Historical memory and social cohesion.
The week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress. It was in many respects an eloquent and well-crafted speech that he gave. It set down with considerable skill the meaning of the attacks and reasons for the war on terrorism. Nonetheless, the President made few references to America's national experience that might have supplied images and metaphors to help Americans draw instructive analogies to contemporary events and lend concrete meaning to his apologia to freedom.
In this piece I am exploring the importance of rhetoric in keeping a nation's collective memory alive. Rhetoric is a necessity to give a civil society a sense of purpose in history. Great political rhetoric moves the individual and the nation by evoking an ideal or supreme image of who they are as a people and how they fit into a greater scheme of things belonging to God or Destiny. To render that supreme image palpable, however, the practitioner of rhetoric must attend to some portion of the chain of lesser images that rises to that supreme image.
It was most appropriate for the President to put freedom at the center of his speech. But it was also necessary for him to set out significant benchmarks in the history of that freedom, benchmarks which define and vindicate it. We have an example of this method practiced to near perfection by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. There Lincoln set forth the Union as his central, governing image and led his listeners to a full sense of its meaning and of the war being fought through a tight chain of allusions to the origin and history of the United States.
Freedom isn't "just another word for nothing else to lose," as Janice Joplin famously said. Nor is freedom the liberty of the individual to do whatever is pleasurable so long as no one gets hurt, as so many of my college students honestly believe. Yet many, many Americans embrace highly privatized and hedonistic notions of freedom.
The President rightly did not have this sort of freedom in mind. Real political freedom is the felicitous condition under which justice may be purposively pursued. This political freedom has a narrative. It belongs to a history that needs to be told in order to inspire and ennoble those who possess it and are called to protect it. Great statesmen paint the past with the silver patina of myth, memory, and the moral imagination in order to elevate the minds of the people and move the national community to united action. But the President did not rehearse that narrative or tell that history. He did not take his listeners back to the founding and lead them through a chain of images of freedom embattled and freedom vindicated that would draw the mind's eye to a focus on the present moment of challenge.
The President is not the only party to miss the opportunity. The press and media have done far worse. It does not seem to have occurred to any of the major television networks, for example, to lead their viewers through a reflection on the nation's extensive history of engagement in war and international relations to help them make discerning judgments about the so-called war on terrorism. The press and media have instead embraced sensationalism at almost every turn. They have pandered to the passion for immediacy that so characterizes the modern temperament.
Those who are in special positions of influence within a society, whether they are parents or politicians, clergy, teachers, or the press, are obligated to exercise that society's collective memory to ensure that its tradition of freedom is handed on and renewed. Yet as a college professor I can say confidently and with great sadness that the young men and women in my classrooms today are the most historically illiterate and politically uninformed that I have seen in more than twenty years of teaching. The fault does not rest solely on their teachers. It rests at least as much on parents, pastors, and civic leaders. All have allowed the rising generation to become captive to a popular culture that is self-centered, hedonistic, dangerously utilitarian, increasingly antagonistic to memory, and impious toward the past.
The exposed underbelly
It is this state of affairs that has moved me of late to return to Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963), an author whose writings strongly impressed me in my formative years. The title of Weaver's best-known work now belongs to our popular vocabulary, even if most people familiar with the term "ideas have consequences" have not read the book. Ideas Have Consequences was published in 1948, nearly a half-century ago. Yet it, along with others of Weaver's writings, speaks with startling insight to our present situation.
In the introduction, Weaver apologizes for offering the public yet "another book about the dissolution of the West." But Ideas Have Consequences is not just another book of that kind. Although Weaver undoubtedly had some books from the genre in mind--such as Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West and Josť Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses--his own is unique in its attention to image and language as indicators of the spiritual and moral state of a society. Weaver in his role as a teacher of rhetoric was a profound humanist and transcendental moralist.
On September 11 the new barbarians made a great assault upon the American social body. Their attack brought out great heroism, but it also exposed America's soft underbelly. Since that day, the "Great Stereopticon"--Weaver's term for television, radio, and the printed media, the machinery of mass communication--has been spreading throughout the land its images of our changed world. Daily--nay, hourly and minute by minute, interrupting itself with crawling headlines underneath the talking heads--it has served up its own strange pictures of reality, images that are as debilitating as they are ubiquitous.
The magnitude, complexity, and reach of mass communication are vastly increased since Weaver's day, but he describes the character and nature of the Great Stereopticon with exceptional insight and foresight. The Stereopticon, he says, projects across the society a highly selective and often nightmarish vision of the world, one comprised largely of images of psychopathia, strife, and deadly force. Its malevolent gods bear down on us relentlessly and mercilessly. These are not so much images of the "real" thing as they are the symptoms of a degradation of the culture. Writing even before the full impact of television, Weaver observes:
The operators of the Stereopticon by their very selection of matter make horrifying assumptions about reality. For its audience that overarching dome becomes a sort of miasmic cloud, a breeder of strife and degradation and of the subhuman. What person taking the affirmative view of life can deny that the world served up daily by the press, movies, and radio is a world of evil and negation? There is iron in our nature sufficient to withstand any fact that is presented in a context of affirmation, but we cannot remain unaffected by the continued assertion of cynicism and brutality. Yet these are what the materialists in control of publicity give us.
Society, Weaver says, is not well served by images of wickedness and human degradation that are neither interpreted through historical memory nor transfigured by religious and moral imagination into a positive belief in the greater strength of goodness. "How common is it," he writes, "to see upon the front page of some organ destined for a hundred thousand homes the agonized face of a child run over in the street, the dying expression of a woman crushed by a subway train, tableaux of execution, scenes of intense grief...The rise of sensational journalism everywhere testifies to man's loss of points of reference, to his determination to enjoy the forbidden in the name of freedom," while avoiding judgment and losing faith in a greater benevolence.
"Man is in the world to suffer his passion," Weaver continues. But the genuine creators and conservers of culture draw up images of man and society that resist "that 'sinking in upon the moral being'" of raw experience and emotion that is the death of a meaningful world. The genius and wisdom of the great poets and novelists, whether we are speaking of Dante, Dickens, and Dostoevsky, or Austen, Eliot, and Faulkner, is that, even as they expose vividly the character of evil, human suffering, and deadly untruth, they also show us how goodness, beauty, and truth shine light on a world that would otherwise slip utterly into darkness.
No matter its boasts or pretensions, a civilization that is stripped of memory and the moral imagination is in jeopardy of collapsing in upon itself, its public world imploding into fragments of private desire and gratuitous brutality. The so-called realistic images that the Great Stereopticon projects onto the screen of the common life do not fortify belief. They may evoke pity for the other and pity for oneself, but they are incapable of leading us to a clear understanding of justice. They may stir the passions, but they do not solidify the virtues.
The unifying vision
Weaver opens his chapter "The Great Stereopticon" with a passage that is reminiscent of what the contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's says in his influential book After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre argues that our society lacks a unifying vision of life and that this makes it difficult to sustain a coherent and truly just and beautiful public world. Shards of once-whole religious and philosophical traditions litter the cultural landscape and are grabbed up by individuals and groups who fling them at one another in bitter contests that have no real hope of resolution.
Like MacIntyre, Weaver judged that Western culture has lost the central metaphysical self-image that gives it purpose and a moral compass. Its inhabitants sink into emotivism, narcissism, and a desiccating individualism. Morality becomes wholly subjective and the virtues, once the mortar of the social order, morph into undisciplined, competing passions.
MacIntyre says we are entering a new dark ages. Thirty years earlier, Weaver reached a similar conclusion:
The darkling plain, swept by alarms, which threatens to be the world of our future, is an arena in which conflicting ideas, numerous after the accumulation of centuries, are freed from [the] discipline earlier imposed by ultimate conceptions. The decline is to confusion; we are agitated by sensation and look with wonder upon the serene somnambulistic creations of souls which had metaphysical anchorage. Our ideas become convenient perceptions, and we accept contradiction because we no longer feel the necessity of relating thoughts to the metaphysical dream.
The problem which [this] disintegration places in the lap of practical men, those in charge of states, of institutions, of businesses, is how to persuade to communal activity people who no longer have the same ideas about the most fundamental things. In an age of shared belief, this problem does not exist, or there is a wide area of basic agreement...The entire group is conscious of the tendency, which furnishes standards for value judgments. When the goal of life becomes self-realization, however, this vanishes. It vanishes right at that point where the ego asserts its independence; thereafter what reconciliation can there be between authority and the individual will? The politicians and businessmen are not interested in saving souls, but they are interested in preserving a minimum of organization, for upon that depend their posts and their incomes.
In his writing Weaver tries to show that great statesmen are concerned with more than mere survival. They strive even at the darkest moments of human history, like Churchill during the bombing of London, to persuade the people that there are truths worth fighting for, suffering for, and even dying for. Weaver claims that civilized life depends upon responsible public rhetoric. Rhetoric, not historical science, is what keeps alive a community's memory and infuses the common life with moral purpose.
Genuine rhetoric is more than the recitation of "facts." The modern press briefing sets out the terms by which public policy may be debated and decided. But this is not true rhetoric. True rhetoric moves beyond linear logic and reporting the facts. It adopts analogical and figurative speech in order to probe the quiddity of things and their moral meaning. Neither is true rhetoric the mere excitation of human emotions through words or images. The Great Stereopticon floods us with words and images that excite our emotions and stimulate our appetites, but do little to enliven the moral imagination.
The sense of history
Neither the press briefing nor news programming, the dominant forms of "public speech" in our day, cultivate a sense of history. Neither strengthens or refines memory. Both instead breed what Richard Weaver calls "presentism." "Presentism," he writes in his posthumously published book Visions of Order, "is the belief that only existence in the present can give significance to the thing." Yet living wholly in the present is not only impossible, but insofar as we seek to live in this manner, we rob ourselves of our humanity. Weaver argues that to the degree that people act without "memory and the extrapolation which it makes possible,"--that is, the use of analogy and the interpretation of meaning--"man becomes a kind of waif." Modern men and women who lack a sense of place and continuity with the past are driven by ephemeral appetites and the passion for immediate self-gratification.
The true rhetorician employs memory to show how even terrifying events like those of September 11 can be charged with redemptive meaning. He strives to demonstrate that we live in continuity with those who have gone before us, who also knew suffering, and that therefore there is reason to have courage and hope even when things seem at their worst. This is what Augustine did in The City of God to give courage and hope to Christians after the sack of Rome. And this is what is needed today from the President and from other public leaders.
Let me end where I began. I have said that in his address to Congress President Bush failed to adequately exercise historical memory. And I have observed that the same holds true for most of American society. Richard Weaver judged that this forgetfulness of history lies behind the peculiarly modern impiety that inters with indifference the memory and wisdom of those who came before. It is also the mother of that enormous hubris that moves modern people to try to "create a new world out of [sheer] good will and ignorance." Today's true rhetorician would instead call you and me to a deep reformation of spirit, starting with a retrieval of all that we have sought to forget.
In this post-September 11 world, there is something haunting and prophetic about the closing words of Ideas Have Consequences:
Perhaps we shall have to learn the truth along some via dolorosa.
It may be that we are awaiting a great change, that the sins of the fathers are going to be visited upon the generations until the reality of evil is again brought home and there comes some passionate reaction, like that which flowered in the chivalry and spirituality of the Middle Ages. If such is the most we can hope for, something toward that revival may be prepared by acts of thought and volition in this waning day of the West.
Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, DC, 20041-7500 This article can be found at the BreakPoint website.