The last week has seen its share of particularly biting partisanship among undergraduates. Some of the most prominent have been the protests at the Harvey Mansfield Master’s Tea and True Love Week’s “The Person as a Gift” lecture. In addition, the alleged sign-taking at Occupy New Haven has sparked controversy across campus. You almost wish that Clint Eastwood could walk onto campus and remind us of who we are and why we are here.
The political climate here is not simply heated. It’s combative. And while we view these instances through our Ivy League lens, what we see here is not so different from the scattered vitriol on our national stage.
I’m not going to write about civility. Granted, there is a strong case to be made for tempering our dialogue. But let’s face it — civility has become a hackneyed refuge, joining the umbrella constructs of tolerance, fairness and community.
Lost in the tempestuous climate of political opinion both at Yale and in America is something more distressing: We are losing our sense of common purpose. At Yale, we seem to forget that we have pledged to seek truth, explore ideas and thoughts from all perspectives and leave here capable of bringing light to our endeavors. In America, the very language that defines us as a country — success, prosperity, virtue and patriotism — has become a battleground.
But, as Edmund Burke said, “To make us love our country, our country must be lovely.” Our nation’s leaders’ defining job, ultimately, is to awaken in each of us a sense of what is lovely about our country and to rally us to that vision. In our highest office, we have a president who has failed at accomplishing this. But, in all fairness, the alternatives seem equally incapable.
Is it any wonder that the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad struck such a powerful nerve? Both parties were claiming his message of American resilience, strength and purpose for their own. And while Eastwood disavowed any politics in his message, it resembled nothing so much as — and echoed as nothing recently has — Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”
Earlier this week, Ronald Reagan would have celebrated his 101st birthday. At first reaction, Reagan is far from a great unifier of Yale students. As the conservative paradigm, he is often ridiculed, mocked and debunked — and only occasionally revered. But as we look back on the Reagan legacy, we all ought to admire an apolitical aspect of Reagan.
Looking back on the prospect of running against Reagan for president, Ted Kennedy once wrote, “He was more than a candidate at that time; he was a movement.” Reagan was not only able to make Americans hope again; He was able to ground that hope in a set of principles, values and morals that allowed our nation to hope for a shared purpose.
“The source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual,” Reagan said in his famous “Evil Empire” speech. Today, in a national dialogue almost exclusively encumbered with economic measurements and social statistics, the shallowness of our rhetoric lacks the ability to produce any greater aspiration to mitigate fixed ideological divisions.
There is arguably no greater testament to Reagan’s enduring inspiration than the number of statues of him erected beyond America’s borders. In town squares across the world, people pass his image with a quiet appreciation and affection. None of that comes from a global endearment for the Laffer Curve, the War on Drugs or the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the bench. The values Reagan championed — belief in life, natural rights and human liberty — transcend the temporarily political.
In essence, Reagan had the gifted persona that earned the trust of a nation. People trusted Reagan not primarily for his policies but for his principles.
Certainly, I don’t expect to convince my readers of Reagan’s overall value to our nation — but I would say that it does us all good to look at the chord he struck with all Americans. He saw the presidency as a trust granted him by the people. He believed in an American identity, and although one can dispute the merits of his programs and policies, he caused our country and the world to believe in it, too.
We pay a lot of lip service to the virtues of bipartisanship. But beyond the realm of legislative agendas and compromise, it takes a real intellectual courage and dispositional maturity to respect the opposition. So perhaps today we can take a step back from the fiery pettiness of late and wish President Reagan a happy belated birthday.
Come on, do it for the Gipper.
Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.