Friday, May 20, 2016

Reflections and Repetitions

Some leaders don’t leave a legacy, they leave a residue.

“No,” she said. “It is not right. It is not liberty. It is not freedom. It is not justice. And it will not be until we are all treated equally, until we all enjoy real equality.”
“Equality?” he said. “All treated equally?” He turned to look out the window. A belligerent bluejay landed on the edge of the birdbath, scattering the three sparrows and the finch frolicking in the shallows. “Only death treats all equally. Men just do the best they can.”

Distressing though it is, I realize that we are deep in the madness of another election cycle (they are all a minor form of psychosis, you understand). I understand as well that that means there will be an endless fury of comments, provocations, musings and memes across all mediums --- television, radio, print, internet, telepathy, all of them --- and that, given the frailties of my own intellect I will be moved --- compelled, perhaps --- on occasion to respond to same. Let me then establish for myself this first principle of the discussion, absent which I will endeavor with all my strength to restrain my tongue: there is no such thing as an Italian American, there is no such thing as an Asian American, there is no such thing as an African American, there is no such thing as a Polish American, there is no such thing as a German American (continue as you will); there is only an American of Italian descent, an American of Asian descent, an American of African descent, an American of Polish descent, an American of German descent (continue as must we all).

(At the Museum, standing before the El Greco, Christ on the Cross with a View of Toledo)
Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani...All history is the echo exploded from Golgotha, Christ’s final cry of agony and despair cascading as though atomically through all the intersecting revolutions of the temporal --- irrational, salvific, and deafening. We…all mankind…are swept up in its wake, winnowed in its vortex.

There is a difference between the words “tolerance” and “acceptance”, and the effort to make them synonymous, whether the imprecision be the result of a deliberate ignorance in service of a desired end or simply of sluggishness of thought, lies at the root of much discord. That I acknowledge that you steadfastly hold as absolutely true the position you take in regard to the structure of the universe and of the societies within it and that I assent to occupy that same universe and those same societies peaceably alongside of you constitutes tolerance; that I hold as true that selfsame thought and position constitutes acceptance. Both civic virtue and religious charity compel absolutely toward tolerance, neither compels absolutely toward acceptance. And we would be well advised to realize that of the two it is tolerance that demands reciprocity.

He who lives his life to its close and has not after some fashion found God (or been found by Him) has squandered his existence.

The fruit of one’s own labor is increase, the fruit of the labor of others is profit.

The function of government is to make manifest the constellated virtue of the governed, though more often than to be wished it simply makes manifest the lack thereof.

Long imagined as the world’s melting pot, America becomes daily ever more likely its winnowing house, its threshing floor.

A profound faith informing a stubborn and wide ranging intelligence tempered by humility and doubt is the single most reliable protector of the separation between church and state, a fact we need keep in mind in considering candidates for our highest court. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” The reason capable of making that critical discrimination is a relatively rare instrument, its master a rarer maestro yet. In practicing his art he is most often called upon to act as though he were chaplain to a congregation of atheists, serving at one moment as purgatory's concierge and at another as hell's bellhop.

“Vox Populi, Vox Dei. This antique aphorism, subject over the centuries to a fluid range of political interpretation, is often in our day deployed in defense of the purest ideals of democracy. Notwithstanding the almost casual common acceptance of its centrality to the governance of a free people, unbiased observation suggests that the axiom be more closely examined. Even an American, the soul most ardent in the application of the principle, is forced upon reflection to conclude that the persistent clamor of the people has not yielded the comity one would assume to be an expression of the voice of God. Perhaps then it is the case that the voice of the people is too often raised less as the echo of God’s voice and more as a response to it…and the state of the polity is a measure of the disparity between the two.”  A. Burnbridge (from a lecture “Syllogisms and Stumblingblocks” at the University of the Americas, 1997 )

I want to live in a world where I never again have to hear anyone say, “Politics is a dirty business.” Clearly, this is not that world, nor, I suspect, will it ever be. Here, march though they may beneath the banner of “leadership,” politicians aspire only to power, the ability not to conduce to unity but rather to compel it by force. The sole valid purpose of political power --- and thus the only justification of the social hierarchy that it establishes (or dismantles) --- is the elaboration and maintenance of the common good. But the fulfilment of that purpose demands as prerequisite the effort to define the notion of “common good.” This effort constitutes civic education, and in this world “civics,” a nobler instruction, has been replaced by the more Machiavellian “political science.”  The teaching of civics creates citizens, the teaching of political science creates politicians. A society of the free can exist without politicians; without citizens it cannot.
Citizenship is localized; it presupposes both place and sovereignty and is specific to them. One is a citizen of a sovereign nation. That one can in any genuine sense be a “citizen of the world” is a thought so vapid as to decay rapidly into incoherent delusion, comforting, vacant, and dangerous. Certainly it can be asserted that the world is indeed, in an expanded sense at least, a “place,” but that it is, ever has been, or indeed ought to be understood to constitute a single sovereignty (speculation on the nature of the divine aside) numbs the reason and dissolves the very notion of citizenship. The world in which we find ourselves comprises an assemblage of nations --- individual and unique entities sovereign and self-willed --- destined, perhaps, to be ultimately an organic unity but failing yet the attainment even of genuine community. Globalization, one world community, the brotherhood of man, the unity of human consciousness, the beneficent interconnectedness of all human action, the butterfly effect…pipe dreams all and all the more dangerous as presently imagined. Perhaps the state of being hinted at by such concepts is indeed devoutly to be desired. That the consciousness of man --- inherently flawed, inherently unstable, inherently divided --- is capable of creating for itself that state of being is a grotesque delusion.
It is likely that the nation is the maximum expanded form of social organization of which man is capable, just as it is certain that the family is the root form from which all other forms derive. The unity of the family, the cohesion of its bonding, is an ontological fact as self-evident as the binding forces of physical reality. The binding forces of all further social elaborations are not so organic. They derive not from any root structure innate of humankind but represent, in the individual and thus in the aggregate, acts of will, intentional shapings of the direction of consciousness, whether thoughtful or casual. The society they constellate is a choice, not a fate, and rests not on resignation but on assent. And I doubt deeply the ability of the individual to extend that assent beyond national coherence.