[In response to the quite overwhelming number of readers who remembered it and pleaded for it after reading this piece, below appears a post that first appeared at Eternity Road on November 22, 2009. — FWP]
To those who come here for spiritual reinforcement, to those seeking uplift or tools with which to defend their faith, to those whose sense of direction is wavering, and to those who read these Ruminations for their chuckle value:
Forgive me, Gentle Readers. I’m having one of those days.
The C.S.O. and I went to a concert yesterday evening at the Capital One Theater, formerly called the Westbury Music Fair. It was part of the theater’s “Legends” series, which features some of the iconic performers of the past half-century. Last night’s headliner was one of the immortals of song, the great Tony Bennett.
Tony Bennett, baptized Antonio Dominic Benedetto, is 83 years old this year. He’s been a musical professional for sixty years. Were it his preference, he’d have every right to regard his career as successful — and concluded. Any number of other entertainers younger than he have hung up the mike and retired on their laurels, well-earned or not.
It was clear from last night’s performance that Bennett still “has it.” His voice retains all its old power, ever so slightly roughened by the years. He hardly needed a microphone to fill the theater with song, nor did his several soft-shoe episodes suggest that there’s a walker in his near future.
It was equally clear that Bennett still loves music, particularly the soft-jazz ballads for which he’s famous. He performed, with his daughter Antonia, for nearly two hours, and might have gone on longer were it not for theater policy and local zoning ordinances. He stinted nothing, reaching all the high notes with apparent ease, caressing the pianissimi and belting out the fortissimi like a young man of twenty-five.
There wasn’t a soul in that theater who didn’t love him unreservedly. Nor were we all nursing-home escapees.
With that love came a wholehearted trust. We paid big bucks to see and hear Bennett perform. We endured a horrible traffic pattern, a crowded, overheated theater, and thirty minutes of misery struggling to get out of the worst-designed parking lot on Long Island. No one does that without trusting in the performer’s fidelity to his trade: not to slough his responsibility to perform only at his best, never to turn in a pro forma hack job just because he needs the money.
In large measure, that love and trust was inspired by Bennett himself, an entirely admirable performer whose fidelity to his art and his chosen idiom has never wavered, and who answered that trust by giving us his best from first to last. But there was another component to it.
Bennett reminds us of better days.
Days of innocence, when we trusted ourselves and one another, and expected nothing that was not ours by right.
Days of promise, each to build upon the ones before and prepare for higher ascents in days to come.
Days of open-eyed, confident engagement with life’s challenges.
Days of enterprise, achievement, and glory.
Days of love.
America’s days of wine and roses.
Often, when an old fart like me starts rambling about “the good old days,” he’s trading on highly polished memories that bear only a passing resemblance to the texture of the time he thinks he recalls. Lord knows, memory can be polished to a very high gloss. But there’s always a chance that the veneer genuinely reflects the reality, at least in essence. The persistence of a Tony Bennett, even in an age of doubt and gloom, is evidence to that effect, albeit most circumstantial and not at all conclusive.
Despite the adage that “history is written by the victor,” there are enough survivors of our better years to dispel most doubts about their veracity. Some of them are our grandparents. Some of them are our parents. And some of them, of course, are ourselves.
The past half-century has been a time of decline. The most significant aspect of that decline has been the dissipation of trust.
In a discussion of the big AGW scandal issuing from the Hadley CRU leak, one participant expressed bewilderment, averring that:
…a hoax on this scale would require the collusion of a whole lot of people…
Not so, in the traditional sense of “collusion.” Scientists, just like the rest of humanity, respond to incentives and penalties. The warmistas in the scientific community were drawn there by a variety of incentives.
Some were undoubtedly sincere, certain that with enough evidence they could validate the greenhouse-gas thesis and willing to explain away “inconvenient data” with the usual dismissals of the true believer.
Some were loyal Hessians, willing to go wherever their idols and masters might point them.
Some were “following the money,” as ever greater amounts of money poured from government coffers and the treasuries of left-leaning foundations to support the promulgation of the anthropogenic-global-warming thesis.
Some were merely publicity hounds, who would ride any wagon that appeared to have the media’s attention.
Some were flogged into sullen support of AGW, fearful that refraining would cause them to be stripped of their funding and relegated to the outer darkness.
No doubt there are other reasons…in light of the fraud the Hadley CRU docments have revealed, none of them in any way connected to the core doctrines of science.
What matters is the fraud itself. Some thousands of “scientists” were moved to abandon science as it’s been practiced for centuries by motives that, if they’re to be summed up in one word, could only be called evil. Yes, tens of millions of persons worldwide cheered them on, but that’s hardly an exculpation.
We have created — and institutionalized — incentives for fraud and penalties for honesty and candor. Not just for men of science; for virtually every trade and walk of life. For many men, the touchstone of ethical judgment is no longer “Is it right?” It’s “Can I get away with it?”
We have destroyed the bedrock of freedom: our ability to trust.
It might sound implausible to younger Americans, but half a century ago the typical American would reflexively trust the word even of a passing stranger. We trusted one another because we knew ourselves, in the small and in the large, to be honorable men. It was a knowledge forged from experience and tempered by our recognition of a common moral and ethical foundation: the Judeo-Christian code of conduct.
We believed in the manly virtues. More, we believed that those around us believed in them, too.
Were there thieves, con men, and chiselers among us then? Of course. But their number was far smaller than it is today. The social-legal environment didn’t yet incorporate all the inducements to dishonesty and chiseling that we suffer in the year of Our Lord 2009. Perhaps more important, we didn’t yet endure the perpetual hectoring about how cruel, venal, and untrustworthy we are, from institutions that wax upon men’s distrust of one another.
We trusted our merchants and business associates. We understood free enterprise to be an inherently honorable, honesty-promoting thing. We trusted our spouses, knowing that the marriage vow was taken seriously by our communities and that a departure from it would be held against the violator. We trusted lawyers to represent us honestly and capably at need, and courts to return just verdicts and sentences. We even trusted politicians, which was the beginning of unwisdom.
Whenever and wherever men decide that they cannot trust one another to behave honorably, to meet their obligations and honor their commitments, or to cleave to fundamental moral principles about violence, theft, fraud, filial duty, and false witness, the sequel is always the same: we recur to the State, the institution whose sole instrument is force. We accede to laws innumerable, expecting them to substitute for trustworthiness in our fellow men. They seldom have that effect, for every law, however well intentioned and carefully designed, creates a black market in the behavior it forbids: an inducement for evil men to sell their willingness to accept the risks of violating it.
The State, of course, is perfectly happy to take the burden, for its operators are past masters at the twinned arts of taking credit for good outcomes and sloughing the odium for bad ones onto others’ shoulders. By gentle, all but imperceptible degrees, it pares away our freedom, our property, and what remains of our willingness to trust one another, gobbling down the slices with Pantagruelian voracity. The progression can have only one terminus, yet most of us remain willing to accept politicians’ protestations of devotion to the commonweal in the teeth of all experience…until the day we find our own oxen being filleted for our masters’ tables.
That’s usually the day we discover that all the sand has fallen to the bottom of the hourglass…that the vector of our subjugation can no longer be reversed.
The mint-mark of political speech is the promise. We hear them by the thousands these days: give me power, give me this or that little bite from your wallet or your liberty, and I will ease whatever it is that pains you. But none of the promisers ever post a bond for non-performance. Except for the pitiful few literally caught with tainted cash in their freezers, none of them ever have to repay the electorate for their defaults.
The subtext of any political promise is, of course, “Trust me.” As the late Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed long ago, only a politician would say that; since then, politicians have learned to imply it, never to be caught actually mouthing the words. But the demand is there even so, and as their failures accumulate, ordinary persons find their residual willingness to trust being whittled away.
After two centuries of blessedness, America has entered the hour of the power of darkness:
- Our military is being emasculated as we speak, with funding cuts to deprive it of men and machines, and legal entanglements to ensure that no soldier in the field can ever be certain that he won’t be tried for murder by civilians, or worse, by foreigners.
- Our alliances are faltering as no one ever expected, as our chief executive kowtows to the worst men in the world and fails to uphold America’s actions in its own interest.
- Our politicians are interested solely in getting elected and staying in office, and will do anything, sacrifice anyone, and betray any principle of right, to achieve those goals.
- Our economy is being bled to death by layer after layer of taxation, regulation, legal mandates, and outright nationalizations, nearly all intended to benefit some provincial interest some gaggle of politicians counts on for support.
- Our currency has been so debased that the other nations of the world, fooled over the decades into accepting mountains of it for their wares, are getting ready to write it off.
- Our schools have become cesspits of socialist indoctrination and multicultural propaganda, where a child saying grace over his lunch is subject to harassment as a bigot.
- Our cities and communities are weakening under the assaults of illegal immigration, eminent-domain attacks on property rights, forced injection of “refugees” who hate America and all it stands for, and the use of insane lawsuits to prevent development in the name of “saving the planet.”
- Our churches — the ones that still respect God and value freedom — are steadily being muzzled by the moral and cultural relativists, the “inclusionists,” and the Muslims.
- Our women are largely persuaded that killing an unborn baby constitutes a “woman’s right” and a “safe medical procedure.”
- Our arts have become unfathomably vile.
- Every right we have is under sustained, determined assault.
- Our people are losing faith in one another, in themselves, in their futures, and the futures of their children.
Soon the national motto will no longer be “E pluribus unum,” but rather “Sauve qui peut.”
We did it to ourselves, by squandering one another’s trust.
The imperial gains of the age which their forefathers piled them.
They ran panting in haste to lay waste and embitter for ever
The wellsprings of Wisdom and Strength which are Faith and Endeavour.
They nosed out and digged up and dragged forth and exposed to derision
All doctrine of purpose and worth and restraint and prevision:
And it ceased, and God granted them all things for which they had striven,
And the heart of a beast in the place of a man’s heart was given. . .
No, America isn’t quite as bad as that, yet, but we’re headed in that direction. What Kipling foretells in the concluding stanza of his epic poem will draw ever nearer, the longer we persist in the folly of demanding that others bear our burdens for us, at no cost to ourselves — that is, the longer we trust in the State in preference to trusting ourselves and our fellow men.
We have lived, collectively, as wastrels. We have consumed much and produced little. Especially, we’ve consumed the trust and good will of our fellows, with our conniving, our chiseling, and our gaming the laws and the courts in search of personal or provincial advantage. That can only go on for so long before Hobbes’s “war of each against all” must resume.
Whatever you came to Eternity Road seeking today, Gentle Reader, I’d bet a pretty that the above wasn’t it.