Rants and Raves

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Western Civilization and its Discontents: Part 2

The Founders

“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”
G K Chesterton

Every country and every culture has a role of founders, historical or mythological, that to a great degree defines the sense of identity of the group. A living, written language generally has writers who are recognized as the founders of its literature, religious sects have their founding prophets, preachers or demigods and a nation has historical or mythological founders who are recognized for the establishment of a dynasty, their country’s borders or of its political institutions.

If the new order proves stable, if the language settles into a form that is comprehensible to subsequent generations, if a religion maintains a consistent central dogma over time or the political institutions of a country keep operating in a tolerably smooth manner, succeeding generations have reason to be grateful. Founders are revered because they create islands of stability in the turbulent sea of history, lengths of time in which generations can raise their children reasonably secure from the worst that history can throw at them.

These founders occupy the highest places of honor in a nation for its entire subsequent history. But as Lincoln points out, once the nation has been founded and its institutions put on a stable footing, those places are occupied forever - until the nation falls and a new one founded.

A slightly lesser position of honor is occupied by the “second founders”, great reformers and codifiers of the law. Again, how many times can this happen in the lifetime of a nation or culture? How could people conduct their affairs with laws in a constant, or even frequent, state of flux? As Friedrik Von Hayek pointed out, beyond a certain minimum, consistency and stability in the laws is more important than that they be perfectly just.

There is a story that the Emperor Justinian, determined to go down in history as Justinian the Great (which in fact, he did) actually studied the history of the various Greats and determined that what caused rulers to be so called were, 1) great reforms of religion and the laws, 2) massive and conspicuous public works and monuments and 3) wars of conquest. He determined to undertake all three and both bankrupted the state and destroyed a couple of promising nations in Carthage and the Gothic Kingdom of Italy. (For a modern example one might reflect on Lyndon Johnson and his massive “War on Poverty” project and his attempts to personally manage the war in Vietnam.)

Today we see a massive assault on our historical identity by an intellectual establishment through the educational system that was created to socialize our children and the children of new Americans with the values, traditions and national mythology that make up a common American identity. An assault that goes far beyond a judicious criticism of the wrongs done in the history of our nation and its failures to live up to the ideals of our founding.

If we accept that America is at least no worse than other nations (though many claim that it is), what is the problem with it? The conclusion seems inescapable that for many what they hate about America’s institutions is that they did not create them.

Looked at from this perspective, assaults on our literary heritage, begin to make sense. The condemnation of the traditional Western canon as the work of “dead White males” for example. In the two centuries between the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare the English language changed more than it has in the four centuries since Shakespeare. The creation of a body of literature in the plays, and perhaps the King James Bible, seems to have set a standard for the language from which it has not deviated into incomprehensibility. That is to say, Shakespeare was the Founder of a commonwealth of literature and occupies a pinnacle that none can aspire to. To approach those heights, Shakespeare must be deposed (or “deconstructed”) – or the language must be changed beyond mutual intelligibility with that of his time. If Mark Twain was the founder of American literature (as Ernest Hemmingway stated) then no one will ever challenge his place. Great writers will continue to emerge in every generation, but America as we know it will never be young again.

The United States, in spite of Old World condescension, is as nation-states go, quite an old one in terms of the continuity of its institutions. Consider that there has never been a national election cancelled, a coup d’etat, or an interruption in the orderly succession of offices in our entire history, then ask how many other countries can make that claim?

Religious reform is not an option for greatness in America. New religions and sects are established often, and almost never achieve more than cult status. (The last notable major exception being the establishment of the Mormon church and its founding of the state of Utah as a virtual sectarian fief within the United States. Note how quickly it was absorbed into the political structure of the Union and mainstream American culture.) Reform of the mainstream religions (in the direction of tolerance for what were previously considered anathemas: women priests, homosexual marriage and clergy etc) proceeds apace – as does the wholesale abandonment of those reforming churches. Without an established religion or even strong social pressure to be, or at least appear religious, the highest distinction a religious leader can aspire to is that of media evangelist, providing a kind of religious entertainment with a social influence about on par with a pop star.

Massive public works are another outlet for seekers of high distinction and there are a lot of highways, parks, buildings etc with the names of public officials one them. However distinction here suffers from the sheer number of such projects, the fact that private enterprise regularly produces such, and after all, it’s hard to top such accomplishments as the Panama Canal or the moon landings.

Military command does not seem attractive to those of towering ambition in our society. Democratic societies generally do not war on one another and do not seem to have the patience for prolonged occupation and exploitation of conquered peoples. (The remarkable thing about the British Empire in historical context is not how extensive it was, or how quickly it was built, but how quickly the British divested themselves of it when given the excuse.) Military command has been successfully divorced from political power in America and most of the West and generals seldom become presidents of the United States. And our political leaders never wear uniforms while in public office, even if they have reserve commissions.

The fact is, that in spite of Leftist/ populist rhetoric, America is the paradise of the common man - but hell on earth for those whose ambition yearns for the status of Founders, demigods and Greats.


  • At 4:43 PM, Blogger dchamil said…

    Massive public works are another outlet for seekers of high distinction. Years ago I worked at a sewer plant in Plainsboro, New Jersey. In a sense, we did God's work, making clean water out of dirty water. How refreshing it would be if some politician, such as Brendan Byrne -- then governor of N.J. -- would grace our facility with his name. Not a chance! The prospect of associating a politician with a facility that processed human waste, leading to the obvious jokes, was just too discouraging.

  • At 5:11 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    No S#%t!

    I worked at the Norman Water Pollution Control Facility (i.e. the Sewage Treatment Plant) for a total of six years while I worked my way through grad school. Recently I contacted my old buds and did a slide show presentation for the Oklahoma Daily (university paper) for a class I took to make up an undergraduate deficiency.

    Another proud turd herder.

  • At 12:06 AM, Blogger Vanishing American said…

    So do I understand you to say that the malcontents who are behind the assault on our identity and history are disaffected because they feel no connection to the Founders? It seems that for centuries, later generations identified with the Founders and their accomplishments, despite the distance in time. What happened to cause the change?
    Can our changing demographics account for a lot of the disaffection? The sheer numbers of people who feel no commonality with American tradition?

  • At 5:15 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I don't think changing demographics necessarily has anything to do with it. I think we all know second-generation Americans who quite un-selfconsciously say things like, "OUR revolution, our Civil War" and of course they're right. I think these intellectual yahoos are disaffected because they can't BE the Founders.

  • At 4:16 PM, Blogger Fred said…

    This is a very interesting notion, one I'd never considered before, at least in terms of national and political hatchet jobs. Its manifestations in the realm of literature were, sadly, all too obvious to me when I was in grad school.

    Well, even toddlers have the wit to realize that, whereas putting things together is difficult, tearing them down is considerably easier, and does provide some melancholy, though short-lived, satisfaction.

    About five years ago, I was teaching ESL in the States. Many of the instructors, all of them native born, made the usual snide and slighting comments about the US. The student responses to this were varied. Some were happy enough to pile on. Others probably considered the instuctors foolish and spolied. Another contingent, I think, found this unseemly. You don't discuss family business with outsiders, would seem to have been their attitude.

    One bright Turkish lad did say to me one day, when it was just the two of us in the classroom, "In these classes, all we ever talk about is what's wrong with America. America is a young country. It's also a very successful country." He looked at me impatiently. "How come we never talk about how you did that?"

    Evidently, these self-deprecating comments were taken by him as simply a ruse to keep our real secrets to ourselves. A very Turkish suspicion. Like I said, he was a clever boy.

  • At 3:15 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    Three comments:
    1) you seem to have forgotten about Western civilization and focused entirely on the USA;
    2) I think your throw-away remark about the end of the British Empire is misguided: the end of exploitation had happened long before the end of WW2-
    indeed, I'm not convinced that exploitation is an accurate term at all;
    3) nevertheless, the remarks about the founders etc are quite convincing. Thanks for another fascinating post.

  • At 5:22 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Good points, I do focus on the USA. I mentioned in the first part that I believe that the USA is where certain unique facets of Western Civilization were most developed, and I ought to develop this more.

    And yes, "exploitation" is a term that's become loaded to the point of uselessness. Very much like "propaganda", a perfectly good, morally neutral term for mass persuasion that has come to mean "political lies" in common usage.

    The economic setup of the British Empire was complicated and inconsistent. It was a disaster for Ireland, but on balance not bad at all for Scotland. It created a unitary state for India that did get itself together eventually - a good thing if you think that India ought to be one country. And no former African colony has yet achieved the stability and wealth it had under the Empire.

    Here's another intellectual party game some of us used to play. Who were the world's worst imperialists (in the sense of the mess they created, the Spanish or the Russians?

  • At 3:33 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    Who were the worst imperialists?
    I think you'd have to go along way to beat the Belgians.
    Even the Spanish get brownie points IMHO for suppressing the Aztecs

  • At 3:38 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    You might also consider the attempted and nearly totally effective eradication of the slave trade (effected by the British Empire via the Royal Navy) as a rather good marker of the absence of certain kinds of "exploitation".


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