Courage is a spiritual quality, and does not require brash acts or radical declarations to show through. Courage requires humility, and the ability to see the humanity in others. Courage requires strength of character, and a commitment to be just, to be truthful, to be more than the hostility that emerges from primal fight or flight responses.
Service is about giving. It is about being generous with other people. It is about going beyond what is asked, and doing something more. Service is about being the virtues one seeks to bring forth into the world. It means wanting not personal glory or vindication, but the opportunity to make things right for others, even when less service-minded peers urge hostility.
Values are things of enduring truth. To know value, one must cultivate the kind of inner character that not only meshes with one's own tribe, but understands the value of connecting with people who seem different. To value democracy is to be democratic, to accept that difference of views does not render a person illegitimate or fit for extermination.
Democracy is founded on the idea that all people have value. It is founded on the principle that under no circumstances should the failure of weak individuals in positions of influence to avoid condemning their rivals to non-existence bring about the degradation or injury of any human being.
People fail. People aspire, genuinely, to ideals they fail to live up to. People in public life have it particularly hard, because they are asked to exhibit the highest virtues, at all times, despite the immense pressure they are under. And people in public life often fail to meet those demands. Some say terrible, crazy, irrational things.
Some even labor deliberately at hurting people they dislike. They lose sight of what it means to be a free person, to be a citizen, to sign up to a social contract in which all human beings have value. They give in to the urge to speak in violent terms, to wish for harm to people they dislike. Some joke about it. It is always tragic, and always a moral failing, however momentary.
But sometimes an individual in public life goes beyond the boundaries of dramatic convention, beyond hyperbole, beyond irresponsibility, beyond accidental moral failing, beyond vitriol and degradation, and makes extreme, scorched-earth declarations that have no connection of any kind whatsoever to the vast and complicated fabric of human moral conduct.
Sometimes, people reveal that they harbor intense resentment, even deep hatred, for people they have never met, and simply because they are different. This is beyond sad and tragic, beyond moral failing. It is a surrender to the forces of violent hostility, and a betrayal of what democracy is designed to achieve.
For me, when that individual is an elected official, sworn to uphold the standards and principles of our democratic rule of law, that violation of the social contract is particularly frightening and unconscionable.
I do not know Allen West. I have never met him, and I do not follow his life of public service closely. I know there are people who like and respect him, and for that reason, I feel it is vitally important to examine the moral quality of at least one grave departure from reason and civility. I trust that there are times when he is a decent and caring person. And I believe the relevance of that is lost when such a person abandons that awareness of decency and caring and sets about trying to rule out a segment of the population as somehow unfit for inclusion.
It may be that there is no sentiment that is more evil than the sincere belief that there are people who are somehow not fully human, who "contaminate", to "threaten" the pure population, simply by virtue of their existence. It is not necessary to make any reference to the evil this idea can do. It is too apparent to anyone who thinks, reasons, feels and lives in this world.
Allen West sent out an email to supporters whom he addressed, generically, as "Dear Patriot", which ended with this unbelievable statement: "I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool."
His meaning could not be more clear: he believes that the purity of the patriotic "gene pool" is threatened by citizens who express a view he does not share. It is not necessary to compare this way of thinking with any political system from history; it suffices to describe it as what it is: a vile defamation of what democracy is about, and a deliberate confession of one man's visceral unwillingness to honor the principles of the Constitution he is sworn to uphold.
It is a defamation of every person who has ever sought to serve this nation, in whatever capacity, because no one of character and worth ever chose to serve this nation with the hope that their service would result in a system where public officials declare the unfitness for life of entire segments of the population. No one ever envisioned that a great America would behave in so desperate, so low, so undemocratic a fashion.
The email is full of false statements, some designed to mislead readers about whether they will have to pay if taxes on billionaires go up, when in fact, it is because taxes on billionaires are at historic lows that less affluent people are paying more than their share. But nevermind that; Mr. West is entitled to tell the story as he sees it, to try to be persuasive, because that is part of what he does for a living.
Voters should have the opportunity to decide if they want to spend their vote on someone who repays that support with lies, smears and hostility. What is so important, and so unfortunate, about this particular infraction, is that Mr. West has sworn to honor a system in which all people have value, and he has openly and deliberately gambled his honor on the idea that millions of his fellow citizens are, by his suggestion, genetically unfit for citizenship.
If everyone else in Congress is more or less honorable enough to ensure that our democracy is not so degraded as Mr. West would have it, then we can still honor the work of principled public servants, like Pres. Obama, who never resort to such malign attacks, and who lead by serving, and we can still use our vote to unseat those who show themselves unwilling or unable to live up to the moral requirements of public office.
I believe we are a courageous enough, a principled enough people, with enough awareness of what is really valuable in human society and in our democracy, to resist the sinister temptations of Mr. West's debased rhetoric. I want to believe that even someone willing to engage in such behavior might find the courage, the principle and the awareness of what is valuable in human society and in the human soul, to apologize, as publicly and as visibly as possible, for having so transgressed the boundaries of service to our democracy.
Mr. West has a moral obligation to recognize his error, and to apologize. And we the people of the United States, all people of all factions, all backgrounds and origins, all personalities and commitments, should demand that he do so, or that his party recognize the urgency of the need to ask him to sit out the next campaign, or be opposed by people more committed to the values of our democracy.