I would like you—anyone—to amaze me with your spirit and fortitude. With your sacrifice. With your resilience. With your intelligence. With your dedication. With your honesty. With your passion.
Unfortunately, we are overwhelmed today by stories of grievance; by stories that begin and end with demands based in half-truths or full-lies. Spun and spewed by people for whom life is seen as a buffet of entitlements. People who believe their lot in life will be enhanced by finger-pointing blame at anyone or anything beyond themselves. “Don’t trigger me; I am fragile and it’s your fault!” “Keep those immigrants out; they might take my job!” “Don’t blame me about climate change; I recycle!” “Don’t make me wear a mask, or get a vaccine; my right to ignorance is worth more than your life!” In this age of affluence and abundance, our sense of personal responsibility has largely vanished, and with it our capacity to address urgent problems.
Meritocracy, capitalism, and even democracy, which have served America well as cornerstone institutions, have become whipping posts against which all manner of complaints find a place to whine and wail. To be clear, each are imperfect institutions. Meritocracy has been corrupted by the impulse of plutocrats who have cleverly developed practices and systems to, in effect, turn the meritorious work of their antecedents into inheritable legacies. (See: Ivy League.) The economist Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital, illustrates the terminal effects of the destruction capitalism levies on democracy via its capacity to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few (enabling the aforementioned plutocrats). Finally, we are observing in real time how Trumplicans are using democratic systems to destroy democratic ideals through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and court packing.
However, these institutions served us well for more than two-hundred years. Yes, they have created inequalities and stubborn forms of discrimination, but they also produced the most powerful and bountiful civilization in the history of the world. It is only in the last twenty years that these institutions have fallen into the shadow cast by their dark selves; a darkness perpetrated by those charged with protecting their integrity: politicians, media chieftains, judges, and justices. The lesson: people make institutions what they are, not the other way around. The problem we must address is the quality—the character—of our leaders. These institutions will serve us well again once we become their stewards, rather than parasites eating away their strength and compromising their integrity.
I know it’s hard to find these days, but do you remember courage? It is becoming a quaint virtue right when we need it to rise up to elevate a new spirit of leadership that can purge the cynical charlatans who have turned our cherished institutions into schemes to fill their wallets and sate their frail and vile egos. As I shared with my readers in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, “courage is the spine of character; it is the synaptic command and control system for all other virtues.” I further characterized “transcendent courage” as based in truth, action, selflessness, and the humility of self-acceptance, while providing a fountain of strength to embolden everyone. “Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them” (pages 235-237). This might be called the viral benefit of courage. It tends to spread and replicate in a manner that nurtures communities of virtue. And boy, could we use a renaissance of virtue.
The good news is that we know what to do about the unfortunate by-products of our institutions like inequality, discrimination, and climate change. We have never been stumped in creating solutions—in providing the guidance and guardrails that all institutions require. Our challenge is summoning the will to assert what we know is true. The problem started with embracing lies and fantasies that, when they reached critical mass in the mindspace of Americans, became so disorienting and toxic that today we cannot even agree on a shared reality. Seeing things as they are—the most critical skill in decision making—has become so corrupted by incompetent and selfish leadership that we have no hope of solving any of the problems we face. And, the clock is ticking. If we don’t get our proverbial shit together soon, it may be too late to stem things like civil conflict and environmental catastrophe.
Call me cranky if you wish, but cranky is an awkward yet symbiotic bedfellow of wisdom. I know I won’t have the last word, but please allow me the deep word. I want to look upon my fellow Americans and believe in us the way Abraham Lincoln believed that the Union would prevail; the way Harriet Tubman believed in herself; the way that Nikola Tesla believed in alternating current; the way that every nameless and faceless immigrant that crosses our border believes in their future. Moreover, I want to know that when it is my time to take my leave of this place that America and the world are back in courageous hands.
So please, in whatever chosen role you play in this country of ours, please amaze yourself with your dedication to the truth expressed with a deep sense of personal responsibility, and uphold our institutions in the face of those who would like them destroyed. They have served us well, and they will again, once we renew our commitment to leaders of high character. There is little, if any, time to spare.