Remember your wits
I have heard and read a lot of panic and resignation out there. On the edges of it are despair. Hedge fund operators talk of the new economy of canned food and ammunition, and buying farmland in Canada. Normal family men evidence a peculiar despondency, retreating from the world. What is this?
Today is the last day to capitulate to despair. Today is the last day to retreat from the business of the country — her politics, her traumas, her public disputes. Today is the last day to forget what our ancestors here in America were, and cower in the face of long odds.
Canned food and ammunition are fine, but remember that in most cases your greatest asset is your mind. Even the Capitalism that has largely failed was right about that. The resources of the human mind exceed those of his brute capacity, unless we submit to the crudest tyranny of of philosophical materialism.
So my recommendation to any who may struggle with despair is Remember your wits. Yes, in a sense it is that simple. Your mind is your greatest asset: remember your wits. Despair will take them from you. Despondency is the father of quietism and resignation. Desperation midwifes reckless gambles. Neither condition is one worthy of the people of this Republic. Instead, remember your wits as your fathers remembered theirs in times of trouble.
Let me offer a couple rhetorically-presented examples:
It is true that this country has by its depravity reared up a truly unholy tradition: the suicide-massacre in a school. All across our land this horrifying drama has played out. I scarcely have the heart to reflect, and tremble, on the justice befitting a nation which has produced this tradition; but the fact is we have. So remember your wits if you are ever in a moment where the depraved are in control. Why cower in the face of wickedness? Be ready for it. If nihilist or Jihadist gunmen burst into your office today, what would you do? Do not think it could never happen here. Do not ever let yourself be convinced that man’s depravity is a mere feature of a dominant oppression or current regime. It is a feature of man.
Long I have wondered what loss might have been prevented by men who, knowing that we like all men are depraved, had remembered their wits when it mattered, instead of panicking at the shock of the loss of utopian innocence. The great heroes of Flight 93 remembered their wits on September 11. So did the men who rescued so many in the Towers. Remember your country and remember your wits.
Learn the laws and traditions of our country. Study The Federalist with great care. The citizen armed with law and tradition is a powerful thing. The citizen so armed is prepared to calmly call bullhonkey on the latest piece of judicial tyranny. The citizen so armed is prepared to say to himself, and to others within earshot, that Justice Kennedy may think he can simply adduce some chimera of foreign-law consensus to overturn duly-enacted American law, but the poor old fool is quite mistaken and his Court has no such authority.
In a prolonged crisis a man who knows what the American political tradition truly means is no small thing; he is an instance of the Sovereign, for in our form of government the citizen of the Republic rules. So remember your Republic and remember your wits.
Also know that one of the most profound features of the American political tradition is what we call federalism and Catholics call subsidiarity. It is the principle that political forms are most effective, fair, and free, when the agents of the government are near to the citizen. The nearer, smaller and more familiar a government is, the more likely it is to be mild and just. What this means is that part of remembering your wits is committing yourself to a community, a real community of people. It means growing roots and submitting to traditions that may not be your own. It means humility and faith.
To the agnostics in our midst, I think you should commit yourself to a church in your local community despite your theological qualms. Here, after the family itself, is the oldest form of community in our country. Bible studies, fellowship or accountability groups, parish sports leagues, retreats, barbecues, Super Bowl parties — anything under the umbrella of those Christian institutions where more Americans have remembered their wits than any other. You will find few truer friends and patriots than those of the Christian churches, of all branches, of this wide land. Did Tocqueville not observe this fact about us many long decades ago? Prudence alone, friends, should have you going to church and learning what democracy in this Republic is all about.
Before you buy farm land in Idaho, or buy up guns and food, invest your mind and your heart into the life of a local church, warts and all. The Lord will reward you. You will remember your wits.
“Serve God and be cheerful, look upward beyond / Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn” is the charge that Bob Dylan gives to his listeners in one of his greatest recent songs, “‘Cross the Green Mountain.” It is a mournful song about the shattering trauma of the Civil War. And there, near the center of the song, is this clear admonition. The old American troubadour is right: and we Americans know what is asked of us by this charge. It is not despair, nor resignation, nor howling impotently at the latest outrage while quietly muttering that the fall of the Republic is at hand. It is not counseling everyone to take to the hills and wait out the storm. On the contrary, this charge calls us to duty, and promises no deliverance from hardship. It is oldest duty of Americans: self-government.
This is why we must remember our wits, friends: because the troubles of our day augur a future where self-government is a more arduous task. A dangerous one, even. Long years of ease and (apparent) plenty have made us vulnerable to every tutelary despotism (Tocqueville’s phrase) under the sun. And there is nothing easy about restoring self-government in an age of dependency and despotism. Yet this is our challenge and our charge. How sad that men counsel us to shrink from it.
So take heart, remember your wits, and recall what Edmund Burke said of the self-government of our people, when he counseled his countrymen not to undertake the folly of trying to subjugate America:
“The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies, are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth, to argue another Englishman into slavery.”
Likewise, an American is the unfittest person on earth, to argue another American into resignation and despair.