Command Performance

The poor often are more conservative than the rich, at least in certain respects. If we define “conservative” only in terms of policy, this distinction won’t apply. But, if we think of “conservative” in the traditional sense of opposition to change, the label fits more aptly. Perhaps this is because the rich can navigate change much more easily than others. The wealthy can create their “place” in society, but the poor rely on “tradition,” for lack of a better word, to give them a coherent identity.

Those “higher” than the lower classes have always exercised authority in every age, and this in itself I have no problem with. If one believes, as I do, that the world manifests itself in a hierarchical way, then we should adapt ourselves into this pattern. But how one exercises authority proves one’s “fitness” to rule. The patterns in creation reveal a liturgy, of sorts, of experience, and those who rule should abide by this pattern.

All of this may sound rather esoteric, and indeed I lack the language for a full and general explanation. But I found a fascinating and provoking example of this principle in Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language, by Greg Dening. The mutiny on the “Bounty” has inspired at least 3 movies and a variety of interpretations as to why it happened. Analysis of the event often focus on the strictly legal aspects of the case–was Captain Bligh too severe or not, and so on. Others focus on the psychological aspects of Bligh and Fletcher Christian, the first-mate who led the mutiny. Dening examines another field of inquiry entirely. He looks beyond the strictly legal and and avoids undue psychological guesswork, focusing not on the technical limits of Bligh’s authority, but how he used it.

Some look for the cause of mutiny in leaving the pleasurable confines of Tahiti for a long voyage home. We all have experienced relaxing after a strain, and how hard it can be to resume the task. But extant diaries and testimony shows that the sailors had no deep objections to leaving Tahiti. Many talked of looking forward to getting back home to England.

Other theories (and movies) imagine Bligh a “harsh” commander, a severe disciplinarian. Sailing into the Pacific meant a very long journey into hostile territory. We need no imagination to understand the need for order, though we may blanch at flogging as the most typical punishment.* But of the captains who sailed into the Pacific in Bligh’s era, Bligh punished less than most other captains, and far less than some. From ca. 1760-1800 on Pacific voyages, Dening estimates that all told, about 21% of sailors received flogging punishments.* Captain Vancouver flogged about 45% of his sailors during his time in command and never faced mutiny. Bligh–on the Bounty voyage and other subsequent journeys–flogged between 8-9% of his men. We must throw out the idea of “tyranny” and “severity” as the explanation of the mutiny.

Flogging seems unnaturally harsh to us for minor offenses, yet Dening points out the sailors accepted it without much fuss. This can be ascribed to their innate conservatism, but also to other factors. Flogging was short in duration and then the matter was over and settled. Flogging was the common lot of sailors, something they could bond over. Thus–flogging did not single anyone out or humiliate anyone. Legal formality and especially tradition hedged flogging. Sailors had no serious issues with flogging per se. Dening writes, “Sailors liked that flogging left no debt. Those punishments that sought to leave a mark on the sailors soul rather than his body–leg irons, mockery, badges of guilt–required a dangerous sort of theater.”

It is in this concept of “theater” that Dening finds his thesis.

A kind of “theater” exists in teaching, somewhat akin to stand-up comedy. In a sense the teacher puts on a “performance,”–think of a 1st grade teacher doing different voices in a story they read. But it also holds true for teaching older students. The way one presents their material, their voice inflections, their pauses, etc., and then the punchline, i.e., the king died, or the molecules fizzed in the cup, and so on. A classroom, like a theater or a ship at sea, functions as a separate kind of liturgical space. Good teachers know how to use that space well for their purposes.

Dening points out that the very design of the Bounty meant that navigating the space of the ship presented challenges to Bligh–challenges to which he seemed wholly unaware. The main purpose of the Bounty’s voyage involved transplanting breadfruit from Tahiti, which the British navy wanted to transplant to the Caribbean as food for native/slave workers. Bringing back cargo that would need space, light, and water meant redesigning the ship to accommodate their presence. That in turn meant less space for the crew. Bligh himself accepted less space than a captain would normally have for his cabin. That likely was a good move on his part, but the meaning of space in cabins and the all important quarterdeck (the ship’s “throne” so to speak) was altered. Bligh saw himself as an “enlightened” captain. He saw great scientific purpose in the voyage. He envisioned the Bounty “making history” and made various speeches to the crew to that effect. One can imagine that “salty” types would hardly see things that way. The breadfruits–“stupid plants,” of all things, stole their space, their water, and their captain’s kind attention. They would have probably preferred Bligh’s attention directed towards a mistress from Tahiti. It would have been more relatable–more “human.”

Bligh also acted as his own “purser” for the voyage. The purser kept charge of accounts for the Navy. He oversaw the profitability of the voyage. Nobody likes the purser, and the Captain might at times play against the purser to boost his standing with the crew–a crew who cared nothing for how much money the voyage made. Every time that Bligh shorted rations or cut corners, no matter his real intent–the crew could suspect that he was shorting them to fill his own pockets. Indeed, Bligh had taken much less than his usual fee to captain the voyage, believing in the trip’s historic importance and opportunities it would afford him in the future. The fact that none of the rest of the crew shared in his convictions or cared about his “sacrifices” alienated Bligh psychologically from his men. Bligh in turn took their lack of zeal personally.

Taking things personally is one of the cardinal sins a teacher can commit. As for myself, I liked history classes in high school and college but not the science, math, or Spanish classes–and it was nothing personal. Every teacher thinks their subject is the most important and everyone should love it as they do. Those that verbalize this thought, however, sound bonkers to students. They just want to get through the day–they owe you nothing, they owe “history” nothing. Likewise the best classroom discipline involves minimal talking and no lectures, i.e., “You did ‘x,’ the consequence is ‘y,'” end of story. Bligh had the habit of haranguing the crew for their lack of appreciation of his efforts on their behalf. Dening compares the discipline of “harsher” captains who flogged more to Bligh, and the “harsher” ones talked much less, and made the discipline much less personal.

Dening sees Bligh as making mistakes even when sincerely trying to be good to the crew. The sailors had a hazing ritual of sorts known as “Dunking,” which involved having a rope tied to your leg and being lowered overboard under the water. Many sailors actually could not swim, but even so, if the rope ever came loose, even a swimmer might drown, for the boat might not be able to turn around in time. Bligh saw this ritual as exploitative and put a stop to it, even increasing the rations of “grog” in the process. Bligh no doubt saw himself as stamping out barbarism on behalf of his men. Dening hints strongly that the men would have seen it very differently:**

  • To start, “dunking” was the province of the men below deck. In stopping the ritual, Bligh intruded on their space. In fact, the sailors had their own economy regarding the practice, with grog rations as the currency.
  • On every voyage, the officers had a chance to further their careers and gain honor. This ritual, though dangerous, was how ‘enlisted men’ could obtain honor among each other. Bligh thus appeared no doubt to ‘steal’ honor from them so he could keep it for himself.

Bligh’s attempts to appear benevolent surely fell flat. Sailors would have resented his intrusion into their ‘private’ lives. In a world where no space had any physical privacy, Bligh should not have intruded on the privacy of their ritual.

A man who punished mercilessly might guess that he risked the affections of his men. Bligh’s problem involved him trampling on his men’s good will while all the while deluding himself that he acted as their benefactor. No wonder the mutiny struck him with complete surprise.

Any Trump-Bligh comparison fails at every level except perhaps that neither one seemed to understand that the main objection to their power came not from what they did but how and when they did it. One can note the visible relief of mainstream media commentators at Biden’s cabinet choices. Some have crooned that his picks are even ‘apolitical,’ which is pure silliness. What I think they mean by ‘apolitical’ is that Biden’s cabinet understand the accepted liturgies of how to exercise power, as did Obama and most other presidents before him. Liturgies constrain reach in some ways, and mostly extend it, I think, in others. We shall see what the means for a Biden presidency.

The fact that leaders like Bligh and Trump are ‘anti-liturgical’ does not necessarily mean they are ‘bad’ for their time. Systems sometimes wear out, and then the old ways need smashed. Bligh represents the Enlightenment intellectual entrepreneur type. He had outstanding personal ability in navigation, and was self-made man in many ways. One might have thought the common sailor would take to him.

Not so. Interestingly enough, Dening cites data that shows that sailors in fact preferred officers from the ‘officer class’ and not those that rose through the ranks.

Not being from the traditional officer class, Bligh would not naturally take to the varieties of arcane naval tradition. But on a long and dangerous voyage, the only shelter from chaos would be the ship itself and the “world” it represented. As such, the routine, the manners, etc. would have to be ironclad to give a sense of safety and permanence. When Bligh messed with that, he altered the sailors sense of stability and security. The strain would be psychological, not physical. Perhaps this accounts for 1st Officer Fletcher Christian’s comment to Bligh during the mutiny–“I am in hell.”

As for Trump, the fact that so many reacted so severely not to his policies but to his person means that they may perceive the state adrift at sea. For such folk, only solid liturgical performances can shore up their sense of security and identity. I do not say that these people are all wrong, but the question lies in a sense of proportion. No matter how much one might have disliked Bligh, not even Dening argued that the mutineers had right on their side.

Good teachers, like good statesman (or sea captains) understand that the world reveals itself not fundamentally in laws but in relationships. The longer the friendship, the greater the liturgy of that relationship, due to all of the accumulated experiences. Bligh’s “bad language” the title alludes to were not the actual words he spoke–words that any other sea captain would have used–but how and when he spoke them. The weirder the situation, such as being on wooden boards in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth, require tighter “security” of the liturgy of the existing relationships. Such mysteries are felt more than explained. Dening might not have pure logic on the side of his argument, but he does have something we’ve all felt and experienced, and that makes his book a delight.

Dave

*I should note that Dening cites another study that puts the average much lower–at around 10% instead of 21%. The two studies count differently, but even this alternate view does no damage to understanding Bligh’s ‘severity.’

**I have seen two movie versions of the Bounty mutiny, the version from the 1960’s with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando, and the one from the 1980’s with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. The Hopkins/Gibson version comes closer in most respects to what Dening presents. It includes a “dunking” scene and Hopkins does very well in expressing barely restrained disapproval.

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki

Some paint the Middle Ages as a period of narrow intolerance.  I’ve said enough in other posts not to address that directly here, but in short, that view has little support in the lives or sources of the time.  We see in Beowulf, for example an appreciation for the pagan past and an understanding of the difficulties in trying to make sense of the Christian faith in light of their past, not a “narrow intolerance.”

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki can’t quite equal the power and style of Beowulf, but it has many of its outstanding 71ebyqgznclqualities, as well as a similar task.  The author retells a famous Norse story to a newly Christian Norse audience.  At various points he likely altered the story slightly to make certain theological points.  One such instance caught my attention.

At the end of the story our hero returns triumphant from defeating the villain.  Before setting out on his expedition, he took advice from a seemingly simple farmer and reduced his army (in similar fashion to Gideon in the book of Judges).  After victory he marches back and sees the same farmer again.  They greet each other warmly, after which the farmer offers more help.

This time King Hrolf refuses.  It’s not immediately clear why.

As they take their leave Hrolf declares that the farmer was none other than the Norse god Odin in disguise.  He had to refuse his help.  He would not take advice from a pagan god though all knew that Odin brought success to those who honored him.

In refusing Odin’s help, he refused “Victory.”  The consequences of this decision for him and his kingdom follow predictably.  Hrolf Kraki loses everything by the end.  But the author clearly believes he should indeed have preferred failure to success at the price of aid from a pagan god.

In an article entitled “No Enduring City,” author David Bentley Hart muses on the success of Christians and their involvement in politics.  He begins citing two events in medieval Europe.  He writes,

The first occurred on August 25, 1256, when the  podest  and  capitano del popolo of ­Bologna summoned the citizens of the  comune to the Piazza Maggiore in order to announce the abolition of all bonded servitude within the city’s civil and ­diocesan jurisdictions. Some 5,855 serfs were redeemed from their  signori—who were remunerated out of the communal treasury at a total price of 54,014 lire—then placed under ecclesiastical authority, and then granted their liberty.

An irrevocable abolition of serfdom in Bologna was then issued in a short text known as the  Liber Paradisus, in which was indited the name of every emancipated serf. Historians have occasionally ­spe­culated on the economic benefits that Bologna may have reaped from this decision—for one thing, freedmen were eligible to pay taxes—but the actual cost of the manumission, immediate and deferred, was so exorbitant that it is rather difficult to see how the municipal administration could have calculated any plausible profit from its actions.

Perhaps, then, one should take seriously the motives the  Liber Paradisus itself actually adduces: “Paradisum voluptatis plantavit dominus Deus omnipotens a principio,” it begins,“in quo posuit hominem, quem formaverat, et ipsius corpus ornavit veste candenti, sibi donans perfectissimam et perpetuam libertatem”: “In the beginning, the Lord God Almighty planted a paradise of delight, in which he placed man, whom he had formed, and whose body he had adorned with the garb of radiance [a shining raiment], endowing him with perfect and perpetual freedom.” It was only by sinning, the argument proceeds, that humanity bound itself in servitude to corruption; God in his mercy, however, sent his Son into the world to break the bonds that hold humanity in thrall, that by Christ’s own dignity all of us should have our natural liberty restored. Thus all persons currently bound in servitude by human law should have their proper freedom granted them, for they along with all the rest of us belong to a single  massa libertatis wherein now not so much as a single  modicum fermentum of servitude can be tolerated, lest it corrupt the whole.

Hart continues . . .

The second episode, however, which to our sensibilities might seem the more outlandish of the two, was for its time far and away the more ordinary. Some twelve to fifteen years after the promulgation of the  Liber Paradisus (the date cannot be more precisely determined than that), Thomas Aquinas put the finishing touches on that famous (or infamous) passage in the  Summa Theologiae  where he defends the practice of executing heretics. The argument he laid out there was quite a simple one, consisting of only two points, both of which he considered more or less incontestable. First, as regards the heretics themselves, their sin by itself warrants both excommunication and death. Second, as regards the Church, the graver evil of heresy is that it corrupts the faith, which gives life to the soul; and so, if we execute forgers for merely corrupting our currency, which can sustain only temporal life, how much more justly may we deal with convicted heretics not only by excommunicating them, but by putting them to death as well.

Of course, Thomas adds, out of her mercy towards each man who has strayed, the Church hesitates to pronounce a final condemnation until “the first and second admonition” have both failed; but then, if the heretic remains obstinate, “the Church, no longer hoping for his conversion, turns itself to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him over to the secular tribunal so that the latter might remove him from the world by death.” Nor can ecclesial compassion extend any further than this. Recidivism, for instance, even of the most transient kind, is unpardonable. Says Thomas, “At God’s tribunal, all who return are always received, because God is a searcher of hearts, and knows those who return in sincerity. But the Church cannot imitate God in this, for she presumes that those who relapse after being once received are insincere when they return; so she does not obstruct their path to salvation, but neither does she shield them from the sentence of death.”

Both examples have their counterpoints.  Some rather cynically suggest that the economic motive of creating more taxpayers formed the real motivation behind freeing the serfs.  Others point out, that, whatever we may think of Thomas’ counsel, he sought to save souls and not to kill people.  It is easy to cherry-pick the weaknesses of any man or any civilization.

Still, however we slice it, we cannot avoid a contradiction.

Hart suggests that Christian involvement in politics always seems to go south at some point.  On the one hand, when Christians have the power to do good, they can accomplish good things in a unique and lasting way.  On the other, such power either corrupts or puts one in an awkward enough position where a compromise of gospel ethics becomes inevitable.  We can cite numerous examples of the good and the bad.  Betrayals of the gospel ethic may not even be anyone’s “fault,” per se–it could be the nature of the beast.  He draws no firm conclusions, but asks us to consider how we should deal with this problem.

I admire Hart a great deal.  He has a powerful mind and thinks deeply.  His The Doors of the Sea is the best book I have read on the problem of evil.  But I found myself a bit frustrated with “No Enduring City.”  He has the intellectual capital to spend, but plays the miser. He holds too much back. I wanted more from him to try and settle this conundrum.

When surveying the history of Christian involvement in politics, I think we have the following options:

  • Christians should never be involved in politics.  Whatever good they will do will be outweighed by the inevitable corruption of their witness to the gospel.
  • Christians will likely fail in some way in the political realm.  But, we should expect that their failures will be less damaging, and they will accomplish more good in their time in power.  Thus, Christians should be involved in politics as much as they can.
  • Compromising one’s Christian witness may likely happen in the political realm, but it is not inevitable.  Thus, the potential good from Christians involvement in politics is worth the risk, with the right people.
  • Compromising our witness to Christ is indeed quite likely in the political realm. Christians should avoid political office. However, Christians should do what they can to influence those in power.  In this way they can hopefully create some good for society and escape direct blame for the bad in politics.

Other options likely exist.

In his article Hart hints (but not outright declares) that the continual cycle of success/failure might serve the good purpose of continual renewal, keeping the Church on its toes and supplied with fresh blood.  This parallels in some ways Toynbee’s creative/dominant minorities in society.  A particular system gets stale and rigid.  A ‘creative minority’ finds a way to challenge this system successfully, which brings them into power.  Eventually, however, this ‘creative minority’ succumbs to temptation and morphs into its own ‘dominant minority,’ starting the cycle over again.

But Hart will not outright declare one way or the other, because the mere fact of such a cycle doesn’t mean that the good of the creative minority outweighs the bad of dominant minority.

If such a man as Hart cannot decide, I will not either.  Perhaps historical analysis is not our best servant for this question.  Perhaps we need epic poetry to instruct us.

King Hrolf Kraki ultimately fails.  His realm grows a bit soft and corrupt.  Yet before that happened he managed to defeat a wicked and truly evil king who had wrought chaos throughout the land for years.  He fails, but the good outweighed the bad.  So too king Arthur fails.  His sins, and the sins of others catch up with them.  Yet, the good that came from the golden age of Camelot inspired the very idea of chivalry, which formed the ethic of the west for 500 years at least.  When Roland receives the assignment of the rear guard, he suspects treachery, but turns to his stepfather and says,

Ah, slave and coward, malicious heir of dishonored ancestors, did you think I would let the glove fall to the ground as you did the staff when you stood before Charles?

The rearguard is destroyed under Roland’s command, but Charlemagne returns just in time. Beowulf defeats the dragon but could not establish the kind of kingdom that meant that others took up similar fights as he.  But . . . who doesn’t love the character of Beowulf?

The attempts referenced above, however, were all “grand gestures” involving personal risk.  Epic literature is of course literature and not history.  But they give some historical insights.  The politicking of the religious right involved no grand gesture, no personal risk for anyone.  Christian involvement in the political realm will likely fail in some way, no matter how great the sacrifice.  But the utterly mundane garnering of power through votes not only failed in the U.S., it engendered resentment against the religious right.  The relative political disengagement of most younger Christians today testifies to the insipid nature of such action.

At the end of The Song of Roland Charlemagne cries out, “O God, my life is a burden!”  He knows that all of his fighting and all of the sacrifice will not bring about a heaven on earth.  But, he smashed the pagans, avenged treachery, and Julienne was led triumphantly to the baptismal font.

Truly sacrificial action, whether political or otherwise, has a lasting impact despite our sins and limitations.

Perhaps herein lies the answer Hart seeks.

The Prophet or the Madman

A good education should prepare one to see many sides of an issue and to see the complex nature of problems. Solutions, should they exist, come from seeing the good in things and building upon that, along with balance, patience, and so on.

It seems to me that about 95% of problems or questions should get handled in this fashion.

But the remaining 5% probably require none of the aforementioned qualities, but instead call for a prophet.  Some problems have such deep and destructive roots in society that only radical solutions suffice, and coming to these conclusions require a complete change of perspective not unlike repentance.  In such cases balance and moderation hurt more than help.

The problem with prophets is that they usually sound crazy.  They are entirely “unreasonable” and see nothing among us to build on.  They abhor compromise.  No doubt this explains why most of Israel’s prophets were dismissed as lunatics or dangerous subversives.

The fact that not all prophets deserve the title of “Prophet” adds to the dilemma.  God mandated harsh punishments for false prophets, who unnecessarily rile up/provide false comfort in addition to the far worse consequence of giving us the wrong view of God and our place in the universe.

If we took the Industrial Revolution as an example, we might expect a “reasonable” historian to take a standard cost/benefit approach.  On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution eventually ushered in higher wages and higher standards of living.  Medical technology improved and helped us lead healthier lives.  Mass production led to greater social and political equality.  On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution also disconnected us from nature and allowed us to mass produce destructive things like weapons and pollutants.  The regimentation of the factory led to regimentation of other areas of life.  Modern conveniences also facilitated longer working hours, which helped erode the family.  Some good, some bad, and the trick lies in deciding how to weigh the importance of each category.

Enter Ivan Illich.

Illich (a one time Catholic priest turned social critic) wants nothing to do with the above paragraph.  The Industrial Revolution, or in his phrase, “hygenic progress” has led to continuing impoverishment of all who drink from its waters.

Perhaps you think he means impoverishment of the soul, and then we can still perhaps argue that certain economic benefits outweigh that at least in some circumstances.

But no — he means impoverishment of the soul and economic impoverishment. Industrial society has made us poorer in every sense, which on the surface seems demonstrably untrue.  But nevertheless, he wants to burn it all down, if not physically, then at least in our whole approach to what lies around us.

Do we have a madman or a prophet?

I will say that having read his book Toward a History of Needs I’m not quite sure myself. He fits one criteria for having a prophetic voice — neither the political right or left knew what to do with him in his day.  On the imgresone hand, Illich heavily criticized market-based solutions as essentially imperialistic projects that in the end only benefitted producers.  On the other hand, he spoke just as harshly against the industrialized “do-gooders” of the left and their projects like the Peace Corp and The Alliance for Progress.  He saw both sides as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum — the same person with a different face, sharing essentially the same destructive perspective.

Illich’s main idea is that the “hygenic progress” of the last two centuries has not solved any problem mankind faces so much as it has created needs that have become mandatory for civilization. These “mandatory needs” continue to increase and drain both soul and wallet.  This favors not only producers but also, “anyone in the driver seat” (government bureaucracy). He cites many examples to prove his point, and we can add to those examples today.

Some of his examples (with hardly an exhaustive list) . . .

Medicine has become vastly more expensive over the last few decades without necessarily making us healthier. Pregnant women, for example, now have seemingly dozens of “mandatory” checkups involving expensive lab work to check on her health.  But babies are not measurably more healthy than they were 20-30 years ago.  These checkups did not come in response to a severe crisis, but as part of the logic of the “producers of health.”  Ilich also argues that most of the vast costs involving medical care for the elderly go more towards prolonging suffering than actually making us healthier.  Of course, this suffering in turn drives us back to the health producers.

Simple things like driving also fall prey to this logic.  In days of yore, you acquired driving skills more or less by osmosis and guided practice from parents.  Now prospective drivers need a certification from driving schools to prove their merit.  The fact that many who take courses from “driving schools” spend their time doing errands for the producer of the certificates should call for us to abolish the criteria altogether.  Instead, because we are a society of “hygenic progress,” we call for reform, not abolition, of such institutions, which bring in government bureaucrats once again.  The system continually empowers “those in the driver’s seat” literally and figuratively.

This dynamic impoverishes us financially by forcing us to pay for the certification and government authentication of our lives, and it also steals away time and personal initiative.  Citizens of “hygenic progress” societies will get boxed in continually.  We realize that one “must” have a car to survive in modern society (with the rare exception of a few cities), and the logic of car ownership has followed suit. No layman can repair their car anymore, which drives us toward complete reliance on the producers of car health.  Writing in the early 1970’s, Illich did not foresee the rise of digital technology.  Now, we “need” not just computers and internet, but cell phones and the like to “survive” the modern world.  Failure to keep up brings nebulous social penalties, along with more realistic drawbacks.  Who communicates by phone anymore?**

Education has gone through the same process.  Public education once was conceived as a free gift.  Now this gift is mandatory, with a mandated curriculum.  Initially the system called for you to stay through 8th grade, now one must stay until 16.  Of course, society’s demands for more pieces of paper to certify one as “educated” has increased. Now everyone “must” graduate high school to have any chance in society, and to get a “real job” everyone must go to college — though we know that many high school and college educations hardly dignify the name.  Now Master’s Degrees have become “required” in many professions.  Some of this might be acceptable if the certificates proved that you actually had a good education, when what it really proves it that you jumped through the required hoops.  The role of government oversight and financial enrichment of the producers of certificates (think of the growth of private companies in the standardized testing industry) again go hand in hand.

Of course not all want this outcome, but that’s just “the way it goes.”  I have an autistic son, and from time to time speculate on why autism diagnoses have dramatically increased over the last 20-odd years.  With the caveat that the question is complex and mysterious, part of me wonders if the increased regimentation in education makes those who lack the social skills necessary to navigate that world stand out in much bolder relief than previously.

Illich uses many more examples which I will pass over.  He astutely references the classical concept of “nemesis” from Greek mythology.  Nemesis served justice and punished hubris.  In the modern sense, nemesis stood for the punishment of a rash abuse of privilege.  In heroic literature the truly elite of society experience “nemesis” by going too far beyond the lot of mortals.  Now, Illich comments that nemesis has been democratized and no longer is reserved for rash abuse of a privilege.  Rather, “Industrialized nemesis is retribution for dutiful participation in society.”

At this point we may want to push back a bit.  Maybe the benefits of industrial society have plateaued somewhat, but if we do a before/after look since the start of industrialization, we see that life expectancy has gone up, and more people have access to more conveniences of life.  Who would want to return to pre-industrial living?  And while we can’t repair our cars, they do last a lot longer than they used to, which puts us back to the +/- calculus of the “reasonable” historian.  Some products over time became ubiquitous, but also cheap.  A perfectly good land-line phone, for example, costs no more than $15.  DVD players began by costing a few hundred bucks and now come at 1/10 of that price.  These examples seem to go against the idea that producers will get continually enriched at consumer expense.

I’m not sure how Illich would respond to these arguments, but I would guess that he would say that producers will continue to turn today’s luxuries into tomorrow’s “needs.”  And — they will continue to partner with government to make the needs mandatory — hence, good bye rabbit ears, hello to required conversion to digital.  DVD players are cheap, but look out for Blue-Ray, which will likely supplant DVD’s soon enough and start the cycle over again.

Of course prophets don’t just critique, they also offer hope and a way forward.  For Illich that means more creative and especially, autonomous action on the part of individuals.  We must escape the professionalization, the certificates of approval, and the commodification that governs modern lives.  We no longer make decisions — we have algorithms or rubrics to that for us.

However, a question remains — do we wish to be free? Do we even know what that means?  Would it matter if we did?  I am reminded of a passage in Machiavelli’s Discourses which captures the essence of the issue.  Are we a healthy body with a corrupt head, i.e. Rome at the time of the latter Tarquin kings? After the expulsion of Tarquin Superbus the Romans immediately had the ability to form a stable, successful, alternative government.  Or, has the whole body been infected, and cutting off the head will produce only more problems?  Much later in Rome’s history a new “Tarquin” arose in the form of Julius Caesar, but his death only made things worse for Rome — the whole body had become corrupt.

Illich also fails to discuss another question — is the situation he describes (if he correctly describes it — I am at least partially persuaded) a necessary or contingent consequence of industrialization?  If the latter, then we can work to change things.  If the former is true, then we need to pattern ourselves after the characters in many of Phillip K. Dick’s stories and go “through” the situation rather than running away from it, and find a spot of peace therein.

I suspect, however, that if Illich is correct, then we are living with contingent consequences of industrialization.  We can get pushed in certain directions but never off the road entirely.  While I would not call him a madman, nor would I yet call him a prophet.  He describes some of the technical reasons for our situation, but he fails to unmask the religious devotion that created this situation.  The key question, “What does industrial bureaucratic capitalism truly worship?” has yet to receive an answer.  Until we understand this, we will have no power to change our circumstances.  We need also to see that the situation Illich describes results not just from the confluence of bureaucrats and producers, but from everyone.  We “the people” cannot be part of whatever path forward may exist without acknowledging our own complicity.

Dave

*Hence his book Deschooling Society on the surface seems like a call to dismantle public education in favor of more market based approaches (the “Right” cheers).  But what Illich really calls for is that society “de-school” itself and fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between “school” and “society” (the Right and the Left look at each other quizzically).

**The confluence of the producers of society’s digital “needs” and government oversight continues with a vengeance with the rise of technology in education.  Now curricula get planned around the assumption that students have technology in the classroom.  Those who don’t will be given access.  The option to “drop out” — i.e., “I don’t want my child to have access to a tablet, phone, etc.” — doesn’t really exist.  Most teacher training now gets geared towards showing teachers how to better serve the god “Technology in the Classroom.”  All of this of course is “necessary” because we must “prepare students for the modern world.”  Meanwhile of course, we create the “modern world” via the use of technology in the classroom.  One hand washes the other.  This seems a similar argument to Hillaire Belloc’s The Servile State.

11th Grade: Bismarck and “Unnatural States”

Greetings,

This week we began to look at German unification, orchestrated under the brilliant and controversial Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck raises some important and perhaps uncomfortable questions about leadership.  What is the line between serving the interests of your country and serving God?  Should nations be treated akin to how one would treat individuals, and therefore punished and rewarded like individuals?  Or, should nations be thought of as artificial entities that do not have to play by the same rules as people?  Cardinal Richelieu said to this effect: ‘People are immortal and thus subject to the law of God.  Nations are mortal ] and are subject to the law of what works.’ That is, artificial and unnatural creations — one can’t imagine the universe as it is without gravity, but it would be the same universe without the United States.  This hearkens again to Richelieu who would have argued that while Frenchman are Catholic, France is not.  France can’t be Catholic any more than a cardboard box could be Catholic.  Frenchmen may be redeemed, but France will have no heavenly judgment or reward.  For better or worse, Bismarck would have agreed with him.  He also said,

If one wants to retain respect for laws and sausages, don’t watch them being made.

Politics for Bismarck was a dirty business, and there was no point pretending that success would not mean getting his own hands dirty.  But for Bismarck, the world of international politics remained essentially unredeemable, a conclusion Christians may not wish to share.

While there are many debatable aspects of Bismarck, a few things are beyond dispute.  He gained an advantage over some of his foreign political adversaries in part because he recognized what the Industrial Revolution would mean for politics before others.  He realized that

  • Mass production would lead to a ‘mass society,’ where mobilization of opinion could make a huge difference.
  • Old aristocratic Europe was finished, at least in the sense that kings and nobles could no longer act without direct reference to their populations.  The press and public opinion would be nuisances to others.  Bismarck saw them as opportunities for making Prussia’s actions much more potent.

Bismarck is  controversial because

  • He used democracy, but he had no time for it.  Democracy, he felt was for doe-eyed idealists. In the end for Bismarck, ‘blood and iron,’ not speeches, win the day.  Force and strength were the best projections of power, though to be fair to Bismarck, he believed in a limited/surgical use of force.
  • Bismarck was the ultimate realist.  He believed that concerning oneself with justice, for example, could lead one to get carried away, to lose focus.  The primary motivation for policy should be whether or not it serves the interest’s of the state.  Don’t first concern yourself with rewards or punishments.  Do what serves the ends of the state.  A foreign policy built primarily on  morality (an example might be punishing or rewarding a country based on their human rights record) was not proper for a nation, however much individuals should be concerned with it.

As an example of his policy we can look at his actions during the Polish bid for independence from Russia.  When the Poles attempted to break from Russia almost every major power gave speeches expressing their support for the Polish cause.  They did so, no doubt, for a variety of reasons:

  • The Poles vs. Russia was a great underdog story and everyone loves an underdog
  • Independence movements were rife throughout Europe and everyone loves to bandwagon.
  • Polish success would weaken Russia’s power, and most wanted Russia weakened whenever possible.

Bismarck shocked everyone by not supporting the Poles, but even offering public support — and troops — to aid the Russians in crushing the rebellion.  Why did he take such a position?

  • Speeches make you feel good and important, but speeches themselves will not help the Poles one whit.
  • These speeches, however, will serve to alienate Russia, and you would have gained nothing and angered a major power.
  • No foreign power would actually send troops to aid the Polish, so again, the expressions of support mean nothing in reality.
  • The Poles, without foreign aid, would certainly lose.

Thus, it seemed far better to Bismarck to go against the grain and actually aid his country by standing up for Russia in their time of need.  Yes, other countries would get momentarily upset at Prussia’s actions, but again, it would mean nothing.  Bismarck planned to cash in  the favor he performed for Russia later, and he did in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

To put Bismarck’s actions in perspective, think of the “Free Tibet” movement that we occasionally hear about.  Lot’s of people make speeches to end Chinese occupation of Tibet.  But . . . no one will actually do anything about it.  No one would risk war with China over this issue.  The words of sympathy given to Tibet 1) Do nothing for the Tibetans, 2) angers China, which makes them 3) not just worthless, but counterproductive.

To put Bismarck’s actions here in perspective, imagine if a U.S. president not only did not support Tibet, but publicly supported China.  “Yes — go China!  Crush the Tibetans!  Nature wills that they stand subject to your glorious might!”

It would be a bold move.

This does not mean that Bismarck was personally amoral.  Rather, if nations are essentially ‘pieces on a chessboard’ they cannot be sinned against.  You can sin against people.  But you cannot sin against shapes on a map.  This hearkens back to Richilieu’s foreign policy for France some 250 years prior, and to Machiavelli before that. In the same way, no one would call you a ‘sinner’ if you bluffed in poker.  The poker game is in a sense, an alternate reality where different rules apply.  For Bismarck, the same is true of politics.  We see this philosophy come through in his famous musings after Prussia’s victory in the Austro-Prussian War:

We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia. . . .The acquisition of provinces like Austria Silesia and portions of Bohemia could not strengthen the Prussian state; it would not lead to an amalgamation of German Austria with Prussia, and Vienna could not be governed from Berlin as a mere dependency. . . .Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the King of Prussia.

….To all this the king raised no objection, but declared the actual terms as inadequate, without however definitely formulating his own demands. Only so much was clear, that his claims had grown considerably since July 4. He said that the Austria could not be allowed to escape unpunished, and that, justice once satisfied, we could let the misled backsliders off more easily; and he insisted on the cessions of territory from Austria which I have already mentioned.

I replied that we were not there to sit in judgment, but to pursue the German policy. Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the king of Prussia.

Passing on to the German states, the king spoke of various acquisitions by cutting down the territories of all our opponents. I repeated that we were not there to administer retributive justice, but to pursue a policy; that I wished to avoid in the German federation of the future the sight of mutilated territories, whose princes and peoples might very easily (such is human weakness) retain a lively wish to recover their former possessions by means of foreign aid.

If we wish to dismiss his ideas, we should pause first.  After all, it is wrong to kill, but a nation can commission soldiers to kill, and we do not say they sin necessarily by doing so.  People shouldn’t lie, but a nation can spies to disseminate false information.  Is this sin?  If we say no, we have a dilemma on our hands of how we think of states as they relate to ‘individual’ morality.

In the end, Bismarck’s creation of a unified Germany would radically change European politics.  Germany became the greatest land power on the continent immediately.  But the change went deeper than that — the rationale for how a state comprised itself changed.  The idea of a “Germany for Germans” would spread and eventually undo European empires, and sow the seeds of the militant democracies of the early 20th century.

One bittersweet moment for me was the class’s viewing of the last episode of Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series last Friday.  Beginning in 9th grade, I show students at least parts of all the episodes in this series.  Clark has a wonderful eye for discerning the meaning of an age through art, architecture, and music. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, I am always challenged by them.  I believe all episodes are available on YouTube should you be interested yourself.

Clarke’s take on the industrial world is a sobering one.  In the opening lines of the last episode he says as the camera pans on New York City ca. 1968 (I paraphrase),

‘New York City in its present condition took almost as long to build as the Gothic Cathedrals.  This begs a comparison.  While the cathedrals were built for the glory of God, it appears obvious to me that our cities are built to the worship of money.’

AJ Toynbee also discusses the industrial age in his book, ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion.’  For him, the industrial age is simply the outgrowth of western civilization’s “Idolization of the Technician,’ which he believes began in the mid 17th century.  If we acquire the ability to do a thing, that in itself becomes it’s justification.

Clarke and Toynbee’s ideas may not call for agreement, but they do call for a response.  We shall see the effects, good and bad, of the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again,

Dave Mathwin

“. . . And in the End”

My dad has a large record collection, and growing up I heard a lot of different music. One of my earliest memories involves me asking him to, “Put the Apple record on,” by which I meant, “Put on Abbey Road by the Beatles, side two, “The End.” There I would hear the vastly underrated (by the general public) Ringo Starr play his one and only drum solo. I grabbed Tinker Toys, made two mallets, and attempted to play along with the music on the sofa.

Years later when I started playing the drums myself, I sometimes tried to replicate the sound Starr got out of his kit on that album, with no success. Reading And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles, I discovered the secret–a new way of mic’ing the drums was employed, but the real trick may have been his switch to calfskin drum heads on his tom-toms. Ringo loved the new sound and feel, and credited the heads for giving him some newfound excitement on the kit. With the drum heads sounding so good, it inspired him to integrate his toms more than he had on previous albums–the result can be heard especially on “Come Together,” and “Something,” to say nothing of his famous aforementioned solo.

This little nugget may not be of much interest to anyone but myself, but And in the End gives everyone lots to chew on about the decline and final fall of the Beatles. I have skimmed through biographies of Lennon and McCartney and seen a few documentaries about them, which prepped me for this book. Author Ken McNab gives little background information, which suited me just fine. For anyone with an interest in The Beatles and a passing familiarity with their dynamics, this book will do nicely in filling out some unexplored corners of Beatles lore.

Most of us know about Lennon and McCartney’s personality feuds, the presence of Yoko Ono, and Harrison’s rise in prominence. And in the End mentions this but knows that we have heard about it before. Instead McNab spends a lot of time talking about the business side of The Beatles and how that, perhaps even more than personality differences, contributed heavily to their demise as a group.

The Beatles faced in formidable challenges to their cohesion in 1969:

  • John married Yoko, and Paul married Linda. Again, we are aware of the challenges Yoko brought to the table. Many have well documented the unnerving effects of her awkward presence during rehearsals. But McNab puts a different focus on Paul’s marriage to Linda Eastman as a major contributor to the widening John-Paul divide. Eastman came from New York high society money. Paul’s marriage, then, confirmed and deepened every suspicion John had about Paul–his social striving, his “bourgeoise” aspirations, etc.
  • At the same time, George Harrison began to assert himself much more aggressively in the group. John and Paul had previously worked out truces and trades in sharing the spotlight and wrote “together” at least officially. Now they would have share even more than they had before at a time of much higher tension.
  • At the same time, the “Apple” company they founded floundered badly, obviously bleeding cash. Their image and their pocketbooks would take a big wallop.
  • At the same time, The Beatles attempted to rework their financial arrangements, with John, George, and Ringo favoring one company, and Paul favoring another company–which happened to be run by his new brother-in-law (this did not go over well with the other three. John especially tore into the fact that the Eastman’s had changed their name from Epstein to Eastman, a sign of “inauthenticity”).
  • At the same time, Lennon–who had smoked plenty of weed and experimented with psychedelics in the past, now began a much more problematic heroin habit.

In other words, to paraphrase Fletch in his visit to Dr. Dolan, the Beatles may have been dying for years, but the end was very sudden.

A few bands have lasted more than a few decades, and fewer still have stayed productive during their span instead of merely rehashing older hits on tour. So on the one hand, the demise of The Beatles should not surprise anyone. But McNab’s treatment of the band’s final year made me realize that the main failure of the Beatles involved their failure to “institutionalize” themselves in some respect–a failure to scale up their issues to a point where the issues were “solved” by the institution known as “The Beatles.”

I can think of only two other bands that managed to last long and stay reasonably productive: Kiss and Rush (who actually toured together in 1975). In the case of Rush, they perhaps solved their problem by always having two guys write the songs and one guy write the lyrics. Harmony could be maintained as long as they stuck with this formula, and they did so right until the end. This very stark division of labor will be exceedingly rare in any collaborative group.

The more typical path is that of KISS, who had two strong frontmen with strong personalities. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons certainly feuded over the years. But the outfits–Starman, Catman, Spaceman, etc.–gave them an identity outside themselves. This allowed them to replace particular musicians when needed (such as Peter Criss, Ace Frehly) while still maintaining their individual identity. They could do a solo album or a solo project as “Paul Stanley”–who is not KISS, then put on the makeup and become KISS again.

Not having Rush’s division of labor, the Beatles needed something of the KISS formula to work, but they could not create it in time. Given the challenges they faced along with their particular personalities, this was not likely to happen, but perhaps the possibility existed.

As I finished the book it appeared that Trump will not have a second term, and this spurred some reflection on the purpose of institutions, and their role in our culture at the moment.

In the Democratic primaries many lamented that anti-establishment figures like Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang got the freeze-out from mainstream media and the party establishment. In the end, the Democratic base chose the most “establishment” figure possible in Biden. On the one hand, Trump vs. Biden at first glance appears to boil down to “Anti-Establishment v. Establishment. That is short-sighted view of the situation–just as seeing the Beatles conflict as purely Lennon v. McCartney–Anti-Establishment v. Establishment–also interprets a lot of the signal as noise.

First we can see Trump akin to John Lennon. Both despised or could not work within institutions. Both always had/have the most gravity in the room. Those freed from an institutional ‘gloss’ or ‘crust’ can shine forth with a particularly concentrated vitality. Lennon would at times impress everyone with his clarity and intelligence, and at other times embarrass everyone with his rash anger and insane narcissism. His partnership with McCartney worked so well because he needed someone to ground him, someone to “land” his ideas, which Paul did with some of John’s best songs*

The Trump-Lennon connection is easy . . . making McCartney into Biden stretches things a bit. Well–it works in some ways. Lennon always hated the “grandma” tunes that McCartney loved, the sweetly melodic semi-vaudeville stuff that Paul dipped into now and then. Paul always believed that the Beatles had to be a “band,” which meant recording and then touring. “Back to basics,” and so on. So we can see the election of Biden as a vindication of our institutions, and at least the perception of “normalcy.”

Certainly Trump is “anti-establishment”–but particularly in his personal behavior. He cared nothing for the niceties, decorum, and customs of acting “presidential.” Some of his political agenda, however, had roots in old Pat Buchanan Republicanism. He had broad support for his judicial nominees and support for pro-life policies, all of which would fit within the Reagan heyday.

Biden on the one hand is quintessential “Establishment,” having served in the Senate for who knows how long. He is nothing if not boring in his personal behavior–which at times can be a strength. He will uphold presidential cultural and political norms.

But he also brings with him a long trail of supporters who also wish to dismantle certain aspects of the Establishment and its norms. It wasn’t too long ago that we heard chants of “Defund the Police.” Biden’s supporters have already created an “enemies list” of Trump staffers and “enablers” that may be used to exclude them from various aspects of public life. No such acts have ever been perpetrated so openly before, at least that I am aware of.** We shall see to what degree Biden takes the Democratic party into more anti-institutional waters. Note that some Democratic supporters have called for the abolition of the Electoral College, a dismantling of certain powers of the Senate, and so on. To alter the Constitution is to dismantle the American institution.

But just as Biden may have a slightly jaded take on institutions, so perhaps did McCartney.

As mentioned above, the problems faced by The Beatles were legion–too much to handle all at once. But–had it boiled down to Lennon’s ‘anti-establishment’ and Paul’s ‘establishment’ they could have compromised here and there, just as they did with their songwriting. In reality, they represented two different mixes of both ‘establishment’ and ‘anti-establishment,’ the combinations of which could not compromise.

John as “Anti-Establishment” (this is rather obvious)

  • The drugs, the weird behavior, founding “Bagism,” the marriage to an avant-garde artist who would lay down inside a bag and scream during performances
  • Etc.

Paul as “Anti-Establishment”

  • Paul was a rock star who did not fit a conventional rock star mold. He was much more fruitfully experimental than John
  • Paul utilized orchestras, audio experimenting, etc.
  • He did the India thing just as the others did

John as “Establishment”

  • The counter-culture is admittedly not the Culture, but the counterculture had enormous power in the late 60’s and John was at the crest of that wave.
  • John wanted to be seen as a rock star who played rock music, and who at times loathed Paul’s “sissified” experimentation.

Paul as “Establishment”

  • He marries into wealthy NYC society
  • He appeals to a much broader cross section of the population than John. He is “the cute one”–certainly much “safer” than John.

A big part of the problem for the Beatles lay here–two different blends of establishment/anti-establishment that allowed both to call the other “squares” on the one hand and feel good personally about stretching boundaries on the other. This dynamic makes compromise a lot harder, because you see the other side as lacking everything while you already “have it all.” When at their best, for example, Paul saw that he needed John to get him to take more risks, and John saw that he needed Paul to “ground him” and give his ideas shape. But as they both grew, Paul found a way to experiment without John, and John found a “grounding” in the counter-culture. Then–they perceived no need for each other.

The right and the left in the U.S. have good and bad things about them and always have. When both sides can even just occasionally see how they need each other, our democracy will be healthy. But now that both sides have both Anti-Institutional and Institutional impulses within them, they will feel this need for each other much less. This, perhaps more than any particular policy change, may be our most significant political challenge.

Dave

*If anyone argues that “Imagine” or “Instant Karma” is as good as “In My Life,” or even “Come Together,” they are just being plain silly or purely ideological. Neither Lennon or McCartney ever topped solo what they did with each other.

**Trump said dangerous things like, “Lock her up,” but never acted on anything. Again–he had a hard time acting on his various statements (look at how little he accomplished when Republicans controlled House and Senate from 2016-18) which we can be thankful for in part.

The ideological left, on the other hand, is much more connected to institutions in media, academia, and increasingly, in the corporate world as well. We shall see whether or not this threat of a “list” becomes reality.