The Imperial and Momentary We

Gettysburg Address

This piece was originally published in Chronicles Magazine, October 2012.

“O Fame, O Fame! Many a man ere this Of no account hast thou set up on high.”

—Boethius

“It is a kind of baby talk, a puerile and wind­blown gibberish. . . . In content it is a vacuum.”

—H.L. Mencken on Warren G. Harding’s speeches

Americans are a practical people. They don’t want to hear your theory; they want to know what “works.” This aversion to systematic thinking, “American pragmatism,” has been celebrated as a virtue in a world cursed by ideology. And, by golly, this approach has “worked,” and worked well, in some aspects of our national life.

Another, less flattering, way to put it may be that Americans are a people of the Moment. The past is a void never thought of, and the future is merely a dreamy land of wishful thinking for escapist leisure. The Now is omnipotent. That you might build a house or plant trees that will be enjoyed by your distant descendants and have real ancestors worthy of honorable memory are ideas long vanished from the American consciousness. An absence of systematic thinking might be a sign of immaturity.

The Founding Fathers of the United States recognized that a free society rested upon the ability to call rulers to account for their acts. But the vast federal apparatus now has a life of its own, essentially untouchable, irresponsible, and incapable of any change based upon long­term thinking rather than momentary pressure. Bankers create financial havoc and are “bailed out,” because nobody in the vast panoply of federal power can think of any alternative to maintaining the status quo. The entire public consciousness turns automatically and exclusively to government subsidy as the remedy for financial crisis—the spending mostly booty to the malefactors who had caused the crisis, with the cost, as usual, shifted to future generations, who are not here now and so do not count.

George W. Bush lies in order to spend Americans’ blood and treasure on a foolish, unjust, unnecessary, and illegal war, and there are no consequences. That was yesterday. After all, he was “our President” and a “nice, Christian man.” And we all know that, since Americans invariably feel benevolent in what they do, it must be right and good. For the founders such an act would be the very definition of tyranny and treason. Today it remains not only unpunished but unrecognized.

What else but the Momentary We can explain why the majority has not been in the least bothered for years by presidential campaigns devoid of historical context, ideas, issues, principles, or any other rational content? The people have acquiesced without a murmur in the media’s presentation of politics as a sports competition between the champion and the challenger—one leading the Red Team and the other the Blue Team. Never a glimmer of a notion that it has not always been this way or that it does not necessarily have to be so. I wonder what substantial percentage of the population actually think that the Democratic and Republican parties and their noisy conventions are authorized by the Constitution?

Actually, much of the framework we are accustomed to in our electoral process was neither mandated nor anticipated by the founders of the United States. Most of it is the product of later innovations, evilly motivated devices of party machines. These innovations could be easily altered, mostly by acts of the state legislatures, if there were a will to do it.

The We is not only Momentary but Imperial. It wants what it wants, and it wants it now. During an election campaign, pay attention to the words of the empty suits reporting for the media. You will see that they are incapable of reporting simple facts. They always convey how they feel about the facts. And how we are supposed to feel about them. Watch the interviews of the ordinary citizens. They feel that the government must solve their problems. No thought whatsoever enters into it—not of the welfare of the commonwealth, or the unintended consequences of actions, or even that the government is itself the cause of the problem to be solved (e.g., medical costs, corporate plunder, unemployment, inflation).

Citizens who want to travel or enter a public building are subjected to slavish humiliation, because otherwise somebody’s feelings might be hurt—that somebody having no claim on consideration. A regime of feelings cannot be a regime of law, because laws are fixed things. It must become a regime of edicts from rulers. The founders did not think that centralized tyranny and mass democracy were opposites. They recognized them as boon companions.

The imperial power of the Momentary We is demonstrated in many ways besides the lack of political and historical memory—for instance, in the widespread attitude toward capital punishment. Servants of the Imperial and Momentary We are only able to focus on how they feel about the suffering of the poor criminal who is still with us. The victim is long gone and therefore forgotten. Likewise, the woman troubled by pregnancy is right here, while the unborn child is unseen and therefore absent from the account. The illegal immigrant and his plight are before us and get our sympathy. A people of the Now cannot think about what perils the masses of immigrants might pose for the future, since the people of the Now are unconscious of any posterity. This does not reflect real charity or respect for others. The referent is always how We feel, and We will gang up mercilessly on the unfortunate who is also unfashionable.

Of course both justice and prudence are virtually impossible with such a mentality. Why else do people accept the edicts of judges who suddenly discover “rights” (e.g., homosexual “marriage”) never before thought of in a thousand years of legal history? Congresspersons do more for the government bureaucrats around them in D.C.—because they are closer—than for us folks out here in Flyover Country. They no longer represent their constituents except in petty individual matters. Representative government does not exist because it requires the representation of something corporate, organic, and real.

For mankind, a sense of shame has always been the source of good behavior and social health. People might do wrong, but they knew they were doing wrong. The founders could not imagine a self­governing community that was not a morally governed community. What would they make of aspirants for office marching in a “gay pride” parade? Look closely at our politicians. Like increasing numbers of their constituents, they have no shame. Their words do not convey what they think but what they think it is to their advantage to say. They hardly know the difference.

The Imperial and Momentary We is immortalized in the most celebrated American document. Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address is strangely abstract. We are told that there was a great battle here, but the blood, sweat, tears, fear, rage, and dying of all those Yankee farm boys and millhands and immigrant cannon fodder never receives even a hint. The real emphasis is on the benefit to the living. In Lincoln’s world, as Joseph Stromberg has written, men do not die for their freedom but for an abstraction of freedom (and also, as Mencken pointed out, to deny freedom to other men).

In this period of political contests and this era of instantaneous media it is easy to get caught up in the hoopla and lose track of reality. So here are a few things to keep in mind. What comes out of the mouths of politicians is not political discourse and certainly not democratic deliberation and decisionmaking. It is marketing. It has nothing to do with the realm of true and false, good and evil, or even workable and unworkable. It has to do with the realm of power—that is, the satisfaction of vanity, greed, and lust. The salesmen in most cases are people with less than normal honesty and good will. Politics is not the realm of doing good, and any good it may claim is accidental. Grow up.

It follows that it is pointless to accept as sincere or valid anything that politicians say. Their statements are meaningless or, worse, deceptions. What you see in the pictures on television is not reality but a show. The “reporters” who choose and interpret the pictures for you are not objective or especially insightful observers. They are unelected actors in the pursuit of power and are not possessed of any special knowledge. In fact, most are self­absorbed pseudointellectuals, people of the Imperial Now with no understanding of history, economics, diplomacy, or any other human affairs. Their minds are incapable even of noticing the things that are really significant.

Furthermore, both of the candidates presented for president by the two controlling parties are creatures of the Now, and they do not differ on any essential point. Both are surrounded by men who give only lip service to constitutional and democratic government and believe that there are no limits to the power of a president, who is permitted to do anything at any moment when he can pretend to be doing good. The Moment after the inauguration will be the same old Now.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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