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Sunday, May 12, 2019

In Praise Of Greatness–The Diminishing Returns Of ‘Inclusivity’

The means by which Providence raises a nation to greatness are the virtues infused into great men – Edmund Burke

The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle observed in 1840 that history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

In 1860 Herbert Spencer developed a counter-argument which said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetime. This view prevailed throughout the 20th Century and gained momentum with the rise of the Postmodernism in the Seventies.  Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault were believers in “historicism”:

Postmodernists use the term historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised. Both Lacan and Foucault argue that each historical period has its own knowledge system and individuals are unavoidably entangled within these systems. Answers to life’s questions cannot be found by appealing to some external truth, but only to the norms and forms within each culture that phrase the question.

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Dismissing individual greatness in world leaders in favor of historical conditioning, however, shows the same deconstructionist vanity of regarding all ‘texts’ as equal.  Shakespeare and a barely literate slave of the antebellum South are equal, say Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault.  Both authors were equally influenced by history, and in particular the oppressiveness of a male, upper class, aristocracy.  Shakespeare was no more than the mouthpiece of the Elizabethans, a by-product of Machiavelli, Copernicus, and Martin Luther.  These post-modernists dismiss his elegant verse, his insights into human nature, his versatility, his humor, and his sublime understanding of love and jealousy.

Dismissing any unique, insightful and willful leader; or marginalizing writers who have illuminated history through the subjective insights of perceptive minds does perhaps the greatest disservice of all – demeaning and devaluing the individual, great or not.  Deconstructionism, historicism, and postmodernism are all collectivist in spirit and application.  Either we are all members of social collectives, or we are part of the greatest collective of all – human history.

Tolstoy responded with an intellectual compromise.  As he explained in his Second Epilogue to War and Peace

We say that Napoleon wished to invade Russia and invaded it. In reality in all Napoleon's activity we never find anything resembling an expression of that wish, but find a series of orders, or expressions of his will, very variously and indefinitely directed. Amid a long series of unexecuted orders of Napoleon's one series, for the campaign of 1812, was carried out- not because those orders differed in any way from the other, unexecuted orders but because they coincided with the course of events that led the French army into Russia; just as in stencil work this or that figure comes out not because the color was laid on from this side or in that way, but because it was laid on from all sides over the figure cut in the stencil.

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Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Alexander the Great, and Caesar Augustus were great leaders who influenced the course of history because of their intelligence, will, political and historical insights, and vision.  Yet they were products of their history, defined and determined by collective forces larger than themselves, and their actions – although attributed to them solely – are only the results of the intersection of past events.  Tolstoy takes this somewhat obvious assumption and introduces his particular nihilism – no action in and of itself has any particular value, conditioned as it is by accidental, random forces that precede it. 

In other words, history is a product of unique, remarkable, brilliant men whose actions while predictable if not determined, cannot be dismissed as incidental vehicles of fate.  For Tolstoy there was no contradiction.  Nihilism and individualism could and indeed coexist.

Today’s progressivism is based on French deconstructionism, but is also a homegrown blend of American individualism and Utopian communalism.   Progressives, like Lacan and Derrida, dismiss individual enterprise, creativity, and genius as nothing more than expressions of collective historical and contemporary influences.  Yet they take this argument further.  If the individual and his enterprise have no fundamental meaning; and if social, historical factors are the only determinants of individual action, then the generator of of these factors – society – becomes preeminent.  There is a higher order, a higher good to collective action, progressive say.  While this is an ironic twist of the French philosophers’ ideas – there is no such thing as a higher good in a historically reflexive world – it is also understandable.  The idealism of Soviet socialism – the subsuming of the individual within a social collective where individualism disappears and the will of the people reigns – is still operative even thirty years after the fall of the USSR.

The final distortion of the Lacanian vision is seen in the emergence of identity politics.  While individualism may be a fiction, individual identity if it conforms to idealistic norms is not.   If the true nature of an individual – intelligent, creative, aggressive, compliant, talented, compassionate – is ignored in favor of traits which conform to and promote a communalist, collectivist vision, justice and progress will be served.  Diversity, a race-gender-ethnicity expression of this vision, neuters this true individualism. 

Such homogenization of a citizenry, however, must necessarily stifle individual enterprise and the intelligence, talent, ambition, and will behind it.  History as Tolstoy rightly saw it, becomes distorted.  There can be fewer and fewer great men if the idea of greatness itself is demeaned and dismissed.

There is something to be said for cultures that revere their pharaohs, shahs, emperors, and kings.  While the transfer of power let alone the exercise of it may be problematic for latter-day, judgmental eyes, the course of history has always been about power and ‘great’ men.  Without Cyrus, Xerxes, Darius, Ashoka, Ramses, Augustus, and Pericles, and Kangxi, the civilizations of Persia, India, Rome, Athens, and China would not have been as powerful, influential, and extensive as they were.  While each civilization had its share of bad rulers, the system not only rewarded greatness but justified it.  For every Nero there was an Augustus.  For every Charles IX there was a Charlemagne.

De Gaulle was a patrician, arrogant, but dominating figure who had an almost mystical sense of his historical destiny.  “La France, c’est moi” – the embodiment of 1000 years of French history and a call to arms and resistance to those who would threaten it – was genius.  If Churchill was the brains of the Allied Triumvirate, De Gaulle was its Savior.

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‘Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle were all from aristocratic, patrician families whose patriotism and respect for classical values was inherent.  Of course the popular will of the people was alive and well during their reigns, and they could not rule as autocrats.  Yet they came of political age at a time when aristocratic elites were taken for granted, afforded respect if not honor.  They did not have to go through mudslinging, barroom-brawl primaries to get elected; nor did they have to tailor their policies based on the views of the common man.  They were given license to rule.  It was no different in Ancient Rome or Greece.

Although De Gaulle might have carried this sentiment a bit too far when he claimed that he was Marianne, Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Charlemagne all in one, he nevertheless believed absolutely in his role in leading France.  Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Founding Fathers were no less committed to their nation but with less grandeur.

Inclusivity’, the prevailing philosophy in democratic America, assures the extinction of greatness.  The 20 current Democratic candidates for President (2020) are examples of this derogation.  They are running because of their race, gender, or ethnicity; promising to reform the country according to progressive, secular, communalist principles; but without any of the genius of De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Hamilton, or Lincoln.  The candidates, most of them young enough to have been schooled in the educational philosophy of ‘multiple intelligences’, self-esteem, and social harmonization, cannot help but be deferential to popular opinion.  While they certainly have the drive and ambition of all politicians, they lack the essential qualities of leadership.

Cato the Elder was a Roman educator charged with the education of the Roman elite, the future leaders of Empire.  His diptychs encapsulated the principles of leadership.  Not only would future Roman leaders have be schooled in military strategy, economics, history, and law; bur would have to learn to value compassion, courage, honor, discipline, and respect.  Greatness was assumed, but not guaranteed.  In the current American school system greatness is dismissed and ignored, while simply being good is enough.

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Americans seem afraid of individual power and influence.  Yet Vladimir Putin, regardless of his autocratic excesses, is determined to restore Russia’s greatness, the glory of its Imperial past, and its world leadership.  Erdogan of Turkey has the same imperial vision to restore the greatness of the Ottoman Empire, to incorporate traditional Islamic values into a divisive democracy, and to rebuild Turkey as an international power.   Putin most certainly is a product of his past, but acknowledges it.   Regardless of the judgement of history, these men at least have historical vision and the deliberateness, intelligence, and will to carry it out.

Promoting a culture of greatness does not guarantee enlightened leadership.  For all those who have created, built, and civilized, there are the Hitlers, Maos, and Pol Pots who have done the opposite.  Yet without an understanding of the role of individuals, individual enterprise, and individual genius and the commitment to promote it, there will be no De Gaulles, Caesars, and Ashokas.

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