Anthology – Peoples’ Plan for Life, Now and Forever …
In Over My Head
Caught in a barrel,
We are all feral.
Preying on those who are ‘other,’
‘til our turn arrives,
too late to pray – brother.
And yet I forget,
‘twixt and between,
That many are those unseen,
Who do not feel caught
Or in peril.
Are they ignorant of torrents and swift streams,
Or merely caught up in their own dreams?
No matter, there are examples a-plenty
To remind us who are these “others.” They are us.
But should I take my measure through pleasure,
I begin for a start,
by knowing others more smart,
Whose experience helped figure “it all out.”
Thus may I learn how to join in the bout.
A Robert Johnson
April 22, 2011
Let me introduce you to the first author by quoting him describing the American citizen – you! He is Henry Steele Commager. His History of the United States is recognized as one of the great histories by anyone about any time or place. The book from which I quote was published in 1950. It is The American Mind – An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880’s (Yale University Press, ISBN: 0-300-00046-4). Mr. Commager summarizes the American character at 1949 by postulating known traits and behavior of the American of that time and posing questions about each.
[extract beginning pg 441.] “If laws of history were ever to be formulated, Henry Adams (1838 – 1918) had predicted at the beginning of the nineties, they must of necessity be based in large measure on American experience. After the lapse of sixty years whose crowding wars and disasters gave some support to Adams’ theory of the collapse of civilization itself, American experience was even more relevant to the formulation of those laws than Adams himself had realized. Both the peoples of the Old World and of the New acknowledged that America would direct, if it did not indeed control, the course of world history in the second half of the twentieth century, and outside Russia and her satellite countries few looked upon this prospect with misgivings. If a future directed by America was not wholly clear, neither was it a blank, and those that knew that nation best were satisfied that it meant intensely and meant good. For the America that would shape the unknown future was an America whose character had been formed in the known past, and if the lineaments of that character had not yet hardened into fixed patterns, they were at least recognizable and familiar. The future was precarious, but it was not an enigma. It presented, perhaps at best, a series of questions, but the very phrasing of those questions, their grammar and vocabulary and frame of reference, was dictated by the American past and the American character and confessed confidence in reasonable answers.
“Out of an amalgam of inheritance, environment, and historical experience, Americans had fashioned a distinctive character; could they preserve and develop that character in a changed environment and under the impact of a new set of historical experiences? Adventure, experimentation, and mobility had marked their character; with the frontier gone, immigration dammed up, and resources running low, could they retain their enthusiasm for fresh experience and novel ways, their ingenuity and adventurousness? They were wonderfully inventive in the physical and technological realm; would they prove equally resourceful in the realms of social institutions and of morals? They had achieved the highest standard of living known to history; how would they live? Their society had changed from rural to urban; would they learn to master the city as their forefathers had mastered the country? Immigration had all but ceased; what would be the final product of the interracial melting pot? Fifteen million Negroes confronted one hundred and thirty million whites; would racial conflicts continue to frustrate democracy, or would they find a solution to the racial problem through ultimate amalgamation or through the establishment of such economic and social security as would permit mutual tolerance?
“They had created an economy of abundance; could they fashion a political mechanism to assure the equitable distribution of that abundance? They had become the richest people on the globe; would they use their wealth to prosper society or to display power? They were democratic in law; would they be democratic in fact? They were equalitarian by conviction; would they be equalitarian in conduct? They had developed technology to its highest point; would they learn to make technology their servant rather than their master? They were using up their natural resources more rapidly than they were replacing them; would science reverse the process, or would they be forced to a lower standard of living or to economic imperialism? Agreement upon fundamentals had enabled them to maintain a two-party system; would the clashing ideologies of a new age destroy that agreement and fragmentize their politics? They had solved the ancient problem of liberty and order; would they succeed in maintaining order in a war-troubled world without such suppression of liberty as would change the character of their state? They had become increasingly like the peoples of the Old World; could they avoid the clash of doctrine and opinion, the conflict of church and state, of class and party, of race and section, that had for so long rent Europe with dissension and war?
“They had inherited a system of law fashioned for the needs of a small, rural society and designed to safeguard the rights of property rather than of persons; could they adapt that law to an urbanized and democratic society which placed human above property rights? Their society had been almost wholly classless; would inequalities of wealth create and divide classes? Their culture had been derivative; could they create a culture of their own? They had the largest educational system in the world; for what would it educate? They enjoyed more leisure than any other western people; how would they use it? They had all but banished God from their affairs; who or what would they put in His place? They had never faced the problem of evil; would the palpable evil of the modern world persuade them to reconsider their idealism? They had begun to question the validity of traditional moral codes; could they formulate new ones as effective as those they were preparing to abandon?
“They had relaxed their moral standards and habits; would they preserve themselves from corruption and decadence? They were idealistic; could they make their ideals work? They were pragmatic; could they preserve their pragmatism from vulgarization? They were generous; would their generosity extend to the moral sphere? They were good natured; would their good nature grow to magnanimity? They were intelligent would their intelligence solve the problems of the future? They cherished a faith in reason but yielded to a philosophy of determinism; would they succeed in reconciling rationalism and determinism as their fathers had reconciled science and religion?
“They had made the atomic bomb; would they use it for purposes of civilization or of destruction? They had achieved such power as no other modern nation had ever known; would that passion for peace which Henry Adams had named the chief trait in their character triumph over the temptation to establish a Pax Americana by force? They had fulfilled the responsibilities imposed upon them by the past; would they meet the challenge of the future?
“The whole world had an interest in the answers which history would make to these questions.”
[William Appleman Williams, an author I quote below, hated the use of the rhetorical question, Mr. Commager’s main device here. Superb thinkers have in common the belief in themselves as arbiters of taste.]