Myth and the Founding of America

Flag - Betsy Ross Picture 1776 002C.S. Lewis once wrote “Reason is the natural organ of truth but imagination is the organ of understanding.” Although I have no proof of this, I like to think that Lewis was building from something that one of his heroes, G.K. Chesterton had written in his book, Twelve Types. In one of the miniature biographies, Chesterton retold the biblical story of Nehemiah, the king of Judea who rebuilt Jerusalem. The Bible said that Nehemiah rebuilt the walls with a sword in one hand a trowel in the other. Chesterton used this imagery to talk about truth and the imagination. To Chesterton, truth was the sword; it was very useful in cutting down an opponent but it was not the best tool for building anything. The trowel, on the other hand, was the tool needed for building and it was the trowel that represented the imagination.

 
What Lewis and Chesterton were both saying was that imagination is necessary for someone to understand a truth. How many times have you remembered a story or a movie longer and in greater detail than a rather dry book? That is one reason why some of the greatest historians were story-tellers; they not only knew history, not only analyzed history but were able to see the story that the people and their actions wove. That was why Rudyard Kipling said that if history was taught as stories, there would be no need for historians since everyone would learn it and remember it.
This is not to say that truth is unimportant. The imagination, in fact, must be kept in check by the truth and its natural organ, reason, or else it will run wild, dragging us behind with it with less than stellar results. Reason and Imagination, instead, have to work together. Reason is like the miner who digs and finds the nuggets of the Truth. Reason, then, gives those nuggets of Truths to the Imagination who is like a craftsman. Like any good craftsman, Imagination takes the raw material and does not change its substance—what it is—but only changes its outward appearance, like a goldsmith takes raw gold and makes a ring or a jeweler takes a diamond and turns it into a girl’s best friend.

 
The problem today is that while Reason and the Imagination are both given short shrift today, of the two of them, Imagination is the more neglected. How many times have we heard that we need to reintroduce reason back into our public discourses, that we need to use our reason to follow the facts, regardless of where they lead us and how we personally feel about the destination? I’ve said the same thing—or a variation of it—myself. But without the Imagination the Truth is cold and impersonal. People, usually, will not treasure or cherish a mathematical equation, regardless of how true it is.

 
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why our understanding and love of America and the Revolution and American history in general have decreased. Granted, American history has other problems as well. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2015, revealed in their annual report card that only 12% of American high school students, could be considered “proficient” in American history. Part of the reason is that schools no longer teach the basics of American history. Karol Markowicz, a writer at the New York Post, in 2017, told her readers that her daughter—who, at the time was a first grader, in one of New York City’s best public schools, had never heard of George Washington outside of the lyrics to Hamilton. Part of the reason for this ignorance, Markowicz said, was that state tests emphasize English and Math. School districts are granted money based on how well students do one these tests. If a certain topic is not covered in the tests that decide the amount of money a particular district will receive, the school will not spend time in teaching it. Another reason Markowicz mentioned is that teachers feel that they are treading on thin ice when teaching history, particularly in a society where certain segments demand the removal of statues of Jefferson and Washington because they are no longer “appropriate.” When Huckleberry Finn requires trigger warnings before students read it, it’s perfectly logical for teachers to be nervous.
But another reason, I believe, is that history has become too analytical. Michael Conway, in The Atlantic, argued in 2015 that history taught in school should be analytical above all else, partially because it should be taught through historiography so that not one single version of history would be made the dominant one (history being, in part, a never ending argument). And he is right, to a point. But if the analytical—reason—is emphasized too much, then the Imagination will be left to die and some truths may be left out of the telling.

 
Take the example of the George Washington and the cherry tree. It is fairly certain that there was never a cherry tree that George Washington cut down as a boy; it does not make much sense that a boy Washington would even be given an ax as a president seeing as his family owned a plantation. The story first appeared in Mason Locke “Parson” Weems’s biography of Washington, the first biography of Washington which was written immediately after the latter’s death. Tellingly, the story about the cherry tree was not in the book until the fifth edition, published in 1806. From there, it spread as a children’s story when Presbyterian minister and professor, William McGuffy, included it in his McGuffy Reader, a reading textbook for children in 1836.
Obviously, the story about the cherry tree is what we would today call a myth; it never happened and what was learned by school children in the 19th century is now entirely ignored by teachers and students of the 21st century—unless it is to talk about Weems and his hagiography. And, in a sense, it makes sense to do that; history is about facts, after all. But the story was never meant to be a fact. Instead, Weems and McGuffy meant the story to illustrate Washington’s private virtue. That Washington was a man of honesty, integrity, and strength is an historical fact; the story of the cherry tree was meant to illustrate that fact, to take those virtues and to incarnate them so that people would be able to imitate an action, rather than memorize a recollection written in a diary or a letter.

 
Other myths of the Founding are the same: the midnight ride of Raul Revere, Molly Pitcher, Betsy Ross, the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. None of these things actually happened, at least, not as they do in the popular imagination; these people didn’t exist, at least, not in the way they are usually portrayed. But they served a purpose. They gave us, as Americans, a story, a narrative that allowed us to see our past, to understand from whom we came. And, like Weems and McGuffy understood, they also served as examples of personal imitation. As I wrote in my last post, the Founders understood that a republican society could only exist if the people themselves were virtuous. The question became then: How could the people become and remain virtuous? One answer was by holding up men and women as role models, just as we do today. Washington’s honesty and Molly Pitcher’s courage and patriotism were then held up as lights to children, the next generation, to whom it fell to continue and preserve the American experiment.
Rather than banishing the stories and the Imagination, history should embrace it. Ironically, it might be that only by allowing the imaginative to exist side by side with the analytical, that history will become alive again. And if it becomes alive again, people will take notice again of it and will fall in love with it again.

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The True Romans

 

Cicero indicts Cataline
Roman senator, philosopher, and patriot, Cicero, indicts Cataline before the Roman Senate. 

 

America’s 242nd birthday has come and gone. As part of the celebrations yesterday, I thumbed through David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, John Adams. I have read the book at least four times from cover to cover since I first received it seventeen years ago and it has never gotten old. Although the musical, 1776, started my admiration of Adams, one of our least remembered and appreciated Founders (sandwiched as he is between the two titans of Virginia, General Washington and Thomas Jefferson) it was McCullough’s book which really brought the man and his times to life.

As I was looking through the book again, I came across several quotes from Adams and from others concerning Adams, McCullough, thankfully, being a firm believer in primary documents. Two of the quotes from Adams which I found were his toast for Independence Day of 1826; though too ill to attend the celebrations in Boston or Braintree, Adams gave a delegation to his home, Montizillo, a toast at their request, “Independence forever!” When asked if he wished to add anything else, Adams replied, “Not a word.” On the Fourth itself, Adams, on his deathbed, said that it was a great day, “a good day” (emphasis his).

The other quote which caught my eye was made several years earlier than the other two, when he was a delegate from the Congress to France. There, one of the noblewoman described Adams as a “true Roman.”

For some reason, these three quotes connected themselves in my mind, even though chronologically, intentionally and logically there was no connection intended, either by McCullough nor by Adams himself.

When that noblewoman—whose name I have forgotten yet again—called Adams an true Roman, she was saying something significant about Adams and his character. The Eighteenth Century, like the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, loved Rome and the Roman Republic, not only because it was recognized as being the wellspring of civilization and the society that had given birth, as it were, to Europe, but also because of the example which Rome offered as well. The Roman Republic was literally the first republic which the world had seen and the ancient Romans recognized that a republican government, which depended upon the people, ultimately, for its power and survival, needed its people to be to rule themselves. If they could not rule themselves and control their emotions, their desires, and their vices, then they would not be able to rule themselves in the government. And if the Romans could not rule themselves, it brought up the unpleasant question: Who would rule them? The only other answer was a ruler, a king of some sort, as was the norm in the rest of the world. And since the Romans hated kings with a fury, due to the tyranny of the last Roman king, Tarquinius, having another king or ruler who was king in all but name, was abhorrent to them. As such, a system whereby they, the Roman people would rule themselves was created and maintained.

To maintain this unique system, however, the Romans understood that virtue was needed in spades. As such, it was heavily emphasized in Roman society. Men were to be frugal, honest, industrious, just, and they were to place their duty, whether it was to their family or country, above their own private needs. The great Roman writers such as Cicero, Virgil, Seneca and Tacitus, all agreed on this and it is no coincidence that all these men lived either during the Republic’s collapse or during the time of the Empire when virtue was generally seen as being spent in the large percentage of the population. Even the last “good emperor,” Marcus Aurelius, who was a Stoic philosopher, understood this and tried to restore the idea of virtuous living to Rome.

The Founders were all steeped in the history of the Roman Republic and Empire as well as in the specific writings of the great Romans; Tacitus, Virgil and Cicero (whom John Adams called the greatest man who ever lived) were household names in Eighteenth Century America, thanks, in part, to the emphasis placed on the classics in education, from the grade schools to the universities. Not only that, but they also understood that history, being philosophy acted on the world’s stage, was there to act as a teacher for those who were willing to study and pay attention. They wanted to learn from the past, to avoid the mistakes that other civilizations had made. This is why, when one reads the papers of the Founders, the emphasis on virtue is made time and time again, regardless of who the author is: John Adams, again, declared that the American Constitution, which formed a republican government, was suitable only for a moral and religious people; George Washington declared that:

There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.

Thomas Jefferson said in a letter written to George Logan, “Peace, prosperity, liberty and morals have an intimate connection;” Charles Carroll argued, “Not a single instance can be selected from our history of a law favourable to liberty obtained from government, but by the unanimous, steady, and spirited conduct of the people.”

Adams declared the Fourth of July to be a “great day” and he expressed his hope, in his toast of 1826, that independence would last forever in the United States. However, he understood that independence could only, potentially, last forever if the people remained virtuous. This is why many of the Founders sought to mold America into another Rome while at the same time expressing a belief that America was the new Israel. These sentiments came together perfectly in Adams’s cousin, Samuel, who wrote that he hoped that America, and Boston in particular, would become a Christian Sparta; Christian in that the people would possess the Christian virtues such as faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance as well as the natural virtues exemplified in ancient Sparta, frugality, industry, duty, patriotism.

Today, we often complain that the government (by which many usually mean the federal government in Washington DC) is not taking enough action on a particular issue or that if the government would only do X, then life would be so much better. The Founders would have considered this to be backwards and would have counseled that we look to the people instead. A government which was looked to for every solution would have been the sign of a society weak in virtue. Not only that, it would have been a sign, paradoxically, of a weak government since a republican government can only be as genuinely strong (one might say morally strong) as its people. They would have advised us to become true Romans again.

An Abuse of History

 

auschwitz07
Auschwitz 

 

The 20th century, American philosopher, George Santayana said in his book, The Life of Reason: Reason and Common Sense, ““Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It has become a famous quote, one of those pithy sayings that people will pass on from one to another and to which everyone will nod their heads in agreement because it is so commonsensical. If the past is forgotten then, of course, we will repeat, since we will not know nor recognize the ideas, the patterns and the forces that led to great historical events—good and bad.

This is one of the reasons why people of the 18th century had such a deep respect for history and considered history to be one of the fundamental pillars of education. History was not something that was only supposed to be known by the stuffy university professor, or even just his students; instead, it was, ideally, supposed to be read and known by everyone. History, as the understanding went, was philosophy played out on the stage of life and knowing it not only made you well rounded and educated; it also acted as a check against tyranny. This was especially important to the people of England and to the American colonies in the 18th century where the people’s vigilance was understood as being essential to the preservation of liberty from the forces that always stood amassed on the periphery, ready to douse its light and which had succeeded in doing just that for much of the world’s history in the majority of places in the world.

This past week has emphasized again that we, as a culture, have such a tenuous grasp of history that it might as well be almost non-existent.

As I mentioned in my last post, former CIA director, Michael Hayden, compared the separation of children from adults who illegally cross the Mexican-American border to the Holocaust. After the Masterpiece Cake ruling from the Supreme Court, there were people who compared it to justified segregation. Added to those, now that the Supreme Court has upheld the Trump Administration’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries, are comparisons to this decision with the interment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Mark Takano, a Congressman from California, compared lawmakers who agreed and backed the president’s travel ban with lawmakers who did nothing to stop the interment of American citizens; and Nimra Azmi at Slate explicitly said that the Roberts Court would not have overturned the decision to intern Japanese-Americans.

These comparisons are not only hyperbolic but un-serious, in the sense that they cannot be said to be historical comparisons at all. To take these in order:

  1. As I explained in my last post, the children being separated from their adults ( a distinction that has to be made because not all the adults who accompany children illegally over the border are their parents) only occurs under three conditions: if the adults are discovered not to be the parents of the children; if the children are perceived to be in danger from the adults; if the adults have committed a crime (which includes entering the country illegally). And now, due to an executive order from President Trump, the policy of separating these children (which comes from a 1997 9th Circuit Court decision) is no longer practiced. No where are children being gassed, shot, used as slave labor, or experimented on by deranged men like Josef Mengele.
  2. The old Jim Crow laws and segregation were based on race; black American citizens were told that they had to drink at certain fountains, eat in certain diners, stay in certain hotels, sit in certain parts of the bus, simply because of their skin. The equivalent of that is not happening now: Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cake Shop, did not refuse any customers that came through his doors because of their sexual preferences; he simply declined to make a specific product (a wedding cake) for a particular event (a same-sex wedding) because of his religious beliefs.
  3. The so called “Muslim ban” is no such thing. The travel ban includes six countries—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Seeing as how there are between 49 and 51 Muslim countries across the world, banning travel from only six of them does not make it seem like it can be adequately termed a Muslim ban. On top of that, all of these countries are promoters and exporters of terrorism. And, on top of that, the forbidding of people from six specific countries that have a history of exporting terror to the West from entering the United States cannot be logically compared to the interment of Japanese-Americans because the people in those six Muslim countries today are not American citizens. In the case of the interments in the 1940s, American citizens were interned because of their ethnicity; Muslims today are not being blocked from entering the United States because of their race or their ethnicity. People from countries that sponsor terrorism are barred from entering.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in a society where only 12% of high school students are deemed proficient in American history that such un-historical and hyperbolic comparisons would be made. But that doesn’t make it anymore dangerous. Perhaps, however, some might be asking how this can qualify as a forgetting of history and how this can lead to a repeat of the past?

It’s true that this is not a forgetting in the usual sense of the word. It is not as though people have forgotten that the Holocaust or Japanese-American internments happened; if these events had been forgotten, genuinely forgotten, then the comparisons could not even be made. What is happening might be more accurately described as a fogging of the past since we remember that things happened but we no longer have a clue what they were. Take the Holocaust example: We all know that there was a thing called the Holocaust and that it was a terrible thing because a lot of people were slaughtered. But we have forgotten the details of the events to such an extent that we feel comfortable and justified in comparing it to things that have no resemblance to it at all, simply to try and make our arguments heavier through historical reference and the weight of notoriety.  This is wrong for two reasons.

In the first place, it is insulting to the dead who suffered in these genuine atrocities. By comparing these actual historical horrors to modern events that are not horrors, trivializes the events that were actually horrific. It would be the same thing as if a person compared the loss of his dog to the loss of another’s child. The former no doubt loved his pet and the pet was no doubt a good one; but placing the loss of a pet on the same level of pain and importance as the loss of a child, automatically lessens the tragedy of the child’s death because a pet is of less worth than a child, no matter what it is or how good it is.

This leads us to the second reason: If history is forgotten in this way—through trivialization—and comparisons of modern occurrences are made to the Holocaust, to the interment of Japanese-Americans, to the gulags, even when no similarity is present, we will forget the details, the ideas, the reasons why these genuine atrocities occurred. If everything is a Holocaust, then the Holocaust was not an atrocity that stands, black and foreboding in the past, a black obelisk, from which important and terrible lessons can be learned; it is simply a code-word for something that we don’t like, either because of personal preference or because the “other side” is enacting it as policy. And when that happens, the lessons that might have been learned from that black obelisk, disappear into the subjectivity of our own preferences, likes and dislikes.

History is far too precious and needed to be treated in such a trivial manner.

For Red, White and Blue

Flag - Betsy Ross Picture 1776 002Thursday, June 14, was Flag Day, a day ostensibly set aside for honoring the American flag. You might have seen more flags than usual on poles and on the walls of buildings yesterday, in celebration of the day but nothing aside from that. No speeches were made; no parades were held; aside from some posts on social media, and the extra flags, it was just another day in June. Perhaps because seeing the American flag flying against the blue sky or along old downtown main streets has become a sight so common that it’s often not given a second thought and maybe that is the reason why Flag Day passes with less fan fare than other holidays. It is naturally harder to become excited about something that you see every day than something that only makes an appearance once a year.
The flag has subtly been in the headlines recently with the renewed controversy of individuals publicly protesting by kneeling before the flag at the recitation of the national anthem. It could very well be a sign of the craziness of the modern world that something as common as the flag, something that is supposed to be as innocent and innocuous as the flag, should be the cause of such vehemence. But, on a second thought, perhaps it is not so surprising. Before the NFL protests, the Supreme Court ruled on June 11, 1990 that flag burning was legally protected speech under the First Amendment and something that can be burned like an old shirt or rotten furniture cannot be as highly regarded. One’s appreciation and respect is diminished if something can be treated like any other loose odd and end.
Specifically, the ruling and the cries that flag burning are free speech have always puzzled me. Burning the flag in protest might be free speech and it might not; but even if it were unquestionably free speech it still might not be right to burn the flag since, as Chesterton said, having a right to do something is not the same thing as being right in doing it. To my mind, burning the flag, even if it were proven beyond doubt that it was a legitimate exercise in free speech, would never be right because of what she represents.
Unlike the flags of other countries, the history of the American flag is solid and known. On June 14, 1777, the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress submitted the Flag Resolution which declared,

That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.

It is interesting to note that while some people today attribute meaning to the colors of the flag, no specific meanings were attached to them in 1777 but specific meanings were attached to the colors of the Great Seal; the secretary of the Congress, Charles Thompson, reported to Congress that the colors used in the Great Seal (which were the same as used on the flag) represented purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red) and vigilance, perseverance and justice (blue). It probably would not be too far of a stretch to give the same colors the same meaning for the flag. The idea of a constellation in the blue field created by the then thirteen stars, while not given a specific meaning either in the Flag resolution, possessed a subtle meaning nonetheless. Constellations were guides, means by which travelers and sailors especially kept to their courses. A new constellation reinforced the message on the Great Seal, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM—a New Order for the Age. The United States was the new nation that was to act as the announcement of the new order as well as the constellation which was to lead the rest of the world to the principles of virtue and ordered liberty in and through its republican form of government, a form of government which, at that time, was seen as a joke, a remnant of the past, clung to by a few small and hardly important countries.
Of course, today, the flag has taken on more meanings. It now stands as an emblem of the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence, ideas and sentiments which, of themselves were not revolutionary, (Jefferson himself denied this) but which brought about one of the most important revolutions of the world. And, as many politicians and statesmen have made it known, the red stripes of the flag, while perhaps originally representing hardiness and valor, has taken a more concrete meaning, or perhaps, a more concrete example of valor, in that now the red stripes represent the lakes of blood spilled in defense not just of the ideas expressed in the Declaration, but of the farms and little villages, the great cities and plains, the mountains and the rivers—in other words, the homes of millions of Americans who have taken up arms from the Revolution to the present to battle against any and everyone who threatened them. Real men who spilled real blood, many of whom have been forgotten.
Those are the two reasons why the flag not only should be respected but must be respected. It must and should be respected because it is the emblem of all the ideas which fueled the Revolution. Discrediting the flag and thus the country, means discrediting the ideas themselves upon which the country was founded. Can we really have free speech when the foundation of the protection of free speech—the country and her ideas—has been eroded? Can any of the rights protected by the Constitution be enjoyed as well if the country and her ideas are eroded? I would say no. Abraham Lincoln pointed out that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He was speaking of the division of the country at the time between free and slave states but his observation is just as valid here. If the country and her ideas are separated, neither part of the house will be able to continue.
The second reason is the one we have heard so many times before: Because so many have given up their lives for her, we must respect the flag out of respect for those who have died and for those who have been willing to die for it which, in many cases, means not just strangers but members of our own families as well. The multiple times we have heard this reason does not in any way diminish its truth but I think that there is another reason to be built upon this one.
It is a two-fold reason. The first part is that we should aspire to be imitate the men and women who came before us and who honored the flag and for what it stands. The idea that every generation stands alone, completely independent of everything, is wrong. We are where we are today and we are what we are because we stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. They believed in innocence, valor, perseverance and justice; they understood the American cause and purpose as a new constellation for a new age and they realized their part in preserving and moving the cause forward in their lives. To continue the good that they started, we must imitate their virtues.
The second part builds from this and it, once again, is captured perfectly by G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton said that people who love their countries because they are great have it backwards; countries only become great because people love them. He gave the example of Rome, a miserable backwater of a town that grew to rule the known world because men loved her. The pax Romana only came about because there were men and women willing to live and die for the glory of Rome. Regardless of what we think about the state of politics, culture, entertainment, principles, and goodness in America today, one fact that none of us who are Americans can change is that this is our home and, just as a man cannot change the fact that he comes from a particular family, he cannot change the fact that he is a particular nationality and is thus called to love his country just as he is called to love his family. It may be hard; it probably is. Nothing this side of the grave is perfect and regardless of who you are, what your political persuasion or tastes are, there will be aspects and facets which we do not like. But the challenge of love is not loving someone or something when it is easy but when it is hard.
Flag Day has come and gone this year but the flag will fly every day, somewhere, reminding us of who we are and what we should aspire to be.

 

The Furnace of Memorial Day

Memorial Day Parade

There is no perfect system and every system, therefore, can be perverted, corrupted or shallowed. St. Augustine put it very well when he said that the greater a thing is, the more it is likely to be corrupted, after which, the greater its capacity for harm.

Holidays are one of those great and good things that can be corrupted, after which their capacity for harm can be great: Christmas can become just about commercialism; Thanksgiving can become just about food, particularly the turkey; Hallowe’en can become just about gore and sex. In this same vein, Memorial Day has become a second rate Independence Day, a second rate black Friday and the “official” start of the summer season (regardless of the fact that the solstice doesn’t arrive for another couple of weeks).

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a holiday that was created specifically because of the Civil War. Because the War took the lives of so many men, local towns and communities, almost immediately after the War ended, began setting aside a specific day in the year, where the entire community would gather to decorate the graves of the dead soldiers, listen to speeches and pray. The first official Decoration Day was set aside on May 30, 1868 (because that day was not the anniversary of any particular battle of the War); the brainchild of General John A. Logan, a Union veteran and the second elected national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ group made up of former Union soldiers. On March 3, 1868, Logan issued General Order #1 which called for an official day of recognition for the Civil War’s dead. On that first Decoration Day, the man festivities were carried out at the newly created Arlington National Cemetery; General James Garfield spoke and 5,000 people decorated 20,000 graves, Union and Confederate. Though Decoration Day started almost immediately after the War’s end, it wasn’t till a hundred years later, in 1971, that the federal government recognized it as a holiday; it also became Memorial Day where the net of remembrance was expanded to include not just the men killed in the Civil War but all the dead from all the wars which had involved the United States, from the Revolution to, at that time, the Vietnam War. Today, of course, the line of remembrance and the dead extends from the Revolution to the wars of the Middle East.

Rather than being about summer, or sales, or a preview of Independence Day, Memorial Day is supposed to be a somber day since it is a day that is supposed to commemorate the dead who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to our country and to us. It was with this thought that I remembered a line from G.K. Chesterton: The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. Perhaps Chesterton took as the basis of this observation the idea that the greatest thing that a man can do is to lay down his life for a friend. Who were the soldiers of the Continental Army, the Union Army, the Confederate Army, the American Armies of WWI and WWII, of their navies and now air forces? It is impossible to know each one perfectly; when we often do not even know ourselves perfectly, how could we expect to know the hearts of the dead? But, if I had to guess, I would say that many of them were men who were not looking for a fight for the fight’s sake. Until the middle of the 19th century, the vast majority of the American population lived on farms (this was true even of the North at the time of the Civil War.) They were simple but educated and knowledgeable; many might have joined for glory, at a chance to see the world, but many also joined for the love of the things behind them. The man who joined General Washington may not have fought for the Declaration of Independence; he probably did not even fight for something that was to be christened in 1777 the United States of America. He probably fought for a small piece of land that he tilled himself, still sustaining his wife and children; if he did not own the land himself, he fought for the house that stood on the land that he rented and the family that still resided there. As the colonists were wont of saying even up to 1776, they were just transplanted Englishmen and it was a principle of the English Common Law that every Englishman’s home was his castle.

The same is true of the Civil War; the men of the North as well as those of the South fought for their homes and for their own communities. Each side saw the other as a threat, needing to be defeated. Many, in our politically correct times, forget that the South genuinely thought that the election of Abraham Lincoln marked the end, not just of the Southern way of life—which did include slavery—but of the American Republic for which Southerners, such as Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, had sacrificed for. The Northerners, for their part, saw the South as trying to tear apart the fabric of their national home, of which their local communities made the pattern. They heard the echoes of Daniel Webster’s cry in the Senate, “Liberty and Union—one and inseparable!”

The men who crossed the Atlantic to fight in Europe in WWI—which included my great-grandfather—fought to make the world safe for democracy. It’s true that the slogan was dreamed up by President Wilson, and there is a legitimate debate still ongoing just how much of a threat Imperial Germany was to the United States, even after the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram. They crossed the ocean to keep their homes safe, believing that if the Germans won the war, democracy might die in darkness.

WWII—which my grandfather was a part—was more cut and dried. The Nazis and the Imperial Japanese were legitimate threats to the world. If the Axis had won the war, history would have been very much altered and not for the better. Those men fought definitely for their homes and families.

When one comes down to it, Memorial Day is about love, the love that paradoxically makes one willing to die in order to protect that which is loved. Really, it should not come as any surprise that it boils down to this, not a least common denominator but an ember, white and hot. The word “patriotism” after all comes from the Greek patrios which means “of one’s fathers” implying a familial line stretching back through history; or from history to us today. Anything of our family should, properly, be loved and one of these is our country. Memorial Day is a call to love, not just the patriots who died for us, but for us to take inspiration from them to love the things behind us.

Why Do We Want to Kill Masculinity?

At the end of April, it was reported that the University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center had initiated a new program designed to help the men students at the University “take control over their gender identity and develop a healthy sense of masculinity,” because it was determined that “traditional ideas of masculinity”—such as success and being the breadwinner of the family—“place[d] men into rigid (or restrictive) boxes [which]…prevent them from developing their emotional maturity.” The website for the MasculineUT program vigorously denies that it treats masculinity as a “mental disorder” as was reported in some places, saying:

The MasculinUT program does not treat masculinity as a “mental health issue,” and any such statements are simply not accurate. It was established to bring more men to the table to address interpersonal violence, sexual assault and other issues.

It is hard to judge this proclamation of innocence since the MasculineUT website is currently out for the count, being under review. There is still a link to the poster campaign which was created for the program’s initiation however and from the posters, it seems that there was a deeper agenda than simply bringing men together to talk about interpersonal violence, assault and the like. Some of the posters are innocent, like the one which says that his masculinity was formed by his interaction with his sister so that he became a man who supported her, rather than someone who tore her down. I might say that that is just expected behavior from a brother to a sister and that a brother who sees his relationship to his sister as simply tearing her down is a jerk. But another poster say that even though the man portrayed on it is masculine, he can still wear dresses and makeup if he wants to and it’s fine while another poster declares that the man portrayed on it is not masculine and that masculinity is something imposed on his body and that he embraces his femininity by doing his nails. Aside from the fact that biological reality cannot be enforced on the body since it determines, naturally, what the body is, how can an expanded idea of masculinity include femininity without the two words melting into each other and neither word having any meaning?

Also at the end of April, it was reported that just west of Texas, at the University of Utah, a “crying closet” had been erected to give students, stressed about final exams, to go in and a have a good therapeutic cry. Created by student, Nemo Miller, the cry closest was an art project designed to “explore connections and missed connections through communication [and]… to watch the response to this piece about human emotions…”.

The impression given by these stories and others like it is that there is a war against masculinity, that masculinity is seen as a bad thing in out society today. And the impression happens to be true. These stories are only the latest in a stream of stories about how masculinity and men are no longer desired in society. It might lead some to wonder when these two things became so unwanted but the truth is that hostility towards men or to traditional ideas and roles of masculinity, has been a mark of second-wave feminism from the start. Gloria Steinem, one of the leaders of the feminism’s second wave in the Seventies, has said that gender roles will have to be abolished in order for men and women to be free. Another original leader, Kate Millett, wrote a book in 1970, entitled Sexual Politics, in which she argued that intercourse—even between men and women  who are married—was a form of dominance over woman; she came to this conclusion by redefining politics as the exertion of power and dominance over another and since Western society was patriarchal (though she could not explain why, exactly , it was or how the patriarchy had originated) men had exerted dominance over women, including in the bedroom and in the marriage bed.

This second/third wave feminist dislike for men and masculinity continues in their line of thinking: one of the writers who contributed to New York Magazine’s series, “How to Raise a Boy,” said plainly that the power exerted by “white American boys” has come from powerless minorities so that the less of a role men play, the better it is for everyone; feminist scholars Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertage, in their book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies, wrote that, “Feminist theory provides a doctrine of original sin: The world’s evils originate in male supremacy;” and Sharon Smith, in 2012, told the Socialism Conference that year, “There is a simple reason why the upper echelons of the corporate and political world are still overwhelmingly white and male, and that is because of racism and sexism, pure and simple.”

The problem is that Western society is suffering from a lack of masculinity, not an overflowing of it. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, who have now become the poster boys of “toxic masculinity,” are not examples of what masculinity is supposed to be, just like a baseball team that always loses is not the dictionary definition of a baseball team. Anyone can say anything about anything but it doesn’t make it necessarily true. To know what a thing/concept actually is, you have to be willing to ask questions and do some thinking.

The question that might get us to an answer the fastest in regards to masculinity is: What is masculinity for? It is a matter of biological and scientific fact that men, as a rule, are stronger and faster than more prone to physical action (and violence) than women. Feminists like Steinem and Millett have used these facts to paint the Male as something in need of destruction, recast into a mold of their own making, But these feminists may have never asked why men are stronger and faster and more prone to violence. And the answer, to my mind, comes back to women because women can have children and men cannot.

Someone once said that women are life-givers; they are the only ones who can actually bring new life into the world. A drawback to this miracle is that the nine months required between conception and birth is a timeframe in which the woman can be quite vulnerable due to added weight, hormonal changes and the fact that she is responsible for herself and her baby. As antiquated and misogynistic as it sounds, this is the time when a woman requires a protector the most. One just has to look out the window to see this principle in action: when the female cardinal is on her nest and is threatened by a predator, the male draws attention to itself which is the reason why the female is brown and dark red and the male is bright red. His colors are an invitation to predators to eat him so that his mate and their offspring can live.

And this is the secret of masculinity: Men are masculine because they are supposed to be builders and destroyers on behalf of their families. As G.K. Chesterton said, soldiers are supposed to fight not because they hate what is in front of them but because they love what is behind them—parents, siblings, friends and, most importantly, wives, children and sweethearts. This is supposed to be true of all men and not just the ones who are soldiers. In a way, the second and third wave feminists were correct when they talk about toxic masculinity because masculinity can become toxic. The keyword is can; masculinity, left unchecked and unchanneled can be corrupted like anything else in the world. To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo, the greater a thing is, the greater is its potential for evil, if it is corrupted. And the thing, ultimately, that channels men’s masculinity is women and families.

For examples of actually masculinity, perhaps we would think of Charles Ingalls, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father, who helped build the town of De Smet, South Dakota, in part for his family; or of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, who both set their strength and dedication to the founding and re-founding of the country; or there is Theodore Roosevelt who turned his energy not only to the improvement of the United States during his time in political office but also to his own betterment so that he could be a better man, a better husband and a better father.

But, it might be objected, if this is what masculinity is supposed to be, why don’t we see that today? One of the broad reasons is the sexual revolution. The revolution did two things: it took men and women to a lowest common denominator—in this case, sex—in a bid for egalitarianism. Men and women were exactly the same because they were both sexual creatures who desired pleasure and there were to be no more restrictions when it came to finding that pleasure. And when I say no restrictions, I mean no restrictions: in his biography of Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone, Joe Hagan recounts that everyone at the magazine, men and women, were having sex with everyone else whenever the mood struck them wherever they might be. The revolution also mainstreamed pornography which, in the words of Dr. Robert Jensen conditions men to think:

(1)    All women at all times want sex from all men; (2) women enjoy all the sexual acts that men perform or demand, and; (3) any woman who does not at first realize this can be easily turned with a little force, though force is rarely necessary because most of the women in pornography are the imagined “nymphomaniacs” about whom many men fantasize.

Is it any wonder that men like Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken and Eric Schneiderman pop up? Is it any wonder that caught between what pornography tells them they should be and what feminism tells them they should be, that much have masculinity in the West has been uprooted and twisted?

Unlike the radical feminists who see the destruction of masculinity as the Golden Fleece at the end of their quest, the eradication of authentic masculinity would not open up a paradise; there are too many examples of the real results of the loss of masculinity today to have that idea. In 1989, for example, when Marc Lépine (born Gamil Gharbi) ordered the men in a classroom at Montreal’s École Polytechnique to leave the room, all the men, including the professor, did. Lépine proceeded to kill all the women in the room. Not only did the men meekly follow Lépine’s orders but even when they heard the shots from the classroom and even when Lépine left the classroom and left the school, none of them did anything. Another example comes from when a German built ferry, the MV Estonia, sailing from Estonia to Sweden sank in the Baltic Sea. Of the 1,051 passengers, only 139 survived but the bulk of the survivors were young men. One survivor, 19 year old Andrus Maidre, even described how he had scrambled over crying children in order to save himself. Mark Steyn reflected on that, comparing it to the sinking of the Titanic in which the men sacrificed themselves so as to allow the women and children to board the life boats. But even more revealing was the reaction of Roger Kohen of the International Maritime Organization, who said, “There is no law that says women and children first…That is something from the age of chivalry.” That sentiment is the true death of masculinity because if men are not going to be protectors and builders, they will either be predators or nothing at all.

Femininity is good and the world needs it. It needs authentic masculinity just as much.

 

We Need the Humanities

Romano-dance_of_the_muses It is not a secret that the state of American education is not just embarrassing, not just terrible but that it is not even education anymore in the real sense of the word. When Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, suggested on Twitter at the beginning of the month, that American society should focus on three year schools and trade schools instead of the traditional four year liberal arts degrees, it makes a certain amount of sense. https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js“>But Kirk went a step further than that; he also said that students should not be forced to take any humanities classes during their college years.

This was a similar note to the one that Senator Rubio played during the 2016 election when he said that America needed more plumbers instead of more philosophers.
To an extent, I understand this point of view. I have never really experienced it; I was very fortunate (dare I say it?—privileged) in that the school where I earned by bachelor’s degree and the one where I earned my master’s degree were actual schools with actual programs, where the professors encouraged debate and who were honest with their students and with themselves. They were schools and programs where I actually graduated, not just with a piece of paper, but with a little more in my head. But I am very much aware that most schools are not like those. Most schools are parodies except that would be an insult to comedy. Schools offer “fat shaming classes” and history classes like the history of surfing. These are stupid but perhaps not harmful. But some classes step out of history all together and can be more accurately described as propaganda. This year at Yale, for example, the History Department is offering a course entitled “Significance of American Slavery” which will discuss, among other topics, “the perpetuation of slavery and other forms of unfree labor in the twenty-first century” even though there is no unfree labor in 21st century America. It’s worth noting that this class is restricted to only freshmen—eighteen year olds, fresh out of high school with no real understanding of the world. Another course offered by Yale this year is titled “The Theory and Practice of Resistance” which will include “antifascism to terrorism; violence to nonviolence, the New Left to Black Lives Matter.” These classes sit side by side with predictable ones such as “Gender and Sexuality in Modern Europe” and “Race, Empire and Atlantic Modernities.”If this were all the schools were doing, that would be bad enough. But these classes are coming at a time when students are drowning in debt; on average, the graduates of 2016 owe $37,172 per student which was a 6% increase from what the graduates of 2015 owed.

 
Abandoning the humanities, though, is not the solution. It’s not that America, or the world, needs less of the humanities—it is that the humanities have been so corrupted by ideology that they no longer are what they are supposed to be and they do not do what they are supposed to do.
The humanities is a broad umbrella that, according to the Stanford Humanities Center, covers, “the study of how people process and document the human experience.” In other words, they are disciplines, such as history, philosophy, literature, art, music, that study different aspects of society and culture. In our very utilitarian age, we can too easily look at things like literature and art and see them as a waste of time. Knowing about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will not get us the interview that we need for a particular job; studying the Renaissance masters or Cubism will not get us the raise that we need. But that is taking a too narrow view of the world. I say this not simply as someone who has a master’s degree in History (which could, very easily, make some people think that I’m just defending “my field”) but because areas such as history, philosophy and literature are not just extras that can be added on for extra enjoyment, like sugar in tea but are necessary to be a well-rounded person.
History is necessary in our education for a number of reasons. Many great men have said that history is not only important but vital: John Locke called History “the great Mistress of Prudence, and Civil Knowledge” while David Hume described it as “the greatest mistress of wisdom.” A little closer to home, Benjamin Franklin said that good history “could “fix in the Minds of Youth deep Impressions of the Beauty and Usefulness of Virtue of all kinds [and showed the] Advantages of Liberty, Mischiefs of Licentiousness, Benefits arising from the good laws and a due Execution of Justice.” Now just because great men have issued an opinion on something does not make that opinion automatically correct but it should make us stop and think that if these men understood the importance of history, perhaps we should as well. In this case, they were absolutely right. Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. George Orwell, in 1984, showed a possible world where no one remembers the past, a world in which the Party can rewrite the past however and whenever they wish in the Ministry of Truth and thus, control the present and the future. History is a mirror by which we see ourselves since we see the stories that have gone before us and which have led to us—stories of our country, our culture, and, more intimately, our families. Someone who has a better understanding of American history, for example, and the people and events that compose it, will—hopefully—have a better appreciation and love for their country and its uniqueness; a person who knows their family history will be able to see themselves more clearly since they will know from where they came. History also offers pragmatic lessons; officers in training such as at West Point still study the tactics and maneuvers of great generals such as Tuthmosis III of Egypt, Hannibal and Caesar. That leads to another advantage of knowing history; it opens us to the wisdom of the past. If the past is a foreign country, as some have termed it, then the ideas that populate that foreign country are also alien to us, which does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. By opening our minds to these ideas, we can test them and, if true, combine them with our contemporary ideas, thereby creating something truly wonderful.
Philosophy is in just as bad a shape as history. If universities are not whittling or shutting down their Philosophy departments, then they are incorporating the same type of ridiculous classes that History departments are doing; this year at Harvard, for example, PHIL 178—a mid-level course—is about “Inequality” which “will examine some of the main problems thought to be raised by inequality through the lens of several systematic ways of thinking about social justice.” It was classes such as this that Senator Rubio might have had in mind when he made his remarks. But actual philosophy is a useful tool and knowledge to have because it, quite literally, teaches one not what to think but how to think, a skill that is disappearing today. Wrestling with the works and ideas of actual philosophers—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Epicurus, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Descartes, Leibnitz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Reid, Kierkegaard, Russell, Wittgenstein—does two things. First, it expands our minds, showing us that there is more to the world than what we can see and touch. Secondly, it forces us to think, to meet these men’s ideas on their own turf and to understand them and judge them by their merits. We not only learn different modes of thinking and analyzing but also how to think and analyze, an ability that would be extremely useful, especially today. To make a pragmatic argument: the political writings of the Founding Period are chock full of political philosophy on diverse topics such as taxation, representation, natural rights, and the construction of empire. If people cannot follow an argument, cannot analyze ideas, those writings from the 1760s and 1770s might as well be written in ancient Persian for all the good it will do them. But if they do not understand the arguments, then the cannot understand the mentality and passion that went into the Revolution and the Founding Era and the period becomes, instead, whatever their teacher tells them. And we have seen how well that has turned out.
Literature is important, first and foremost, because it is beautiful. Good literature is beautiful and Beauty, being one of the three transcendentals, as Peter Kreeft has said, is something which we desire even if we do not know we desire it; furthermore, it is something of which we cannot have enough. Literature can help us do this; a poem like Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” or Poe’s “Annabelle Lee,” or a book like Sabatini’s Captain Blood or Pyle’s Men of Iron, can make the drab world a little brighter. But there is a more important reason. G.K. Chesterton once said that children needed fairy tales not so much so that that they would learn that dragons exist but that the dragon will always be slayed. Children need to learn this lesson and adults need to be reminded of this lesson. The world has a habit of turning one cynical and we can start to lose the belief that good and evil exist or, even if they do, that good will defeat evil since there seems to be precious little proof of that in the headlines every morning. But literature, like Dracula or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, can remind us in the realm of the imagination—a very powerful and valid place—that while evil is powerful and may sometimes have the upper hand, good will triumph but that for that triumph to take place, it requires us to stand against it. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The only thing required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
The humanities, far from being extras, are necessary, not only because they give us necessary skills or hopes but because they make us well rounded persons. The person who only exercises his arms or the one who only reads comic books (or even just novels) is not a well rounded or balanced person. It’s true the schools are rotten that education in general is rotten but that is not the excuse to dump the humanities. At the very least, we can become our own professors with the help of the Internet and the library. By restoring the humanities to what they are supposed to be, we might be surprised at what we learn.