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  • Jay Kaufman

Mourning and Morning


I watched The Lincoln Project’s "Mourning in America" video this morning and it left me deeply sad, with a healthy dose of determination. My public life, indeed my life, has been animated by two competing sentiments. Having grown up the son of parents who escaped Nazi Germany and found on these shores a new land, new opportunity, and new hope, the American dream was in the air I breathed at home. It wasn’t until later that I learned about the hatred that chased them from their homes and about their challenges as refugees and immigrants in America. Their resulting but silent PTSD was also in the air as I was growing up. Then I came of age in the America of the '60s as the dual American nightmares of racism and the war in Vietnam shaped the news and my consciousness.

The paradox of these two Americas - the dream and the nightmares - led me, first, to leave the U.S. for what I had hoped were different circumstances with fewer conflicts. Then they led to recognizing and owning my deep-seated disappointment and anger at how far we were off the mark. I returned to the US sadder but wiser, ideals intact but eyes wide open to our shortcomings.

Those two strong sentiments - youthful idealism and a burning sense of what's wrong - brought me into public life and won't let go although I no longer hold public office. They animate my work on leadership in the public square today. I know that better public sector leadership is as possible as it is needed. This was true before Donald Trump seared our thoughts and souls, but it is useful to have a conspicuous and compelling picture of what leadership failure looks like and what its consequences are. And as funerals, wakes and my tribe's practice of Shiva prove, there is both comfort and power in coming together to mourn. So mourning together gives us an opening to the morning in America that, in the midst of our quarantining and fear, might seem a distant hope. At very least, we can expect and demand of those to whom we entrust the responsibilities of leadership basic competency and decency. This is a fairly low bar and only the beginnings of a list of desirable leadership qualities and qualifications. The President fails even these basic tests. Ridding ourselves of him is a necessary but not sufficient piece of the morning. The first light of the dawn begins when we, the people, remember that, in a democracy, governance begins with and rests on us; when we remember that we're all in this together; and that it has always been thus. When you point your finger at our failed leaders, you are, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, doing so with a hand that has three fingers pointing back at you. It is simultaneously important but not enough to mourn and point. Henry David Thoreau speaks to this and to our charge as stewards of the public square. "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put foundations under them."

We've got some work to do. Let's do it.


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