Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s (1892-1932) famous treatise Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) needs significant revisitation through a personal case: former Jamaican-American Secretary of State and Chair of Joint Chief of Staff General Colin Powell who, at age 84, died on October 18, a few days ago, from the effects of COVID-19 while fully vaccinated as he struggled against cancer. Our present still early 21st Century era, remains very much like the interworld war time context of Niebur penning his classic .Namely “now” continues to be a time in America in which truth telling is, in too many respects,much more myth making rituals than the presentation of reliable and valid knowledge based evidence .This is especially the case when it comes to matters of racial justice and the justice problems of other historically marginalized and oppressed populations such as girls and women, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the poor at large; particularly those who are Non-White.
Plus through the generations, there have been American power elites using disproportionately the bloodshedded lives of the poor and otherwise marginal on their conceived battlefields , who choose to make wars be it during their internal theft of land from indigenous peoples or other peoples such as the Mexicans of the West and South West ;the World War II internment of the too competive Californian Japanese American farm owners, and Polynesians in late 19th century Hawaii or the grabbing of land from the crumbling Spanish and French empires such as the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Hati or aiding European colonial rulers engagements in their thirst for controlling Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans in their more or less conquered societies.
As the contemporary American right is making much to do over critical race theory, whatever that really is, wanting the continued White Supremacy coverups about the historical inequalities and deep insidious prejudices which cripple the well being of all Americans and brings injury to efforts to be a role model of justice to a world which knows what the deal of hypocrisy really is, we reside in a society in which the emperor declaring decency no more has clothes, as scanty as they have been. Even much weaker nations let alone our mortal superpower rivals are no longer afraid when it comes to casting stones at the blatant moral decency lies, we Americans have been taught to live by and have encouraged or forced others to live by over the generations.
It is difficult to get over to people like the American far right and their foes neoliberal progressives, ironically enough, and those elsewhere in the world with glitters in their eyes when the name America is conjured up ,to realize how much truth has been tainted in America since its slave holding and indigenous people’s extermination colonial origins. The compromise of truth about the dehumanizations which pathologically marks the lives of all Americans in the effort to paint America as the land of freedom and milk and honey for all has come to propagate generations of injustices which have sources and manifestations of massive amnesia or placed in siloed boxes of marginality or exclusion such as the authentic history telling of too usual abysmal Non-Whites experiences in America.
But as untruthfulness has been so much a norm in the telling the truth about America, we have in recent times fallen into the deepest gutter of indecency as a society. We began to slip and slide into being an indecent society with the questionable if not unsolved Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X assassinations of the 1960s and Viet Nam and Watergate ending in disgrace in the 1970s.
It was also a time when Colin Powell began to make his climb in the military and in public service. It was when there remained the Jim Crow norms, still very much here, which dictated that if you were Black and wanted to climb in a society opening you had to have a clean nose and a willingness to conform to racist standards which required you to be a gentle soul with a charming, good sense of humor. He was a symbol of success in the 1970s and 1980s era to the extent to which in the 1990s his name was touted as a possible candidate for the Presidency as he was so popular.
But what made Powell so popular was getting himself involved in leading militarily an unjust war which even he later regretted. A war began by the first Bush I which he would be unjustly rewarded by Bush II who fired him after he did public dirty work which as he would note, tarnished his sterling career for good. But it was the beginning of the rotten eggs era where Presidents from Nixon through Trump and now Biden would find themselves being entangled in webs of indecency if not weaving themselves. Preferring to look the other way and pretend that which was indecent was righteous patriotic duty.
It came to the point that Powell as the decent man he was became a rarefied symbol of pioneering racial change in an integrating society which was becoming increasingly indecent by the day where morality became associated more with right wing ideologies than the basic meaning of morality meaning decency. In fact, much later even right-wing evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. and his wife like Jim Baker in the 1980s would become illustrations of how much morality became empty in true meaning as they became engulfed in public indecent charges while waddling in their private jets and mansions.
So, when Trump came along in 2016 with his indecent immorality charges and his love for constantly lying, it was the result of the normalization of indecent politics where lobbyists hold elected officials in their deep monied pockets coaxing them to stand up against measures to promote taking care of the human rights of their constituencies. Where nothing is done about gun violence due to the lobby power of the National Rifle Association and where fossil fuel companies hold efforts to clean the air up through dipping money into the bank accounts of Congress men and women. Where drug companies and medical insurance companies keep the quality of medical care low while Americans pay health costs through our noses. Trump did not create indecency in American mainstream politics, it has been emerging for years and now is well here. He just made indecency fashionable as seen in his post-election fan club fawning over his lying claims of really winning the 2020 Presidential election.
It is here in the emerging indecent society, where we see Powell feeling compelled to support policies which he was morally against only to regret the consequences. He was in the second Bush administration the failed stopping gate of Bush II, Cheney, and Rumsfeld who shoved the United States into an unconstitutional pro-active war with Iraq and fake nation building claims for invading Afghanistan all for the oil, opium, race against the Russians and the Chinese, and to make arms selling profits. As said earlier in a slightly different way, after Powell’s Weapons of Mass Destruction UN speech, a grotesque gesture of public political indecency, with a tarnished reputation for the rest of his life, Bush II in the beginning of his second term fired him.Powell did not see it coming from the jovial Bush II who once told him jokingly in front of Biden then Chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee to make sure he packed clean underwear as he prepared for a trip to Europe.
Powell’s support of Democratic candidates and Presidents in the aftermath of his push out from the Bush administration made it clear there was no more place for him in a Republican Party veering to the right eating its own decent luminaries such as John McCain ,Lyn Cheney, and Mitt Romney in the process.
His support for Democrats did not mean he became one and in fact described himself as being party less. That is a long way from the mentoring he received from Nixon, Regan, and Bush I Republicans in their patronizing way felt that Powell was a deserving symbol of racial integration in an opening desegregating key sector in American society to admire while of course they tied his hands since though it is a tad bit better now, it has always been the case if you are Black and wish to climb to the top of some system you have to be what one Black Chair of a University search committee told me in the late 1980s, you got to be a good boy or girl though of course in an adult body. You must be decent even though decency may not be the norm environment. Certainly not a standard requirement for status climbing ill-tempered White men and even increasingly White women who are given a pass due to their intellectual gifts or
/and high technical skills,even though they are cold, humorless, ego maniacs allowed to climb and climb to the highest berths of politics and other key systems such as corporate business, law, medicine, and higher education.
I remember vividly living in London in 1990 when Bush I was gearing up to invade Iraq. The British press was in a feeding frenzy not only about the coming war with Maggie Thatcher in full support swing but most importantly in fascination with the Black man Colin Powell being the Chair of the Joint Chief of Staff. Journalists were more interested in conveying how nice and charming Powell was forgetting he was the most authoritative American military man not a pastor. And that has remained the public relations image of Powell while being characterized as being more of a technician or as he would put it, a pragmatist, rather than as a big picture visionary guy, which is usually an image reserved for White male military leaders in contemporary America such as General John Mattis and David Petraeus. Meanwhile, from the 1990s through the day he died, Powell, who insisted that race made no difference in his career climb though he was always characterized in the media as the first Black this and that, so it was always a factor in the equation of his promotion and climb, became increasingly a marginalizing icon of decency in a society in which indecency has become the driving norm. Joining Bush II’s administration after he got over through such indecent means engineered through Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court should have been enough for him to realize it was a bad omen for things to come, which did. But he felt his decency, his love for country, his love for American in military garb and civilian dress would be enough to be a moral counterweight in an indecent administration. Instead, he would lose battles to keep us out of un-necessary wars; ignored and then fired.
General Colin Powell then is a tragic symbol and indicator of how indecent public life has become in American society over the course of the last 50 years. And then we wonder why. We wonder why there is so much avoidance of public service by young people who are decent people, our future but who refuse to become involved in what has become a rotten society. We see what is happening to decent Joe Biden, going down the tubes quickly since he came into office only to find decency, trying to do the right thing is not on the mind of those who hold the purse strings in politics. They don’t care about climate control, they don’t care about providing provisions to help the poor, the unemployed, and the sick. They don’t care about voting rights or the rights of women, older persons, or the disabled. Any effort to help is called socialism unless it is to help the wealthy and otherwise privileged.
Religion has become a plaything for entertainment and to generate revenue than caring for the souls of people and being a voice for decency in a society becoming increasingly indecent regarding public norms and expectations. It is no wonder why religious leaders are the last to be thought about when it comes to public policy consultation or comforting protestors advocating their human rights, or boldly standing up for what is right in their own congregations, in society, and in the world. Religious leaders are more concerned about remaining employed by their congregations and supervisors and moving up the career ladders of their organized faiths than telling them the truth and urging them to tell the truth about the need for decency in an indecent society.
God in an indecent society becomes a trinket worn around our necks for show and tell and nothing else except perhaps a circus clown or an ATM machine. We don’t need God any more in an indecent society since we have all the brains and all the answers. We live prosperous lives and when that is indeed the case, we have the benefits to cover our health care, home mortgages, and educating our kids. We don’t need God anymore to bless us and deliver us since we become gods. All we need to do, to paraphrase Powell on the eve of invading Iraq, is, when need arises, to get the enemy in our crosshairs and kill them because we have the arms which can do so and who cares. And then when it is all over, when we too have been crumbled up and tossed away like a soiled paper bag, we still don’t get it since God does not live in an indecent society or at best if so, God is in some small corner some whereas an exotic old man with a beard who has nothing to do with the rest of us.
So, what is to come of us, those who are still walking on earth still breathing as we grieve the death of this decent man who tried his best to maneuver in a society which lost the little it had like the sort of decency which his hard-working immigrant parents had only to be outstripped and replaced with expectations of indecency in public life as he began to climb up. What is our calling, what is our task? Is it to continue to go with the flow of public indecency thinking and practices we will get to kiss a golden ring one day of ultimate success only to find that rot begats rot? And the begatted rot gets worst and worst and never leads anywhere except the worst dying with tarnished legacies of lives which meant well but got caught up in what becomes normal in an indecent society which abuses its young and those trying to do decent things in need of some bodies and minds for justice finding their backbones and standing and speaking out for what is right and telling what is wrong. If not a person of faith, that is at least what a patriotic person does in the interest of the citizens of their nation. We are living in an America in which more of us need to quit and speak up about why like Biden’s envoy to Haiti in protest of the treatment of Haitians attempting to be refugees rather than going along for the ride to get career perks.
Or Colin Powell quitting rather than putting up a public front in supporting a war he knew was wrong. And now there will always be a ” but” or a question mark after remarks about him while preserving the least important in terms of his racial break through symbolism and his charm. He deserves to be remembered for much more than that and could have if he had just quit and told the American public why since what was going on was indecent in how the structure of the web, he was entangled in was and no one person can fight against structural rot.
So, when you are there and have stature, have the backbone to quit before they toss you away anyways. My prayers and condolences to the Powell family. God bless this decent man in such an indecent society who did the best he could but could not but could.