Tuesday, November 07, 2006

On election day, a closer look

"Hence, in order to judge of the permanence and strength of a culture, we have to consider not only the character of its institutions or the quality of its intellectual achievements, but, before all, its inner vitality. The strength of a political or social institution, like that of an artistic style, depends not on its abstract rationality or beauty, but on its communion with the living culture. The most faithful imitation of an ancient work of art cannot call back to life a vanished style of art when once the living tradition has been broken. And just as an artistic or literary fashion can be imitated in an external and artificial way, so, too, can a people adopt the political and social forms of a different culture without having vitally incorporated them. If this process is carried far enough it may involve the end of the living culture and thus it is possible for an abstract and superficial progress to be the mark of a vital decline...

No civilization, however advanced, can afford to neglect these ultimate foundations in the life of nature and the natural region on which its social welfare depends, for even the highest achievements of science and art and economic organization are powerless to avert decay, if the vital functions of the social organism become impaired. Apparent progress is often accompanied by a process of social degeneration or decomposition, which destroys the stability of a civilization, but, as Le Play insisted, this process is not an inevitable one. However far the process of degeneration has gone, there is always a possibility of regeneration, if society recovers its functional equilibrium and restores its lost contact with the life of nature."
-Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion, 1929.

By an act of serendipity, my reading of Dawson's Progress and Religion has coincided with the height of election season. In light of the negativity and relentless onslaught of vitriol that has characterized this year's proceedings, I think his words cut right to the base of a problem that is seldom, if ever, addressed. When the political institution itself is the incubator of so much divisiveness and pure hatred, and actually becomes a hindrance to progress, it is appropriate that we cast on it a critical eye.

Dawson likened culture to "a living whole from its roots in the soil..., up to its flowering in the highest achievements of the artist and the philosopher." Though a culture may receive its form from its rational and spiritual elements, it rests on a foundation of material and non-rational elements, such as geographical or economic environment. One may admit that our current brand of representative democracy, and its acompanying electoral process, are good things in and of themselves; indeed, they are "flowers" of 18th Century American culture, and the Enlightenment. However, it does not necessarily follow that they remain optimal for our culture, 250 years removed.

The "roots" of American democracy - an agrarian lifestyle and the yeoman farmer, small, self-sufficient towns and the tradesman - still have an universal appeal, but have also become undeniably antiquated. Our culture has long abandoned the valuation of the individual and his personal, economic productivity, leaving its members alienated and fragmented. The result is that those who are not completely disinterested in the political system have become increasingly stratified, to the point that they are now forced to choose between two polarized and diametrically opposed factions. More and more frequently, the animosity between these two are the source of an unhealthy contempt for all things political by the general populace.

I still haven't quite decided on what exactly are the roots of modern American culture, but in them even a specter of the yeoman is hard to identify. Contributing forces are certainly the personhood of the urban wage laborer, the phenomenon of massive credit debt (as well as its accompanying unprecedented purchasing power), and an increased scale of everything (globalism). God only knows what type of government should naturally arise from all these, but I can guarantee you that democracy is not it.

If the political institution itself has become a stumbling block to progress; if it now brings out the worst in people rather than leading them to virtue; if a strong sense of nostalgia and a vigorous national pride are the only things that continue to tie us to democracy; above all, if the cultural link to it has truly been lost - then perhaps it is indeed time to move on.

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At 9:43 AM, November 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Howdy Vince. It has been awhile. I hope things are well. I just wanted to pop in and say hello. Enjoyed your post today. I have long been an advocate of getting rid of the two-party system or at least adding a legitimate third party. Maybe something like the common sense party. Anyway I hope the Democrats stand by their campaign promises.


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