Balance of Principle and Pragmatism

“By putting a premium  on listening, not lecturing, and by injecting a corrective dose of pragmatism, an impression has been left that America’s historic support for the spread of democratic values has diminished,” wrote James Rubin in the December 14, 2009 edition of Newsweek. His article, How America’s Commitment to Democratic Values is Waning, sheds light on omissions in contemporary American rhetoric and policy and suggests we consider whether these omissions were accidental slips or signs of a more substantive change.

Rubin confidently intones that “our power and our values cannot be separated. More than any other country on earth, America has been committed to principles in foreign affairs.” But, I’m left unconvinced. I’m not setting out to demonize our government or to gainsay the American ideal; I’m just wondering if, as a nation, we’re drifting closer or farther from our values. Hell, I’d even be satisfied if I could determine we were just staying the course.

This week I saw James Cameron‘s Avatar – twice. I’m a little ashamed by how infatuated I am with the film, despite it being a suspiciously perfect amalgamation of Fern Gully, Dances With Wolves, and The Matrix (but that’s neither here nor there). As I left the theatre, I was working through some of the questions raised in my mind when I suddenly became concerned. The question I stumbled over was: Could the human race would actually be capable of the acts performed in that movie?

At first, this was one of the more insignificant questions inspired in me by Avatar – more a wisp of air than a real, tangible question. Just as I was about to brush away the notion as patently impossible (of course the human race would never commit such desolate, evil acts!) it occurred to me: we have done exactly that. And not just long ago in our distant past, but recently! The Holocaust, apartheid, and a dozen other genocidal campaigns that we too easily forget are poignant, but haunting reminders. I’m not suddenly afraid of an impending racial doom – but I’m forced to wonder: is James Cameron’s vision of us in 2154 possible? Are we growing more enlightened, more dedicated to our values? Or are we growing apart from our values and calling it “realism?”

James Rubin doesn’t seem afraid that we’re on the brink of catastrophe, but you have to admit that when the question of whether or not we’re dedicated to our values even needs to be asked, something is seriously wrong. That, I think, should be our first hint to self-evaluate and get back on the right track.

Burned-out After Reading

Last weekend I went with friends to see Seven Pounds, which critics seem to agree is Will Smith’s latest triumphant disaster. Although the film is most often attacked for what may be perceived as unbearable sentimentality or implausibility, I, for once, was able to take Coleridge’s advice to “suspend all disbelief” and enjoyed the film immensely. In fact, unlike many films, this one haunted me. Over the next couple of days I dwelled on this or that aspect of the film until, finally, I was inspired to re-read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The connection between Smith’s film and Shakespeare’s play seems abundantly clear to me, though I’ve yet to see a review which mentions it (so if you know of one, point it out to me). Of course, where Shakespeare’s Shylock was hell-bent on taking a pound of flesh for wrongs done to him, Smith’s Ben/Tim Thomas is hell-bent on giving away a pound of flesh for wrongs he’s done to others. I’m a Burkeian at heart, so the idea of deeply-rooted guilt resonates with me. The film and play have much more in common, but that’s not what I wanted to write about today. Perhaps that will be another post.

In any case, as I re-read Shakespeare I was taken aback by how prescient and valuable his work remains. I know I should not have been be surprised, but I was – especially with the following monologue, which I felt compelled to highlight:

“So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search’d, have livers white as milk;
And these assume but valour’s excrement
To render them redoubted! Look on beauty,
And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. ”

(Merchant of Venice, 3.2.73)

On a personal note, it struck me as hugely ironic that directly after finishing the play I picked up my notes from the International Leadership Conference in LA a couple of weeks ago and found this quip by Jean Lipman-Blumen: “We concentrate so much on charisma…I’ve had it up to here with charisma. I think that people will sometimes polish and burnish their charisma and will fail to work on character.”

I’m not the only one who sees the echo of Shakespeare in that, am I?