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RESPECT: Aretha, McCain, and #45

Published in ChicagoNow, September 7, 2018

We celebrated the lives of two American icons last weekend. While the funeral services for Aretha Franklin and John McCain were as different as the people who had died, Aretha’s acclaimed recording of Respect reverberated in my head. As a native of Detroit who grew up in the era of being able to see Motown performers live in the 60s, Aretha was an artist I adored. As a lifelong Democrat, who occasionally casts an independent vote, McCain was a Republican I respected (with the exception of choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008), even when I disagreed with his position.

Respect needs to be earned. For me to respect someone, that person must possess qualities, abilities, or achievements that are worthy of my admiration. But respect is a two-way street. I can’t respect someone who does not treat others in a respectful manner. Thus, even though I respect the office of the presidency, I cannot respect its current occupant. #45 has not done anything to earn the admiration I felt for other presidents, let alone for Aretha Franklin or John McCain. On the contrary, he has earned my disdain.

I don’t have to agree politically with an office holder to regard him as a person of integrity, but I do have to see that he has worked to earn my respect through being honest, thoughtful, and caring like McCain. If we ended up disagreeing, so be it. The same holds true of a performer. I respected Aretha for her prodigious talent and the joy she gave to others when she performed. I do not respect Kim Kardashian.

The Urban Dictionary has a pretty good definition of respect that includes treating others with dignity and conducting oneself in a dignified manner. That fits McCain, but definitely not @realdonaldtrump. The definition goes on to say,

“Respect is earned and is never just given. BUT, you must give respect to receive respect. Meaning when you interact with an individual you treat them with dignity and in a respectful manner as this shows your character as a person. And the respect will be reciprocated. You must always behave in a respectful manner as this reflects on you, your character, integrity and values of who you are as a person.”

In Aretha Franklin’s version of Respect, a song written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, she added a strong female spin by demanding respect for herself as a woman and a person of color,


Find out what it means to me


Take care, TCB

Oh (sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)

TCB, “taking care of business” meant just that. Slang for dealing with whatever issues life presents. Sock it to me (later made famous on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In) meant tell it to me honestly. Franklin’s version is a declaration from a strong, confident woman, as well as a reflection of our country in 1967. The civil rights movement dominated our consciousness, the division over the war in Vietnam raged, and the women’s liberation movement was grabbing headlines. Respect was at the core of all of these issues. As Carl Wilson writes in Slate,

“[Respect] spells out a fundamental human need, in a way mainstream pop had not heard before, with both maximum dignity and maximum playfulness. It does it in the names of women, people of color, and anyone else exhausted and exasperated with being treated as less than a full person. Her most distinctive rewrite, the addition of the ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me’ bridge… Aretha’s Respect was an anthem of female empowerment, one that emphasized resistance and self-possession rather than just suffering and forbearance.”

Aretha Franklin said her song meant that everyone wants to be respected. John McCain would have certainly agreed with that sentiment. Even though I disagreed with his hawkish foreign policy stands, I never doubted his integrity. In her eulogy for her father, Meghan McCain referred to him as the “real thing,” a man who loved his country and sacrificed for it. She reminded mourners that her father never thought America needed to be made great again.

President Obama, who battled McCain for the presidency in 2008, recalled: “When all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team.” President Bush said of his rival for the Republican nomination and sometimes critic, “He was honest no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared. He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings…There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy… to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places.”

Even school children know what respect looks like

In another Aretha Franklin hit, Think, she asked us to asked us to “think about what you’re trying to do to me” and sang a chorus consisting of the word freedom. A couple of the verses are worth remembering in light of where we find ourselves today, with a man in the White House lacking dignity, decency, integrity, and respect for others. Perhaps he should think about Aretha’s words:

People walking around every day

Playing games, taking scores

Trying to make other people lose their minds

Ah, be careful you don’t lose yours…

by Laurie Levy
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