Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Moral Test

Written in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the President’s response...
I’ll leave it to the historians and recognized scholars to decide whether or not America is a nation, a people. But I will reflect here that a famous conservative politician of the late twentieth century once confidently declared that “society is nothing more than a collection of individuals.”
Are we greater than that? Do we aspire to be?
When a man who swears only by the jungle stumbles into the Presidency, we cannot expect him to see society. And nationhood to him is only a collection of individuals who might serve his interests or suit his tastes.
I believe it when a chaotic personality expresses displeasure at disordered chaos in the violent clash of protesters. A chaotic personality instinctively seeks order in externalities: gilded, clean halls as a balm for his internal strife. People doing what they are told, obeying simple, straightforward rules. I also believe it when he can only see disobedience to laws intended to preserve order, and not the deeper moral complexities of human motivation; let alone the philosophical differences between, say, sociopathic nihilism and the socializing instinct to protect a peaceful, dignified, diverse community.
I believe that he cannot understand that, while violence of all kinds must be eschewed, the moral universes of white supremacy and an anti-fascist countermovement could not be more starkly different.
The moral failure of our so-called President over the past five days puts our union — dream or fact — into a level of doubt that many of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. And it reflects a hollow center in our republic that should shock us, at least if there is any hope for this strange experiment in diverse democracy left.
His predecessor, no doubt, would have repudiated this resurgent collective sin of racism without hesitation. As a matter of fact, he already did, scoring the highest number of likes ever recorded for a Twitter post. (That must make the Tweeter-in-Chief most uneasy.) But Obama is no longer President, and so many of us still feel bereft of moral leadership.
But we do well not to neglect the grace-filled question of the moment.
Were Obama still President this night, with his strong rhetoric and erudition, we would be risking at this point letting him speak for us, acting practically as our moral proxy. We would be posting his words, maybe taking up a phrase or two, admiring his clarity, extolling his appeal to our virtue.
And we would risk believing that we had arrived.
He was hated for this very reason. And he rhetorically left little doubt, thus leaving many who were still wandering their dangerous mazes of prejudice and bigotry out in the cold. Now they want back in, and they are angrier than ever.
This is not a criticism of Obama. No, this is a criticism of our king-making, celebrity culture. We want our President to be our ethical and moral proxy, our healer, our great reconciler. We want to be told how to think, how to behave, how to believe. How to get along.
Our most primitive parts want him (or her) to look, think, and act like our most noble imagined selves; or to diabolically justify and focus our darkest, most ignoble impulses.
We want to remain moral children.
This country’s founders worried about centralizing power in the Presidency, and its echoes of crown princes, queens, and emperors and their overweening temperaments and the infantilizing effect they had on their subjects. Like the prophet Samuel, when the ancient Israelites desperately wanted to be like other nations and have a king, the architects of our democracy knew that to ladle so much power, trust, and authority on a frail human being was ultimately a recipe for misery.
Now we have a man who — above most, if not all other men who preceded him in this office — has failed a key moral test.
That is no longer a question, and, yes, it makes him, sitting at the helm of the powers of the State and at the center of a fragile democracy, remarkably dangerous. That we should seek his swift removal from this position of power is also a question beyond doubt.
But the grace-filled question, the critical moral test before us now, is whether we will fall with him into the moral vacuum of the jungle...
Or if we, despite him, will grow up and decide for ourselves whether we are a nation, a society.
And if so, just what kind of society we will be.