After disappearing during his term in office and bringing scandal to his family and state, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford is going to Washington, having won election to Congress. And that’s far from the worst story reflecting the current character of our nation.
In Washington, D.C., a doctor tells the Washington Post that he’s willing to let a baby who survives an abortion die, and calls the pro-life activist who released a video of him making similar remarks a “terrorist.” The trial of abortionist and accused murderer Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia serves as a ghoulish backdrop to this level of callous indifference.
It does happen to feel like the end is near.
And that just could be awesome.
“Figuring out how to make the world better is hard,” my National Review colleague Kevin D. Williamson writes in his new book titled “The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.” “What works in theory often does not work in practice, and angrily insisting that it should work does not make it work.”
Oh, but how we do insist! In politics, we tend to adopt an ideology and stick with it, regardless of the results. We insist that government do things that it can’t plausibly handle, and then ignore the fact that it’s not doing the things it could and should be doing.
While having respect for a great many people in government, Williamson nonetheless contends: “(P)olitics as an institution fails first and foremost because it cannot manage the complex processes of modern life, because doing so would require politicians to be able to gather and process amounts of information so vast that they are literally incalculable.”
Politicians make promises government can’t possibly keep and we get swept up in the insistence that there is a legislative answer to everything.
Our civil discourse all too often clings to government and market-based answers, ignoring the truth that when mediating institutions — families, religious communities and charities — flourish, individuals can soar, giving credibility to the claims of American exceptionalism. These are who will be picking up the pieces when the end comes.
Williamson argues that the unsustainability of our current trajectory necessitates a starting over.
We’ll have no choice in the matter. “The U.S government has, for example, promised its citizens certain health care and retirement benefits, the unfunded liabilities of which at present amount to a little more than twice the annual economic output of human civilization.”
Needless to say, that’s not going to work.
But his key insight is: “Our problem is not only how we govern, but how we live.”
Conservatives claim to be a “family values” crowd and yet no one successfully talked Mark Sanford out of running (and I got way too many emails for my taste celebrating his recent victory). We pray to God when terror strikes, but we relegate religion to a mere Sunday church service as a matter of federal policy. We talk about women’s health and freedom, but the euphemisms wind up screening us from the horrific realities of late-term abortions and the warped moral climate that has been the product of the sexual revolution.
“The historic challenge of our time,” Williamson writes, “is to anticipate as best we can the coming changes and to begin developing alternative institutions and social practices to ensure the continuation of a society that is humane, secure, free, and prosperous.”
Williamson makes another important insight about humility and its rarity in politics. “Humility is not only a private virtue — it is a social technology. By keeping in mind that we may be wrong — that we are in fact very likely to be wrong in important ways — we help each other and ourselves to become less wrong over time.” At its best, life — whether on political, cultural or personal fronts — is about learning from mistakes. Encourage the good, help with healing, pick up and start again. Some of those who model this best are motivated by a sense of purpose that’s not rooted in temporal power or merely personal gain, but an eternal summons.
The end is actually a beginning. To rebuild a culture that understands sacrifice, suffering and hard work are at the heart of what makes society work. In humility, we can all admit to having made contributions to the oversimplifications and intractability of debates, and try to do better. That’s not an impossible promise. That’s the audacity to hope there is awesomeness yet to come and that we each play a role in helping one another get things less wrong.