18 November 2010

Faithless of Our Fathers

This post-Cold War United States leaves me nothing if not confused. All this breast-beating about the Founding Fathers and their last wills and testaments! As if we've only just recently recovered the real substance of what it means to be American, following a mysterious disappearance of our identity - along with, of course, the Constitution - somewhere between William McKinley (our last "genuinely American" president?) and Ron Paul. Or at very earliest, Newt Gingrich.

Yet surely we're no less skilled today at trashing our Fathers' legacies than we were on the eve of the infamous Progressive Era (c. 1900). Why, even as we mutter piously about defending the Pharisaic letter of our Founders' laws, it may be we've grown much better at killing their human spirit. And killing it, I fear, not nearly so much through our vices as through our virtues, and less by our addictions than by our ideals. Was there ever a time, for example, when we as a society came shorter of either the character, the wisdom or the hopes of George Washington, than in these past two decades? Or when we more expressly and accurately justified his fears? I don't say we have deliberately set about betraying his legacy, or that we've consciously rejected Washingtonian ideals of statesmanship as false or obsolete. It may be that we've simply outgrown - or become much too sophisticated for - rather a lot of what he and other Founding Fathers had to teach us.

In any case there is a way, it seems to me, that may help us to determine how far we either have or haven't outgrown our Founders. We can compare their most earnest reflections with those of other, less congenial but perhaps more relevant writers. Writers who might not initially hold up all that well under the scrutiny of our less informed prejudice. But whom we may find nonetheless far more pleasant - or even helpful - to read, were we free to consider their views more completely and objectively.

Take and explore, for instance, any of the post-"scientific romance" writings of H G Wells, starting with Anticipations (1901) - Chapter 8, "The Larger Synthesis," is especially rewarding - or A Modern Utopia (1905). Wash it down with a famous German contemporary of his, good old Oswald Spengler (but by all means avoid his best-known Decline of the West; no, for a really concentrated dose of Spenglerian savagery, venom and bombast, start with Man and Technics [tr. Atkinson, 1932], and then move on to The Hour of Decision [same tr., 1933] - Part 3 is a rare masterpiece of anti-labor vitriol).

As you get to know these two, in many ways quite different, modern sages, I ask you to pay the closest attention to certain recurrent themes and concerns nonetheless common to both. Concerns which may have a special relevance to our own visionary, early 21st-century quest for human perfection: - a kind of perfectibility that, while it may hardly aim at those particular human improvements most of us would call moral or material, assuredly has no qualms about seeking a human perfection that is mechanical.

Note, for starters, these writers' fiercely meritocratic elitism - and please observe that, as regards elites of the future, both Wells and Spengler had a much warmer regard for entrepreneurs and engineers than for politicians and bureaucrats, whom as often as not they warmly despised. Note especially in the later, more polemical writings of both, something that often sounds like an unabashed worship of human power and ambition, tempered by only the coldest, most "technical" - some might even say most inhuman - rationality. Notice their considerable impatience, if not outright contempt, of ordinary political processes and machinery, particularly when the methods are those of representative democracy. Note their dismissiveness of trade unions and of other lingering, "holdover" loyalties deemed unsuitable to the stresses and challenges of the Coming Age: sentiments attaching to nation, region, locality, or (at least in the case of Wells) even family. Note their faith, not only in the inevitable necessity of technological advance, but in its unique, almost saving power to harness and embody all that is best in human nature (or, in the case of Spengler, all that is most Western or "Faustian"). Above all, note their profound respect for LARGE aggregates of power - whether political or economic - and their insistence on the need, as "Man" or "the West" unfolds, for ever-larger scales both of political and economic organization and of economic activity.

My hunch is that as you probe these gentlemen's writings, you'll find, in not a few places, values and ideals far more consonant with the spirit of New Economy America (however remote from its Constitutional letter) than almost anything contained in, say, either of Washington's two best-known farewell addresses - his circular letter of farewell to the army of 1783, or his address to Congress of 1796.

Now I realize I've opened rather a large discussion, which to some tastes can only be advanced by the closest analysis of both speeches. But for the moment, let's settle for a closer look at the earlier of the two addresses, and at its final paragraph in particular:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation [emphasis mine].

I can hear the amused chortles of Wells/Spengler: "Really now - never hope to be a happy nation? No, I suppose not. But we have every chance of success at building a dynamic, prosperous, world-beating civilization! Meanwhile, General Washington, it remains to be seen just what parts - other than purely regressive ones - either nations or happiness will continue to play in the great onward thrust of Life; or what conceivable use 'humility' and a 'pacific temper of mind' can have, either for the final unification of the West [Spengler], or for the great upward March of Mankind [Wells]."

Now I ask you to judge for yourselves how far - if at all - this closing prayer of Washington's diverges in spirit from the main thrust of his address as a whole. As I see it, either the General is speaking the truth from his heart, or he's doing a royal - and highly insulting - job of talking down to his audience. But assuming his sincerity and good faith in all of these petitions, is our soon-to-be first president saying anything here that either Wells or Spengler would have had the patience to sit through without sneering? or even laughing out loud? Oh, I'm sure both would have welcomed a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government as necessary enough for most people - i.e., for the great bulk of us "inferior masses" who hail from, and drag down, every nation, tribe, people and tongue. But this demeaning, canine sort of loyalty - what conceivable place could it have in the ambitions and objectives of the world's better class of people: those go-ahead, impatient-of-restraint-and-authority souls whom both markets and organizational in-fighting will soon determine to be the natural (not hereditary) rulers of any rational, forward-looking global society? By all means let Government be big, harsh and implacable for us lesser folk. It's only what we deserve for being such failures - and may be all that keeps us in line. But for the truly and deservedly Big, can government ever become small - or at least pliant and manipulable - enough?

For that matter, would either Wells or Spengler have found anything remotely commendable, or even rationally intelligible, in Lincoln's speech marking the institution of the national holiday of Thanksgiving? Or even, for that matter, would we - assuming, I mean, we could for a moment put aside these famous authors' identities, and examine both addresses coldly and rationally in the light of our real values, and not just our professed ones? Indeed I suspect we post-Cold Warriors - could we permit ourselves a moment's self-honesty - would have far less trouble understanding and even identifying with Wells and Spengler than with either of our two most celebrated Presidents. Maybe not with the former's very earliest writings, but certainly with their mature and final works. And in particular those works which put forth their most ambitious, dynamic and heroic visions of the human future - or their most misanthropically cynical views of ordinary human beings.

What a shame, really, that we can't create the conditions for a truly blind taste test of the merits of these four: Wells, Spengler, Washington and Lincoln. Frankly I'd be amazed if the bulk of our US leaders, from every walk of life, did not find some mix of Wellsian/Spenglerian values a good deal more bracing - rather like a strong iced latte, to say nothing of more relevant to our times and problems - than the tired old admonitions of George and Abe. Neither, I think, should we be too condemning of ourselves, simply because a majority of our movers and shakers find it much easier to honor certain "Founders' values" more in the breach than in the observance. It's hard to remind yourself of the value of, say, humility or prudence, or thankfulness, or even honesty, when you know you've done practically everything on your own, and by practically any means you can muster, foul or fair. And certainly with no help whatever from the likes of history, or tradition, or the cumulative moral wisdom of mankind.

Or none, at any rate, prior to 1776.

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