March 4, 2017
We keep asking ourselves, “How did this happen?” The assumption behind this question is that the events of the last four months were improbable, unprecedented, and unpredictable. As we’ve been discovering, however, many thinkers—Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, Roth, Lewis, Lasch, and Hedges, to name a few—had different assumptions. They understood that economic, political, and cultural systems that reward egotism, greed, hyper-consumption, and social division are likely to produce positive feedback cycles. Positive feedback cycles by nature produce extreme results, especially when they derive from volatile initial conditions. The rise of a powerful neo-fascist movement in the United States, with our long history of inequality and religious fervor, is such a result.
So a better question is probably, “Why did it take so long for this to happen?” This is where, believe it or not, our discussion takes a hopeful turn. I usually wait until the last paragraph or two to inject a note of hope, but I thought for your sake I’d do it earlier this time around. The question, “How did this happen?” implies that, despite everything good we’ve done or tried to do as a country, we have failed. The question, “Why did it take so long for this to happen?” implies that all of the good we’ve done or tried to do actually made an impact. Totalitarianism ascended 80 or so years ago in Europe, but we have somehow staved it off until now.
How did we accomplish this? What secret weapons have kept us free from tyrants and morally vacuous political parties until now? The answers to this go so far beyond the scope of one short blog post, but they probably include the relatively continuous prosperity we’ve enjoyed since the end of the Great Depression, governmental stability built on a respect for the Constitution, the robust investments we made in education and innovation, and a vibrant free press. To one extent or another, we have capitalism, labor, democracy, federalism, business, academia, and the media to thank for our long run of freedom from existential internal threats.
I also believe, however, that millions of individual Americans have made an immense impact through their moral leadership. I’m sure that genetics play a significant role in any particular individual’s moral path. However, we also know that environmental forces significantly shape the choices people make and the reasons behind those choices. The most important environmental forces in this respect are clearly family, friends, teachers, and community. Anyone who expects, models, and explains morality, service, and reciprocity to others, on any level, is a moral leader.
Personally, I have been extremely lucky to have been guided by strong moral leaders among my family, friends, teachers, and community. I had periods in my life in which I lied, stole, worshipped material goods, and disregarded the needs of others, but the moral leaders around me always helped guide me away from these behaviors through the examples of their own behavior, their strong convictions, their patience, and their love.
In addition, I found many heroes at the cultural level, people of national and international fame, whose moral leadership has fundamentally shaped me. In my childhood, no one outside my community did more to teach me what it means to be a good human being than Mister Rogers. In my opinion, his long-running show on PBS represents the pinnacle of the American expression of universal human ethical principles. It is hard to underestimate the impact of Fred Rogers’ authenticity, kindness, and insight into human nature on the moral development of millions of American children and their families. He alone may have helped stave off our current calamity for another few decades.
In my teenage years, I became aware of Maine Senator George Mitchell. I had met him on a trip to Washington D.C. during the most awkward period in my youth (I still have a photo of him with his arm around me), but I didn’t appreciate the fundamentally moral way in which he approached political leadership until later. As Democratic Senate Majority Leader, he helped bridge the partisan divide and pass major legislation. Later, as U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, he helped broker the Northern Island peace accord. He has also served as the Special Envoy to the Middle East and as a lead investigator into Major League Baseball’s steroid problem. Unlike today’s political leaders who make no room for either the “public’ or “service” in their definitions of public service, George Mitchell always put these two concepts before personal gain.
In my early twenties, when I was in the most desperate need of moral heroes from outside my personal sphere, I found Pete Seeger, John Steinbeck, and Jane Goodall. Pete Seeger, the folk singer who carried on the legacy and life’s work of Woody Guthrie, believed deeply in the goodness of human beings, the importance of unity among the disenfranchised, and the transformative power of music. I found so much inspiration in listening to his music, especially to how he could bring thousands of people together in harmony at his concerts. As a graduate student at Boston University in 1995, I had a chance to interview Mr. Seeger, but my professor cautioned me that the old man had lost much of his idealism, that I might find him pessimistic about his accomplishments and the fate of the human race. I decided not to rent the car and drive four hours to upstate New York, so I never met him. Of course, I wish now that I had, and I wish I could have told him what I’m trying to say in this essay: Just because things are bad doesn’t mean the people trying to do good aren’t making a difference.
John Steinbeck, whose sensitivity to the struggles of society’s cast-offs—but also to the soul-shaking challenges all people face—continues to inspire people around the world with the practical compassion that infuses all of his writing. I still start sobbing with each new reading as the end of East of Eden or Of Mice and Men approach—not because I’m sad, but because the questions raised by the story and the understanding gained by the characters ring so true to me. No single page in literature has guided me more in my life than the last page of East of Eden.
Jane Goodall, simply put, may be the most fundamentally good human being alive today—at least that I’m aware of. If I could choose one person, whom all political leaders had to consult before making any decision, it would be her. In her 80’s she continues to devote all of her time to making the world a more humane and enlightened place. When I saw her speak in Chicago about ten years ago, I could not shake the feeling that I would never again hear another person say things as true and important as what she was saying. She helped humanity understand its kinship to the natural world as much as anyone else in history. And she has never given up fighting for conservation, justice, and truth.
So, back to my point. These people changed me. They made me a better person. They have given me the courage and ability to do my best in my own role as moral leader for my students and community. I see myself as, in some minor way, passing on the gifts they’ve given humanity. Without people like Fred Rogers, George Mitchell, Pete Seeger, John Steinbeck, and Jane Goodall, I am convinced the world would be a dramatically worse place. I think it’s highly likely that this country would have succumbed to its dormant self-destructive totalitarian impulses much sooner.
Moral leaders at all levels matter. As we face the greatest threat to our national identity and stability since the Great Depression, or maybe even since the Civil War, we need them now more than ever. Where there is moral leadership, there are moral citizens, and where there are moral citizens, there is moral power. If we can exercise this power, our next question might be, “How did we survive that disaster?” And the answer will be that our moral leaders provided us with guidance, resilience, a call to action, and hope.