Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thoughts on the 4th of July

“The possibility of coherent community action is diminished today by the deep mutual suspicions and antagonisms among various groups in our national life.

"As these antagonisms become more intense, the pathology is much the same. . . . The ingredients are, first, a deep conviction on the part of the group as to its own limitless virtue or the overriding sanctity of its cause; second, grave doubts concerning the moral integrity of all others; third, a chronically aggrieved feeling that power has fallen into the hands of the unworthy (that is, the hands of others). . . .

"Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: An excessively simple diagnosis of the world's ills and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all. . . . Blind belief in one's cause and a low view of the morality of other Americans--these seem mild failings. But they are the soil in which ranker weeds take root . . . terrorism, and the deep, destructive cleavages that paralyze a society.”

-Hugh B Brown quoting John Gardner. From an address given to the BYU student body on May 13, 1969, when Hugh B. Brown was First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jeusus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

“If I say to an American that the country he lives in is a fine one, aye he replies and there is not its equal in the world. If I applaud the freedom its inhabitants enjoy he answers ‘freedom is a fine thing but few nations are worthy of it.’ If I remark on the purity of morals that distinguishes the United State he declares ‘I can imagine that a stranger who has witnessed the corruption which prevails in other nations would be astonished at the difference.’ At length I leave him to a contemplation of himself. But he returns to the charge and does not desist until he has got me to repeat all I have been saying. It is impossible to conceive of a more troublesome and garrulous patriotism.

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

“[There] are…perils which can be understood only if we realize the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon; and of power to become vexatious if the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently. The ironic elements in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue. America’s moral and spiritual success in relating itself creatively to a world community requires, not so much a guard against the gross vices, about which the idealists warn us, as a reorientation of the whole structure of our idealism. That idealism is too oblivious of the ironic perils to which human virtue, wisdom and power are subject. It is too certain that there is a straight path toward the goal of human happiness; too confident of the wisdom and idealism which prompt men and nations toward that goal; and too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound.

“A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice…Genuine community, whether between men or nations, is not established merely through the realization that we need one another, though indeed we do. That realization alone may still allow the strong to use the lives of the weaker as instruments of their own self-realization. Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that the “the other,” that other form of life, or that other unique community, is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.

“In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited…Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. Unfortunately the only persuasive proof seems to be the disavowal of precisely those discriminating judgments which are so necessary for an effective conflict with the evil, which we are supposed to abhor. There is no simple triumph over this spirit of fear and hatred. It is certainly an achievement beyond the resources of a simple idealism. For na├»ve idealist are always so preoccupied with their own virtues that they have no residual awareness of the common characteristics in all human foibles and frailties and could not bear to be reminded that there is a hidden kinship between the vices of even the most vicious and the virtues of even the most upright.

“There is irony in the Biblical history as well as in Biblical admonitions. Christ is crucified by the priests of the purest religion of his day and by the minions of the justest, the Roman Law. The fanaticism of the priests is the fanaticism of all good men, who do not know that they are not as good as they esteem themselves. The complacence of Pilate represents the moral mediocrity of all communities, however just. They cannot distinguish between a criminal and the Savior because each violates the laws and customs which represent some minimal order, too low for the Savior and too high for the criminal.

“We…as all “God-fearing” men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. Even the most “Christian” civilization and even the most pious church must be reminded that the true God can be know only where there is some awareness of a contradiction between divine and human purposes, even on the highest level of human aspirations.

“…[I]f we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

--Reinhold Niebuhr in The Irony Of American History, 1952