Has virtue become a mere sneeze in the world of politics? Something gushed out with no warning that receives a polite, ‘good health’ (gesundheit) in return, never to be mentioned again? If so, then we should be forewarned by this.
Robert Westbrook has a wonderful article in The Baffler No. 33:Virtuous Reality Link where he laments the decline of virtue as a criteria for high public office as evidenced by the recent presidential election. There is no real need to list Trump’s disinclination towards virtue when all one has to do is look at his Cabinet nominees and advisors, so I will leave that for another day. There is a sense of fatalistic futility pervading the air, but its stench has been evident well before the symptom: the sneeze of Donald Trump, was forced upon us. The only virtue he values has dollar signs on it.
Many have taken to blaming the media for this frightening dilemma but it is deeper than that. At the core of our being as a species on this planet is a shared biology that has lost the ability to register the message coming from the Earth. The more primitive brains of animals are better tuned-in to these messages. I recall enjoying a Renaissance Festival in Moscow, Idaho on the day Mount St. Helens blew up. At the Festival I noticed some dogs on leashes behaving strangely and barking in unusual ways. A bit later I noticed, in the West, a sharp line of clouds with total darkness behind them. It reminded me of Tolkien’s description of the dark clouds of Mordor advancing to block the sun at the start of the war with Gondor. By the time we got home the white silica ash falling from the darkened sky was beginning to coat the sidewalks, grass and trees. Cats and birds and squirrels were making an awful lot of noise. I suddenly realized – the noise had been going on since dawn. There was an edge to that day; I barely sensed it and normally wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
If we humans had been tuned-in to whatever the signal was making the animals behave strangely, what might we have done? Hopefully, we’d say more than just gesundheit. I believe we are capable of sensing what the animals sense, there is nothing supernatural about it. We have the mechanisms necessary to perceive the signals, our senses, but we are too de-sensitized to understand the signals. Yet, the perception of Earth’s message alone makes us behave differently, as if by instinct, even if we can’t understand the reason for it. I believe this is what’s happening on a global scale right now: we sense the impending destruction of the environment, so, deep down inside, we are squawking like a squirrel before the darkness comes.
However, the changing environment is not foremost in the minds of people who are disadvantaged. For them, immediate priorities are urgent while lofty ideals are frivolous. So, the poetic values of ‘virtue’ fade when danger is at the door; this becomes the time for desperate acts and irrational panic, does it not? Some of us who are more measured may see the problem and attempt a solution. Others operate at a more primal level. They become selfish and protect their own; altruism disappears as fear and survival instincts kick in. The panicking crowd dispenses with polite discourse, and eliminates the bonds of civility. They cackle like crows at the silica snow: “Keep those immigrants out! My race is better than yours.” Hidden bigotry is revealed and fear of the stranger takes hold. In the back of their minds is the attitude that says: “I’d better get what I can, while I can, before someone else does, screw them. The more I have, the greater my family’s chance of survival.” This appears to be the justification for electing Trump. It was an act of desperation on the part of white middle America.
The lofty ideals being lost in this process are the elemental foundations of civility. The new priority for virtue is money. “I want people who made a fortune” [in my Cabinet] said Trump. What? The most important virtue is making lots of money? During his campaign he promised to bring in “the best people” to staff his government and apparently by ‘best’ he means money-grubbers, the people Jesus threw out of the temple. I have trouble seeing greed as a virtue. It is certainly not an elemental foundation of civility. Truthfulness, respect, tolerance, compassion and forgiveness rank much higher than greed. Hold on, sorry, I just re-read the last sentence and can’t go on. How did greed ever get the status of VIRTUE in the first place? It doesn’t belong there. Greed should never be the measure of a nation’s virtue!
I get that the planet is warning us, and that message, whether we heed it or not, is stimulating a panic response. But, giving the authority of the most powerful government on the planet over to greed is the opposite of rational behavior. Our doom is at the door; we seem to be asking for entertainment whilst it consumes us.