The Individual in the West
November 22, 2016 3 Comments
Bookworm went on the National Review cruise this year, and how I envy her! What a glorious opportunity. She’s written a series of posts about it, which you should read. In any case, she wrote a post that she called National Review cruise — let’s talk about the individual in the West. The whole post is well worth your time and is linked below, don’t miss the comments, either, but I want to focus on something she said here.
I’ve been reading Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, a book I highly recommend, not just for those interested in learning about all things Jewish, but also for those anxious to reconnect with Old Testament knowledge and interesting corners of world history. I especially enjoyed his Biblical discussions, because it’s been some years since I sat down and read the Torah.
What’s so striking about the Torah, of course, and what I believe has kept it the most vibrant book in the Western canon, is that it’s not a book about mass movements or ideological theories. It’s a book about people. Abraham who upends his family to follow a God, Sarah who laughs at that God, Jacob who wrestled with that God, Moses who argued with that God, David who fought for that God, and all the individually-named prophets who spoke for that God. Each person we meet in the Torah is someone we can imagine walking through our own communities today.
The same is true for the New Testament. Jesus is a vividly rendered personality, but so are the others who appear with him. Through their writings, we know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Apostles are real people grappling with the burden of a living Messiah whom they know will soon die, only to live again. And Paul — oh, my goodness! Through his letters he is one of the most vibrant people in world history.
But the West’s recognition of real people living in different times doesn’t end with the Bible. We discuss Roman history, not just in terms of battles and empire, but in terms of the personalities whose ambition, honor, greed, etc., made that history happen. When reading Christian-era Western history, names with vivid attached personalities tumble off the page: Charlemagne, William the Conquerer, Joan of Arc, Henry VIII, Cardinal Richelieu, each and every Borgia or Medici, Marie Antoinette, Lord Nelson, our Founders about whose personalities we are intensely interested, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and even Barack Obama. In all cases, we want to know who they are and what drove them to take actions that are hinge points in history.
This is a remarkably different approach to the past and the president than under statism regimes, which seek at all levels to erase the individual. And I do mean all levels. The cults of personality that totalitarian societies cultivate, as in North Korea, have nothing to do with the real person. They are slickly enameled fakes that are meant to obscure rather than reveal the individual holding such immense power.
I have a theory that this individualism is part of what propelled Trump into office (along with voters’ desperation for a candidate who, no matter how personally tawdry, didn’t have the stink of “business as usual” in Washington). Hillary, as we know, has been endlessly re-packaged and re-presented to the American people.
The reality, as Americans understand, is that with her rigid hair, botoxed face, expensive Mao suits, and prepackaged Leftist rhetoric, she’s just another statist cipher. Her years in the public eye have revealed that the personality behind the presentation is a corrupt and ugly one, but the important thing is that we’re endlessly being sold someone whose public identity is as fake, unrevealing, and poll driven as any cult leader in a totalitarian society.
And then there’s the Donald: Mercurial, defensive, grandiose, self-confident, intuitive, vulgar, quite kind (according to many who know him), unfiltered, and, above all, absolutely real. Yes, there’s definitely a “reality TV” persona, but the overlap between the public and the private Trump is apparently quite strong. With Trump, we don’t get a poll-tested, campaign-consultant-created generic politician. For better or worse, he is an individual in the historic mold.
I think, therefore, that Trump represents something unique to Western Jude-Christian culture: Starting with Abraham and going right up to Trump, individualism matters. We, The People are not movements, we’re not ciphers, we’re not symbols. We are real beings, with individual characters, and we seek that same quality in those who lead us.
She’s on to something here, and it’s important. When the progressives were taking over the academy they ridiculed the so-called ‘Great man theory of history’ propounded by Macauley, by Bancroft, even by Mahan, preferring to denigrate the great captains of history. This suited their revisionist souls but did a disservice to their craft. Bookworm is right, we can walk with the ancients, but we are not mindless ciphers being acted on by indifferent forces. We, the people know that to lead us, we need people who can lead with vision, not simply tell us what to do. Can it be overdone? Of course, it can. We are individuals in a community, one man believing something is usually a crank, but groups of people, acting for their individual and groups benefit are what has driven history, and freedom. Where would we be without a William Marshal, an Oliver Cromwell, a George Washington, A Lord Nelson, an Abraham Lincoln, a Winston Churchill, even a George Patton, or yes, a Donald Trump?