President Donald Trump has been president for only a little more than a month, and writers, pundits, commentators and the rest of us are exhausted trying to get a grip on the insults, epithets, laments and grievances that define the times.
Are we living in the Age of Anger, or does “Age of Polarization” better capture the mood, not only of America but of everywhere else? Are we risk-averse and clinging to the status quo, or are we simply searching for someone, anyone, to blame when things go wrong, as they inevitably will? Trump has become the convenient voodoo doll for pin sticking. Anyone who doesn’t like the moment can blame him.
We’re accustomed to quarreling over politics and continuing the arguments over the policies that follow. But the despairing liberals and others seem to go further to satisfy a need to feel morally superior to anyone with an opposing opinion. Sneers are preferred to open minds. The president’s tweets reduce rational arguments to 140 characters, exacerbating division and discord.
How this happened fascinates the declining numbers of intellectuals with open minds. Some of them are writing books about the questions that emerge from the different ideological perspectives, interpreting America through the cycles of history. Others are looking at the myths of history, seeking light on today’s polarities of politics.
One particularly provocative question is posed by two scholars in their book “Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?” The authors are academics but do not write in dense academic prose. David Davenport is the former president of Pepperdine University and is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Gordon Lloyd is a fellow at the Ashbrook Center in Ashland, Ohio. Both are professors. They’re concerned about what’s happened to the rugged individualism that is in the DNA of America, which contributed so much to making the country strong and great.
You can’t find much evidence of it now on many campuses, where “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” reflect the collective mindset of emotional sensitivity of the impressionable students (and their professors).
Gone is the love of sharpening the mind by arguing with respect for conflicting values. Everyone is a sophomore demanding the dogmatism of the intolerance inherent in the curse of the politically correct. Young minds are closed early.
Contributing to this conformity of thinking, argue the authors, is one of the history textbooks prevalent on both high school and college campuses. “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn has sold over two million copies, and Davenport and Lloyd write that it has taught millions to scorn the perception of America’s founding as a source of universal hope and equality. Zinn emphasizes the injuries and injustices imposed by the Constitution, and focuses on the unfortunates of history whose individual rights were not protected — slaves, indentured servants, men without property and, of course, women.
From his perspective, Zinn destroys an appreciation for independence of mind, spirit and pride, as well as narratives of confidence grounded in independent thought. His textbook lauds itself for its disrespect of individualism and respects only “people’s movements of resistance.”
These are the notions of destruction that fueled the 1960s, as cogently captured in J. Harvie Wilkinson III’s moving memoir “All Falling Faiths: Reflections on the Promise and Failure of the 1960s.” During that decade, when the author was at Yale, the university became “an intellectual inferno policed for its allegiance to the prevailing alienation.” Wilkinson, a justice on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reflects on how concern to right history’s wrongs led to the inability to “tell the good side of the American story” and contributed to the illiteracy in history and an “extended exercise in self-flagellation.” It’s hard to see complexity through the polarizing arguments of hindsight.
Fatigue with America-bashing contributed mightily to the election of Donald Trump. But now, as the president himself exhorted in his powerful speech Tuesday night, it’s time to put “small thinking” behind and be “empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears.” His remarkable speech suggests that he has at last arrived at his promised “pivot.” He did not ignore the victims of past and present; he recognized Black History Month, denounced the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and condemned a shooting in Kansas City.
He took due notice that America’s enemies in the Middle East have “slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women and children of all faiths and beliefs,” and that America is “a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” In his tribute to the heroism of a slain Navy SEAL, he unified a divided audience in grief and honor. Can he move forward now to redeem his promise to make America great again? That’s the $64 question.