Woody Allen famously posited that while God exists, God is nonetheless an underachiever. Western liberal democracies are committed to fundamental human rights, but alas, too often, too many of us are morally underachieving. Our theoretical academies are beacons of enlightenment, but too many of our marketplaces are exhibiting tendencies more befitting of the Dark Ages.
It is comforting to explain away our underachievements as temporary pauses in our “inevitable” march toward moral progress. Global terror, the newfound power of social media, a particularly weak candidate, ongoing economic stagnation, or even the discovery of a previously unknown tribe (i.e., the Uneducated Angry White Male), are all offered up on the altar in order to appease our moral conscience.
Our shortcomings are thus neither endemic nor indicative of our “true” selves. Furthermore, overcoming them is merely a procedural issue which will be resolved in the next electoral cycle.
But what if our under-achievements reflect a much deeper moral decay that we have allowed to fester at the heart of our societies? What if a much deeper challenge lies before us?
Our nation-states are conglomerations of multiple socioeconomic, religious, ethnic, gender, and national sub-communities, tribes if you will. Non-liberal democracies maintain social order and the myth of national cohesion through tyranny – the subjugation by one tribe and its representative – over others. Remove the dictator, and the oppression and fear that are the tools of his rule, and the state dissolves into a war of all against all.
Enlightened liberal democracies offer us a better path – human rights. All human beings are endowed with a myriad of inalienable rights and freedoms which protect them either from the tyranny of the minority or the majority. Citizens, residents, foreign workers, and refugees, while not equal and distinguishable under the law, nevertheless carry a bundle of rights which obligate all, and prevent them from becoming politically, legally, and morally invisible.
Yet, despite our various constitutions and Bills of Rights, our nation-states are home to tribes that are feeling increasingly threatened and endangered. At times their lives, often their liberties, and certainly their ability to pursue happiness, is endangered. We are underachieving.
Much has been written about the politics of fear and its catastrophic moral consequences. Fear is not merely a human emotion activated by real or imagined danger. It is a vision modifier. In evolutionary psychology it is one of the essential tools for survival, as we prioritize our own immediate needs and put them first. Under the cloud of the politics of fear, the rights of “others” can cease to be inalienable, as the fittest strive to survive. Under the politics of fear, we can become morally righteous, despite our oppression of others.
Politics of fear, however, is merely a sub-category of a much larger and more morally challenging and less recognized phenomenon – the Politics of But. “Yes – but” is a known game that we play with others and ourselves in order to disarm criticism and advice, and to sustain our current mode of behavior, our status quo if you will. “I know that I have to talk to my child about their addiction, but it won’t change anything.” “Yes – but” does not merely guarantee in this case that the child will not change, but more significantly that I don’t need to change my familiar mode of behavior.
The Politics of But takes on many forms particular to each society and occasion. In Israel, it looks something like this: I believe in freedom of religion – but I need to maintain my coalition. I am committed to equality for all of Israel’s citizens, Jew and Arab – but security must come first. More than anyone, Jews ought to be sensitive to the needs of refugees – but we need to preserve Israel as a Jewish state. No one loves peace more than we do, and consequently I am committed to the two-state solution – but we offered and they said no, and / or we have no peace partner. In the United States, the recent election is but a resounding testimonial to the penetration of the Politics of But into American civil, moral, and political life.
The Politics of But allows us to maintain our theoretical commitment to our principles, all the while immunizing us from having to act on them. It removes the quality of shame so essential to moral progress, and insulates us from the social criticism that our societies so direly need.
Through an amalgamation of fear, anger, tribal loyalty, and ideology, the Politics of But expands stealthily within our political discourse and neutralizes our moral commitments. Over time, it also changes them. As Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona, the author of Sefer Hahinuch, famously taught, “Our hearts follow our actions.” Behavior does not merely reflect our principles, but has the power to change them.
Western societies have more racists, fascists, misogynists, anti-Semites, and anti-Muslims than we want to admit. While they will not be persuaded by moral discourse, and certainly not by the arguments presented here, the good news is that they are, I believe, a minority. We have not regressed into the Dark Ages. However, decent people, people committed to the principle of human equality regardless of race, nationality, religion, gender, or sexual identity, have allowed the Politics of But to misdirect our moral compasses. We have given to the haunting voice of But too much sway over our lives and our principles.
Whether on the political Left or Right, conservative or progressive, hawk or dove, we need to create a new coalition. A bipartisan coalition to insulate our moral commitments and standards from the Politics of But. We need to rebuild and recommit to the red lines that ensure and protect moral decency.
If world politics has taught us anything over the last few years, none of us is immune to the Politics of But. If we are to make our societies great again, it will not be by counting on the false sense of security provided by our constitutional and legal systems, but rather through tireless educational efforts to elevate the civility within our civil society.
Alas, we are morally underachieving, but we do not need to be underachievers. Societal transformation and moral enlightenment are never parachuted from on high, and any promise of easy redemption is but to believe in a false messiah. We have much work to do. No buts about it.