Commentary: Pay heed and listen up: a cautionary tale

James W. Dolan

Once upon a time there was a far distant land where people enjoyed periods of relative strife and harmony. For the most part, the citizens were able to adapt to the variables so much a part of a diverse country. They acknowledged life’s imperfections and understood that flawed human beings required a stability that could only be achieved through understanding, restraint and compromise.

Progress was slow, but things seemed to be moving steadily forward despite the fits and starts normally associated with the complex and often divergent demands of identifying and achieving the “common good.” They recognized the need for an ordered society because only then could progress be assured. Power had to be ceded to government and other institutions formed to promote the critical balancing of competing interests.

The entire structure depended upon the good will of citizens; their capacity to disagree, debate, and compromise without rancor. Absent shared common values of truth, compassion, understanding, fairness, and humility, the structure would atrophy and eventually collapse. Instead of shared responsibility, the “common good” would be undermined by a distorted conception of reality and, finally, by power seized by an autocrat.

That’s exactly what happened when a larger-than-life showman arrived on the scene promising greatness if only the people would follow him. Despite a sordid past, he was able to convince large numbers of disgruntled citizens that politicians cannot be trusted, so why not give him a try. Many agreed that a leader so outspoken and confident, even one so blatantly lacking in character and fundamental values, would be a breath of fresh air.

They accepted false equivalence: Since all politicians are crooked, they decided, why not take a chance on a complete charlatan. They might not want him as a son-in-law but what harm can he do as president. Character was sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

The outcome was predictable. Pursuit of the “common good” was no longer a goal. Partisanship prevailed and the fundamental underpinnings of democracy eroded. Respect, integrity, restraint, and decency were replaced by acrimony, distrust, and recrimination. There was unrest in the land and the residents of neighboring countries wondered what had gone wrong. It’s one thing to recognize human weakness by building safeguards to manage it. But embrace it at your peril.

In the end, a once prosperous and stable country turned on itself. Anger, suspicion, and bitterness undermined trust, understanding, respect, and accommodation. Governing became unintelligible, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” The country slipped from authoritarianism into anarchy and eventually collapsed. History shows how empires have self-destructed. It has happened again and again and again.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works ye Mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of the Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelly

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.