Coffin, 10-29-2018

Guest Commentary: The paradox of Pittsburgh: Nothing fails like success

When we feel hopelessly inadequate to bring true comfort and consolation to those going through indescribable pain because of the evil that has been perpetrated against their family, their friends, their affinity group, their fellow humans, we sometimes search for a silver lining, some deeper implication, some overlooked fact that puts into a slightly different perspective the horror of what has transpired.

I recognize that my comments here will bring little immediate relief from pain. But they may help to inform and inspire our long-term response to the sinister challenge we currently face.

In business, there’s a paradoxical maxim that reminds us that “nothing fails like success.” I would suggest that this maxim is apropos to what the Jewish community and all people of goodwill are experiencing right now.

It’s when a company, a product or a process has become the industry standard that complacency may set in. Quality control may suffer. Research and development may lag. Customer service may deteriorate. In short, the sheer magnitude of success may constitute the enterprise’s greatest vulnerability and threat.

I suggest that’s what happening right now within in the great social experiment we call the United States of America.

On paper, our nation was founded on truly revolutionary principles. But right from the beginning, when it came to actual application, a significant gulf existed between the lofty promises of our foundational documents and the everyday reality for significant segments of society. Throughout our history we’ve been engaged in a slow but steady struggle to give substance to our stated ideals.

It hasn’t been an easy journey.

New inequities have emerged as old inequities have been corrected. Slaves were emancipated, only to face Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was thrown out, to be replaced by only slightly less overt forms of racism.

Women received the vote, only to discover that voting didn’t automatically create a fair playing field in education, in the workplace, in numerous areas of life. They also learned that greater access to opportunity didn’t remove lower pay and widespread sexual harassment.

To stymie greater inclusion, organizations were formed with the declared goal of thwarting the progress of marginalized-but-gaining-ground groups. In the case of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, African-Americans, Catholics and Jews were the victims of a range of intimidation, violence and atrocity.

But despite the efforts of those who feared forward progress, great strides have been made. The post-World War II period has seen an inexorable march toward greater equality and inclusion — much to the consternation of those who preferred the well-defined, well-regulated bigotries of an earlier era.

Even more frightening to some, a majority in society have declared that demeaning, denigrating, discriminatory language is no longer acceptable. In our words as well as in our actions, we’re expected to be decent and civil and to honor the humanity and dignity of all.

And the list of marginalized for whom fair treatment is being sought has broadened dramatically. We now even expect the earth itself to be treated with respect.

It’s a scary world for those still committed to yesteryear’s institutionalized inequities. The result is fear and anger — two of humanity’s greatest motivators. Add to this, unscrupulous leaders — who with a steady diet of half-truths, lies and propaganda, seek to stoke fear and fan the flame of anger, for personal and political gain.

That’s the social milieu in which a truly tragic figure in Pittsburgh amassed his weapons of destruction and developed his murderous plans in the hope of putting the brakes on the forward progress of equality and human dignity for everyone.

I fully recognize that my comments here won’t bring peace to those of us mourning the greatest assault on the Jewish community that our nation has ever witnessed.

But as our collective spirit heals enough to begin moving forward, we should take heart in the fact that this epitome of human failure was a misdirected response to the high-but-far-from-complete level of success already achieved in one of human history’s most honorable of humanitarian ventures.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

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