Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Passes for a Hero These Days

I've passed it on the road a couple of times now and I still can't believe it. There are all kinds of things that we see on highway signs. We glance at them and immediately banish them from our minds. We've got more important things to think about - our destination, the music on the CD, what we did that day or what we're going to do. The only signs I really think about are telling me about the nearest gas station or where I can get a cup of coffee. That changed one day as I made my way through Dublin, GA.

As I came into town, my eyes moved to the left, prepared to move immediately back to the road. Instead, I did a classic double-take. There, staring at me from a huge sign, was a giant sized image of Joseph McCarthy, one time U. S. Senator from Wisconsin. The writing under McCarthy's picture read: “Joseph McCarthy, The Real American Hero.” It was subtitled: “Right All Along.”

Apparently, according to this sign and a couple of web sites I've found, Joseph McCarthy has become some kind of misunderstood saint, a guardian of the democratic spirit and the embodiment of Truth, Justice and the American Way (sorry about that, Superman).

Joseph McCarthy grossly exaggerated and lied about his military record when running for office while slandering his opponent for the Senate, Robert La Follette, Jr. Three years after being elected, McCarthy suddenly claimed the spotlight by claiming to have a list of members of the Communist Party that had infiltrated the State Department, the administration of President Harry Truman, and the United States Army. For the next three years or so, McCarthy took advantage of America's Cold War fears to lie and slander his way to Washington D. C. influence. In the process, lives were ruined, a climate of fear and hatred was nurtured and we are still seeing the effects of McCarthy's witch-hunt style of politics. McCarthy died in 1957 at the age of 48. The cause of death is listed as acute hepatitis and inflammation of the liver. Other sources list the cause as acute cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcoholism.

We're getting ready for another election season in the U. S. A. (color me underwhelmed). Already we've been seeing more than the usual level of name-calling, half-truths and out-right lies. The once honored system of American politics has become a dirty system that uses dirty methods to achieve selfish results. It's not about making America a better place for all of us. It's now about making America a place that gives us what we want at the expense of anyone and everyone else. People who are the best at making accusations and using vitriolic rhetoric will be called things like “pundits” and “sages.” The true extent of their wisdom is shown in their inability to have a rational discussion and their refusal to entertain the possibility that they may be able to learn from another person's point of view. This is what passes for statesmanship and political acumen in America now.

So now Joseph McCarthy is being seen as a hero by the masters of revisionist history. Is it really any surprise that we're seeing a renewed emphasis on McCarthy-style politics? It doesn't matter who may be right or wrong. It doesn't matter if anyone is right at all. All that matters is which candidate (or pundit or sage or whatever) can speak loudest for the longest time. They are confident that you and I will accept decibels for dedication and tricks for truth.

And they're right – we will.

Year after year Americans make choices (at least those of us who vote) based on who looks good and sounds good. It really doesn't matter what they are saying. All that matters is that they give us the rhetoric that makes us feel important and powerful or makes us feel vulnerable and persecuted. Either way works for them, as long as we vote their way. They like it better when the public is uninformed and would rather watch Big Brother or some other brainless “reality” TV show than spend a little time searching out the truth for ourselves.

Until we do that, our American heroes will continue to look more and more like the late Joseph McCarthy and less like those who founded our country on the ideals of true freedom and cooperation. The sad truth is that we will get the American heroes we deserve. If we demand more of our politicians than inflammatory speeches and divisive policies we might actually get what we want. The trick is to stick to it, which we rarely do. We are content with saying that we want honesty, commitment and bi-partisanship but we continually elect people who embody the opposite. As long as we refuse to change, the system will not change.

So, who is to blame for the failure of the system? Everyone. Who is responsible for making it work? Everyone. Who is taking the lead? No one. The revisionists are winning. They haven't completely won yet, but things are heading in that direction. Is that what we want? If not, it's time to get up off our complacency and stop being led around like so many sheep. Become the kind of person that we say we want our politicians and leaders to be. Speak the truth and expect it of others. Be compassionate and require it of our collective society. That is at the heart of true heroism.

You want a hero? Be one.