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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Respect And Honor–The Last Defense Of Civility In Divisive Times

Cato the Elder was a Roman philosopher and educator who in his diptychs enunciated the fundamental principles of a Roman education – the foundational values on which leadership was based.  Cato wrote of a singularity of purpose and absolute commitment to moral achievement.

Seneca, Epictetus, and Plutarch as well as Cato were Roman moralists who provided the intellectual and philosophical foundations for the education of the future leaders of the Empire.  All of them stressed respect, honor, discipline, courage, empathy, intellect, and reason. 

The young Roman aristocrats might have been born with wealth, breeding, and culture; but without the foundation of a moral education they would weaken; and both they and the empire would suffer. The self-confidence needed to be a Roman leader, these philosophers knew, came from a certainty about moral principles.  Right action would be rewarded and respected.

These moral principles were not considered relative by ancient Roman philosophers; and history has proved them right.  They  have guided kings, priests, and common men since the first human settlements, for all collectively and instinctively knew that given a human nature rooted in survival, venality, greed, aggression, cruelty, and dishonor would be the rule; and that only a set of immutable principles – a permanent code of honor – could mitigate if not control such antisocial behavior.

Today’s relativists believe that discipline cannot be an absolute value for African Americans since slavery destroyed any sense of  individual responsibility – i.e. self-discipline in the service of adherence to acceptable social norms.  Crime – actions taken in disregard of social norms and moral standards of behavior – cannot be judged absolutely.  Mitigating circumstances of poverty, family dysfunction, racism, or social injustice make such categorical judgment impossible.

Disrespect for community or nation cannot be judged without consideration for the purpose or end result of that dismissal of commonly accepted social codes.  Burning the flag, sitting during the playing of the National Anthem, or flaunting aggressively sexual symbols at a Catholic Mass must be accorded a certain degree of respect if such actions are done out of a legitimate concern for over-arching wrongs.   America has been the instigator of questionable wars, has been the home to slavery, Jim Crow, and persistent racism.  The Catholic Church has protected child abusers.

Image result for images sixties flag burning

In other words, the definition of  immoral behavior has become increasingly narrow.  The more we know about genetic predisposition, family conditioning, and pernicious environmental influences, the more forgiving we are for  individual delinquency.  If alcoholism is a disease; if passive-aggressive behavior is hardwired; if social factors determine personality outcomes; if racism, sexism, and xenophobia limit the choices of minorities and force them into antisocial behavior, then any individual action resulting from this conditioning can be excused if not forgiven.

‘Inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ have further neutered the morally absolute.  Every culture is different, say multiculturalist proponents; and it is wrong to judge minorities by the standards of 1789 white, male America.

So where does this leave Cato the Elder and Moses?  Is there no room for a moral code which has guided civilizations since Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome?  Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex had no conditionalities attached.  Arthur Miller, an American playwright and Biblical moralist, offered no convenient way out in All My Sons

Image result for renaissance images moses

The father was guilty of greed and dishonor when he deceived the US Air Force and deliberately installed faulty components to military aircraft.  His concern for the welfare of his family, his own checkered past, or his mental state at the time of the deception were never even mentioned as a mitigating factor in his dereliction and dishonor.

Miller’s father in the play was committing a personal moral crime, but he was also betraying an entire country.  He was traitor, a defector from national moral principles.  There were no excuses for his behavior, nor any offered.  He was legally, morally, and ethically guilty of a heinous crime.

Cato’s principles have never been more challenged than today. Moral relativism has been complicated by the issue of identity politics.  Not only is there no such thing as a permanent, immutable moral code, but that any group that feels put upon, offended, marginalized, or dismissed has a right to disregard respect, honor, discipline, and reason.  The vindication of individual, civil rights and the demands for recognition and retribution are sacrosanct.

This secular view of social change, however, is dangerously narrow.  While demands for racial, gender, or ethnic inclusion may be legitimate, when they erode a more general code of moral conduct, they become illegitimate.

When black football players sit or kneel during the National Anthem, they may draw attention to the plight of African Americans and the marginal interest in it shown by the President, but their act is profoundly corrosive to commonly-held values.  It is one thing to express anger and frustration at a corrupt political order or even the society that underlies it; it is another altogether by showing disrespect far beyond the reaches of political issues.  Rightly or wrongly the flag is the symbol not only of America but America's soldiers; and disrespect for it shows disrespect to the men and women who have died for their flag.

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The issue of disrespect for American patriotic symbols is not new.  Anti-Vietnam War protesters routinely burned the American flag to demonstrate their profound hatred of the country which in their opinion was responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  As powerful a symbol as flag-burning was, it served to further divide an already divided country. 

It has taken decades for renewed respect for the military to return after the Vietnam War when conscripted soldiers through wish of their own were sent to die in battle, veterans in uniform were spat upon.  The uniform was a symbol of American adventurism and capitalist exploitation and disrespect for it was a sign of assumed moral authority.

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Every act of deliberate disrespect for national symbols, institutions, and leaders while understandable in a narrow political sense, necessarily eroded the commonweal – a sense of national community, integrity, and solidarity.

This is only to say that while such defamatory actions may help to achieve immediate, temporal goals; their disassembling impact on the core values of the nation cannot be overlooked. A certain circumspection and a longer view of the nation’s health is also important.

The protests of the Sixties against civil injustice and the rights of women and gay men achieved positive results.  The place of women and gays in American society while not as extensive as supporters may wish is noteworthy.

At the same time, a greater legitimacy was given to protest and civil disobedience than they deserve; and as a result, in this era of identity politics, they are used indiscriminately with an even shorter-sighted vision than before.

Complex and intricate social issues of race, gender, religion, and ethnicity are treated as simple, monolithic facts.  As a result demonstrations become inchoate and undisciplined.  What exactly are Black Lives Matter protesters demanding?  In the Sixties there were very specific, concrete goals – the integration of public transport, public schools, and public institutions.

Today, after decades of social and economic progress, racial grievances are less clear.  Demonstrators demand an end to ‘racism’, a general, non-specific, and elastic term.  As a result the protests only serve to anger those who have long been committed to specific programs of racial justice and integration; and those who feel that untoward, violent, and unnecessary demands are being tolerated.

Image result for black lives matter logo

Black NFL players who ‘take a knee’ fall into the same category.  What exactly is their grievance? Racism? How can they, millionaires many times over, beneficiaries of the American capitalist system, more open to black enterprise than any time in history, cry ‘racism’?

Even if one assumes that immanent racism is still a problem in the country, these players ignore the negative effects of their inflammatory actions.  Rightly or not they are linking black people with disrespect for the flag, and in so doing these athletes do more to encourage racism than to discourage it.  How many millions of Americans are frustrated, angry, and fed up at a privileged class of Americans showing such disrespect to common values over a vague and impossibly imprecise grievance?

It may be too much to ask and far too late to hope for a return to civil discourse in America.  The more one group aggressively airs its grievances and demands, the more other groups follow suit.  In a competitive society, while social gain is not exactly zero sum, it is close to it.  There is only so much public interest, public funds, and political commitment to go around.

There is a price to be paid for strident demands as much as there is for quiet acquiescence.  There would have been no Civil Rights bill if the will of millions of white and black Americans had not been made so vocal.  Yet the example of an earlier America where respect for a strict moral code was universal and the principles of the Founding Fathers much more widely understood and appreciated cannot be dismissed or discounted.  There was at least the hope that political, social, and religious differences could be solved within a Jeffersonian context.

‘The pursuit of happiness’, Jefferson said -  meaning the satisfaction of individual personal, social, and economic desires - must only happen with respect for the larger community of which the individual is a member.

There appears to be less and less common ground between conflicting interests.  Compromise is lost because with the achievement of individual and group demands comes an added value – an enhanced public legitimacy of identity.

As much as groups may feel that their hatred is legitimate and fuel for remedial action, it cannot be but divisive, corrosive, and ultimately destructive to a larger social and moral order.

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