For anyone wanting to make sense of America during the circus of the 2016 presidential election preliminaries, there are three standout reference points from the last week.
The first is the funeral of Justice Antonin Scalia in Washington D.C. on Saturday, televised in full by CNN without break. The Catholic requiem mass was led by one of Scalia’s nine children, his son Paul, a priest in Arlington. Antonin Scalia was celebrated as a provocative, learned, conservative force in the interpretation and protection of the American Constitution. He made judgments about human nature and behaviour; how institutions are meant to work; how the economy operates; how freedoms are decided and rights determined. The televised funeral reached heights of euphoria in terms of symbolism, ceremony, ritual, song and music, in a rite that was as assured as it has been practiced over millennia across all cultures. Paul Scalia was a revelation officiating over his father’s farewell, bringing theology, grace, and purpose to the passing of a big life.
Contrast the poise of this farewell to the week’s second reference point, the brawls and odium of the presidential trail. Dirty and vicious are understatements. I have never seen so much mud, vile, hatred, resentment, blatant racism, bullying, braggadocio, and hot air (and a bit of foam). It seems that to be president, you can say whatever you want, promise whatever you want, and give any number of undertakings without regard to reality. Some candidates have made some truly inflammatory statements – and some have said many things that are truly unmemorable. As Paul Simon wrote many moons ago:
“Going to the candidates’ debate.
Laugh about it, shout about it.
When you’ve got to choose.
Every way you look at this you lose.”
The third reference point is the ‘rapping Founding Fathers’ Broadway musical sensation Hamilton – about the guy on the $10 bill – which won a Grammy last week for Best Musical. Politics was even more rough and tumble back then – they literally shot each other. The line in the show which gets the biggest response is when Marquis De Lafayette and Hamilton are about to basically win the Revolutionary War and they say, "Immigrants: They get the job done," and then they high five.
If there is a message at the end of this, it is that both Antonin Scalia and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda were born to immigrant parents. Building walls is not the way to make America great. Ideas are the way forward. As has been noted, Steve Jobs was the son of Syrian immigrants to America. Antonin Scalia was hailed as a man who had “ideas that will live after him.” I hope the 2016 race will dignify itself with workable ideas.