Virginia Tech®home

On the Nexus of Morality, Justice and Civilization

ID

Soundings

Authors as Published

Remarkably, on December 26 the President of the United States retweeted a number of contemptible messages that were at once also outrageous and ridiculous. They were completely without foundation as ideas and likewise beneath the supposed standing of his high office. As Aaron Rupar, who conscientiously monitors Donald Trump’s public comments, reported on December 27:

The President of the United States has, today alone, retweeted 2 QAnon [far right conspiracy] fan accounts, a Pizzagate account [discredited many times over], an account that compared his following to a cult, and an account that described [former President] Obama as ‘Satan’s Muslim Scum.’ And this insanity isn’t even a blip on the news radar.[1]

Just two weeks before this Twitter rant, Trump ridiculed the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg when Time Magazine named her its Person of the Year, a standing for which he, too, had been a finalist:

So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!

By all accounts, this outburst aimed at a 16-year-old teenager with Asperger Syndrome from another nation arose because Trump was angry and envious of her selection for the Time distinction.[2] Thunberg responded to the President by reworking her Twitter biography slightly. As The New York Times reported, she dubbed herself: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. … Currently chilling and watching a good old-fashioned movie with a friend.”[3]

These two recent examples of Trump’s behavior, which continues to be accepted and rationalized by many Republican Party officials and supporters, put me in mind of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s final work. Tolstoy produced three editions of A Calendar of Wisdom in the last few years of his life, 1906-1910.[4] He had begun thinking of developing the volume as early as 1884, when he wrote in his diary, “I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people.”[5]  In 1885, he wrote to his assistant that this book would allow its readers “to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us what is most important for humanity; about the meaning of life and about virtue.”[6] Tolstoy not only compiled the thoughts of philosophers concerning key questions of life for each day of the year in the original editions, he also wrote short stories or vignettes each week to illustrate them. These were well received, but they made the volume quite long and were not included in the only English translation available, first published in 1997.  Tolstoy was animated throughout his efforts to produce this final project to make great thinkers and their perspectives comprehensible to even the least well educated of individuals.[7] His project was both educative and deeply democratic in its intent and character.

I thought of Tolstoy’s effort as I read of Trump’s recent tweets for two specific reasons. First, the president daily makes plain his ignorance on topics large and small. It therefore seems clear he is guided in his public comments primarily by his egoism, his personal aims and his desire to feed his supporters lies that provide a version of events that he desires to promote. He plainly hopes that these together will ensure his continuation in power. His sources for the material in his tweets, apart from his own disproportionately dyspeptic contentions, are never great thinkers, or even mediocre ones. Rather, they are conspiracy mongers and trolls whose worlds are peopled by imagined purveyors of concocted evils and, as the above tweets suggest, patently untruthful schemes. Most of Trump’s posts on Twitter, whether his own or those he selects to share, reflect a paranoiac cast of mind unhinged from reality. This sad fact would surely pain Tolstoy, who, while not occupying an elected position of public trust as Trump does, nonetheless sought to ensure that all citizens would have opportunities to reflect on the wisdom that humankind has created across the centuries concerning what it means to live a good and decent life, respectful of the dignity of all people.

The second reason I thought of Tolstoy was more direct. When I read Trump’s late December posts, I recalled recently reading a passage from A Calendar of Wisdom in which Tolstoy quoted a philosopher on the relationship between morality and the seeds and survival of civilization. I searched for the citation and was rewarded in my effort when I found the following reflection by the 19th-century Swiss moral philosopher Henri Amiel:[8]

Civilization is first of all a moral thing. Without truth, respect for duty, love of neighbor, virtue, everything is destroyed. The morality of a society is alone the basis of civilization.[9]

Tolstoy summed up the meaning of the five selections he had chosen to publish in his volume for the day, December 22, on which he shared Amiel’s insight, with this observation:

When we accept false and violent laws and submit to them, we can neither establish truth nor combat lies in this world.[10]

I can think of no better summary of the dangers that Trump and his enablers in the GOP pose for the American polity than this pithy comment. The President consistently reveals his own personal corruption and attacks the rule of law and civil and human rights by embracing wild fabrications that denounce targeted individuals and groups. Tolstoy was surely correct: When a society’s citizens can no longer discern truth from fiction, accept violence aimed at innocents in their midst and tolerate the daily symbolic outrages that Trump’s tweets constitute, that population risks losing its soul and any right it may have to calling itself a self-governing and free people. Indeed, accepting these behaviors on any grounds cedes ground to that possibility.

Nonetheless, any number of pundits, columnists and politicians have been warning scholars and writers not to point up these vexing truths for fear of being branded as scolds by Trump and his enablers. Here, for example, are Bret Stephens’ comments in a recent New York Times column:

Too much of today’s left is too busy pointing out the ugliness of the Trumpian right to notice its own ugliness: its censoriousness, nastiness and complacent self-righteousness. But millions of ordinary Americans see it, and they won’t vote for a candidate who emboldens and empowers woke culture.[11]

This sort of argument suffers from three fundamental flaws. First, Stephens assumes that all matters are simply partisan questions and that arguments pointing to the corruption, malfeasance and lies of Trump and his administration are offered only for such advantage. If accepted, this claim would reduce all contentions about this nation’s politics to little more than “he said, she said” slugfests based on nothing of substance, exactly the terrain that demagogues favor. History teaches instead that for democracies to thrive there must at least be grounds for reasoned arguments suggesting the implications of corruption for self-governance, without such contentions being trivialized as partisan posturing. For that to occur, however, we must have a politics that does not cast all questions as debates about party advantage and power. Instead, our civic conversation must be rooted in debatable moral and substantive claims and contentions. None of this is to say that politics is not bound up in power. The question is rather the point of and mechanisms by which that possibility is sought and exercised.

Second, Stephens errs in suggesting that criticism concerning social justice necessarily connotes self-righteousness. It may, of course, but it need not. In fact, one may (and must) criticize an administration whose titular head has lied or misled the American people more than 15,000 times during his tenure in office, and not imagine as one does so that one has all of the answers.[12] Dialogue can and should ensue in a diverse and democratic society, but it should proceed with humility and civility and on the basis of efforts to serve the common good. Put plainly, to argue that any criticism of the usurpation of law and democratic institutions is based simply on partisan grounds is virtually certain to ensure the continued degradation of those norms and institutions.

Finally, Stephens criticizes “woke culture,” as if embracing racial and social justice suggests there is only one way to consider such matters, or that one must ridicule those who call for the same, so as to establish credibility with anyone who sees justice as threatening. This, too, gives away the terrain for conversation in favor of a non-existent dichotomy. Former President Barack Obama has spoken to just this matter (a fact Stephens misinterprets), without arguing that individuals and groups who rightly feel aggrieved cannot voice their concerns for fear others might not wish to be challenged. Instead, he has reminded such individuals and groups that they, too, may be opposed regarding how their goals might be achieved and about their aims as well. This is a reality that Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and many other African-American leaders confronted throughout their lives. None abandoned their quests for justice so as not to be perceived by their opponents as “censorious.”

In short, one need not attack those crying out for justice in the abstract. The question is not one of giving up that imperative—a necessity in any free society—but of recalling, with Tolstoy, that reasonable people can disagree on means and ends, but must not imagine they can or should attack the linkage between justice, morality and the possibility of civilization itself. It is this nexus that Trump and the GOP daily assault with claims of “alternative facts” and their embrace of purposely cruel and propagandistic arguments. Again, these are not simply partisan concerns, but profoundly important governance matters. More deeply, as Tolstoy well knew, and too many citizens in this nation are now forgetting, these issues lie at the heart of the character and vitality of civilization itself. No one should trivialize these matters as mere ideological or party-based differences. To do so constitutes a singular and profound moral outrage and represents a deep and continuing injustice to this nation and to its people.

Notes

[1] Aaron Rupar (@trupar), December 27, 2019, https://twitter.com/atrupar/status/1210766344934707201, Accessed December 27, 2019. 

[2] Smith, Allan. “Trump Mocks Great Thunberg after she wins Time Person of the Year,” NBC News, December 12, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-mocks-greta-thunberg-after-she-wins-time-person-year-n1100531, Accessed December 27, 2019.

[3] Taylor, Derrick Bryson. “Trump Mocks Greta Thunberg on Twitter and she Jabs Back,” The New York Times, December 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/12/us/politics/greta-thunberg-trump.html, Accessed December 12, 2019.

[4] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom, (Peter Sekirin, translator). New York: Scribner and Sons, 1997.

[5] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom, p.6.

[6] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom, pp.6-7.               

[7] Sekirin, Peter, “Tolstoy and the creation of A Calendar of Wisdom,” in Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom (Peter Sekirin, translator). New York: Scribner and Sons, 1997, p. 9.

[8] Amiel, Henri Frederic (n.d.). “Henri Frederic Amiel and Moral Philosophy,” Amiel.org website, http://www.amiel.org/, Accessed December 28, 2019.                      

[9] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom, “December 22,” p. 369.    

[10] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom, “December 22,” p. 369.    

[11] Stephens, Bret. “What will it Take to Beat Donald Trump?” The New York Times, December 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/26/opinion/trump-2020.html, Accessed December 26, 2019.

[12] Richardson, Heather Cox. “Letters from an American,” December 26, 2019, https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/december-26-2019, Accessed December 26, 2019.

Publication Date

January 6, 2020

Tags