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Shaken to My Moral Foundations: Part I

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In the mid-1990s, I was engaged in regular radio conversations across the political and moral divide with the people among whom I lived in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.  My engagement with those divisions led me to write several books, one of which I will begin to share here now.

 The title of this book is NOT SO STRAIGHT-AND-NARROW:  HOW WELL CAN WE KNOW WHAT'S RIGHT TO DO?  In some ways, it is a book of moral philosophy.  In some ways, it is an attempt to find that higher wisdom that could allow a polarized America to become more whole.   But it begins with some of the story of my own life-- an autobiographical account of some of the experiences that led me to confront the difficult challenge not only of knowing what's right to do but also knowing how to think about such questions.

 Here, then is the first half of that opening autobiographical chapter.  In the coming weeks, this will be followed up first by the rest of that chapter and then by the rest of the book.

 While NOT SO STRAIGHT-AND-NARROW does not deal with the latest news from the political battleground, I believe it does bear meaningfully on some of the deeper issues underlying America's political battles.

 Please note:  there are some surprising twists and turns in the unfolding of the argument of this book.  These reflect some of my own surprising discoveries in the course of my attempt to explore these issues in an honest and open way.




<em>Chapter 1
Shaken to My Moral Foundations:
An Autobiographical Preamble

The right spirit. </em>

    I might begin the saga of my moral quest with a time, in my late teens, when I discovered a morally inspiring figure in a great work of fiction.  The book was The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevski, and the character was Alyosha, the saintly one of the brothers.  In Alyosha, Dostoyevski patterns a character on the goodness and lovingness of Christ.   The character I found morally inspiring was therefore, in a sense, one that has inspired countless people for two millennia.  Except that Alyosha's loving-kindness is more unadulterated than that of Jesus, who is depicted as speaking scornfully to those he saw as hypocrites and as overturning the tables of the moneylenders by the Temple.  No matter what happened, Alyosha dealt with those around him with sweetness and kindness.  

    I was not like Alyosha, but I wanted to be and I strove to be.  All my life I had wanted to be a good person, one who reliably did what was morally right, and Alyosha gave me an image of how a good person would conduct himself.  Moral goodness I understood then as a matter of acting with the right quality of spirit.  Act from love and you act rightly.

    A scene from that time captures the ethics I was then trying to live by.

    My brother, Ed, and I were traveling by bus from Boston to the Twin Cities in Minnesota.  He was a senior and I a freshman at Harvard, and we were homeward bound for a well-deserved Christmas break.  To get to Chicago took twenty-four hours, so by the time we got to Chicago's Greyhound Terminal we felt pretty stale.  We went into the men's restroom and brushed our teeth with cold water and our fingers.  Then we briefly stripped to the waist and splashed some water on our chests and under our arms.  At that point, we heard someone hissing at us,  "You can't wash your BODY!"   The tone was at once offended and derisive.  We both turned around to look at the man who had accosted us.  He was an elderly black man who evidently held the office of attendant in that restroom.  He was dressed modestly and neatly, his kinky hair mostly gray was cropped close to his head.  Again he chastised us, "You can't wash your body here," with a look of disgust on his face as though anyone brought up decently wouldn't need to be told such a thing.  And then once again, "Put your shirts on, this ain't no place to wash your body!" as if we had brought coarseness into his respectable establishment, the men’s room in the Greyhound Bus Stain in the rough and broad-shouldered city of Chicago..

    It was my brother who spoke in reply.  He looked around at the shabby restroom, and at the several other men then using the facilities.  They were not all men with whom you'd want to find yourself in a dark alley.  In a voice heavy with sarcasm, Ed told the attendant, "I didn't realize that we were patronizing such a fancy place"  --as if to say, "Who the hell are you to take it on yourself to dress us down like that?"  The old man bristled as Ed and I left his domain.

    During this exchange, I said nothing.  But once we were out in the main terminal, I told Ed that I felt bad that he'd dealt with the old man that way.  Ed defended himself, saying that the guy had been officious and had treated us badly.  I didn't disagree, but I said, "Put yourself in that old man's place.  Here we are, a couple of white guys.  And college guys.  And he has to spend his days in that dingy place.  How much respect do you think he gets?  He probably felt our washing our armpits in there was just one more sign that people like us don't hold him and his station and his standards in respect.  I wish we had spoken to him in some way that had satisfied his need to be esteemed as a person."

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)

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