Everyone has experienced the torture of watching monstrous young men, men who have apparently been scoured of any shred of conscience, going about killing everyone they can find. Everyone has equally experienced the torture of seeing a man carrying the body of a little boy who was drowned while fleeing the horror of the world created by those monstrous young men. The juxtaposition of those two experiences forces us to face a critical question, a question beyond all others, a question that might very well decide our fate as a culture and perhaps even as a species. It goes beyond the obvious question of how we expunge these deviate moral mutants. It goes even beyond the question of how we respond to the pleas of these thousands upon thousands who give up all they have to flee the hell that their home has become.

The real question, the question that is being dodged, ignored, evaded, but the question that will define us is not easy to formulate, not because it is so complicated but, on the contrary, because it is so simple. It is the first question, the key question, the question that precedes all other questions. It is the question of meaning, of worth, of value, of significance. It is the question of how we define ourselves. Who are we? What do we stand for? What is it that gives us our identity?

There was something sinister about the Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump demanding that we uproot millions of people and build a wall between us and our neighbors and close our borders to those oppressed by violence and hatred and poverty. What made it so much worse than just bad policy was that Trump insisted that we had to do these things “if we are a country.” To be a country, he was suggesting, means building our own isolated kingdom, identifying ourselves by our assets and our powers, and therefore relating to all other nations and all other people as adversaries, opponents, rivals to those assets and powers by which we have defined ourselves.

There is nothing novel about defining a group of people by power. Kings and czars and dictators have been doing that for centuries. The problem is that, if you define yourself by power, your use of power will ultimately result in your own destruction. As a great thinker who suffered through the wars of the twentieth century once put it, “Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them.” If you define yourself by power, then you have agreed to the use of power against you. Justice itself will be defined by the use of power. More accurately, there is no such thing as justice or the morality that grounds justice. Justice is the will of the strongest, and there will always eventually be a power stronger than yours, and that power will destroy you. Value, worth, meaning, are all just propaganda techniques.

The problem is that America was not created on the basis of power. It was, in fact, created precisely in opposition to a rule by power. The logic of the Declaration of Independence begins with a first principle, a principle so critical and so elemental that it is self-evident, i.e., impossible to deny. All human beings are created equal, and each human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights, including (but not limited to) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Being an American is based, not on power, but on the responsibility for the rights of others.

No doubt the questions of responding to ISIS violence and caring for the refugees from the violence of the middle east and elsewhere are difficult, and no doubt the answers to those questions are complex. Before we can begin to answer them, however, we must decide the elemental question of what we stand for. We are a country only so long as we stay true to the ideals upon which we were built. About that, at least one thing is sure: we were not built on walls.


There is a decided wisdom in allowing some time between the heat of an election and the assumption of duty by those elected. It gives us time to shift from the clamor of politicking to doing the serious business of governing. It is in that interspace that we are allowed, in fact required, to retreat from our political prejudices and reflect about our ideals, about who we are and who we want to be and what we should be doing to take ourselves in the direction we desire. That reflection rests upon a hope. best captured by Franklin Roosevelt in his last inaugural address. He said there that the trend of civilization is always upward, and that, if one draws a line through the peaks and valleys of human history, the line will point up. Our hope is that that is true, that, however chaotic and discouraging the current atmosphere may be, we are, in the long run, making a better world.

That hope, however, rests on an assumption, namely that we can identify just what our direction is, what a “better world” consists of, what our true ideals, our long-term goals, really are. Answering these questions is fairly impossible in the midst of the daily struggle to earn a living, feed a family, do all the mundane tasks that take us from morning to night. We have, first, to set aside a time away from all that, a time to think, and a time to talk, to discourse honestly and calmly and rationally and cooperatively.

Assuming that we can find such time, we need, secondly, to figure out just who we are, what that direction is toward which we aspire, and what we think are the best means to achieve those aspirations. A good friend recently likened it to laying out what he called a storyboard. At the top you set forth what it is you want to achieve. Below that you lay out a list of various proposals for the best means to attain those achievements. In all of it, you agree that what is important is the goal, and, if the means you choose fail, you admit your failure and choose others.

Following this pattern on the question of how we wish to govern is made immensely easier by the fact that our founding fathers did the first step for us. They laid out, quite directly, the ideals that define the American way of governance. “We hold these truths,” they stated, “to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

These words, read honestly, are breathtaking, earthshaking. They are a declaration that we recognize the right of every human being — not every person of a certain color or a certain sex or a certain religious persuasion or a certain national origin, but absolutely every human being — to be treated even as we see ourselves as deserving of being treated. The American ideal is of the very essence of morality. To be an American is to have as one’s ideal not power, not wealth, not status, but a world in which every human being is honored.

If we agree with this ideal — and one cannot claim to be an American without agreeing to it — then the next point is critical. Everything else is a discussion about means. If we are Americans, we are all working toward the same goal. If we disagree, we do not do so as enemies, but as members of a team trying to find the best way to achieve our ideals. If we are Americans, then those who oppose our proposals are not enemies but friends, co-workers, fellow strivers toward that upward trend to a world of universal recognition of human rights.

Let me be the first to admit that I have not treated my political opponents in this fashion. Both sides of the recent political debates have failed miserably to honor their opponents as fellow strivers toward the American ideal. Each side has, in effect, denounced the other as precisely unAmerican. Each has decried the other as working against the American ideal, as being fascist or communist, as replacing the American ideal with an ideal of power or wealth. That, fundamentally, is not so. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell — all of these are Americans, because all of these adhere to the American ideal of universal human rights. They have, at enormous cost to themselves and their families, dedicated their lives to public service. They can only have done so because of an abiding commitment to the American ideal. No amount of honor or power or wealth could, by itself, have justified the sacrifices that each of these public servants have made.

Herein lies a key to the appropriate structure of political debate, a key to determining whether a particular political argument is sincere, and the basis for a promise I am making to my reader. All political debate, if it is appropriately structured, must be a debate about means, a debate that honors all proponents and opponents as members of one team, all seeking the same goal. Any political debate, if it is sincere, will be reasoned discourse about the best means to attain universal human rights.

Third, and finally, I renew a promise the founders of this blog made when it was first created. I promise to concentrate my efforts on insights and proposals meant only in the service of the American ideals. I promise to honor the right of the those who oppose my thoughts as honestly striving for those same ideals, and I promise to roundly criticize those, including those with whom I agree, who unfairly treat their political opponents as anything but sincere Americans.

Happy Thanksgiving.