Monday, January 9, 2012

The Last Election--Again

As another election approaches, the Hermit looks back to 2008. What was he thinking then? And who in the world was P.Diddy? Not much has changed, except that the Hermit had a great garden in 2008.


As I write, I am half-listening to two men dither about what to do about the current “global economic crisis.” It is like listening to two dapper passengers on a sinking five-master debating the causes on the sinking; nearby, two experienced sailors in a dinghy who know the sea, the ship, the captain, the weather, the first principles of navigation, and a lifetime of sailing in difficult seas, roll their eyes heavenward and, as much as they can, laugh at the fools who are debating as the ship goes down. John McCain and Barack Hussein Obama are like those gentlemen, well-dressed rats, who do not even begin to perceive the etiology of economic disaster and its roots in spirituality, history, politics, and, yes, theology.

As the poet John Donne wrote in the First and Second Anniversaries, when we ponder human existence in crisis and grief, it is necessary to “get up to the watchtower” and see things from a larger point of view. I was fortunate in the other day to receive The Intercollegiate Review, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, of which not a few of us are now members. This issue contained an essay by M.E. Bradford (1934-1993) called “A Teaching for Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity.” It is an inspiring look at where we came from, our original conception of ourselves as citizens of a Republic in analogy to the old Roman Republic. I urge my readers to read that essay because it covers important ground usually omitted in university literature and political science courses—omitted because most of the teachers have no classical roots or sensibilities or are so imbued with deconstructionist antipathies that any mention of hierarchy, authority, virtue, military strength, or personal sacrifice causes them to go into anal implosion. I would suggest that Senator Obama would be at a complete loss to understand Bradford’s point; his 1960’s rabble rousing education appears to be the mélange of sociological confusion that neo-Marxism inspires in third-world minds—which seems to be the kind of mind he has. That is the reason his views resonate with young people today who have the same “education.” As for John McCain, he appears to have slept through Annapolis.

Bradford suggests that we can best understand those Roman roots and the way they profoundly affected the quite different education of Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Dickinson, and other formers of our tradition, who thought sitting up at night and reading Cato (the Elder and the Younger), Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Sallust, and others, an important business for the founders of a new nation. From their studies, and more, from constant imagining of themselves as Romans, our founders formed certain views and attitudes that lay at the root of their constitutionalizing: 1) Distributism: the view that a general distribution of property made for a sane society; 2) Piety as the basis of polity: the view that the ancestral religion of Rome, with its emphasis on the centrality of hearth and home and the memory of the past, must feed the virtuous education of youth; 3) Nationalism: a constant sense of the worth of what Michael Savage wisely calls “language, borders, and culture,” that is, national identity and pride of origins, together with a distrust of foreign values and the corruption they can bring (multiculturalists need not apply); 4) Agrarianism, with its grounding of culture in agri-culture, in which the pater familias knows how to use a plough, a sword, and the language. These attitudes, and they are, at root, attitudes, or what Edmund Burke called “prejudices,” foster a living culture in which character-building is central, teaching and guiding the young to exemplify “honesty, thrift, patience, labor, and endurance,” while reverencing the “home place.”

Scan the debates of Tuesday night, and hold this Roman mirror, this Romanitas-derived American mirror, up to them. Does anything either candidate said ring true? Bradford notes that after the defeat of the Romans by the Carthaginians at Cannae, “Roman women were forbidden to weep. . .no man (soldier, planter, or merchant) charged the state for his goods or service, [and] no one took political advantage of his country’s distress.” Out of this kind of ethos came the defeat of Carthage and the greatness of old Rome. I could not help comparing such an ethos to the behavior of Wall Street in the last week: a spectacle of CEOs bloated with billions, pitifully or defiantly saying “I’m sorry,” but unwilling to lift a finger or donate a dollar to help their country.

As we know, the Roman Republic did not last, and the Empire came. Why? The decay of this healthy nation, Bradford says, follows from these causes: “(1) the removal of the Roman armies from the category of citizen-soldiers into the classification of fulltime military professionals; (2) the consequent decline of home agriculture and village life; (3) the growth of a large, slave-operated, absentee-owned estates; (4) the large concentration of wealth in a new group of imperial managers and international traders; (5) great dependence on foreign food and the skills of educated foreigners; (6) a sharp decline in character among the plebeians of the city—the emergence of a useless, dishonorable proletariat.” Bradford summarizes: “Without a rural nursery for virtue or a necessary role for all citizens, and with Romans in the army detached (and almost in exile), the ground had been cut from under the institutions of the old Republic. Add to these harbingers of disaster the decline of the official Roman religion and the concomitant ‘passion for words flowing into the city,’ the foreign rituals and forms of speculation [my emphasis added], and we can understand why old Cato drove out strange priests and philosophers.” And stock analysts and currency traders?

Good old Cato the Censor, as he was called! Can you imagine his response to the Obama-McCain debate? Or to a culture sick on speculation, credit cards, hatred of life, contempt for virtue and religion, pornography, and luxury. I would suggest that in the list above there is food for thought on what has happened in America since 1865 and 1932, which is also echoed by Bradford’s characterization of what the Empire did to Rome: “The spread of wealth unconnected with merit or the spirit of public service . . . the substitution of ‘nobles’ (rich men) for patricians (men of good birth); of proles (faceless members of a mob) for plebeians (plain but solid fellows).” And more, as lamented by Sallust: “Yet there were citizens who from sheer perversity were bent upon their own ruin and that of their country.” As a result, Sallust continues, “in every community those who have no means envy the good, exalt the base, hate what is old and established, long for something new, and from disgust with their own lot desire a general upheaval. Amid turmoil and rebellion they maintain themselves, without difficulty, since poverty is easily provided for and can suffer no loss.”

Is it any wonder that John Adams feared a spirit of innovation for its own sake or that he distrusted Alexander Hamilton’s rootless, abstract drive for federal control of the country through banking and borrowing? And no wonder agrarian Jefferson hated Hamilton as well. The sage of Monticello could resonate to those chapters in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in which “the bank” devours land and people.

What Bradford emphasizes most in his essay is that the early founders of our—since deracinated and derided—Republic understood that a new nation does not begin in an ideological tosspot. They were men of the West and for generations had been living in the same culture as the nations which sent its pilgrims, exiles, and seekers to our shores. They knew that a citizen is formed by a commonwealth, and that his sense of bond and debt to that commonwealth is the condition of civilization, that is, of being a citizen. “Citizens. . . depend upon each other for their individual liberties. . . . Confederation for liberty . . . . liberty, meaning collective self-determination and dignity under a piously regarded common law [which is] a check upon ideology, not a source. For modern regimes the alternative is the hegemony of an ideal as an end, not condition [emphasis added]. And the arrangement finally becomes the hegemony of a man, a despotism which makes a noble noise. Between 1775 and 1787, we discovered no new doctrine [emphasis added]. We left that to the English. Self-defense was our business. . . .Courage and discipline . . .self-sacrifice.” One may contrast this heritage with the false ideology it has become by reading Phillippe Beneton’s brilliant Equality by Default (ISI Books 2004).

P. Diddy, are you following me, baby? Do you grasp that you are a citizen of a commonwealth? Diddy says he is afraid of Sarah Palin because she does not read the right media publications (good for her!) The word citizen in its full Roman Republican sense does not ring with us as it should and must. I heard it in that sense when Father Joseph Kennedy, S.J., roared with anger as he locked me out of my dorm room in 1956: “I thought you were a citizen!” A citizen was one who accepted his existence in a commonwealth which, like St. Benedict’s order, was a school for virtue. Father Kennedy taught history straight from the shoulder; he was a man who revered the West and revered old Rome. He did not care a fig for the fact that I paid for that room or for any two-bit regulations cooked up by MBAs or for my “civil rights.” He did not accept the contemporary sense of “citizen,” which I would suggest means only taxpayer, regulation-follower, servile PTA member, political kool-aid drinker, lottery-ticket-buyer, and government teat-sucker. Got that P. Diddy? Barack Obama? John McCain?

Reading Bradford and listening to the debate back-to-back arrested me with a huge sense of distance, the same great sense of distance I experience when I face a classroom these days. It is like entering the cave of winds. Or a distortion chamber in which nearly every opening word or sentence cries out for Socratic exploration. That is one reason why I address students as Mister and Miss. It is one small teaching gesture I can use to break with the “therapeutic culture,” as Phillip Rieff called it. I could not do that with the Obama-McCain concert, nor could anyone else. The media saw to that.

Distance. The distance from the real and the true and the good and the beautiful. Even minor contact with the flow of culture in which one now swims strikes one with a sense of distance. I was listening yesterday to radio right-winger Phil Valentine in one of his riffs about Barack Obama, this one about Obama’s childhood formation as a Muslim. Phil Valentine never realizes how much he is only a liberal with a reactionary coat. “I don’t care if he is a Muslim,” Christian Valentine rants. “Being a Muslim is perfectly all right with me. What’s wrong with that?” Thereupon Mr. Valentine shows he was an attentive little bugger as he soaked up the fundamental ideology of multiculturalism. What’s wrong, Phil, is that Islam is the wrong religion, a false religion, an alien culture, antipathetic and hostile to Christianity and the True West. Yes, there is something wrong with being a Muslim, and the true missionaries of Christianity—St. Francis and Ramón Lull, for example, knew that. Now I know Phil is arguing this way because he wants to get to Obama’s political views and away from what he regards as character assassination. But to accept his reasoning is, well . . . to accept his reasoning. Poor Phil does this on subject after subject. A few minutes later he was raving about the need for a law requiring sterilization of women as a precondition for welfare because these women are hatching children which will deprive him of . . . you guessed, it, money. Poor Phil. Not only a liberal without knowing it, but a Nazi in the bargain, as many are today. In the past I have argued with him over his denunciation of home-schooling. He doesn’t get that either. So where will his own children get the deep sense of virtue and civitas? P. Diddy and Co.?

As I listen to this accursed debate, I am struck, as I often am, by deeper things. Yes, the audience listening knows deep down that neither of these men can do a damn thing about the “problem,” but they persist in their desperate seeking for answers because they are either incapable or unwilling to pursue the problem to its origins. They know something is deeply wrong, but they are ill equipped to begin to understand the depth of that wrongness. To solve a “problem,” one must grasp its roots. They do not know who they are or where we are.

I think we are in rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones.

So wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land when he very clearly grasped the spiritual crisis that we landed in as the last of Old Europe broke up in the trenches of World War I. In that great poem, Eliot focused on the minds and souls of the common people of England and Europe in the jazz age. I marvel that few now really understand what the poem is about: it takes place in Spring when things and persons should be born, but throughout the images of the poem, the emphasis is on sterility, promiscuity, usury, birth control, and abortion: the prescription list for Western despair. That is why it is a waste land, a land of death, a culture of death.

If we lose that sense of distance, our distance as a culture from everything good, true, and beautiful in life, we have lost everything. Right now conservatives and Christians are working themselves into a fever over the upcoming election. The pressure builds. Pro-lifers again surge to the front with fears about the Supreme Court. “My friends,” if I may mimic John McCain, the one thing we know about the Republican candidate is that on every major issue that comes up, he wants to know what the liberal majority is thinking before he decides. On illegal immigration, campaign finance reform, stem cell research, “global warming,” and the bailout, his position is indistinguishable from those of Biden and Kennedy and Pelosi. He is on record as having said that Alito was “too conservative for my taste,” meaning that his Senate Democrat buddies would not like him anymore if he seemed too “conservative.” So what would McCain do if there was a Supreme Court vacancy? My friends, you know, you know. Yes, yes, he was a great war hero, but so was Benedict Arnold, whose name was subsequently scratched off the wall at West Point.

For young Chestertonians, it is worth remembering that conservatives have been seeing each election in my lifetime as a defining one for our existence as a society, and as Christians, we have been lured time and time again into the same trap by a party that represents itself as the party of life and morality, but which in fact turns out to be the party of the wealthy, just as my father warned me it was. That party has been in power for the better part of half a century and our country has declined in morality steadily, before Roe vs. Wade, and after. Republicans have presided over a holocaust of unborn children, and Republicans, including the slippery John McCain, push us further into the anti-life culture, which I now prefer to call the pornographic culture.

As Christians and especially as Catholics, we should know that the ages of darkness can be very long and that the greatest causes usually go down in glorious defeat. Votes are very small things, maybe the smallest thing we do. The insistence of the leftists that it is the most important thing we do in life is the biggest lie of all. If we are truly concerned about the future of our nation, our political actions should begin at home, with what we are doing in our families and our immediate environment. A few years ago I voted for Alan Keyes for President and after the election, I and a radio talk show host in West Virginia tried to find out how many votes he got. We could not. I do not believe they bothered to tally them. Who remembers that? As Thoreau noted, a vote merely indicates a vague wish that your will will prevail. Already a month before the election, thousands of homeless people will have been trucked to the polls to vote for Obama and a spot of gin.

Every family of home schoolers I meet, Catholic or no, I approach to tell them that they are doing the most important thing in the country. I believe that, short of what we do in prayer and self-denial, that is the best we can do: the cultivation of the old virtues of the polity, the cultivation of the new virtues of faith, hope, and charity. An hour on the knees counts for infinitely far more than an hour of standing in line. And—are we ready? Obama or no Obama, the rush into a socialist, godless, pornographic, anti-life future is going to require the heroic virtues of enduring persecution and martyrdom for, and with, Him.

Finally, I report that the Chestertonian garden on the Craven plantation yielded great fruits and called forth good fellowship. Over a thousand Roma tomatoes, a few hundred Brandywines, hundreds of peppers of many varieties, corn, squash, watermelons, a half bushel of beans, and Mr. Jones’ celebrated tobacco crop. As far as I am aware, none of these fruits have any speculative or stock market value beyond their substantial, real, manifest existences as benefits from Our Father. You can pick them. You can hold them in your hands and eat them. A depression is coming. Pray. Fast. Plant more beans and potatoes, and a few flowers for glory on the altars. That is a true economy.

The Hermit in Winter