We Americans are in the midst of severe disruptions in our common life, disruptions that show that our trust in one another is not strong.
Gone are the days when people left their doors unlocked without worry, or left their keys in the car for convenience, or let their children range free across the town or the countryside. Many a school used to have shooting clubs, and students brought their rifles with them. The emblem of a boy’s life in the time of John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry David Thoreau might have been the silhouette of a young fellow in a coonskin cap, carrying a shotgun. The emblem now would be of a boy huddled in an indoor cave, gazing at a screen.
“The problem is crime,” someone may say, but the explanation does not suffice. Violent crime has been declining steadily for two generations. Statistics, however, do not have the last word. We are better at catching criminals than we used to be, and we lock them up without compunction or consideration of their lost potential.
We are also better at preventing crime or keeping out of its way. After all, if you live behind a barrier of gates and electric eyes and guard dogs, and you never walk the streets at night, you will probably not be a victim of crime. You will also not live much of a life.
What we are really after cannot be captured in statistics: some sense of how far our practical liberty extends, protected not by policemen, penal codes, forensic criminology, and praetorian guards, but by trust in our countrymen.
To judge by the recent presidential election, that trust is thin. A majority of Republicans and a strikingly large minority of Democrats believe that the election was stolen, riddled with fraud. I take no position here on the facts. What I note is that everyone takes for granted that fraud is the status quo. Everyone believes that if political actors can get away with blackmail, peculation, influence peddling, and nepotism, they will—without thinking twice. Corruption is the game.
Of course, money and power will attract bad men as honey attracts flies. But other than the fear that despite layer upon adipose layer of bureaucracy, indirection, and rhetorical vagary you will be found out, we have no countervailing force against this attraction. We have no more tradition of honor. No one says, “This is something that Daniel Webster would never do.” Who cares for Daniel Webster? The scum rises to the top.
There is, I sense, a connection between our failure to trust one another, and our already having betrayed the most solemn of trusts. For tradition is a compact of trust between the generations. You say to your ancestors, “You will be present to us even after you die.” But we Americans, as soon as we hear “tradition,” become wary. The trite adjectives march forth: “hide-bound,” “outworn,” “hoary,” “restricting,” “outdated.” If anything in American history is a weary old unproductive tradition, it is this suspicion of tradition, and a fascination with what sells itself as new-and-improved, not considering what is to be improved and in what respect and at what price or with what loss.
It need not be so. We might take a lesson from the ancient Romans who, on sacred days, placed figurines of their ancestors on the mantel over the hearth: their household gods, the genii of the family. What was true in the family was true in the state as well. The legendary Cincinnatus was more present to Livy, four centuries after his death, than Dwight Eisenhower is to us now.
Tradition gave the Romans a life on earth beyond the termini of birth and death. They were violent and fractious people, but the centuries of the republic before the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus (d. 133 B.C.), itself a dreadful breach of tradition that inaugurated a century of disorder and tyranny, are remarkable for there being no civil wars, no burning cities, and no political murders. We may take as an emblem of impiety and perverted trust the proscriptions decreed by the young Octavian and Mark Antony in 43 B.C., when each of these competitors for leadership in Rome bargained death against death. So Octavian looked aside as Antony had his hated enemy Cicero, the last great representative of the republican tradition, beheaded en route from his country villa to Rome.
Here the American Progressive may object that tradition is well and good for keeping things stable, but it does not get new things done. It is a ball and chain.
Not so. Tradition is productive. It liberates. Imagine Titian attempting ab ovo to paint “The Man with a Glove” (1520). It is a bold and innovative painting; no one in the Middle Ages would have conceived of such a portrait, or, if the idea had come to him, would have cared to execute it. Who wants a painting whose main color is black? Who wants a painting of an individual man, sober, taciturn, looking off into who knows where? But with every stroke of his brush, Titian was working along lines set for him by Giotto and Masaccio long before, by Leonardo and Raphael in his youth, and by the great Venetian colorists, the brothers Bellini.
No inventing of wheels was necessary. What made Milton possible, if not Tasso and Spenser near his own time, Ariosto and Dante farther off, and Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, and Ovid from the ancients? Yet Milton is distinctively himself, not least because he is in conversation with the giants.
When we drag to the earth those who came before us, breaking trust with the past, smashing their forms and treading them into the dust, we punish ourselves in the act. We too come down. We amputate our lives. We instruct our children to betray us in turn. We no longer know who we are or where we are going.
And if we must judge according to some pragmatic measure, if we see nothing beyond utility, we still are losers. We lose much of the “how” of art, education, ordinary human life, and worship of the divine. That may be why so much current painting, instruction of children, and “worship music” is so staggeringly awful: Thag try make um wheel. We can say analogous things about governance and our attempts to Do Without Granddad. Ha go make um public thing.
Go for it, Ha. Make um public thing, with no time-tested plan and no sense of life beyond your own, while everyone glares at you from the underbrush, waiting to pounce.