Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The American Mind at War

Over at The Remedy, they linked to an eloquent Victor David Hanson article over at Real Clear Politics. Besides the fact that it is pretty accurate, it also goes a long way to exploring the deteriorating American mind. I'd like to go over a few portions:

Our present leisure, wealth, and high technology fool us into thinking that we are demi-gods always be able to trump both human and natural disasters. Accordingly, we become frustrated that we cannot master every wartime obstacle, as we seem otherwise to be able to do with computers or cosmetic surgery. Then, without any benchmarks of comparison from the past, we despair that our actions are failed because they are not perfect.

I'm reminded of Martin Heidegger's argument against the technological age we now find ourselves in. All alive today have seen man triumph over all of nature's immediate obstacles. Heidegger, in his famous Der Spiegel (.pdf) interview said that he was "frightened" by the pictures that returned from the moon. It was one of those moments that man was going further and further to master and manipulate the objective world he sees, thereby destroying its mysteriousness. This blend of Cartesian "subject" observing objective reality and Nietzschean unfettered will is where we are, for the most part, today. This means that everything must be faster, less strenuous, and most of all, flawless. These things taken alone and with the proper mind set, are not necessarily bad. Hanson, correctly, sees man taking slow Internet connection frustration to the uncertainties of war. Of course, nothing less is to be expected of modernity.

Perhaps we have forgotten such modesty because we have ignored the study of history that alone offers us guidance from our forbearers. It now competes as an orphan discipline with social science, -ologies and -isms that entice us into thinking that the more money and education of the present can at last perfect the human condition and thus consign our flawed past to irrelevance.

The single greatest obstacle facing modern man, aside from our historical amnesia, is the new religion science (all, including physical and social) has become for man. There is no doubt that science is now the "opium of the masses," to use Marx's phrase. The current surge of Christian activism in politics is a direct reaction to this scientific dogma. While I agree with the sentiment, I disagree with the solution. More on this below.

The result is that while sensitive young Americans seem to know what correct words and ideas they must embrace, they derive neither direction nor solace from past events. After all, very few could identify Vicksburg or Verdun, much less have any idea where or what Iwo Jima was. In such a lonely prison of the present what are historically ignorant Americans to make of a Fallujah or an Iranian madman's threat of annihilation other than such things can't or shouldn't or must not happen to us?

Thomas Jefferson sent a note to his nephew, Peter Carr in 1785. In it, he lists for his nephew, who was fifteen, as to which subjects he should begin to study, in what order, and what other activities he should do. He gives him the task of studying the ancients, including Plato, Cicero, and many others. The key is that there is something permanent about human nature. We can, if we examine the historical events and individuals carefully, learn about those in the past and of today. Today (and I am a product of contemporary education) the great figures of the past are passed over. A shame to say the least.

They would add that it is not unusual to be confronted with new crises even after such apparently easy victories.

It is even more accurate to say that the nihilism and radical historicism, represented by Heidegger and John C. Calhoun, were defeated physically on the battlefield, but become victorious in the minds of the triumphant Americans. This is seen so clearly in Harry V. Jaffa's A New Birth of Freedom. That is the current state of the American mind at war. Disillusioned with human nature (because, quite amazingly, human creativity has yet to conquer it's stubborn permanence), Americans today assume, as Hanson points out, that our cause as a political community is either unjust or handled by incompetent politicians (which, by the way, may or may not be the case) if victory cannot be perfectly found.

The option for modern Americans is, as Leo Strauss said, either progress or return. We can either continue to believe, foolishly, that we can and should bend everything to our own will, regardless of the standards we once admitted existed. There is no doubt that human creativity is a source of good and has given Americans wealth never seen on such a grand scale. The question, of course, is are we going to say there is something right and wrong about particular activities, or is the only "good" the mastery of the world and the human mind, i.e., anything goes. From here, Heidegger's argument was correct. However, the choice clearly is the nihilism of the present, or the substance of the American Founding. Seeing the current state of the American mind, it is hard to be optimistic about the latter.


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