When did Democracy mean “reality TV?” I can only imagine what the world might have been like had television cameras existed in the age of Christ (“Live from Jerusalem!”) or Socrates (moved from Fox to the History Channel; too boring) and Aristotle (PBS?). My guess would be our Western civilization wouldn’t be any worse than it is now. It was this same civilization that inevitably led to reality TV to begin with; who are we, so ignorant of human nature, to presume ideas can mean us either good or ill? But having said all that, I am vastly more concerned with our virtues. Virtues, as I define them, mean the moral intrepidity to determine right from wrong-and having the courage to stand by that steadfastness. Can a culture that puts so much stock in self maintain a virtuous identity?
I grow alarmed when I look at the numbers. At the end of 2005, a Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans were dissatisfied with the state of the country while just 36% were satisfied. That could be because 79% Americans rated the state of our moral values as fair or poor and 77% say it will only get worse. Yes, America, I said seventy-seven percent. Though scandalously alarming, one should hardly be surprised given our love affair with all things amoral: money, sex, buns, breasts, penises, Botox, Oprah, spiritualism, diets, Viagra, hybrids and me, me, me.
What can we make of this? Better still, what can we do to best move away from this moral quagmire, and begin to reshape our sense of justice and spirit? As a 26-year-old African-American from Charleston, South Carolina, I sympathize with those who feel a sense of moral emptiness. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, I saw for myself the vestiges of moral emptiness at its worse. I cannot tell you how many times I saw aged Black men and women lowering their heads at the sight of White people on the street. It was as if Rosa Parks had moved to the back of the bus. The hollow husk of racism, hate, poverty and bigotry left an entire city ripe with despair.
There is no one right way to solve this kind of hate, but surely whatever it is we are doing is not working. Socrates asked that we look within ourselves for the answer. When St. Augustine wrote his moving memoir The Confessions, he allegedly told someone, “There. I am now borne anew.” We need now to write our own confession, and be borne anew.
We can start by becoming what Martin Luther king called, drum majors for justice. Let our drums beat at a different tune. I say, a beat of social revolution; let ours beat harder, faster than any ever heard before or since. In all this talk about liberty being on the march, I would hope there would be that same talk being said here at home. But I am not talking about the anti-government sort of liberty; I mean the kind that urges us to expand moral justice.
Liberty is nothing without moral justice. Justice assures that each of us plays a pivotal role in our stirring democracy. Our Declaration tells us, “All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” By being mindful of this fact, we live up to that truth, and demand that each and all live up to this creed. Some of us are without this great Declaration. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the world what I’d known all my life: that some Americans are still not yet free. Moral justice mandates that we make them free!
By revolution, I’m talking about a moral restoration. And by moral restoration, I do not mean one that worries more about the proclivities of consenting adults. There is a time and place for that discussion, but right now, I would like to state my case for a total moral restoration that remembers the least of these, and that follows Christ’s simple command: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Were we to live this way, I am sincerely convinced that we would see an upward tilt in the American spirit again. People would begin to see that unity is not a thing of the past, but as much a part of the American Experience as discard and division was before. And why am I so convinced? Because history proves me right.
During the Great Depression, as millions went without food, money, and sometimes, even a place to live, Americans rallied. By banding together, they found ways to earn a living. For example, my great-grandfather went into a side business with, of all people, a white man, selling cotton door-to-door. They hardly made much money, but with what little they earned, it kept my great-uncles in school, and put food on the table every night.
After the Second World War, Black Americans returned determined to extol the virtues of freedom at home they so heroically defended abroad. By legal action, civil disobedience, and plain old fashion non-violent cooperation and protest, both Black and White Americans, young and old alike, rallied behind the cause of freedom that reverberates to this very day from Africa to the Middle East. They understood what we have forgotten now, that without moral courage and moral virtue, freedom is but a joke written on the backs of the oppressed by the oppressors.
In ancient Athens, the great Plato devised of a Republic ruled by wise guardians, defenders of liberty and exemplars of virtue and justice. This city-state would be perfect in that our guardians would always look out for the people. In the real world, no such state exists, and given the nature of humanity, as Hobbes would attest, we will never be so wisely ruled. But in America, “We the People” are the guardians of freedom and justice. We, and we, as Americans alone, can stand-up for those who cannot stand for themselves. It is in our history, it is in our fiber as a nation, regardless of background, no matter the faith, we are expected to stand up for the righteous against the unrighteous. Then – and only then – may we hope and pray that in our quest to regain that moral fecundity we’ve long ago lost, we will find that peace far too many of us have grown to suspect we no longer.
So, where is this virtue? Yeah, I know about Socrates, but where is the virtue prompted by his Apology? Certainly, in the millennia since the deaths of Christ and Socrates we have come to see our role extended beyond sub particle meekness; have we not found the “way, the truth, and the light”? My own view is no. But that should not warrant consternation; there is hope for man yet! I do believe in the power of free ideas and moral virtue. I’m Black! What choice do I have?