Goodness

A moral and cultural collapse is fueling the long political crisis Americans are living through. Well-meaning, tolerant, and patriotic people are still in the majority, but the behavior of the January 6th insurrectionists and everyone friendly to them establishes that civil society and federalism are gravely imperiled. The American way of government is based on compromise and negotiation; it is based on civility and comity; and it aspires to realize a humane and virtuous vision of itself. It is founded on a hope of betterment, on a set of ideal principles regarding individual rights and privileges. Throughout time, American leaders have paid lip service to these ideals and sometimes chanced their lives, careers, and reputations to make them real. The nation’s political identity is intrinsically moral and idealistic. This remains true, no matter how far short, in actual performance, it falls.

The underpinnings of republican government are rotting away. Over the past few years, we’ve discovered how many Americans hate the federal government. They resent their fellow citizens. They’ve had it with learning and discussion. They are sick of “bullshit,” meaning the ideas and values of anyone (especially anyone in power) who doesn’t speak or look or act their way. Their favored recourse is intimidation: speak loudly and crudely, ignore decorum. Belittle, smear, and threaten opponents. Gang up on the rule of law, which works best garbed in the regalia of intolerance, preferably while bearing a stick or a gun. Sneer at moderation, at tradition and respectability. Even polite-looking figures such as Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert are actually completely corrupt thugs inside.

These people are looking for their next chance to attack police officers, desecrate the flag, and destroy government norms.

The question is whether good Americans can stem the tide. Can we stop the pendulum from swinging toward violence and extremism, and get it to move back to the other side? Can we neutralize the influence inflammatory figures enjoy? Can we restore contentment and consensus, notably by ministering to legitimate grievances and needs? Can the political establishment refrain from abusing its power, and get back to the retreating goal of figuring out how best to promote widespread prosperity, how to restore dignity and safety to ordinary households and communities? A world of trouble lies ahead if the answer is no.

A Dearth of Virtue

Allegorical engraving showing the arts memorializing George Washington

One of the slipperiest aspects of republican government is the requirement that the citizens of a republic be virtuous.  Their moral discernment and scruples come into play, whether in evaluating the claims of their leaders or when called to exercise political leadership themselves.  Without virtue, the Founders thought, the entire republican project is doomed, because the power vested in the government is there to be used for the common good.

Where virtue was to come from was a little fuzzy.  Some equated virtue with economic self-sufficiency; others thought it followed from a good education—from a familiarity with the past, particularly.  For a time early in our history, Americans counted on “republican mothers” to inculcate the necessary virtues in their young.  And, throughout the ages, many believed that the right religious spirit could give republican virtue a powerful assist.

Regardless of the specifics, the success of our form of government ultimately depends on something beyond politics.  It depends on a culture that encourages prudence and goodness.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, wholesomeness and moral restraint have become unfashionable.  Society has thrown off a centuries-old association between virtue and the principle of respectability.  Virtue, once the cornerstone of reputation, has become an attribute too embarrassingly square to endorse or require.

As a culture, we have no shame.  As consumers of news and culture, Americans must tolerate acquaintance with people who behave despicably.  We are forced to take an interest in criminals and lowlifes, their heinousness smothered in a blanket of journalistic “objectivity.”  To be informed, we explore what journalists and artists have to offer, though these offerings imbue evildoers with celebrity and prestige.  In a more intimate society, miscreants would be marginalized, their importance diminished to neutralize their potentially toxic influence on a healthy culture.

Under the circumstances, virtue in America has become a private and personal matter, where once our collective need for it was publicly avowed.

Image: “American Literature & Fine Arts, Rewarding Patriotism & Virtue,”
from this source.
The print, created between 1800 and 1815,
shows the arts working to immortalize George Washington (d. 1799).

The Trump Years: Day 63

Politicians without honor: Americans are discovering that the moral underpinnings of republicanism really matter, that our nation’s fate really does depend on the virtue of its leaders.  Given that Donald Trump is neither virtuous nor honorable, our entire system of government is in jeopardy.  The president can’t be counted on for honesty.  Twin editorials in Tuesday’s Washington Post and Wall Street Journal labored to sketch the dangers, the latter bluntly asserting that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

The social controls that formerly curbed and punished such behavior have fallen out of fashion in permissive times.  A person like President Trump, who makes reckless accusations, would have been instinctively shunned and ostracized in a more wholesome era.  Consigned to a region beyond the pale of respectability, his influence would have withered due to want of attention.  Instead, thanks to a salacious media, his bad character wins ever-greater publicity, and the power that he enjoys has only increased.  A society can’t demand honor if it never inflicts shame.

Early Americans recognized the grave threat that slanderous speech posed; reputable men treasured their “good names,” understanding that character was the currency of social trust.  Conversely, only the threat of death could induce liars and slanderers to govern their tongues.  So honorable men sometimes resorted to duels, challenging speakers who had wronged them to face off in a life-or-death confrontation on “the field of honor.”

Andrew Jackson, the president on whom some say Donald Trump is modeling his presidency, fought several duels, killing at least one man and living with a bullet from the encounter buried deep in his chest.  The object of unrelenting public criticism and scrutiny, Jackson stood up for his own character, calling out anyone who demeaned his virtue or uttered lies.  The man of honor could have ended up dead; without honor, though, what was the point of being alive?

Duelling was a frowned-upon and eventually outlawed practice whose utility has no equal today.  Creeping off to settle scores with dueling pistols was plain old murder and immoral.  The threat of mortal retribution promoted “civilization,” however, making scoundrels think twice before uttering the kinds of injurious lies we’re blinking at today.

Image: “At the dawn,” by Katharine Sheward Stanbery
from this source.

The Humanitarian Sensibility

woodcut of kneeling man in shackles
The humanitarian sensibility is the capacity to be moved by suffering we are not experiencing ourselves. It is especially remarkable when the suffering that moves us is remote, not present to our senses, but requires an imaginative empathic response.  The desire to relieve distant suffering or right abstract wrongs is an outgrowth of the humanitarian sensibility.  It is an active and extended form of charity.

The humanitarian sensibility is not innate–it is a product of culture, and not found in all societies, but where it is present it has profound consequences, both in the present and historically.  We can see it operating to various degrees in the Syrian refugee crisis, just as we can discern its utter absence in the perpetrators whose violence has led millions to flee Syria and its environs.  Historically, the humanitarian sensibility has powered innumerable movements, including the drive to abolish slavery in the Western world, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The humanitarian impulse, though not peculiar to the West, is a living expression of Biblical precepts and the natural rights tradition on which democratic government rests.  It carries the Biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ to its farthest possibility, leading Westerners to battle hunger and disease afflicting other continents, to give to Haitian disaster relief, to correct cleft palates and blindness wherever they are found, and to support female rights and rights activists like Malala Yousafzai.  The drive to minister to the world is noble, but it is not universally shared.  And in the US, we can see the limits of that sensibility, as when our government turned away children from Latin America, who came here seeking refuge from the violence and exploitation of the drug trade.

Image: from this source.
The emblem of the beseeching slave with the question “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
first gained circulation in the 1780s as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England.
The design was rendered in many forms,
on coins, in ceramic by Josiah Wedgwood, and as a woodcut, as here.
This powerful graphic appealed to viewers to look beyond differences of race and condition
to acknowledge the common humanity that linked free people with the enslaved.
This particular woodcut appeared on an American broadside to illustrate
John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 poem, ‘Our Countrymen in Chains.’

Another Illinois politico goes down

Cameramen waiting for Hastert, © 2015 Susan Barsy

June 9.  The cameramen shooting the breeze near the entry to the Dirksen Federal Courthouse meant that something big was happening.  It turned out to be the arraignment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Continue reading