Do No Harm
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 18, 2016


It was the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks in the evening one week ago as I had the honor to be one of the speakers under the tent at the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier. Someone told me all the area politicians were at the larger 9/11 event over in Highland Park. Our event had all the prominent religious leaders. We were Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist.

Many of my colleagues began their remarks with a personal account of their experience of the tragedy. Many offered prayers and spoke of unity and of peace. I did much the same. Instead of a personal story though, I shared a different story to help make the point that we all have choices in how we respond to traumas and tragedies. I shared the cricket story.

Once, two friends were walking down the sidewalk of a busy city street during rush hour. There was all sorts of noise in the city; car horns honking, feet shuffling, people talking! And amid all the noise, one of the friends turned to the other and said, “I hear a cricket.”

As I was telling this story under the tent at the mosque last week, there was an actual cricket chirping just off to the side, clearly audible throughout my remarks. No one had really noticed it before my story called our attention to it. People asked me after how I had worked that trick – I confess that I just smiled and said, “I’m magic.” Anyway, the story continues … “I hear a cricket.”

“No way,” her friend responded. “How could you possibly hear a cricket with all of this noise? You must be imagining it. Besides, I’ve never seen a cricket in the city.”

“No, really, I do hear a cricket. I’ll show you.” She stopped for a moment, then led her friend across the street to a big concrete planter with a tree in it. Pushing back some leaves she found a little brown cricket.

“That’s amazing!” said the friend. “You must have super-human hearing. What’s your secret?”

“No, my hearing is just the same as yours. There’s no secret,” the first woman replied. “Watch, I’ll show you.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out some loose change, and threw it on the sidewalk. Amid all the noise of the city, everyone within thirty feet turned their head to see where the sound of money was coming from.

“See,” she said. “It’s all a matter of what you are listening for.”

                        [Elisa Davy Pearlmain, ed., Doorways to the Soul, (1998) p14]

So what are you listening for? What do you hear and what occupies your attention? For I tell you that in part, what you listen for will determine what you hear and what, in turn, you amplify out into the world around you.

Our world is filled with noise. In the story it is the noise of the car honks and the people shuffling and muttering on the busy street. In our world today it is the noise of fear and ignorance, of anger and violence. So much of the news – particularly the political news – is filled with negative content. It is like the background of our personal lives is a crackling static of hostility.

And yet our world is filled with the sounds of hope and of courage as well. And yet the cricket was really there. What are you listening for? It makes a difference to the people around you and to your own heart. Especially as we round the corner on the last stretch of this election cycle.

The season of politics has been running hard for a several months now and we are less than 2 months from the finish line. Many have commented about the extreme and even nasty levels we have reached in this cycle. The candidates and their supporters seem to be stuck in the negative campaigning style, highlighting each other’s character flaws and how the other is unfit to lead. We the voting citizenry are overwhelmed with information about how bad each of the two major candidates is. But that is not new. We’ve been arguing about not liking the choices we have to choose between for centuries now.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton, there is reference to the presidential election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson beat John Adams. The show is true enough to the history on this point. The actual tension was not about that, however, it was about which man was going to beat John Adams. Thomas Jefferson was really running against Aaron Burr for the position of then running against Adams. In that campaign cycle, Alexander Hamilton – a member of John Adams’ party knowing Adams wouldn’t win – came out in favor of Jefferson over Burr saying he was “by far not so dangerous a man” as Burr. This faint praise is basically the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument. Hamilton went on to say he would rather choose someone whose principles did not match his own than someone who had no principles at all. [Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2005)] So that part feels familiar.

But it gets worse. The classic example – the benchmark people refer to for political smear tactics – of how one does this is from the “Coffin Handbills” in which the supporters one candidate accused the opponent of various indignities. For example they claimed the other candidate’s wife was an adulteress and his mother was a prostitute, while the candidate himself had committed murder and even cannibalism. In this case the defamation was ineffective. Andrew Jackson won anyway in 1828 against John Quincy Adams. Character attacks and mudslinging have been part of American election politics for a long time.

Unfortunately there is a reason the smear campaign tactic is so popular and prevalent. Unlike that first example of the Coffin Handbills against Jackson, the tactic is usually as easy as it is effective. Voters eat it up. The “Daisy Girl” television ad from the Johnson vs Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964 was famously successful. The commercial portrays a little girl in a meadow; she is picking the petals off a daisy and counting. Her counting is juxtaposed with a launch countdown for an atomic bomb.  “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” While Goldwater’s name is never mentioned, there was enough in the news about Goldwater’s stance on war that the implication was enough. And Johnson won. Going negative was effective.

So in terms of extreme accusations in the attempt at smearing the character of the opponent, what we are seeing today is not all that different. Perhaps the biggest difference is not in the content of the smear tactics as in the vehicle by which the smear is conveyed. Anonymously printed handbills are a different animal from viral anonymous facebook posts.

A few weeks back Garrison Keillor said something like this. If you walked down the street a generation or two back and saw a guy waving scandalous pamphlets about a candidate, you could look him in the eye, you could smell his breath, you could hear his ranting; you could make a personal assessment about the man delivering the news and choose to walk away. But now the same sort of thing arrives on your facebook feed and you pass it along because it seems to have some plausibility, something you secretly thought might be true, and who really knows anyway? So you pass it along. Thus the outrageous commentary and analysis that might otherwise be kept at bay infiltrates into our common discourse as reasonable conversation. And as much as high-minded, informed citizens would like to think campaigns ought to be about the content of the candidate’s stances on issues, it is not. Sadly it seems it is about which candidate is presented in the more palatable caricature.

But let me shift away from complaining about the negative campaigning and talk instead on its impact on us. Given that this is the tone of the civic engagement we are being fed, what impact does this diet have on our civic health?

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of The Triumph of Meanness: America’s War against Its Better Self. The book was written back at the end of the 1990’s, and he says:

“With the end of the cold war, we have come to apply the language and thinking once used to demonize our enemies abroad to those we believe threaten us internally. Our fears have led us to act on the basis of a lifeboat ethic that rewards ruthlessness.” [from jacket cover]

His analysis is playing out. For the past few decades we have seen the demonizing of different groups. After 9/11 we quickly demonized Arabs and Muslims and slowly that leaked into demonizing Mexicans. Meanwhile America didn’t let up on demonizing groups of Americans! 

Is there a connection between political rhetoric and violent acts? When people buy bumper stickers that say “Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when his country needs him?” and wear t-shirts with crude insults about the presidential candidates.  The tone of our political discourse is a signal of the un-health of our body politic!

Last week as I sat under the tent listening to my colleagues speak and pray for peace I was reminded that we have a role to play in the face of all this. As I sat there in the parking lot of the mosque under that tent, every time a loud vehicle growled past I wondered if there might be a disturbance, an attempt to protest the fact that Muslims and others are gathered during the anniversary of 9/11. What was I listening for? I think it is important for us to continue to notice the negative stuff, the anger, the lies, the violent and threat of violence floating around in our society. But more than that, we have a role to play in spreading something positive in the mix.

The next time a smear campaign ad comes across your TV or computer screen, notice it but also take a few minutes to seek out the positive reasons why you are drawn to one candidate or another – consider the actual issues, pass along news of your passion for someone rather than your aversion against someone.

I know many of you are doing exactly that. For many it is a difficult task to only spread the good things. The negative is unfortunately as easy as it is effective. But that doesn’t mean it is right. It can be hard to not fight fire with fire, to resist the urge to fling mud back. But part of our work as religious people is to heal the wounds of our world and bring more peace. What are you listening for? What do you pass along the line?

Our world is rife with violence in words and actions. What are you listening for? Our world is brimming with hope and courage. How do we are a community and as individuals cultivate peace? One breath at a time, one choice at a time. What are you passing along the line? Our best tools are truth, civility, and compassion. Stay positive. Don’t feed the demonizing trend. And by all means: vote.

In a world without end,
May it be so.