Former First-Lady Barbara Bush has died. She passed peacefully with her husband of over seven decades at her side.
I got the news as millions had (and as you have, if you hadn’t heard before opening this article): Online. Specifically, I saw it when I was perusing Reddit the night it was announced. The link to the BBC article announcing her death had thousands of comments attached. Now people may characterize Reddit as being a haven for the far-left or the alt-right, but it’s more accurate to say that individual communities have their own tendencies and group norms. Claiming that Reddit is left/right as a whole would be like saying that an entire nation is. But the subreddit I saw the article in (r/worldnews, if I recall correctly) has often been rather critical of the modern right. That it had that many comments signaled to me that at least a few people were probably being rather critical of the former first lady. Morose curiosity got the better of me. I clicked to read the thread.
I could not find one major post that had a negative word for the former first-lady. Only kindness. Only respect.
And, to be entirely candid, I was surprised.
Don’t get me wrong, I was relieved. I’m glad that the former-first lady’s death wasn’t politicized. It certainly shouldn’t have been. Mrs. Bush was both kind and candid — a combination that is all-too-rare in even the best of times. She strove to inspire much the same in us. There is very little to criticize.
Part of me wants to chide myself for being so cynical, but I know that it isn’t unearned. Research from political scientists like Liliana Mason show that affective polarization — feelings of anger and disdain towards the political other — has never been higher. Nastiness is pervasive. Meanness the norm.
But here, in this thread, and on many others I have seen since, the acrimony had been suspended. And in the very few instances where ugliness reared its head, it was a bipartisan effort to cleave it off. For a moment, the partisan hostilities had ceased.
To be sure, it was localized and brief; even 9/11 only inspired unity for a short period of time. But this transient contrapose of kindness made me wonder why it must be so. And there answers — or at least hints — from the social sciences. Psychology, technology, the moralization of our politics: There are a million reason all working in concert. So I wondered “why” not in the academic sense but in the aspirational. Not why it is, but why it has to be.
Mrs. Bush’s death wasn’t tragic. She lived a long, full life and, according to reports, was at peace come the end. What’s tragic is that it takes something like her death, or like death and catastrophe in general, for people to even briefly live by her example.
There is space for principled disagreement. There is space for argument and a bit of biting wit. Even space for us to get a bit hot under the collar from time to time. But it does not have to be at the expense of kindness and basic human decency. I think that this is the kind of lesson that is wholly compatible with those Mrs. Bush spent the better part of 92 years making.
Here is to hoping that, at some point at least, it will stick.