Dear Peggy Noonan is late to the party, but she does finally get that “an old order is being swept away, and political leaders everywhere seem lost,” as the subtitle slug at her weekend column proclaims.
Having a lovely facility with words, she captures the situation nicely:
The leaders of the world aren’t a very impressive group right now. There’s a sense with some of them of playing out a historical or cultural string, that they’re placeholders in some way. Many are young, yet so much around them feels tired.
Without meaning to single out Noonan, I would say the same thing about the pundits of the world. One of the interesting things for me this holiday weekend has been how fresh and prescient the words of our Founders seem – words from 240 years ago – compared to the old, busted character of most of our current commentary.
I’m going to take the 11th Commandment on the conservative side, and not call out anyone in particular, either by organization or individual name. But it’s important to acknowledge that the ruts of convention are deep and muddy on much of the conservative side, especially among the “old-consensus” conservatives.
Charm, precision, and cleverness in service of the old-consensus brief have really begun to pall. It doesn’t hang together anymore. Better to simply read the original words of our nation’s founding political thinkers, who wrote unabashedly from the only perspective that could have produced their thought: that of Christian philosophers in the Judeo-Christian tradition, who despised democracy per se, for its invariable tendency to corrupt both government and people, and recognized that government was incompetent to instill virtue in the people; it had to be the other way around.
The Founders would be appalled at what our government has become – but not surprised, if they walked among the people for a few weeks. Old-consensus conservatives are committed to not recognizing that. Their conservatism has become the shallow, situational conservatism of the mere conservator of the status quo. They think in the manufactured grooves of politics, when what is needed – metaphorically speaking – is thinking in the uncontrollable, pre-existing framework of geology and climate, cosmology and time, morality and meaning.
On the left-progressive side of punditry, meanwhile, there’s just no point. Pick a topic, and you could compile an article or column from a random-column generator. On this 4th of July weekend, we’ve been treated, among other things, to the thesis that “Muslims are pretty chill on Creationism” (unlike those awful White Christians); Donald Trump is the “opioid of the masses” (awful White Christians are addicts, see, with the bonus! fillip of substituting “opioid” where Marx used “opium,” and thus evoking the current TV ads linking opioids to bowel blockage); and – my personal favorite – the proposition that America declared independence in 1776 because awful White Christians feared that if they didn’t, King George III would foment slave uprisings against them.
The idea is hilarious that the generation that gave us the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers could have been motivated to this epic undertaking by a racist fear of slave uprisings. It’s like saying Winston Churchill delivered his stirring “we will fight on the beaches” speech out of fear that there were probably Nazi infiltrators lurking in the English countryside.
But that’s our modern left, always with the irrational deductions from a handful of blindly orthodox axioms. Bless their hearts.
Banal, tired, ridiculous, predictable, absurdly trivial – sure, Peggy Noonan is right that we move in a cloud of un-leadership today, in political decision-making as well as in high-profile punditry.
But I did find arresting her wish for the sovereign specific of a “genius cluster” to save our bacon. She identifies our Founders’ generation as a genius cluster – a proposition hard to disagree with – and sees genius clusters in the Western alliance of World War II, the generals who fought the American Civil War, and the trio of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II at the end of the Cold War. And she’s concerned that we don’t seem to have any glimmer of a genius cluster on our horizon, with the hour growing late at this grand juncture of human crisis.
It might seem like a collateral point, to argue that only one of the genius clusters Noonan lists – the American Founders – was really a genius cluster of epic importance. But I think it’s central to discussing her thesis. Much as I admire the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul II trio, I’m not convinced that history will judge them to have had the effect on the world that America’s Founders did. I think the victors in World War II, and the generals of the American Civil War, will be assessed to have had even less – significant as they were. All of these actors fit squarely within the conventional political heritage of Western civilization.
The Founders were sui generis; there has never been anyone else like them. They were as significant in their way as the ancient Israelites founding a kingdom under the Law of Moses; as the Greeks and early Romans experimenting with consensual public rule and the “Western way of war”; and as the early Christians proselytizing the Roman Empire. These actors in the drama of the West did more than carry water forward. They changed everything.
It’s because of this point that I think Noonan is off-base, even while she has identified, in the genius cluster, a useful thinking tool. The crisis today is bigger than we could address with a genius cluster on the order of the Western allies in World War II. It’s quite possibly bigger than we could address with a genius cluster on the order of the generation of 1776.
So much is falling around us that I think we need to be looking beyond genius clusters for our answers. Obama likes to talk about the “arc of history,” and while he can be trite and tendentious about it, that’s not because there’s nothing to the concept. What I see happening with the arc of history is a downward trajectory for organized, central political leadership, and the associated idea that if we can just get that right, we can make everything fall into place for mankind.
Governments are disappointing us today, big time. Government turns out not only to have no answers, but to be actively bad most of the time. The American Founders took that as axiomatic, which is why they wanted to keep government limited. But the rest of the world, and soon enough a forgetful, ill-educated American people, decided to spend the next quarter millennium experimenting with all kinds of technology- and ideology-enabled refinements to government.
In 2016, the brittle uselessness of that as a moral quest is a brick wall we are crashing into. Organizing ourselves to harass and pillage our fellow men through the agency of government doesn’t bring us happiness, a better world, or answers to our questions of meaning.
So a genius cluster that might somehow take our existing mindset and move it forward isn’t the right thing to hope for. There is no moving forward with our existing mindset. Governmentism has run its course. Our answers don’t lie in collective activities like voting, prescribing orthodoxies through education, or regulating and taxing each other. Thinking they do is like hoping for salvation and enlightenment from paying for electric service and garbage disposal.
At this weirdly untethered juncture in human history, the words that keep running through my mind are from a verse in the prophecy of Isaiah:
All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace. (Isaiah 54:13; NIV)
The overall context is a prophecy about the future of Zion:
Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted,
I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise,
your foundations with lapis lazuli.
12 I will make your battlements of rubies,
your gates of sparkling jewels,
and all your walls of precious stones.
13 All your children will be taught by the Lord,
and great will be their peace.
14 In righteousness you will be established:
Tyranny will be far from you;
you will have nothing to fear.
Terror will be far removed;
it will not come near you.
And without suggesting that literal prophecy is coming to pass – that’s for a separate kind of discussion – I find this to be, like Peggy Noonan’s genius cluster, a useful thinking tool.
“All your children will be taught by the Lord.” Suppose we take that simple clause to mean what it says. Suppose it means that there will come a time when men recognize, as a principal idea, that their relationship to God transcends the arbitration of collective human activities – not just government, but even education, and the organizations of faith. Suppose we move away from the framework in which genius clusters are our best hope, and toward a framework in which it is very real to us that each person is “taught by the Lord,” even more than he or she is taught by a village, a culture, a civilization.
Do troubled conservatives doubt today that the rescue of America will require a spiritual awakening of the people, on a seemingly impossible scale? I don’t know of anyone who thinks there is a genius cluster on the horizon. But I also don’t think a genius cluster is our answer, in this time when it seems that each one of the past, present, and future stalks us as a predator.
Rather, I think we are finally doing what we used to jabber about all the time during the Cold War (rather foolishly, in retrospect): busting a paradigm.
The day of genius clusters may well be fading with the day of “government,” and philosophical enthusiasm for it.
Nation-states will continue to make sense – nothing else can protect liberty, the rule of law, and limited government – but perhaps it’s no accident that we can’t find a genius cluster to carry us, with our existing mindset about government, into a day of supranationalism. The latter is what lies at the end of the path we’ve been on, and it’s the kind of thing genius clusters specialize in: moving us one direction or the other along a continuum we can all see the outline of.
That’s not the proposition that fundamentally defines us today. We can’t see the outline of a continuum that we may be on. For the West, the unifying idea for organization itself is falling apart.
Genius clusters organize. But I’m not convinced it’s organization that we need.