- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

“We’ve lost our way,” laments historian John Hope Franklin, speaking of the American public’s inability or unwillingness to be critical thinkers and to voice dissent.

“Americans as a whole are saying, ‘I pass.’ They are absent and incapable of having critical judgment,” the spry 90-year-old scholar said yesterday during a breakfast meeting at his alma mater, Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. People “are much more interested in the Tennessee State game or with the Dodgers.”

Mr. Franklin, who served as chairman of the President’s Initiative on Race in 1997 under President Clinton, made his straightforward criticisms of the Bush administration, the press and an apathetic and unaware public to members of the black columnists society, the Trotter Group.

“Where’s the independent view?” Mr. Franklin asked, like that of the group’s namesake, William Monroe Trotter. Publisher of the Boston Guardian, Mr. Trotter (with great personal sacrifice) chastised President Wilson for resegregating federal buildings in Washington after black voters supported his candidacy.

“[Trotter] was absolutely independent. There hasn’t been a time that we need that kind of independence more. … And, if we can’t do it now, we may never need to, [because] we’ll be lost,” he warned.

Mr. Franklin said he lies awake at night in “despair for the country and the future,” because of the dearth of those willing to publicly ask pointed questions.

For example, he said: “Who is objecting to Halliburton getting contracts? Who is criticizing this country? We take it as if we can’t do anything about it.”

Mr. Franklin’s prickly questions and comments came as the closely watched Virginia statewide elections — for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the House of Delegates are held today and as political operatives gear up for important elections a year from now.

Already, we’ve seen how the vitriolic campaigning in the Virginia gubernatorial race has set the tone for the nasty political antics ahead. That’s if voters “take it,” by not objecting to the rabid rhetorical nonsense.

First, of course, that means you must voice your displeasure with the increasingly uncivil tenor of politics and elections with your vote.

Citizens cannot continue to throw up their hands in frustration either, caving in to the sentiment that their votes don’t matter.

However, voting is not as simple as picking the person with the scary slogans or the slickest smile. As the venerable Mr. Franklin instructs us, you must do your homework; you must at least “read a newspaper.”

Mr. Franklin, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, is best known for his seminal work “From Slavery to Freedom,” which is required textbook reading on many college campuses today.

The latest of his 18 missives is his must-read autobiography, “Mirror to America,” which was just released. In this intimate portrayal of his lifelong, pivotal role in the civil rights struggle as “the nation’s racial conscience,” Mr. Franklin offers a reminder of “the extent to which the problem of America remains a problem of color.”

Yesterday, however, he emphatically stated that all Americans, not just black Americans, are shirking their civic duty.

“We’re so bogged down in corruption, double talk, intrigue, conspiracy and a lack of regard for the intelligence of the general American public,” Mr. Franklin said.

No doubt the campaigning is going to get uglier. It usually does when the stakes are so high; or you can feel “a head wind” signaling a sea change.

The worst we’ve witnessed to date are conservatives and liberals alike shamelessly using the racist image of Adolf Hitler to slur their opponents.

In response to my column suggesting that each person commit to a “dash-worthy” life of courageous action in honoring the legacy of civil rights icon Rosa Parks, I received the following e-mail: “For me, the flip side of the dash-worthy life is the do-nothing life. I always wondered what the German people were doing while the Nazis slaughtered the Jews or what the ‘Christians’ were doing while the colonial powers raped Africa. I now know,” said the woman, who did not want her name used.

“They were doing the same thing we are doing now [in the midst of the Iraq war]. They were having lunch, shopping, making love and generally keeping their heads down lest they actually see what’s going on.”

Harsh? Whether you agree with this reader’s anti-war, anti-Bush sentiments is not the issue here. This particular writer’s larger admonition about American apathy is the larger, more valuable point that caught my attention.

As Mr. Franklin said:, “Nobody is standing up in this country, not black, not white, or very few people.” And, “that’s the dismaying aspect — what to do?”

One way to speak out is to vote.

Virginians must not overlook their opportunity to be among the first citizens in the nation to demonstrate their support or opposition to the political tenor and direction in this nation by going to the polls today.

Show that you haven’t lost your way.

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