Tuesday, September 09, 2008


I don’t think that either ‘conservatives’ or ‘liberals’ (or ‘progressives’) have it quite right. Conservatives are supposed to be motivated by the sense of loss in the present of a golden past. Liberals are supposed to be motivated by the sense of absence in the present of a golden future.
Well, OK. But that’s not what so deeply ails Us just now.

Nor is any of it really new. The Founding generation, like all human societies – certainly in the Western tradition – going back to the beginning of recorded language and history, sensed this same sort of ‘lack’ in the present, which is the only ‘time’ that humans really inhabit.

What they did was to create a political structure, based on a belief in the dignity of the human being and thus in the tremendous value of a society and culture that those human beings would create, that would enable those citizens sensitive to the conservative impulse and those citizens sensitive to the liberal impulse to come together and make mutually acceptable, workable – though never totally perfect – arrangements. Neither conservative nor liberal would ever see their respective visions completely fulfilled, but the stable existence of the community of human dignity was paramount, taking precedence over even the visions of the golden past or the golden future.

Because the Founders realized that without that stable community of human dignity then no vision whatsoever could be even partially fulfilled. Without the integrity of the vessel, then no cargo – no matter how ‘golden’ – would ever make a safe passage.

American society – only two hundred and some odd years old – has never experienced a ‘golden age’. Each age – however defined – had its own strengths and its own weaknesses. Nor has any vision of a golden future – however defined – been strong enough to completely win over all of the American citizens in its era.

But We muddled through, with the Branches each having their good times and their bad, and The People subject to all the frailties that mortal flesh has ever been susceptible to. The four essential parts – the 3 Branches and The People – somehow supported each other. And the long pilgrim journey through Time was well begun and for so long sustained with at least a modest decency, and at times much more.

The frenzies of the French Revolution did not constitute so great a danger for Us. Having already separated Our society, Our culture, and Our lives from monarchy, We were not threatened by the loss of a crown and a throne across the sea. And the vitality of the Constitutional vision was still strong, fresh, and capable of showing-forth to Us that the most exhilarating human experience was not primarily in the deployment of military violence but rather in the freedom to exercise gifts for ingenuity and practicality in a common culture that shaped but did not – as much as in other cultures in the world or in history – constrain.

It was imperfect, and bloodily so. One race was enslaved, and another almost annihilated – both under the rubric that they were not quite really human beings. We made the same mistake – and a terrible one –of arrogating to Ourselves an authority that only Heaven has: to withdraw from any human being the very status inherent in his/her creation. And God has never exercised that theoretical authority; and why would He? He made all human beings in the first place.

Slowly, and only after much blood and possibility disappeared into the dust, did We recover from such moral madness, from such evil practice. Slowly We recovered Our balance. And it can be said that Our last condition became better than the first, because an awareness of Our wrong-doing generated a deeper commitment to the ideals of the Founding. And a resolution to maintain a more sober and serious faithfulness to them.

But the 20th century, shocked – perhaps electrocuted – by the roaring, crackling vitality of ‘revolution’, threw Us far more violently off balance. In a world far more interconnected than that of the 18th century, the agitations of revolution – not in the service of a living human dignity but in the service of abstract ideals and agendas, dreams dreamed only by a few but destined to be imposed upon the many by violence and the threat of death – masked themselves, to an age starved of meaning by the dark underside of the Industrial Revolution, as exciting and exhilarating human enterprises, seducing Us into feeling more ‘alive’ and more ‘vital’ in the midst of violent excitements than in the in-season, out-of-season, day-in, day-out maintenance of the marvelous but carefully constructed heritage bequeathed to Us.

Those excitements of the century now past did not altogether die with it. Nor did they dissolve as their birth-revolutions – imperialist, fascist, militarist, communist – were finally extinguished. They are with Us still.

And not in their original forms, but in forms native to the American soil where they took root. An impatience with a democratic politics, jazzed to hyper-speed by the siren-call of achieving (and imposing) ‘great things’ and ‘urgent things’, among a citizenry too young or too unfamiliar with the Founding traditions or too bored with the rocky, resistant soil in which democracy must root and flower … has not only left its mark but created self-sustaining problems deep within Our polity.

And not only an impatience, but a callowness, a glittery hardness that shades into brutality against any who seem to slow down the march to ‘great things’. Against any structure that threatens to shape or boundary it. And not only an impatience and a callowness, but a pridefulness, the pridefulness of those who feel ‘special’ because they are handling ‘great things’ and cannot be delayed or doubted – not by any thing or by any one. These are the characteristics of the vanguard elites of revolutions – very ‘twentieth century’, as might be said nowadays. Yet they are with Us – among Us – today, in this 21st century.

There are many such in other societies and other cultures as well. But in the American ethos, such attitudes and the actions which they generate are particularly dangerous. Because We are a particularly constituted nation, given shape by a Constitution and a Founding vision that cannot survive unless rooted in civic maturity, and that maturity has to be rooted in a profound respect for human dignity and for the processes that the Founders thought best able to sustain a common weal built on that respect and that dignity. No substitute will work. Our system lives or falls on that respect and that dignity. For human beings and for the deliberate processes necessary to enable them to work together and shape and re-shape their common weal.

The ‘revolutionary’ attitude will not because it cannot sustain Us nor the Republic which is Our heritage and Our responsibility.

And We are seeing that now, as a long decline in the primacy of respect for human dignity and a primary mutual respect for each other has finally reached the point where its consequences and its effects can no longer be denied. The Democrats and the Republicans both embraced variants of the ‘revolutionary’ attitude and method, and both have contributed in one way or another, to Our present low and degraded condition. At this point, it’s hard to say which party will win in November, but it’s impossible to deny much longer that the victory of either will offer small chance of recovery of what has been lost.

Unless there is a return to the genuine spirit that Founded Us, then the election will be rendered meaningless in a very fundamental way.

Nor can We look to the government itself for Our fundamental recovery. We, each of Us and all of Us, have to recover Our sense of dignity and Our sense of respect; the government, debauched by decades of both parties’ excitements and illusions, is part of the problem in a way far beyond what Ronald Reagan blithely asserted. Nor will any ‘dream’ currently on offer reach Our most pressing and vital need.

And if this People has reached the point where it cannot embrace, cannot ‘platform’, a living appreciation of and commitment to human dignity and respect unless the government recommends it or funds it or authorizes it, then this election won’t mean so much anyway. Will it? Embrace that respect, and see what can be done.

It’s the only way, now. It always has been.

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