The Language of American Politics


Or, Some words on why I do not write like the others.

As sleep occurs most deeply when undisturbed by dreams, so language occurs most fluently when undisturbed by the mind. In the slumber of fluency, the frequent senselessness of language goes unnoticed. Babbling melodies lull the ear and the eye and the mind, and accepting these lullabies we respond languidly to their calls, somniscripts and somniloquists all.

And so we have remained insensible to the oddness of opposing liberal to conservative. Liberal pertains to the free man, and the proper domain of the free man, his conditio sine qua non, was called civilization. The pertinences of both slave and barbarian were its contrasts. Striding out beyond the immediately useful and the merely mechanical, enlivened by the humane pursuits of arts and letters and sciences, the liberal man was intellectually curious and open, excelled in expression and reason, was unencumbered by prejudice, and was adept at judiciously choosing his company among men and minds. The free man was the civilized gentleman of culture and virtue, and perhaps most of all he was the man of prudence. Prudence, which was once called phronesis, and which might best be called good judgment, was the progenitor of all the other private and public virtues that made the liberal man someone who would never intentionally begin or participate in anything untoward or impudent, and therefore a trustworthy actor in political affairs. Only the prudential could well judge what should and should not be done, and with whom one should and should not join. If, as at least some once maintained, prudence is the defining characteristic of true conservatism, then the liberal man was the very embodiment of conservatism’s chief virtue.

Controversy arose only when some of these gentleman concluded that what pertained to the free man should pertain, and by right did pertain to every man. For these gentleman the old aristocratic liberal impulse was transformed into a new egalitarian one. The liberal man would no longer be the free few, but the free many. This was, the liberal vanguard thought, the essential advance of civilization. And it very likely was. Others among the former few saw in this enlargement of liberal society the most wildly imprudent endeavor ever undertaken. And this it very likely was as well. The liberal old guard, defending the known and established, the steady and reliable, warned that all that had been passed down and venerably tended for generations as tradition and custom and institution should not be imperiled by the swiftly progressing flood. But all was hurtled into the crash and roll of the surging current. And now Niagara has been shot. And after? After the plunge there remained for the old guard no fight except a new raving, futile one against all that irreversibly had been done.

Mad and impossible and senseless fights forge mad and impossible and senseless men. Some wished for the return of what was no longer, as if the plunge could be undone, and the rapids rolled back. Others, evincing a slight awareness that return was unobtainable, glorified the past with an undue golden luster and reverentially transformed men of generations past into demigods, whose departure from the mundane world could be mourned but never redeemed. Those who despaired even more deeply of a present that appeared to them irremediably fallen reversed the valuation of their patrimony and barbarously denounced the enterprise of liberal civilization, and vowing enmity against it, deemed its entire course a corrupting ruse. Often these shielded themselves against the mutability of the temporal world with the eternal armor of fundamentalism’s displacement of truth by the inerrancy of belief. Those of similar but more impious dispositions turned less to the heavens than to the old sky of ideas, or at least to its modern pitiable rump. For ideology is nothing more than the last, sad redoubt of the old, fatuous philosophical wish that ideas might rule the world. The ideologue sees the world as it is not, and mistakes these esoteric hallucinations for guiding models. Then, detesting the capacity of men to act formlessly by virtue of their own initiative, the ideologue concludes that human activity must be given form, that it must serve purposively, at least ultimately, as a vehicle for the worldly realization of ideas. Of those men who make ideological claims, very few make them honestly. The trace of dishonesty testifies to their sanity.

The word liberal speaks to nothing other than the way of life that befits free men. This is the very essence of Western civilization. Any polity whose civic life exists for the sake of free men is a liberal polity. Republics are liberal polities. Republic, a word which means public thing, was the name given to a manner of politics whose civic life was arranged and arrayed around the grandeur of public things. The republican locus of human freedom was the public realm of civic affairs, and the free man was the one who participated in that public realm as the essential activity of civilized humanity. Neither a boundary nor a prohibition, republican law was the bond among men, and that bond was the guarantee of the republic’s integrity. This was a government of law, not of men. Were the bond broken, the republic would lose its gravitational hold and scatter apart. The union of men would be nullified. Radiating outward from its axis, the bond of republican civic life is in principle boundlessly extensible. Into its society, and so into civilization, anyone might join. The expansion of liberal civilization was both the vitality of republican life, and the structural propensity of its bond.

The man who believes himself debased by this expansive openness sees transgression in every enlargement of liberal civilization and every assertion of republican union. Repulsed, he coils into himself, entrenches into hostile isolation, and revalues his freedom, rejecting its formerly public quality, detaching it from all civility. These now appear to him only as onerous constraints upon a newly proclaimed singular freedom to do as he likes. To achieve and perform and attain as he likes, he will say. But also to scorn and forsake and abandon, and, indeed, to hoot and threaten and smash as he likes. And it is evidently also his right to indulge as he likes in the pleasure of forbidding others from doing as they might like. It is his inviolable right to violate as he likes, and to exploit and abuse and degrade as he likes. Honest men of this sort would admit this, if any such men existed. As men are, they prefer to dissemble, many so nimbly that their mendacity evades even their own perception. But opponents of the republican bond expose themselves when to their claims of personal liberty they at once adjoin rights for concurrent majorities of kin and kind to do as they like, and maneuver all the while to diminish and deprive and debilitate whoever they deem deviant or miscreant or aberrant or inferior. They insist, in a word upon democratic government in its most brutish appearance, that is upon a government not of law but of men. To the extent that out of this vain, uneasy isolation these opponents of republican union manage to raise up some semblance of a polity, it can be at most a compaction, a partial confederacy kept from disintegration not by any enduring internal bond, but only by the makeshift coincidence of external animus.

Americans once spoke their politics in these terms. But with realignment’s topsy-turvy there arose a perverse republicanism gripped by a fever of disintegration. It is a republicanism that degrades the public bond, that mocks and denounces and denies public things, that denigrates public affairs and public life, that elevates an atomism and a separatism of wanton inhumanity, that brooks no civility, that shuns all public virtue, that respects neither public interest nor public institutions, that repudiates the spirit of union, that refuses all respect for the opinions of those who are still, in fact, countrymen, and that scorns any decency toward the opinions of mankind. Enthralled by a barbarous and reactionary fervor today’s sham republicans remain exactly what they were in their erstwhile incarnation, democrats of the most civically depraved, kakistocratic variety. Having long since abandoned their old liberal, prudential ways, they adopt even democracy’s most destructive impulse, namely that the ignorance of the many should trump the knowledge of the few. Today’s misnamed democrats also remain exactly what they have long been: exponents of the bond of union, of the worthiness of public things, of the public realm as a domain of human freedom, as well as the sole guardians of civilization’s dignity and legacy. They remain liberals of a republican disposition. But from confusion or trepidation or oblivion they no longer affirm their ancestral character and rightful inheritance, they no longer recognize themselves as emblems and guardians of civilization’s legacy, and they no longer boldly embody the energy of civilization’s inward reform, and the vigor of its advancing and enlarging outward thrust. Liberals have become estranged from themselves.

It is impolitic to write of politics in such divisive terms. Or so say those solemn muddlers who are so averse to conflict, who find antagonism so unbearable that they descend into denial and tame and transform even genuine antitheses into all-subsuming, directional continuums that misstate difference as degree. What differs by degree is more or less the same, and if all is only more or less the same, then difference is something of a mirage that obscures a genuine substrate of indifference. To speak of politics in this manner denies the reality of difference and the authenticity of conflict. If politics is a domain in which human beings act in all of their distinctiveness, and so also a domain in which commonality is not a presumption, but a creation or discovery, then this manner of speaking, which denies distinction and presumes commonality, cannot speak to politics at all, but rather evinces a longing wish for its dissolution. In the American case, this cheerfully insipid pretense finally avers a wish to forget the disquieting continuity of old conflicts not past. For war does weary, especially war long and undone. And so into this alluring reverie of amity many join, and by unspoken agreement, connive in dissimulation, pretend conclusion and feign union, even with elements still unreconstructed, even while great tasks yet remain, even as the work languishes unfinished. And so on we sleep in this vain irreality. Once eaten, it is difficult again to resist the lotus.

All the while the fires of The Wilderness smolder below, and beyond the lulling din piercing truth echoes still from tongues of blue and butternut.

(Spring, 2012)