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With Pluck American Liberals Should Fight Today's Conservatives

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The United States of America was founded by inner-directed idealists for inner-directed idealists. Our American democratic form of government is government of, for, and by inner-directed idealists. The American Revolution was declared by inner-directed idealists and fought by inner-directed idealists. Those revolutionary inner-directed idealists had been nurtured in the culture of immigrants from Europe, many of whom were religious inner-directed idealists. Immigrants by their very nature as immigrants tend to be optimists. Pessimists generally do not become immigrants. To this day, Americans are known for being optimistic, even though we also have a sizable share of cynics among us. But scratch a cynic and you'll usually find under the fa├žade of cynicism a disillusioned idealist. Contemporary neoconservatives, for example, are former idealists who describe themselves as having been bushwhacked by reality. No doubt we American idealists should make periodic course adjustments in life to adapt to realities we encounter. So we buoyant idealists should try to help out our fellow Americans when they encounter understandable disillusionments in life and throw them a life-raft if we can, because the well of disillusionment that they have fallen into may be bottomless. Figuratively speaking, I am throwing out the present essay as a life-raft to American conservatives who are sinking under the weight of their own disillusionment.

In the cynical book A Conservative History of the American Left (2008), the neoconservative author Daniel J. Flynn surveys certain American idealists. He found no shortage of American idealists to round up, because idealists have been well represented in American history. Americans can even claim to have produced an American proto-Karl-Marx in Edward Bellamy and his utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). But after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, Bellamy's popularity declined rapidly, and Americans settled into a long spell of culturally dominant anticommunism for the rest of the century. Before anticommunism swept the country in the 20th century, conservatives had been represented mostly by the white beneficiaries of slavery, who also continued to represent the conservative spirit during the 20th-century anticommunism fervor. In any event, American idealists are tightrope walkers who need to be careful lest they fall from grace and become lamentable neoconservatives.

As is well known, the early immigrants to Massachusetts Bay Colony were religious idealists. Because they wanted to continue to have an educated clergy, they founded HarvardCollege in 1636, which is still with us. Moreover, John Winthrop gave us the famous imagery of a city on a hill as a way to capture and express the spirit of those early religious idealists. But Winthrop's famous imagery also captures and expresses the American spirit as it came to be embodied in the American experiment of democracy. But this American experiment in democracy could fail still fail. For Americans of all ages need to renew continuously our commitment to a democratic government of, for, and by idealists for the American experiment to live and prevail. Just as Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany through democratic elections, so too our American democratic elections could bring to power politicians who are not idealists committed to the American way. Just as the Nazis rose to power in Germany amidst a serious economic downturn, so too our current economic troubles could give rise to dark forces in the near future, especially if the economic downturn worsens. For these reasons, we Americans need to be especially vigilant about our ideals at this time.

It took the devastating Civil War for American idealists to prevail at long last against slavery. But prevail on the battlefield, they did. But they failed to win the hearts and minds of the unvanquished white beneficiaries of slavery. As a result, our sad American heritage of slavery produced many cultural practices over the next century or so after the end of the Civil War that called out for further rectification through the law.

Equality before the law is an idealistic principle if ever there was one. But even in a culture permeated with idealists, the old beneficiaries of slavery were oftentimes not quick to embrace this admittedly idealist principle in practice. But we Americans are nothing if we cannot be idealistic in practice as well as in principle. It is our American heritage to be idealistic not only in principle but also in practice. To be sure, we should examine and debate our ideals and our practice, which is what I propose to do in the present essay.

Before we proceed to examine any American values, however, we should first acknowledge that modern democracy as exemplified in the United States and in other countries today is arguably not the only idealistic form of government in world history. Arguably communism is also an idealistic form of government. As a critique of communism, Eric Voegelin famously cautioned that we humans should not try to immanentize the eschaton that was envisioned in the ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition of thought about the end-time. In that ancient tradition of thought, the eschaton was imagined as the time when God would intervene to bring justice to our woefully unjust world. In that tradition of thought, the intervention that would bring justice to our woefully unjust world was wisely reserved to the deity. Voegelin's cautionary quip was designed to remind us that we humans are probably not going to bring about a just world, so we should not venture to imagine that we are going to do so. In Voegelin's estimate, communism was based on such an imaginary vision. William F. Buckley, Jr., arguably did more than any other American to popularize Voegelin's cautionary quip, Don't immanentize the eschaton. However, the cautionary quip works not only as a way to critique communist aspirations, but also as a way to critique American aspirations in our democracy promotion efforts. We Americans should continue to be idealists at home and abroad as best as we can. But it is wise to think of the eschaton of justice on earth as being brought about through divine intervention, not through American intervention.

The eschaton is God's call to make. I do not expect to see God's definitive intervention in my lifetime. But certain American Protestants today do expect to see God's definitive intervention in their lifetimes. I would urge them to give up those expectations and get on with the challenges of living their lives on this earth as best as they can. Like those American Protestants today who expect to see the eschaton in their lifetimes, Paul the Apostle expected to live to see the eschaton in his lifetime. In the meantime, though, he understood that God tests our hearts continuously, and he urged his followers to work continuously to improve their efforts to love others. In effect, he told his followers something like this: "You're doing a great job of loving others. But now try to do a better job of loving others." Remember that Paul and his followers thought that they were going to live to see the eschaton in their lifetimes, but in the meantime he urged them to keep working at doing a better job of loving others. Now try to hold those two thoughts in your mind and ponder them alongside one another. Next, also try to hold in your mind the thought that God tests our hearts continuously. The big definitive breakthrough of divine intervention at the eschaton is God's call to make. In the meantime, though, there may be smaller divine interventions through breakthroughs in our hearts as God tests our hearts continuously in this life here on earth. No wonder Socrates thought he should talk about ethics continuously. We make decisions continuously, large and small, so we should examine our alternative about how we might act in certain circumstances carefully before we make our decisions as to how we are going to act.

For understandable reasons, Americans tend to be enthusiastic about American democracy. Indeed, such enthusiasm is a big part of our American cultural conditioning. As American idealists, we need to have a certain modicum of enthusiasm for our democratic form of government. In short, we need to have a certain amount of faith in democratic government. This kind of faith is not the same kind of faith that we refer to as religious faith. However, both kinds of faith share a common feature of trust that things will work out well enough in the future. So we might say that our American democratic form of government depends on a kind of covenant among us to do out best as individual idealists to help our democratic form of government work as well as it can, remembering that it is wise not to expect the eschaton of justice on earth until God's intervention brings it about. We have the sad memory of the Civil War in the 19th century to remind us of the price many Americans paid then because the white beneficiaries of slavery were not willing to live up to the admittedly daunting ideals upon which our American democratic form of government is founded. If we need further reminders to temper our understandable enthusiasm for democracy and democracy promotion around the world, we should remember that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany through democratic elections. My own position regarding democracy is that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest. Which brings me to all the rest.

I am going to characterize all the rest of the governments in the world today as authoritarian regimes. In short, all non-democratic forms of government in the world today can be characterized as authoritarian regimes, provided that we allow that some may be more authoritarian than others. Moreover, before the American Revolution in 1776, almost all forms of government in world history had been authoritarian regimes, provided that we allow that some may have been more authoritarian than others. Arguably the most famous example in an experiment in democratic government before the American Revolution was carried out in Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. The stretch of time between the experiment in democracy in ancient Athens and the American experiment in democracy is enormous. However, despite the enormity of that stretch of time, Athens has long been recognized as one of the wellsprings of the Western cultural heritage with Jerusalem being the other big cultural wellspring of Western culture. The immigrants from Europe who founded our modern American experiment in democracy brought the Western cultural heritage from both Athens and Jerusalem with them. In turn, this country has arguably become the greatest gift of the Western cultural tradition to the non-Western world, including all the authoritarian regimes that have not yet adopted a form of modern democracy.

As we have noted, modern democracy emerged historically in Western culture. Modern capitalism emerged historically in Western culture, and now appears to be spreading willy-nilly around the globe. Modern science emerged historically in Western culture, and with the prerequisite education people around the globe today can participate in modern scientific research. The Industrial Revolution emerged historically in Western culture, and today many still largely agrarian cultures are moving gradually toward more industrialization.

Thus far I have attempted to give all due credit to certain historical developments in the United States and in Western culture. But now I want to shift gears and discuss our Western and American cultural conditioning as something that we should reflect on and examine continuously. All cultures are juggernauts made up of different components. No human being can grow up culture free. Cultural conditioning is inescapable. As a result, all of us live in a cultural prison-cage that is portable we carry our cultural conditioning around with us wherever we go. However, as Socrates famously observed centuries ago, the unexamined life is not worth living. So we in American culture today should examine our cultural conditioning and strengthen our inner-directedness, so that we can fight well against the conservatives in our culture today. Thanks in large measure to the work of the cultural historian Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) and related work, we can better understand certain deep dimensions of our Western cultural conditioning better than any earlier Americans could. Such understanding may enable us at times to transcend our cultural conditioning in certain ways. For example, when we understand the Western cultural conditioning out of which modern democracy emerged historically, then we might temper our democracy promotion in places where authoritarian regimes have dominated historically. So let's review some of the historical events out of which modern democracy emerged historically.

Modern democracy emerged historically in what Ong and others refer to as print culture. Print culture can be dated as developing after the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1450s. But it did not emerge overnight. It emerged gradually. The printing press helped advance the cause of the Protestant Reformation. In addition, Protestants championed individual Bible reading, which presupposes that Bibles would be available for individuals who knew how to read, to read. Before the printing press, there had been no shortage of people with a formal education who did indeed know how to read. But before the printing press, Bible reading had been cultivated mostly by monks in monasteries, who read hand-copied books of the Bible in Latin. But the printing press helped make relatively inexpensive copies of the bible readily available first in Latin but later in vernacular languages.

As we just mentioned, people needed to be able to read in order for individual reading of the Bible to catch on, and this means that they needed to have received a formal education to a certain extent. So we should back up and examine the history of formal education briefly. The fall of the western part of the Roman empire in the 5th century C.E. was accompanied by a sharp decline in commerce and also a sharp decline in formal education, especially outside monasteries. Christianity was a religion of the book, so the Roman Catholic Church was motivated to preserve and pass on the tradition of formal education in reading and writing, most notably in monasteries. In the period known as the Dark Ages, monks in monasteries and other Catholic clergy were instrumental in carrying forward the efforts in formal education in reading and writing. Those educational efforts in time eventually culminated in the 13th century in the rise of medieval universities, the most notable of which was the University of Paris. Medieval universities established the pattern of the arts course of studies taught by the arts faculty coming before any of the three professional courses of study in law, medicine, and theology. Of the three, theology was the lengthiest course of studies. Students usually completed the arts course of studies by the age of 18, after which some of them would go on for professional studies.

The arts course of studies was dominated by the teaching of logic. Logic was taught with a zeal and to an extent that I find hard to imagine. I find it hard to imagine teaching logic as thoroughly as it was taught for several centuries to teenage boys who were under 18. But medieval universities did include corporal punishment, and Ong has suggested that the spirit of instruction resembled a puberty rite in spirit. As he also notes, the teachers thought of themselves as teaching Aristotelian logic. Up to a point, they were indeed teaching Aristotelian logic. However, as Ong points out, the Aristotelian tradition of logic that they taught also included significant additions to Aristotle's corpus of writings in logic. Those additions resemble what we later learned to refer to as symbolic logic, except that the medieval teachers were using words all the way instead of using mathematical symbols as a kind of shorthand. Ong characterizes those additions as the quantification of thought. He sees the zealous teaching of the quantification of thought for three centuries or more as providing the cultural matrix out of which modern science emerged historically in the 16th and 17th centuries with Copernicus and Galileo. As Ong has explained in detail, nothing comparable to that quantification of thought occurred anywhere else in world history in any non-Western culture. I would suggest that that quantification of thought contributed not only to the historical emergence of modern science, but also to the historical emergence of modern capitalism. If we think of Western culture as a juggernaut, then we should note that the Western cultural juggernaut includes cultural conditioning in the quantification of thought, the likes of which did not emerge in non-Western cultures before it emerged in Western culture. In this way Ong's account of Western cultural history deepens and strengthens Samuel P. Huntington's clash-of-cultures thesis. The clash of cultures is inevitable today and will continue to be inevitable for the foreseeable future. But violence may not be inevitable. Democracy promotion further promotes the class of cultures that is already being promoted through economic globalization.

In conclusion, for all practical purposes, economic globalization involves the globalization of the economic dynamics of modern capitalism, which is one of the big components of the Western cultural juggernaut and one of the components of Western culture that depends on the quantification of thought to a certain extent. Of course modern science depends on the quantification of thought to a much greater extent, and Western formal education can help more people around the world study modern science and go on to compete with scientists in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and other Western countries for Nobel Prizes in medicine, chemistry, and physics. But formal education in many non-Western countries today is seriously under-developed. In addition, an estimated one billion people around the world today do not know how to read and write any language. Therefore, education promotion should be a far more important priority for American foreign policy in the near future than democracy promotion. HarvardCollege was founded in 1636. But the American Revolution was not declared until 1776. Moreover, the founding documents of this country are usually considered to be part of the American Enlightenment. American democracy was not founded by people who did not know how to read and write, but by people who had the benefit of a formal education up to a certain point.
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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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