A few days back, speaking of a former President, I wrote: "Courtesy and chivalry are important components of the manly virtue of honor[.]" I see today that the New Criterion has a piece on Theodore Roosevelt. The author frets -- that is the only word for it -- that Rooseveltian manliness is gone from the national character.
"Somehow America in the twentieth century went from the explosion of assertive manliness that was TR to the sensitive males of our time who shall be and deserve to be nameless," he says at the beginning of the piece; at the end, "And Teddy Roosevelt was more a philosopher than he knew. His advocacy of manliness reflects the difficulties of pragmatism and tells us something about our situation today. We have abandoned—not reason for manliness like the pragmatists, nor manliness for reason like their tender-minded opponents—but both reason and manliness. We want progress without a rational justification and without the manliness needed to supply the lack of a justification."
It seems to me he misses an obvious parallel with a more modern President:
A New Yorker by birth, he went to the Wild West, and became a Westerner by deliberate intent, or sheer will-power. He became a cowboy by impressing the other cowboys....Surely that reminds you of someone of more recent vintage?
The argument examines the philosophy of Roosevelt, the author attempting to explain it and then to seek contradictions within it. First, the explanation:
Roosevelt had his own, brazenly exclusive moralism; he liked being "in cowboy land" because it enabled him to "get into the mind and soul of the average American of the right type." His democracy satisfies not merely the average American but one of the right type. “Life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living.”I suspect a lot of this fretting comes from the author's position as a professor at Harvard. We've talked about this recently, but there are other things to say.
So much of this arises from the reaction of the upper classes to the First World War. Almost everyone knows the poem Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen. But the words, from Horace, that he called "The Old Lie" are engraved in stone at Arlington. And not only there.
Today I stopped in Lexington, Virginia, passing through on the way back here. We passed by the Virginia Military Institute, which is one of the finest military colleges in the world, along with West Point, Annapolis, and The Citadel. We stopped, by chance, just in front of Washington and Lee College. There is a memorial there, constructed to honor the students who had died in the First World War. And on a great arch above the memorial, engraved in stone, is the same line.
Is it an old lie, or is it a grim and terrible truth? Through the arch at Washington and Lee is visible the tomb of Robert E. Lee. That tomb lies beneath a chapel named for him but dedicated, as he was, to higher service. It is through such devotion -- only through it -- that what good there is in this world can arise. That was Roosevelt's insight as well.
Roosevelt's explosive devotion was, as the piece explains, the moving force behind a great wave of Progressivism that outweighs anything attempted or envisioned today precisely because there is no similar motivating force. Roosevelt rejected talk of rights, and spoke instead of duties -- another regular theme at Grim's Hall. Modern liberalism talks a great deal about rights, but has little enough concept of duty. We have surely reached the high water mark of this tide with the current movement to restore voting rights to felons, "who have paid their debt to society." No, indeed they have not; that is only a saying.
The debt owed is far greater and more demanding than that, having done wrong, you should endure your sentence. The debt is owed by all citizens. The true debt owed is this: to love and to improve the civilization into which you are born; to defend and sustain the common peace; to preserve the Republic and its freedoms; to suppress rather than to become the unjust; and to uphold the weak.
Roosevelt understood this, and it animated him in great labors to protect the poor, to preserve the land, and to raise the Republic and her principles. A Democrat today, had he the thundering voice of TR, could hammer the Republicans on this question. This recent bankruptcy reform bill is a perfect example. Exploiting people with proven incapacity to handle easy credit is immoral, like selling whiskey to the homeless. We who are not weak have a duty to protect, in at least a minimal fashion, those who are. The government has let down this duty, and allowed immoral behavior to become even more profitable than it was before. And, as with the whiskey to the homeless, this "profit" will create costs for the Republic as well as for the homeless man.
But there is no vocabulary for discussing this among the powerful of the Democratic party. The first error lies here: It wants to speak of the rights of the poor rather than their duties, and so it is incapable of adequately condemning the weakness of those who cannot handle easy credit. It will not do to make assertions that people are poor, and can't be expected to pay their bills. That sounds like an invitation to higher taxes and welfare payouts, rather than a call to restore order so that credit companies do business fairly. The first will not move the heart of much of America; the second would.
This first error gives rise to the second error: they cannot speak of the duties of the rich with any authority if they do not address the unfulfilled duties of the poor, and so they do not do that either. Instead, they appeal to guilt: that you, doing relatively well, ought to feel bad for doing so well while these others are doing badly. But you, presumably, are doing your duty to the Republic, to your family and friends. You are the only actor in this transaction who is doing his part: the debtor is not, the creditor is not, and the politicians certainly are not. You, alone, have no reason to feel bad about this. The appeal to guilt also collapses.
Therefore there are expanding Republican majorities, with the Left scratching its head as to why these common American people don't 'vote their pocketbooks.' There is a one word answer: duty. There is a seven word answer: They feel their duty to the Republic. Roosevelt, understanding that, living it, worked wonders for the Progressives.
So very much comes back to the words: Dulce et decorum est, pro patria... We think of these words, and the feelings they inspire, usually only when pondering the great national questions. They touch them all, however, from the largest to the smallest. The divide in our nation is between those who feel that the words are "the Old Lie," and those who engrave them in stone.