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).

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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.

Day 23: ‘The Best People’

Winding up (western aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has often promised that, if elected, he will recruit the very ‘best people’ to improve the federal government. To those who favor a smaller, smarter federal government, it’s an appealing idea.  It also appeals because our need for ‘the best people’ to run the republic is old and enduring.  Representative government is only as good as the people in it: if people of low character become prevalent, the quality of representation suffers and the power delegated to officials ends up being misused.

Yet Trump is in a poor position, politically and morally, to bring the best people to government.  Politically, he has set himself up as an antagonist of the establishment.  For more than a year, he has railed against the political class, not limiting his attacks to issues of policy, but assailing the character and achievements of many people who have painstakingly built up a reputation for public service. Remarkably, Trump has not confined his attacks to members of the opposite party.  He has also insulted many within the GOP, his own adopted party, which could normally be expected to supply talent for a Republican administration.  Serving in a Trump administration would be politically risky.  Many leading Republicans, in and out of government, have openly repudiated him, leaving one to imagine a Cabinet populated by hangers-on like Chris Christie, Trump’s own children, or his loyal lieutenant Kellyanne Conway.

It’s difficult to recruit ‘the best people’ without belonging to the best class oneself.  Here Trump’s cratering social reputation will be felt.  Last week, the media’s focus shifted from the implications of Trump’s political positions to his personal conduct and mores.  Allegations of his sexual misconduct are multiplying, sparked by a leaked tape in which Trump boasted of his indecent behavior toward women in lewd and contemptuous terms.  Whatever claim Trump had to personal decency has been destroyed.  Respectable people are censuring him loudly.

The issue of social integrity is distinct from the issue of Trump’s politics.  Who would care to sit next to him at a dinner party?  Who would feel honored to shake his hand?  Until lately a popular celebrity, Trump’s own words have supplied grounds for branding him a pariah.  Were he to win in November, he would make a poor figurehead for a country whose creed is the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights.

To summarize: Trump arouses political and moral aversion in people who might otherwise be his supporters and colleagues.  The aversion is not just to Trump’s views but to his very personality.  Yes, Trump’s tactics and policies arouse aversion, but so do Ted Cruz’s.  Cruz, though, combines political iconoclasm with some personal probity.  In this, he resembles the antebellum radical John Calhoun, whose ultra pro-slavery views combined with a cold rectitude and formality that impressed even his political enemies.  How different is Donald J. Trump, whose claims to social respectability are evaporating.

Were voters to catapult Trump to the top of the government, it’s difficult to imagine his improving on the caliber of the talent it attracts.  How many able, forward-looking people of good character would decide that serving Trump is something worth doing?  Shunned by the ‘best people,’ President Trump could find it tough to deliver on the promise of better government.

Image: Aerial of a winding mountain road,
© 2016 Susan Barsy

The grief and anguish after Dallas

Preparing to mend Fort McHenry flag, Courtesy Library of Congress
What more is there to offer amid the voluble discourse of this sad week, when violence took the place of order and justice?  The United States: will the terrorism of Charleston and Orlando diminish them?  Will we descend to the habit of a shrug when children are murdered in our schools, when movie-goers are gunned down in a theater, when a cafeteria worker is shot to death in the middle of a routine traffic stop, when a sniper decides to channel his anger into killing police officers?

Sadly, we may grow indifferent if the spiral of unjustified violence continues much longer. We may shun the news for fear of having to look at the latest, outrageous use of quick-murdering guns. We may all cease to bat an eye at the latest victims, the latest place when guns were used to sort out human conflicts that deserved to be aired in the courts. And when that happens, we will have lost the semblance of unity that has kept us going until now. We will be just another war-torn country, with battle-lines too subtle to stay on the right side of.

Congress, endlessly preoccupied with the 2nd Amendment, has forgotten the larger purposes that, according to the Constitution, justify our federal government, particularly its charge to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ and ‘promote the general Welfare.’  Will Congress act, in whatever ways it sees fit, to promote the internal peace and safety that Americans of all races crave, and that, by right, we are all entitled to expect?  Or will Congress forget its obligation to the nation, its members cravenly priding themselves on dedication to some lesser cause or party?

Changes in law are needed, but America also needs something more that’s harder.  Americans need to look into their hearts and examine whether they are living up to the potentialities of our civic culture, a culture that has allowed us to dwell with one another in a relatively open and unfettered way.  Americans need to recall the great civil tradition that has inspired generations to grow into a society where people who differ from one another nonetheless co-exist, enjoying ‘the blessings of Liberty’ and fitfully recognizing in one another our mutual humanity.  We have striven according to an Americanness that is deeper than either religion or skin.  This cultural effort will be imperfect always, but without it we will be condemned to grieve forever, anguishing over the most precious republican virtue lost.

Image: from this source.

Thank Goodness for Their Goodness

1948 photograph of Susan Barsy's ancestors at a feast table  (Credit: Our Polity)

Thanksgiving is certainly my favorite holiday.  Until lately so peaceful, uneventful, and familial, it demands nothing more than gathering together in a proper spirit to eat an unusually large meal.

Thanksgiving is American, but, alone among American holidays, has nothing to do with the military.  Thanksgiving has to do with peaceable survival.  Whether you are a member of the DAR or the descendant of slaves or recent immigrants, Thanksgiving is about the generations.  It’s about the struggle of each family to gain a foothold, earn a livelihood, and avoid adversity.  Each of us who celebrates is celebrating not just a nation but a family and that family’s particular and miraculous story.

We all know the Pilgrims encountered a hostile place.  Then as now, life was unkind, and the essential task was to avoid illness, starvation, destitution, and death.  In the Pilgrims’ case, survival entailed building alliances, banding together, welcoming newcomers, and becoming more savvy about living in an environment that was harsh and incomplete.  The Pilgrims’ adaptability, no less than their faith and courage, continue to furnish a pattern of virtue for all Americans today.

Of particular importance were their concerted efforts to prevail as a civil community.  The individualism we so prize today, and that we think of as being so essential to America, was not an option for the early colonists.  Practically and spiritually, individualism was a heretical abberation, one likely to bring chaos and death in its train.

It’s hard to imagine all that the Pilgrims endured.  The material comforts and security that are staples of modern American life are baffles, cutting off our imaginative access to the past, with its zeitgeist of solidarity and far-seeing sacrifice.

My father took this picture in the 1940s.  It shows his grandmother and her sons gathered around the table about to enjoy a holiday meal.  One of her grandsons reaches for the dressing.  The many women who prepared this feast are not in the picture because the table wasn’t big enough, and they hung out and ate together at a second table nearer the kitchen anyway.  Reproductions of the Last Supper and of the Virgin Mary (and elsewhere pictures of the Angelus and of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns) adorn the walls.

My great-grandmother’s face is full of benignity.  Her children have all flourished despite being left fatherless in 1918, when my great-grandfather died in a coal-mining accident; most of their seven children were still in their teens.  The children all worked and somehow became educated, the older ones becoming coal-miners, then mine superintendents, then jointly owning a coal mine: strategies pursued so that some of the younger children could stay in school longer, becoming teachers and engineers.  There were still sorrows and disappointments—the son to her left had multiple sclerosis and would die in the 50s (his wife is by his side to assist him)—, but their strength and sacrifice laid down the foundation that enabled me and my siblings, and my cousins, to thrive.

Today, most of the people in this picture are buried in the graveyard of an Orthodox church that stands on a hill above the house.  They helped build the church on land that had once been the family’s potato field.  Even when I was a child, the custom was to walk up to the church for the long holiday services, then back down to the house for the holiday meals (and for the long hours of visiting, card-playing, and yes drinking afterward that were a fable of naughtiness to a girl like me).

Thank goodness for their goodness, I say at Thanksgiving.