Many Americans, when faced with the expansion of rights through same-sex marriage, or people exercising their First Amendment rights against government endorsement of religion in the public square, complain that America is losing its moral sense. They say that we’re going down a moral sinkhole, while at the same time they promote military intervention in the Middle East, unrestricted gun use and the cutting of social programs that people depend on. They, of course, have it exactly backwards; the things that they are promoting are immoral.
There’s an excellent article in Esquire by Charles P. Pierce detailing this phenomenon in the United States. Please, read the whole thing.
But there is something different abroad in the politics now, perhaps because we are in the middle of an era of scarcity and because we have invested ourselves in a timid culture of austerity and doubt. The system seems too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully. We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. We have politicians, most of whom have gilt-edged health care plans, making the argument seriously that an insurance-friendly system of health-care reform is in some way bad for the people whom it is helping the most, and we have politicians seriously arguing that those without health-care somehow are more free than the people who have turned to their government, their self-government, for help in this area. In the wake of a horrific outbreak of violence in a Connecticut elementary school, we have enacted gun laws now that make it easier to shoot our fellow citizens and not harder to do so. Our police forces equip themselves with weapons of war and then go out and look for wars to fight. We are cheap. We are suspicious. We will shoot first, and we will do it with hearts grown cold and, yes, cruel.
We cheer for cruelty and say that we are asking for personal responsibility among those people who are not us, because the people who are not us do not deserve the same benefits of the political commonwealth that we have. In our politics, we have become masters of camouflage. We practice fiscal cruelty and call it an economy. We practice legal cruelty and call it justice. We practice environmental cruelty and call it opportunity. We practice vicarious cruelty and call it entertainment. We practice rhetorical cruelty and call it debate. We set the best instincts of ourselves in conflict with each other until they tear each other to ribbons, and until they are no longer our best instincts but something dark and bitter and corroborate with itself. And then it fights all the institutions that our best instincts once supported, all the elements of the political commonwealth that we once thought permanent, all the arguments that we once thought settled -- until there is a terrible kind of moral self-destruction that touches those institutions and leaves them soft and fragile and, eventually, evanescent. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like hot blood, and we call it our politics.
The article is dead on. America has become a very scary place.
Americans used to agree that there were certain things we could do collectively that were beneficial to all involved. That’s why we have social security, Medicare and Medicaid. It’s how we built the national highway system, the air traffic system, railways, ports and bridges. It’s why we invested in hospitals, schools and libraries as well as programs to help the poor and create better opportunity for all. But now, certain segments of society want to end these programs. They want all fifty states to be on their own, free to race to the bottom to force the less desirable into other states with more tolerance and bigger hearts. They see no problem with spending billions of dollars nation-building to very poor results in the Middle East, but balk when asked to spend modest sums in the United States rebuilding infrastructure or guaranteeing that all Americans have basic human services. Their position comes from a cheapness of spirit. They don’t want a single dollar of theirs going to people (the poor, minorities) they don’t like and whom they think don’t deserve the societal protections they value for themselves. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
The only way we change things, the only way we get out of this mess, is by voting. Vote for candidates who believe in collective action of Americans through government. Vote for candidates who want to help people in the most effective way we’ve ever found, through government. Vote for candidates who don’t see those who are different from them as the enemy and seek ways to disenfranchise them and make their lives harder. Vote for candidates who want to make healthcare and education basic rights for all Americans, rich and poor. Who want to invest in our crumbling infrastructure. Who understand that gun rights aren’t absolute and that unrestricted access to guns makes us all more vulnerable, not less. Vote for those who will fight to take the overriding influence of the rich and powerful and give that influence back to everyone, where it belongs. Vote for those who understand that investing in education and healthcare is actually cheaper for everyone than letting people suffer by cutting short-term spending. Vote for those who understand that we’re all in this together.
Until we do that, America will continue to be a very cruel place indeed.