Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soft Despotism, or How Tyranny Creeps Into a Democracy

As students of history know, 150 years ago the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville spent a great deal of time traveling our young and vibrant nation. Among the many insights de Tocqueville had into this country was the recognition that, for all its grittiness and promise, America was not immune from the same follies that have plagued nations since the dawn of time. Among the problems he foresaw was the emergence of a form of "soft despotism" in which a paternalistic government would take control of society from an enfeebled people that was sapped of its own vitality and self-confidence. And all that stood between America and the voluntary surrender of liberty to a state eager to enhance power over an increasingly dependent population was the invigorating "habits of the heart" he saw in our 19th Century ancestors.

Unfortunately, our modern educational system doesn't seem to teach history very well. And among the insights most students of today never read is de Tocqueville's warning about what happens to a society in which citizens look to their government, rather than to themselves, to satisfy their needs and wants:

"After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In Praise of Heroes

Safe in our modern sophisicated cubicles, we like to think that we are the most enlighted and best educated people in the history of our planet.  Attempting to convince ourselves that we of the Modern Age are free from the mythologies of the past, we have deconstructed most of our history and our heritage:  not content with acknowledging the flaws of our Founders, many modern scholars parse through the history books looking for icons to shatter, much like the vanguard of the Inquisition sought to destroy all vestiges of the past from the lands of the people they conquered.  The loss of the Library of Alexandria, or the Mayan codices, caused incalcuable loss to the history of civilization --- a loss occasioned, in large part, by the belief that the amassed wisdom of an alien population could offer nothing to the modern era...whether that "modern era" was seeking to destroy the lies of the devil, or the culture of a vanquished people.

It is, perhaps, a conceit that seems peculiar to our era that the myths and legends of our own past serve no useful purpose for our Modern Age.  But if we look to the past, we see that each thriving culture nurtures and cherishes those myths that bind people together, and that loss of that common heritage --- whether through conquest or self-denegration --- often precedes the unraveling of a civilization. 

In this country, it has become fashionable to look upon our American legends as little more than lies told to justify the status quo.  But this view of our past overlooks the truth that our own era is less than perfect --- and that if judged by the standards of some future day, by people too small-minded to view us within the context of our own times, it is unlikely that we will measure up nearly as well.

Among our many modern faults is that we often fail to recognize is that each thriving culture needs its heroes, and its legends.  Modern-day America is not different in that regard than ancient Rome, or the Native Americans, whose myths and legends we now see as quaint and charming, without understanding that they were the glue that held their culture together.  And by casting off those that have sustained us for our first two centuries, we are sailing into dangerous waters...having just tossed our compass overboard.

Today marks the anniversary of the event that sparked one such myth:  the "eighteenth of April" was the date of Paul Revere's ride through the countryside to warn the people that British troops were on the march.  Longfellow's poem was not exactly a precise historical account:  he neglected to mention other riders that night, or the various misadventures that beset them along the way.  But it is stirring, and it is patriotic --- and despite the literary license it takes with the facts, it speaks more to what it means to be an American than most of the dreadfully dry and politically correct history books we inflict upon our young.

The poem was once required reading for all schoolchildren; it is a pity that today, so few of us blessed to live in the greatest country Planet Earth has yet produced have ever actually read it.

Paul Revere's Ride
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,--
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,---
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,---
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.