The (de)MEANing of A MErica

Once upon a time here was a weekly hold-it-in-your hands magazine called Newsweek, and in it was a column called “My Turn.” Well, this post had its genesis back then when W. was President and his VP was someone I thought embodied the definition of MEANness. (I had no idea what the future would hold). At some point during their Supreme Court determined 8 years, the title of this piece popped into my mind. It is purposeful in its triple entendre: 1) what did our founding fathers MEAN when they wrote our Constitution; 2) ME-ism (selfishness) taking over our country; and 3) deMEANing other people: when, how and why did it become acceptable for Americans to deMEAN one another through anger, rudeness, disrespect and incivility?  Little did I know then how my procrastination would result in an even more relevant essay in 2016.

1.Let me start by celebrating some what our Founding Fathers MEANt when they wrote and adopted the Constitution of the United States.  In 4543 words and approximately one-half hour of speaking time –the Founding Fathers formalized and ratified the tenets of American democracy. The 2016 Republican Presidential nominee spoke two and a half times as long (75 minutes) when he accepted the nomination in July.  He spent most of his time talking not about the greatness of the Constitution and its MEANing, rather he talked about the greatness of … himself.



Speakers at the 2016 Democratic Convention often referenced and underscored some of what the Founding Fathers had in mind for the MEANING of AMERICA:


President Barak Obama:


  • The America I know is decent and generous.
  • They (my Kansas grandparents) didn’t respect mean-spiritedness or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, they valued traits like honesty and hard work, kindness, courtesy, humility, responsibility; helping each other out. That’s what they believed in. True things, things that last, the things we try to teach our kids.
  • America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard and slow and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.
  • America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you…it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election, the meaning of our democracy.


Vice President Joe Biden:


  • We talk about, we think about, the countless thousands of people who suffer so much more than we have, with so much less support—so much less reason to go on. But they get up every morning, every day. They put one foot in front of the other. They keep going. That’s the unbreakable spirit of the people of America. That’s who we are. Don’t forget it.


First Lady Michelle Obama:

  • Barack and I think about every day…How we insist that the hateful language they [our daughters] hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.
  • I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our Founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story.
  • And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other. No, we listen to each other, we lean on each other, because we are always stronger together.


Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton:

  • [We have t]he most enduring values. Freedom and equality, justice and opportunity. We should be so proud that these words are associated with us. That when people hear them — they hear … America.
  • Americans don’t say: “I alone can fix it.”We say: “We’ll fix it together.”
  • Remember: Our Founders fought a revolution and wrote a Constitution so America would never be a nation where one person had all the power. Two hundred and forty years later, we still put our faith in each other.
  • We lost my mother a few years ago. I miss her every day. And I still hear her voice urging me to keep working, keep fighting for right, no matter what. That’s what we need to do together as a nation.
  • Let our legacy be about “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” That’s why we’re here … not just in this hall, but on this Earth.
  • The Founders showed us that. And so have many others since. They were drawn together by love of country, and the selfless passion to build something better for all who follow.
  • That is the story of America. And we begin a new chapter tonight.


Khizr Khan:

  • Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy — that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.


2.  ME (selfishness).  This MEANing is perhaps the hardest for me to understand. America is filled with kind people. And if you go back to those 4543 words in that dog-eared pamphlet Mr. Khan pulled out of his pocket, there is a strong role for the federal government to play to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty….” Working together, solving problems together, living together, respecting one another are American values. Americans are about WE, not about ME.



3. When did it become acceptable for Americans to be so overtly MEAN to one another and to deMEAN one another? When I first thought of the MEANING of America in the early part of this century I thought this nastiness reared its ugly head under Bush/Cheney. But as the years have passed, I now believe the overt MEANness and the tacit approval of saying hurtful things started in 1994 with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, so it should come as no real surprise that Newt Gingrich has been supporting Donald Trump and his ugly view of America. Disparaging public servants became acceptable and even the norm. Not long afterward this Contract, the shameful behavior we are witnessing today seeped into our everyday lives. The advent and expansion of the internet and email and texting and twitter have all added to our willingness and ability to attack one another verbally. The anonymity and the impersonal nature of electronic communications allow people to say things many would never utter face to face. The culmination of this can be seen daily, hourly, minute by minute in the behavior and words of the Republican Presidential nominee.  The nominee bullies, he lies, he threatens, he name calls using jargon few would ever use privately, let alone publicly,  language that no national figure should ever use and before him did ever use.  The nominee has done this from the safety of his tweets, rarely facing his targets personally.  Somehow he has given Americans tacit approval to deMEAN each other, express hatred and bigotry toward each other, and even threaten each other with physical violence. He has become a poster child for MEANness and much, much more as he now threatens to undermine the cornerstone of our democracy, our election process itself.



I cannot fully explain these occurrences.  Our Founding Fathers would not recognize the crass discourse we are witnessing today.  They worked tirelessly to collaborate, unite and adopt those 4543 words.  One can obviously argue about equity, justice, tranquility, liberty for whom. But I do believe they hoped this new experiment called America would increase everyone’s opportunities for equity, justice, tranquility and liberty.  Their hope was not to increase MEANness and ME –ism. It was not to deMEAN others, but rather to produce a country where democracy prevailed and where people would treat each other as they would like to be treated. In the words of Khzir Khan, “We can’t solve our problems by building walls and sowing division. We are stronger together.”