Goodby Silverstein & Partners produced one of the most memorable advertisements of all time with their 1993 “Got Milk?” ad about the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

It was classic, but underscoring the advertisement was the duel. A “matter of honor” between the current Vice President of the United States and the former Secretary of Treasurer and perhaps the greatest mind on constitutional interpretation in US history, this death was precipitated by Burr’s corrupted view of Hamilton’s distaste for him. Of course, even though he was the victim, Hamilton was no saint either—his political fights with Jefferson, Clinton, Adams, and Madison were so complete that even in death his opponents spit pure vile at him and his legacy.

I mentioned to a fellow traveler a few weeks back during a discussion about Adams and Hamilton that these founding fathers were in ways much better and much worse than we grasp in our brief history book and filmstrip caricatures. It was in their squabbles that we find the most heartbreaking destruction. In many ways, their lives were clouded by this infighting, to the point that in each other they could see no good.

These clouds of spitefulness are ever-present today. We see them in business, in entertainment, in politicians, in religious groups, in social classes—among individuals and organizations and communities throughout the world. The effect is poison. Relationships that could have been most productive are wasted, conversations are tainted, and individuals vilified.

And this poison doesn’t always just stop with these interchanges. In quiet corners, on Internet forums, within newspaper commentary, and over neighborhood fences we may find this poison ever-spreading, destroying not only the object of disdain but the holder of the vision and to those with whom they reach out. It heralds the death of civility and the destruction of love for our fellowman.

We should not accept this as simply a part of the status quo. And while we must require our leaders to be better, we need to look within our lives at how such backbiting has corrupted our viewpoints. Each of us may be surprised to see how its ugly effects have infiltrated our lives.

We should be better than that.


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