The deadliest tree I know lives in the middle of a cornfield, ten feet below a hairpin turn on a road between the southern Michigan towns of Jonesville and Hillsdale. Every few years since the dawn of motoring it has claimed several lives, usually drunken students. One wonders why, since the field is enormous and the chances of driving into the tree look small. A policeman explained that panicking drivers see the tree, try to avoid hitting it, and are thus all the more likely to run into that upon which they fixate.
This is true of cultures too, for good or ill. We all know of cultures that, enough or too much, celebrated soldiering and conquest, or administration and empire, entrepreneurship and commerce, appetite and debauchery. Some people crashed into their cultural tree and died, others finished up alive but nearer than not to the target even if unintentionally. The metaphorical tree may be evil, but less murderous and intrinsically dishonest than Communism. It might be wholesome and good. In fact it only attracts the metaphor’s cultural inhabitants as a magnet draws iron filings nearer to itself. But if culture is a tree, its roots can grow deep and old: a 1970s study on the geography of achievement found that the immigrants with the most US military decorations were Greek-Americans, while other groups flourished in other pursuits. Long after Ellis Island, cultural legacies survive.
Again for good or ill, how would one describe the American tree? Perhaps most would cite the universal rights of man in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence; “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These, it insists, are provided by God, their primacy is “self-evident” and war is justified to retain them. What was not included? Or rather, what was excluded intentionally?
Obligations are the most conspicuous in their absence, for example those attached to virtue. Or an obligation to worship God. Or to raise a family. Sorry: liberty must be protected in order to pursue happiness, but for no other apparent reason. Say what you will about Jefferson and Adams and the boys, but they knew their way around the English language and left nothing out by accident. There was no howl in Monticello at midnight, as Tom bolted upright in bed and hollered, “I forgot to mention virtue!” No, their message seems clear enough, that there’s a God-given, self-evident right to “whatever floats your boat” or pursuit thereof.
Russell Kirk, the father of modern conservatism, defended American Independence as practical and conservative, with rebel colonists protecting their ancient rights as Englishmen–rights that had been recently usurped by the Crown. No doubt that was true, especially for the heroic generation that fought at Yorktown and froze at Valley Forge. But what set the Minutemen marching may not have been what the Frenchified dandies wrote into the documentation, remembered for centuries because it was written in indelible ink while the ancient rights of Englishmen were long forgotten. The phrase was pure ideology, virtue went unmentioned, the dash for happiness grabbed centre-stage, and, believe me, those Founding Fathers who had lived in France were surely familiar with “floating your boat” and where it could lead, even to the perversions of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1815).
In 1768, eight years before Franklin arrived in Paris, de Sade was arrested for kidnapping, imprisoning, raping and beating a prostitute, on charges initiated by his mother-in-law (it must have been a bit frigid at family dinners thereafter). In 1772 he was charged with poisoning a girl with an aphrodisiac and sodomising his manservant, for which the latter two were sentenced to death in absentia, both having fled to Italy together (the servant’s loyalty suggests that he had generous retirement and medical plans). In Franklin’s year of arrival, de Sade returned to France, was soon captured and remained in prison until 1790, through the visits of Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Jay. Although de Sade supported the French Revolution he was arrested for the crime of “moderatism” (please don’t tell the teachers’ unions) and sent back to prison until 1794, the year in which James Monroe arrived for a two-year stint. It was back to the insane asylum for de Sade in 1803 where he remained until his death, but he was permitted to stage his plays using prisoners there, and his sexual escapades with the 14-year-old daughter of an asylum attendant continued for four years until his death.
The paedophile, rapist, sodomite, eponymous sadist and French Revolutionary for whom no act of depravity was too vile died in 1815, and his son hurriedly burned his papers and unpublished manuscripts. Only some of his books were printed in his lifetime, anonymously, but Wikipedia reports that “Sade’s works have to this day been kept alive by artists and intellectuals because they espouse a philosophy of extreme individualism that became reality in the economic liberalism of the following centuries” (get the fireproof Ouija-board and notify Miss Ayn Rand).
My point is not to suggest (Heaven forfend) that America’s founders were “into leather” or even met de Sade; rather that they must have heard of the minor nobleman condemned to death for depravity, in that decadent atmosphere learnt of the risks of liberty without limits, and if they came too late to alter the Declaration of Independence, surely they could have devoted more time to discussing the moral limits of liberty. They didn’t. Even if they thought that “intrinsically moral” Americans were safe from what tempted decadent Frenchmen, might not a tiny warning have come in handy? However deeply moral were these (slave-owning) gentlemen, the message they leave us, by omission and commission, is that liberty is what matters, to pursue happiness whatever that means, and to ignore the consequences or to revel in them. So off went America, pursuing happiness and generating historic levels of wealth in so doing.
Christopher Ferrara, a lawyer and Catholic activist, wrote Liberty, the God that Failed, a startling and thoroughgoing tome cited in my previous essay. Locke foresaw many of the twenty-first century excesses of the irreligious (or anti-religious) secular state, wrote them down uncritically, America’s Founders read them and Ferrara finds the philosophical fingerprints on the murder weapon. America’s sorry direction was preordained by its founders’ philosophical trajectory. American decadence was as predictable as the fall of Newton’s apple, or what transpired after another apple-related Fall in the Garden.
Almost 250 years after its inception, America is now the world’s foremost producer and exporter of pornography, some of which might teach old de Sade a trick or two. People are driving at the Happiness Tree. When they go off the road, helped by a car full of hookers and a nose full of cocaine, some crash right into it and die. Others miss slightly, their lives shortened by drunkenness or gambling or gang warfare or coronaries from Gordon Gekko egotism and overwork. Some people drive wide and merely have their lives cheapened by materialist propaganda, obsessing over not affording the newest version of the same old gadget. All these are victims of the Happiness Tree, the most deceptive of plants.
But some few people are not affected at all, either because of a strongly ascetic sense of individualism or, more likely, an intense focus on another sort of tree, the kind that bears the image of a dead man crucified.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.