When President Trump appeared recently to take the side of rigorous gun control advocates and opposed the GOP’s long history of kowtowing to the gun industry and the NRA, sensing the political spoils in public fury over yet another school massacre, the prospect of even acknowledging the president’s seeming prudence unsettled large parts of the electorate. Was it some kind of trick? What’s he really going to do? Was this the long-awaited dictatorial move to strip citizens of their firepower so the secret police could have its way? Had the crazy tricksters of the authoritarian right set politics on another dizzying display of funhouse mirrors blinding the electorate?
None of the above, it appears. Trump, naturally, did a complete reversal the next day, paying obeisance to the gun lobby by declaring a “great” meeting with them. So what’s new? Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke late last week appeared to make a move in the right direction when it comes to oil and gas leasing around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the San Juan Basin. In a piece in the Albuquerque Journal last Friday, Zinke was described as having “canceled” oil and gas lease sales for around 4,500 acres near the park, deferring them until some “cultural consultation” could be done. Ah, is it possible that a Trump appointment could actually show some common sense about preserving one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites? Nah. Not so much. As the March 5th issue of High Country News reminds us in a piece called “Drilling Chaco,” since 2010 the BLM field office in Farmington “has leased out more than 50,000 acres and issued more than 500 drilling permits, mostly in the Chaco area.” And lest we forget, last year the BLM, which Zinke oversees, leased 842 acres in the Chaco region over the outcry of intense local resistance.
So, what’s going on in our country? Is America becoming some kind of madhouse? Is there anyone who can help us figure all this out? Perhaps there is. It’s the philosophy and outlook of 19th -century American thinker William James, expressed in two speeches he gave in 1900, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes a Life Significant.” “The blindness in human beings,” he said, “is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” In “What Makes a Life Significant,” James says that life is “soaked and shot-through with values and meanings which we fail to realize because of our external and insensible point of view. The meanings are there for others, but they are not there for us.” This blindness to the internal realities of others “lies at the root of every stupid and sanguinary mistake that rulers” make, and it is the “trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep.”
Are the angels weeping for us? Is American constitutional democracy, and the culture of toleration and rule of law that it creates, starting to wear out, exhausted by endless internal friction, still trying to repair itself from the Civil War some 150 years ago, rent by racial, gender and economic injustice, and teetering toward authoritarian decrepitude with its cults of personality and eruptive violence? Is our democratic culture dying from intolerance as historians Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say from a Jamesean perspective in their book “How Democracies Die”? Has political polarization brought us to the brink?
Or are we just falling apart, like all living things eventually do in the way that Atul Gawande speaks of in his profound examination of human decline in his book “Being Mortal?” Systems overload, institutions seize up, politics becomes cage fighting, infrastructure weakens and we “wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.” But Gawande writes about gerontological realities, and American democratic culture is not elderly enough for that.
If we’re crumbling, it’s not from old age, but from having fallen into patterns of solipsism, petty in-group politics, the sins of racism, sexism and classism and the accumulation of profit at the expense and detriment of others, with no over-arching picture of a greater good. It is possible are we witnessing a temporary cultural breakdown with our democracy remaking itself through the moral and intellectual vigor of young people. We might be seeing the creation of new coalitions and the uprising and growing predominance of previously victimized segments of our society. But whatever it is, our democracy is in upheaval, with extremism taking over one political party and dotty indecision and insignificance wobbling the foundations of the other.
Where do we go from here? James might be able to help us sense out a new path by showing us how the energies and motives of old heroes like himself helped form the substance of our greatness as an open society based on the struggle for freedom and equal justice under law. William James, the great visionary of American culture, dead since 1910, was the founder of American psychology and among the most lucid champions of toleration our country has known. He understood how societies emerge from the thoughts and habits of their people. He asks, “can’t we escape some of those hideous ancestral intolerances…and cruelties and … reversals of the truth?” Yes, for all of us “the demand for courage is incessant and the supply never fails” if we live by some internal principle instilled in us by our culture and agreed to by us voluntarily in light of our own explorations into the mystery of right and wrong. In a democracy everyone has a voice, and to do that vast privilege any justice, we have to listen to each other, even though it pains us greatly. This is a Jamesean perspective that I all too often forget. But democracy is an eternal conversation between persons with radically different backgrounds and goals. The task is to stay true to yourself while realizing that others have that right and duty as well. Dispute then takes place in a moral field, aimed perhaps at the ideal of communion not bloody competition. Self respect must come with the undying effort to honor the self respect of others.
“The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,” James said in his lecture on living a significant life. It is “the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance … And whatever, or wherever life may be, there will always be the ache for that marriage to take place.”
In a democracy, that marriage is managing differences in the spirit of the pursuit of the common good. That’s why tolerance and forbearance, as Levitsky and Ziblatt say in “How Democracies Die,” are essential moral fields in which democracy takes place, which William James knew so well.
I wanted to be able to say this week, in the spirit of James, nice job Donald, and good going Ryan Z, but it wasn’t in the cards this time. I’m going to continue working on opening my big, rusted, spike-studded fortress door, just to see if I can hear something I can work with, even though the catapults are hurling boulders in my direction. There must be more that I can do, that all of us could do. Democracy, as created by our Constitution, is after all a sacred gift upon which all our hopes depend. How foolish to take it for granted, how pathetic and fatal it would be to lose it.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Capital Building image from Jeffrey Zeldman.)