Benedict's Letter to the Bishops
Music of the Week — July 8, 2007

Sunday Night Journal — July 8, 2007

An Uneasy Fourth

As a member of the melancholic-American community, I don’t generally feel a lot of exuberance on the 4th of July. Quietly reflective is more my style: I usually go down to the bay, a few hundred feet from my house, and watch the fireworks launched from the town pier a quarter of a mile or so away. Or, if our daughter is playing in the local pops band, we go to the park where they play and sit on the grass. Hearing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which is a magnificent piece of music, in the dark as the fireworks begin is celebration enough for me. This year it rained and the band didn’t play. I was torn between walking down to the beach for the fireworks and staying inside and watching another episode or two of The Twilight Zone from the SciFi Channel’s marathon. Only a sort of duty led me to choose the former at the last second.

I love The Twilight Zone, and part of the reason is that it seems the product of a better America. By “better” I don’t mean that I think it was necessarily a morally superior time; in that respect I’m inclined to see the changes since that time as a break-even affair: much has changed for the better, much for the worse. What I mean is that I think the American soul was healthier. It may not have been wiser, but it was more open to genuine wisdom, and its principles were more fundamentally sound and more generally accepted. It would be more difficult now to articulate a set of principles acceptable to all or most of our myriad factions. And I think the national character was more sound. That vague but powerful set of sentiments and unarticulated principles to which we give the name “decency” has decayed vastly.

I found myself on the afternoon of the 4th thinking I love my country but I’m tired of her. And maybe we need some time apart, I thought, like a character in a movie romance. There’s a madness about the USA. There always has been, but—and maybe this is just a personal quirk—to me it seems worse in recent years, and to be driving us toward a fall.

I’m tired of little things and big things. I’m tired of the way dirty parking lots seem to be taking over more and more of the landscape. I’m tired of belligerent drivers in bloated-looking vehicles. I’m tired of the sheer bogusness that surrounds me, of shopping centers with names like “The Shoppes of Olde Towne Pointe” and subdivisions with pseudo-rustic names that must have been chosen from a mix-and-match list of words (“Orchard Ridge,” “Hunter’s Trace”).

I’m tired of the well-off who have pushed the cost of housing in my little town so high that it’s becoming impossible for the children of people who grew up here to stay. I’m tired of their expensive smug little boutiques that have replaced all the bread-and-butter businesses downtown. I’m tired of the violence and squalor of the poor that drive away anyone who can afford to move. And I’m worried about the chasm that separates the two. I’m tired of our intractable racial problems, of reading in the paper every other day of some stupid and vicious crime perpetrated by young black men while the black leadership apparently continues to believe that responsibility for solving the problem lies primarily with whites.

I’m tired of free-marketers who enthuse about “creative destruction” from their secure perches in foundations and universities. I’m tired of socialists who want us to believe that the Leviathan government is a species of family. I’m tired of the sophistical intellectuals who believe that their awesome mental powers make them superior to the rest of mankind who cling to superstitions like the sacredness of human life.

I’m wearied in my soul by the tragedy of the Iraq war—and I do think it’s a tragedy, not a crime, as many believe. And in respect to that and many other questions I’m tired of the journalists and pundits (and for that matter of my fellow citizens) who grab hold of a half-truth and try to beat their opponents to death with it. I’m extremely tired of lawyers, politicians, and bureaucrats who conceive of the law as a struggle for power by means of the creation and manipulation of rules.

Most of all I’m tired, sick and tired, of the hate, hysteria, and unreason of our politics. I don’t believe a nation can hold together indefinitely when two large minorities—I refer, roughly, to liberals and conservatives—believe that our fundamental problem is the existence of the other. I don’t think I’m an alarmist, and I don’t think we are presently in any real danger of civil war. But this level of hatred prepares the ground for violence. Don’t fool yourself that we aren’t capable of it.

Much of this is a mere funk, and it will pass away. What troubles me more deeply and persistently is the fear that we are no longer a people who either understand or desire the concept of liberty as we once did. The famous prayer from “America the Beautiful” expresses the idea with perfect accuracy and concision:

America, America,
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

For how many, or how few, of us are these words any longer an aspiration? It’s hard to imagine a Wellesley professor even feeling, much less writing, such sentiments today (see the song’s Wikipedia entry). “Liberty” is degenerating into a superficial “freedom,” the license to do anything you like in private life, at the price of surrendering genuine political and economic freedom. “Self-control” seems a quaint notion, perhaps evidence of internalized oppression. The government becomes not the guarantor of some reasonable level of order and fair play but a source of “benefits,” and politics a scramble for them.

I wonder if they teach Carl Sandburg in the schools any more. He was in my high school literature book, and a couple of his poems made a lasting impression on me. He wasn’t as great a poet as some thought him in his time, but he’s not negligible, either. Whenever I hear someone describe us as “the greatest nation in the world,” I hear this poem in the background.



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