“The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” — Now More Than Ever

Message to all Democratic troops:

Of course it is always a good thing to be intelligent. But it is the case that we do not live in intelligent times. Instead we live in choleric times, when stupidity and anger and “out there” statements capture the spotlight, go viral, drive the news cycle. Nor are we governed by a leader who abides by Enlightenment ideals of reason and proof or plays by the rules; likewise his party.

But with a presidential election coming up in just 43 days, truly the most important in our lifetime, being and acting intelligent — being smart and savvy and real, along with the attendant qualities of moral purpose, honesty, daring, forthrightness, perseverance — is vital to unseating the most dangerous threat yet to our modern American democracy, Donald J. Trump. This president has dismantled so many institutional norms, stretched the law to breaking point, spurned our allies to embrace autocrats, that America finds herself in sight of autocracy itself — strongman rule — with near-total acquiescence from his own party.

No surprise, then, this proto-autocrat is running as the “law-and-order” candidate. Not able to point to a stellar performance in handling the deadly coronavirus pandemic, and bungling the reopening of the economy, Trump must default to hardball tactics and try to claim the mantle of the nation’s savior and protector — from the violence he himself eagerly foments.

In this nefarious aim, Trump is aided by his Attorney General (and that possessive is intentional: William Barr is fully in the tank with Trump), who — astoundingly — now threatens to cite the sedition statute against “rioters” who create violence and destruction amid the ongoing protests for racial justice (also here). In the main, these protests have been peaceful93% of them, per a recent study. But that outstanding 7% represents, for Trump and Barr, an opportunity to exploit: to smear the law-abiding super-majority with the criminal offense of trying to overthrow the U.S. government (never mind that Trump and Barr in their heedlessness are doing just that).

Intelligent people see the danger: “Protester” — in the hands of the meanly motivated — can be conflated with “rioter” and “looter.” Thus it is imperative that, if you continue to protest — and bless you if you do, as racial justice is a righteous cause — the protest must not only remain peaceful, but if anyone among your number turns violent, take pictures to document the act, get immediately to a microphone, and disavow the violent outlier(s) categorically. At this volatile juncture, this is Democrats’ Achilles heel — being cast as O.K. with violence — and Trump and his ever-malleable arbiter of justice are ever-ready to strike at that heel. We cannot let that happen.

Likewise, being cast as O.K. with violence against police is another cudgel Trump and Barr use against Democrats. Barr cited the “police-free” zone established in Seattle’s Capitol Hill during recent protests as his specific trigger to invoke the sedition statute. In Los Angeles, when two sheriff’s deputies were shot in their patrol car, as noted in a Wall Street Journal editorial, “protesters who blocked the entrance to the hospital where the two are being treated….chanted ‘We hope they die.’” Note the conflation of protesters with violent actors in our leading conservative paper. This editorial, titled “’We Hope They Die,’” goes on: “Democratic mayor Eric Garcettti called the chants and protests at the hospital ‘unacceptable’ and ‘abhorrent.’ But he and other Democrats need to do more to condemn and ostracize these protesters. Democrats may fear the wrath of Black Lives Matter, but the backlash elsewhere in America will be far greater if pleasure at cop killing becomes common on the left.” A Journal columnist cites “insane” protesters for getting in the police’s face to shout obscenities (“Democratic Madness”).

And: Retire the message “Defund the police,” because communities where police presence has been reduced are seeing more crime, and those hurt communities are invariably of color. “Reform the police” says it better. Any message that mixes signals is not smart, not intelligent.

Other minefields to beware: Saying or doing anything that can, in the opposition’s hands, be used against us. Think — be intelligent — before you tweet, retweet, TikTok, etc. Game out the worst-case scenario, should your message be twisted and beamed back at you — and at all Democrats. When passions run hot, the impulse to say and do hot things is overpowering. But: Overpower that impulse. Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” comment at this same juncture in the 2016 race did her campaign mortal harm, ceding, absurdly, the moral high ground to the amoral Trump. As they said in World War II, “Loose lips sink ships.” Mind the lips, think of the ship.

Some will call this censorship, an infringement on free speech; let’s call it responsible speech. Others will dismiss this appeal altogether, find its recommendations blatantly obvious. But in battle, it is always good for all troops to sign off on mission review. (Thus the image, above, of General Dwight D. Eisenhower addressing the troops as they prepared to launch D-Day in 1944.) Republicans appear to treat this 2020 presidential race as merely a political contest; Democrats understand we are in an existential battle for the survival of American democracy. We must win.

Troops will also be mindful of the military policy of IFF: Identification friend or foe. Not every member of the opposition remains with the opposition. Republicans of conscience have broken with their party and announced they will vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Those new friends include former Republican presidential nominee and now senator Mitt Romney, former Ohio governor John Kasich, former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. Continuing to act with intelligence may peel off more disillusioned Republicans.

And kudos to Democrats for, by and large, not returning like for like to Trump’s constant stream of epithets and denigration — “nasty woman,” “loser” — though that nasty loser so richly deserves it. We are testing whether the proposition of staying high while he goes low is the winning way.

In sum, our guidance is this: “the moral obligation to be intelligent,” a credo popularized by literary critic Lionel Trilling in a 1963 book of that title (also here). Taken in reverse order, each element of this credo carries weight: “to be intelligent” — the thrust of this entire appeal; the “obligation” — more than provisional, bearing on duty; with the obligation being “moral” — bearing on the rightness and wrongness of things.

And with the late-breaking, heart-breaking news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death: Not only must Democrats do everything procedurally possible to ensure a liberal replaces her on the Supreme Court. But, truly: In all modern public life, who better exemplified than “the Notorious RBG” — she was its perfect union —“the moral obligation to be intelligent”?

Back to battle stations. Be intelligent. Good luck.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.

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