Thursday, November 25, 2010

Stephen Vincent Benet Western Star

The American writer, Stephen Vincent Benet, is not forgotten but he is not remembered nor read enough in 21st century America.
A writer of fiction, essays and poetry, he appears to be most remembered for his short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" which has been made into a play for the theater and for the radio.
In 1928, he published "John Brown's Body", a book length narrative poem about the civil war.  The book was very popular and well received by most critics.
Mr. Benet had plans to write an even longer narrative poem about the United States but an early death in 1943 (age 44) cut short his plan.  He had proceed far enough to have one book on this subject  published posthumously called "Western Star".
This excerpt is from that book and appropriate to the day of Thanksgiving.
 "And then, no man knows why,
there came the savages, smiling, bringing corn.

Corngivers, why do you give
That these men live?
They think that you are devils of the wood
And you have fought them once and will again,
Yet, in their last extremity, you come
As if in answer to some forest drum
To bring the bounty never understood,
To bring the food that saves the starving men.

Gods?  You have seen them die like truculent fools
Where anyone one of you would live and thrive
And, if they have the iron and the tools,
The powder and the shot,
These things avail them not.
Their magic cannot keep their best alive.

Pity?  Why should you pity them or care?
They will be greedy, soon, when they are fed.
Look in their eyes and see
The felling of the tree,
The great vine-twisted tree of Powhatan.

Look in their eyes and see the hungry man
Moving with ax and fire upon the wood,
Spoiling the rivers, digging up the dead.
This is your own destruction that you bear
In venison and corn
and the red Autumn leaf
That falls before the snow,
This is the doom of werowance and chief.
This is the breaking of the hazel-bow.

And yet, before it happens, and the great
Passionate drum of wrong begins to sound,
Ere the dead lie upon the bloody ground
And the chief's sons lie drunken in the street,
Let us remember how this happened, too,
And how the food was given, not in hate,
Liking or dazzled wonder, but, it seems,
As if compelled by something past all plans,
Some old barbaric courtesy of man's,
Wild as his heart, red as his hunter's dreams,
-And for no cause the white men ever knew.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Black Friday

"It is a work of art,  that shop window,  a breeder of anarchism, a destroyer of contentment, a second feast of Tantalus."

Edna Ferber (1911)

Monday, November 22, 2010

The American Mission

Russell Kirk, in a lecture delivered for the Heritage foundation in the early 1980's addressed the question whether America had "a mission, providentially ordained."
Kirk believed it did and, without expressing his own concept of the mission, aligned himself with the ideas of Orestes Brownson (1805-1876) whom he describes as "a considerable political philosopher, a seminal essayist on religion, a literary critic of discernment, a serious journalist with fighting vigor, and one of the shrewder observers of American charaacter and institutions."
Brownson described the mission as "not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual - the sovreignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.  In other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectrical union of authority and liberty, of the natural rights of man and those of society.  The Greek and Roman republics asserted the state to the detriment of individual freedom;  modern republics either do the same, or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the state.  The American republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other."

Kirk refines this by writing "The American Republic has the mission of reconciling liberty and law."
This is a centrist position, somewhat like favoring a mixed economy.   It seems reasonable.

 In today's fervid political environment, some on the Right challenge the opposition with the charge of not believing  in American Exceptionalisim.  This term is very subjective in nature but at the present time it seems to mean that "America is the greatest country in the world now and forever."  That is not a mission, divinely ordained.  That is a state of being or consciousness that lives with the support of Pride, one of the Seven Sins.
Orestes Brownson used the terms humanitarian and social democrat to identify the threat to the American Mission.  "The humanitarian democracy," Brownson wrote, "which scorns all geographical lines, effaces all individualities, and professes to plant itself on humanity alone, has acquired by the (Civil) war new strength, and is not without menace to our future."   He forsees attacks on differences between the sexes, and on private property (as unequally distributed).   "Nor can our humanitarian stop there.  Individuals are, and as long as there are individuals will be, unequal;  some are handsomer and some are uglier;some wiser or sillier,  more or less gifted, stronger or weaker, taller or shorter, stouter or thinner than others, and therefore some have natural advantages which others have not.  There is inequality, therefore injustice, which can be remedied only by the abolition of all individualities, and the reduction of all individuals to the race, or humanity, man in general.  He (the humanitarian) can find no limit to his agitation this side of vague generality, which is no reality, but a pure nullity, for he respects no territorial or individual circumscriptions, and must regard creation itself as a blunder."

Brownson's remarks  have to be one of the earliest (1848) critical responses to the publication of Das Kapital and the advent of Marxism.  Of course, Brownson could not forsee that our humanitarian urges would sweep us into foreign adventures, said efforts variously described as 'improving the lives of others', 'meeting our obligations abroad',  'making the world a better place', etc.  The Nanny State is wrong but being a Nanny Nation to the world is not?  This is one of the major contradictions in the domain of modern conservative politics.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Evelyn Waugh on Obama

"Kipling believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms."

I found this quote by Evelyn Waugh on a wonderful website maintained by one Roger Boylan .

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Conservatism: what is it?

"Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program;  in its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism.   And with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities, it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place.  A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of establishment privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege."

The quotation above was written by F. A. Hayek for his introduction to the 1955 re-issue of his famous book The Road To Serfdom. 
I have set out to investigate the history of modern conservatism in the United States.  This effort is strictly personal and for my own understanding of the forces at work today in our polity.
I began by trying to find a workable or satisfactory definition of a conservative and have concluded that there isn't one.  Political conservatism in America contains divisions of great importance to their adherents.  There maybe three or four definitions of conservatism.
I don't believe that Hayek's is a true definition.   I see it as reflecting  a problem within the domain of conservatism that has not been understood or reconciled with the philosophy.
There are other contradictions that exist within the conservative movement.  The result is unwillingness to call  myself a conservative when a well-known public conservative preaches ideas with which I disagree mightily.
I am using two books for a general history of the conservative movement:  "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945" by George N. Nash and "From Dawn To Decadence" by Jacques Barzun.
I chose these two books because their authors are conservative and they are excellent sources for additional reading.
My first choices for additional reading are:  "The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written On The Sky" by Russell Kirk, and "The Law" by Frederic Bastiat.
Challenging works.  I'll see what comes of it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest We Forget

"Let no man ever, from henceforth say one word in any way countenancing war.  It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it.  For war is hell, and those who institute it are criminals.  Were there even anything to say for it, it should not be said;  for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages."

Siegfried Sassoon
English poet and war hero

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Speaking of excessive government intrusion....

Newspapers in Florida often carry stories about people who have been charged with "resisting arrest without violence".  On a few occasions this has been the only charge.
I have learned that The State of Florida has a statute known as 843.02 named "resisting officer without violence."  It is more commonly known as "resisting arrest without violence."  It is a first degree misdemeanor, and carries a maximum sentence of one year in the county jail.
Apparently the right to free speech and free assembly are not as inalienable as I thought.  Exercise of those rights may be interpreted by a police officer as resisting arrest without violence.
Cops don't like citizens explaining law to them, or refusing to cooperate with them.  When a cop asks a question of a citizen, he expects an answer, not a legal debate.  When a cop tells you to do something, he expects you to do it.  Failure to obey the policeman's orders can result in a bad arrest such as 'resisting arrest without violence.'
One gets the impression that the police don't like to leave a scene without punishing someone.
My research shows that Florida is the only state with such a statute on its books.  Thank God for that!
This example is confirmation of my long-held belief that the South doesn't care very much for the Constitution of the United States.