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Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Wards of Civilization

There is a distinctively Orwellian note in the official slogan, "Build Back Better." This is the slogan that follows on the heels of the state-enforced halting of the economy, the cessation of social interaction, the suspension of schooling. "Building Back Better" is often described laced with racial and sexual tribalism. The slogan also vies for ubiquity with the slogan "Defund the Police," to the extent that one wonders if the two ideas are not part of the same program, so that one wants to know: building back to what?

The White House says it has no intentions "to build back to the way things were." So despite the fact that more Americans than ever are unable to have the American dream of owning a house, restoring that dream would be building back "to the way things were," and thus, seemingly by definition, not "better," but somehow worse.

When one is asked to "reimagine" their world and turn it into something new, one cannot help but to look back, if just for a moment, and reflect on what one is being asked to leave behind. That which is new, after all, is not always better. When the Americans threw off the relatively light yoke of George III, a large number of Americans thought it was rather a step backward. T.H. White had King Arthur grumble to Lancelot in The Once and Future King that "It was no good conquering the Dictator unless you and the others do the civilizing part." 

"What is the use," Arthur went on, "if the whole place is fighting mad?" This, I fear, is an apt question for our time. The fighting spirit is the engine of humanity. But it is usually tuned to the key of destruction, always fighting against something. Do we fight for anything?

One can sense something cyclical, if not rather regressive, in the present mood. For this is not the first time we have been fighting mad. We have gone to war before to vindicate a certain ethos, a way of life for this country. Why did we war: For a political agenda? For economic superiority? For military advantage? No, not for these, but for higher pursuits. John Adams had it that "I must study politics and war that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy ... geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture." 

But even these pursuits are merely instrumental. They are pursuits a government ministry might later be installed to study and regulate – and dominate. Domination can never be the end of civilization. Mere domination is not the end: mastery is the end. For as Adams went on, when his children had attained mastery, then their children, in turn, would gain "a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain." The ends of civilization are not the things we do on weekdays. They are the things we give ourselves to on holidays and, perhaps even more, on holy days.

White's King Arthur sensed this too. His knights of the round table, having no higher pursuits to give themselves to after rooting out all the thieves' dens and spreading peace throughout the land, had turned back to fighting against each other. Just so, one would not be too terribly surprised to learn any day now that a member of Congress had been caned on the House floor. (Weighing most anxious on our minds would be questions of the race and sex of the parties involved.) What was needed, Arthur concluded, was a great spiritual quest. So Lancelot and the other knights of the round table went off on crusades. And so have our modern knights of the board room tables.

I have gotten ahead of myself. What I have overlooked – for it is the privilege of the present to assume its inevitability – is how America got from independence to civilization. That was not inevitable. We look to those who drafted our founding documents, and those who fought in our Revolutionary War and Civil War, as the founders of our country. But more precisely, they are the founders of our government. Our country, our civilization, is something apart from its government. And for our civilization we owe credit to many rough fellows, who subdued the wilderness of this country, and who did many unpleasant things, in order to build a great country. The people who carry out the business of civilizing tend to be uncivilized. I do not volunteer to head any committee to erect statues to these uncivilized individuals (for in the present fighting mood they are liable to be torn down anyway). But those of us who value civilization ought to remember them.

Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove has a fine passage remembering the likes of those rough fellows. McMurtry, who just passed away earlier this year, did not think his book a "towering masterpiece" or anything, but merely a "Gone with the Wind of the West," which may help calibrate our standards to his rather higher ones. In the book, Gus and Call, who fought in the Civil War and then as Texas Rangers, are now driving cattle up to Montana. In a short bit of dialogue where the characters recall an old Indian they had known, McMurtry sets up a poignant observation:

"I remember him," Augustus said. "It was always a puzzle to me how such a short-legged Indian could cover so much ground." 
"He claimed to have been all the way from the Columbia to the Rio Grande," Call said. "That's knowing the country, I'd say." 
"Well, he was an Indian," Augustus said. "He didn't have to go along establishing law and order and making it safe for bankers and Sunday-school teachers, like we done. I guess that's why you're ready to head off to Montany. You want to help establish a few more banks. ... Every bank in Texas ought to pay us a commission for the work we done. If we hadn't done it, all the bankers would still be back in Georgia, living on poke salad and turnip greens."

Today, of course, there aren't any more cowboys or Indians than there are Sunday-school teachers. But there is no end of bankers. Gus and Call are fictional men, but they stand for real ones. And I doubt many people today want to take credit for their adventures. Yet we have the benefit of them, those of us who are able to live simple and peaceful lives today, for which most of us are grateful. The bankers and politicians and big corporate enterprises, on the other hand, have the greatest benefit of all. And for this, they are resentful. This is something worth remembering the next time you hear these sorts of people launch into sermonizing at you. The wine served at celebrations and ceremonies is taken joyfully and reverently. It is the wine drunk at every meal that collects critics. 

In the end, if you remember, Gus succumbs to an Indian arrow to the leg. He lost the leg, but the gangrene had spread to the other leg. A sawbones was nearby to take it off, but Gus refused. He could still get about by horse as a one-legged man, he figured, but not as a legless one. He was among the last of his kind, and would not give up his legs: for it is a high calling to be a steward of civilization, but a low thing to be its ward. 

Are the stewards of our civilization, like Augustus, who made the world safe for bankers and school teachers, having now discharged the duty for which they were called, passing from the earth? We are the heirs of the bankers and school teachers. But we have become bored. Or like Arthur said, though we could not root out our might, and the desire for conquest, yet we also ran out of things to which to direct our might. John Adams was wrong: painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain, did not detain us very long. Adams might have looked to Solomon: Solomon, perhaps because he had seen decay begin to set in even to the great works of Ozymandias, did not ask the Lord for might, but for wisdom. Yet he received might as well, and in the end it defeated his wisdom. Every epoch of human history teaches this: beyond the brief cresting moment upon attaining civilization, when we stand, for a moment, fully upright atop a fleeting domination of the powers of the earth and mastery of its natural forces, in joyful celebration, and having attained stewardship of God's creation, we know naught but the slow but certain bending of our gaze, from up to the heavens, back down to the slime. 

Build back better? I must be permitted to doubt. The builders have nothing but disdain for the stewards of our civilization. They would prefer we settle into the role of their wards, while the new Lords of the earth perfect our souls.

But our new Arthurians are wrong, too: matters of the soul will not detain us either. At least, not in the way we might expect. What finally saved White's Lancelot was neither conquest nor mastery, but ruin, humility, and baptism. Even after he had confessed the sins of his former vainglorious self, Lancelot found he could not return to his old life again. "But if you really were absolved this time!" Guenever cried, to which Lancelot replied: "God was not punishing me by letting the black knight knock me down – he was only withholding the special gift of victory which it had always been within his power to bestow." 

But this is unearthly wisdom: To give up glory? And not get anything back? Lancelot had been victorious as a sinner, so why should he always be beaten when he was heavenly? What then, Guenever wanted to know, did Lancelot do? 

"I knelt down in the water of Mortoise, Jenny, where he had knocked me – and I thanked God for the adventure."

Only God can tame our might, by tipping us over, until we learn: we are not the greatest force in the world – and we kneel in the place where we have been knocked down, and thank God, simply for the adventure. 

And pray that He humble the utopianists.

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