Listen To Article
Ok, it’s the first weekend in August and with it comes a slight tremor of forewarning that summer’s going to end. The mind panics a bit, goes distracted and diffuse. So here, gentle reader, from the loose ends of my summer projects, a pop history quiz to settle you down. The first two items might surprise you; the third, alas, should not.
1. This pundit-journalist gave a speech warning of major threats to the survival of the middle class brought on by big capital, rapidly developing communication technology, and increasing international competition. This spelled bad news especially, the speaker continued, because upon a vibrant middle class depended the health of the family, of religion and ethics—in fact, of the whole social order. Who was it: E. J. Dionne? Russ Douthat? Charles Murray? None of the above; rather, Abraham Kuyper, speaking as prime minister of the Netherlands in 1903 to a convention of the Dutch Retailers Association in Rotterdam. We forget that globalization and the concentration of finance were major phenomena, and major concerns, already before World War I—that, in fact, our current age might simply have picked up trends that began 150 years ago, only to be broken up by the great world fragmentation of 1914-1989. Kuyper was not without hope, however. The times required his audience to be ever more alert and responsive to change, he said, to aim at providing better service and not just protecting the bottom line. Such service, Kuyper often explained, included attention to people as whole persons with a variety of needs, dimensions, and interests, and not just as anonymous customers.
2. Another politician. Who do you think opened his inaugural address as governor of a major Midwestern state with the following words: “Not quite 2000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth said that He came into this world so that men might have life and life abundant …. We of the Western democracies live in a civilization built upon the teachings of the Man of Nazareth. It is for this purpose—that men may in fact live together as brothers having a care for one another—that modern democratic states exist.” Midwest rules out Texas, so it couldn’t have been W. The state in question was Michigan, so it could have been Mitt Romney’s father, George. But in fact, the speaker was G. Mennen Williams, old “Soapy,” who was as devoted a fan of “big-government,” New Deal policies as one could possibly be. He was an equally devout Episcopalian layman, attended church faithfully his whole life, and took the gospel to be the cornerstone of his political philosophy. That included an early, persistent, and uncompromising advocacy of civil rights in an era (he was governor 1949-61) when that cause was little more popular a decision in the North than in the South.
3. Ok, what major event in world history from exactly one hundred years ago this week was the poet celebrating in these lines?
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
The event was the outbreak of World War I, which rolled out July 28-August 4, 1914, and was here celebrated by English poet Rupert Brooke in his poem “Peace.” (For more, see the great site where this is posted: http://www.warpoetry.co.uk.) It’s true that the coming of war was not so uniformly or enthusiastically welcomed as historians have often claimed. Nonetheless, there were plenty of recitations along the lines of Brooke’s first stanza, in every nation—rejoicings that war would jolt the people from their lethargy, petty materialism, and self-absorption; that it would lead to spiritual revival, invigorated manhood, a renewed dedication to the common good, to Something Big. Better a heroic death than lives measured out by coffee spoons, don’t you know.
The rest of 1914 served to teach that death under the conditions of industrial warfare would not often be noble or heroic. Later British poets and memoirists—Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon—are those remembered today for catching the squalor, the horror, the tedium of life and death in the trenches. Brooke’s own end, ironically, pointed the way. He died not in titanic combat but of blood poisoning contracted from a mosquito bite aboard a ship bound for Gallipoli where he was slated to take part in one of Winston Churchill’s great follies. Churchill would get another chance, in a later war. Brooke did not.
So, happy gatherings up of your loose summer ends. Stay alive to paradox and surprises and, this weekend, pause a moment also to consider your own mortality.