"He felt that he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality."
-- G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, Chapter XV
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
Happy (Belated) Birthday, USA!
Truly, you do not look a day over 225!
A few years ago, a Canadian youth, with all the candor and innocence of a twelve-year-old, asked me which country I liked better -- America or Canada? Well, I do love Canada -- especially British Columbia, whose geographic beauty is really a more-magnified, overwhelming version of Washington's -- but, as I pointed out to the young fellow, I am an American. I will always love America best. And, in 2010, even though for the first time Canada has been ranked as more economically free than my paterland in The Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom, I still love America. Were it only for the sake of Grover C., I would love America. Were it only for the sake of Isabel Paterson -- American by choice -- I would love America. Were it only for the sake of Flicka Spumoni, Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Allen West, and a whole host of other patriots and truth-speakers, I would love America. And so I do. And for more reasons than those as well.
On this day -- two days after the Day and one day after this year's official government holiday of the Day -- I ask you to consider, not only Philadelphia in 1776, but also early 19th century Germany and a rather obscure writer named Heinrich von Kleist. Read if you can a novella of his entitled Michael Kohlhaas. This is truly one of the most exceptional stories ever told -- both in manner and content. Contained within is the sum message of the Revolution -- that justice and liberty are more important, ultimately, than life itself.
Michael Kohlhaas was, as the author informs us in the first paragraph, "most upright," "the very model of a good citizen," "benevolen[t] and fair-minded," bringing his children up "in the fear of God to be industrious and honest." His fatal flaw was "one virtue" carried to excess: his sense of justice. Typical of von Kleist, we are immediately plunged into unremitting action and drama. His narrative carries us from incident to incident with scarcely time to draw breath.
Dealt an injustice by a petty bureaucrat, Michael Kohlhaas seeks at first reparations through the lawful, customary measures. When these efforts fail, he becomes an incendiary -- the leader of a band of brigands -- a murderer. If this seems extreme, it is supposed to. The narrator is aloof from the action, dispassionate, as he details the desperate path of a man driven to desperation by a situation both within and without of his control -- that is, the situation originally is beyond his control; his reaction, of course, is not. And yet, as page after page turns, and Michael Kohlhaas finds justice elusive -- and, surely, without an accountable system of justice and reliable, universal law, can there ever be true liberty? -- the weight of the action becomes oppressive and Michael Kohlhaas himself turns from a character of almost comic extremes to a great, tragic figure.
When the end of his story finally arrived (in my copy nearly 100 pages later) and the denouement was masterfully achieved by a master writer, I laughed. It was that sort of laugh that escapes involuntarily when a great tension is lifted -- not because you are finding humor, but because you are finding relief. A short bark of a laugh and a sigh. For, without spoiling the ending, I can safely say that von Kleist managed to bring about the only possible satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary tale. I'll leave it to you to find the details out for yourself.
So, why is this an Independence Day read? There was a time in this nation's history when ideas were more important than comfort, than reputation, than wealth, than life. Independence Day is, ultimately, a celebration of the power of ideas over the power of the sword. Yes, 234 years ago a fight was begun and blood was poured out for those ideas, but it was the ideas themselves that won the Revolution. And, if those ideas recapture the minds of the American people, they will win again. They are the same ideas that drove the action in Michael Kohlhaas. Surely Heinrich von Kleist, born in 1777, grew up in an era of big ideas and cultural revolution. The ideas that man is sovereign unto himself and God, accountable for his actions, subject to natural law and God's law before any whims of man, and that he has the right to seek out justice, to seek out liberty no matter what cost to himself and, to a certain measure, society at large -- these ignited the extreme actions of a man whose horses were detained illegally and ill-treated in their detention to burn down villages; and these ignited the extreme actions of a group of colonialists to go to war over a few cents tax on paper and tea. In the end, the Revolution was no more about paper and tea than Michael Kohlhaas was about the pair of black horses.