When I was a freshman in college, before Jerry Falwell demonized it, I called myself a Secular Humanist. I did this to ward off questions from people who wondered why I was no longer a Christian. My plan was to use terminology that was so obscure the questioners would be embarrassed to show their ignorance of the subject. It usually worked. I ran the risk of encountering someone who knew what it meant but I was willing to cross that bridge if I ever got there. Anyway, I liked the sound of the words together, lofty and poetic. I did have a modestly informed understanding of the term; Philosophy 101 taught me all I needed to know!
Look at the root meanings of the word secular – ‘generation’ or ‘age.’ If I say: “I am of this age” I am usually defining myself without implying any moral quality. However, another root meaning exists, it may be used to suggest: ‘the world.’ So, if I say: “I am secular” then I have given myself a label that is not so clean. If I am secular then I am not ‘sacred’ which back in George Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ America implied that I am profane. The world is a place for sinners; it is not like heaven (or presumably the White House), which is clean of sin. The world is secular and therefore it is less than good.
‘Secular’ is wrought with negative connotations; add on ‘humanist’ and you have made the whole thing much worse. Our society would rather put faith in a myth than in its fellow humans. The humans are the sinners for goodness sake! Why would you put your faith in sinners? This works out well for most people until they need a doctor or mechanic or something … real? Secular humanists have two strikes against them for their name alone. They might as well call themselves ‘profane sinners’ for all the PR value in the name. Can the premise of ‘secular humanism’ ever become as clear to the Trump voter as say, ‘God is love’ is to Christians?
How does one assert their secular humanistic ideals without confusing the issues via a misunderstood name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or, is it even possible for this ideology to achieve clarity of understanding through a name? Christian, Hindu, Jew are simple names that are clearly identified by anyone. Secular Humanism is a phrase, a phrase that requires an explanation. Can the premise of secular humanism ever become as clear to an every-day person as say: God is love?
I’m mentioning all this as a prelude to a discussion about names and the ways in which we distinguish a rose from a carnation, or whatever. The longer Trump stays in office the more pundits, columnists and bloggers try to define him with currently available names and categories. “Populist-fueled democratic backsliding” is the term of art being used by David Frum in the Atlantic today to describe our current condition. His article https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-autocracy/513872/ is a must read point-of-view.
David Frum used a couple thousand words in his Atlantic article to bring us, “Populist-fueled democratic backsliding;” that’s a four word phrase found in a quote he provides identifying the problem he discusses. Will his point ever be synthesized into a single word? One that Trump followers can understand? One that can be used to express the depth and breadth of the complicated monumental degradation of the state of our government from what it was two weeks ago. Words like kleptocracy or kakistocracy, chrysocracy or plutocracy, argentocracy or moneyocracy have meanings that require a dictionary to understand and even that is not enough. How do we make known the problem if its name is four words long? It doesn’t come trippingly off the tongue.
Mr. Frum spells out for us the issue so I won’t try to do that in detail here. Basically, he says that the fight for control of the government has shifted from tanks in the streets to the internet and that a well-told lie will have the power of a massive bomb. The virtuous gentlemen’s approach to the presidency is gone and so are the ethical codes of the past. The newly installed virtue of greed usurps all others. There is still time to combat this as he states:
And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.
So, I support this idea in theory, but what shall we call it? Christian, Hindu and Jew are simple names that are clearly identified by anyone; so is “Trump”. Democracy used to be a glorious ideal until Trump pointed out its flaws so blatantly. The Frum resistance effort takes place on an ephemeral plane, it uses a complicated system of abstractions: honesty, integrity, and professionalism. This strategy appears to simply insist that everyone play nice.
Even so, defining “nice” is crucial to clearly understand our objective. People can have a strong sense of integrity and actively use that characteristic quality honestly to reach different conclusions. Professionalism is not easy to define and it has no morality clause. A business person is obligated to get the greatest profit possible even if it means cutting jobs and closing mills and upending people’s lives. An obligation to business professionalism is not always an obligation to the country or even morality unless those things have an effect on sales.
I place a lot of faith in “integrity,” I’ve written about it in my new book, Billy’s Moral Adventures. I describe “honesty” as being a child’s introduction to the concept of what is holy. “Professionalism” is neither a uniformly meritorious nor a consistent concept and should be disregarded. A better concept in its place would be ethical behavior.
So, now that the aggression of our bully, Trump has set his sights on Mexico and Australia of all places, and religious bigotry orders are in the works, how do we identify his actions with one simple word that both acknowledges the problem and suggests the solution?
We need a flag to rally around, a new image to follow (as Vaclav Havel says), a clear mission that we can define with precision. If we don’t fix this soon it will take decades to repair. It needs to be done quickly and arrive with a figurehead of opposition. We need to keep caring and fighting for an ideal or watch it all backslide away. Who will our savior be and how long till they get here?
BTW, I call myself an Existential Humanist now.