Friday, September 16, 2016

Brooks on Civic Religion: The Eighth Grader Appears

José Clemente Orozco, 1926, Cortés and La Malinche. Via WikiArt.
A paragraph by David Brooks:

When Europeans first settled this continent they had two big thoughts. The first was that God had called them to create a good and just society on this continent. The second was that they were screwing it up.
"You know what, Malinchita?" said Cortés to his Aztec beauty, his special favorite of the 20 women he'd kidnapped from the town of Tabasco after conquering it in 1519, "I just had a big thought: God called me to create a good and just society on this continent."

"So how are you doing?" asked La Malinche.

"I think I'm screwing it up."

"You're certainly screwing me up, you racist pig-eater."

Or was it Jacques Cartier reaching Newfoundland in the spring of 1534? Nope, he was supposed to "discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found". And the Northwest Passage. Or maybe I'm thinking of Captain Smith and the Virginia Company in 1607? Uh-uh, their charter said they were in it mostly for the same thing, and 20% for His Majesty: "to have and enjoy the goulde, silver and copper to be gotten there of to the use and behoofe of the same Colonies and the plantacions thereof; yeilding therefore yerelie to us, our heires and successors, the fifte parte onelie of all the same goulde and silver and the fifteenth parte of all the same copper soe to be gotten or had, as is aforesaid, and without anie other manner of profitt or accompte to be given or yeilded to us, our heires or successors, for or in respecte of the same").

Actually the first big thought seems to have been stolen from Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, and his homily at St. Matthew's Cathedral before the first Obama inauguration, January 18 2009:
In its own way in its history, our nation has likewise tried to respond to God’s word. We are a people of faith, we have been so from our beginnings, confident that God calls us to be a truly good and just society. As we have grown and prospered we have tried to see in our lives the hand of God.
Among the earliest European colonists to arrive were the pilgrims.... 
We recognize that same vision and generosity of spirit among the first Catholic colonists who arrived in Maryland in 1634.
That is one of the most deeply peculiar David Brooks thefts I have ever found.

Anyway, we can agree that Brooks's concept of North American history is missing a century or so, to say nothing of a lot of very significant details.

I can't get any information on the second big thought and who said they were screwing up (though Frances Lester Warner speculated in her Pilgrim Trails: A Plymouth-to-Provincetown Sketchbook, 1921, that  the "great iron scrue" the Mayflower passengers used to repair a broken beam in mid-Atlantic on their voyage must have been "screwed up" in order to achieve whatever it achieved, which is not at all clear from the contemporary account). But the idea seems to have come from the American intellectual historian Perry Miller (1905-63):

The early settlers put intense moral pressure on themselves. They filled the air with angry jeremiads about how badly things were going and how much they needed to change.
This harsh self-criticism was the mainstream voice that defined American civilization. As the historian Perry Miller wrote, “Under the guise of this mounting wail of sinfulness, this incessant and never successful cry for repentance, the Puritans launched themselves upon the process of Americanization.”
Or rather, it comes from Sacvan Bercovitch's American Jeremiad (1978, p. 10), a book Brooks is quite fond of quoting, which is why he doesn't link it or name the book (apparently Miller's Errand into the Wilderness, 1956, which is one of the places Miller began using the "jeremiad" concept)—he's too lazy to look at Bercovitch's footnote and find out what book it is, even though, eighth-grader as always, he still hopes he can fool us into thinking he's conversant with the whole of the literature.

It's also worth noting, and not in contradiction to Miller or Bercovitch I don't believe, that the great American jeremiads aren't "self-criticism" at all. They're criticism of the sinful, greedy, lustful and wrathful and slothful and generally very bad neighbor, the Puritan next door who is definitely going to hell. Those guys might say, "We're all sinners," as a rote matter, in church, but when they were on a jeremiad roll they were all about the other guy. "Not I, Lord! Him!"

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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