22 June 2007:

Earl Shorris on The National Character, in Harper's

At the center of the current issue of Harper's (June 2007) is an eleven-part review, "Undoing Bush," written by eleven writers, of what it will take to undo the damage to the United States wrought by the Bush Administrations. Bill McKibben writes about the environment; Anne-Marie Slaughter writes about diplomacy, just to name two of the better-known contributors. The tone is stark but dry-eyed: the nation is in a terrible mess, and liable to get worse, but there's no point in panicking. That point is driven home with great eloquence by Earl Shorris, who writes the concluding section, on "The National Character."

Mr Shorris advances the interesting idea that the impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have finally come home to roost. Ever since deploying nuclear warheads, Americans have trembled about being attacked themselves. The Cold War was a nightmare of fear, but there was something stabilizing about the focus on Communist Russia, which, after all, is a Western nation; we could study the Russians. Our fears today are unfocused, and we're out of the habit of studying anybody. Fear, in Mr Shorris's view, is what put George W Bush in the White House, twice. There is the fear of catastrophe, and the fear, among our representatives, of losing power.

Mr Shorris writes concisely about the indispensability of courage.

We abhor cowardice and revere courage in part for the good courage does the rest of our character. In Ancient Greece it was one of the four cardinal virtues, along with temperance, prudence, and justice, none of which can be found in either the Bush Administration or the majority of the Congress. It is difficult to suggest which is the preeminent virtue or the parent of the others, but one can say with some certainty that a fearful person is unlikely to be temperate, prudent, or just. It is reasonable to think that as courage improves the moral character of a person or a government, fear worsens it. Cutting taxes for the rich and adding billions to the national debt is not prudent. Leaving millions of people, many of them children, in dire poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world is not just. Silencing the press is not temperate, nor is secret surveillance of the citizenry. Failing to put an end to an unjust war because one is afraid, like the Democrats, of repercussions at the polls is anything but courageous. 

My own feeling is that the courage and bravery that Americans used to take for granted in themselves was nourished in significant part by the virgin territory on which they sprouted their new society. It was a self-reliant courage that nevertheless made quite literal use of escape clauses. Risks were affordable because there was always somewhere else to try again - or to try something different. That state of affairs ended between the wars, most notably in the Depression. The nation recovered by means of a demanding war, which it rashly brought to an end by wreaking a new form of destruction. We've been collectively unwilling to see the bomb for the mistake that it was, but our misgivings haven't gone away. Efforts to justify the bomb have simply strengthened our dependence upon pious myths about ourselves that we've increasingly failed to live up to. We've become a nation of obese mall-rats.

Well, that will have to stop, and it will probably have to stop at the top first. We urgently need courageous leaders, and we need a press that will expose fear-mongering for what it is. In another section of "Undoing Bush," Jack Hitt writes about "The Marketplace of Ideas," and how it has been shut down by the Bushies. He notes that Hillary Clinton has employed Bushian tactics against Barack Obama. Praising a level-tempered argument that John Kerry and Newt Gingrich engaged in recently, on the subject of the environment.

They disagreed without degenerating into name-calling. They talked about solutions. Just as the cure for bad speech is more speech, it seems that the best antidote for our debatelessness may be, quite simply, debate.

Allez, courage.

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press

Write to me