As I mentioned in my post on Christopher Buckley’s unkind portrait of his parents, Bill and Pat Buckley, great fathers have a way of producing sons who go off the track. Maybe they don’t give them enough attention. That’s not really the point. What is? Let me offer a theory while, as promised, explaining why the alternatively pious fathers and rebellious sons in 1 and 2 Kings fascinate me.
In American life, it seems to me, there are two streams of political consciousness. There are the Fathers and the Sons. At their worst, Fathers can be dopey, out of touch, neglectful, indifferent, even cruel in an absent-minded way. At their worst, Sons can be resentful, angry, self-righteous, vindictive, prosecutorial — to whom? To their Fathers of course.
The whole business going on now about prosecuting Bush Administration officials
over the torture memos is precisely the kind of vindictiveness I have in mind. It’s what you expect from Sons. David Frum
sagely points out that the Bush Administration never tried to blame President Clinton for sparing Osama’s life:
After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush drew a curtain of oblivion against all the errors and mistakes that had led up to the attacks. There was accusation and counter-accusation in the media, but at the official level there was no recrimination against President Clinton’s decision not to kill bin Laden when he had the chance, no action against those who had failed to stop the 9/11 hijackers from entering the country.
“Drawing a curtain of oblivion” around Dad’s faults is something Sons have a hard time doing. The Bush presidency was a Father administration.
I’ve pondered for years the puzzle of the different personality types that seem to go with different political orientations. There are nice and not nice individuals of all philosophies and worldviews. However, I am particularly interested in a particular style of political engagement, full of anger and self-righteousness, sometimes smugness and self-satisfaction.
Frankly, many people who leave comments on blogs fit the characterization. You know who you are. The really angry, contemptuous, insulting, hissing, anonymous commenters, I mean. Or consider the self-satisfied voices you hear on National Public Radio, not angry but smugly disdainful, who rejoice in bashing Americans of past generations, or of past presidential administrations.
It’s a story as old as the Bible. It’s an archetype. The Son of the somehow inadequate Father is full of rage and contempt at his dad.
In that earlier post I wrote about King Hezekiah
and his son, King Manasseh. What kind of dad was Hezekiah? Well, he doesn’t sound like a laid back character:
“He clung to the Lord and did not turn aside from [following] after Him; he observed His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; wherever he ventured he was successful” (2 Kings 18:6-7).
That sounds a little like Chris Buckley on his father, in a favorable passage among other, unfavorable ones: “Pup never plunged into a bad mood or became grouchy if things didn’t go his way, perhaps for the reason that they always went his way.”
When the Bible calls Manasseh “evil,” it doesn’t mean he enjoyed beating up people in wheelchairs. It means he rejected his father’s commitment to God: “He rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed. He erected altars to Baal. He made an Asherah [idol] as Ahab king of Israel had done; he bowed down to the entire host of the heaven and worshiped them” (ibid. 21:3).
Is it not clear that in rebuilding the idolatrous altars that his father had destroyed, he was specifically expressing contempt for his father?
Don’t misunderstand. Chris Buckley is only the occasion that sets me to writing this. His love for his parents come through clearly in his excerpted memoir — as wells as his past resentments of them. I’m talking here about archetypes. Not about Christopher Buckley.
Isn’t the smug contempt for authority, for the past, for tradition, especially for religious tradition — aren’t these things typical of a style of political and cultural engagement? The other morning I was listening to our local NPR station and there was an interview with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. He’s got a new project now that’s about the history of the National Parks system.
He loves the parks — who doesn’t? — but he was going on about how terrific a thing it is that the park system also creates monuments to our national “mistakes.” He kept talking about how important it is that history teaches us about wars that didn’t have to be fought. He spoke about being honest with ourselves about our past national failures. He praised Obama for being on the same wavelength as he is about this.
I got somewhat irritated by the conversation till I realized why I was annoyed. Burns wasn’t talking about being honest about “mistakes” that Ken Burns has made. He was talking about wars that other people, some alive, some dead — all Dads — have waged.
He and the NPR interviewer were chatting cozily about all this and it just struck me as so smug, like a couple of Sons enjoying raking over their Father’s faults. The larger political and cultural project of constantly confronting us with America’s historical and present-day faults is right in line with this.
So there it is, for your consideration. Father and Sons as political metaphor. Some of us gravitate to one, some to the other. You’ll tell me, I am sure, what you think of the theory.