June Diary
On pessimism, Western Civilization, and more.


John Derbyshire

The graduate.  Nellie Derbyshire, high-school graduate. There was a nice little ceremony at the school. Mom and I got a bit teary, trading sentences that mostly began: “It only seems like yesterday that . . . ”

This was the first high-school graduation I have ever attended. The cliché is that the British are world-class grand-masters at ceremony — royal weddings, state funerals (I’m in that crowd there somewhere), coronations, and so on.

That may be so up at the high end of society, but for more everyday celebrations, I think this Country of the Common Man beats the Brits cold. These touching little local ceremonies are just the thing for marking life’s passages.

I can’t in fact recall any ceremony at all to close my own schooldays. They just sort of faded out. We all stopped going to class the last couple of weeks, hanging out in a store-room playing pontoon. Then at some point we got bored and just stayed home. Likewise with college. I think there was some kind of graduation ceremony there, but it was uncool to attend it. Most of us just asked for our degree certificates to be mailed to us.

I guess it’s always like that in old aristocratic societies. The colorful ceremonial is reserved for grand, unifying state occasions. Joe Citizen is left to plod dutifully through his insignificant life. Americans have a different point of view — a better one, in my opinion. Congratulations, sweetheart.

Optimists without a goal.
 Readers occasionally bark at me on account of my pessimism, telling me it is entirely against the grain of modern American conservatism as exemplified by National Review.

Oh yeah? Hanging around the office the other day, trying to avoid work, I got to reading some collections of old articles from the magazine. What should I find in the May 11, 1957, issue of National Review but an essay titled “The Bankruptcy of American Optimism” by Roman Catholic intellectual Frederick D. Wilhelmsen.

Wilhelmsen was writing in the shadow of the Hungarian uprising that had taken place, and been crushed, the previous fall. His essay seems to argue — I confess I find it difficult to follow in places — that American optimism had reached worldly fulfillment and no longer had any place to go:

The forests have been cleared. The cities have been built. The children have been put to school. The slums are largely cleared. Poverty has been reduced from the mystery spoken of in the Gospel to a problem in social engineering. The fire has gone out of our old Radicalism: it takes real genius today to find a typical American who is oppressed or impoverished. The oppressed lie on the periphery of American society. Mexican migratory workers, Puerto Ricans in New York, marginal farmers, Negroes in the big cities — these are but remnants, the detritus of a people bent on enjoying the fruits of their own productivity. The battle for the Good Life has been won for the broad millions. Our much vaunted American optimism has reached its goal. We have nowhere left to go.

This situation, Wilhelmsen argued, led to “a profound determination to stand still and remain as we are.” Hence the Eisenhower administration’s inaction on Hungary. “If we mourn in America, let it not be for the Hungarian dead; let it be for our own dead honor.”

Wilhelmsen’s essay is a fine period piece. I mean, it’s hard to imagine anyone writing like that nowadays, even in National Review. “The oppressed lie on the periphery . . . ”? Good grief! If you are not claiming to be oppressed in some fashion nowadays, you’re not playing the game. To not be oppressed is practically un-American.

“The Bankruptcy of American Optimism” (oh, let me savor that title once more!) is also a splendid late evocation of the Church Militant:

Christendom is honor and the fatherland and man with his back to the wall. It is the glory of lost causes and the splendor of certain defeat . . . 

Do even Thomists still write like that? The only church showing much militancy nowadays is the one headquartered in Mecca.

The truly amazing thing, 54 years on from that essay, is that there are any American optimists left.



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