The Saturday morning following the Capitol riot, I participated in our parish’s (now virtual) monthly 7:00 a.m. meeting of Men of St. Joseph. Our young associate pastor, a friend and very talented priest, reminded the group of an old Latin phrase: “corruptio optimi pessima”.
The corruption of the best is the worst of all.
It was a timely reminder.
Just a day earlier, I encountered a post by a business school dean at a prominent university. Having already read a tireless stream of musings from the intellectual community, I admit to almost bypassing this particular post altogether.
But I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t. This one was something.
The author reflected on the events of January 6 when “thugs invaded and desecrated the United States Capitol.” In the aftermath, he shared that a colleague motivated him to think about the “power of words” and how language can be used to “inspire” and “unite” but also “hurt, misdirect and mislead.” His post took the time to explicate that his use of the word “thug” was purposeful; he drew his readers attention to the fact that he refused to call the perpetrators, “peaceful demonstrators.” He also pointed out his use of the words “invaded” and “desecrated” were carefully chosen.
Before concluding, he shared his colleague’s admonition: we need to stand vigilant against the “power of indifference” because it “allows people by their silence to normalize aberrant behavior and permits persistent abnormal behavior to create dangerous precedents.”
Recall that this statement was posted on Friday, January 8, 2021.
If the good dean’s readers are like my 5th grade daughter, perhaps his message wowed. She came home a day earlier with the news that her teacher had led an “objective” and “kid-friendly discussion” on the riots. At least, that was the way the teacher characterized it. This discussion featured a “Newsela” article titled, “Pro-Trump mob storms US Capitol in bid to overturn election.” In talking to some other parents, we knew we were not alone in being told by our daughter that it was among the very worst days in American history.
While we actually like this teacher very much and adore our daughter’s very traditional, Catholic school, this “lesson” – some 14 hours after the riot – was, shall we say, a bit much. And quite unexpected.
So that evening, my wife and I took some time to be parents. While it was our preference to wait for the blur of the news cycle to delve into the details of the mayhem with our just-turned-11-year-old, our hands were now forced. So, we explained.
What happened in Washington was a disgrace. Terrible. And very sad. As for whether it was the worst day in our country’s history, we should be less sure. We explained to our middle daughter that in our 244 year-old-nation, Wednesday was not even the worst December day in our country’s history. That date – which will live in infamy- was December 7, 1941. We also mentioned that for a city which has buried our U.S. presidents after assassinations, Wednesday’s event was not even the saddest day in Washington’s history. And that in a country which survived a four year-long Civil War, two world wars and a terrorist attack on American soil which killed nearly 3000 people in a single day, Wednesday’s exact place in history might need a bit more time to work out.
How much of this was really understood by our daughter? We’re not sure. But what seems likely is that most of her elementary school classmates missed something that surprisingly that very important business school dean must have also missed.
That is that, since May, our nation has endured countless nights of senseless rioting. From Portland to New York. Buildings destroyed, cars set ablaze, private (and public) property torched, stores looted, an endless line of statues toppled, historical monuments vandalized, churches desecrated. This wasn’t one night nor was it the work of one faction of a much larger group of protestors in one city. Just between May and August – not even including the months since then — USA Today reported that Black Lives Matter protests devolved into riots in 220 locations throughout the United States. For months, BLM anarchists held hostage private businesses in their so-called “CHOP” zone in Seattle and still — to this day — “occupy” privately-owned property there. In cities across the country, these activists have taken to tracking down lawmakers at their private residences, camping outside homes and stalking families. During the height of the tumult, my wife and I put our children to bed while helicopters flew over our neighborhood.
This is not breaking news nor is it some relic of a long ago past. This is the world we are living in. While this went on, the broader academic, political and corporate class heralded BLM’s destruction – championing it as courageous. What should have clearly been called villainy was shamefully declared virtuous.
Now, after seven months of this, our best and brightest minds are telling us about the power of words and the danger of indifference?
On June 8, Catholic World Report published the following words:
And chaos is what is playing out on the nighttime streets of our nation’s cities. From the storefronts of downtown Manhattan to the sidewalks of St. Louis to Olympic Park in Atlanta. Sheer and utter chaos.
As Catholics, we ask ourselves how to process such mayhem.
We’re reminded that the cardinal virtue of prudence requires us to discern what it is and what it is not.
We start there: burning down buildings, torching cars, and desecrating churches is not protesting. It’s not assembling. It’s rioting. Plain and simple.
The virtue of fortitude requires us to stand firm and say what must be said, even when – perhaps especially when – elite institutions from academe to Wall Street vilify those who dissent from the politically correct view.
Here it is: no matter what the supposed motivation for this rioting – it is never right. Never.
And make no mistake: it is most definitely not justice.
In fact, looting stores – whether it’s the independently-run pawn shop or the high-end Neiman Marcus – is the definition of intemperance. I want it, I deserve it, I’m going to take it. That is the stuff we teach our children never to do. It cannot somehow in any way be judged different or acceptable because the party doing it feels aggrieved.
That is incoherence.
I’ll admit it feels a bit uncomfortable to quote myself, but I just did.
Those words were true in June, they were true last Wednesday and they will be true tomorrow.
And they should not be hard to say.
Put simply: when leaders lay claim to moral courage but instead show confusion, they fail us.
Chaos fills the void.
And it should come as no surprise to anyone that after one set of rioters spent seven months convincing our nation that historical statues and monuments hold no special place in civil society, that another set of rioters would treat our Capitol as though it is merely some 200 year-old-shack located somewhere between Maryland and Virginia.
When the smartest guys in the room express outrage and shock amidst the wreckage, we should all stop to reflect.
“Corruptio optimi pessima.”
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