Aggregations & Talk of Heroes

Much talk this morning of some of Chicagoboyz’s favorite old topics.

1) In WSJ’s contiuing “five best,” Michael Barone has been enlisted to suggest the five best on “The Special Relationship” – the shared American and British tradition.

2. Becker & Posner discuss the attraction of the left to academics; they have no sure answers (nor do their many commentators). Becker observes

A belief in free markets requires confidence in the view that both sides to a trade generally gain from it, that a person’s or a company’s gain is not usually at the expense of those they trade with, even when everyone is motivated solely by their own selfish interests. This is highly counter-intuitive . . . . It is much easier to believe that governments are more likely than private individuals and enterprises to further the general interest.

3. Then there’s the media’s apparently inevitable alterations of news (whether to shelter themselves from criticism or to support their agenda – it is beyond the point we can ascribe understandable sloppiness). Others Instapundit notes: Ace of Spaces and Kesler.

4. A&L links to The New Atlantis, in which James Bowman, in “Heroism, Modernism and the Utopian Impulse,” discusses both the siren call of Utopianism and the muted current attitudes toward heroism. Its meditative argument is not unrelated to #3, taking as epigraph T. S. Eliot’s “The Rock”‘s:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.

Using both The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Stoppard’s trilogy, he ponders: “How did our culture get to the point where the heroism of some is thought to diminish others—where heroism in general has become an embarrassment, something not to be talked of in public for fear of giving offense to non-heroes?” This question is posed by the media’s muted reaction to the extraordinary heroism of Liviu Librescu, who saved many of his students while dying himself. This was a man who survived the Holocaust to end his life saving others. Then there are the reactions to Mark Bingham’s mother, when she wanted to note the heroism of particular figures aboard the hijacked jet. Another family’s response was described: ‘Why diminish everyone else? They’re all dead.’”

Bowman goes on to discuss the classic 1962 John Ford film, “The point being made by Ford and his screenwriters, James Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, is that what’s needed for the establishment of civilization is, in the first instance anyway, not law but heroism. Someone has to risk his life to put an end to the threat of violence and disorder to the whole community.” This is the old, great pattern – I’ve always thought best expressed in Ulysses’ assertion of his own role and appreciation of his son’s in Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Modern action films appeal to this deep archetypal pull in our breasts, but modern thinking ignores it. The contrast between the two has become not so much a difference in depth & discretion as differences in kind that seem inspired by different perceptions of reality (and character).

Bowman’s discussion offers a partial explanation for the phenomenon Becker and Posner debate. I suspect there is a certain desire in academic’s minds (certainly I understand this, being a somewhat low level one) to prioritize motive and idea – which in the vacuum of theory may appear nearly perfect – over the tainted acts of the real world, acts which have demonstrable and not always good consequences. In academic arguments, neither the boat people nor the killing fields, the gulags nor the KGB need appear. Academics are likely to identify with (I always have) the observers and voyeurs of James than those who act. Risking the self in heroic action is dangerous – and it may prove stupid; it is always easier to analyze. Besides  our self-esteem is enhanced by the authority of analysis – perhaps a phony authority, perhaps an unearned authority, but certainly those judgments are spoken with an authoritative voice.

We shouldn’t be surprised academics don’t trust Bush; he’s not their kind of guy.  Sure, he’s not an intellectual (though a White House with a trained librarian and a vice president’s wife who did her dissertation on Matthew Arnold might imply thought is more respected than in many before and I suspect many after).   Action requires a kind of optimism, the kind we see in Bush; it may not always have served him well, but acts always require a sense risks are worth taking because the future gain may be worth the present pain.  Meanwhile, academics takes pleasure in hearing (and making) judgements on Bush’s “abysmal incompetence” – phrases which trip lightly off the tongues of those who study the oppressed and not the leaders, speak for the victim and not the explorer, the domestic not the heroic, but, most of all, don’t have to live with consequences.

Bowman observes, “The point is not to build something, but merely to care passionately about the idea of building something. It’s this which lifts the failed or frustrated utopians onto a higher moral plane than, say, “the American government.” And this is quite true of the idealism of the neocons, the idealism of Bush- an idealism I’ve long found attractive & am not willing to give up on easily, though, given the real world, I recognize doubts should be felt and modifications accepted.

Of course, Bush’s “utopianism” – tempered as it always was by modifiers – is seen by many (and not irrationally) as a major flaw, a reason for this “unmitigated disaster.” Nonetheless, their derangement may derive from the fact that he tests his vision. Indeed, Bowman observes, “That’s why President Bush gets no credit for his utopianism from the sentimentalist-utopians of the left: because it depends on people—and, in particular, on Americans—being good and fighting what he calls ‘evil-doers.'” Bowman favors working toward a better world rather than a best one, one in which “doing good” is the goal (we might think of as compared to “thinking perfect”).

Modernism’s distaste for action, its cynicism about “heroes,” is long-standing; we see it in the literary works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The consciousness, intensified & self-absorbed, might as well have existed in a vacuum; consciousness was all there was. Well, I still love that literature, but that path – deprived of commitments and actions in the real world – leads to solipsism and nihlism. And while death will come for us all, I’d rather stop breathing first.

2 thoughts on “Aggregations & Talk of Heroes”

  1. “It is much easier to believe that governments are more likely than private individuals and enterprises to further the general interest.”

    No, government is about the accumulation and exercise of power. It’s institutional interests are just that. All else is simply the show to get people’s attention. Don’t confuse the means with the ends. It’s the nature of the beast. That was understood by the original writers of the Constitution and why they limited its authority and accepted degrees of inefficiencies and even injustices. They understood Lord Acton’s warning – Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Have you ever seen a government of any significance voluntarily divest itself of power and not one in crisis or on the decline?

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