Monday, October 24, 2005
THE BRAYING SEASON. For almost all of our history, Americans have been an optimistic and lucky people. It's not that we have been spared every kind of hardship and loss. Such things are part of life. Every life. But in comparative terms, we have escaped many of the crushing disasters routinely experienced by other peoples around the world. We began our national life with a revolution that secured liberty from monarchic rule and personal freedoms unprecedented in history. We take it so much for granted that we no longer require our children to learn the astonishing story in any detail. Astonishing? Yes. Our revolution could have unfolded like that of the French, which spiralled into wholesale murder, totalitarian fanaticism, and thence to the comparative relief of a military dictatorship that slaughtered an entire generation of men on the battlefield. The record on revolutions isn't good. The Russian version killed somewhere between 30 and 50 million during its three-quarter century of unintended consequences. The Chinese version is still racking up casualties after more than half a century of murder and oppression. Yet we procured our liberty and freedom with fewer than 10,000 battle deaths and began to chart a course from our European roots that leveraged their legacy of capitalism and reason while somehow escaping the Old World's experience of near-constant war and arrogant imperialism.
It's true we ran the gauntlet of a civil war that produced appalling casualties, but we avoided the even costlier catastrophe of national dissolution, which could have turned our many diverse states into the mirror image of, well, Europe, where a far more savage piper was waiting to be paid for the sin of bitter prejudices and rivalries based on minor ethnic differences. In World War I, England, France, Germany and Russia lost a full generation of young men, more than 3 million dead each. And still, they didn't learn the lesson. Less than 20 years later, they were at it again. The peace that followed was not a European but an American peace, based on our traditions of democratic government, individual liberty, and capitalist competition as a substitute for warfare. And because the Europeans had lost much of their courage and will, it was America which took the responsibility for protecting the nations of the west from the new imperialist delinquent on the block during their second childhood schooling in civilization. Though we were twice ensnared in these European wars we didn't start, we somehow contrived to win them without incurring anywhere near their casualties.
Along the way, we also survived the worldwide depression caused by World War I and resulting in World War II. Afterwards our economy was fairly bursting with prosperity while Europe's had to be rebuilt from scratch. Their subsequent return to affluence was heavily subsidized by the vastly expensive shield of the American military, paid for by Americans who were still growing richer faster than the peoples who ungratefully depended on our protection.
Of course, not all pain and loss is caused by war. Frequently overlooked in the many comparisons between the old world and the new is the simple fact that in America the land itself is much more violent than it is in Europe. We suffer more of almost every kind of natural disaster -- earthquake, hurricane, tornado, flood, wildfire and forest fire -- as well as more extreme heat and cold. It may seem odd that disasters here commonly result in remarkably few casualties, and odder that this record runs parallel to our history of minimal battlefield casualties. But perhaps it is time to rediscover something about America that has been forgotten by many who consider themselves the country's smartest people. The United States may have been sired by Europe but it was born on the frontier, out of a land that offered huge bounty and exacted huge prices in human work, sacrifice, and resolve. The trees were taller, the mines richer, and the farmland more fertile, but the storms were stronger, the winters colder, the summers hotter, the landscapes more variable and volatile. The land was more important in the lives of most people than the government. It was the land which required faith in a god of mercy and justice, and it was God and faith that produced a people who came to the aid of their neighbors as individuals when the terrible things happened. All who could survive the hardships of life in this vast undeveloped land could become Americans, whether they arrived as Swedes or Dutch or Swiss or Irish or Frenchmen or Englishmen. They were unified by their desire to go their own way with as little interference as possible, and they also knew that such a desire could only be achieved by those who were ready to lend a hand to the other self-reliant fellow when the burden became suddenly too great.
All of this bespeaks a people of action rather than words. Not surprisingly, the Americans remade the language they brought here, gradually replacing its politesse and rhetorical grandeur with the simpler, plainer but more colorful tongue finally cemented into literature by Mark Twain. The icon of the strong, silent American male became a cliche because it was so often true. Too much talk was suspect; it was frivolous, womanish, possibly European. The most celebrated speech in American history was one of the shortest great speeches in the history of the world, the Gettysburg address. It was so eloquent because it connected directly to the taproot of our common experience of God, liberty, land, and sacrifice. It didn't have to soar. It could rather be still, like a man standing in thought.
Everyone knows these things or pretends to know them. But it's time to ask a question: when did we turn all these things upside down and inside out?
When did the best educated and most successful of our number decide that the uniquely American traits which for so long secured our good luck and good fortune are the symptoms of a continuing backwardness and immaturity which can only be alleviated by a return to European conventions -- the belief that endless talk trumps decisive action, that the prime factor in human life is government, that the political process must be obsessively oriented around narrow sectarian differences and grievances, that the unwashed masses should be subservient to the superior wisdom of the quality (however conceived), and that garrulous, hysterical vituperation of those who merely disagree is somehow excusable and even a sign of attainment?
Review the recent months and years of our national conversation. It has been growing steadily more vicious, and it seems to be reaching a new peak this fall. Those who hate our president disdain his American plainness, his faith, his resolve. They insist he must learn from, or defer to, the talky snobs who are busily building thick new layers of unresponsive bureaucracy to achieve by edict what thousands of years of history have not been able to accomplish -- the unification of Europe's selfish, racist, blood-drenched nations into something like one country. Never mind that this semblance of action is more than 200 years too late and probably doomed. It must be superior to the far more successful American experience because it entails so much lofty rhetoric, so much self-righteous self-aggrandization, so much talk.
The irony of the great first amendment to our constitution: It allows us to talk because talk was conceived as one of the lesser evils. The liberals love to tell us all the circumstances the founders could never have dreamed of. But surely the biggest thing they could never have dreamed of was the great wall of talk that has arisen out of media capitalism and technology and its aristocratic propensities. Because the media lords talk rather than build or farm or labor with their hands, they have come to believe themselves a kind of leadership class, responsible for shaping the truth of our national experience. And because they do not build or farm or labor with their hands, they do not respect the mighty difference that exists between the act of putting things together and the act of tearing them apart.
Right now, they are tearing us apart and we are allowing them to get away with it. I'm not referring here only to Democrats or liberals, although they are centrally involved, but to all the talkers who are poisoning this precious time in our lives. As a people, we have every reason to rejoice. Yes, there are challenges and hardships, but there always are. The world-sized truth that the talkers are trying so hard to blind us to is that our nation is the most successful and beneficent country in the history of life on earth. Our population is more diverse than any other, and thanks to a tradition of hard work, all segments of our population have produced outstandingly successful and respected leaders in dozens and dozens of disciplines. Of all nations on earth, we are the best able to defend ourselves from outside enemies (of which there will always be some, regardless of our motives), and we are the best able to protect one another from the ravages of disease, nature, and bad luck.
But read or listen to all the talk on the right and the left today, and you could be pardoned for thinking that America is beset by a series of unconscionable and completely avoidable disasters, on the brink of economic and military ruin. Every essay and debate seems to conclude with dark references to the end of the world. Republicans shriek that a single ill advised judicial appointment is the end of the world, a period of too much government spending is the end of the world, our inability thus far to stem the flow into our irresistibly attractive paradise by some of the poorest people on earth is the end of the world. The Democrats wail that a war they disapprove of which has cost nearly 2000 American lives is the end of the world, a cyclical profusion of hurricanes which have killed hundreds of Americans is the end of the world, the continuing fact that our poorest citizens remain poor in our terms even if 90 percent of the rest of the earth's population would call them rich is the end of the world. They have talked, talked, talked, and talked themselves into a state of frantic vindictiveness that can only be assuaged by the criminalization of all their political opponents and the punishment of every public face that fails to prevent the inevitable losses and hardships of human life, from which we are all, apparently, supposed to be exempt in America.
This a disgusting, a nauseating, state of affairs. The talkers are not America. They are a by-product of prosperity and a parasite feeding on the greater goodness of the masses they presume to patronize. Last week, I read the blog of a onetime liberal who now considers himself a conservative, and he was trying to explain the differences between the two. He is a professor. He talked as if he were taking the long view, the objective view. He said that liberals are moral optimists, while conservatives are moral pessimists. This causes liberal to believe in the perfectability of humanity while conservatives accept the fact of sin as a constant. He is a professor. Therefore, it is not surprising that he is dead wrong. It is liberals who are the moral pessimists. They believe that the human condition can be idealized by the right mechanisms of government, which must gather the power to protect the ignorant from the consequences of their own poor decisions. Conservatives are the moral optimists, believing that it is safer to trust the decision making of individuals over that of organizations, which have a demonstrated tendency to acquire amoral and anti-human authority. The professor is confusing human morality with the human condition. Where conservatives are pessimists -- or realists, if you agree -- is in accepting that life will always deal out hurt and injustice. There will always be hurricanes, for example. Liberals -- lacking the humility of those who look to God for ultimate justice -- place too much faith in themselves, in their own ability to stage manage the human condition for the rest of us.
Now that's a point for the conservative talkers to ponder as well. At what point did it become critical for the entire country to follow your exact prescription for surviving the next few months or years? Where do you truly place your faith? In the American traditions you profess to defend? Or in your own lofty intellectual interpretation of those traditions?
I know I promised an explosion of anger, and this has not quite turned out that way. I am angry, but it manifests itself in this case as a sick feeling, a profound disgust, a fragmentary memory of what calm and measured voices would even sound like in the hateful hurricane that is sweeping through our magnificently fortunate nation.
And so I have produced merely more talk. My humble apologies.