Wednesday, December 20, 2017
I have more than once mentioned in these essays my extensive if unsystematic collection of our national literary patrimony in the Library of America. Now and again I take one down from the shelf more or less at random. This past week it was one of the two volumes of Teddy Roosevelt, the one containing The Rough Riders and his autobiography. I found the latter, first published in 1913 not too long before his death, beautifully written, full of fascinating anecdote, and frequently rather profound in its political philosophy. That this final quality should so surprise me is partly an indictment of my ignorance and partly an evidence of the degree to which I and many others have come to “define deviancy down”, in the memorable phrase of Patrick Moynihan. The last place one seeks political profundity is in an American politician.
To the degree that I had already formed a conception of TR when I picked up the book, it was of a rugged individualist, outdoorsman, horseman, “environmentalist”, great white hunter, and ninety-seven-pound weakling transformed into a war hero in an embarrassing war. There was nothing particularly mistaken about this conception, except for its utter inadequacy. In his opening chapter, entitled “Boyhood and Youth”, he writes thus: “As regards political economy, I was of course while in college taught the laissez-faire doctrines—one of them being free trade—then accepted as canonical.” He is speaking about the intellectual atmosphere of his years at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1880. “All this individual morality I was taught by the books I read at home and the books I studied at Harvard. But there was almost no teaching of the need for collective action, and of the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility. Books such as Herbert Croly’s ‘Promise of American Life’ and Walter E. Weyl’s ‘New Democracy’ would generally at the time have been treated either as unintelligible or else as pure heresy.”
I did not know who these guys were but soon found out. They were progressive pundits and philosophers associated with the early years of The New Republic. Weyl began his book (1912) thus: "America to-day is in a somber, soul-questioning mood. We are in a period of clamor, of bewilderment, of an almost tremulous unrest. We are hastily revising all our social conceptions.... We are profoundly disenchanted with the fruits of a century of independence.” Well, it is now a century later. During that century America fought two world wars, experienced the dislocations of profound and prolonged economic depression, confronted the twin political pathologies of modernity, experienced mind-boggling technological and sociological change, largely abandoned its spiritual heritage, and more than tripled its population. That hardly describes a century of stasis. Yet, plus ça change. America today is in a somber, soul-questioning mood, with nearly bottomless wells of clamor, bewilderment, tremulous unrest, and profound disenchantment.
In my opinion, a genuinely humble one, a large part of our dilemma is a failure to recognize a truth that Theodore Roosevelt stated as “the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.” How can it be that the greatest democracy the world has yet known—a nursery and proving ground of seemingly infinite industrial, intellectual, and artistic invention and innovation--has a legislature that simply doesn’t work? How can it be that for all our political passion, principles, polarities, and processes, not to mention the tweet storms, we seem incapable of addressing, or for that matter honestly identifying, the most acute actual problems our nation faces? As I write this, our Congress is poised to enact “historic tax reform”. Though they are readily available in our overheated press, I share no apocalyptic interpretation of the pending legislation. That it will unleash a gusher of economic growth strikes me as most unlikely. That it will make sharecroppers of the middle class is hardly less so. Rearranged tax policies are not exactly irrelevant, but there are many more important things we should be talking about. However, one thing about this legislation is indisputable. The process by which it has been created is disgraceful. You or I could make important decisions concerning our personal or professional life by analogous procedures only by abandoning all self-respect.
“I grew into manhood thoroughly imbued with the feeling that a man must be respected for what he made of himself,” Roosevelt writes. “But I had also, consciously or unconsciously, been taught that socially and industrially pretty much the whole duty of the man lay in thus making the best of himself; that he should be honesty in his dealings with others and charitable in the old-fashioned way to the unfortunate; but that it was no part of his business to join with others in trying to make things better for the many by curbing the abnormal and excessive development of individualism in a few.”
The question of the relationship of the individual to society, the stuff of political philosophy and for that matter most great literature, likewise features prominently in the preamble to the Constitution. Its authors there announce as their intention the formation of “a more perfect union”. They were using the word perfect in its old Latin sense of “finished” or “complete,” and they could modify the adjective—more perfect--because they knew that the perfection could never be, well, perfect. This left them, and us, to concentrate on the concept of union.