Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Moral Universe

The library levy in Cincinnati passed a couple weeks ago by a 3-1 margin; in fact, levies for the Museum Center, MRDD, and Cincinnati Public Schools all passed by significant margins. As trying as these times are, people voted with their hearts and minds and not with their pocket books.

I remember reading a poll this summer, right as the health care debate was gaining steam, and two facts stood out to me: 1. Most people were for reform, and 2. Most people didn't think reform would help them, personally. In other words, they wanted reform because they thought it would benefit society as a whole.

Most of our leaders have shied away from appealing to our better angels (our sense of decency, fairness, and justice) and instead marketed health care reform in terms of something for ourselves only. They tell us to ask: How can I, personally, have better choices? How can I save a buck or two? Or, on the flip side, demand: How is this reform going to take away my choices? With the help of the news media, it's no surprise that this debate has descended into hyperbole.

It's hard not to become disheartened. Just this morning, an article appeared in the New York Times described how
statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.
Twenty-two Republicans and twenty Democrats (look! bipartisanship!) included lobbyists' language, from Genentech and other companies, in "statements for publication in the Congressional Record." It should be no surprise that lobbyists conduct "outreach" to members of congress. But there's something almost nefarious about the repetition of lobbyists' language across party aisles. As I tell my students, clarity of thought and clarity of writing are interconnected; you don't have one without the other.

Where do I find heart? A well-turned phrase goes a long way with me, and when I first read "Dreams From My Father" in 2006 or 2007, I knew this Obama person was someone special. He wrote with such poetry and compassion about his life and the world around him. From that first book to his speech on race during the primary season, Barack Obama has continued to demonstrate clarity of thought and clarity of writing.

Quoted by President Obama and Martin Luther King, preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker said
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I can calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.*
Parker died before slavery was abolished, but his words and writing suggest that he knew it was coming, whether in 1865 or 1965. His words and ideas persist.

This health care debate, the coming debates about global warming and financial reform, the ongoing debate about Afghanistan: there will continue be noise from all sides, amplified and regurgitated on cable tv, but I have to hope and believe that truth and decency will emerge at some point, quieting the noise.

* Thanks to for the unedited Parker quote


george rede said...

Truth and decency prevailing over the noise?

Putting the common good before self?

Just when I've begun to despair, along comes your post with multiple examples of how the good people of Cincinnati have demonstrated a better way to behave.

Thanks for the inspiration.

August said...

Thanks - It's not always easy to find the good and hopeful. But it really is all around us as we bend, ever so slowly, toward justice.

Cincinnati is generally conservative and slooooooooow to change; it's often frustrating. But within that conservatism is compassion, respect, and that potential for growth.

(Sometimes I have go give myself pep talks:)