The times of our tribulation are coming to an end . . . or rather, we are about to set out upon a different grueling path, and, this time, it really matters.
I have been a political junkie since I was a young kid. The first political memory that I have is seeing a picture of Ronald Reagan hanging up in my kindergarten class. In elementary school, I knew most of the cabinet officials and participated in some Right to Life activities. As a freshman in high school, I volunteered for a political campaign (my guy lost—black Republicans have a hard time of American politics). Throughout high school, I was involved in Youth in Government, the Right to Life movement, and other political activities. I just found politics interesting and important. I dreamt of becoming a diplomat and a United States senator. Of course, I was young and a fool.
Early on, I was attracted to liberalism—real liberalism, of course, not the cowardly version of socialism that carries that name in America today. I did not know Burke, Tocqueville, or Mill at the time, but I would have loved them. I did discover Locke and became a disciple of the Anglo-American liberal tradition. For like most children who are more clever than their teachers and school administrators, I learnt early that authority in the hands of the unfit spawns injustice. From elementary school until college, my political concerns centered on the role and limits of acceptable and justifiable government authority and action.
As any young person, I held some shameful positions. In the sixth grade, I remember finishing 1984, reading the short bibliography about the author, and declaring at the dinner table later that day that I was a socialist—for I read that Orwell was a socialist and I wanted to classify myself with a man who worried about totalitarianism. Little did I know at the time that Orwell’s critique was a Trojan horse on the Left, and that he knew the dangers of socialism intimately. The following year, I found out as much when I chose Orwell for my first project in literary criticism. I knew then that I was not a socialist and that I would never major in English—both very useful things to realize at any early age. By the way, I do not fully remember my mother’s reaction to my supper manifesto, but I am sure that it was a mix of amusement and horror. I am just glad that I was not beaten for Marx’s sake.
That same year, I remember feeling revulsion during a Sunday school lesson when the youth pastor said some very disparaging remarks about Russia that included a defense of saying, “Kill a commie for Mommy.” It is all rather ironic these many years later . . . Anyway, I knew that we should love the Communists even as we fought their system. “Hate the sin; love the sinner” was a Protestant maxim that did its job well on my impressionable mind, and so the preacher was out of bounds even according to his own system. Yet, politics frequently makes people ugly . . . Hollywood for ugly people, indeed.
Back to youthful stupidity—I considered membership in both the N.A.A.C.P. and the K.K.K. (more seriously the former than the later, in case someone feels the need to ring the S.P.L.C. . . . and if someone notices the disproportion between the two choices, I never considered hardcore Negro nationalism—what would Jeremiah Wright’s ilk do with me?—but I supported them in spirit . . . you know, clench-fisted and all). Though some folks do not seem to see it, I really am the most open-minded person I know, barring some professors, and I despise taboos. So, I do consider the merits of all arguments, even the unofficialy banned views of any given group or era. With regard to racialist groups, different injustices that I myself witnessed as a kid seemed to give such organizations a claim. When I encountered crude racism and wildly ignorant racial opinions from various circles—black, white, and shades in between, I thought that black and white nationalists may be on to something. Of course, all humans are on to something. We are agents of truth as part of our nature, but too frequently, we are agents of ignorance and idiocy, as well. Young fervor is not always comfortable with remaining in the cloudy gray realm when the heart wishes for decisive action and . . . change.
More seriously—since I actually did do the following instead of entertaining the thought—was my annual Saint Patrick’s Day get up in high school. Yes, high school—much too old to excuse such folly. Having Roman Catholic and Protestant parents and their religious heritage, I was sensitized early on to the religious conflict in Ireland. For some unreason unintelligible to me now, I harbored negative views about the English. Perhaps, the multiculturalists in whose care my education was entrusted sowed seeds of anti-colonial resentment toward the Brits. Maybe, it was those Mel Gibson movies. Or, more likely, I found American Episcopalians to be an embarrassment to all Christendom, and I passed that judgment on to everything English. This is strange, as in other areas of life, I was clearly an Anglophile in development, but men often hold contradictory beliefs. I had to wait until college before I became a full-fledged lover of all things English while remaining a lover of all things Irish. Anyway, you might ask how I supported the Irish cause? Well, I wore clothing and paraphernalia in support of the Irish Republican Army. I would color my skin with pro-I.R.A. slogans and general nonsense. What a moron! Of course, this was before “The War on Terror,” and, obviously, it was before Columbine, as surely I would have been expelled in the hyperventilating paranoid child-intervention-happy America of today. (In full disclosure, I also made hate lists and indecent violent drawings in junior high—it’s called puberty, folks. Sigh . . .) Anyway, I knew enough about the I.R.A. to condemn myself with such support. They were and are vile murderous thugs who march under some purported righteous banner—but most successful thugs have their banners, and that makes them no less evil. Indeed, it makes them far more dangerous. Idealism and violence are often common components in human misery. I had my taste of radicalism there; it was good to get it over with, I suppose.
On libertarian and isolationist grounds—for I did not know yet what paleoconservatism was, I opposed the first Gulf War. However, I did not protest it, as I did not want to be grouped with the Vietnam era peaceniks. I remember the ribbons and “Support Our Troops” stickers everywhere in the school and community. I do not remember anyone who opposed the war among my peers . . . but then again, they were young kids and the culture was not then what it is now.
I first voted when I was seventeen years old as I registered Republican in the primaries. In Ohio, you can vote in the primary if you will be eighteen by the general election. The 1990’s were a fun time to be a Republican; Clinton was in power and the Republicans caused problems for him in Congress. The Republicans then at least paid lip service to smaller government. It was still the era of the Contract with America, not the Compassionate Conservatism that lurked in the wings.
Well, my love-affair with politics ended when I went to college. I entered with the intention of majoring in politics and international affairs only to have my belief in America, democracy, and liberalism smashed to pieces. I embraced Plato and threw away Locke. I saw how Thomas Aquinas made better sense than Madison. I came to see the cultural revolution that led to the destruction of Western civilization as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, not the 1960’s. Previous heroes like Jefferson became for me a source of disgust and shame—even a complex sense of betrayal. I refused to vote, as I did not wish to be implicated in the cesspool of American demagogic democracy. I realized that my own untenable liberalism was related to my unreflective belief in democracy as the only political system possible. For if we are going to governed by the ignorant, emotive masses, then the government must have very little power. At least, then, the wise can get along in their own pursuit of the good without being hassled by the herd.
I do not now think that any of those sentiments or judgments are wrong—except that we do not have the luxury of being apolitical animals. I know that many people disparage Leo Strauss, but on this point, I believe that he helped me temper my unrealistic absolutism. No one in the history of the world has lived in a regime that was wisely governed. Even if the occasional virtuous and wise man leads—if by divine design or chance a philosopher and a king happen to occur in the same person—such a person is yet a mortal living among mortals. There is only so much such a man can do to make his society conform more to the natural law. For passions, petty interests, ignorance, and vice are ever present in human affairs. I knew early on that human problems cannot be solved but only managed, but this insight did not translate for me into the obvious conclusion that we therefore should still invest ourselves with the management. For we are still political animals, even if we are fated to live in a fallen world. It is the mark of the fanatical purist to starve to death rather than to eat with the unclean.
So, as the Republic and the Laws make clear, we live in a world where the best and just social arrangement does not exist and frankly cannot exist given our contradictory nature. Utopian schemes fail to understand that truth about the human condition . . . they gasp and strive after that one more revolution, which we’ll finally get right. If only this or that cog in the system could be change, if only that obstacle, human or otherwise, could be removed, we would be closer to the just society. These folks learn nothing from books, history, or their own eyes—they just see the shining city on the hill, the existence of which would be worth any price, any effort—any sacrifice.
Knowing this, we must make do with what we have. I think of Gandalf’s wonderfully Stoic response to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring:
Frodo: “Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?”
Gandalf: “Such questions cannot be answered . . . You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”
The film version also deals with it well:
Frodo: “I wish none of this had ever happened.”
Gandalf: “So do all who live to face such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
These are very wise words, as we should expect from Tolkien. The absence of perfection does not excuse us of the duties of human life. As political animals, we have a duty to our community and to ourselves to engage ourselves in the life of the city for the common good.
Certainly, this involvement can and should take different forms for each person and each set of circumstances. Some may fulfill it most in teaching, or being an honest tradesmen, or raising good children, or conducting the power of the political regime with an impartial eye that seeks the good of the community.
Moreover, a representative democracy is what we Americans have. As I stated earlier, such a regime as now exists in the United States is a formula for foolish and unjust government. As Andrew says, belief in democracy is the commitment to the proposition that one half of the rulers should have below average intelligence, below average wisdom, below average virtue, below average experience in political affairs, and so on. It is pure madness, but it is what we have now—a republic, if we can keep it. Therefore, we should work to protect ourselves from its harmful tendencies. This is, perhaps, what the wiser of the American founders desired—a republic tempered against its inherent instability and flaws.
Some folks would counsel letting the sinking ship go down into the deep. All attempts to make it more seaworthy are just delaying the day when the vessel takes people down. I see reason in such ideas, but there is something rather inhuman about that calculating—it reminds me of eugenic infanticide. For the inevitable day might truly come, but it seems to me that we should defend the city nonetheless while we have strength. Perhaps, this is simply a matter of political sentiment rather than reason, but allowing one’s community to disintegrate, even with good long-term intentions, feels ignoble and wrong. You may put obstacles and difficulties in your children’s life because you love them and know that such challenges will make them stronger. No good mother, however, poisons her child so that another more promising child can come to take his place. Moreover, every sinking ship results in deaths and destruction; should we willingly stand by? Even terrible human regimes are often replaced by worse ones, which is a good argument against revolution. Radical social upheaval rarely—possibly never—does the body politic good. I’ll likely revisit this strategic-political topic in the future, but enough of it now.
September 11, A.D. 2001 likely had an effect on my anti-Americanism, as well. For I had a love-hate relationship with my society as I have a love-hate relationship with many things. Yet, when it actually occurred to me that the United States could be vulnerable (obvious enough, but the human mind is a silly power sometimes), my sentiments shifted considerably. Maybe I was just getting older and hopefully wiser. At any rate, I came to be more open to and honest about the great things of America. When you are in love with perfection, it is a an easy step to loathe the imperfect as such and not simply its imperfection. Annoying traits in your family might bother you more than the same behavior that you see in others. Hume appears correct here—our desire to think well of ourselves leads us to wish everything connected to us to be fine, as well, for our own sake. Vanity publically celebrates others while privately congratulating the self. Anyway, in my adult years, I have come to see the beauty as well as the ugliness in American life. As all things human, political society is complex, being both a cause for celebration and for mourning—a mark of pride and a stain in need of repentance.
So, having been convicted of civic irresponsibility, I registered to vote again as an independent. George Bush could count me as one his new supporters in A.D. 2004, as I did not vote in A.D. 2000.
So, what should you do when you realize that a good deal of our regime’s political foundations are false, and yet you do not believe in overthrowing the regime? I have no good answer. My own tendency in these matters is to formulate for myself what a good regime would do and how it would be given such and such circumstances. Then, I ask how we can approximate that ideal given our own regime without undermining our regime. In general, these considerations take me back to a moderated liberalism. For it is unquestionable that the American regime, at least at the federal level, was founded upon liberal principles. We risk undermining the state when we ignore that fact. Rousseau’s engaged republican political organism is superior in many ways to—and closer to a healthy city than—the liberal regime, which is often more a marketplace than a city. Yet, it is also more dangerous and frightening, given the false political components in the Rousseauan diet. Similarly, capitalism is based on some noxious beliefs about value, and the petty avaricious bourgeois man that it begets is stifling to great human souls. The Marxists and revolutionaries rightly point out the shortcomings of liberal capitalism. Yet, what they offer in its place is far worse. Semi-alienated but well fed and secure human cows with the occasional wolf typically make a better society together than the continuous feasting of asps upon the fellow citizens whom they have made their worms—where such feasting moreover is done self-righteously in the name of the glorious worms.
As such, I think that, as Americans, we should work to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, which is by nature a recalcitrant and barely manageable bureaucracy led by shortsighted and self-interested fools. Local government should take on more powers and responsibilities, and citizens should strive to be engaged in the affairs of their local community where they are more knowledgeable of and invested in what happens. I think that we should try to inculcate a respect for the law and for obeying the law, but then the laws should be just and much fewer in number. I think that we should accept that human evil and turmoil are normal aspects of reality—in a fallen world, for Christians—and we should not blind ourselves to common sense, human nature, and ideologically untainted social scientific data in waging battles that cannot be won. I think that actions done by the government should be on behalf of all the people, interpreted narrowly and in as direct a manner as possible. This is a tricky qualification, as some would justify any sort of special interest stroking as helping the whole society. I think that we ought to defer to the market in most matters, as the masses make better and more informed decisions than designated experts who, though they claim to act for the good of the whole, often impose their own flawed values and agenda upon the society. With all these matters, prudence and upright judgment are necessary in the rulers—which has always been the difficulty. How can we expect the many to choose or even to follow the best leaders when the many are not the best themselves? No governing system avoids this problem, but some meritocratic and aristocratic measures increase the possibility of fine leaders. How to implement these in our very demagogic and egalitarian United States is beyond me. The original constitution was far saner with regard to the dangers of the mob. We have emasculated, in large part, our defense against tyrannical democracy. What keeps us safe, to the extent that they remain strong, are the habits of the American heart that still value justice, liberty, the rule of law, and order. I fear, however, that each passing decade degrades these political instincts.
Perhaps, as the nativists fear, the hordes of immigrants from despotic lands bring their habituation to tyranny with them. The progressive era and the New Deal came soon after the Americanization of the large-scale southern and eastern European immigration. Have the millions of immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia brought along their homelands’ political values, too? In our neutered multicultural society, we should embrace all, even to our own ruin. Yet, I wonder if the Anglo-American experiment has been jeopardized by so many non-Anglos. However, the industrialization that brought those millions and the consequent rise of urban demographics likely had more to do with the rise of statism than the origin of the immigrants. Furthermore, the obvious retort to this theory is a cursory examination of Britain since the Second World War. Long before the dark folk from the colonies came to make their beds in Birmingham, London was already on its way to illiberal statism. Lily white and WASPy Vermont is our own American example. Furthermore, you could sensibly argue that most immigrants self-select in such a way that the United States gets the people most attracted to our values and way of life. If you interview any random naturalized American from the Third World, you may find someone better versed in Locke than your own congressman.
It might also be that women’s suffrage naturally leads to socialism, as women are less capable of distinguishing public and private morality or personal and governmental responsibilities. Yet, what are we to make of the Western American experience, where frontier women were among the first to get the vote? The (non-coastal) West remains the most liberal region of the United States. These daughters of the frontier are not crying for the nanny state.
I just do not know, but I am concerned about the direction of the U.S.A. We seem less American each day—not simply because “white America” is no longer hegemonic in the way that it once was, not only because we are becoming a predominantly urban society, as mentioned in the entry from last week, but because the basic political values of America are changing. When the Leftists spew out their feigned pious outrage at being called un-American, they are either dishonest or idiotic. For they wish to undermine the United States’ foundational liberal values—the bourgeois shopkeeper customs and beliefs that they so readily and continuously despise. They have exhibited their hatred for seventy years now—the Bloomingdale Bolsheviks who want an intrusive, politically intolerant, managerial state that silences “reactionary,” i.e. counter-revolutionary dissent with all the cultural and political weapons in their considerable arsenal. Of course, they are anti-American, if American is to have any meaning beyond the desired definition of each person who speaks the word. For these post-modern types, there is no definition beyond that which power gives it, and so they make it as they wish. They do violence to semantics and to history.
As noted above, my political views are also anti-American, and I am honest about it, but I think that we run risks too great if we undermine the foundations of the republic. Moreover, I think that the Leftists’ political philosophy has a more distorted understanding of human nature and political principles than the American founders. Give me Smith, Locke, and Montesquieu any day over Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Trotsky, and pals. For me, almost all Americans are wrong when it comes to politics, but some Americans are more wrong than others. The Left is demonically wrong. They sometimes hate truly detestable things, but they are ever ready to poison the sick man to death because his fever troubles them. I’ll write many posts later in diagnosis of the political Left and why it is so horribly confused in its world view.
Now, it is useful to distinguish partisan politics from political world views. I honestly do not care what letter follows a politician’s name, as long as the person has the proper character, abilities, and opinions. I have voted for Republicans and Democrats, but unfortunately, the Democratic party has abandoned wisdom more substantially than the Republicans in the last several decades. Folks can rail against Bush and the significant missteps of his administration. Many thoughtful commentators are troubled by the rise of populism in the Republican party. Liberals are quite justifiably alarmed at the Republican negligence of limited and unobtrusive government. I do not defend any of these movements; they grieve me greatly insofar as I allow politics to bother me at all. With so many elections, I ask, “Why can’t they both lose?” I think that way about McCain and Obama. Both have disqualified themselves as presidential material many times over.
Yet, it is clear what Obama’s acting political principles are, and I see little merit in Christopher Buckley’s reason to hope that they are not also his true political principles. He is a statist socialist multiculturalist relativist panderer to all the worst elements of the Left, though packaged finely and marketed cleverly to hoodwink the yokels that he really is whatever they project upon him in their personality cult worship. I find the adoration of him perplexing, but, contemptuous of the mob, I have never been a sucker for demagoguery or empty rhetoric. I really do think that racism is playing a large part; blacks are largely resorting to what they perceive as and have been told is tribal loyalty, while whites who have made white guilt a religious observance are putting forth their sacrificial votes upon the transcendent altar of Obama—the high priest of racial reconciliation. They are fools and useful idiots, of course, and I am shocked at how widespread the phenomenon is. John Derbyshire wrote the most insightful analysis of race in this election that I have seen. I highly recommend “Obama’s Black Edge,” the bluntness of which shocked even me, and I have no use or patience with “political correctness” (sic). Yet, I think that he is spot on, especially in the “inter-tribal” resentment of whites against other whites. Like Hitchens, Derbyshire is an atheist with a strong stomach for unpalatable truths about the human condition. It is too bad that they have no obvious orientation toward the divine. Well, Derbyshire is in love with mathematics; so, maybe that counts for something.
Derbyshire and the “racist” few excepted, one sees constant backpats throughout the media about how far America has come, how proud Americans should be, what a glorious day, God almighty, that the dream has come to pass. Perhaps I missing something, but the dream has not come to pass. Obama is about to become the president of the United States of America in large part because of his race. When we have due to’s or despites, the dream has not yet come to fruition. I see no reason to celebrate the advent of destructive Marxism in blackface just because of the make-up. Lipstick on a pig, scientific materialism in ebonics, phat five year plans, whatever . . . I shall think well of the American populace in their electoral decision when they put the wise in power. I’ll save the kudos during this ridiculous parody of ethnic koombayaism.
I voted absentee about three weeks ago as I won’t be in the homeland for the election. I did not so much vote for McCain as vote against Obama. McCain will likely be worse than Bush in some ways but maybe better in others. At times, I think that McCain has better communication skills than Bush—which I consider the greatest failing of his presidency. One cannot lead without public opinion, and Bush has not done the revolting but necessary job of playing the demagogue. The madness of the last eight years is largely due to his unwillingness to lead, and he has damaged American politics as a result. It is incredible that the “unhinged” Left thinks that Bush is a right-wing extremist. He has been a centrist (in today’s political landscape) from the beginning, and he has infuriated conservatives over and over again in his accommodations of the Democrats. That they cannot or will not see this and that their amazingly distorted rendition of the last seven years holds up in public discourse are proof that Bush has failed over and over again to lead. Clinton was a scoundrel, but he was quite adept in bullying the opposition and, in the Left’s nauseating post-modern language, commanding the narrative. Bush has done neither. It is not that he was incapable of it; during the 2004 election, he actually campaigned and made his case to the American people. As such, he won a historically odd election, gaining seats in both houses during an incumbent run. Yet, most of the time, he ceded ground to vile and unprinciples opponents, and what did it gain him? He is perhaps more despised than any recent American president.
McCain also suffers from a love of the opposition; he is a center-left Republican who always tried to shore up his bipartisan street creds with the Leftists in both parties and in the cultural establishment, especially the media. With a Democratic Congress, he is sure to disappoint conservatives. He is much worse than Bush, however, in his disdain for conservatives. In the honor politics of John McCain, he is quick to suspect ulterior motives when his political allies disagree with him. His constant need to disparage the right won him the media’s love, but we see how long that lasted when the election campaign began. Like Bush, he is often unwilling to play brutal politics. This demoralizes the supporting crowd and invites accusations of poor sportsmanship (and hypocrisy) from the opposition when he does land a punch. Unlike Bush, he does not project the right cool and confident demeanor that people want to see in a leader. Americans want the man who can start nuclear war to have a calm temperament. Now, I do not doubt—much, anyway—that McCain has the requisite demeanor to be president. He has a lifetime of leadership experience, and his story is, as the media types like to say, compelling. Yet, he has given the Obama campaign unforced errors in his hurried responses to events during the last months. Granted, Obama offered nothing during those moments, and the media did not portray him as indecisive or wishy-washy or clueless as they would have done to McCain. So, perhaps, there is nothing that McCain could have done to handle himself fittingly in their eyes.
I think that both McCain and Obama will prove ineffective leaders; neither one has the wisdom, guts, or strength to move the United States in the necessary direction, but their impotency will also largely be due to Americans’ unwillingness to accept harsh realities. We do not want to hear that we are the problem—that our lifestyle of entitlement, our conviction that God, the government, and everyone else owe us a free ride, our laziness, our unwillingness to defer or to suppress our appetites and immediate gratification are destructive of our prosperity, our security, and. most importantly, our virtue. McCain and Obama in their best moments have whispered such statements, most commendably Obama when he spoke about the need for black America to accept some responsibility for its ills. Yet, we are a society that prizes comfort as the supreme good, and such political bodies do not survive long in the state of nature.
Thus, due to my strong opposition to Obama’s distorted Leftist world view, I voted against him. However, I think that woe must befall us regardless of who wins. In the National Journal’s, “What’s a Perverse Voter to Do?,” Jonathan Rauch states that, overall, an Obama victory would be good for the GOP and that a McCain win would be good for the Democrats. There is some wisdom in this; the political feel of the country is more conducive to the Left now after eight years of the Bush administration. Yet, that administration was largely ineffective in selling its message, and the apparent state of the country is much worse now than it was in 2000. One could argue that Bush was dealt a bad hand or that the appearance of the happy recess from history in 1990’s is wrong, but results and appearance are what matter in democratic politics. If McCain should win, he will do less damage to the society while he is in power than Obama would, but he will not be effective in stemming the Leftward drift. Another Republican administration in what promises to be an unpleasant time in our history will help the Democrats and thereby energize the Left. For Americans foolishly blame everything on the president. Yet, I could not be the strategic voter that Rauch counsels for the same reason that I cannot sit idly while the ship of the republic sinks. For it is unseemly to let some Greeks in through the backdoor just to wake up the slumbering Trojans so that they will be more on their guard in the future. Besides, I doubt that the Democrats could successfully run someone else as radical as Obama. He is a special bird—for ill, I am afraid.
This post has gone on long enough; I’ll stop my bloviating. I started this post as a personal story of my political coming to be, and I’ll end it with another personal story. On election day in A.D. 1992, I remember walking to the local parish and kneeling in prayer to ask God to save our country from Bill Clinton. I have never resolved for myself what prayer means or how it “works.” Petitions, at least, come from our hearts—not from calculation but from a necessary act of desperation as we are ever in the midst of flames. I do not understand providence, and I confess that I feel a shudder of annoyance and a bit of sinful contempt whenever I hear the pious say “God’s plan.” My mind reels through countless of examples that, for me, at least, would quiet allusions to God’s plan. Yet, in the end, what do we have? Hope? It is such a vacuous word in a secular context.