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Shaken to My Moral Foundations PART II

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This is the second of two installments of the autobiographical first chapter of my book NOT SO STRAIGHT-AND-NARROW: How Well Can We Know What's Right to Do? [I wrote this book in the mid 1990s.]

The first installment was published here last week at click here

As I said at that time, this opening chapter is "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" of morality.

And as I said further about NOT SO STRAIGHT-AND-NARROW as a whole," 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."

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Here is the second half of the narrative of those formative experiences of my youth.  The other chapters of NOT SO STRAIGHT-AND-NARROW will follow in the weeks to come.

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Playing by the rules.

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I had always been a pretty straight arrow. Followed my parents rules; followed the schools' rules; obeyed the law. In general, in life, I had signed the agreements placed in front of me, and observed scrupulously my part of the deal. By the summer of 1968, I found my relation to these agreements shifting dramatically.

Graduating from college in 1967, I faced the prospect of being drafted into a war of whose rightness and wisdom I had become ever-more doubtful. More and more, it looked as though our involvement in that war in Vietnam was founded on lies our own government had told us. Compounding the lies were increasingly evident fundamental errors of judgment. The war seemed increasingly unlikely to succeed, and the costs of trying to succeed were becoming immense. Under those circumstances, how should a righteous young man respond to his country's call to fight and kill?

From one perspective, accepting Uncle Sam's call was my duty. Having been born right after World War II, and brought up on a diet of World War II movies, that perspective of duty had never bothered me. I had often pictured myself, when I was a boy, fighting the Nazis and liberating Europe. But already in junior high school, when I was assigned to do a report on the U.S. Naval hero Stephen Decatur, I found I could not swallow his famous toast "My country right or wrong!" If one's country is engaged in a war that is wrong how can it be one's duty to contribute to it? That is tantamount to saying that it is right to do what is wrong. Such a contradiction points to a mistaken premise, it seemed to me, and that mistaken premise is the notion that duty, as defined by one's country, can be allowed to define what is right. After all, are we going to say that those German young men who fought for Hitler were doing right simply because they answered their country's call? I was not prepared to say that: if ever there were a force for evil, it was Nazism, and it cannot be moral to serve evil. Duty to one's nation, therefore, does not end the question of morality.

In January of 1968, I received from the Selective Service my notice to report for my induction. In the month before I had to appear for my Army physical, I thought much and slept little. Would I go and fight? To do otherwise would be seen by most people as a sign of cowardice. But in my heart I knew that it would be the least courageous course I could choose, the course of least resistance, the course of not standing up for principle. Would I declare myself a conscientious objector? That would be a lie, because I would not be given CO status if I told the truth about my beliefs, which were not pacifistic. Would I go to jail or head off to Canada? Those possibilities were the scary ones over which I lost sleep.

 

Fortunately, a different solution surfaced from out of my past. I brought to the Army's attention an old football injury to my back. Letters from my physician led the Army to take x-rays, which led the Army's orthopedist to come back into the room and tell me, "You are disqualified."

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A month later, I dropped out of graduate school and devoted myself full-time to the presidential campaign, to try to help elect a new president who would end that misguided and disastrous war. On March 31, the incumbent president shocked the nation by taking himself out of contention for re-election. And I and many, many other people of my generation were fanning across the country to work for the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy. My work in the McCarthy campaign took me west, from the Indiana primary to the Nebraska primary and then to the coast for the big showdown in California. Everywhere, the forces committed to ending the war were --in combination -- much greater than those rallying to the support of the status quo, of LBJ and his designated successor Hubert Humphrey.

When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, it was unclear just how the Democratic Party would deal with the nomination process. On the one hand, it appeared that the party organization had the raw power to push their nominee through. On the other hand, the voice of the people had been loud and clear wherever there had been primaries, and the idea that the party would use its power in complete disregard of the popular will was too grim to contemplate. I awaited the Chicago convention with an intense brew of emotions.No one thing drove so deep a wedge between me and the systems in which I live as did watching the Chicago convention in the summer of 1968. The sight of the Chicago police engaged in what a subsequent inquiry labeled a "police riot" against a group of young people in Lincoln Park changed my relationship with my country. The police brutality seemed to me merely the epitome of a large phenomenon: the use of brute force without regard to what is morally right, or to the rights of others in a situation of conflict.

Everywhere, raw power seemed to be declaring that might makes right. The Soviet Union had sent its tanks into Prague. The assassins in America had brought down Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Bobby. And now the forces of LBJ and the Daly machine were forcing their will on a supposedly democratic process. Of the Soviets, I had never expected any better. But the same American establishment that was telling us that they had to destroy a Vietnamese village in order to save it, and that now demonstrated that dissent from its will would be suppressed by force, was now losing moral credibility in my eyes.

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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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