Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaens countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds.
-Homer, The Iliad
Last week a reliable voice of the left, Jonathan Chait, bravely re-entered the waters of politically incorrect peril with his treatment of the Bernie Sanders versus Black Lives Matter kerfuffle in Seattle where a Sanders event was shut down by a group of black activists demanding recognition of racial injustice. Chait notes that the subsequent arguments from the left supporting the actions of BLM possessed a not insignificant resemblance to the utterances of such unfortunate figures as Mao Zedong who once rationalized his view of ideological censorship thus: “the reactionaries must be deprived of the right to voice their opinions; only the people have that right.” Chait describes this new development in political correctness,
Political correctness is an elaborate series of norms and protocols of political discourse that go well beyond the reasonable mandate of treating all people with respect. Its extravagant imagination of mental trauma lurking in every page, its conception of “safety” as the absence of dissent, and its method of associating beliefs with favored or disfavored groups: They all create a political discourse that is fraught at best, and at worst, inimical to reason. False accounts of a stomach-turning rape at the University of Virginia and the police assassination of a surrendering Michael Brown lingered uncorrected for far too long, as social-media activists swatted away well-founded doubts as rape denial or racism. The “victims” of p.c. culture are not white males but the inhabitants trapped within their own ideological hothouses.
Chait ends his essay thus:
When we’re debating which candidates are progressive enough to be allowed to deliver public speeches, something has gone terribly wrong.
But what exactly is that “something” to which Chait is referring?
In a previous article I wrote for the University Bookman, Why Secular Liberalism isn’t Liberal, I argued citing authors such as Jonathan Haidt, Rene’ Girard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that as societies such as ours become more secular they don’t become less religious but rather revert to a more primitive tribalist form of religion. I note again here that Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is particularly useful in understanding that ominous “something” which Chait dare not name.
After spending some time explaining how conventional deployments of moral and political thinking have a deeply tribal character, Haidt describes a series of studies which indicate that our capacity for benevolence toward members we view as moral or political kin has a deeply physiological origin and that associated with that same mechanism is the capacity to harm those whom we deem outside our tribe in the interests of our own tribe. In one study he cites there is even an indication that we take physiological pleasure in the pain or misfortune of others if we view them as operating outside the acceptable norms of our own kin.
But what forms peoples notions of who is within and without our moral tribe? Citing the work of psychologist Dan McAdams, Haidt argues that in addition to innate characteristics and environment there is a third component, what McAdams refers to as ‘Life Narratives’, the stories which inform our identity. Here Haidt cites the work of sociologist Christian Smith,
Every social order has at its core something sacred, and he shows how stories, particularly “grand narratives,” identify and reinforce the sacred core of each matrix … Each narrative … identifies a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (in which a threat or challenge arises) and an end (in which a resolution is achieved). Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally – to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces – and to impart lessons about what must be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision.
If something has gone wrong, as Jonathan Chait puts it, perhaps it has something to do with the stories we tell ourselves. According to E.D. Hirsch in his book The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, that is exactly what has happened. According to Hirsch, a self-described secular liberal, American educational experts consciously chose to stop emphasizing citizenship in curriculum over a hundred years ago. This had the effect of unraveling a keystone in American self-understanding, the notion that we are all members of what Rawls refers to as a “Social Union of Social Unions.”
Before the nation existed there was the tribe. The history of tribal and racial hatred is the history and prehistory of humankind. Our insight into the universal phenomena of tribalism has deepened since the advent of evolutionary psychology, whose speculations make us realize how natural are the group hatreds and cruelties of history resisted by the artificial constructs of civilization … The American experiment, which now seems so natural to us, is a thoroughly artificial device designed to counterbalance the natural impulses of group suspicions and hatreds … This vast, artificial, transtribal construct is what our Founders aimed to achieve. And they understood that it can be achieved effectively only by intelligent schooling.
Hirsch describes American education in its first century as the product of a conspiracy of textbook publishers like Noah Webster and William Mc-Guffey whose products sought not only to teach the citizenry the three R’s but a commonality of language, knowledge and shared loyalty to the good of the Republic.
Out of these sentiments emerged the idea of the American common school. The center of its emphasis was to be common knowledge, virtue, skill, and an allegiance to a larger community shared by all children no matter what their origin. Diverse localities could teach whatever local knowledge they deemed important, and accommodate themselves to the talents and interests of individual children; but every school was to be devoted to the larger community and the making of Americans.
Leading up to the twentieth century all of this changed. As the nation experienced a population boom and schools had to be built to accommodate the new citizens, educational theory fell under the hegemony of fashionable progressivism.
Shortly before the beginning of the twentieth century, with a ferocity fueled by nationalistic self-righteousness, advocates of a rival set of ideas attacked the common-school tradition – and even the idea of tradition itself. The new theorists said, “We are not like Europeans; we are not slaves of the past. We are a practical (and better) people who look to the future. Our methods of education must reflect that.” Painting a bleak picture of the mindless rote learning of common-school education, the enthusiastic reformers heralded the advent of “the child-centered school.”
As late as 1940, some common subject matter was still being consciously set forth in school-books, but by the 1950’s that was no longer true: commonality in the early grades had collapsed. After a long struggle, the new set of ideas had overmastered the earlier tradition of providing every child with shared knowledge and democratic values.
Hirsch argues that the full effect of this new educational order could be seen as one would expect roughly twelve years later as verbal SAT scores would take a famous rapid descent never to be reversed.
Today the progressive arguments against a common celebrated American identity are just as passionate but based on different grounds. Text books have swung from the likes of Noah Webster to Howard Zinn, the liberal historian who claims ambivalence regarding whether in sum the world ultimately benefited from the United States. This choice has been motivated by an understandable desire to build student identity on an even more transnational notion of global citizenship and multicultural awareness. But what had promised to achieve an ultimate form of inclusive identity, has really only provided a jargon and terminology that characterizes yet one more political tribe against all other tribes.
The irony is that it has taken a century for sociologists like Haidt, et al, to only begin to understand what the Founders already knew and applied so well in their statecraft. The Founders were haunted by the long history of brittle Republics of the past as chronicled by the likes of Livy and Tacitus. Indeed, if you were to read Haidt’s text then venture to read Madison’s Federalist 10 you would realize there is very little that Haidt learned in his extensive sociological studies that the Founders didn’t already divine from their deep reading of history. Man is by nature tribal and factitious. Republics must therefore be so constituted with this feature in mind. The Founders solution was two-fold, a Republic structured with redundancies that required constant checks and accountability between multiple centers of political power, and a system of education that sought to form citizens who were citizenship-minded. The tragedy is that during the last century, our experts have succeeded in virtually leveling any remnant of that system designed to override our most factitious instincts.
Today we see the effects. Our politics appears to be being pulled apart by extremes, enraged by forms of tribal grievances embodied by the BLM episode in Seattle, and the continuing popularity of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who are both appealing to their own forms of tribal resentment.
While we moderns seem to be slow to appreciate the dark depths such passions and rage can lead to, it was a fundamental awareness of our pre-modern predecessors. Indeed, it was the thematic dilemma in one of the West’s founding pieces of literature, Homer’s Iliad.
In that epic poem, the Achaen warrior Achilles gives vent to his rage and grievance leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Upon meeting and defeating his great foe, Hector, killer of his beloved Patroclus, he yet rages more. He defiles Hector’s dead body before the eyes of his father Priam watching from atop the walls of Troy. It is only later, when Priam sneaks into Achilles’ camp that we see the warrior’s rage for the first time diminish as the words of Hector’s father touch the hero. Priam does this by appealing to the deep bond between father and son, a bond which Achilles shares for his own father the great Peleus. This appeal hits its mark because it draws the Achean hero into a common tribe with Priam and his son Hector, the community of fathers and sons.
Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief.
In our country’s best moments our common identity as Americans served the same purpose as Priam’s calming words, a recognition of ourselves as members of different tribes but sharing a common tribe by citizenship. Now that understanding has been hollowed out by a century of benign neglect and the effect of what has replaced it is on display now in our politics and culture. What remains to be seen is if we can somehow be as good at learning the lessons of our present unfolding history as our founders were over two centuries ago, or even the first readers of Homer’s great Iliad.