“The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” ~ Albert Einstein
That sounds almost quaint, doesn’t it? Naive, even, in its simplistic, basic remedy to the vast conundrums of human existence, its presumption that mankind is capable of, or has prioritized, the task of giving “beauty and dignity to life.”
Are we? Have we? Is that the goal of human beings on this earth? To create a world in which beauty and dignity reign supreme, where truth, integrity, honor and compassion rule our social contracts, define our cultural mandates; inform our agreed-upon behaviors?
Maybe. Once. For some. Even still. Not so sure...
Certainly morality as a concept is much debated. Its definitions span the lexicon from dirge and thunder to mystical notions of karma. Some see it as the bane of free expression and creative impulsivity, others believe freedom is found in cultural boundaries of right and wrong. Some wield it like a punishing sword in the name of sin and all that’s holy; others define morality as the innate human urge to be good. And while many insist it can only be taught and learned via organized religion, others sense it’s as natural as breathing, human intervention being the corrupting influence.
However one specifically defines it, there is general consensus that morality is a code that embraces ideals of truth, compassion, kindness, and incorruptibility. Good parents exemplify and teach their children these principles; good mentors, teachers, community and religious leaders do the same. One doesn’t need membership in a church, a belief in a god, commitment to a cult or club, to be moral; one only needs to value, to prioritize, to embody those principles. In fact, the simplest code of morality resides in that most basic law of reciprocity, the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” We can all accomplish that, regardless of creed or political affiliation.
Honesty is a featured element of morality. Truth. From the moment we’re old enough to reason, we’re taught that truth, veracity, authenticity and genuineness nestle somewhere near the top of the morality scale as principles to adhere to, aspire to, apply to everything we do. George Washington’s greatest meme (however faulty the myth!) was, “I cannot tell a lie.” Richard Nixon’s Watergate debacle taught us, “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up.” When Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos couldn’t justify impeachment, his unwillingness to be truthful about his affair could. In fact, we here in this country — despite our legions of dishonest, horrible, terrible leaders over the centuries — have always vaunted truth and honesty as vanguards of American idealism.
Until Trump. Now dishonesty is all the rage.
It’s one thing to disagree with a president; to be a member of the opposing party, to be someone who quarrels with the rhetoric, agenda, and operating principles of an elected leader. That’s part of living in a democracy. That’s part of being a citizen in America. Throughout history, every side has had to endure, debate, resist and even sometimes find the good in administrations with which they disagreed. We’ve survived horrible presidents. We’ve transcended vile decisions. We’ve evolved past egregious mistakes. We’ve lived through presidents we couldn’t stand.
But then there’s Trump. Which is a whole other beast.
Because Trump — his style, his crassness, his behaviors, his mendacity — has quite literally shattered our notions of morality, certainly of the presidential kind. Instead of noble greatness, aspirational excellence, his brand is built on a foundation of dishonesty, hype, corruption, and obfuscation constructed with the impunity of a criminal enterprise, unaffected by codes of decency expected of any president. We are daily bombarded by the critical mass of all this chicanery: from pre-primary days when it appears Russia began grooming our “Manchurian candidate,” through the manipulated and toxic election cycle of hacking, misinformation, and propaganda, all the way to the stunning and unfathomable “win” of the inept man now lowering the bar of American standing so deep we’ll be digging out for years.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, while Trump effortlessly lowers that bar, wallowing in the echo chamber of his Stockholm-Syndromed base and the many ambitious sycophants grasping his foreign-made coattails, he’s inspired a great many others to not only accept that shameful downward trajectory, but to minimize it, dismiss it, parse it, even excuse it. “Nothingburger.” “Fake news.” “Much ado about nothing.” “But what about Clinton?” “Most people would have taken that meeting.” “Time to move on from the Russian interference story.” “Illusion. Delusion.”
It’s like watching a cabal of sniveling, sniggering wannabe toughies defend the leader of their pack as he tortures bugs on the playground. Noble bunch, all of ‘em.
The predictable drone of conservative, right-wing, alt-right media in defense of Trump’s egregious amorality is expected. The oxymoronic blather of supposed “Christian” conservatives kissing the ring of one of the most unchristian men in the world is equally expected: they’ll each and all sell their souls to whoever sells their agenda and Trump is currently their barker at the gate. And while that’s a sickening spectacle to witness — like watching Jim Jones hypnotically convince his followers to drink to their deaths — it’s predictable.
What wasn’t, and what has become the true mark of our new “post-moral America,” is the response of our elected and appointed officials, men and women sworn to serve their country and constituents with honor. Watching members of Congress, members of the administration, Republican party leaders — all of whom should be STUNNED, OUTRAGED by the fact that our greatest foreign adversary attacked and corrupted our national election — mealy-mouth their way through myriad and convoluted lies and denials is gut-wrenching. Revealing. Demoralizing... literally.
In the blink of a partisan, self-serving eye, lying has become the norm. It’s become acceptable. It’s simply the cost of doing business in a Post-Moral America. We are not supposed to be horrified by rampant dishonesty; we’re supposed to be big girls and boys who understand the rough and tumble mechanics of real-world politics. We’re supposed to buy — or, at the very least, look away from — the provable lies, the perjurious statements, the dishonest security applications, the flouted laws, the boldfaced-stand-at-the-podium-and-lie-like-a-rug distortions, whether from the man in the Oval Office, his family, his administration, his spokespeople, or members of his party, many of whom are currently scrambling, at the expense of their own morality, to keep agendas and ambitions on track.
Certainly we’ve had many questionable presidents over our two-hundred-and-forty-one years. Dishonesty is to politics what tantrumming is to toddlers, and our history is rife with the machinations, manipulations, and mendacity of men so hellbent on power, greed, and ambition that truth was often considered a luxury. But regardless of what has been or what might have been, we’re faced with what is, what is happening right now, and that demands of each of us, in deference to our own moral code, a decision about where we stand.
Are you comfortable with a Post-Moral America? Can you tolerate a society in which lies are openly accepted, defended and excused? Do you want a president, a government, a congress that leads with dishonesty and subterfuge? That looks away when we’re hijacked by foreign powers, that vaunts greed, power, partisanship, and ambition over true American ideals like truth, compassion, kindness, and incorruptibility?
I don’t. Which means I struggle mightily in this era of Trump, where those of us who reject the new norm often feel powerless and horrified. I can only hope the integrity and ethics embedded deep in the fabric of our country’s DNA holds strong, that outspoken, active Democrats, progressives, independents, and even moderate Republicans — who also reject this norm and who do have the power to change the narrative — stand up, speak out, and push against the toxic complacency and abdication of Trump apologists. And yes... I admit it: I’ve got a lot riding on Mr. Mueller!
But for now, while I wait and watch, I’ll do everything I can to bring “beauty and dignity” to the America I know, the one that still holds nobler ideals dear. I know there are many of us on that field... I’ll meet you there.*