The cultural historian Jackson Lears mentions in a recent ‘New Republic’ article that Jimmy Carter had actually not used the word ‘malaise’ in his July, 1979 speech to the American people where he opined that the American people faced a “crisis of confidence” and urged that Americans engage in a sort of national spiritual renewal wherein they would find a non-material sense of meaning and purpose. Carter even quoted William James’s poignant and seductive phrase “the moral equivalent of war”.
James in the first decade of the 20th century had been trying to figure a way to incite the full energies and focus of human beings without having to light the darkling and voracious fire of war. War, James had seen, had a way of galvanizing and catalyzing people; it could lift them out of the humdrum everyday-ness of ‘life’, and even move them to develop beyond their humdrum and everyday ‘self’ and into a sharper, clearer, even perhaps more morally alert and acute ability to be and to do, to live and to accomplish.
The old Romantic philosophy, echoing the era of knighthood, saw in war and in fighting the epitome of life: war provided a ‘moment’ in which all the extraneous and unnecessary distractions of human life and being were suddenly dissolved in the bright, hot flash of critical and lethal challenge: war was, to use a term that didn’t come along until much later, an ‘existential’ opportunity that blessed those who faced it well with the revelation of a more intense, focused, vital self.
James, philosophically and psychologically inclined, sought to achieve that same Sense, but without the death-dealing frakkery of war itself. Was there, he wondered, a “moral equivalent of war”? Is there not some way to achieve such a heightened Sense of oneself and of existence without having to tap into the primitive instincts unleashed in the individual by war?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the American frontier fading and many Americans now living in cities holding salaried jobs in offices and factories and shops, there was a dim ‘malaise’: without the opportunity for doing ‘great’ and ‘heroic’ things like taming the frontier and warring against enemies (the Indians, the massive struggles of the Civil War – whose young soldiers were now in portly later-middle age) was there now no way for Americans to maintain that bright, crisp edge of their higher and more genuine consciousness?
Did becoming ‘civilized’ mean that you had to wither into a pale simulacrum of what it truly means to be a fully-alive, highly-evolved human being?
Did the grounding of a self and a life in the more fully human brainparts, and away from the more primitive brainparts and their turbulent passions, mean that one must become a conformist wraith, a shadow?
Was all ‘thrill’ primitive? Or was there a way to achieve or induce a ‘higher high’? Was it merely a matter of being high in a primitive way or being mature in a boring and deadening way? Could there be such a thing as a mature ‘high’? Could one get ‘high’ on maturity?
Were the robust founding and frontier generations now to be replaced with pale drones? (It probably didn’t help that even Jesus was pictured popularly as ‘the pale Galilean’, a sort of early-Victorian gentleman who never wore a proper hat but was otherwise quite clubbable.)
This was a splendid question to ask. Dostoevski had given the world the character of Raskolnikov, who truly sought that ‘high’, but could only see his way clear to achieve it by killing an old woman – the act of killing being to Raskolnikov’s limited moral imagination the most perfect catalyzer of a sense of being alive. That clearly wouldn’t do.
Carter had seen the same thing in 1979. And he made a decent stab at a diagnostic observation: “Owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning”. Which adds a complication: if you can’t find such a high Sense simply among the things of this world and its shiny surfaces, then where to go?
Which isn’t at all a bad question to have to face. And spiritual experience throughout the relatively brief history of the species had amassed quite a bit of insight into the matter.
But folks don’t like to hear such things from their President. From a King, maybe. Certainly from a preacher, so long as the point isn’t belabored to the point of discomfort. But America had always been a this-worldly kind of place, and it was precisely in taming and mastering the things of this world that the generations of early Americans had made their mark in and on their world.
And America in the later 1970s hadn’t quite realized what was happening to it. The Golden Age of the postwar American predominance in industrial and economic might had ended somewhere around 1970. Surely Nixon’s floating of the dollar in 1971 was the first unmistakable sign that the dollar, bolstered by American productivity under the terms of the New Deal and the Detroit Consensus, was no more.
And Vietnam – supported by far too many middle-aged World War Two vets as a replay of their own salad days – had turned out to be far less of a definitive victory than anyone had imagined possible.
And by 1979 the country had been roiled for a decade by all sorts of social ‘change’; indeed the agitations of the later Sixties had only intensified. What looked to have been the great civil-rights victory of July 1965 quickly proved itself to be some sort of floodgate (or watertight door?) suddenly opened, through which an increasingly turbulent stream of demands came from all over the place, and the country found itself ‘guilty’ of more oppressions every time it looked at the news.
Proposing a high jump into the spiritual realm is always an iffy proposition. Not for nothing did Kierkegaard reflect that genuine religion was not for everybody, maybe not even for most people. It’s a hard slog, climbing up the ladder of the self and relying on a Beyond that in its genuine nature is not an easily graspable material thing, but rather an immaterial spirit. For that matter, one’s own soul is kind of an iffy proposition.
And suggesting to people that they need to limit themselves is a hard-sell in any era; in the Me-decade, flush with revolutions and liberations and a lot of big cars and big hair and big clothes it was almost a guaranteed non-starter.
Carter’s speech – a decent enough effort – went nowhere.
Challenging Carter for the Presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan began preaching that “any such talk about limits was un-American”. Limits weren’t American, Reagan said; America was defined by the fact that it had no limits. He would follow that up with the Greed-is-Good decade, Kennedy’s Camelot without the classical music but a lot more good wine.
It was an impressively shrewd bit of politics. By signaling that there no limits, Reagan let the business and finance demographics know that ‘regulation’ would not be a problem – which also gave them the flexibility to try and come up with a new way for America to keep itself solvent and happy; and it gave the wealthy the high sign that the filthy-denim Sixties and the polyester Seventies were over and it was OK to be classy again.
But at the same time, he slyly and almost invisibly aligned himself with a brassy radical feminism that was at that moment trying to ‘deconstruct’ all the old legitimacy of ‘limits’ and ‘shape’ in order to blast open fresh space for its various visions, even as the multiculturalists were looking as well to erase the traditional ‘shape’ of what it meant to be American.
None of which would bode well for American maturity.
It’s a terrible thing to suggest that there are no limits. Under any circumstances it is a baaad thing for humans to start believing such dreck.
Psychologically, the human infant needs to develop a robust and lively sense of just what can and can’t be done, just what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fantasy’, just where the limits are.
And not only for the purpose of restraining and containing the little dickens.
But also for the purpose of imparting some Shape to the self. Limits limit, but they also contain – they channel the vitality and the energies of the human self into paths where they won’t be simply dissipated and shot off into the air in a thousand bits and in all directions.
But they also define, they impart a Shape. They are not simply a fence, but a container and, more dynamically, a vessel, a vessel capable of carrying one’s energies and abilities, one’s very Self, across the uneasy ocean of human events.
It’s interesting to look at how Shapeless America became, especially after the dawn of the Reagan era. It wasn’t so much that Reagan intended to impart a new Shape, but rather that he sought to re-animate an old one. And not simply the ‘old’ one of his own youth and salad days, but also one that could no longer sustain itself in the post-1970 world.
He solved the problem of ‘sustaining’ by turning loose the financial folks to work their ‘magic’. But the corporate environment of Reagan’s presidency wasn’t that of J.P. Morgan, who commanded oceans of solid dollars generated by legions of solid factories and stolid workers that poured forth oceans of actual goods and products. The ‘dollar’ of the Reagan Era was far more symbolic (not to say phantasmagoric) than the dollar of J.P. Morgan’s day. And it didn’t get better as time staggered on.
And Reagan borrowed, cashing in on America’s still glowing status on the world scene. And the corporations sold off the factories and outsourced to places where workers didn’t have the option of standing up for themselves and the natives would take what pay they were offered.
Why argue with Congress demanding quotas for women as well as racial minorities? Say yes with a smile and in the meantime outsource all the production to places where the Congressional writ didn’t run. And let whoever wanted to strut around in a new suit do so – for as long as the cash held out.
And when the Soviet Union went – and its Wall fell – then one of the great Shapers of postwar America fell with it. The Soviets had provided a sort of identity-on-the-cheap: America was not-Russia. The barbarians had indeed been a sort of solution. And then suddenly they were gone.
It’s always been a less heroic way of defining yourself: I am me because I am not you. The more heroic, more substantial, more demanding path is to develop yourself and Shape yourself so that you don’t need to lean up against somebody else and say I am me because I am not you. That was the dark and weak path of racism, which exacted such a terrible toll from its practitioners: I don’t have to improve myself because I’m not one of those (fill in the blank). As if by virtue of being born with a certain color skin then you were born perfected and needn’t give self-mastery any further thought or effort. A fairy-tale and a fantasy from Hell.
Increasingly Shapeless currency bathed an increasingly under-Shaped population and society.
And a society of people who have not Shaped themselves sure as hell won’t be able to impose a decent Shape upon their government.
And the government promptly began to go off the Constitutional rails. Which was to often called progress and patriotism. How after all, do you continue to justify and ground the American vision if - thanks to deconstruction, multiculturalism, and identity politics - there are no 'truths' to hold, no 'We' to hold them, and they are not in any way self-evident? Can it be any wonder that one of the underexamined results of deconstruction, multiculturalism, and identity politics - especially in the service of 'feminist law' - has been a gutting of any robust aliveness on the part of political and legal elites (let alone academic elites) to the urgent and perennial value of the Constitutional vision?
It takes a Person to be Patriot. It takes a highly developed adult to be a Citizen, someone Shaped and in possession of his or her best self and its capabilities and qualities. (And no, that doesn’t require an Ivy League or even collegiate education; in fact such adventures would probably constitute a distraction nowadays.)
Otherwise you just get a bunch of extras in the crowded street scene outside the Chancellery, waving little flaglets and cheering themselves hoarse, glad to have somebody in charge.