"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

What’s Trending? Not What Is But What’s Becoming–America’s Perennial, Ephemeral Dance Of Avoidance

France has always called itself "la fille ainée de l'Eglise" and rightly so.  If it had not been for the  defense of Charlemagne and Roland at Roncesvalles, France might have been Muslim and the history of the Franks, the Gauls, the Sun King, and the greatness of French language, art, architecture, and poetry denied.  Thanks to the defeat of the Saracens, French civilization not only survived but prospered; and France became the intellectual, political, and artistic leader of Europe.  Italy of course was a noteworthy and notable challenge, especially during the late Medieval and Renaissance – few were up to the challenges of Leonardo, the Medicis, and the Venetian potentates.

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China, Japan, and India had similar histories.  The Mauryan Empire spread intellectual and cultural enlightenment throughout the subcontinent.  Mandarins and shoguns led simple, peasant countries out of medieval serfdom to cultural, political, and economic supremacy in Asia.

England’s empire, while not as extensive as that of Rome, was impressive.  Its colonies and political influence was worldwide.  It was responsible not only for building the infrastructure,  instituting systems of law, and promoting principles of liberal economics which invigorated peasant economies, but which – like the Greeks and Romans before them – spread ideas.  The rule of law and the cooperative individualism of progressive democracy, heretofore unknown and inconceivable before the British were not only as important as the roads, ports, and railways they built but even more significant, for they provided the intellectual foundation for progress.  The British, even more than the French embodied, promoted, and defended the values, principles, and institutions of classical antiquity even more than the French.

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America is England’s legacy, and by implication and history, heir to the ancients.  The Enlightenment, valuing both rational inquiry and the immutability of moral, ethical, and religious principles, was our heritage; and the Founding Fathers were accomplished and astute in their application of 18th century rationalism, classical morality, and Protestant religion, to the new republic.   We were a nation established on strong, principled grounds.  While we rejected the authoritarianism and religious intolerance of European patriarchy, we adopted European values – Christianity was the foundation of America just as it had been for its European forbears; Enlightenment rationality in service to God was its principle.  At the same time Jefferson and his colleagues added a new, muscular individualism to its charter – not only were men free, but absolutely free, unbounded in enterprise but within a sense of community.

All this is well and good – firm intellectual, philosophical principles; an understanding that culture and civilization itself cannot survive without a principled center; and a newfound, essential valuation of individual enterprise – but American civilization stopped there.  We built no cathedrals, had no special reverence for intellectuals or artists whose work we concluded was more elitist and less democratic than the nation could or would tolerate. 

We were quite willing to live only for the necessary entrepreneurialism of a new country.  There was no time for cathedrals, doctrines, or schools of art when a new country had to be built.  Process – liberty, independence, ambitious enterprise – was all that mattered; and if a ‘culture’ might be derived from this practical notion, so much the better.

The problem with a ‘process-only’ approach to civilization – one which focusses more on the relationships between individuals and the state, the rights of each, and the very practical purpose of hewing a nation out of new, disaffected immigrants – is that it misses the absolute, unavoidable, and essential importance of the principles of civilization.  How were the empires of Greece, Rome, India, Persia, and England created and how was it that they thrived for centuries? What was common to all? And could a new country, a pretender to imperial civilization, possibly lead if not dominate without it?

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Japan fought for the Emperor, Crusaders marched to Jerusalem for the Pope, the Marathis fought the Moghul invaders, Elizabeth sent Francis Drake against the Spanish armada, armies of the Holy Roman Empire fought countless European enemies, for what? Sovereignty, primacy and geopolitical dominance certainly; but for much more.  They fought for cultural integrity and a self-worth that was indistinguishable one from the other.

The battle scenes depicted in Tolstoy’s War and Peace are epic but also personal. Ordinary soldiers, recruits and conscripts, fought for Russia, the Czar, and for personal valor; but the fight was never, ever indifferent.  There was no nihilism in the trenches.  Neither the French nor the Russians could have fought so valiantly and so well if they had been fighting for ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’.   They were fighting for France or for Russia.

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All of which is to say that modern day American cannot never win against enemies with an allegiance to and profound respect for culture.  Iran is not simply a country in the Middle East, a geopolitical player in the 21st century Great Game, but a historical and cultural identity.  Persepolis may be millennia removed from the reality of today’s Teheran, but not that far.  At least one of the 20th century Balkan wars was fought over medieval grievances.  While Serbia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Ossetia may be minor countries within equally minor Balkan conflicts, they are important because of the salience of culture.  No one in these places is fighting a simple aggressor.  It is a matter of being.

America appears to have lost its way, its political significance, and its moral heart.  We may fight against an enemy, whether North Korea, Iran, or Russia, but we have no idea why.  A matter of oil and natural resources, geopolitical bullying, and Great Man influence, but nothing more – nothing really worth fighting for. 

Vladimir Putin invokes the recent Russian Imperial past – the greatness of czarist Russia, its history, culture, and influence.  Not only must Russians confront the West because of immediate geopolitical claims, but because these claims challenge a national, historical sovereignty.

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Why was it so hard to defeat ISIS and its radical Islamic offshoots? Because they were fighting for something more than temporal gains.  It was a matter of faith, religion, and righteousness.  Islam is at the very heart of Middle Eastern culture and politics and can never be divorced from them.  Nations, cultures, regimes which are founded on faith, history, and cultural integrity can be defeated by a reactionist, compromised opponent only with luck, circumstance, and time.

If there ever was a philosophical core to America – a distinct, recognizable religious and cultural center – it has become dissipated and disjointed at best.  Worse, and in fact the core, foundational values of America are themselves being challenged.   There is no such thing as a universal and common core to culture.  Christian ethics, morality, and divine principles are only some of many equally valid cultural  precepts.  Morality is conditioned, never absolute.  

The diptychs of Cato the Elder, insisting on courage, compassion, empathy, and understanding within an overall framework of courage, independence, will, and determination have bee left aside.  In a multicultural society no one school of ethics can prevail. The Romans have little to do with modern America.

Yet it is this classical morality and evolved system of ethics which should prevail.  A culture of temporality and anarchistic individualism cannot survive.  American 21st century multi-culturalism, diversity, and relativism is an understandable reaction to an aggressively pluralistic society but a wrongheaded, ignorant, and ultimately historically final one.

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