There’s a grisly education in the striking contrast between Eric Holder’s outrage-of-the-week announcement that Americans are “a nation of cowards” and Travis the Chimp’s primal display of animal courage. I suggest why over at The American Spectator today, but the contrast haunted me through the night and there’s a point I want to sharpen.
While Holder tried to put some meat on the bones of hope, Travis the chimp tore meat away from bone — in an obviously much more literal way that luridly deepened our already intense feeling, this decade, of a vulnerability beyond poetic consolation. The grim truth confronts, even mocks, our gossamer dreams. Our trust in them is shaken.
A while ago in some other venue (I forget where), I argued that Obama’s hopeful rhetoric, which often soared to the point of abstraction, actually promised a ‘sense of’ utopia so far removed from the real world that it would be toothless — a harmlessly vague inspiration unable to be translated, in any material way, into public policy. Indeed, I wondered, many of these Obama voters might actually long more to experience a ‘sense of’ change than to roll the dice on the uncertain, challenging prospect of actual change! This might have been a retreat of my own into hope’s consolations, but when I actually listened to Holder’s speech from the beginning and looked over the transcript, I was amazed to discover that his call for “frank” talk was couched over and over again in language so vague that he could not forthrightly explain what we were supposed to be speaking so frankly about. The sensational thing about the “cowards” line isn’t its directness but its mincing circuitousness:
in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.
I suppose Holder’s inability to put meat on the bones of such crutch terms as ‘things racial’, ‘racial matters’, and ‘racial issues’ could be proof positive that we live under a real despotism of cowardice. But I suspect that this ostensible vice actually reveals how much misbegotten hope we’ve vested in the possibility of transcending the difficult, disheartening details of everyday life with an appeal to increasingly thin moral abstractions. “Openness” — “togetherness” — “dialogue” — even “community” — these are the “me like cookies” of our generation, inarticulate stand-ins for far more particular realities that we no longer seem to quite have the knowledge to incarnate in practice. Or is it exactly not a matter of knowledge? With our Lecterian primates and our beastly beheadings, with our crashing planes and our cratering markets, do we have the courage to learn the good life grown up from the ground, instead of the one we envision in the clouds?