Commentary: Can we all at least try to get along?

The Miami HeraldNovember 5, 2010 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

Can we all get along?

The words are, of course, Rodney King's, spoken eighteen years ago as rioters burned the city of Los Angeles in his name. ``Can we all get along?'' he asked in a breaking voice as he pleaded for the violence to stop.

The nation seemed to find the question unbearably earnest, like when a child stumps you with an imponderable so guileless and true that you duck it because there's no way to answer honestly and leave her innocence intact.

So King's words quickly bypassed serious consideration. They became national punchline and catchphrase, wielded always with ironic detachment and post-modern emotional remove. It was not a question you wanted to allow in too close, much less one you sought to honestly grapple. You feared what the answer might be.

Can we all get along?

Eighteen years later, as a grueling election caps a long national temper tantrum, King's question feels freshly poignant. We have seen windows smashed, assault weapons at presidential speeches, shouting matches at town hall meetings, death threats against the president's kids, outbursts in the very halls of Congress, and brother can you spare a dime, 'cause jobs are hard to find. Meanwhile, the chattering heads on a certain cable news outlet chanted a litany of fears like some perverse echo of Dorothy on the road to Oz -- Mexicans, Muslims and gays, oh my!

Sometimes it feels as if the whole country is on an express train to Crazy Town.

Can we all get along?

On Saturday, political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a rally on the National Mall in Washington. For weeks leading up to the event, pundits attempted to divine its intent, to figure out what political cause it would help or hurt. Stewart, habitually disingenuous as comics tend to be when you impute serious motives to their shtick, repeatedly deflected the notion that he was out for more than laughs.

But he was. Indeed, in both its comedy bits and its musical interludes, the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear (that last a nod to Colbert's TV persona as an overbearing conservative blowhard) scarcely missed an opportunity to drive home its points. Namely, that political dialogue in this country is out of control, stoked to fever pitch by politicians and media figures who've found a formula for elective, fiscal and ratings success in exploiting the nation's legitimate fears and philosophical differences.

With a callous disregard that belies their periodic professions of country love, they have sold twin lies: that political identity matters more than national identity and that the louder and more insistently you say a thing, the truer it becomes. But as Stewart pointed out, ``If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.''

He fell back on an analogy he has used before on The Daily Show, that of drivers merging from nine lanes down to two in order to enter a tunnel under the Hudson River. That simple act of disparate strangers taking turns so that everybody gets home safely represented, said Stewart, the ``little reasonable compromises we all make.'' It was, he argued, the truest picture of who we really are, as opposed to the shouting matches between political extremes we've been led to regard as representative of us.

Squeezing through the impenetrable mass of people who had flooded the Mall, one could not help but feel that Stewart had tapped a nerve, identified a constituency heretofore ignored. And their message is simple: Sane people speaking sane thoughts sanely may not make for good television. That doesn't mean they don't exist.

Can we all get along?

For what it's worth, Rodney King answered his own question that day in 1992. ``We're all stuck here for awhile,'' he said. ``Let's try to work it out.''

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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