Evening In America

In 1980 I attended the Republican National Convention in Detroit. Since the nominee was a movie actor, I wrote a screenplay about it that appeared in this magazine. Had it been greenlighted, by his second term the film would have borne the title It’s Morning in America. It was not. The moment was magical: a moderately successful movie actor who had hopped from left to right under the tutelage of his wife becoming president of the United States. I did not know then that evening was coming to America.

Perhaps I had missed a clue. It could have been this: Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” assured me during the convention that their man did “not read books. He reads reports.”

Evening did not begin at that convention, nor during the election. The cell that multiplies, the killing thing, lies beneath the observable world. Reagan began his campaign in Mississippi, with a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, close to the place where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan said there, close by what some Americans would call hallowed ground. “I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” He soothed and sweetened what had only the day before been moral disgrace. It was as if all the decadence of centuries had been gathered into a few sentences and said in the jelly-bean rhetorical style of Ronald Reagan. He carried forty-four states.

The ultimate effect of the work of the man with no philosophy was to be a philosopher: he removed ethics from politics. Everything followed on his elegant excision, an operation performed so deftly on the body politic that it did not feel the wound.

Aristotle said that the political body is nourished by ethics, but he did not persuade me that a lack of ethics would bring down the darkness over the grand American experiment. I thought that a democracy so blessed, so brilliant, could survive without ethics. I was a young man then, and I did not believe in death. At the Republican Convention in Detroit, I laughed during the speeches and interviews and did not shiver as I had in San Francisco when Barry Goldwater urged the country, in his furious, slightly crazy way, to abandon reason in the defense of reason. The Detroit convention did not have an aura of seriousness: a movie actor could not waste the ethical nourishment Roosevelt and Johnson had given to the body. Only sixteen years after Goldwater was made into an American laughingstock by a television commercial showing a little girl counting down daisy petals to the instant of nuclear holocaust, Reagan went to Mississippi to say good riddance to ethics. Hadn’t I been there in the room with Reagan when he spoke to the Republican black caucus and could not remember the name of a single person present? Why should his remarks at the Neshoba County Fair have been a surprise?

In the eighteenth century Francis Hutcheson had said that the greatest good is the  happiness of others, and Reagan’s philosophers—Kristol, Cheney, Bush, Podhoretz, Falwell, Strauss, and Bloom—had said it is not so. Benevolence disgusted them. They spoke of natural law, but what really occupied their thoughts was a return to the Hobbesian state of nature in which every man is pitted against every other and the only duty a person has is to himself.

Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways. With no ethical component to national politics, President Obama could deliver his 2011 State of the Union speech without ever mentioning the word “poverty,” although one in every five American children lived in poverty. Without a commitment to Hutcheson’s idea of the greatest good, which is at the core of the original American philosophy in Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this may no longer be the brilliant experiment. If happiness is for the few and it produces unemployment approaching that of the Great Depression, then the shadow of evening is here.

Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death.

I have wished for many years to be a physician for my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.

No nation is forever.

—from “American Vespers,” Earl Shorris, December 2011 Harper’s


5 Responses to “Evening In America”

  1. 1 possum November 21, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    “Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance.” There is the best synopsis of today in America I have seen for a bit. Unfettered capitalism and politics without rules are ruining all chance of real life in our nation these days. The solution is not going to be an easy one but at least some people seem to be awakening to the issues these days. Let the rally continue so we may have some hope of a real future one day.

  2. 3 possum November 22, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Subscription only. Do you have a copy to share with a lowly marsupial?

    • 4 bluenred November 22, 2011 at 10:42 am

      If I included a link, it wouldn’t work for you, because you don’t have the magic charm. I’ll roam around the tubes and see if some Bad Element somewhere has brought it out from behind the subscription wall.

  3. 5 theo January 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Shorris identified the treatment as LOVE and ethics. Let’s not miss that; it’s important.

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