When In The Course Of Human Events…

Here we are again: it’s Independence Day, 2017, and the nation feels more deeply divided than ever in my lifetime — even more profoundly so, it seems to me, than it did in the Sixties. I say this for two reasons.

First, back then the nation was far less heterogeneous; the real demographic inundation of the traditional American nation had begun only in 1965, with the Hart-Cellar Act. For all of the political and cultural stresses of that turbulent decade, we were still, by demography and cultural ancestry, broadly the same nation we had been since the founding. The demographic fault-line that led to the seismic events in America’s cities in those years was the same one that had shaken the nation a century earlier, and that still makes the ground tremble today.

Second, the Sixties were in many ways an era of hope. The successes of the civil-rights movement had finally forced the nation as a whole to acknowledge a basic moral and historical fact: that America’s black population, having been here since long before the Founding, were as much a congenital feature of the American nation as the white and European majority, and had every right to be treated as full citizens before the law. In other ways, too, there was a pervasive sense of possibility — and for all the careless cultural destruction of the Sixties, it was also a time of great artistic and scientific ferment and fertility. The vigor of the nation seemed as yet undiminished. Men walked on the Moon!

Now, half a century on, the results are in. On balance, what have the convulsive social upheavals, and the grand social experiments, of the 1960’s produced? I won’t answer that question here — it is better suited for a book than a blog-post — other than it should all remind the reader of the law of unintended consequences, the stubborn realities of human nature, and the eternal lessons of hubris. Another law that will come to mind is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that it is far easier to break down complex systems than to build them; that order is very much rarer (and therefore infinitely more precious) than chaos.

So: this time round, the divisions are at least as deep as they were in the Sixties, but they are also of a profoundly different character. Back then they seemed internecine; now we glare at each other almost as complete strangers having nothing in common — because, so often, we are. The childlike hopefulness of the “Summer Of Love”, now fifty years in hindsight, seems impossibly naive today. Now there seems to be nothing but factionalism, sullen anger, and a bitter struggle for power and spoils.

Patrick Buchanan has marked this gloomy Fourth with an essay that asks “Is America Still a Nation”? In it he quotes the French historian Ernest Renan:

“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things … constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.

“Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate: our ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past with great men and glory … is the social capital upon which the national idea rests. These are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great things together and wishing to make them again.”

Read Mr. Buchanan’s column here. And if nothing else, take time today to reflect on the extraordinary American experiment. Wherever it goes from here, it has been a magnificent enterprise, and one of the greatest chapters of human history.

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5 Comments

  1. Jacob Silver says

    “Free white men of good character,” started the experiment and their self-abnegation will see it finished.

    “Our opponents maintain that we are confronted with insurmountable political obstacles, but that may be said of the smallest obstacle if one has no desire to surmount it.”
    -Theodor Herzl

    Posted July 4, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  2. The preferred nomenclature is... says

    Shooting off fireworks in our surburban flyover country (the reddest of red states) cul de sac this evening my two teenagers were the only white youths.

    India, Bangladesh, China were the origins of the others.

    Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  3. Loki says

    Well, it’s no secret that the Chinese love fireworks. They invented them!

    Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  4. maybe each America even gets to celebrate its favorite part of the experiment

    Posted July 5, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Uriel,

    Of course.

    Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

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