Monday, December 03, 2007

Seers and Sages

For the last few days, the AMC channel has been rerunning the movie Troy, which remains something of a guilty pleasure for me. I've always been a sucker for these overblown Hollywood spectacles. This one is a real hoot fest. The street scene of old Troy, complete with llamas mixed among the goats and donkeys is a pure delight (Troy, if you may remember, was in Asia Minor, near the shores of the Aegean Sea--not in the Andes, near the shores of Lake Titicaca where one would naturally find llamas. A minor detail...) Peter O'Toole, going through his paces as King Priam, was a class act, as always. Eric Bana's portrayal of Hector was on the mark, though the elfin Orlando Bloom less believable as Paris. Diane Kruger was nice enough, but something of a ho-hum Helen--hardly "the face that lauch'd a thousand ships." The main attraction (to many of both sexes, I suppose) was a brooding Brad Pitt as Achilles, stalking about in various stages of undress.

In the telling of this myth, I have always been more sympathetic to Hector and his put-upon Trojans. The tragic figure of Cassandra, another child of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was especially poignant. I believe the producer's missed a bet by writing her out of the script. Cassandra, of course, had the gift of prophecy. She clearly saw the oncoming doom, yet she was cursed to have her visions ignored and/or misunderstood. She, rather than Paris (as in the movie), warned of the Trojan horse. And as we know, it all came to a bad end. Cassandra herself was captured by Ajax and carried off to Greece in slavery (as depicted here, in a painting as overblown as the movie.)

It is in the nature of things that seers, most often foretelling an ill-wind, generally fair poorly--whether the mythical Cassandra, the biblical Jeremiah, or even current prophets of doom. Which brings me to....ahem, Pat Buchanan (I know, I know--a clumsy, ham-fisted segue. But it's late...)

I have enjoyed Pat from way back in his Crossfire days. I never supported his presidential bids, but find myself more and more in agreement with him these days. He has recently published a new book, Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology and Greed are Tearing America Apart. The prophet of doom approach is something of a cottage industry with Buchanan. This work, together with his previous State of Emergency and The Death of the West form what some might call the Hell-in-a-Handbasket Trilogy.

Buchanan talks of his latest work, here. He attributes the Bush failure to "his fatal embrace of ideology." Buchanan sees ideology as a "substitute religion, a belief system based on ideas that are often contradicted by history and common sense." Just as Marxism, fascism and socialism were all gods that failed, so is Bush's "democratism." What is "democratism," you ask? Just listen to any Bush speech. Buchanan explains:

Democratism is a belief that all men are equally endowed with a desire for freedom and an aptitude for democracy. All can be uplifted, and all brought to see that democracy is the one true path to peace in our world. In democracy lies our salvation. This conviction lay behind the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s crusade to democratize the Middle East and his “global democratic revolution” to “end tyranny in our world.” And, as Woodrow Wilson’s crusade “to make the world safe for democracy” gave us Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, Bush’s crusade for democracy is leaving us with ashes in our mouths.

Buchanan finds no cynicism at play here. He sees Bush, like Wilson, as a True Believer. Of course, many who have long despised Bush refuse to grant him this, characterizing the President as both cynical and manipulative, as well as naive and inarticulate. I tell my friends of this persuasion, "Look, he is either an evil genius or he is a doofus. He can't be both." I tend to agree with Buchanan that Bush is a man of his convictions--which of course, makes it all much worse when such convictions are so dangerously ill-informed.

Using my B&N coupons and discounts, I can purchase the Buchanan book for 55% off. So, we'll see what he has to say. But I do think he is on to something here. For Buchanan is not trotting out the standard boilerplate issues that have come to define "conservatism." The title says it all: hubris, ideology and greed. The word "hubris" is much used these days, but it is crucial we remember it's original Greek context--the excessive pride which precedes a fall. This, coupled with an ideology of democratism is a recipe for disaster. And finally, add to this our greed--from an acquisitivst culture currently engorging itself in a holiday spending frenzy, all the way up to our global American corporate capitalism writ large. Buchanan sees a train wreck on the horizon.

I wouldn't know how to be anything other than an American, and one of the Southern variety. I love my country (if by that one means love of family, hearth and home) and our unique history. But that said, we are still nothing special. By that I mean, I don't confuse the USA with the Israel of God (nor do I confuse Israel with the Israel of God, for that matter.) We are the product of historical forces, just as every other country. Our borders are not inviolate, but the result of historical processes, just as other countries (and for a view of how things could have turned out very, very differently, see here.) Our system of government is unique and has served us well. In my view, however, it is not God-given, or even particularly blessed by Heaven, or necessarily universal in application. To someone who ascribes to "democratism," who believes in Americanism as a near-religion, who believes that our troops, wherever they are, are by definition, "fighting to protect our freedoms," this is rank heresy. But there is an ebb and flow to civilizations, cultures and nations. The changes we are undergoing are indeed transforming the country we know. How could it be otherwise? No nation stands outside of history.

But back to Buchanan's book, for his emphasis intrigues me. Like most prophets, he is calling us to repentance--from our pride, our false gods, and our greed--before it is too late.

As in everything, there are those who beg to differ. Which brings me to Michael Medved. The last time I heard of Medved was back in the mid 1990s, when he was giving movie reviews on talk radio, right after Rush Limbaugh. Apparently, he has now joined the ranks of the political commentariat. Our own local newspaper is so conservative that their guest editorialists run the gamut from Cal Thomas to Mona Charen. If they are feeling particularly edgy, they'll throw in one by Robert Novak. I made the mistake of reading one of Charen's recent columns, a near-hysterical screed against Ron Paul. The best I could tell, Paul's main offense was in not answering an on-air/online challenge by Medved.

Medved, here, takes Buchanan to task , casting him among the "militant alarmists" who preach "apocalyptic hysteria." Medved compares Buchanan's omens to those of Jerry Falwell, Billy Sunday and Michael Savage (a little context here, please.) Medved is right to say that there have always been doomsayers. But that is not to say that they are always wrong. In Medved's pollyannic view, things are much better now, actually almost hunky-dorry. He lumps Buchanan among those who are too quick to discredit our ancestors. He lauds the virtues of the Victorian Age and quotes from Getrude Himmelfarb (who may be a great scholar, but who as Mrs. Irving Kristol still has a lot to answer for in giving birth to neo-con chickenhawk William Kristol.) He contends that "today's citizens display vastly better discipline and higher moral standards" than our Revolutionary ancestors. Oh yes, indeed. As proof, he cites reduced New York City crime statistics, as well as historical alcohol consumption statistics. In the later 1700s, the average American over fifteen drank just under 6 gallons of alcohol a year. The current average is less than 2 gallons. Lord, have mercy. Medved misses the point so widely that one doesn't really know where to start to answer it.

An axiom I live by is that things rarely turn out as bad as we fear, nor as good as we hope. While not particularly inspiring, such an approach works out well on the day in, day out struggles of existence. That said, those who sentimentalize and who look at the past uncritically, are often the ones left with nothing by simplistic platitudes for the present. We need more voices like Buchanan, and fewer from the likes of Medved.


s-p said...

Love the image. It reminds me of one of my favorite prints (I have in my living room actually...)

Oh, and nice post too. Buchanan may not be vindicated as a prophet for another hundred years, however, like most of them.

John said...

Thanks, s-p. I like your print, as well. What does that say about us? Ha!

Kirk said...

I find it ironic that our leaders seek to export democracy, when our government is more properly described as a constitutional republic. I don't find any Biblical or theological support for the notion that Man is entitled to self-government or democracy. What ever the form of government, the Christian ideal mandates the application of justice and a certain level of human rights. Otherwise, the mode of government is unimportant, ISTM.

I voted for Pat in the '92 primary, btw. It was a protest vote against the incumbent. ("Read my lips....") I was such a rebel in my youth! LOL!

Kirk said...

I'll go further. I'd say that the evils Pat describes (as stated in your post) are caused by the government of special interests. "Let us eat cake!"

Anonymous said...

While I have not historically been a Buchanan fan, lately the man is making more sense. That might have to do with me changing, but I like the idea that "he is coming around to my viewpoint" better. ;~)

I too have been fascinated with his new book. The premise is so right on! Perhaps someone will get it for me for Christmas. John I look forward to hearing more from you after you read it.



Death Bredon said...

Pat has a wonderful autobiography tittled "Right from the Beginning." But don't judge a book by its title. It's not a bunch of self-serving hagiography. To the contrary, Pat lays out his character flaws quite honestly and in a hilariously self deprecating manner. Love or hate hs politics, he remains is an appealing character and yarn spinner.

John said...

kirk--well put. I rebelled in '92 as well, but I didn't vote for Buchanan. This may make my choice easier in 2008, as I have already done it once before.

Anonymous--my thinking exactly!

Milton Burton said...

This is just absolutely superb.

John said...

death bredon--thanks for the tip. I'll add it to my list.