Last Best Hope


Forty-five years ago, I remember sitting in classics professor Harry J. Leon's class at the University of Texas in Austin, listening to the learned scholar discussing the fall of the Roman Empire, which is depicted in the image at right. He stated that Roman citizens were so despondent about it that some of them committed suicide. I couldn't visualize the extent of the horror he was describing, and I am not sure that I can do so today.  But I do recall musing to myself how fortunate I was to be living in the United States of America.  Little did I realize that, during my own lifetime, this nation would unravel before my eyes.  Old Glory no longer waves crisply in the wind, my friends, but flies torn and tattered. fall of rome

Malfeasant legislators and presidents have run up a national debt our nation will never repay.  The failure of our currency and the impoverishment of our economy are sure to result.  They hang over our heads like the sword of Damocles.  When the sword falls, chaos and ruin will follow, and America as a land of plenty and the envy of the world will officially be no more.  If you don't believe it, then wait and see; America will default on its debt and the dollar will cease to be the world's reserve currency.  The word "hopelessness" will be written on myriads of faces, and I am not referring to a voguish tattoo. 

The fiscal and economic catastrophe we face, as horrendous as it is, is symptomatic of yet another issue, one with deeper roots and more expansive branches than any we have ever known:  the decline of our culture. Not being able to buy necessaries spells grueling hardship -- yes, of course --although not "poverty." One can be penniless, but not poor; the Great Depression proved that.  Genuine poverty is an affliction of the spirit.  Is America not poor?  Illicit drugs, promiscuity, epidemic obesity, bodily mutilation, abortion, violent sporting contests with millions of salivating spectators, obscene comedy, functional illiteracy (even in higher education), and proliferating crime have fulminated to cataclysmic proportions.

Our nation's institutions are impoverished as well.  Traditional marital and family life is holding on by a thin thread.  Colleges and universities, along with the mainline church, have become pitiable toothless tigers.  Courts are pronouncing on issues over which they have no constitutional authority. Congress is a joke, and a bad one at that.  It and the presidency are filled with corporate-driven puppets.    

America, our "good ship Lollipop," has lost its spiritual way.  It's about to collide with a massive mountain of ice.  Passengers on the second and third decks of the ship continue to dine and to dance as if danger is nowhere evident.  Many of them will  continue indulging their pleasures even after freezing waters invade steerage. 

We now find ourselves in a momentous election year.  Is there an insightful way of describing America's current political situation? Michael Oakeshott, the political theorist whom I've grown fond of quoting, speaks of "the politics of faith" and "the politics of scepticism."  By "faith," he means a political perspective characterized by a programmatic effort to create perfection on earth. Government oversees everything, provides complete security, and tolerates no speech, activity, or religious practice that detracts from its utopian agenda. In a theological sense, "faith" embodies the hubris of the Tower of Babel and translates into the heresy of Pelagianism. 

By "scepticism," Oakeshott refers to a political stance that distrusts power and attempts to limit it.  The American founders, for example, designed their constitutional republic in such a way that each branch of government was endowed with only limited power. 

The major point to be made about political faith and scepticism is that neither exists  independently of the other and in isolation.  They are properly understood as the polarities of a single dynamic, complex politics.  Politics requires both poles.  Faith is the impetus that drives the political process, while scepticism is the force that wisely limits and moderates it.  Politics  is richest and at its best when it occurs within the region between the two poles, which serve to charge it with competing impulses.

In terms of Oakeshott's analysis, what might we say about America's current political situation?  Barack Obama and his administration are heavily committed to a politics of faith.  By increased governmental oversight of our lives, we are assured  of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and everything else that will enhance our security and put us on the road to perfection. Yet, through burgeoning control over the "sheeple," freedom eventually vanishes and the government, which promises to provide for our every need, becomes the object of our fear and loathing.

Mr. Obama's political opponents score their best points by articulating a politics of scepticism. They tap into a broad vein of disillusionment and dissatisfaction over the "hope" and "change" candidate Obama promised.  These sceptics intend to cut billions from the budget, reduce taxation, repeal Obamacare, and otherwise scale back the "cancer" of government.

The American political situation may thus be summarized in a word: "polarization."  The citizenry is divided between the antipodes of political faith and political scepticism.  A vast chasm exists between these poles, such that each contingent of citizens feels bound to shout its message to the other.  Each suffers the indignity of the other's shouting, but cannot hear the message. Because "mainstream politics" in America has become a polar endeavor instead of an interactive one, it is self-defeating.   

Working together as one united people in a central region, which is shaped by impulses of both faith and scepticism, demonstrates common ground.  Our leaders have not been able to find it, much less to discourse from it.  Can it be that this common ground no longer exists since our culture, which once brought us together spiritually in social and political solidarity, has been decimated? Think about it.

So I ask you:  Is America still "the last best hope of earth"?  I would like to be able to answer this question affirmatively, but I'm overwhelmed by doubt.  Our nation, it seems to me, has chosen the path of morally dissolute empires, the wreckage of which is strewn across the pages of history.  I suspect that those who survive the coming fall will likely be the ones who are least surprised by it.  There's no survival value in denial.

February 8, 2012