Is "National Greatness" A Credible Goal for the United States?

Nearly everything below is subject to change. These are notes addressing a problem. If you are interested in my politics as they are right now, just read the “Is Politics Reducible to Rhetoric?” essay.

1. We have successfully made the personal political, and this has resulted in an unprecedented appreciation of rights and freedoms. I have reservations about some of those freedoms, but still – this is an excellent climate for the individual.

However, when one sees political discussion constantly dragged down to the level of “me, myself and I” in various ways, a problem arises. We note well that using your individual experience to dictate to everyone else what the law should be is acceptable if and only if one hasn’t taken a personal experience and crudely converted it into a general rule. Even a formula like Kant’s categorical (whatever you want to do, imagine everyone else doing it too) isn’t as crude as what we see nowadays: people arguing that law should be based around the exception, not the way things generally are.

We should also note the priority character assassination is given in arguments, as if the person behind an argument alone determines its truth or applicability. This means that while the law focuses on too specific cases, it also finds a new way of debasing the individual – one’s private conduct has to be seen as perfect in order to reason?

These two problems, related to purpose and speech, imply a final and most dangerous problem related to action: we look at actions/actors directed to the public good as inherently suspect. I’m not just talking about the war, but about the sudden realization on 9/11 that yes, firefighters and policemen are indeed very brave people, and also this “if you’re a politician you must be corrupt” attitude (lawyers I will not defend, I don’t want to discredit myself too much).

2. Some conservatives proposed a solution to this: emphasize “national greatness.” If we’re out there building monuments and preaching democracy and having a big mean army that scares people that’ll keep us away from the pettiness that mars current politics.

Such a solution is laughable: to a degree, it does come down to saying “peace is the problem, let’s get rid of peace.” Incidentally, I think President Bush’s Second Inaugural is not cut from this cloth – the definition of freedom he uses there is very close to what I want, if not the same thing. I could care less if America is great, and so does the President – the emphasis in the speech is on America as giving. My main disagreement with other conservatives is that they take peace for granted, and then take war when that comes for granted. Whether you’re in agreement with the war or not, we should be working to build peace in the fullest sense, not merely react to the dumb things our opponents might say.

3. There is a very deep reason why “national greatness” is laughable, though. Let’s say that it was implemented and we fought no wars and everything was peaceful. Would there be a causal relation between our public spirit being on display and world peace?

I say no, because anyone who really has the drive to be honored in this life – and I mean really has the drive – does so because of people who treated him well in a private capacity. We don’t want others who were lovely to us to be forgotten – if we’re remembered, that’s a side bonus, but one many of us won’t enjoy directly.

In other words, there’s a type of private greatness, a nobility in affairs that are not always public, which we recognize and many times over-romanticize (I can attest to having made this mistake about my own mother, who is a saint, but not for the reasons I used to think). If the public spirit thing were to work, it would have to instill in us this “private greatness,” and then and only then would bonds with other nations be forged that meant something.

4. The answer doesn’t lie in a strict public/private dichotomy. It’s because conservatives neglected the “private” to only take over official posts that they completely abandoned the schools. And that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if it weren’t for the fact standards dropped and plenty of able children got ripped off.

One reason why I love talking about poetry is that I firmly believe anyone can understand poetry. All they have to do is focus and pay close attention to the words. And what’s really beautiful is that there is no final interpretation, and that they can imagine a rich diversity of opinions being expressed by the same words over time. Close readers of this blog know my views on the first poems I wrote up are changing all the time.

But if it weren’t for a reactionary professor who didn’t buy into cultural studies at all, I wouldn’t be here sharing the poems with you. The loss of conservatives from education was a huge loss – my grad school is conservative, and I can safely tell you I learned more there in one class than I did in undergrad as a whole.

Note that this isn’t a “I hate liberals” rant. This is a “we have no balance, and this is costing us” rant.

5. We have to make it clear that acting nobly privately is a very, very great good. I was reading Plato’s Laches last week and then promptly read an essay on it. The essay argued that Nicias, the general who lost the entire Athenian army at Syracuse because his private piety advised him badly, was too focused on the private and not enough on the public in order to be a competent servant of the state.

My first reaction to Nicias in the dialogue was that he was, for all his faults, a good man. The real mistake with him was that he was not the sort of man to be in the position he was in. Truth be told, we need more people like him now. What we have now are citizens that are wholly private in the worst way. Paris Hilton is our leader, inasmuch as her whole private life is her public image, and in our conflation the idea of a public “good” dropped out, and following that, the idea of private restraint and doing unrecognized, unpraised good for ourselves and others.

There is quite obviously another side to the coin that needs to be developed, which is “Where do we get serious leaders from?” Like all good things, it comes at a cost not perfectly reconcilable with creating good private citizens: but we will discuss that later, if it has not already been discussed.

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