A dangerous obscenity: what’s dangerous about it is that spewing so constantly from the likes of the president of the United States, and, of course, others, it legitimizes the aggression of fools both left and right. Hence lamentations about the loss of “civility,” the untethering of democratic and social calm.
It’s both a human and historic danger. Carol Anderson, for instance, in her book White Rage, tells the story of the slaughter of African Americans in New Orleans in 1866. Justifying himself, one of the killers, still bloodied, standing over the body, said of the president, “Oh, hell! Haven’t you seen the papers? Johnson is with us!” That’s the sort of obscenity I’m talking about, the dangerous and violent kind. It’s the obscenity, I would guess, behind recent instances of violence against immigrants and people of color, as well behind the intimidation of politicians, public officials and the very real violence feared and experienced by too many journalists this summer.
The president, of course, isn’t the first cause of such obscenity. He’s more the sad product. The severest criticism to be made of him on this score is that he fails to comprehend the unique moral power of his office, the good of apolitical graciousness, the good of occasional self-effacing conciliation, and the utter pointlessness of tweeting, like an insecure teenager, about Lebron James or anyone else. His is a hardened, narcissistic obscenity, otherwise pathetic, but having become presidential is dangerous.
But again, he’s but the product of an obscenity bigger than he is. He’s no more morally degenerate than the rest of us; it’s just that he’s the president. Watch television for about a half-hour, thumb through Twitter or Facebook. The obscenity staining us, endangering us, is ours collectively, belonging both to the right and the left. It doesn’t belong to any one person; there is no single source. It’s us, each of us, each obscene. It’s become the substratum of our society. And it’s why we’re guilty too, even of the violence that shocks us, because it’s the fruit of our mutual hate.
Which is why, all the more, it matters that some strive for beauty, that as many as possible struggle to be beautiful in this unbeautiful age. That’s why I’ve not written as much about Donald Trump and politics as I used to, because I’m convinced the struggle is deeper.
More and more, I’m convinced what really matters is the rediscovery of beauty. Intellectual, moral, architectural, radical, subversive beauty, particularly the beauty of charity and kindness. That’s what will save us, what we should seek. Not, of course, as an opiate against fools and politics, but rather as the beginning of a revolution, of a new world born of the old one, of grace come again upon nature.
Because it is, in this ugly world, the one thing more powerful than presidents and partisans, the only thing different. That there are people trying to be beautiful, still, amid all this.
Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News.
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