avatarFeatured Columnist – Meditations
Martin LeFerve

Sometimes, fewer than a thousand words are better than a picture, or a video. For example, the image of a San Jose, California Pulitzer-prize winning photographer and teacher halting a bank robber in the act by giving him a big bear hug seizes the imagination. [http://news.yahoo.com/video/sanfranciscocbs5-15751300/pulitzer-prize-winner-thwarts-sj-robbery-19159595]

The robber went limp when the peculiar Good Samaritan put his arms around him, and they both stood there for ten minutes waiting for the cops to come. It’s a strange scene: One man, who came into the bank to rob it, and another, who came into the bank to transfer some money to pay his IRS bill on tax day, locked in an embrace.

It was such a non-violent response to an often-violent crime. But the bank robber didn’t really have his heart in the heist, and let himself be restrained by a man without a weapon for ten minutes. Even the teller displayed compassion, asking the robber just before the bear hug, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Did the guy just really need a hug?

Small events like this, and the ripples that emanate from them, can signal large waves that change the socialscape.

One does see signs that that GDK (Gross Domestic Kindness) Index is rising. But before we declare that the dog-eat-dog American culture is dead, it would be wise to recall the outbreak of “random acts of kindness” in the early ‘90’s. That went about as far, and lasted about as long, as the “Pay It Forward” fad (by a movie with that title) at around the same time.

Even so, there seems to be an uptick in courtesy—the social unit of currency in any country. Since the collapse of the financial sector over a year ago, two social trends seem to be competing to see which will prevail in the USA. The bear hugging a bank robber incident exemplifies one movement; the angry Tea Party movement exemplifies the other.

It’s fascinating to watch shallow-thinking progressives like Arianna Huffington say things like “Tea Party anger stems from middle class economic conditions.” No wonder the Tea Partiers are getting angrier.

One of the best ways to make someone mad is to treat him or her like they’re too stupid to know what they’re really feeling. People like Huffington are telling Tea Partiers why they’re angry, rather than listening to the reasons they themselves are giving for their rage.

Tea Partiers say that they’re mad about the loss of American exceptionalism. For many on the Right, President Obama embodies the end of what many thought was their American birthright. That explains why the Tea Partiers are bent on questioning Obama’s birthplace, thereby undermining his right to be President of the United States.

American exceptionalism begins with the belief that we are the greatest country the world has ever seen. Indeed, the United States is not only the greatest country now or ever; we are the exception to all other countries throughout history.

To Tea Partiers, and their less passionate (though perhaps no less virulent) brethren in the Republican Party, America should by inalienable right continue to lead the inferior nations of the world. A President, especially one with dark skin and dubious bloodline, who tries to put us on a par with other countries, is, ipso facto, tearing America down.

Barack Obama, by skin color, disposition, philosophy, and policies, is making America look and feel like just another country. To a sizable portion of the population, that’s a treasonable offence.

Meanwhile President Obama is trying to lead through equanimity, and by appealing to so-called independents. Paradoxically more passionate clarity from the “bully pulpit” would cool the passions of the angry half of the electorate.

Fortunately, half of the population doesn’t share their sentiments or world-view. For those clinging to the idea of American exceptionalism, a nationalistic fervor, long the most dangerous toxin in any body politic, is blocking the receptors for reason in their brains.

For progressives, too often there is a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ mentality, driven by the belief that humans are rational creatures that make decisions on the basis of reasonable self-interest. Even though that’s obviously not so, people are capable of extraordinary things.

Was the random act of clarity by the San Jose teacher, which local TV said “gives a new definition to compassionate justice,” a sign the social tide is turning? Or will the angry, jingoistic Tea Party Republicans return with a vengeance? Stay tuned in.