“Liberty . . . skulking in dusty Corners. . .”

As a juior-high and high school student I had always enjoyed history.  But by the time I attended college I had developed an exhaustion with the American story.  How this happened I don’t really remember, but I assume it had to do with a constant repetition of familiar themes.  In college my European/World History teacher had a more dynamic and engaging lecture style than my American History teacher, and he found me perfectly willing to focus on something else, anything else, other than  yet another rehash of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Some years ago I realized my need to get reintroduced to our own tradition and have been very glad to find authors like James McPherson and Bernard Bailyn.  Neither are “revisionist” in their approach, but both give a freshness to familiar ground that has made American History intriguing for me again.

Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is his most famous work, and justly so.  Most treatments of this period focus on the legal case for and against the colonists, but Bailyn focuses on the psychological as well as the ideological aspects of the revolutionary’s thought.  I thought his keenest insight revolved around the psychological perceptions of the colonists. Revolutionary pamphlets focus far more on the state of liberty in general, rather than the particular musings of say, John Locke.  In short, the colonists believed that “Liberty” itself was in danger, and that given England’s failings, it had fallen to them alone to defend it.  This helps us understand why the Declaration of Independence did not focus on “American” or “British” rights, but “self-evident” human rights.

“Liberty” for the colonists was inherently passive, in need of a defender.  Hence the moniker, “Lady Liberty.”   Liberty needed careful cultivation, whereas power grew naturally like a weed.  “Power” had an inherent aggressiveness for the colonists that needed constant vigilance to hold at bay.  This attitude of the colonists made them inherently suspicious of the British, who seemed far too cavalier in their approach to liberty.  This alarmed many colonists, for Britain alone in the world seemed to stand for liberty.  As one colonist wrote in a charged tract, liberty had been reduced in the world to “skulking in dusty corners,” and would cease to exist at all if the colonists did nothing.  Bailyn believes that this attitude, more than Locke or Montesquieu, had the most influence in bringing about the Revolution.  This belief sounds a bit paranoid today, but outside of England no democratic state existed in Europe.  And with George III’s desire to make his stamp on England, even the stalwart British parliament seemed to suffer.  Observers of the political scene from America also had the same reaction as the British painter Hogarth, who lambasted the politics of his age.  Frontier American idealists could never stomach the crassness of an older, more cynical and tired political machine.

Hogarth: "Canvassing for Votes"

I do wonder what I would have thought had I lived in those times.  I believe the colonists were technically correct about the immediate questions of taxation and self-government that divided them and the British, and assume I would have thought so then.  But the British could hardly be described as cruel oppressors or outrageous occupiers.  I can see myself not understanding why legal trump cards warranted a bloody and uncertain war.  Maybe sharing their belief about the imperiled state of liberty might have changed my mind, but I have my doubts.

You need such passion to make revolutions, but this passion is also the Catch-22 of nearly every change of government.  That the American revolution stabilized itself relatively quickly with only  (relatively) minor political fall-out still distinguishes it from the French, Russian, and most every other revolution.  James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention give us one key to why this happened.  In the tense and uncertain aftermath of their independence they managed to fairly discuss big and small picture questions with insight and humor.  Some of this “fairness” led to the tragic “3/5 Compromise” and doomed us to deal with the slavery issue at much greater cost later.  But all in all, it makes for instructive and even entertaining reading today.

The Federalist Papers have the good sense and clarity of the Convention debates, but not the entertainment value.  What makes the Anti-Federalist papers more enjoyable than their counterparts is that their objections to the Constitution reveal a keen understanding of the consequences of the Constitution for the country, which we take for granted living 200 years on the other side of their decisions.  They could see, for example, that the Constitution would mean an increased federal government and a diminished role for the states.  They accurately prophesied the results of giving the president full powers as commander-in-chief.  I don’t think we should view the Federalists as “right” and the Anti-Federalists as “wrong” or vice-versa.  Both sides were “right” in the sense that they had an accurate appraisal of the impact of accepting the Constitution. Both sides viewed liberty in much the same way, but Federalists saw a stronger national government built on the foundation of “the people” as bulwark to liberty, and the Anti-Federalists disagreed.

So why did the “Anti-Federalists” fail?  Among other things, they lacked the clarity and focus of Madison and Hamilton’s writing. But this may have been inevitable because they never had time to organize or communicate as the Federalists did.   No doubt this caused resentment and frustration.  Not all issues got perfectly resolved, and this must have impacted the causes of the Civil War.  With prescience, some Anti-Federalists strongly objected to the allowances for slavery made by the Constitution, and believed that the presence of slavery would doom the cause of liberty and the new Republic.  But on the flip side, wouldn’t we need a strong national government to remove slavery in the various states?

If nothing else, it is refreshing to see that the dilemma’s we face today have a precedent in our past.  To paraphrase Jacques Maritain, we must know our tradition that we might fight against it, and thereby renew it for each subsequent generation.

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Democracy and Inequality

Though I have never read her book, several years ago I listened to an interview with Loretta Neopoltani, author of Rogue Economics.  The interview ranged over many topics, but the central theme remained constant.  We rightly celebrated the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in Europe.  We trusted that this event would bring about the spread of freedom and democracy into places where it had not visited for many years.  So far, so good.

What Neopoltani stressed, however, is that this was not the whole story.  History tells us that in every significant breakdown of major power structures, rogue elements (be they ancient or modern day barbarians) will always have the advantage.  The shift towards democracy will be painful and slow.  The law-making process will always plod along.  Not only that, the spread of freedom means the spread of opportunity.  And since chaos comes easier than order, nascent democracies will see the rise of exploitation and even slavery.  Historically, we can think of the rise of slavery in the Renaissance after the Black Plague decimated feudalism, or the increase of slavery in the south after the American Revolution.  In more recent times we see the rise of the sex-trafficing industry from Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

All this raises the question in general of democracy’s relationship to inequality.  Perhaps democracy merely grants opportunity, which can be used for good or ill.  Is democracy able to practice what it preaches?

Recently authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson published this article with links to other studies within it.  They reach mixed conclusions, stating that while democracy does transfer power away from elites, it may not do much to reduce inequality.   When confronted by this, we can reach one of two basic conclusions:

  • We can be hopeful/naive (depending on your point of view) and think that in time, democracy can learn to create a truly free and equal society.  Those of a more liberal/progressive bent might hope that increased government action, done with popular support, could help us achieve this.
  • Or we can believe as De Tocqueville did, that democracies must choose between liberty and equality, for they cannot have both in equal measure.  Liberty unchecked would create winners and losers, with the possibility of vast gaps in between.  Pure equality could grant no liberty to anyone to step out of line or distinguish themselves from their fellow men.  You cannot be married and single at the same time.  If we want a society with opportunity and liberty, we must tolerate and expect some kinds of inequalities.  C.S. Lewis began his excellent essay, “On Democratic Education” with these words (the whole essay is here),

Democratic education, Aristotle says, ought to mean not the kind of education democrats like, but the kind that will preserve democracy.

I find this analysis persuasive, and it may be one of the keys to understanding the chaos of the French Revolution, which proclaimed “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” for all.  These opposing ideas would inevitably create chaos and dissension even with the revolutionary leaders themselves.  We see this rift even at the very top of the revolutionary elite between Danton and Robespierre.

Hardly anyone, however, wants to choose between these two options, and perhaps with good reason.  We should reject radical redistribution, but democracy cannot exist without a healthy middle class.  Aristotle wrote in his Politics,

Now in all states there are three elements: one class is very rich, another very poor, and a third in a mean. It is admitted that moderation and the mean are best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation; for in that condition of life men are most ready to follow rational principle. But he who greatly excels in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow rational principle. Of these two the one sort grow into violent and great criminals, the others into rogues and petty rascals. And two sorts of offenses correspond to them, the one committed from violence, the other from roguery. Again, the middle class is least likely to shrink from rule, or to be over-ambitious for it; both of which are injuries to the state. Again, those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority.

The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme, are too degraded. So that the one class cannot obey, and can only rule despotically; the other knows not how to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this: for good fellowship springs from friendship.

When the gap between the wealthy and everyone else grows too great, must we then rely on some form of redistribution to balance the scales?  And if so, who would possess the wisdom to decide how much redistribution, and from whom, should take place?  That process could cause just as many problems as the problem itself.

Ultimately Aristotle, with his emphasis on friendship, and De Tocqueville, with his emphasis on the necessity of virtue to secure freedom, have it right.  If the rich practice avarice, and the rest of us covet, we will be left with neither democracy nor liberty.  Liberty itself can only create opportunities, not virtue.

Rich vs. Roach

In my teen years I purchased the album Rich vs. Roach, where two of the greatest drummers of the 50’s-60’s played together with the same band.  The highlight track for me was their drum battle “Figure Eights.”  If you wish, listen below, and see who you prefer.  Rich begins, with Roach following.

When I bought the album I had heard of Buddy Rich before, but had no idea who Max Roach was.  I remember my early listens to this particular track.  I thought Rich stole the battle hands down.  I preferred his crisp, clear sound to Roach’s looser and lower drum tuning (and still usually do).  But above all Rich’s speed and unequaled technique shone so strongly that I had no idea why Roach bothered to show up.

After several years, I finally listened to the track again.  Maybe it’s middle age, or maybe it’s my passive-aggressive nature taking a pot-shot at my youth, but I hear their drumming differently now.  Now Roach impresses me far more than he did previously.  Now I hear Roach propelling the stylistic changes throughout the duet.  Roach also varies his playing more than Rich, who tends to rely on pure speed to “get by.”

I have no desire to belittle Buddy Rich, who deserves his status as one of the great drummers of all time.  But this piece made me realize that Rich has limitations to his greatness.  He had immense energy that got all that could be humanly got out of the bands he led.  And his speed, his speed, go beyond what seems humanly possible.

But while his speed and energy has deep penetration, his style also has a narrow bandwidth. For example, Rich approached the played drums like a sprinter in a race, and would never  have looked sideways enough to come up with the rhythm Roach invents on this Bud Powell song.

Rich began his career as a young boy in vaudeville where all the gags had to be big and broad to connect with the audience.  Rich never really seemed to get away from this “need” for the big finish, or the broadness of the musical stroke.  In the 70’s, Rich’s bands moved away from the traditional big-band/jazz sound and towards funk.  I very much admire his ability to change styles, but the music is desperately square, though sometimes delightfully so.  It is Vaudeville Funk — entertaining, but . . . not funky.

Though I have never read a biography of Rich, perhaps he always remained a showman at heart.  This meant that his greatness would only be a type of greatness, and he could not be the “Greatest” of all time, if such a title is possible to give out.  Roach had the creativity Rich lacked, but did not possess Rich’s blaze of pure adrenaline.