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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The moralist

The political debate these days seems to be entirely about morals - the evil of debt, women's rights to contraception and abortion, poor peoples' rights to housing and food stamps, the universal right to healthcare. (This usually happens when the economy is going pretty well again.) It's glaringly true in Maine, where the LePage administration is in an all-out war on the poor and the old and the sick and the homeless for being somehow to blame for their own predicaments. Liberals are immoral, conservatives are moral, say the Republicans. Democrats say just the opposite.

To be a moralist, then, is to court criticism from all sides. Taking any kind of stand immediately implies an adamantine hardening. As an essayist with a moral streak I feel this problem every day. I worry about sounding (and being) didactic, to imply or outright state that what I believe should apply to others as well, maybe not all others, but many. This is the reason I finally give up writing fiction - preaching doesn't generally work in the teasing out of character. A compromise between acceptance and judgement, between fiction and nonfiction, might be a commitment to sensation and persuasion, how a breeze off the ocean at low tide feels and smell, how life is immeasurably enriched by a belief in that breeze's purity. My goal is to learn to trust the stories of our senses.

Perhaps the wider world, political and otherwise, runs in confusion among morals and values. The left is all about human values and has no time for religious or spiritual ones. The right applies its religious values of good and evil to human ones. There is no space for humility, compromise, beauty between them.

Thoreau hints at an answer in his Journal entry of March 15, 1852, describing one of the first warm days of spring: “I am eager to report the glory of the universe; may I be worthy to do it; to have got through with regarding human values, so as not to be distracted from regarding divine values.”

He may sound slightly misanthropic to today's liberals, but his emphasis on divine values - which to him meant Nature - is never more pertinent than now. And this from one of the world's great humanitarians, and great conservatives, in the original sense of the word.

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