The Three Languages of Politics

Like many of you, I feel frustrated at the polarization of politics today.  Some of this polarization comes with the territory of democracy, but some of it I feel results from failures in technique and imagination.

Classical rhetoricians used the term “stasis” to refer to the situation in an argument where both sides argue about the same thing.  If an issue did not achieve “stasis” the argument would get nowhere because the rhetorical ships would pass in the night.

For example, you may have observed this lack of stasis in the abortion debate, where the sides argue in circles similar to this example:

  • Pro-Life – Governments should protect those who cannot protect themselves.  They should give a voice to those without a voice.   Governments must stand for the defense of innocent lives if we want to call ourselves civilized.
  • Pro-Choice – Decisions about our families and our futures are some of the most private and personal decisions one can make.  If we wish to avoid any tendency towards a totalitarian regime, we must keep government out of our most private decisions.

Both sides of the abortion debate could hypothetically agree with both statements in different contexts, thus, an argument with these two premises would spin its wheels.  Ironically, most on the “Pro-Life” side are conservatives, but the argument used above has a distinctly Progressive tinge.  Most “Pro-Choice” advocates might usually reside in the Progressive wing of politics, but when they use arguments like the one above they sound just like Libertarians.

I would suggest a Pro-Life argument that went something like. . .

In general, governments have no business making decisions about our bodies.  What we wear, what we eat, whether or not to get a tattoo–no one who values a free society would want government involved in such things.

However, we do give governments the power to make decisions about our bodies when our actions pose a threat to others.  We ban drinking and driving.  We ban the use of various drugs.  These kinds of laws have a good purpose because they protect innocent lives.  If we protect citizens against drunk drivers, how much more should we protect the unborn?

This is just one possible example of stasis on this issue, though no doubt many better ones exist.  Please feel free to share whatever examples you might have.

In his book The Three Languages of Politics author Arnold Kling addresses the problem of a lack of stasis in our political debate and points to one reason for this.  He argues that we speak three different kinds of political language currently, each with its own vocabulary and coded language.  One goal for the book is to expose others to these three different languages and and make us aware of the various worldviews these languages represent.

I mentioned earlier that a failure of stasis in debate can be traced in part to a failure of imagination, and this leads to Kilng’s second main goal.  To achieve stasis we have to learn to use the languages of those we disagree with, and have to enter into their worlds in order to do so.  This does not mean that we abandon our convictions, but it will mean that we reframe in different modes of thought with different emphasis.  This requires a willingness at times to fall down a rabbit hole, but you will actually have a chance of talking to people rather than at them.  Granted, this won’t bring the NRA and NOW to the hallowed halls of Shambala, but it might start something.

Kling starts his book with a quiz designed to help one to discover their own political language, something like a political personality test.  Some of the questions are Kling’s, some are mine.  Of course you may not like either of the three options offered, or may want to combine answers to create a hybrid.  For the purposes of the exercise, however, circle just one letter for each question.

To score the quiz, make three sections on a piece of paper, labeled “P,” “C,” and “L” and follow the guidelines below when you are done.

Gun violence at schools primarily reveals

A. The need for teachers to be armed to fight back.

B. The need for society to have more control over the mentally ill.

C. The need to curtail the power of the gun lobby.

2. If I were honest about myself, the kind of political ad that would appeal to me most would include

A. Pictures of farms, flags, and hallowed documents like the Constitution.

B. Scenes of ordinary Americans from all walks of life working together.

C. A statement about our financial status and clear plan to help reduce spending.

3. During the 1940’s many ordinary Germans committed atrocities against Jews.  This shows us

A. The dangers of a totalitarian system of government

B. The dangers of a collapse of moral values when a country’s institutions have been corrupted and compromised

C. The dangers of anti-Semitism

4. When the issue of tax law comes up, what question is most important?

A. How will the laws impact and reward people get for hard work and thrift?

B. Does government spend money more or less wisely than individuals?

C. How will changes in law impact the growing gap of inequality?

5. What is notable about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that

A. Israelis share many of the same values as Americans

B. The Palestinians are an oppressed people

C. Israel, the Palestinians, other Arab and western governments, all share blame for this tragedy.

6. The wave of mortgage defaults known as the “sub-prime crisis” was caused by mortgage loans that were

A. Given to unqualified and undeserving borrowers

B. Government induced

C. Predatory

7. The large number of unwed mothers with low income reflects that

A. Lack of economic opportunities and education

B. Cultural decay, which overvalues sexual gratification and undervalues marital responsibility

C. Incentives built into our tax and welfare system that can reward bad behavior

8. Since 9/11, Presidents have used controversial powers, such as warrantless surveillance and targeted killings.  What do you think of the use of these powers?

A. Because Islamic terrorism is such a difficult and dangerous problem, I support the use of these powers to protect Americans.

B. I am against the use of these powers on principle.

C. I am not sure about these powers, but I am willing to trust the Obama administration more than the Bush administration on the exercise of them.

9. When teaching the history of the United States, the most important goal should be

A. To have the student develop an appreciation for all that makes America great, especially by focusing on the leadership of people like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

B. To have the student realize that our country is far from perfect, and has abused the rights of minorities in numerous ways.  We show our greatness as nation most clearly by reforming ourselves and remedying our past mistakes.

C. To have the student appreciate the vital role of American individualism and self-reliance in making our country free and prosperous.

10. If I was visiting the Mall downtown, the most important place to go would be

A. The Capitol, where the representatives of ordinary citizens sit and debate.

B. The Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials

C. I wouldn’t want to visit at all.  With its hallowed halls and marble monuments, the Mall downtown encourages a dangerous reverence for government.

11. Which most accurately describes your view of the Press?

A. The Press often functions as an enemy of our civilization, as it artificially makes the margins of society “mainstream” with a distinct liberal bias.

B. The Press works best when it serves as a tool to keep government in check by exposing corruption and abuse of power.

C. The Press works best when it finds societies problems and puts them into public view, thereby giving the organs of representative government a chance to fix the problem.

12.  Of the following, who was the best president?

A. Theodore Roosevelt

B. Calvin Coolidge

C. Ronald Reagan

13. Which most accurately describes your feelings about free markets?

A. Government intervention in the market is counter-productive every time.  The market, unregulated, is one of the best tools of freedom we have.

B. Some form of free market must exist, but government should intervene to minimize the aspects of the market that exploit the poor and create vast gaps in equality.

C. The free market is in general a great tool for a free society, but government should strongly regulate/ban certain items from being sold, like drugs, pornography, and other socially/morally disruptive products.

14. Which most accurately describe your feelings about the War on Drugs?

A. The War on Drugs has failed most notably in that most of those in jail are the poor and underprivileged of society.  Whatever our original aims may have been, the War on Drugs has done little besides incarcerating poor minorities for a host of minor offenses.

B. The War on Drugs has been in some instances a war on what should be personal freedom, and at times it has also been a misguided attempt to enforce purely cultural mores.  It has also costs billions of dollars with little to show for it.

C. The War on Drugs has not had the success we hoped for, but it remains a noble fight with a noble cause.  Drugs ravage lives and communities everywhere, and government rightly acts to try and stop their scourge.

15. Which Most Accurately Describes You?

A. My heroes are people who have stood up for underprivileged and oppressed people.  The people I cannot stand are those who seem to care nothing for the rights of average citizens as opposed to the privileged few, or ethnic and religious minorities.

B. My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values and the beneficial civilizations these values  help create. The people I cannot stand are those who don’t mind, or even encourage, the wanton assault on the traditional values that have made this country great.

C. My heroes are those who have stood up for the right of individuals to make their own choices.  The people I cannot stand are those who want the government to impose their value system on others.

  1. The best thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His presidency will shift power away from coastal elites and towards the values and practices of mainstream Americans.

B. He will shine light on the “forgotten” blue collar worker, many of whom have lost jobs due to a globalization process that has moved way too fast.

C. He will “get things done” and help make our government more efficient and lean by getting around the “red tape” of bureaucracy.

The worst thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His inflammatory rhetoric and possible racist leanings will hurt immigrants and other minorities, endangering decades of social progress.

B. He will erode the governmental institutions we rely on for a peaceful society, and become a “one man show,” extending the power of the executive branch and growing the reach of government.

C. He is a New York real-estate and tv personality–he focuses only on the bottom line and cares nothing for the values that have made America great.

Question 1

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 2

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 3

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 4

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 5

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ”L” column

Question 6

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 7

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 8

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 9

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 10

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 11

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 12

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 13

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 14

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 15

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 16

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “C” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “L” column

Question 17

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “L” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “C” column

“P” stands in this case for “Progressives,” who tend to see the world along an axis of oppressor/oppressed.

“C” stands for “Conservatives,” or “Civilizers” who put primary focus on good vs. evil, or civilization vs. barbarism.

“L” stands for “Libertarian” who emphasize individual rights and freedoms apart from group/government coercion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I score out this way:

Progressive/2, Conservative/10, Libertarian/5

Chances are that your score mixes the three categories in some fashion, and this in itself will help us recognize the limitations of our own particular perspective.  The Progressive, Conservative, and Libertarian axis are all finite and cannot be our main guide on every question.  Kling cites a few examples to this effect.  Libertarians like Goldwater opposed Civil Rights legislation on the grounds that it would give more power to the federal government and upset the balance of federalism.  They were not wrong about this per se, but wrong in their priorities.  The Libertarian axis (Kling’s own personal bias, as he tells us) did not have the proper framework to deal with that issue.  Some Southern “Conservatives” (be they Republican or otherwise) rejected integration for terribly misguided fears about what would happen to their “civilization.” For the sake of fairness, Kling rejects the Progressive explanation for the sub-prime crisis.  The oppressor/oppressed axis has its own limitations.  The strong “Conservatism” of Churchill served him just as poorly in dealing with India as it served him well in dealing with Hitler.

It is this concept of the finite nature of our political vision that is the most valuable takeaway for me.  Every Christian I know would admit to some degree of mystery and incompleteness about their knowledge of God and the Faith.  Yet we do not always apply that same sense of humility to our political ideologies, and we usually get no help from the media with this.  It may be humility, more than anything, that can salvage our broken political discourse.

Same Story, Different Day

Once upon a time a man lived in a good land.  His family prospered, and in time, his children and his children’s children filled this good land.  They had their own customs, faith, and rhythms of daily life.

But these good times did not last.  Eventually many others sought to rob these good people of their land.  Various kings and principalities invaded, one after the other.

The people resisted.  They fought bravely, but often these foreign invaders divided to conquer.  At times these good people found themselves at odds with one another.  Eventually the invaders persecuted them. Their very existence as a people seemed threatened.  But they had faith, and this faith will be rewarded.  Their perseverance led them to outlast the forces of history, and so their history in the modern era begins right where it left off many generations ago.

In a post about the failure of the Treaty of Versailles I discuss my view of the importance of narrative in the field of history, whether we study the past or make “history” in the present.  Analytical data or “rational” analysis about costs/benefits in the abstract will lead to wrong perceptions of reality.  A narrative view gives us a more full understanding, and when faced with a problem, a much better chance at solutions.

It sounds odd to say that I really enjoyed Padraig O’ Malley’s * The Two State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives.  O’ Malley has little hope for peace if the “peace process” continues as before, and this gives the book a somber tone.  But I enjoyed it because I felt that O’Malley must be onto something by focusing not on particular events, or even security for one side or the other, but on the idea of the narratives both sides bring to the table.  One problem the two sides face is the distinct similarity in their narratives.  The structure of the story remains relatively same for them both, with different characters.

The story I told above fits both sides of the conflict, and to some extent both sides use the above narrative.

For Israel

  • They gained possession of a good land, grew and prospered, reaching their ancient peak during the reign of Solomon.
  • But soon after that, their kingdom fell prey to multiple invasions from the outside, be it Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans.  They had to scatter throughout neighboring lands, but maintained their identity and culture.
  • They faced persecution from outsiders, culminating in the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
  • But — their persistence and faith paid off.  They returned, forged by suffering, and established themselves securely back in the land of their forefathers.

For the Palestinians . . .

  • They dwelt peacefully in the land in small communities for many generations
  • But — they fell prey to imperial forces, throughout time.  We can date their unjust subjugation in the modern era with their occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to W.W. I.
  • At the turn of the 20th century they had independence promised them from another imperial power (the British).
  • But when it seemed like they might have their land back once again, they were betrayed and occupied  (by the British, who sponsored the return of Israeli’s).
  • Eventually, a host of foreign powers (the U.N.) imposed another conquering people upon them (the establishment of Israel — whose military might is financed from the west).  This new occupier fought a series of wars , scattering them from their homes in a host of illegal land grabs (Israel has routinely violated a varietyU.N. resolution and established settlements in occupied land).
  • But — they have faith.  Forged by suffering, their common bond to one another remains stronger than ever before.  They believe that one day, the land will be theirs once again.

Their narratives remain starkly similar, with the main problem being that:

  • For Israel, Palestinians are not often identified as average people, but as the next in a long line of foreign persecutors of Jews (i.e. PLO, Hamas, etc.)
  • For Palestinians, Israel is identified as an imperial power along the lines of the Ottomans and the British.

O’Malley rightly hones in on the common thread of the suffering of both sides.

The suffering of the Jewish people hardly needs an explanation.  Of course we have the Holocaust, but a lot of lower-level persecution existed before that for centuries throughout Europe.

What may be less obvious to us, and certainly seems less obvious to Israel, is the suffering of the Palestinians.  O’Malley asserts, and I agree, that if we could find any kernel to the disastrous relationship between the two, it lays here.

The Palestinian population has suffered greatly indirectly or directly from the presence of Israeli’s.  We could measure this in land lost to Israel, or in civilian deaths of Palestinians, which greatly outweigh those of Israeli’s due to terrorist attacks.  There also exists what one cannot measure — the wholesale breakup of communities and families due to Israeli occupation and settlements, and the wholesale dismemberment of the Palestinian Church — something Christian supporters of Israel sometimes forget.

The reason why I think it forms the core of the problem is that Israel cannot seem to admit that they have caused these problems.  Some of them one could plausibly ascribe to the “fortunes of war” or the “march of time,” but others, like the direct violation of U.N. resolutions to establish settlements, fall directly into their laps.  But it appears that the Jews in Israel, who has suffered so much at the hands of others, cannot admit that they themselves cause so much suffering to others.

The Palestinians, for their part, want more than grants of certain territory or water rights, they insist on a repentant, contrite Israel.  Having felt impotent and humiliated for so long themselves, they insist that Israel feel the same way.  The Palestinians cannot accept half-measures in this regard.  For example, Ariel Sharon released a statement along the lines of, “Israel regrets the suffering of the Palestinian people,” that the Palestinians found not just unacceptable, but insulting.  They don’t want Israel’s sympathy, they want Israel to admit fault without equivocation.  Nor can they see the above statement as a beginning of a process.  Rather, for them it represents a slap in the face.  “Ha!  This is all you get!”

Formal peace negotiations put Israel in a bit of bind.  Who speaks for Palestinians as a whole?  Who can negotiate for them?  Israel complains that the Palestinians have not been able to absorb refugees and form stable, coherent political organizations.  After all, they themselves (that is, the Jewish settler in Israel) started with nothing and have formed a modern first-world state.  They absorbed thousands of newcomers and refugees from different countries.  They speak truth in this claim.  But, as O’Malley points out, why should the Palestinians have to form modern western political organizations?  Things moved along nicely for them without such things before Israel arrived, and can continue to do. But it appears that history may overwhelm the Palestinians and force them into an uncomfortable mold, one which will put them at a disadvantage vis a vis Israel.

The relationship between the two has calcified to such an extent that O’Malley recommends that they cease the formal peace process itself, and instead focus on healing their own psychological scars.  The peace process has also been initiated not by each other but by various American presidents looking to make their mark.  Whatever the cause, O’Malley suggests that now “negotiations” serve as a platform for each side to vent grievances or talk to their respective political bases, and not each other.  The peace process serves now to simply enable and confirm their already deeply held beliefs.

In one section of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis talked about his impatience for how many make moral judgments.  “War is a terrible evil!” some cried.  “Yes,” Lewis agreed, but times exist when war is more morally justifiable than the current “peace.”  Sometimes issues must be considered on a relative scale.  He even mentioned dueling.  Yes, dueling often involved murder, but he admitted that there might be some instances when even a duel to the death might be preferable to indulging in a lifetime of hatred and bitterness that would in time destroy one’s soul.

I thought of this section when reading this book.  In this scenario both sides have their share of the blame.  I personally give the lion’s share to the Israeli side.  They are the stronger (though they don’t realize this), and they — as a nation — have violated international law on numerous occasions.  I distinguish this from Palestinian acts of terror, which I do not believe represent the whole of the Palestinian people.  So I root for a Palestinian homeland, and feel that their cause has more justice.

And yet, the current situation destroys both sides, and there appears no end in sight.  All O’ Malley can see in is a continuation of deep fear and deep hatred growing — hence the title of his book.  A two-state solution simply will not work in the current psychological climate.

So would a “duel” of sorts be a preferable solution?  What would that even look like?  Should Israel just “get on with it” and exile the Palestinians?  This would be cruel, but it would hopefully have the ancillary effect of forcing Palestinians to start over.

On the other hand . . .

Many Palestinians believe they are close to winning.  This victory would not be physical in nature, but moral and psychological.  Some feel that if Israel goes much further they will completely delegitimize themselves internationally, and rot themselves from within morally.  They will then, as an act of atonement, give Palestinians a homeland at least to the 1967 borders.

I do not share this view, but see no other solution that will work in the current environment.  The two sides share the same space and tell the same story, but with different characters playing different roles.  I fear nothing will change until both sides tell themselves a different story.

Dave

 

*It sounds odd for an Irishman to write a definitive book on this subject, but his previous books dealt with Irish/English history and apartheid in South Africa.

 

The Imaginarium of Dr. Grotius

“Part of the problem with religion is that it can just be an aestheticization of life,” a young Orthodox priest from Yonkers said. “It’s still late-modern capitalism working its insidious tentacles. We need a vocabulary to get outside of that.”

This quote comes from a profile in The New Yorker on Rod Dreher (author of the much reviewed The Benedict Option).  Dreher admits that one of the problems of his book is that the terms and categories we have for the debate have already been set.  We still have all the values of “late-modern capitalism” attached to our religious thinking.  We may debate what color to paint the living room but rarely consider how the design of the house, or its foundation, may influence us.

The same holds true in every society.  The ancients regarded the Romans as a very religious people, but religious in what sense, exactly?  “Real” religious belief often lies deep beneath its outward manifestation.  In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli includes some revealing anecdotes:

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances; resorting to them in their consular comitia; in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so saying, caused them to be thrown into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness. And, in truth, the sole object of this system of taking the auspices was to insure the army joining battle with that confidence of success which constantly leads to victory; a device followed not by the Romans only, but by foreign nations as well; of which I shall give an example in the following Chapter.

It seems that “success,” or possibly, “Rome,” is what the Romans really fundamentally worshipped.  Maybe it’s more complicated than that, but clearly, strict fidelity to the auguries or deviation from them was not their central concern.

Modern Social Imaginaries, by Charles Taylor, tackles some of these issues.  His title reminds one of Benedict’s Anderson’s groundbreaking Imagined Communities, and Taylor acknowledges this in his introduction.  Anderson laid bare how the concept of nation, which we take for granted as solid reality, had its roots in a kind of social mental experiment.  Villages and towns have a concrete reality.  We know the people and our direct interaction with them forms the glue of our communities.  But nations are more abstract, as no natural reason often exists for why borders should be in one place and not another.  Creating a nation requires imagination, a mythology, a mental construct, to hold the national “community” together.  This goes far beyond social theories or ideas.

Taylor builds on this idea and seeks to examine the key underpinnings of modern western civilization, to show us the nose on our face.  He writes,

This essay seeks to shed light on both the original and contemporary issues about modernity by defining the self-understandings that have been constitutive of it. Western modernity in this view is inseparable from a certain kind of social imaginary, and the differences among today’s multiple modernities are understood in terms of the divergent social imaginaries involved. This approach is not the same as one that might focus on the ideas as against the institutions of modernity. The social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society.

Taylor argues that our primary imaginary has us envision society as a means for exchanging goods and services for the mutual benefit of individuals.  This leads in turn to the development of market economies and notions of rights.  But at root, we build upon the idea of the individual.  I think Taylor might agree with Allan Bloom, who commented that the real America religion is our quest for the authentic self, and we let neither tradition, or even nature, stand in the way of our search.

Our modern imaginaries form a stark contrast to pre-modern societies, which tended to be ordered in one of two ways:

  • By a “law of the people” that has existed from time immemorial*, or
  • By a hierarchy in society that mirrors nature.  Disorders in nature have their mirror in the individual, or perhaps we might conceive it the other way round–disorders in our souls and bodies have their response in nature.**

The “telos” of pre-modern societies involved living into something that existed before you.  They have an “end” beyond the society itself.  These frameworks exist not as a direct prescription but more so a guide to understanding reality.  Hence the “Mappa Mundi” (ca. 1300) tries not to accurately depict the physical world, but rather help one understand their place in the grand scheme of things.  It “maps” your life by telling you that you will die and face judgment, that Jerusalem is the center of the Earth, and so on.

The medievals obviously knew that the world did not actually look like this, but for them that was hardly the point.

The wars of religion in the 16th century lead to new ways of imagining the world. The Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius gets credit in the eyes of most for orienting society in a new direction.  Though he wrote voluminously on many subjects, we can tie his thought together on the ideas of the individual and consent.  So, for example, the sea should be free for all, so that each individual nation may carve out their own destiny upon it.  Taylor argues that Grotius made such a case not as a radical, but a conservative.  He wanted to preserve the existing order and felt that ideas of freedom and consent were the best way to do this.

Obviously he was wrong.  But this, says Taylor, is often the way of things.  An acorn contains a whole oak, though no one would ever guess.  Our own revolution worked this way.  Within even just a few years, our founders lost control of the direction of things, and some see the Constitution as their attempt to salvage what they could before things got too far out of hand.

Our new imaginings put us on entirely different course.  In ye olden days order is self-realizing.  When evil happens time will go out of joint, for example, as in Hamlet.  Though many may flaunt established cosmic order, in time the cosmos has its way with you.  Order will come back again.  The modern imagining has no such apparatus.  It is entirely contingent, for we start with individuals and not what lies beyond them.

John Locke built on Grotius and went far beyond him.  For centuries, Christians saw sin as the result of death.  That is, our fear of death, whether subconscious or no, leads us to selfish acts of self-preservation.  This takes innocuous forms (I will have the last cookie), and more sinister, but the root is the same–our fear of self-dissolution. But Locke saw blessings in our desire for self-preservation–he saw it as part of our God-given nature.  We begin then, as individuals with a good desire of self-enhancement.  This means we meet on an amoral plane of complementarity, not an established hierarchy.  And from there, many other dominoes begin to fall.

Though Locke and others of his day had a secular foundation to their thought, some of the old way of understanding remained.  We still needed discipline to form our unformed selves.  But the balance of power shifted.  Before, nature came intact as a witness to us.  Locke believed, however, that just our labor shapes ourselves, so too our labor shapes nature.  Nature is ours form–it is our duty to form it–rather than nature forming us.  Now we see the oak embedded in Locke’s acorn–we believe that we are already formed.  As comedian Jon Stewart noted, whatever we do these days we deem special because we did it.^  Those of us who wish to challenge LGBT “agenda,” for example, don’t have the language or framework to do so effectively.  These days, our geodes must be acknowledged!

As we enter into adolescence we become more aware of the world, but our biggest problem at that age usually involves not being able to think of any world besides our own.  History helps with this, and Taylor forces us to ask, “What is normal, after all?”

In The Benedict Option Dreher asserts that Christians have lost the culture wars, and that we need to strategically withdraw.  Taylor’s book brings to mind the adage of Sun Tzu, that perhaps the battle was over before it began.  Modern imaginings are inherently secular.  Christians could never “win” a war fought entirely on their opponents terms.  But Taylor also gets us to rethink what is normal.  Dreher himself admits that he lives much like anyone else, and has yet to actually take his own advice.  He visited, however, a quasi-monastic community that lives out some of his vision.  Dreher commented,

It makes me think, Who are the abnormal ones here? These people, who live in such close rhythm with their own lives and the life of the church, or people like me, who live like I do?” He paused. “It was a sign to me of what could be.”

Dave

*Taylor rightly points out that this idea is not inherently conservative.  Those that rebelled against Charles I did so in the name of their ancient rights and privileges, and perhaps the same could be said about the Magna Carta.

**As one commentator put it, “My students start discussing Petrarch tomorrow in class, and it is easy to misread him as asserting that man is a microcosm of the universe, when in fact it is the universe that is a microcosm of man (or better put, a microcosm of Man).”

^Stewart continued . . . (I paraphrase), “You have to understand.  I grew up as a Jewish kid in New Jersey.  The one thing I heard more than anything else growing up was, “Jonny, get this through your head . . . you’re not special.”

12th Grade: Israel, Palestine, and Solutions Beyond Governments

Greetings,

This week and last we looked at Israeli democracy, and tried to understand the dilemma they face regarding Palestinian statehood.  I hope we gained sympathy for both sides of this question.  Through this lens I wanted the students to understand one of the Catch-22’s that many democratic states face.

Democracies appeal to us largely because of their high ideals and goals, not just for the state itself, but for the individual.  But human nature almost guarantees that we will not attain these goals, and so democratic states are much more prone to hypocrisy and blind spots than authoritarian dictatorships, for example.  This should not make us abandon democracy.   As Chesterton and others have said, if you aim at nothing you’re sure to hit it.  But I do hope it will give us greater understanding of democracy’s Achilles heel.  The “processes” of democracy, like voting, representation, etc. have no real meaning unless they have roots in specific values.  If values make a democracy, then one must lead with those values.

The idea of a Jewish state predated World War II to the 1890’s.  The western world in general experienced an intensification of nationalism and heightened awareness of ethnic identity, which bore such horrific fruit in the 20th century.  Many Jews, having been scattered throughout Europe for centuries, began to resettle in Palestine, which the Ottomans then administered.  By the 1920’s Jewish settlement in Palestine looked something like this (darker areas indicate Jewish presence), though I should add that almost every map related to the Israel/Palestine question is polemical and controversial in one way or another.

After World War I, the British administered the area, but could no longer do so after World War II.  At that point England wanted to jettison nearly all of its colonial empire, and so they handed the question of Palestine over to the United Nations.  After the Holocaust the world had to answer the question as to whether or not there should be a specific Jewish state, and if so, where it should be.

Although people debated various sites, including Madagascar, they eventually settled on Palestine, which made sense in relation to Jewish history and the recent Zionist movement. No place would be without controversy, but choosing Palestine came with problems.  During World War I many Arabs fought with the British against the Turks, and the British in turn pledged to grant Arabs independence.  Instead they reneged on the deal and added Palestine to its colonial holdings.

Actions have consequences, even if sometimes those consequences take years to make themselves known.

From the Israeli’s perspective, owning a small sliver of land that did not even include Jerusalem, was the least the world could do.  Europe had persecuted the Jews on and off since the Crusades.  The latent, on again off again anti-Semitism that simmered for centuries metastasized into a horrifically clinical attempt to wipe them out entirely with the Nazi domination of Europe.  The world had shown that the Jews must have a safe haven, and giving them back a small part of their ancestral land made  political and ethical sense.

The Palestinians saw it differently and many continue to do so.

While the Palestinians were not the Jews number one fan, the Holocaust happened in Europe. It was not their doing, either directly or indirectly.  If the Jews need a homeland, and Europeans need to give them one to assuage their consciences, fine.  How about taking some European territory?  How about part of Germany?

Instead, what the Palestinians feel happened is what they felt always happens with the West. The Palestinians felt stomped on by one colonial power or another for centuries, and now it looked like deja vu  all over again.  This time, the guise took the form of the United Nations, but the result is the same:  someone took our land without our consent.  Rest assured, the Palestinians did not vote at the U.N. to cede part of Palestine for a Jewish state.  Thus, the very existence of the Jewish state is another form of colonial imperialism in Palestinian eyes.  The Jews invaded, in a sense, under U.S. and European flags.  In their mind Israel has no legitimacy because they are no better than other colonial occupiers.  When some critics of Israel, be they Palestinian or not, talk of Israel as a state founded on thievery, they have these associations in mind.

Most argue that the wars fought between Israel and her neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973 were started by Israel’s Moslem neighbors (though some might dispute ’67, where Israel launched the first physical attacks).  Not so, say the Arabs.  Israel started them all simply by being there.

Time has not favored the Palestinian cause, as the map below indicates:

Upon its creation, Israel had to make some crucial choices about its future.  It chose a Parliamentary style democracy, which did not surprise many.  But what to do with Palestinians living within their territory?  In 1948, Palestinians formed a distinct minority within Israel, but they were protected and given citizenship.  A British parliamentary style usually has less federation and more majority rule.  But that was ok, because Jews had the clear majority.  Still, it stood as a statement that Israel need not be for Jews only, and in the wake of the Holocaust, this was a powerful statement.

But what to do with Palestinians in the territory Israel acquired in 1948 and 1967?  Should they be citizens too?

This dilemma pierced the heart of the whole purpose for Israel’s existence.  They no longer could be both a Jewish ethnic state and a fully functioning democracy.  In other words, they could either

  • Give every Palestinian full citizenship rights, and risk that Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel.
  • Give them no rights and treat them as an occupied people
  • Give them some rights and not others, but this middle ground would probably not make legal or moral sense, something akin to the 3/5 Compromise in the Constitution, which made slaves count as 3/5 of a person.  How can one be 3/5 of a person?

In other words, Israel could be an ethnic state or a full fledged democracy.  The two could no longer go together.  They would have to give up something.  I have enormous sympathy for Israel here.  The whole purpose of Israel was to create a refuge for Jews and create a state run by Jews. To attain peace they would need to give up something of their identity.  For a generation that saw and survived the Holocaust, this would have been a near supernatural act, and it is not my place to judge.  Palestinian Christians have the only solution, but tragically, some of Israel’s policies, at times supported by the West, and at times supported by some Christian denominations, have deeply eroded and marginalized the Palestinian Christian community.

The middle course Israel chose gave Palestinians in newly acquired land some economic opportunities but not political representation.  Such mixed messages are usually deadly for democracies, and in time those contradictions often assert themselves with a vengeance.  One only needs to think of what happened when our own country sent blaring mixed messages for the first 80-90 years of our existence. In essence, the Palestinians got invited to the party, but then got told to eat with the servants in the basement.

Eventually, security concerns led Israel to build a wall between themselves and certain occupied areas.  But this seems all wrong.  We are familiar with walls — the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and so on.  Democracies are not supposed to do this.  But Israel felt that they could not be secure without it.   Some supporters of the wall might argue that it sends a signal, like the Emperor Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, of an end point to expansion in the occupied territories.  In other words, it should comfort the Palestinians. But this is not how Palestinians, or the world-wide community, has interpreted the wall.   Some have called it “the most religious place on Earth.”  The images are powerful:

I think Israel’s history comes with many lessons for democracies, including the need for consistency, and the need to lead with cultural values over strict security concerns.  Ultimately, however, we see the need for something greater than what governments can give.

Many thanks,

Dave M

The Inherited Conglomerate

In his collection of folklore from Ireland W.B.Yeats quoted the Irish proverb that, Those who travel much have little faith.”  He quoted this with seeming ambivalence, which reflects something of Yeats himself.  He certainly had many markings of the worldly man, yet he wrote the magnificent poem “The Second Coming,” with the immortal line that tells of the centre no longer holding, the widening gyre of the falcon.

I have traveled very little, but this very small amount of travel has confirmed its enormous educational benefits.  One sees new things from new perspectives “in the flesh.”  Certainly one should always wish to grow, learn, and so on, but the proverb holds at least a kernel of truth: those who travel without a secure base may find themselves more “enlightened,” but also more confused then before.  These new perspectives can completely undo one’s world.  Whether this disruption be good or bad . . . it is unquestionably a disruption.

The great Gilbert Murray made his mark in the early 20th century as one of the great scholars of classical antiquity.  For many he modeled the calm, rational confidence of pre-W.W. I Europe and the blessings of “free inquiry.  His analysis of the history of Greek religion confirmed his rationalism.  Greece turned to irrationalism, he argued, and therefore decline, only when they lost their “nerve,” their sense of themselves.

But one particular comment of his caused his followers some consternation.  He admitted that every civilization has an “inherited conglomerate” of thoughts and ideas that should not really be questioned, even though they cannot be “proven” in the usual sense of the world.   When society starts to question them, when they lose confidence in the conglomerate, they lose a common language and purpose and begin to fracture. He defended, for example, the teaching of Christianity in Britain’s state schools because

the religious–and what is more–the ethical emotions of the English people are rooted in the Christian writings, especially the Gospels, some of the epistles, and books like the Imitation and Pilgrim’s Progress.  The situation must be accepted.

It was that “must” that particularly bothered people.  What did he truly believe, and was rationality a religion in itself, or not?*

Murray saw the emancipatory movements of the 19th century and often supported them.  But, he remained apparently torn about this in his later years, for he saw that the collapse of traditional Europe after W.W. I did not lead to more freedom as expected, but much less freedom for millions due to the rise of totalitarianism in Italy, Germany, and Russia.

In a recent podcast with Ezra Klein, he and Tyler Cowen exchanged thoughts on the emerging “rationality community.”

Ezra Klein

What are your thoughts on the rationality community?

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex, Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

All of this came to mind as I read E.R. Dodds’ provocative classic, The Greeks and the Irrational.  We assume he argues, two main things about the Greeks:

  • Their main contribution to the western world was their spirit of free, rational inquiry, and
  • It was this spirit of free inquiry that led to the greatness of their civilization

Dodds pushes us to see the Greeks on their own terms.  They had, perhaps more than other civilizations, a “rational” tradition, but even this rationalism sometimes came cloaked in religious guise.**

For example, the Pythagoreans developed a variety of useful and progressive ideas about math.  But their obsession with ratio/rationalism clearly had strong religious overtones, which shows when they (supposedly) drowned the “heretic” Hipassus for discovering irrational numbers.  The foundation of their mathematical advances had strong irrational overtones.  Socrates, whom many assume to be an arch-rationalist, declared in the Phaedrus that, “Our greatest blessings come to us in the form of madness.”  The whole of Greek literary and dramatic culture arose out of Dionysian worship.  Xenophon, Aristotle, and even Cicero accepted the idea that dreams could have spiritual import. The list could continue.

But as in the case of all civilizations, eventually elites, followed by others, began dismantling the irrational foundations.

Though fragments of Greece’s “inherited conglomerate” survived past the 4th century B.C., by the 3rd century little if anything survived.  At that point, Dodds argues that Greece experienced a time when society was more “open” than at any other point.  Dodds writes,

A completely “open” society would be, as I understand the term, a society whose modes of behavior were entirely determined by rational choice between possible alternatives and whose adaptations were all conscious and deliberate–all “rational.”

This sounds like the dream of many a modern man, but of course, no one could argue that Greek civilization had any large degree of health at this point.  Very few, if any, of Greece’s storehouse of cultural contributions came from this era, and this era paved the way for their final takeover by Rome ca. 146 B.C.  Once you ditch the conglomerate, you might have little less than sand on which to build.  You simply have too many decisions to make and no way to make them coherently as a group.

It seems to me that today we have two groups that argue strong for a rational, open society.

On the conservative side we have those who believe in entirely unfettered markets and expanding choice.  The best society is one where everyone can choose for themselves how to maximize their welfare.  Empowered by education and multiplicity of options, the conglomerate of free choices will create a happy society.  This group favors globalization, open borders, and so on.

On the more liberal side we have those who emphasize the power of choice in more personal, intimate ways, especially in terms of gender and sexual identity, family makeup, birth control (which includes abortion), and so on.

These two sides overlap at points.  They often sit across the political aisle from each other, but they have much more in common than what divides them, for they share a common foundation of devotion to the idea of an open society described by Dodds.

Other groups still believe in some way in the inherited conglomerate.  You have the more conservative, middle-America, white picket fence group that adheres to small town values, and you have more liberal leaning who might balk at small town values a bit, but still desire a “decent America.”  The more conservative side sees culture and community holding things together, the more liberal look to government with greater frequency to manage outcomes.  Yet both sides fear markets and morality running wild and free–and both have more faith in America’s “conglomerate” than either of the aforementioned groups.  Both could be described as irrational, for there is nothing objectively verifiable about “America.”  Their commitment lies on a gut-level, formed by a variety of experiences, emotions, and so on.

This looks like a clash between the rational and the irrational, but Dodds’ book helps illumine this divide.  The irrational have an unprovable gut-level attachment to something called “America.”  But the rational have something akin to religious commitments as well.  Those devoted to the market and to personal identity need to believe that the expansion of choice ad infinitum is always a good thing.  Neither party may believe much in “America,” or they may reduce America to the mere idea of choice.  Their faith lies elsewhere, and they take on the missional mindset of some of the world’s universal religions.

Our political divides often mask religious divides.  As Cowen argued, even the rational have irrational commitments.

Dave

 

*Murray’s daughter asserted that he came back to the Catholicism of his youth in the last weeks of his life, though other family members dispute this.

**By “irrational” Dodds does not mean “wrong,” or “foolish” but unprovable, or a mysterious a priori, or “psychic,” i.e., related to the soul.

Catch-22

Every year at the beginning of Government class I ask the question, “If 80% of the people voted to put the entire tax burden only on people with red hair, would this be ‘democratic?'”

I am always surprised and a bit dismayed at how many answer ‘yes.’

Of course our discussion then moves toward defining “democracy,” which, for as much we use the word, proves more difficult than we might expect.

“Democracy” is a “good” word, and “empire’ is one of those words you cannot say on TV.  But empires had many things that proponents of democracy value, such as religious tolerance and ethnic mixing.

So how, exactly, should we define “democracy?”

Democracy in the modern era grew out of Enlightenment universalism.  Jefferson said that, “all men are created equal,” and France produced the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”  Spengler may have been a nut, but he might have been on to something when he commented that “the rights of Englishman,” made a lot more sense to him than, “the rights of man.”  The ancient Greeks, for example, considered by many as the progenitors of democracy, knew nothing of “universal rights.”

This universality gave early democratic movements  their enormous power and enabled them to move speedily through Europe.  But this is not the whole story, for coupled with this universality came the rise of nationalism.

How do we reconcile these different forces?  The French had a hard time of it, rallying to defense of the “patrie” against Austria and Prussia and then expanding under Napoleon both to spread their universal ideals and rule others in the name of France.  The recent presidential election showed this tension.  It has been with us for a while.

On the one hand, democracy thrives on the idea of self-determination.  Democracy grants people the right to determine our lives because we share common interests, cultures, goals, etc.  Modern democratic movements have their genesis in rebelling against rulers who do not share our culture our goals, those that do not speak for us.

On the other hand . . . democracy believes in equality for individuals as well as groups, and this equality, applied in a heterogeneous culture, must in turn limit some aspects of self-determination for the state to hold together.

This has led some to speculate that increased diversity can contribute to more autocracy.

Germany’s Jeroen Zandberg (a proponent of democracy) put it this way:

Of course nationalism can also be used to exclude and eliminate others, but this is rare. These rare occasions are however often used to discredit nationalism. An elite who doesn’t have the best interest of the people at heart, but which does want all the benefits of a high social position often tries to promote patriotism instead, and at the same time downgrades nationalism. Patriotism is simply to owe allegiance to the state even if that state is not legitimized by the people. The state is in that perspective merely an organisation like any other. If that were true it would be like asking soldiers to die for the telephone company. Without identification and an emotional bond between people and state we would have no alternative then to live under a police state. If we don’t want a police state then we need some degree of nationalism.

If you have multiple cultures present in the same location who each have different rules on how to order the world then there needs to be another ethical system to mediate between them. For example, Muslims have Sharia law which describes how a good Islamic society should be organised. These laws are not accepted by non-Muslims for if they would accept them they would be Muslim as well. In a truly multicultural society the Sharia law would govern the lives of Muslims and each of the other cultures would have their own laws as well.

Now Germany, as with other European nations, has a culture based on Christianity and the Enlightenment, which values ideas like freedom, equality and self-determination. If you implement multiculturalism then the values of the Enlightenment are degraded to the level of only being appropriate to the ethnic German population. You would get a Germany where each (ethnic) community has its own rules. Of course such a system could never work in a modern society because people are not isolated in small communities.

Multiculturalism can however also be used to invalidate all of the cultures present, because if all cultures are equal, which multiculturalism implicitly states, than none may rule over the other. This means that, in the case of Germany, the mere presence of another culture is already reason enough to replace German culture with something else. This ‘new’ culture is by definition anti-democratic, because it is one of a small elite who appoints itself as mediator between the various cultural groups. In this way an elite rules over a set of distinct peoples. In that sense multiculturalism is a leap backward in time when there were large empires ruled by a small nobility and people’s positions in society were fixed by birth. Characteristics of such empires are that they are fiercely anti-democratic, oppressive and unable to compete economically in a globalised world.

As much as we might wish, we cannot work out either ideas of liberty and equality in a vacuum.  Something somewhere has to give.

It appears that those who lean towards the multi-ethnic, tolerant, and globalized side of democracy must tolerate some degree of nationalism for the support structure of multi-ethnic tolerant societies to exist.  The balance will be hard to find.

On what side should the Church fall?  Here we must take great care to avoid identifying too much with either camp.  The first half of the 20th century gave us the disasters of nationalism, and more recently, we see the problems created by multiculturalism.  All the more reason for the Church to create its own culture . . .

Dave

 

 

12th Grade: The Battleground of Democratic Ideas

Greetings,

This year we have examined how democracies function across time and space.  What do they do well?  What challenges put great stress upon them?  Are their paths that democracies generally take that they should always avoid?  Under the umbrella of these big picture questions, we begin the year looking at the French-Algerian War from 1954-62.

I chose this conflict to study for a variety of reasons:

  • The conflict is a recent example of a western democratic power fighting both against and amongst Moslems
  • The conflict is far enough removed from us to allow objective analysis, and to allow us to see its ripple effects
  • The French dealt with many similar issues as we currently do in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Iraq (such as the use of torture, attempts to win over local populations, etc.)
  • The excellent movie  (based largely in actual events) The Battle of Algiers is a great tie-in to our study

We introduced a few key background concepts before delving into the main events.

1. Why did France feel the absolute need to win in Algeria?

From the time of Charlemagne (or perhaps even dating back to the pre-Romanized Gauls) France was regarded as having the world’s pre-eminent military, from the Charlemagne, the Crusades, to Joan of Arc, to Napoleon.  In W.W. I they fought heroically and with great determination.  In 1940, however, they suffered a humiliating and shockingly quick defeat to the Nazi’s.  Desperately seeking to regain their pre-war glory, they did not give up their colonies (unlike their friendly rival England).  They lost again in humiliating fashion in 1954 in Southeast Asia — but they would not lose in Algeria.  This was where they would prove to the world that France was still France after all.

The French began colonizing Algeria as far back as 1830, and over time millions of French had come to live there.  As France’s reputation declined in the post-W.W. II years, Algeria became the place where they staked their reputation as a nation “good for the world.”  France was still France after all, a bastion of liberty and democratic, western ideals.  Algeria would be their proving ground.  They would bring the blessings of their civilization to North Africa.  They would show how Moslems could prosper in a western context.  Many other European powers shed their colonial empires after W.W. II.  France left S.E. Asia with their tails between their legs.  They granted independence to a few other colonies.  But not Algeria.  Algeria would be different.  Algeria would prove the validity of western ideals across cultures and the globe.

We shall see how this psychological and cultural attitude influenced how they fought

2. What is the battleground in an insurgent campaign?

As a modern “First-World” country, the French could easily outspend and outmuscle the Algerians who opposed them.  The Algerians naturally quickly turned to guerilla tactics.  It seems clear that the French thought that the battle was against the insurgents primarily, and so put their military foot forward almost exclusively.

Why did this fail?  What is the primary battleground in an insurgent campaign?  Is it the people, or is it an idea?  If so, what role can the military play?  What role does the government and people play?  In our discussion, one student suggested that the only way France could have saved its position in Algeria was through lots of apologies for their poor treatment of them, and lots of financial and social programs to rectify the situation.   In other words, was the problem a military one at all?

Well, it certainly might have been.  But there is a difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics.’  In large measure,* France’s problem was that their use of the military was their strategy.  It was not used as a ‘tactic’ in a broader campaign.

How does an army battle an idea?  As one student suggested last year, the only way to do defeat an idea is to have a better one. Did the French, in fact, have a better idea?  If they did, how did they present it?

3. What happens when an army fights in disconnected way from its country’s values?

There is a great deal of evidence that French troops tortured and killed some prisoners as a matter of policy.  This was done with the tacit approval of French politicians, but not the French people.  As revelations of the torture emerged, the French public began to turn against the war, feeling betrayed by the army.  The army in turn felt betrayed by the people.  This tension between identity and actions needed resolution in some way — and the result was one successful military coup that put De Gaulle in as president, and another coup attempt that failed to get De Gaulle out of power a few years later.

Why are cultural and political values an important ‘weapon’ in a war?  Under what circumstances can we depart from those values?  How is a country’s identity a part of its strategy in conflict?

4. Related to #3, what should the role of the press be in a free society?

Next week we will discuss a few different options related to this question.  Opinions differ. . .

  • Some say the press should be an entirely objective entity, focused on presenting ‘just the facts.’  But, however much of an ideal this is, it is rarely, if ever attained.
  • Others argue that the press should be an implicit supporter of the government, or the majority.  This does not mean ignoring obvious truths, but it would mean using the press as a means to ‘rally the people.’
  • Still others assert that the press should be oriented ‘against’ the government.  That is, the press’ main function is to provide an alternate viewpoint apart from the government’s message.  The government gets its chance, the press provides the people with ‘the other side of the story.’

This week we watched and discussed The Battle of Algiers.  Our discussion and analysis of it will help form the basis of our own insurgency game coming up in a couple of weeks.

Here is the preview for the movie, which is also available (I believe) to watch in full on You Tube.

Sincerely,

Dave Mathwin

*France did attempt some small scale political reforms, but almost everyone viewed it as ‘too little, too late.’