By Dr. Joseph Chuman
It was unimaginable four years ago. As I write this column, our president has restated that if he loses the election he will not concede. In our land the peaceful transition of power is the centerpiece of democracy, and we have come to expect it as we do the sun rising tomorrow. Imagine the following: Since it’s assumed that many Democrats will vote by mail, what if on Election Day the incumbent is ahead, but fated to lose after all the ballots are counted, which may be days or weeks after Election Day? It opens the space for untold mayhem. I read that the top military know where their ultimate loyalty lies, i.e. to the Constitution. In despotic countries coups are usually deployed by the military or with the military not far in the background. Here, we might have to hope that the military will save us. In an historical blink of an eye, this is where we have come. Let us hope that our fears are not realized.
This, of course, is not all. As we all know and deeply experience, we are living in exceptional times. I suspect there is a narcissism that comes with many eras. Those who lived through the Civil War, the Depression, World War II, the 1960s felt that their times were also exceptional.
Major, simultaneous assaults
But what’s distinctive about our age, of course, is that we are afflicted with several major assaults simultaneously, including a pandemic that has pervasively disrupted our lives and severed social relations. With uncertainty as to when it will end we endure gnawing anxiety. Society confronts massive economic dislocations, including surging job loss, evictions, and ruined businesses that will never return. And we have ongoing social protest, born of police killings of African-Americans that is deeply lodged in systemic racism that permeates multiple strata of American society. As noted, the election looms, an election in which democracy and the American experiment hang in the balance.
We are personally challenged as perhaps never before and all that assails us forces us to do a lot of coping. We look for strategies. Perhaps we periodically turn away from the news and try to focus our attention on smaller things if we can. Perhaps we get ourselves back into that book. Perhaps we cultivate new, structured, habits: We periodically take a walk, cultivate an interest in nature, stop for a moment to focus our attention on things of beauty. And perhaps, despite the demands of personal distancing, we reach out to strengthen our bonds with friends to find needed strength to get by. This last strategy seems most important.
What I am suggesting is that we can turn inward to find needed renewal to meet a new day. We need to do what we must to get by. But sometimes for some, strength comes from turning outward in an attempt to redress the multiple challenges that we confront. Some have found solace in volunteering in food pantries. Others have delivered groceries to those more fully quarantined at home. And many have engaged the political moment. Some have committed themselves to voter registration drives. They have engaged in protests demanding racial justice. They have actively supported political campaigns.
Inflection point for America
Many sense that our current catastrophes have engendered a political and social inflection point for America. The future may not look like the past; it may even be better.
I want to focus on the concept of exceptionalism for a moment. We are, as noted, in an exceptional moment. But America has often considered itself an exceptional nation. The notion of American exceptionalism has had many meanings, and we can question whether any of them remain apt, if they ever were. The Puritans saw a divine hand in the settling of America and referred to the new land as “a shining city on a hill.” Many have considered America as exceptional because it is one of the few countries rooted in ideas and ideals—freedom, equality, opportunity—and not one based on identity with a majoritarian ethnicity. One public figure who embraces this concept very often is Barack Obama, and I think his belief in America’s exceptional status may be a source of his perpetual optimism about the nation’s future.
For Obama, America’s exceptionalism is rooted in what he sees as a distinctive American commitment to our national self improvement. We can take our founding ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity and apply them to our current condition and emerge as a better people for it. His belief lacks the hubris characteristic of chauvinism because it starts from the realization that American society is flawed. It is not that we are an unalloyed good people, only that we can make ourselves better, inspired by our founding ideals.
The role of ideals as inspiration
I see a bit of overlap in this with the philosophical outlook of Ethical Culture’s founder, Felix Adler. Adler powerfully affirmed the role of ideals in inspiring us to improve our lives and the life of society, recognizing that we are finite and fallible creatures and we always fall short of reaching our ideals. But he also asserted that in the frustrations of falling short we come to cherish the truth and value our ideals even more strongly.
There is something in these insights that we can use in our current circumstances that demand so much of us. Perhaps given the darkness of the moment it is hard to even imagine that we will get beyond it. But in order to cope I think it is important that we shape a frame of mind that we will get beyond it, that there will be a better day. We can employ a commitment to our ideals to personally lift our spirits and summon the energy to build a better America.
Historically, even the darkest periods were followed by periods of social and political progress. Medievalism was followed by the Renaissance and the Age of Science. World War II and fascism, arguably the nadir of the career of humankind, spawned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which ushered in a rights revolution for the world’s disenfranchised and a unified Europe at peace.
Exceptional nation put to the test
The pandemic has unmasked deep-rooted weaknesses and injustices in our economy. Police murders have spawned an extraordinary movement to undo deep-rooted racism. Economic suffering may lead America toward greater egalitarianism. The autocratic, deranged tendencies of the current administration may inspire a renewed commitment rooted in the best of America’s democratic values. Our exceptional nation is put to the test as seldom before. In short, what we are experiencing now, however trying, may lead to the maturation of American society. Our exceptionalism may be rooted in the ability of America, our society and government, to renew itself.
We need to sustain our optimism and our faith. After the night comes the dawn and the phoenix rises anew from its ashes.
I have entitled my Oct. 4 talk “America, the Exceptional Nation: Are We, Should We Be, Can We Be?” I wish you well in these hard times and I look ahead to being with you.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.