The conscience of our nation is in the process of exiting the presidential race — or being unceremoniously pushed out, depending on who you listen to – accompanied with big sighs of relief from many for whom a conscience is an inconvenient burden; and with a blessing of the so-called pragmatists who, while eager to invoke conscience and the values it represents when it suits them, are nevertheless not entirely convinced of its usefulness. Yes, they talk about values and all that touchy-feely stuff, but when the proverbial push comes to shove, or even just a gentle nudge of special interests, those values are summarily set aside as ever so impractical. Too idealistic, they say – as if they set the metric for idealism and were qualified to offer such judgments.
When you are dispensing with a conscience, the best way to do it is through good-sounding rationalizations and earnest assurances of the mutuality of the parting. This is made all the more convincing if one presents the benefits of what remains. Stressing how useful, efficient, and successful life without a conscience will be from now on has an undeniable appeal to many. The exhausting high hopes that lead to gnawing doubts and inner conflicts they engendered can be put to rest now, while we focus on achieving our goals. These may not be the goals you wanted, and certainly not the goals your conscience would approve, but, practical people that we are, we understand. As with so much in life, you may not get what you want, but you get what you need. So they say.
The conscience personified is, of course, Bernie Sanders – the real Improbable Candidate, unlike the other one whose flaming narcissism is rather well suited for our nation as it reflects so much of its own character, even though we may loathe to admit it.
From the very beginning, his campaign, much more so than that of Agent Orange, elicited incredulous “Whaaa…?s” and contemptuous snickers from People Who Always Know Better. Who does he think he is, that cantankerous socialist from Vermont? The hair, the rumpled suits (he even wore the same one to the White House Correspondents Dinner, can you imagine?), the old car – what on Earth made him believe that he could inspire any following, much less become a serious contender? And did we mention that he is a socialist? There is hardly a more dreadful label that can be applied to a person in this country. A feminazi may come close, but its context is more specific – you have to be a woman — and its sting not as poisonous, easier to laugh off.
Talking Heads could hardly contain their condescension when speaking to and about Bernie. They couldn’t help but guffaw when mentioning his socialism and inquired, insistently and often with poorly disguised hostility, just when he would drop out. No, seriously, isn’t it time already? Such is the inconvenience that a conscience creates at times, particularly when it interferes with our carefully laid out plans to achieve a self-serving goal, that we do our very “best” to mute and remove it. The sooner, the better.
We like our candidates to espouse some ideals, but not so much as to make us nervous. We are a practical nation – or so we are told – that understands the need to compromise. Too much idealism can be hazardous to our collective health, giving us dangerous notions about how things ought to be and making us notice just how far away they are from that ideal. And that would only lead to misery and discontent. It is far better to focus on what we are being told is achievable, as practical people should. Equality – yes, it would be nice, but we can’t have it (yet or at all – that’s never quite clarified). Justice – of course, but, you know, there are limitations. Peace – a grand idea, if we could only afford it. Dignity — maybe, if one is into that kind of thing.
These human values, which our conscience clamors for with annoying insistence as if it did not know anything about pragmatism and compromise and so-called realities, are skillfully used by conscience-deficient politicians who trot them out for public applause, but shed them as easily in the privacy of their well-appointed homes as they do their designer garbs.
Bernie is different in that he lives them. That’s what integrity is.
And it shows, and grows steadily a movement of millions who pitch a few dollars here and there to make sure that the conscience of the nation will be heard and make a difference in their and everyone’s lives. They come to his rallies by the thousands, though you may not know it as People Who Always Know Better are busy spinning a conscience-free fool’s tale into a coherent vision of something, anything. One is compelled to wonder what this election would look like if our media covered the socialist with the same fervor they devoted to the sociopath. But our media has priorities too, and they show, as they always do. Not values, just goals: chasing profit is not a value, but a goal, and the first priority of our so-called free press.
So this is what integrity looks like – messy hair, a rumpled suit, an old car, doing what’s right for the right reasons — and we should pay attention because not many today understand what it really means. People are so unused to it that they don’t know it when they see it and mistake it for its opposite, accusing the man of posturing in self-interest and self-aggrandizement when he upholds the principles he preaches. Curiously (or not), those are often the same people who look at the cravenly, obscenely self-aggrandizing valueless candidate and praise his “integrity” in “telling it like it is.” We show our values, or lack of them in our judgments, just as we show them in our actions. They define us to ourselves and to others.
Even more importantly, however, this is what an active conscience – a creature so rare as to be endangered today, certainly in politics – looks like. Because one can demonstrate integrity in pursuit of one’s primitive goals: if I tell you that I’m going to clobber you into a bloody pulp and I proceed to do just that, I have shown integrity, of sorts. This is the easiest sort, because nothing is easier than to give in to our primitive wants and desires, particularly when we have no conscience. But when one preaches the highest human values and ideals, and lives his or her life according to them – which is something far more difficult than many realize – that’s integrity of the highest kind.
An active conscience is always unsettled and unsettling and that can be a mighty inconvenience, in an individual’s life as in a nation’s. It questions our cherished beliefs and lofty motives, it exposes the gap between our words and actions, it makes us feel the always uncomfortable and distinctly un-American shame and guilt, it clarifies our values and insists that we put them in action. What a nasty annoyance that is.
But it is also a nice thing to have to showcase during special celebrations – ceremonies and parades and whatnot — as long as it knows to keep quiet, and either smiles or nods solemnly, depending on occasion.
So we have to pretend to listen to it and appease it sometimes, if only for the children — the way we did again this time. In showing what was meant to be his appreciation for Bernie’s ever-so-quickly summed up and put aside role in this election, President Obama praised his influence on Hillary as a “healthy thing” as he rushed to endorse her. Yes, having a conscience to stop by sometimes can be healthy, but let’s not make it a habit.
This attitude couldn’t be better illustrated than in the photograph, featured on top, which accompanies Matt Taibbi’s excellent piece on the lessons that Democrats will most likely not learn from their brush with
conscience Bernie. Here, amidst the opulence of the palace is the palace gate keeper, Harry Reid, making sure the concerned-looking (isn’t he always?) conscience Bernie does not cross the threshold and create some unpleasantness with his presence, as he is wont to do. Harry appears to lecture or admonish Bernie on something, his index finger extended to better make his point, while the space between them is pierced by a blinding burst of sunlight. There is a crack in everything, as Leonard Cohen sings, that’s how the light gets in.
An anonymous commenter* on Raw Story made the following astute observation:
In a Freudian sense: Trump is the Id, Clinton is the Ego, and Sanders is the Super Ego. We as voters will respond to one, depending upon how we are driven. This is telling about the very character of America.
Indeed. Although a conscience is more than Freud’s superego which was full of harsh demands and prohibitions imposed on us by punitive parents. Conscience is built, first and foremost, on empathy and the caring bonds it helps us create with other people and the world.
This election season, like no other in the recent past, has exposed many until now unseen or unmentioned, and unmentionable on purpose, rifts in our society. Fates themselves could not have written a better script, casting the main characters as the embodiments of the major trends unearthed by those rifts.
The conscienceless Id, with its rapacious drives unencumbered by any reasonable limitations of an ego and either unaware or openly contemptuous of human values, propels itself forward toward its primitive goals by the inherently destructive force of its rage, augmented by that of its supporters. The Id attracts most easily the similarly conscienceless, who were either born or became this way.
The Ego reminding us, ever so reasonably, why it should be in charge (because reason and reasons), draws in the pragmatists who appreciate the conscience, generally speaking, but are not ready or willing to follow its dictates. Good, practical people, as practical people go. They’ve been around a block or two, so they know what’s possible. Equality, justice, peace are nice ‘n all, but not really possible, as anyone who’s been around the block knows. You young ones will too learn it one day, they proclaim.
And the Super Ego, or our conscience rather, comes straight at us, without pretense or embellishments, but with an insistence that feels at once fresh and familiar, showing us what matters and why, and we are astonished to realize how obvious it is and wonder, for a moment, why we have forgotten it. Why indeed is an important question that has to be answered individually by each one of us, but also collectively, as a nation. Those answers are not easy as they bring about inevitable shame and guilt (if you have a conscience), but also a recognition that there is a better way possible, that we do not have to be enslaved by the primitive drives of our Id or compromise our values to appease the pragmatic Ego.
This election is different not only because because it has revealed the unbridgeable chasm between human values and craven valuelessness, but also because it has showed us that we can live our lives in accordance with those values which our conscience teaches us are true. And there are people, right here, among us, who show us how to do that – the way Bernie has, a rumpled suit, an old car, ‘n all.