Let love inform our politics this election season

By Benjamin Clabault

(Cade Belisle/ Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/ Daily Collegian)

The other night I took a break from my schoolwork to watch an episode of “South Park,” an animated series that layers obscene and sophomoric humor with exceptional political and social satire. The creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “The Book of Mormon” won the 2011 Tony Award for best musical, proving their creative credentials.

This particular episode was old; it had been released in 2003, shortly after the beginning of the Iraq War. It depicted heated clashes between anti-war protesters and supporters of the invasion. Eventually, fourth grader and unlikely hero Eric Cartman returns from a Revolutionary War-era flashback to tell the townspeople that both sides are right – war is necessary to further the nation’s interests, while peace-minded citizens give the appearance of a caring people tied to moral principles.

The episode serves to satirize the hypocrisy so prevalent throughout the history of the United States. While Stone and Parker’s example doesn’t tell the whole story, it is representative of our tendency as a nation to claim a commitment to an impressive set of values while actively undermining their spirit.

Our history is certainly replete with genuine sources of pride. The Constitution has proven to be a remarkable and enduring innovation in statecraft. Our aspirations to equality and freedom, as delineated in the Declaration of Independence, continue to inspire Americans in meaningful ways.

But we must not forget the negative side of our story, the suffering caused on behalf of the country. From the genocide of Native Americans, to slavery and subsequent racial discrimination, many of the nation’s actions have long stood in stark contrast to our supposed values. Our founders and early politicians may have said they believed in equality, but their behavior and policies did not demonstrate any willingness to draw these philosophical positions to their logical conclusions.

No country beholden to the idea that “all men are created equal” should have supported slavery and the removal of native peoples from their homelands. In reality, the building of a prosperous nation was always more important than adherence to moral principles.

Now we have the privilege of living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and while incredible work ethic, a true fighting spirit and a brashness built on staunch individualism have certainly contributed to our status, we cannot deny another key ingredient: a history as conquerors, slave-masters and international bullies.

Living in such a country poses difficult ethical questions. A quest for meaning and moral grounding seems to be a constant theme in human existence. Since the advent of nationalism in its current form, especially within the United States, patriotism has provided a potential moral basis. By fervently supporting their nation, people take on a cause bigger than themselves.

But, upon recognizing the inexcusable horrors perpetrated by the American state while acting in the supposed interests of the nation, blind patriotism seems a foolish ethical stance. The actions of the United States are not always right, and being a patriot is not the same as being a moralist.

So where then, in a society where organized religion’s influence is waning and patriotism does not seem a worthy basis for behavior and beliefs, can an individual find meaning? In such a society, I am confronted with a feeling of absurdity, which French writer Albert Camus described in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” as a feeling of inhabiting “a universe suddenly divested of illusion and light” where our search for meaning is met only by “the unreasonable silence of the world.”  But then I strive to remember another of Camus’s remarks: that “absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.”

Deriving meaning from the feeling of love still leaves us in an ethical quagmire. We must reconcile a commitment to empathy and compassion with our place in a country that simultaneously echoes and betrays our sentiments.

The current political climate highlights the difficulty of our task. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump typifies blind patriotism and unwavering belief in American exceptionalism. His campaign slogan is “Make America great again,” and at a recent Iowa rally he proclaimed his desire to be “so greedy for our country.”  His election would represent an endorsement of further U.S. belligerence and callousness on the global stage. If we are to base our lives on love, we must reject such a future.

I have no desire to deny the undeniable: that I am extraordinarily fortunate to be in the position I am today, thanks to the sacrifices of countless Americans and the brilliance of the system of government our founders created. But I also insist on acknowledging the undeniable truths lurking within American history, that our nation’s dominance is attributable not only to industry and endeavor but also to unspeakable cruelty and exploitation.

As we stand poised to create our collective futures, we must accept that our past is as shameful as it is glorious, realize that we do not embody any inherent righteousness, and try, as difficult as it may be, to move forward in an honest attempt to create a better country and contribute toward a better global society.

Benjamin Clabault is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]