Friday, October 03, 2008

CHARGING AT WINDMILLS

The New English Review site has an excellent new article by Norman Berdichevsky about the novel “DonQuixote” (http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/23869/sec_id/23869).

We recall that the novel (completed in the very early 1600s in Spain by Miguel Cervantes) concerns itself with the adventures of an aging and grossly idealistic knight, Don Quixote, and his man-servant, the ever-realistic and down-to-earth Sancho Panza. They get into numerous scrapes, including one where the elderly and poor-sighted knight mistakes a windmill for an opposing knight and has at it/him.

Some thoughts come to me.

As the article notes, the novel in many ways is “a sarcastic comment on well-meaning people with noble, idealistic motives who have their heads in the clouds, only to bring disaster upon themselves and all around them”. If you think I am now going to use this insight to absolve the assorted monstrous feasances –mis, mal, and non – of the National Security State or the National Nanny State, or of either of the two national Parties in the pursuit of their political goals, objectives, schemes, and scams, well … No, I am not.

Certainly as far back as Cleveland and McKinley, party politics and posturing greatly fueled those two Presidents’ efforts to change the American people into supporters of a corporate imperium – and The People demoted to cheerleaders and kerns on the Field of National Greatness – that was utterly opposed to the spirit and expressed wisdom of the Founders. Indeed – and sadly – it was that huge and respected veterans’ organization, the GAR, the Grand Army of the Republic , that waved its revered but bloody Civil War banners and shirts in support of all that; the gimlet-eyed lads of 1861-65 became the bearded, bent, paunchy aging icons of the mid-1890s, and far too many of them were more than willing to support sending a new generation of lads into the realm of Ares Ferox et Atrox, whose field now expanded – for Americans – to encompass much of the world.

Nor was it ‘nobility’ or ‘idealism’ that drove the prime movers, although such were the cloaks that were designed to simultaneously incite and lull the citizenry into wars – threatened with England over Venezuela, sought and achieved with Spain – and the unlovely annexation of Hawaii, and the even less lovely landgrab that created ‘Panama’ and enabled that Canal. None of which was the Manifest Destiny of taking over the continent to the Pacific and down to the Rio Grande (requiring the exterminate subjugation of the tribes and a trumped-up war upon Mexico). But as a later generation was to say: you don’t want to ‘miss the bus’. And as an even later generation might have put it: The Americans of the 1890s were told that they were the best, the brightest, the rip-roarin’est, and the smartest guys in the room. It would be a sin and a treason, therefore, to stay at home and tend to one’s own patch, merely seeking – though nobody in Washington dared put it this way – “to achieve a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”. The veterans of the Civil War did not seem to recall Mr. Lincoln’s final exhortation. Nor did the Beltway pols – as a later generation might name them – find the sixteenth President to be of much relevance to their own situation in the 1890s.

So, Our national political establishments and their leadership over the years cannot be so simply excused by asserting that ‘they meant well’. Not completely. Not hardly.

But it is one of the hell-hot ironies of History – and perhaps Providence – that those who most would master the world are those who end up ensnared like Laocoon (and his sons) in its incalculably intricate and inexorable subtleties, dynamic and interactive complexities, and intractable paradoxes. And while Christendom in its day never urged one to stay in bed for life, it insisted that one do some verrrry serious thinking before stretching forth one’s hand, especially if the hand held a weapon. Or a bag of gold. But ‘real men’ don’t sit around and think; they act; History, asserted one recent soft-pawed Beltway macher with a fondness for the outline of young men’’s butts in jeans seen from the back and accented with the round conical bulge of a can of chaw , and they make the history that others will follow. In his calculations, he had neglected to consider whether History itself would ‘follow’.

And in the event, History has not.

Having one’s head in the clouds is not a good posture to take if one is going to keep the world under one’s thumb. Or to keep the 20-mule-team from running off the cliff with your heavily-laden wagon. You indeed have to give your best and deepest thought to your project; but ‘thinking’ and ‘having your head in the clouds’ are not the same thing. The latter is often what children – of any age – do; the former is what adults – no matter how old – do. Nor is either History or politics “a nursery”. Nor a “playing field” such that somebody can manipulate armies or corporations with the same mentality as a school-team quarterback. The consequences alone demand ‘a larger sense’ and a larger sensibility. We can no longer afford politicians or military commanders or corporate bosses whose claim to Our respect is the fact that they once had a great season thirty or more years ago.

But if We insist on having them, then We must accept the responsibility for keeping an even closer eye on them. We are not ‘a game’; Our failure to appreciate just how true and real that statement is has resulted in Our being made great sport of – and not first by other nations and peoples, but by Our own ‘leaders’. Had We not noticed? It should be obvious by now. Our lives and fortunes and sacred honor have been tossed around like plastic poker chips at a high-rollers’ table full of casino sharpies whose ability to live the high – not to say the ‘good’ – life is in no way a reflection of their ‘goodness’ or God’s approval. And as a result, a lot of other peoples’ lives and fortunes (figuratively speaking) and blood (literally speaking) have been ground down and blown into the dust of the earth – whence they cry out.

Wonderfully, the author demonstrates that the 'Man of Lamancha' musical of the 1960s – with its tear-jerking song about ‘dreaming the impossible dream’ – is not at all faithful to the spirit of the book. Cervantes is not seeking to urge everybody to “idealism” (in whatever self-serving, saccharine way it might be defined). Cervantes is writing a satire of ‘impossible dreaming’.

‘Real men’ – he might say – dream ‘possible dreams’. And it’s a long and hard job to figure just what is possible. And what isn’t. Ask Rumsfeld. Or Teddy Kennedy, who has pretty much built a career on ‘dreaming’. And taken an entire Party along for the ride – and going for a ride with him, you’d a’thunk, would not be something any sane and serious adult would ever do. But then, that’s part of the problem right there.

Lincoln didn’t ‘dream’. We shouldn’t. A pilot taking off from a carrier (and this Post is sooooo not a McCain commercial) doesn’t ‘dream’ of getting airborne; he’s got his hands full just making sure the right things are done in the right sequence so as to get the plane airborne. And hoping that all the other ‘little’ people have been doing their bit with sufficient care and attention to detail. Otherwise, there will be a nightmare – for real. But ‘dreaming’ don’t – as the Brits say – enter into it.

When you want to do good and great things, as Quixote did, but go forth as if in a dream – even if it is a dream of chivalry and great-deeds and even good-deeds – then you aren’t going to ‘see’ what is actually out there; and thus imprisoned by your own non-perceptions, you’re going to wind up going after windmills. And perhaps other things or persons – who may shoot back. Or take all your money. That sort of thing.

At times like that, lying flat on your back by the side of the road half-dead and totally broke, you need enough decency and maturity to inhabit your deepest inner ‘dignity’ - otherwise, your experience, even though you sort of pretty much brought it on yourself, will break you, define you, reduce you to a gibbering half-human glob of resentful defeat. And of all the prisons in this world, being trapped in such a ‘self’ – consumed by resentment even as , like a caged animal, it can perceive no way out – is by far the worst. People like that are beaten out of genuine human shape, reverting to more primitive capacities. And if they have spit in History’s eye, then History may not be inclined to lift a finger.

And, I think, if they have no real sense of a God Who is concerned and faithful even as He is Just, then they got nothin’ at all left. They put all their eggs in the basket of this world, the basket and eggs have been dropped and broken, and they are left – dismasted, rudderless, taking on water, running short on supplies, and hoping somebody might sail by. Anybody.

This is no way to run a Republic. Or a Democracy.

In the not-unworthy cause of seeking just redress, the national binge of Victimism has left far too many of Us unable to muster the interior resources to cope with adversity. And that, on top of Consumerism trying to reduce human activity to the level of shopping-bots and the horizon of human possibility to the roofline of the nearest big mall; and the increasingly Corporate-Executive State trying to reduce The People to pawns in great games far beyond their ken or possibility. This is positively a regression to things Medieval. Except that the Medieval generations had no small support for sensing that they were not Alone. Human beings who believe themselves ‘alone’ don’t create; they destroy – themselves or others, in large or in small, depending on their capabilities.

This is not a commercial or a nostalgic call for the Medieval era, in the manner of Henry Adams. But it is a call to consider carefully what the Medieval era – what any era of human history prior to the present – has bequeathed. While it is understandable from a psychological point of view that each successive era describes itself as both ‘totally’ new and a ‘total’ improvement on what has gone before, that is never true. Worse than a dream it is a pipe-dream – and We’ve been smoking a lot of stuff that’s not good for Us for too long – tobacco being the least of the problem.

Quixote – on his deathbed, worn literally to death by his witless but well-intentioned exertions and their assorted harsh consequences to himself – comes to understand his true nature, and confesses to ever-faithful (though frequently skeptical) Sancho that he is and always should have been “plain Alonso Quixano”.

But then, I’ve misspoken. Maybe. Quixote comes to understand his own temperament, and what limitations that should have imposed upon him. But he doesn’t come to understand either Sancho’s nature nor his own ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ human nature.

Because Sancho, in his own skeptical but not deeply selfish way, has managed to effect some actual good throughout their travels. Without metal armor or a sword or lance he has kept a wary eye on everything and everyone around him, and has avoided disaster while also making this or that a little better as the opportunity arose. Though, as with many peasants, his thorough skepticism has much reduced his own horizon of possibility. It’s an inherent danger of peasant-hood; but it's one of the huge blessings acutely perceived and felt by the Founders, that they created a Republic in which there would be no peasantry.

Running from his own limits, and their capacity to impart a shape to his life, Quixote wasted much of his always-limited time and energy trying to be some ‘ideal’ that had no basis in reality. He was thus not only hugely incapable of going up against those who had a much firmer grasp on a Flat but actual ‘reality’; he was also incapable of understanding what he himself might achieve within the shape that his own individual and his generally human limits might have – constructively! – imposed.

It is not the genuine and true nature of human beings to be peasants. This the Founders grasped. But neither are they supermen (superpersons). Neither peasants nor superpersons effect truly human changes over the long and broad haul of History. Marx was a gifted observer, Lenin was an indefatigable spark-plug in his day, Hitler was a gifted orator who sweetened the dreams of many desperate fellow-Germans in his prime, Stalin was a ‘brass-hard’ organizer, and Mao for a while passed as the quintessence through whom all his people would – somehow – live and move and have their being.

The fact that most of Our own would-be superpersons have caused far less damage is not an indictment of some fundamental weakness in American culture that prevents the nurturing of such ‘leaders’, but rather is a testament to the limitations on their shape and scope imposed by the system of checked-and-balanced politics devised precisely for that purpose by the Founders.
Lincoln did not seek to be a ‘dictator’; McLellan rather thought he would make a good one . But McLellan was not elected that autumn of 1864; and who can imagine that We didn’t dodge a huge bullet when Sherman took Atlanta in the nick of time and thus gave the voters cause for hope that Lincoln could actually win the war? Because We, as voters, have limitations too – and many can be fooled much of the time.

So We must accept that We have weaknesses. But especially nowadays, with a government not only huge and complex but also – I would say – awesomely debauched, We as The People cannot retreat to bed or to dreams. Rather, We must accept Our limitations as individuals and work to overcome them, so that We can fulfill Our born duty to anchor this marvelous contraption called The Republic.

Presently, with the acid fear of being reduced to a peasantry seeking to cast its miasm over many of us as individuals, it may seem just another thing to put on the to-do list: master the art of being a citizen and do your bit to bulk up The People. But this is no luxury item, to be purchased by the ounce or the slice if there’s a little left over in the wallet at the end of the shopping trip. This is the heart and soul of what the Founders dreamed it was to ‘be a citizen’.

Some of them thought that it was an impossible dream. Others thought it was a possible dream.

Taking increased devotion to that cause for which they displayed a sagacious yet shrewd devotion, We –even We here – have to decide where We stand on that question. And then – as with all dreams – We need to wake the frak up and get on with it. Walking not as dreamers but “as in the day”, making Our way along the road, taking prudent and careful note of the weather and the road conditions, suppressing weariness and a debilitating fear, but moving along in pursuit of the task. Our common task.

And believing that We are not Alone, dwelling in the sure and certain hope that the same God Who got Sherman into Atlanta just in time will not hesitate to Accompany Us, even if last-minute military victories and financial miracles will not, for the forseeable future, be Our portion.
Ours will not be a death-bed conversion. That’s good news.

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