A Note to Congress: Stir Up A Passion for Moderation!

03/16/2015 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Moderation is a hard-sell in our culture yet without it, cultures cannot survive let alone flourish. Moderation is boring. Claiming to be right and everyone else is wrong is exhilarating. What with Hillary's emails, the letter to Iran's leaders from many of our senators, the disagreements as to how to deal with ISIS, and the way Congress is able to combine incompetence with a high moral tone, "moderation" is put at the bottom of the heap.

Harold Nicholson made this comment decades ago about the United States. Europeans were "frightened," he wrote, "that the destinies of the world should be in the hands of a giant with the limbs of an undergraduate, the emotions of a spinster, and the brain of a pea-hen." Yes, a supercilious twit, but there's a grain of truth here -- enough to make us uncomfortable. And remember Graham Greene's The Quiet American? The hero, Alden Pyle "was determined to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world ... He was in his element now with the whole universe to improve ... I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." And remember Otto von Bismarck's famous comment: "There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America." This is all grossly unfair but that attitude informs many of the stories being told about us in the world today, and we do little to refute them.

A few lines from W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" comes to mind -- apt for our time. They were written in the aftermath of the First World War.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I'm not sure he's right about the best lacking all conviction. Nowadays, one can be bursting with conviction, but unless one is willing to scream and shout, there's little chance of being heard in the cacophonous data junk yard of the modern world, caught as we are between MSNBC and Fox News. The downright lying and the moralizing drivel drowns out reasonable discourse. It's not that the best lack all conviction, it's that the better angels of our nature need some vocal training.

One of the perks of retirement is the time and leisure to read and I read avidly without discipline. Most of the time I read across the political and philosophical spectrum. The liberal/progressives put my back up because they invariably fail to make any demands on those who are the victims of injustice -- since so many of us are claiming victim-status. Our liberalism tends to be disabling and patronizing. Too many writers seem to romanticize the undertow of nihilism in our culture and mistake it for freedom. The idiosyncratic is given a place of privilege over the normative, which makes for a cancerous and destructive individualism, which easily takes offense. Hence the erosion of a deep commitment to the common good.

The conservatives drive me crazy too, by appealing to a Platonic ideal world which has never existed. If only it were 1950 again. They identify liberal errors without acknowledging the horrors of their idealized past. Both sides are good at identifying the sins of their opponents but rarely admit their own. So, I keep bumping into the old notion of repentance. I know that it's very much a "no-no" word in our culture. It smacks too much of religion. But it could be a cure for our political and social malaise. Those for whom "repentance" is meaningless, might try ceasing to cling to certainty and entertain the possibility that they might be mistaken? It would be a start.

Which makes me think of a 19th century English clergyman Sydney Smith. He wrote, "Nothing is so stupid as to take the actual for the possible." (This was in connection to objections to the education of women). And I treasure his comments on "The Society for the Suppression of Vice." "It is hardly possible that a society for the suppression of vice can ever be kept within the bounds of good sense and moderation. The loudest and noisiest suppressors will always carry it against the more prudent part of the community; the most violent will be considered as the most moral." Sound familiar?

Even in the traumatized England of post World War I, a G.K. Chesterton and a George Bernard Shaw could be caring friends and honorable opponents. Such instances of affectionate intellectual and spiritual combat are hard to find in our own day. We need to cultivate a temperament (if temperaments can be cultivated?) which prefers to say "Yes" and "No" rather than "Yes" or "No." Good politics requires the cultivation of a shrewd inconsistency and a willingness to give up the drug of certainty.

Listen to Chesterton on Shaw in 1935: "It is not easy to dispute with a man for 20 years without sometimes feeling that he hits unfair blows or employs discreditable ingenuities. I can testify that I have not read a reply by Bernard Shaw that did not leave me in a better temper or frame of mind; which did not seem to come out of an inexhaustible fountain of fair-mindedness and intellectual geniality."

The political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott reminds us that a culture is made up of many voices -- and all the voices, without exception, are called to join "in a conversation -- an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all." Congress, take note. Cultivate a passion for moderation! Time is running out.