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Gerson: America must recapture its democratic spirit


Let’s assume, just for a moment, that the great political leaders of the past were not cynical, deluded or deceptive when they talked about morality and religion. Let’s posit that, at least in some instances, they were not just striking poses but making arguments.

Early in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address in an atmosphere charged with menace. Germany had just occupied the Sudetenland. Kristallnacht was recent news. Roosevelt was beginning to prepare Americans for the exertions of a global war.

Yet FDR did not begin his address by talking about rearmament. “There comes a time in the affairs of men,” he said, “when they must prepare to defend not their homes alone but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments, and their very civilization are founded.” At that moment of national testing, Roosevelt felt it necessary to clarify and reaffirm the transcendent commitments that undergird self-government.

He identified three of them: Religion, which “gives the individual a sense of his own dignity and teaches him to respect himself by respecting his neighbors.” Democracy, which is the “covenant among free men to respect the rights and liberties of their fellows.” And “international good faith,” which “springs from the will of civilized nations of men to respect the rights and liberties of other nations of men.”

Our public and political life, Roosevelt assumed, is ultimately a reflection or echo of our spiritual life. Here I use “spiritual” broadly to mean a set of beliefs that challenge our natural egotism and cause us to respect the rights and dignity of others. A democracy especially is based on generally held convictions about the nature and equality of human beings. Its idealism is inherent.

A few years later, as World War II raged, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain took up this argument. “Right political experience,” he said, “cannot develop in people unless passions and reason are oriented by a solid basis of collective virtues, by faith and honor and thirst for justice.” In particular, it is the “urge of love” which allows us “to surmount the closed borders of the natural social groups—family group and national group—and extended it to the entire human race.”

In the absence of a “democratic state of mind,” warned Maritain, “nothing is easier for political counterfeiters than to exploit good principles for purposes of deception.” “Moreover,” he said, “nothing is easier for human weakness than to merge religion with prejudices of race, family or class, collective hatred, passions of a clan.”

What can be learned from that distant world facing an existential threat? Our crisis is so different. Yet it is a crisis of the “democratic state of mind.” What voices and institutions are proclaiming and defending the “tenets of faith and humanity” that make democracy both pleasant and possible?

For many secular liberals, such language is inherently suspect. On what basis can any set of beliefs be preferred above another? Democracy requires, in this view, not just a political pluralism but a pluralism of values. Such a position is absurdly lacking in self-awareness.

A commitment to pluralism is itself a value, which must be preferred above other values such as, say, the interests of a master race or the dictatorship of the proletariat. The democratic faith now emerges from more diverse sources—both religious and non-religious—than Roosevelt might have imagined. But it is still a moral and spiritual commitment that must be taught in order for any democracy worthy of the name to survive.

Yet also try to imagine Maritain—who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights—trying to speak to a Republican Lincoln Day dinner about the “urge to love” extending to the entire human race. Globalist! Conservative media is in love with a “political counterfeiter.” Conservative religious leaders regularly and shamelessly merge their faith with collective hatreds and the passions of a clan.

Our political renewal must somehow begin here, in recovering the democratic spirit—in confidently encouraging the decency, compassion and spirit of sacrifice that can alone overcome egotism and tribalism. That is a task for both individuals and institutions—the essential preparation for all other democratic tasks. The largest obstacle is individual—the high barrier of our own doubt.

In his poem “September 1, 1939,” W.H. Auden felt the hopes of a “low dishonest decade” expiring and compared his generation to children “lost in a haunted wood.”

His conclusion? “We must love one another or die.”

Guest Views: For national parks, love isn't enough

Americans love their national parks. Last year, these lands attracted 331 million people—a record number and an increase of 7.7 percent over 2015. But that love is a mixed blessing for the parks.

Visitors expect to be provided with roads, bridges, trails, restrooms, campgrounds, water fountains and more. The more people come, the more it costs to keep up the infrastructure that facilitates enjoyment of these rare and precious places.

Unfortunately, the funds needed for these needs are not keeping pace with visitor traffic. The national parks have a backlog of more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance—things that need to be repaired, renovated or replaced.

With the federal budget running a $666 billion deficit in the fiscal year that just ended, the National Park Service is not about to get a huge infusion of money from the Treasury. So the Interior Department has proposed a more plausible source: higher fees for the people who use the parks.

The increase would apply at 17 of the most popular parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Shenandoah and Acadia, during peak months. Currently, a seven-day pass costs just $25 or $30 for a carload of parents and kids. Under this proposal, the fee would rise to $70 for each private vehicle, with each motorcycle charged $50 and pedestrians and cyclists $30 per person.

That $70 may sound steep, but for a family of four spending a week inside, it works out to $2.50 per person per day. A one-day ticket at the gate for Great America, by comparison, costs $54.99 for children and $74.99 for adults. And let’s not even talk about Walt Disney World.

For most people who travel to see Old Faithful or Half Dome, the additional cost would be a tiny part of their total outlay. Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., has written, “Studies in Yellowstone and Yosemite show that entrance fees make up only 1.2 to 1.5 percent of visitors’ overall trip expenditures, with the vast majority going toward food, lodging, and travel.”

The higher prices wouldn’t apply in the off-season, which accounts for seven months of the year. In that way, they might have the bonus effect of thinning out peak-season mobs a bit. They wouldn’t apply to the 400 other national park sites, most of which charge nothing. Visitors would still be able to buy a pass that covers all the parks for a mere $80 a year.

The proposed change would yield $70 million in revenue, a 34 percent increase. And visitors may be consoled to know that 80 percent of each fee they pay will go to the park they visited.

PERC’s Regan told us, “Too much reliance on Congress for funding only makes the problem worse because politicians would rather create new parks than fund routine maintenance projects. By relying more on visitors for revenue, our parks could fund those critical projects without having to cater to Congress.”

Nature provided Americans with the wonders of these parks for free. But making them accessible and enjoyable for millions of people costs money, and the administration has a sound idea for how to get it.

—Chicago Tribune

Your Views: When will Congress do something about gun violence?

Dear Congress,

I am writing to tell you how disappointed I am in you. You have chosen to do nothing, because it is “not the right time:” Fifty-nine people killed in Las Vegas, and you did nothing. Forty-nine killed in an Orlando Nightclub, and you did nothing. Thirty-two killed at Virginia Tech, and you did nothing. Twenty-six killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and you did nothing. Fourteen people killed in San Bernardino, and you did nothing. Nine killed in a Charleston Church, and you did nothing.

Even when a couple of your own were shot, it was “not the right time,” and you did nothing.

The list goes on and on. When is the right time? What a disappointment.