Tony Stewart is probably the most optimistic person you’ll ever meet.
But at the moment, even Tony is wavering.
The tribal nature of current society and politics worries him. He’s seeing anger in what should be civil discussions.
When people disagree these days, they often make it personal.
If you’ve been in North Idaho for more than a few months, you know Tony’s background — and without sounding too melodramatic, his heroism.
After all, when Tony and a group of locals doggedly opposed the hate of neo-Nazi Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations for more than two decades, it wasn’t all just harsh words.
There were bombs, harassment, murders.
Yet Tony and what would eventually become the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations prevailed, both by being clever and by sticking to the non-confrontational methods of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
They bankrupted Butler with a lawsuit, and went on to help craft Idaho’s “hate laws” — which are among the toughest in the nation.
Tony Stewart has every reason to feel like a winner in his battle with the forces of intolerance.
Some of his quotes, from years of TV shows, lectures, 40 years teaching political science at NIC, public appearances, town halls and so on, are now repeated over and over.
In 2010, Tony was interviewed by PBS producer Marcia Franklin and made a remarkable statement.
“Since I was very young (in North Carolina), I’ve always been so bothered by injustices of all types,” he said.
“As a young boy — 9 and 10 years old — I was writing to my congressman asking him to vote for civil rights legislation, which he would not do.”
GIVEN THAT lifelong reluctance to stay silent in difficult times, it’s probably not surprising that Tony now wants to speak out over the way America has lost its civility.
“It’s very, very concerning,” he said. “It’s perfectly proper and part of democracy to have an opinion, to disagree with someone — but we’ve come to see these conversations as more like attacks.
“Truthfully, it’s not only bad for all of us psychologically, but physically. If you’re in a group of people and someone is just bitter and angry, you actually leave with a knot in your stomach.
“The human body wasn’t meant to be unhappy and confrontational all the time. It’s unhealthy for society in every way.”
But how did we get here?
Tony cites social media as a problem, and one part of it especially.
“It allows arguments to take place where you can remain anonymous,” he said. “I believe a lot of things are said, and terrible rumors spread, by people who wouldn’t do it if their name made them responsible for it.”
He also feels many public figures are not always acting as role models, and thus even children are beginning to snap at each other with a new sort of meanness.
They’re hearing nasty words from adults, and sadly learning to copy them.
If anyone might know the pathway out of this acrimonious life we seem to be enduring, it’s Tony Stewart.
“Somehow, our country and others have been losing their sense of humor,” he said. “And the truth is that you can’t feel angry toward someone if you can share a joke. It will always break any tension.
“We need to rediscover the humor in our lives, and not be afraid to share it.
“It’s as simple as that.”
Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.
A Brand New Day appears Wednesday through Saturday each week. Steve’s sports column runs on Tuesday.