Well, here I go again — urging you all to read something that you probably can’t see because you don’t subscribe. But I don’t know what else to do.
Once communities across the country were tied together by common narratives. It was cheap to subscribe to the local newspaper (because the cost of producing the paper was born by advertisers, not readers — and that’s gone away). Their local journalists generally weren’t necessarily oracles of wisdom (I just said “generally,” mind you), but they had little trouble agreeing on basic facts of what had happened, and report it. And a calmer reading public accepted that plain reality, and worked from that as citizens.
But then several things happened. First, starting sometime in the 1980s, politics started getting really, really nasty, and partisan divisions started festering to a degree previously unseen in post-1945 America. Meanwhile, local media’s advertising base disappeared, and press and electronic media were reduced to skeleton staffs, increasingly finding it hard to cover anything adequately. Finally, people started more and more being deluged by media that had nothing to do with journalism, and cared more about advancing the fantasies of their respective bitter factions than about dispassionately informing the public. Tsunamis of it.
Even the best journals in the country, the ones that still had adequate, talented staffs, started focusing more and more on the bitter divisions, the things that separated us more than what we held in common as Americans. Why? Because that’s what the world looked like now. They were describing reality, although painfully superficially.
But sometimes, those journals still something thoughtful, something that offers a little hope for sanity, something that might even make you feel OK about the human race, sort of. In recent years, I’ve focused as a reader mostly on that stuff, not the latest shouting over the debt limit or whatever. Unfortunately, those things appeared in the still-healthy journals to which I subscribe. So I write about those things, and try to share them when possible.
To get to my point…
Today, there was a nice piece about a nice guy giving a nice speech. It was headlined, “At Harvard, Tom Hanks offered an increasingly rare moment of grace.” A long excerpt, which I hope the Post‘s legal department will allow me:
The language of the academy is increasingly centered on who or what is centered — what voices, what values — and there wasn’t the least doubt, on a day that also honored a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, a magisterial historian, a groundbreaking biochemist, a media pioneer and a four-star admiral, that Dr. Hanks was the center of attention. It takes an astute understanding of human physics to redirect all those energies and center the students. Over and over, he found ways to send the focus back to them, rising from his seat to kneel in awe before Latin orator Josiah Meadows, hugging Vic Hogg — who recounted a harrowing recovery from gunshot wounds suffered during a carjacking — grace notes and gestures aimed at the musicians and speakers whose names he wove into his own remarks, and at the parents whose pride pulsed across the sea of caps and gowns.
Our public square suffers an acute shortage of such acts of grace. Leaders find power and profit in crassness and cruelty, and signal that virtue is for suckers. It’s a cliché that Tom Hanks is “the nicest guy in Hollywood,” that he and his wife of 35 years, Rita Wilson, somehow manage to represent decency at a time when the country is so divided we can’t even agree on who is worth admiring. On a brisk spring day, watching the radioactive level of attention on him, and his ability to refract it into pure joy and shared humanity, was a healing energy in a sorry time. You can imagine that normal comes naturally to some people; but how often do people who are treated as being bigger, better, more special than everyone else resist the temptation to believe it?
And when it was time for Hanks to deliver his formal message, the script, while occasionally overwritten, rhymed with the mission. Flapping banners exalted the university motto, “Veritas,” and Hanks took up the battle cry. “The truth, to some, is no longer empirical. It’s no longer based on data nor common sense nor even common decency,” he said. “Truth is now considered malleable by opinion and by zero-sum endgames. Imagery is manufactured with audacity and with purpose to achieve the primal task of marring the truth with mock logic, to achieve with fake expertise, with false sincerity, with phrases like, ‘I’m just saying. Well, I’m just asking. I’m just wondering.’”
The opposite of love is not hate, Elie Wiesel said, but indifference, and Hanks put the challenge before his audience of rising leaders and explorers, artists and environmentalists, teachers and technologists. “Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made. It’s the same option for all grown-ups, who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans,” Hanks said. “Those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent.” Bracing as the words were, the actions spoke louder. For those of us in the truth business — which is to say, all of us — it was an actor who never finished college who set a standard we can work to live up to.
This is not a big-deal story. Just a writer — Nancy Gibbs, a former editor in chief of Time magazine — witnessing an incident in which a famous person was given a forum and used it to show respect to other people and to say a few words that made some sense. I thank her for sharing that, and the Post for running it, and I wanted to share it with you to the best of my ability…