Where Is the Moral Outrage? A Sign of the Weakness of Liberal America

If one viewed a time-lapse film of American civilization in all its dimensions unfolding over the past 15 years or so, one would see terrible damage being done.

In those fifteen years:

    **Our capacity to talk sanely and constructively together about our nation’s problems has been

    **Power and wealth have been transferred from the many to the few.

    **War-making under false pretenses sullied America’s standing in the world.

    **Power-seeking obstructionism has rendered our political system impotent to meet our nation’s

    **Unhinged political beliefs, based on falsehood and warped perception, have advanced from the far fringe into the heart of one of our major political parties.

    **The potentially catastrophic disruption of our planet’s climate has gathered momentum, while in one of our two main political parties it has become dogma to deny the scientific consensus, paralyzing the ability of the nation to respond to this serious crisis.

All these instances of profound damage to America have been inflicted by the once-respectable Republican Party.

What is the appropriate emotional response to such a political force, and to those who serve it, that tramples on so much that is vital to the integrity and health of our nation and its people?

I have an answer: the response that’s called for is moral outrage.

If injustice does not outrage us, what should? If the deception and manipulation of trusting supporters is not an outrage, what is? And likewise with the wanton trampling on our best democratic traditions and the rule of law.

Yet– how much outrage have we heard from Liberal America?

Not much . Not much when the Republicans gave us the most lawless presidency in American history. And not much as they’ve given us America’s party-in-opposition that’s least concerned to serve the nation’s good.

It is outrageous how President Obama has been treated by the Republican opposition — like no president in our history. But moral outrage seems to be outside this president’s emotional repertoire. He’s been slow to call out the Republicans in any way, but even when he does, it is with a sense of bemusement. He just became the first president in American history to be sued, but his response is smiling, sardonic.

Do we want Americans to be bemused by this plundering and degradation of what generations have bequeathed us?

It would be good if President Obama had worked as hard as America’s most insightful and talented critics of this right-wing wrecking crew — like Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart — to point out the Republicans’ aberrant contradictions, illogic, and wrong-headedness.

These important media voices have done a great service. But their main approach in their critiques is ridicule. Do the smiles and laughter they so skillfully evoke help to mobilize their audiences to do battle with the force that’s degrading our nation?

That’s what moral outrage does.

Think of the famous World War I recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg, depicting a man of powerful build taking off his jacket as if eager to fight. At his feet is a newspaper with the headline, “Huns Kill Women and Children.” He is clearly outraged, and the poster says, “Tell That to the Marines.” Outrage prepares us for battle.

That shows why moral outrage is the appropriate feeling in the face of destructive force that’s taken over the right. For this force must be fought and defeated.

Why is it that Liberal America has shown so little heat and passion in the face of transgressions of the most pernicious kind? Here are three ingredients of an answer.

In liberal America, there is a queasiness about the whole dimension of morality. Words like “moralistic” and “judgmental” signal a wariness about making the kinds of moral judgments that light the fires of moral outrage. In some parts of liberal culture, it’s more comfortable to ridicule the foolish than to be outraged at the wicked.

In Liberal America today, there’s a tendency to think that fighting is wrong. To fight is “to sink to their level.” Ridicule and mockery allow one to feel one has already put the despicable in its place, even while nothing in the world around has changed. But moral outrage is more dangerous, because outrage summons us to battle to change the actual balance of power.

And finally, there’s the intimidation factor. The dynamic between the right wing and Liberal America has much in common with bully and bullied, or abusive husband and battered wife. Intimidated, fearing a fight, Liberal America shies away from outrage and the frightful prospect of confrontation.

These ingredients are a recipe for weakness. And it is weakness that is the contribution of Liberal America to our national crisis.

And yet this weakness is not an inherent property of American liberalism. For proof, we can turn to a speech given by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he ran for re-election in 1936:

Never before in all our history have these [divisive, big money] forces been as united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

Oh, to hear Liberal America speak that way now.

14 thoughts on “Where Is the Moral Outrage? A Sign of the Weakness of Liberal America

  1. Dr. G.

    I think liberals aren’t outraged. That’s why you aren’t seeing it. The last time I experienced any real cohesive outrage in this country, besides 9/11, was the response to the O.J. trial. That’s what outrages us these days: if we think someone is getting away with something they shouldn’t. Otherwise, there’s mostly complacency. Why? I don’t know, but that’s how I see it.


  2. Richard H. Randall

    Americans through history have been about as ambivalent about politics as other nations. It takes a lot to get us going-some of us are there now, or have been for many years. But it takes a critical understanding and awareness of our ethics, our history, and politics over time to comprehend the danger we are in. And friends-we are in real spot, which is just about to become manifest to even the dullest of us.

    After WWII, and the subsequent revival of Western Economies, that greatest generation, and their children did pretty well. We even took on the inherent racism of the ‘conservatives’ dems and republicans alike, and made some progress to help women and other minorities. We had a great space program for a time, we stared down the USSR, until they cracked up,
    and we are still making some headway with personal and civil rights. We are a complacent people—-but are waking up to the facts on the ground and the well-reasoned and scientifically supported conclusions that should shake our insular world views greatly. The transfer of wealth to a small minority, the indifferance to global warming as a fact and a danger, the lies told by the previous administration to go to WAR, the loss of prestige amongst the rest of the world,,,,,,well you can fill in the blanks. Andy has given us many lists to ponder. I live in Eastern Washington State, and
    and we are choking on the smoke from our central fires, going on for months now with record destruction and cost.
    I do not know if Putin plans an insurrectionist-guerilla type war in Ukraine, or if he might be planning an even greater scale conflagration in the very near future. We should be worried about this, as well as the current fubar in Iraq. I applaud the President for taking military and humanitarian action there. He should cease talking about no boots on the ground: artillary naval gunfire and air power cannot hold land: it takes grunts to do that. And I ask why should it be all up to the Kurds. It is the responsibility of the Iraqui people to provide this defense. It is indicative of the weakness of that nations government, and its sordid religious fanaticism and factions, that it cannot do it.


  3. Richard H. Randall

    It is certainly not a necessary aspect of Liberalism that it cower to bullies. Thanks for posting FDR’s comments here: they are some of my favorite. Had President Obama struck back in Roosevelt’s tones, in the first 3 months, I believe the nation would be much better off. He didn’t, and we aren’t.


  4. Robin Pettit

    Richard Randall, I mostly agree with you, however, Barack Obama is insisting on a true inclusive government before he puts boots on the ground. I am ambivalent about this, but I do agree this is the only solution that has a chance of working other than a complete takeover of Iraq by the ISIS forces or whatever they are called. I assume you have heard that the Iraqi government, in a change of heart, is now supplying weapons to the Peshmerga forces of the Kurds.

    If we take out ISIS with our boots on the ground, to really take them out and remove them will require going into Syria too. Now, this coupled with a true inclusive government of Sunni, Shia and Kurds in Iraq, a kind of tri-partite government with a central government in Baghdad is the solution I proposed back in the beginning even before George W. Bush started this war by taking out the government of Iraq of Saddam Hussein.

    The debate about our place in Iraq and how to deal with ISIS, if we can get past this partisan divide, may provide a means to restart reasonable dialogue between the parties. Personally, I don’t think this is likely, because too many on the right are personally against Barack Obama, come hell or high water, or war for that matter. But is another opportunity none-the-less.


  5. Richard H. Randall

    Hi Robin. My thinking at the time that I wrote the above was to basically provide for the defense of the defenseless. I agree wholly with you, that it primarily the responsibility of the Iraqis to win this war and eject ISIS. This will take some time and the needs of the inhabitants of Iraq are immediate.
    No, I wasn’t aware that the I. government is supplying arms and ammo, etc. to the Pesh Murga. That is a step in the right direction. I thoroughly agree with the idea that it will take a unified government of all democratically involved Iraqis to eject ISIS, and to maintain a functioning democracy for all the citizens. Al Maliki is a huge problem and he is still in power….
    I don’t want an American solution imposed but a successful set of operations won by a nascent Iraqi democracy and its allies!


  6. Robin Pettit

    I think the Iraqi government is supplying arms and ammo to the Pesh Murga because they are desperate. Too bad they didn’t try to have an inclusive government when they weren’t in such desperate straits. That is the problem, they don’t think ahead just about what is happening right in front of their faces.


  7. Richard H. Randall

    I think you’re right. I also think the Iraqi government is terrified, but they cannot get out of the box of tribal thinking.


  8. Robin Pettit

    The Iraqi government is terrified, I agree and they are falling apart. Nouri Al Maliki, a George W. Bush plant, IMHO, is totally self-centered and is willing to split the government to keep his position. This is a disaster in the making and will become a sectarian nightmare. Pretty soon the Shiite and Kurdish governments will split and then I predict the Shiites will get to experience government by Sunni extremists if this keeps up. I hope Turkey and the US will help keep the Kurdish area independent. My statement seems weird but I do believe Turkey has an interest in an independent Kurdish state and has made statements to that effect. Also, there are reports the US is now also supplying arms to the Kurds.

    Nouri Al Maliki, a George W. Bush puppet should make people in this country outraged and angry at the Republicans. But I do not think too many people see the linkages. Similarly with Hamid Karzai.

    I 2nd Richard H. Randall’s recognition of the FDR quotes, also some of my favorites and Barack Obama’s lack of rhetoric even approaching what FDR said was an early indicator of his lack of appreciation of what he was against, and for that matter, what we are up against.


  9. Richard H. Randall

    Just in: al Maliki agrees to hand over power by resigning, whilst his successor is putting together a far more inclusive coalition. let us pray this will help that troubled nation pull it’self together and eject the ISIS monsters. Obama still way to skittish: preserving and assisting the Yaizidi is not the whole issue.
    The immediate help to the Kurds, the re-arming of the Pesh Merga, are critical next steps. Obama too much in a hurry disconnect: now is the time for substantive strengthening the democracy. Great to hear that Germany, France and England giving help here as well!
    Robin, you are correct about the ‘leaders’ placed in to power by the Bush gang: corrupt, inefficient, and bad for their countries.

    Just learned that one of the reasons that Russia is so adamant it must control
    eastern Ukraine: an unimaginable amount of hydro-carbon reserves there. Google has a feature called “Order of Battle,” which you can get by signing up for news there.


  10. Robin Pettit

    Richard, I also heard about Nouri Al Maliki has decided to step aside. Perhaps reason and reality finally intruded in his mind. I was not expecting this although I was hoping for this. I am not sure the Administration is pulling out quickly. Time will tell. I haven’t seen articles about this, rather I have seen articles afraid he will be too quick to escalate. I guess it depends on your personal view as much as any. If what remains of Iraq pulls together with an inclusive government and motivates, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis to fight for their country, because it represents them, it will be a major improvement. It is hard to fight for something you don’t believe in and I think that was a major problem with the Iraqi’s initially in their lack of ability to fight against ISIS or whatever they are called.

    I expect many Republican politicians to criticize Barack Obama’s decisions in this no matter what he does. So far, he has done what I would have done, perhaps a few days later than I. You can’t reward a bad actor like Nouri Al Maliki. Until he was gone, it just wasn’t worth it as it would just make a bad situation worse. They blame him for the rise of ISIS even though ISIS genesis was the unrest and lack of true participatory government in both Iraq and Syria.


  11. Robin M. Pettit

    Here is an article I found on the Democratic Underground site. It indicates that Barack Obama doesn’t have any planes to deescalate the air strikes in Iraq. No mention of the arm being supplied to the Kurds though. I believe the original source was the New York Times.


    1. Andrew Bard Schmookler Post author

      I for one am unable to say that there was a better way for Obama to play this situation in Iraq than the one that he has chosen. Al Maliki posed a serious problem, with the futility of putting Iraq back together immutable so long as he was in power. And as Frank Rich says in a current piece, “We can’t allow genocide to proceed unchallenged in a country we broke and never fixed.”


  12. Robin M. Pettit

    Andy, I agree with you too mostly, as well as Richard. Supplying arms to the Kurds and doing airstrikes with special forces on the ground to coordinate forces is critical to doing it right. Is there a chance we may have a few Americans die, yes, but that is what it means to be at war. Perhaps, now that Maliki is out, he will start supplying the Iraqi government with arms and ammunition and a unified Iraq will start forming for real. It may be a while before the Sunni’s develop enough trust to get fully invested though. This is also true for the Kurds.


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