This is the last part in a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse. (Read the series from the beginning here.)
By Stanley Baran
10. Achieving Dignity
In December, 2008 the Los Angeles Times acquired a leaked copy of a two-page internal White House memo intended for Cabinet members and other high-ranking Administration officials. Designed as a guide for discussing with the press and public President Bush’s eight years in office, it was titled “Speech Topper on the Bush Record.” It encouraged officials, among other things, to stress that Mr. Bush had throughout his two terms maintained “the honor and the dignity of his office.” Perhaps Mr. Obama’s successful invocation of dignity and his call to our better angels moved the White House to try to lay claim to some of Obama’s caché. Perhaps the Administration saw itself in the mirror and recognized an absence of dignity that, too late to be rectified, needed at least to be patched over. Perhaps dignity was just a word, a linguistic currency buying a basketful of extraordinary meanings, picked out of tradition, sounding presidential, and used to mark a transition. Whatever the reason for Mr. Bush’s desire to be remembered as a man of dignity, news of the memo led MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann to borrow from Senator Moynihan, telling his viewers that such a thing could come to pass only if Americans were willing to “define dignity down.”
But haven’t we been defining dignity down for some time? Rather than achieve the America embodied in our self-told stories, haven’t we allowed those cherished narratives to become detached from the realities they were intended to convey? Did we define our national dignity down to the point that our myth of exceptionalism morphed into what Glenn Greenwald called our “blinding American narcissism?” Upon the release of the December, 2008 bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report documenting the sanctioning torture by America’s highest level public officials, he wrote, “Just ponder the uproar if, in any other country, the political parties joined together and issued a report documenting that the country’s President and highest aides were directly responsible for war crimes and widespread detainee abuse and death. Compare the inevitable reaction to such an event if it happened in another country to what happens in the U.S.” Elsewhere he expanded on his theme of America’s narcissism, “The pressures and allegedly selfless motivations being cited on behalf of Bush officials who ordered torture and other crimes—even if accurate—aren’t unique to American leaders. They are extremely common. They don’t mitigate war crimes. They are what typically motivate war crimes, and they’re the reason such crimes are banned by international agreement in the first place—to deter leaders, through the force of law, from succumbing to those exact temptations. What determines whether a political leader is good or evil isn’t their nationality. It’s their conduct. And leaders who violate the laws of war and commit war crimes, by definition, aren’t good, even if they are American.”
But we are American, and we are proud of that. Yet when does our belief that we and our country are “wonderfully different from anything that has been,” in the words of philosopher Rorty, become undignified? Rorty, in a series of 1998 lectures on how leftist thought could help us “achieve our country,” addressed the issue of national pride, taking aim at a common pair of heuristics long employed to dismiss the suggestion that we, as nation, could do and be better—“America, love it or leave it” and its sibling, “My country, right or wrong.” He argued, “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.”
Comedian Bill Maher was more succinct, demanding of his Real Time with Bill Maher studio and home television audiences, “Stop bragging about being the best country in the world and start acting like it.” On his Lincolnesque train trip to his Inauguration, Barack Obama was more expansive, reminding us that in our desire to be human rather than animal, we substituted reason for instinct. Speaking in Baltimore he said, “What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry—an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.” Relying on ideology to reduce dissonance, depending on small thinking to arrive at the heuristics that free us from challenging our selfishness, retreating into prejudice and bigotry to make self-protecting attributions, those are indeed the easy instincts. No matter how hard it may be to define, no matter how infrequently we bump into it in our daily lives, we know that if dignity means anything at all, it means rising to the demands of our better angels, the good that resides in each of us and in those around us. Dignity had been leaving town well before the stolen Presidential election of 2000, but it is in the troubled years since that Americans seem to have reveled in its absence, substituting hollow myths and even emptier boasts for what was and is truly great about our country, our “nobility, courage, mercy, and almost all the other virtues which go to make up the ideal of Human Dignity.” If America means anything in the stories we tell to and of ourselves, it means that we are a nation of dignity. Few would deny that this is the greatest hope for our country; few can deny that we have failed to meet its demands. Will we do so now?
Stanley Baran is Professor of Communication at Bryant University. A Fulbright Scholar, he is the author of Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture and Mass Communication Theories: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. He writes frequently on the media, popular culture, and our understanding of ourselves and our world. He will happily provide citations for this series’ quotations and statistics. Simply e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran