June 3, 2022
Occasionally, the spark of an event or conjunction of events will ignite this essayistic meditation into something more like a typical newsletter. We are all in shock over two shootings in a row, one in Buffalo, where I lived for a decade, and one in Uvalde, Texas. The notes for this newsletter were made on Memorial Day, when we mourn and celebrate those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of others.
For the sake of others. What makes the Uvalde tragedy stand out is the refusal of the security people to act. Instead, they stood around for an hour, waiting for others to arrive to do their job, in apparent violation of their own training. The only thing they did was pepper spray and handcuff frantic parents. Everyone wants to know why. The only responses so far have boiled down to, “We could have gotten killed that way.” The selfless, heroic responses were, as always, those of teachers. The Republican response, as always, is that schools need to become sealed, armed fortresses, and that what stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But the Uvalde school was sealed, or “hardened,” to use the hideous current jargon, and it did not prevent the attacker from gaining entrance. Schools cannot be sealed military bases: they are communities, with a need for constant coming and going of various people for various reasons. And about that good guy with a gun: maybe he could stop a shooter—if he chooses to act. But what if he chooses not to, based on a rational calculation of his own interests?
Let me guess who gets hired to provide school security. It is not someone out of Clint Eastwood’s recent series of films about everyday heroes who rise to the occasion in a moment of crisis. The problem is that such heroes are not “everyday” at all but in fact quite rare. They exist, and Eastwood is right to celebrate them, but we cannot expect their kind of selflessness from the masses of people hired as security guards. For them, it is a job, and they need the income. The job is to stand around looking like a deterrent, easy money, with a very small chance that something dangerous will happen on their watch. If it does, it is more than they signed on for, whatever their contract may say, and at that moment the temptation is very strong to think, if not say, “You can’t fire me, I quit. This job is a paycheck, and a paycheck is not worth my life.” If this was their attitude, or at least the attitude of their superior, who gave the order to wait, it is not heroic, but it is understandable from a perspective of rational self-interest. Are they willing to watch children die in their stead? All we can say is, whatever they were thinking, that is what they in fact did. There is a lot of hypocrisy about the supposedly sacred value of children’s welfare. Every time there is a school levy, there are people who write to the local papers opposing the levy because it’s not their children: let the parents of the kids pay for the schools, and, if they can’t, they shouldn’t have had children.
Normally, I would not be so quick to judge, since we have not heard the full story yet. But I share the frustrated fury of many, because we know that absolutely nothing will be done to restrict access to guns, and in fact guns will be made increasingly more available by the continued loosening of restrictions. Yet I do not want to take up a newsletter with mere venting, but rather to take a look at the underlying ideology that has led to this moment, and its roots in American mythology, in the American vision of life.
We may begin with an observation that is hardly original, and in fact has been made throughout the course of American history: namely, that American society privileges individualism over community, rights over responsibilities. This tendency has been growing stronger in recent years. The motto of law enforcement used to be “to serve and protect,” and there are many police and security officers who are deeply committed to that motto. We should salute them, and salute those who died trying to protect us. But the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that law enforcement officers are not required to protect, which leads one to wonder why police departments exist. I am not in favor of “defunding the police,” but I can understand the feelings of those who do, on the grounds that to them the police apparently exist only to protect the interests of the privileged. A large segment of the American populace, often calling itself libertarian and inspired by Ayn Rand, denies the existence of a common good. Trump has expressed his contempt for the “losers” that were dumb enough to serve in the military and get themselves killed or made prisoners of war. Elon Musk made fun of a heroic rescuer as “pedo man” and has just announced that he’d be glad of a recession because the economy has been raining down money on fools for too long.
There are philosophical conservatives who claim that there is a social fabric and a common good, and that such commonality is in fact what their conservatism wants to conserve. It is significant that none of these philosophical conservatives are actually in politics. What do they do? Well, um, they write newsletters. Or, as such things used to be called, op-ed columns. At any rate, such philosophical conservatism usually traces its lineage back to the reaction of conservatives like Edmund Burke to the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Burke abhorred the revolutionaries’ promotion of idealized abstractions, the “rights of man,” over the actual fabric of society, rooted in tradition and precedent. In modern terms, Burke warned against the kind of “social engineering” that is willing to tear down actual society, disrupting peoples’ lives and threatening their security, for the sake of certain supposed improvements, even though the improvements are only gleams in the eye of those who are really anarchists. Contemporary philosophical conservatives often recount of kind of “deconversion” narrative, in which they started out when young as idealistic liberals but were increasingly disenchanted with the social movements of the 60’s, in which they saw the same willingness to rip up all of American life for the sake of abstract ideas, often mere slogans.
Burke was an English Tory. One wonders what he would say of the present Conservative government in England, whose members apparently spent two years of Covid lockdown having drunken, illegal parties, on the grounds that rules are for other people. Let them eat cake, and drink cocktails. But it is imaginable that he might condemn current Tories for having betrayed their own principles while still defending the principles themselves. American philosophical conservatives are in a more difficult position, because the founding documents of American society, composed during the American Revolution, share with the French Revolution the emphasis on certain abstract individual rights. Revolting against what they saw as imperialistic authoritarianism, they were more interested in defending individual rights over communal responsibilities, individual freedoms over the common good. Those rights are laid out in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, but are summed up in the Declaration of Independence—even if a several Republicans have lately betrayed their ignorance by mistaking the one for the other. And the Declaration sums up what the United States upholds in one famous phrase: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The first two terms of this phrase are clear enough: the United States chooses democracy because democracy preserves individual life and liberty. But what did Jefferson mean by “the pursuit of happiness”? It has been a controversial phrase ever since it was written. Some people contend that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a modification of a phrase of Jefferson’s mentor John Locke, “life, liberty, and property,” in other words wealth, because property and wealth were more or less synonymous at that time. Others argue that, by replacing the term, Jefferson is attempting to expand the Declaration’s vision beyond the level of simple materialism. But in what way? Subsequent interpretations have expanded from the materialistic base in two directions. In one, the aim is still wealth, but the guarantee is of what we would now call equal opportunity and a level playing field. In the other, the meaning is expanded into a free choice of lifestyle. But whatever it means, the Declaration as a whole, like the Bill of Rights, remains an assertion of individual rights over the restrictive powers of government.
What is missing is a counterbalancing emphasis on human interdependence, on the truth that we need community because no one is an island, a truth which makes society not just an aggregate of individuals pursuing their own interests but a mutual aid society—whether that mutual aid is based on rational and utilitarian foundations, the greatest good for the greatest number, or on emotional and empathetic identification, the feeling that any person’s death diminishes me, any person’s suffering is felt as my own. This has been the great tragedy of American history, and has led to its various historic conflicts and crises. Because, in current terms, when the Republicans—not philosophical conservatives but the more garden variety—claim that their rampant individualism is more faithful to the original vision of the Founding Fathers than the social concerns of liberals and progressives, there is some truth to it, however limited.
What philosophical conservatives saw in the excesses of the 60’s and 70’s was real enough: the pursuit of selfish hedonism, the disintegration of politics into special interests. It was true then, and it is true now: it is why the Democratic party cannot govern itself, let alone the country. Instead of banding together, the special interests merely factionalize and fight each other in what we call “identity politics.” But philosophical conservatives are left out in the cold, because their own Republican party has totally rejected social responsibility in favor of individual freedoms and the pursuit of as much happiness as you can get away with, the cost to others be damned. It is a particular irony that, just as the philosophical conservatives were rejecting the rootlessness of the counterculture in the 70’s, a new conservatism was being born, associated with the names of Reagan and Thatcher, that was antithetical to any sense of social responsibility. When Reagan said that government was not the solution but the problem, he felt he was echoing Jeffersonian principles, and—this is my iconoclastic point—he was not entirely wrong.
What this has meant is that the counterbalancing value that in Europe has been called “fraternity” or “solidarity,” the commitment to helping one another because on the deepest level we are one, has to be inserted into the political process by revisionism, by interpreting the Constitution or some other authoritative document according to the spirit rather than the letter of the text, a process energetically opposed by “originalists” and “strict constructionists,” or else by amending it, and then interpreting the amendments expansively. Expansive liberal revisionism was the motive behind some of the most important amendments to the Constitution, backed by a Supreme Court that, many years ago, expanded the meaning of some of the amendments in a liberal direction, most prominently the First Amendment. It is ironic, to say the least, that gun rights happen to be the rare case in which the process works in reverse. The experts agree almost unanimously that the Second Amendment, read literally and according to the Founding Fathers’ original intent, only refers to the arming of militias, not private citizens. One response of gun nuts is actually to form what amount to militias, such as the Proud Boys, but the broader recourse is merely to insist that the amendment refers more largely to the right of self-defense, as if one needed semi-automatics and other quasi-military gear to defend one’s family.
Because of America’s individualist bias, the ideal of community as mutual aid strikes many Americans as a foreign import, and a dubious one. It is “socialism,” and it is un-American, something that comes from European and Scandinavian countries. The conviction that “socialist” economies must perform more poorly than ours cannot be shaken, despite all the evidence that the reverse is true.
Any kind of social safety net is decried as socialism, from Roosevelt’s New Deal to the Affordable Care Act. The conviction that social services reward parasites who want “free stuff” is also unshakeable, despite even more massive evidence to the contrary. The fact that poverty and sickness may happen to anyone does not soften some Americans’ hearts. Such deep-seated hostility to the idea that we are all in this together accounts for the persistence of Marxism in academia. Marxism’s power does not lie in its theory, which was never impressive and is anyway long obsolete, but in its vision of social solidarity and the power of that solidarity to move mountains.
Contrasting with that vision is the American myth of the self-made and self-sufficient man, who has earned all that he has and who owes nothing to anyone, least of all to the government. Guns are a part of that ideology of self-sufficiency: a man has to be ready to protect himself and his kin from those who would take away what he has. Rather than seeing himself as part of a network of reciprocity and mutual trust, the self-sufficient man sees everyone in the world as a potential predator. Needless to say, I use masculine pronouns deliberately, although an increasing number of women seem to be adopting such an essentially paranoid perspective. It is uncomfortable to admit that this attitude is a pathological exaggeration of the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer whose staunch independent-mindedness could never be conquered. There is also some justification for the conservative belief that states’ rights should prevail over the federal government as much as possible. Especially in the South, some conservatives hardly seem to think of a United States at all but rather of a loose confederation of autonomous states, and their fear of a controlling, paternalistic federal government was shared by many of the Founding Fathers.
In a debate, the rejoinder would be, “But the United States does value unity, not just individualism. It’s the liberals and progressives who want to tear the country apart.” It is true that American mythology does include statements of unity, expressed, as statements on the imaginative level always are, in symbolic language. One is E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. The location of this expression of unity on the back of our money may seem to corroborate the identification of the pursuit of happiness with wealth: we are united in the quest for the almighty dollar. But in fact the motto is part of the Great Seal of the United States, whose appearance is not confined to the dollar bill. The Great Seal pairs E Pluribus Unum with another Latin motto, Novus Ordo Seclorum, “a new order of the ages.” That phrase comes from, of all places, Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which speaks of the coming of a new Golden Age. The Great Seal announces a new American age inaugurated by the Declaration of Independence. It is thus a statement of American exceptionalism, of a supposedly benign imperialism. While “Out of many, one” could be an expression of true community, its context pulls it away from diversity towards collectivism, of the kind we see in the idea of the “melting pot,” in which differences are melted down into sameness. The point is difficult, but crucial: there is a difference between true community, in which the members retain their individuality even as they are identified as part of a larger whole, and mere unity, in which individual identity is subsumed into a collective, mass identity.
The other symbolic expression of unity is the American flag, the representation of “one nation, indivisible,” with or without God, as the Pledge of Allegiance has it. Our choice of a strange and unsingable national anthem is explained by the fact that it is about the flag. Again, while the flag can be a symbol of genuine unity, it tends to constellate feelings of collectivism of a “love it or leave it” variety. The anger of conservatives when someone fails to respect the flag is a symptom of the kind of mass-minded unity that has produced notions of “un-American activities” and demands for loyalty oaths. What sometimes happens is a lesson in group psychology. Depth psychologist C.G. Jung said that any psychological tendency carried to an extreme would provoke a counterbalancing expression of the exact opposite from the unconscious, a dynamic that he called enantiodromia, a term from the philosopher Heraclitus, whose philosophy was built on a creative tension of opposites. Thus the extreme individualism of the American psyche easily flips over into extreme collectivism, producing at its worst a mob mentality. Many people, lacking the powerful will necessary to become a fascist dictator, are happy to collapse into the anonymity of the collective, so long as they get “freedom” from rules and constraints. This is an old story: Shakespeare shows it in The Tempest, where the low-life characters get drunk and foment a rowdy insurrection, shouting “Freedom! Heyday!” We may call it the spirit of January 6.
What of religion? Surely the counsel that we are “members of one body” reaches beyond rational self-interest into a religious dimension. The intuition that all human beings are united with one another and with nature in a larger identity is a spiritual intuition, because spirit can be defined as a condition in which metaphor is taken, not rationally as a mere comparison, but literally. A is identified with B without losing its identity as A. This is a paradox to the intellect, yet is a common enough experience for all that, as I tried to show in The Productions of Time. Frye called it ecstatic metaphor, using “ecstatic” in its root sense of being taken out of or beyond oneself. It is not necessarily religious, however, because that word usually refers to institutional affiliation or ideology—creeds, articles of belief, and so on. The churches and the creeds not only have no necessary relationship to spiritual experience but are usually wary of it as a threat to their dominance. Churches tend to interpret “members of one body” to mean that we belong, or should belong, to one institution, which immediately begins looking around for heretics, non-believers, and heathen to persecute, and forming a cozy working relationship with the secular powers.
The ecstatic experience is not necessarily some esoteric mystical epiphany. It may be that, but it can more often simply be an identification with others, with the Other, latent in the unconscious, but showing itself by unselfish, even self-sacrificing, actions. If this results in the paradox that some of the most spiritual people may be humanistic atheists, well, it just goes to show. Not all churches, and not all individual Christians, are spiritually bankrupt. There are certainly admirable attempts to act out of charity, or agape, the empathy for the other that makes us one, the subject of a previous newsletter. But there is also a lot of hypocrisy. Jesus’s followers were mostly poor and uneducated working people, including people whose work was not respectable, like tax collectors and prostitutes. No political party in the United States truly serves such people today, including the Democratic party. Indeed, it is because such people have been marginalized to the brink of survival and abandoned that conditions are so unstable in the country today.
We may recognize the shortcomings of what the Founding Fathers bequeathed us without becoming ungrateful. After all, in the teeth of almost universal skepticism, they created the world’s first functioning democracy since ancient Athens. We should still celebrate this with gratitude this coming Fourth of July. At the same time, we should recognize that much that is best about the American experiment since 1776 has been the result of successive waves of revisionism, carried out in the face of intense resistance by the rich, powerful, and corrupt. It is the homegrown version of what I spoke of in Part 3 of The Productions of Time (the part dearest to my heart, I will confess), the imagination working progressively through time to decreate what it had previously created and recreate it according to a newly clarified vision. This is what I mean by “expanding eyes.” It is genuine progress, and opposes the false definition of progress as the burgeoning metastasis of capitalism and imperialism, aided by technological innovation. It has given us a social safety net including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, laws regulating workplace hours and safety, a minimum wage, and so on. More deeply, it has given us the idea from which all these innovations flow: that human beings have a right to have their basic needs fulfilled. If this is parasitism, then we are all parasites. Some of us are merely aware of it, that’s all.
Beyond fulfilling universal needs, progressive revisionism has worked to raise consciousness about groups that the Founding Fathers excluded: African-Americans, Native Americans (and other non-white people), women, and, in our time, people of diverse gender identifications and sexual orientations. It has also worked to change attitudes about our relationship to nature, raising consciousness about animal rights, species preservation, and of course climate change. None of this was part of the original American social contract, but we have come to see that it should have been. The allegation that all this is an attempt at social engineering by an intellectual elite out of touch with intractable reality is just a smoke screen. We know full well by now that “Nothing can possibly be changed” is the first line of resistance to any social betterment—until the changes actually occur, and were not impossible after all.
It seems to me that three things contribute to the likelihood of positive social change. One is unfortunately negative: a sense of crisis or an actual breakdown of the social machinery that forces average people to face up to the problem at hand instead of burying their heads in the sand, paying no attention to the issues, and hoping it will all go away so they can get on with their lives. It took a whole Civil War to end slavery, a result that no ameliorative policies could have produced. In the 60’s, a whole series of disruptive demonstrations and outright riots sobered up white people enough to allow for the end of segregation. The New Deal could not have been brought about without the total breakdown of the Great Depression. The women’s movement could not have achieved what it did without getting feisty. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel Forty Signs of Rain, the government refuses to take climate change seriously until Washington D.C. is suddenly under 50 feet of water after a catastrophic event. Moments of decisive change arrive spontaneously and are hard to predict. If Republicans carry through with the notion they are currently entertaining, to overrule the results of any elections whose results are not in their favor, will that prod average Americans out of their torpidity enough to take to the streets? There is no way of telling.
A second factor is leadership. Yes, there is the charismatic leader who not only directs but inspires. Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther King: the course of American history is unimaginable without them. But the Democratic party has been slow to recognize the crucial importance of grass-roots leadership, organization and activism. Obama did recognize it, and it was crucial to his success, but the party’s upper echelon is wary of it because the values and attitudes on the streets are often at variance with those of the educated professional class at the top. And while I like and admire Joe Biden, it seems clear that the Democratic party as presently constituted is not going to accomplish anything now or in the future because it is hostage to vested interests. Any real change is going to come from below, bypassing the party structure.
The third factor is language. Despite what the realists tell us, we do not live by bread alone but by inspiration, by the power of the imagination, whose chief vehicle is words. Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick—but what he gave us most of all was words, words that tell us that there is a Word with the power to change the world, whether we understand that Word as a supernatural God or a mysterious power within, or simply as love. In school, I had to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution, which I can still mostly remember—but not because it is inspiring. (We’re not doing so well at promoting “domestic tranquility,” by the way). What the young republic needed was someone like Thomas Jefferson who could articulate a vision that continues to resonate two and a half centuries later. Likewise, the Emancipation Proclamation was important—but the Gettysburg Address is as meaningful to some people as Scripture, and rightly so. A similar relationship holds between Marx’s erudite but arid Capital and the galvanizing Communist Manifesto. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech has become part of a canon of American writing that defines the American vision at its best. These are secular versions of what, in his books on the Bible, Northrop Frye called kerygma, a term out of Biblical scholarship referring to the spiritual rhetoric of the Bible. Such rhetoric is not ideological, like ordinary rhetoric: rather, it is an energy that awakens. Ideological belief and commitment may follow, but are secondary. The function of kerygma is to reveal and therefore to inspire and infuse with vitality, and if that occurs, absolutely anything can happen, unpredictably. Leaders with a gift for kerygmatic rhetoric are in short supply, but it is the role of education in a democracy to give students the gift of language, not just because “effective communication” is a marketable job skill, not even just because a facility with language is necessary for “critical thinking,” but because language is the home of human life, the way that we imagine our lives into being, and the way that we recreate both our lives and the life of the nation in the light of a progressively clarified vision.