Monday, July 9, 2018

The American Soul on July 4th

I spent my Independence Day on a plane headed to Washington, DC.  It was delayed a number of times, but I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone, passengers and flight staff, in a pretty good mood during all of our mechanical and weather delays, and even an emergency landing for refueling in Pittsburgh.  It counterbalanced much of my recent impressions of a general attitude of ugliness taking hold among my countrymen.

I've been reading a book called The American Soul, by Jacob Needleman.  Basically he is a philosopher seeking to "re-mythologize" our American history and sense of national identity.  This means reclaiming our great philosophical, moral, and spiritual figures like Washington, Lincoln, Douglass, and Dr King, as well as teachings from our Native American traditions.  Reclaiming them in a way that both recognizes their human flaws (without going to the postmodern extreme of deconstructing and disregarding the ideas and positions they stood for) and admires their transcendent achievements (without resorting to the infantilizing hagiography presented to schoolchildren).

Needleman maintains an informal, subjective tone throughout, light on citations and heavy on the idiosyncratic specifics of his childhood.  He often makes pronouncements about recent changes [for the worse] in our national character that, A) I don't think bear a basis in objective fact and I often don't agree with, and B) that have a distinctly conservative bent.  He describes things like "the generally prevailing view that we are, on the whole, victims--psychologically, economically, biologically, sociologically, historically--even cosmically," which sounds like a Right-wing bogeyman of the lazy urban masses waiting for their welfare check.  In general the author sees a Fallen humanity in lots of places when I'm not sure we are so bad after all, and certainly not much worse than we were when he was a kid.

Needleman is vague on what exactly our American values are, but they initially seem heavy on individual values like liberty and hard work and rule of law, which many on the Right emphasize at the expense of the general welfare or providing for community needs.  Later on though he is much more explicit that what made our great figures great was precisely their dedication to the good of the community, to providing for neighbors and sacrificing narrow self-interests, and he is clear that the excess or the perversion of these American qualities is at the root of many of today's problems.  He offers almost as a universally-accepted truism that government is punitive and "society" is beneficent.  Try telling that to folks that society tried to lynch or sic dogs on, while only government ensured them the right to vote.  You don't even need to go as far as Jim Crow to see how easily and how often Needleman's American ideals of strong willed pursuit of your "conscience" (plus a rejection of authority) have resulted in things like local school districts that institutionalize lies in textbooks, or anti-vaxxers who insist on the nobility of their cause despite all evidence to the contrary.  I'm also a bit wary of his appeal to add emotion and subjective feeling into the mix of scientific inquiry in order to give it a more profound human meaning.  Sounds a lot to me like medieval Aristotelians insisting on revealed authority as opposed to direct, objective observation.  In short, there are lots of little things the author lets slip (which sometimes even contradict one another) that seem to betray a more conservative bent.  However, this is "conservative" with a lower-case "C", not an upper-case partisan position.

Indeed, I checked Needleman out a bit online, and haven't found anything to indicate any real partisan leanings--his good points are good points, and some points may not be so solid, but in no case is he just trolling or fronting a smoke screen argument to bring you on board unknowingly with some larger hidden agenda.  What he says seems to be sincere and coherent; he really believes and means it.  And some of the subjectivity and my disagreement with his claims aren't entirely his fault.  He draws on a Hellenic, Platonic framework that insists that objective reality and human morality somehow mimic one another, that the natural world somehow conforms to human values and vice versa.  I just don't know if I believe that.  There is plenty in the natural world that isn't just or coherent or "good" per se, it just is.  Likewise, often doing the right thing in terms of human values isn't natural or normal.  It's often when we disobey the indifference or violence of nature that we are doing good.  In short, the laws of nature are internally coherent, but don't necessarily jibe with the workings of a decent human society.

One last nitpicky point I have.  In one passage Needleman claims (again as a truism that he can't even conceive anyone disagreeing with) that you can't legislate the good, but rather that a more just society must come from a change of heart in each person.  This may be true in a metaphysical sense, but we know that having clear laws can reduce the ill that people do to one another, with or without a change of heart.  In the absence of ethics regulations, people can commit petty acts of corruption or nepotism without even realizing that it's wrong (see the self-dealing of many Third World, and now First Family, politicians that feel like they're just moving progress along with big projects that they know just the guy for).  Likewise, anti-discrimination laws in the US probably haven't changed lots of hearts and minds, but they do lead to a much more just and less harmful existence for protected classes of people (and there are even studies showing that, in fact, changing outward rules of what it is acceptable to do or say often do change people's perceptions of what is acceptable).

I harp on this point because often people use this argument of changing hearts as an excuse for inaction in the face of racism or other forms of systemic injustice.  People facilely claim that, since changing a law or prosecuting violators of existing laws won't lead to a systemic change of heart for the violator or the society writ large, we might as well go lax on that stuff.  But if I'm unfairly fired, or passed over for a promotion, or sentenced to a longer jail term than someone of a different race, I don't give a damn what's in the heart of the person who's hurting me.  I just want to limit their ability to do so, with or without changing their mind.

Much of Needleman's thesis speaks of God and the divine, though he is refreshingly flexible about what and who God is, somehow reconciling that God may be both a personalized deity and a more faceless force or principle.  I identify myself as a believer in what he characterizes (quoting Franklin) as the religion of the Founding Fathers:
  • That there is one God who made all things
  • That he governs the World by his Providence 
  • That he ought to be worshipped by Adoration, Prayer and Thanksgiving
  • But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man
  • That the Soul is immortal
  • And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice either here or hereafter
So in the end my differences with Needleman tend to be more cosmetic than anything.  I think we are on the same page on a lot of things, and he is teaching me a lot.  In short I like his book.

I like his calling-out of how boring and stiff the common received representation is of figures like Washington or Jefferson.  In fact, until reading this book, I've never been able to get too excited about these wig-wearing old white men making noble pronouncements.  At the same time, Needleman relates how he (and many of us), even as cynical schoolchildren turned off by much of this "official" US history, still bear an almost religious reverence for the symbols of our country, the "idea" of a Lincoln or the flag or the Pledge of Allegiance.

I like Needleman's idea (taken from Frost's poem The Gift Outright) that [non-Native] Americans are different from other nations in that we, our culture and lifeways and economy and beliefs and our government, didn't arise organically from the land but rather we arrived and imposed our vision (for better or for worse) on a new land.  I like his description of Stoicism as a striving to combine compliance with our outward duties to family and society, with an inward duty to self-discovery.  I like how he turns American exceptionalism on its head, on the one hand acknowledging both the uniquely ugly parts of our legacy while also rescuing the noble parts of our character and makeup that have allowed us to face address our shortcomings like few other nations in history, but more importantly by claiming that what makes the US special in fact speaks to universal philosophical truths, such that the American ideals Needleman profiles are now ideals for everyone.  Needleman highlights America as an idea, which opens the relevance of our lessons and our values beyond just a geographic border.

I do wonder what Mr. Needleman must be thinking these days of the recent junctures in US politics.  First we had in President Obama someone who seemed to subscribe to Needleman's vision, who in almost every public speech made a point to draw a unifying line between the striving and ideals of our earliest forebears, right up to the present day citizenry.  And now we have a President who is callous and crass and doesn't seem to believe in, care about, or even be very familiar with the types of ideals and ideas that Needleman wants to reclaim.  Given my reading of Needleman as leaning conservative, I wonder what he would think of today's Conservative (with a capital "C") cast of characters.

Now that I'm in Washington, I'm enjoying these big ideas and big historical figures and the monuments on the Mall and everything.  But I have to give some advice for the would-be visitor:  don't visit DC just after spending a lot of time in Chicago and observing its architecture.  You will be appalled at DC's tacky building styles.  From the bland red-brick barracks of Arlington slapped together in short order for Pentagon workers in the 40s and 50s, to the modern high-rises with all-tacky finishes that will have to be replaced within 20 years due to poor quality, water infiltration, and mold infestation, none of it compares even to the pedestrian early 20th-century Chicago two-flats and bungalows of solid construction, interesting textures and colors, and even little ornate touches of stonecarving and copper flashing.  The big monumental buildings in DC tend to be utility- and rapid-built in the early- to mid-20th century (think the Pentagon and USDA), with few ornaments, just light grey limestone that looks like cinderblock.  Some (Hoover building, Clinton building) aspire to greater things with NeoClassical facades, statues, fluted columns, and engravings, but this style, while exhibiting more effort and care and craft, still seems pretty tacky to me.  Dare I say that even the Washington Monument, for all the solemn intent of its design, is still a drab, off-color pile of rubble infill?  As a symbol it's great, but the materials still seem tacky.

Even in this though, my architectural snobbery, Professor Needleman has a lot to teach me.  I can acknowledge the inelegance of the materials or the design of the Washington Monument, while still recognizing the nobility of what it stands for as a symbol, as a myth.

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