On the very day, at the very hour, at the very moment that I am writing this article, the United States of America teeters on the brink of civil war…
Sounds very Star Wars-y, doesn’t it? To be honest, listening to the airwaves or browsing social media (or really any kind of media at all), these days it seems not beyond the reach of imagination. The political sphere of the USA, and by extension vast portions of the social sphere, are currently at violently opposed ideological odds.
If the Election of 2016 was not enough to make this clear (and all of us who lived through it will remember it for years and years to come), the events in its aftermath have done so. The whole world is watching Americans tear each other to pieces…and not always as a figure of speech.
Here is the story of what is happening, now…
On the floor of the United States Senate: a debate. The issue on the table? Whether to confirm President Donald Trump’s candidate for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions.
In the midst of these proceedings, Democratic Senator of Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren takes the stand. She is opposed to Sessions being granted the position. More than a little opposed…Warren is vehemently against this appointment, and she makes her argument by reading aloud from a letter to the Senate.
It is a letter dated 1986, a letter of considerable weight given its author: Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1986, Coretta Scott King opposed the appointment of Jeff Sessions to a judge’s position, due to the fact that he had already used his power at that time to menace black voters.
Warren’s implication was obvious: a man with such a history was not fit for the position of Attorney General. Such character flaws cannot be lightly thrown aside.
It was at this point that the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Senator of Alabama Mitch McConnell, silenced Warren by invoking an rule of the Senate stating that one senator cannot challenge the integrity of another on the senate floor. It is an old rule…it has been called archaic since these events transpired.
Warren was not allowed to continue reading.
The upheaval of emotion from both sides of the political line, because of this exchange, has been stupendous, feeding the fires of both Right and Left, the hatred of both Red and Blue.
Not since the Wars of the Roses have two colors been such vicious political nemeses.
I would like to take a step back from this whole debacle…and it is a debacle, I think…back from whatever character flaws Republicans have accused Warren of demonstrating, both on and off the senate floor, back from whatever character flaws Democrats have likewise ascribed to McConnell, back from the hellfire and brimstone raining down from both parties on the other, back from the insinuations about their ancestry… I do not know enough about any of these politicians to make a fair analysis of that sort.
I would like to step back from all of that, and breath, and think, and look, look very carefully, not about what each side is saying, but about what this conflict is doing to the United States of America.
There is a quote that has been flung around exuberantly since the election of President Trump. It is a quote by Plato, the Greek philosopher, the student of Socrates, the founder of the Academy, and the teacher of Aristotle. It goes like this:
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.
To be honest, I am puzzled by the intention with which this quote has been so frequently shared over the last couple months, because I am not really sure that it has been applied accurately. What the political Left seem to mean when they share this quote (and they do seem to be the ones doing most of the sharing) is one of two things: either, a blanket statement implying that President Trump, and presumably the entire Republican party, are morally and intellectually inferior to themselves, or a rebuke to the American Right imploring them to see that they have been deceived into electing a man and an administration who are “their inferiors.”
If the second case is the reality of the situation, I feel a shred of hope for the situation, because it would show that at least one of the parties involved genuinely cares about the wellbeing and ethical stability of the other. That, to me, would be a fantastically hopeful sign.
If, however, the first case is the true intention, then this is a dire position indeed, because if the Left believes not simply that its policies are more suitable, more practical, more effective than the Right, but that it is morally and intellectually superior to the Right, then this is not a group of people which I would choose to govern my country. The moment that one group of people claims moral superiority over another, they can declare anything that they do “right” and anything the other does “wrong”; and the same moment, when one group claims to be intellectually superior to another, that group can then claim that it is their solemn duty to enact compulsory indoctrination, to ensure that the other group does not remain in their dark, uneducated, less evolved stage of existence.
Regretfully, it is this attitude which I witness far more prevalently than the other, and it is not exclusive to one group or another. There appears to be, at this moment, stewing in the heart of America, a virulent animosity founded on the steadfast belief of each party that they are holy, the other wicked; that they are wise, the other stupid; that the sins and shortcomings of the other are unforgivable, curable only through conflict and, ultimately, being stamped out.
What they cannot believe is that the current political situation has arisen through a lack of participation in politics. Indeed, all of the evidence suggests that people care very much about politics. The American Right certainly cannot be accused of not participating in politics, as the stunned disbelief of the Left in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton made painfully clear.
Furthermore, like so many quotes that run the gauntlet of the internet, this one seems to have suffered in translation from person to person. The most accurate source I can find directly from Plato’s Republic goes like this:
But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.
~Plato, The Republic, Book I sec. 347
In context, this quote is saying something quite startling. Plato has just concluded that the only person truly fit to rule will be the person most capable, yet least willing to rule. He goes on to say then that there must be some law put in place that will compel this “best person” to rule in spite of the fact that they don’t want the job, otherwise someone less capable, but more willing will rule in their place. He then points out one of the downsides of this for the “best person”: the chief penalty (of not ruling when you are the most fit to rule) is to be governed by someone worse. He goes on:
It is from fear of this, as it appears to me, that the better sort hold office when they do, and then they go to it not in the expectation of enjoyment nor as to a good thing, but as to a necessary evil and because they are unable to turn it over to better men than themselves.
Quite separate from the bleak contrast which this attitude makes with our current mode of politics, remember that The Republic is a layered study of human beings, virtues, ideals, and justice. Analogy is made between the way in which a single human being operates, and the way that an entire society functions.
Our American society is, at the moment, filled with ugliness, hate, and spite. Not one person who lives in this country is unaffected by these things, and much of the world is experiencing the shockwaves of our collective self-loathing.
As I step back from it all, I understand that I can only step back for so long. Either I will be dragged back into the fray (and trust me, excluding myself from the conversation does not exclude me from blame), or I must dive in willingly.
Here is what I see…
Unless people change, society will never change. Unless justice can be found in the individual, it will never be found in the culture. Our politics are full of bitterness and resentment because we are full of bitterness and resentment. We are full of hate. We are full of spite. We are full of ugliness.
If the chief penalty of a person not holding office himself or herself is to be governed by someone worse, and if society is meant to reflect the individual, then it follows that if the society is in disarray, you will find individuals in disarray. Look around you for the briefest moment, then look harder, deeper, and you will find at every level that this is so. And, if individuals are in disarray, it follows that the individual is not ruled by the best possible person.
This is not an exhortation to think for yourself, to believe in yourself, to be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. Our culture is overpopulated with petty gods.
We are not gods, but mortals, and until we find that best of all possible rulers, simultaneously more powerful yet more humble than all others, point to them and say, “That. That is the one fit to rule me,” and follow them, there will be no peace in our souls, there will be no rest in our families, and there will be no justice in our culture.