WASHINGTON — Many years ago, when Chile was on the verge of civil war, a Belgian Jesuit priest named Father Roger Vekemans impressed me with his unsentimental compassion and political positioning.
I asked him once, "What is the most sane position for a moral person to take at a time like this?" And I remember his words to this day.
"Ethically, I confess not even to see the problem," he said, a little impatiently as I recall. "No fight against the right has driven me to the left, and no fight against the left will drive me to the right. Once and for all, I have chosen the extreme center, and whatever storm is coming, I shall stand fast at any price.
"It is not a matter of balance; it's a matter of conviction. The battle against both extremes at the same time may be hopeless. I am aware that the center is not holding. Still, I will keep on fighting. I am responsible for my fight, not for the outcome."
Those words come back now for, once again, the center is not holding.
Domestically, we are shocked to see neo-Nazis with torches apparently coming out of nowhere in a beautiful Virginia university city, much like ISIS came out of nowhere in Iraq in 2014; we see police and young black men virtually at war in some American cities; and we see our two major political parties so violently at each other's throats over issues even they barely understand that the governance of the nation has screeched to a near standstill.
But the American center is also weakening internationally. Ours is the single country that could have remade the world in its own image after the Second World War, and by any measure, the U.S. is the most advanced nation on Earth. Yet we are acting as though we, and only we, are filled with sin and self-destruction.
Every day under the Trump administration, we see the Washington "center" that empowered new systems and structures on the world stage (the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, NATO) threatened by the president's cynicism and by the tragic weakening of our diplomatic and political leaderships, even as we talk endlessly about "American exceptionalism" and Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill."
Focus on American exceptionalism. We were and are exceptional in human history because we are defended by two great oceans, protecting us from the sins of the old world. We also enjoy the benefits of the oft-cited unsentimental wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who devised a system to protect us from the devils in our nature.
But one major problem today is that many Americans, in particular African-Americans, believe America's sins are also exceptional -- and not related to the sins of others.
Thus we turn in upon ourselves and fail to gain from the experience of world history. WE are guilty of slavery! WE are guilty of mad warmongering! ONLY WE have done terrible things!
The fact is that black people have enslaved others as much as whites; northern Europeans have destroyed empires and peoples as have African kings. In short, we are talking about human nature and the human soul, and doing that frees us from our self-indulgence and allows us to approach the problem where it lies.
What can be done by individuals? Here are some suggestions: Read the papers. Bury the cable networks, both the left and the right, in letters complaining about their rabid, vulgar "news coverage." Join environmental groups or preservation clubs. Start foreign policy discussion groups. Strengthen local service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, the Masons, VFW, American Legion). In short, be a citizen again!
As it turned out, beautiful Chile, with its thousands of miles of shoreline along the Pacific Ocean, became a primary example in our time of saving the center.
In the 1960s, the Christian Democrats, the premier example in Latin America of the reformist center, won every election. Then in the '70s, the Cuban-backed communists took over, followed by a bitter military dictatorship for 14 years.
Finally, the center was reinstated, and today Chile is the most progressive and prosperous country in the Southern Hemisphere. And like virtually all successful countries on the face of the globe, it is a centrist nation.
What would a centrist presidential administration look like in America? Think back to the late 1980s and early '90s and the administration of President George H.W. Bush, with Secretary of State James Baker III and National Security Adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft. Their intelligence and fine manners were exceeded only by their policy successes and by the respect they engendered everywhere.
Be on the watch for their successors, for the center is not dead in this country. But we need to search for it and support it as passionately and without doubt as my Chilean Jesuit friend did.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.