Yeoman, Again

Every society has an ongoing public debate about morality.  As much as we naively want moral issues to be settled for once and all, they rarely are.  Some factions in society wish to preserve one moral path, others to reform it, or replace it, and still others to abolish morality entirely.  To me, the debate itself, the tension between forces, each with a certain eye toward the truth ---- though never wholly omniscient, and often with one side more grounded than the other ---- is more compelling than the actual tenets of the respective sides.  For all the moral conundrums Man has ever faced are always present in the moment -- what matters is how they are divided between and combined within factions and whether or not such combinations are practical in an imperfect world.

The nature of dividing these moral matters between forces means making distinctions that meet with reality.  And what is more real than what we see about us in daily life?  The morality we see is not from animals, rocks, or plants ---- it is lived out by men.  So our moral criticisms or apologies require admitting that there are certain kinds of men who act in certain ways and that they is something reprehensible (or defensible) about them as men.


They are characters, then.  For when we say, "This kind of guy does this," he assumes a pattern in our mind.  So we think in terms of characters, but they are not sterile, cardboard shadow puppets.  Nobody lives forever, nor does the way of life that embodies their ethical choices.  Men change, and so too do their actions.  The characters we see in our stories and media reflect us today, and not who we were or will be, not the permanent division of good and evil amongst the now-living.

I think America today churns about in an enormous feedback loop because our societal and political foundations are not compatible with the archetypes ---- the characters, if you will ---- around which our contemporary moral discourse revolves.  Our national imagination is limited to three basic archetypes, who certainly reflect who we are, but not where we have come from, nor what we should strive for.  Those three are the capitalist, the vigilante, and the progressive politician.

Those archetypes correlate almost directly to three characters from the last 30 years of American popular culture:  Gordon Gekko, from Wall Street; John McClane, from  the Die Hard series; and Josiah Bartlet, from The West Wing.  Notice these memorable characters are from films and not literature.  Books to Americans today are a sideshow, mere pleasure and diversion, while film and television provide the true instruction in morality, an inverse of a century ago.

What is so noxious about these characters is that they represent the all-or-nothing outlook of our society.  Two of them ---- Bartlet and Gekko ---- are for greater power and control by fewer and fewer people.   Certainly both characters imagine different ends to their actions, but the effect of their means are much the same.  Bartlet is not afraid to use the state to transform the nation, and indeed the world, into his vision for it.  He is rarely, if ever, confronted with a situation in which his executive power is portrayed as either intrusive or destructive in its all-enveloping scope.  As for Gekko, he can pursue greed as society's boon because the legal protection by of the state has concentrated great economic power in a few private hands.  Failure to achieve the ends of either man, however, does not indicate to them that their ideological faith was misplaced, but that they did not try hard enough.  So they double-down and try to bring the system even further under their control.

In contrast, John McClane stands for anarchy.  All our public figures responsible for order and safety are incompetent at best, and he will not stand by and let law and process get in the way of justice.  The all-or-nothing aspect of our moral discourse rears its head again because the victory of justice is only possible through McClane ---- only he is crafty enough to beat the bad guys.  We come to believe that skill and success make a man's actions moral and discredit long-standing authority if it does not produce immediate results.

The fact that most fictional characters revolve around these two extremes, of control and anarchy, I think explains the self-destructive capacity of our times.  We fear on the one hand the power of the individual to wreak havoc upon a complex world, and yet we also, as individuals, abhor the interference of organized power in our lives.  We do not necessarily see ourselves as McClane or Gekko or Bartlet, but we cannot imagine any leader outside their example.

What I intend to do with my Breckenridge Cycle is resurrect an old American archetype as a fourth character for our moral discourse: the farmer.  Not the plantation owner, the city-dwelling landlord, or the capitalist agribusiness manager, but the yeoman farmer who lives on and works his own land.  He used to be a vital part of our polity.  A republic with a democratic structure is predicated on his existence ---- that is clear from the writings of many of America's early thinkers, and from seminal works by other, more modern authors.  We today preserve the framework of the institutions that depended upon a large number of his kind, but have eradicated him entirely as both a real man and as a figure invested with any real meaning.

And we do so at our peril.  For only in his example can we find a middle way between the all-or-nothing dictates of McClane, Bartlet, and Gecko.  The farmer is both independent, representing the needs and rights of the individual, but he is also bound to the society immediately around him ---- he is a free man, but order and peace is had only if he takes part of the public burden upon himself, if he bites his tongue and cooperates with others, if he sees that liberty must be disciplined. 

Is the farmer's world Arcadia, Utopia?  No.  But, in an imperfect world, it is the only practical form of life together without tyranny or madness.  We may not understand this, but then most of us today have never seen him before.  But soon they will, as long as I have something to say about it.  There will be a yeoman, again.