Saturday, December 1, 2018

When Mere Decency Seems Heroic

The following may read like a disrespectfully back-handed compliment (poorly-timed, to boot), but I feel compelled to make a larger point - one that I suspect George H.W. Bush himself would have eagerly agreed with.

What It Takes, the much-admired study of presidential politics, marvels at Bush's common touch (read the chapter for free here). As a WWII officer, he had personal relationships with the enlisted men under his command. He referred to his chauffeur by his name, rather than referring to him as "my chauffeur". He behaved like an ordinary guy, rather than like a stuck-up patrician prig, and for that we are to laud him.

And as president he disavowed the political rise of David Duke, an unrepentant Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. We are to deem this a monumental gesture of humanitarianism.

I get it. I myself once wrote that "character is measured by the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise," and George Bush had plenty of character (not to say he was a moral paragon, which he certainly wasn't). And it's undeniably true that character is in very short supply these days on all fronts...and has never been particularly common.

But it's nearly impossible to express how sad it makes me to be part of a species where character is so rare that we celebrate its possessors as heroes. Treating people like people and declining to condescend oughtn't be heroic. Disavowing Nazis oughtn't be heroic. Are we really to be moved and inspired by mere common decency?

Whenever someone dives into water or otherwise puts themselves at risk to rescue someone, newspapers deem them a hero. Inevitably, the hero objects that this is simply how everyone should act...and this "modesty" adds to their heroic legacy. We would do well to listen more closely to such "heroes", and take them at their word.

Same for celebrated people who refuse to take personal credit for epiphany, eureka, and inspiration, since this stuff - the really good stuff - inevitably arrives from who-knows-where. Why don't we take them more seriously when they try to explain this?

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