“The worst lesson that can be taught to a man is to rely upon others and to whine over his sufferings.”
Tom Wolfe is one of my favorite writers. Conservatives like him because he questions the legitimacy of fashion’s right to rule (From Bahaus to Our House, and The Painted Word), and Liberals like him, as near as I can tell, because he’s good at making fun of people. At that he’s very good, especially those prone to self-importance.
At any rate, the November 2007, 150th anniversary issue of The Atlantic Monthly asked influential writers and artists to assess the American idea. Many people wrote things unworthy of the topic (Nancy Pelosi wrote a smattering of empty sentences and concluded that the American idea was both new when it was instituted and that it crops up when people try to solve problems. She couldn’t be bothered to suggest what the idea is or to examine its value). Tom Wolfe however, rolled up his sleeves and got to work answering the question directly.
“Since you asked …,” he writes “the American idea was born at approximately 5 p.m. on Friday, December 2, 1803, the moment Thomas Jefferson sprang the so-called pell-mell on the new British ambassador, Anthony Merry, at dinner in the White House.”
To summarize, Jefferson held a state dinner at a round table with no assigned seating. This horrified the European ambassadors, particularly the British, because it violated their notions of class, and a round table (as we know from King Arthur) has no head. It is therefore impossible to rank the guests by their placement. There is a place of honor next to the host, but this went to Dolly Madison, who frequently served as the White House hostess for the widowed president. With no assignments, everybody else was left to “take a seat” on their own.
Wolfe argues that Jefferson’s tactics manifest America’s tendency to regard initiative as a virtue. Initiative is written in the very first chapters of our own national beginning. In 1776 after the Continental Congress declared independence, the Colonials suffered from a lack of ammunition. Rather than admit defeat, they did what Americans have always done. They found a solution. They found it in a gilded lead statue of King George III. A crowd of patriots tipped the statue from its marble base and sent it to Litchfield Connecticut where it was melted it into 42,088 bullets. The ragged Colonials turned a symbol of oppression into ammunition, and the invading British had “His Majesty” shot at them. Americans’ willingness to act was supported by President Calvin Coolidge (who coincidentally was born on the 4th of July) when he insisted, “The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to government.”
I’m in a play right now, and I’ve posted about it before, but Friday’s performance was special. Right before intermission, the power went out. Apparently, a truck hit a transformer. Jeff, the director, told the audience to talk amongst themselves while he investigated the situation. On their own, without any organization, the audience began to sing patriotic songs. Without the play to entertain them, they decided to entertain themselves. Finally, when it became clear that the power was not guaranteed to come on very soon, flashlights were passed out and we performed under illumination from the audience.
Most probably because the Fourth is so near, I perceived the evening as a metaphor for what makes this country great–the preference of initiative over entitlement and the American tendency to make things work.
The lack of trust in government is increasingly widespread. After passing the irresponsible Cap and Trade Legislation, proposing new taxes, and raising unemployment by the passage of two bloated stimulus packages (with a third on the way), Congress suffers from an 18% approval rating. I have faith that deep down American’s strive not for an oligarchy led by an elitist political class, but for a meritocracy led by the initiative and innovation of the American people. The hope is based upon the great traditions of the Founders. Take some initiative. Seat yourself, and have a Happy Fourth of July!