Lord Voldemort, the bad guy in the Harry Potter series, summed up the simple proposition that is behind the expansion of evil in the world when toward the end of the first book/movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, he tries to talk Harry into joining his cause by saying, “Come on, Harry, there’s no such thing as good or evil, there’s only power.”
That says it all, and the great conundrum of our times in our culture is that we can’t seem to figure that out in any terms except as a bowdlerized religious fanaticism, on the one hand, or with an amoral “scientific world view” on the other.
Can we acknowledge the reality of good and evil and at the same time maintain a rational scientific perspective? They seemed much better at doing this back in the days of the ancient Greeks and during Italian Renaissance, and even in the European Enlightenment out of which the American revolution grew.
But now western civilization as we’ve known it is careening toward a cliff in a grand flurry of nihilism, cynicism, dehumanization and vulgarity, which is all we experience with Trump and the bizarre slow motion dance of death that congressional Republicans are engaged in now. Those of us who are 60 or older, who remember a world before the Kennedy assassination, can sometimes experience flashes of the bottomless existential despair — the angst of the atomic age that we first felt as a collective culture back then — these days when evoked by the level of sheer insanity and immorality that has overtaken our democracy.
Lost has been any public respect for our hallowed institutions. It used to be so different. Can you remember? The murder of our president at midday on November 22, 1963 was such an astonishing violation of the nation itself and everything we loved about it that almost every American could place where they were exactly, when they heard the news of that cruel affront, and the sense of shock and despair that overwhelmed the entire national psyche.
Camelot’s successor was more crude, but still presidential, despite lifting his hounds by their ears. There were wars, protests and the advance of civil rights. Then came Nixon, so a “crook” occupied the White House. The second great stain on our democracy came when the unthinkable happened, when a vice president resigned, first, and then a U.S. president.
During the 70s, the nation’s angry military-industrial-financial complex spawned the radical right-wing Reagan revolution, crawling out of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” counterculture, fueled by obscenity, incivility and disrespect. These snarling children of Ayn Randism infiltrated irrationalist religious fundamentalist churches who were swept up to enter politics, and the whole nasty circus invaded Washington in 1981 to engage in orgies of deregulation, union and safety net smashing.
In the 1990s, the nation’s sensibilities were further assaulted by a relentless obsession with lurid sex in the Oval Office, elevated to the level an impeachment of a U.S. president, for only the second time in history.
The attack of 9-11 rocked the national psyche once again, but worse, the nation was subjected to a new flood of racist xenophobia and new wars that, here in 2017, have still not ended, becoming the longest by far in the nation’s history. A greed-infused economic crisis subsequently wiped out the American standard of living for all but the wealthiest.
The nation, especially its young, had enough by 2008, rising up to elect an idealist dedicated to returning the nation to the civility and decorum of the old days. It took a dignified African-American man to do this, and need I remind everyone that the nation’s two most important moral voices during this entire span of time were African-Americans, Dr. King and Obama.
But Obama’s race was used by his increasingly cynical and abjectly immoral enemies to spark a raging political hate, igniting a new level of disrespect for our presidency. That accounts for Trump.
So, here we are. Lord Voldemort rages, but we can no longer deny that evil exists. We’re at the very precipice, and only a bold, compassionate and moral Renaissance can save us.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].