Was there ever a prose stylist on the Right as elegantly idiosyncratic as Garet Garrett? We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire, he warned in a 1952 polemic, his voice husky with tragedy. The moment went unheralded, however, and even unnoticed: There was no painted sign to say: You now are entering Imperium. Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible. And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: No U-turns.
Garrett wrote novels in his youth, short stories and serials for the old Saturday Evening Post he later became the magazines chief editorial writer and his flair for the dramatic, the unexpected turn of a phrase, embellishes his later essays and nonfiction books. His classic trilogy of booklets, The Revolution Was, Ex America, and Rise of Empire, is a bittersweet elegy for our old Republic that, read today, has about it the air of prophecy. After twenty years, he was turned out of the Saturday Evening Post in a general purge of America Firsters, and like most of his Old Right brethren Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov sent into a kind of internal exile, estranged from liberals and conservatives alike.
Yet he did not fade into silence. In a last burst of eloquence he turned out three books in the final few years of his life, including The American Story a history book such as could not be written (or published) today. To begin with, it starts out in a most politically incorrect fashion, with a dialogue between the Supreme Voice and Mankinds Advocate, a philosophical argument of sorts that takes place against a backdrop of stars and endless night: Mankinds Advocate had been speaking continuously since last the Great Dipper was in a spilling position. After a long silence, the Supreme Voice speaks: They have done badly with the world they possess. The advocate admits it, but blames the knowledge of good and evil, which made them both better and worse.
And now you ask for a new world, says the Supreme Voice after a while. What reason is there to suppose they would do better with a new world the same people?
Mankinds Advocate replies in a voice that sounds like Garrett, the American nationalist: They will not be the same people. As the mountains select mountain people and the valleys select valley people and the deserts still others, so a new world will select its own people those in flight from evil, from oppression, from the glory of war. They will begin all over again and they will have no history.
They find no benefit in history? interjects the Supreme Voice.
History, replies the Advocate, is their fatal luggage. They were better when they had no history. Now they fight endless wars about what they remember.
They argue some more, and the Supreme Voice renders his verdict: Unless they do better with a new world than they have done with the one they have, they shall be added to the discontinued series. Do you accept that condition?
But they will spare you the trouble, answers the Advocate. They will destroy themselves.
In his wonderfully allusive style, Garrett opens the first chapter, titled The World in Europes Belly: First the roundness of the earth had to be imagined. Then the New World was discovered by a man who was sure it was not there. The theme of the unique American character as an ideological and even a spiritual phenomenon is illustrated and celebrated throughout. The American Revolution, he writes, was a pilot flame that leaped the Atlantic and lighted holocaust in the Old World. But its character was misunderstood and could not have been reproduced by any other people. It was a revolution exemplary.
Both American nationalists and anti-government decentralists of the contemporary Right will be delighted by Garretts account of the tasks facing the victorious American revolutionaries: The immediate business was to create a national government; and many people demanding to know why that was necessary at all. Why couldnt they just go on being free? Looking eastward, across the Atlantic, the second imperative was to isolate the new nation from the malign influence of European politics and get its life into its own hands.
The long struggle against England, or bearding the reluctant Lion, as Garrett puts it, ended in Americas coming of age. Finally separated from the smothering embrace of the Old World, now you can see all around him, your American, writes Garrett, because for the first time he is standing alone in the midst of a hostile world, making defiant gestures at it.
Although The American Story is the kind of history textbook that would enthrall and inform the culturally-deprived students of today, the fact that it does not condemn Columbus as evil (only misinformed as to the whereabouts of Asia), hardly mentions the plight of the American Indians, and speaks of the enslavement of the South after the Civil War as well as the enslavement of blacks, rules it out in todays multi-culti curriculum. Garrett charts the rise of industrial America in tandem with the rise of laissez-faire: Later generations have buried Laissez Faire in lime, but for a nation of individualists, such as this nation had been from the beginning, it was a natural philosophy. Once imbued with the conviction that the first anxiety of a free people should be to limit the power of government, he wrote, few Americans now living have any idea how strong that conviction was and fewer still, today.
With sardonic humor and a constant suspicion of power and those who wield it, Garrett demolishes all the icons in the temple of modern liberalism: Woodrow Wilson, the avenging angel of liberal internationalism, who waged war in the name of peace, and whose love of humanity was not a love of people; FDR, whose love of power was a matter of temperament, it flourished in him and multiplied itself; and Truman, whose notable qualities were quick pugnacity, valor of prejudice, and heroic mediocrity
But the icons of contemporary conservatism also come in for their share of damage: NATO is described as an unlimited obligation to go to war under circumstances [America] could not foresee, under circumstances it could not control; the Marshall Plan was buying allies; Korea was an absurd no-win war in which victory ending in the occupation of China by U.S. forces would have been as terrible as defeat. Garretts warning to Americans rings down through the years, mocking the confident builders of a New World Order:
How, now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?
Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.
To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent, do you know where you are going from here? Garrett knew, but few listened, and The American Story sank without a trace, a lost classic of conservative thought waiting to be rediscovered.
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