I watched some of the “memorial service” in Tucson last night.
Here are some observations.
First, we feel pain and concern for the the people affected. What happened in Tucson was gruesome, maddening, sad, demoralizing, disastrous, and revolting. It was, however, not a tragedy. “Tragedy” is over-used and usually misapplied. In know that in this age of lowered expectations and falling educational standards words in common parlance don’t mean what they used to, but we need reminders from time to time that words are important. Tragedy concerns the results of a person’s character and decisions. The people who suffered in this attack are victims of a crime committed by someone who is not in his right mind. The main stream media, with its penchant for amping-up stories for the sake of viewership, has dumbed-down our discourse. The incessant application of the label “tragedy” makes us all a little stupider.
Something about the atmosphere. It wasn’t much of a “memorial” service in my opinion. Perhaps this was because there were so many university students. The intellectual and cultural level of young people in the USA has fallen to the point that they seem not to be able to recognize the moment. They know little of decorum. I will concede that there were some moments for applause, but the interrupting and hooting was shameful. At the same time, did it occur to the organizers that the distribution of t-shirts might set the wrong tone from the onset? As the “service” went on, I had to remind myself of why someone was reading Scripture even as some dimwits were hollering their no-doubt important opinions.
Next, the president’s speech was a good speech. I don’t think it was great. I am not impressed with Pres. Obama as a speaker. He is not a great orator, though I admit he speaks better than 80% of politicians these days. That’s a pretty low bar, I’m afraid. Standing ovations are common now as well, even for mediocre performances. Our standards are falling. Moreover, when it comes to the content of his speeches, I am inclined to doubt every word he utters, even (pace Mary McCarthy) “and” and “the”.
Last night, however, President Obama was faced with a real problem as a speaker. It struck me that he had prepared for what reasonable people expected: a memorial service. Instead, he was required to wrest control of the moment from the uluating rubes in the student body. Once he penetrated through their thick skulls, Pres. Obama was effective. That is, he was able to give the speech he wanted to give. I give him high marks for that even though he was driven a couple times back to his comfort zone of a campaign-style speech. Hard to avoid it, given the house.
Perhaps having to give such a speech in front of that audience was emblematic of the larger issue he tried to address. The president first had to reach beyond the indecorous numskulls in the auditorium in order to underscore one of the major points he wanted to make: we need a more reasoned public discourse. This is not to say that we can’t have tough discourse, or that we have to leave many of the tools of debate untouched in the toolbox.
Over the last few days we have read and heard insinuations and outright accusations from the extreme left that conservative figures in talk radio or politics were somehow responsible for the shootings in Tucson. Decent people have recoiled from that and have responded that we need greater civility.
Is civility what we need? Is that another misapplication of a word? After all, words don’t seem to mean what they used to. When people say “what a tragedy”, we understand that they mean that what happened was awful and it has made them sad. Not everyone has to know the Greek roots of “tragedy” to be able to have a conversation over their Mystic Monk Coffee.
In asking for more “civility” I wonder if we aren’t longing for discourse in which people first think about what they want to say and then don’t purposely lie, or, if they have nothing intelligent to say, then they should just keep their mouths shut.