Friday, February 17, 2017

Thinking out loud

My friend Bookworm wrote a blog post explaining why she was recently indignant about Facebook acquaintances on the political left who tried to shame her into compliance with the dominant narrative about immigration. I'm not on Facebook and did not follow the argument, but it sounds like the people trying to shame Bookworm are, for all intents and purposes, open borders activists. I bet they were or are concerned about our allegedly mean-spirited president and anyone else who has the temerity to think that immigration laws should be enforced. But Bookworm's having none of it.

"America is not a shame culture," she noted. "It's never been a shame culture. And I'm for damn sure not going to accept it being turned into a shame culture now."

 I think Bookworm is right, but I started wondering why. I suspect that the reason that America is not a shame culture is that America is not a tribal culture. This country was founded on an ideal of equal justice before the law, and that's something you can subscribe to and celebrate regardless of social class, skin color, or any other characteristics commonly used as tribal identifiers. Shame works best as an incentive for behavior change in tribal societies, but tribal societies don't scale well.

Native American leaders realized that even before making contact with European culture (hence their formation of what would eventually be known as the Iroquois Confederacy). Ben Franklin, that genial master of cultural appropriation, was riffing on the same insight when he said in the eighteenth century that delegates to the Continental Congress had best throttle back on any consuming loyalties to their own colonies because if they didn't hang together in the fight with Great Britain, they'd all hang separately. And (to cherry pick a final example) Abraham Lincoln came along four generations later with a famous "house divided" speech that made the same point but drew on the bible for inspiration.

Past is prologue, they say, but it can sometimes be ignored. Because there are now more than 300 million of us and progressives have been saying for about fifty years that "the personal is political," we sometimes self-segregate into tribes. When we do, we're egged on in that "us vs. them" endeavor by community activists and other players in the "professional grievance" industry.

Fortunately, there is an accessible corrective for that tendency: all it takes is a walk back through the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution to see that the Founders set this country up as a nation of laws rather than as a nation of men. Our founders were acutely aware of the dangers of tribalism, and designed a system of checks and balances to avoid that. Even the simple Deists among them were familiar enough with Christian scriptures to see parallels between tribalist politics and what Saint Paul warned the Corinthians about in 1 Corinthians 1:12, which can be paraphrased as "If you all are running around saying things like 'I belong to Paul' or 'I belong to Apollo' or 'I belong to Cephas,' then you've lost sight of the unity in Christ that we said you all share."

Laws are meant to unite, and shame is meant to divide. That's not to say that shame is not an effective weapon in the arsenal of any functioning conscience, but shame depends on honor, and law sets the bar a little lower, requiring only simple obedience. There are sound reasons why societies built on shame have more than their share of capricious "off the rails" moments (think of the Salem witch trials,  the multi-generational and basically intramural feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and the justification for vigilantes and dictators everywhere). It's much better to be "a nation of laws" than "a nation of men."

For all the carping about President Trump's megalomania, he's not the one who put the bully back into the "bully pulpit" or justified executive orders with the pithily arrogant and stunningly dismissive "I've got a pen; and I've got a telephone."

Tribalist thinking encourages a cult of personality, which is why I'm impatient with pundits who talk in terms of "Barack Obama's America" or "Donald Trump's America." Yo, peeps -- ours is one nation, under God, indivisible. No president, good or bad, can lay claim to the American ideal, because it's bigger than him (or her) by design.

Paul Bolt had Thomas More explain the virtue of the law in his magnificent screenplay for A Man for All Seasons. More has a famous conversation while in jail when he's visited by his son-in-law, William Roper, who remonstrates gently with him for not making an effort to get with the program (because only 'getting with the program' will save More's life). Roper correctly surmises that More would give even the devil the benefit of law, but that rectitude shocks him:

Roper: So now you give the devil the benefit of law?
More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?
Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Thomas More was not alone in his enlightened humanist and Christian respect for law. It's not hard to imagine that his contemporary and fellow martyr, John Fisher, could have had a very similar conversation, albeit without an admiring biographer to immortalize his words later. Neither More nor Fisher would be shamed into abandoning principle, because neither one of them confused shame (or honor) with the law founded on recognition of inherent human dignity that Christian influence made bedrock for Western civilization.

1 comment:

  1. Well stated. I especially appreciate the example of tribalism in our country's current political environment. Our country is, as President Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address: "a nation, under God...(and a) government of the people, by the people and for the people" Our president, the Congress and the judiciary are not our rulers. They are public servants. The "tribe" does not rule, nor do the tribal leaders in this country, or, at least, that was not the intent of our Founding Fathers.