Wild times, these, in America — “students” at Middlebury College driving away a distinguished intellectual with false claims about his “racism”; fiery accusations flooding the land concerning wiretapping and collaboration with the Russian government; name-calling by the present president, directed at his predecessor. And that’s just in the last few days!
On and on the instances go. I will not enlarge the list, each instance being worrisome enough on its own terms, all the more so when grouped and examined for a common denominator.
I have a common denominator to propose — nothing to do with election rage. It is that we live today in moral universes of our own construction, where whatever I want — never mind you! — is the law of the land. No hearings necessary; no appeals allowed. I’m right; you’re wrong.
Concerning all of which there’s nothing explicitly new. History is replete with reports of mob scenes, the most accessible I can think of being Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The revolution is right and just! To the guillotine with the nay-sayers!
Americans used to see this normlessness more often in the behavior of “foreigners” than in their own lives. In the ’60s, that turned around. We are becoming as normless as anybody else on the planet, the only enforceable norm being that there’s no such thing as a norm, no Truth obligatory on its own terms, as distinguished from opinions and viewpoints.
Check out the Middlebury mob that silenced Charles Murray with robotic chants: e.g., “YOUR message is hatred! We will NOT tol-er-ATE it.” And “CHARLES Murray’s got to go! HEY, HEY, ho, ho!” Lively substitute discourse, huh? Anyway, the point was that Murray, a libertarian scholar of impeccable credentials (including two Ivy League degrees), is racist, sexist, and anti-gay. None of which resembles reality. Still, he couldn’t speak. He could and did sit in a car the protesters rocked and banged on. The implications of this dangerous moment will long reverberate.
Meanwhile, from the depths of the alternative reality he sometimes ambles around in, President Trump, without offering documentation, let it be known — via Twitter, naturally — that then-President Obama had wiretapped him during the campaign. What are we supposed to do with this disruptive charge? Is it necessary to weigh such evidence as Trump might bring forth? Maybe belief is evidence. It seems that way these days — in politics, in education, in the arts, in morals. Especially in morals.
The moral foundation on which America, and American beliefs, formerly rested has split apart. The floor sags. Our ancestors — and not just our distant kin; our grandparents, too — would find relatively little to recognize in the structure they tended and defended.
At the heart of the American proposition is the unitive belief in moral authority, coupled with the duty, on the citizen’s part, of acknowledging that authority — the rights it insisted upon, the wrongs it sought to repel. You weren’t making this stuff up. It was our civilization’s heritage, handed down to us for guarding and safekeeping.
Fine job we seem to have done with that guarding and safekeeping part! Nor is the issue at hand a matter just of free speech in the interest of truth-seeking. The natural law affirmed alike by Aristotle and St. Paul was — is — about the living of life according to duties and precepts and understandings that lift men and women out of the mud; pointing them toward responsible freedom, there being no other species of freedom worthy of desiring, or for that matter capable of lasting.
The moral foundation on which America was established leaves ample room for discussion and debate: no room at all for recklessness in the bringing of charges and accusations, at whatever level of life, or for the suppression of ideas in need of testing.
The alternative-universe confusion into which public discourse is falling is worse than no fun. It loosens civic ties, pits Americans loudly against each other, undermines all prospects for reconciliation and harmony — short of Divine help, that is. It’s long been suggested that the Lord takes care of fools, drunkards, and the United States of America. The question at this point is how thin His patience may be wearing.
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