“Stupid” Is A Dirty Word

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"Stupid" is a dirty word in my house. People are not stupid, but actions, ideas, policies, etc. can be, and often are better described as factually incorrect, ill-considered, or simply one's opinion. In our current political environment, dirty words like "stupid" too often are knee-jerked at others without pausing to listen, to find common ground.

As Justice Antonin Scalia said, "I attack ideas, not people." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, while diametrically opposed on political issues, were, in Ginsburg's words, "best buddies." In controversial, issue-driven cases, Scalia and Ginsburg voted together less than 10% of the time. Neither minced words when spiritedly denigrating the other's viewpoints: Scalia called her opinion recognizing women's right to attend state-sponsored all-male Virginia Military Institute as "politics smuggled into law." Ginsburg, in turn, wrote that Scalia took a "wrecking ball" to a statute in one of the Enron cases.

The justices could have celebrated their differences, both political and personal - Scalia was a boisterous, conservative man, and Ginsburg a shy, liberal, woman. Instead, they found common ground. They both hailed from New York City and both loved opera, travel and good food. More importantly, they found common ground in their absolute commitment to uphold the U.S. Constitution, albeit with rather divergent points of view. They respected each other's work ethic and drive to advance and excel in a world in which they, as a Jewish woman and a Catholic Italian, were outsiders. They challenged each other to refine and clarify their ideas - in their demand for excellence, they were known to share drafts of their opinions with each other, and invite the other's criticism. This insistence to overcome political differences to serve the people proves invaluable given that their ideas, codified in their written opinions, will inform American jurisprudence for decades if not centuries to come. In the words of Justice Ginsburg, "You can disagree without being disagreeable."

In the 1980s, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill transcended party loyalty and political philosophy, putting their loyalty to America and the government first. As Senator O'Neill's son put it, "While neither man embraced the other’s worldview, each respected the other’s right to hold it." Unlike Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, they weren't close friends, but like them they shared harsh words and found common ground anyway: understanding what Americans wanted and letting government work. They sometimes met for drinks, saying that after 6:00, they were buddies and left the political world behind, even celebrating St. Patrick's Day together as Irish Americans.

Together they forged agreements to help save Social Security, accomplished historic tax reform, and formed a united front to bring down the Soviet Union. They reformed immigration and worked toward peace in Northern Ireland. In 1981, when President Reagan was shot, White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker immediately notified Speaker O’Neill, who rushed to Reagan's bedside. O'Neill held Reagan's hand, and together they recited the 23rd psalm: The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. They reformed immigration and worked toward peace in Northern Ireland. John McCain sometimes followed Reagan's path: as a Vietnam War prison camp survivor, he worked with war protester John Kerry to address veterans' issues, and enjoyed a lifetime of friendship with Senator Lindsey Graham and former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, fostered by their common beliefs on Bosnia and Iraq.

What do else do Reagan, O’Neill, Scalia, Ginsburg and McCain all have in common? They are all dead. It's time for us as Americans to shrug on their mantle, place people before politics, and find ways to exchange ideas, not insults. The word “label” is, after all, only one letter different from “libel.”

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