Thursday, November 24, 2011

Puritan Politics

As has become tradition, in preparation for Thanksgiving, I read Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates. This year, it struck me as very Of This Moment, this moment of unrest and uncertainty, when -- if you'll forgive me a moment of melodrama -- it seems our country, even our world, is crumbling around us. Several passages in particular spoke to me, and I'd like to share them. (Warning: It's about to get political up in here.)

John Adams wrote in the Massachusetts Constitution:

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.

How can so many people have seemed to have forgotten this? Why are so many people convinced they are "rugged individualists" being oppressed by the government from realizing their potential as world-shattering giants, when the truth is they're mediocrities and would be even worse off than they already are if the magical "market" really did dictate all our lives? Tyranny is to be despised and resisted, but we're so far from tyranny. Yet many seem to feel we're a hop, skip, and a jump away from death camps. Government is not, in and of itself, the enemy! We should be trying to make government better, not cripple or dismantle it, and electing people who are openly hostile towards it.


Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors [the Puritans]; and let each successive generation thank Him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages.

But I think we could do with a bit of Puritanism. Not the scolding, judgmental, hypocritical part, but the literate, intellectual, contemplative, uncertain part. To be a Puritan was to wrestle, every day, with one's soul, to constantly search one's inner self, to try to do as God wills, to try to figure out just if one is saved or not. They lived in a state of constant uncertainty and anxiety. Now, I know a little bit about living in a state of constant uncertainty and anxiety, and it isn't exactly fun, but we seem to have such outsized self-confidence and self-delusion these days that a dose of anxiousness might do us good. As Vowell says, "From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution."


Mario Cuomo at the 1984 Democratic Convention (addressed to Reagan, thus the "Mr. President," but I think today it resonates more as a cri de coeur against the modern Republican party and the "1%" in general.):

A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well....Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you visted some more places; maybe if you went to Appalachia, where some people still live in sheds; maybe if you went to Lackawanna, where thousands of unemployed steelworkers wonder why we subsidized foreign steel. Maybe--Maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she neeeded to feeder her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn't afford to use.

Then, as now, we were "in the worst recession since 1932" and the deficit was the "largest in the history of the universe." Proper government is "the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings." Again, we seem to have forgotten how do do this. Everything now is vicious in-fighting, people fighting over whatever scraps they have. "Sharing" is no longer in the American vocabulary, and for the rich it seems a dirty word. Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts, while the poor starve, bridges crumble, and unemployment drags on.



Protestantism's evolution away from hierarchy and authority has enormous consequences for America and the world. On the one hand, the democratization of religion runs parallel democratization. The king of England, questioning the pope, inspires English subjects to question the king and his Anglican bishops. Such dissent is backed up by a Bible full of handy Scripture arguing for arguing with one's king. This is the root fof self-government in the English-speaking world.

On the other hand, Protestantism's shedding away of authority,...inspires self-reliance--along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy--namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It's why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol' boy who's fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid of or killed.

American universities are the envy of the world. We have armfuls of Nobels. We have some of the smartest, most innovative researchers and scientists in the world. We were founded by some of the most eloquent, literate, and learned men in history. And yet we don't cotton to no book learnin' 'round these parts. We all think we're experts, even if we know nothing. Evolution? Just a theory. Global climate change? A scam. We know nothing about biology or climatology, but, dern it, we don't need no them thar scientists tellin' us what to think! The Bible's all the book we need! We'll spend billions on sports, but cut school budgets to the bone, because those evil teachers' unions are greedy bastards. We landed on the moon and pried apart the secrets of the atom, but we seem to more and more retreat into ignorance and anti-intellectualism.

So now that I've depressed or enraged everyone, I'll wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving!


Anonymous said...

Well said.

Unknown said...

If we weren't already depressed and enraged, maybe it's the swift kick we needed.

It's interesting to have a knowledge of the origins of these problems. It seems they get lost in the torrent of scandal and misinformation we see in the world.