When James Joseph was the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, “an invitation to the American Fourth of July was one of the hottest tickets.”
Joseph spent this Fourth of July at Chautauqua Institution, where Tuesday in the the Hall of Philosophy he delivered his lecture “The Passion of the Patriot: Making the Condition of Others Our Own” as part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture theme, “Celebrating the Genius and Soul of a Nation.”
“There was something very special in the way we answer the age-old question: What does it mean to be a patriot?” Joseph said. “July 4, 2017, is a time when that question has even more depth. The flags awaken, and the sounds and the symbols of patriotism embrace us at every call. But when the day is over, we will go back to being a badly divided people in a badly divided world.”
Joseph wanted to propose a cure for this world.
“I want to suggest … the most effective servant of society is the one who’s willing to be a critic, and the most effective critic is the one who’s willing to be a servant,” he said.
His service both as an officer in the U.S. Army and as a diplomat abroad helped form this outlook, but Joseph said his patriotism goes beyond government roles.
“I felt just as patriotic when I was organizing and later leading the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa in the 1960s,” he said. “I felt just as patriotic when I was chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service and helping to (establish) Americorps in the 1990s. I felt just as patriotic when I was chairing the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation in the aftermath of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.”
Joseph discussed elements of a successful society, the first being civic virtue. He defined civic virtue as the “cultivation of habits we live in.
“It reminds us that each generation has an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to contribute something as meaningful, as significant and even as extraordinary as the generations that preceded them,” Joseph said.
He said he is convinced that “a good society depends as much on the goodness of an individual as it does on the soundness of government and the fairness of laws. But I’m also concerned that all too often, when we think of the genius and soul of our nation, we tend to think primarily of the private virtue that builds character to the exclusion of the public values that build community.”
This is where the Golden Rule comes in — underlying all religions, there is some element of the Golden Rule; even if not the most prominent principle of a denomination, it is still a basis for understanding. Joseph said this precept “transcends national, cultural and religious borders.” The one thing still separating the nation, he said, is the question of whose additional virtues should be front and center.
“We are all over the map in our views on some of the micro issues of the day, but on the macro ethics of our aggregate existence, we are as united as any moral voice,” Joseph said.
One element that tends to weaken humanity, he said, is the remaining prejudice held by some — a “socially corrosive” view of people who are different from themselves.
“Even today, if you ask someone what it means to be American, they are not inclined to think of me,” Joseph said. “Or even our past president. They are far more likely to think of someone in whose image they see themselves. Someone who looks like them. Someone who acts like them. Someone who thinks like them, if they think at all. This romanticizing of automatics is a threat to … the genius and soul of a nation.”
When Americans change that narrative, the nation can begin to move forward. Joseph discussed a need for a common humanity, acknowledging that pride and individualism can sometimes cross the line. He said there are instances where “patriotism can lead to tribalism,” a thin line between inclusion and exclusion. People also have a tendency, Joseph said, to “romanticize the role of rugged individualism in isolation.”
“We live in a world that is integrated and fragmented at the very same time,” he said. “The more interdependent we become, the more people are turning inward to smaller communities.”
Joseph said this calls for a turn toward civic engagement if America is to maintain the “more perfect union” mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution.
“The notion of national responsibility to keep improving the work that the founders botched is evident in a story told about Benjamin Franklin after participating in the sacred deliberation during which the Constitution was drafted,” he said.
In the story, an inquisitive woman approached Franklin and asked, “What have you made for us, Dr. Franklin?” Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
The key to maintaining this republic, Joseph said, can be found in the concept of “ubuntu,” established by Desmond Tutu: What dehumanizes one dehumanizes another.
“(It) has been my experience that getting involved in the means of the maker provides a new respect, a new way of seeing ourselves, a new understanding of the purpose of the human journey,” Joseph said.
“When that which was their problem becomes our problem, the transaction transforms (from) mere association into a relationship that has potential” for finding common ground.
Joseph envisioned a world where “more Christians were able to say, ‘I want to be a Christian without making it difficult for a Jew to be a Jew, a Muslim to be a Muslim, a Buddhist to be a Buddhist or a Hindu to be a Hindu.’ ”
The current national climate, Joseph said, is one of “free-floating anxiety.” The psychological phenomenon refers to people wanting absolutes instead of complexity. When people are in gray areas, they become anxious without a base. This is different than America’s past moments of anxiety.
“The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was such a moment,” Joseph said. “The assassination of Martin Luther King was such a moment. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina, another catastrophe, had been such a moment. But today’s anxiety is free-floating and that is a result of a confluence of events. Many Americans are so anxious that they are anxious about the fact they are anxious.”
But hope, Joseph said, is the anchor in these cloudy waters.
“We who have seen the worst in life and the best in life dare to hope,” he said. “Moments of great crisis and great struggles are often moments of great possibility.”