• Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 5/31/20

Good morning!

People have suggested that the death of the handshake will be collateral damage from this pandemic. When we emerge to “normalcy,” will we lose this nearly universal indication of welcome and openness? I hope not, as I believe that it is more than an artifact of proper etiquette. It is a lot different from whether the salad fork is to the left of the dinner fork or whether the bread dish is on the left or the right (the answer in both cases is to the left). The handshake has both practical and symbolic importance.



As early as the early Greeks., the handshake delivered the very practical message, “I’m not carrying a weapon.” The gesture evolved to be a forearm grab by the Romans (“let me make sure there’s nothing up your sleeve”) and the eventually to the actual “shake,” which was thought to arise from a desire to shake loose hidden weapons.

Whatever details of its origin, the handshake was initially intended to put a potential adversary at ease. But it has evolved in many cultures to be a greeting symbolizing warmth, friendship, and openness.



It seems to me that the message of the handshake only now is being lost, but the underlying communication of camaraderie and good intent has been dying for the past thirty years.

I was taught to assume that anyone you meet is of good intent. This is not to suggest that you should succumb to a game of “three card monte” or buy a lottery ticket any time soon. Just that when one meets someone of a different background or a different political point of view, seeking truth, common ground and, hopefully, meaningful compromise involves believing the person you are speaking with is of good intent.



If one were to judge by many of the op-eds out there, the pronouncements on Fox News, or the postings on Facebook, one would have to conclude that no one out there is of good intent. I will give several examples:

• The vilification of the adversary. Our President has perfected this, but he by no means started this. To him, calling the other side “garbage” or “stupid” or “the enemy of the people” pretty much ends the conversation. He telegraphs to his supporters not only that the other side is wrong, but they are inhuman or evil-spirited.

• The diminishment of a point of view. When some in the media talk of the “Bible belt” or gun owners or working class Americans in insulting terms, one places them in another class, unworthy of respect. Similarly, when one says that another person cannot have an opinion on a subject that relates to a group of which he or she is not a member, the conversation ends before it begins.

• At an issue level, let’s take one that shouldn’t be all that controversial—large church services in the midst of COVID-19. Those who want these services to go on have characterized their position as religious freedom and the position of those who might suggest postponing these gatherings as “anti-religion.” Perhaps, just perhaps, their motivations are driven by public health.

• People who think corporations are fundamentally “evil.” There certainly is a lot to complain about recent corporate misadventures (risk-welcoming investments, crazy executive compensation, stock buy-backs before hiring, expansion or wage growth). But, still, large corporations are huge employers and many are managed by executives actually thinking about the public good.

• Some on the right like to categorize Democrats as anti-American, anti-capitalist and unpatriotic. Is it possible that they truly are concerned with the inequality in our society? And as much as some may think the left isn’t willing to flex its military muscle, we entered WWI, WWII, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War under Democratic administrations.

• Some would choose to characterize Republicans are a bunch of fat cats concerned only about lower taxes and corporate profits. But most pre-Trump Republicans openly supported a “mixed” economy striking a balance between private commerce and State economy for the public good. The greatest expansion of the welfare state, lest we forget, came under Richard Nixon. And many of the most significant philanthropists and activists today are conservatives.

It’s not all his fault, but we have only one President at a time, so setting the table for meaningful debate and legislation is his responsibility. Why have our leaders not taken constructive steps in these areas? In part because of fundamental distrust of motives, vilification of the other side, the out-sized sway of lobbyists, and jockeying for political position.

There are so many other examples of the unwillingness to negotiate, or even consider, the validity of opposing opinions. While it may be true that many share the goals of achieving a fair, just, society (although I suspect some are not so inclined), the means of getting there—and the political costs, real and imagined, remain huge impediments.



We must begin by honoring the position of the other. Every conversation or press conference ought to begin with an acknowledgement of the validity of a statement, policy objective, or ideal of the other side. Think of it as reaching out a hand—one without a concealed weapon. A handshake has preceded constructive discussions and friendships for generations. While the physical one may take a while to come back in use, the figurative handshake is what we so desperately need now.



The former Soviet Union consisted of 15 republics. They are now independent nations. Can you name 10?



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