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Can America be a Good Place again?

Americans need to remind themselves that it´s possible to act morally in an amoral world, and shape each other’s attitudes by opening up a debate about what is good and bad.

Amnesty International hold a protest with 100 'Statues of Liberty', to mark US President Donald Trump first 100 days in office. 29 April 2017. Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

America is sliding into a darker version of itself. The view that liberal democracy is good and authoritarian nationalism is bad is not consensual any more. The narrative that kept the country together is in danger of disintegrating. And the corruption of democratic institutions takes place in front of our eyes.

We have grown accustomed to a President who is not checked by his own political party and accuses the media of being his enemy. It´s hard to believe that an articulate and restrained President lived in the White House barely a year ago. Despite his shortcomings, Barack Obama was an inspiration against racism and misogyny. Donald Trump is only interested in Making America White Again. And alienating millions of Americans in the process.

From day one most journalists found it difficult to deal with a president who enjoys the attention but detests the responsibility of office. Torn between normalising Mr Trump or denouncing him, many of us have failed to acknowledge that the point is not that he tricked American voters, but that they voted for him despite his contempt for democracy and decency.

Donald Trump is only interested in Making America White Again

Values that we assumed to be universal are not so for millions of Americans. Speaking from our pulpits we forgot the audience we need to address. Counting myself amongst those who have failed miserably to reach Trump supporters, I´m changing course. In an attempt to draw them away from Fox and Friends, I´m writing about a television show. One that doesn’t give us any answers, but that reminds us that most times the important thing is asking the right questions.

The Good Place

The show in question is called The Good Place, and it is about a selfish American woman, Eleanor, who dies and goes to Heaven because of a bureaucratic mistake. While there, she is given a soul mate, Chidi, a Senegalese-born moral philosopher with an inclination to overthink. Going against her old self, Eleanor tells Chidi she is a fraud and doesn’t deserve to be there.

Chidi, facing an ethical dilemma, decides to help by teaching her how to become a better person. They´re joined by another fraud, Jason Mendonça, and a British philanthropist, Tahani Al Jamil. Overseeing The Good Place is Michael, the architect responsible for fulfilling all the residents’ wishes.

As the show premises change, you start to ask different questions. At the beginning, you asked yourself what makes a person good. By the end of the season, you ask yourself what makes a person better. 

But just as happens in real life, things are seldom what they seem. What looked like yet another comedy, turns out to be a dystopia that offers astonishing insights into the dark times in which we live. As it turns out – spoilers alert – Eleanor didn’t arrive at The Good Place by mistake; the residents had been in Hell all along. Michael is not an angel, but a subaltern demon that has come up with an experimental project designed to torture humans.

As the show premises change, you start to ask different questions. At the beginning, you asked yourself what makes a person good. By the end of the season, you ask yourself what makes a person better. Is the utmost good the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Or have we a responsibility to act in an exemplary way and never treat people as a means to an end? Against all odds, Eleanor becomes a better person under conditions that would logically make her worse. And Chidi, a moral philosopher obsessed with the implications of his decisions, becomes a better person by deciding to help Eleanor.

Is the utmost good the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Or have we a responsibility to act in an exemplary way and never treat people as a means to an end? 

The allure of the show is that it forces viewers to pose questions they don’t know how to begin to answer. And that has rarely been as important as it is today because, for all intents and purposes, we are living in Trump´s Good Place: a world where celebrities and talk-host shows have replaced meaningful leadership, where Twitter and Facebook have substituted serious debate and where America embraces isolationism instead of internationalism.

Tweet by tweet, indecency after indecency, we dive into a narrative constructed over racism, hatred and ignorance. The consequences go beyond the sum of the President´s words and actions, setting public discourse alight and turning Americans against each other. After calling Mexicans ‘rapists’ and characterizing Muslims as ‘terrorists’, the “shithole” affair tells us nothing we didn’t know already about Mr Trump. But it speaks volumes about the questions we are avoiding asking ourselves.

Screenshot from The Good Place official website.

The art of being free

We should start by acknowledging that Donald Trump is not the cause, but a symptom of a deeper existential crisis undermining democracy in America. The polarised country is operating in entirely different information universes, which make it difficult for citizens to engage in a meaningful debate with each other. And make it impossible for journalists to get their message beyond their monolithic audiences.

These communication bubbles, together with invaluable help from the Clinton campaign and the lack of a proper progressive narrative, opened the White House doors to an administration of nativists and ultraconservatives. For the malcontents of globalisation, Mr Trump is a valiant man who is not afraid to challenge the establishment. It´s pointless to tell them that the President couldn’t care less about their ambitions, their anxieties and their jobs: they have bought into the President’s narrative about fake news and dishonest journalists.

Tweet by tweet, indecency after indecency, we dive into a narrative constructed over racism, hatred and ignorance. 

Trump has successfully convinced his supporters that everyone is out to get them, when in fact the problem is that progressives are ignoring them. Most progressives forgot that this constituted a self-defeat when they condemned millions of their fellow citizen to irrelevancy. Excluding them from a national conversation has only increased the polarization that reached record levels during Barack Obama´s presidency and escalated during Trump’s first year in office.

In a political climate such as this, it becomes difficult to defend democracy, as citizens seem unable to agree on what it stands for any more. Decency and integrity are at risk of becoming hollow words. And as alternative facts become stronger, objective truth and morality weaken. Suddenly we find ourselves in a place that is everything but good. Lost in our own narrative, we end up talking to ourselves about a presidency where everything becomes a story.

In a political climate such as this, it becomes difficult to defend democracy, as citizens seem unable to agree on what it stands for any more. 

But contrary to The Good Place, this is not a television series. And we are not locked in a bad system gone good, but a good system gone bad. Institutions and traditions are expected to limit the impact of Trump´s presidency. But to believe they will stave off the degradation of public discourse and democracy by themselves is foolish. That´s why Americans and not just Americans, must remember that democracies are built on constant dialogue between all members of society, no matter how different they might be.

As Tocqueville wrote, nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom. Doing so requires an honest debate about our common anxieties and conflicting priorities. But it´s a conversation that must take place without compromising our fundamental belief in liberal democracy, equality and decency.

The Good Place beautifully captures the contradictions of living in a place ruled by those who cannot understand it. The four human beings chosen for this torture because their anxieties would make each other miserable, instead learn to live with their differences. They convinced me at least that despite the odds, it´s possible to shape other people’s attitudes by opening up a debate about what is good and bad. It is possible to act morally in an amoral and immoral world, if we are willing to commit our emotions and our reason to the project of saving our democracy.

About the author

Manuel Serrano is a Portuguese journalist and political analyst. He currently works as a freelance Foreign Correspondent for DemocraciaAbierta. Previously, he worked as a Robert Schuman Journalist at the European Parliament and as a Junior Editor at DemocraciaAbierta (2015-2017). He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Law School and a Master´s degree in International Relations (IBEI).


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