Charles Brian Orner
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The Sostenuto Blog

Good People


It is a truism that everyone believes themselves to be a good person. About this, with apologies to Abraham Lincoln, it can be said that all of the people are wrong some of the time, and some of the people are wrong all of the time.

Everybody makes mistakes. This is hardly newsworthy, of course; none of us is an angel, no adult is innocent, and few of us are perfectly consistent in our public grace. (The Dalai Lama does pretty well.) Each of us harbors both yin and yang, and the dark side of our nature must be acknowledged—but it cannot (and arguably should not) be eradicated. Alfred Henry Lewis astutely observed that there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy, and circumstantial extremes can trigger our reptilian brains toward hard-wired, sometimes violent self-preservation. But goodness as a recognizable—let alone a dominant—character trait requires that our falls from grace serve as learning experiences, and that they constitute the exception, rather than the rule. No sane person expects perfection in this realm, but goodness is not predicated on perfection; it is predicated on intent. Virtue is never automatic; it must be taught, it must be sought, and it must be renewed in every moment. For we imperfect humans, goodness is a practice, not a state of being.

What, then, does it mean to be a good person? A few minutes’ thought reveal this to be an interesting and deceptively complex question. In exploring the question, it is helpful to divide the qualities that ostensibly comprise goodness into two overlapping domains: intrinsic attributes, and behavioral attributes.

One-percenters and power-possessing people routinely offer up intrinsic attributes as evidence of goodness. These include strength, intelligence, confidence, charisma, talent, pedigree, and wealth—especially wealth. Virtue in this domain is a quantitative assessment—more of these qualities is thought to be better than less. More strength is good, more intelligence is good, more charisma is good, and more money is really good—because the poor are deserving, the ends justify the means, the lord will prosper the righteous, and trickle-down whatever. But intrinsic traits are neutral in the absence of their utility. At best, they are a measure of potential, not of virtue, and they can only be considered to be good if they are put to good use. Wealth and pedigree in particular do not automatically confer rectitude, and in fact far more frequently confer its opposite. Witness the current occupants of the White House. Note the net worth of any particular Congressperson. Scrutinize the Forbes 400. Consider Cardinal Law. On balance, you’ll find a gaggle of gargantuan hypocrites who comfort themselves with the belief that public service and branded philanthropy somehow obviate the obscenity of their power- and profit-hungry skulduggery.

Now contrast the intrinsic attributes with an entirely different set that are instead dependent upon utility for virtue. These include the usual suspects: love, kindness, integrity, compassion, generosity, self-awareness, conscience, and a strong preference for New York-style thin-crust pizza, which everybody knows is awesome. This list is hardly exclusive, and no moral system is absolute, but it’s hard to imagine anyone taking umbrage with the essential goodness of these attributes, except possibly for the pizza—you know who you are—and garrulous luminaries like Tucker Carlson and Joseph Goebbels, whom I conflate for a reason.

The shared quality that each of the behavioral attributes have in common is selflessness—the act of placing the welfare of others first. Unlike most of the intrinsic attributes, selflessness, like every quality that it informs, is a verb. Selflessness does not happen by accident, and it does not happen without intention. That intention, invariably, is the wish to better the larger world in some way, independent of personal consequences. By this measure, then, a “good” person possesses selflessness in abundance, expressed as at least one, and probably as several of these behavioral attributes—and so much the better if any of the intrinsic attributes are also in evidence.

Of equal significance in the matter of goodness is the striving to seek truth. Truth-seeking is vital to matters of virtue; it exercises our highest faculties, it demands our greatest efforts, and it tolerates no timidity. Like selflessness, truth-seeking is a verb, and it is equally indispensable to goodness, by which I mean that there is no such thing as a good person who works in opposition to, or refuses to pursue the truth. Truth is elusive, and as a corollary to virtue, its pursuit is a practice that also does not happen by accident.

The acts of selflessness, truth-seeking, and the behavioral attributes that arise from these essential qualities: these are what define a good person. The intrinsic attributes are largely irrelevant.

Goodness is hard work, impermanent, and ephemeral. Some of us understand this intuitively, some of us do not, and a frightening plurality of our public figures no longer care one way or the other. They have fallen from imperfect public grace into a depraved realm that no longer tolerates good people of any stripe. In a country that once aspired to be the moral leader of the world, this is nothing short of horrifying.

All human enterprise is organic, and it is in the nature of things that organizations assume the characteristics of their leadership. The American electorate is no exception, as we are driven ever further from goodness—let alone greatness—by a president and a party who have dispatched the essential virtue of the American character in favor of power, greed, and naked bigotry. We were once happily a nation of immigrants; inclusive in our nature, generous of spirit, and steadfast in our adherence to the rule of law. We were once a great nation. We are no longer—but it is not for the reasons that the president supposes. The brand of greatness that he promulgates is large and lurid, but it is the polar opposite of good.

How many of the defining attributes of goodness does Donald Trump possess? Is he truthful? Is he kind? Does he advocate for compassion or generosity? Is he even remotely self-aware? Does he love anyone but himself? Does he possess any integrity whatsoever? The answer, emphatically—obviously—is no, but the remarkable thing is that he doesn’t fail one or two of these tests—he fails EVERY test. By any possible standard of goodness, the president of the United States is a despicable human being, unfit to serve in any public capacity, and unworthy of the attention that he so desperately craves. He is, quite literally, the worst of us. The absence of even a single redeeming quality in the realm of goodness is almost certainly a sign of mental illness, and his public performance to date has done nothing to quell that suspicion.

Real greatness arises from goodness, and goodness arises from selflessness. Goodness arises from truth. Donald Trump has never been a good man. This distinguishes him not only from his immediate predecessor, but from the vast majority of his predecessors. The once-great Republican Party is no longer good in any sense of the word. To support either is to turn away from goodness and embrace hate. A vote for Donald Trump and the Republican Party is the civic equivalent of committing a hate crime. No-one can do so and claim to be a good person. Not by any standard.

Donald Trump's America has become more fascist than democratic. It thrives not on the conflict of ideas but on the conflict of tribalism. It traffics in mendacity and hypocrisy as the lingua franca of public speech, and no moral system on earth regards either as virtuous. Cheating as the means of winning—the modus operandi of the GOP for decades—is proof positive of the abject moral decay of a once honorable conservative institution. These are not good people—none of them—and they are utterly unworthy of the offices they hold.

All of the people are wrong some of the time, and even good people make mistakes. Trump supporters can perhaps be forgiven for their vote in the last election, but not this time. This time, the consequence is the vitality of our democracy itself. We are now two years downstream, and we have seen who this man actually is. We have seen how he has disgraced the office, and the country, and the good people of this nation. We have seen how he debases the national conversation, how he foments hate and violence, and how a once honorable party has sold its soul for thirty pieces of tarnished silver. We have seen what we are becoming under the thumb of a bigoted, narcissistic demagogue. Having witnessed this, no good person can continue to support such an outrageously corrupt regime. No person of conscience can vote for any member of a party that has so cravenly dispatched the essence of American goodness. No truth-seeker can tolerate, let alone amplify the flagrant lies of the White House and the propagandist media outlets that sell them like snake oil to the clueless and the craven.

Good people learn from their mistakes, and intelligent people don’t make the same mistake twice. To do otherwise, now, is to embrace the darkest corners of the human psyche—to succumb to fear, and hate, and the nascent violence of tribal xenophobia. It is to abandon reason, and hope, and the authentic wish for a better world—and that is the one thing that good people never, ever do.

Everybody believes they’re a good person. About this, everybody is wrong some of the time, and some people, sadly, are wrong all of the time. We are all a work in progress, but if we are to be a good people, we must learn from our mistakes, and try to do better. We have made a terrible mistake, and the consequences are grave. It’s time for the good people of this nation to correct it.

-Brian Written on the dubious occasion of my 35th—wait—my 58th birthday, four days prior to the 2018 midterm elections.

Brian Orner