I’ve been thinking a little about unity, of the national kind. Last Friday, Jonah Goldberg had a (typically) wonderful piece: “Who Cares about National Unity?” I agree with every word, naturally. The problem with unity is: On whose terms? On whose terms are we to be unified?
I think of Bill Buckley, in conversation with Ferdinand Marcos and others. They said that Mao “unified his country.” Yeah, retorted Bill: by killing all those who declined to be unified.
Still, I harbor a sneaking fondness for unity. For a common culture. For a general hymnbook from which all Americans are happy and proud to sing. I love our national motto, E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). I am the last of the melting-potters. I hate Balkanization and tribalism and identity politics. I would pass out McGuffey Readers, if I could. (That’s how conservative I am.) I like the idea of knowing things in common, and cherishing things in common. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for example.
I like “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
And then you have Professor Harold Hill, the con man (who will turn good) in The Music Man: “Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule!”
I’m a sucker for that corny old stuff. So help me, I believe in it.
From the point of view of most Democrats, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. rendered many services to his country, in a long, illustrious career. From my point of view, his greatest service, perhaps, was his 1991 book, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. He did not like this disuniting. I think I may read his book again.
Anyway, I know that national unity can be a lure and a danger. At the same time, I harbor this sneaking fondness. Do I contain multitudes, contradicting myself? I bet you can sympathize.
Over the years, I’ve had a line about a national school curriculum: If E. D. Hirsch, Abby Thernstrom, Jeb Bush, Checker Finn, and Sol Stern — my ed-policy heroes — could fashion it, yes, indeed. But if it’s going to be left to the flakes — then let hundreds of flowers bloom, with Farrakhanite charter schools and all the rest of it.
William Holmes McGuffey (1800–73) is nowhere to be seen.
• Were we talking of national unity? This brings up Robert E. Lee and the Civil War — which were in the news again, kind of. President Trump was praising Lee and people were commenting, including me. I will comment a little more — though I said my piece (literally) in an essay two years ago, here.
Allow me to link to another piece. Last month, I wrote a little memoir of Jeffrey Hart, the longtime National Review man and scholar of English. He passed away in February. Toward the end of his life, he had a very sharp break with the Republican party and the conservative movement. This was over a number of issues.
One of those issues was what Jeff regarded as the over-southernization of the Right. Defenses of the Confederacy, and nostalgia for it, made him sick. He thought the “Party of Lincoln” should not go over to Jefferson Davis.
Leave it to the Democrats! was his attitude.
And yet, he admired John Crowe Ransom and the Fugitives. A thinking man, Jeff contained multitudes, which sometimes jostled.
Here is one view, a view that I share: Robert E. Lee led a country, the CSA, in a war against another country, the USA. The Confederate States of America had its own constitution, its own flag, its own president, its own cabinet, etc. The bedrock purpose of this regime was to preserve and perpetuate human bondage.
People will throw a lot of “states’ rights” fog in your eyes. Blink it away.
There are libertarians — a peculiar branch of them — who defend and like the Confederacy. In mordant style, Richard Brookhiser refers to these as “the people-owning libertarians.” There are many branches of conservatism, as you know. Mainly — but not entirely — I come from the freedom branch. (I like tradition too, or some of it.) I have zero use for the Stars & Bars. I am Stars & Stripes all the way.
Lee and the other Confederates are obviously part of the American story. They are inseparable from it. But is Lee an American hero? The word “American” has some ambiguity here.
Anyway, I should not refight the War — but I’m certainly glad the Confederacy lost it. If you love the USA and hate slavery — if you love freedom and the promise of the Declaration (“We hold these truths to be self-evident …”) — this is an easy call.
I am indebted to my friend Tracy Lee Simmons, the writer and educator, for an anecdote. (Note the “Lee” in his name, by the way!) In 1961, Walker Percy won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer. (Note the “National” in “National Book Award.” It’s key to the anecdote.) Flannery O’Connor sent him a note, saying, “Dear Walker, I’m glad we lost the War and that you won the National Book Award.”
Hear, hear, FO’C.
Several months ago, I had dinner with a distinguished gent from an old southern family. His ancestors were prominent in the Confederacy. As he spoke of the Confederacy, he kept saying “we,” “our,” and “us.” It was obvious he regarded the defeat of the Confederacy as a tragedy. This puts a gulf between us.
Anyway, to be continued (eternally).
• Daniel J. Hannan has written a column headed “Why protectionism fails.” He cites a recent example: Trump’s decision to prop up Whirlpool and its washing machines. He slapped a tariff on Chinese machines. “I am a Tariff Man,” Trump has proclaimed.
Lessons never stick, including important ones. They have to be retaught and retaught. Bless people such as Dan Hannan who are willing to do it. It is a wearying exercise.
Of course, hard experience reteaches too. But it wears off. For one thing, new people keep being born. Frustrating, right?
Reading a paragraph in Dan’s column, I thought of Phil Gramm, the former senator from Texas, and an economist — a free-marketeer. As Dan explains, the washing-machine tariff saved some jobs — at least for now — but cost other jobs. The jobs that were lost are a lot more numerous than the jobs that were saved.
But people who lost their jobs? They will never connect this misfortune to the tariff. Those whose jobs were saved? They will cast their political ballots on that basis: the tariff.
“That is why Trump is able to get away with this premodern approach to economics,” writes Hannan. “And it is why the Congress, whose members know better, keeps letting him.”
Okay, now to Phil Gramm. He told Bill Buckley that he was loath to bring up trade on the stump. Why? Who would be better equipped to explain it than Gramm, who had taught economics for years? It was not worth it, said Gramm. Free trade benefits most people but hurts a relative few. The beneficiaries have no idea; but the victims all know. Therefore, there is no percentage for the politician in bringing up the issue.
What a pity. And very human.
• I was a Gramm man — or, as some of us said, a Gramm cracker.
• As the Mueller report showed, some people around Trump have wriggled out of executing his orders. They are protecting him, as well as the country, they might argue. Speaking to reporters, Trump bridled at this. “Nobody disobeys my orders,” he said.
I thought of a Republican-primary debate in Detroit, which took place in March 2016. An unexpected issue arose: If Trump issued illegal orders to the military, would they obey him? “If I say do it, they’re gonna do it,” said Trump. “That’s what leadership is all about.”
(To see the transcript of this debate, go here.)
We all learned that, when Nixon was at his worst, the people around him simply declined to carry out his orders. I have always found this problematic. Yes, the staffers and officials were probably right. But they were not elected to anything; the president was.
You can always resign on principle, of course — but people almost never do. General Mattis, the former defense secretary, is a shining exception.
By the way, remember when Trump people said that Mattis would blab to the press, to make himself look good and the president bad? As far as I know, he hasn’t uttered a peep since he left office. Which I regret. It would be interesting to hear from him.
In that Detroit debate, Senator Ted Cruz did really, really well, in my opinion. (I was part of his team, in a minor way, as I disclosed throughout the primary season.) But the boostership of Trump by Fox News was unrelenting: immediately after the debate and ever and always. This was insuperable.
• Okay, lemme lighten up. Check out the first sentence of this Associated Press report. Gnarly.
• Here is an obit of Don Nice, a “painter of pop art and river scenes.” I must say, I was not expecting this detail: “He attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, taking art classes and earning a teaching certificate.” You just never know about people, do you? Sometimes they contain multitudes.
• I was in the Orlando area recently. Let me give you two names I like a lot: “Narcoossee Road” — all those double letters in not that long a word! — and “Econlockhatchee Trail.”
• Richard Lugar, the longtime senator from Indiana, passed away recently. For a while, there was a phrase about him: “Nixon’s favorite mayor.” (Indianapolis.) I remember too that the senator, a runner, jogged with his interns. That was kind and, by all reports, he was kind.
He was also a conservative who knew the value of American leadership in the world. May we have more of his like.
• On a podcast recently, I mentioned a poster from the Age of Aquarius. This is a very mockable age, this hippie-dippie tie-dyed age. The poster was, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
You know? I think that is a very, very valuable message. Not mockable at all.
A friend of mine — a California conservative with Old World roots — wrote me to say, “That poster was on my dorm-room wall for four years. And, yes, I also made/make fun of the Age of Aquarius.”
Thank you for joining me, dear readers, and enjoy this first day of the rest of your life, as we gather rosebuds and whatever else there is to be gathered …