“To Hope”

March 21, 2010

With thanks to the anti-Obamacare “Tea Party” protesters, who show that the American spirit still lives. – S.H.

When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my “mind’s eye” flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Whene’er I wander, at the fall of night,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moonbeams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof!

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:
Chase him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbidfancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

In the long vista of the years to roll,
Let me not see our country’s honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed—
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppress’d,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings
That fill the skies with silver glitterings!

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veil’d face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head!

– John Keats


Looking to America’s First Financier

March 15, 2010

In a time of ever more alarming reports on the financial condition of our country, Alexander Hamilton, who did more than any other to establish America’s financial system, is a useful figure to return to. I recently read a 1931 biography of Hamilton entitled Alexander Hamilton: First American Business Man. (1) The author, an economic historian at Cornell University named Thomas Irving Warshow, focused on what he regarded as essential about his subject: Hamilton’s role in the development of the business and financial systems of the United States.

In the existing biographies of Hamilton, there is but little emphasis on this portion of Hamilton’s activities, yet it was as financier and business man that our first Secretary of the Treasury proved his immortality. For as a man, he was not noble; as a politician, he was not an eminent success; as a statesman, apart from financial measures, he was not superior. But as a business man, not in all his period was any man to match him, nor in all the years of American history can any figure dwarf him in this, his natural field. (p. ix-x)

There is something dubious about Warshow’s characterization of Hamilton as a “businessman” rather than a statesman, but his narrative does have the virtue of keeping the focus on certain highlights of his career. It is impossible not to be riveted by Hamilton’s life story. The magnitude of his role in shaping our basic political and economic institutions is difficult to exaggerate. For all those Americans who have been taught to see the Founders as “immigrants,” Hamilton’s story serves as a corrective. Born out of wedlock in the British West Indies, he was derided as a “foreigner” by enemies like Jefferson. But this misses the larger point: our founding fathers were not immigrants to this nation; they created it. Hamilton rightly is ranked among the most important among them.

When Hamilton traveled to New York in 1772 to pursue an education, he had while still a teenager already served as general manager of the largest trading operation in the West Indies. He helped to win the Revolutionary War as Washington’s military secretary from 1777 to 1781. With his essays in the Federalist Papers and active campaigning, he secured the adoption of the Constitution. As Secretary of the Treasury he engineered the federal assumption of the states’ debts from the Revolutionary War and established the first United States Bank. He planned and organized the first large business corporation in America, the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.). He was a strong proponent of strengthening manufacture through protective tariffs, a policy argued for by Patrick Buchanan and at the Economic Nationalist site. He was an instrumental proponent of the “Federalist” philosophy whose conflict with “Jeffersonian Democracy” was basic to early American politics and continues to resonate today. Were it not for the public exposure of an amorous indiscretion and his capacity for making enemies, he might have been President. Instead, he squandered his life before he had reached 50 in a needless duel with Aaron Burr.

In his zeal to grow the economy, Hamilton was too tolerant of speculation and profiteering, and a number of scandals surrounded his tenure as Secretary. Yet he did not grow rich and does not seem to have ever used his political power for personal gain. He built up a financial system that provided the indispensable precondition for industrialization: sufficient access to credit. Warshow expresses “liberal” (in the 1931 sense of the word) reservations about Hamilton’s legacy, while seeing his contribution to American industrialization as beyond questioning:

In this entire plan Hamilton accepted the principle of exploitation. With the larger social effects of his program – the consequences to the working classes, congestion of population, the entire labor problem – he did not concern himself. Political fallacy though it was, it was not in harmony with his temperament or his principles [to so concern himself]. Material splendor and power were his vision and his plan. With the singleness of purpose so necessary to the successful large man of business he blazed the path to our present-day material prosperity. Without Hamilton we might be a happier people, but not the great commercial nation. Woodrow Wilson has said of America’s first business leader: “A very great man, but not a great American.” Deficient in liberalism, indeed; but then, what great debt does industrialism owe to the leaders of liberalism? (p. 179)

Russell Kirk, while describing Hamilton’s conservative vision of a virtuous, if privileged, aristocratic class running the helm of society, makes trenchant criticisms of his industrialist and nationalist views that are somewhat germane to Warshow’s.

[H]e ignored the probability that the industrialized nation he projected might conjure up not only conservative industrialists, but also radical factory-hands – the latter infinitely more numerous, and more inimical to Hamilton’s old-fashioned idea of class and order than all the agrarians out of Jefferson’s Virginia.” (2) Kirk feels that the trends towards industrialization and centralized government would have proceeded without Hamilton’s almost fanatic encouragement, and quite possibly in a healthier manner that could have prevented the rupture of the Civil War.

Nevertheless, from the present-day perspective, Hamilton’s thinking holds plenty of value to conservatives. Many of his intuitively held positions could be tools of salvation if adopted by our present-day business and political leaders. Hamilton held that the integrity of a nation rested on its credit, and his achievement was to make United States into a nation that could be relied on to pay off its debts. His establishment of the national credit appears to have been largely squandered by the current custodians of his legacy, but it is never too late to return to common sense on these matters. We are the inheritors of Hamilton’s practicality as well as of Jefferson’s idealism, and in the end we will get done what needs to get done.

Notes

(1) Robert Irving Warshow, Alexander Hamilton: America’s First Business Man, Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1931.

(2) Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind From Burke to Eliot (Seventh Revised Edition), Chicago: Regnery Books, 1986.


A Bit of Local Color

March 8, 2010

The Indiana University Press has a nice series called the Library of Indiana Classics, to which belong several books by Booth Tarkington. As a Midwesterner I used to feel I came from one of the blander parts of the country, but as this series shows, Indiana in particular has produced a substantial amount of fine American literature. James Whitcomb Riley, Hamlin Garland, and Edward Eggleston were known to me; Gene Stratton-Porter and George Barr McCutcheon were not. There is so much out there to discover.

I took advantage of one of IU Press’s sales to pick up a copy of The Best of James Whitcomb Riley. The South may have the most “colorful” dialects, but Riley and the “local color” writers like Garland show that the Northern regions have their own diversity and, to re-appropriate the word usually applied to third-world people, vibrancy.

Consider Riley’s touching and very popular Civil War poem “The Old Man and Jim.” Jim isn’t much of a farmer, but shows himself to be a fearless soldier. His elderly father, never much for expressing his emotions, dotes on Jim and in the end has to bury his son, who succumbs to his wounds just as Northern victory is being announced. I’ll print the first and last stanzas here; the rest is posted here.

Old man never had much to say–
‘Ceptin’ to Jim,–
And Jim was the wildest boy he had–
And the old man jes’ wrapped up in him!
Never heerd him speak but once
Er twice in my life, and first time was
When the army broke out, and Jim he went,
The old man backin’ him, fer three months;
And all ‘at I heerd the old man say
Was, jes’ as we turned to start away,
“Well, good–bye Jim:
Take keer of yourse’f!”

Think of him–with the war plum’ through,
And the glorious old Red-White-and-Blue
A-laughin’ the news down over Jim,
And the old man, bendin’ over him–
The surgeon turnin’ away with tears
‘At hadn’t leaked fer years and years,
As the hand of the dyin’ boy clung to
His father’s, the old voice in his ears,–
“Well, good–bye, Jim:
Take keer of yourse’f!”

Regardless of the utility of or justifications for war, we grieve for the young men lost or forever scarred, a loss which their countrymen feel as their own. Now, Riley’s poem reminds us of so much else that has been lost: language, memories, kinship, common culture. But we do have the poem, and the culture it came from, though badly ailing, is far from dead. It can continue to live if we work to make that possible.


Representing Diversity

March 1, 2010

If America is a land of immigrants characterized by “diversity,” how do we represent ourselves to ourselves?

1955 camera advertisment

Prior to the 1960s, Americans were represented in advertising and the popular media as white, without shame or self-consciousness. After that, a black presence came to be increasingly obligatory, often in the form of a single black person added to an otherwise white group. This was normally done with the very best of intentions, though in doing so whites would often find themselves then accused of “tokenism.” Does anyone remember the character Franklin in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts?

Now, all bets are off. One thing we can be sure of is that to portray an all-white group of people is to open oneself to the charge of “racism” by advocates for various non-white ethnic groups, and by whites themselves. Such was the case when Vanity Fair recently ran a photo feature on actresses it deemed the “fresh faces” of Hollywood, and daringly (or doltishly) failed to include any women of “color” in the lineup:

Most Americans seem to accept the “diversity” presented to them on the walls of Kroger, Wal-Mart, and Target and on numerous pamphlets by government agencies and insurance companies, not to mention the majority of TV advertisements, as a positive thing. I used to feel this way myself, back when the “minority” population of the United States was still only 15% or so, and I hadn’t realized that it was growing at rates that would eventually make minorities the majority. When I noticed, for example, how judges were being represented all out of proportion to reality as black and female, my thought was something like: “This may not reflect reality, but it shows black people that we welcome them in these roles, and it represents an ideal we all aspire to.” I suppose many people think similar things today about the far more advanced ideal of diversity that reigns today, especially since the minorities really are growing very strong in numbers and, seemingly, can’t be ignored.

I no longer think, though, that the ideal of “diversity” is positive, or even harmless. The reason is that to put the ideal in visual or artistic form requires the suppression of the deep, enduring differences between the various ethnic groups in America today and the relentless conflicts, trauma, and expense associated with their co-existence in the same society. These differences and conflicts will only continue to grow with the ongoing transformation of America into a white-minority society. No one taking any account of trends in social ills like crime, terrorism, and illegitimacy, or of the increasing dysfunction of our educational and political institutions, can deny that “diversity” has extracted a serious toll on our national well-being.

In any event, the ideal of diversity is manifested in some peculiar and inconsistent ways in the media. It can be amusing to note some of the practices that have emerged. To name a few:

1) Local news anchors. Where I live, the combination of one black man and one white woman, or one black woman and one white man, has long been virtually de rigeur. (In CNN and other national media outlets, Hispanic and even Asian and Indian ethnicities are increasingly represented, and this has trickled down to the local level to an extent.) Black people might find “tokenism” objectionable, but when the total number of the group is only two, the requirement that one be black is disproportionately empowering.

2) The light-skinned or biracial black woman, often with the unthreateningly frizzy hair. Only a minority of black women look like this in real life, but you wouldn’t know this from advertisements.

3) The figure clearly intended to be identified as Hispanic, who simultaneously looks so “white” that you could never prove that intention. In reality, most Hispanics here in the U.S. are clearly identifiable as Mestizo or Amerindian. One way acceptance of “Hispanic-ness” is being foisted on us is by surrounding us with images of lots of tannish-looking people who are plausibly white. Didn’t Americans always look like this? Well…no. By the way, my wife says that the “nude” color for women’s underclothing in the U.S. has become noticeably tanner in recent years.

4) Images of people of certain ethnic groups in roles clearly contradicting our image of those groups in real life. There is a very amusing poster at my local YMCA showing three children or youths performing physical activities. There is a black boy swimming, an Asian boy playing basketball, and an Asian girl lifting weights. Each one is doing precisely the thing you’d expect him to be poor at. Incidentally there is no white person present at all.

5) The panel, ensemble, or other group, of which each member comes from a different ethnic group. An example would be the early lineup of “The View,” with a black, white, Jewish, and Asian member (there seems not to be an Asian in the current lineup). Or, consider the quartet of musicians who played at the Obama inauguration: Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero, Itzhak Perlman, and Anthony McGill. Wonderful musicians; I begrudge them nothing. But I do remember someone at the National Review writing something like “Do you suppose they were picked for their ethnicity? I sure hope not!” OF COURSE they were chosen for their ethnicity.

The reader will certainly be able to think of other permutations.

Informally enforced diversity in advertising and the media may only be a minor issue for most people: at times unnoticeable, at times annoying, at times amusing. But it reflects a deeply oppressive power at work that forces us to constantly think about all the “others” in our society, something which I believe affects our ability to simply be ourselves and, on that basis, to live the best lives we can and to create the best society we can. Lawrence Auster put it well in his pamphlet The Path to National Suicide, when he discussed the future of art in a multicultural society:

As the image of our civilization, as expressed in the arts and literature, changes to a multiracial, multicultural image, what kind of art will result? Movies and plays, instead of portraying the relationships of individuals within a community or family, as drama has done time out of mind, must focus self-consciously on race relations. Established literary works that have formed a living bridge between one generation of Americans and the next will fall into oblivion, to be replaced by works on minority, Hispanic and Asian issues. The religious paintings of the multiculturalist society, instead of portraying a group of individuals chosen from the artists’ imagination, would follow a statistical formula; the figures gathered around the Christ child would have to be x percent brown, x percent black, yellow, white and so on, all chosen on the basis of racial balance rather than their individual character. Diversity would so overwhelm unity that the idea of diversity within unity would be lost.

Though it may be easier to go with the flow, I can’t accept the culture we Americans are now being presented with. It all starts with immigration, and though it may seem that the “horse is out of the barn” with respect to Hispanic and other non-European immigration, we must continue to resist this colonization of the United States which now continues clearly for the benefit of the groups coming in, not those already here. And whatever the results may be, we traditional Americans are going to have to find a way to live in our own society so we can be ourselves. It starts with refusing to accept the status quo, and challenging it wherever and however we can.