Wheee! It’s election time. Let the invective start — the execrations, the exaggerations, and the expostulations. That’s what we do in 21st-century politics; we execrate, exaggerate, expostulate. What’s the point of the whole business otherwise? Our politicians are here to put bad people in their place — meaning the people who oppose their own virtuous designs. We didn’t, as people and as a nation, used to see things this way, but more and more we seem to, and it alarms.
The moral bucket brigade we should be recruiting from coast to coast ought — under prudent leadership, if any is still to be found — to remake the acquaintance of America’s free thought tradition.
The moment at hand — with Democrats offering Joe Biden as our great white-haired hope and Republicans countering with President Donald Trump — seems as good a time as any to suggest the real defect of modern politics, meaning its hollowness, its irrelevance to real as distinguished from pretend human needs.
The practice of beating political opponents over the noggin — rhetorically and sometimes physically — proves, most of the time, a poor substitute for inciting friend and opponent alike to larger agreement on the more meaningful aspects of life. These include the peaceful sharing of civic duties and the observance of the higher human forms of behavior, e.g., loyalty, generosity, honor, dignity, and solicitude for the truth.
However, the policy course that excites most politicians today is the use of force and compulsion to bring unseeing, uncomprehending others in line. It’s so much easier, as well as quicker, to make people do something as opposed to persuading them.
Making others do things you want them to do exhibits your personal power. You’re so grand, so wonderful in your exercise of strength. You’re Hercules. You’re Achilles. Maybe Zeus himself. Grand, godlike. Far too many modern political figures have godlike ambitions that they feel compelled to realize.
There is nothing new in human ambition or its play on the instruments of power. “Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed / That he is grown so great?” inquires Marcus Brutus in some degree of B.C. political anxiety.
The problem present-day America faces (it seems to me) isn’t the lack of prepossessing politicians — though the lack is considerable and often frightening. The problem is the breakdown of any sense that ours is a common culture of important relationships or overlapping ideals — not the same ideals but near enough for conciliation and harmony. Forgive me, but the twerps who pull down statues so as to impose on the general public their personal views of justice have no interest in actual justice. They’re telling others what to think. You, over there — back in line! Feet at a 45-degree angle!
So go these people’s apparent aspirations, molded by their apparent dislike of free thought and expression. “We’ll do the thinking around here,” they seem ever to be murmuring.
Is it any wonder that politicians in growing number come to think this idea of nondiscourse is what’s wanted in a country long oversold on the idea of free discussion? Free discussion means you might freely reject my idea, in whole or just in part. No, thanks. Such an outcome would undermine my claim to power.
We are in a bad way this election year, with tempers fraught and anxious. What to do about it? First, acknowledge the danger. But spotting the blaze isn’t the same as dousing it. The moral bucket brigade we should be recruiting from coast to coast ought — under prudent leadership, if any is still to be found — to remake the acquaintance of America’s free thought tradition.
The time has come to begin belaboring our teaching institutions — schools, universities, legislative chambers, TV stations, newspapers, and magazines — over the ongoing lockdown among us of reasoning and reflection. Our political candidates in 2020 should insist loudly on hearings not just for approved ideas but also, hardly less important, for disapproved ideas, such as argument and debate as cognates of human well-being and freedom, and that same freedom as the explanation for our success as a nation. It would be fun to hear what the moral lockdown lobby might say in open debate against the usefulness of generosity and forgiveness and truth as social possessions vital to our survival as a nation.
William Murchison is writing a book on moral reconstruction in the 21st century. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.
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