|David Brooks attempts to wrestle the woolly American spirit—"Vive, the attack -- the perennial assault! Vive, the unpopular cause -- the spirit that audaciously aims -- the never-abandon'd efforts, pursued the same amid opposing proofs and precedents"—to the ground. Photo via Mommy Poppins: Get More out of Houston with Kids.|
David Brooks ("What Holds America Together") muses on the Houston Rodeo:
Last week I went to Houston to see the rodeo. That rodeo is not like other rodeos. It’s gigantic. It goes for 20 days. There can be up to 185,000 people on the grounds in a single day and they are of all human types — rural ranchers, Latino families, African immigrants, drunken suburban housewives out for a night on the town.
When you are lost in that sea of varied humanity, you think: What on earth holds this nation together?There are quite a lot of immigrants from African countries—Nigeria and Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya, and many others—in Houston, and they certainly deserve to enjoy themselves at the rodeo, as do the drunken suburban housewives, though I hope they weren't driving. Take an Uber, girls!
I'm not sure I'd be asking myself, "What on earth holds this nation together?" But David Brooks certainly did:
The answer can be only this: Despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind.I don't know, every time I devote myself to creating the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind, it just drives people apart. In any case, it's not true; the answer could easily be something else.
For example, old Walt Whitman, the great 19th-century poet, thought it should be literature, which in his opinion held all the best nations together, and should definitely do it for America as well:
It is not generally realized, but it is true, as the genius of Greece, and all the sociology, personality, politics and religion of those wonderful states, resided in their literature or esthetics, that what was afterwards the main support of European chivalry, the feudal, ecclesiastical, dynastic world over there -- forming its osseous structure, holding it together for hundreds, thousands of years, preserving its flesh and bloom, giving it form, decision, rounding it out, and so saturating it in the conscious and unconscious blood, breed, belief, and intuitions of men, that it still prevails powerful to this day, in defiance of the mighty changes of time -- was its literature, permeating to the very marrow, especially that major part, its enchanting songs, ballads, and poems.... In short, as, though it may not be realized, it is strictly true, that a few first-class poets, philosophs, and authors, have substantially settled and given status to the entire religion, education, law, sociology, &c., of the hitherto civilized world, by tinging and often creating the atmospheres out of which they have arisen, such also must stamp, and more than ever stamp, the interior and real democratic construction of this American continent, to-day, and days to come.I was thinking about Walt Whitman, and his 1871 pamphlet Democratic Vistas, in fact, because Brooks brought it up, though not for its views on what holds or might hold our nation together. He's more interested in it because it's a lab report: one of
the lab reports we give one another about that experiment — the jeremiads, speeches, songs and conversations that describe what the experiment is for, where it has failed and how it should proceed now....Or, as Whitman puts it, a "collection of memoranda", a
strain.... written at widely different times, (it is, in fact, a collection of memoranda, perhaps for future designers, comprehenders,) and though it may be open to the charge of one part contradicting another -- for there are opposite sides to the great question of democracy, as to every great question -- I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper'd by the others.And what, in Whitman's view, was this experiment for, ca. 1871, in the wake of the great Civil war and at the height of Reconstruction?
The purpose of democracy, Whitman wrote, is not wealth, or even equality; it is the full flowering of individuals. By dispersing responsibility to all adults, democracy “supplies a training school for making first class men.” It is “life’s gymnasium.” It forges “freedom’s athletes” — strong and equal women, courageous men, deep-souled people capable of governing themselves.Or not exactly, because literature makes individuals,
the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at willand democracy assembles individuals into relationships:
The purpose of democracy -- supplanting old belief in the necessary absoluteness of establish'd dynastic rulership, temporal, ecclesiastical, and scholastic, as furnishing the only security against chaos, crime, and ignorance -- is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train'd in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the State; and that, while other theories, as in the past histories of nations, have proved wise enough, and indispensable perhaps for their conditions, this, as matters now stand in our civilized world, is the only scheme worth working from, as warranting results like those of Nature's laws, reliable, when once establish'd, to carry on themselves.And what flowers is—you guessed it, more literature:
the infant genius of American poetic expression, (eluding those highly-refined imported and gilt-edged themes, and sentimental and butterfly flights, pleasant to orthodox publishers -- causing tender spasms in the coteries, and warranted not to chafe the sensitive cuticle of the most exquisitely artificial gossamer delicacy,) lies sleeping far away, happily unrecognized and uninjur'd by the coteries, the art-writers, the talkers and critics of the saloons, or the lecturers in the colleges -- lies sleeping, aside, unrecking itself, in some western idiom, or native Michigan or Tennessee repartee, or stump-speech -- or in Kentucky or Georgia, or the Carolinas -- or in some slang or local song or allusion of the Manhattan, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore mechanic -- or up in the Maine woods -- or off in the hut of the California miner, or crossing the Rocky mountains, or along the Pacific railroad -- or on the breasts of the young farmers of the northwest, or Canada, or boatmen of the lakes. Rude and coarse nursing-beds, these; but only from such beginnings and stocks, indigenous here, may haply arrive, be grafted, and sprout, in time, flowers of genuine American aroma, and fruits truly and fully our own.And so on. I've been trying to figure out for a couple of days what to do with the crazed beauty of Whitman's prose here and and Brooks's lunatic attempt to ride it bareback, grasp it by the horns, and make it speak Brooksian, and I just don't know.
I'll tell you, Whitman as pundit isn't any more accurate than Dr. William Kristol:
In a few years the dominion-heart of America will be far inland, toward the West. Our future national capital may not be where the present one is. It is possible, nay likely, that in less than fifty years, it will migrate a thousand or two miles, will be re-founded, and every thing belonging to it made on a different plan, original, far more superb. The main social, political, spine-character of the States will probably run along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and west and north of them, including Canada. Those regions, with the group of powerful brothers toward the Pacific, (destined to the mastership of that sea and its countless paradises of islands,) will compact and settle the traits of America, with all the old retain'd, but more expanded, grafted on newer, hardier, purely native stock.He's clearly not as interested in immigration as Brooks (or I, for that matter) would like him to be, either. Nevertheless it's so much more fun to read it than to try to guess its relationship to anything Brooks has to say. And I like what Whitman has to say about Brooks, because turnabout is fair play:
While aware that much can be said even in behalf of all this, we perceive that we have not now to consider the question of what is demanded to serve a half-starved and barbarous nation, or set of nations, but what is most applicable, most pertinent, for numerous congeries of conventional, over-corpulent societies, already becoming stifled and rotten with flatulent, infidelistic literature, and polite conformity and art.