Thursday, October 03, 2002

The Dignity of Man

Over the past few days, ominous events have unfolded in Washington DC, events that do not bode well for America’s political future. I’m not referring here to debates about Iraq or the economy. The events of which I speak are far more subdued, but of no less importance than Saddam Hussein and decliners on Wall Street. In fact, the very gentility of the proceedings represent what will be lost.

Yesterday, in the hallowed halls of the American Senate, retiring Senator Jesse Helms sat through a stream of praises from his colleagues. One week ago, it was 99-year old Strom Thurmond’s turn to be lauded. And yesterday evening, Dick Armey, a conservative stalwart in the House of Representatives was celebrated at a GOP farewell party.

To many on the left, as well as to some moderate Republicans, the departure of these old southerners is good news. More than any other legislators, these three men represented a tradition that was fiercely patriotic, uncompromisingly traditional and resolutely independent – in other words, everything an accommodating, bland politically correct liberal hates. Each, of course, has been praised by both friends and foes alike as gentlemanly, charming and dignified. But to many liberal legislators these are traits to be celebrated only in their waning. Indeed in the contemporary political dispensation, the characteristics that make these men unique are seen as impediments to dialogue and compromise. Speaking of Dick Armey, House Democrats Martin Frost and Nita Lowey commented, “It has become clear that the House will become a more civil and decent institution the day Dick Armey retires."

This is today’s true sentiment. Where once character and virtue mattered, civility and decency now rule. The individuality of the proud and magnanimous citizen is replaced with the undifferentiated and self-denigrating boor for whom the civil and the decent are torn away from any sense of patriotism or justice. The modern legislator compromises and equivocates, but because the appearance of morality still matters he hides his perfidy behind a mask of increasingly shrill but vacuous moralism. And as far as politics is concerned, deliberation and debate devolves into sound-bites and bipartisanship.

What is lost is the pride and dignity of the human individual, sacrificed to extreme democratic egalitarianism. And once again, this is why the nation-state matters. Democracy tends to the subordination, even the destruction of individuality. It attacks pride and patriotism in the name of an undifferentiated common humanity. This is democracy’s greatest weakness. While it has been the champion of liberty and prosperity, it can also become its adversary. This is currently what’s occurring with the rise of the transnational progressive movement as embodied in the European Union and the array of international humanitarian organizations with the UN in the lead.

Those who speak endlessly of globalization’s evils tell us that the only way to counter the effects of international capitalism and American imperialism are international agencies defending the rights of humanity. In fact, I would suggest exactly the opposite. As the world becomes more homogenized and economically linked, this is the moment when the nation-state becomes indispensable. On the one hand, nation-states alone can ensure a safe domestic climate for free markets and liberal institutions. But just as significantly, nation-states serve as a concrete means to counter the degrading loss of individuality that can come with democratic egalitarianism. The political nation plays a unique role as a focal point for the citizen, igniting pride and directing political action. Its institutions allow citizens the possibility of political involvement, while setting standards of conduct and comportment defining human dignity and educating character. As Tocqueville argued, these are the particular aristocratic safeguards against the overwhelming universalism of democracy.

These qualities and attributes were represented in Senators Thurmond and Helms and in Representative Armey. They remained individuals because their lives were defined, in part, by their particular nation. It is worth noting too, that each of these men were also known for their own commitment to recognizing the individuality of those they worked with, and most notably, the elevator operators, the secretaries, the janitors on Capital Hill. They felt no need to represent the “common people”, because they saw no one as simply common.

One final point. These three men were also known for their ardent opposition to communism. In Senator Helms’ case this will probably be his most enduring legacy. The interesting point here is that whatever else communism was, it was certainly a militarily aggressive and politically determined entity. To meet its challenge, the West had to rely on and bolster its own political ideals. Transnational progressivism, on the other hand, is apolitical. While communism was ultimately wedded to the Soviet state, the transnationals want to destroy the state. They appear as the antithesis of the military threat, wearing the mantle of humanitarianism. In this regard, the threat they pose to liberal democracy is more veiled, more subtle, and appears less imposing. This is a deception, but it is one that may catch the liberal democracies off guard in a way neither communism nor fascism could.

The most effective weapon against a danger that seeks to submerge individuals in a mass of common and undifferentiated humanity is the nation-state. And the greatest resource a nation-state has is the indomitable and particular character of its citizens. With the loss of Thurmond, Helms and Armey, the United States also loses some of its character.

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