Several years ago I did a series of posts on the Puritan Mind trying to understand both its dark and light sides. The positive side I called Whiggery. Whiggery, I argued, was the spirit of the abolitionist movement and the settlement house movement, but also the Yankee spirit of innovation and love of money, growth, expansion. The New Deal compromise was essential negotiated by factiions within Whiggery that tended one way or the other. Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" always interested me because he was torn between them. But in the Capra mythos Pottersville was the hypostasized version of the Dark Side of the Whig spirit, and he was right. We see it realized now in Wall Street, Enron, and the NSA.
The dark side of the Whig Puritan spirit was its love of wealth and its compulsion to control. Think Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life." The movie is a fairy tale about the Whig spirit by contrasting two different styles of banker, an emblematic Whig occupation. And the battle for the American soul became a battle between these two factions of Whiggery, the Potters vs. the Baileys with the Baileys winning out in the New Deal, a compromise worked out between the next greatest American Whig after Lincoln--FDR.
So the point I was trying to make in my "Last Laugh" post yesterday was that while the Potter wing of the Whig impulse was brought under control during the New Deal. The big corporation, the invention of the factions that defeated the south, has now been adopted by the southerners who have no interest in the compromise effected by the Yankees in the 1930s. The corporation for them is the new plantation adapted to new historical circumstances. Think Wal Mart. And they are using it and its power to destroy the great Whig compromise we came to take for granted as the New Deal.
It's the ambivalence in the American soul between the progressive side of evangelical Christianity with its dark side that drives the poltical debate even now. And my post the other day about the obsession with eliminating any threat of terrorism reminded me of what I wrote then about the Ahab-like self-destructive obsession to destroy Moby Dick. And in another post about how violence always seems to be at the heart of it:
These struggles have always been framed by the Anglo-American Calvinist mentality as a struggle for democracy and freedom over autocracy and tyranny. Now obviously there is no argument about whether democracy and freedom is superior to autocracy and tyranny, but there should be an argument about the means by which the former asserts itself. The Puritan way is by violence, and this violence is justified by a demonization of the premodern whether it be the Jacobite subversives, Catholics in Ireland, witches in Salem, King George on his throne, the slaveholders in the South, communists in Moscow, or now the Islamic fundamentalists throughout the Middle East.
Puritans don’t work things out with enemies like these because there is no negotiating with the irrational. The Puritan mind reasons: “Well of course the witch doesn’t want to be saved from her own evil. That’s why we must save her from herself by burning her at the stake.” Sounds absurd, but we heard it again from that American major who said after the destruction of the village of Ben Tre in Vietnam: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." A true Puritan there. And now look what we're doing in Iraq. Think Fallujah. We're burning the country at the stake. It's a form of mental illness, but it's a sickness we all accept as normal.
So these posts from the murky past were brought to mind when I read David Brooks's column this morning, which link them to themes I've been thinking about more recently. He's talking about competing hierarchies, the one we tend to accept as normative in which wealth, power, and a trophy wife are the markers of a successful life, and in which feminism is all about getting some of that. And then he points out that the Jewish and Christian traditions, which embrace an inverse hierarchy as Brooks calls it--I call it upside downness--is something that has virtually disappeared from the broad American cultural ethos. The Capra mythos is mocked as naive and nostalgic, but I honestly don't think so. He's pointing to something archetypal, but we have become incapable of recognizing it anymore. Brooks writes--
In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
Under this rubric, your place is not determined by worldly accomplishments, but simply through an acceptance of God’s grace. As Paul Tillich put it in a passage recently quoted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, “Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”
Not exactly a Horatio Alger/Norman Vincent Peale formula for success in the world. But Brooks's point is that while the cruder success model was always a strong one in American society it competed with this other inverse narrative, and it no longer does. I think he's right about that.
This inverse hierarchy took secular form. Proletarian novels and movies made the working class the moral bedrock of the nation. In Frank Capra movies like “Meet John Doe,” the common man is the salt of the earth, while the rich are suspect. It wasn’t as if Americans renounced worldly success (this is America!), but there were rival status hierarchies: the biblical hierarchy, the working man’s hierarchy, the artist’s hierarchy, the intellectual’s hierarchy, all of which questioned success and denounced those who climbed and sold out.
Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture. Meanwhile, the rival status hierarchies have fallen away. The meritocratic hierarchy of professional success is pretty much the only one left standing.
I've often argued here for the recovery of a gritty Capraesque sense of who the really important people are. It's the argument I make all the time in my education writing--it's famlies and teachers that matter, not principals and downtown administrators. The latter are useful only insofar as they do things to make it easier for the former, including just getting out of the way. And by the same logic, what happens locally rather than what's happens in the Beltway or the national media matters far more.
I look forward to the day when what happens in Washington will be as interesting to us as what happens at the U.N. What an inversion that would be.