Commentary: The cracked foundation

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We’re basically having giant public fights about symbolism while the reality of our situation goes unexamined,” says commentator and entertainer Jon Stewart, who adds “it’s ignorance, not malevolence, that’s plaguing America.” And ignorance, he says, is curable.

We don’t seem to be having a robust or healthy debate about policy or substantive issues — jobs, trade, poverty, the environment or free speech. Instead we are busy canceling each other.

The problem is that malevolence seldom is curable. And it depends on ignorance. So ignorance is clung to by the malevolent.

This is the matter at the center of our current social, cultural and political drama — the thing upon which so much now depends: the loss of the assumption of goodwill.

The assumption of goodwill has been replaced, in the minds of many of the “woke” at least, by the presumption of guilt.

Yet goodwill is the foundation of civil society, just as due process and the presumption of innocence is the foundation of our legal system.

And if tearing down statues, punching journalists and shooting police officers — like Shay Mikalonis, of Las Vegas — is our future, we have no future. We will not progress. We will die.

The key is to build, not tear down or tear apart.

How will we know which instinct prevails? Works. By their works shall we know them. We will know if practical, meaningful and lasting reform comes of this moment in American history. Let’s start with ending chokeholds and fashion more good legislation from there.

Martin Luther King Jr. built a movement of love. And Lyndon B. Johnson followed with practical results — the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s that changed the country. One man changed hearts. The other changed laws. We have to have both.

But we cannot progress if our common presumption is of ill intent; if the presumption is that no one means what he or she says or actually knows what he or she intends.

If the presumption is that the person who does not see the world quite like you do is a fraud and that his or her apparently kind heart is actually a black one, we are doomed.

The assumption of goodwill is our foundation — the ground of civil society — and the foundation is cracking.

The Twitter mob is hammering away at it.

And the sad thing is the mainstream press does not check the Twitter mob; it follows it.

The New York Times and Washington Post — the papers a generation of us once thought were the best in the land — are often now the worst. They have unabashedly abandoned standards of fairness, balance and truth. In the words of an esteemed colleague: One sees many facts in their journalism (as well as many facts omitted) but little truth. And seemingly little curiosity about what the truth might be. Many of the writers and editors at both papers are so eager to be seen as on the right side of wokeness and history that they have abandoned their own long-held professional values.

And I am baffled at the joy some journalists seem to feel in taking down their colleagues.

The American press is self-immolating. Or has already done so. Another friend says: We no longer have a press, only sides, gossips and assassins, aka “the media.”

So we are back to ripping down and beheading statues. It is a short step to tearing down people.

In the Gospel of Mark someone who is woke asks Jesus of Nazareth: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus doesn’t answer. He tells a story (The Good Samaritan), changes the question and turns it back on his questioner: Which of the three men in the story do you think is the neighbor? I like the answer the translator J.B. Phillips comes up with: “The man who gave him practical sympathy.”

Practical sympathy is really the measure of any time and movement, not the number of Star Chamber indictments and cancellations you enact.

The cornerstone of sympathy is goodwill.



Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (


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