Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Democracy seems in mortal peril

This week’s writer is Victor Nuovo, professor emeritus of Philosophy at Middlebury College and a Middlebury selectboard member.
“If a man die, shall he live again?” The question is asked by Job, sitting on an ash heap, his body covered with stinking sores, mourning the loss of all that he once owned except his life, which had become a misery (Job 14:14).
I have been following Thomas Hobbes, imagining the United States as a mortal animal, subject to mortal diseases, and therefore death. Irreconcilable conflicts, factions, anarchy, random violence, and civil war are the mortal diseases that cause a nation’s dying. The process may be already underway. Indeed, there are signs that our nation is already brain dead; for the brain of a nation resides in its head of government, which is now functionally dead; its continuing motions, or dysfunctions, are like the death throes of a dead or dying organism, like the compulsive posthumous spasms of a corpse. So it may be pertinent to apply Job’s personal statement to our current political situation: If a nation die, shall it live again?
The refusal of the president of the United States to commit to a peaceful transition of power; his effort to corrupt and defame the constitutional process of democratic elections; his willful, selfish, spiteful outbursts; his vulgar populism; and his contempt for this nation’s laws —  notwithstanding the oath he has taken to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all its enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance” to it — are proof that this nation is virtually brain dead. 
Rather than its defender, he has become the Constitution’s foremost domestic enemy, not to mention an outlaw, a tax-dodger, a racist and a liar. He and his minions operate willfully, impulsively, and anarchically; and anarchy, which is life without principle, when once let loose, spreads abroad like a deadly virus, infecting our politics on the right and on the left. It is as though the malignancy of the president’s character, his selfish willfulness, his vicious vulgarity, and the spitefulness of his heart has infected the entire nation, even the world. It’s outcome far worse than civil war; it is what Hobbes feared most of all: a return to a state of war of “all against all.” There are signs that our nation is being propelled towards this anarchic state; we may have already reached it.
But, to return to the original question: If a nation die, shall it live again? The biblical response to death is resurrection. So, to continue the analogy, can a nation be resurrected? The prophet Ezekiel pondered this question; he imagined himself standing in a valley of dry bones witnessing their miraculous restoration to life (Ezekiel 37). But we must put hope for a miraculous deliverance aside, although there may be good reason to pray for one. What can we do as a people to restore this nation to life? Hobbes’ advice would be that we, the people, must renew our founding covenant, must again commit ourselves to our founding law, the Constitution of the United States. I refer to the Preamble of the Constitution: 
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 
To borrow a term from the Jewish liturgy: we must make these words our Shema, a communal declaration that recreates a people; these words must be on our lips at our rising up and lying down, and all throughout the day; we must inscribe them on our hearts, and they must be ever present in our minds. And we must be also cognizant of the goals of this law: most especially, to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty for all the people, whatever the color of their skin, their gender, or their ethnicity. Liberty and justice for all!
There is, of late, a growing fear among us that our democracy is in mortal danger because of the antics of the president of the United States. The fear is warranted. Our democracy is founded on the rule of law. And just as it was the role of the people to establish this law, so it is our duty, as citizens, to uphold, protect, and defend it against all enemies. Fundamental law is the vital principle of this nation, and if it should lose its vitality, it will die. Its death throes will be grievous and discomfiting; it will not rest in peace.
Postscript:  Readers will recall that Ezekiel’s vision was remembered and made a permanent part of the Black experience, up from slavery, an ennobling moment in the American experience to be proudly remembered, a heritage, and, most of all, an expression of a rightful hope that still awaits fulfillment.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

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