The Cynicism of Ordinary Men

I have heard from quite a few people, quite often, that America is a sick country. That is is terrible beyond compare and its sins so great they cannot be forgiven. I understand this impulse, there is a kernel of it in my last piece. But upon reflection I think that this sort of historical fatalism reflects a poor understanding of history and an even poorer grasp of moral responsibility.

More often than not, I have heard the condemnation of America from people who seem thoroughly defeated. Their outrage is often framed in terms like these; “What good can come from a country that cages children?”, “How can anyone support this?”. The despair that current events engenders in the minority of people who stay informed is palpable. But from it arises the numbing of the moral nerve that I wrote about last week. The torrent of horrible news and tragic images overwhelms us. And it is a perfectly natural response to disengage, to argue that the country or society that produces these wrongs is so fundamentally broken that it does not warrant our attention or our concern for what becomes of it. A nation so cruel is not worth our efforts, and not worth saving. And beyond that a nation so cruel is beyond any hope of saving at all.

These two arguments are separate but bound together, they loop back, feeding into each other. The second argument is far simpler to dispute and is ultimately just a product of historical ignorance. If there are any lessons to learn from history at all, the first is that radical, monumental change can occur; not in centuries or generations, but in years. But these changes need a brazen, angry and ultimately radical movement. Civil rights were not won by civility, they were won by civil disobedience. No people has freed itself from its oppressors by conversation with them. But resistance of this kind is radical. It is by nature and necessity unconcerned with proper procedure and it is this kind of activism, this kind of politics that tears down walls and repeals unjust laws. It is also this kind of politics that was entirely possible in an America far more unjust than today.

The first argument, that a nation can be so to not be worth the effort it would take to save it, is to me thoroughly immoral. It is a borne from privilege, from the arrogant belief that the collapse of the American-led international order will not affect you. A belief that, I hasten to add, is almost certainly wrong. Political dominance is a zero-sum game, and if American leadership declines, as it has been doing for some time now, it will be replaced. The chief power vying for global and regional dominance at the moment are Russia and China, in eastern Europe and south-east Asia respectively. To say that America is not worth saving is to condemn those threatened and currently oppressed by these twin tyrannies to the loss of their already meagre liberties, to have their rights; to self- determination and representation stripped from them. And ultimately those who make this argument do so because their comfort is worth more than the freedoms of others. Political reform, especially on the scale needed by the United States, is a massive, exhausting and fundamentally disruptive task. Far easier to condemn the whole affair and wash your hands of it.

This argument was played out in the catastrophic American election from which the world is struggling to extricate itself. Those who argued that the systems and institutions of American politics are so corrupt, so broken that there is no reason to vote for either of the two candidates who could win. Far better to vote third-party, to not capitulate to a broken system and thus to send a message to the “political elite”.  This was the argument made by countless people in 2016. You can see variations on these theme in this New York Times story. That the system is flawed and undemocratic is true. But to refuse to vote for the “lesser of two evils” (a phrase frayed by overuse) because you don’t want to sully yourself in making a difficult moral choice is the argument of an egotist, so concerned with moral righteousness that they are willing to neglect their moral duty.

The 2016 election came down to 107,000 people spread out over Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That amounts to 0.09% of all votes cast in the election. Like so many historical events, the election of Donald Trump was an accident, a culmination of a hundred different factors any one of which, had it been different, could have swung the election to Clinton.

Those who would condemn a nation or the world to authoritarian tragicomedy, who would wash their hands of politics and return to their quiet and comfortable lives working white collar jobs are always very satisfied by their conclusions. As far as they are concerned their intellects have absolved them of the obligation to participate in politics. But in truth their principles are a performance, made to seem high-minded and above the muck of everyday political scraps. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote “aloofness without policy does not imply even the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.” In other words, declaring yourself superior to politics is not a righteous act. It is to submit yourself and your fellows to the whims of the powerful.It is to sever the threads that tie you to your fellow men and women.

Sometime later this week I will also be publishing a piece about how figures in American history dealt with the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, and whether we can learn anything about

 

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