Sunday, March 04, 2007


E. J. Dionne has a piece on Arthur Schlesinger’s death ( “A Historian Who Saw Beyond the Past”.

I’ve always felt that Schlesinger had some good observations, but that he failed to preserve a certain independence because of his so-close relationship to the inner-circle of JFK’s administration and – after that – to the Democratic Party.

Back then in the mid-'60s, it was never actually allowable to discuss whether the content and methodology of the Revolutions of the Identities were really the next-logical-step, or any sort of viable step, in the extension and revivification of the New Deal voter-coalition; by 1965 that coalition was shredding due to growing affluence, the Southron rage at civil rights, and the incipient demise of the industrial worker.

The Democrats were too desperately in a hurry; they would not permit this whole vision to be debated and deliberated publicly, even among Party members. They needed a working majority of votes immediately and there was no time for the hemming and hawing built into democratic process. And the advocates and revolutionaries of the Identities, being advocates and revolutionaries, weren’t partial to the time-consuming uncertainties of democratic process either; like the Fundamentalists who were to come after them, whom they were to draw into national prominence (the hot ironies!), the advocates and revolutionaries wanted immediate change – on their terms and according to their numerous agendas – and they wanted it right now if not yesterday.

In order to at least make a case for such ram-rodding, the herd (they could not afford to let us be The People) was told that certain things simply could not be discussed (and still can’t to this day), and that there was an Emergency created by a great Evil and that the herd was either for Good and this agenda or for Evil, and that to be against the agenda and cause of the moment – to be so ‘insensitive’ – was the new ‘treason’ and no ‘insensitive’ or ‘hateful’ ideas should even be listened to or – come to think of it – allowed to be spoken. Nor should any of the foregoing ever be discussed again, or even noticed. The pinnacle (or nadir) of this line of thought was the college handbook that listed among topics of speech forbidden to students: the mentioning of the fact that some topics of speech could not be mentioned.

Whether all of this was the logical or viable extension of Schlesinger’s beloved New Deal and the Democratic Party he knew as a young man … was a question that I think it is now obvious needs to be addressed and widely deliberated. Although, of course, so many “facts on the ground” have been created that – as in Iraq – the wrong things already done have created present realities that make it impossible to do the right things now. When a damaged ship reaches this point while you’re trying to keep her afloat … well, there is need now for Our minds to be concentrated wonderfully.

As the aweful 1990s unfolded under the still-not-properly criticized Clinton vision (the oral sex, as ever, was the least of the dangers), Schlesinger began to sound some legitimate warnings, although he didn’t really give the Democrats their dark due as being greatly responsible for the ominous events unfolding domestically; he was not only a public intellectual but something of a court intellectual, and there is always a cost for that cachet.

Which is too bad because at his age and with his mind he could have been a vital source of deliberation for the hugely difficult situation the Democrats now find themselves in. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this site, but here it is in a nutshell: the Democrats cannot without endangering their new-historic (since the ‘60s and ‘70s) allies re-occupy the ‘high ground’ of Vision and Capital-Letter-Words that they purposely abandoned in order to smooth the path of their hastily erected and vigorously espoused Identities. Was Common Sense or Reason or Tradition or Truth or Morality or Excellence or Virtue or God going to be used to obstruct the desires of this or that advocate and revolutionary? Then it had to go; they all had to go. All of Them. Politics became a matter not of formulating and supporting a shared Vision, a deep yet shining wave of Belief and Purpose that would sustain The People as America made her way through Time. No, instead politics became a matter of quietly putting together small tactical coalitions of interests for this or that sop, with no concern as to the larger implications of what was about to be officially made law or policy, and with no candid public discussion or deliberation allowed.

Does any of that sound kinda familiar?

With the high ground abandoned, the Democrats lost whatever opportunity they might have had to keep the big picture of the field as the Fogs of Life rolled in and roiled around down on the low ground.

And then the Republicans – with their new-found allies, the formerly-fringe Fundamentalists who burst forth with their own revolutionary-like certainty and dogmatism and impatience, so similar to the Democrats’ allies – took the high-ground. It reminds me of some version of the French and Indian War: The ‘professional’ fighters, the European soldiers, are outnumbered by their respective Indian allies, who universally have a much more vigorous and unstructured approach to operations, and who cannot be controlled by their erstwhile masters. So too now: the ‘professional’ politicians (meant in the good sense: knowledgable and shrewd discussers and compromisers) in each Party are now rendered helpless by their obstreperous ‘allies’, the revolutionaries of the Identities on the Democratic side and the Fundamentalists and neocons on the Republican side. This is a monster of a problem.

And of course the Democrats have already yielded the high ground, almost burning their bridges back to it. (How, say, can you as a Democrat re-espouse ‘God’ without frightening the abortion advocates? Support ‘excellence’ and ‘performance’ without appearing ‘insensitive’ and ‘judgmental’ if not indeed ‘racist’? Suggest that the sex-offense mania is not only ineffective but ungrounded, counterproductive and constitutionally dangerous, without appearing as a closet child-molester?) It’s going to be a hard thing to turn your formations - especially your obstreperous 'allies' - around in the press of battle, and then while maintaining formation and a sufficient rate of fire make your retreat back toward and then climb up to the high ground. Which, as aforementioned, was taken as low-hanging fruit by the Republicans after you abandoned it and is now held against you.

This should be a very sober pre-election season indeed. But my fear is that rather than try to deal with the realities, distracting diversions, either of the entertaining or the frightening variety, will be hastily ignited so that the real work needn’t be done, or the problems faced. This, famously, is not the spirit that built the West. But it is our modern American reality.

But Schlesinger brought high-ground back, even though he couldn’t quite bring himself to admit how high-ground was lost in the first place. In 2005 he brought the thought and writing of Reinhold Niebuhr back into the national discourse, such as it is. Writing in the September 18, 2005 “New York Times” (“Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr”) Schlesinger asks – but does not answer – the very good question as to why this evangelically-trained best of America’s theologians is not discussed by current faith-based folk of Left or Right.

My own thought is that Niebuhr deploys a mature character and informed mind to consider the height and depth and breadth and width of whatever topic he examines, and that’s a task utterly beyond the competence or the patience or the interest of most erstwhile activists – of Left or Right – nowadays. They have been ‘emergencified’: there’s a crisis, there’s no time to think, just act … or, better, let the gummint do whatever it thinks best. Left and Right have brought us into these dark and fatal woods as surely as Varus led his legions into the Teutoborg and Braddock led his columns into the Pennsylvania woods.

Schlesinger noted some of the salient points made by this Missouri evangelical preacher’s son (born 1892) who went to Detroit in the 1920s and ministered there in those times of huge labor-capital strife.

He was critical of “national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion”. Americans have a tendency to erect their ‘innocence’ into an article of faith, not an impractical gambit for a society that has built itself on the eradication of one people, the enslavement of another, and the colonization of others. When we encounter a killer who is convinced of his own innocence even as he admits that he has killed, we feel the strong urge to put him into a locked mental institution. But when it is an entire country, and our country … we consider such ‘innocence’ as one of the surest signs of God’s election. Niebuhr didn’t go the psychological route, but rather the theological: all humans are possessed of an innate tendency to do evil things and nobody is ‘innocent’; as Clint Eastwood put it through the character of Will Munny: “We all got it comin’, kid.” This is a lesson Americans have never really grasped, although the immediate future may hold great opportunities.

Consequently, it’s theologically worse-than-useless to go around dividing up the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Nations may have interests, but that doesn’t make a particular people ‘Bad’ for opposing the interest nor does it make a particular interest ‘Good’ simply because it’s something that the nation may want.

We are fragile-ly ordered and volatile beings, we humans. Perhaps it’s that “original sin” that used to be part of the high ground; or perhaps we as a species still haven’t evolved to the point where we can reliably sustain our actions and interior lives in the higher ranges of human characteristics and capabilities, but instead are constantly pulled down (as St. Paul observed) into our lower capacities, or are constantly confronted with the results of others’ lower-capacity acts that intrude into our own life. The human aircraft is not one that its pilot can prudently leave on auto-pilot. Curiously, Bush and Rumsfeld both had pilot’s training – they must have missed some classes.

Nor are we perfectible in this life. Hence we should not be buying into quick-fix or sure-fire agendas that promise ‘total’ this or ‘zero’ that. Neither humans nor their lives nor our common life together can be so purified. Revolutions are not to be trusted in a democracy; indeed the more urgent the revolutionary demand, the more carefully and democratically it should be examined. Thus too he opposed the ‘messianic’ consciousness that has soaked the modern world in blood: Marx and the nobly-intentioned vision that found incarnation in the brutal and bloody Soviet revolution, Hitler’s revolution to save his Volk. We might add that some of our domestic messianic revolutions need to be looked at carefully, on the Left as well as on the Right.

And to be simultaneously ‘innocent’, ‘infallible’ and a ‘messiah’ is hugely inaccurate and unTrue and a profound danger to others, especially in a democracy. And especially for a democracy.

Lincoln was a favorite political model for Niebuhr. Lincoln had a certain well-grounded relativism. It was not the relativism of object:‘God’ could be anything so ‘God’ isn’t a strong enough concept to model your own life or compel other lives. It was the relativism of perceiver: We humans are simply too limited to know for certain what God wants or does not want, and so we have to be humble and patient and proceed with care and deliberation. And so for Lincoln there was indeed a God, and a ‘Beyond’, but neither could be known so clearly or fully or with such certainty that any human being could become either complacent and overconfident about one’s own rights and goodness or become proud and certain about forcing others to do one’s will.

“The combination of moral resoluteness about immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment …”, says Niebuhr, enables us to stay vitally active in the thick, problem-choked life of this world and this dimension, while at the same time remaining loyal to a larger Beyond (and God) through which/Whom we have our shared human creaturely nature and the democratic process that is our great heritage and awesome responsibility.

And thus one can engage on the low ground while maintaining the core position on the high ground. Of all the things that have happened to Us over the past 40 years, it is the abandonment of the high ground and the refusal to deal with it (let alone debate it beforehand) that has caused the most death and damage, to Us as well as to the country and to others around the world.

It is not in the article, but the thought arises that Bush the Fundamentalist – in immaturity if not in sincere belief – is seeking to be to that faith-based ‘core constituency’ what the Pope is to them Kathliks: a ‘pontifex maximus’. The greatest high-priest of the mysteries and of the State, not so much like the Pope, really, as like the Emperor of Japan in its pre-1945 days. The Kathliks already having the pope, the Fundamentalists have to invent one, to which end they are striving mightily; we look on their works and are tempted to despair.

Niebuhr’s vision – his schematic – of the full operating space of Life, is far more complex and robust than the Flattened world and self of the assorted modern-day revolutionaries of the Left and the Right. There is a Vertical as well as a Horizontal, an Up and a Down as well as a Sideways, and there is a capacious and vital Beyond as well as a Flattened and Foreshortened Present, and there is an Interior to the Self as well as an Exterior, and there is Substance as well as Appearance.

And he was able to operate in (though not ‘dominate’) all of that ‘spectrum’ in order to practice a dense yet supple and vital politics. This is a capability no longer open, it must be imagined, to today’s politicians. It’s almost bizarre: our military brass bray about ‘full spectrum dominance’ but neither they nor the civilian leadership of either Party really understand the Life-space of our species.

Niebuhr had it (dead white European male though he was). Lots of other folks throughout Western history have had it. But We don’t have it – not any more. The problem today isn’t that We just don’t get it; it’s that we had it and we threw it away.

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