On Not Slamming the Door
Running an errand in the car with my eight-year-old daughter last night, I subjected her to NPR coverage of the Democratic National Convention, just in time to hear host Brian Lehrer taking calls from listeners on what event or experience had turned them into Democrats (he did the same for Republican callers during last week’s RNC). There were the expected, generally unsurprising anecdotes (though moving and heartfelt nonetheless)—stories from working- and middle-class citizens who’d been able to secure educational aid or had suddenly and unexpectedly faced the temporary need for food stamps, as well one from a woman who’d been physically assaulted “by an older man” outside a medical clinic she’d visited to discuss with a doctor the possibility of terminating a pregnancy.
Then came the caller who said that, growing up Catholic, he’d learned the importance of doing unto others. “Like the hymn we used to have to sing,” he explained. “ ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.’ And I never hear that from the other side.” By which he meant, as Lehrer teased out of him, the Republican party.
My daughter likes hearing stories of my own childhood, so I told her the hymn the caller mentioned was one my brothers and I used to sing in the car on the way home from mass (I didn’t completely admit that it was only to mimic the baritone of our parish’s theatrically earnest cantor, and not for any extra sustenance). She responded by asking if we could put the Who back on, and I forgot about the whole thing until later, when watching Michelle Obama address the convention.
Almost everyone has weighed in with raves for her speech, so no additional are needed. But among the many moments worth singling out is this: “[W]hen you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity… you do not slam it shut behind you… you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
You can write it off as rhetoric, and like many other lines it functioned as a stiletto slipped between the ribs of the opposing ticket (as has been widely noted, there was not one overt mention of Mitt Romney). But its inclusion in the featured event of the night gets precisely to what that caller was talking about. Last week, from Tampa, we learned that knowing how to handle a .357 Magnum should count among your credentials for running a state. We also learned that making do with tuna and pasta in the first “lean” years of a marriage will steel you for success; were informed that we “are paralyzed by a desire to be loved” and need to hear the word “no” a lot more often; and were hectored into admitting just who built it, and why that matters far more than how, with what kind of help, or for what greater purpose.
Words serve a tactical need but they also, to borrow another phrase from last night, reveal character, of a group or a party or an individual. With one side, we can hear “do unto others” running through the language employed. But with the other, it’s the slamming door. When moral arguments are being marshaled for preferred methods of governance, it’s fair to note this difference.
The radio caller got this, and I think it’s something a lot of other voters might also. I may have laughed at the rendering of the hymn (a youthful indiscretion), but the words still made their point. Otherwise, I might have been receptive to a whole other set of appeals.