So much hopeful rhetoric is flying around. Since Obama’s campaign, "the audacity of hope" has inflamed millions of Americans – not since the days of JKF, many say. To have a leader this bright, this charismatic, and with such an apparently strong moral center to boot. No wonder people are hopeful that maybe this one can lead us to where we need to be.
That’s all powerful stuff. But it isn’t the hope that can save us. The hope that can save us – the one for which we should truly be praying – is the hope that we citizens can get our own moral voices back. We’ve been spoken for by people for whom greed, violence and brutality were the paramount American traits, while we mostly just stood silently by.
We the American People invaded a sovereign nation six years ago – in violation of international law – to steal their oil, establish a military presence, and drive a wedge into the Arab and Muslim world, trying to pass it off as a bizarre sort of defensive move, or in search of the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, or just to remove their leader. We have lost over 4,000 American soldiers, with estimates of our wounded running as high as 100,000. And we have killed over a million fellow humans who had the misfortune to live in Iraq when our violent greed erupted. It happened because we would or could not find our individual voices, and let ourselves be defined by values that brought us worldwide shame.
Years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said that we begin to die on the day we remain silent about things that matter. And as Americans over the past six years we indeed began to die in the judgment of good people all over the world – people who used to admire us.
One of the painful lessons of history seems to be that bad leaders drag a whole nation down to their moral level. There is a lot of hopeful and exciting talk right now about regaining a quality of pride and confidence we have not had since the 1960s. It is one of those rare pivotal moments in a nation’s history when we are given the chance to be raised rather than lowered in the eyes of good people everywhere.
To some extent we can still just sit back like children and let our new leaders speak for us. So far, they seem to represent far more decent values than we've seen in awhile. But the rebirth is likely to be shallow and fleeting unless we can get back in touch with those deep parts of us that say greed is unworthy of us, military invasions driven by greed and covered in lies demean and disgrace us, and torturing other human beings is simply unconscionable.
We can learn something from the "Good Germans" of seventy years ago – all those good German citizens who knew what was going on but played deaf, blind and mute rather than confront those with authority. Bernard Schlink, author of the best-selling book and award-winning movie "The Reader," shared these thoughts during an interview with Charlie Rose in December:
"How thin the ice is on which we live, and how easily it can be broken… How fragile society is, which we build so these atrocities can’t happen." "The individual moral sense was too weak to let us resist."
During the past six or eight years, the individual moral sense of Americans was too weak to let us resist leaders who have embarrassed and disgraced our nation in front of the whole world. As individuals, we run the gamut from saints to sociopaths. But as a country, we are no better than those we have allowed to speak for us. The hope we most deeply need can come only from choosing a moral center, then finding the individual and collective courage to act on those high ideals and nothing less. The world is watching to see if we’re up to it. But the ball is not only in play by our elected leaders; the ball is in our court.