Founders, Builders, Heroes: How to fix problems
On the courage required to face our problems and the strength needed to overcome them.
There’s a passage in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin that I think about all the time. The novel’s central character, David, is comparing the loss of childhood with the departure from Eden, our collective – and yet simultaneously deeply individual – expulsion from that land of innocence. Cast out into the wilderness of adulthood, “life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it”.
“People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget.”
When I read this passage now, I can’t help but see these two kinds of madman fighting the culture wars. There are those who eternally remember, desperate to live in pleasant memories rather than face the modern world. Then there are those who perpetually forget, who refuse to recall the past for fear of losing sight of the dangerous present. They have forgotten what worked in the world as it once was, so obsessed as they are with what’s broken in the world now.
On one side of this cultural battle are the people who insist our society is inescapably evil, systemically racist, sexist, and a dictionary’s worth of prefixes to “phobic”. Things are so rotten in the state of Western democracies, they tell us, that the best we can do is burn it to the ground. Defund the police, do away with the concept of family and nation, reject three-thousand years of history and thought, call reason itself a construct of white supremacy, erode the bedrock of facts into the ever-softening quicksand of opinion.
On the other side, there are those who believe that we are in an inexorable state of decline, that everything culturally is only downhill from a glorious yesteryear. They complain about a loss of unity while blaming the other side for everything going wrong. They lament the failures of democracy while gleefully counting their wins when those failures work in their favour. They perpetually eulogise a past in which people just like them succeeded, and forget or ignore that those bygone days were frequently times of life-and-death struggle for anyone different.
There is, however, a third way that breaks the stand-off within this false dichotomy. In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin describes it like this:
“[It] takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.”
It takes a hero to imagine and then build things of value, to stitch together a world from the fabric of their dreams. It takes a hero to see the problems we face with clear eyes and to imagine something better, then roll up their sleeves and get to work. Bari Weiss is, for me, one of those heroes.
Bari Weiss is the creator of the Common Sense Substack and the host of some of my favourite conversations online. She is also on the board of the new University of Austin, Texas, whose mission is the pursuit of truth, specifically in response to the capitulation of the brand-name schools to an ideology of pessimism. Those name-famous colleges, which offer prestige over real learning, have forgotten how to build. They have remained alert to the ills of the world for so long now that they know only how to deconstruct, how to tear down those things that they claim are irreparably damaged. To construct, they believe, is nothing more than to maintain a refuge for the monsters of transphobia, racism, et al.
Weiss gave an address to the first students of the University of Austin, which she published over on her Substack. It’s a wonderful clarion call to dream big and act bigger. Weiss calls those students – and all of us – to be “the new founders America needs”. While there are some nationally-specific ideas in her address, the message applies to everyone stuck in any culture that believes the best is over, that any good must be perpetually recalled in memory and will never be found, or built, in the present again. It applies to those of us surrounded by those who insist we remain ignorant of the past, which was a hell of prejudice and bigotry we’d do best to forget.
“The moment we are in,” Weiss says, “requires something different and seemingly paradoxical.”
“It requires us to both build totally new things and to conserve very old ones. It requires us to look for new allies and to strengthen old loyalties. It requires us to listen to new voices and to heed ancient wisdom that is being lost.”
This reads to me very much like Baldwin’s idea of the hero who could bridge the distance between remembering and forgetting. Weiss goes on to list ten principles that tomorrow’s founders might build upon. She talks of the need to turn away from the politics of resentment and “get back to gratitude” (an ideal I wrote about here). She talks about the need for courage and setting an example of integrity that might rewrite the software of cowardice currently running in our culture. She writes bravely of embracing the fact that not all moral opinions are created equal, that some cultures have offered objectively wrong answers to questions of gay rights, women’s rights, and more. “What we are building is harder,” she asserts, “but, yes, it is better.”
I’d like to suggest a call-to-action of my own. It draws on much of what Weiss said in her speech, as well as the heroic ideal of standing somewhere between remembering and forgetting:
Use whatever tools you can find to build something of value.
There is a vastly overrated piece of sophistry from Audre Lorde that underpins the deconstructionist approach to the world. “The master’s tools,” goes the deepity, “will never dismantle the master’s house.” It’s a metaphor that fails basic logic. As anyone who’s spent any time outside the university classroom knows, a hammer can tap down a nail or smash in a wall. A tool is a tool; what matters is how it’s used. It was, after all, an amendment to the American constitution – that tool of the oppressive master, according to certain historically illiterate social commentators – that guaranteed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Be a magpie. Collect things that seem useful, or true, or just beautiful from wherever you might find them. Too often we are admonished to disregard any good that might come from a source deemed “bad”. We are also expected to accept everything we are told by representatives of “our side”, or at the very least comply with the tacit understanding that their mistakes should be overlooked. This is intellectual tribalism of the worst kind, and it only serves to deepen our divisions.
Instead, value the content of an idea over the identity of the person who came up with it or who passed it on to you. A true thing is true irrespective of its source, and a tool can be made useful regardless of who was using it last. This is the only way we will build stable societal structures that encourage the best of even those with whom we disagree, and that discourage the worst of our divisive impulses.
To be a builder is to act in the present by taking lessons learned long ago and applying them to the problems of the future. It means being honest about what failed in the past, what mistakes were made, and looking around us for ways to fix those errors. It means using the foundations we’ve already built, knocking down the unstable walls, and constructing something better. It means not demolishing the house of our culture and erasing its past, but renovating it for future inhabitants.
A founder, a builder, a hero: take your pick of terms. Then go out and find a problem to solve.
• The New Founders America Needs, in “Common Sense” [Substack], Bari Weiss (2022)
• Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (1956)