“Be sure when you step, step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a great balancing act.” Dr. Seuss
Balance, hard choices – opportunity costs as the economists call them; managing scarcity in a world of want. Life is mostly about balance, I know people say this but the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized there’s great wisdom in the oft-repeated ideas of our elders. The problem is that people are not naturally drawn to balance; “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terror, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities…” said Anaïs Nin.
Our world order has lost its balance, America has lost its balance: how to respect the cultures and ideas and experiences of a diverse world while also guaranteeing those basic ingredients of humanity which make us all the same. Accepting divergent models for organizing our societies, taken as they often are from the hills and valleys, from the stories of the land in the places where we rest our ideas of home and measured against the universal protections needed to keep us all safe from each other and those who would do us harm, especially those in power – sovereignty and accountability, liberty and restraint.
President Trump’s speech at UNGA was about this – a careful attempt to walk that narrow ridge, on one side the abyss of unaccountable utopian global governance and on the other the surrender of natural rights to nation-states, pieces of land that entrap instead of freeing, like Cuba’s prison island. “It is important to see Trump’s speech in the broader context of utopian ambition generally. In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant evokes a soaring dove that, ‘cleaving the air in her free flight,’ feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight ‘would be easier still in empty space.’ It is a fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure that dove would simply plummet to the ground.” Says Roger Kimball in a brilliant article.
Utopianism – the sin of the naïve that seems to be reinvented with each generation; more so these days as we lose our common story and our universities fail to teach us about the failures of those who came before. The post-Soviet, post-modern world has been a place of rampant often thoughtless globalization. “Progress” it is called, but toward what nobody can really articulate. That dream of global government, global institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court and the European Union which do not consider the valleys and the hills and the rivers, the old traditions that have protected people’s sense of self and safeguarded their place in a world that seems so strange and suddenly dangerous. There are those who paint these fears as ‘bigotry’, using such emotionally charged words so as to poison the well in order to end all discourse. As Kimball has eloquently said, “Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be.” These projects are, however not only futile but also dangerous, “…we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.” Or, channeling that thought into a reality that has become a living nightmare in Venezuela, “The separation of powers weakens the state.”
Back to the president’s UNGA speech, it was a hard sell – it was always going to be, because of that natural tension upon which the United Nations was founded so long ago. Sovereignty not only as a right but as a responsibility, the competition and cooperation between nation states meant to improve prosperity and liberty always runs into that outlier, Venezuela or Cuba or North Korea, the “wicked few” as Trump said; and those who seek power always conjuring the catastrophic to cement their position. To a certain degree it is a traditionalist vision, Trumps is – taking the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” away from the United Nations, which had handed it over to the same “wicked” through a coup which required no effort on the part of the evildoers – and re-appropriating it to ourselves and other sovereign nation-states who cannot stand by and watch the supervised suffering.
Is it going to work? Is it the right idea? I’m not sure – our post-modern world has already fallen off the rails. Globalization is a reality, as are the global problems it has created. Is this the last stand of the nation state, or a global realignment of power back from the center? Only time will tell; what I do know is that this chapter in human history – unlike the last chapter which was written by a privileged global class – is going to be written by the ‘little man’, for better or for worse. “The Rise of the Unprotected” Peggy Noonan wrote. I will venture this however as we stride bravely into the future, we must do so in a balanced way, understanding the excesses of our past which led to such suffering. The only way to do this is to read, to learn and to know. Books – those which the minders of our ‘safe spaces’ are trying to deprive us of – are the only things that stand between us and the darkness.