There’s a Revolutionary War hero in my family tree. Ethan Allen, commander of the Green Mountain Boys, famous for capturing Fort Ticonderoga without firing a shot and for playing a critical role in General Horatio Gates’ defeat of General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga. No doubt, Allen was a bona fide hero.
He was also a brutal man, a bully and a drunkard.
I’m proud of being related to Ethan Allen. But I don’t pretend that he was always heroic, or noble, or good.
My much smaller imprint on history has had its moments of modest heroism. My career as an elected official included determined advocacy of the rights of others, including those with whom I had very strong principled disagreements. Some of what was accomplished was historic in its own way.
I also abused my bully pulpit, was unprincipled in the pursuit of some personal goals, and complacently accepted perks that, today, would violate state ethics laws.
This is the way we are, isn’t it? A mix of virtue and vice. Which side tips the scale of our life cannot be known until we close our eyes for the last time.
What is true of us individually is true of our institutions, our movements, our ideological fellow travelers. Yet we have become a nation that seems blind to that truth (or willfully dishonest about it) in pursuit of political advantage.
As I write, Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, Republican House Whip, remains in critical condition after being shot Wednesday morning while practicing for one of the few bipartisan moments on the annual congressional calendar, the congressional charity baseball game. The assailant, allegedly, had liberal sympathies and was angered by Republican initiatives.
Of course, congressional Republicans and Democrats shared a moment of solidarity. And, of course, that sense of mutual respect and shared purpose evaporated within hours.
So much for bipartisanship.
We’ve all heard the criticism of political agitators who seem to promote violence toward certain segments of our society. Most of that narrative has piled disapprobation on voices on the right, some of whom, it must be acknowledged, clearly deserve it.
I’m not interested in arguments about which side is worse.
No one should fear that their life might be forfeit simply because of the color of their skin, nor the color of their party allegiance, nor the ideas they espouse, nor the friends they choose to make.
If we actually believe that, then our words, as well as our deeds, should show it.
We can be sharply divided on critical questions about the future of our country. We can get into heated debates about the merits of policies and the wisdom and character of leaders. We can conclude that there is no middle ground on which we can stand together.
And still, we can, and we must, respect the life and liberty of those with whom we are in conflict.
To do otherwise is to court disaster for ourselves and for our nation. Our tradition of democracy is not so secure that it can tolerate unbridled hatred legitimated or excused by those who assert a claim to be our leaders.
It may be powerfully inconvenient to stand against hate when it is spouted by our fans. It may be tempting to laugh and minimize the threat posed by those who urge death and violence, in jest or in earnest, against our rivals.
What is certain is that the measure of our character is how we deal with such temptation, how inconveniently far we will go to defend the rights of our adversaries.
Perhaps it is this, more than anything, that will tip the scale of our lives . . . and of our nation.