No. We’re not.

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We are not “better than this.” 

Rioters storm Capitol. VOA News.

Would you please stop saying, “We are better than this”?

Where have you been living?

“This” is who we have become. It did not happen yesterday. It does not date from 2016, when we elected Donald Trump. It does not stem from 2000, when Bush and Gore arm-wrestled for the Florida vote all the way to the Supreme Court.

I have watched us devour ourselves for more than fifty years. It has all been out in plain sight.

One expletive at a time, we have destroyed all trust in our most important institutions, which is to say we have destroyed all trust in one another.

We have become a nation of character assassins. Oh, so casually. As if the words we use to describe one another do not matter. In reality, they are practically the only words that do matter.

The Mirror Test

If you feel incensed about some political issue, and you express your moral outrage by calling a politician you have never met “an ignorant f*ck,” you are not solving the problem. You are the problem.

If you recognize yourself in the paragraph above, and you say, “Well, what else can I call someone who approves of starving the poor?”, you have not brought light to an important issue. You have only defended your calumny by blaming its victim. 

If you are stalwart in your casual infamy, I suppose this feeling of self-righteousness reflects your internal fear that someone will disapprove of you. You signal your virtue to deflect attention from the void within.

Were your outrage at the opposition truly righteous, you would accurately describe the problem, analyze and dispel misguided attempts to protect the problem, and work at building relationships of trust with those who can help solve the problem. You would not start by calling names.

Death of Civility

There was a time—we who witnessed it are shrinking in number—a time when people generally addressed one another in terms of dignity and even a bit of formality. 

When politicians disagreed with one another, they said things like, “I would like to point out to my Learned Colleague . . . .” 

Of course, these studied phrases, like “Learned Colleague,” “Distinguished Opponent,” or “Esteemed Friend from the Other Side,” were deliberate euphemisms. They were consciously inserted in place of what the speaker may have really thought—“liberal jerk,” “conservative bastard,” etc. 

You may call such circumspection insincere. I call it wise. Politicians in those days knew that words can calm or inflame, and that your opponent of today may be someone you need to call on tomorrow for help in a larger cause. Harsh words can burn bridges.

On account of a war held in the 1960s, I was removed from the United States for a period of time. When I returned in 1969, donned civilian clothes, and began to resume my education at a major university, the culture to which I returned smacked me in the face like an arctic tsunami.

The most vulgar terms of personal abuse had become common currency in the mouths of otherwise cute coeds. The students and campus-hangers-on around me were more interested in heckling, belittling, and humiliating those in positions of power than in reasoning with them. Their exemplars were Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. And they had been reading Saul Alinsky, who said, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”

All this “ridicule”—not to mention snarling hostility and physical intimidation—was justified under the exalted rubric: “The Politics of Confrontation.” Sounds like a book title, or an undergraduate seminar, doesn’t it? 

This bombastic, bellicose barrage of invective was justified as the verbal equivalent, at home, of the incendiary bombs being dropped on Vietnamese villagers. It was fighting fire with fire. Because of the moral horror being fought, no weapon was too crude to use in fighting it.

Nobody—or at least nobody virtuously fighting the Establishment—bothered to note the toll that the incessant berating of strangers would take on the moral fiber of our nation, and on the previously sacred notion that a person’s public character was an important personal possession not to be trifled with.

Self-Hatred and 500-Pound Chickens

Since then, we have been through repeated waves or cycles of public sentiment, some to the Left and some to the Right. Partisans of both sides have been tempted to substitute casual slanders for reasoned arguments. They have almost invariably succumbed to the temptation. 

Character assassination has gone from being the sport of self-styled revolutionists on campus to being the common currency of elected officials when talking about one another, and even when talking about masses of people seen as the Other Side’s Base. One’s political opponent is always seen as playing exclusively to his or her base, who may be dismissed as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, mind-numbed Zombies, or “Deplorables.” 

All of this bad-mouthing, whether from high politicians or ordinary people, has the inevitable effect of making us hate ourselves as a people. We can’t even see how much self-hatred is involved in all this—because everything is the Other Side’s fault.

That’s the dynamic that enabled the left-wing disgraces in Portland and yesterday’s right-wing disgraces in Washington.

Our chickens have come home to roost. They were such cute yellow fuzzballs when they left the nest. Now they are 500-pound bombs, and they are sitting on all our heads.

Stop This World, I Want to Get Off

I mention these things not because I wish to be a Cassandra. 

I want us to get better as a nation, to become a more responsible people. But we ought to understand that we’re not going to flip some switch and suddenly gather around a campfire with guitars, singing “Koom-Bah-Yah.” 

We have made a mess of ourselves over the decades. If it can be undone at all, that too will be the work of decades.

What must happen is the regeneration of kindness and the rejection of reflexive malice in our hearts.

Sorry to have to tell you that.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Unsocial Media

Never thought this blog would become a soapbox, but here goes—

For decades, we have decried “loss of civility” in our public discourse. 

Confucius said we would be less confused if we called things by their right names. What we commonly call “loss of civility” we ought to call “viciousness.” 

“Confucius” by Gimli62 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Recently, as an antidote to the throbbing toothache that social media has become, I posted on Facebook the following:

ATTENTION

This brief message is my own. It is not a pre-manufactured meme that I picked up somewhere, or a quote from somebody else that I thought would be fun to appropriate for my own use. This is the actual view of Larry F. Sommers.

We are called to love one another. The most elementary way to practice this commandment is to be kind and forbearing.

What does “kind and forbearing” mean? It means we do not speak ill of others or wish ill to others, even those who are not present with us. Even if they are public figures such as politicians or movie stars whom we do not know. Even if they are unknown members of the general public whose views disagree with ours. Even if our speech is not really our own but is copied from somebody else, such as a professional manufacturer of nasty memes. Even if our speech is only on social media, and everybody else on social media is speaking the same way. Even if the targets of our invective spoke ill of us first.

Our society’s public discourse has become a cesspool of narcissistic, poisonous invective. Nobody will cure that unless we do. Let us be generous in our estimates of one another, and act and speak accordingly.

Blessings, and thank you for your attention to this matter.

I probably should have added, “Even if they are in a category of people we have decided to dislike.”

Kindness Controverted

I hardly thought this manifesto would be controversial, nor was it meant as an experiment of any kind. But it turned out to be an experiment, and an illuminating one at that. 

Many of my friends agreed in general with my remarks, but some added caveats. None spoke directly against kindness and forbearance. But they did seem to think there were larger issues at stake in our human conversations.

Their implication—or was it only my inference from their remarks?—is that sometimes, in the pursuit of justice or of holiness, we must employ vilification.

I disagree categorically. What could be a larger issue than our need of kindness and forbearance? 

The only thing I said was that people ought not to speak ill of one another or wish ill upon one another. I did not suggest revoking the First Amendment.

Justice and Injustice

Micah the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century. Public Domain.

“. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—Micah 6:8. 

I’ve always felt the prophet’s words “do justice” referred prima facie to one’s own acts, as in “deal justly with others.” But some folks would interpret those words as mandating that we police injustices commited by other people as well. 

This interpretation proposes that when we see injustice in the doings of others, our perception is true and accurate. The absurdity of this assumption is just what Jesus was addressing when he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” 

I will stipulate that if you can transform your neighbor’s acts through the use of sweet reason, you may be onto something. But the moment you resort to obloquy, it’s a sign your case is weak.

Horace Greeley. Matthew Brady photo. Public Domain.

Apart from the aforementioned sweet reason, we have not even the ability, much less the authority, to compel others to do right. And calling names will not help. Nor will venting our anger with such colorful expressions as “Fuck you!” or “Fuck (So-and-so)”—phrases I see often in what passes for civic discourse on the Internet.

Even milder expressions may cross over from reason to invective. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), teetotaler and Republican, is reputed to have uttered: “I never said all Democrats were saloon-keepers; what I said was all saloon-keepers are Democrats.” This nice distinction matters little. Whether you’re a Democrat or a saloon-keeper, you know that Horace Greeley has consigned you to the deepest circle of Hell.

Besides the business about a log in one’s eye, Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us to guard our mouths.

Control

God has placed us in a very large world, a large world inside an even larger universe. In that universe, and in that world, a great many things take place—almost an infinite array of different objects, patterns, and events. There are more people, more cultures, more habits, more motives than you can shake a stick at. 

You need not be a cultural relativist, or an amoralist, to see that in this vast carnival of life—in what Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere”—almost the only thing we may control is our own conduct. As a corollary, almost the only way to influence the conduct of others is by our own example.

Feel free also to look at this from the other end of the telescope. By absolutely relinquishing the cheap options of calumny and hostility, one is freed for the grander game: The slight chance to improve others’ ideas and attitudes through patient, persistent persuasion. (SPOILER ALERT: Such persuasion is a lifetime project and offers no guarantee of success.)

Unbridled Passions

Modern American society has canonized the practice of giving free rein to one’s passions. But I am here to suggest that not every emotional impulse need be shared with others, especially if it be shared in the manner of a bludgeon. Society will work better when more of us cultivate a studied reticence, giving only blessing and encouragement to our friends—and making everybody, as much as possible, our friends.

High principles which require ad hominem salvos for their defense may not be such high principles after all. If they cannot be advanced by calm and logical argument, perhaps they should be exchanged for others that can be. 

O Inky Wretch,” you may ask, “do you always practice what you preach?” 

Of course not; I am only human. But, with great persistence, I do try. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer