At the senior expo last weekend, put on again this year by this newspaper and UAMS, a man in the audience of a few dozen asked the political panel what I feared would be an enraging and polarizing question.
He inquired as to which was the more unpatriotic act — kneeling during the national anthem or declining to vote.
Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, dutifully fielded the query from the center-left philosophical position he co-represented with me on the four-man panel opposite the amiable conservative Republicans — dapper lawyer-lobbyist Sylvester Smith and lobbyist and media personality Bill Vickery.
Rutherford said that professional football players are kneeling not to show disrespect to the nation or the servicemen who have fought for its freedom, but to exercise that freedom in an entirely different context — justice, or injustice, or perception thereof. He related that the issue was most recently and vividly called into question by a white off-duty policewoman’s shooting dead a black man in his own apartment after she had mistaken the apartment for her own one floor lower and tried to enter late at night.
As for voting, Rutherford said that was a complex question having to do with cycles of public passion and motivation and the difficulty we insist on applying to our voting process.
Wonderful on-target answers, but here we go, into a culture-war debate, or so I thought.
Yet it didn’t happen. In fact, Smith more or less agreed that the kneeling controversy now afoot was not a patriotic matter but something else. Vickery didn’t say anything as I recall, and I remained blissfully silent. And we moved agreeably on.
It’s one small vignette on one Saturday opposite a bingo game in a convention hall. But, in the era of Trumpian ignorance and demagoguery, I’m looking for tolerance and forbearance and well-considered calm wherever I can find them.
An appreciative word, too, goes to Smith in his answer on Issue 1. That’s the proposal perhaps to be on the ballot by which the chamber of commerce, nursing home industry and medical establishment seek to pass so-called “tort reform” to keep juries from inconveniencing them with harsh damage awards if they harm innocent people.
Conservatives tend to favor it, valuing the monied providers over mere consumers, and Smith didn’t say he was against it. But he did feel obliged to make the “educational” point that, particularly for a senior audience, everyone needed to be aware that, by proposing a cap on non-economic damages, the amendment would place a ceiling of the value of a senior life or a child’s life, making it less worthy than a money-earner’s life.
The greater anger and resentment this day had to do with Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and Merrick Garland’s rudely unconsidered one the year before, and on something I’m afraid I stirred up with a little polarizing passion of my own.
A man in the audience said he’d read that, if you add all the votes cast state-by-state in the U.S. Senate races producing the Republican-controlled Senate we now have, Democrats got several million more votes than Republicans.
“Don’t get me started,” I said, as I got started.
I pointed out that, on the highly divisive and culturally defining issue of Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court, we have a Republican president who got fewer votes than his Democratic opponent making the nomination for consideration by a U.S. Senate controlled by Republicans although, for the cumulative races producing that current Senate membership, Democrats got more votes that Republicans.
No wonder, then, there’s passionate resentment of Kavanaugh.
The reason is that — by giving each state two senators and applying those two seats to each state’s electoral college allotment — we give more political power to bears and elk and moose in Wyoming and Montana and Alaska than to people.
I said I wasn’t proposing to change U.S. Senate makeup, but that I’d love to abolish the electoral college and let the nationwide popular vote decide the presidency. A few in the audience applauded, but, amid the applause, I saw and heard a spitting-angry guy in the back row who stood to shout, “It’s only worked for 200 years.”
We moved on — to Smith’s saying a state like Arkansas would never see a presidential candidate again if we abolished the electoral college, as if that would be a bad thing, and as if we see much of them now unless they come from here.
It was good we moved on, because I was prepared to tell the angry man that it’s not working anymore — not when we’ve had second-place nincompoops become president twice already this young century, the latter of whom is an utter disgrace who imperils the security of the nation and world by his megalomaniacal idiocy.
That might have been a tad polarizing.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.