Old Elijah's scribe Peter Berger

Asking the question ...


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Will we decide to hold onto the republic?

By PETER BERGER

In his cranky way Poor Elijah is like Bob Cratchit’s family. He puts his heart and soul into Christmas. At the center of his observance is the story the Cratchits share with Ebenezer Scrooge. With all respect to Charles Dickens, my friend prefers the movie version of “A Christmas Carol.” Naturally we’re talking about the black and white 1951 production.

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Scrooge, the grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner, is visited by three spirits sent to reclaim him. With them he revisits his past, looks in on the present, and glimpses the future. While on his progress with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge departs from his customary selfishness to inquire after the future for Bob Cratchit’s lame son, Tiny Tim.

“Will Tiny Tim live?” Scrooge asks.

The spirit sadly answers that he sees a vacant seat and a crutch without its owner. When Scrooge begs that the boy be spared, the spirit replies that unless the future is altered by deeds in the present, the child will die. When the spirit repeats Scrooge’s earlier heartless words about the folly of charity, Ebenezer is overwhelmed by penitence and grief.

By the story’s end Scrooge is transformed. Tiny Tim doesn’t die. Scrooge becomes his second father and “as good a man as the good old city knew.”

The story is too rich to point to only one cause for Scrooge’s moral awakening. But one moment when he changes is when he asks his question, when Tiny Tim’s mortality becomes real to him. Scrooge’s change requires a willingness to look into the future and a recognition of his responsibility for it.

While our own visiting spirits aren’t as fanciful as Ebenezer’s, we’re each engaged in our own reclamation. At times we’re as blind and deaf as Scrooge was. At others our eyes and ears are opened to our private futures. Here, though, I’d like to consider our common future, the future of our republic. That’s what Ben Franklin said the founders had given us, but only if we could keep it.

I’m not talking about policy specifics, of taxes, tariffs, and the nation’s diminished role in the world. These are important matters, and I have opinions about each, but if I had to pay myself a dollar for every time I’ve changed my mind about a specific public policy, meaning I decided I’d been wrong, I’d owe myself a lot of money.

Some readers choose to dwell on specific policies — conservative or liberal, wise or foolish. I mean here to address nothing less than whether we will keep our republic. Our greatest peril lies not in any specific issue but rather in our failure to heed the call of our better angels.

All our presidents have been mortal and therefore flawed. All yielded on occasion to expediency, even Mr. Lincoln. But President Trump is another case.

Set aside the incompetence, the vain boasting, the nepotism, the complacent ignorance. Or set aside your concurrence with his manner and policies. Set it all aside.

It’s long past time when we can ignore the incessant lies, the habitual corruption, the naked self-interest, the shameless greed, the pernicious narcissism, the assault on Constitutional principles. We can’t afford to abide a president who, like an eighth-grade bully, lauds co-conspirators for being “strong” enough not to rat him out. In what world are we living where obstructing justice and lying are dismissed as merely “process crimes,” where the nation’s chief magistrate rails against cooperating with officers of the law? Have we reached the extremity where secretly paying for someone’s silence is defended on the grounds that it’s not really illegal because it’s just private hush money?

After all the indictments, convictions, and guilty pleas, it’s either madness or willful deceit to claim there’s no evidence of wrongdoing.

It’s necessary that we deal with pocketbook and kitchen table issues. But if we mean to put “America first,” our first concern has to be our morality.

We learned at President Bush’s funeral that he cherished the honor of the office. That word honor seems less and less familiar to us. It’s worth remembering that it’s the last word in the Declaration of Independence, the most sacred possession pledged to the nation by its founders.

Are we behaving honorably?

There is no honor in condoning dishonor.

I visited the Lincoln Memorial last month. I had the fancy that if I were charged with governing the nation, I would go every day and gaze at Mr. Lincoln’s face and read his words so I could be reminded of all that courage and honor demand.

It’s human to be saddened by the fall of a man. It hurts to be disappointed by a leader in whom you’ve vested your hope. We’ve all known that disappointment.

It’s more important, however, that we vindicate the nation’s founding principle that no man is above the law. It’s more important that we secure the blessings of liberty. It’s more important that we rise above the hypocrisy of condoning in our President that which we wouldn’t tolerate in our children.

Scrooge asked his question because he cared and because he saw there was reason to believe Tiny Tim’s future was in doubt.

Because we care it’s time to ask the question about us.

Will our country live?

Will our honor be sufficient?

In hope and with best wishes from Poor Elijah and me.

Peter Berger has taught English and history for thirty years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.


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