Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Four times the George Washington

I spent a good chunk of the morning poring over the selection of George Washington biographies at the local Books-a-Million, pacing back and forth to keep from sinking my plastic account into the hole from which no midnight Hagen-Daaz can emerge for two weeks until the next infusion. Having slurped down Paul Johnson's little "George Washington: Founding Father" tome in the spring, I have come to put Washington in my personal pantheon. Being fixated on the 18th Century, after all, why shouldn't I allow myself to adore one or two Founding Fathers, even if they did conspire to prevent Prince Henry from founding a dynasty here? Colonial America was no Periclean Athens, gods know, and our self-appointed publishing patriots would be kindly thanked by me for putting a cork in all the divinizing of our Founding Fathers. Having the virtue to found a lasting republic is something, after all, but in the fullness of time what is a Scipio or Cato compared to a Haydn or Shakespeare? We need the one just as the other, especially if we are to enjoy works of beauty and pursuits of truth in untrammeled freedom; but it is entirely too much to demand of us all to bow reverently before the genius of a James Madison (more indispensable even than his more revered peers Jefferson and Hamilton!) as if the regular person, or even a regular aesthete, could really respond to a sensible political theorist as a role model over, say, Napoleon or Alexander. Lord knows everyone from Seneca to Alexander Pope to H. G. Wells has tried to moralize us all out of the love of headstrong conquerors, but to what avail? They'd have been better advised just to advertise themselves as rivals and counterparts!: Pope, world-conqueror of wit, or Seneca, conqueror of self-- these have a certain ring! But Jefferson, Renaissance man? Oh please!: as much as I love him, let's get real: his science was shoddy compared to Franklin's, and even as a scientific dilettante he couldn't rival, say, Voltaire or the Marquise de Chatelet; his strictly philosophical arguments (on materialism and the belief in an afterlife, say) were strictly for the birds; despite his late effusions on Homer and Thucydides, he showed little real appreciation for the Greeks, and almost no disinterested concern for literature as art; he's not an original political theorist, and even as a political leader it's questionable whether he really merits the usual Top Four Presidents deference shown to him.

So it's no surprise that I've always loved that curt, rough-around-the-edges John Adams. But Washington was always a mystery. So Johnson's little book, which tackles this mysteriousness straight off, was immediately seductive to me. And Johnson, a crazed Burkean bore of a conservative, is also a terrific prose stylist and a flamboyant eccentric (also a closeted homosexual, if I read Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein" correctly). The author actually tones himself down enough to sound reasonable, and, with his Johnsonian periods and little ruffles of appreciation, his "George Washington: the Founding Father" reads like an 18th Century Plutarch life, lately come to light.
And thus Washington entered my heart and head. A man of icy exterior and Martian soul! A "sensible" man, an ironic and concealed raconteur, little schooled by his tutors but vastly schooled in the world, a native child of Nature who showed his appreciation for the Sublime and the Beautiful through his work as surveyor and as penman (his hand is, indeed, surpassingly elegant). He was born in the same year as Fragonard and Haydn, and I could genuinely feel that here, in front of me all along, was the 18th Century Representative Man of America.
But then Dubya had to stick his snout in! In keeping with his new reinvention as Reader-in-Chief (kicking Karl Rove's ass across the stacks, so they say!), Bush has taken a shine lately to boasting of the "three George Washington books" he's polished off lately (interspersed with Camus and "Macbeth", mind you). These works of scholarship have proven to him, conclusively, that Whatever Dubya Is, Is Right: for in the end, never mind the bitchy public, the losing war, and the Katrina trainwreck, historians will always talk, so who's to say I'm wrong? This historical relativism, doubtless imbibed from leading Student of History Condi Rice, should trouble any college freshman clever enough to get through "The Stranger" or most anything else, since it obviously conflicts with the absolutist tenets of his Christianity (or, more pregnantly, any non-nihilistic conception of right and wrong). I won't be surprised to hear him drop, "Life is difficult, n'est ke-pass?" But how exactly is it that the President's fevered imagination has drawn the conclusion that, since George Washington is still being writen about, History will never make up its mind about him, thus liberating him from the hell of ill-fame, if not somehow mystically delivering him up from the Hell itself which he has, arguably, done much to merit internment in? After all, unless the Revolutionary War chapter of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" has been ballonned by the Karl Rove press machine into a 'George Washington biography', I would assume that Mr. Bush is reading unconflictingly laudatory things about the general who secured independence and who steered the Constitutional Convention through its activities and then governed the new nation for eight accomplished years. All the leading indicators would point to a similarly uncontroversial fate for Mr. Bush's future stature: starkly visible failure inspires little debate. The gabfest Dubya foresees as assuring his relief should be, and almost certainly will be, a cause of terrible consternation in his declining years, though doubtless he will rail against it with his dying breath.
Still, with all the patent nonsense of the Bush Reading List (sixty tomes, indeed!), it galls that he fashions himself some sort of George Washington wiz. The Brian Williams interview clip broadcast the other night on the NBC Nightly News shows Bush in well-deserved pain when all of his "Mr. Williams!! I did my homework!!!" handraising landed him with a demand to submit his book report. "I read three Shakespeares!" he boasted, apparently as a non sequitur to avoid an oral summation on his one Camus. As I've speculated before, graduate level reading is perhaps not to be expected, or demanded, of a sitting President-- let them do their heavy meditating before they get to office! If a candidate has mused deeply on Herodotus and Tacitus twenty years before, I can excuse them for reading only policy papers and Ruth Rendell. But Bush patently has not mastered that level of mental execution-- even common human speech stumps him!-- and neither by experience or temperament has he been suited with the skills that served his father, generally speaking, so well. And so, to spite him, as much as to revel in my love for the Founding Father, I'm going to read more than two more Washington books this year. I'm on your ass, George Dubya, I'm on your ass. And, specifically, right now I'm on Brookhiser's "Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington". Another conservative, yes, and not as elegant as Paul Johnson, but elegant enough, and there'll be more . . .

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The smell of cedar in the morning

The war in Lebanon has provoked much hand-wringing over Israel's failed outcome in the endeavor, to say nothing of all the dismay that drove nearly the whole planet to demand an immediate cease-fire. There has been little in the way of Baconian, or to put it perhaps more malevolently, Machiavellian clarity over what was really desired. If the Bush Administration truely wanted to take the fight to Hezbollah, then they should have done much more to retard the movement towards a UN ceasefire. Would the US suffer such haste in getting out of its own quagmires without wrangling around in search of some advantage, or at least an advantageously-placed excuse for withdrawal? I fear however that once more, in spite of all the cowboy rhetoric and the apparently unhypocritical (however false) protestations that they are always "taking the fight" to the "terrorists" wherever they may be, the Bush boys have demonstrated that they only understand incrementalism. Did they really believe that "degrading Hezbollah's capabilities" would be enough? Do they still believe that "degrading" would deal with Iran or any other threat?
Of course, the Israelis must ultimately be to blame for not pursuing a more decisive (and less reckless!) campaign. Does the IDF, of all militaries, now lack the capability or the willingness to rush a crack division into the offense? After some soul-searching, I've come to the nasty conclusion that I'm Augustinian enough to assert that in this war the Lebanese civilian casualties, though disproportionate, are not unjustified in light of Hezbollah's obvious willingness to operate out of civilian facilities and neighborhoods, the fact that Hezbollah is the aggressor against a state with the means, and obviously the right, to defend its population, and finally-- and here's the "Augustinian" element--the likely complicity of many Lebanese civilians in their recruitment as human shields and fellow-travelers for an anti-Semitic terrorist militia. Responsibility for the deaths of civilians cannot be shunned, but a people that puts itself on a war-footing against a neighbor cannot expect to be deemed positive moral equals. Life for life, the German civilian casualties of WWII should be as sacrosanct as the lives of the civilians of Coventry and Rotterdam, but the German people empowered and embraced the leadership of Hitler and his military and so, as a collective, cannot be excused for having brought unjust death upon their neighbors. Put baldly, the citizens of Warsaw and London didn't ask for it; if the citizens of Berlin and Dresden didn't "ask for it" (and, finally, they didn't), nevertheless, they are complicit in the devastation that was wrought upon them by the Allies in pursuit of the just conclusion of an unjust war begun by Germany and its people. Et tu, Lebanon.
Needless to say, Bush can take his "Cedar Revolution" and shove it, along with the rest of the Rainbow Revolutions that frittered away like another 1848. Let the Marines of "Notre Musique" guard the Paradise of Democracy instead of embarking on a crusade into the Inferno of the Middle East! But too late, too late. I take some comfort in contemplating the moment when the oil dries up-- or rather, the oil-based economy here dries up so that alternative means are finally produced and (here's really what remains to be done) implemented. When that blessed day finally appears, the earth can breathe a sigh of relief, and not only ecologically! What a geopolitical refresher it shall be, when the angry young men of the Islamic world find there are no more petrodollars to finance their designs of hate. Who will they blame then? Who cares. Frankly, the world little troubles itself with the dangerous designs of sub-Saharan Africa, lamentably perhaps. But there will remain only humanitarian reasons for intervention in the Middle East, not strategic ones. With undiversified economies and no more terrorist political-party largesse to provide for the "education" of the boys and other such acts of "charity", these Angry Young Men will find rants against Israel and the West will do little to soothe their starving stomachs. Then again, the British citizens who prepared to dunk thousands of victims into the Atlantic enjoyed all the amenities of Western democracy, some (National Health Care!) that we don't enjoy in the US. And yet-- and yet-- they were willing to throw away life and limb, their own and everbody else's, and for what? A fantasy map of a pan-Islamic empire? To retake Cordoba for the caliphs? To finish the work of Auschwitz? To tell Britney Spears to cover up her midriff? Or do they suspect already that a mere contemplative life of sanctified hatred will not suffice to win them laurels and houris in the Heaven of the Martyrs? Neither Aristotle nor Enlightenment has begun to work on these fractured souls, and it is to be suspected that neither psychotherapy nor elections will readily extirpate this madness. In such circumstances, a really kickass ground offensive sounds like good medicine, but in this present round Israel has failed to deliver the shot.