From the Dean: How to Survive Times Like These

October 28, 2016

Just when you think this presidential election cannot get stranger, we turn a corner and find ourselves in a new dimension of the Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it is going to get better anytime soon. The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia released a 2016 survey last week called, “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy: The 2016 Survey of American Political Culture.” The study suggests this year’s relentless melodrama might become the norm for our national election cycles. If true, this calls for looking at the underlying variables that have made this election process so painful and toxic, as well as strategies for what we can do to build a better common political life. 

It seems that we aren’t paying enough attention to three fundamental forces making this election cycle different from others in our history. First, we have reached a new threshold in a three-decade erosion of the membrane that separates our private and public selves.  In the past, some presidents have been anything but choirboys, and held many secrets about their personal lives that political journalists did not make part of public discourse. Some of the examples most of us have heard about are Thomas Jefferson’s long-time affair with Sally Hemings, a slave on his plantation; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s paralysis and John Kennedy’s Addison disease and hypothyroidism, which caused him to collapse twice at public events; or Lyndon Johnson’s (or Kennedy’s) many extra-marital dalliances. These presidents ran for office and got a lot done as commander-in-chief without these more private and personal parts of their personalities getting aired in the media. In those generations, people had a distinct sense that some attitudes and behaviors existed in the private domain, not the public.

This was not considered a problem of authenticity, but rather a culturally understood and accepted sense of privacy. People had scores of commonly used phrases to signal what side of the private-public dichotomy something belonged. “Keep it in the family,” a parent or grandparent might say, or “this doesn’t go out of the house.” If a young girl got pregnant, or a family member developed a drinking problem or started exhibiting mental or emotional problems, families and communities had ways to keep these realities from public view. There is no doubt that era is over. The social revolutions of the 1960s swept it away, when the decision-making machinations behind the American war with Vietnam became visible and the sexual revolution brought the most intimate areas of our human relationality into common public discourse. The growth of the mental health field also helped, as the negative unintended consequences of our personal and family secrets started becoming more obvious.  

By the time social media came along, the once sturdy membrane between a person’s private and public life had all but disappeared. To the consternation of many parents who monitor their children’s social media posts, things that may have been shared only with a best friend, or in a fit of anger or frustration among one’s confidants, is now regularly posted on Facebook, disseminated to the world on Twitter or Snapchat, or piped to the universe in visual form through Instagram. The chief topics of the past few weeks are connected directly to the collapse of our culture’s separation between the private and public – the shocking Access Hollywood taping of a private discussion Donald Trump had with Billy Bush, and the private emails that have been released by WikiLeaks from Hilary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Clearly, anything said or written in a person’s private life is now fair game for public discussion.

This melding of our private and public selves, as inappropriate and distasteful as it can become, is not entirely bad. The human race learned in the brutality of the 20th century that a self-aware and integrated personality is a critically important characteristic in any leader. Of course, the ancients knew long ago that character required habits for both our private and public lives; they knew that what we do in private establishes patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that unavoidably impact the way we choose, act and perform in all of our tasks, including our professional ones. We have re-learned this ancient lesson the hard way – it is necessary to have a consonance between our private and our public lives.  

A second force making this election cycle toxic is that some of our civic leaders are confused about how their personal value systems interface with the process of debating for a common good in a democracy. Values provide a compass for our life and are indispensable in helping us discern the many choices that lie before us as individuals and communities. Each of us needs to identify our deepest values, explore the sources that gave birth to these values, and create rituals and practices that keep these values as a central and consistent feature in our personalities. But, when we enter the public square in a democratic society, we also need to have skills to compromise with others. To engage in this difficult and messy work with integrity, we need to have our values prioritized – the medieval world called this part of “ordering our souls.” The ordered soul had a structured inner world that was aware of the most important values and their interrelationship with other values. This allowed leaders to deal creatively with the world’s complexity and gross imperfection. In our contemporary time, too many of us have our values so muddled that we cannot decide which issues are the most important.

This is blindingly obvious in a recent interview with former presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. Carson, who has spent many years speaking proudly about his Christian values and beliefs, did an exceptionally poor job trying to articulate his thoughts about where his highly prized “Judeo-Christian” ethic fit into decision-making for the public good. When the doctor was asked about accusations that Donald J. Trump may have sexually assaulted multiple women, this otherwise bright person seemed to suggest that fixing our economic problems eclipsed the moral concern that a Republican nominee is a possible serial sex offender. When Carson was asked directly if he believed the women accusing Donald Trump of inappropriate advances were speaking the truth, he said, “it doesn’t matter.” Carson’s argument went as follows: the nation is a train headed for a cliff and the U.S. needs a change candidate like Trump to solve those more important problems, regardless of what he might have done in the past to women.

One of the reasons this dismissive perspective angered so many people is that the United States has spent the past half century trying to make society fair and equitable to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, gender or sexual orientation. In this painstaking process, we have become aware of the privileged importance of honoring the dignity of human beings above all other values.  All other societal advancements, economic or otherwise, must build on this fundamental value. Carson, who is a former neurosurgeon specializing in separating conjoined twins, demonstrated with amazing clarity that many intelligent and otherwise good people in our culture have woefully confused value systems.

Lastly, this election seems to mark a turning point in our awareness that there has been a gradual growth in obnoxious personalities in American society. These self-absorbed people are increasingly dominating news cycles, and becoming an uncomfortable feature of the cultural landscape. In an attempt to understand this growing population, philosophy professor Aaron James wrote his awkwardly titled but insightful book, A**holes: A Theory.

James suggests that while a**holes have categorically distinctive features, they all share something: such people are always looking systematically for the special advantages that they think they deserve, and doing so because of an “entrenched sense of entitlement.” This entitlement is a buffer from intellectual, emotional and spiritual conversion, which immunizes them against complaints and observations by family, friends and co-workers that might lead to greater self-awareness and self-reflection, and a motivation to move toward more sociable behaviors. These difficult people also have deadened capacities of empathy and understanding, and a diminished ability to really listen to others.

Ultimately, James believes these personalities have an entrenched moral reasoning problem.  They use the pronoun, “I”, in an almost magical sense, believing that they have a specialness that entitles them to benefits that are not owed to others. The aggregate number of these irritating people is growing, says the author, in part because many organizations are preferring leaders with these behavioral characteristics. For instance, many corporations have shaped their cultures to believe that the only real duty of a company is to its investors. Such a culture allows the CEO to make decisions that benefit the investor at the expense of everything else, including the salaries and benefits of workers, with a “moral gusto.” As thousands of CEOs make decisions according to a narrow spectrum of values, the organizational leadership convinces itself that such decisions are not only morally justifiable, but for the “greater good.”  

What do we do about these three trends – the split-soul phenomenon of the separated private-public self, the disordered value system exhibited by Ben Carson, and the proliferation of a**holes in our world? For one thing, we will need to make a renewed commitment to character education, values formation, and spiritual formation. Ultimately, all three problems are manifestations of an inability to integrate ourselves and order our soul through the hard work of self-awareness, discernment, character development, repentance and reconciliation, and regular personal decisions to mature thinking and acting in our lives, communities and institutions.

Another important antidote to these three forces is captured in Michelle Obama’s inspiring suggestion for how to respond to dirty politics – “when they go low, we go high.”  But, going high isn’t just about deciding to always act like the grown up in the room. It also means looking beyond the flaws and warts of this time and place to a vision that stretches our imaginations.  Ironically, in the week that women started coming forward with accusations against Trump, Barack Obama spoke of the need for the nation to renew its desire to send astronauts to Mars. It was a stark contrast: a cultural fascination with the tawdry versus a vision of looking up to the stars, turning our attention from a shameful campaign to a transcendent challenge to conquer space. Overcoming the undertow of these three forces will not be easy. The tidal pull of cultural changes that release the darker energies in the human heart and mind has never been easy. But, going high and looking high has always empowered humans to find renewal in tough times.

Of course, there are situations when you just need a break from thinking about the whole mess. As someone who loves blues and jazz, I think of the way the blues tradition that grew out of the African-American community’s religious and spiritual heritage has always provided some people therapy for the dysfunction of life. A musician from this heritage once wrote a compelling protest song about the rising cost of food in a time of stagnant wages, the burdensome costs and dysfunction of the health care system, and the scandal of self-serving religious leaders trying to sell a faith that adds burdens to people’s lives rather than liberation. You might think such a song was written in the economic recession of 2007-08, or during the daily revelations of the broken health care system during the original debates in the early 1990s or the gruesome feuds around the Health Care Reform Act, or in the 1980s and early 1990s during the heyday of television evangelists, who made a fine art out of bilking the retirement funds of the elderly. But, Blind Alfred Reed wrote, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” in 1929. This is considered one of the first protest songs and it was recorded just one week after the stock market crash that caused the Great Depression. The hymn has been covered during trying times by many musicians in subsequent years. Ry Cooder, one of the world’s best guitarists, did a remake around the time of Watergate in 1974, and more recently Bruce Springsteen re-wrote the lyrics to speak to the New Orleans experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Reed’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1929. He poses the existential question of one of the greatest mysteries facing us – how will we get the strength to endure the bone-crushing challenges and soul-deflating disappointments of times like these, and renew our hope that our broken political and economic system can regenerate?

To endure the next few weeks, maybe we can take a cue from the African-American community, which survived the degrading humiliations of Jim Crow, in part, by singing and dancing to the blues until dawn. Once the sun is up, though, let’s get back to finding creative ways to offer character, values and spiritual formation. And, most of all, recommit ourselves to going high and looking high. That’s where the human race has always found salvation in crazy times, and if our religious traditions are correct, where we will find it in the next.