We consider morality to be a primitive and natural condition, and government to be the protector of our original virtue. As for ultimate questions of power, we Americans delegate these to our elected representatives, whom we then despise and vilify for doing what they must do; while, free from such temptations, we go about the business of becoming good men and women.
-Martin Gurri, America and the “Machiavellian moment”
From an alternate timeline, an alternate Sam Wilson implores us not to abandon the great myths that hold our body politic together by a few delicate threads. I myself have made a similar argument; I think one crucial reason our military is so respectful and subordinate to its civilian masters is because the members of that military all buy into the great American democratic religion. Those who think they can corrode the legitimacy of democracy without big, horrible side-effects have got another thing coming.
And so Sam begs us:
My advice to anyone who finds this? Rediscover myth. Rediscover glamour. Rediscover the joy of the shared lie. Trust even when you have nothing but the fleeting flicker of hope. Love the hardest when you are unloved. Tell stories. Believe against the evidence of your senses.
The problem, of course, is that “the shared lie” often has consequences, precisely because reality doesn’t conform to the nice “roundness” of stories.
We see the problems in the inaugural post of the newest Sweet Talker, Jordan. Inspired by Henry Kissinger’s classic Diplomacy, Jordan walks us through the classic dichotomy between moral values and Realpolitick. He argues that America can afford to act as though it is above the latter because of its current monopoly-like position in terms of global military might, but that this cannot last forever. And clutching so tightly to rigid moral ideals is neither practical nor healthy:
With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them?
Jordan’s post brought to my mind a pair of old posts by my father; one on the very same dichotomy, quoted at the top of this post. The other on the President as Azazel; or more familiarly, as scapegoat.
Welcome to the American presidential elections process. It has very little to do with electing a president. It’s mostly about making demands on the world. I, for example, want to live in a Jeffersonian paradise, in which the choice between being good and being free never comes up. It’s a great place to be. But how do I get there?
Simple. I vote for President Buzz. He makes the choices. At first, I will be grateful for this. I can live in my private Eden, while Buzz, poor man, dwells in a public hell. But eventually, I’ll have to ask myself: what’s he doing down there? He bullies other countries, and fight wars that sometimes go wrong, and conducts himself with far less moral purity than my ideal — which, by the way, is me cavorting in my Eden.
Off with Buzz. In with Chaz. The world should never pose tragic riddles to Americans. That’s my non-negotiable demand of the new Chaz administration. Be pure. Be perfect.
But keep me safe. Preserve my Eden.
My reading of these four posts is that the American democratic religion worked, to the extent that it has worked, because of a sort of willful ignorance of the inherent contradictions. As it is put in the “Machiavellian moment” post:
Americans, it would seem, exist in a “Jeffersonian moment,” in which the contradictions standing in the way of freedom are leaped over, and the moral tensions between power and virtue are never acknowledged or felt. Somewhere in Hell, I imagine, Machiavelli is shaking his head in wonder and puzzlement.
Americans have not traditionally been particularly interested in politics, aside for a specific class of people devoted to it. This lack of interest allowed them to pursue moral purity while pretending that the ugly choices inherent in that form of human cooperation known as politics (including international politics) simply do not exist. But someone has to pull the heads of the pigs to get us our pork. Every so often voters notice the ugliness of it, and respond by voting out a few incumbents. Feeling satisfied with themselves, they turn back to their own lives.
The threads of mythology that hold a body politic together are, I have said, fragile. What Jordan calls trader morality is a cousin of straightforward pluralism, which is a historically contingent arrangement. The fault lines of American pluralism appear to center on this malign neglect of the world of elected officials most of the time; remove the neglect and Azazel’s sacrifice goes from a blood rite to mere bloodshed.
In his book, my father hypothesizes that a combination of historical circumstances combined with the rise of the new media landscape have pushed us very close to that edge. In fact, the trend is global; the various myths and sacred cows are find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by those in the grip of the glamour of negation.
The information environment has, I think, rendered the American bargain untenable. But the eradication of previous myths will not bring us to paradise; as alt-Sam argues, the result will be rather the opposite. Instead, we need to begin to rethink ourselves and our ideals. This process does not take place in a vacuum; nearly all of the resources for doing so will come from the conceptual schemes we are already inside of, as Americans among other things.
The questions we must wrestle with, as these three writers highlight, are the big ones: how do we reconcile living a worthy life, holding our public officials to moral standards, and the demands of survival and preserving our most important institutions?
Contrary to Machiavelli and his intellectual descendants, I do not think that such a synthesis is impossible. I don’t think that survival and preserving the body politic demand that we put the morality of the soul to the side. But I also agree with him that the traditions of thought which construct ideals without considering the terrible choices that are often required for such preservation and survival are lacking.
For me, a proper ideal of good government and the good life must be embedded in the practice of politics; it must internalize the relationship of practical demands into a moral framework. An important part of this is helping us to determine when, as Jordan would put it, the moral price of survival is worth paying, and when it is not. Many of the problems that Jordan and my father identify come, I think, from drawing lines carelessly and then being inconsistent in defending them, or even in remembering where they are. Such lines are important, and not to be dealt with frivolously.
I’m not even going to try to outline the substance of this alteration of our current mythologies, which are presently trembling in an ICU somewhere. Such a task is far beyond my present level of expertise. Thankfully, there are others working on that task, and have been for a long time. I hope one day to be at a stage where I am comfortable joining them. Until then, I do feel comfortable insisting that the project is far from impossible, and increasingly a necessary one. Our long pact with Azazel is slowly unraveling, and if we do not find a new one, I’m afraid our present institutions will all be so much mud in Heraclitus’ river.