The late Malcolm Muggeridge often declared that the modern world is based on fantasy. By this, alas, he didn’t mean such beguiling (and ultimately true) books as The Lord of the Rings, but rather, a refusal to look reality in the face; that is, we are resolved to attempt to reshape the cosmos to our liking. Since we can’t really do this, we pretend that what we want is so — even though we know it isn’t. Orwell called it “double-think.”
The title of this essay was suggested by that of an English ghost story, “The Haunters and the Haunted;” the implication of which being that the reader will have a hard time figuring out just who is being appeared to and whom the apparition. So it is with the nature of power in the modern world — by which, incidentally, this writer means Europe, North America, Japan, and Australasia. Across the rest of the globe, except for Latin America, the Philippines, and possibly India and a few other places (which are in various stages of transformation — though from what to what has yet to be ascertained), there is rarely a question as to whom the rulers may be, and who the ruled.
Muggeridge and Orwell had an advantage in knowing the power of fantasy, for they lived under Constitutional Monarchies. As they have evolved, these sorts of nations have become showplaces of shared fiction. Not only in Great Britain, but in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Japan, Scandinavia, and Benelux, the pageantry of royalty clothes the reality of power. On state occasions, even now, the sovereign rides by crowds of cheering subjects in a gilded coach; laws are enacted in the name of the Monarch; the armed forces swear their allegiance to him, and so forth. Charities, learned bodies, schools, and churches all treasure their connections to the Crown. Even favored tradesmen proudly display their warrants as purveyors to the court.
But in those countries immediate power rests with whomever holds a majority in Parliament. If the Sovereign delivers the speech from the throne amidst Medieval (or at least 19th century) pomp, it is the Prime Minister who writes the speech. The laws may be executed in the name of the Crown, but that wearer of that crown has nothing to say about them. In practice the Monarch cannot exercise his veto, even if he wanted to. Although in some of these nations, it is theoretically possible that the Sovereign might directly intervene to safeguard the Constitution, it is unlikely to happen — the one time in recent years it did, in 1975, when Sir John Kerr, Governor-General of Australia dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, it was done without reference to Queen Elizabeth II, the Sovereign whose representative Sir John was. In Sweden and Japan, even this phantom power has been taken away.
Of course, since the 1960s, much has changed with reigning Monarchies, as with all else in Western society. The marriage and divorce of the Prince of Wales and his siblings, as well as various attendant scandals, have tarnished the appearance of the House of Windsor in the Commonwealth (the fact that in this they resemble at least 50% of their British subjects is conveniently ignored). But it is not just in divorce or sexual scandal that modern royals ape modern commoners. Not a single heir presumptive to a modern European throne has married a fellow royal; the Crown Princes of Spain and Norway have married, to use a quaint phrase, “women with pasts,” in the latter case, complete with illegitimate child. The former “Family” of royalty has been broken.
These and kindred developments have led many in the media and political classes to chip away at what remains of the institution. In the name of “democracy,” appointed positions one by one become political, rather than royal, gifts. Royal symbols are chiseled away at, and the lords of the media indulge in constant sniping and ridiculing of the institution. At least one of the major parties declares itself in favor of abolition of the Monarchy, and keeps up a constant propaganda on the point — whether in power or as the “loyal opposition.” The fact that such politicians have sworn oaths of allegiance to the Sovereign they undermine is of little consequence; perjury, as we proved with the impeachment of Mr. Clinton, is not a crime.
But when the desiccated Crown is overturned, and replaced, so to speak, with the politician’s top hat, does the golden age at last arrive? Um, no. In parliamentary republics such as Third and Fourth Republic France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Greece, and Austria, dreary old politicians take turns replacing each other as tenants of the former royal palace. Unable to invent new symbols of legitimacy and authority, they must adopt the former ones: presidential guard units — often in uniforms little altered from those of the King — listlessly protect the nominal heads of state. Small royal prerogatives are jealously clutched: the President of Austria retains the right to legitimize bastards, while his brother of Germany automatically becomes Godfather to every seventh child. Even in rigorously secular France, President Jacques Chirac (who, in lieu of a Christmas Message in 2003, delivered a thundering speech in favor of preserving the French Revolution’s “tradition” of laïcisme) joyfully fulfills religious roles inherited from the Monarchy: Co-Prince of Andorra with the Spanish Bishop of Urgel; canon of Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran; and Protector of the Holy Places in Israel-Palestine (exercised through the French Consul-General of Jerusalem, who is rendered various liturgical honors by the Catholic churches of the Holy Land as a result). Institutions with the sort of connections earlier mentioned to the former Monarchy continue to boast of them. A walk through the inner city of Vienna, if confined to looking at shop windows, would convince the average tourist that there is still an Emperor in the Hofburg, given the enormous number of double-eagles gracing establishments still advertising the Imperial Warrant.
None of this hand-me-down pomp stirs up a great deal of interest on the part of the citizenry of such countries, however. With the exception of France (whose presidency was invested with a great deal of power by De Gaulle when designing the Fifth Republic), many, perhaps most, of the citizens of such republics cannot even name their presidents. In any case, as in the Constitutional Monarchies, real power is exercised by the majority power in Parliament. The only difference is that even the shadow of authority is lacking. When a major change in the law is required by those in power, the population is bombarded with referenda until they give in: the introduction of divorce in Ireland is a classic example.
Now, we Americans might smile pityingly at all this, secure as we are in possession of the oldest and most successful republican constitution in the world. Every four years we vote for our President; we vote for our representatives and senators, for our governors and assemblymen, for our sheriffs and supervisors and district attorneys and mayors and aldermen and on and on. In these United States, the people rule!
Do we, indeed? This is most comforting. In common with the citizens of the parliamentary governments just described, we describe ourselves (save for a few hold-outs who prefer the title “constitutional republic”) as a “democracy.” This Greek-derived moniker is held to mean “majority rule.” Now we are not going to quibble with this definition, as many Conservatives do. This writer is all too aware that while we Americans were enjoying “representative democracy,” the subjects of the unlamented Soviet Bloc groaned under the yoke of “people’s democracy” (as do those of Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and our “most favored nation,” China today). Idi Amin described cannibalism as “nutritional democracy.” But never mind, we will take the word as read.
But if, in these States of ours, the majority rules, why is their will (as stated through polls, for whatever use those may be) constantly thwarted? Why is same-sex marriage, which, despite constant propagandizing, is opposed by a clear majority — even in Massachusetts — in the process of being imposed? Why was abortion, which was similarly opposed at the time of its imposition, enshrined in law? Even today, a clear majority is disgusted by partial-birth abortion, but in all likelihood the long-awaited ban on the practice will be overturned? A majority, similarly, oppose endorsing everything the Israeli government chooses in Palestine: yet both the incumbent president and his democratic opponent have done so, the former blithely ignoring violations of ultimata he himself has imposed upon that government. Although Israel is, to be sure, a sovereign nation, the 15 billion dollars a year with which our government endows them ought to buy us a preponderant place in their councils, one might think.
Yet this sort of thing descends from questions of high policy to ones of mere lifestyle. Prayer in schools, religious symbols on public property, community observance of Christmas — these are all things which the majority support, provided that they are tailored to the tastes of the local community. Yet they are ever more rigorously being removed. Whether it be grace over meals at the Virginia Military Institute, or the Ten Commandments in the Alabama State Court House, or the cross in the city seal of Redlands, California, they are ripped out in the face of community protests.
We have arrived at the point where shop employees in many places may be fired for saying “Merry Christmas,” rather than “Happy Holidays.” (In the spirit of genial acceptance, this writer himself has taken to insisting on “Happy Holidays” for Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Arbor Day, or any other observance). But by far the vast majority of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form, and most of those think it has something or other to do with Christ. Yet more and more, they are unable to say so. At least the authorities are happy to import ever-larger quantities of “holiday ornaments” from China. One can only wonder what the inmates of the factories who produce them think of the whole thing. Well, at least somebody is making profits.
Now, whence come these developments? To a great degree, from the major media, whose owners and minions have achieved social prominence. They try their damndest, with some success, to influence the populace’s attitudes. But they do have their limits. The furor over the film, The Passion of the Christ, underscores the wide chasm between the views of the chattering classes and the interests of the public. It also illustrates the truth of French sociologist François Berger that “India is the most religious nation in the world, and Sweden the least; the United States are a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.” The unkind might translate that into a nation of rednecks ruled by effete chardonnay-swillers, but the truth of the statement remains. Certainly, it is said here in Southern California that the Upper Class make movies and television programs, the Middle Class do the production work, and the Lower Class watch them.
But the amount of damage the media can do is minimal in the last analysis. They can ridicule, and corrupt taste, but they cannot, by themselves, affect structural change. No, in most of the cases cited, it was the Judiciary who have done that. Unfettered, for the most part, by the electoral process, they have come to manufacture law rather than to interpret it — and that manufacture goes unchallenged by any prominent elected official, political party, or citizens’ group.
But is this so bad? Would we have eliminated segregation, for example, without an activist judiciary? Surely, only the Warren Court had the power to, in Van Helsing-like manner, thrust a stake into Jim Crow’s heart? Perhaps; this writer, for one, does not mourn Jim Crow (although he does object strongly to attacking Confederate symbols as racist — one might as well attack the Stars and Stripes as a prime symbol of the evils of Reconstruction, which in themselves created Jim Crow). But upon what basis did the Warren Court act? Not, to be sure, on that of majority rule. Most white southerners supported or were indifferent to segregation; most Yankees might be vaguely opposed, but not to the point of doing anything. For that matter, upon what basis did their successors in the Supreme and Lower Courts do what they have done in the past four decades?
To get a grasp on the topic, we will leave ol’ Jim alone for a moment, and look to the phrase upon which most of the undemocratic measures of the Courts have been based for the last six decades: Separation of Church and State. Although popular throughout the Western Nations today, the notion that the religion of the people should have nothing to do with their government arose first in the United States, even though the term “Separation of Church and State” appears nowhere in our Constitution. What DOES appear is a clause forbidding Congress to establish a single religion for the whole nation, and proscribing loss of civil rights to any American citizen because of his religious beliefs. The reason for this is simple: of the 13 original states, at independence seven of them in whole or in part recognised the Anglican as their official church, three the Congregational, and three no such establishment. Catholicism was illegal in ten of them. Thus the newly sovereign State authorities had no desire to allow Congress to intervene in what was seen as a local question; the alliance of France and Spain required that civil disabilities be lifted from the Catholics, while the activities of both Catholics and Jews on the rebel side seemed to require their being granted civil rights. The last State to do so (Connecticut) did not give up its established Church until 1833.
Nevertheless, although no specific form of Christianity was thereafter established in the European sense, it was held for a long time that the United States were in fact a “Christian” country (whatever that might mean). On February 29, 1892, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Trinity Church vs. the United States, mentioned that,
If we pass beyond these [mentioned legal] matters to a view of American life, as expressed by its laws, its business, its customs, and its society, we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth. Among other matters note the following: The form of oath universally prevailing, concluding with an appeal to the Almighty; the custom of opening sessions of all deliberative bodies and most conventions with prayer; the prefatory words of all wills, ‘In the name of God, amen;’ the laws respecting the observance of the Sabbath, with the general cessation of all secular business, and the closing of courts, legislatures, and other similar public assemblies on that day; the churches and church organizations which abound in every city, town, and hamlet; the multitude of charitable organizations existing everywhere under Christian auspices; the gigantic missionary associations, with general support, and aiming to establish Christian missions in every quarter of the globe.
On this basis, the Court declared that “These and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.” What distinguishes this decision from those of later, 20th century courts is that is was based, not upon abstract theory, but upon the actual way life is lived by the citizens of these United States — now as well as then. In a word, it was democratic.
Now let’s pick up Jim Crow again. Using the argument just posed, Jim Crow could never have been eliminated through judicial action, because the fact was that he was enshrined in law and social life, and that all interpretations of the Constitution previous to 1954 had been favourable to him (cf. Plessy vs. Ferguson). In a word, democracy could not, or would not, of itself, right the wrong of segregation. Only appeal to a higher law could do that.
True. But what was the higher law that trumped Plessy vs. Ferguson and Trinity Church vs. The United States alike? What was the sheet of music the Supreme and lesser courts would sing from? We do not know. Indeed, we know less now than we did in 1954. The “Borking” of Judge Bork pointed out that the doctrine of “Original Intent” — that is, that the ideas of the framers of the Constitution ought to be employed in interpreting it — was voided. During his own confirmation hearings, Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas had to swear that he did not believe in what Western Civilization has always called the “Natural Law.” Fine. So neither Original Intent nor Natural Law guide the Judiciary. Then what does? The answer can only boil down to: their own whims.
What makes this particularly difficult is that the Judiciary have arrogated to themselves the role of a third, all-powerful house of the legislature. While they are unelected, there is no appeal from their decisions, no higher authority to rein them in. Whether this is good or bad may be a matter of opinion; what is not debatable is that the judiciary as it is currently constituted negates any claim this nation may have to calling itself a democracy. To be fair, one might temper one’s reaction to this statement by meditating on the “Strange Career of Jim Crow.”
“But wait!” you might say, “wait! What about the elected branches? We still elect the president and congress, the governors and legislatures! What about them?” What about them? While one might point out, for example, President Bush’s actions in pushing for a Constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage and his successful ban on partial-birth abortions, what do those really mean? The much vaunted amendment reserves the name “marriage” to male-female couples, but preserves “civil unions” intact; in any case, it is highly unlike that Congressman David Drier (R-CA), chairman of the House rules committee and a “libertarian” is highly unlikely to let it get to the floor of the House. It is to be doubted that the president will force him to. Similarly, with the court case surrounding the partial birth ban, the president directed the attorney general to give up seeking the medical information essential to the government winning the case. Luckily, the decision will take place after the election. In all these areas and many more, there are in reality a lot of things the president and governors could do to regain power from the judiciary if they wished to: executive set-asides, interim appointments, and the like. But they will not. Why? I do have a theory.
More important than their motivations, just for the moment, is the reaction of the people who elect the legislative and executive branches, pay for their salaries, and — whether through the active Army and the Reserve, or else the National Guard — send their sons and daughters to die for them. Just how do the people react? With apathy. In California, where the legislature are masters of avoiding uncomfortable questions, any truly difficult question is referred to the populace on election day. Luckily, if the result is something the potentates of Sacramento don’t want, it inevitably dies in the courts. The result in the Golden State, as in most of the country, is very low voter turnout.
It was most amusing, after Tony Blair made a great commotion about having introduced American-style politics to Britain, to see the lowest voter turnout in British elections since 1918. But they were simply emulating the semi-conscious, in articulate response of the American electorate to a political scene where their opinions do not matter. It is not that either British or Americans decided that voting is not worth the bother, it is simply that anything else becomes more important: watching T.V., taking a nap, or helping the neighbour’s collie with his dental floss. Given what we have seen, who can blame them? Are they not already disenfranchised?
How to solve this dilemma? How to bring the citizenry back to participation in the process? Well, we really need to dig deeper. First, we must go back to Jim Crow and democracy. There are a number of fantasies that our supposed democratic form of government has given us. It is time to look at a few a realities of organized society that transcend national and temporal boundaries. What is about to be said would not apply to small tribes in New Guinea. But it would apply to Medieval Rwanda, Tang China, Feudal Europe, or 21st Century America.
The first is that there is a distinction between power and authority. Authority is the right to say what ought to be done; power is the ability to make things happen. Your doctor has the authority to prescribe medicine, but only you have the power to take it. Authority has many sources; in pre-World War II Japan, it came to the Emperor from his ancestress, the Sun Goddess — even today this affects the course of Japanese politics. In Medieval Europe, it came to the Emperor, and to the Kings, through the Grace of God, mediated by the Church and her Pope. In contemporary democracies, it is said to come through the will of the people, whatever that may — this is difficult, because intangible. In any case, in older and in more primitive societies, power is often diffuse, lodging, as in Medieval Europe, in churchmen, guilds, nobles, cities, universities, and the like. In this maze of institutions, the wielder of authority is like an orchestra leader; if he is good, or at least able, the results are more or less harmonious. If he is the opposite, the result is not dictatorship but anarchy and its attendant evils: civil unrest, famine, and disease. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were the inevitable attendants of authority poorly used.
In modern societies, thanks to technology and other factors, power tends to be concentrated, and authority diffuse. Thus the holders of power have more control over their subjects in the contemporary world than their opposite numbers in days gone by could have dreamed of. Those subjects, holding authority only as an abstract whole rather than as individuals, have little ability to supervise those who, in essence, control their lives. Where Monarchs remain, while they have much less power than early modern centralizers such as Henry VIII or Louis XIV, they are about on a par with their Medieval predecessors. But in the face of the powers of today, that means little.
Authority always derives from or is mediated through a state religion. Contrary to what we have just seen regarding separation of Church and State, this rule admits of no exceptions. Every human society requires some animating spirituality or philosophy that embodies faith in things unseen. In most arrangements this will be expressed in Coronation Rites, civic liturgy, and the like; but so universal is this requirement that even Communist countries erected Marxism into a religion — “There is no God, and Marx is His Prophet.” For all that the leaders of these countries disdained and disdain any hint of the unseen, their declared end, “the withering away of the state” and perfect equality, requires as much faith as any paradise ever dreamed of by saint or prophet. There is a reason for this; Man will never submit to power for its own sake. He can be compelled to do by brute force, but such a compulsion does not produce loyalty. He will only accept (and fight) for something that can claim links to the transcendent, no matter how vaguely. Moreover, he will only cheerfully obey laws that can make this same claim.
Which brings us to the next point: every society has rulers and ruled. Regardless of how the rulers derive their power, or the authority to use it, they are the ones who make the decisions. Nor could it be otherwise. Few of us have the ability or the knowledge to rule — much less the expertise to handle the system in which we live. This is a separate issue as to whether the rulers are competent. This writer knows nothing at all about making shoes. Even if his cobbler is a fool who doesn’t know a sneaker from an oxford, he can make shoes; his customers can’t. So it is with rulers.
As for the ruled — well, we are pretty much along for the ride. At the end of the day, we can grumble and go along with our rulers’ program, or we can rebel. But, inevitably, men who also have the talents we lack as a whole lead such rebellions or revolutions. We overthrow the old regime, and presto! A new set of rulers emerges to bedevil us with some of the old annoyances and (in all likelihood) new ones as well.
Lastly, every society has a class system of some sort, whether based on invention, money, land, heredity, military prowess, or some combination of the lot. It may be complex or simple, but inequality is a part of life. In modern times, it is never so quick to emerge as when attempts are made to suppress it. Yet, oddly enough, when systems change, it is amazing how many of the upper classes are able to make lateral transfers into the new structure. The other interesting point is that, in most places, the lower the class the larger its proportion of the general population, though there are exceptions (the American Middle Class in the 1950s, the Untouchables in India, for example).
History, as we have implied, shows the universal nature of these rules. But in the United States we have steadfastly pretended that most of them do not exist here. Those two that we did accept, we have abolished in recent decades. Traditionally, authority in the United States was held to descend from Providence (whatever or whoever that might be) to the People; the Holy Writ of this arrangement was the Constitution. Indeed, for many, even still, that document still holds quasi-religious awe. But for the establishment, authority is an empty concept, and most of the rest of us do not know what it is. Without an authority capable of saying anything, we are forced, when faced with what seems to be an illegitimate use of power, to simply scratch our heads and say, “that ain’t right!” But we would be hard put to say why. The judiciary have, in a very real sense, made themselves the source of authority; thus for many of us, whatever is legal is moral. For this reason few of us really want to fight for the losing side in, say, a Supreme Court judgment.
The mantra of separation of Church and State, often repeated by the swamis on the various courts, has removed any idea of some form of Christianity (or any other organized faith) as our state religion. Nevertheless, we have one; even if, as in the old Soviet Union it is felt more by its negative actions than its positive ones. Just what is it? Alas, it is hard to put a finger on it. We’ll need to go back a little in time to understand it.
The famous Puritans, whom we celebrate every Thanksgiving, in a real sense began construction of America’s religious mind. For a number of historical reasons, New England was, for a long time, the leading intellectual centre of America. While Calvinist doctrines decayed, and the descendants of the Puritans gave birth to Unitarianism, certain attitudes were passed on, not only to them, but also to most Americans. Some of these were the famed Puritan Work Ethic, which gave the making of money a sacramental patina — the more so because riches were one way to show one’s neighbours (and oneself) that he was among the elect. Correspondingly, mere artistic pursuits, which could not demonstrate profitability, were suspicious. Conviction of one’s own righteousness (accompanied by a complete lack of introspection) followed from total identification with the Chosen People of the Old Testament — a trait, incidentally, shared by other Calvinist peoples, like the Ulster Scots and the Afrikaaners. From this belief came the notion of the “shining city on the hill,” which has remained an important part of the American self-image ever since. But with it followed a disdain of the foreigner and his ways, as of the Canaanite.
While most of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were Christians of one sort or another, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were Deists — that is to say, believers in a god who set the universe in motion and left man to puzzle his way out. Although the first two were nominal Anglicans, Adams was a Congregationalist, and Franklin was buried in an Anglican Church, they had little use for the tenets of their putative faiths. They believed their deity to be benevolent, and in a moral code, and in good citizenship. Above all, they held that conduct is more important than creed; that is, that it doesn’t matter what one believes, so long as he is a “nice person.”
This attitude was actually quite helpful, in a temporal sense, to the infant nation. In a country where all sorts of Protestant sects — formerly quite inimical to each other (the Puritans had put Baptists and Quakers to death, as well as witches), it provided a way whereby all could live quite peacefully together. This arrangement was helped further by the growth of Unitarianism in the early 19th century. Although the actual numbers of the new faith have always been small, they have wielded an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. Given the importance of such men as Emerson and Thoreau in American literature (and so in American classrooms), the ideas of Unitarianism — and above all, its tone — are implanted in most of our minds. The Unitarians substituted a belief in temporal progress for individual salvation, and so have pursued social change as a religious crusade. In the 19th century it was abolitionism, in the 21st, it is gay rights. But whatever the cause of the moment, the Unitarians are out to further it!
At the same time, however, as the Unitarians arose, so too did the Great Revival. In part it was a reaction to the dryness and intellectualism of many American Protestant churches of the time. The Revival swept much of the country, and injected being “born again,” “saved once and for all,” and “getting religion” into the national consciousness.
By the time of the Civil War, these four streams — Calvinism, Deism, Unitarianism, and Revivalism — had penetrated the consciousness of the Protestant majority pretty thoroughly. Of course, the exact proportions differed from church to church, congregation to congregation, and person to person. But it was a heady mix, perhaps best typified by the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
After the war, another church began to add its input to the national religious bloodstream. Although the Episcopal Church was the oldest Protestant faith in the country, it had been severely damaged by the Revolution, due to its association with the Crown. But following 1789 it reinvented itself, and functioned after the Civil War as a quasi-national church. Its churches became much more ornate, its rituals more stately, and its connection to the newer power structure which emerged from the War became tighter. It is no coincidence that the “National” Cathedral in Washington and St. John’s, Lafayette Square, near the White House (called the “Church of the Presidents”) are both Episcopalian. The example of the Episcopal Church influenced the other Protestant bodies as well; Gothic Methodist, Presbyterian, and other sort of churches rose all over the country. Stained glass made a major comeback. As it was for Catholics, so too for Protestants, the period between the Civil War and World War II was the golden age of church architecture. In any case, Episcopalian influence, as in choirs, buildings, set prayers, and so on, gave a ritual form to the set of ideas which had dominated the country by 1860.
This mixed faith itself began to unravel in the 1950s. As we shall see, Catholics and Jews had already been entering the ranks of the elite for a while, and now the stream became a flood. Of course, both Catholics and Jews showed a willingness (at least on the part of their more influential members) to shed most of their distinctive doctrines and practices as the price of admission. Surely the great national faith could do as much for them.
In time, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists would join the upper ranks as well, and in their turn go through what the Catholics and Jews had. This process is far from complete. But as good an example as can ever be found in stone of this process is the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Although nominally Catholics, it was a designed as a “sacred space for all people.” Not surprisingly, the great civic rituals, which, in eastern cities would be held in the local Episcopal cathedral, in Los Angeles are held here. This writer attended an interfaith memorial on September 11, 2002, for the Twin Tower victims. While there were hymns, scriptures, and prayers from every conceivable Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist group imaginable, three things remain lodged in the brain: Anjelica Huston’s performance as Mistress of Ceremonies, the elite of Hollywood and the City government singing the chorus of What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love while Burt Bacharach played on the piano, and Roger Cardinal Mahony praying to God to “preserve us in the unity of the faith we share.” In appearance, this is a new face for the national religion; but in reality, it is the same old syncretism at work.
That, then, is its ritual side, repeated in interfaith services of all kinds around the country. But it is its philosophical side that characterizes and “ensouls,” so to speak, our society. It is not a dogmatic faith, but in essence, it holds, with Calvinism, that it is simply correct, and any who challenge it are evil; with Unitarianism that change is progress, and progress is salvation, and so an end in itself; with Episcopalianism it sanctifies whatever the upper reaches of society care to do. It is this odd, half-consciously held religion, which animates our institutions — especially our judiciary — today. It is far from monolithic, and hard to pin down. But its works are mighty, and it is as American as apple pie.
Now we move on to the rulers. As with our national faith, our rulership has altered and shifted over the two centuries of national life we have enjoyed. Like the religion that empowers it, it is not monolithic, and very hard to tack down — “dominant classes” would appear more correct than “ruling class.” But even so, we can distinguish three basic periods in their existence.
The first is the pre-and post-revolutionary period: from about 1730 to somewhere in the 1830s or 40s in the North, and 1865 in the South. These were the families who formed the Whig oligarchy in the colonies. Merchants, smugglers, and the like in New England and the major cities from New York to Savannah, they were landed gentry for the most part elsewhere. These were the gentlemen who ran the colonial assemblies, and tangled with the Crown over the Stamp Tax and such. Very well educated in the various European literatures, history, and much else, they were remarkable in many ways. But they were also extremely diverse: in New England, where the Congregational was the established church, rebels tended to be of that faith, and Loyalists Anglican (although there were many exceptions either way). But in the southern colonies, where the Church of England was established, the Presbyterians tended to be Loyalist and the Anglicans rebel. This was a pattern repeated, in accordance with the local situation, in every colony.
Of course, while they spoke of no taxation without representation, they did not practice it; but in invoking it they paved the way for others. So the post-war period saw such outbreaks as Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellion. Both the major parties — Federalist and Democratic-Republican were for the most part in their hands. This is not to minimize the differences between them, but it does explain why, after the Federalists dissolved in 1816, the survivors could be received by the D-R’s, ushering the “Era of Good Feeling” under President Monroe. It was America’s only period as a one party state, and it did not last long!
At any rate, in the north, these folk began to be superseded by bankers and industrialists — a development much mourned by Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving. By the time of the Civil War, although many individuals of this sort remained in government, and many more remained wealthy, as a group they were partly absorbed and partly left behind by the new money. The defeat of the Confederacy ended the only real rival to the new dominant classes. Men like Mellon, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and the like epitomized them. Through factories, railroads, mining, newspapers, banking, oil, and much else, these “Robber Barons” developed the West and Florida, and laid the foundation for America’s world economic supremacy. At the same time they were often crude and vulgar, cared nothing for their employees, and simply were not that nice. Mark Twain lampooned them viciously in such works as The Gilded Age, and Henry Adams mourned their coming to power inThe Education of Henry Adams.
But many of them were aware of their shortcomings. In attempt to turn themselves into a sort of American aristocracy, they built great homes staffed with many servants, importing art from all over Europe with which to furnish them. To turn their sons into gentlemen, they provided lucrative incentives for the St. Grottlesex-type schools and the Ivy League colleges to turn into imitation English public schools on the one hand, and ersatz Oxbridge on the other. Many of these new aristocrats embraced the Episcopal Church in droves; in return it embraced them. Without lavish funding from the new elite, many of the most beautiful churches (Episcopal or otherwise) would not have been possible. Above all, a tone was set. What was left of the colonial aristocracy and the progeny of the Robber Barons alike made a point of going into public service — whether civilian or military. Many of the dead officers on the American side in both World Wars came from such families.
But, of course, if years 1865-1941 saw the dominance of this group, it also saw the rise of a new American character, firmly based, however upon the old (or at least an imagined version of it). If it was the golden age of Church architecture, so it was of civil: court houses, city and town halls, schools, public libraries — all the profusion of government were housed in as elegant quarters as the public purse (often helped by the local wealthy). This was the time when what we consider the traditional customs of such holidays as Christmas, Easter, Hallowe’en, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and the like were codified. Vaudeville was getting ready to slide into motion pictures, Tin Pan Alley was churning out tunes; in a word, what we today would recognize as our national identity was being forged.
The Depression damaged the WASP elite, and World War II broke it down further. During that latter conflict, the Bureau of Wages and Prices specifically targeted multi-servant households for elimination through taxation. After the war, many big houses were sold; and a second time a class-wide feeling of dejection set in. Debutante Balls were thrown, and private clubs remained open. But there was certainly a touch of autumn in the air.
At the same time, American life in the 50s and certainly the 60s was revolutionized. In a couple of decades, the orderly (if synthetic) lifestyle of the American elite was turned upside down (although, to be sure, it happened to many other Americans as well). After the Supreme Court legalized birth control in 1964, sexual mores flew out the window; the baby boomers became physically mature (for many, “growing up” would never happen), and the hippy movement emerged. Foul language and very “informal” clothing became the rage. They had to be them. Were they ever! Protesting the War in Vietnam became the seminal moment for some, drugs for others. In any case, the old patterns had broken down, and America was ready for a new elite.
As with the last transition, the change was gradual, and many of the old dominant classes made it — not surprisingly, both major presidential candidates in 2004 are members of Yale’s Skull and Bones Club. While such membership still means something today, it is not quite what it was 50 years ago. Feminism allowed certain women to attain top roles in the hierarchy (although most had to content themselves with acting crudely and working like packhorses, and calling it equality). The ever-burgeoning number of Catholics who retained the title while rejecting their Church’s teachings was also able to enter the elite — a process facilitated by bishops willing to overlook such lapses. Jews were also able to enter the rulership in larger numbers than ever before, although with few exceptions, however, these were not Orthodox. The new leadership were not united by nominal religion or by ethnicity. What served to set them apart from their fellows were two things, one of which was money.
The other, however, was a similar world-view. Now, to be sure, some are called “conservatives,” and some “liberals.” But this means little, practically. Their differences are far outweighed by their similarities. Just what are these? The first is a shared experience of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. They tend to be disdainful of tradition, to a great or lesser degree (though ready to invoke its memory when necessary). As an example, President Clinton gave only a single white-tie state dinner during his eight-year reign (for the King and Queen of Spain). They much prefer casual clothes to suits, and jeans to dresses. For political types, being photographed without ties is very important, as it shows them to be “natural.”
These are small things, but they are indicative of a desire for personal comfort, for persona freedom, as opposed to the traditional requirements of leadership. This desire in turn betokens an unfettered pragmatism. Ideology, as such, plays little role for them if it gets in the way of what they want. Carried over into public life, this manifests in a willingness to jettison received positions in favour of immediate advantage: thus the Republican Party does not really oppose abortion and homosexual marriage in an effective way, and the Democratic Party is happy to sacrifice organised labour in the name of globalisation. Predictably, their respective core constituencies do not notice this.
However, this ruthlessness does not make them realists. They pursue what they believe to be their interest doggedly, but they do not stop to consider the probable results of their actions. The thirst of the Neo-Cons around President Bush for a war in Iraq was palpable, because it allowed that faction of the rulership (who themselves for the most part avoided their generation’s blooding in Vietnam) to accomplish the messianic goal of “democratising” the Near East. But neither the goal nor the means employed bore any relationship to Constitutionality, existent reality, or anything else. In this, however, they were patently at one with their more “liberal” confreres, who refuse to see the havoc their population policies have made with, for example, the tax base.
There is another trait that makes the current rulership unique. They are completely irresponsible, in the sense of not being accountable for their actions. Because of the legerdemain of electoral politics, those actually responsible for national decision making in the media, judiciary, and elsewhere are not forced to receive the opprobrium proper to their decisions. In this sense, elected officials become scapegoats. They themselves are not truly representative in any case. Most elected politicians are like athletes and artists, in the sense that they cheerfully sacrifice every other consideration to being and remaining elected. Principle means nothing to them, if it would mean their falling afoul of the media, judiciary, etc. Generally wealthier than their putative constituents (60% of U.S. Senators are millionaires), they do not resemble them in the least.
Indeed, it is interesting that they themselves lead lives quite different from the patterns they urge upon their people: making it economically difficult for the less fortunate to attend any other than public schools, they send their own children to private schools. Engineering conditions that make it imperative for both parents of the average American family to work, they keep their own spouses home — and so it goes. As noted, they certainly do not share the religious beliefs of their subjects. It is ironic to note that, in comparison, the late lamented hereditary peers of Britain’s House of Lords were far more democratic than the professional politicians of the House of Commons. Given that, as with most people, they owed their positions in life to chance or providence, they were far more like the ordinary British Subject than most M.P.s could hope to be. This was reflected in the Lords’ Hansards, wherein the questions they asked on legislation were very much like what the common man might ask, save that they were generally framed in complete sentences. The removal of such peers from the legislative process only served to seal its control by the “professionals.”
One man who is perhaps typical of the new rulership is the Chevalier Rupert Murdoch, K.S.G. This Presbyterian Papal Knight is a man of little loyalty — temporal or religious — save to himself and his minions. Beginning life as an Australian press magnate, he surrendered his native citizenship for an American passport in order to retain his media empire in the United States. The Chevalier nevertheless continues to exercise a dominant role in Australia, where, for example, he funds that country’s republican movement.
Weeks after accepting his Papal Knighthood (something arranged by his Catholic spouse in return for his donation of millions of dollars to Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles), he divorced said wife and took on a much younger model. Of course, he ordered his Australian and British papers (the latter including the venerable Times of London and a host of semi-pornographic tabloids) not to report on his latest honour. While his own private life is not ideal, he has directed his sheets in Britain to expose any possible scandal in the royal family. But Murdoch need not fear the spiritual results of his actions: his ongoing donations to the Catholic Cathedral of Los Angeles have earned him a place in the crypt, whenever he should be gathered to his ancestors. The objection that might be raised of his not being Catholic can be answered by saying that his ex-wife was, and that the Church does not recognise his divorce. The Archdiocese has sold him his “stairway to heaven.”
The problem with this ruling class is not that it is in power (for someone must be), but rather that it is feckless. There are four major problems facing the West and the United States right now:
What, then, is the solution? As a believing Catholic, this writer believes that the application of the Church’s social and political principles is the only long-term solution for our problems. But this cannot happen unless and until the majority of Westerners return to the Faith that founded their culture. Until the institutional Church regains a sense of missionary urgency, and imparts that to her members, this is not likely to happen. Given that many Bishops question or deny major tenets of Catholicism, we cannot expect any movement on this front. Perhaps a new Pontiff will address this situation, but it will take decades for anything like the required effort to be mounted on a large scale.
Revolution, perhaps? No. As mentioned, even if such were possible, the new rulership would likely be no better than the current, and quite probably worse. Moreover, the attendant unpleasantness would surely negate any future benefits.
No, as a beginning, it is necessary for people to begin to see how things really are. A great deal of the dangers which face us are attributable to the populace believing that their leadership is somehow representative of them. Facing the sad truth — that most of those who rule us are not answerable to us and do not care about us, would paradoxically make them more accountable. Treating voting as performance art, rather than as a sacramental rite, would help a great deal. Voting one’s conscience — even if it means voting for a minor party — is preferable to continuing to play the game. For that matter, not voting at all — provided one notifies one’s nominal party on advance — might also be useful. This is not throwing your vote away — given the few number of times that a candidate one really supports is elected — and even fewer times keeps the promises that put him into office, you are no more likely to waste your vote than by voting for the party line. You will get as much in return. Above all, the Murdochs of this world must be held accountable. A million letters to the Chevalier on one issue or another might accomplish a great deal more than writing one’s congressman.
But it is important to remember that any purely political solutions are mere stopgaps. In 1926, in his Encyclical Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI declared that “If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.” As things stand, any attempt to do this in the United States would be shut down immediately by the ACLU. But Pope Pius knew what would be the eventual result of such action, and followed the quoted sentence with: “What We said at the beginning of Our Pontificate concerning the decline of public authority, and the lack of respect for the same, is equally true at the present day. ‘With God and Jesus Christ,’ we said, ‘excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation.” It would take someone either very blind, or else in power, not to see the truth of the last sentence.
Of course, as Catholics we know that the end of the West will not be the end of the Church or of her Divine mission to spread the teachings and Kingship of Christ. But it shall mean the end of this country, and of those nations from whom most Americans descend. As loyal children of the Church, we have an obligation to evangelise our neighbours and our country; as patriotic citizens we have an obligation to defend our country and struggle for her spiritual and material welfare. What we dare not forget — as so many of our co-religionists, clerical and lay, who have been subsumed into the power structure have — is that the two goals are inseparable, and, indeed, the same.
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