One of my favorite staff writers for The New Yorker is Rebecca Mead; she’s been writing for the magazine for more than twenty years. Her article in this week’s edition, “The Return of the Native,” is one of her best articles as well as a sobering look at what has happened to our country in the past two years.
Mead was born in England and worked with a green card in the U.S. for many years before becoming a citizen seven years ago. The letter she and thousands of other new citizens received from Barack Obama in the fall of 2011 said “this great Nation is now your Nation,” continuing by listing some of the country’s core values that include
Hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism . . . We embrace you as a new citizen of our land, and we welcome you to the American family.
Although Mead says that she still cannot read this letter without tears in her eyes, she has decided, along with her American-born husband and their teenage son, to leave the United States and move back to England.
There are many reasons for Mead’s choice, not the least of which is how badly this country is currently failing to live up to the promises, commitments, and hopes contained in the letter she received as a new citizen in 2011. Her essay is painful to read because it eloquently reminds the reader both of what has become of us and where we are going if things continue as they currently are. Mead’s article, which is well worth your time, concludes with this:
I’m not doing it lightly, or without a sober sense of my ties and responsibilities to a country in which so many of my dreams have been realized, even as so many of my hopes have lately been repudiated. I’m not absolving myself of my duty as an American to uphold the values that welcomed me here—pluralism and equality and tolerance—and that should be extended to other immigrants. You can bet I’ll be voting. I still hope one day to take my country back.
Although Rebecca Mead’s essay serves as a call for American citizens to “take our country back,” I find myself instead remembering some passages from her wonderful 2014 book My Life in Middlemarch. It’s part biography, part memoir, and a beautiful extended love letter about how literature can shape and mold each of us. Since I share Mead’s love for George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch—my favorite novel as well as hers—I enjoyed every page of her exploration into its various intricacies as well as George Eliot’s extraordinary life. Now, three years or so after reading My Life in Middlemarch, I find much there that applies to our current situation.
For instance, Mead’s book includes a passage from a George Eliot essay that could have been written yesterday about any number of our current public figures. In a withering critique of Dr. John Cumming, a well-known nineteenth-century Scottish Evangelical preacher, Eliot comments on his ability “to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morality with a high reputation for sanctity.” Our current political landscape is littered with such people; as Eliot writes elsewhere, “one’s ambition is always in the inverse proportion of one’s knowledge.”
And this is not forced on us—if pollsters are correct, this is precisely the sort of person that many of us are attracted to. As William Butler Yeats would write decades later in “The Second Coming,” “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” One obvious solution for this would be to find a way to spark the conviction of the “best” so that better people will seek the highest offices in the land. This is a problem that has challenged philosophers and others since Plato’s Republic—how is one to ensure that the best people are in charge of things (Plato essentially said they should be forced to do so)?
My current thinking is that the “best” do not necessarily lack conviction as Yeats suggests; instead, the “best” are those whose conviction leads them to live the sort of life described by George Eliot beautifully in the final sentence of Middlemarch:
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Goodness does not enter the world on grand stages with fanfare and media coverage. Rather, the best people are those who live lives of excellence and virtue with conviction, seeking no reward or notoriety. How is such conviction cultivated?
Many argue that religious faith is the most likely, perhaps the only, source of moral excellence and conviction. There is strong evidence linking faith and moral excellence, but we are all aware of just how much damage and violence has been and is being done in the name of religious purity and conviction in our nation and world. In his 2015 book Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks, until recently the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, reflects on the connection between faith and moral conviction:
Abraham himself sought to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry . . . To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.
It is perhaps time for persons of all faiths to seek common sources of moral conviction, shared simply by being human.
George Eliot consciously intended her novels to be an inspiration for human excellence, but she spent most of her adult life as an agnostic, having left the Anglicanism of her youth behind in her early twenties. She found the wellspring of moral excellence and conviction in obvious, but often overlooked places–our shared humanity and our capacity to empathize with others. Her answer to the perennial question “Why be moral?” is as direct as it is simple:
I am just and honest, not because I expect to live in another world, but because, having felt the pain of injustice and dishonesty towards myself, I have a fellow-feeling with other people, who would suffer the same pain if I were unjust or dishonest towards them. It is a pang to me to witness the suffering of fellow-beings, and I feel their suffering the more acutely because they are mortal—because their lives are so short, I would have them, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery.
This is not a call to debate, legislation, philosophical hair-splitting, or theological distinctions. It is a simple call to action. As the prophet Micah wrote so many centuries ago, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” These are action verbs. We are called to do more than talk.
In keeping with Rabbi Sacks’ call, we all should seek to find new ways to be a blessing in the part of the world that is in front of us on a daily basis. Perhaps if enough of us shared that resolution, our collective conviction might introduce some positive change into a country and a world that badly needs it. It’s worth a try.