May 20, 2007
We all know that picture of the late
Warren Gamaliel Harding Calvin Coolidge bedecked in a Sioux war bonnet. In my own youth, in late May thirty seven years ago, a rather less honorable man crowned himself with a construction helmet bearing the title Commander in Chief, a consolation prize for the honorary doctorate my Alma Mater withdrew at the last moment, after the invasion of Cambodia. Richard Nixon was king at least of the building trades, laborers in which had violently disrupted commemorations of the four students who died protesting the invasion.
I remembered the incident last Christmas. I was at the Bible museum near Lincoln Center for a wonderful lecture on Giotto with music by the Communion and Liberation choir, and took a tour of the current display. Featured was a copy of pop sculptor George Segal’s moving depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac, intended as a memorial to those students shot by the Ohio National Guard at Kent, but now in the sculpture garden at Princeton. I was haunted by this stark reminder of my first semester of graduate school, especially because I fancied the figure of Abraham had been inspired by old photographs of philosopher William James, whose deeply misguided conception of truth, which he called pragmatism, has had such a tragic effect on American life and thought.
In May 1970, I was at Columbia studying higher education, in which I hoped to make a career, and my advisor was Walter Sindlinger, a wise, gentle, and good man, from Ohio himself. Sad and bewildered, he explained to us that the riots at Kent State, with college kids turning cars upside down and setting them on fire, were an annual event which had nothing at all to do with Vietnam, Cambodia, Nixon, or Kissinger. Surely, he implied, the Governor knew this, even if the President did not. Nixon of course saw himself as the new Lincoln, Father Abraham, called to save the nation from the sin of rebellion, and the young men, the very young men, of the National Guard were ordered to lock and load. According to his henchman Haldemann, it was the beginning of the end for Nixon.
It was certainly the end of my identification with a conservative movement he had so successfully seduced, this old New Deal bureaucrat, the quintessential proto-neocon. And yet, as I collaborated more and more closely with the antiwar movement (though not the Communist, anti-American wing of it), I became more and more obsessed with the philosophy of pragmatism, and especially with Charles Peirce, who started it, and with his lifelong crusade against nominalism. Nominalism? Nominalism. Remember Richard Weaver? Ideas Have Consequences?
“Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.”
Weaver’s words, Peirce’s sentiments. Poor Willy James just didn’t get it. Or those damned Republicrats, slippysliding down the steep slope to neoconnery. But there are universal standards of human decency, and that’s what hapless George McGovern was calling us home to. But Charles Peirce knew, Richard Weaver knew, that we began to turn our back on them long before the so-called Reformation. (Dear Phil Sherrard, all too briefly my teacher in Athens, blamed Charlemagne and the filioque, but I wouldn’t go that far.)
May 4, 1970. It’s not that some frightened kid in uniform pulls the trigger. It’s not that, in the general panic and confusion, gunshot victims don’t get the prompt medical attention that might save their lives. It’s the all too general sentiment: Too bad for their parents, but those Commies had it coming — a sentiment Elton Trueblood, the Quaker Pope of the Midwest, duly repeats to a (presumably) shocked Bill Moyers, in a part of the interview that was cut from the book version. The cynical spurning of common human decency. The fruit of that systematic indoctrination in metaphysical nominalism and moral relativism known as public education.
The Ohio war protesters are shot and killed on Monday; Friday is set aside as a day of mourning. On Wall Street organized gangs of men dressed as construction workers converge on peaceful demonstrators, beating them with tools and stomping them with work boots. They attack a line of New York City police at Federal Hall, where Washington was sworn in in 1789, and proceed to storm City Hall, where the flag has been at half mast, in order to raise it, and to denounce the Mayor as a Communist.
It is lunch hour on Wall Street. A Lehman Brothers partner comes to the aid of a demonstrator and is himself attacked. So is another member of the financial community who moves to protect him. The rioters storm Trinity Church, Washington’s parish, where a first aid station has been set up, but are locked out, and must content themselves with ripping down the flag of the Episcopal Church. Many of the rioters are employed at the World Trade Center site and one or two other buildings under construction. They have been ordered to report for this duty, and their movements are directed by men in suits using hand signals.
On May 20, a grateful President receives a delegation from the leaders of New York’s construction unions, accepting from them the “hard hat” of Commander in Chief. He tries it on, grinning for a photograph in the National Archives, though not for the press. One of union leaders, James Brennan, becomes Secretary of Labor after the 1972 election.
These people are shameless: they glory in their very shamelessness; they expect Americans to abase themselves before it. Burke saw it in France long ago: “All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved… All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
I did not then use the F-word, Fascism, and rather despised those who did. Moreover, the interwar European right had had, if not a certain grandeur, a certain aspiration to grandeur, or at least a nostalgia for it. Mussolini had had his Pound, Franco his Roy Campbell. And our Nixon? He had… Elvis!
To be a Burkean conservative at a small Quaker college in the swinging Sixties was a bit of an affectation, and, to tell the truth, perhaps more than a bit. On Morningside Heights in the wake of the Cambodian Incursion Burke’s moral imagination was an urgent necessity to be clung to with passion. I kept coming back to Burke’s furious indictment of Warren Hastings for the crimes of imperialism, his ringing defense of Natural Law, upon which my own Republic, not so incidentally, had been founded:
“He to have arbitrary power! My lords, the East India Company have not arbitrary power to give him; the King has no arbitrary power to give him; your lordships have not; nor the Commons; nor the whole legislature. We have no arbitrary power to give, because arbitrary power is the thing which neither any man can hold nor any man can give away. No man can govern himself by by his own will, much less can he be governed by the will of others. We are all born in subjection, all born equally, high and low, governors and governed, in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existent law, prior to all our devices and prior to all our contrivances, paramount to our very being itself, by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we cannot stir. This great law does not arise from our conventions or compacts; on the contrary, it gives to our conventions and compacts all the force and sanction they can have; it does not arise from our vain institutions.”
My friends on the Left despaired at the thought of rebellion against the seemingly omnipotent State. The poor fools could not imagine that it was — it is — merely a matter of refusing to take part in a doomed rebellion against the truly omnipotent Creator of the universe:
“Every good gift is of God, all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from whom it alone originates, will never suffer the exercise of it to be practised upon any less solid foundation than the power itself. Therefore, will it be imagined, if this be true, that He will suffer this great gift of government, the greatest, the best, that was ever given by God to mankind, to be the plaything and the sport of the feeble will of a man, who, by a blasphemous, absurd, and petulant usurpation, would place his own feeble, contemptible, ridiculous will in the place of the Divine wisdom and justice?”
“Blasphemous, absurd, and petulant usurpation… feeble, contemptible, ridiculous…” The Left had its own words for Mr. Nixon and I had mine, borrowed from the best. Apply them as you will to his successors How sad that some today, who were young then, or younger, at any rate, grow rich, or richer, by vilifying their own resistance to this usurpation. To be sure, their opposition was too often justified, if not entirely motivated, by a system of belief as blasphemous, absurd, feeble, contemptible, and ridiculous as that of the Republicans, if, indeed the Republicans had anything consistent enough to be rightly called a system of belief — or do now. I like to think that common human decency played its part in the antiwar movement as well, even though the Marxists leading it, or pretending to lead it, affected to scorn all such bourgeois sentimentality.
For Burke there is of course a duty to resist: “Those who give and those who receive arbitrary power are alike criminal, and there is no man but is bound to resist it to the best of his power, wherever it shall show its face to the world. Nothing but absolute impotence can justify men in not resisting it to the best of their power.”
But there is no duty to be successful, or to appear to be successful. Our impotence may not be absolute, but our potency is sometimes pitiful. Burke himself failed to stop the Jacobins of his day, much less the Napoleonic, the Bolshevik, the Bushite armies of liberation, or even the somewhat kinder and gentler British Raj. Indeed, he is vilified to this day for taking his stand, as those of us who stood up for America against an unjust war and a corrupt administration are condemned as traitors by those whose only abiding loyalty is to an alien power in the Levant.
The work of resistance God demands of us takes many forms, according to our personal powers and opportunities. For the philosopher and the educator it is an unceasing struggle to recover the cultural sanity of the West, the appreciation that this universe of ours, mathematical, physical, vital, mental, spiritual, is the manifestation of Mind and to be understood by mind. That universals are real. That the law of nature and of nations has unconditional authority over our actions whether our masters acknowledge it or not.
May 1970 was a turning point in what Yale law professor Charles Reich would call, in his runaway best seller of the end of the year, The Greening of America. The bewildered elder generations reluctantly concluded that those young people they saw on the television were on to something. (The protesters, I mean. A greater number of the young were still getting shot at in the jungle in a war we had neither the will to win nor the decency to end.) Whatever the military necessity or geopolitical prudence of the Cambodian incursion, events were surely out of hand.
The arson at Kent called for the apprehension and conviction of the arsonist, not the slaughter of peaceful demonstrators in order to intimidate dissent. The rioting of the the construction workers may have been understandable if regrettable, but the hearty commendation of the rioters by a national administration was nothing to be proud of. On the younger generations the intimidation worked, but in an ultimately counterproductive way. Many of us concluded that we were better off in the hot tubs and encounter groups than in the streets. Some of us, for a brief moment, even thought we were better off in the classrooms and libraries. But the scholarship we produced, and the teaching we undertook, did not serve the Nixonian vision of America, to say the least.
This May I remember the dreams of our youth, the radical dream of peace, freedom, and justice, the conservative dream of order, decency, and grace. I invite all who were young then, of either persuasion or both, to cry out with Tennyson’s Ulysses,
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Shall we not say to all who marched against the war in Vietnam, but also to all who labored silently, tirelessly, thanklessly to preserve what of Western civilization is left to us, shall we not say
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Frank Purcell is a teacher and scholar of philosophy living in New York City.