A free and flourishing people with virtue—this is certainly something to be desired and celebrated. Today in the United States the specific details required for such virtue remains in dispute for this self-same people called Americans in each and every idiosyncratic distinction.

We live in a time of fundamental disagreement regarding human excellence. Traditionally, human excellence implied certain agreed upon “natural” purposes or ends (even if they were not based on consent) to which one’s political and individual ethical life pointed toward. One recognized the ends while one simultaneously understood a tension between the requirements of the political community and
one’s own fulfillment of freedom in terms of what the political community or divine revelation required of one. One had one’s purposes even if they were determined contingently by where one was born.

Back then at the least, day-to-day charity with neighbors used to be enough, and perhaps it does still. Nonetheless, today one finds one’s own identity to be represented by another, whether officially or unofficially. One is a person, but one is also an abstract identity—an American or a bourgeois or a Christian or an middle class denizen. Regardless, one must be oneself, but one must also represent one’s self (as the saying goes) in terms of another. And “represent” means one whose being is defined in terms of what and who one is not, but simultaneously what and who in terms of one that which not be. It is amor fati made into a general political principle of every day life of things that appear to be. And what everyday life appears to be is quite absurd—Flannery O’Connor only began the phenomenology of such weirdness. If only one had the brilliant descriptive powers of Flannery O’Connor.

In such a society one has the liberty to pursue happiness idiosyncratically understood, as long as one leaves the thinking—as well as the power to make authoritative decisions—to others . We recognize the rights of each and all, and this seems to be the basis for a modus vivendi of day-to-day social life. We are content with this way until those who claim that we have fundamental duties prior to our rights claim that our rights are not enough. In this view, the modus vivendi becomes the necessary penultimate agreement before warfare begins, but when it comes to duties and responsibilities to something other than ourselves we balk. Libertarians get angry and cry fascism when such obligation is spoken.

But I agree with the libertarians, in ordinary life, it seems that such fighting for freedom is always in terms of others—viz. our representatives. We wish to be left alone—not to be dominated in our liberty. It is a strange love of liberty that is apparently so orderly but which at the same time simultaneously recognizes the disordered lives for others to decide the meaning of our own lives. In the deepest manner, such toleration allows for the liberty of conscience for the understanding and boundedness that each has to their own understanding of the divine, an understanding which places obligations on oneself before one even had a choice. But such boundedness is against the pure pragmatism of modern thought—even a thought that recognizes that the dead hand of history lays a dead hand on the shoulder of the present Even if one is not such a historicist and wishes to appeal to natural law, one wonders how long the modus-vivendi in the absence of natural law mere agreement of it can last. Not to sound like Robert George, but I agree that living one amongst another when each is secure in his rights depending on the rules to which each has given oneself in common through a rational consent is tenuous at best. Sure we have a legal procedure and bureaucratic rationality that is indifferent and the same to all parties, and we even have offices designed for catching the flak of the mau-maus (as Tom Wolfe put it), but this only punts on fourth down. Such a view of life seems not to be able to make a distinction between Cairo and Madison, Wisconsin. We might as well make ready for our own “Arab Spring” American-style. We speak of rights as so much mouth candy—and that is a bitter candy. We seem to have no standard outside of what we pragmatically construct. We live a common faith as Dewey had it—one which we ourselves have made, but one in which simultaneously fits the way we live now in our own historical contingency beyond our own choice.

I doubt the sustainability of such enterprise.

Nonetheless, somehow this American way of life seems to sustain and maintain itself in spite of itself. Haters of this order invent terms like imperialism and late capitalism. Some even claim that it is the end of history portending Nietzsche’s last man. New ideologies are invented like neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, and critics blame these very same ideologies for the propagation of the ideas that provide reasons for the sheer existence and perpetuation of such a banal and meaningless life. Apparently, such a life is so distasteful—it is such a moral affront to what is great in humanity—that it must be overturned at all costs. Regardless of the morality of Cambyses, these critics think that Egypt needs to be turned upside down with ruthless Persian methods that even kill the god Apis (see Herodotus).

However, if you look at ordinary life as it is lived in the United States—whether in the hipster city or the square suburbs (and this distinction is full of bizarre hybridity that belies easy stereotype)—you find that it all seems to work regardless of one’s consternation, theoretical argument or literary allusion. It is not as bad as the critics presume. Each day’s decent world reproduces itself—it apparently has enough productive purpose and erotic fulfillment to sustain it. Social scientists like Pierre Bourdiue and Robert Putnam call it “social capital.” Yes there is much unhappiness and dysfunction, but the whole thing keeps going nonetheless. People go to work, they work hard, children get educated, taxes get paid, wars get fought, and bills get paid. Grandpa has a stroke, and the children somehow deal with this immense hardship. Pa gets too drunk, but Ma somehow pulls in some extra income to keep it going. Junior gets arrested with possession of marijuana, but he knows he did wrong. With his time in the correctional facilities he actually learns a good lesson—contra Foucault.

Meanwhile, these same people go to church where they learn that their sinful ways somehow play a role in a larger drama of the divine purpose of salvation. They have shame (and even guilt), but they keep going to church because they have a sense of duty requiring them to make sense of themselves. As much as anyone else, they are confronted with the question of the good life. Regardless of the criticism made by their so-called betters, they live a life of immense hardship and joy. In time some of them get successful in trades that never existed before, e.g., computer programming, while others find happiness in raising children—with their sons in little league baseball, or with their daughters in jazz or classical dance. It is a life that requires virtue as much any other. Some of their sons and daughters find themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq sacrificing their all for the country, while others work hard trying to excel in band or cheerleading or debate team. The whole thing seems to keep going.

There is a nobility in what some one call banality.

It is not a way of life that needs to be demeaned with easy Frankfurt School Nietzsche-inflected Marxism. As Peter Lawler points out, American Idol—as silly as it is—shows real hard work, merit and judgment. (Albeit, it is a popular judgment mixed with the separate aristocratic taste of an Englishman—Simon Cowell. Will Steven Tyler’s American rock ‘n roll mode allow for the proper balance in the absence of Cowell’s English aristocracy? I suspect that Tyler can bring the knowledge of true musical success—a natural aristocracy not dependant on birth , inherited status and wealth—to make for a right judgment Such a judgment as Tyler’s may make a better judgment than Simon’s English aristocratic baggage brought to the show).

Nonetheless, this life is all representation. As indicated in our form of government, representation allows for a way to dilute the inevitability of faction that forms around opinion, passion and interest. A representation that is not based on religion or one’s social status can force one to think of politics beyond one’s own immediate identity. It is hoped that such representation can refine and enlarge the views of regional (or later ethnic) narrow-mindedness and still bring out public-spirited concern for the generality of Americans. If the constituents don’t refine and enlarge themselves through multicultural education, then at least the representatives will refine and enlarge that particular view when confronted with the task of making laws for the whole nation with representatives from across the county in terms of one’s each and own particularity.

But in spite of this laudable aspiration toward general deliberation—since the 1960s a least women, blacks, whites, workers, gays, and Catholics (for instance) wish to be represented by one of their own—one wonders how much deliberation is possible. Such fragmentation suits the same agenda as Donald Livingston where the agenda of nullification meets Lani Guinier’s ethnic politics. Such specific demographic representation inherently rubs against the intent for general deliberation. It is the deliberation of the lion with the lamb.
In such a case, immediate political inclinations dominate over against representation, and lead to calls for direct democracy. Such ethnic, racial, gender, regional and sexual representation is the mode of politics in which we find ourselves. “Not in our name” scream the most adamant of our fellow citizen identities in order to express disagreement to various policies domestic and foreign.

What is the alternative? Representation apparently isn’t working for our fellow personalists. This group relies on the courts to define what is perhaps the specific intent and wisdom of a constitutional democracy that can apparently work only on a local level—but in the hopes that it can work on the general level too. They wish this communion of general and particular—abstract and concrete—without a finely tuned administrative and regulatory state that can expertly meet each demand in terms of his own idiosyncratic need. They want freedom, but such a desire seems to lead to statist despotism. Who—or what—else but the general government will provide the uniform administration for they demand in order to make their expert judgment meet each and all in a way that is indifferent and the same to all parties? At the end of the day such arguments want a state to provide for itself autonomously.

Regardless of this fact, one wants to still to say “not in our name”, if not claim one’s own absolute right to say what one must in terms of one’s freedom, equality and individual sovereignty. One is a tyrant enough (and ‘80s enough) inasmuch as anyone else and one wishes to exclaim directly “in our name” if not even “in my own name” that I am a “towering genius” as Lincoln put it. Unfortunately, in the United States political institutions are deliberately established for me not to say as such except only indirectly. For such a political activist and community organizer with extreme ambition, one is stuck with an adversarial position whether one seeks glory for oneself or the common advantage.

Even with the reality of the administrative and regulatory state which is supposedly able to touch each person, each person retains something other than what or who he is as defined in terms of the generality of equality of conditions. That said, in American life one is still represented by a “public citizen” office, individual or group who speaks and acts on behalf or in the name of and identity of an other—namely, me and my own. Each group has official or semi-official representation for its own concern with its own virtue and concern, and each apparently gets what it needs from the state. Alan Simpson only said the half of it when he spoke of a million mouths sucking at a million of milk governmental teats—he spoke of government expenditures, but he had no idea of the people themselves.

Unfortunately, such abstract representative politics where “I” don’t speak but it speaks makes spiritual war the norm, but at least it is a spiritual war between representative bumper stickers on cars that drive past each other in the parking lot of the grocery store of life. The Volvo versus the BMW vs the Toyota vs the Ford truck. We can live with each other because at the end of the day we must drive where we must, and regardless it is “them” and not “us” saying or doing what is what. It need never be a case of importance in our name.

So much for the virtue of a free and flourishing people. Such virtue must be understood in terms of how it is represented by others, but it shows itself in ordinary friendship and family. It is a virtue that, if necessary, would fight to defend itself, but as it is it only feels overburdened by the regulation of modern life. And that is not necessarily a bad life, even if it is not one’s own in terms of representation. If this way can and must be kept secret in order to keep its integrity, it is a way of life left for poets and novelists to make real at their own peril. Regardless, it is still open to the divine—the music of the spheres as Dante put it.

More on: Etcetera

Articles by John Presnall

Loading...

Show 0 comments