black & white image of Don Quixote on a horse with his sidekick behind

Long before the pandemic, I took my daughter Audrey to a Washington DC production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the play Man of La Mancha. It’s one of my favorite plays, and I first saw it when I was her age. It’s based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in which an elderly gentleman is deluded into thinking that he is a valiant knight – Don Quixote de la Mancha – sworn to uphold the strict moral code of chivalry in a cynical, brutal, violent world devoid of such ideals. The time of armored knights on horseback was already long past, but he and his faithful squire set out across the plains of La Mancha and the mountains of the Sierra Morena on a madman’s quest, the virtuous and indefatigable champion of a better world. Madness?

Perhaps, but for many of us Don Quixote is heroic, albeit comically soft in the head. Does one need to be insane to yearn for a world in which decency, honor, love, and bravery speak to a person’s best character? Granted, chivalry is a problematic moral premise, given its machismo ethos, its disdain for the peasantry, and its relegation of women as chaste objects of beauty and purity. Still, considering what values prevailed four hundred years ago when Cervantes wrote this epic novel, chivalry was a monumental step ahead in moral evolution.

My musings are not only literary, however.

Given the full house at that play’s production, and the fact that this play and the novel itself have such continuing appeal for so many of us, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assert that many of us yearn for a less cynical, more principled, more compassionate world…a world, for instance, in which the destruction of the planet’s environment for the sake of short term economic gain (by the few) would be recognized as the starkest madness. Our own children and grandchildren will pay a dreadful price for this morally indefensible position, and it is harrowing to even imagine what we are bequeathing to generations further into the future – if we have such a future at all. We know enough however to imagine such a dire future very clearly – yet we as a nation respond tentatively, if at all. Madness.

Moral principles are important to me. In my decades of work in less developed countries, I’ve been face-to-face with those who are beset by intense poverty – poverty so grinding and debilitating that it is very hard for Americans to imagine. Yes, we have poverty here too, yet despite being an exceptionally wealthy country we watch powerlessly as the gap between rich and poor widens inexorably, while curiously so many poor citizens celebrated a tax law that exacerbated this trend. Our political leaders take every opportunity to cut back on foreign aid and humanitarian relief, withdraw from global collaboration (even from the World Health Organization, in the midst of a global pandemic). Then we wonder why the rich get richer, refugee numbers swell, and why so many lives have been needlessly lost to a poorly managed pandemic response. Madness.

Human rights are important. Human rights describe and set the “bare-bones” threshold conditions for how human beings ought to live, and what governments ought to do to make this happen. Demanding that human rights be taken seriously is to demand a form of governance that explicitly embraces public service, justice, duty, and empathy – and being morally responsive to the “oughts”. Yet instead, we see many governments demonstrate astounding callousness, a total lack of empathy, and a disdain for human rights as they use the intense suffering of vulnerable others to make a political point. This is morally repugnant. This is madness.

Gender equality and fairness (equity) are also vitally important. While Don Quixote would have been ethically challenged to imagine such a thing, we now know better. We are reminded by the example of courageous feminists around the world – women and men – that the principle of human dignity is for all human beings, regardless of nationality, race, gender (or ethnicity, or age, or disability status, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or…). Yet so many political leaders in so many countries routinely reject the adoption of a moral position that would recognize the worth and full humanity of the female half of their country, and of all others who are marginalized. The very notion of an openly moral leader who honors all persons as valuable and dignified has become such a rarity that many of us would not know what to make of it were one to arise. Madness, yet again.

Yes, Don Quixote de la Mancha was almost certainly the victim of a form of insanity. Still, it was an insanity that epitomized humanity’s idealistic struggle for a better world, a world that “ought to be”. I’m more inclined to follow the example of Don Quixote, tilt at the windmills of greed, callousness, ignorance, fear, arrogance, lies, bigotry, hatred, and cynicism, than accept – much less politically celebrate – the feckless, morally bereft leadership that now prevails in many countries ruled by self-serving autocrats.

Finding transformational leadership, without opting for a charismatic but ineffectual modern version of Don Quixote filled with undirected idealism, means demanding moral clarity and thoughtful purpose from those who would lead us. Transformational leaders are known for their values, their vision, and their moral rigor. Their actions demonstrate wise discernment. Their followers are attracted by the clarity of their transformative moral vision for the future, and by their commitment to public service. Sadly, many of us have yet to experience moral leaders of such character and virtue, and we have given up any genuine expectation of finding visionary leaders who are environmentally intelligent and wise, and who possess empathy, decency, and integrity.

Leaders who are sane, in a world turned upside-down.

As the November elections approach in this country, and as so many people suffer from a global deficit in morally accountable and transformative leadership, I have to believe that clinging to idealism isn’t madness. To the contrary, it’s the very definition of sanity, hope, and necessity.

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