As it is commencement time and the ether is full of grand sentiments and new beginnings, it seems appropriate to take stock of where we are, and what the present portends for the future. Two of the brightest men of our time recently addressed both subjects.
In a wide-ranging interview with Peter Robinson, (Uncommon Knowledge), economist Thomas Sowell discussed the second edition of his book “Economic Facts and Fallacies.” (Parents would be well advised to send their children to college with a copy so they can tell which is which.)
Only Sowell’s irreverent humor relieved the gloom that suffused his view of the nation’s present and future.
Novelist and journalist Mark Helprin, speaking at the Hillsdale College 159th Commencement on the topic Churchill and the Presidency, did not deliver the typical commencement address of happy talk and glowing forecasts of unbounded futures. Instead, his remarks seemed designed to challenge his audience to alter Sowell’s dark presentment.
In the Sowell interview, Robinson cited two quotations in Sowell’s book as polar opposites. The first is by John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The second is by former Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky: “Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.”
Robinson asked at which pole Sowell placed himself. Sowell replied that he was “slightly to the right of Rosovsky,” explaining, “We have raised whole generations who regard facts as more or less optional. Kids in elementary schools are being urged to take stands on political issues. They are being taught that it is important to have views, not that it’s important to know what you are talking about.”
He called the election of Barack Obama “the triumph of sheer vacuous hopefulness over seriousness and realism.” Before the 2008 election, Sowell predicted that Obama’s domestic policies would be disastrous, but that his foreign policies would be even worse. Robinson asked if Sowell stood by those words. “Yes,” he replied, “I am one of the few people who is not disappointed in him.”
When Robinson cited the Tea Party and other encouraging events, Sowell replied that there were always “pockets of sanity,” and that he would be overjoyed to see “some miracle, some knight in shining armor rising out of the wilderness.”
Sowell believes that America has reached the tipping point, that there is no going back, no retrieving what we carelessly threw away when we elected Barack Obama president.
Helprin is unwilling to concede that America’s time is over. Anchoring his remarks in Winston Churchill’s remarkable career, Helprin observed that among Churchill’s many gifts was mastery of the richness of the English language. He said that gifted orators also exist now. However, he noted that the difference is that recent presidents have “failed to discover that substance cannot be decoupled from style, that it is almost a divine law that in the winds of narcissism and dishonesty the sails of rhetoric deflate. Put simply you cannot draw upon the arsenal of the English language if nearly every word you utter is a lie.”
Having made the comparison he asked, “In a nation of more three hundred million, where are the adults? Where are those who will invite and can withstand what Churchill called continual stress of soul? Where are those with enough experience in the world not to be hypnotized by self-regard? Is it now a law of nature that such people cannot get within a 100 miles of the presidency? And whose fault is that, if not our own.”
Churchill, he said, would have been astounded by so many Americans so hostile to industry and economic growth that they would destroy their own country. Helprin recalled that America previously met great challenges with “automation, innovation and sovereign assertion.” That way, he said, “is still open to us,” but we need someone like Churchill to defend the saving principles of self-determination, the free market and the fundamental right of property. “A whole nation cannot live a lie.” When will we have the courage, he asked, “to break that lie?”
He quoted from Gibbon who wrote, “The subjects of Rome were insulted by the arrogance of a young minister who considered his rapid elevation proof of his superior merit ” and followed with a more recent quotation from First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism that you put down your divisions that you come out of your isolation. Barack Obama will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved and uninformed.”
Helprin said that Winston Churchill would have been appalled that “an American president could so insult his own countrymen or assume so authoritarian a cast.”
Helprin blamed what has happened to the nation on the misconception that “the sin of slavery was attributable to the ideals of the founding rather than to their suppression… Until this misconception is overturned, justice must always be afflicted and presidents may yet presume to instruct hector and revolutionize a nation they see as forever faulted by its original sin, and therefore a nation they do not understand.”
He concluded his remarks with advice and exhortation.
“So when you next hear a candidate for president and he flatters you and he tells you that you can have everything, (you can’t), that you can borrow indefinitely, (you can’t), and that you are safe in the world, (you aren’t)… Think of Winston Churchill, think of language, experience, solvency, justice and valor…”
It is not knights in shining armor that Helprin solicited, but understanding of what we have, and what we are on the verge of losing. If it was a miracle that George Washington’s rag tag Army prevailed against the greatest military power of the eighteenth century, it is not too much to think that the Republic can be saved; not by force of arms but by defending already proven ideals against seductive lies and false promises. After all, in the beginning, patriots were few, loyalists were many, and the Founders were fewer still.
Helprin asked his audience to risk what they are and all they might be to stand against the herd and speak the truth. He said, “if we rise to the occasion we too can produce statesmen almost unique in the world for knowing that they stand not above their compatriots but with them.”
That Helprin spoke at Hillsdale was not coincidence, for those young people are better equipped than most to understand what is at stake. Or as Helprin said in closing,
“Because your time is just beginning, our time is not over. Make it so.”