Right, Wrong, and the Character of a Nation

It would appear that we face a political crisis which many liken to the days of Watergate.  While there are similarities, what we face today is unlike anything we have faced before, and we are lying to ourselves if we do not admit that and dooming ourselves if we do not face it.

During the Nixon administration everyone knew that breaking into the Watergate Hotel was wrong.  Everyone knew  that Nixon’s cover-up of that break-in was wrong.  Both Republicans and Democrats looked at the evidence and knew it was wrong.  It wasn’t just illegal; it was wrong.  Nixon placed the well-being of his presidency and his party above that of the country and the law and the congress and the country said “that’s not right.”  Members of his own party went to Nixon and told him his presidency could not survive what he had done.  He may have been “Tricky Dick,” but he wasn’t a “Stupid Dick.”   He resigned.

The concepts of “right” and “wrong” are moral and ethical concepts, and they lie at the very heart and soul of any society.  When most members of a society agree on those concepts, the society is healthy and can function well; when the members cannot agree, that society descends into conflict and dysfunction.

That’s where we are today.

We cannot agree on what is right and what is wrong.

It is this ability of a society to agree on right and wrong that gives it its national character.  When you hear people say, “That is not American,” what they mean is that it violates the agreement we have with each other about what is right and wrong in America.

We hear people talking today about how “this is not normal.”  What they are saying is that it goes against what we have always thought of as our national character; it is somehow wrong.

Our national character is now changing in ways that no one likes.

Recently a gunman shot a US Representative while he was practicing for a baseball game.  Baseball!  There’s no shooting in baseball for god’s sake!  When a congressman can get shot playing baseball, what’s next?  Flag burning? Lying to the senate?  Refusing to respond to subpoenas?  Claiming mass shootings of children were staged by the government?  Armed, right wing militias protecting politicians at town hall meetings?  Black people and women marching in the streets?  Naked bike riding?  No ice cream for the apple pie?  Dogs and cats living together?

Our individual character is created by the sum of all our beliefs.  Our national character is created by the sum of our individual characters.

How do you know what is right and what is wrong?  You think you know.  You know you know.  But how?  How did you get there?  You realize that you weren’t born knowing, right?  Everything you now know about right and wrong you acquired since then.

You came into this world a blank slate.  You did not believe in anything.  You did not believe in Santa.  You did not believe in the tooth fairy.  You did not believe in God.  You did not believe the earth was round or that it orbited the sun.  You did not believe in trickle-down economics or that Citizen Kane was the best film ever made.  You did not believe that hats should be removed at the dinner table or that children should be seen and not heard.

You didn’t believe that marriage was only for one man and one woman or that sex was only ok once that man and woman were married.  You didn’t believe that you became human at the moment of conception or that there was a place of eternal suffering and torment if you didn’t believe the right things.

You didn’t believe women deserve equal pay or that human life begins at birth or that everyone has a right to basic health care.

You didn’t know anything.  You had no opinion on climate change, whether the holocaust actually happened, or whether there ought to be transgender bathrooms.

And you did not have any concept of right and wrong.

You just babbled, crapped your pants in public, and cried until mom got out her teat so you could eat again whether you were in public or not.

So, just when was it that you came to know all this stuff you are now willing to spend hours defending on Facebook and Twitter, supporting at rallies and marches, and donating money to?

So, how is it that you now have nothing but contempt for some politicians, consider an entire political party “not even human,” or are willing to shoot people playing baseball because you hate what you think they stand for?

How did you get from knowing absolutely nothing about anything to believing all this stuff you now believe?

Did you just wake up one morning and, boom, there it all was?  Did you go to bed one night sucking your thumb and wake up the next morning convinced you needed to stockpile ammo and buy another assault rifle?  Did you fall out of the crib and it suddenly hit you that all Republicans are scumbags?

You realize it doesn’t work that way.

What you think you know is the product of what billions of other people have known in the past and millions of other people believe all around you.  It is the result of the entire available sum of human knowledge ever acquired and how much your intellect has been able to interact with that, process that, and make choices.

You didn’t arrive at a single belief in a sensory deprivation chamber, alone with your own thoughts.

What you think you know determines what you believe.  What you believe and how you act on what you believe determines your individual character.

Like it or not, your beliefs have been formed by how much you know, and how your intellect has been able interact with that, process that, question that, evaluate the implications of that, and make choices based on that.

Your beliefs are shaped by what you have been told by parents, priests and pastors, politicians, teachers, co-workers, and TV pundits.  They have been shaped by what you have read, your economic station, and your race.  And they have been shaped by whether or not you have invested time and effort into sorting through all of that in a rational fashion to come to conclusions.  If all you do is blindly accept what you are told by others, you don’t actually have any beliefs.

There is a sense in America today that things were easier in the “old days.”  It seems like it was easier to know what to think.  It was easier to know what to believe.

That’s because it was easier to know what to think and what to believe back then.

Back in the “old days,” you didn’t have nearly as many choices to make.

When everyone knew that what Nixon did was wrong, there were three TV networks (plus PBS), a number of major magazines, and a few newspapers in every city.  It did not much matter where you lived in the country, or what your political orientation, you got pretty much the same news, and every one of those news sources prided themselves on publishing well researched and truthful information.

The situation today is completely different.  There are radio and television networks devoted to one particular view over all others.   Conservative talk radio has spread misinformation and sometimes lies since the repeal of the “fairness doctrine.”  People like Alex Jones, who has claimed the Sandy Hook shooting was staged by the government, promote conspiracy theories that flaunt both experience and reason, and yet his Infowars site has millions of followers.

Business interests use media to promote a view of the world that benefits them over all else.  Exxon Mobile knew in the 70’s that burning fossil fuels would lead to global warming, but launched a campaign to both hide that fact and deny reports it was occurring.  Social media – Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are open forums where truth is completely in the eye of the beholder.

That entire sum of human knowledge that you have available to you now is thousands of times greater than it was back in the “old days,” and that means you have to make choices your parents and grandparents never were forced to make.  For many it’s just too much.  It’s overload.

The idea of “fake news” is a recent one, (unless you count the National Enquirer as news) and it has further complicated our ability to make choices.  Now we not only have to process information and make choices, but we have to ascertain that the information we have is true to begin with.

Social media has become the primary way to disseminate “fake news” and was instrumental in doing so during the past presidential election.  Much of that misinformation and those lies were part of a concerted effort on the part of a foreign government to influence our election.  Some was the result of those who realized that there was money to be made by putting out extravagant claims to lure people to web sites overflowing with advertising.  Still more was simply an attempt at manipulation of the public for the purpose of getting votes by individuals and by PACs.

The current administration has latched onto the “fake news” label and turned it against all media as a way to make it even harder for the public to have confidence in the information they are getting.  They consider the media “the opposition party.”  In “the old days” it was the nation’s conscience.

Even those who have been willing to just accept what they have been told by whatever person in authority they listen to are now wondering what’s true.

The entire country is drowning in a sea of information that they no longer can trust, and all the lifeboats were burned for warmth years ago.  We are stressed, afraid, and mind-weary.

Is it any wonder we can’t agree on what is right and what is wrong?  We can’t even agree on what is true and what is false.  We don’t even want to talk to each other because we’re bound to get into an argument.

And if we can’t agree on what is true and what is false, if we can’t agree on what is right and what is wrong, and if we began only a lifetime ago believing nothing at all, how is it that we can hold other people in such contempt for what they believe today?

Conservatives have questioned the very humanity of liberals.

Anti-Trump people are shooting congressmen on the baseball diamond.

We no longer disagree with the “other side.”  We despise the “other side.”  We no longer hate what they believe; we hate them.

People have to turn off the TV set when they see Trump’s image because it makes them physically ill.  People won’t watch the news any longer because it gets them too upset.

Just how is it that we are all so convinced that we are in possession of the one true and right belief in the midst of all the false information, misleading narratives, lies, deceits, greed, and political machinations?

Americans are experiencing a stress-related breakdown of the national character.  Everyone knows something is very wrong, but we cannot agree on what that is.  We’ve gone back to a tribal culture, each tribe worshipping its local truth, shaking a war club at the other tribes.

We have to get over ourselves.

We have to have a conversation, not just about what’s wrong, but also about what shared values of right and wrong we still have.

Is it right or wrong to put profit before people’s lives?  Is it right or wrong to put party before country?  Is it right or wrong to allow people to die just because they can’t afford to pay?

Not, is it expedient?  Not, is it a matter of priorities?  Not, is it politically advantageous?

We need to stop despising each other and have this conversation soon.

If we cannot do that, if we cannot agree on what those things mean in our country today, we might as well go back to just babbling, crapping our pants in public, and crying until mom gets out her teat.

Your Humble Servant,

Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

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3 thoughts on “Right, Wrong, and the Character of a Nation

  1. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the a6uthor. There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyed reading your work. If “OK” please let me know via email.



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