Holding to Higher Principles

Gustave Doré, Don Quixote, lonely visionary


Yesterday I discussed how poets like Tennyson, Yeats and Auden urge us not to abandon a higher vision in tough times. In a recent New York Review of Books article entitled “The Threat of Moral Authority,” Masha Gessen discusses why authoritarians like Donald Trump are threatened by such a vision. Reflecting on Trump’s twitter barrage against civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Gessen reminded us, through a Václav Havel quotation, that standing up for what is right can leave us feeling like Don Quixote.

Lewis drew Trump’s wrath by stating that the Russian intervention in our election undermined its legitimacy. He was skipping the inauguration, he said, because “You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong.” While Trump could have chosen to ignore the remarks, he instead lambasted a man severely beaten at the Selma voting rights march. Gessen says that Trump instinctively understands the threat of people who affirm moral principles:

Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such.

Gessen then quotes Czech dissident Havel on cynicism about principles. In a 1975 letter to the communist leaders of his country, Havel alluded to Cervantes’s masterpiece as he talked about the challenge of standing up for what is right:

[E]veryone who still tries to resist by, for instance, refusing to adopt the principle of dissimulation as the key to survival, doubting the value of any self-fulfillment purchased at the cost of self-alienation—such a person appears to his ever more indifferent neighbors as an eccentric, a fool, a Don Quixote, and in the end is regarded inevitably with some aversion, like everyone who behaves differently from the rest and in a way which, moreover, threatens to hold up a critical mirror before their eyes.

 Gessen then mentions the rhetorical history of Lewis’s protest, which includes the higher notes sounded by Russian Nobel laureate Andrej Sakharov (peace prize) and Belarussian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich (literature prize):

That higher note is a necessary condition of vision. Sakharov, who spoke of greater change than most of his countrymen could have imagined, was quickly proven right by history. Havel, who conceptualized the “power of the powerless” as an entirely novel form of resistance, lived to lead his country. Raw power can overtake moral authority, and perhaps today it is easier than ever before, but a determined effort to preserve ideals when they are under attack can serve as a bridge to the future.

Gessen concludes by mentioning a protest reading staged on January 15 by New York writers on the steps of the city’s public library. Think of it as working to keep the flame of morality alive:

They read a variety of texts, and a high proportion of them, ranging from the preamble to the US Constitution to Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” belonged to that same unabashedly high-moral register. This is precisely the right choice for protesting the looming threat of autocracy: an assertion of principles and an insistence that, in the words of Langston Hughes, “America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.”

For other poems that people have turned to in recent days to reconnect with higher principles, check out this Atlantic article, which mentions poems by Eliot, Tennyson, and others.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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