Letters & Opinion

Character Above All

Clement Wulf-Soulage
By Clement Wulf-Soulage

AS if by kismet, just when we thought America would finally do the right thing after having tried everything else, along comes an atrocity to puncture our complacency. With the election of Donald Trump as president, the future of leadership character and political morality in America is now a dark chasm of yawning uncertainty.

With consternation and trepidation (perhaps also with a sense of smugness), we have observed America’s political spectacle with all of its character flaws – and have also seen, first hand, the wallowing of a nation’s citizens in the pornography of pessimism, racism and delusion. If a government is only as good as its people, then the American people have got the government they more or less deserve.

Perhaps, in order to appreciably understand the dysfunctional state of American politics and society today, it’s worth considering Larry Katz’s analogy of U.S. society as resembling a deformed and unstable apartment building. “The penthouse at the top”, railed the Harvard economist, “is getting bigger and bigger, the lower levels are overcrowded, the middle levels are full of empty apartments and the elevator has stopped working.”

President Donald Trump, whose outlandish personality and ghastly behaviour continue to violate all tenets of social and human decency, have helped expose the ugly underbelly of American society, particularly as it relates to the true nature of his nation’s character.

Just the sight of this bloviating and China-bashing dunce (never mind that China is America’s piggy bank) governing from behind the venerable desk in the Oval Office gives me the chills. It’s like literally watching a bull destroying a china shop. Now, America’s allies and friends all feel they’ve been left stranded by the shifting tides of Uncle Sam’s political defiance and moral indifference.

In the wake of this disastrous leadership choice by the American voters, it appears a new buzzword is circulating in the world’s convention centers and auditoriums. It has been heard in the corridors of political and economic power around the world – most recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Politicians, economists, business leaders and environmentalists have all sprinkled it into their presentations – to leave a coruscating impression on discussion panels.

The buzzword is “national character” and it refers to a trait that both developed and developing nations seem to be on the verge of losing: defined by how much people are willing to do for the country (remember John F. Kennedy?) and how much compassion they show in relationships across a nation.

In the political writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he explains that the first rule to follow in planning a constitution for a society is that of national character. “Every society has or should have a national character and if it does not it should be given one”, he wrote. He regarded national character as “the basis of national consciousness in the protection of the rights of the underprivileged and powerless.” Ironically, Americans seem to think that Donald Trump is the one endowed with the ability to protect those rights.

Let’s stick a pin on the issue of national character as it relates to our own national consciousness. In the last decade or so, we have seen and experienced tremendous changes in our nation’s cultural and social metabolism. Of the litany of social annoyances pestering our small and impressionable society these days – indiscipline, discourtesy, lack of national pride, disrespect for the environment, hooliganism – perhaps none ranks higher than the indifference and lack of consideration by the powerful and privileged for the plight of the less fortunate and vulnerable in society, in the absence of reliable societal standards and values.

Fareed Zakaria dispenses some perspective in his book, The Future of Freedom, where he notes: “When powerful people acknowledge that there are certain standards for behaviour, they limit their own power, however indirectly and signal to society, “This is what we strive for”. Of the many differences between the blockbuster movie Titanic and history, one in particular is telling. In the movie as the ship is sinking, the first class passengers scramble to climb into the small number of lifeboats. Only the determination of the hardy seamen, who use guns to keep the grasping plutocrats at bay, gets the women and children into the boats. In fact according to survivors’ accounts, the “women and children first” convention was observed with almost no exception among the upper classes. The statistics make this plain. In first class, every child was saved as were all but 5 (of 144) women, 3 of whom chose to die with their husbands. By contrast, 70 percent of the men in first class perished. In second class, which was also inhabited by rich professional types, 80 percent of the women were saved but 90 percent of the men drowned… John Jacob Astor, reportedly the richest man in America at the time, is said to have fought his way to a boat, put his wife in it, and then, refusing to take a seat, stepped back and waved her goodbye.”

Our society needs to set and acknowledge high standards for civil life and embody values like fairness, decency, chivalry and respect for women and children. Those with immense power in our society must embrace their responsibilities, lead and set standards that are not only legal, but moral. It is said that “character comes from the environment that one lives in – and if the environment is one of high standards for education, refined culture, honesty, integrity and kindness, etc., then those who live there will tend to adopt those cultural mores.” Moreover, the respect for and education of women play an important role in shaping national character, hence, changing the condition of women can help modify national characteristics.

In a rapidly changing world where the odds are so astronomically stacked against small states, Saint Lucia needs more integrated policies aimed at reinforcing the role that the family, club and social environment play in the formation of high-quality human capital – and thereby help to unleash the creativity of young people that have often been stifled under a blanket of enforced conformism. Above all, private sector firms need to redefine their role in society, and do more to maximize their value not just to shareholders, but to all stakeholders in the communities their business affects.

The power of leadership must again reassert itself in our social, cultural but especially, educational institutions – which needless to say, have to start focusing less on achievement and more on character building. If character is truly formed in the home and school, then we should be redoubling our efforts to cultivate civility in our youth on that level; perhaps a good starting point would be the introduction of courses in non-violent communication and anger management in the curricular of primary and secondary schools on the island.

In my delirium, I imagine the reassertion of national pride by our social, political, business and religious leaders, who have at times had to bow down to the lowest standards in society in order to adapt to the times or to appease certain groups of people. Winston Churchill, the British PM during World War 11, was advised by a colleague in parliament to “keep his ear to the ground.” He responded by pointing out that “the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in this position.”

For comments, write to Clementsoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

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