Archive - December, 2017

Surveying Our Ethical Landscape

I’m about half-way through Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls and I was struck by the recounting of Thoreau’s survey of Walden pond.

The pond had never been surveyed and local lore had it that the pond was bottomless.

In the depth of winter, when he could walk on the frozen water, Thoreau set about surveying it.

He determined it was 102 feet at its deepest point. But more importantly, the survey became a symbol for truth that would guide Thoreau throughout the rest of life.

In his journal Thoreau wrote, “The line of greatest breadth intersects the line of greatest length at the point of greatest depth or height.” This seemingly simple mechanical observation became a measure for ethics as well as mechanics, writes Dassow Walls.

In his journal Thoreau said: “It is the heart of man—It is the sun in the system…Draw lines throughout the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man’s [sic] daily experiences and volumes of life into his coves and inlets—and where they intersect will be the height and depth of his character.”

In Dassow’s words, “The angle intersection inscribed by our particular daily experience, the coves and inlets of our lives, will ground the decisions we make, our actions in the world. And the sum total of all our moral actions combined will constitute the ethical character of the society we build together.” 

As I was reading this I also saw an interview Donald Trump gave to the New York Times in which the fact-checkers for the Washington Post document that he gave misleading or false statements every 75 seconds—twenty-four inaccurate statements in 30 minutes.

And these were the on-the-record statements. His off-record lies were not counted in the Post’s tally.

In this light, Dassow’s summary of Thoreau is deeply unsettling—“the sum total of all our moral actions combined will constitute the ethical character of the society we build together.”

Blatant disregard for truth matters. Claims of fake news matter. Accuracy matters. The sum total of our actions constitutes the ethical character of the society we build together.

The Trumpian society is built upon falsehood, exaggeration, bullying and racism—undergirded by political sycophants and apologizers from the white Christian evangelical tradition.

The conservative former Congressperson Joe Scarborough writes in an op-ed in the Washington Post of a gathering storm.

“America’s constitutional norms tremble in the balance as Trump unleashes furious attacks on First Amendment protections, independent counsels and law enforcement officers who refuse to be bullied. While the framers of the Constitution foresaw the possibility of a tyrannical president, they never let their imaginations be darkened by the possibility of a compliant Congress,” writes Scarborough.

What is at stake in these troubled times is the ethical character of the society we build together. Will it will continue to be a democracy, imperfect to be sure, built on justice and equity, or an unequal and unjust morass of lies, deceit, ignorance and racist alienation?

The coming months will reveal the angle of intersection inscribed by our daily experiences, the decisions we will make, the sum total of all our actions.

Will we survey the breadth and depth of our responsibilities and return to leaders of integrity who observe constitutional norms, justice and honesty? 

Or will we normalize falsehood, ignorance and bullying, and lose our democratic ideals, and perhaps more?