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Recover the Imagination, Recover the Founding

February 2, 2024

In a country so dominated by popular culture, those getting older lose touch with the young.

When I started teaching in my 20s, in the 1990s, it was easy to be current and “relevant.” Allusions to pop culture not only lightened the burden of lectures on epistemology or theodicy, but also encouraged attention to the moral imagination. It was easy to share cultural touchpoints with students because we shared the same cinemas and broadcast radio and television. I also felt, at least among early cohorts, that all of us were much better connected with generations before us. Nations rely on such connected memories.

But those connections are fading away, even in popular culture. When I started integrating films into my class about 10 years ago, long after popular culture became more diffuse and its half-life shorter, the growing distance between me and my students became stark. Though I was hardly swinging for the fences in my film references, I was struck by how few films my students knew. I started asking for titles they had seen that were made before they were born — excluding Disney! It soon became apparent that my ability to reach into the past would rely on everlasting life franchises (e.g. Star Wars, Rocky) or reboots (e.g. Star Trek) or perhaps Westerns like True Grit or 3:10 to Yuma.

I now have an increasing number of students who rarely watch films or television shows at all. “Video content” is one big bingeable stream dictated by algorithms and viewed mostly on social media. Popular music as it existed is essentially dead, with old music outselling new music. Anyone who asserts that podcasts are a revival of radio must also defend YouTube as the revival of television, and I don’t think either argument would be persuasive. Books as we knew them are mostly dead: A handful of best sellers account for almost all total book sales. Oxford University Press signaled its surrender to the digital age when it replaced its ancient crest with the Latin phrase “The Lord is my light” with a logo that looks like a toilet bowl.

Any reader under 35 years old has now muttered “Ok, Boomer,” but my point isn’t that generational transitions are hard. Something much worse is afoot. Not only do I see disconnection, I see hatred. My students — Gen Z — hate Millennials, and Millennials hate Boomers. One author recently called Boomers “A generation of sociopaths.”

We are undergoing a seismic social revolution, however bloodless. America’s successive generational revolutions since the 1920s were predictably commercial, or at least somewhat pragmatic. (Read Ring Lardner’s heartbreaking “Old Folks Christmas,” for example.) This is different. Our disconnected generations may be willing to “burn it all down” as they say — willing like the Red Guards or Jacobins to turn on their neighbors. Freshman orientation, corporate “on-boarding,” and social media are already de facto training in how to conduct a struggle session.

The Nature of Foundings

Generational hatred and disconnect will destroy civic virtue and civil piety, especially when combined with ideological hatred of the American Founding. July 4, 2022 was the first time in a century that the New York Times did not maintain its tradition of printing the Declaration of Independence in its pages. Likewise breaking tradition, NPR did not read it on the air. One can blame this on the 1619 Project, but I think that SCOTUS rulings are also to blame. Whereas Americans used to try to remake the Declaration’s catalog of rights in their own image, they now appeal to rights and law and the Founding as evidence of a failed “system.”

Celebrating foundings requires deference to the past, including its imperfections. Educated Americans knew of Greek and Roman founders like Solon who tried to re-found Athens. Plato likewise founded a city — albeit in speech — built on virtue and wary of innovation and novelty. Virgil’s Aeneid is likewise a founding, begun by an intergenerational connection: Aeneas carries his father to safety, and doesn’t say “Ok, Boomer!” as he does. Virgil likely influenced Augustine’s Confessions, itself a founding of Christianity. The Protestant ethos of Ad fontes, or “Return to the sources,” no doubt encouraged Americans’ own reverence for its founding.

It is true of all good foundings that they are considered a font fed from good things of the past but flowing into something new. Russell Kirk, in his The Roots of American Order, for example, contrasts the conservatism of Richard Hooker with the radicalism of John Knox but says that both are influential on America. New founders may even replace the old ones.

America’s Founders looked backwards to Plutarch’s Lives, for example, and Americans looked back to their Founders more than the subject of Plutarch’s histories. Whereas Adams might ask, “What would Cicero do?” or Jefferson might ask “What would Locke do?” Americans would ask what Adams or Jefferson would do.

Insofar as we look backwards, we think of a founding as a culmination — the fulfillment of a long tradition or many long traditions. This is what Kirk did by citing four cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London as the foundation of American order. The founding was something to be preserved, but for the sake of the future.

We look back in order to look forward. Deviations from the founding are a betrayal or abandonment. We might charge, for example, that the “rule of law” is at risk if we abandon the Founding. That makes sense: insofar as we pay less attention to preservation and conservation maintained in a founding, starting points are no more than blank canvases on which to paint something quite radical: the French Republic after the Revolution, the founding of Communist China in 1949, or the USSR in 1922, as examples.

The generational hatred of our time, and its hatred of a much deeper past, is nothing less than a revolution that can never sustain a founding or a society. It aims to sweep away our American Founding and much more. Millennials and Gen-Z are called to hate what came before them, in part because moral sensibilities of the past are not those of the present, but this hatred is prescribed without charity, mercy, or rationality.

Insofar as the Founders were preserving and carrying forward the past, to discard the Founding is also to discard all of its influences: the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Medieval Constitutionalism, or the Reformation. Multiple civilizations implicitly stand in the dock for our judgment, including its conceptions of moral order, rights, duties, and virtue. We become, as the memes say, “today years old” over and over, learning that some revered figure of the past was not only morally corrupt but without any merit whatsoever. The new virtues of this revolution, fear and loathing, are nothing on which one can build.

What Now?

Curiously, if you do a Google n-gram search for “American Founding,” you find that use of this phrase in print spikes in the 1980s. This is likely owed to the culture wars declared in that decade. The political Right, reacting to decades of cultural and political revolution in the 1960s and 1970s hoped that it could restore a “Spirit of 76.” This revival gave new life to a contest among academics, begun in the 1930s, about the Founding. This revival was salutary: it helped restore the Founding to the political imagination of everyday folks.

What becomes of that now, however, with the 1619 project, statue toppling, cancelling of the Founders, and the assertion of a post-liberal moment? Will our nation come to resemble an increasing number of Americans suckled by this revolution? Every individual, without form and void, becomes a solitary Year Zero, understandably anxious, depressed, and lonely, facing the prospect of foolishly recreating humanity one person at a time.

Can one imagine a burden more foolish or exhausting than to reinvent oneself or politics generally without ancestors, traditions, or authority, without millennia of wisdom and experience from which to draw? We must not only relieve our fellow Americans of the burden of reinventing themselves; we must relieve them of the burden of reinventing their country.

Of all my childhood memories, one of the clearest is celebrating the Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. In my family, we all knew that it was a very special day and I have a few artifacts of the time to remember it. I recall someone on television on that day talking about the next great celebration in 2026, and it seemed so far away.

But if we can keep the aforementioned film franchises alive for 50 years, we can certainly keep alive the virtues of our Founders and the Constitution they left us.

As with popular culture, the secret lies in imagination. We must recover the imagination of Americans to reappreciate the Founding and what it has meant for America and the world.

Editor’s note: Dr. Glenn Moots is author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenantal Theology. He chairs the Political Science and Philosophy Department at Northwood University and currently serves as a Bretzlaff Scholar there, as well as a McNair Fellow at the McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. This piece originally was published by the Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum. It was included in the latest edition of When Free to Choose, a signature publication by Northwood University that is dedicated to promoting the global, diverse, and multi-cultural nature of enterprise.

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