“…to make ourselves better”

Published: December 28, 2018

By Jim Lichtman
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“Individual faults and fragilities are no excuse to give in, and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too….” – Senator Edward M. Kennedy, speech at JFK School of Government, October 25, 1991

On September 9, 2011, hate and terror paid a visit.

Not long after the first two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, another plane attacked the Pentagon and a fourth – scheduled to crash into the The White House – crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania due to the heroic efforts of its passengers.

On that fateful day, America faced a crisis like no other. And yet, out of that hate and terror, the country pulled together and moved forward to heal and become stronger.

In a crisis of conscience in 1950, freshman Senator Margaret Chase Smith stood up against the fear and unreason popularized by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

“I speak as a Republican,” Chase Smith told her Senate colleagues, “I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. …I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny: fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”

At this moment in our history, the country is again facing a moral crisis. Few will stand up and speak out against those same four horsemen.

Our history is filled with stories of political and ethical courage during challenging times. And during those times, we made ourselves stronger and better.

So how do we move through this latest incarnation of dread and hysteria?

Maybe by remembering the ethical values that have sustained us in the past: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Justice & Fairness, Caring, Civic Virtue & Citizenship.

Trustworthiness requires each of us to not only be honest with one another but avoid deliberate misrepresentations of fact.

Honesty requires us to elevate principle above expediency or self-interest and to demonstrate the moral courage necessary to stand up and be counted despite social, economic or political pressures.

Respect calls upon us to not only treat others with courtesy and civility, but to accept other’s beliefs and differences without prejudice.

When we demonstrate the value of responsibility, as ethicist Michael Josephson defines it, we understand that we must not only pursue excellence in our own lives but be accountable for our words and actions.

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph,” Edmund Burke observes, “is for good men to do nothing.” The 18th century Irish statesman and philosopher reminds us that we have a duty to act as well as to refrain from improper acts.

Perhaps the most difficult of all ethical values, Justice & Fairness requires that we apply open and impartial processes for gathering and evaluating information necessary to making decisions.

Caring takes into account The Golden Rule – do unto others – to maximize benefits and minimize harm to others.

The dual facets of Civic Virtue & Citizenship recognize that each of us has a duty that extends beyond our own self-interest to contribute to the public good in our community as well as our country.

Living our lives by these values is not always easy. It requires the ethical commitment, consciousness and competency to live our lives in an honorable fashion. That doesn’t mean we will or should be perfect. It does mean that we should strive, as Edward Kennedy says, “to make ourselves better.”

In the end, this country is only as strong and vital as its citizens demonstrate a commitment to ethical values.

Despite the crises of the past year, “We are,” as historian David McCullough said in a 2001 speech, “still the strongest, most productive, wealthiest, the most creative, the most ingenious, the most generous nation in the world, with the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, of any nation in all time. …

“We’ve seen the most divisive Congress in memory,” McCullough added, “become the most united Congress in memory, for the time being at least. We have all that to draw upon. And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength. And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”

… and what together, we can achieve again.


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