Distinguishing Between American Tragedy and Farce

Seeing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) solemnly intone the Constitution reminds one of Shakespeare’s depiction of the murderous Richard III reading the Holy Bible before awed countrymen (some of whom would be his victims). Is it any wonder President Trump’s comedic talents at his rallies seem refreshing to cynical observers? Was it ever really plausible for his 2016 call for Russia to help investigate the missing Hillary Clinton emails to be taken seriously—literally instead of comically?

True, America is divided, but is it nonetheless impossible to distinguish between tragedy and farce? Comedians choose who will laugh at them. The politically correct—be they at colleges or, now, in our corporations, boardrooms, and politics—find nothing funny.

But what would the schools, comedians, or politicians say about the greatest joke of all—the founding American idea that all men—that is, all humans—are created equal. Yet that joke has become the basis of a powerful nation, admired and feared.

Our Civil War, the bloodiest in our history, was a ferocious struggle over this “joke.” Why didn’t we get the joke and expose it, thus saving the nation much death and misery? Do we practical Yankees and dreamy Southerners lack a sense of humor and are we therefore doomed to laugh in the wrong places? Trump has no problem laughing at the inherently ridiculous.

The Spirit of Equality vs. Monarchy

Equality can’t be literal. At best, we’re human and see people of different ages and sexes, athletes, geniuses, criminals, fools, the whole lot of humanity. We can’t really see like God. Our self-interest and vanity blind us. Without necessarily any religious belief, however, Democrats assume they have God’s perspective. But like their French revolutionary forefathers, they have banished God and replaced him with a new calendar, allegedly based on “science” (but is in fact a euphemism for atheism).

In the spirit of equality, Americans have always rejected an established state religion, with at least the same vehemence with which they have rejected monarchy. But despite religious differences they understood the political and social need for belief in a common God. The Left has used this entirely reasonable, religious standard to renounce any religion or preference for private, religious approaches to political and social issues. Freedom of religion has been reduced to freedom of worship, within the confines of a church or other structure. Thus, the Left will always use common American language and understanding against its underlying reasonableness.

As Americans disdained kings, equality has reflected our democratic tastes and belief in “republican” virtue—that is, citizen character—as a replacement for dominating government. And in turn, hasn’t the Left adopted monarchy in practice with its re-election of FDR for four terms?

Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, where he compared his election to a divine choice and his legitimacy to that of a commander of armies, has remained the presidential standard for most presidents from both parties. (A contrast between it and President Reagan’s first inaugural is highly instructive.) The habit of monarchy, which has gone on now for over four score years, is hard to break—even, as Harry and Meghan are discovering, for a ceremonial monarchy.

The Left has used American common sense as a weapon against itself, resulting in a new state religion of political correctness to go along with its longer-standing project of re-adopting monarchy.

In this way, the Left can claim the loyalty to the Constitution, religion, and democracy that ordinary folks respect when, in fact, they have eviscerated it in the name of “science” and its peculiar version of democratic centralism.

Love and Power

Equality of the passions, in particular, private passions once reserved for the family, and rule of the intellectually respectable cognoscenti or elites, becomes not only compatible but even necessary. Science and persons of science purify politics and rejigger messy democracy on behalf of evermore powerful, efficient statecraft.

Thus, the passion of love can attach itself to any number or kinds of objects. Greed, of course, remains unacceptable as an anti-social passion. Conversely, acquiring political power is not only acceptable but mandated, if on behalf of social improvement or reform. Obstructing such power is a danger to the people.

Moreover, the passion of love, the most powerful of all passions, can transform itself into that most dangerous passion, the passion of demanding to be loved. What an absurdity!

Yet the ancient political philosophers insisted that a citizen’s love of fellow citizens form the capstone of political life: friendship is the completion of justice. Self-sacrifice is celebrated and a glorious consummation of the love of fellow citizens, past and present.

This is not mere political theory but a reflection of American political practice, in the Revolution, Civil War, and the last century’s world wars. It mirrors as well the political practice of England, as class barriers were replaced by patriotism, enshrined in memory by Shakespeare’s Henry V in his Agincourt speech.

Crises may show human greatness. The greatest political crisis, the Civil War, with the abolition of slavery, resulted in the reconciliation of the Constitution with the intentions of the Declaration of Independence. Are our imaginations so poor that from this lesson we can’t draw other inferences from the underlying principle of human equality besides the need to abolish slavery? What of the return to self-government, government by consent, and therefore limited government as our first priority as equal citizens?

The inability to own slaves and therefore maintain plantations and the way of life they fostered represented a dramatic change in the entire national economy. Moreover, it signaled a legal change toward work, property ownership, and ultimate citizenship for freedmen. It spanned the distance between Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses and pointed the way ahead.

“You Work, I Eat”

Not only in times of political strife do Americans decry partisanship and praise unity. There is a constant refrain to, “Rise above politics, compromise and choose the common good, as reason and self-interest prefer.” Outside of crises, isn’t there the more subdued mood of ordinary life that shows Americans in possession of charitable hearts, Lincoln’s “better angels” of our nature? Americans demonstrate this all the time, in their generosity, their giving, their volunteering whenever there is an acute need.

The most practical way to the next step away from equality as merely anti-slavery in the historical sense is to ask, “What is the essence of slavery, whose abolition the war was ultimately fought to end?” And we note Lincoln’s answer: “You work, I eat.”

He also added,

This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.

I am most happy to believe that the plain people understand and appreciate this.

The “plain people” rejected both tyrannical and slavish attitudes in those around them. Freedom was not just their right, a license for what they want for themselves, but also a cheerful duty.

Supposedly tougher-minded philosophers, most prominently Karl Marx, dismissed such bourgeois banter. But they found that their dismissals of equality, the equality of natural rights, forced them to find substitutes for Plato and Aristotle’s praise of civic friendship: in Marx’s case socialized humanity, socialism. Lincoln’s “you work, I eat” definition of slavery reigns in Marx’s utopia.

Yet, many would make the abolition of slavery a harbinger for supposed equal rights for women, alleged alleviation of racial and immigrant discrimination, and much later, in our day, gay rights. Not only the Left views each of these cases as derivative of the correction of the inequality of slavery, thus further confusing our understanding of our history, institutions, and human nature.

Lincoln’s call for national unity based on recognition of national failure becomes the font of the new American consciousness. All the other alleged failures weigh down the American soul and demand continuous self-abasement.

These causes fired the Progressive Revolution that still governs us through the intellectual and institutional elites that opine and govern in its name—universities, bureaucrats, think tanks, and journalists. Freedom is not their main concern: coerced love is. That takes “you work, I eat” to an even higher level.

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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