I solemnly promise that I have no intention of beginning where I left off last week. Let yesterday’s rain run out to sea; I have no desire to thrash and wallow in it until a morass is created. I will add only (without name or specific reference—and there was none last time, either) that drunkenness is a great evil, and that alcohol serves few purposes in our society that advance mature conduct, let alone physical health. Even the innocent would be more secure in their reputation’s defense if they were well known never to bend the elbow. As for sexual impropriety, alcohol feeds that as motor oil makes an engine’s parts turn and purr. Yet we allow adult children scarcely arrived at the age of consent to stage keg parties on campuses whose dorms are all coed and where (in the case of the hallowed Yale, to drop a single name) we formally organize something called Sex Week.
These observations are leading elsewhere than down the road I have already traveled: I shall keep my promise. I mean to underscore here only that our entire society, no matter which corridor of our cultural maelstrom you may choose to ride in your flimsy skiff, is a mess. It’s difficult for me to say that this “culture” characterizes the greatest nation the world has ever seen. The one thing that could generally be said on our behalf, as Americans, was that we allowed our people to fail: to pick their personal way, to travel it a while, and to assess whether they thought themselves to be approaching a worthy destination. We did not force entire masses of citizens to be shoemakers or soldiers or farmers for generation after generation; and though a New England Puritan might fine you stiffly for taking a leisurely walk on the Sabbath, you could always pull up stakes and move to Mr. Penn’s colony or strike out for Ohio. As invasive and dictatorial as local ordinances could be, they were local, and you could pass a judgment upon them with your feet.
We have not even that degree of virtue to our credit any longer. Our professional critics in Academe will protest that we never had it—that the institution of slavery, the genocidal suppression of Native Americans, and the treating of women as second-class citizens were the oppressive underside of an experiment that has only become more apparent and more benign in growing more Orwellian. So what if you are required to bake goodies for occasions considered by your religion to be abominable… so what if you are required to register for a program of mainstream high-tech health care though your approach to health is traditional? You’re a pawn, yes—but you’re a well-nourished little pawn. Big Brother is looking after you. Did slavemasters look after their slaves?
Actually, they did, for the most part. The narratives collected by Roosevelt’s WPA interviewers from old folks born into slavery can make very disturbing reading on this score, for many of them will sum up with a comment like, “Things was better in slave days.” Large slaveholders could well afford to whip a runaway to death now and then as a means of intimidating the hundreds remaining to them. Most slaveholders had but a few souls in their charge, however, and economic factors would have advised restraint even if the voice of common humanity had fallen mute. A good many slaves in the latter situation apparently enjoyed reasonably generous housing, food, clothing, health care, and even time off by the standard of the day. The institution itself was demeaning, to be sure—at least as much to the owner as to the slave (a fact well recognized by Alexis de Tocqueville). Its many specific opportunities for abuse, however (such as the detestable practice of whipping, still quite alive in the Islamic world), were not universally exploited—were almost never exploited, in fact, by planters of modest acreage who owned only a cook, a nurse, and a groom.
Again, whither do I wander? To this point: that our slaveholding past might have served us as a cautionary tale against growing arrogant, yet need not and should ever have been cited as evidence that American society was among the vilest in world history. Point taken? We were not “great”, as in sublimely resistant to ordinary human foibles… what folderol! But neither were we more savage than those we called savages. Read deep into John Young’s narrative, recorded by Frank Dobie in A Vaquero of the Brush Country, and you will find a description of several Apache women wandering separate from the tribe with their noses cut off. These were convicted and punished adulteresses. Their disgrace extended far beyond wearing a scarlet “A”.
What distresses me—and, to be honest, downright irritates me—about our society is its tendency (so brilliantly illustrated in accepted teaching about the South and the Civil War) to distance itself from natural human shortcomings and project these upon an Evil Other. The antebellum South was nothing other than a proto-Nazi state, to read our history books and listen to our professional mouthpieces on the subject. You’d never suspect that the slaves were imported by Northern ships or that several Northern states, indeed, continued the legal practice of slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation. Not only that… but all Southerners owned slaves, it seems, and all slaveowners bullied and beat their poor human possessions. The effort invested in transferring general failures of the society—and even in manufacturing failures for the exercise—to an isolated social segment has all the ritual characteristics of scapegoating. We do that a lot, it seems to me. Every human community does it to some degree… but we have a long, undistinguished history of indulging the practice.
Why are we loading all of our frustration with the electoral process onto Russia’s back? For that matter, Russia “invaded” Crimea only after a Crimean plebiscite overwhelmingly expressed support for reunion; and the specific “ignition event” that touched off the initial fighting in Ukraine was the violent overthrow of a duly elected president by a pro-European mob. I’m sure that my personal values resemble the “mob’s” more than Putin’s on most points… but the situation is vexed and complex. Why must we oversimplify and caricature, selecting villains and then convicting them for clouding up our day?
Most of you will know that our own president has actually been accused in certain official quarters of creating bad weather. Light the torches! Bring out the noose!
We have a culture-wide problem with drugs, booze, and sexual excess (to finish where I began), so… find some men! Any man will do (unless, that is, he’s bankrolling our “find some men” lynch party). Let’s not apply scrutiny to our campus orgies or—still less—to the accelerating trend of decriminalizing recreational drugs. Let’s most certainly not reconsider the policy long advanced by our best and brightest that sex, like a six-pack, is pure joy if practiced “safely” (a condom being the equivalent here of a call to Uber, apparently). Young women seem to be having so much sex that the condoms are bursting or falling short in supply, with rampant pregnancy being the inconvenient consequence; so now the villain is a Stone Age religious bloc that seeks to enslave and “Nazi down on” women by impeding abortions. And meanwhile… and meanwhile, the young men who impregnated the young women are all the equivalent of rapists. Let’s not forget to hunt them down as we hunt for good sex under every bush and then locate our nearest Planned Parenthood drive-thru.
No, I kind of don’t think this is the greatest nation the world has ever seen. I doubt that the world has seen any great nations at all, unless there’s one unpopulated by human beings somewhere that I overlooked. And, if I may qualify my peeved remarks last Wednesday, I cannot recommend a straightforward “civil abortion” of those of its citizens who make me ashamed. It’s tempting to imagine the flippant farewell, “Now, with that forty percent flushed out of our system, we can get back to the greatness that is truly us”… but we would only get back to where we are now, without some deliberate plan. We collaborated in the creation of our disgusting neighbors. We would do well to figure out exactly how we did so.
Secession—and I am quite serious—wouldn’t have been a bad modus operandi here. Form a much looser confederation of states with little more than a defensive alliance uniting them; then let those that want to create a wonderland without rules search their own resources for ways to clean the human feces off the sidewalks. They would be back, apologizing hat-in-hand, within months: they would have been forced to grow up. So for the Southern states: all would have repented of their secession within five years if left to explore its consequences. But, no… we couldn’t allow them to fail—better to burn them down than to let them make a mistake. Thanks to that precedent, we probably can’t resort to the “secession” strategy today, either. So we’ll all go down together as we forbid each other to stumble.