What a difference a century makes, specifically a turn of the century. Shortly after the 19th century ended, the United States had a president who was the real deal, whose honesty, sincerity and courage would be challenged only by those willing to take a chop in the jaws delivered personally by the commander in chief himself. It was a time when reference to the “Fantastic Four” meant school children’s appreciative knowledge of any quartet that included Hawthorne, Poe, Dickenson, Emerson, Whitman, Crane, Melville, Twain, Stowe, Howells, and many others. Most especially, the equivalent to reality TV meant that you or your parents had survived Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam, Richmond, or any of the scores of sites leveled by the first, horrific manifestation of modern war, Sherman’s March.
Heroes were unmistakable. Youngsters knew that the republic survived its early days by the strength of character of its founding fathers, particularly George Washington, the “closest thing to a self-evident truth” in American politics, according to author Joseph Ellis. You marveled at the intellectual honesty of Alexander Hamilton, whose brilliant first Federalist Paper warned about how arguments on both sides of the ratification debates could be compromised by clever rationalizations of individual desires. In short, we’re are all affected and often blinded by the perils of selfishness and egotism, regardless of our best efforts to squelch these demons of human nature.
Further, young and old stood in awe of Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent wisdom, as expressed, for instance, in the Gettysburg Address, his two inaugural speeches, and an earlier address he gave at the Young Man’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. “With the catching end the pleasures of the chase,” Lincoln said, warning about the dangers of ambitious men, who would be as willing to apply their skills to destroy a republic as much as to build it up.
For skeptics, no one could rival Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whose cynicism about human nature made Mark Twain seem like an optimist. Nihilists could only admire Holmes’s disdain for those who “seem to believe in some form of the absolute,” making him wonder if he “lived on a lower plane,” or if instead “they are churning the void in the hope of making cheese.” Every age has its curmudgeons. But they were wise curmudgeons, and we all admired them, learned from them, and quoted them to make profound points. In short, they shaped our minds, our thoughts, and imparted wisdom.
Today at the dawn of the 21st century, “Where shall wisdom be found?” asks Harold Bloom in a book with that title, which answers this question with an exploration of the Western Canon from the Bible through Proust. His advice is desperately needed, particularly for a generation that thinks Hamlet is a baby pig and that a tragedy occurs when you miss a text message. Young minds now seem formed by video games and reruns of “Friends;” too many of our youth think like Seinfeld and talk like Scooby Doo. Spare time is invested in “co-curricular activities” (whatever that means), while role models are confined to the latest entry in American Idol or whoever succeeds in the most preposterous task in a televised contest about nothing. The question is whether antidotes exist for such flimflammery.
Yes, they do, but with a curmudgeon alert: most readers will not like what comes next. First, join the military, any branch, for at least four years, and learn what real courage, honor, and duty are all about. Second, since ignorance breeds gullibility, read every book cited by Bloom. Then read Walter McDougall and every book he cites in his three-volume history of America (third volume forthcoming). Third, start a movement to raise the voting age to 25, soldiers excepted. Fourth, dismiss 90 percent of what you hear on the news as the shameless propaganda that it is. Fifth, reject out of hand the superstitions of the age. For example, if someone asks you what you’re doing for the environment, say: “Nothing. The environment exists for me, not me for it. That is my only interest in preserving it.” Or, if someone wants to “celebrate our diversity,” the multiculturalism cult, then dismiss that person as a moral illiterate, because anyone with any sense knows that cultures differ tremendously in their accomplishments and respect for what Americans value most—freedom, human life, individual rights.
Finally, in this election year, evaluate the candidates warily, which means sifting their words carefully; too much of what they say is bunk aimed at those who know nothing. Rather, read what others have to say about the candidates, observers with no axe to grind, with no personal interest in the outcome.
When all that is done, sit back and relax, because you’ve earned a break. For my part, I intend to delve into Evelyn Waugh and Bugs Bunny and learn from two masters of the art of bamboozlement