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

Saturday, September 18, 2021

If History Repeats Itself, Then Who Is Joe Biden?–A Drone With No Kinship To Great Men

The Shakespeare critic Jan Kott observed that if one were to lay down all of Shakespeare’s Histories in chronological order, the inevitable repetition of history would become clear.  While the actors changed, their actions did not, and all were subjected to the ineluctable fate of human nature – aggressiveness, self-interest, territorialism, and an insatiable desire for power, influence, and riches.

The plays, of course, display the uniqueness of character and personality; but while the Richards and the Henrys might all have been quite different from one another, there can be no denying their consistently uniform actions.  To even the casual observer, there were no surprises in the way English history played itself out, but those who made it were endlessly fascinating.

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The fact that human nature is such a given or that history monotonously repeats itself has never been an inhibitor to drama.  Playgoers for five hundred years have been shocked at the excesses of Richard III, Henry VIII, Goneril, Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, and Volumnia but have been unable to turn away.  The fascination of history is not in the meaning of its events, but in the particularity of its actors.

Tolstoy in his Epilogue to War and Peace confirmed what Shakespeare knew – great men exist and will always exist, albeit within the context of a predictably repetitive history.

Napoleon lost the Battle of Borodino, Tolstoy wrote, not because of any particular deficiency in his military strategy or loss of will, but because of a bad cold.  His valet had forgotten to bring his gumboots to the battlefield the day of the battle, the weather was cold and rainy, the Emperor fell ill, and his normally acute and unmatched military brilliance was dulled by the common cold.  The valet had forgotten the gumboots because of his preoccupation with his wayward wife who in turn was resentful of her husband’s overweening fidelity to Napoleon. 

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Napoleon of course went on to other military victories and political acclaim, and is revered by the French as a man of genius who created modern France.  There was substance not myth to this claim.  His military victories established France as the most powerful nation in Europe, and as Emperor he consolidated these gains with political savvy and diplomatic genius. He was the head of the first French Republican government.  He laid the foundation for French jurisprudence with his creation of the Napoleonic Code, and his reforms created the foundation for modern French education.

So while nothing in history may surprise, the brilliance of historical actors may.  Henry VIII, regent of great appetites and many wives, stood firm against the Catholic Church despite threats of excommunication.  Henry VII’s defeat of Richard III on Bosworth Field ended the War of the Roses.   Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a monarch of particular genius, taste, and ambition.  

Winston Churchill was a warrior, diplomat, writer, historian, orator, and brilliant student of world history.  He was the hero of the Battle of Britain who showed courage and indomitability amidst the devastating bombing of the German Luftwaffe.  He was the man who understood Stalin, Soviet intentions, and the nature of the Cold War before it even began.

Charles de Gaulle in exile was the heart and soul of the occupied French nation and on his return rebuilt France and returned it geopolitical power.  Franklin Roosevelt was an inspired, committed leader of the country during the Great Depression, and thanks largely to him, it emerged whole. 

The Founding Fathers – Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Jay, Monroe, and Adams among them – were considered a ‘genius cluster’. To a man they were serious thinkers, men of character and principle, all dedicated to forming a more perfect union. They formed an unexpected, rare, and unique group of extremely talented, visionary men.

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Jefferson alone might have been an Augustus or a Napoleon; but around him were Hamilton, a man of aristocratic temperament and philosophy who challenged Jefferson’s belief in populist democracy; a man who with technical, professional, and political astuteness set up the country’s financial system.  Franklin, like Jefferson, was a polyglot – a man of science and diplomacy who was Jefferson’s emissary to France.

Both Jefferson and Monroe had a particularly astute understanding of the political, economic, and military power of the new Republic.  Jefferson’s sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition to map out and plat the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory provided the legal and historical basis for Westward expansion and American colonization of the West. 

Monroe subscribed to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were destined to expand their reach to the Pacific, and he provided political, moral, and financial support for this effort.  His genius was that he saw what the country could become, and with only a necessarily sketchy understanding of territories west of the Mississippi, acted decisively.

What the Founding Fathers, Churchill, Roosevelt, and De Gaulle shared was a patrician, aristocratic upbringing, an inherited sense of noblesse oblige, a classical training which valued honesty, integrity, compassion, discipline, and loyal service, and societies which did not question aristocratic rule. 

Jefferson and his colleagues were members of an exclusive club – an, elite, members-only club whose members understood their obligations, their duty, and the moral imperatives which guided their families for generations.  Some, like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were from wealthy patrician families; but others like Franklin, the son of a candle-maker, had more humble origins.  The club was not socially exclusive but admitted those who shared the same intellectual abilities, character, and commitment.

Genius clusters are not exclusively modern.  The Golden Age of Ancient Greece produced Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Augustus founded the Roman Empire and presided over the long Pax Romana. While other Romans like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are better known, Augustus was the most powerful and influential leader of Rome. 

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Why, then, have genius clusters and individual genius disappeared from the American political scene? and why is it that one of the least inspiring, least visionary, and least commanding Presidents acceded to the White House?

Some historians have suggested that populist democracy has ended noblesse oblige and genius cultures forever in the United States.  The more electoral democracy devolves to the level of the common man, the more it becomes ruled by parochial interests, unformed or ignorant opinions, emotion instead of intellect, and image instead of character.

Because of the ‘democratization’ of the political process according to which the popular vote begins at the level of rural caucuses, old, traditional, universally-respected models of leadership are gone.  Interests have become local, venal, self-serving, and anti-communitarian.  Both voters and candidates exist within this same context.  It is remarkable that even one legitimate leader emerges out of the street-fight, let alone a cluster.

Perhaps more importantly is the influence of progressivism on American politics.  According to this philosophy, not only is individualism suspect but is rejected as a modus vivendi within a democratic republic.   Communitarianism – the absolute right and authority of the community – and especially the disadvantaged -  has become pervasive. 

The country is not led by the President but by identity groups – gays, blacks, women, and Hispanics – and by reformist organizations.  Leadership at all levels is subsumed within the overall righteousness of the cause.  We all must fight climate change, racial discrimination, capitalist excess, white privilege, and Europeanism.  Individual power is ipso facto corrupted, anti-progressive, and damaging to progressive reform.

If Joe Biden were somehow to suddenly exhibit the physical courage of Churchill, the patriotic nationalism of de Gaulle, the cultural authority of Louis XIV, or the imperial purpose of Putin, he would be impeached by his own party – a traitor to inclusivity, diversity, and social harmony and captive to macho individualistic ambition.

Worse, President Biden is a weak, desperately overmatched, timorous President who in his long career in the Congress and White House has been known only as a follower, a willing compromiser, a dutiful caretaker of Delaware’s parochial interests and a quiet, unseen Vice President.  Not in his or anyone else’s wildest imagination could he ever be a great man.

Worst of all there are no great men in the wings, no pretenders to the throne, no charismatic leaders or political visionaries.  The democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers - one of rugged individualism within a community context – has been deformed and corrupted by Alexander Hamilton’s worst nightmare, the co-opting of the Republic by the masses.  

It is no wonder, and certainly no surprise, that Joe Biden is in the White House at this moment in America’s history.  He may or may not last out his term, but if he does not, the country can be sure of only one thing – the accession of similarly dutiful, ambitious politicians with no particular courage, brilliance, or insight.

A sorry state indeed for a once respected and powerful nation.

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