A high school student in Kentucky recently made a good point for all Los Banosans and other Americans who appreciate the expression and debate of ideas. Ben Bowling, like so many high school valedictorians, simply included a quote in his speech.
“Don’t just get involved,” Bowling said. “Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
What Bowling did next made his point. He told his audience that he was quoting Donald Trump. The audience, in a state which strongly supports President Trump, responded with a roar of approval.
Then Bowling added, “Just kidding. That was Barack Obama,” at which the crowd went silent and a few people booed.
The point this high school student was making, I believe, was not about Trump or Obama. It was about the importance of ideas over personalities.
What’s desperately lacking in our country is an honest discussion of ideas. Most Americans are caught up in personalities and in taking sides. Too many people will praise or decry an idea based who said it, rather than how good or bad the idea is in itself.
Several weeks after that valedictory speech, another story described a person disgruntled with a Maryland newspaper deciding to resolve his issue by using violence. In the horrible murder of five newspaper employees – editors, a reporter, a columnist and a salesperson who worked for the Capital Gazette.
When I first heard this story, I felt immediate physical revulsion. I had to fight back the urge to throw up. Then I wiped away a few tears.
I did not know, or even know of, Robert Hiiasen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Wendi Winters or Rebecca Smith, the five who were murdered. But I felt they were part of my family, my extended family of journalists. Yes, I’m only a weekly columnist for a small newspaper, but I’ve known so many good and competent journalists in my life. They are like my brothers and sisters.
Some of my tears in that moment were also for my country.
An attack on a newspaper reminds me of other attacks on the press during my lifetime – in Russia, El Salvador, Columbia, Iraq and in countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia when they were under Communist control. Lord, I asked myself, we’re not becoming like them, are we?
I hope after this incident people will stop calling the media “an enemy of the American people.” The First Amendment right of freedom of the press is a safeguard of the American people, just as a free press should be the safeguard of other countries.
That doesn’t mean every item in all media is always accurate. But it does mean newspapers and other media have to be free to present the news as they observe it and opinion as they see it. I would rather have a newspaper or television network express opinions to which I’m diametrically opposed than have it stifled.
It might seem odd that I connect a rather whimsical speech by a high school student with a gruesome, bloody act of an assassin. But the two are related. It’s important for Americans to have a free and lively debate of ideas, separate from personalities and free from the threat of violence.
In debates today, we usually focus on the person putting forward the idea, not the idea itself. If it’s someone we don’t like, we start to get irritated and then hostile. For some, it’s a short jump from hostility to violence.
The best solutions are usually those we come to agree on through compromise among people of differing viewpoints.
I remember high school and college debates in which the ideas were the most important concern and facts were presented as evidence to support claims and positions. Student debaters had to be willing and able to debate either side of an issue, depending on the assignment.
I remain optimistic that free expression and debate can be more focused on ideas than personalities. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because American history consists of many cycles of good and bad events. Overall, America’s good angels have defeated our bad angels. I hope that will be the case again soon.
John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.