In a tough Inaugural Address that served as a set of marching orders, President Barack Obama painted the starkness of our historical moment—the “raging storms” of economic crisis, two wars, national decline—and laid blame all around: on the Bush administration and on the American public.
To rally us in this formidable struggle—history is short on nations reversing their decline and rising again—President Obama closed by reaching back to George Washington.
Setting the context of General Washington’s bulletin from the front—our revolution was in the balance, with the capital captured and our troops freezing (“the snow was stained with blood”)—President Obama chose these words to quote: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
“When nothing but hope and virtue could survive…..”
As if to say that, if all you have in your kit bag is hope and virtue, you not only have enough, you have everything the human heart not just wants but, going deeper, needs.
The hope part was familiar from the campaign; arguably, it was the hope mantra that got Mr. Obama elected. Millions of us, ashamed of the Bush administration’s malfeasances, had been sunk in despair; we’d been years without hope. Audaciously clinging to it in his own rise, Candidate Obama appealed with a call almost no American can resist: to hope.
But virtue? Defined as moral excellence, righteousness, goodness, virtue is a word and concept not only not current in American culture, it is mocked (along with prudence and temperance, other qualities President Obama invoked in his speech). How antique, how un-hip, how—God forbid—moral.
Yet, how exactly right for the new President to ring the note of virtue, because the crises raging about us stem in large part for moral and ethical lapse. For the inescapable truth is this: Our age is, to use a word of Shakespearean weight, corrupt—politically, financially, morally corrupt. And not to a small degree, but spectacularly, ruinously corrupt. Far from golden, our age is tainted brass.
Politically, our age’s corruption is bracketed by two “bad” wars, Iraq and Vietnam, both begun on morally indefensible grounds and maintained by official lies. Compared to a “good” war like World War II, an epic struggle of solidarity waged in a noble cause, Iraq and Vietnam, lacking such high motive, sundered us at home; the double tragedy was that the lessons of the first bad war did not forestall the second. During the Iraq war, and unconscionably for a civilized nation, torture became U.S. Government policy, backed by tortured legalism at the “Justice” Department and—the height of bad faith—committed in God’s name; thus was surrendered our moral standing in the world……
And now the financial corruption of our age is unmasked in almost daily scandals: banks in effect robbing their customers and investment houses robbing their investors, not by gun but by sleight of paper; CEOs pulling down obscene salaries and heedlessly pulling down their companies and employees with them; and, shredding all trust, the government’s multibillion-dollar rescue package(s) used by these institutions not to restart credit markets, as Congress intended, but to buy other financial entities and stoke executive bonuses. Has nobody in high finance heard of probity?
How did we get to this low point? Corruption being a matter of moral de-gradation, we got here step by step by step.
And, sorry to say, it was my generation—the boomers—who took those steps. Early on, the more conscientious of my cohort took on the Greatest Generation’s “oversights”—racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, stigmatization of the handicapped—hoping to equal our parents’ achievements in war and peace. But a good start was undercut by Vietnam—bad wars spawn bad ethos—and by my cohort’s less conscientious majority, whose excesses, narcissism, and lack of seriousness now brand boomers as the generation who dropped the baton.
Elemental to the boomers’ fall was the majority’s disinclination—its allergy—to things moral. You were thought a fool to ponder moral questions or claim that charting a moral life is our most important life task. Virtue? “Don’t be so righteous, don’t be a party-pooper, lighten up!” A person of virtue was beyond belief, simply not believed to exist. (And don’t even mention probity.)