Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fear Itself

In March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt spoke to his country at a time of great crisis:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
In many respects, we seem in a moment of some crisis today.  Extended economic stagnation, proliferating debacles abroad, and cratering trust in public institutions are some of the signs of this crisis.  Roosevelt reminded his countrymen that the crisis of his time was as much one of sentiment as it was of exterior forces.

A similar point applies to our own time: Many of the challenges we face are internal--not external.  And even many of the external challenges (in foreign affairs, for instance, or international terrorism) will depend upon our internal constitution.  A fractious and divided nation will unable to confront many of the real exterior threats facing the United States.

So in the year ahead, we need to be vigorous in addressing those internal challenges honestly, fairly, and imaginatively.  Decadence can take many forms.  We face a governing caste that all too often confuses self-righteousness with virtue and cant with learning.  A vulgarized political and cultural discourse inhibits our ability to draw measured distinctions.  The withering of civil society threatens the maintenance of the norms upon which republican governance depends.  In part due to our elites' emphasis on no-choice politics, our public debates remain frozen in tired antagonisms.  The recourse of the powerful to shame politics risks empowering shamelessness, which itself can be troubling; courtesy and empathy--the quest to mediate difference--often prove crucial for defending the architecture of a free society.  As can be seen in the wake of November's election results, tantrum politics might amuse political partisans, but it usually only worsens our broader civic fever.  Indulgence in a paranoia fed by cryptic inference can be hardly afforded now, when we need a rejuvenation of civic faith.

These challenges are vast.  They cannot be traced to one man or women.  They cannot be settled by a single election.  They cannot be solved by one political actor.

Dealing with them will require virtue and judgment in our daily lives.  Thankfully, virtue can take many forms, too.  It can be witnessed at a volunteer at a charity soup kitchen, in a person seeing the best in another, in a parent teaching a child, in the good works and good words of countless religious organizations, and in a person sitting down and grappling with with the intricacies of Plato or Aquinas.  We can advance the restoration we so desperately need by rebuking partisan blindness, by cultivating a sober love of liberty, and by recognizing our own fallenness and what our nobler hopes depend upon.

The American people have inherited a great thing in the Republic.  The challenges that we face can be addressed.  We are not fated to decline and disunion--not yet, at least.  In 2017 and beyond, we need to put away the childish things of despair and vanity and instead take on our duties to our fellow man and to our own higher callings.

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