One of the poignant aspects of that greatest of musicals, Les Miserables, and of the epic novel from which it is taken, is the story of Marius’ friends, the doomed revolutionaries of 1832. Heroic, but doomed, Enjolras and the others stand for the human drive for freedom, singing:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
But the people do not come to join them at the barricades, the revolutionaries are overwhelmed by the regime’s forces, and “where was their new world, now the fighting’s done?” Nonetheless, despite and perhaps because of their failure, Marius’s friends are heroes, winning our admiration and our love.
In the Southern US, there is practically a religion of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The patron saint of this religion is Robert E. Lee. As one historian has said:
“Already revered during the war, Robert E. Lee acquired a divine mystique within Southern culture after it. Remembered as a leader whose soldiers would loyally follow him into every fight no matter how desperate, Lee emerged from the conflict to become an icon of the Lost Cause and the ideal of the antebellum Southern gentleman…”
This mentality of the Lost Cause was reflected in the depiction of the South and its characters in the epic movie Gone with the Wind. The central tenet of this attitude, and the reason for its lasting appeal, even for a Southerner over a century removed from the war or for a non-native Southerner like myself, is the romantic mystique of the Southern gentry such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart. These men, with their daring, their panache, and their tragedy, embody the Cavalier spirit of an earlier age, fighting valiantly against the impersonal, industrial, modern army of the Yankees. It is the appeal of conservatism, in its simplest form: remembering and preserving what was. This same spirit animates us when we seek to preserve historic buildings, keep instant replay out of professional baseball, or resist a new layout on Facebook.
Whether it is Robert E. Lee, Enjolras on the barricades, or Rocky Balboa taking on Apollo Creed, we respect the man who goes down fighting, and even more so when he is fighting for a cause.
Consider the following:
Only 23% of Americans believe the government today has the consent of the governed. Many Americans are increasingly alienated and apathetic towards the government, and worried and even fearful of the future. Government continues to grow in expense, in size, and in power. The nation’s debt spirals ever upward, and those in power seem not to care, much less to have any solutions. The ruling class openly mocks those who disagree with it. That a phrase such as “ruling class” is coming into increasing usage is a sign of the times. Our young men are dying in desolate faraway places, and nobody is sure exactly why. That America faces serious problems is not in doubt. That our political class seems unable or unwilling to address these problems also seems not in doubt. “Is America in decline?” is a legitimate question for mainstream discussion.
All things come to an end. The Republic for which our flag stands will come to an end as well. It may continue in form, as the Roman Republic did long after it had ceased to be such in fact. Though it pains me to say it, I have doubts that it will survive my lifetime.
It’s tempting to give up, drop out, and let things go their course. I can understand the many who are alienated. Many times I’ve thought that my responsibility is only to provide for and shield my family, through whatever is coming. That is my responsibility, but not my only one. I cannot stand by and do nothing. I will continue to fight for America and for constitutional governance. I will do my part, however small. Maybe the battle will be lost. But it will not be because I didn’t fight it.
ETA: It probably does not help that among the most recent books I’ve read are The Decline of the West, The Return of the Great Depression, and We Are Doomed, Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.