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.