Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Who are we in 2009? Who are you? – Samuel Huntington and Pete Townsend

by Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 12/31/08

It could be the work of the Trickster that when the renowned political scientist, Samuel Huntington, passed away recently, the vastly more popular Pete Townsend, a Brit bard noted for smashing stuff up onstage, is awarded for life work at the Kennedy Center. The work of each can be summarized by three words: Who are we? Which is the title of Huntington’s last book. And Who are You? asked by Townsend.

It is not really a fair question and that is the point. It is a question only asked when the thing you used to be or thought you were is broken or no longer works. In Huntington’s case, it asks you to go back and find it again and restore it. Like the Protestant Ethic. Be like that again.

Fouad Ajami’s perceptive comments in the Wall Street Journal this morning summarize Huntington: “He wrote in that book [Who are we] of the ‘American Creed,’ and of its erosion among the elites. Its key elements -- the English language, Christianity, religious commitment, English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals -- he said are derived from the ‘distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.’”

Townsend’s question, first posed to the world at Woodstock, where he shared the stage with Swami Satchidananda, Neil Young and Joan Baez, called out the original stuff of the same tradition: Were you ever what you said you were or was it all just power and aerial bombing and invested money and royal and wealthy friends and its subsidiary illusions; priests and cardinals accompanying the conquistadors and bribed judges and righteous readings of habeas corpus to enemy combatants while common criminals were being drawn and quartered and torn to bits amid dog fights and cheering crowds in the public common? The Protestant Ethic all the work of an allegorical deaf, dumb and blind kid playing pinball, envisioned as a god king?

In Huntington’s case it was late to ask. Much earlier, in the 1950s, William Allen Whyte in The Organization Man, had made the claim that the Protestant Ethic had already yielded to the corporate “yes man” and – a term were are hearing again this week – the “empty suit” – in our time, one which made no distinction of race, sex, creed or sexual orientation. Every suit equally empty.

And Whyte, like Huntington, had a parallel event as well, a fraternal dissident twin who asked not only who are we but better yet, who are we and where do we think we are going? Does the Protestant Ethic still drive the bus or is it Dean Moriarty chattering endlessly a grungy Buddhist chant on Benzedrine: Where goest thou America in thy shiny car in the night?

Possibly in 2009 we will not ask these questions and it is a good thing. It is good because we are not going anywhere. We are already there. And there are those among us who never ask because they know who they are because they are bound to the earth and know their place on it. Like Andrew Jackson, who viewed the hand-wringers and introverts of his time as dilettantes and introverts, come to that state because their time had past and it passed them by. Even the great and honored dead – Adams, Jefferson and Washington – made no impression on him because they had all come to the end of things and there was still work ahead to be done. Different work and different people doing the work. Work Jackson would do.

We are at the end of things today. The end of the Renaissance; the end of the West, said dean of letters Jacques Barzun; the end of the century, the end of the millennium, even the end of the 2,000 year Platonic month.

Jackson didn’t fear the end of the colonial period. He saw only the beginning of his own period.

That, I think, is where we are as we enter 2009, and that is where we have been going all along in Jack Kerouac’s shiny car in the night.

The beginning is just ahead in Texas, in Arizona, in Colorado . . . Wyoming and Alaska – always in the heartland, the land of beginnings. Take a cue from the Woodstock swami. Don’t ask in the Land of the Free, just be. Be lucky to be here.

Jackson is not here yet to awakening it again, but soon he – or she – will be. In 2009, maybe, or the next one.

It’s coming. It’s coming.

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