Last Words of a Civilized Man

Here are the words of one of the few remaining civilized politicians in America, on the day that he died. We should mourn his loss and the loss of civility (and humor) in American politics and we must fight to restore it. Now is the time to call upon all politicians to restore the civility to the public service that, whatever the conflict or dispute, retained a sense of the public good.

My Last Words for America

By John D. Dingell, The Washington Post, 10 February 19

John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who served in the U.S. House from 1955 to 2015, was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history. He dictated these reflections to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), at their home in Dearborn, on Feb. 7, the day he died.

Rep.John Dingell.D-Mich

John D. Dingell in 2014. (photo: Jeff Kowalsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

ne of the advantages to knowing that your demise is imminent, and that reports of it will not be greatly exaggerated, is that you have a few moments to compose some parting thoughts.

In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition.

And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.

My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler. We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately – we see much less of today.

Think about it:

Impoverishment of the elderly because of medical expenses was a common and often accepted occurrence. Opponents of the Medicare program that saved the elderly from that cruel fate called it “socialized medicine.” Remember that slander if there’s a sustained revival of silly red-baiting today.

Not five decades ago, much of the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth — our own Great Lakes — were closed to swimming and fishing and other recreational pursuits because of chemical and bacteriological contamination from untreated industrial and wastewater disposal. Today, the Great Lakes are so hospitable to marine life that one of our biggest challenges is controlling the invasive species that have made them their new home.

We regularly used and consumed foods, drugs, chemicals and other things (cigarettes) that were legal, promoted and actively harmful. Hazardous wastes were dumped on empty plots in the dead of night. There were few if any restrictions on industrial emissions. We had only the barest scientific knowledge of the long-term consequences of any of this.

And there was a great stain on America, in the form of our legacy of racial discrimination. There were good people of all colors who banded together, risking and even losing their lives to erase the legal and other barriers that held Americans down. In their time, they were often demonized and targeted, much like other vulnerable men and women today.

Please note: All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.

I’m immensely proud, and eternally grateful, for having had the opportunity to play a part in all of these efforts during my service in Congress. And it’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me and shown me during my public service and retirement.

But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the forgiveness and sweetness of the woman who has essentially supported me for almost 40 years: my wife, Deborah. And it is a source of great satisfaction to know that she is among the largest group of women to have ever served in the Congress (as she busily recruits more).

In my life and career, I have often heard it said that so-and-so has real power — as in, “the powerful Wile E. Coyote, chairman of the Capture the Road Runner Committee.”

It’s an expression that has always grated on me. In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).

I never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them. It was a lesson learned at home from my father and mother, and one I have tried to impart to the people I’ve served with and employed over the years.

As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.

May God bless you all, and may God bless America.

The Incredible Darkness of Being…a Cop: Warrior or Peacemaker in a Dangerous World. Part II

We Americans have a strange schizoid view of public service. A dedicated Santa Fe school teacher finally quit recently, because he had a family to support and he could make much more clerking at Trader Joe’s with better and cheaper health insurance, working much fewer hours and not having to take his work home every night. Are we willing to pay teachers for their hard work? Mostly not. Same goes for police. We are not willing to pay for proper training – in fact we don’t really grasp the extent to which police training often is totally inadequate – then we expect officers to perform heroically and don’t understand when we discover a police culture of corruption and excessive violence, racism, and disrespect for the ordinary citizens (us) they are sworn to “serve and protect.” Failure to respect public servants breeds their disrespect of citizens. Shall we ‘privatize’ police like we have prisons? Well, you see where that led – to more incentives for abuse, bogus arrests, and regressive policies. If we don’t value police, teachers, and other public servants, why do we expect what we are not willing to pay for?

If the viral video of the Albuquerque police shooting death of James Boyd tells us anything it is that we have lost all credible control of the role of “law enforcement” as a public institution in service to the citizenry. The “authorities” are now buzzing around about improved training curriculum and the department is bringing a retired commander back to oversee vague “reforms.” Give me a break. What the APD does not need is another insider who, one must assume, is part and parcel of the police culture that failed us.

After a three-year investigation, the Department of Justice released its report on April 10, 2014, which found routine excessive use of deadly force and unjustified use of “non-lethal” weapons where situations could have been de-escalated. Too often situations were allowed to escalate to the point where SWAT teams were overused and crisis intervention teams were underused. Every questionable shooting was deemed “justified” by the district attorney. Command personnel condoned all manner of behavior, leaving the impression among poorly trained officers that anything goes.  Bureaucratic corruption seems to have trumped basic human values.

Any real reform of a broken system requires sweeping changes in command personnel to break corrupt lines of authority by changing expectations, which means bringing in nationally recognized authoritative professionals who are then given the power to completely overhaul the system. But such a vision is not observable in either the Albuquerque mayor or city council statements about their “solutions.” A distinctly “band-aid” approach seems to dominate. Why? When an institution has failed, its members have been living in an institutional culture that fully rationalizes the practices that have led to failure. They don’t necessarily recognize the pathology of ‘business as usual.’ That is why the DOJ report may not have gone far enough.

An important factor, not usually seen as related to police work, is the ever growing obsession with violence in the American culture. While it is only expressed as action in a small number of cases – it just takes a few mass shootings to get our attention – the role of deadly weapons and “weapons of mass destruction” in the American consciousness has certainly grown since 9/11. The combination of imagery of violence as both danger and solution and the availability of more and more technologies of violence as tools of policing inevitably lead to excessive police violence – especially when officers are under-educated and poorly trained.

Violence in image and story is not always expressed in action. The pervasive violence in Japanese video games, in contrast to American life, is associated with very low rates of actual violence and a near total absence of guns in that society. Canadians apparently have more guns per capita than the U.S., but sustain a much lower rate of injury and death by firearms. One must ask, what is it about American culture that produces both violent cultural images and violent behavioral outbursts? Why must police be trained to view every traffic stop as a combat situation? Why must police training be focused on combat to the detriment of peacekeeping? The answer lies somewhere in the cultural expectations of both the population and the police in their encounters, and in the changing expectations and imagery about violence and its proper role in police practice. The underlying problem, I suspect, is that we have a very unrealistic understanding of what is possible and what is proper in the exercise of law enforcement.

The right-wing mantra that all government is bad does not usually extend to attitudes toward police. But misguided arbitrary support for police usually favors their militarization, not improved education and training as peace officers. By taking a more realistic approach to seriously educating and training officers, including high levels of martial arts skills, and employing them in an atmosphere promoting conflict resolution and compassion, it may be possible to restore police to their rightful role as peace officers. Part III of this essay will explore the contrast between contemporary police culture and training vs. what might be considered appropriate preparation for and practice of a  “peacekeeper” role of police in a civil society.