As we wade in to a new future of nationalized banks and major industries, of probable socialized health care, high unemployment, endless taxes, and just generally Animal Farm-style governance -- oh yes, achievement will be punished, and some pigs will be very much more equal than others I am sure, and nothing to do about it but try to "put boulders in the road," as Rush Limbaugh says -- it occurs to me that the destruction and disappearance of old worlds is a constant in human history. Pundits being wrong about a lot of things, including the dire results of change, is also a constant, but valuable things do vanish. Noble systems break down, useful knowledge is forgotten, new rules and systems imposed, often enough through deception or crowd hysteria or violence. People and nations witness ends that would have seemed unbelievable if seen in a crystal ball. Or in their own childhoods.
I don't compare President Obama's assault on the country to, say, the cranking up of the French Revolution (which started as an upper-class tax revolt, funnily enough), or to the sweeping of hordes of Goths into the crumbling Roman empire. Or to the sweeping of Arab Muslim hordes into Zoroastrian Persia, say. ...I only just learned about this so I get bragging rights in passing it on. It produced most curious results in history. Zoroastrian Persian diplomats stationed abroad found themselves, after a climactic battle in their homeland in 642 A.D., suddenly without a country, an emperor, or a religion to represent. Forever. A thousand years of high civilization and fearsome conquest, vanished. Those berobed and sandaled diplomats, in Alexandria, in Tripoli, must have had to find other ways to survive, for there was no point even in going home.
And Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine, and Goths sat on the throne of Augustus. Roman legions withdrew from Britain; civilized European men slaughtered one another by the millions in the trenches of World War I. And then the civilized empires which sent them to their deaths collapsed, too.
Dear me, such very massive and tragic examples, and all out of chronological order, too. One could be accused of a yowling and infantile panic. No, I don't quite compare the President's plans to all this, but in him we do have someone unprecedented. We have our first anti-American American president, who seems genuinely to want to restructure the country for his own personal pleasure and intellectual and especially academic satisfaction -- payback, even -- and power. It would be as if the former professor Ward Churchill was president. It would be as if any one of my old left-wing professors was president. He is them. No one would doubt that their attitude was fundamentally anti-American, even though like all good open-minded America-hating liberals, each lacked the true courage of their convictions, to pick up and go live elsewhere. I remember my professors scoffing at the deep-voiced young men in the back of the class who challenged them to go live elsewhere. They scoffed, so if you were bright and following along, you could take that as an assurance that the deep-voiced young men were stupid, bigoted -- conservative. But the professors never quite had an answer to the challenge. The truth was always that it is so much safer and more fun not to move, but to change the where.
So we have a president, inexperienced, aggressive in some things and passive-shabby in others (all those bows from the waist, poor, ill raised child) and indoctrinated in economic systems that are righteously, emotionally pleasing but impoverish everyone, who wants to change things. The nation has changed, has been changed, in other ways before now, in ways that to the private citizen constituted a private tragedy, or perhaps a cosmic one, or maybe didn't even come within his notice at all. Pick your changes, in chronological order or out of it. The opening of the West. The Civil War (did you lose a brother, a husband, a son? Five sons?). The presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, who also tried and greatly succeeding in laying the foundations of Barack Obama's eternally statist, planned American economy, on the grounds that there shouldn't be unfairness. On an individual, human scale, my grandfather lost his post as Republican precinct captain when FDR won office, and that was that.
And we have all survived, though who can say what's been lost. I was struck recently by the old movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, made in the 1940s but set largely in pre-World War I America. The characters are show business people, who travel the country performing and who consider a steady job of two or three weeks' salary a godsend. They live in boarding houses in the meanwhile, and when they are low on money, they sit at the bottom of the communal table and are served only noodles and maple syrup until they can pay their rent. When they can pay, they are welcome to some goulash. It's fiction, but it reflects circumstances that must once have been true. They are on their own, free (gulp) in ways that we now would not tolerate. What's been lost, if anything?
What makes Obama different and more threatening from a lot of previous American movers and shakers is not only his having bigger, more ignorant, more absurdly expensive plans, and a downright vengeful Democratic Congress willing to help him implement those plans -- and these Democrats do include people like my own Senator Dick Durbin, who viciously compared American troops in Iraq to Nazis -- but his election by a voter base that may stay untroubled by the dirt clinging to him. I believe they may remain untroubled by anything he ever says or does. His church membership and his terrorist friends didn't bother them. Now his inability in economics to add two and two, or rather his cynical relish in not adding it, does not bother them either. Some pundits think his followers will wake up when they at least realize that he has his hand in their wallets, too. I'm not so sure. I fear he may be creating the Presidency as an emotional office that only he can fill. I wonder if his voter base would notice or care if he suspended elections, "because folks are struggling, and this great country needs ... ," etc., etc.
And what makes him and his swoony voter base still more threatening is that he is imposing plans that can unravel the nation as a Western power quickly, you might say a Western-proud power, unravelled following the model of a socialist and hyper-taxed Europe, poleaxed in addition by waves of non-Western immigrants who have taken Europe up on its offers of compassion, asylum, religious tolerance, jobs possibly, but free state money forever, definitely. It's a whole world of circumstances that our man's voters do not know or care about. If someone observing Europe and liking what he saw wanted to think out a formula to quickly transform the United States into its mirror, he could hardly have come upon a more pitch-perfect scenario than this. Let the nation, well meaning and deluded, exhaust itself vomiting out imaginary money on problems that are made worse by more imaginary money; let the state control all, on the grounds that only the state can fund fairness. Let our man, freely and joyously elected, be of Muslim descent with a Muslim middle name, just for sheer irony's sake and nothing else.* A few years ago Mark Steyn wrote a book called America Alone, all about the U.S. being the last non-Muslim, un-jihadi-fied bastion on the planet. How strange to think the book could now be nearly obsolete, simply as a result of election day, 2008, and the changes thereby made. America alone? Not so much. America as a jihadi state, led by President-for-life Obama? No. (Fiction is not my strong point.) America joins the world? More likely yes, but not in a good way.
Yes. Well. In the meantime, people live, as they have with luck lived through changes before. Goth and Zoroastrian, sans-culotte and Civil War widow. Yowling and infantile though it may seem, I do think this interesting situation prompts the question, what else do you do with life when things on a grand scale are not going as you'd like?
It sounds like an idiotically selfish, whiny little question. The left preens itself on its patient George W. Bush hatred, and no doubt regards everything from Obama's blessed Inauguration Day onward as mere payback, with plenty more to come. And the end, you know, has not quite come yet. Goth and Zoroastrian and Civil War widow would not even bother to scoff at me. They would be too busy living. And who knows, in a year or two our man may have so far overreached himself that pundits who now fear him, or adore him, will be astonished at the depths of impotence to which he has fallen. Expect the unexpected, not only in the White House but in life and in history too.
Meanwhile what do you do, privately, publicly, when it looks like an entire system of liberty and prosperity whose greatest vulnerability is its need to rest on a populace educated in those things, may be bumped off that foundation by an opposing ideology that mimics the system's purposes (freedom, fairness) but can't achieve them and can't admit it? What do you do? -- write your congressman? Garden? Philosophize? There's a Roman lady in Tacitus, therefore by definition living through interesting times, who spends her time "beautifying her fish ponds at Baiae." Senator Durbin writes back, after a lag of a month or two, congratulating me on agreeing with him and explaining why it's so important to stop global warming. Before he moved up in the world, Senator Obama did the same. Senator Burris hasn't gotten around to replying -- or, to be fair, was he the one whose email link didn't work?
What do you do? I've done a few new things, lately. I've skimmed over The Federalist Papers, which I never thought to do. Did you know they were short articles, originally published in a newspaper, and each designed to answer a specific complaint about the new Constitution? They are pretty digestible. I've learned to put in words, if only for my own satisfaction, why it's not true that of course one must acknowledge and support the great leftist, progressive credo that there are "two sides to every story." No, there are not. There is the truth, which you or I may not find today -- Socrates admitted he couldn't necessarily find it, today -- but which is not the same thing as humbly agreeing it can't be known, thus inhaling the left's debate-snuffing anaesthesia so they can loudly keep the field.
Even knowing that, do you then continue beautifying your fish ponds at Baiae? I believe there is a school of thought, a human tendency, to give up (or become wise) and say that in the great unfolding pageant of human folly, no matter whatsoever the grand stupid men are doing above you, the time sometimes comes when after all, what you are doing for your own happiness in your tiny corner of the universe turns out to be the loftiest thing of all. It's the only thing you do that affects -- that pleases or displeases -- you, so you may as well carry on.
A wise reaction, mature and sophisticated, deeply Old World? Or surrender? Lin Yutang wrote books throughout the mid-twentieth century, claiming that Chinese civilization for one had long since learned to avoid the blind alleys of moral righteousness, religious certainty, of, I suppose, taking on too much personal trouble over great national ch-ch-changes. He delighted in stories of famed Chinese sages retreating to the mountains to sip tea and write poetry. When they got visitors from the folly-filled world, they would leap up and run to the nearest stream to wash the filth of the News of the Day out of their ears -- and the wisest of all could tell when the water outside his hut had been polluted by the sage upstream, already washing the News of the Day out of his own ears.
Or is such behavior indeed surrender? After all, wise and chastened and sophisticated nations full of poetic sages still have not done all we've done. And -- Rush is correct -- nothing is different about us as human beings except that we have a political and economic system which allows us to do all we can or wish to do in the pursuit of happiness. It's all worked amazingly well. As the economist Thomas Sowell emphasizes (in Basic Economics for a start), "wealth saves lives," just for a start, and there's no doubt about our wealth. There is far more to the good, for more people, going on here than can be wisely and sadly represented by the image of the innocent lady tending her fish ponds, long divorced from any concern for the fools in Rome. So why loathe and desire to change our system?
Perhaps because the most intractable human folly of all is the passion for power over one's fellow men, especially the lower orders. A system which gives them power, which incidentally doesn't tell funny stories about sages' exiling themselves and leaving government to do as it likes, is totally anathema to any human spirit that wants power. "What in the world can we do with the Napoleonic -- heroic ambition or military glory?" Allan Bloom asked in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). He meant "we" who live in a "gray," "commercial" liberal democracy, we who have made a good system, but one that lacks what democratic revolutions tear down forever: the "nobility, brilliance, and taste," nurtured by a leisured aristocracy, the "depth, seriousness, and sacredness" of a state religion. Re-reading Bloom leads to the suspicion that he and Mr. Limbaugh would not get on.
Incidentally I'd hardly call President Obama Napoleonic. He only wants to remake a country to which he has contributed nothing, as per instructions from shrivelled little academic souls he respects, and he does feed on worship. Otherwise, one can't imagine him crossing the Alps, still less winning battles. But perhaps he is a sort of little Napoleon, a little answer to Bloom's wonderment at "what we're going to do" with this aspect of the human personality that can't be kept in check all the time. What are we going to do with it? Well, occasionally it seems we're going to lose our heads and elect it to the White House, not least because we're so unused to seeing the type in action that we've forgotten it exists and that it loves to tell lies, too. Perhaps future historians will say that, right about now, two hundred or so years after the American founding, intellectuals and other grand people began fully to realize that the American system, unchanged, could leave them in a desert of impotence forever. Imagine being wise and educated, imagine knowing what's best for Bodo the peasant, or Bodo the NASCAR fan, and never, ever, being able to impose it on him because he votes in the same dreary old system year after year, because he has money and more than enough to eat, and possibly a gun. You can almost hear the roar of frustration, from a large segment of humanity. What to do? The answer, historians may notice, was for the roarers to fall down in joy before a little Napoleon, and work like mad to see him re-open closed doors and reforge old chains, before Bodo fully grasped the malice bubbling in the situation.
What an extraordinary thing that Bodo's major hobby these days has turned out to be the internet, with all the opportunities for independent news-gathering, fact-checking, scathing commentary, and protest planning it affords. It would be as if Hussite and Wycliffite and Roundheads all had a thousand printing presses at once. What do you do -- what does he, Bodo, do -- with individual life when things on a grand scale aren't going as he'd like? Just as there seems to be a personality type that retreats wisely into the mountains to contemplate plum blossoms and folly, there is another that does not. There is another that, in its own way, may be just as infected with the lust for personal power, power over its own person, as is its better, its Napoleonic counterpart. The comfort of this thought might be ruined by its triteness, were it not for the fact that we can cite a powerful text in support of it. Who was it who said something like "I have never believed that one part of mankind was born to be ridden?" No, it went like this: "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately." And dear me, the speaker was none other than Thomas Jefferson.
Of course, he was talking about an official priesthood. But then, of what else are we talking?
*"Obama would fail security clearance," Daniel Pipes.org, Oct. 21, 2008.