George Kennan “laments the decline of people ‘of British origin, from whose forefathers the constitutional structure and political ideals of the early America once emerged.’” So quotes Fareed Zakaria in the New York Times Book Review from The Kennan Diaries, himself lamenting Kennan’s racism. “Americans are destined to ‘melt into a vast polyglot mass, . . . one huge pool of indistinguishable mediocrity and drabness.’ Reader Joseph S. Harrington’s response noted the “startling contrast between the elegant moralism of his analysis of international affairs and his dismissive elitism and retrograde attitudes toward race.”
Harold Camping predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011, then revised it to October 21. Neither date was correct. Fervently religious individuals, particularly fundamentalist Christians, have a stake in the world ending in their lifetimes. As Arn Brown at jesusisreturningsoon.com notes, “We, our parents, and our grandparents are all witness to the foretold events leading up to His Return”. It means that we are the culmination of the advance of mankind, and that God has chosen us as the privileged people. If the world doesn’t end during our lifetimes, we are just another generation trodden under by the passage of time, to be forgotten.
And so also with the moralists among us. We are the culmination of mankind’s path to enlightenment. Finally, in our era, we have achieved the apogee of reason and morality in our views of mankind. It will not be said of us in the future, “they seemed so intellectually and morally advanced. How could they have been so retrograde in their views towards …?”
Even the living constitutionalists among us worship the founding fathers, but then have to step back and wonder how the subjects of our worship could have accepted slavery and been slave owners themselves. I recall years ago reading a critique of a modern philosopher (was it John Dewey?) who had argued that we are creatures of our times. Nonsense, the critic intoned. Do you believe that you are incapable of breaking free from your own times? Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has a new book, Plato at the Googleplex, and John Wilwol’s review quotes her as admitting she had broken the cardinal rule of the philosophical academy. “I was trained as a philosopher never to put philosophers and their ideas into historical contexts, since historical context has nothing to do with the validity of the philosopher’s positions.” Since philosophy is universal, and not subject to the vicissitudes of time and culture.
Conservative Christians have a clever trick to address this issue. Since their heroes are superior, they must have adhered to the same belief system that the modern Christian knows is correct and universal. Thus, Thomas Jefferson is a devout Christian, or so says David Barton, proponent of the idea that the United States were founded as a Christian Nation. Sarah Palin has also upheld that notion, “And then, hearing any leader declare that America isn’t a Christian nation and poking an ally like Israel in the eye, it’s mind-boggling to see some of our nation’s actions recently, but politics truly is a topic for another day.”
Liberals, of course, particularly those of a more agnostic or atheistic persuasion, perform a similar trick by distancing our forefathers from any special adherence to Christianity in the formation of the nation. While adhering more closely to history than the “Christian Nationists”, Brian Bolton at the Freedom From Religion Foundation summarizes the decidedly un-fundamentalist beliefs of ten prominent founders to emphasize this distance. Charles C. Haynes does it a bit more muscularly in Dispelling the myth of a ‘Christian Nation,’ and Farrell Till writes at length in The Christian Nation Myth.
Zachariah can’t dismiss Kennan’s racism, but he can explain it as, at least to a certain extent, an outgrowth of that for which we so admire Kennan, that which led to his grasp of the international state of affairs in which he played such an important role. “He was an acute observer of the world,” and his “genius was to perceive accurately the essence of other countries, often far more traditional than America — and to connect them to their past.” In his own country he was uncomfortable with modernism and valued the past. He “recalled how the small villages he moved through had often rallied together, in the wake of floods, hurricanes and war, and how modern life, with its emphasis on individualism, was eroding that sense of solidarity.” He was able to perceive other nations, formed by their history, as independent entities, and wished for his own country an isolation which would “restrict to a minimum its economic and financial involvements with other peoples.” His aversion to America melting into “a vast polyglot mass” informs his racism.
We judge the past through the prism of the present; we are destined to be disappointed by our heroes.