Friday, November 25, 2005

The American Flaw: It’s Baked into the Nation’s Cake

Just because the American nation is the best civilization that was ever devised on God’s green earth does not mean that it was born without flaws. One flaw evident since its founding has been it’s a rejection of absolutes—which has led to uncertainty in time of trouble. In the Revolution, much of the colonial northeast, including Benjamin Franklin’s son, the colonial governor of what is now New Jersey, vacillated and ultimately hoped the British would win. The War of 1812 was concocted with relativism and Madison (though a great thinker was a dreadfully indecisive president and a rotten leader during wartime which led to his being chased out of Washington and forced to spend a night in a chicken coop when the Brits burned the Capitol). The war with Mexico was a breeze because there was really no struggle. Until Lincoln determined to become an absolutist ruler the Civil War hung in the balance between Democratic party temporizers and Republican wafflers. The Spanish-American war was a breeze; we were in World War I too short a time (1917-18) for uncertainty to take hold. Under Roosevelt, the shaky country embraced the make-shift ideal of the corporate state which staved off radicalism and defeatists in WWII were silenced by an eloquent Roosevelt and a strong Justice Department.

The entire history of the Cold War was a debate between absolutist conservatives who viewed Communism as an evil empire and those who vacillated, opting for détente and nuclear freeze. Now, as Lincoln would say, we are engaged in another war, one against terrorism, testing. Testing whether or not we have the resolve to see it through in Iraq. The Republican substitute resolution in the Senate shows that with the Democrats seized by defeatism, the Republicans, the dominant party in this nation, are only slightly more resolved. The flaccid Senate resolution was contrived by Virginia’s John Warner who may be understood since, as a gigolo, he was fourth in the litany of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands. And now we have the specter of the Bush administration announcing that in 2006 we shall begin to withdraw troops. We should never give the enemy any timetable—and the fact that we now have done so is indication that even in the Bush administration, the forces of weakness are grappling for control. I have every confidence that Bush will resist these blandishments but you can hear the debate going on not only in the Congress but in the administration itself.

What is the weakness in the American psyche that evidences itself in times of crisis? Philosophers say it was the weakness stemming from the period of the Enlightenment that presaged its founding. We were founded, after all, by intellectuals in the colonies who studied the Scottish John Locke with as much deliberation as those of us today read the newspapers. After all, it was Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government that under-girded the view of our framers. Published in 1690, it sought to justify the Glorious Revolution which deposed James II. Embedded in his philosophical reasoning, Locke wrote that men should arrange a compact—a social compact—so that government would be founded on consent. He wrote, men should establish government for “the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates which I call by the general name of property” which the committee drafting our
Declaration changed, using the felicitous phrase “pursuit of happiness.” So far so good.

But to continue with Locke, he postulates what he calls a “law of nature.” And what is that law? It is that the will of the majority would control. Sounds good but if one follows Locke, one cannot say with certainty what is right and wrong when the majority says otherwise. It is fitting that I write this on Thanksgiving Day morning since the Pilgrims and their descendents, the New England clergy who espoused Locke’s ideas said, “The voice of nature is the voice of God” and much further: “reason and the voice of God are one.” That, they insisted, means that the dictate of reason, as interpreted by the majority, is the voice of God. This view is totally deistic; t he majority determines what is reasonable.

Since our founders were intellectual men, they baked Locke into their cake. Most founders accepted this but one major exception: my favorite, Hamilton. He adhered to the view, consonant to authenticist Catholics (like me, I’m bound to say) that human law should be perceived in the context of a divine order that is knowable t o man. See the difference? Hamilton’s view was like that of Aquinas (my guy): Human law must conform to natural law which is knowable to reason with the divine law of revelation provide certainty where reason might fail. Ergo: some duties are required no matter what the majority may say. Essentially, Bush is a Thomist by his decision that the war in Iraq was worth it in order to begin to root out terrorism where it is located.

Understand, Locke’s empiricism is not all bad. The American character is empiricist, trial and error, which in economics spells success and which character built the greatest economy the world has ever seen. But Lockeanism is wrong for this time in foreign policy. While Bush was gone to China, some in his administration started to give away the store verbally. Instead of an ordered existence, pursuant to a plan of certitude, they postulated a fictional situation of isolated individuals milling around in a state of nature.

The transitory weakness is nothing to worry about. Few presidents have been better than Bush, including Reagan, (Lincoln comes to mind) on the certainty of his conviction. But it is interesting, as we gather `round the Thanksgiving turkey, that the teachings of John Locke which were baked into the American cake, produced a tradition that is with us yet.

1 comment:

  1. One reason why we're the only Nation who can take on jobs like Iraq is because we don't want the job. For better or worse, we are the only people capable of leading the world because we're the only ones certain to go home when the bloody work is done.