A Forgotten Resource, the American Spirit
by Joel A. Wendt
- a story in three parts -
Everyone understands that America has a very dominant position in the modern
world. Manypeople see this in a negative way, as if to be dominant is some kind of
flaw or wrongness. We would be in error to think this way. Once we understand the
ordering principles active in social existence, we will come to see that in something like a
nation or a People, the dark and the light always tend to balance. Certainly there are moments
when one form of being will be in control, but always the other is present and latent. One aspect
of the future is that these conditions more and more depend upon how we act. Where once they were instinctive, today they must be more conscious. Bascially, it is up to us.
part one) The American Will: To Sacrifice for the Ideal (just below) This article was published in "transintelligence internationale", Feb-Mar 1999. The two essays below followed in the next two issues.
part two) Economic Tyranny and the American Spirit
part three) The Word, the Idea of Property and the Creation of a True American Culture
- part one -
The American Will: To Sacrifice for the Ideal
Every four years America indulges in what ought to be a great rite of renewal and rededication: the election of our national officers, the President and the vice-president of the United States of America. We ought to wonder, as these rites climax and then pass away, whether the election campaigns have not been the scene of a great sacrilege, rather then one of restoration. Do those who display themselves, seeking the Presidency, and our other major elective offices, truly appreciate the significance and meaning of the office they seek? Political offices in the United States of America are more than just a very powerful political role; they are, in truth, a sacred charge. Few of our presidents, for example, have had the courage and self honesty to face squarely these awesome responsibilities. Teddy Roosevelt called politics a "bloody pulpit" and spoke more accurately then he realized. Political office does offer the opportunity to preach and harangue, to persuade, to divide, to unite, to degrade and to uplift. But there is more to this privileged duty, much more.
There is such a quality to our way of life that is rightly called the American Spirit. There is a truth behind the words the America Soul, the American Character. These have a reality, to which the idea - the American Dream - gives a bare hint. But it has been a long time since someone has spoken or written, with the necessary depth of feeling, of these qualities and characteristics, these extraordinary ideals; that gave light to the minds of our nation's founders, that fuel the dreams of every immigrant, and that are ultimately the real strength of "We the people...".
In spite of many assumptions to the contrary, we are not a nation whose mastery lies in military or economic power. Our true gifts are not born of force or mercantile skill. The roots of what America is, and what being an American demands, cannot be found in might, or inventiveness or in any material thing. Rather, we are a People who have fiercely insisted that certain fundamental ideals are the innate right of every human being. We have insisted and insisted and insisted, through much blood and many wars, that not just liberty, but equality is the birthright of any human born on this Earth.
If we want to really understand what has happened to our country, to our civilization, to our people, then that understanding can be found in just this. We have lost our way. Having won once, twice, perhaps thrice, we relaxed, we rested on our laurels. We mistook the pleasures of our mutual industry - the great plenty we provide for each other - for the ideals that fired our birth, and which have not yet been achieved. And therein lies a grave danger.
Having sat back and become inattentive, we may well lose what part of this dream that has already been won. We strive today for what? Better jobs, more security, better healthcare, lower taxes, millions at the lottery, our own home, our own business, a younger spouse, a safer neighborhood, less fat, more morality. The list is nearly endless. But in striving for these things, we have ceased to drive ourselves from the fire of will of who we truly are. We have forgotten the fundamentals out of which America came to be, and without which we would not have what we do have. And forgetting this we put all at risk.
Are the homeless equal, or the gays and lesbians, the new immigrants, the ghetto youth, the working poor, the pregnant teens, the fostered children? Those who claim so lie, and they should be ashamed to do so. It is so easy to point a finger and say that this one or that one is the evil whose rot and stench disturbs our passive slumber. But these accusing fingers only reveal the raw prejudice of those who point. A much more real evil of our time is our abandonment of the ideals which sing in the heart and light up the mind when the name America is spoken rightly.
Do we want a more effective foreign policy, and more respect on the international scene? Then we must stand up again for our ideals. Do we want an economy that works for the many instead of just for the few? Then we must stand up again for our ideals. Do we want civility in our cities and healthy life in the countryside? Then we must stand up again for our ideals. Without our passionate engagement these ideals are empty phrases, a lonely noise lost in the coming night.
Life is not meant to be easy. Every bit of human wisdom tells us this is true. But the human spirit is equal to the hardships, the human spirit overcomes the obstacles. Our way of life is not yet the real American dream. We have not arrived at what America is capable of being. We have not achieved what it is our destiny to achieve. And it ought to frighten us to the core of our being, as a People, the extent to which we presently fail to understand our unmet tasks and our increasingly dire, yet unacknowledged, peril.
Now we all know that this which has been written above is true. We know it our hearts, for this is the very same spiritual nourishment we took in when we were taught these ideals as children, in school, home, and church. This knowing is why we suffer so when the candidates arrive and seek to drive us apart from each other, seek to emphasize differences and point fingers and lay blame. We know their words are empty, and that they appeal not to that higher nature we enjoy and which is eternally willing to serve the ideal, but rather to that lower being, the self satisfied, self indulgent parts of our souls. What good are leaders who take us on such a course, and how dangerous their ways that they direct us in these troubled times not by the star of our destiny as a people, but rather by the whisperings of the ancient dark that lurks inside us all.
This nation, this people, will not fail because it has been ill lead, but because its people have not the courage to realize in themselves when the time has come to put the differences aside and rediscover the majestic powers latent in our true ideal being. We will fail because we can't talk to each other about what we really care about, except as that lies closest to our own selfish concerns. If we cannot find within ourselves that realm of soul which cares for strangers and recognizes the truth of "whatsoever ye do unto the least of these my brethren, ye do so also unto me"; then we will not find what we really need for ourselves, which is company and sharing and to not stand alone against whatever rough fate that waits. Divided, events will destroy us. In community, no evil can win the day. Don't we know this when we sing: "...and crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.".
Modern presidential politics in America is disconnected from our true ideal roots. It's as if politicians have never actually thought about what America is, or how it came into existence, or what its future potential might be. We hear many cliché's, but few words are spoken where the speaker truly feels in their heart a relationship to the American Spirit - to the ideal of brotherhood, so eloquently revealed in the mood of the song: America the Beautiful.
Many of the Founders of our Nation had no trouble seeing the hand of God in events both large and small. And they felt no embarrassment in calling upon His aid. The special marvel is that they approached this subject - the role of God in the fortunes of a Nation and a People - in a way that did not divide the world into those who are morally right and those who are morally wrong. The Founder's religious nature was mature, and not an adolescent ploy from which to posture possession of a higher moral ground. And, we will be very foolish if we think that the moral nature of our Founders is not related to the high ideals which moved them, and the very extraordinary results they produced when they created our form of government.
The question for us is this: If we wish to reconnect ourselves to the root ideals expressed by the words "the American Spirit", what, if any, relationship do we need to take toward our own religious and moral natures? This is not a question we dare ask others. This is not something we can demand of others. This is something we have to face within ourselves, and out of those answers we individually come to, then we are able to proceed. Let us consider this crucial matter more closely.
There is a world of difference between proclaiming God is on our side, - that this or that war or act is morally just - and, between asking God's support in the endeavors we ourselves undertake. In the first instance we are in denial of our real doubts, and use the assertion of God's blessing to bolster our view in the face of the criticism of others. We are arrogant rather then humble. In the second instance we recognize our doubts, we accept responsibility for our actions (rather then justification), and through prayer plead for the Deity's benediction. This difference in approach is no simple matter, for whether we believe in God or not, anyone who thinks on the question knows that both, our thoughts and the success of our acts of will, depend upon our attitude, especially our moral or ethical attitude.
Regardless of our beliefs, it is a very wise statement in the Christian Gospels: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". "Caesar" is the equivalent of the government, and if we think on it we will realize that our government is what it is out of what we "render" it, in the broadest sense of that idea.
We also know this, that the very best of our leaders have been humble before God and never self righteous or arrogantly certain of their course. The politician certain of his course and of God's blessing on it, is a very dangerous human being.
A Nation, a People, is something quite different from a political party, or a point of view, or a cause, or a sitting government. America is a Nation, and Americans are a People, and these other political fashions are just that, things which will pass away. A Nation and a People are a living thing, and what a Nation is depends upon what its People are, and what they give out of themselves to that Nation.
But today, all we seem to manage is to "render" a demand for "our" rights. Yet, every right has a correlative duty. If we suffer at all a mysterious loss of political will its root cause lies in this: we are a People focused only on rights and not on duties.
At this moment in time we are a house divided against itself; and we are dangerously close to that about which Lincoln warned us in the Gettysburg Address. All those, who have died in the cause of liberty and equality and brotherhood, may have died in vain, if we do not again find our way to common cause with each other, to a common understanding of what the American Nation is, and who the American People are, and where our own individual responsibilities lie.
The crux of the matter is not what the politicians do, not what the presidential candidates say or promise, or what happens in Washington. The crucial factor is how are we toward each other. No leader makes us a People, no leader makes a Nation. We either find that place inside ourselves - that well-spring from which Peoples and Nations are born and nourished - or we do not. Freedom bears fruit not in the fact that we can do anything we want, but rather in the fact that if we do choose to act in the right ways and if we do choose to act together, we can then in fact take another step forward toward that yet to be realized ideal, a "...government of the People, by the People and for the People..."
In the 1996 presidential primaries in New Hampshire, on television, some unusual campaign ads were played. If one was not watching carefully it appeared as if a newscaster was announcing that some terrorist groups had obtained atomic weapons and were threatening to use them. As the ads proceeded, the emphasis changed to reveal that this was only being suggested as a dire possibility, and that we, as a People, needed to recognize that future leaders of this country would have to face many terrible decisions, and we should judge the various candidates for the Presidency accordingly, as to whether they had the capacity to act wisely in the face of the rising darkness of the times.
Everyone is aware, of course, that political leaders are now sold to their People like so much soap. Political campaigns use highly trained advertising and publicity experts and, as well, the most modern techniques. Ads, such as the ones described above, are normally first shown to focus groups, groups of ordinary voters, in order to test their reactions to various images and key words and phrases. For the most part, the intellectual reaction is irrelevant, and the emotional response the more significant. Research has revealed that if our emotions can be aroused, what we think, when we take the time to reflect, is of little importance.
One of the most powerful emotions is fear. Advertising routinely arouses this emotion when it suggests that use of a certain product will make us more beautiful, or handsome or happier and so forth. Here our fear of not being liked or of not fitting in is aroused. Our human social needs are thus used to manipulate us into buying certain products. For mature individuals, this deception is often seen through, but the young of our Nation lack the experiences necessary by which to make the needed discriminations. The whole cultural environment is filled then with this message: Unless you purchase these products, you will not be an adequate or fulfilled human being. We should ask: What is "rendered" our Nation by such acts?
There is another aspect to these facts, an aspect which is important to appreciate, but which also makes us face certain things in ourselves, things we often wish to avoid acknowledging. Advertisers, and politicians and their campaign staffs, also do what they do, because it is their intention to give us what we want. While they do try to manipulate desire they also follow those desires and needs as they appear as a natural part of who we are. Politicians go out of their way to conduct polls in order to understand what we as a People appear to want, so that the politician may then appear to offer to us that same thing. What this all means is that what happens in a political campaign also serves the same function as a mirror does, reflecting without bias who we are and what we want. So if we don't like what the politician is saying and doing, we need to understand that they are often simply attempting to feed back to us exactly what they think we ourselves have expressed.
If we can step back a little, from the campaign process, from the issues, the points which seem to divide us, we might notice that the whole event is a very special ritual. In effect, every four years, when the Presidential campaigns heat up, we practice a rite of self knowledge. Who we think we are, as a Nation and as a People, comes to expression. And not just in the words or ideas, but most especially in how the campaigns are conducted - in what is done, there comes to expression some element of the American Spirit. Some questions we can then ask ourselves are: Do I like what I see? Am I really such a creature of darkness as sometimes seems expressed, or is there somewhere a hidden light, wanting, needing to return to prominence?
Politicians are like chameleons. They change colors in accord with the background against which they appear. But the sad truth is that this background is in large part a reflection of the American psyche. Are our politics in a sorry state? Yes, but the politician is only the mirror of something inside us as a People. It is we who are in a sorry state. We no longer believe, we no longer have faith in our ideals or in the necessity of sacrifice in the pursuit of those ideals. We no longer participate as a vital force in the political life of our Nation, and we are therefore, as a political body, more than we might wish or acknowledge, lost, alone, and in the dark. And no one but we ourselves can change this dire situation or the tragedy that awaits if things remain the same. How long will it be until "We the People..." are ready to fire the light again?
There is an art and a craft to governing a People. Columnist George Will wrote a book, attempting to touch on this, which he called: Statecraft as Soulcraft. In this book he quoted Daniel Monyhan as saying that he had worked for four different administrations, and never once participated in a discussion of ideas. Now, no one of us would let an untrained surgeon operate on ourselves or one of our children, yet we routinely place the guidance of our ship of state in the hands of individuals whose only skill is getting elected; i.e. the mastery of appearing to meet our expectations of what a political leader is, but which in reality is the mastery of appearing to be like ourselves, and that most often in an unredeemed state. If they don't make it easy on us, if they don't cater to our desires, if they don't subvert their own character in order to placate our most base needs, then they don't get elected.
The truth is that we have been asleep and we've gotten the politics we deserve. This statement is not made as an accusation, but rather as the base point in the acceptance of our real responsibility. We dare not lie to ourselves about this.
"A nation of the People, by the People, and for the People..." is not something easily attained. We don't have it yet. And the mystery is that the essence of this ideal is not to be won through who we elect to go to Washington. It rests in our own hands and in our own communities, and in how we conduct ourselves toward each other. How do we live together? What higher or lower qualities of our nature appear just here? Is there something we can do in our individual communities that can have an effect on politics in accord with our real needs? Do we have more power than just the vote? Amidst the seeming growing darkness, is there a way for the American Spirit again to shine?
I believe this is true. There is a possibility, there is a chance for the ordinary people, for "We the People..." to become active in a simple way and yet produce a profound effect. To understand, how this can be, is not so simple, but yet not too complex. Bear with me a moment longer.
Few of us would pass a burning house by and not stop to render some help. But suppose the "burning" process was happening very slowly, and that we ourselves were in the "burning" house. Suppose lots of people were agitated by the heat, but not aware of the fire, and thus they ran around exclaiming, its too hot in here, and pointing fingers at others and saying, "you're too hot, get out of here, your burning me up." Imagine it is not a house, but a civilization that is on fire, that is burning up, but yet burning so slow that no one quite yet notices in a clear way what is happening.
Isn't this what we see on the news and hear on the talk shows. Many of us in our behaviors are "too hot", too agitated. We demand our rights. We sue at the drop of a hat. We are rude and too easily angry. We are intolerant of differences. We are confused and uncertain in our souls. In the big cities, where human beings are most concentrated, the "temperature" and the confusion and agitation are even higher.
This "heating" up is part of a long term process that has been going on for many years, perhaps hundreds, depending on how broad we want to make our perspective. The traditions which normally guide behaviors in organized societies have been dying away in Western Culture for a long time. The loss of "family values", which seems fascinating to some, is simply the modern appearance of a long term social process. The individual has become stronger than the social forces which once defined his or her role and set the standards for behaviors in many communities.
Blacks no longer accept their oppression, even if it was, for a time, a norm. Women refuse to be limited by the roles implicit in their capacity to bear children. Gays refuse any longer to hide in the "closet". Human sexuality demanded it be an acceptable topic of conversation. The Third World threw over the colonial powers. Ethnic groups demand to have their own governments. Businesses see themselves as no longer tied to a Nation, and to that Nation's goals or needs, or standards of practice. Terrorists refuse to acknowledge any code of honor for a warrior at all anymore. There are no more rules. The individual makes up his own. The whole world burns, and in the process most of tradition and most of civilization go up with the flames. Yet there still is a degree of order in some places. America is not yet Bosnia. Social chaos does not yet rule everywhere, and may yet be held back and overcome. Americans are a People of possibilities.
What we need to do is something that requires some degree of effort, yet at the same time has qualities of effortlessness. It is not a question of changing who we are, but of being more deeply who and what we are by nature - by, in a sense, unleashing in a more powerful way the true American Spirit.
If we change the background against which the politician hides himself in his chameleon-like nature, then he is forced to change. If there comes to be more depth, more wisdom to who we are as a People, out of our own forces, then the politician must follow. In effect we are his religion, we are his dogma, we are his god. Where we go, he follows. We don't need to elect a new kind of leader. If we deepen our citizenship, the actual practices of being "We the People...", then everything else changes from necessity. And, therein lies the real power of a free People.
If we were to observe the political campaigns at one remove, with some objectivity, rather then as someone with a set point of view, we can come to see that the campaign is a struggle to define what is important in the moment. One candidate makes his issue a flat tax, another fear of terrorism, a third his own record, a fourth his opponent's weakness. To some this is seen as leadership. Yet, as we noticed before, the reality is that the politician and his campaign experts look to us, to see in what way they can put a hook in our emotions for their own benefit. In a sense we could say that the struggle is to see who can define the dialogue during this every four-year rite of self-examination.
In this struggle to determine the dialogue, there are many players: the candidates, the political parties, the various factions of the press, the many interest groups (businesses, unions, pseudo-religious pressure groups, foreign powers and so forth). All these bombard our consciousness, as a People, using the media, in particular television. While, at the same time, we continue our usual course, struggling to survive amidst the social chaos of modern life.
But these simple facts hide a remarkable possibility. If we act in a new way, a way which is yet just a deeper expression of who we are, then it is we who can determine the nature of the dialogue and all the others then will have to dance to our tune.
What confuses us in the face of this possibility, is the assumption that the most important thing that needs to happen is struggle over the issues. About taxation, abortion, capital punishment, welfare and so forth, we all have opinions. The result is that during this ritual of self- examination, we over-concentrate on what divides us, how we are separate and different from each other. We see this as a rightful expression of our freedoms, which it is. But, as we saw earlier in this essay, all rights and no duties is what is destroying our way of life. The vital nature of our form of government has been dangerously depleted, because we no longer "render" what it needs: Our driving unity in the expression of the pursuit of the ideal.
The dialogue must change. The dialogue must belong to us, to "We the People...". And the dialogue must be about who we are as a Nation and as a People, who believe in, and dream, and will the becoming of a political and social environment where prejudice and enmity no longer dominate and instead exists a way of life based on tolerance, friendship and the common bond of sister and brotherhood.
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