Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Dangerous Naivete

Recently I got bored with the Podcasts I currently subscribe to (you can only listen to so many Irish drinking songs before you start to go a little loopy in the head), so I diversified my interests. After some intense searching on iTunes, checking for quality as well as originality - I mean, honestly, how many World of Warcraft Podcasts does the world NEED? - I think I found a few to my liking.

Among the many new Podcasts on philosophy, current events, and independent music that I have subscribed to is this one, the "Thomas Jefferson Hour." Of late I have been seeking the wisdom of great men, and well, in American history they don't come much greater than Thomas Jefferson. Writer, statesman, inventor, philosopher...one of the most brilliant men ever to live, and the man who all but CREATED the United States. Each program is a hypothetical discussion between modern documentarian David Swenson and Jefferson himself, his works and views interpreted by scholar and public speaker Clay Jenkinson. The shows are quite good, translating Jefferson's often arch ideas about liberty and human nature into everday language through dialogue, without ever seeming dumbed down for mass consumption. It's almost like what Plato tried to do in his Dialogues, laying out his master Socrates's main points through an imgined discourse so that they will make more sense. However, in the course of making more sense, a careful listener can see some bad points in Jefferson's ideals. Points that linger to this day to the detriment of American society.

First and foremost, Jefferson's personal politics. Were he alive today we would probably call him a Libertarian, given his views on private property and the role (or lack thereof) of government in the lives of private citizens. Now, I DESPISE Libertarianism - somewhat ironic, given my handle here - with a passion (James "Grendel" Probis, fellow denizen of the Suburbs of Hell, sometime debate opponent, and one of the most intellectually stimulating people I have ever known, can attest to this, damned filthy hippie that he is...). I find that Libertarianism presupposes things about the human condition that aren't true; my predilections toward Realpolitik just will not allow such wishful thinking about human intellectual potential when there's trains what need to run on time.

...but that's a debate that I don't wish to get into at this point. Thomas Jefferson, of course, didn't have the cultural baggage we do today, and so he had every right to presuppose what he did. He was building a new nation, after all. A new society based on IDEALS; there was no guarantee it would succeed, but no guarantee it would fail either. The views of Jefferson interpreted through Swenson and Jenkinson evoke, for lack of a better word, a sense of naivete about the society he was building. A shining example is the recent episode regarding relations between Jefferson's United States and the Native American nations. According to the program, Jefferson did not believe that the Native Americans would continue as separate peoples once the United States began to expand, but he was not a hardcore Manifest Destiny man. He believed that American culture would simply appeal so much to the varied Indian tribes that they would willingly assimilate into it. Why shouldn't that happen, Jefferson said. After all, American civilization had something the tribes did not: industry. An American ironworker could create tools of metal that were more durable and more reliable than the tools of bone or flint most Native tribes had access to. By virtue of easier access to quality material goods, Jefferson argued, tribal culture would simply vanish over time, as Native Americans, like the immigrants who came from Europe in the early 19th century, would join the Melting Pot and enrich both their own and American society.

Of course we know now that it didn't happen like that. Such a viewpoint as this did not take into account traditions the Indians held for thousands of years, a way of life that they valued far beyond any creature comforts, and would fight to protect if they felt it was being threatened. Instead of a peaceful assimiliation of cultures, what we had was a violent collision of them, which resulted in one of them being obliterated. In a sense it was inevitable: very different cultures living in close proximity, understanding one another with difficulty in the best of times, finally coming to blows. The victor being the one with the best weapons, and not necessarily the best way of life. The worldview esposed by Jefferson would have a hard time understanding this. A person sharing this worldview would say: Why did this happen? Why did the Indians resist us? We tried to bring them order and civilization; why wouldn't they want that?

Therein lies the Dangerous Naivete of American culture: the assumption that our culture is just so darn great, that EVERYONE wants what we have. Why wouldn't they? Americans are free people, so if you don't want to be an American, you must be opposed to freedom, therefore you must be evil! America is the Land of Opportunity, where anyone willing to work hard and live a good honest life can achieve their dreams. So if someone is unemployed, or on welfare, or is sick or dying because they can't afford health insurance, well it MUST be their own fault! Clearly they're just not working hard enough. Why WOULDN'T someone want to be an American? We're just so great! You should join us! And remember, if you're not with us, you must be against us, because otherwise why not join us?

It's a strange state of denial and self-delusion that hangs over the modern United States. This desperate clnging to a set of beliefs that are no longer relevant. The identity of America that was forged by Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries hangs in tatters, and it's not really anyone's fault. Jefferson's vision of the United States as this anarcho-agrarian society ruled by the willing consensus of self-educated, self-reliant pastoral philosophers never came to be, and he can't be faulted for that (it doesn't sound too bad, honestly). The self-assurance of the first Americans that this new society they were building was the greatest thing ever known and everyone would love to be a part of it can be forgiven (it's an odd thing, that there was very little conscious racism in these early thinkers; they believed the Indians were TECHNOLOGICALLY inferior, but so few of them made the leap of logic to them being RACIALLY inferior). But the fact is that society outgrew these ideas. American society grew and changed in ways they could never have predicted. And there is no one factor to blame: influx of immigrants from new places, innovations in technology, expansion of scientific knowledge, all played their part.

So does this mean Thomas Jefferson's legacy is dead? I don't think so. His notion of personal freedom as a cornerstone of a free and equitable society still holds water. The long-extolled virtues of the American citizen - industriousness, ingenuity, a fiercely-independent spirit - are virtues still. But the true danger is that Dangerous Naivete. The assumption that American society is the best in the world, every inch of it. And if we question this, if we become introspective, if we ponder new or different ways of doing things, if we ponder changing some fundamental pillar of American society, then do we cease to be Americans? Does American society simply burst, like a soap bubble? Is American society some kind of hypnotist's illusion, that will vanish once we stop believing in it?

I find it hard to believe that the American Dream is that fragile. It's in a bad state now, yes, but it can't be killed that easily. Indeed, it MUST NOT be killed. It just needs to change. To better suit the needs of a modern world. After all, isn't that a measure of a healthy democracy? That it can grow and change with time? I think Jefferson thought so. And I think he would want us to question and ponder and consider new and different ways of doing things. Otherwise, why have a democracy at all?

I think I need a Podcast that doesn't make me think so much. Which World of Warcraft Podcast to choose...?


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