“This used to be a hell of a good country.
I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”
When people of a certain age and experience begin to think about when and how America went wrong, they almost inevitably hear echoes of George Hanson’s little sermon, delivered by Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. An ACLU lawyer and a conceited Southern liberal out of touch with his own people, Hanson, like most smug leftists, was only feigning ignorance. He explains to the obtuse Billy (Dennis Hopper) that ordinary Americans are afraid of freaks like him because freaks enjoy the liberty that is the American birthright. The rest of us may say we want freedom, “but it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.” In other words, it is hard to be free when you are the slaves of a vast economic system.
It is difficult to believe that Dennis Hopper, much less Peter Fonda, wrote this dialogue, though their names appear in the credits above the real scriptwriter, Terry Southern. Fonda and Hopper had the original conception for the film, but apart from passages of what Southern called “dumb-bell dialogue” improvised by the actors, Southern wrote most of the script. Although often regarded as a cynical hipster who hung out in Paris with the founders of the Paris Review and frequented jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, Southern was in fact a complex man: a Texan who admired Faulkner, a student of philosophy and French literature who used his GI Bill money to study at the Sorbonne. In some respects he was what George Hanson might have become if he had gone to Paris.
Easy Rider, very much a 60’s movie, was partly intended as an attack on U.S. capitalist imperialism during the Vietnam War. Widely condemned by conservatives, the film did inspire Joe Sobran’s backhanded compliment that at least it had a happy ending. (The three principals are murdered by freedom-fearing rednecks.) There is, however, a deeply conservative side to the film. Billy and Wyatt are destroyed not so much by redneck hostility—Hopper always claimed the movie was not anti-Southern—as by their own capitalist greed: Their journey east has been financed by a cocaine deal, which is made in a junkyard to the accompaniment of Steppenwolf’s “God Damn the Pusher Man.” Heavy, and a point impossible to miss.
On two separate occasions the bikers are confronted by the reality of community—in one, by a free-love hippie commune from which greed and individualism and sin have been banished, and in another, early in the film, by a rancher with a Mexican wife and a brood of children. While the rancher is annoyed by the roar of their bikes, he is neither afraid nor impressed. As a Christian gentleman (the family says grace before eating their meal), he offers them hospitality. Wyatt, aka “Captain America” (Fonda), can only make the inane comment, “You do your own thing in your own time.” Wyatt and Billy, far from being victims of capitalism, are themselves entrepreneurial individualists who acknowledge no law or rules outside their own desires. Even the doped-up Wyatt knows the truth: In seeking the big score and high times and in avoiding commitment, they “blew it.”
Perhaps I am making too much of a Hollywood movie. The question it raises, however, is by no means trivial. In a very real sense, America had blown it by 1970, and not just by rocking down the road of sex and drugs. On the grand scale of the American economy, it is hard not to conclude that this country’s owners have sold it out to foreign allies, competitors, and enemies. They have permitted the Israelis to drag us into a disastrous series of conflicts in the Middle East, the Chinese to take over our industries, and Mexicans to march across the country in such numbers that they resemble more an invading army than peasants impoverished by NAFTA in search of employment.
Suppose we all woke up one day in 2012 and found a human and moral American who agreed to run for the presidency—not admittedly a likely scenario. What would we expect him to do? We are not living in a dictatorship—not yet, anyway, or at least not openly. Millions of Americans actually get up from the sofa, turn off the TV, and go out to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, or John McCain. Some of them may be delusional, and, like the king of France who thought he was made out of glass, they may have been tricked into thinking that one of these scoundrels will work for their interest. But some of them, probably most of them, are content with a selection of potential leaders who mirror their own weakness and vice. We are like Housman’s skeptic who would not keep the laws of man or the laws of God:
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
We are, most of us, in our minds a law unto ourselves, and living outside the bounds of community we become as lonely as strangers in a foreign land.
In the continuing argument between globalists and nationalists over America’s future, the nationalists almost always have the moral advantage, but if nationalism is right in putting the interests of one’s fellow citizens ahead of the interests of foreigners, then what can we say of provincialism or regionalism or localism or even familism, all of which put the interests of a smaller and more familiar group ahead of the interests of strangers? Edward Banfield stigmatized such restricted attachments as the moral principles of a “backward society,” and perhaps they are or would be, if they were not tempered by a Christian or Stoic regard for all our human fellows.
The nationalist argument for economic independence goes back to Aristotle, who argued that man, in his progress toward the commonwealth, was seeking ever-greater autarky—that is, economic and social self-sufficiency. The individual in the world is Housman’s “stranger and afraid,” unable to sustain, preserve, or transmit his life. Within a family group, he may live and beget children, but he is still subject to the fluctuations of weather and the game supply. In an agricultural tribe or village, there is still the risk that the village will be annihilated by its enemies, and there is the further drawback to village existence that subsistence farming does not permit the specialization in crafts and trades that makes a life of comfort and beauty possible. Within a commonwealth, which was for Aristotle a Greek polis or city-state, there is a possibility of leading a full life that reaches up, ultimately, to contemplation of God.
Autarky, then, is important not for its own sake but because it contributes to the possibility of happiness. What, you ask, is happiness? The man who could devise a universally accepted definition of happiness would probably not be writing a monthly essay. The commonest American answer today would be some variant on the subjective theory of value—a childish tautology. If I am happy if I think I am, then the proper way to measure the collective happiness of the American people is by taking opinion polls. If happiness really were relative, then the word would be meaningless: Of course I like what I like, but what is the point of saying so? There is an element of subjectivity, obviously, since no man is happy unless he thinks he is, but for the ancients, happiness (eudaimonia, the vita beata or felicitas) was an observable phenomenon that included, at the minimum, a certain level of comfort, a successful family, and respect within a social and political community. It was not enough to have wealth, power, and an unending round of pleasures. A rich and powerful man who quarreled with his wife or sons and was despised by his neighbors could not be considered happy.
Aristotle wondered whether a man could be called happy if he lived a long and successful life and died in the knowledge that his sons were respected members of a flourishing community but, not long afterward, his family was wiped out, and his city captured by enemies. Aristotle thought it was logical to consider such a man happy, but he acknowledged that it did not seem quite right.
Are Americans happy—not in the pollsters’ sense, but in the ancient sense? It would not seem so. Would happy people spend so much money on drugs, legal and illegal, surrender their minds for so many hours a day to an electronic fantasy world of computers, TV, and video games? Even morally responsible Americans tend to be hedonists and as such incapable of happiness. The pursuit of pleasure leads to despair and suicide. As George Sanders put it in his suicide note: “Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool—good luck.” I sometimes wonder if Sanders was actually bored or merely Gabored after marriage to Zsa Zsa.
In the old cliché, an unhappy woman consoles herself by buying a hat. When I was down in the dumps, I used to buy books. Books bring more lasting pleasure than hats, but a purchase is a purchase. Is it possible that the American mania for consumption is an index of our unhappiness?
If contentment is an element of happiness, then Americans cannot be happy. We are always after a better job, a better suburb to live in, and stuff: more and more stuff until we do not know where to put it. In The Crystal Frontier Carlos Fuentes tells a story of a Mexican chef and food critic living in the United States. He watches late-night television and buys everything he sees advertised. He owns so much junk that he has to rent warehouse space. Before returning across the border, he packs a van with his goods and rides down the highway, the van spewing the junk he has accumulated to shield him from the misery of living in America. Most critics in the United States hated the book, perhaps because the leftist and anti-American Fuentes has told us something true about ourselves, and that is unforgivable.
If buying things could make us happy, we would be content with what we have bought, but no, with each purchase we are more eager to buy more. For ordinary Americans, buying has become an addiction like heroin. The more you use, as William Burroughs explained, the more you want, and the more you want, the higher the price. We have the obsession of collectors who are forever in the pursuit of first editions or Impressionist paintings, but we lack the finesse and thirst for knowledge of the true collector. For most of us, any product is desirable so long as it is stamped with an acceptable brand name. Prada, Sony, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger. Some men cannot buy a shirt or necktie or pair of shoes unless it sports a logo. I recently saw a group of kids in their late teens and early 20’s being interviewed by marketing researchers. When the interviewer asked them if they identified with a brand name, every single hand shot up. If clothes make the man, then our men are nothing more than billboards for shoddy merchandise made in Third World sweatshops.
Well, then, what is do be done? Let us suppose a miracle more incredible than the election of Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul to the presidency. Imagine by some act of divine providence that the government of the United States were entrusted to a group of leaders that combined the patriotism of George Washington, the kindness of Saint Francis, and the economic understanding of every free-market economist from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek. Other than dropping a neutron bomb on New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, or turning Arizona into a concentration camp for people born after World War II, what could they do in the short run to save us from ourselves? Of course, any patriotic leader would reverse course on the issues of immigration, trade, globalization, and the subsidies to multi-national corporations that prey upon Main Street America. But if our per capita real income rose by 25 percent per year, what good would it do us if we continued to spend our money and time in the consumption of the goods that are destroying our bodies, our minds, and our souls?
Vote, if you must, for the lesser evils, but then turn your attention to a far more important question: how to survive morally in a society that is hell-bent on your destruction. If autarky is the goal, or at least a goal, then we must always bear in mind that the individual cannot be autarkic in a moral, social, or cultural sense. Often we are not entirely free to choose where we work and live, but to the extent we can, we should look for small-scale communities whose members have a sense of shared purpose and humane regard for each other. If you work at a job you despise, then you must despise yourself. Find a job that is worthy of your effort or, if that is impossible, accept the job you have with humility. Who are we, we have to ask ourselves, to expect something better than what other poor devils, often better men and women than we, have to endure? I have washed cars, tended bar, waited tables, and stacked cans in a grocery store without ever feeling the work was beneath me.
As Wendell Berry reminds us, there are still parts of the United States in which people retain a sense of community, and if you live in such a place, stay home. But even if we live in what we may be tempted to call a godforsaken suburb of Chicago or D.C., we know that even a prison or a bordello is not really godforsaken. God is everywhere, and His churches are, outside of Muslim countries, almost everywhere.
If buying has become, as it was for Carlos Fuentes’ chef, an obsession, then find some less destructive way of occupying your time. Devote yourself to someone else, for a change, by working with Meals on Wheels or the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Turn off the TV and radio and brush up on your French or learn German. Tie your own flies—but watch out, lest you be sucked into the maelstrom of sports consumerism. There is a sign on the wall of many a tackle shop: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” This is really a modern translation of Dante’s entrance sign to Hell: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate.
Few of us will ever escape entirely from the economic Leviathan of agribusiness, supermarkets, and fast-food chains, but we can show our moral freedom by hunting and fishing, growing a garden, and buying at least some of our food from local farmers and producers. When Kroger bought out a group of markets that sold eggs from a local company and locally made fresh pasta, they immediately replaced the Rockford brands with the industrial food products in which chains specialize. They lost my business.
Big-money conservatives would like you to believe that nothing in private life is of comparable importance to the crucial decisions made on Wall Street and in Washington. If private citizens had some say in legislating for the human race or even the American part of it, they might be right. But we do not. We can only lead our own lives, and it is megalomania to think that any group of human beings can create a movement that will transform society. People who talk this way have only one lesson to teach, and that is: Beware of false prophets. As our late friend Russell Kirk used to say, when invited to join a board or take part in a movement, “I am a lone wolf.” Ideologically, he was, but (as Scott Richert has said) in his real life, the life he lived in Mecosta with his wife and daughters and an ever-changing gaggle of students and refugees, Russell was more patriarch than wolf. The community of friends and family and students he left behind is the most enduring legacy of the now-defunct American conservative movement.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.