The Moral Soul of America

Connect some distant-seeming dots with me, won’t you?

Dot 1:

Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh. After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down.

Dot 2:

It is not just the contemporary image of a family standing amid their island ruins; the climate emergency looks also like the 500-year history of colonialism in the Americas. This has been happening for a long time, because climate change is a crisis of our relationship with one another and with nature.

What this moment needs, more than anything, is moral clarity, the kind demonstrated at the United Nations by and countless other young people from around the world.

We need to know, viscerally, that we can no longer abandon our neighbours in their time of greatest need. We need to relearn our interdependence. There is the alternative. The way to write this story that doesn’t end in apocalypse.

Dot 3:

“Honestly, the biggest challenges for Biden are the timidity of his ‘Make America 2015 Again’ vision, his record on everything from financial reform to criminal justice, and his uneven – at best – performance on the trail,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy For America, a liberal activist group hasn’t endorsed a 2020 candidate.

For Biden, 76, who has been in public office for 44 years, it’s a natural hazard of running to represent a party that is becoming younger, less white and more female. Warren’s pitch to remake the political and economic system has struck a chord with voters hungry for major change. Biden’s message, by contrast, is to “restore the soul” of America.

America is a big country in a vast world, where information travels instantly whether it’s true or false, edifying or corrupting. In this environment, we’re necessarily preoccupied with sorting good information from bad, relying on data collection, fact checks, and scientific analysis. We prize objectivity, or at least consensus. What tools does this framework give us to evaluate morality?

Perhaps the most disturbing quality of the Trump era is the perceptible shift away from morality as a motivating principle — not only as exemplified in Trump himself, but in public discourse generally. As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I could hardly have imagined a political discussion without the terms “moral majority” and “family values.” In terms of rhetoric, the biggest change Donald Trump ushered into politics was to make moral appeals seem not just partisan but futile and pointless.

For now, though, even the president is denying he demanded medieval border additions sure to result in the grisly deaths of desperate people. I’m going to leave aside as uninteresting the question whether morality matters at all, and ask this instead: Is there a common moral foundation we can draw on to know that the president’s border fantasies are immoral?

Eric Holthaus’s striking essay on how we conceptualize climate change has what I think is a good candidate for that common foundation. He argues that our collective shrug at the existential threat of climate change reveals the moral crisis that both caused and perpetuates it: too few of us, especially in the industrialized parts of the world, have been guided by a morality of interdependence. But by definition, interdependence is what we have in common. I’d like to see more public discussions about what moral principles flow from that idea.

Which brings me to Joe Biden. To me, the climate crisis demonstrates why looking backward for our national moral compass is fundamentally flawed. In particular, we should reject a morality whose relevance is measured primarily by the economic prospects of the American middle class. Human interdependence is so much broader and more consequential than that. America as a functional national community is still young, and its core values didn’t emerge fully formed from the Constitution. They were forged through challenge and hardship: Slavery and persecution. War. Economic desperation. Fascism and global threats. With our biggest challenges likely ahead of us and not behind, America’s moral soul is very much still under construction.


Categories: News

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