Night Thoughts

I'm quite washed out and a bit run down again reader. So it should be on a chilly night near one in the morning.

Are we seeing the end of the modern world? I'm not the person to answer the question, of course. It does strike me more and more though that the forces unleashed in the Atlantic world by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and upon world politics by the French Revolution, really are more in the past than the future. Well, goodbye to most of them, not least the pointless division of left and right.

In the American revolution, individualism and a form of law governed liberalism was born that brooked no limit on the earth or in the skies. It now seems to be rushing to a confrontation with debt, human stupidity, and the contempt spread by bankrupt war. It isn't the first time.

My clever old friend and mentor, Daniel Walker Howe could see such confrontations marbled through US history, even before he wrote his brilliant new book about the birth of modern America and the limitations of its national idea. Elections have been lost and stolen, fortunes have swelled and been bankrupted, and words have faded like fog on a river time and again. That's life.

But has it really come to this? The government doesn't care what most of the people think. Media elites spend most of their time lying. Silly adverts based on incontrovertible maps of what America looked like before mid-nineteenth century land grabs drive people spare. The sacrifice of troops and the hunger of all ages and conditions in the republic for truth and knowledge is forgotten unless it fits in with a media picture. Has it come to this?

And what about the French revolution? That bloodsoaked rising against god's flawed, corrupt church, its confidence about reason untrammelled by anything, its majoritarian liberalism and mighty state and sacrifice of human beings to lunatic virtues of perfection. Is it now Mugabe, and Castro, and some perverted tributary of a world built around narcissim and abortion and a ridiculous empty faith in the 'secular' and in an aping of elites stronger than anything seen in the ridiculous freemasonry it associated with? Ah, it was probably ever thus.

Love and freedom and faith and reason are to my mind indivisible. But they must be grounded. We must, as people, understand the limitations upon us and draw from the strength that comes from acknowledging who we are as human beings. We are flawed, we make mistakes, and we are primates. That means that we are ever prey to nepotism, to networks of influence and manipulation, and to the violent assertion of our own righteousness in the face of evidence that we are wrong.

Some people, though, are grounded. In the past, as in the future, such grounding could come from terrible things as well as beautiful things ; perhaps from the understanding that to kill is to end a world, as well as from the determination to respect each individual world.

Dwight Eisenhower, for instance, is the last person from whom one would have expected profundity. His farewell address is often and badly quoted, and the gibberish he talked to stave off the press is as part of his much forgotten legacy as his golfing. Before The Simpsons were invented, he seemed to many, not least Richard Nixon, to be Grandpa Simpson; grumpy, sneaky, confused and out of date and time.

That he was the conqueror of Europe, on the bodies of his men with whom he risked his life, and that he was as flawed as the rest of us in the arms of his mistress, was however known to him. That he was a canny and humane man was known to a few more. Perhaps that's why he could come up with words like those that follow, which he spoke in 1953;

The 8 years that have passed have seen hope waver, grow dim, and almost die. And the shadow of fear again has darkly lengthened across the world.

Today the hope of free men remains stubborn and brave, but it is sternly disciplined by experience. It shuns not only all crude counsel of despair but also the self-deceit of easy illusion…

The way chosen by the United States was plainly marked by a few clear precepts, which govern its conduct in world affairs.

First: No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice.
Second: No nation's security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only ineffective cooperation with fellow-nations.
Third: Any nation's right to form of government and an economic system of its own choosing isinalienable.
Fourth: Any nation's attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.
And fifth: A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.
In the light of these principles the citizens of the United States defined the way they proposed to follow, through the aftermath of war, toward true peace.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms in not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

President Eisenhower was perhaps recalling the populist of the Prairie who made his name in 1896 for another party demanding that workingmen not be hung upon a cross of gold, and I suppose Bryan's words have their place too, even if they were tainted by antisemitism. I have been thinking a lot about Ike today, though.

I'm a product of the liberal west. I've lived in England in an unpleasant phase of its history. It was one, however, mostly just less unpleasant than most of them. Why do you think people spent so much time trying to leave here? There was a point, between 1940 and 1979, probably, that was happier but, nope, mostly missed that and so did most of the people who lived through it.

The Free people from whom my parents came, and especially my mother and her family were not formed in the liberal west. The Scots-Irish enlightenment left most of Ulster years before they were born. It was scented by heather and dock leaves as it sank in the bogs and on the mountains. My Mum's family were formed and grounded somewhere extraordinary.

Out in the mountains just before the world ocean, there is the county Donegal. It is an incredible place, and words fail in thinking of its beauty and hardness and the majesty of it all. The wind there would cut the breath from you if it hadn't been taken away by the sights in your eyes. It always seemed to me that people there truly live, in all their badness and goodness and vices and virtues.

Of course, people do so anywhere. There are odysseys in every apartment block. Yet, it's not such a leap from the grounding that gave Ike the capacity to say things such as those I've quoted, to the people of the Hills of Donegal.

Ireland's been intoxicated by money and to an extent liberated from the colonial past of late. Parts of it seem to have kept more of their head high and more of their feet on the ground than most of the world racked by Industry, empire, and twentieth century narcissism. By modernity, in other words.

It's an odd effect that; people who spend a good deal of their time off their heads being more in them and more sober than the puritans who pride themselves on their minds.

I know this. If the oil does trickle and shunt away--ironically, just as an oilfield was discovered off of Ireland--and society does slide into a clash of entitlement and impoverishment that slides and slices through people like neon light through eyelids, Donegal will still be there. Errigal will be flicking its chin at the universe unil the earth itself is gone. And Eisenhower's words, suitably adjusted for ridiculous inflation, will still make sense whatever eye might fall on them after that. Perhaps that is what will be left of the modern.


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