In the months since the presidential election, and the weeks since the inauguration, the grumbling of politically progressive people has been long and low. Though the meal of democracy is often served on gilded china, it is not unusual for one to be left queasy by large, indigestible morsels that make the belly of a free nation rumble in discontent. How can we ever feel right about our country again?
In his book “Achieving America,” (1998, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA) author Richard Rorty says, “…there are many things that should chasten and temper…[American national] pride, but…nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect.” So there is hope in the gloom of political indigestion.
Rorty goes on to cite three choices that exist for those who have committed a “fundamentally” immoral act. (It is important to note that Rorty is referring to those who believe there is such a thing as basic “moral fact,” and that its violation is something akin to, if not directly, “sin.”) The three responses are suicide, self-loathing and promising not to repeat the error of one’s ways. But what if it is not individual redemption one seeks, but rather the “self-respect” of a community or a country?
When we commit what some might call a fundamentally immoral act as a nation, the country might survive, but what becomes of our nature? Do we fall on the sword, as Germany had to do after starting two world wars, the second one with unconscionable, amoral behavior, and leave it to the world to judge our moral standing?
Do we teach lessons of loathing of the national self, disgusted with the actions of our leaders and the people who voted to put them there? A lot of people were drowning in just such a sea of loathing after the 2004 election; talk among some progressives of leaving the United States for other, more like-minded countries was heard from Manhattan to Hollywood.
Lastly, do we move forward as a united country, loudly and widely acknowledging our mistakes as a key player on the world stage, and voicing a commitment never to engage in behavior that is counter to a global – rather than what may be a selfish, national – moral imperative? It seems such a response may serve the citizens of the United States and the world best, but that conclusion does not fit into a national psyche dealing with the trauma of September 11, 2001.
All of us, every American, cannot help but to view living here, now, through the filter of 9-11. For much of the country, the clouds of dust and debris that blanketed lower Manhattan settled into a haze through which they can see only sadness and hate, fear and distrust, revenge and an overwhelming sense of moral superiority. It is their right; people do not need our permission to feel that way. However, even though it is their right to do so, I assert my right to believe that feeling that way does not move the basic moral purpose of our nation forward. There can be no moral purpose in revenge, fear and hate. So how do we lift the veil for those blinded by this American tragedy?
I think if we show them America’s brightness, how the light of her open and free society serves and preserves our personal and national freedoms and keeps us secure, then the haze of hate and fear can be lifted. Instead of attacking them for the way they feel, we should acknowledge their fear and insecurities, the reasons for them, and then demonstrate by example what is possible for an America free of fear, free of hate, free of distrust.
It is an America of cooperation, of responsibility, of community. It is an America where there are more lessons to be learned from the way we handled, responded to, and continue to feel about 9-11, than from the horrific acts themselves. It is better to talk now about the mistakes made - in Washington, DC and in Iraq – than to let the dark haze of that day continue to thicken until there is only the barest pinhole of light coming from what was once a great and free country. Give voice to the bright light of America’s promise, and we will move forward, and the results of the next election might be easier to swallow.