Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Hail Happy Warriors Jack Kemp, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu

by Carrie Shaw April 18th, 2010

They are called “happy warriors.” We know them as individuals who take on the big battles of social and political change, all the while keeping their sense of humor and humanity. A happy warrior understands the long term commitment and tedious nature of enduring social and political shifts and that the greatest internal threat to positive change is personal cynicism and malice toward the opposition.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about laughing our way to a better tomorrow or setting loose the speech police. I’m not against anger – the U.S. Constitution codifies the idea of being ticked off at our government leaders with added citizen protection for what is called the “redress of grievances.”

We live in serious times that demand serious debates and solutions. But the state of our public discourse really bothers me.

It is the personal nature of attacks that bothers me — the name calling deployed as a first strike to marginalize dissenting opinions. And, unfortunately, the anonymity of the Internet feeds this vitriol. As adults, what kind of message are we sending our children? To the biggest loud mouth go the spoils and his own reality show?

Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large recently featured West Seattle author Paul Loeb who has chronicled successful community and social activism. Loeb says that it is all about being hopeful, “giving people permission to enjoy life as they are being active.” Loeb highlights such leaders as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and civil rights icon Rosa Parks as examples of people who stay joyful in the midst of serious and prolonged battles for justice and social change.

I spent several years working in Washington, D.C. in the 1980’s and early 1990s. Back then, spring marked the Congressional softball league. The Federal Mall would come alive with dozens of softball teams from every side of the political aisle. I was working for then-Rep. Jack Kemp; our team was the Kemp Tax Wackers and we faced off with Democrat teams like the “Equalizers.” Last I heard, the Congressional softball league is long gone, dying a symbolic death in an era of hyper-partisanship. Rep. Kemp never attacked people personally, but believed that the goal was to win the opposition over to a better idea. He was a happy warrior.

Former President Bill Clinton shared his concerns on ABC-TV’s “This Week” about personal rancor in the politcal dialogue.

“…..we ought to have a lot of political dissent — a lot of political argument. Nobody is right all the time. But we also have to take responsibility for the possible consequences of what we say. And we shouldn’t demonize the government or its public employees or its elected officials. We can disagree with them. We can harshly criticize them….But I worry about these threats against the president and the Congress. And I worry about …careless language..which we’ve seen against the Republican governor in New Jersey, Governor Christie.”

For leaders like Clinton, the late Jack Kemp, or change giants like Desmond Tutu the key is not to make the battle personal. For them the bigger picture means that the truth always prevails. In this age of hyper-partisanship and hyper-vitriol, we need more happy warriors who capture what so many lose, the joy of the journey.

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