Baldwin vs. Buckley

It’s always upsetting to realize that you’ve admired a racist.  Even when, as is often the case, you suspect that a cherished intellectual or cultural figure was probably a racist (for example, because of the time in which they lived), it’s always unpleasant to be presented with the proof.

I have always been a casual fan of William F. Buckley, Jr.  He was a beautiful writer, and he could be very funny, in a supercilious way (I happen to like superciliousness).  Despite the fact that I disagree with many of his positions and conclusions, I have always thought of him as an extremely smart man, and I admired that.

But, then, the other night, I watched the 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union between Buckley and James Baldwin.  The proposition was ‘The American dream has been purchased at the expense of the American Negro’.  Baldwin spoke pro, Buckley against, the proposition.

James Baldwin is magnificent always, but never more so than here.  He is, for my money, the best crafter of prose who has ever written in American English, but he was also a wonderful speaker, and there are several moments in during his argument which have become rightly famous:

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James Baldwin, from Esquire.com

“It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”

“I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, that I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip, for nothing.  For nothing.  The southern oligarchy which has until today so much power in Washington and so some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children.  This, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath them.”

Buckley has the admittedly thankless task of following Baldwin.  No one should have to follow Baldwin’s blinding moral clarity, but Buckley, it immediately becomes clear, is a particularly terrible choice.  He proves this by saying, almost with his first breath:

“I propose to pay him [Baldwin] the honor this night of saying to him, ‘Mr. Baldwin, I am going to speak to you without any reference whatever to those surrounding protections which you are used to in virtue of the fact that you are a negro.”

It reveals the enormity of the error in Buckley’s thinking that he believes, in 1965, and after hearing Baldwin’s own, wrenching words, that being African-American has afforded Baldwin any protections at all.  He does seem to feel that an enormous amount of unnecessary angst goes into discussions of America’s racial troubles, because he goes on to say:

“I challenge you to name me another civilization any time any where in the history of the world in which the problems of the minority which have been showing considerable material and political advancement is as much a subject of dramatic concern as it is in the United States.”

Which quote implies, at least to me, that Buckley doesn’t think that the treatment of African-Americans deserves so much “dramatic concern”.

That this attitude was (and still is) common makes it no less unforgivable.  Buckley acknowledges that there is racial discrimination, but he seems to wish that everyone weren’t so worked up about it.  This view is only possible if you believe that it is not urgent that the rights and the humanity of black Americans be observed to the exact degree they would be if they were white.  And to feel that any discrepancy is not urgent can only arise from an intrinsic lack of feeling that black Americans are equal to yourself.

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William F. Buckley Jr., from the National Review website

All of which was bad enough.  But then, then, Buckley said something which was so chilling and menacing that I believe it has permanently rearranged my opinion of him.  He promised the Cambridge Union (and Baldwin, who surely knew better) that Americans were essentially decent, and that “the fundamental friend of the Negro people in the United States is the good nature, and is the generosity, and is the wishes, is the decency, the fundamental decency that do lie at the heart of the spirit of the American people”.  And, then, Buckley threatened them:

“Because if it does finally come to a confrontation, a radical confrontation, between giving up what we understand to be the best features of the American way of life…then we will fight the issue, and we will fight the issue not only in the Cambridge Union but we will fight it as you were once recently called to do on beaches and on hills and on mountains and on landing grounds and we will be convinced that just as you won the war against a particular threat to civilization, you were nevertheless waging a war in favor of and for the benefit of Germans, your own enemies, just as we are convinced that, if it should ever come to that kind of a confrontation, our own determination to win the struggle will be a determination to win the war  not only for whites but also for Negros.”

In case that is unclear, what Buckley is saying is this: if African-Americans force white Americans to confront their own lack of decency, the whites will meet them in war, and that this battle will be done for the sake of the blacks themselves.  Because, according to Buckley, it is in the interests of black Americans that everyone find white Americans fundamentally decent.

Buckley served during World War II – he understood what it meant to be compared to Nazis (he famously threatened to punch Gore Vidal for doing it to him).  And yet he is here comparing African-Americans to Nazis.  And he is equating the defense of white decency with the defence of civilization, and he was doing it at a time, let us be very clear, when white society in the United States was not decent (which is not to say that it is decent now).

The fact that you are willing to defend an idea with arms does not make the idea right or true; anyone who fought against Nazis should have known that.  This is a shameful performance on Buckley’s part: it should be remembered, and held against him.  I admired his mind once, but it was used here to dispicable effect.  I’ll admire it no longer.

Left Over

Every once and awhile, you encounter a piece of culture which comes to feel to you like a beloved person.  These works are precious to us: they help us understand ourselves and the world.  They move us the way only people move us, normally – we care about them and they become part of the architecture of our lives.

For me, these adored and integral works are almost always books.  I love some music, am transfixed by a few pieces of visual art, and enjoy movies, but my whole self is built of books, and no other medium has ever moved me the way the written word has.

I especially disdain T.V. and film.  I consider these, categorically, lesser arts than the written word.  Yes, I recognize that this is ignorance and rank prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion, but I don’t really care.  I believe that written language is humankind’s paramount achievement; movies I consider mere entertainment.

Which is why it is emotionally confusing for me on the extremely rare occasions when I love a film or T.V. show with the same strength and admiration I feel for books.

And when I lose one of these movies or shows, I am as bereaved as I am when I finish a great book: lost and bewildered, thrown back into my real life but now without the benefit of a companion I had cherished.

The leftoversThis past week, I lost the best television show that I have perhaps ever seen, certainly the one which has moved me the most, with the airing on HBO, after three short seasons, of the finale of ‘The Leftovers’.

Critical opinion is, I gather, sort of split about ‘The Leftovers’: half of people feel as rapturous as I do, and half seem to have been left completely cold.  Or, as an acquaintance of mine put it, “I can tell that it’s very good, but I can’t watch more than about 30 minutes at a time – it’s too weird and too stressful.”

‘The Leftovers’ is about a world exactly like ours where, one day, 2% of the population, a seemingly random 2%, suddenly vanish out of thin air, never to return.  It’s about the people left, how they cope, how they understand, how they fall apart.

leftovers 3It’s difficult to find the language to describe how I feel about this show.  Or, rather, it isn’t difficult , but I am reluctant to use it, because it is so global and so far-ranging, and I’m worried that it will make me seem soft-headed.  But there is no point in writing about something you love if you aren’t going to tell the truth, so I suppose I might as well.

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This is exactly what the show feels like.

‘The Leftovers’ is the best depiction I have ever seen of grief on a screen.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of people grappling frantically with the need to create meaning in their lives.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the quiet, desperate madness which descends on you when you learn that something which you believed impossible is actually quite possible.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the fact that we both need each other but cannot change to keep each other.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of faith as a crutch, of faith as a lifesaver, and of the fact that faith can be both to the same person.

It’s hard not to admire a show that has the discipline to stop when it’s done, even if it’s only three seasons long, but I will confess: I’m crushed that ‘The Leftovers’ is over.  When you encounter that clear and confident a vision, you’re not quite content with seeing only what they want to show you.  You want to see more and more of the world through their eyes.  You feel like they have more to tell you.

leftovers 2I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: I’m not done with the world ‘The Leftovers’ showed me.  I watched the finale – I recognize that it is a complete vision, but I’m not finished.  They might be done, but I’m not done with them.  I have more to learn, about grief and rage and love.  I think that they had more to show me, but I’m grateful for what I saw.

Wonder Woman

This post contains spoilers.  Big, serious spoilers.

There is a strange alchemy whereby, if you pile up enough cliches, one on top of another, at some point they begin to become convincing, even moving.  Once banal, they take on the air of inevitable truths once they reach critical mass.

At least, I think that’s what happens.  It’s the only way that I can explain how it would be that I enjoyed ‘Wonder Woman’ so much.

dc-comics-wonder-woman-statue-tweeterhead-902973-02I did not expect that I would see ‘Wonder Woman’, much less like it – it didn’t appeal to me at all.  Firstly, Wonder Woman herself has always struck me as lame, in the same way that Superman is lame: too strong, too good, too generic.  Secondly, the obviousness of the feminism irritates me.  It felt patronizing, as though the creators of the comic books realized that they needed a female hero and then put no effort into it: ‘She’s, uh, gonna be great.  She’s strong, very strong, and hot, obviously.  She’s wonderful: Wonderful Woman.  No, Wonder Woman!  Her power is…that she’s wonderful!’ It’s as though they didn’t think that women would notice that she was a completely unfleshed-out character.

But I ended up going with a friend to see ‘Wonder Woman’ last night, and, despite the fact that all my objections are completely accurate, I loved it.

For those who are unfamiliar, ‘Wonder Woman’ is Diana.  She is an Amazon; in fact, she is the daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.  She was born on the island of Themyscira, which has been enchanted by Zeus until such a time when the Amazons will emerge to destroy Ares, the God of War.

Themyscira is where we meet Diana, when she is a young girl being raised by a group of warrior women with messy braids, all gorgeous and aging extremely gracefully.  Diana longs to be a warrior like her mother; she is determined to personally wage war against Ares, and in particular to wield the sword which her mother calls the God-Killer, the only weapon which can slay him.  Her mother is reluctant to train her, and her mother and aunt are prone to ominous whispering about how Diana is different from the other Amazons, and any competent moviegoer will realize immediately that it is Diana herself who is the God-Killer and that she is destined to go mano a mano with Ares.

One day, a plane carrying Chris Pine will puncture the protective bubble around Themyscira.  Diana will save his life, and learn about World War I, the foretold war to end all wars, and she will determine to leave the island, find Ares, and save mankind.

wonder-woman-gal-gadot-ultimate-edition-1024x681And now the cliches will come fast and furious: Diana will be shocked by the wickedness of men, the wantonness with which they destroy each other.  She will literally fall in love with the first man she sees, and then despair even of his goodness.  She will meet Ares, but he will not be the man she expected (but, if you’ve ever seen a movie before, he will be exactly who you expect).  She will nearly give in to rage and join Ares in his decision to rid the world of men.  She will realize, at the last moment, that there is still good in man, and she will vow to protect mankind.  Her love will be sacrificed in service of this realization.

It is almost perfectly formulaic – there are even the requisite comic sidekicks!  Then why was it so enjoyable?  I’m not sure I know the answer, but I have a few ideas:

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What a totally normal-looking couple.
  • The banter is remarkably good.  The conversations in particular between Diana and her male co-star are excellent.  They are funny and awkward and convincing and charming they carry a lot of the movie.
  • The fight scenes are cheesily magnificent.  There are lots of shots of muscular women in gladiatorial outfits making improbable moves with archaic weapons, and it’s really fun to watch.
  • Formula is relaxing.  When you know exactly what’s going to happen, you can be present in the action in a movie in a way which facilitates a certain kind of appreciation.  You can let the movie carry you, and the pounding theme music and beautiful people and gorgeous scenery can all have the narcotizing effect they were meant to have.  Your critical thought dissolves into a pleasurable, well-produced cinematic experience.

‘Wonder Woman’ allowed me to achieve this state – I had a blast.  It’s not that it was a good or bad movie – that really isn’t the relevant question.  It was entertaining.

They Mostly Come At Night, Mostly

This post contains spoilers for ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Alien: Covenant’.

Many marvelous and beautiful things are mysterious.  We do not need to know something’s source to know its value.   This is particularly true of stories; we love stories in which forces unexplained and irresistible wreak havoc in human affairs: magic, witches, vampires, demons, zombies, these creatures appear again and again in the tales we tell each other.

And, in our most beloved stories, we don’t provide the origin of these supernatural things.  We allow them simply to be, and we spend the energy of our story trying to cope with them.

But, sometimes, the tellers of stories are seized by the urge to demystify their monsters, to write their backstories.  This is usually a mistake (anyone else remember the midichlorians?).  And they are doing this now to that most magnificent of all monsters, the Alien.

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Necronom IV

The Alien, which first appeared in ‘Alien’ in 1979, was based on a 1976 print by the artist H.R. Giger, ‘Necronom IV’.  It is a predatory, eusocial creature with a parasitic stage in a complex life cycle, and, for my money, it is the finest contribution that film has made to science fiction.  It is terrifying, the perfect combination of familiar and bizarre, a scrabbling, insectoid nightmare which communicates menace with every move.

The Alien, according to the original conception, was an alien, which added to its horrifying effect.  Somewhere out in the endless black expanse of space, life had burst forth.  But the same process which made us, the same process o280px-Alien_movie.jpgf selection and evolution, had, in some twisted alien world, produced this thing, this ravening killing machine.  Imagining the world which would have produced the Alien was almost as frightening as the Alien itself.

But, lately, alas, Ridley Scott has turned his attention (and enormous funding) to the creation of an Alien prequel trilogy.  The first of these movies, ‘Prometheus’, was released in 2012 and the second, ‘Alien: Covenant’, released last week*.  These movies reveal (in a not super-coherent way) that the Alien was, in fact, the result of an infection of humans by a malignant extraterrestrial virus orchestrated by a pathologically grandiose droid.  Got that?

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A facehugger

Obviously, this is a stupid plot, but what really bothers me is that it is completely unnecessary.  No one was clamoring to see the specific evolution of the Alien, and, if we wanted to know more about it, it was because we were interested in the ways in which it was unlike us.  We did not want to know that the alien was a human xenomorph all along – that completely ruins the point of it being an alien!

Why must we always do this?  Why are we possessed of this mania for origin stories? I understand why we have it for characters, why we are driven to go back and witness the births of Darth Vader and James Bond and Wolverine.  We know that people have psychologies, that they are informed by their past, that they are products of their upbringing, of their loves and their traumas, and that we can’t understand them without knowing whence they came.

7786379422_la-premiere-affiche-d-alien-covenantBut the Alien isn’t a character; it doesn’t have a psychology (I don’t care what ‘Alien Resurrection’ implies).  The Alien is a force, and forces must be grappled with in the present, whenever and however they find you.

Learning that the Alien comes, in part, from us adds nothing to its narrative power.  It only diminishes the effect your encounter with it will have on you: things which are like us or of us are almost always less frightening than things which are completely, ahem, alien, and things seen clearly are less scary than shapes which move in the darkness.  The Alien was at its best when it came, screaming at us, out of the black, unexpected and incomprehensible.  We were all better off before it was dragged into the light.

*Baffling side note: According to Rottentomatoes, ‘Prometheus’ actually got slightly better reviews (and was better liked by audiences) than ‘Alien: Covenant’, which is confounding, since ‘Prometheus’ a) was terrible and b) has none of the franchise’s most valuable asset, namely, the Alien.

How to Monitor Your Psychic Meltdown By the Culture You Consume:

A Love Note to Melvyn Bragg

imgres-3The past year and a half have been stressful.  Like many Americans, of many political persuasions, the nomination and election of Donald Trump to the Presidency showed me that I had badly misunderstood my country.  I
learned that I was wrong about the way the world worked, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding that realization desolating.

I used to be an active and engaged consumer of news, but I find now that my appetite for it is diminishing.  I am able to spend less time reading the daily news without becoming sad and apathetic, and so I have limited my intake.  The void left by news-reading has been filled with a series of other activities, psychic life-rafts I’ve reached for and discarded when they proved unable to adequately absorb my agitation.

When Trump received the Republican nomination, I went on a science fiction binge.  I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy‘; Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash and ‘Seveneves‘; Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Trilogy.  Science fiction has the quality of being both escapist and morally relevant, and, for a while, I found it helped to inhabit the problems of worlds other than my own.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, when I walked into my lab, my labmates and I, all women, locked eyes and started to weep, and I found that my passion for dystopia had vanished.

Houghton_EC65.M6427P.1667aa_-_Paradise_Lost,_1667Escapism no longer seemed a viable option; reality felt urgent but overwhelming, and I needed something which would help me cope with the repulsion I felt towards the world around me.  I’m no optimist, and I especially wasn’t one this past winter, but I wVergilanted something hopeful.  So I started re-reading the old epics: ‘The Aeneid’, ‘The Inferno’, ‘Paradise Lost’.  There was something reassuring about the scope of these poems, their grandeur and their vintage.  They reminded me that civilizations may rise and fall, but that great monuments endure.  They broadened my perspective, and reduced the troubles of my country to the status of a mere chapter in humanity’s story.


images-1Eventually, though, the cycles of suffering and war which characterize epics started to make everything seem futile: so many men fight, so many die.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  I started to feel again that we are all doomed to the endless repetitions of violence which have characterized every human epoch.  Apathy came creeping back.

And then, in the past two weeks, when the House voted to replace a 58%-popular ACA with a 17%-popular AHCA, and the President fired the FBI director for investigating his ties to Russia, and then dashed off to a private photo shoot with a Russian spy, and North Korea threw a missile as high as it could into the air, and the whole world seemed too venal and stupid to be borne, and I was nearly lost in an apathetic stupor, I found my way back to Melvyn Bragg.

Once a week, Melvyn Bragg hosts a discussion on BBC Radio 4 called ‘In Our Time’, in which he and three relevantly-credentialed academics spend 45 minutes talking about…something.  These somethings are broadly classified into the categories ‘Science’, ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Religion’.  Since it first aired in 1998, it has covered topics as far-ranging as Japan’s Sakoku Period, Lyrical Ballads, Conductors and Semiconductors, The Baroque, Guilt, Antimatter, and Fermat’s Lost Theorem.

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Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

Melvyn Bragg is a mellow, dry host, and he leads his academics in measured dissections of subjects both universal and abstruse.  He is at turns funny and serious, and the allegiance of everyone is, at all times, to the subject at hand.  These people are here to nerd out.

Though I am not normally susceptible to the allure of the English accent (Hugh Grant’s popularity baffles me), there is something about a round-table of dry, British academics earnestly discussing, say, whether Cleopatra was carried into Caesar’s tent in a carpet, or a bag, or a carpeted-bag, which makes the world seem sensible and good.  And I have not yet found anything else as effectively (and endlessly) distracting as this two-decades-old labyrinth of esoterica.  Melvyn has provided me not so much with an escape, but with a reminder that the world contains multitudes, vast stores of history and knowledge which I can never exhaust and which will never stop delighting me.  I need this right now; I need the world to be larger than my own dysfunctional corner of it.  His show is very popular in Britain, and so I doubt that it will give Baron Bragg an enormous thrill to know that he has rescued the sanity of one desperate American, but it is true nonetheless.

So I have this recommendation for Americans who are, like me, lost: download ‘In Our Time’.  Find a comfortable place to sit or recline (I have taken to lying, flat on my back, on the rug in my living room, in my sweatpants – as I said, it’s been a stressful time), put in your headphones, and let Melvin help.

Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

“It Is Not Truth Which Matters, But Victory”

In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Adolf Hitler out.

I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully.  Partly, this is prurient – they are fascinating.  But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.

But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them.  Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to understand them.

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Hitler at Nuremberg in 1934.  From iwm.org.uk

Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility. Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions, but he remains a cipher.  Why did he do the things he did?  Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the right place at the right time?  Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him?  How are we to understand his contradictions?

The question which has always most troubled me is: did Hitler understand that any of his actions were wrong?  Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did he understand that most people would think that was evil?  He employed euphemisms, which implies that he did.  

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What, then, did he make of that?  Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth?  Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him (i.e. that the world would be better without Jews) and that only he had the courage to admit it?  Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?

As I’ve said before, I don’t usually trouble myself too much with these questions, since I believe that they are essentially unanswerable.  We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.

But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question.  Speer was Hitler’s architect and then his Minister of Armaments.  He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:

“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail.  If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history.  If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.” (p. 101)

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Speer with Hitler in 1937, designing the World’s Fair German Pavilion.  From historytoday.com

Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious.  He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable.  He saw that he needed to remake the world in order to make himself righteous.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’.  Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemed.  His use of it suggests that he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil.  And, to be frank, I sort of quail in front of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.

Even if this quote offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, maybe it’s better not to peer too hard after it.  Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs.  Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was ultimately correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.

The title of this post is a quote from Hitler, from a speech before the Reichstag in Berlin in January, 1939 – it is not the opinion of the author.

Featured image from biography.com

American Warrior

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Lieutenant Commander Worf

I read a great book this week, ‘In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius’, by the linguist Arika Okrent, and while I really enjoyed it, it did have one unfortunate consequence: it interested me, against my will, in Klingon culture.

I don’t know whether you happen to be familiar with the Klingon founding myth, but I’m going to quote it to you in its entirety:

With fire and steel did the gods forge the Klingon heart. So fiercely did it beat, so loud was the sound, that the gods cried out, ‘On this day we have brought forth the strongest heart in all the heavens. None can stand before it without trembling at its strength.’

But then the Klingon heart weakened; its steady rhythm faltered and the gods said, ‘Why do you weaken so? We have made you the strongest in all of creation.’

And the heart said, ‘I am alone.’

And the gods knew that they had erred. So they went back to their forge and brought forth another heart.

But the second heart beat stronger than the first, and the first was jealous of its power. Fortunately, the second heart was tempered by wisdom: ‘If we join together, no force can stop us.’

And when the two hearts began to beat together, they filled the heavens with a terrible sound. For the first time, the gods knew fear. They tried to flee, but it was too late. The Klingon hearts destroyed the gods who created them and turned the heavens to ashes. To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.” (Star Trek Deep Space 9, Season 6, Episode 7)

When the first Klingon heart met the second Klingon heart, they had no further need of other beings, and so they destroyed their creators and the place where their creators dwelt.

This myth is read at Klingon weddings; this is Klingon romance.  And that makes sense, because the Klingon are a warrior people.  They define themselves by their destructiveness towards non-Klingon.

I don’t want to do a deep dive into Klingon, but that founding myth snagged in my mind.  Founding myths are how a culture tells itself who it is, and while the Klingon aren’t real, Americans are.

And we also have a founding myth about destroying our creators.  Sure, sure, we didn’t obliterate the English and turn London “to ashes”.  And, yes, we tend to couch our myth in the language of freedom and democracy.

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‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ by Emanuel Leutze, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But our myth is a war myth nonetheless.  In fact, many of the pillars supporting our national identity are martial myths: the drive to self-determination of the Revolutionary War, the victory of pure, disinterested abolitionism during the Civil War, the manner in which we selflessly saved the world from the Nazi menace during World War II.

 

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U.S. Marines raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, 1945

These are all myths – specifically, they are all warrior myths.  They tell the story of an invincible people who solve their problem with righteous arms and always fight for good.

I think that this is why the Klingon myth has been banging around my mind since I read it: it reminded me of my own country.  Compare these two sentiments:

“’If we join together, no force can stop us.’…To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.”

“Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country that we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.” – Patrick Henry, Speech at the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, March 23rd, 1775

But, of course, we are neither invincible nor righteous.  On our best day, we are a nation with feet of clay (so to speak) like any other.  We have our good moments and our bad moments.

But warrior nations must take care, because their bad moments are so often brutal.  And their myths give them permission to be brutal – they excuse brutality by hiding it behind God-given indestructibility.

But, as we bomb yet another Middle Eastern country and posture aggressively on the Korean Peninsula, it’s worth asking: must we fight always?  Are we so sure that we’re righteous?  Why do we greet every conflict with one hand already inching towards our holster?

We might remember instead the Klingon proverb: there are no old warriors.