Reason. Compassion. Forbearance. Selflessness. These are not the hallmarks or our time.
We live in an ascendant cycle of fear, anger, violence, and reprisal. (To see it all summed up in one small, fetid package, read this.) But progressives should not pretend that the cycle is of any use to them, or that its force can be marshaled to more noble ends. We might gain some short-term victories by scaring the crap out of people, but a population in fear will always tend toward authoritarianism and violence.
Reason, compassion, forbearance, and selflessness are the building blocks of true progressivism. If they have been driven underground, the progressive response should not be to resort to reactionary macho posturing, but to revive them.
How? That’s not an easy question to answer — Kevin Drum touches on it somewhat tangentially, making reference to recent thoughts from both Robert Wright and Caleb Carr — but it is the crucial dilemma of our time.
The immediate priority is triage: to reduce the direct loss of life from war and conflict, and to blunt the forces pushing for escalation. In a fierce column, the NYT’s Frank Rich claims that the politics of fear are no longer working. I think he’s right — people are burned out from all the paranoia and hatred.
But the larger, more important goal is to outline an alternative, and inspire people to pursue it. We need a new vision, and a politics of moral courage to help realize it.
The trick is that any genuinely progressive movement requires a commitment to people that are distant in time and space. It’s a strange notion, when you think about it: that comparatively tiny individual actions can accumulate to the benefit of people far away and not yet born. It requires a certain faith, or at least an abstracted, intellectualized compassion. It means extending, not retrenching; throwing ourselves into the future, not hoarding what we have now. It means acting without the promise of immediate, tangible reward. It means believing in karma: when we increase the sum total of good in the universe, good finds us in turn.
That’s moral courage. These days, courage is associated almost exclusively with willingness to advocate or engage in violence. But contrary to common current claims, moral courage does not mean mustering the will to kill foreigners. It often amounts to the opposite: the courage to refrain from vengeance, to opt out of the cycle of violence even when one would be perfectly justified in joining it. The right thing is frequently not the satisfying thing.
Moral cowardice also manifests in a kind of sterile techno-intellectualism, which musters facts and calculations to convince us that the right thing is too risky. Discussions of sustainability seem to be dominated by these kinds of concerns with short-term self-interest. We can get off of fossil fuels as long as we can do it without hurting the economy, as long we can be sure that alternatives will cover the gap without damaging or degrading our current lifestyle. We’ll fight global warming as long as it won’t hurt the economy and we won’t have to restrict people’s choices about what to drive or where to live. We’ll slow the loss of biodiversity as long as it doesn’t slow international trade or restrict economic development. Etc.
Faced with these kinds of concerns, environmental advocates go out of their way to demonstrate the immediate benefit of green living. You can be hip! Your business can make money! You can reduce your energy bills! Green is the new black!
I’ve got no problem with that. I’m not going to reject anything that creates momentum. I’m not going to reject the good in favor of the perfect. Do what you can with what you’ve got, I say.
But still. In the long term, a genuinely sustainable society can only be built by those willing to make themselves vulnerable, those determined to leave their children a better world even if it means taking risks — unquantifiable risks. Bean counters won’t get us there. Eventually there’s going to have to be a moral (or if you prefer, spiritual) component: we’re going to do what’s right because it’s right, not because we’ve calculated away all the danger.
We live in an Age of the Glands, addicted to hot bursts of fear and anger, tribalism and vengeance. The underlying dynamic is covered over with a veneer of cold, selfish intellectualism, but it’s there for anyone willing to scratch the surface.
We — the earth, humanity — cannot succeed on those terms. It’s time to reawaken our hearts and our faith. We should recall the lesson of every great spiritual leader: let go of the ego. Let go of pride. Live humbly in service of something larger than yourself. Like The Man said:
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD.
Those who seek a compassionate society — who would bequeath their children a country and an earth in better condition that those they inherited — must always work against fear. They must always embody the sublime joys of reason and compassion.