THE AMERICAN VENEER

Nature abhors a vacuum, or so Aristotle taught us.  That may not be true as a physics theorem, but it is certainly true of the history of human affairs.  It was a vacuum of leadership that allowed the great monsters of our time, Hitler and Stalin and others, to gain power and work their epic evils.

One of the great mysteries about these historical nightmares is why the people under the rule of these monsters did not rebel and throw them over.  Even Hitler, with his carefully crafted programs of propaganda and repression, had relatively few enforcers under his command compared to the population as a whole, and that population was one of the most highly educated and intelligent peoples in the world.

The answer to that question has, no doubt, many layers, and people far more informed than I have no doubt explored the answer at a level far beyond my abilities.  Whatever that answer may be, the phenomenon itself is a perfect illustration of the venerable adage, attributed to C.P. Snow and others, that the veneer of civilization is exceedingly thin.  Over and over, in literature and in photographs and now daily on social media, we see descriptions and pictures of people who, while presumably also peace-loving parents and children, spew out mindless hatred and bigotry.  I have in mind, as I write these words, those gruesome photos and films of ordinary citizens cursing Jewish men, women and children as they are ripped from their homes and led to unspeakable torture and death.  I have also in mind the smiling faces of white men and women standing under the bodies of black men strung from trees.  Those people no doubt went home and ate dinner, and they got up on Sunday and went to church, and they went home and hugged their children and tucked them neatly in bed.

Whatever else it was that drove these people to accommodate these hideous deeds into their otherwise civilized lives, one conclusion must be drawn:  that whatever they had identified in their lives as of value was, at base, vacuous, empty, meaningless.  Nothing identified as a true, meaningful value could ever have allowed these nightmarish occurrences, and yet there can be no denying that they did indeed occur.  Whatever God they worshiped, whatever cultural practices they followed, whatever family values they espoused — all of that was sufficiently specious to allow them to engage in activities so monstrous that, if called savage, would be an insult to the word “savage” itself.

Recently a dear and wise friend suggested that the recent political discussions made him conclude that it was within the realm of possibilities for American citizens to engage in some event comparable to Kristallnacht.  That night, in November, 1938, a horde of German and Austrian citizens smashed Jewish businesses and places of worship and beat and killed scores of Jewish people who were themselves German citizens.  That brutality set the scene for hundreds of thousand of Jews to be sent to concentration camps, and ultimately to the massacre of millions of innocents.

I initially scoffed at my friend’s observation, but then I put it before myself as I listened to the most recent debate in the race for a Republican candidate for President.  I watched Donald Trump insisting over and over that we must uproot millions of undocumented aliens from their homes.  I heard Jeb Bush denounce Trump’s suggestion on the grounds that it was “not possible.”  Oh, I thought, but what if it were?  Would you do it then?  Because, with just a small change in policy, it would be possible.

I know you are thinking that all of that is ridiculous.  This is, after all, America.  But here is the problem:  do we know what it really means to be an American?  In theory it means that we endorse the principles that all human beings are created equal and that every human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights.  In practice, however, I am hearing more and more that to be an American is far different from that, and, to my mind, far less than that.

I put it to my dear reader that there is, in America, a growing dearth of ideals, and that dearth is edging toward a vacuum.  Our policies are far more often guided by more parochial, more economic, more self-centered goals than Jefferson’s earth-shaking definition of the American ideal.  When political positions are assumed not on those ideals but on the size of your wallet or the color of your skin, the veneer of your civilization threatens to become diaphanously thin.  If it does, it takes only some relatively trivial event to tip your world into a nightmare akin to Kristallnacht.

I hope and pray that my dear wise friend is wrong.  I fear that he is not.

WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

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.