Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another Take on Teddy

The insightful historian and social critic, Jackson Lears, has recently published a new book on that key period in American history - 1877-1920 - that the great scholar Robert Wiebe many years ago definitively described as the "Search for Order." This was a hard time for a still weary and tentative nation, and as in so many other periods of uncertainty, people drew strength and confidence from a gallant and self-assured leader. That leader, Professor Lears tells us, was none other than that most quintessential of all New Yorkers - Theodore Roosevelt. And, of course, Teddy loved nothing more than for those less able and accomplished than he to admit their inadequacies while imploring him to furnish solutions to their problems. Teddy, who had read everything, seen everything, and done everything - from running the New York City Police Department to writing prize winning histories to stopping a ring of Montana cattle rustlers to leading a gang of thugs into an insignificant battle in Cuba - had all the answers. You didn't even have to ask. He would supply them one by one as he transitioned brilliantly from one arcane topic to another. But as brilliant as he was, such a one-man approach hardly advances democracy. At their worst, Progressives, who counted TR as their patriarch, claimed to follow a righteous path, owing to their superior wisdom and insight, that led to the end of history, an era where all conflict ceases and the better angels of our natures, schooled by brilliant leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, finally prevail.

Of course, it not only didn't turn out that way, such thinking may well have set the stage for the most horrific century the world has ever seen. And there is every reason to believe that we are making the same mistake all over again. It is rooted in the notion, going back at least as far as Plato, that only a few know what is right and that it is the duty of this tiny elite to guide the ignorant masses toward this unseen but undeniable good. And when there is resistance to the answers this select group provides, coercion, force and violence are not only acceptable, they become necessary.

Theodore Roosevelt, revered for so much brilliance and so many real accomplishments, had no conception of the things that really distinguished America. He had little or no regard for ordinary workers, Blacks, immigrants, Native Americans, even the military veterans who gave their lives for his dream of domination. He really did say this: "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth." And despite his credentials as a progressive (and perhaps because of them), he had little faith in the ability of ordinary people to solve their own problems without the intervention of superior men such as himself. Whether Roosevelt was exactly what the American people wanted and needed at that point in history and whether Roosevelt himself adjusted his temperament to meet some instinctive need to be controlled and dominated is immaterial. What I think is becoming clearer the farther we get away from the Gilded Age is that there are lessons to be learned from that time, almost all of them negative, and the more we seek out and study the anti-TRs - the role models celebrated for their gentleness and their revulsion for injustice and for their desire to make democracy work and nonviolence thrive - the better off future generations will be.

P.S. Dear Readers: I clearly have a complicated and downright weird relationship with Teddy Roosevelt. My apologies for the above outbursts. As Karen says, something goes "click," and I find myself not just writing about Teddy again, but condemning him in ways that are probably all out of proportion to his actual influence.

1 comment:

  1. It pleases me to know someone who has any sort of relationship with TR....