Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Biden says Americans 'must end this uncivil war' between rural and urban, 'defend the truth and defeat the lies'

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the oath from Chief Justice John Roberts, lower right; at upper left are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has, like Biden did in his speech, voiced concern about how American democracy is informed. (Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton)
By Al Cross
Director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

President Joe Biden had some words for rural journalists and their audiences in his inaugural address, saying the nation "must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal," and stand up for truth, against "lies told for power and profit."

That passage began with Biden noting that St. Augustine said "a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love." Biden asked, "What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans?  I think we know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.

Biden gives his address. (Photo by Jim Bourg, Reuters)
"Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies.  Lies told for power and for profit.  And each of us has a duty and a responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies."

Those lines echoed what Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had said the day before, that the mob that attacked the Capitol two weeks earlier "was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people . . . "

Polls show that most Republicans disagree with McConnell, and with his declaration more than a month ago that Biden was legitimately elected. So the new president had some words for them:

"Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation.  I understand they worry about their jobs.  I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed staring at night staring at the ceiling wondering can I keep my health care?  Can I pay my mortgage?  Thinking about their families. About what comes next. I promise you, I get it.

"But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you.  Or worship the way you do. Or don’t get their news from the same sources you do.

"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment stand in their shoes."

A quick check indicates that this is the first time the news media have been mentioned in an inaugural address. That is historic evidence of what many of us have thought for years, that our country has an information problem. As McConnell said on Jan. 6, before he had to flee the Senate: "We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes; with separate facts, and separate realities."

That is mainly a problem of the national news media, but when democracy has a fundamental problem, that's an issue for every American and their local news media. It's a tough topic for rural journalists; one told me this week that he would fear for his personal safety if he challenged the belief that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Each of us must decide when and how to show courage, but courage is what we need.

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