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

 

 

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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).

In his multi-volume A Study of History  Arnold Toynbee cites a variety of incidents and quotations multiple times.  Like Edward Gibbon, Toynbee sought for universals amongst particulars, and so perhaps this helps explain why one particular quote of Gibbon’s fascinates Toynbee.  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.

Enlightenment Liberty and its Children

The website Aeon recently posted a solid article from historian Josiah Ober.  In the article Ober makes the point that democracy and liberal government — that is, rule of law, free speech, protection of minority rights, etc. — do not always go hand in hand.  Indeed, we have seen many good marriages between the two concepts over time.  But at times democracy has not produced liberal government, and historical examples exist of other forms of government ruling in a liberal way.

Ober states that liberal ideas that limited the power of government and enthroned the autonomy of the individual came from the Enlightenment, ca. 1650-1750.  I have no qualms with this, and I applaud Ober pointing out the tension that sometimes exists between democracy and liberalism.  But we should pause for a moment to consider the implications for the minority protections the Enlightenment sought to enthrone.

I’ll start by saying that rule of law brings a huge amount of good to a society.  But a quick scan of the heritage of the Enlightenment will confuse us.  For as we saw the rise of political and individual liberty enshrined in democratic regimes we also see a rise in slavery — at least in America.*  Surely many reasons exist for the rise of slavery ca. 1700-1860 — too many for me to explore or fully understand.  But we cannot deny the confluence of political liberalism and oppression of the natives and African Americans.  Does a link exist between freedom and slavery?

We often hear arguments such as, “Of course pornography is bad for society.  But the remedy for the evil (i.e., making it illegal) would be worse than the disease.”  We hear these kinds of statements all the time, they roll off the tongue without thinking.  But not long ago people used similar arguments to justify slavery.  “Yes slavery is bad, but in order to have freedom we cannot give government the power to curtail it.”  I don’t want to over-spiritualize the issue, but the fact remains that pornography enslaves the passions and the basic humanity of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of men and women.  The abortion issue has similar rhetoric. I had a college professor argue that, “Yes, abortion is a terrible thing, but what you pro-life people don’t understand is that without abortion, women would not have the rights and opportunities they have today.”  All over the Enlightenment view of individual autonomy we see this ghastly trade-off between “liberty” and death — be it physical or spiritual — again and again.  We may have to entertain the notion that slavery often comes on the coattails of this kind of freedom.

In our history, at certain times at least, we definitely lacked the will to restrain ourselves.  Historian Pauline Maier notes that at the Constitutional Convention George Mason wanted to include a provision to have all trade laws pass by a super majority.  He foresaw that northern commercial interests, combined with its more numerous population, would alienate southern agricultural interests. In exchange, he willingly hoped to grant Congress the power to abolish slavery.  He lost on this issue, according to him, because Georgia and South Carolina would not agree.  In exchange for precluding even the possibility of the banning of slavery until 1808, trade laws would pass with simple majorities.

Sure enough, in 1860 such states complained of laws that favored northern manufacturing interests as one motive for secession (the issue also came up in the Nullification Crisis during Jackson’s presidency).  Of course, they complained as well about Republican plans with regards to slavery.

In a recent interview the Archimandrite Tikhon said that,

Today . . . we talk not of the possible limitations of the freedom of speech, but of the real everyday criminal abuses of this freedom. Who are those that shout of the threat of ‘limitations’ most of all? Those, who have monopolized information and turned the media into real weapons, which are meant not only for manipulating the public conscience, but also aiming at ruining personality and society.   . . . Of course, I’m for limiting speech that ruins freedom, as well for limitation of drugs and alcohol, for limitation of abortions – and everything which causes loss of health, degradation and ruin of nation. And the opportunity to watch vileness on TV, the right to be duped, the ability to develop a brutal cruelty and the lowest instincts in oneself – this is not freedom. Plainly, it is an absolute slavery.

In spite of any prohibitions man will have the right and possibility to choose evil anyway, nobody will take away this right, don’t worry. But the state must protect its citizens from aggressive foisting this evil upon them.

The man interviewing him got quite nervous at such a response, as would many in the United States today.  Who should make the decisions, and to what degree, remains a very thorny question.  One might even successfully argue that no good method of making that decision exists today, at least in America. But the fact that, at least in theory, we should certainly limit liberty in certain respects, appears obvious.  To say otherwise is to bring pure selfishness and greed into the fabric of our lives  Many would say that this has already happened.

Once we realize this we must re-evaluate the whole heritage of the Enlightenment view of liberty and the individual.  The rule of law seems a nearly unqualified good.  But I don’t think it need go hand-in-glove with a view of liberty that inevitably leads to slavery in some form.  Law after all, by its very nature, asks us to give up some form of liberty for the good of others.

Aristotle’s Politics adds another perspective.  He discusses the concept of proportionality in the state and teases out how imbalances even of virtues can cause harm.  The concept of “the golden mean” drips throughout his writings.  When even certain particular virtues assume too much of a place in the life of the state, it will cause harm.  In this situation, the inevitable counter-reaction will cause harm, because it too will lack balance and proportion.  One might posit that the whole “snowflake,” “safe space,” and trigger-warning phenomena present on some college campuses is just such a misshapen and destructive reaction to the abuse of freedom.

Tocqueville made the boring but true statement that, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”  Aristotle would add that such liberty must exist in proportion to other necessary virtues of the state.

Dave

*I know that of course slavery existed before the Enlightenment.  But slavery had generally disappeared during the Middle Ages, and revived again only during the Renaissance, when certain Roman concepts of law, property, and a classical idea of liberty made its way back into the stream of European civilization.  The Enlightenment built off this Renaissance heritage in many respects, and so it is no surprise that its heirs practiced a revival of slavery — something worse even than Roman slavery.

Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with drivers.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews.  But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bit of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of “cowards” and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in as a side-car our selfishness and desire to get home and be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.

 

Dave

*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lawyers, Guns, and Money

In his excellent work on the French Revolution, Citizens, Simon Schama makes many connections between the path of revolution and Romantic philosophy.  They came to associate monarchy with secrecy–secret plans, secret councils, and the like.  Romanticism preached openness to all things, to nature, to oneself, and so on.  Real, authentic, people had nothing to hide.   It made sense then, that real, authentic government had nothing to hide either.

The French paranoia over secrecy, Schama argues, drove much of the violence in the Revolution.  Even simple misunderstandings could be evidence of “plots,” for no true Frenchman would have anything to hide.  For example, Robespierre’s lieutenant Armand St. Just wrote some unpublished ideas for laws that would have taken his ideas of an open society to an absurd degree.  He urged that,

Every man twenty-one years of age shall publicly state in the temples who are his friends. This declaration shall be renewed each year during the month Ventose. If a man deserts his friend, he is bound to explain his motives before the people in the temples; if he refuses, he shall be banished. Friends shall not put their contracts into writing, nor shall they oppose one another at law. If a man commits a crime, his friends shall be banished. Friends shall dig the grave of a deceased friend and prepare for the obsequies, and with the children of the deceased they shall scatter flowers on the grave. He who says that he does not believe in friendship, or who has no friends, shall be banned of ingratitude shall be banished.

But all this wide-eyed optimism did not prevent the Revolution from eventually being run by the Committee of Public Safety, which met in secret.  It did not prevent informers roaming about looking for counter-revolutionaries.

With the best of intentions comes a tremendous and inevitable tension.  We expect monarchies to have secrets.  Monarchs, by definition, are not quite like normal people anyway.  They decide things apart from the people.  Democracies have different standards, which sometimes makes for more difficult choices and an unsolvable tension.

Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is in some respects a marvelous book.  He writes well and so the pages turn easily.   Weiner’s pours gobs of research into his account.  He has more than 100 pages of footnotes.  Many of his citations come not from other books about the CIA, but from the agents themselves and especially from the CIA’s own de-classified documents.  Weiner works for the NY Times in his day-job reporting on national security issues, so he knows the territory for this book quite well.

Unfortunately for me Weiner rarely delves into analysis and synthesis of his material.  Maybe he wants a “just the facts” reporters perspective.  That’s his strength, and if he added analysis the book might get unwieldy in size.  Fair enough, but in the end the failure to plumb the depths of certain questions make this book incomplete in my eyes.

Weiter hammers away at the CIA, citing failure after failure, blown operation after blown operation.  Their charter called for them to provide political leadership with crucial information that could inform decisions but they whiffed on almost every major crisis.  Their most significant “successes,” such as organizing regime change in Iran in the 1950’s, backfired terribly a generation later.  We had very little success recruiting agents within the Soviet Union and often relied on the intel of our allies.  Internal reviews often pointed out the CIA’s shortcomings, but these reports almost always got buried and nothing changed.

Supposing that Weiner’s basic appraisal is true (which is up for debate), I would have liked more from Weiner on why the CIA failed as it did, but he offers only hints.

Time might have something to do with it.  We are still a young country, with a very young intelligence service.  The British, the Russians, and so on have all done  this for much longer than us and would likely do a better job than us for that reason alone.

I wondered if the level of internal criticism from their own reviews is at least a partial function of personality.  Many intelligence analysts might tend toward pessimism and obsession over detail.  Maybe they would naturally be too hard on themselves.  I stress the word “maybe.”  I glanced through Victor Cherkashin’s Spy Handler: Memoir of  a KGB Officer for a different look and he confirmed some of what Weiner wrote, especially regarding our very poor handling of some of our agents behind the curtain.  Cherkashin handled and helped recruit both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.  He confirms some of what Weiner wrote about the Ames disaster (Hanssen was from the FBI). But he also mentioned some worthy adversaries and tough problems posed by the CIA for the KGB.  His perspective gives the CIA more credit than Weiner.

In one brief aside Weiner mentions that while, yes, the CIA proved almost inept at gathering intelligence, they did an excellent job of using money to buy influence, and they created some really cool gadgets that would be the envy of the international intelligence community.   I am reminded of John le Carre’s quote that one sees the character of a country most particularly in its intelligence service.*  The shoe definitely fits in this case.  We specialize in gadgets and money.

But that doesn’t mean an intelligence failure per se, it could mean a different kind of success.  For example, Weiner seems critical of the development of the U-2 spy plane.  We would not have needed to develop such a plane if we had better human intelligence on the ground.  Eisenhower worried that the plane might get shot down, and so on. True, but the plane gathered important information, some better, some worse, than an agent on the ground would have obtained.  When Gary Powers was shot down it did cause problems, but having an agent captured would also cause problems, albeit of a different type.  We made the U-2 because of our lack of human intelligence, but that doesn’t mean to me that the U-2 symbolizes failure, or is in itself a failure.

A review of Legacy of Ashes by the CIA’s historian, who makes this same point (among many other criticisms), is here.

But it’s in another aside that Weiner gets at the real root issue.  Democracies, he mentions, simply aren’t very good at secrecy, and we’re not good at it mainly because it goes against all of our democratic instincts.  Like the French Romantics, concealment means that we must be up to no good.  And if we commit ourselves to democracy then we need an informed public.  How an informed public, let alone informed public officials, and a clandestine agency should mix we have yet to figure out.  Weiner offers no solutions.  I can’t blame him, as I have none myself.  I do wish, however, that he paid some mind to this tension present in every democracy.

Part of our desire for openness gives the press more freedom in the U.S. than anywhere else.  We have no equivalent, for example, to England’s Official Secrets Act, which allows the British government to shut down almost any story they deem a threat to national security.  The U.S. cannot do this thanks to the first amendment.  Of course sometimes the government lies and the press exposes it.  But sometimes the press gets it wrong and messes up the government.  Weiner cites one such instance during Ford’s presidency.  Ford had orchestrated a dual arms deal to both Egypt and Israel via CIA backchannels.  He wanted to avoid seeming too pro-Israeli, but didn’t want Israel to know about the sales to Egypt.  However we judge it, he had the intention of setting up the U.S. as an international broker between the two countries.  But the press caught wind of the arms sale to Israel and published stories on it, but they had no information on Egypt.  Ford couldn’t say, “Well we sold stuff to Egypt too–we’re trying our best!” for that would expose the operation.

Of course as a reporter Weiner benefits from this access and freedom.  I wish he would have explored this tension. I’m not suggesting that it’s too bad that we have the first amendment, but it’s not an unqualified good. Among other things, it makes life harder for our intelligence services.  Weiner fails to take this into account in his evaluation.

In his Revisionist History podcast renowned author Malcolm Gladwell takes a second look at stories that he feels got neglected by the flow of time.  In his “Damascus Road” episode he looks at an instance involving the press and a CIA asset.  A man named Carlos the Jackal was everybody’s most wanted list.  No one could come close to catching him.  Out of the blue a man volunteered his help to the CIA.  He wanted no money, rather, he sought to try and make amends for the terrorist activities of his past, some of which had killed Americans.  He gave us information that allowed for his capture.

Under the Clinton administration the Justice Department ordered an “asset scrub” as part of the overhaul of the CIA.  How to draw a line between who stays and who goes?  It seemed simple enough to say that anyone who had previously killed Americans needed let go as an asset.

The CIA complied for the most part, but this particular asset was simply too valuable.  He remained on the books.

Eventually, however, a reporter found out about this non-compliance from a variety of sources.  He wrote the story but met with a CIA agent before publishing it.  The CIA representative got the reporter to remove some the crucial details, but not all.  He pleaded with the reporter . . . the details he left in would expose this asset and seal his fate.  The story was published, and the asset was killed shortly thereafter.

You probably guessed that the reporter in question was Tim Weiner.

Weiner argued that if anyone should be blamed for the man’s death, it was the CIA.  They broke the law (a dumb law, but the law nonetheless) and his job as a reporter is to at times expose the misdeeds of government.  He had credible sources within the CIA itself for the story.  He might further argue that he had no reason to fundamentally trust the CIA with its claims, so often did they mislead and misdirect.

I can’t see it that way.  Had Weiner not published the article, or even watered it down more, our asset would not have been exposed.  He played a role in his death.  When asked how those at the NY Times reacted to this turn of events, he said that for the most part it was business as usual.  You move on to the next story.

That argument aside, I find it ironic that Weiner should so stringently criticize the CIA for not developing foreign assets when he himself had a direct hand in exposing one of their best.

Moving on to a different argument . . . I say that “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is far and away Warren Zevon’s best song.  The song’s unreliable narrator makes this one so enjoyable and so funny.  Those familiar with the lyrics know that the protagonist always goes home with a waitress, and surprise, it doesn’t always work out.  He goes “gambling in Havanna” and–shockingly–finds himself in hot water, then calls upon dear old dad (not for the first time, it seems) to bail him out.  Yet, he remains “an innocent bystander,” who “somehow got stuck.”

Ok, the connection to all I’ve written here is weak.  Mainly, I thought the song made a great title for this post.  It’s a book about the CIA, after all.  I do not suggest that Weiner resembles Zevon’s most famous character.  But Weiner criticizes the CIA constantly throughout his work for losing track of ends and means, for never looking squarely in the mirror, for dissimulation and failure.  However true, Weiner suffers from something similar.  Legacy of Ashes paints with too narrow a brush.

Weiner’s characters almost all suffer from myopia.  Weiner might suffer from it as well.  There is no particular shame in this.  It is a human problem, and not the sole property of spies.

Dave

*Le Carre is a perfect example of the principle I speculate about in the above paragraph.  He is the former spy for the west who now is enormously critical of spying.  His cold war novels expressed an ambivalence about the two major sides, while his post-cold war work exclusively criticizes the West in general, and the U.S. in particular.  People naturally assume that this makes his portrayals more realistic, but I’m confident that’s not necessarily so.

 

 

 

Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a % 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this, i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know).

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible, the third, from my point of view, would be immoral.  Would you want to make these trades even if it was possible?

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars gave us the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality or have experienced it without thinking much about it.  Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.

Dave

*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.