Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Readin' and Writin' and Polarizin'

Back in July, I wrote about Sarah Palin's decision to resign as governor of Alaska and what I saw as unjustified complaints about the press in her farewell address.

In that article, I referred to Barack Obama as a "polarizing president" — primarily as a transitional device — and I took a lot of grief from readers who were supporters of Obama. My article was never intended to be a discussion of Obama or a critique of his policies, but some people took it that way.

And they insisted that he was not a polarizing leader.

As I say, when I wrote that Obama was a polarizing president, it was intended as a transitional device. But I did mean that. Perhaps my choice of words was wrong. Maybe "polarizing" came off as being too negative. Maybe I should have said he was "controversial" or something like that.

But, really, has anything that has happened in the last six weeks proved me wrong? I don't think so.

Since I wrote that article, we've witnessed contentious battles over Obama's first Supreme Court nomination and a continuing fight over health care reform. Obama's Supreme Court nominee was confirmed. The final chapter of the health care fight has yet to be written.

And today, we've seen many school districts across the country that refused to show Obama's speech to schoolchildren. Both parents and educators expressed concerns about their belief that Obama was going to indoctrinate their children with some sort of political agenda.

I find it hard to believe that any of the people who raised objections to Obama's speech actually read the text of it, which was released yesterday. But, long ago, I got used to the idea that there are people who object to things like movies or books or recordings — or speeches — because they are convinced that those movies or books or recordings or speeches pose a threat to something they hold dear — even if the "threat" is pure nonsense.

Those people usually don't bother to watch the movie or read the book or listen to the recording before they object to it so it would come as no surprise to me if none of them read the text of today's speech before Obama gave it.

They are the people who probably needed to hear a president speak about the importance of staying in school, maintaining an open mind and learning from your mistakes back when they were schoolchildren. It's probably too late for those people now — their school days ended long ago — but it isn't too late for most of their children.

I don't know how many school districts refused to show Obama's speech today. Some of Obama's supporters will blame it on racism. Others will blame it on irrational fear.

But I have to ask — what is wrong with a president giving a 21st century spin to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?"

The president who uttered those words originally — nearly half a century ago — also was a polarizing leader. He produced strong responses from both his supporters and foes, and he wound up dying in the streets of my home city — where a handbill accusing him of treason was circulated the day before his assassination.

Ironically, Obama also gave his speech on the 74th anniversary of the shooting of another polarizing leader, Huey Long.

Those who have expressed concerns about Obama's so–called socialist tendencies should read about Long's career. He proposed to redistribute wealth through his "Share Our Wealth" program, which used, as its motto, "Every Man a King." That was seen as a direct threat in some quarters.

People become known as polarizing leaders because they take stands that are greatly admired by one segment of the population — and, usually, equally reviled by another segment.

I don't advocate violence as the answer when you disagree with someone, and I sincerely hope that Obama does not meet the same fate as John F. Kennedy or Huey Long.

Nevertheless, that is the price people often pay for taking polarizing stands.

Even if such a stand is something we should all be able to agree on — like the value of education.

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