Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Farewell to Kings

This a bit of random reflection. I launched this blog five years ago this month, naming it in memory of Old Hop (Kanagatucko), the uku (“firekeeper”) of the ancient Cherokee town of Chota, situated on the east side of Little Tennessee River near the present-day town of Vonore, TN. He is my ancestor on my mother’s mother’s mother’s side, through the Lambert/Raper line. Chota was the most prominent of the Overhill towns. When he emerged, reluctantly, in July of 1753 as the headman and speaker of Chota, Old Hop became, to both Cherokee and British minds, the de facto face of the Cherokee nation.

But Fred Gearing, whose book Priests and Warriors remains one the best resources on 18th century Cherokee society and politics, emphasized that Old Hop never became “Emperor” like his predecessors. In fact, Old Hop’s “government” had little definition. It consisted mainly of ad hoc councils, called together to deal with crises and concerns as they arose. Old Hop himself was an unimpressive figure. The war record of his youth (or lack thereof) was chided. He was lame – hence the nickname foisted upon him by the British. But his timidity, circumspection, and refusal to make rash decisions embodied the very virtues Cherokees sought in their beloved headmen. He represented the time honored tradition of patient and prudent counsel. And judged by the standards of keeping the nation intact and, above all, at peace, both internally and with encroaching French and British colonial interests, Old Hop’s tenure – which ended with his death in August of 1761 – can only be viewed as a success.

His power was a function of weakness. Perched on one leg, Old Hop (his Cherokee name means “Standing Turkey”) was the exemplar of humility mixed with sagacity. Local town councils retained most of the decision-making over everyday matters. He did not rule by edict or decree, but by quiet example.

Old Hop and the Cherokee nation of his time reflect, in my view, the best possible political philosophy short of the parousia. It was close to a kind of “anarcho-monarchism” ascribed to J.R.R. Tolkien. David Bentley Hart summarizes it this way:

The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot.

As for Tolkien’s anarchism, I think it obvious he meant it in the classical sense: not the total absence of law and governance, but the absence of a political archetes—that is, of the leadership principle as such. In Tolkien’s case, it might be better to speak of a “radical subsidiarism,” in which authority and responsibility for the public weal are so devolved to the local and communal that every significant public decision becomes a matter of common interest and common consent.

Of course, America will never have an idyllic weak king. If anything the presidency is evolving into a demagogic dictatorship. I’ve come to terms with the demise of the Old Republic. The world and words of John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Ron Paul represented the last fleeting, outside chance of steering obliquely in that direction. But the course has been set. Hart goes on,

We all have to make our way as best we can across the burning desert floor of history, and those who do so with the aid of “political philosophies” come in two varieties.

There are those whose political visions hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages, and who are as likely as not to get the whole caravan killed by trying to lead it off to one or another of those nonexistent oases. And then there are those whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.

I like to think my own political philosophy—derived entirely from my exactingly close readings of The Compleat Anglerand The Wind in the Willows—is of the latter kind. Certainly Tolkien’s was. Whatever the case, the only purpose of such a philosophy is to avert disappointment and prevent idolatry. Democracy is not an intrinsic good, after all; if it were, democratic institutions could not have produced the Nazis.

My own political instinct is closer to “Tory anarchism.” I love tradition, order, liberty and peace; and, with a bit of wry humor, I find the modern democratic state (with its rigged and captive markets) a fraud, a false religion worthy of contempt. It’s funny to note how this instinct was already at work in my first post on this blog in December 2007, “Arcadia in Appalachia.” Pseudo-messianic shysters have been at work for a long, long time.

One of my ancestors on my father’s side was David “the Tory” Hix (1719-1792). Like about a quarter to a third of Americans living at the time of the Revolution, David had more fear of a new government closer to home than a distant king 3,500 miles across the pond. David packed his family up and left the Virginia Piedmont for the North Carolina mountains – joining a group of English migrants who “hid out” on the ridges (one of my earliest and favorite posts on this blog was about the Hammons family of West Virginia, who followed a similar trajectory).

Doing genealogical research on my father’s side I looked into the origins of Hicks Chapel Baptist Church in Marion, NC, named in honor of James M. Hicks (1822-1899) who donated land for the congregation. A family historian told me, “Yes, starting with James we became Baptists; but originally the Hicks were Episcopalians.” That conversion to the Baptist way probably had something to do with the Second Great Awakening. I am deeply indebted to the high view of the authority of scripture and biblical literacy that I received from my Baptist upbringing and later association with another British offshoot, the Plymouth Brethren.

In embracing the Anglican tradition of my distant ancestors I find a way of doing church that appeals to my instincts. It isn’t the episcopal polity so much as the Prayer Book and the liturgy that give me a sense of something greater and more permanent than my own inklings – while at the same time facilitating (hopefully) worship in spirit and in truth. The Anglican tradition leaves space for different theological instincts and the tension that comes with them. In that way it reflects a kind of spiritual “Tory anarchism,” a big tent of quirky persuasions and preferences held together by common prayer and creed. I'm not surprised when Satan comes at it with all his fury. Yet, the gospel is still there in most of its corners, as it will be to the end.

With that, I'm going to take off the rest of the year. We'll see what 2013 holds. Until then, I bid a blessed Advent season, as we meditate on the return of the King of kings and Lord of lords.