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A Bridge To Civility

Ronnie Agnew, left, and James Meredith

Ronnie Agnew, a former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. He is a 1984 journalism graduate of Ole Miss. In 2008, Ronnie was named the 50th recipient of the Silver Em award presented by the journalism school. In 2003, he was inducted into the University of Mississippi’s Alumni Hall-of-Fame. Among many honors, Ronnie is a four-time judge for the Pulitzer Prize, and a champion for diversity in America’s newsrooms.
Now that Barack Obama has won a second term in the White House, is it possible to build a bridge toward civility? I’m not holding my breath. Deeply rooted partisanship has reshaped politics and made us view each other through a prism of mistrust. Civility, ravaged, torn and battered, has been one of the greatest casualties.
We recite with fervor the powerful line in the Pledge of Allegiance — “One Nation Under God” – but the meaning behind those great words wanders off into the distance, as if the clause was never meant to be taken seriously.
We have lost the ability to disagree with honor. If the person standing to the left or right doesn’t share similar political views, we’ve granted ourselves full permission to be dismissive of that point of view. Good ideas are lost. So are understanding and relationships, hence contributing to a sharply divided America.
We are divided by race, by gender topics, by socioeconomics, by rich and poor. We are divided by issues of a moral nature, by religious beliefs. We are divided by states, some considered red and others blue. We are divided by things true and untrue, by feelings and emotions rather than guiding principle.
No one has forced us down this destructive path. We have done it to ourselves through the seclusion of thoughts that stray from our own, through segregating ourselves from people who don’t look like us, talk like us, believe like us. We’ve done it to ourselves by not speaking out against hate, but endorsing it through silence. We have become a nation of closet backbiters who have made the conscious choice to focus on differences rather than the greatness that unity avails.
A top Republican strategist once told me that the country is essentially divided in half on any issue, making consensus a near-impossible goal. The best any candidate can hope for is to capture 50 percent; the new magic number created by this great American divide.
I have spent my entire career as one of the greatest defenders of the democratic process, learning to accept loss with the same measure of dignity as victory.  I have difficulty believing our founding fathers would support the vitriolic discourse that has come to define the modern political campaign. Both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney are highly accomplished leaders, family men and patriots for this country. Ideas that they put forth in myriad speeches quickly disintegrated into insults aimed more for media than anything else.
Now that it has come to an end, will Americans come together for good of country and embrace the new leader of the free world? Or will they gather on college campuses, as a few did on this one, to burn signs and utter words that are despicable and unconscionable in modern society?
If we are to achieve greatness as a country, we must come to respect those in authority at every level. If Gov. Romney had won, we should have rallied around him rather than dismantle his character. Spirited debate rooted in mutual respect often yields good ideas.  What’s happened to us? Are we not capable of seeing what we’ve done to each other? More important is whether we are seeing the end of the great American divide or just the beginning? If we are at the beginning, if this is where we are as a country, may God help us.

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