The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some months ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides faith in the constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic as an aristocrat, as his bust makes clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in Watts began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?



*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far so good on that score.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left.  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?

Dueling for your Health

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis makes a provocative point about the modern mind.  In discussing love and marriage, he observes that we have a hard time talking about degrees of good and bad.  We can only discuss absolutes and never relative goods.  This leads to a narrowing of societal discourse.  So he writes about duels that,

They ask you what you think of dueling.  If you reply that it is far better to forgive a man than to fight a duel with him, but that even a duel might be better than a lifelong enmity which leads to continuous secret efforts to ‘do the man down,’ they complain that you have not given them a straight answer.

V.G. Keirnan’s book The Duel in European History has certain strengths but lacks some of the necessary subtlety that Lewis urges.  He has a lot of juicy gems and some incisive points.  He searches for a unified field theory of dueling, which I admire.  He seems to think that dueling’s best explanation lies in a quasi-Marxist theory of maintaining class dominance, which fails in my view for a few reasons.  Of course dueling had something to do with class, but not always. Of course dueling is wrong, but . . . maybe not always?

Some personal examples . . .

I had a good friend in high school and we did various things together.  Around our sophomore year we decided to add some spice to our various games of ping-pong, poker, H-O-R-S-E, or video games.  We invented consequences for the loser of these contests.  These consequences either brought great discomfort (put hot pepper on your tongue for five minutes, run barefoot in the snow, eat a spoonful of mustard, etc.), or great embarrassment (fall down dramatically in a restaurant, sing loudly in the middle of the street, etc.).  Looking back, many of these things were essentially harmless and created some good memories.  I should say too that losing brought no shame, but to back out of the “consequence” would have been unthinkable and damaging to the friendship.  You made a pledge, now see it through.

But . . . I think a lot our motivation stemmed from boredom.  No longer could we play “just for fun.”  The game itself no longer satisfied.  As you might imagine, with this motivation the consequences themselves inevitably intensified over time.  Also it seemed that we both sought to find great enjoyment in the suffering of the other person, what the Germans call “schadenfreude.” So perhaps on balance this was “primitive” or “destructive.”

Another example . . .

In college I remember walking into my dorm room one day and seeing my roommate and another guy on the hall wrestling.  It was not purely play, neither were they “fighting” in any real sense of the word.  They engaged in something in between those two.  Some sort of personal disagreement lie at the heart of this–I have no idea what.

I stayed to watch.  Keirnan might want to ascribe the fact that I watched to some sort of love of destructive spectacle.  Obviously I preferred watching the “match” to opening my biology textbook. Keirnan has a point.  But I also stayed to act as a kind of “second” for my roommate should level of fighting go too far.  Soon enough a few others came and watched, much for the same reasons, I’m sure.

After several minutes one of them agreed to say “uncle” and they stopped.  Commendations for both participants flowed from the audience.  It seemed entirely natural that now we should all go to dinner, and the first 15 minutes of conversation had most of us laughing about this or that moment in their match.  The two participants seemed entirely reconciled and never again had another such incident.  One of them had “lost,” but that carried no consequence.

I would love to know what Keirnan would think about this “duel.”  Can duels ever be good for you or society, and if so, why?  To answer this question we need to think about why duels happen in the first place.

Before we think about anything possibly positive about duels, Keirnan deals well with their obvious problems:

  • Most duels occur inextricably bound up with the sin of pride.  Perhaps this, even more so than the violence, explains their consistent condemnation by the Church.
  • Many duels bring death or grave physical harm that had no relation to the nature of the “offense” that caused the duel in the first place.  For example, towards the end of the era of dueling poets and musicians fought over particular points of artistic criticism.
  • At certain points in history duels happened not to settle disputes, but to prove manhood or courage.  Duels might then morph almost into a way of life–a way of life that can only end in death.
  • And yes, Keirnan has a point about the “social-control” aspect of dueling as its link to aristocracies.  Democratic peoples resort to dueling at a vastly lower rate than aristocratic nations, and this tells us something.

None of this surprises the reader.  But Keirnan has more interesting parts of his book.

From his tour through the history of the duel, we may guess at when duels tend to emerge more so than other times.

First, it appears that the amount duels rose in times of significant cultural and political shift.  Two main examples hint at this possibility.  First, dueling increased in the 17th century as the power of monarchs increased.  Increased power to the king meant perhaps that aristocrats felt the need to “strut their stuff” and duel more often.  They may have had the political motive of settling disputes outside of royal courts–an act of survival.

In time the power of the state grew and aristocracies declined.  Duels faded gradually through the 18th century.  But the coming of the Industrial Revolution revived it again.  Here we have part two of their attempt at survival, as the Industrial Revolution made mince-meat of the aristocratic class. This time, however, the dueling had no obvious political purpose.   Also–as to how they thought dueling would ensure their survival . . . ?  Maybe they thought they needed to leave the stage in dramatic and pointless fashion?  I don’t buy the “irrational” motif Keirnan may favor, but he can put this one in his corner.*

In his eyewitness account of the English Civil War, Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, spends his first chapter criticizing the government of Charles I.  One might suppose that certain policies impoverished England and this led to rebellion.   In fact, as Hyde and other historians point out, England enjoyed relative prosperity during Parliament’s long exile under Charles.  The problem lay not in the suffering of the country, but in part in its lack of suffering.  At length Hyde argues that Charles’ chief error lay in not giving England’s political class anything to do for several years.  They had nothing to do in part because times were good in most respects.  In other words, boredom and restlessness helped lead to the Civil War.

Keirnan mentions this as well at certain points in his narrative, and this rings true with my own experience that I mentioned above.  At some point, things got stale and we wanted to liven them up.  But I keep coming back to the question of the possible validity of some kinds of duels.

I had a long talk with my wife about this and she brought up several interesting questions about my experiences.  “Couldn’t we have had mercy on one another and forgiven the consequence?”  I answered that would not have been possible.

“But why not?”

True, many duelists had “mercy” on their combatant by firing in the air or some other such method.  But this was possible because they had already “won” by showing up and standing for the contest.  Victory was a side benefit.  They had already proven themselves.

For my friend and I, we could only prove ourselves by going through with the consequence.  That was the whole point.  When reminiscing about what happened we never said, “Remember that time you made that shot and won at H-O-R-S-E?”  Instead we reflected, “Remember that time when your feet bled from running in the snow, or when I had to sing the Police’s “Roxanne” in the middle of my street?”  Going through with the consequence gained us fame, not winning the contest.

To “forgive” a consequence in our case would have made the whole process pointless.**

So on the one hand we “proved ourselves” as “men” without doing any real harm to ourselves or others.  We bonded over this.

But on the other hand, it had all the negatives I listed above.

I still wonder about the possible ancillary benefits of duels.

Amidst the many reasons for duels–obscene pride, class control, the destructive impulse, etc.–what stands out to me most is boredom.  In some way, shape, or form, deep down we know that we need to suffer to be who we need to be.  Democracies don’t encourage suffering in any way.  We are told to gratify our desires.  Most modern American manifestations of Protestantism have no concept of voluntary suffering and many churches do all they can to accommodate, not challenge, the modern man.

I think if we can recover the true purpose and place of suffering, we may get closer than Keirnan to understanding duels.  And it is here that I must demur, for I have been a somewhat silly teenager, but I am not a saint.



*I generally disagree with Marxist interpretations of history but they sometimes have merit.  Kiernan’s class emphasis makes historical sense, but not logical sense–at least to me.  Aristocrats have power because of their birth.  They do not need to “earn” it in the modern sense of the word.  Clearly dueling at times served a purpose of validating their status as aristocrats.  But why feel this need?  Again, they never had to earn their status in the first place.  Perhaps the duel represented for some a kind of atonement oriented suffering for their societal position?  Perhaps this might allow them to feel that they had “earned” their role?

I wonder why democracies eschew the duel.  After all, in theory all of their citizens are born equal and must distinguish themselves in some way from their fellow man.

**In fact I believe this happened once and only once in our years of performing “consequences” and I was the lucky recipient.  If memory serves, we were playing some kind of basketball video game and I had lost multiple times, which meant I had to drink a concoction consisting (I think) of raw egg, tabasco sauce, and mustard.

But my friend did not simply just “forgive” this consequence.  Rather, he had to back out of plans we had made for the following day and in compensation released me from drinking the miserable concoction.

Needless to say, however grave and disappointed I made myself sound when he told me this, I accepted his offer quite readily!



To be a god, or not to be a god . . .

As Tyler Cowen would say, file what follows under “speculative” . . .

Recently NBA superstar Kevin Durant stunned the sports world by leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder and signing with the Golden State Warriors.  To be more precise, what shocked and troubled many people was not so much that he left Oklahoma City, but that he went to an already dominant and record-setting team.

Sports has morphed into a weird place in our culture.  We have 24 hour sports television and radio.  These media outlets discuss far more than the games themselves.  Rather, sports has become a springboard for all other kinds of topics ranging from race, sexuality, and so on.  Sports has become possibly the most visible bell-weather of our culture.  Look at the recent inclusion of female announcers (not just sideline reporters) on Sunday Night Baseball, for example, or the presence of a trans-gender athlete in ESPN’s most recent ‘Body Issue.’

So when the sports world blows up over something, it signals that a fault-line has moved close to the heart of our culture.

We give our star athletes huge amounts of money and adulation.  In exchange, we expect them to follow a code.  This code applies really only to the superstars, however, and perhaps especially to NBA superstars.  Football is still the bigger sport, but no player plays more than 1/2 a game, and with helmets and 22 people on the field, stars have less visibility.  Baseball players have longer careers and make more money, but the structure of the game limits the actions of hitters and fielders to a few brief moments.

In basketball the best players play about 80% of a given game and have multiple opportunities to display different offensive and defensive skills.   With only 10 players on the court, one truly great player can swing a game far more than in other sports.  Certain trends in the NBA point to its rise in prominence in our culture, first in terms of the money in the sport,

and then in the increase of viewers over the last few years.


The combination of our love of sport in general and the specifics of the NBA game gives basketball players the chance to reach transcendent status.

Apparently a code exists for NBA superstars that runs something like this:

  • To be truly great, you must win championships
  • These championships should be won with the particular superstar as the clear ‘alpha-dog’ on his team.
  • We expect the superstar to overcome obstacles on his way to Mt. Olympus.  This is the established pattern.  For example, Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons had to go through Boston, Jordan had to beat the Pistons, Duncan and the Spurs had to beat the Lakers, and so on.  There must be a definable journey that mimics that of mythic heroes.
  • The truly great superstars stay with their original team and make it their own.*  To leave for another team risks being labeled a man without a country, a man without honor because he has no one to honor him.

Durant violated certain key aspects of this code.  He not only left his original team, he joined a team with perhaps the best player in the league already there in Steph Curry.  Not only that, he joined the team that had beaten his team in the playoffs.

He failed his test.  As one prominent commentator stated, “I’ve never seen a weaker move by an NBA superstar.”**

Durant himself justified his decision by stating simply that he thought it in the best interest of his development as a basketball player.  It seems simple enough, and of course morally no one can have any real problem with his decision.

The problem with the decision for many is that it was a “selfish” decision done to “chase a ring” in the “wrong way.”

The fact that we expect a kind of self-denial, a form of asceticism, in our NBA super-star athletes, indicates something close to worship.  For all true worship involves sacrifice in every major religion that has ever existed.  Many of our democratic cultural values tell us to choose what you want, maximize your opportunities, having options, and so on.  Rarely, for example, will any politician make the grave error of calling for self-denial on the part of all people.  But we do place this demand on those we wish to add to the pantheon of gods, on those we seek to worship.

If we think that sports might be America’s de-facto religion, we may not have to look any further than this.


*Lebron James’ return to Cleveland after a an ill-executed hiatus a few years ago, then winning a championship this year, perhaps only adds mustard to the above narrative.  Perhaps Kevin Durant might do the same a year or two from now.   The ‘withdraw and return’ narrative has a great deal of potency.

**Another prominent commentator defended Durant from criticism levied by Oklahoma Thunder ownership about disloyalty to his team.  He rightly pointed out that this same owner moved his team from Seattle to Oklahoma City.  How dare he talk about loyalty to a particular place?

On paper he is entirely correct.  What the commentator failed to note, however, is that we don’t care about owners.  They are faceless, amorphous, rich men.  We don’t seek to worship owners, whereas we do seek this with certain players.  Hence, the reason for the so-called double-standard.