This post originally appeared at the National Catholic Reporter.
There’s a pall hanging over the country these days. And it’s everywhere.
It colors every news article, of course.
But, it’s not only the news that’s been tainted by the non-majority election of a president and the appointment of an “alt-right” Cabinet. It’s on the comedy shows, too — an even more serious blow to the national psyche. Without comedy that has something more to laugh at than simply ridicule what is, where can the soul go to breathe again?
Worse, the depression infects our spiritual DNA as well: What is truth anymore? What is fact now? When is the “news” really news? How can we determine the true from the false, the real from the fake, an authentic report from an adulterated facsimile? What happens to a democracy that cannot trust the integrity of its leaders, the objectivity of its media?
We walk through the world now looking over our shoulders, waiting for the next headline, the next investigation, the next breach of protocol on the slippery slope between democratic government and irresponsible governance.
So, should we just give in and let this runaway world run its course?
These are questions we never had to ask before. In today’s political climate, they underlie the depression of the society.
But Viktor E. Frankl in his classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, reminds us, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
It may be time to look at our own attitudes to discover what we ourselves are doing to cement this kind of social chaos and what we might need to do to reverse it.
Four attitudes, in particular, I think, chart the American journey away from the ideals of the founders and the common good to our present flirtation with pathological individualism.
Our attitudes toward politics, toward politicians, toward the purpose of government and toward moral memory as a dimension of political life will determine our common future.
The current American attitude toward politicians in this country seems to be that the best way to deal with the problems of Washington is to elect candidates from “outside the Beltway,” outside of politics. This laissez-faire philosophy of political life threatens to leave us with non-politicians who turn Congress and the presidency into an on-the-job learning experience, while time, wisdom and life-changing crises go by.
Maybe we should rethink the whole idea and start electing politicians to be politicians. They might know how to get bills through Congress that meet the needs of all the people. They might even come to realize that compromise brings more unity than the desire for control ever will.
Or, as Herbert Hoover put it: “When we are sick, we want an uncommon doctor; when we have a construction job to do, we want an uncommon engineer, and when we are at war, we want an uncommon general. It is only when we get into politics that we are satisfied with the common man.”
The very meaning of politics itself may be in danger. Where once politics was seen as “the art of the possible,” it has become the gross art of the power grab. One extra congressional seat is enough now to smother the voice of the minority party. Party politics become more important than national politics, and half the country goes unrepresented as a result.
Even a sense of the purpose of government is under fire and open to question now. At one time, the purpose of American government was seen to be a commitment to the common good, nobody excluded. Then, it became a commitment to party principles, all other principles in doubt. Now it is commitment to “America first,” a blatant call for global narcissism. And that came in the face of 200 years of presidential inaugural addresses that pledged the United States to be the good Samaritan, the new Zion or a light to the nations.
A loose translation of “America first” now means all others shall be ignored or denied or bombed out of existence, if necessary, to achieve our own power and profits, our own goals and good.
And so, clean air, world health research, global cooperation and the preservation of the planet become suspect as we plan to go our own way for our own profit in a world where, metaphorically, “no [country] is an island.”
Finally, the whole notion that morality is itself an aspect of good government has become laughable. Truly laughable. The stuff of late night comedy acts. Lying is now simply overlooked. The monarchial presidency — enthroned in its “alt-right” world — rules by executive order and personal pique. Spiritual integrity is forfeited for the sake of force, obscene wealth and American supremacy.
We have gone from government “of the people, by the people, for the people” to government “of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.” And so, watching the American dream become an American nightmare for many, the classic American can-do attitude has soured a bit.
But without clear direction, high ideals and common commitment, who are we now and who are we becoming?
In such a John Wayne-style, gun-slinging world, Cabinet ministers are chosen for their lack of background in or even commitment to the agencies and areas they are deputed to lead. Instead, they threaten — or even promise — to overturn years of social growth and social-scientific progress. And as a result, social welfare, education, the environment and subsidized housing projects are all in danger.
In a government where “America first” means “me first,” the poor, the sick, the illiterate, the homeless — the marginalized citizens of America — are the shadow society of life, yes. But these people are the unseen and unknown whose lives, in the end, will really define this country’s standard of living, its social climate, its economic future and the quality of its soul for decades to come.
Of course, the temptation is to withdraw from it all. Yes, the challenge is to surrender spiritual tenderness in the face of such spiritual ruthlessness. Indeed, the delusion is that we can simply give up, turn our backs on the resistance, bury the “American dream.”
The poet Langston Hughes confronts us with our cowardice. He writes:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
The point is that we do not have the luxury of depression, of withdrawal or of surrender to our lesser selves as human beings. As long as these attitudes and acts are the mark of the new America, someone must hold fast to the dream, declare it, require it, demand it. And that’s us.
We must join the groups who move in the direction we ourselves want this country to go. We must embrace again the inclusivity, the civility, the compassion and the intellectual competence that made the United States a model of a global world. And as good citizens of that world, we must pledge ourselves to do what the humanity of the whole globe and all its peoples requires of us.
Finally, we must support a public press that keeps the traditional moral compass of the nation clearly in sight, a beacon to steer by, the measure of a godly people.
From where I stand, it is a moment that calls us all to the kind of public protest it will take to make America, America again. The ecological community, the social welfare community, the educational community and the political system need us as never before in our lifetime. Join something and make your voice heard.
As Dorothy Day is credited with saying, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”
And so, rise up, resist and get on with it.