In the Bosnia of my youth, there was a wonderfully absurd expression describing a particular kind of chaos—a type of chaos so screwed up it eludes analysis or ordinary methods of problem solving: ne zna se ni ko pije, ni ko plaća. “You don’t know who’s drinking, and who’s buying.”
As an immigrant who chose America as my new home, I find this expression painfully fitting today.
For me, at the moment, this sums up the state of American politics. Nobody is really solving any problems, and as days go by, our government appears to resemble something eerily familiar to me: an ideological bureaucracy run amok rather than a country that thrives on creation and innovation.
We all know that these are strange times of upheaval but who can say exactly where this upheaval is leading? In many respects, it feels like just another exercise in futile guesswork. Almost all political analysis of American politics and life, at least in the way we used to practice it, seems meaningless. The new realities stump the experts who struggle even to understand the nature of the changes. Every analyst would love to be the one who predicts correctly how events will turn out. But do these predictions or polls even matter in the end? Who, or what, is actually governing us? Because it’s not ourselves. This is not self-government.
This leads to other questions. Have things always been operating this way in America and we just didn’t notice? Is this something new or just an awakening to reality? Does it have anything to do with complacent behavior and “going soft?” Americans have been called out for “going soft” as early as the 1950s (maybe even earlier!) and at this point, many people are softer than Wonder Bread. Perhaps it’s the nature of things to consider that one sees cultural decline, or perhaps it really is declining. Or could it be that this is our perception because we’re trying to navigate through the disorder of a time in history that questions reality itself, indeed one that values a virtual rather than a true reality?
Whatever the case may be, we should pause to reflect on the past and see if we can glean any lessons from it.
A Link to the Past
Recently, I purchased several issues of the American Legion magazine from 1952. Such finds are fascinating to me, and unlike books which present a neat package of the views of its author only, magazines tend to go deeper into the consciousness of the people at any given time.
The experience of leafing through an old magazine like this is both intellectual and visceral. Even as the particulars of the articles are stuck in time, the pictures of humanity they present are almost timeless. There’s the paper, yellowed and sometimes brittle, yet holding on remains the scent, which may or may not induce an allergic reaction, and the address of a subscriber. One wonders who the person was. In this case, it’s most likely a veteran, a soldier, an anti-Communist, or a patriotic American civilian.
Two magazine issues in particular struck me as important and interesting. In one, the front page featured a drawing of a family and a soldier looking at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. In the corner, in black letters stands a warning in the form of a question: “Is Our Constitution Doomed?” with the subtitle, “You can stop the trend toward a socialistic United States.” Many are asking the same question today in different forms. Like so many attempts today, the article itself doesn’t offer that many solutions, but instead only raises more questions. Yet there is one important aspect of our Constitution that is strongly felt in this piece but seems lost on current defenders of the American Constitution: namely, the right to property.
Naturally, in 1952, writers for this magazine would be highly concerned with protecting private property given the fact that the threat was Soviet and international Communism. Our problems today are made to seem more complicated because of technology’s role in the proliferation of totalitarian ideology, but shouldn’t we too be talking about the meaning of and right to property? And don’t we have a property in our rights under the Constitution? This is certainly one of the main principles of the United States as I always understood it. We may have to redefine or, really, re-explain it for today’s generation not used to hearing about such threats, but it should be part of the larger discussion.
Another issue to which that magazine spoke (and, unfortunately, a perennial problem) is the question of deteriorating intellectual life. Written on the cover, in bold letters is “Our Academic Hucksters: Their product is reaction, peddled as the new liberalism.”
As you can guess, the article deals with unsavory and collectivist events happening on America’s university campuses. Like many writers today, the author presents the problem fairly well, but laments that there aren’t enough people aware of or fighting the spread of collectivist ideology on campuses other than “A few brilliant rebels like William Buckley,” who dares “to be different, and toss genial intellectual grenades into the foxholes of reaction.” Of course, William F. Buckley, Jr’s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” was published in 1951, thereby cementing Buckley as the leading voice in American conservatism.
The general thrust of American higher education has not changed, although it has certainly gotten much worse and a lot of bad, collectivist ideas generated on university campuses have made their way into the general culture, just as these early observers warned. The article was an attempt to shed light on a real issue and the seemingly bleak future that awaits us, unless something was done to stop the impositions of ideology. Apparently the warning went unheeded.
Wash, Rinse, and Repeat
America is a country that is in constant flux, often more volatile than not. The threats to the principles of our founding seem strangely embedded in the founding itself, which perhaps explains why so many of the warnings go unheeded. In other words, to be an American is to be constantly vigilant against the threats to the Constitution, but it is also in our nature to assume things will go on as before. It goes without saying that this presents us with a rather fatigued existence. At the end of his life, William F. Buckley, Jr. said to Charlie Rose in an interview, “I’m tired . . . I’m utterly prepared to stop living on.” I don’t take this to be a nihilistic statement but an honest thought from a man who had fought these intellectual battles all of his life to the best of his ability, and was therefore not afraid to die. He had done his bit.
Is history essentially a series of “wash, rinse, and repeat” events? I realize this may be a simplistic way of describing it, but as much as we have experienced and seen of paradigm shifts in human history, even in the upheavals, man does not change the nature of his being. Virtues and vices still occupy our minds, and our actions are judged accordingly. So, we have to keep going, and do what’s within our power to do. This is living.
As I was reading and absorbing the American Legion magazine’s contents—as I read and observed the writing, chuckled at the cigarette advertisements (“Camels agree with your throat!”), or the shilling for American versions of Brylcreem, I found a section in the magazine that was anything but a laughing matter. It was simple enough: a few columns of “classifieds,” dedicated to the soldiers lost in Korea, and others for World War II veterans seeking help.
Here were mothers and fathers asking for information, any information, about their missing sons in Korea, a plaintive cry into the media abyss for comfort. And here were World War II veterans seeking friends who may have been wounded, or who were in the same regiment with them—hoping either to connect because they desired a reunion or because there were “claims pending.” The names of the soldiers, both dead and alive, become all too real in this context. For these men, the struggle of being American and maintaining America was very much a reality, often ending in great sacrifice. Perhaps this is the most important thing to remember, as we move through the current morass.