A New Nest of Eagles
In a letter dated June 11, 1823, Jefferson, comparing the United States with the “nations of eternal war” in Europe, wrote:
On our part, never had a people so favourable a chance of trying
the opposite system, of peace and fraternity with mankind, and
the direction of all our means and faculties to the purpose of improvement instead of destruction.
The chance was missed. Today the United States is by far the most belligerent member of the disunited family of nations. Her economy is more permanently a war economy than that of any other nation in the modern world. Her troops are deployed all over the globe flying the colours of the menacing eagle that Hawthorne describes, “with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and … a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community.” Once the pride of Prussia and Rome, the eagle with her arrogance of nobility and power is emblematic of an attitude and a manner of conduct that are irreconcilable with the egalitarian, fraternal, and peaceful principles of American democracy and that have made the United States the most distrusted, the most resented, and even the most hated of nations today.
Abroad too, liberty is synonymous with acceptance of the American tin-pan alley of life. Dissent is either bought or bludgeoned into silence. All over the world American money and American troops are used to prop up dictatorships and to suppress and eradicate national liberation movements.
How is it that a nation which (just in case my polemical discourse should promote smugness at home) has demonstrated and still demonstrates a finer moral fiber, a greater vitality and courage that we have in Canada should surrender to dehumanization, corruption, and violence? The United States has produced great poets and painters, writers, musicians, scientists, thinkers – the best in the New World: how is it that the worst have come to prevail? Why, after less than 200 years, is the reality of American society such a grotesque perversion, such a ghastly parody of its own ideals?
There is no simple or single answer to any of these questions. It is precisely the simple-minded rationalism of the eighteenth century with its romantic optimism and its shallow utopianism about the nature of man and the world that has contributed substantially to America’s present dilemma. We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, and it is simply not true that history is synonymous with progress and enlightenment. It is simply not true that men are good and equal and that enlightenment will, as a matter of course, temper their selfishness and bring about paradise.
Considering the immense natural wealth of America and the circumstances of its settlement, it is not surprising that happiness should have come to mean material success. Nor, considering its pragmatic, utilitarian origins and the rigid moralism of puritanism, is it surprising that the political system should have come to approve and promote commercialism. Enter the goddess of Usura whose fairy tale forests are a telltale jungle where the fittest that survive are the most cunning and unscrupulous. She rules men by greed and vulgarizes and brutalizes all. Radix malorum est cupiditas – America is beginning to taste the bitterness of this. Justice is bought, professional integrity sold; trust is mortgaged, truth auctioned off. Corruption is ubiquitous: in the police force, in government, in labour unions, in the party machinery, in business, in the news media. Bribery, extortion, price-fixing, embezzlement – anything from elementary cheating to murder goes. The new ethic is “crime doesn’t pay,” which means that everything that pays is not a crime and of course that which is not a crime is ethical. The war in Vietnam pays – millions or perhaps billions to a few, a little bit to everybody. And so even mass murder becomes ethical. In such a climate of dishonesty and violence, crime syndicates can operate openly and profitably. The current wave of riots and increasingly aggressive demonstrations is, ironically, an extension of this violence even though it is a radical protest against the perversion and corruption that produced it. Rapidly the social order of the United States is degenerating into anarchy.
In 1920, the Irish poet Yeats proclaimed the end of Western civilization:
Things fall apart; the center can not hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
Yeats held a cyclical view of history as a series of recurrent patterns of culture. Oswald Spengler, in his brilliant morphological study of history, The Decline of the West, examined and described, at the same time as Yeats but independently, the phases of these cyclical patterns and demonstrated the parallel characteristics of many past cultures. In its final phase, he argues, each culture turns into a civilization whose supreme value is always money. Thus the Greek historian Polybius, in the second century B.C., summarized the decline of the Phoenicians by saying, “At Carthage, nothing which results in profits is regarded as disgraceful!” For Spengler, American is such an end-civilization.
Beissel, Henry. “A New Nest of Eagles.” The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S. Ed. Al Purdy. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1968. 127–30.