Our Great Country

We hear a good deal of late about making our country “great” again. But we hear very little about what that might entail. Just what is “greatness” when it comes to nations, anyway? If Honoré de Balzac is to be believed, it is the principles, the things the people of that nation hold dear, that makes nations great. We might also call them “virtues,” to use a much neglected word. And if we are to make America great again I would assume that this means determining what the principles, or virtues, were that were prevalent at the founding of this country and attempting to restore them to life. According to American historian Clinton Rossiter in his book Seedtime of The Republic those principles prevalent at the founding of this nation were such things as industry, frugality, humility, piety, charity, honesty, love of liberty, self-reliance, courage, and community spirit — what Rossiter called “that special American blend.”

Henry Steele Commager, another American historian, was asked when this country celebrated its bicentennial if he could put his finger on the one thing that differentiated the country in 1996 from the country in 1776 and he said it was the deeply felt concern of the citizens in 1776 with the future, with future generations. In 1996 we were preoccupied with today. I will develop this theme in a bit, but at this point I would like to quote from a letter written in 1775 by the Rev. William Smith that provides broader perspective on the mind-set of so many of his countrymen in that era:

“Look back, therefore, with reverence look back to the times of ancient virtue and renown. Look back to the mighty purposes which your fathers had in view when they traversed a mighty ocean and planted this land. Recall to your minds their labors, their toils, their perseverance, and let their divine spirit animate you in all your actions.

“Look forward to a distant posterity. . . Think that on you may depend whether this great country, in ages hence, shall be filled and adorned with a virtuous and enlightened people; enjoying liberty and all its concomitant blessings . . . or covered with a race of men more contemptible than the savages that roam the wilderness.”

Now, putting aside his use of the politically incorrect term “savages,” and ignoring, if we can, the attempts that followed to eradicate native people from this continent, we might learn something about what it was that made this country great at the time it was experiencing the growing pains that accompany the founding of a great nation. We can do no better than to reflect on the list that Rossiter provided us with, the “special American blend.”

And what, we might ask, to follow-up on the hints that Commager gave us more than thirty years ago, would characterize America in our day? I would suggest that the qualities that define us today — I hesitate to call them “principles” or much less “virtues” —  are such things as a predominant materialism, concern for physical comfort, competitiveness, desire for success (measured in dollars), conformity, physical activity, efficiency, mastery of the world around us, pragmatism, and a fixation on “progress” and profits. And to make the point with emphasis, two years ago those electors who elect politicians determined that the man who embodied those qualities was to be elected to the highest office in the land, a man who embodied those qualities that characterize themselves.

In a word, if we are to make this country great again, we chose the wrong leader. But it will take more than the right leader to turn the tide that is sweeping this country today and return us to a time when things were as they appeared and people looked beyond themselves — a time when “civic virtue” was something all (or most) embraced wholeheartedly as they looked to the future.

 

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Small Minds

Many years ago, in my misspent youth, I read an article in the Sunday paper, written by a Nun, that developed the notion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. I have always thought that was an interesting notion and it may have been (in a small way) the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in philosophy. At the very least, I didn’t want my mind to atrophy and I thought philosophy was the sort of subject that could keep my mind alive well into my dotage: questions that don’t have answers! Well, here I am.

But, with the exception of a few bright people who post blogs and comment from time to time about the issues, I appear to be surrounded by small minds discussing people. I am speaking of the elections, of course, in which ideas are scarce if present at all and events seem to have been ignored as well — unless they reveal a scandal about the parties involved. This election is all about people and the ad hominem fallacy abounds. I speak of that logical fallacy that redirects attention to the character of the person advancing an argument rather than dealing with the argument itself. One of the candidates, who will not be mentioned, glories in attacking not only his opponent but anyone who walks, rolls, or crawls and has the gall to disagree with him. I cannot remember any candidate in my lifetime who seems to enjoy attacking persons as does this man. And he has a great many followers who seem to enjoy it as well.

Politics has always been a bit dirty even from the get-go. And the ad hominem attack on the speaker has always been there in some form or other. But this election takes the cake and wins hands-down: it seems to have achieved a new low. We are scraping through the bottom of the barrel!

When one reflects back on the days when the Constitution was being considered for adoption the country (very small at the time, of course) was abuzz about the balance between states and nation; there was considerable fear of giving up the power that resided in the small relatively homogeneous states to a nation of people who disagree with one another about many of the important issues of the day. Where have those ideas gone? Where is that passion for thought on a large scale, a scale beyond the self? Why can’t people discuss issues with those whose opinion differs from their own? Why do we have to cast aspersions against those who disagree with us rather than listen to what they have to say?

When the Federalist Papers were written by three men of genius they were published in all the major newspapers of New York state and everyone worried whether by adopting the concept of a united country they would be giving up much of the power they had amassed as one of the most prosperous states in the colonies. Everyone who could read — and many who could not — discussed the ideas and thought about the issues involved. It is sobering to realize that those people were willing to think outside the box, to imagine a united country and the positive force it could be in the world. They saw beyond themselves and the present moment and made determinations based on the question of what would be best in the long run.

When this country celebrated its bicentennial in 1976 Henry Steele Commager, the great American historian, was asked what single thing differentiated the folks in this country when the Constitution was written and discussed from the people of America two hundred years later he answered quickly: in those days they thought about the future, about their children and their grandchildren. We no longer think about those things because we are fixated on ourselves at the present moment. That was in 1976. How much worse has it become in the interim? One can only wonder.

In any event, the answer to this question is revealed to some degree by the present lack of discussion in the political arena about the ideas that are so important to the future of this country. Instead we hear about every mistake (real or imagined) one or the other candidate has made in his or her lifetime (or what mistakes their significant other might have made). And it’s not just the candidates, either. The media glories in gossip and citizens who are about to go the voting booth are immersed in talk about the personalities and character (or lack of character) of those who are running for political office.  “I hate him,” or “I can’t stand her.”

We should be talking about qualifications, not personalities. We are lost in blather about people and have lost sight of the issues that confront us all and which will determine the course of this country for the next generation at least. Our minds have shrunk: they are small indeed.