This moment of inflection in America is not about political ideology or political competence, it’s about the lack of moral competence, whether you’re talking about the national political scene or the political condition of St. Louis.
What does the political face of moral incompetence look like? Consider for a moment the stark character difference in two privileged rich white men who have been POTUS in the last 30 years: the late George H.W. Bush (1988-92) and Donald J. Trump. No matter what your opinions of his politics or policies, you couldn’t question Bush’s competence or fitness. Trump, on the other hand, shouldn’t be left alone with his small grandchildren.
There are not now, nor have there ever been, large complex societies that are direct democracies. Some societies are more antidemocratic than others, but none are democratic in the way Americans misunderstand democracy. The best you’ll ever do is for the elites to have democratic values. Power is always unevenly distributed throughout any society, which means influence about how a society is governed is unevenly distributed. It’s from this power disparity that elites in a society are formed. All power elites have two imperatives: to maintain their privileged status and to protect the society that makes their privilege possible. Enlightened and competent elites understand and accept that protecting the society is more important.
The French have a phrase that captures this notion, “noblesse oblige,” which means with your privilege comes corresponding responsibilities to the larger society that has granted that privilege. In well-ordered societies, economic and political elites will govern in ways that produce a benefit for those who have less power; when the benefit is great enough, the less-powerful citizens will legitimize the status of the more-powerful elites.
What creates this symbiotic relationship between privilege and responsibility? In a word, it’s culture.
It is the culture that shapes the character and values of any society. How elites understand and manage the society’s economy and politics is a function of a value system that’s transmitted via the culture. The most important value a culture has to successfully transmit to each generation of its elites is this sense of noblesse oblige. Once elites internalize a value system that separates their privilege from a larger social responsibility, you have society in decline. This is what’s at the core of this moment of inflection in America.
In January we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and in February we commemorate Black History Month. In both instances, we freeze Dr. King in August 1963, and in both instances we do Dr. King a great disservice. We freeze Dr. King in August 1963 because it makes white people comfortable. It makes them comfortable because the improvised closing of his speech gives white America forgiveness without confession, redemption without atonement. It’s the same reason the American establishment loves the Nelson Mandela who was released from prison and will completely ignore the Mandela who was imprisoned.
Dr. King was a man of extraordinary intelligence and moral awareness, and because of that he was always evolving. Put another way, he was always woke. Let’s consider what Dr. King has to say to us about America’s moral condition at the end of his too-short life.
In his last conversation with Harry Belafonte, shortly before his assassination, he said, “I have come upon something that disturbs me deeply. I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid America may be losing what moral vision she had. Until we assure the underclass has justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”
As we consider our options in 2019 and beyond, we need to be ever mindful that the house called America – or St. Louis – is very much on fire, and the people you’re dealing with are the arsonists who started the fire.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.