I attended the Smithsonian Institute annual Kite Festival in Washington, DC on 27 March 2007 with my youngest daughter, who is 17. After admiring the many fanciful kites and displays of acrobatic flight, we then walked around the Tidal Basin and enjoyed the views and the crowds. The cherry blossoms were in their full glory. The atmosphere in the crowds of botanical admirers was dignified, cultured even.
I remarked to my daughter that I had a cognitive difficulty in reconciling that scene of reserved gentility with the events the previous weekend, when Congress passed the (almost) final version of health care reform legislation. Angry mobs were gathered in Washington, chanting vulgar epithets, throwing debris, and spitting on members of Congress as they made their way from the Capitol to a House office building. The ultimate denigration that day was when several agitators used the N-word when cursing at Representative John Lewis, of Georgia. Democracy ain’t always pretty, but that wasn’t democracy. It was more thug-ocracy.
It is hard sometimes to imagine that the same society that produces movements extolling culture and refinement also produce ugly mobs and disgusting behavior. It is difficult, but it is necessary to recognize the potential for evil that exists in us all – as a society as a whole, and within each of us as individuals. Every society has the potential for both evil and beauty. The Germany of Goethe and Beethoven and Mozart and Mann also was the Germany of Hitler and Goebbels and Speer. The Japan of Zen gardens and haiku and tea ceremonies was also the Japan of comfort women and banzai charges and Korean repression and Chinese atrocities. The America of Walt Whitman and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and Frank Lloyd Wright and John Fogerty was also the America of Dred Scott and the Ku Klux Klan and Japanese internment camps and the Edmund Pettus bridge. No society has an exclusive claim to moral superiority, any more than any individual can claim personal purity. Every day is another test of our mettle, another chance to struggle to do the right thing.
We are a society that throngs to admire the Cherry Blossoms. We are the same society that gathers to threaten and curse our elected officials when they disagree with our politics. It was a hard lesson to share with my daughter, one that I would rather have skipped. But ignoring the potential for wrong that exists in all of us will never work to keep our society’s darker impulses in check.