the person proposing it - or think that it somehow represents the ideological thinking of the right or the left and therefore is automatically wrong.

That's hard work - but Katrina, like other disasters, presents us with challenges and the most difficult of these challenges is not cleaning the Super Dome or building new houses. The most difficult challenge is to open our hearts and our minds - to see and hear, honestly, what we all are trying to say. Unity - and a better nation - will come only through a recognition and respect for a healthy and natural disunity of ideas.

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