The sometime actress, Whoopi Goldberg, recently commenting on the Holocaust, said that it was not so much a matter of racism as of the cruelty of mankind. When she was criticized for it, the boss of the political television show on which she regularly appears, “The View,” suspended her for two weeks—a punishment that is rather like being told by your second grade teacher to sit on a stool in the corner.
Now, “The View” is as nasty a show as you will ever see, and that is saying much; a shrill, cackling coop of irritable hens, commenting on national and world affairs as only chickens can do. What puzzles me about it, and about every area of current arts and letters, social commentary, and what must pass for political thought and oratory, is how badly done it is. If it were a chair, it would break into pieces as soon as you sat on it. If it were a wheel, it would jolt along for a little while before its not-being-quite-round had wrenched the axle out of joint, or gotten your carriage stuck in a rut.
Of course, we do not run our cars on lumpy wheels, and even particle-board furniture will last a good while before warping. There is a hard limit set upon incompetence in technology. But there is no such when it comes to the stupidities of what your child reads in English class, or the historical ignorance and philosophical simple-mindedness of what you will hear as political discourse either in Congress or in the mass media. Anyone can eye up a badly made table and say, “That won’t work.” It takes some education—I am not talking about the higher forms of schooling that take your natural endowment of dullness and deepen it into outright stupidity, but rather the general knowledge you gain from reading good books and not fouling things up by reading stupid books—to say, “That political maneuver has been tried here and here, and this is what happened.”
Thus it is that when you abandon both tradition and traditional learning, when you assume the modernist’s scorn for the past, you are like a self-appointed first inventor of tables and chairs and wheels. You revert, in both matter and manner, to ignorance. It does not happen all at once, because some vague knowledge hangs about for a while, and not everyone in a society will share the scorn to the same degree. But it does happen. It has happened.
When we read The Federalist, we find ourselves among men who are drawing from a tradition of political thought and experiment that was more than 2,000 years old. They are not putting on airs. They do not glance at Greece to add a bit of finery to their argument. They really are drawing from ancient springs. When Madison says, arguing that the numbers of representatives to Congress should be kept reasonably small, that if every man in Athens had been Socrates, the popular assembly there still would have been a mob, he is recalling the failing of that ancient experiment in democracy, most signally manifest in its vindictive sentencing of Socrates himself to death. And he expects his readers—who are not scholars, but ordinary literate men—to know something about Athens and her institutions, and what happened to Socrates.
When John Adams writes about the genius of our American system’s division of powers, he refers pointedly to the ancient Roman republic, drawing from Polybius; for the American constitution, he says, is like the Roman system in one important regard. It combines the virtues and the powers of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, embodied in the president, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.
Well, that was a long time ago, and no one now will say that senators are to be like wise old men, setting a brake to the sometimes wild fluctuations of popular feeling to which the House of Representatives may be prone. Something of this understanding did indeed characterize the self-understanding, the behavior, and the oratory of American senators, who if they were sometimes on the take, were not stupidly and ignorantly so.
Read the speeches of Daniel Webster, not just for their excellence and intelligence, but to get a sense of the kind of thing he and his fellows thought they were doing. I say this as someone who disagrees with Webster’s inclination toward the centralization of power.
But I am not just talking about politicians. The collapse in quality, and the dwindling away of entire genres of art, music, poetry, and of the very bones and blood of culture in worship and common celebration, must follow when you cut yourself off from your immemorial springs. It is like severing the tap root of a tree. The tree still stands, and it still shows some green leaves curling brown at the edges. But because its past, its tap root, is not long, its future will not be long, either.
And yet my analogy is still not adequate, because though that tree will be weak and withering, it will be a tree, at least the same kind of thing it was before. Perhaps a better analogy would be to what you get if you short circuit the memory of a man, so that he cannot recall anything from yesterday, while at the same time you pump him full of drugs that rile up the passions. Such a creature would not be able to do the ordinary cultural work of a human being.
That brings me back to “The View.” It need not be that—it could be almost anything that is not technological. It could be a poetry workshop at state university, whose members have not read Tennyson and who may well not recognize his name. It could be the pulpit of the nearest church. It could be the garish mural on the overpass down the street. The painter of the mural does not think of Giotto’s frescoes in Padua—though I assure you that John Singer Sargent did, when he painted his murals for the Boston Public Library. The preacher does not think of John Henry Newman, though I assure you that Newman thought of Augustine and Chrysostom when he preached in the industrial city of Birmingham. The poets do not think of Tennyson, and may even pride themselves on their originality, which is equal parts inattention, timidity, and sloth. And it occurs to none of them that eventually their works will be judged by standards other than their own—by the same standards whereby Tennyson and Giotto and Newman have been judged.
The commentators on “The View” do not seem to fear that inevitable judgment. Because of our technology, their shallowness will be on display for anyone to see, for 1,000 years. But they do not tremble. I would, in their shoes.