Kum ba yah . . . I think I learned the song at summer camp, probably when I was seven or eight years old. What it is, without question, is a spiritual (the phrase “my Lord” recurs more often than the title phrase) with important roots in African and/or African-American culture. It has been a popular folk song and a song of protest, sometimes affirming the desire for peace, sometimes (with sarcasm) to assert the naïveté of those who seek peace.
Kum ba yah . . . come by here.
The pursuit of short-term peace under some circumstances probably is naïve. Certainly in my own life there have been moments and even sustained periods of time in which, one way or another, the central theme was battle, and the struggle was real.
Yet, even in those periods, the struggle was necessary so that there could be peace . . . the struggle was a means to an end, not the end itself.
The opening of this year’s legislative session seems to be a time of kum ba yah. I hasten to add that it was sorely needed after last year’s many fruitless battles pitting the chambers against each other and against the governor. The early attention each chamber is giving to the other chamber’s priority legislation suggests that, at least for now, peace and collaboration are more than just words.
I have my personal and professional opinions about the wisdom of the policies being advanced by leaders of the House and the Senate, not all of them positive. Even so, while I firmly believe that our elected leaders need to be willing to fight for what is right (or, when what is right is simply not possible, fight for the best that can be), such fighting should be an unavoidable means to the necessary end of better public policy and a better life for Floridians, not the preferred mode of doing business.
Pitched political battles can produce desired outcomes when one can accrue, through fighting, the institutional power to carry the day. Pitched political battles also can produce desired outcomes when one has the capacity to take the fight outside the institution and exert new influence over those inside. In other words, one can win by overpowering one’s rivals within the institution, or by mobilizing segments of the public that, in turn, either remove the opposition from office or force a “conversion” in them.
What we saw in our state Capitol last year, I believe, was proof that going to war when neither of those conditions prevails is foolish and wasteful. What I think we are seeing now is that our legislative leaders have realized this truth.
While there may be some measure of peace in Tallahassee, there is little to be found on the national stage, particularly as the first presidential nomination contests approach. Long before Citizens United . . . indeed, long before the Internet, or television, or even the Republican Party (Grand and Old as it may be), Americans deployed the weapons of personal attack, rumor and even pure fantasy to discredit and destroy political rivals in the quest for the Oval Office. It’s just reality television on steroids . . . and with a much longer season.
To say that the attack ads and offensive tweets and one-line zingers are familiar and persistent is not to say that they are good. To say that such conduct by our presidential wannabes is normal is not to say that it should be the norm.
However much we Americans may be afraid of whatever threats we fear (physical, moral, social or cultural), I do not believe that we relish being on a perpetual war footing. We do not crave constant conflict with our government, our social institutions, our neighbor down the street or a nation abroad. We want peace . . . not at any price whatsoever, but I think we are willing to pay the appropriate price.
Sadly, real peace, in our cities, our nation and the world, always has a price. At times, that price includes the wounds received when taking the fight to the enemy, in whatever form they take.
But part of that price is paid in the wounds we accept without striking back. Peace, real peace, demands of us the courage to risk doing what is right and just even if we become easier targets for doing so. It’s a tough lesson to learn and a hard one to live.
It would be nice if those who aspire to lead this nation would teach it, showing the courage to do what is right even if it might cost them an endorsement, a primary or the nomination.
Leaders in modeling peace . . . kum ba yah.