Alas, it fell to an Air Force general to remind America of its values. His rank may be lower than the commander in chief's, but Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria spoke with extraordinary passion and eloquence.
Everyone in America should listen to Silveria's words; everyone, including the President.
It happened on Thursday, at the 10th Air Base Wing in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Silveria, the superintendent of the US Air Force Academy, brought together more than 5,000
students, staff and Air Force officers to tell them with electrifying clarity that prejudice, bigotry and intolerance cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
Someone had written racist slurs on a message board at the academy's prep school, where students hone the skills to join the prestigious Air Force Academy. If his audience had not heard about the incident, Silveria wanted to make sure they knew. (Update: On Nov. 7, the Air Force Academy revealed the incident was a hoax
, after its investigation found the racist graffiti was written by an African-American cadet. The student has received "administrative punishment" and is no longer in the preparatory school. Gen. Jay Silveria and the Academy emphasized that they stand by the message of the speech, that all should be treated with dignity and respect and that racism has no place in the institution.)
"If you're outraged," he said, "you're in the right place."
He was just getting started. "You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being."
With the five-minute video of his powerful lesson going viral, you can almost hear much of America answering, "Amen!"
If the general's resonant words had sounded in the same hall a couple of years ago, they would not have spread across the country; they would not have seemed remarkable. After all, speaking out against hatred has been a staple of America's most respected leaders for decades. But that has changed. It started to change the day Donald Trump launched his presidential election campaign. His willingness to traffic in bigotry has threatened to unravel America's social fabric and undermine the country's standing in the world from the day he became President.
Silveria would not attack his commander in chief, but he knows that when five black students found the words "Go home" with a racial epithet on the message boards outside their rooms, it was not an isolated incident.
We would be "tone deaf," he said, "not to think about the backdrop of what's going on in our country." He mentioned the events in Charlottesville and Ferguson, and the controversy over protests at NFL games.
Silveria gave the clearest explanation of how free speech is supposed to work. "The appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas -- the appropriate response is a better idea."
In the battlefield of ideas, the general launched a frontal assault. "We are here," he said, "because we have a better idea." He called for "civil discourse" on the issues tearing the country apart.
And he explained why the ideas of the bigots are wrong, speaking about how diversity creates strength, about the power we derive because, "we come from all walks of life... from all races ... all backgrounds ... all upbringings."
The general extolled the academy's values. He might have been talking about American values, about human values, about the principles that America proudly championed until recently, exhorting his rapt audience to defend them -- and to leave if they cannot embrace them.
At the heart of those intangible principles of tolerance and respect for others lies the most important element of humanity -- the imperative to treat every human being with respect.
"If you can't treat some with dignity and respect, then you need to get out," Silveria declared. "If you can't treat someone of another gender ... of another race or a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out."
His words are all the more striking because he could have been addressing the current president.
According to an Axios report
, Trump has been mocking Sen. John McCain in private gatherings by imitating his distinctive movements, which are the result of injuries endured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Trump had already disparaged
McCain during the campaign for being captured during the war. The new revelations are all the more distasteful because McCain, who has served his country at great personal cost, is now suffering from a deadly form of brain cancer.
We saw Trump's ghastly mockery
of a disabled reporter during the campaign, and we heard him confess how he treats women.
But it all pales next to his defense of white supremacists after the events in Charlottesville. And the contrast with Lt Gen. Silveria's words could not be sharper. As the general reminds us all that "we are not naïve," we know prejudice exists, he also tells us it is our duty to fight against it.
Instead of seizing what could have become a turning point in his presidency, instead of elevating the discourse, Trump jumped in the mud, defending men who advocate white supremacy, who marched chanting slogans directly translated from
the original German of the Nazis, and crying out
, "The Jews will not replace us." Trump said there were "very fine people
" in the bunch.
The general issued a helpful reminder for those who don't want to see those views take hold in the age of Trump: "No one can take away our values." He was talking to his audience at the academy, at the air base, but his message applies to the entire country, and to people everywhere.
When you hear an ugly, offensive idea, find a way to talk about it. Don't let it stand unchallenged. Seek a forum for civil discussion. Above all, offer a better idea.
Military rules, unlike the laws governing the rest of the country, do not allow for racial slurs. For that reason, those who anonymously wrote the insults may end up getting expelled from the academy.
To those who remain, Gen. Silveria paused dramatically with a suggestion: "Grab your phones," he told them. "I want you to videotape this so that you have it, so that you can use it." He urged everyone to use his words, share them and talk about them.
"So that we all have the moral courage together."
If only we had a President who could say that.
Note: This article was updated with news of the Air Force Academy reporting that the graffiti incident was a hoax.