“…I will do my best, to do my duty…”
This morning as I wandered the streets of Fredericksburg sipping a frozen white mocha with a raspberry shot, I looked around for open shops. Unfortunately most of them, other than the restaurants, did not open until noon. The Cat’s Closet, Riverby Books, the endless rows of antique shops stuffed to the gills with eclectic objects, all were closed to me. But then I passed in front of The Collector’s Den, a much lower-quality antique shop whose entire inventory, it seems, has been collecting dust for decades. Nonetheless, it was the only store I saw open, so I entered and immediately proceeded to look for books.
No candles, lamps, or bulbs lit The Collector’s Den’s interior; the sunlight streaming in from the windows was the only source of illumination, leaving an eerie but surprisingly bright level of lighting inside. The musky scent of cigar smoke filled the single room, while shelves and bins overflowing with buttons, pins, silverware, and bullets took up most of the floor space. Racks on the wall held old glass bottles, stacks of Civil War era portraits, porcelain statues of grotesque creatures, and antique editions of Playboy Magazine (each covered with a card reading “Keep card on magazine!” of course.) A shelf of rotting novels and comic books took up the back, while more valuable items lay under the front desk’s glass top. I noticed some swords and guns on the walls; I didn’t bother to check the prices.
The owner, a sullen old man with a hunch in his back, reclined in his chair behind the desk. He did not greet me. As I lost myself in the innumerable treasures the store offered, seeking and searching for a patriotic button I could proudly wear, or a portrait of some statesman or other I could hang on my wall, two other old men entered separately. One donned a tannish airman’s jacket and spoke with a gruff rasp in his voice. A patch on his chest revealed him to be a retired Federal Marshal; he certainly looked the part. The other sported a poofy white beard and a dandy, eccentric mode of conversation I mistook for British. Through the conversation that followed I learned that he was a citizen of New Zealand. This was a wise man.
The three patriarchs greeted each other like old friends and began to discuss issues of politics and policy, chiefly focusing on the American response to Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea. The conversation oscillated around various other issues, but it was entirely colorful, profound, and deadening at the same time. I recall the New Zealander saying, in his thick, semi-Australian accent, “Moments before I entered this property I had had my lunch, and I hope not to discover that your comments afflict me with indigestion!”
As the reader has probably inferred, I had a good time eavesdropping on these gentlemen as I browsed. They had pithy points of view, not all of which I found myself in agreement with; but they presented them compellingly. After my wanderlust had been sated, I walked up to the counter and joined in their conversation, and it continued as it had previously. But it slowly gravitated towards another subject, one much closer to home.
The New Zealander evidently was convinced that the United States was and is a powerful nation, endowed with mighty resources and infrastructure and established under noble and practical ideals. Yet in its present iteration, he argued, it had forsaken all its blessings and fallen into a despicable state of license and decay. Its name had become a joke outside its borders, and the institutions and ideals it sought to represent for the world grew discredited with every minute of American weakness. Powers around the world with less benign and internationalist visions of international order, like Russia and China, had been able to initiate their assertions of their own power precisely thanks to the fact that they were no longer kept in balance by America. In fact, argued the old man, it had been DECADES since America had known true leadership and true virtue, and the absence of those commodities in the 21st Century has caused the actual decline of the United States of America at home and abroad.
There were many causes of this, said the New Zealander, but for the most part, all the structural, political, bureaucratic, economic, and environmental problems were merely trees growing in the dirt, and not the dirt itself. Such problems as listed above are indeed present in every situation, and are never ‘solved’ but are attacked and managed. A deeper poison lurked in American society; and the New Zealander defined this as the decline in regard for such virtues as Honor, Duty, and Discipline in favor of Equality, Entitlement and Tolerance- qualities not bad in themselves, but certainly unfit to stand as the paramount moral compass of a free nation, or any nation. The virtues of empire, replaced by the traits of the imperial self.
The New Zealander lamented again and again of his own country’s poor moral quality, but lamented harder for America’s: for New Zealand had never possessed anywhere near the responsibility the United States does. The very existence of the liberal international order, he asserted, was threatened by America’s descent, its willful forgetfulness of the virtues that made it great. He iterated several times to me, “Americans are not free.” Where freedom exists absent of responsibility, no liberty can be, and we are slaves to our passions; and none who is a slave to their passions and appetites- a slave to the imperial self- can truly be called a free citizen.
I told him of my experiences, my philosophy, and my plans; I detailed to him my admiration of the nationalist and pragmatist traditions of Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt, and assured him that I was not alone; I relayed to him my conviction, that beyond all my other goals in life, I could best serve my country by doing everything in my power to revive that great nationalist tradition and reestablish the traditional regard for virtue and civic pride characteristic of all great republics. To this he replied that his heart had been warmed, though his cold eyes told me he still despaired of the present state of Western Civilization.
It is not for the old, however, that I hold the ideals I hold, or strive towards what I strive for. I fight for what many of them hold true, but they will all be dead and gone soon enough. Nor do I fight for unborn posterity, whose times will inevitably see challenges whose nature I could never dream of. No, I live my life and fight my fights in the service of the present generation of Americans and all who will be alive while I live. I fight for my time, that we may live up to the standards set by ages past, and inspire those ages yet to come.
The conversation with the ancient New Zealander brought to my mind an admonition against hubris which has been repeated by the wise men of all the ages. Though there are many who would assert that we live in a time when Man has conquered all, that our lifetimes have seen the ultimate pinnacle of human achievement, and that we can only continue to improve the human condition till perfection, it would be prudent to take a humbler view. Good things exist, good things abound, in our world today, and we ought to be grateful; but they need not be like this forever, and a subtle inside rot fells the tree which the logger’s axe cannot nick. Decadence is a problem endemic to all societies at all times; but at certain times it is more powerful than at others. And it is certainly very powerful in American society today, due in no small part to the unbalanced depravity of virtue which characterizes the present state of American popular and political culture.
It is obvious to me that America faces a values crisis, a crisis of civic participation, a challenge to national coherence. It is not between left and right or between various wagers of the culture wars; the root of the matter goes yet further. At its basest level, the challenge is between those who knowingly uphold personal responsibility and national duty as the highest aspirations of a republican citizen, and that vast majority of others who unknowingly undermine these virtues by placing ascendant, on their moral totem poles, some combination of liberation and self-expression. It is not a question of bad people and good people. It is something far more sinister and subtle- something which is in fact encouraged by the very system of a free, open society. The seeds of freedom’s destruction are in its excess. The question we face, then, is one of those who, in their liberty or hardship, have ceased to care about the virtues of citizenship, and those whose civic pride remains untarnished. It is a question of mobilizing to change the culture of the United States of America, in an effort to restore personal responsibility and civic participation to their rightful places in the public conscience.
I am actually quite optimistic about the future of America; the present crises present untold opportunities, and we, in our ingenuity, will not fail to innovate our way out of what would cripple other nations. Our geographic and environmental advantages remain with us, as does the basic integrity of our institutions. The threats facing us- and I speak here not of dangers from without, but of dangers from within- are nothing we cannot triumph over. But it is time that we open up a discussion as to what our values as a society ought to be, for the current nebulousness of our political culture and the cultural trends of society at large do not bode well for our near future as a nation. One way to start could be to take Viktor Frankl’s advice and establish a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast as a balance and concomitant to the Statue of Liberty in the east.
I have written elsewhere and will continue to write on the new focus necessary in American politics, a reorienting towards the statecraft of Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt. One piece of that program invariably must be a new sense of American nationalism, of American Exceptionalism tempered by a cautious, prudent Realism. But as every Boy Scout learns, a nation is only good as the quality of its citizens. This quote from Theodore Roosevelt, I think, summarizes the new attitude necessary for the rejuvenation of good American citizenship:
“Alike to the nation and the individual, the indispensable requisite is character.“
I wish I had been there to speak with the ancient New Zealander 😦
i lived in Fredericksburg in the early 1980s – or the suburbs there, really. i was maybe 12 or so. i stumbled upon the Collector’s Den back then and became obsessed with it. i would ride my bicycle all the way from where i lived to downtown Fredericksburg and spend hours in that shop digging through its countless collections. it’s where i started many of my own collections, and i now have a store in Rhode Island that mimics it – but in a tidier, friendlier way.