Once upon a time, people spun theories of history.
In Finnegan’s Wake, which (trust me) I haven’t read from cover to cover, James Joyce plays with Giambattista Vico’s theory of cycles in history: the age of gods, the age of heroes, the age of humans. Marx and Engels gave us historical materialism: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The Enlightenment gave us various forms of Progressivism, which amount, in sum, to the patent idiocy that things are always getting better.
I may be one of the few who doesn’t believe in pendulum swings. I know, I know: it very much appears that a Carter gives us a Reagan and an Obama gives us a Trump, but it seems to me it’s more sensible to think of a child on a rocking horse who, though he changes his mind as he rocks, isn’t actually going anywhere: it’s neither progress nor regress.
“Progress,” Mr. Chesterton wrote in Heretics, “is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” We never will.
And in Alarms and Discursions, GKC wrote:
The whole curse of the last century has been what is called the Swing of the Pendulum; that is the idea that Man must go alternately from one extreme to the other. It is a shameful and even shocking fancy; it is the denial of the whole dignity of mankind. . . .Thus, hundreds of people become Socialists, not because they have tried Socialism and found it nice, but because they have tried Individualism and found it particularly nasty. . . . Man ought to march somewhere. But modern man (in his sick reaction) is ready to march nowhere – so long as it is the Other End of Nowhere.
January 2020 marks in earnest the start of the long political carnival that probably won’t be done on November 4, the day after the presidential election. Of course, we’ve already seen some Democratic debates (and the Republican president in vigorous arguments with himself), with the behavior of each party seeming at times to argue against its own self-interest.
Deciding whom to vote for is fairly easy as a nominal Republican in New York. In the last presidential election, I voted for a high school chum, since I was skeptical of “my” party’s standard-bearer, and, in any case, it was clear that the 2016 GOP candidate would not carry the state; no Republican has since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Nothing will happen between now and November that will propel President Trump (or any other Republican nominee) to victory in the Empire State.
Whenever you have a one-party state, there’s bound to be corruption, and not just voter fraud or suppression but through legal means as well. In New York, the Democratic Party employs its voters. As the Empire Center notes: “In 51 of New York’s 62 counties, the average salary for state and local government jobs is higher than the private-sector average.” That’s not true in the Big Apple, of course, but it is a fact that New York State employment data show public-sector jobs exceed private ones by 1.5 million. Those public employees, along with citizens whose main source of financial support comes from various welfare programs the government workers administer, are the reasons why the Democrats have a lock on statewide elections in New York.
There’s still plenty of vitality in New York, although there is reason for concern that, as the tax burden rises to fund the growing government’s expanding expenditures, many productive citizens and business will move away, and it’s happening. It’s not exactly an exodus yet, but it is significant, especially so since New York City welcomes immigrants without limit or expectation of productivity. None of the City’s five boroughs is on the brink of becoming like a poor neighborhood in Caracas, of course. Still, the process is the sociopolitical equivalent of a chain letter.
All this is by way of me reminding one not to put trust in princes or earthly kingdoms. (Psalm 146:3-5) David’s “words and music,” which begins “Praise the LORD/Praise the LORD, O my soul,” goes on to add, logically, that in princes “there is no salvation,” which is true of every mortal person.
The partisans of many politicians seem at times to forget this. It’s not that they worship a Trump or a Biden, but they do idolize and idealize their champions, so much so that the bumper stickers on their cars could parody those of fundamentalist protestants: So-and-so said it; I believe it; that settles it.
I get nervous whenever I hear someone endorse a candidate by saying, “I’m all-in for So-and-so!” What a terrible thing to say.
Vote for your candidate, by all means, but march somewhere, and inform your view with at least a little of Qoheleth’s pessimism. He’s always a good teacher. Like David, Qoheleth was a leader, though not a king (unless, as some have suggested, he was David’s son, Solomon), and his long experience (as he tells it in Ecclesiastes) has allowed him some perspective on life, which anticipates by half a millennium many of Christ’s words.
In Chapter 3 – the one that begins “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven” – he writes, “I saw under the sun in the place of judgment wickedness, and in the place of justice iniquity.” Do we really think anything has changed?
But is Qoheleth’s pessimism a sound guide to politics? Yes. Mine wouldn’t be, but his is. It is because the vanity he laments (and which we see today in abundance) is proof of his theme throughout:
12:6 Before the silver cord is snapped
and the golden bowl is broken,
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the pulley is broken at the well,
7 And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.
8 Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
all things are vanity!
*Image: Vanitas by Edwaert Collier, c. 1675 [Banco Santander Collection, Madrid]