The Eye of the Storm

In October 1867 various Indians tribes gathered with U.S. army officers in an attempt to reach a formal peace in what became known as the Medicine Lodge Peace Commission.  Most of the Cheyennes arrived fashionably late.  One Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle assured General Harney that the Cheyennes had a traditional greeting that differed from other tribes, and he should not worry.

When they arrived, they put their horses into four columns on the other side of a creek.  A bugle sounded, and the Cheyennes charged across the creek one column after another, roding hard straight towards General Harney, shooting in the air and hollering.

Harney received assurances.  Stand still.  Everything is fine.

Still, they galloped on towards him.  Harney clearly had his doubts but remained unmoved.  Other Comanche Indians already present clearly had misgivings and grabbed their own weapons.

Just a few feet in front of the general and the Comanche’s, the Cheyenne horses roared to a halt and bent low in one fluid motion as the Cheyenne warriors dismounted.  They broke out laughing and started shaking hands with all present.

Among the hundreds of anecdotes from Peter Cozzen’s excellent The Earth is Weeping, this one stands out for me as most emblematic.  When different cultures came together–and not just white and Indian cultures but differing Indian cultures–conflict can seem almost inevitable.  The slightest error would mean violence and further mistrust, even if neither side necessarily wanted violence.  Here, some patience and personal risk on the side of General Harney and the Comanche’s paid off, but we should not kid ourselves and say that such an outcome was easily obtained or even likely to occur.

Alas, after this auspicious beginning, the conference itself completely failed to produce anything like peace.

For much of our nation’s past we believed in our history.  That is, our textbooks taught us that, while we were not perfect as a nation, we were on the right side of history.  Older westerns may have shown “good” Indians, but consistently sided with the whites.  But with the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the movie Little Big Man, the narrative pivoted almost entirely.  Now, just as in Dances with Wolves, the army was the bad guys and the Indians were the good guys.  The story we once told about our past no longer convinced us.

Cozzens attempts to redress the imbalance and provide a much more complex view.  When one’s work receives positive reviews from National Review and The New York Times, you have probably hit upon something we need for our understanding of this period, if not for our whole culture.  One reviewer labeled his work “quietly subversive,” which I think apt.  Cozzens will not let us rest with easy categories.  I would not call him as attempting to reverse the narrative by saying, “All those bad things you’ve heard that whites did to Indians?  Not true!”  While he mentions a variety of Indian atrocities against whites and each other, for the most part he blames Americans for the failure to achieve peace.

He takes care to show a murky tapestry and blurred lines.  He shows us generals and Indians who respected each other and sought friendship, and those on both sides who hated each other and wanted war.  And–we have to find a place for the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” in the narrative.  Some tribes turned against other tribes and showed no mercy, and Cozzens admits that the Indians’ version of total war against each other had much more brutality than ours did against them. Some Indian agents had great ideas as well as good intent, others tried to implement grand visions that made no sense and would surely only lead to violence through unrealistic expectations–as some generals took pains to explain.  Instead of race vs. race, The Earth is Weeping shows us a web of confusing and shifting alliances. In the end, the main problem seemed to rest not in our official policy, but in that we had no coherent peace policy or any means of enforcing one, which left events at the mercy of violence on both sides.

Thus, Cozzens’ account takes on elements of Shakespearean tragedy, where certain key individuals take action that creates terrible situations.  But aspects of Greek tragedy present themselves as well, where it seems almost inevitable that gigantic, unseen forces would certainly frustrate those with goodwill on both sides.

Surely the Indian wars of the West shared in some ways with wars that others have fought across time, but we should seek for what made this conflict unique to our context.  Many of the tribes Cozzens writes about had a warrior culture.  To earn status in the tribe, a young man had to show bravery and fight.  No other path to status existed.  Younger braves would surely resent their elders who told them not to fight–easy for them to say, who already had status and power.  Of course, various tribes never sought peace at all.  Many Indians knew that they had little chance against the army, but . . . better to go down remaining true to your identity.

But, as Tocqueville pointed out, America lacks a warrior elite mentality.  Democracies he believed, naturally seek to avoid war, though they become quite formidable if united to actually fight.  In time a united democratic force, he believed, would destroy an aristocratic warrior-elite society.  But America had no unity on this issue, with political divisions on Indian questions as deep as exist today on other matters, and this begs the question–how then was our victory over the Indians so decisive?

Our political divisions can be separated broadly into “conservatives,” and “liberals.”

Conservatives tend to believe in a limited government that allows its citizens the broadest possible latitude.  Self-government means that culture should have pride of place, not law–which comes in only at the margins.  Liberals can look at the Indian wars and say, “This is the fault of conservatives.  With a bigger and more powerful government we could have had a more coherent policy that we could enforce.  If only we had the power to curtail our liberty of movement and actually enforce various laws (with the attendant higher taxes to increase revenue) and treaties, we could have averted the tragedy of the Indian wars.”  Gary Gerstle makes this very argument in his Liberty and Coercion.

Liberals tend to believe in bigger government, but what purpose does this bigger government serve?  For those on the left, the government exists to protect the right of individuals to do what they want.  So conservatives can level a charge akin to, “You liberals care nothing for Law.  If you want abortion, you override all law and custom to get it.  If you want gay marriage, you will have it.  You care little for the boundaries of code or culture–you simply want the government big enough so that no one can stop you from doing what you want to do.”  Liberals tend to have a special focus on aiding those perceived to occupy the margins of society.  Well, those who moved west certainly were not wealthy, elite, industrialists, the “one percenters.”

What Americans “wanted” in the latter half of the 19th century was the unencumbered ability to move west.  No prominent leader of either side questioned this basic premise.

Tentatively, I suggest that herein lies the root of U.S. unity in the Indian wars, and perhaps our unity as a culture at large.  We believe that we should have what we want.  With this unity, our democratic society would surely defeat the more “aristocratic” Indian tribes.*  Perhaps unity was subconscious then, and perhaps it is subconscious now, but both liberals and conservatives seem to want the same thing–doing what we want–via different means.  Thus, neither a large government or a small one, neither a conservative or liberal policy, would have made much difference.  If Americans wanted to move west, and if they believed that they should have the freedom to move west, it was bound to happen.

Perhaps this is the Greek element of this part of our history.

For the Shakespearean, I offer a variety of quotes below from The Earth is Weeping.

Dave

*We tend to think of the Indian tribes monolithically, but Cozzens shows that no real unified sense of “Indianness” existed among the tribes until the very end of the conflict–when it was far too late.  This lack of unity among the tribes (perhaps common among other warrior-elite societies, like ancient Greece?), must also be a factor in this war.

We have heard much talk of the treachery of the Indian.  In treachery, broken pledges on the part of high officials, lies, thievery, slaughter of defenseless women and children . . . the Indian was a mere amatuer in comparison to the “noble white man.”

  • Lt. Britton Davis, US Army

******

I knew that the white man was coming to fight us and take away our land, and I thought it was not right.  We are humans too and God created us all alike, and I was going to do the best I could to defend our nation.  So I started on the warpath when I was 16 years old.

  • Fire Thunder, Cheyenne Warrior

******

If the lands of the white man are taken, civilization justifies him in resisting the invader.  Civilization does more than this: it brands him a coward and a slave if he submits to the wrong.  If the savage resists civilization, with the 10 Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.  

  • Report of the Indian Peace Commission, 1868

******

You have asked for my advice . . . I can say that I can see no way in which your race can become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except if you live by the cultivation of the soil [instead of roaming and hunting].  It is the object of this government to be at peace with all our red brethren, and if our children should sometimes behave badly and violate treaties, it is against our wish. You know, it is not always possible for a father to have his children behave precisely as he might wish.

  • Abraham Lincoln, 1863

*******

I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when the Indians see their game driven away and their people starve, their source of supplies cut off . . . that they go to war.  They are surrounded on all sides, and they can only fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.

  • General George Crook

*******

An army officer once asked a Cheyenne chief why his tribe made war on the neighboring Crow tribe.  He responded, “We stole land from the Crow because they had the best hunting ground. We wanted more room for ourselves.”

******

The savage requires a greater extent of territory to sustain themselves than is compatible with progress and the just claims of civilized life, and must yield to those claims.

  • President James Monroe, 1817

******

I feel pity for the poor devil who naturally wriggles against his doom, and I have seen whites who would kill Indians just as they would bears, all for gold, and care nothing for it.  Such men have no regard for treaties. But the savage is slothful, and is in need of discipline.

  • Gen. Wiiliam T. Sherman, 1866

******

The Great White Father sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road.  But the White Chief goes with soldiers on the road before we say Yes or No.

  • Red Cloud, 1868

******

Disease, drink, intertribal warfare, the aggression of lawless whites, and the steady and restless emigration into Indian hunting lands–all of these factors endanger the very existence of the Plains Indians.

  • The Senate’s “Doolittle Commission,” 1867

******

The Indian is the best rough rider, the best soldier, and certainly the best natural horseman in the world [white scalps counted for little in Indian villages, as little honor was to be had from killing whites, viewed as inferior opponents].

  • Col. Richard Dodge, 1869

*******

When Congress offered to build homes for the Indians upon reasonably good land where they would stay, Cheyenne warrior Satanta replied,

“This building of homes for us is nonsense.  We don’t want you to build homes for us. We would all die.  My country is small enough already. If you build us houses, I know that our land would be smaller.  Why do you insist on this?

  • Medicine Lodge Peace Commission (MLPC) talks

**********

I was born on the prairies, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.  i live like my fathers before me, and like them, I live happy.

  • Comanche Chief Ten Bears, MLPC — this speech did not please those from other tribes, however, as they accused Ten Bears for his “womanly manner” of  “talking of everything to death.”

***********

You think you are doing a great deal for us by giving us these presents, yet if you gave all the goods you could give, still we would prefer our own life.  You give us presents, then take our lands. That produces war. I have said all there is to say.

  • Cheyenne Chief Buffalo Chip

**********
At the conclusion of the MLPC meeting, there was this exchange between General Sheridan and a Congressional Indian Agent:

Agent: When the guns arrive [guns were promised to the Indians as part of the peace negotiations] may i distribute them to the Indians?

Sheridan: Yes, give them arms, and if they go to war with us, the soldiers will kill them honorably.

Buffalo Chip: Let your soldiers grow long hair, so that we may have some honor in killing them.

*********

The more I see of these Indians, the more I become convinced that they all have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers.  Their attempts at civilization are simply ridiculous.

  • General Sherman, said after continuing incursions by Arapaho and Cheyenne on the “Smoky Hill” region left 79 dead civilians, 13 women raped, and thousands of livestock destroyed or scattered

******

The white man never lived who truly loved the Indian, and no true Indian ever lived that did not hate the white man.

  • Lakota chief Sitting Bull

*******

When Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” raided white settlements (including kidnapping and execution of white women), Sheridan used Pawnee warriors to help track them down.  They caught them at a place called Seven Springs, and the Pawnee killed the Cheyenne indiscriminately without mercy. One Cheyenne survivor of the raid said, “I do not blame the Pawnee for killing our women and children.  As far back as I remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child we found of the Pawnee. Each hated the other with savage hearts that know only total war.

******

Modoc Indian raiders were captured.  Some Modocs went on the “warpath” after some Oregonian settlers had killed defenseless Modoc villagers.  When arrested, the leader of the band, “Captain Jack,” said, “If the white men that killed our villagers had been tried and punished, I would submit to you much more willingly.  Do we Indians stand any show for justice with you white people, with your own laws? I say no. I know it. You people can shoot any Indian any time you want whether we are at war or peace.  I charge the white people with wholesale murder.

 

 

 

 

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The Analogy Gap

I remember that back in my day, we had multiple sections of analogies on the SAT.  I always thought they were fun, but alas, analogies are no longer part of the test.  Apparently different reasons exist as to their absence, ranging from cultural bias to not wanting the test to seem too “tricky.”  I care little for standardized tests so I wouldn’t argue the point too strongly, but I think any look around at our discourse, where everyone who sneezes wrongly gets compared to Hitler, shows that we need more rigorous analogical thinking in our lives.

Of course analogies can be tricky, but making sense of reality requires them, so we need good ones and we need to distinguish good ones from bad. As long as we know that using a three-leaf clover to describe the Trinity works in some ways and fails in others, we can benefit from the illustration.  But using a car, a cigarette, and an oven as a replacement analogy can’t help anyone, despite the fact that all three can sometimes produce smoke.

MIT professor Vaclav Smil specializes in the study of energy, but he has a hobby of reading Roman history.  In the wake of our post 9/11 military ventures, and especially after things in Iraq began to go south, we saw many academics proclaiming the demise of the American “empire,” with comparisons to the fate of Rome everywhere across the media landscape.  Smil smelled a rat, and wrote Why America is not a New Rome to counter this wave.  I wish he put more thought into his title, but it points to the straightforward approach of his work.  He brings the discipline of a scientist to the fog of blogs and talking heads.

The question is one of analogy–how alike are the American and Roman experiences?

The comparisons should not surprise us, and have some basis in fact.  Our founders modeled our constitution on Rome’s.  Our early years resemble the heyday of the aristocratically oriented Roman Republic governed primarily by a strong Senate.  Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the Great Depression, we have witnessed the continual growth of executive power until now Congress has nearly reached rubber-stamp status, akin to the senate in Rome under the emperors.

Briefly, then, the case for strong links between America and Rome:

  • After 1989, America had no real military or economic competitor, just as Rome had no real competition in its sphere of influence after the 2nd Punic War
  • America has more than 200 overseas bases and can put its military in action most anywhere in the globe much faster than anyone else, just as Rome could move with its road system throughout its empire.
  • The world economy is controlled through New York, and Washington sets the basic rules of this economy, just as Rome did so for centuries in its era.
  • At the same time, both societies experienced drains on the real power of their economy through foolish military ventures and lack of stable monetary policy.
  • Both societies developed professional militaries that have grown increasingly distant from the general public
  • Both societies exercised considerable soft power through their cultural exports
  • The population of both societies seemed driven by distraction and entertainment.  Some point out strong connections between the gladiatorial games and our love for (American) football.
  • A loss of cultural glue across large geography means that trust and the ability to suffer together both decrease.  Hence, both societies would “buy off” the population with bread, buyouts, stimulus packages, etc.
  • Some even went so far as to say that both civilizations had a, “common obsession with central heating and plumbing.”

Stated this way some connections seem strong, but Smil doesn’t buy it.

First we can consider the concept of “empire.”  Some understand that if America has an empire, it is “informal,” and “an empire without an emperor.”  Smil argues that some concepts of empire are so vague as to be meaningless, and pushes for a very specific definition:

Empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from it and alien to it.  Its essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another.

With this definition in place we should consider if America ever exercised imperial ambitions.  Perhaps one could begin with the Mexican War of 1846, or perhaps earlier with the Indian wars that made the Northwest Territories into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. With our various conflicts on the continent we did not so much seek to control ‘alien’ peoples as much as we sought to move in and displace them.  Perhaps one could argue that the Spanish-American War made us an imperial power, but even then, we gave Cuba independence immediately and the Philippines got their independence right after W.W. II.  Smil spends a lot of time on this rather technical argument over what exactly constitutes an empire.  He has some good points to make, but only stylistically.  The real question, I think, involves how much power the U.S. has vis a vis the rest of the world.

Here Smil gets more interesting and convincing.  He cites a variety of data to show that American power, or at least our relative share of power (in political, economic, and military terms), has actually declined dramatically since the end of W.W. II.  Our global share of economic output has dropped by at least 1/3 since 1945, with continuing trade deficits largely due to reliance on foreign energy.  We send much less of our military abroad than we used to.  True, we have hundreds of military bases all over the world, but less than 20 of them have more than 1000 troops.  President Eisenhower served as our top military commander in our most glorious and successful war.  Yet he denounced the “Military-Industrial Complex in his farewell address.  One cannot even conceive of any Roman ever doing any such thing.  Empires do not act this way.

FT_17.08.21_usMilitary_locations_trend-1.png

Smil agrees that we might call the U.S. a “hegemonic” power and not an empire.  But . . . he argues that we are either a weak hegemon or a benign one.  Castro ruled Cuba for decades and all agreed he posed a potential threat to our well being, yet we could do nothing to stop him.  Similarly, we could not get rid of North Korea or beat North Vietnam.  Smil continues,

Germany was defeated by the United States in a protracted war that cost more than 180,000 lives, subsequently received America’s generous financial aid to resurrect its formidable economic potential, and is home to more than 60,000 U.S. troops.  Yet when its foreign minister was asked to join the Iraq War coalition, he simply told the U.S. Secretary of Defense, “Sorry, you haven’t convinced me,” and there the matter ended.

No less tellingly, the Turkish government (with NATO’s second largest standing army and after decades of a close relationship with the U.S.), forbade US forces to use its territory for the invasion of Iraq, a move that complicated the drive to Baghdad and undoubtedly prolonged the campaign.  America in a time of war could not even count on two of its closer allies, but there was no retaliation, no hint of indirect punishment, such as economic sanctions or suspension of certain relations.  One could cite many other such instances . . . both illustrating America’s ineffective hegemony and non-imperial behavior.

With a proliferation of graphs and paragraphs like these, Smil makes a good case that America exercises far less power than its critics at home and abroad surmise.  Smil’s book is not brilliant, but he writes with a concision and clarity that cannot but convince the reader.

Or perhaps, very nearly convince.  American political culture struggles for coherence at the moment, but we have experienced times in our past very much like this before.  We have a disconnect between cultural elites and everyday people, but as Smil points out, this happens in almost every advanced civilization.  Economic inequality is a problem, but again, Smil shows how this tends to happen in many advanced economies, and in any case, our inequality now is not nearly as great as it was in the late 19th century.  By these measures we are no more an empire, or no more in decline, than other countries with power at different times.  The analogy is too thin to make anything of.

But . . . perhaps the strongest point of comparison lies elsewhere.  Toynbee argued that the military and economic problems Rome experienced in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD had their roots in the spiritual detachment of stoicism.  In a similar vein, Eric Voegelin wrote frequently that global power and global influence (of which the U.S. certainly has in some measure) easily leads to a gnostic view of the created order, which again inspires a detachment and loss of engagement.

Perhaps this should be our biggest concern.  We have recently legalized pot, the new drug of choice (in contrast to stimulants like cocaine of 30-40 years ago).  The digital revolution allows us to entertain ourselves with our screens and enter fantasy lands alone in our rooms.  Recently the Caspar mattress company founded a line of stores dedicated to napping as an art form.  It may be a good thing not to have a political, military, or other such analogous connections to Rome.  Here’s hoping that our growing sense of detachment is not in fact the strongest point of comparison between us.

 

Dave

 

Conversations with Stalin

Some might argue that history constrains us.  Certainly many teenagers keenly feel the question, “Why does it have to be this way?  Why must the world work as it does?”  The dynamism of youth and their imaginations certainly can do wonders for any society.

We may suppose that a world without historical awareness will create a glorious whole new world of possibilities.  But . . . history rather pedantically suggests that the opposite of the case.  Recall the French Revolution, for example.  They redid everything, even their sense of time.  But this confusion and disruption led to terrible tyranny and mass incarceration.  The communist regimes of the 20th century show this same tendency.   Only the most bold would call Soviet-era culture stimulating and full of possibilities.  Their narrowness of vision–a narrowness made possible and even likely by their disrespect to history–created a terrible tyranny.

Many comedians have commented that they no longer wish to perform at many college campuses.  Students in today’s climate seemingly cannot operate with dual levels of reality.  They cannot make distinctions between jokes and real life, assuming a 1-1 correlation of all aspects of reality, a flat world.  Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wrote that,

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

When I attended the convention [The National Association for Campus Activities] in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed. To understand this change, it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.

But which jesters, which bards? Ones who can handle the challenge. Because when you put all of these forces together—political correctness, coddling, and the need to keep kids at once amused and unoffended (not to mention the absence of a two-drink minimum and its crowd-lubricating effect)—the black-box theater of an obscure liberal-arts college deep in flyover territory may just be the toughest comedy room in the country.

In the same vein, Alex Tabborok recently commented that,

It has been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past.

I thought of this issue reading transcipt trials of two Soviet authors in the late 1960’s, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. The authors were not in trouble for any direct attacks against the state or against communist doctrine per se.  Obviously no writer who valued his safety would write in this way.  The problems with their work lay elsewhere.  Amongst the issues raised:

  • There are no clear good and bad characters in your stories.  How then can the people understand the story (i.e., the story alienates the masses, which is de-facto anti-communist)?
  • Which characters in the story definitively represent the author’s point of view?  In other words, which character speaks for the author, and which characters serve as foils?

This particular attack assumes that 1) The relationship between characters in the story and the author is always strictly linear and 1-1, and 2) This relationship is necessary for clarity in the story, and 3) Without this clarity, how can we judge if you are a threat to the state or not?

Both authors seemed terribly confused by attacks made against them, pleading “not guilty,” an unusual move in trials of this sort.  They tried to explain basic literary theory of story and character, but to no avail.  Their judges simply couldn’t accept this mental construct.  By definition character’s must express a direct relationship to the author.  Character’s who criticize the state must reflect the author’s mind.  The author’s tried to point out that some of these characters fare badly in the story, but the prosecutors shot back that not all who criticized the state “got their just desserts.”   Here is a brief excerpt from Yuli Daniel’s trial, which begins with the prosecutor reading an excerpt from one of Daniel’s stories:

Prosecutor (reading): “I hate them [referring to those in power] so much I have spasms, I scream, I tremble.”   Well, Daniel, what are we to make of this?

Daniel: That is an epigraph to the character’s thoughts (laughter in the courtroom, Daniel looks around nervously).

Prosecutor: Who is that you hate so?  Who do you want to destroy?

Daniel: To whom are you talking?  To me, or to my character, or to someone else?

Prosecutor: Who is your positive hero?  Who expresses your point of view in the story?

Daniel: I have told you, the story has no entirely positive hero and there doesn’t have to be one.

Prosecutor: Who expresses the author’s credo?

Daniel: The characters do express the author’s thoughts, but only in part.  No single character represents the author.  Maybe [my story is] bad literature, but it is literature, and it doesn’t divide everything into black and white.  . . . The indictment states that I express my ideas “through the mouths of my characters.”  That is a naive accusation, to put it mildly.

Neither author had success discussing the nuance of how stories work.  Both received labor camp sentences of 5-7 years.

In his Conversations with Stalin Milovan Djilas tells of his initial fascination with Stalin and the Soviet Union and his subsequent disenchantment in a few short years.  Many other works give many more details about the horror and oppression in Stalinist Russia.  What made Djilas’ account interesting was that he framed his account not so much in terms of how it all went wrong, but how it managed to work at all.  That is, we know Stalin was bad, but if he was so bad, why did Soviet Russia prosper and gain power, at least in certain ways?

He explores this in different ways.  For example, no one questions that the purges in the military during the 1930’s sacrificed thousands to Stalin’s paranoia, but Djilas had met many of the commanders put in place after the purges, and admitted that they were almost all quite adept, fearless, and devoted.  Naturally, Stalin had his entourage that rarely, if ever, challenged him.  As you would expect, one always had to constantly avoid saying the wrong thing by following keenly the bouncing ball of “official” opinion. But unlike most other autocrats throughout history, Stalin did actual work and remained very well informed.  He could incisively size up personalities in the room and control it with ease.

What struck me most of all, however, was this comment of Djilas:

“The world in which the Soviet leaders lived–and that was my world too–was slowly taking on a new appearance: horrible, unceasing struggle on all sides. Everything was stripped bare and reduced to strife which only changed in form and in which only the stronger and more adroit survived.  Full of admiration for Soviet leaders before this, I now succumbed to a heady enthusiasm for the inexhaustible will and awareness that never left them for a moment.  That was a world in which there was no other choice other than victory or death.”

Perhaps unconsciously, Djilas reveals that Maxism has its roots not in economics, politics, or a new conception of proletarian culture, but in a new religious understanding of the world–a naked struggle for will and power.  It is this elemental understanding of things that can give regimes who build on this faith a concentrated vitality, akin to the power of art in certain barbarian civilizations.*  Perhaps Stalin understood this as well, to great and terrible effect.

Today most of us immediately understand the danger’s of the far-right, perhaps because the far-right has a crystal-clear idea of what they want and express it forcefully.  Many on the far-left, on the other hand–quite prevalent on many campuses today–seem to think that their ideas will lead to a bright, sunlit land where everyone loves everyone else (the far-right has no such plan and no such delusion).  But if you can’t take a joke, you will dramatically narrow your world, after which, you will have nothing to fall-back on other than the paganism of power and will.

Dave

*Though I would love to claim this insight about “barbarian art,” it belongs entirely to the inimitable Kenneth Clark

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberty and Coercion

Almost every political philosopher I am aware of from Aristotle down through Montesquieu believed that a democracy/republic had to be small in size.  Self-government required, among other things:

  • A population where people know each other enough to trust each other to some degree.
  • A population where people can have enough land to support themselves, but a geography that does not allow any one particular faction to have too much land, thus gaining too much of an advantage over their fellows.
  • A relatively culturally homogeneous population that shares core values

The American experiment is unique in many ways, one of which being that Jefferson and Madison attempted to turn this reasoning on its head.  They argued that

  • Democracies/Republics floundered because of too much population concentration, not too little.
  • These population concentrations gave way to passions and factionalism that could easily destroy liberty by trampling on the minority (cf. Madison’s brilliant Federalist #10).
  • Hence, what Democracies/Republics need is not a small geography, but a large one.  People need to spread out so that 1) All will be sure to have land, and 2) No one particular faction could concentrate its power enough to override the rights of minorities (hence, Jefferson’s impetus for his semi-Constitutional Louisiana Purchase).

Maybe necessity helped them invent these ideas, maybe it sprung direct out of their heads.  Either way, with this reasoning Madison and Jefferson show their genius, confidence, and perhaps, their arrogance.  I have wondered if one might not view the whole of American history through the lens of this question: Were Jefferson and Madison right or wrong?*

I expected Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion to take on the grand question of the thorny question of the interaction between liberty and power, and how sometimes “liberty” for oneself means power over others.  Instead, he narrowed his focus and proceeded in a methodical way to show how over time the “police power” of the federal government grew.  Gerstle disappointed me by never exploring the relationship of our founding ideals to this question.  But at times his narrower focus allows him to make some incisive observations.

For example . .  .

Many presidents and perhaps many Americans had a desire to act in some measure of good faith with Native Americans, but things never went right.  Some might explain this via a grand clash of civilizations.  Gerstle looks instead at the inherent dilemmas posed by our philosophic commitments.  Our commitment to self-government limited the scope of federal government.  No one, whether a Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic/Republican or the like, believed that a large professional army went well with liberty.  But with no money and no political will to even create agencies to establish firm borders and grant land titles, let alone enforce such borders militarily, various presidents found themselves giving in to the settlers “squatters rights.”  We wanted to prevent the national government from having too much power to coerce, but without this power, settlers had the liberty and the power to coerce others.

Time and time again, our sheer size made the relationship between governmental power and self-government difficult.

A similar line of reasoning happened with non-WASP immigrants, be they Catholics from Ireland/southern Europe or Asians settling in the west.  They did not have the same rights as others, but how could they?  For communal self-government relied on shared religious and cultural beliefs and habits.  If these immigrants did have these same values, they could possibly participate in the democracy.  Gerstle shared Teddy Roosevelt’s fury and frustration with the treatment of Japanese migrants in the U.S. just as he was negotiating sensitive deals with Japan.  But he had no ability to force local governments to do as he wished.

Here Gerstle misses an opportunity to connect our dilemmas with our founding ideology.  American colonization began with the idea of transplanting certain distinct communities intact.  But by the later 18th century Enlightenment ideas led to the bold “All men are created equal” mindset of the Declaration.  Simultaneously, America had no real justification to exclude anyone from its shores, but neither could they practice local, autonomous, self-government if they did.

The history of political philosophy has its revenge–or at least makes itself known.

Of course slavery is the preeminent manifestation of this dilemma.  On the one hand, I think most of the founders knew that slavery ran against their moral principles as a nation.  But their political principle of limiting the power of national government meant granting a lot of autonomy to the states.  The clash of these two propositions embedded the possibility of civil war into the fabric of our origins.

Gerstle cites one illuminating aspect of this problem that I had not heard of before.  After Nat Turner’s rebellion many abolitionist presses mailed anti-slavery publications “free of charge” to the South.  This infuriated President Jackson, who believed that such publications only sought to stir up more trouble.  He asked for Congress to ban their mailing.

But southerner John C. Calhoun recognized that such a ban would not serve southern interests.  They would gain in the short term but give away one of their core principles–the right of states to decide such questions.  He advocated against the ban.  But many states arrived at a solution by instructing local postal workers to simply not deliver this mail.  This at best awkward compromise could only last so long, however much it tried to resolve federal and state issues.**

States were seen early on as the means by which well-ordered communities could be established.  Thus, they had broad ranging police power.  The constitution reflects this by enumerating the powers of the federal government and giving everything else to the states.  Today the power of states is much weaker relative to even just a few generations ago.

This changed in stages.

The Industrial Revolution may have done more damage to the vision of the founders than any president or political party.  It broke down local rural life and lumped most people together in the cities as one amorphous mass.  Such conditions created a national state. Without any direct power to act, the government outsourced, deputizing local civic groups to undertake tasks related to civil order.

Whatever the successes such organizations had, they were destined for embarrassing failures.  They discriminated against blacks and immigrants.  They imprisoned without fair trials, and so on, all in the name of the Justice Department.  They needed stopped, but the only way to do so involved finding a way to increase the power of the national government.

Over time the national government used various legal strategies mostly related to the 14th amendment and the commerce clause to achieve their aims.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution destroyed the possibility of self-government that our constitution depends on.  Rather than create a new constitution, we sought to stretch certain enumerated powers far beyond their original purpose.  Much hay has been made of the commerce clause, for example, which many conservatives lament.  However, our military and national defense (an issue dear to many conservatives) has also assumed a shape utterly unrecognizable to anyone who lived before W.W. II.  The size and cost of our military has in turn stretched the power of the presidency far beyond the vision of the constitution.  Gerstle cites many examples of how our military ballooned in size and then rapidly decreased when conflicts ceased.  Of course we can cite the strategic dilemmas faced by the U.S. after W.W. II as a justification for maintaining a large military.  In a very real sense, W.W. II did not end until 1989.

Strategic considerations aside, we should speculate if any other forces influenced this shift.

Eighteenth-century theorists drew upon the “citizen-soldiers” of times past.  Greece and Rome both provided examples of this.  On the one hand, we cannot have a militarized state, which would jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, we need national defense.  A nation of property owners motivated by legitimate self-interest would certainly rally to defend their land, their communities, if need be.  The first 175 years (give or take) of our history demonstrated this.  Right up through the end of W.W. I we demonstrated the ability to dramatically expand and contract the size of our military.

Perhaps our strategic situation changed so dramatically in 1945 that it necessitated the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Or perhaps it was we ourselves that changed.  Gerstle does not speculate.

Embedded in this question is the relationship between liberty and order.  We have always recognized the need for someone to have the final say, and the need for people to “pursue happiness” in the way they see fit.  This has always meant tolerating things one may disagree with.  Should we ban pornography or not?  Do we grant the freedom of some to own slaves?  Do we grant the freedom of some to oppose same-sex marriages?  Who gets to decide?

Gerstle’s book rather prosaically shows how this power to decide has transferred over time from the states to the federal government.  This happened mainly under Democratic leadership.  But conservatives also played a role at crucial times with their traditional issues of national defense/military.  By “prosaically” I don’t mean that it was easy or unconvincing.  He has extensive research and uses a methodical style that makes him quite convincing.  But he leaves us with some unexplored questions and neglects to swing for the fences.

He makes clear the fact that ideas of liberty and coercion have always existed.  All we have done over time is basically transferred the power of coercion from the state to the national government.  As to whether representative government can exist in the post-industrial era, as to whether or not Jefferson was right or wrong, these grand questions go largely untouched.  I for one can’t help but admire the brilliance and confident boldness of Jefferson’s vision–though I think I disagree.  I wish Gerstle had done a bit more to inspire me one way or another, and done a bit more to help answer the perplexing question of the nature of America’s idea of liberty.

Dave

 

*Another possible historical lens would be the “wheel of fortune”–the idea that every civilization (and every ruler?) will experience a kind of boom/bust cycle.  The medievals would argue, I think, that this cycle was meant to teach us about redemption.  This lens would argue that some choices could delay the progress of the cycle perhaps even for a long time, but that “nothing lasts forever” and that some kind of decline remains inevitable.

Again, this idea had a historically long run, from the ancients down through Machiavelli at least.  Our founders, many of them heirs to the Enlightenment, would not have accepted this idea.

**The same held true for the Fugitive Slave Act.  Most pro-slavery advocates rejoiced at the new provisions of the law, but others saw that to achieve this they abandoned a key principle of keeping the federal government away from the slavery issue.

Without question slavery is a terrible moral evil.  We must realize that the issue had other dimensions to understand the colonial and ante-bellum period.  We may deplore the actions of another country or culture.  When should we use force to change them?  By what authority?

 

Rebels Against the Future

I posted this originally a few years ago, but repost it with some additional content relevant to the season . . .

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A few years ago at the Circe Institute conference Andrew Kern made a startling statement.  In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites.  I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons.  But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted unknowingly for more fundamental reasons.

All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom.  So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors.  She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth.  They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage.  The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.

So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs.  They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself, though almost certainly not overtly but in a sub-conscious, Jungian sense.

I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch.  But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature.  To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government.  With Jason and his Argonauts we see Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her.  In Homer’s The Odyssey we see a couple of references to the span of life compared to a thread (7.197-198, 24.38-29).  Melville uses similar imagery in chapter 47 of Moby Dickand we also see it in the Upanishads.  Isaiah 38:12 reads, “My life was with me as cloth on a loom, when she that weaves draws near to cut off the thread.”

The philosopher Porphyry uses very similar imagery in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, another reference to the Odyssey (13.102-112).  Here Homer refers to a murky cave which contains, among other things, “looms, likewise of stone, on which the nymphs wear weave sea-purple garments.”  Porphyry writes (and we should remember that he–unfortunately–believed in the pre-existence of the soul),

What symbol could be more appropriate than “looms” for souls descending to birth and the creation of the body?  , . . For flesh is formed in and around the bones, which in living beings resemble stones.

We should not miss the connections to the fundamental facts of weaving, birth, death, blood, and the like.

So perhaps Kern, and the Luddites themselves, were on to something.

I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.  Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else.  He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.”   He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage.  Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason.  In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground.  Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries.  Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines.  And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.*  Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different.  As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts.  Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks?  Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others?  If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country?  The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.

Sale just scratches the surface.  Maybe not much else exists to see.  Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs.  But I think the Luddites continual references to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed.  I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.

My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism.  “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age.  We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.”  The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat.  The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible.  Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians.  Alas, political realities set in and something must give.  The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end.  And this ends up dooming their movement.**

I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.”  They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon.  The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present.  Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change.  They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self.  If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me.  Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.

Or perhaps their concerns went far away from politics.  Perhaps they saw themselves as doomed crusaders, but bound, like crusaders, to something deeper and older than politics.

Maybe.

According to the Tradition of the Church, at the Annunciation the Virgin Mary was found by Gabriel in the Temple . . . weaving a veil for the Temple where she resided, and some icons of the Annunciation (such as the one below from the 14th century in Serbia) show this as well.

In Hebrews 10:20 we see the identification with Christ’s body with the veil of the sanctuary (10:20), and we know that both the Temple curtain and the Body of Christ were broken for the life of the world.  Father Maximos Constas writes, “With the strictest visual economy, then, Mary’s thread gives consummate expression the . . . continuum of conception and crucifixion.”^

From St. Epiphianos:

About Eve and Mary it was said, “Who gave women the wisdom of weaving, and the knowledge of embroidering? (Job 38:36).  For the first wise woman, Eve, wove material garments for Adam, whom she had stripped naked.  This labor was given to her, for it was through her that the knowledge of nakedness was acquired, and thus to her was given the task of clothing the perceptible body.

To Mary, on the other hand, it was granted by God to give birth to the Lamb and the Shepherd [cf. John 1:29, 10:11], so that from his glory we might be clothed in a garment of incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:53-54).

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility.  For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.

So it may be that the liturgy of the loom points us toward the wisdom of knowing salvation itself.  I’d like to believe that the Luddites thought likewise, and would love for someone to prove or at least suggest this in another book about them.

Dave

*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.

**I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence.  But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker.  This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.

^The entirety of this paragraph owes everything to The Art of Seeing by Father Maximos Constans, pp. 108-109, as do the quotes below, found on p. 129

 

 

Ritual, Politics, and Power

President Reagan garnered political popularity and power in part by his skillful use of political theater and imagery.

But in 1985 even this great master of ritual and belief stumbled a bit with the infamous “Bitburg” affair.  A New York Times article read,

It was a day Ronald Reagan had dreaded, even though it was a rite he felt bound to endure.  Walking beside Chancellor Kohl amidst the German military graves of the Bitburg cemetery, he looked stiff and uncomfortable, in awkward contrast to his usual ease.  While Kohl brushed aside tears, Reagan looked straight ahead, careful not to glance down at the graves less he spy the SS symbols sprinkled across the cemetery lawn.  In spite of the West German’s desire to clasp hands over the graves of the war dead, the President’s arms remained resolutely at his side.  Earlier in the day, at a hastily arranged ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Reagan laid a wreath inscribed, “From the People of the United States.”  At the cemetery, in a ceremony that he was able to limit to just eight minutes, the wreath bore a somewhat different message: “From the President of the United States.”

Reagan got himself into this mess through a series of awkward political circumstances.  First, West Germany had emerged as a crucial ally in the Cold War and Reagan wanted to put a new kind of missile on West German soil.  Second, Chancellor Kohl had engaged in a long campaign of rehabilitation for Germany, and argued that the German people were also the victims of the Nazi regime–a statement most found (and I find) partially true but mostly false.  Still, things in West Germany had obviously changed since the 1940’s.  Still, rehabilitating the Nazi regime . . . ?

Most world leaders balked at any ceremonial recognition.  Reagan felt that he needed to acknowledge West Germany’s emerging role and commitment to freedom.  Plus, the missiles . . . he needed enough political capital with the West Germans to install them on their soil.

So, he decided to go.  He asked that the ceremony be limited in time, pomp, and circumstance.  He asked his aides to pick a spot that would incur the least amount of political damage.  Somehow, in a gaffe of gaffes, his aides picked a spot that included graves of SS officers!  One might understand mourning the ordinary German soldier, but not even Reagan could pull this off.  Still, Reagan had pledged–but he then insisted on another visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in last-ditch attempt to balance things out.  Hence, his stiff posture at the Bitburg cemetery, and the different messages on the wreaths.

The amount of controversy these simple and subtle gestures caused shows us that such gestures are not that simple.  Rituals reflect deeply held beliefs.  More than that, rituals create beliefs that stick in the minds of men.

David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics, and Power discusses this topic brilliantly.  He writes about weighty topics like ritual, psychology, and sociology with a spring in his step, and shares numerous revealing examples across time and space.  By far, his is the best book I have seen on the subject.

Some of us of a more rationalistic bent might say that rituals have no meaning in themselves.  Perhaps they give outward expression to inward meaning, but certainly cannot create meaning.  Meaning and ritual can easily part ways.

But how far could one take the separation of meaning and ritual?  Imagine we felt respect for someone but failed to shake their hand.  Would we really have this respect?  Some might say, “We love each other and we don’t need the state or the church to tell us that we’re married.” But I doubt that such people would refuse the “act of marriage” that creates intimacy in the first place.  “That’s ok, it’s the thought that counts” would not work as a defense.  Without a physical embodiment of the thought, no evidence of the thought exists.  More than that, our thoughts cannot be said to conform to reality without a physical manifestation of them.  We know a tree by its fruits.

In the Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Socrates argues about the nature of reality.  He comments,

Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?”  “Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”

In On the Celestial Hierarchy, St. Dionysius the Areopagite acknowledges that human beings cannot immediately or directly attain to spiritual contemplation.  Being flesh and blood, we require visible symbols and embodiments to know truth.  Kertzer in turn acknowledges that the president mainly functions as, “the chief symbol maker of the land,” so the minute analysis of Reagan’s gestures should not surprise us.*  Kertzer quotes another scholar who similarly wrote, “Most political controversy centers around which myth to apply to a particular problem.”

Kertzer generally ignores religion in his book, but the thin line between religion and politics makes itself perfectly obvious throughout his work–a huge strength in my view.  It illumines the fact that our political commitments come very near, or equivalent to, our religious beliefs, consciously or otherwise.  One immediately thinks of the vesting of clergy to perform religious rites.  We should not be gnostics.  You cannot just “think” yourself into being married.  Even today we still understand that you need a rite, you need “the act of marriage” to create marriage.  We know of the crown, robes, and mitres of kings.  But even in our much more casual modern American democracy, we have fixed expectations of how to look presidential.  To take one example, presidents give the pens they use to sign laws and treaties to favored confidantes or privileged citizens as “sacred” tokens of leadership.

Some may recall how Jimmy Carter’s popularity fell at least in part due to his failure to manage the symbolic nature of his leadership, either in his dress, relationship with Congress, or his tone of voice when speaking.  To take an opposite case, Kertzer shows how Rajiv Ghandi skillfully managed the symbolism of his mother Indira’s funeral to make a political career from nothing to India’s youngest Prime Minister in a matter of months.

We will know that our country’s religion is changing when we see its basic rituals come under fire.  Personally I find the singing of our national anthem at sporting events laborious and excessive.  But once the toothpaste gets out of the tube . . . things get complicated.  Though I find the ritual onerous and misplaced, I acknowledge the power of the rite.  Objectors to singing the anthem wisely engage in a symbolic action of their own.  The fact that they kneel has much more power than holding a press conference to voice their objections.

The more our country moves away from religion and its overt religious rite and symbolism, the more we will seek it elsewhere, the more important our political symbols will likely become, and the more power their proper execution will confer.  Ritual, Politics, and Power makes it clear that we need symbols to make sense of reality, and will have them one way or another.

Dave

*What do our modern presidential elections decide?  Given entitlement and defense spending, our federal budget has very little room to maneuver.  Our system of government and regular elections keep the president more or less in check.  Many believed the world would soon end after Trump’s election, but little of real substance has changed.  I think Kertzer would argue that what is most often really at stake is who gets to craft our symbols.  Neither candidate proposed any radical policy measure, and when Trump talked about a wall few thought it would actually happen.  But . . . it symbolically meant something to talk about it.  The election was bitter and contentious because of the symbolic nature of the candidates.  They may not have actually done radically different things in office but they represent very different symbols of what America is or should be.

A House Swept Clean

Richard Rorty’s America had a wonderful run, even if it was short lived.

I well remember my senior year of high school in 1990-91.  For the first few months of school Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had pride of place in our minds.  We had furious debates as to the rightness or wrongness of our presence in the Mid-East.  As military action looked more imminent, the arguments got more heated.  I filled out my draft service card.  Some thought the war could take years and become a dreaded “quagmire.”

The fighting actually started and a hush fell over the debates.  And then, just as quickly, the fighting  ceased.   The ground war took no more than a week.  We sat stunned for a moment, then, elation.  Talk of world affairs ceased immediately.  We all shifted into thinking about college, planning out our lives, and so on.  The Soviet Empire had crumbled.  What was left but Kant’s dream of perpetual peace and George Bush’s “New World Order?”

The end of the Cold War brought about the end of modernism in the mainstream and a shift towards the postmodern individualistic ethos.  Professors like Richard Rorty from the University of Virginia rode the wave.  Rorty hit the sweet spot.  In contrast to some academics, he championed the American project and American exceptionalism, which went well with our post Cold-War confidence.  He also gave free vent philosophically to our desire to maximize our individual idea of happiness as far as we wanted.  No one grand narrative need control us.  In fact, for Rorty the 1990’s allowed for America to truly fulfill her mission as a kind of blank slate for autonomous individuals.  All could achieve happiness, none need worry about “Civilization” or religion.

Ah, the 1990’s.  Good times, good times.

Peter Augustine Lawler tackles the thorny problem of the nature of the American Enterprise in his Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about our Souls.  In his work Lawler examines the various attempts to craft a secular paradise in America from Thomas Jefferson down to Richard Rorty and Francis Fukuyama.  Lawler agrees with many of the intellectuals he examines that America has essentially been about creating a republic of happy and secular individuals.  In this way he mostly sides with the liberal interpretation of America vs. the religious and conservative interpretation.  But he parts with them ultimately, stating that this dream, though seemingly close to realization at certain points in time, can never come to fruition.

Lawler published this originally just after 9/11.  We might think that he would point to the terrorist attacks as destroying the liberal dream.  True, he seems to argue, 9/11 did perhaps hasten the end of the most recent attempt at secular paradise, but it would have ended at some point in any case. To see this one need not exhaustively examine the thought of various thinkers over time (this indeed got old for me, as each thinker-guy in the book ran together in my brain).  Rather, it was when Lawler looks to two of the most perceptive critics of America in Tocqueville and Walker Percy, that his own ideas make sense.

Most know the basics of Alexis de Tocqueville’s monumental Democracy in America:

  • He came from an aristocratic background
  • He came to investigate democracy, seeing it as the wave of the future
  • He offered important criticisms of democratic practice, while giving it the nod in the end over the aristocratic past.

One could say a great deal about this work.  Lawler focuses on an oft-overlooked observation of Tocqueville’s about aristocracy.  Aristocracy has its flaws, but in giving people a definitive place and a definitive role they give people something to do.  Aristocratic societies come with “meaning included” in the packaging.  This goes not just for the elite.  Even Odysseus’ dog knew he had purpose.

Tocqueville praises the machinery of democracy for making everyone equal to all.  Everyone believes that this means they have worth as an individual, and they have reason for this belief.  This rational pursuit of self-interest then creates a nation of those who create peace by a kind of selfishness, just as markets create equilibrium via constant competition.  But even in the late 1830’s Tocqueville saw what we could not–that equality would actually create a large amorphous mass in which few of us would know where we stand.  We are told to be whatever we wish, but more than a few of us respond with, “And what might that be?”*

Rorty and others no doubt praise this possibility as exactly the meaning of America, one that should persist into time immemorial.

History gives witness to others of like mind and goal to Rorty.  Rorty rejected much of modernity and the Enlightenment, but he shared with Gibbon, Voltaire, Hume, and others of that time a belief that calm, rational self-interest could conquer the ills of “barbarism and religion”–a phrase used by Gibbon in describing the fall of Rome in his magnum opus, writing that, “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.”  For him, Rome had reached its zenith with the rule of the humane, tolerant, religiously skeptical and urbane Antonine Emperors (A.D. 96-180).

Like Edward Gibbon, historian Arnold Toynbee sought for universals amongst particulars in his multi-volume A Study of History, and so perhaps this helps explain why one particular quote of Gibbon’s fascinated Toynbee, as he uses the quote several times across his twelve volume work.   In 1781 Gibbon wrote that,

In War the European forces exercised themselves in temperate and indecisive contests.  The Balance of Power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own or neighboring kingdoms may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of Mankind, the Europeans and their colonists.

With the mild peace settlement after America’s victory in the Revolutionary War, Gibbon looked justified in his assumption.  It seemed that Europe’s house was swept clean of the various bothers of the religious wars.  It seemed that a paradise of calm rationality awaited them.

But 10 years after his utterance, the illusion disappeared utterly in France’s revolution (a nation that drunk deeply from the well of Enlightenment), engulfing Europe in 20 years of war that left perhaps three million dead.

Hugh Trevor-Roper writes in his History and Enlightenment about Gibbon that

. . . Gibbon gave a confident answer to the problems of his time.  Since progress depended on science, and since science and the useful arts were irreversible in a world of free competition and inquiry, and since Europe, unlike the Roman Empire, was a plural society where competition could not be stifled by a single, repressive, centralized figure, a reversion to barbarism was unthinkable.  Gibbon wrote that, “the essential engine of progress having been distributed over the globe, it can never be lost.  We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real happiness, knowledge, and virtue of the human race.”

I think Gibbon’s quote above fascinated Toynbee because in Gibbon he saw of man of great intellect, good intention, and broad vision completely miss a seismic shift in the history of his times.  Like Rorty and Fukuyama in the 1990’s, Gibbon thought that European civilization had truly arrived and that history had effectively ended for Europe in 1780.

Had Gibbon looked even at his own field of expertise he could have known his dream was doomed to fail.  Yes, the reign of the mild, intelligent, and reasonable Antonines helped Rome.  But the reaction against this was swift and brutal, beginning with Commodus and not really ending until 150 years later–a period that included decades of conflict between Rome’s generals.  The Antonines could not quite connect with the real heart of Rome, and could not feed their souls on mild urbanity.

Lawler asserts that Tocqueville felt his dilemma keenly.  Aristocracy relies on a kind of fiction and cannot stand up in argument to the exacting syllogisms of equality.  Aristocratic societies, like tradition, just “exist.”  Tocqueville had no arguments, but he saw the spiritual vacuum democracy could easily produce.  The logic of equality satisfies our minds, but inclusion into the great mass in the middle would do little for our hearts.  He feared what the absence of virtue would do to democratic societies.

Walker Percy’s novels touch on a similar theme as Tocqueville.  He came from an aristocratic southern family, and he saw that their time had come and gone.  Novels last The Last Gentlemen deal with the tension of knowing that the old way of living no longer works and not knowing how to replace it.  In time Percy’s characters grow weary of “democratic diversions” and begin seeking something else.  Percy knows that, while the southern aristocratic answer is better than nothing, it failed for the right reasons.**  The quest must continue, but in what direction?^

Today we seem to be at another point of whether we will reaffirm something of what it means to be an American in a traditional sense, or change it dramatically, or, as is more likely, do some of both.  We are discovering that the pragmatic, ‘rational,’ and soulless plurality of self-interest espoused by Gibbon, Rorty, and Marcus Aurelius has a definite shelf life.  Commodus “went native,” the French Revolution unraveled  centuries of tradition and killed thousands in the process, and today we have white nationalists and Antifa radicals.  Thankfully for the moment we’re not nearly in the same place as Rome and France found themselves (or for that matter, the situation of Germany in the 1930’s after the ‘devil-may-care’ Weimar era).

Whatever merits may have been in rejecting the various “gods” of our past, we should be careful in discarding them wholesale.

When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.  On its arrival it finds the house vacant, swept clean, and  put in order.  Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and dwell there; and the final plight of that man is worse than the first. So will it be with this wicked generation.” — Matthew 12:43-45

Dave

*Of course the mass of people must have someone to follow, and so we do have makers of taste and opinion.  Perhaps a cynic of democracy might agree that these people alone have true freedom.  But, an even greater cynic might point out that even these people quickly become subjects of mass opinion, and the people turn on them quickly when they fall out of line.

**I have read very little about the Civil Rights era, but Percy’s brief essay “Stoicism in the South” is the best analysis of why well meaning southern elites failed to bring about civil rights reform in the decades after the Civil War.

^My favorite novel of Percy’s is The Second Coming, a more profound (I think) sequel to The Last Gentlemen.  In a famous passage found here, the character of Will Barrett wrestles with two unacceptable options of dealing with reality (warning: language).  It is not quite the same as the aristocratic/democratic option, but hints at some of the same tension.