Thomas Paine, revolutionary and Founding Father, argued in his seminal work, The Rights of Man, that, “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Rights are often talked about in generic and universal terms, as if their public articulation negates political, economic, social and historic barriers to the free exercise thereof. Notions of race, having no basis in fact in a biological sense, but wielding immense influence in a psycho-social and political sense, are again a flashpoint. One must wonder if we are ever to be free of race-baiting and discrimination, if we will ever unearth our better angels, if we will ever affect a more perfect Union?
It is difficult for most of us to wrap our heads around the ugliness in Charlotte, or Barcelona, the goings on in the world these past few years--all the senseless violence, petty cruelty, blatant bigotry, insidious duplicity, and moral gerrymandering--and come away believing we are advancing as a species. The sordid underbelly of humanity festers, as it always has, just beyond the pale. Our masses though, with heightened resolve in recent decades, refused entrée, firm in the conviction that certain evils, once put down, must not be exhumed. Suddenly, this is not the case. We are a skiff at sea, no direction or port. There are no ground rules in this age of narcissism, moral relativism, and tribalism. At stake are our most important values and institutions.
I am disgusted by images of Americans marching by torchlight under the Nazi banner, chanting the Third Reich's heinous slogan 'blood and soil'. I am sickened by those who wield Klan slogans and armamentarium, symbols of 150 years of domestic terrorism against a people previously torn from their land and subjugated to centuries of enslavement and brutality. I am infuriated that a western leader, regardless his politics and party, fails to unequivocally condemn race supremacists and the violence they conjure. Did the twentieth century teach us nothing? Hate must have no quarter. To quote Madison, a chief author of the Constitution, “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”
It is now vogue to normalize the obscene. The unthinkable is excused and the lessons of the past ignored. Ethics are dismissed and trivialized, fodder for the lowest common denominator. While a pluralistic society has always been more a promise than a reality, subject to complex and contradictory forces, the nation has generally, clumsily, plodded forward, not backward. It is why for nearly a century the world has looked to this country for moral leadership, but this is changing.
Let us carefully consider history's greatest calamity, World War II. I am reminded that before the war, before the decimation of peoples and the pandemic of violence, countless signs were ignored, and millions of decent people looked away even as they knew in their hearts and minds that something was amiss. Nazis didn't take the castle by force. They were invited in, elected, normalized, made usual. Once inside the halls of government, they peddled a currency of hate, their fascist credo metastasized, and then it was too late.
The worst of our collective history is almost always a symptom and rarely a cause. Civilization is an idea...that we are better together. It is a social compact designed to meet the needs of its adherents. Civilization, the very notion, is a moral concept...that we might rise above our base tendencies and be better. Every meaningful attempt at the idea has been a slow accrual of rights and privileges in the hope that someday we might live up to the promise of the whole enterprise. It stands to reason that without a collective willingness to hold hard ground in defense of what is right and just, the odds are stacked against our noblest aspirations, and we regress, diminish.
As an educator in the service of children, I pause and wonder aloud, where are my missed opportunities? Do I look away? What will I do today to ensure our children have the role models they deserve? Are our most important ideas: fairness, respect, honesty, generosity, humility, kindness, made clear and emphasized? As a parent, I ask myself the same questions.
Little things can add up to big things. Teaching courtesy is the foundation of respect. We've strayed from please and thank you, from holding doors. How much easier is it then to stray from the Golden Rule, from inclusion, from tolerance and a recognition of our shared humanity? How much easier is it to be subject to what Aesop called the great chewing complacency?
Moral relativism is nonsense, a wolf in sheep's clothing, equivocation and delinquency by a different name. Some ideas, those that exist only to spread hate and divide us, that breathe life into contemptible action, must not be allowed to proliferate. We know what hate hath wrought. On this, history is crystal clear. Our children must be taught to be better than our past selves. Right and wrong are real, a moral gravity in a moral universe. Echoing the words of one of the greatest leaders, let us endeavor to teach our children to live, “With malice toward none; with charity to all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right...to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
See you around campus.