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Less moralizing, please, and more morality
American politics is filled with moralistic poseurs who don't display moral principles
Beware the moralists, who tell you there’s only one way forward. (Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash)
The guy who expects to soon become Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, says that Republican members will read the Constitution aloud when Congress convenes on Jan. 3. That’s a tad ironic, don’t you think, for a party whose leader has demanded that the Constitution be “terminated” to enable him to return to the White House? You might even call it cynical.
Whatever. It’s an example of a stunning gap between, on the one hand, the rise of moralizing in political rhetoric and, on the other hand, the decline of morality in political practice. Posing as guardians of the good, many politicians have all but stopped worrying about doing what’s moral even as they eagerly invoke moralistic arguments and simplistic notions of right and wrong in attacks on anybody who disagrees with them.
Take Rep. Elise Stefanik, the Upstate New Yorker who is the third-ranking House Republican. Stefanik told Fox News on Election Day that her party would make “supporting our law enforcement” a priority in 2023, and would “proudly stand up for the Constitution each and every day.”Yeah, sure. Stefanik endorsed Donald Trump for another term in the White House even before he declared his candidacy last month — yes, he who advocates abandoning the Constitution — and as for supporting law enforcement, she’s happily among the ratpack of Republican lawmakers who see no evil in the Trump-inspired mob that attacked police officers defending the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Where’s the morality of that moralizer?
Here's the difference between the two concepts: Defending the rule of law and the precepts of the Constitution is moral; undermining them while giving lip service to their value is moralizing. It’s the kind of cheap rhetoric that’s endemic these days. People across the political divide surely would agree that we could do with less moralizing in politics, thank you, and more morality.
Here’s another example: By a wide margin, most Americans agree that everybody in America ought to be able to marry whomever they love — including a person of the same sex or of a different race.That’s based on the moral grounds of fairness and equality. But that moral argument smacks up hard against the moralizing of right-wing politicians who want the government to bar teachers from even mentioning same-sex relations, and who claim that their opponents are probably “groomers” trying to lure children for gay sex.
It's not that Americans don’t recognize real morality when they see it. Charity and civility are moral characteristics; so are courage, empathy, fairness, gratitude and kindness. But many players in the political class these days vilify the display of those moral behaviors as woke and weak. There’s a current in politics that values power over integrity, and over the past four decades, it has eroded the traditions that kept our society moving toward more equality and prosperity.
Maybe it’s not coincidental that the timeframe matches the linkage between evangelical Christianity and the Republican party. It was in the late 1970s that a television preacher from Virginia, Jerry Falwell, created what he called the Moral Majority, an amalgam of political action committees that sought to harness Christian conservatives with the Republican party. Falwell’s initiative, which was picked up and carried forward by countless other religious leaders in the following decades, was wildly successful: Before the presidency of Ronald Reagan, neither party could claim to be the favorite of the Christian right; by 2020, eight in 10 white evangelical Christians voted for Trump, despite his record of astonishing moral failings of the sort that prompted Pope Francis to say that such a man “is not Christian.”
So the moralism that has always characterized Christian fundamentalism has been secularized, to become the preferred weapon of right-wing politicians. Instead of preaching against the devil and the threat of hell, today’s moralists warn of the Democrats and the threat of socialism.
Yet there are moral causes that the moralists will not embrace. The Old Testament suggests that a moral politician would reach out to immigrants and strangers, and would “uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (Psalm 82), and would honor the imperative to “not pollute the land in which you live.” Morality in politics, according to America’s religious heritage, thus demands care for immigrants and asylum seekers, steps toward economic equity and action on climate change.
And while we’re discussing the realm of morality that exceeds the reach of moralists, it’s telling that no national Republican officials have directly denounced Trump for dining at his palace in Florida with a pair of prominent anti-Semites. Few Americans wouldn’t agree that anti-Semitism, the world’s oldest hatred, is immoral. But it’s hard to forget that Trump — who proclaimed himself “a great moral leader” when he was president — stood up for the torch-bearing white nationalists who massed in Charlottesville in 2017 (they shouted, “Jews shall not replace us!”), insisting that there were “very fine people” in the group.
Tolerance for any anti-Semites makes any general denunciations of anti-Semitism nothing but cheap moralizing. The silence about Trump’s dinner is the sort of behavior that empowers a quieter anti-Semitism, and normalizes the denigration of people based on race, religion or ethnicity. No wonder 2021 was the highest year on record for documented reports of harassment, vandalism and violence directed against Jewish people.Moral leaders would speak up firmly about what has provoked such acts, which surely includes the behavior of politicians who don’t want to offend the anti-Semites and racists among their supporters.
This isn’t the province of only one side of our political divide. When it appears, on both the left and the right, moralism’s impact is most damaging in its absolute insistence that only one way forward is righteous. That’s inconsistent with moral leadership, which begins with a sense of humility that truth surely lies beyond one person’s reckoning. Absolutism that paints opponents as intolerable, and divides Americans into warring camps, can’t yield the progress that occurs when people come together from diverse viewpoints.
That’s why the moralists are most dangerous: They stand in the way of the sort of realistic understanding of matters that can bring solutions to today’s challenges. As much as we need leaders who embrace moral behavior and policies that yield moral ends, we also need to turn aside the moralists whose words and deeds divide us.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Laramie, Wyo. (Casper Star-Tribune, trib.com)
Sarasota, Fla. (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, heraldtribune.com)
Bloomington, Ind. (The Herald-Times, heraldtimesonline.com)
Victorville, Calif. (Victorville Daily Press, vvdailypress.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Elder who targeted LGBTQ students kicked off campus
Administrators at the University of Wyoming have blocked a fundamentalist church elder who says he has been preaching on the campus for 17 years after he targeted an LGBQ student by name, according to reporting in the Casper Star-Tribune by Maya Shimizu Harris. The elder had a homemade sign on his table in the school’s student union that declared, “God created male and female, and (student’s name) is a male.” UW’s president said the sign “violated the university policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment,” and announced that the suspension of his permit to appear on campus would extend for a year.
Ultra-right activists push to take over Florida Republican party
With the backing of such national players as Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, ultra-right figures in the Florida Republican Party are attempting to take over county party organizations, Zac Anderson reports in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The effort in a state that Donald Trump carried by three points in 2020 is led by activists who embrace the lie that Trump actually won that election nationally. They are targeting even avowed conservative activists who don’t ascribe to the Big Lie. One staunch conservative who is being challenged said that the people challenging him are “so far right” they're “off the planet.”
Students aren’t staying in state for college years
Fewer young adults are pursuing college degrees, experts say. It’s a nationwide trend, but Rachel Smith in the Herald-Times cites another factor: Indiana students are passing up colleges in their home state to go elsewhere. That’s a crisis for Indiana, Smith was told, because a state’s economic outlook and its college attendance go hand-in-hand. “We have great schools, but if we're not going to do things to get Hoosier kids to go to them and to stay here, (businesses are) just going to go to where the workers are,” one economist told her. As other states offer tuition breaks and scholarship supplements to in-state students, Indiana has cut state aid to higher education by more than a half-billion dollars. Nationally, the number of college students will plummet by more than 15% beginning in 2025, the story notes.
Thieves target sophisticated truck component
Contemporary semi trucks are controlled by a common powertrain controller — a so-called CPC module, which is considered the truck’s brain. Rene Ray De La Cruz reports in the Victorville Daily Press that California police have noted a sharp rise in thefts of CPC modules from trucks anywhere they are parked and left unoccupied. The story notes that if the CPC module is removed, the truck is rendered inoperable until costly repairs can be made, and with a current global shortage of new CPC modules, police say thieves are targeting truckers and selling stolen units on the black market.
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Can the postal service help newspapers stay alive?
When I was just 21 years old, I was named managing editor of a tiny daily newspaper in northwestern Indiana. We were a proud and hardworking team, and sometimes all hands had to pitch in: When an advertiser wanted the paper to include a preprinted section, even the publisher and I would join the gang inserting the sections into our paper, one by one, in the back of the shop. And more than once, I had to leave the newsroom in late afternoon and deliver papers along the “motor route” — that is, stuffing papers into tubes along the roads outside town.
A lot has changed in newspapering, of course, as a result of the digital revolution and the global advertising decline. Many small papers have gone out of business, and the print product is less important in every community, since more people are getting their information digitally. Now there’s a move in some communities to have the post office step in: Papers are abandoning the cost and hassle of hiring their own distribution teams — what used to be “paperboys” or, more recently, “carriers” — and are delivering the papers in bulk early each morning to the U.S. Postal Service, to be distributed to home mailboxes before the end of the day.
The service isn’t without risks: When an irate reader regularly didn’t get his promised copy of The Bennington (Vt.) Banner, the reader confronted the local postmaster at a pub, demanding to know where his newspaper was. The fearful postmaster went to court and got an order of protection against the reader, according to an account in Poynter.org, an industry monitor.
I can sympathize. Over my 30-plus years as a newspaper editor, I probably heard more complaints about newspaper delivery than anything my newsrooms produced. Toward the end of my newspaper career, as fewer people got the print edition, the complaints tended to focus more on the pop-up ads on the newspaper’s web site. I’m mighty sympathetic to that frustration.
Yes, the journalism matters to people. But I was gratified when the complaints weren’t about the reporting, in fact, because that suggested satisfaction with what we were doing — and that folks just want you to take care of customer service. Or, as it’s called these days, the user experience (“UX,” in digital lingo). It’s a good reminder that no business can succeed without putting customers first.
And so I thank you for being a reader of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, and for joining me here, on *our common ground, this great America.