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.


*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.


Plato the Anarchist

It is easy to confuse anarchism with nihilism.

The nihilist cares for nothing but destruction itself.  He derives strength ironically (and illogically) from the “meaning” of no meaning at all.  Owlman makes this perfectly clear, giving perhaps the clearest nihilistic statement in modern times.

The anarchist has a different approach.  His desire to destroy comes with reasonably good motives and a limited scope.  He really seeks not to destroy and create  better way of life.  One senses this in the music of Rage Against the Machine.  They have passion and plenty of excessive, destructive anger, but they plead for something real.  G.K. Chesteron’s brilliant The Man Who was Thursday touches on this as well, with the character of Sunday (slight spoiler alert) serving as the chief destroyer and chief unifier of the characters in the tale.

So it should not scare us too badly that a professor from Yale comes out in favor of anarchism.

James C. Scott’s book Two Cheers for Anarchism has a bark worse than its bite.  He believes that the state has some function to play, though never quite describes how.  He reveals himself as a strong critic of the industrial capitalistic modern world, much like Ivan Illich.  His critiques hit on something amiss about our predicament.  I wish he said more about about solutions.  In fairness, the road out of our situation is long and narrow.

How might one sympathize with a self-described anarchist?  We must first gain historical perspective and realize that the modern world looks very different from almost every other historical era.  The ordering of our lives occasioned especially by the industrial revolution make our lives much more regimented not by nature, but by our own creations, than any other time.

To work against this Scott urges us to abandon all centralized and regimented government solutions.  A simple example illustrates his point.  The Dutch tried an experiment with a notoriously dangerous and congested intersection.  They could have spent tens of millions and took several months to make an overpass.  The more obvious solution called for breaking up the intersection with more traffic lights and more centralized control.

Instead they opted for a traffic circle, with glorious results.  Accidents sharply declined and so did congestion. Traffic circles call for drivers to pay attention and make judgments, but Scott argues this is precisely why they work.  Governments need to get in the habit of giving over more initiative to the people and divesting themselves of institutional means of control, even with something as simple as traffic lights.  Plenty of other examples illustrate the same point, including

  • The superiority of the ‘randomness’ of nature to regimented/”scientific” planting of trees and gardens
  • The failures of housing projects vs. the concept of “neighborhoods.”
  • The unseen bonuses of shopping in neighborhoods as opposed to the ‘big box’ stores,

and so on.  His basic argument comes down to the concept of “small is beautiful.”

But he goes beyond this.  The “anarchist” part of the book involves his encouragement to small-scale kinds of disobedience to perverse means of establishing control.  He cites the recent example of French cab drivers suddenly finding themselves targeted for offenses of a particular traffic law.  They smelled not safety but money-making for the state as the motive.  So they banded together and decided that they would rigidly obey all the various traffic regulations.  Of course, traffic ground to a halt throughout French cities, the point being that

  • The practice of the people truly define what the law is, such as with speed limits, and
  • The state has stuffed the people full of useless and menacing regulations.  To enforce them all is impossible, to enforce most others would be arbitrary.

Scott laments when the natural actions and interests of the common man get co-opted by organizations.  Whatever their initial intentions, the imposed structure of unions, protest organizations, and the like, can never match the organic actions of the common man.  He admits that at times that state plays a useful function in giving an imprimatur, or proper force behind collective action, such as in the Civil Rights Movement.  But in general, a step towards centralization moves one closer to lifeless banality.

I also give Scott a lot of credit for recognizing that large-scale revolutionary action will make things worse.*  Every modern revolution created a more oppressive state than what it replaced:

  • After the American Revolution, British loyalists got a far worse treatment than any revolutionary against George III ever did before 1775.
  • The French Revolution made things far worse than the worst of the old regime
  • The Bolshevik revolution made Russia far worse than under the czars
  • Mao
  • Etc., etc.

We fix things, then in the steady and simple way of rejecting top-down government centralization, and looking for small ways in everyday life to assert the independence of organic communities and organic action.

So far so good, but while I realize the book merely wants to serve as an introduction, one issue in particular bothered me.

Scott states that, essentially, no possibility of a just society even existed until the political invention of modern democracy.  Ok . . . but . . . all of the worst examples of modern totalitarianism occurred in the name of the people.  It seems like democracy can, like nuclear power, give tremendous benefits but also cause tremendous damage.  Scott admits this from a structural standpoint, i.e., universal citizenship gives way to universal conscription, but misses something on the political side.

Scott also attaches himself too strongly to democracy itself, with the English Civil War as a case in point.  One can make a reasonable case that Charles I abused his power.  I think it much harder to justify his execution, done in the name of the law, in the name of the people, after a trial of dubious legality.  I know of no historian who argues that the Protectorate under Cromwell gave people more freedoms than Charles I.  In time, England begged Charles’ son to come back and rule as Charles II, and he returned to huge acclaim.  Again, it seems that the “Restoration” era under Charles II provided more tolerance and more room for localism than Cromwell and his more democratically minded Puritans.

The vision Scott argues for reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc with “distributism.”  Scott decisively breaks with left-leaning academics who despise the “petty bourgeoise,” and instead looks for just the sort of limited land-ownership and localism that this class provides.  But the closest parallel to this kind of organization has historically only come from

  • Frontier societies, whose time may be sweet but is inevitably limited, as it waits for the rest of society to catch up
  • Societies on geographical fringes, like the eskimos, aborigines, jungle tribes, desert nomads, etc.
  • The Middle Ages

Maybe modern democracy is the cause, not the solution to the problems Scott decries.  Marx himself, I believe, believed that capitalism served the purpose of destroying local traditions, a necessary step towards worldwide revolution.  Maybe we need not blame democracy for all of the problems of the industrialized state.  But at the very least, sometimes non-democratic governments do a better job of preserving localism and traditions.

I wish Scott had tackled this.

Scott also may need to choose.  Does he prefer organic localism, or individual rights, democracy, etc.  The two do not always mix, so which does he prefer?  As an anarchist Scott blames the system.  But with democracies people generally get to create the system they want. If a democracy goes bad, then, blame the people, and not the system.  We get what we deserve.

The title of this post may seem absurd.  Some of us may think of Plato as the seed-bed of totalitarianism, a view that I understand but one that I think totally misses the point of his thought.  In a revealing passage in his dialogue The Statesman Plato suggests, along with Scott, that law itself is the problem, not necessarily bad laws.  He plays around with the analogy of weaving as statesmanship, and not legislating, as one might expect.  He tells the myth of the divine shepherd but realizes that, on a human scale, the analogy breaks down.

To resume:—Do you remember that we spoke of a command-for-self exercised over animals, not singly but collectively, which we called the art of rearing a herd?


Yes, I remember.


There, somewhere, lay our error; for we never included or mentioned the Statesman; and we did not observe that he had no place in our nomenclature.


How was that?


All other herdsmen ‘rear’ their herds, but this is not a suitable term to apply to the Statesman; we should use a name which is common to them all.


True, if there be such a name.


Why, is not ‘care’ of herds applicable to all? For this implies no feeding, or any special duty; if we say either ‘tending’ the herds, or ‘managing’ the herds, or ‘having the care’ of them, the same word will include all, and then we may wrap up the Statesman with the rest, as the argument seems to require.

In other words, Plato recognizes that the best shepherd is “hands-off” as much as possible.  No shepherd makes laws for his flock, the flock simply “is.” Later, The Stranger and Young Socrates distance themselves from the “sheep=people” analogy, and realize that an aspect of voluntary will must be included:


Then, now, as I said, let us make the correction and divide human care into two parts, on the principle of voluntary and compulsory.




And if we call the management of violent rulers tyranny, and the voluntary management of herds of voluntary bipeds politics, may we not further assert that he who has this latter art of management is the true king and statesman?


I think, Stranger, that we have now completed the account of the Statesman.

I think Scott would approve of this line of reasoning, and perhaps we can give a modest “two cheers” for Plato as a proto-anarchist.



*He never gets into why this is, however, and the question is worth pondering.  Why do popular revolutions create more totalitarianism than the governments they replace?



Be Like the Fox

If you wanted to be an English aristocrat in the Victorian age (or perhaps most any age) one needed to hunt foxes.  For years this perplexed me.  Sure, foxes eat chickens sometimes and maybe cause a bit of mischief, but they posed no real threat to anyone.  They did not seem like noble quarry.  But then I realized that foxes were not hunted because of the damage they did to farms (like you would hunt wolves or wild hogs), or the danger they posed to the hunters (like lions or bears), but because they were so clever at avoiding traps.  To hunt a clever beast, one had to display their own cunning, which even the ancient Greeks admired.

Machiavelli has always beguiled his admirers and detractors alike.  Reading him can feel like a bracing tonic, but then he leaves you cold with his “Machiavellian” calculations.  He seems both clear and contradictory.  We may wonder if we can read him as anything more than a guilty pleasure.

We need not look further than his “It is Better to be Feared rather than Loved” chapter from The Prince.  In his typically realistic/pessimistic way, he says that the love of the people will never be constant, whereas fear will keep them bound to the ruler.  This seems to fit within Machiavelli’s general framework, but we should recall that as an avid student of history, Machiavelli would surely know that fear never works beyond the short-term.  The most successful rulers throughout history may not have people “love” them in the sense in which we use the word, but they did establish relationships and a series of mutual benefits for the ruler and ruled.

Erica Benner makes the bold suggestion that not only is Machiavelli giving bad advice in this notorious chapter, he knows he is giving bad advice.  In fact, he wants his audience (the D’ Medici’s who ended Florence’s Republic) to take this advice and make themselves odious to the people.  He hopes, in fact, that the Republic he loves might be restored through the stupidity of those that read him.*

Ordinarily I would suspect some show-off chicanery with this analysis, but Be Like the Fox surprised me with its even-handed and careful approach that remains accessible to someone like me.  She begins by suggesting that we should not view Machiavelli primarily through the lens of The Prince, but rather through the body of his other work, and especially, his life as a diplomat.  The book weaves biography and analysis gracefully.  Diplomats, especially Renaissance diplomats, often had to speak elliptically and carefully.  The message lay not so much in what was said but in how it was said.  Perhaps Machiavelli’s writings evidence some of this same character.

At his best, Machiavelli bring us back to questions of purpose in political action.  Benner includes an example from Machiavelli’s own life to illustrate this.  Early in his marriage Niccolo had a brief affair with his cousin Bernardo’s female servant and got her pregnant.  She admitted to Bernardo that Niccolo was the father.  From his diaries, we know that Bernardo considered carefully what to do.

Privately he approached Niccolo and mentioned the pregnancy and, in neutral tones, the accusation. “What will happen to the Machiavelli name,” Niccolo, “when word of this gets out?”  Niccolo sympathized with the poor girl and his cousin.  He blamed himself . . . because, he said, a friend of his had seduced the poor girl while he and his wife were away from the house.  Niccolo offered to try and track him down.  Of course, after a few days he reported that the “man” was a scoundrel and would never fess up.  But . . . since he recognized that the fault in the end lay with him, he agreed to provide for a large dowry for the girl so she could get married . . . quietly.  After all, no one wanted a scandal to tarnish the Machiavelli name.

If the cousin’s goal was to bring Machiavelli to repentance, this method may have hindered that cause.  If he desired a quiet solution to the outward problem itself, this worked. Would a direct attack on Niccolo bring about a quickening of his conscience, or merely a stubborn defense that would leave him (Bernardo) holding the bag for his pregnant serving girl?  Benner tells this story early in the book to illustrate the point of much of Machiavelli’s writing.

Benner supports her analysis of The Prince especially through the life of Cesare Borgia, whom many suspect Machiavelli admires on their first reading.  As the son of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a., Pope Alexander VI, Cesare had enormous advantages.  “Fortune loves and impetuous youth,” Machiavelli writes.  Cesare had a string of great victories throughout Italy based in part on his charisma, luck, and a talent for acquisition via dubious means.  Yet Machiavelli consistently notes that,

  • People who use deception to great effect always assume that everyone else will be honest.
  • People who thrive on conquest often have a hard time building a stable network of alliances, and making and keeping friends.
  • People who have the smile of Fortune rarely realize that Fortune has a fickle streak.  One must do the work of real relationships to create a truly stable state.

In other words, The Prince has much more implied criticism of Cesare Borgia than praise,

Benner illustrates this with other events in Machiavelli’s life.  We assume that Machiavelli just cared about results and not about methods, but Benner argues this would make nonsense of many of his experiences and other writings.  When Pope Sixtus IV (seemingly) supported the failed assassination attempt of Lorenzo and Guillamo d’ Medici, it left Florence in a vulnerable position despite the fact that Lorenzo survived.  Lorenzo’s ruthless revenge not just against the assassins themselves, but the entire Pazzi family from whence they came (which included a few clergy) gave the Pope ammunition to take control of Florence regardless of the failed plot.

Lorenzo scrambled and tried to isolate the pope by getting Naples to break free from their alliance with the Pope.  He thought he scored a major coup for Florence and saved the city.  But then . . .

  • The Pope was still furious because of the treachery of Naples
  • Venice, as an side player in this whole affair, got angry that no one included them in the conversations and joined the Pope against Florence.
  • Meanwhile, Naples had only signed a non-aggression pact with Florence, which meant that they offered no military assistance, leaving Florence in exactly the same position as before.

Slipshod diplomacy made for now diplomacy at all.  Thus, Machiavelli concludes that, “One must things by their methods, and not merely by their results alone,” a conclusion that may surprise us.**

In his fun From Barbarians to Bureaucrats Lawerence Fairley makes the point that companies go through  many of the same life-cycles as civilizations, and uses A.J. Toynbee’s analysis to aid him.  One stage belongs to the “Barbarian.”  Fairley writes that one may be a “barbarian” leader if,

  • You love competition, and the ‘thrill of victory.’  You cannot shrug off losing.
  • You are action-oriented.  You don’t care so much for ideas or systems, but results.
  • You like being in charge and like making decisions
  • You may not have come up with the vision, but want badly to see it through and have definite plans for doing so.
  • You don’t have tons of patience for those who seem to be standing in the way of your mission.
  • You see the ‘struggle’ in absolute terms of us/them, good/evil, etc.

Certainly Cesare Borgia fits this bill, as I think, does our current president.  Fairley points out that we can have good and bad “barbarian” leadership, with each style obviously having its strengths and weaknesses.  Cesare Borgia’s problems came directly after the fighting stopped, as did Alexander the Great’s, as perhaps did Donald Trump’s?  With Cesare, Machiavelli seemed to indirectly counsel that the worst thing one could do with a barbarian was prolong the fighting, which plays directly to his strengths.  The true barbarian, however, will never handle peace well.  Let Cesare stumble over his own feet.  Let Fortune abandon him.  Perhaps Machiavelli would counsel Trump’s political opponents to lay low and let Trump defeat himself.^

In hindsight, of course, some of Machiavelli’s advice looks less and less “Machiavellian.”  In  Debriefing the President, John Nixon writes of his experiences at the CIA and especially about his time spent with Saddam Husssein.  In the midst of his criticism of Clinton, Bush the Younger, Obama, and George Tenet, he makes some revealing personal changes in his opinion.  He admits that he thought the best intel the U.S. possessed pointed to a stockpile of W.M.D’s, and so initially supported the war.  But he concludes that Iraq and the Mideast would be much better off today with Saddam in power.

Well, obviously.  But Nixon makes this claim more interesting with Saddam’s own words and history, much of which he missed himself as an intelligence analyst leading up to the war.  Saddam’s greatest threat was not the U.S., he argues, but Sunni-based Islamic terror, because he relied on the Sunni’s for nearly all his power in Iraq.  Thus, Saddam would have opposed Al-Queada and especially ISIS, as mortal threats to his regime.  Perhaps the fighting would have happened regardless, but Saddam may have appeared vulnerable enough for more open fighting, which would have played right into the U.S.’s tactical and technological advantages.

Maybe so, though this is much easier to say in 2017 than it was in 2003.  Still, I surmise that Benner would concur with Nixon that the best policies come from taking a lesson from the fox, who lives not by paying attention to ideology, but by finding the best way to avoid traps.^^


*Other aspects of The Prince suggest something similar.  He discusses in one chapter that there are two kinds of kingdoms. One type is easy to conquer because they are divided, but this same type of kingdom is all the more difficult to hold precisely because of its divisions.  Was this a word of warning for his D’ Medici enemies who had taken advantage of Florence’s internal divisions?

**Machiavelli argues that Florence survived only because of the serendipity of Turkish activity right at this moment.  The Italian city-states agreed on little besides the fact that Turkey was their greatest enemy.

^This is the conventional view.  But it may be that Trump is actually doing a good job fulfilling his basic promises, as the irrepressible and always enjoyable Camille Paglia points out in her interview here.

^Here I speculate on Benner’s and Nixon’s position, and do not necessarily mean to give my own.  Machiavelli’s work forces one to answer many questions about Christianity’s relationship to politics–but I haven’t come up with an answer yet!

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.



*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.”


*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


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