Victor Nuovo: Light at the end of the tunnel
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of essays to present knowledge of the American political tradition, which, it is hoped, will forearm the reader with the tools to understand the current political events in a historic and constitutional context.
Human beings are social animals. Like ants and bees, wolves, lions, elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, they live in communities. But, we humans differ from other social animals in a very distinctive way. Other animals depend on the members of their hive, pack or herd, gathered over generations in one hospitable territory, to sustain them.
Humans depend upon these things as well, but, perhaps because we possess an infinite sense of space and time, are an expansive, perhaps an invasive species, whose habitat knows no limit and who imagine we are players in history. For that reason, we depend upon traditions. A tradition is a form of life that is handed down by one generation to the next. It is taught, learned, practiced, revised, enlarged and often reformed. It is always renewable as long as those who use it have the will and the courage to keep going.
A language is a tradition. It is one of the first things we learn in childhood. Our parents teach us, and soon the members of our community become our teachers. We go to school and learn to read and write — and also to count, which depends upon another indispensable tradition of signs, namely, numbers. We practice our language every day in ways that are beyond counting. We would be lost without it. We would lose our means to communicate, not only with others, but also with generations still to come; our consciousness would become a life denying wasteland, a meditation on death. Language is the tradition on which all other human traditions depend and by means of which they flourish and perpetuate themselves.
Try to imagine what politics would be like without language. It would be nothing. And this is most likely true of much else that we do, even of something as sensual and intimate as making love. But my concern is with politics, for as human life has evolved, politics has emerged as the all-encompassing frame in which all the other activities of human life take place. It is essential to today’s life.
And as Thomas Hobbes has said, without well-founded political institutions, human life would exist in a chronic state of war; life would become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Whatever misgiving, suspicion, foreboding, or despair we may feel towards the present state of politics, the alternative of an apolitical life would cause us even more distress. Some individuals may prefer to escape, to withdraw from politics, seeking comfort and consolation in the company of their family and friends; others may merely seek to be alone with themselves, to lead a solitary meditative life. But if this is an escape, then it is cowardice, and, in the end, it provides still greater opportunity for political predators to have their way and wreak even more havoc than they do now.
Yet there is no doubt that a pall has settled upon our life together these past few years, especially on our political life; a deep gloom of despair encircles and entwines us.
Nationally, our political institutions have become stained with corruption, neutered by incompetence, and stupefied by ignorance. Some of the media is little better. The desperate voices of self-promotion of Fox and others fill the air with their nauseating slogans, accompanied by music that is equally loathsome and foul. Even our institutions of learning have joined the chorus, these training-grounds for future politicians and entrepreneurs have forgotten the love of learning and search for truth; once temples of truth, they have refashioned themselves for success in their ceaseless campaigns for capital advancement and in the competition for students.
In response to these doleful activities, the jeremiad may be the only fitting form of literary expression today — mournful, gloomy and sorrowful. And in the face of all this, living where we do in this lovely town, surrounded by natural beauty, comforted by birdsong, with caring friends close by, and having the freedom to move about as we choose and associate with whomever brings us cheer and enjoyment, we are tempted to let the greater world pass by unnoticed and unregarded, while we hide our heads in the sand.
Or we can gird up our loins and arm ourselves with wisdom and understanding and confront our current disorder and reasons for discontent, and, so outfitted, take on the world.
Now, the best weaponry available to us for this task is knowledge, knowledge of our political traditions, of its ideas and practices, laws and institutions, and the historical events that engendered them. This is my purpose: to present in a series of essays knowledge of the American political tradition, not as a curiosity, but as a weapon, to combat corruption, and as a healing balm, a weapon-salve to heal our ills and to bring comfort to our souls, and as a shield, the shield of justice.
By the American political tradition, I mean the political ideas and practices of the United States of America. There are two ways of approaching this tradition. Narrowly, by studying its founding documents, in particular, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and later, the Emancipation Proclamation. The study would be of their origin, use and influence.
Another approach is by broadly considering the founding of America and the political circumstances that led to it and followed from it, and also the older traditions of political thought, including the opinions of the great personages who informed it. And from these beginnings, to trace the development of American political life down to the present. I shall travel this broader and longer path.
I am grateful to Addison Independent publisher Angelo Lynn for giving me the opportunity to present these essays in this newspaper. And it is altogether appropriate that he should include political essays of this sort and political commentary as part of his weekly offerings. I am reminded of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” a fictitious tale of the United States falling prey to fascism. The hero of the story is the editor of just such a newspaper in a Vermont town much like Middlebury, a man who had the courage of his convictions. The story is still pertinent, and also poignant; reading it is a source of courage.
Besides, the small-town newspaper is also a tradition, noble and inspiring, an indispensable edifying instrument of American democracy. Long may it prosper! Our freedom depends upon it.
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