The United States is a country in trouble.
Its citizens are deeply isolated from within (from each other) and without (from the rest of the world it now seems).
Its landscape is blighted; its major cities crumbling through shear volume if nothing else.
As an experiment in both economy and democracy America is now at a crossroads.
Americans are scared and confused.
Many of them see a future grim beyond compare.
What went wrong?
I believe America as a collective simply ignored the fact that “beauty” could be important in helping to sort out the differences between good and evil. This simple oversight has caused so much pain it cannot be ignored. Perhaps the time is right for the notion of beauty to enter the public debate.
A bit ephemeral you say. Maybe, but I don’t think so.
First let me put this notion in more poetic words. Czeslaw Milosz once wrote:
“And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil, only beauty will call to them and save them so that they still know how to say: this is true and that is false.”
I raised this issue, preceded by Milosz’s words, in a speech to the Rotary Club in Sitka, Alaska, a week ago.
After a noticeable still had blanketed the room, the first question from the audience: “Who is to say what is beautiful?”
Point well taken of course. The old “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” point of view.
I was prepared for the question.
But for some reason I had been watching (captivated really by) a young girl — about 12 I will guess, in pigtails — wiggling around in her chair. Her hand shot up. I gave her the nod.
“I don’t know what is beautiful,” she said, “we haven’t studied that yet, but I know what is ugly.”
“What?” I challenged.
“War,” she said as she looked around the room trying, it seemed, to judge the response.
The room fell in on itself.
A ‘thank you young lady’ is all I could muster. She had managed to take all of us right to the heart of the matter.
“War,” I said, “is certainly not a thing of beauty.”
“You could put Los Angeles in that category I suppose,” an older gentleman volunteered.
Now we were off and running.
America is a country — certainly not alone in the world — suffering from pain, hunger, racism, overcrowding, inequality, war, anxiety and despair. But there may be a way out.
The mere fact a little girl in pigtails sitting in the front row can so readily spot the ugliness of war gives me, and it should give you, reason for hope.
If nothing else, she demonstrates that the test for beauty is not all that difficult. We do know beauty. We can readily distinguish between what is pleasing and what is disgusting.
There is nothing beautiful — even within the farthest reaches of our imagination — about the scenes we see coming from Iraq.
One of the last pictures I saw was of a father holding the charred body of his child high in the air for the world to see. And see it we did. There was no image so ugly or none so evil as that one.
What if, for a moment, we could envision foreign policy, public policy and community life, governed, if you will, by the notion of beauty? What differences might we expect to see?
We certainly would not expect to see battered women.
There would be no room in this picture for raw sewage running into a river.
War would be unimaginable, hunger off the map.
There would be no justification for illiteracy, disease, drug and alcohol addiction falling more heavily upon the hearts and minds of aboriginal peoples than on others in our society.
It would not be possible or acceptable for our elderly folks to be wheeled into institutional rooms, the doors locked, shades drawn.
We would not hunt wolf packs and seal pups and whales to the brink of extinction.
Nor would we cover the dark rich soil of our central farmlands with houses, all alike, row after row after row.
And while some of our young people may or may not choose to shave their heads tight to the skin, they would not tattoo that shiny space with words like “hate” or “kill” or “destroy.”
We just would not do these things.
But then someone will surely say that watching a grizzly hunt down and dismember a newborn caribou calf is anything but beautiful; or that seeing an old woman, skin wrinkled, eyes hollow, searching for that last breath, is not a beautiful sight.
In defense, I can only argue that the natural world, as it moves us between life and death, has it own definition of beauty, which may be difficult for us to accept.
But that should not hinder any of us from seeking beauty in everything we do.
It should not preclude us from insisting that beauty become a part of law, part of the social compact, part of what it means to be responsible, part of what it means to be American.