None of man’s temples, none of his religions, none of his weapons, his tools, his arts, his sciences, nothing else he has grown to, is so great a thing as his justice, his sense of justice. The true law is something in itself; it is the spirit of the moral nature of man; it is an existence apart, like God, and as worthy of worship as God. If we can touch God at all, where do we touch him save in the conscience?
— Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident
What has happened to us?
By “us,” I mean the U.S., the United States of America, the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free, the shining beacon of freedom and opportunity, the great hope of downtrodden and oppressed people the world over. By “us,” I also mean myself and my fellow Americans, the inhabitants of this nation that was conceived to contain multitudes, those to whom the blessings of liberty were intended to accrue in perpetuity and of whom was expected in return the nurturing and extension of those blessings to all who in good faith sought them.
That’s what I was taught, anyway, as a product of good old American public schools. My classmates and I absorbed those ideals even as we matriculated in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and the King and Kennedy assassinations, in the midst of the Vietnam War, and in the run-up to Watergate, the geopolitics of petroleum, and the economic upheavals of the late 1970s.
So deeply rooted and pervasive was the belief in America as font of freedom, pillar of justice, and melting pot of backgrounds and ideologies that it’s not entirely correct to say that we were “taught” these things. To a significant degree, they came as hard-wired as the respiratory and circulatory functions, ingrained components of our identity as Americans. Even in the rapidly changing and increasingly challenging world around us, the operative assumption was that the great trials our nation had endured — from the founding, to the Civil War, to the Great Depression and World War II, to the struggle of black Americans for full citizenship — were the very source of its strength, underscoring and reinforcing the ultimate reality of nationhood.
It never was that simple, of course. The blessings of liberty having been distributed unevenly from the outset, the notion of national unity was, at best, a fondly perpetuated fiction, a constantly moving target — a goal rather than an actual state of being. Still, it was possible, even in our nation’s worst moments — perhaps especially at our worst moments — to believe that the vast majority of Americans saw the attainment of that goal not only as desirable, but as the ultimate expression of our nationhood. Strength in diversity, e pluribus unum, and all that.
It was possible to believe, sometimes because of what we did and sometimes in spite of it, that America never stopped moving toward the fulfillment of its vast and unequivocal promise. It was possible to believe that the better angels of our nature were destined to triumph in the end.
I believed these things for a long time, even as I grew older and became more skeptical. Even as evidence mounted that, in the end, the self-proclaimed — and, for many generations, faults and all, self-evident — greatest nation on earth might not prove to be greater than the sum of its differences, I believed.
I believed because I wanted to believe, and needed to. And I believed because, evidence notwithstanding, it was possible to look past the worst of America — the growing gaps between rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat; the increasing stridence and shrillness of our public discourse; the notion, in the Age of the Internet, that truth is tied to ideology and the ability to attract an audience — and still see, even if mostly on the margins and largely in the shadows, signs of hope.
Lately, though, I’m finding it more and more difficult to sustain that belief. Most days now, I feel like a man in a barren and hostile wilderness, trying to nurture the dying embers of a fire with little fuel to burn. I look around me, and I see a nation that is fractured, fractious and fearful, and am made fearful myself at the thought that this is the nation in which I will, soon enough, leave my children to fend for themselves and theirs.
Let me hasten here to add that I am not looking to fix the blame for this sad state of affairs on any single person, group or organization, for there is plenty of blame to go around. Democrat or Republican; conservative or liberal; believer or atheist; black or white or yellow or brown; Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu. I know and love people in each and every one of these categories; but I also look around me and see a world that, even as it grows smaller, becomes increasingly divided along these and other lines of (ultimately) superficial demarcation. It is as if we are losing the courage of our convictions, and replacing it with the empty bravado of self-righteousness.
Please note my use of the plural pronoun, for I am in no way attempting to absolve myself. In fact, it occurs to me that I may be more culpable than most, given both my proclivity to state my beliefs and opinions and the opportunity that being the proprietor of a media company affords me to state them publicly.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. Freedom of speech is perhaps the most precious of our rights as Americans, and I believe more firmly now than ever that a free press is the indispensable cornerstone of a free society.
Still, the line between the freedom and wherewithal to state my opinion and the relative civility with which I state them can be painfully thin. That is true especially in the largely unfettered atmosphere of social media, where the courage of one’s convictions elides far too easily into self-righteous stridence and the too-ready willingness to denigrate and mock those of others. The unprecedented level of reach afforded us in this day and time, the sheer number of people to whom each one of us can make known our thoughts and feelings, our proclivities and prejudices, is both bracing and frightening — and, speaking for myself, should give more pause than it sometimes does to the act of navigating the short distance between brain and fingertips.
Which brings me back, in the usual roundabout way, to where I started: What has happened to us, to America, to our image of ourselves as the citadel of freedom and the refuge of the subjugated and downtrodden?
When did we become so fearful, of one another and the world around us?
Are we still strong enough, determined enough, purposeful enough, moral enough — united enough — to do anything about it?