Thursday, October 05, 2006

Unity among the divided

Published: Oct. 5, 2006 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

There was a time when we didn't require hyphens to describe our citizenship - we were all just Americans. There was a time when no one, not a head of state or a popular rapper, would have the temerity to call the president of the United States a devil or a racist. There was a time when no one, Republican or Democrat, would go to an opposing party's Milwaukee offices to slash car tires on election day.

Times have changed. Yet there are still bright moments for those who believe we have some collective principles as a people. If you ever felt moved after someone you don't care for takes a public stand to defend you, you'll know what I mean. Something triggered that feeling recently.

Consider the words uttered on national television Sept. 21 by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Rangel is a highly visible politico, a street fighter with a law degree who never minces words for his base on the left (some would say far left). He is a formidable debater who usually manages to alienate people like me - until recently.

Referring to the anti-Bush blather delivered at the United Nations by Venezuela's Fidel Castro-adoring president, Hugo Chavez, Rangel said: "You don't come into my country, you don't come into my congressional district and you don't condemn my president."

Recounting his words still gives me a chill. You just wanted to hug the guy.

No, I don't care for Rangel's politics, but I must concede it takes integrity to rise above your differences and publicly defend a bitter adversary - after that adversary has been smeared - because your love of country compels you to do so.

Chavez's performance was reminiscent of a college speech given by some over-caffeinated student who accuses "the establishment" of causing every misfortune in the world. Instead of a youthful prima donna, though, it was a head of state. And instead of blaming everyone with a job, the target was one man.

What happened to decorum and tradition among national leaders? President Reagan even refused to remove his suit coat in the Oval Office, citing a tradition and sense of respect that previous presidents had had for that hallowed place. Contrast that with Chavez.

There are acceptable boundaries of dissent when critiquing the way American power is projected throughout the world. Once the boundaries are breached, Americans will often come together to say, "Wait! This is my country."

There must be something that unites us as citizens, something we agree on, something we'll come together on, regardless of political disposition.

In June, a Milwaukee jury came together in federal court and returned a guilty verdict for a former state official in the travel contract scandal. It's doubtful the defense team or judge would've allowed a group of stalwart Republicans to pack a jury, so people of differing political persuasions must've acted together to reinforce the ideal that Wisconsin needs a government that doles out contracts ethically and within the law.

That notion is something we can all embrace - from Racine to Rhinelander.

Whether on a local or a national stage, divided as we are, it's still gratifying when opposing Americans can come together for a common purpose.

John Maddente of Delafield works at an international audit firm. His e-mail address is His Web log is at