(Ramblings with no links)
Some definitions of the “American Dream” don’t comport with human nature but then fault America for not achieving a fantasy no one (no sane man would have) ever posited. But the essential American dream is of a society freely joined, each respectful of others but autonomous and fulfilled.
That society tests the workability of our theories of the good life. We, if often unconsciously, value natural law: the primacy of moral fulfillment of our nature. The thinkers who defined our culture and then our government often spoke of the great irony of power through submission, becoming our best selves by acknowledging larger powers. That is most efficient not when we are clapped in a theoretical or real prison, but by enlarging horizons and testing ideas – we learn humility through perspective & experience, we learn what works. The Puritans, not surprisingly, saw this in religious terms. Winthrop argues the test of their religious love for one another and their God: could they demonstrate a community bound by the ligaments of that love succeeds? If so, others might be persuaded; if they failed, certainly others would not choose their path.
Does it work? A century later, this guided Franklin’s experiments with bifocals and a government constrained by the Constitution. What works may be humbling – Lysenko was surely humbled when he found his ideas replaced. But it is also bracing.
Schiller of NPR speaks of American anti-intellectualism. But we were founded by the Puritans and our government structured by founders immersed in a uniquely American version of the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin distrusted pure Deism, the Founders believed in checks and balances, even the vague thinkers of Transcendentalism abandoned Brook Farm quickly. Looking at results isn’t anti-intellectual. It demonstrates respect for the power of an idea.
For instance, experience tells us our self-interest needs restraint but it has its uses. Our resilience, our responsibility for our own, our self-reliance–and yes, I’ve come to understand, our guns–would make a government-caused famine as in the Ukraine in the thirties or China from 1958-1962 difficult to enact. We’d refuse. Out of self interest, of course. But, first, because those ideas failed the great test – do they work? Even those of us remarkably stupid about science as a broader discipline have thoroughly integrated the scientific method into our thinking: what works its test. And the good life, we’ve found, values others’ lives & others’ autonomy, it builds our self-respect on our respect for others. Clearly neither factored in the great leaps of Russia and China, the programs of Germany and Cambodia. In general, statist governments don’t “work”. Still, Chavez listens and some closer to home are drawn to those old Sirens. But they aren’t seductive if we value what “works”. Then, their music is shrill and tinny.
Our current economic straits bring focus. Budgeting time or money clarifies priorities. We’ve known schools were failing – in minor and spectacular ways. As we listen to the litany of government mismanagement and replication on the nightly news, we are less surprised than awakened. We dozed, our attention elsewhere: we had life to do. In the early sixties my mother renewed her certificate to put me through college; every night she railed about her education classes. A couple of years later, in my first Kelly Girl jobs, I saw the difference between a government office & a private one. We all knew. Job security and job benefits were increasing exponentially in a Ponzi scheme right before us. We knew union deals were defensible in one-company towns where the factory-owner had all the cards and any increase in wages would limit his profits. But when the negotiators are a politician who gets votes and campaign contributions from employees who reap benefits and money, contracts entered with no one having the role of manufacturer – the ultimate source of income – the system corrupts.
Human engineers demonstrate a lack of moral imagination and ferocious inflexibility when faced with practical failures. People with theories are seldom immune to temptation: they want to mold rather than be molded. But power corrupts and an idealist with power becomes a tyrant. He fails to accept reality: the “otherness” of the other, an unmalleable world. Our social engineers are not unlike Lysenko. And not unlike him, they are dangerous when a government enforces their theories. Often, a theory fails because it can’t distinguish between truths that can’t budge and archaic understandings that can. The twentieth century denial of biology, of botany, of human nature led to democide of unimaginable dimensions but also to corruption. The belief that the real world & real people are constructions isn’t helpful.
Policies that ignore human nature fail. Unions began including their insurance companies as part of the deal. That doesn’t surprise. All of us have a bit of the grifter in us – when someone else is paying, we are all too likely to stay at a nicer hotel, eat a more expensive dinner. The vulgarity on display in Wisconsin and its arguments come from pride – self-righteous, certain they aren’t tainted by man’s nature. The radical & honest egalitarianism of our founders assumes none are immune. (Academics emphasize Washington’s flaws while ignoring his heroism in rising above the temptations of power; they don’t recognize that virtue so important in a republic.)
If traditionally we haven’t had much patience with theories unmoored from reality, we’ve loved innovation – in ideas and things, theories and techniques. Our experience and others’ – whether recorded in literature or history or even the daily news reports – give lessons. What worked and what didn’t helps us predict what will and won’t. That isn’t anti-intellectual, it just asks the intellectual for his bona fides.
I’m optimistic. Those sleepy students in my classes have potential. We may have been sleeping, but we are a giant. And a giant armed with that great criterion – does it work? – can always find a way.