During the past week we have witnessed a number of morality-challenging incidents which, amazingly, have generated little or no outrage from what passes for leadership in the United States these days.
On Sunday, at the annual Tony Awards Ceremony for Broadway productions, respected actor Robert DeNiro stood in front of a packed Radio City Music Hall and said “F**k Trump,” not once but twice. And what happened when he demonstrated total public disrespect for the office of the President of the United States? He received a standing ovation from the audience. No one walked out! No one objected! No one was outraged at this blatant destruction of the concept of respect for the office regardless of who occupies it.
When I served in the U.S. Army so many years ago we were taught over and over that saluting a senior in rank was a mark of respect for the rank regardless of who was inside the uniform or what we may have thought of that person. In DeNiro’s case I am not sure what was more bothersome, that he said what he said or that he received a standing ovation for saying it. In both cases moral people should have been disgusted by what we saw. And yet there is no outrage, and no leadership ready to object.
In another case, earlier this week President Trump’s Trade Advisor Peter Navarro said on Fox News Sunday about Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.” The remark resulted from the President not liking what Trudeau said at his press conference after President Trump left the G-7 meeting and was on his way to Singapore, complaining all the way that the U.S. has a huge trade deficit with Canada (America’s largest trading partner, by the way).
But the fact is that Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, in their 2018 annual report signed by Trump, stated: “In 2016, the United States ran a trade surplus of $2.6 billion with Canada on a balance-of-payments basis.” Meanwhile, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative says the trade surplus with Canada was $8.4 billion while the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis says the surplus was $7.7 billion in 2016 and nearly $2.8 billion in 2017. The estimates are all slightly different, depending on how the data is collected and analyzed, but the consensus is that the United States is running a surplus.
So why does Trump claim a deficit? Because he does not count trade in services, which include, among other things, telecommunications, accounting and legal services, and tourism. Services are increasingly a large part of U.S. trade and, in fact, it may be undercounted because economists have not figured out how to accurately measure digital trade, where the United States is the world leader. But facts are not the President’s strong points and Navarro, following the lead of the President, bashed the head of government of a country to which the U.S. exports well over $300 billion annually. And yet, once again there is no outrage, and no leadership ready to object.
What is the connection between these two examples? It’s really quite simple. Both situations illustrate that society has degenerated to the point where what we used to call “gentlemanly norms” (pardon the sexist nature of that terminology) no longer exist. Under that rubric there was language that was not acceptable in the public discourse, there were diplomatic ways to get one’s point across without vile insults, and there was a modicum of respect for rank whether in the public, private or military sector.
Those principles held together pretty well as long as the political leadership adhered to them because the average member of society took his or her clues from the leadership. Sadly, the political leadership in many parts of the world believes that there are no boundaries to the use of insulting language. To be sure, there are plenty of cases supported by public records where rough language was used in private conversations with former U.S. presidents. That will happen as we are dealing with human beings and none of us are perfect. But people lived with borders and those borders provided a framework for respectful interaction.
Today those borders are in disarray if not totally absent. And while many may postulate that the openness of our society, the freedom to speak one’s mind and the rise of populism is a wonderful thing, I cannot help but feel that the price we are paying for that openness and freedom is simply more than it is worth.
Winston Churchill once said: All the great things (in life) are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope. Would that our present leadership understood that.