Our Town

At this juncture, we are most concerned with the corruption of our government because that has the most immediate bearing on our welfare and the welfare of our families. Yet, I am reminded of the wonderful formulation of Thornton Wilder in his great play, “Our Town.” Set in America just before World War I, in the fictional Grover’s Corners—it is not all that far from myth.

The preeminent theater critic of the time, Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the first performance in February of 1938, on the eve of yet another world war, said:

Taking as his material three periods in the history of a placid New Hampshire town, Mr. Wilder has transmuted the simple events of human life into universal reverie. He has given familiar facts a deeply moving, philosophical perspective. . . . Our Town is, in this columnist’s opinion, one of the finest achievements of the current stage.

As noted by the publishers, Harper and Row, “Its universal appeal is set forth by the Stage Manager in the play: ‘This is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our doctoring and in our living and in our dying.’ ”

This was an America finally coalesced and able to see itself as one culture. The values are not political, but deeply philosophical; practical and mundane, but not unimportant—lest you believe all worldly matters are unimportant, in which case you needn’t bother with politics and such.

What is the point, after all, if what we do is only a game, or a stratagem? And what is the importance of a political philosophy held only by a self-appointed intellectual elite and not lived by the citizens who must endure it?

For instance, too often we hear the call for capitalism or free trade, without regard for the people who will be surviving in its wake. Capitalism, if we understand it as the accumulation of wealth for investment, can clearly be practiced by communist China as easily as the kin of George Soros. Free trade has no meaning if it is practiced by only one party to the transaction. In the context of a welfare society paid for by taxes on the working citizenry, what advantages are there to open borders?

Large segments of the voting public are invested in ideologies which are hollow, having no real value to those to be governed by those philosophies. It is not that there is no good in philosophy itself. It is a matter of what the purpose is, and what it’s good for. If the purpose is to have a strong government which can dictate to the lives of its citizens, then so be it. If the purpose of the philosophy is to maintain a culture of individual freedom, that is another matter.

Under an authoritarian government (managed by people no more intelligent than the rest of us), mistakes affect everyone, and mistakes will be made. But there are no means to rid ourselves from their foolishness except to revolt. Under a decentralized government, mistakes will be made, but those fewer affected will then have the chance to throw the bums out.

This formulation can hardly be called “political philosophy” because it has been with us since ancient Greece, at least. You wouldn’t pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to a college for what you can read about in a volume of Herodotus. So, colleges might dress it up a bit. But what has come to be called ideology is a whole lot of dressing. And much of that lies in the justification for countless agencies employing countless drones to dispense the favors or punishments of the aforementioned authoritarian government.

Herodotus was uninterested in political science or ideology. He described what worked. And this brings us back to “Our Town.”

If the government we have doesn’t work, that is the matter. But it is a matter of life and death. The citizenry once chose a republic, but this has been supplanted in more recent years by the rule of autocracy and bureaucracy. These are just words to the average person who makes the machinery of our lives work. But if that authority prevents those citizens from maintaining the machinery, we are all screwed.

It does little good to point this equation out to someone invested in ideology. Their solution is always the same—to make someone else fix it.

“Our Town” worked because the inhabitants there made things work. This was the practical America that many of us were raised to love, where matters were resolved, or not, between individuals. That it still exists, buried beneath the layers of bureaucracy, is perhaps just a myth. But this is still our town.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

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