When I was a freshman in a parochial school in Louisiana in the early 1960s, Father Elsner, my English teacher, assigned the first paper of the new term. I have long since forgotten the topic, but the paper itself was only about 300-400 words and was, of course, typed on that ancient mechanical device, the typewriter. Not only was clarity of thought required but so, too, was clarity of presentation. My paper had to be compelling and visually neat.
I worked hard on the assignment, making sure my thoughts were reasonable, accurately supported, and well-presented as a finished product. I was new to that school, and I wanted to make a good first impression.
On the day Fr. Elsner passed the papers back to the class, I looked at mine and at the 99 at the top of it. There were no other marks on the paper. No errors noted, no margin notes, nothing circled. Just 99. Somewhat confused, I asked Fr. Elsner where I went wrong. “Moore,” he said, fixing me with his kind but uncompromising gaze, “It is only in the next world that we will achieve perfection.”
The obvious point—that we are fallible, we are imperfect, because we are mortal—took some time to sink into my teenage brain, but that simply stated truth eventually became one of my guiding tenets over the intervening 55 years and remains so today.
That truth does not rule out the need or desire to strive for perfection; it only tells us that in our efforts to excel, we are sometimes bound to fall short of our highest personal expectations and national aspirations. And when we do fail to achieve our goal, we need not take the failure to heart; we need to take our vision of success, and our effort toward the goal, to heart and redouble our striving at the next challenge.
There is an American goal predicated on a uniquely American challenge. It is stated in the Preamble to the Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Fifty-two words, written on parchment, have endured 226 years of terrible tests of our national will to hold fast to the founders’ vision. There is not one word out of place in the preamble. It is succinct, active voice, unambiguous in its meaning for the generation of its time and the generations to follow. I would give it a 99.
Because, in light of Charleston; or Selma; or Watts; or Money, Mississippi (see Emmett Till); or Montgomery; or New Orleans (see Ruby Bridges); or the Trail of Tears; or Manzanar; or Charlottesville, Virginia; or a hundred other places and events which we must never forget, we are still imperfect, still a work in progress, still frustrated that we cannot see that 100 percent on our paper about our destiny. We must not let that frustration dishearten us, or dissuade us from staying our constitutional course.
President Trump does not understand why that is; he is incapable of understanding the simple truth of our frailties despite our good intentions. He won’t accept the imperative of the office of the president to bind the wounds as Lincoln tried so hard to do, as many presidents of the modern era have tried to do. He cannot, will not, utter the one truth that all Americans need to hear from the Oval Office: There is just one truth, and it remains the best defense against ignorance and lies.
Our system of laws and government, of rights and freedoms, depends on the assurance that the truth will prevail in all cases, that your truth and my truth are one and the same. The truth is that there is no place for hatred in the United States, and that the purveyors of white supremacist hatred have no place in the United States.
What happened in Charlottesville was not some dystopic video game or even a random moronic movement. I grew up in a town where lynchings happened within 50 miles of my home and white supremacists were local small business owners, politicians, cops and teachers. There was nothing moronic about it then... it was frightening and socially disabling. We should have moved so far beyond that that the phrase “white supremacy” would by now have been relegated to the back shelves of an ancient library.
The Washington Post editorial on Sunday proposed the speech President Trump should have given. Here an excerpt:
“The violence Friday and Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., is a tragedy and an unacceptable, impermissible assault on American values. It is an assault, specifically, on the ideals we cherish most in a pluralistic democracy — tolerance, peaceable coexistence and diversity.
“The events were triggered by individuals who embrace and extol hatred. Racists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and their sympathizers — these are the extremists who fomented the violence in Charlottesville, and whose views all Americans must condemn and reject.
“To wink at racism or to condone it through silence, or false moral equivalence, or elision, as some do, is no better and no more acceptable than racism itself. Just as we can justly identify radical Islamic terrorism when we see it, and call it out, so can we all see the racists in Charlottesville, and understand that they are anathema in our society, which depends so centrally on mutual respect.”
I would just add that our nation — fractured but not yet broken ― depends on our mutual reliance on a shared truth: that Union, Justice, Tranquility, common defence, general Welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty will always be the most worthy goals of any free society, and that there will never be room here for those who will not strive with us to achieve those goals.