My Fourteen Points

When Woodrow Wilson came to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, he brought his famous “Fourteen Points” as a basis for rearranging the European political map.  It was a typical act of moralistic puritan piety, of that meddlesome Holier-Than-Thou do-goodery that seems embedded in the North American psyche.  When Clemenceau learned of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, he said “Even God only had ten.”

Well, I’ve decided to risk producing my own variation on Wilson’s folly.  A number of readers have asked me to outline my view of a healthy society—a society in which genuine poetry can flourish.  I’ve often stated that part of the reason why we have so little excellent verse (as opposed to tidal waves of emoting and posturing) is the sheer carminicidal structure of modern industrialized life.  The poisons of mass advertising and the distractions of mass entertainment; consumerism and near-universal wage and debt slavery; enforced multiculturalism and globalism; a debased educational system run solely for the benefit of Big Business and a left-liberal elite—all these place tremendous obstacles in the path of genuine poetry.  Some people have therefore requested that I describe what the characteristics of a verse-friendly society would be.  Like Wilson, I have come up with Fourteen Points.  Here goes.

  1. Political and economic independence. A society, just like an individual, is deeply wounded if it is under the control of or in slavery to someone else.  Yes, yes, I know…  captive nations can produce poetry.  But it will be poetry with a backdrop of pain and anguish; and artistic energy that might have been available for greater things will be expended in grief and regret and irredentism.  A poet needs to be free, and he needs to know that his people are free.  England’s genocidal control of Ireland led to the near-extinction of traditional verse in the Irish tongue.
  1. Territoriality. Healthy societies are aware of the land they control, and are deeply jealous of their sovereignty over it.  They answer threats or incursions into their territory with war.  This is an elemental kind of self-respect, like hitting back violently if someone dares to strike you.  And in a healthy society this self-respect is like iron in the spine of everyone, including the poets.  There are no crippling debates about who or what you are.
  1. Ethnocentrism. A healthy society has an identity based not just on history, institutions, and laws, but also on some recognizable ethnic substrate by which it is defined and perceived by others.  In societies where this is not the case, as for example Austria-Hungary in 1910, or the Soviet Union before its breakup, or the United States today, social cohesion is dangerously weak.  And when ethnic national identity is vague, poetry ceases to be rooted in history, and becomes overly personal or emotionally histrionic.
  1. Hierarchical stratification. Every healthy society divides itself into strata, with different levels of authority and responsibility.  Those hierarchies can be fluid and permeable, but they have to be there.  When hierarchy is weakened or discredited, a powerful anomie spreads among the gifted members of society.  Such anomie can produce interesting poetry for a while, but after that it sputters out into silence.  As Shakespeare said, Take but degree away, untune that string / And hark what discord follows.
  1. Accumulation of property. Everyone in a healthy society must be free to accumulate personal wealth that is inalienable.  He may not do it by theft or fraud or speculation, but by his own labors or through inheritance.  He must be free to enjoy his property in peace, and to pass it on undisturbed and undiminished to his heirs.  Knowing that your property is fully yours gives you a tremendous sense of security, and allows for the leisure, play, and initiative that are indispensable for creativity.  The confiscatory taxation and near-zero interest rates of contemporary Western nations are culturally destructive policies.
  1. Division of labor. Tasks in a healthy society are parceled out in recognizable patterns, based on the hierarchies mentioned in point 4.  Can there be exceptions?  Sure.  But they have to remain just that: exceptions.  Family businesses that stretch out over many generations are especially prized and encouraged.  All this gives persons a rock-solid sense of who they are and what they do, and this stability is reassuring to everyone, whether poets or not.  There is no “multi-tasking” or “job-hopping” in a traditionalist society.
  1. Smallness and subsidiarity. Nothing in a healthy society is allowed to get too damned big.  Conglomerates, mega-corporations, global banks, vast trusts and monopolies—all these are seen for what they are: culturally malignant tumors that have to be excised or at least controlled.  And the exercise of authority has to be diffused throughout the social hierarchy, not wielded from on high by a clique of experts or appointees or commissars.  Smallness and subsidiarity make for a somewhat complex and feudalized administration, but in the long run they are healthier for everyone.
  1. Familial loyalties. I refer here not just to the nuclear family, but to extended families of kinship, neighborhood, friendly association, the workplace, or simply mutual interest.  A healthy society nourishes these web-works of interrelationship and keeps them strong.  It doesn’t allow the rapacity of Big Business or Big Government to trample on them in the pursuit of profit or conformism.  It doesn’t permit what Kevin MacDonald calls “The Culture of Critique” to denigrate and undermine natural loyalties and prejudices.  If this web-work of loyalties is destroyed, poets slip into personalism and anomie.
  1. Religious piety. A healthy society acknowledges the existence and preeminence of the human soul, and of forces beyond the visible that have some connection or involvement with our lives.  The details of such beliefs are not especially important, and in fact there can be a measure of honest disagreement or sectarian separation among society’s members on this point.  But no healthy society is totally secular, or contemptuous of the divine, or content to think of human beings as just higher animals.  The poetic impulse would die in such an environment.
  1. Etiquette and protocol. A complex and elaborated procedure of inherited ritual marks a healthy society.  Everything from courtship to clothing to forms of address is governed by criteria of what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale.  Does this make a society somewhat rigid and stiff?  Yes, of course.  But it also provides the scaffolding of support on which people build their lives and hang their behavior.  Persons who will not adhere to the norms of etiquette and protocol are tolerated, but rightly dismissed as marginal.
  1. A sense of honor. This runs through a healthy society like blood in the body.   Honor is really a highly developed sense of self-respect that has been turned into a quasi-religious commitment, and which becomes a precious badge to the individuals who maintain it in its integrity.  It is easily lost, and therefore jealously guarded.  In such a society the desire to preserve personal honor is so strong that scores of stupid, silly, absurd, and outré things become unthinkable.  Honor keeps puerile impulsiveness and mindless enthusiasm cowed.
  1. Distrust of outsiders. This is like having antibodies in your bloodstream.  It’s an intelligent precaution against possible trouble.  Such distrust doesn’t have to take the form of crazed nationalism or xenophobia (those are post-Enlightenment diseases), but is merely a shrewd rule of thumb to safeguard one’s culture, life, property, identity, and integrity.  Healthy societies do not trust the stranger or the outsider until he has proven himself trustworthy.  Even then, he is still a stranger,
  1. Reflexive traditionalism as the default approach. Please note that I say “default” approach.  Traditionalism doesn’t have to govern everything in a society.  When there is need for change or for a new policy, it happens without too much fuss.  But when no such change is required, or when a problem is not especially pressing, then a healthy society simply follows its inherited patterns of behavior.  There is no “change for change’s sake.”  There is no establishmentarian Avant-Garde promoting discord or ambiguity as a policy.  There isn’t a frenetic drumbeat for novelty and difference whipped up by radicals with an agenda, or by Big Business lusting after more profits.  Ideological toxins aren’t nourished in what George Will calls “the fetid Petri dish of academia.”  Healthy societies call such poisons res novae, as the Romans did.  Res novae means “new things,” and it is a pejorative phrase.
  1. Non-adversarial arts. In a healthy society all the arts function to celebrate the identity and cohesion of the people who make them and enjoy them.  This does not mean that artists do not raise questions, or that they decline to explore contested issues, or that they fail to satirize what is evil or foolish.  The arts can and should be unsettling and thought-provoking on occasion.  But they do not work deliberately to undermine the presuppositions of a healthy society, and they do not question its right to exist or defend itself.  They do not serve the Culture of Critique.  The gadfly artist is tolerated; the rebel artist is executed.  Fashionable alienation and counterculturalism would be unknown, or if known, derided as pathetic.

There they are—my Fourteen Points.  They have about as much chance of being implemented in the real world as the restoration of Imperial China.   A society of this kidney—and its poets—would show the sort of supreme energy, assurance, and self-esteem that hasn’t been visible in the West since pre-1914 days.   Naturally such a society would be hated and attacked by all the others, populated and ruled as they are by what T.S. Eliot called “hollow men”—the weak and degenerate scum who have made a fetish of self-distrust and moral paralysis.

Such a society would be everything that the modern mentality instinctively loathes: it would be free, independent, unapologetic, outspoken, opinionated, energetic, and above all else, self-confident.  It would follow its own proclivities and interests without asking anyone’s permission to do so.  And it would impart all of these prickly but ferociously assertive attitudes to its poets, freeing their imaginations and their tongues.

The modern mindset hates confidence and initiative.  It sees them as deeply disruptive and anti-social.  Do something without asking anyone’s advice or leave, and you are immediately surrounded by a cloud of disapproval.  Heavens—you acted ON YOUR OWN!  How could you be so presumptuous?  The slavish attitudes of conformism and obedience and risk-assessment are deliberately being inculcated into everyone as a form of insurance against the unpredictable.  The managerial cliques who run this modern world—corporate business types and paternalistic left-liberals—are terrified of the unpredictability of human freedom, and they are doing their damnedest  to make self-confidence and initiative dirty words.  And to the degree that they succeed, they are making genuine poetry impossible.

This is what produces genuine poetry: a profoundly solid sense of self, not crises of identity; firm conviction, not paralyzing doubt; a willingness to act, not hesitation and wavering; an awareness of structure, not antinomian randomness; a fixed sense of place, not effete cosmopolitanism; homeostasis, not constant change; pride in one’s heritage, not guilt over its imagined crimes; traditional religion, not mewling Social Reform; and loyalty to one’s people, not romanticizing of The Other.

Sorry folks—the rhetorician in me just couldn’t resist.  How many times do you get a chance to do a sequence of antithetical pairs in meiosis?




Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.