By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
In the wake of the horrific massacre of nine people – studying the Bible, no less – in the black church in Charleston, President Obama lamented that America is “not cured” yet of racism. He is right.
Indeed, there are many other maladies of which America and the world itself are not yet “cured.” We are not cured of Jew hatred, or bias against Christians or people of faith. We are not cured of homicide and theft, of robbery, burglary and assault. We are not cured of evil, hatred, slander or gossip. We are not cured of malice and impropriety, of adultery and immorality. We are not cured of foolish talk and self-destructive behavior. We are not cured of mental illness. All those maladies still exist but the good thing is, like racism, they exist in very small groups and sometimes just in demented or decadent individuals.
We are also not yet cured of demagogues who cannot lead or inspire but can incite – and proffer abundant platitudes disguised as wisdom. Is a cure possible for any of this? Of course not.
The answer is so simple that one wonders why such risible statements are uttered in the first place. The great conservative thinker Russell Kirk once wrote: “the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect.” Of course America is not yet “cured” of racism; no country in the world, no civilization that has ever existed has been “cured” of any evil doctrine, deed or temptation. That is the essence of the human dilemma. Why the President should think otherwise is a mystery, unless he believes that – since he can slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal the planet – he can also eliminate bad thoughts and evil behavior from the human race.
Only perfect people can create a perfect society, and since there are no perfect people, it stands to reason that there is no perfect society. To the liberal mind, that is unconscionable and unacceptable, and must be a source of great vexation. It is also responsible for a lack of perspective, an absence of deliberation and a foolish rush to judgment about American society.
Is America a racist society? Certainly not, although there are obviously a small number of people who hate blacks or Jews or Christians or whites or anyone else. The proof of the contrary is in the response of all Americans to these brutal homicides: universal condemnation of the murderer. I even heard rumors that he was denounced as an extremist by the skinheads and other white supremacist groups –and that is saying something. Everyone I have heard considers the murderer to be a monster, obviously deranged but not clinically so or he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions. But he can’t be normal. No normal person could think like him and certainly not act like him. The sooner he is executed, the quicker our society can be cleansed.
And the reaction of the church members was uplifting in its grace and nobility. Those who hastened to forgive were acting in accordance with Christian doctrine, but I hope that he is not forgiven enough that he escapes a speedy execution (or at least execution; nothing in the American judicial system is speedy).
The widespread denunciation of his heinous acts speaks well of American society but unsurprisingly so. Sure, slavery was the great evil of America’s founding, but the American people are also the only people in world history to fight a bloody civil war – still the bloodiest war in American history – in order to free slaves. That was unprecedented and unduplicated, and reports of the virtues of such a nation filtered to Eastern Europe in the last third of the 19th century and sparked the great immigration to the United States, especially of Jews. This is what they heard: brother fought against brother in a war whose primary cause and consequence was the abolition of slavery. Let that sink in. G-d liberated us from Egypt; the Egyptians didn’t fight each other so Jewish slaves could go free.
As a result, people flocked – and still do – to a country that guaranteed freedom and liberty, that attempted to share its values with the world, and that constantly wrestles with the morality of its actions. How many other countries are like that –that Obama should bemoan that America is not perfect?
There is something both odious and unctuous about the President’s remarks, as if his disappointment that America is not Utopia changes anything about human nature or solves any problem. Of course America is not Utopia. Only Utopia is Utopia, and Utopia doesn’t exist in reality.
What is truly remarkable is absence of racism in American society, notwithstanding the reprehensible homicides of a lone gunman and haters that exist here and there. It is a particularly hollow claim in a country in which wealthiest entertainers and athletes are black, and where the most powerful politicians are black – including a president elected twice by a nation who, in his words, has racism in its DNA. And this from a man who spent 20 years in the pews of a church in which he regularly heard sermons from a racist black preacher. Is there a racist politician today who can get elected to any office, even on a municipal level? But as Shelby Steele wrote, asserting the claim of ongoing racism furnishes an ongoing "entitlement to power."
Are there people who don’t like one ethnic group or another? Yes. There is not a country on earth that contains perfect people who love and appreciate everyone. That is not to say that hatred is built into the DNA of mankind – everyone has free choice to be loving and tolerant or spiteful and narrow-minded – but Obama might as well decry the continued existence of tornadoes and hurricanes in a nation that could put a man on the moon. He might as well lament the persistence of poverty in an affluent nation (wait; he does, hence his drive for redistribution of wealth).
It is a shame, but an unsurprising one, that Obama chose a moment in which he could have united Americans in shared grief and politicized it with complaints first about gun control (as if there are no laws already in place outlawing the murderer’s possession and use of that firearm; actually, had some of the churchgoers packed some legal heat that night – as is common in shuls in Israel – the event might have had a different ending) and then about racism (as if what happened reflected a societal flaw rather than the work of one evil loser). Obama’s error was underscored in last week’s sedra, the query of Moshe and Aharon to G-d: “Shall one man sin, and You will be angry at the entire congregation?” (Bamidbar 16:22)
The anguished search for and failure to find Utopia engenders an interesting conclusion noted here in the past and verified by a host of social scientists. Conservatives tend to be happier people than liberals. Because liberals expect perfection, they are irritated by the foibles of human nature. Nothing is ever good enough and the liberal is therefore pained by the deficiencies of mankind, but always pained, as mankind is always deficient in something. Conservatives are more realistic, more willing view the present as satisfactory, if not even satisfying, and less likely to live in a constant state of discontent.
That and more explain the tendencies and clumsy rhetoric of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office. But even his missteps should not distract us from the epic sadness in Charleston, and the crime that touched every person of faith. The refinement of the survivors and the victims’ families, and the support shown from every quarter of this country, shows the elementary decency of Americans of all backgrounds and all walks of life.
Even the disgruntled musings of the President in perpetual political mode cannot nullify that essential truth.