With Fresh Eyes

A Moral Obligation

There is an expectation that our country should be the model for others in exemplifying our basic values – of all that is fair, just and moral. American exceptionalism is the term often brought out to characterize the country’s place and role in the world. Historian Ian Tyrell defined American exceptionalism as “the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals.” And, because of this uniqueness, the U.S. has a special role to uphold - that of moral and principled leadership.

The chronicles of our history show an uneven record in meeting these expectations. Notably, in a salutary manner, we were in the forefront of the fight against fascist rule, mobilizing in a concerted effort during the prolonged World War II years, and we re-built Europe in the aftermath of that war through the Marshall Plan, creating strong alliances that have endured for decades. Americans are first on the front lines when disasters strike, rushing supplies and support to victims of earthquakes and hurricanes. With such efforts, at home and abroad, it has been demonstrated that we are a giving, charitable people.

We also bear the scourge of slavery and segregation of the African American, the open wounds of the slaughter and oppression of the Native American. We hold the largest prison population in the world. Racial profiling remains a flagrant violation of minority rights. Gun violence is rampant, an aberration not familiar to other countries. Mass shootings prompt schools to conduct active shooter drills.

The author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his acclaimed book Between the World and Me, wrote, “I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.” The late author Toni Morrison, in an essay from her last collection The Source of Self-Regard, reflects on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, taking note of his “confidence that there are moral grounds we would not abandon, lines of civil behavior we simply would not cross.” We have drifted from these moral standards in recent years. Our civic discourse has lapsed into divisive lines of discord.

Policy leadership has fallen aside as well. A glaring example is the dismissive posturing at the highest levels in this country toward the crisis of climate change, a crisis verified by scientific evidence. The Amazon is burning, the glaciers are melting. According to a National Geographic report, 76,000 fires were burning across the Brazilian Amazon this summer, equating to 7,000 square miles, almost the size of New Jersey. Severe drought and deforestation, the clearing of forests for crops and livestock, have left the “lungs of the world” in peril.

The glaciers of Greenland, as one example, are disappearing as well. This summer’s record heat has resulted in 440 billion tons of ice melting or breaking off from the giant ice sheet of the world’s largest island. Noted Belgian climate researcher Xavier Fettweir warns that the melt zone in Greenland is expanding, and extreme melting is linked to changes in the atmosphere. He said, “If we don’t drastically cut our carbon emissions, the disintegration of Greenland’s ice sheet may be reached twice as fast as estimated.” The U.S. cannot concede its moral obligation in this crisis, but pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, aimed at reducing carbon emissions and signed by 195 countries, and dismissing climate change as a “hoax” are a relinquishment of leadership.

The naturalist Edwin Way Teale gave us, through his writings, an enlightened gaze into the natural world yet, in turn, cautioned us of its possible irreversible loss. He wrote, in 1978, after a walk through the woods and fields of his Connecticut home, “I return home with a sense of health and sanity and well-being. I have been in contact with the enduring and the real. A return to the out-of-doors is essential to physical, psychological and emotional welfare.” He added that we face risks to the natural world, that the “threat is real, and the outcome depends on the wisdom and courage of those who are on the side of original, natural life.”

For the sake of future generations, and their survival on a sustainable planet, let us heed the warnings of science, and let us embrace the words of those closest to this good earth. Let us choose the moral path.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com