There are times when the narrow pursuits of commerce and career must be suspended in favor of far more important matters. As the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said, “The role of the artist is not to look away.” That’s a perfect charge for all creative people, and one that I regard as an inviolable responsibility.
I’m an artist and I’m also an entrepreneur. I believe in great opportunities afforded by an intellectually free culture, a diverse mix of people and philosophies that provoke invention and innovation, full of energy and verve and, in its best expression, the pursuit of happiness. I’m an American, the fourth and fifth generation son of immigrants, and I grew up wanting to believe that the majority of my fellow Americans actually understood the oft-repeated words that purport to be founding principles of the country.
Mr. President, you have made us global hypocrites.
This is a non-partisan lament. This is not about declaring political colors. This is about wanting to believe in values deeper than simply winning the latest popularity poll.
I could speak here about racism and xenophobia in the wake of Charlottesville, but I believe that would be too obvious—and this is shocking even as I write the words—far too small of a critique. The grinding national decline on so many fronts since November 8, 2016 is, without a doubt, a symptom of a creeping ethical erosion degrading major American institutions for years. Since the election, however, that decline has been exponential. You and your cadre have illuminated a growing cancer that’s always lurked beneath the nation’s dermis, one that’s bloomed into angry, infected lesions in recent times. You and your administration represent a nation fueled by bellicose self interests. You represent one of the most challenging, profoundly disappointing aspects of what describes the real ethical bones for millions of Americans: you represent selfishness.
Selfishness sometimes hides behind a cloak called “liberty”. This is complicated, because the word “liberty” appears so prominently in the foundational texts of the nation. Liberty as a concept is not the problem. It is, philosophically, something to pursue and support. Liberty suggests freedoms, which implies peaceful potentials. But liberty as a foundational concept can easily become a corrupting force. It’s a principal that generally does not accrue evenly to all, especially in a stratified populace when some people have easier access to greater opportunities and social status than others. Liberty is rarely something that people get in equal measures. When everyone holds up the torch of liberty—when everyone asserts an inalienable right to get precisely what they want, the way they want it, right now— it’s easy for those with a head start to lose sight of things that other people, different people, might want—or even need. Liberty manifested as self-interest risks becoming an energizing engine that can supersede our pledge to mutually support each other, look out for each other, work for a shared experience, provide for the general welfare and secure the blessings that are ultimately in everyone’s best interest. Liberty makes us believe that we’re all about freedom, but liberty as a national ethic only matters when we support equal access for someone besides ourselves.
Selfishness empowers us to look away from others, including people in need as well as those who are simply different than we are. It says “what’s ours is ours, and what’s yours…is your problem.” We treat people poorly when they look or sound or dress or pray differently than we do because a placement of liberty above all runs counter to values that ask us to make respectful room for other people’s needs. This is at the core of a nation that still, after hundreds of years, struggles to clarify values about placing education above incarceration, about balkanized health care resources that intentionally keep resources from people who need a hand, from insuring clean drinking water for everyone, from inconvenient climate science that challenge short-termed pursuits of dirty carbon profits.
Mr. President, you do not speak for most of us. As a nation we are established on principles that, on paper, imply the potential for greatness. But Mr. President, you do not represent the expansiveness or generosity or patience or humility to make those principles manifest, to deeply embody what they mean beyond simple recitation of the words. You and your administration are selfish and short sighted, easily distracted by self indulgence and self regard.
If I’m being honest, it’s important to state that is not something you started. This is something that’s run shallow beneath the surface for as long as The United States have been united. Winston Churchill famously said “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” The reason for that is that Americans have been bred to espouse and deeply embody a cowboy sense of self direction and autonomy above all; liberty uber alles. We’ve especially seen this in the polarization of politics in the past 30 years, accelerating and intensifying of late. In the second decade of the millennium there has never been such an unwillingness for people of different opinions to listen and try to understand—not agree, but simply try and understand. Now, sad to say, things are worse.
The American Experiment has crashed headlong into the grinding maw that has undone civilizations since humanity began coalescing around communal fires. Since our earliest days as a country we have regularly courted our baser instincts (slavery, internment camps, graft) and proved our great imperfections with horrifying clarity. In recent months we are into something new. The nation is now gripped in a frenzied expression of our most brutish instincts, from global isolationism, to paranoia dressed as national security, to divisive domestic affairs, to lack of multicultural respect, to religious intolerance, improper financial ethics, precarious jurisprudence, and more. The difference is that those instincts are now industrialized, mechanized, technologized—and the consequences of our turmoil has lasting implications. Where the many tragedies and absurdities of the Civil War caused generations of pain in America, our contemporary seizures now ripple beyond the our national boundaries. We are on the precipice of permanently tarnishing our standing as a reliable global example of hope. When hope dies, darkness falls.
Mr. President, I do not expect you to change, nor do I expect that your advisors, cabinet appointees, and most trusted supporters will change. I hope you will, but I’m a realist. That’s why I’m writing this letter. I want to believe there is a great mass of ethically minded, scientifically capable, culturally literate, environmentally conscious, reasonable, sensitive people willing to think differently than the mewling mass who’ve closed their eyes and hearts to higher values. I want to believe and I’m saying so in public, openly. My hope is that one more voice added to a growing chorus will help embolden those who are understandably nervous to stand taller and speak with greater calm, eloquence, and resolve; shouting is not going to win the day. Mutual desire for our greater collective potentials and the hard work of teaching trust and civility will be the only way we turn the tide. Many in the mainstream have been largely quiet because they are tired. They feel that their unincorporated voices and actions are incapable of influencing the halls of power and the people who populate them. But I believe there are more things to unite us than divide us. That requires leadership and courage and a willingness to listen and a willingness to learn. That requires a measure of selflessness. It alsorequires leaders to introduce, to teach, and to ultimately defend a profoundly different vocabulary for the nation. And that requires a completely different way of thinking about how you fit into the world you share every time you wake to a new day.