“It was . . . Soap Poisoning!”

Abstract logic is the weapon of choice of most teenagers. Certainly this tool can intoxicate, but . . . it can often be fool’s gold.

For example, a parent tells their teenage driver to be home from a night out with friends at no later than 10:30. The teen arrives home at 10:50 and shrugs, “It’s not that big of a deal.” The teen will often attempt to atomize the parental rebuke with logic: “It’s just 20 minutes. if I was 20 minutes late coming home from work you wouldn’t care, or 20 minutes late coming home from school, you wouldn’t care. So to get angry about this particular 20 minutes only shows utter arbitrariness in your distinctions. It is your power, and your power alone to define what constitutes a meaningful 20 minutes is why I am in trouble, and no other reason.”

Ah yes, nothing burns so fiercely in the teenage soul as the apparent arbitrary nature of various parental decisions and distinctions. The teenager may suffer consequences, but they will suffer them rejoicing in their moral superiority. They see, they know the Injustice, and dream that perhaps one day, one day, parents will be struck by a terrible self-knowledge . . .

Reading Murray Edelman’s Constructing the Political Spectacle left me feeling that I was listening to a 16 year-old who thinks he has discovered the secret truth of the universe that somehow everyone over 30 for the last several millennia has missed.

Edelman’s bases his book on the idea that our politics do not reflect an objective reality that we recognize, but a constructed reality made by those in power. Often, politicians will do things to perpetuate their power artificially by creating enemies or crises. We create such things via the terms we use, or the definitions we create. Very skillful politicians construct reality with tone or posture. It seems to me that Edelman believes we are puppets on the strings of language, a fairly standard postmodern perspective.

As an example of his perspective, Edelman discusses the idea of a political crisis through the Cuban Missile Crisis. We called the Russians placing missiles in Cuba a “crisis,” one that nearly triggered war. But we had missiles just as close to Russia as they did to us–many more of them, in fact. Another narrative of seeing the Russians striving for greater global security through strategic parity emerges. Which narrative we pick will depend on which definition we use, and the definitions those in power chose elevated the government’s status. The “Cuban Missile Crisis” was a crisis only because we defined it so–we could have easily chosen other language to create a different reality.

Certainly we have to get below the surface narrative that favors our side, but the equivalency Edelman attempts make sense only in a pure abstraction. In the real world we know that placing missiles under a cloak of deceit (which the Russians did in Cuba) means that we have to see beyond merely where missiles are located and how many each side has. In the same way, we know that when a teenager comes home 20 minutes late from school, and another time comes home 20 minutes late from being out with his friends at night, the difference between these two 20 minutes is hardly arbitrary.

Other problems exist with the book . . .

  • He discusses how political leaders have power in part because of their visibility. They can control the symbols by which they are viewed, which in turn makes them seem more than just figments. But every leader since the dawn of time has been invested with some kind of symbolic/semi-sacred (in some cases fully sacred) authority. Has every civilization simply not had the advantage of getting to Derrida’s philosophy? It seems much more reasonable to assume that these symbolic forms mean something real, and are not just pure manipulations.
  • He discusses how political leaders might create enemies to boost their power, i.e. Wag the Dog. Sure, it can happen sometimes, but some enemies are real. ISIS is not a semantic construction. How would Edelman propose we tell the difference between real and fake enemies?
  • He criticizes the use of semantic and symbolic constructions to achieve collective action. Yes, this can be bad sometimes, but he never reminds us that it can also be done for good ends. I had the suspicion that collective action itself was presumed guilty, but surely we cannot exist apart from some occasional collective action.

As I read my frustration with Edelman grew, and not so much even because I am conservative and every example he used in the book made conservatives (or those with power, such as generals) the bad people for how they used symbols and defined the terms. After all, people can write books that critique conservatives, and I can learn from them. No–my frustration stemmed from the assumptions his arguments made about those on the left, and even himself. Edelman’s thesis leaves us with the following choices:

  • Only bad conservatives know how to wield symbols and construct the political spectacle in their favor, which makes those on the left either blind sheep or slaphappy stupid.
  • Those on the left can construct political realities but not get others to follow very often, which seems to cede much of the high ground to conservatives–maybe their policies really do represent the majority of citizens?– or assume that the great mass of people are dumb and easily manipulated, but only by conservatives (the left must lack the talent?)
  • Every unified political action is nothing more than symbol and word manipulation, which means that those on the right and left are “bad” when they try and do this.
  • Not to mention, Edelman himself becomes “bad” for trying to impose his narrative of definitions and language on me, the innocent reader. “Don’t impose your ‘there is no Narrative’ narrative on me, man. I just want to live and let live.

I have been quite critical of Edelman, but he, like other postmoderns, latches onto an important truth. The teenager has to arrive at a point where they realize that their parents are not gods and that the world they live in–constructed largely by their parents–has many arbitrary elements in them. Applying these insights into society and politics has its place. The Enlightenment modern project needed taken down a notch or two. But the teen can’t stay in a constant critique. He needs to build something, but Edelman gives us no tools for the task.

Andrew Kern of the Circe Institute has a helpful breakdown of different kinds of education. First, there is the Pragmatic education, then the Traditional, then the Wisdom education. Each type, Kern reminds us, is based on faith in something.

  • A Pragmatic education bases itself on the belief that all that is worthy is what can be seen, measured, and useful for his brute survival–food, water, shelter.
  • A Traditional education respects the past and knows that things exist beyond what he can see or measure–his society, or heritage, for one. He believes in the value of this inheritance, and receives the proper training to honor that tradition and to sacrifice for it.
  • A Wisdom education tries to do more, to stand outside the Tradition and ask questions of it. It tries to get at the roots of a society. It can lead one to see faults within the Tradition and hopefully correct it when needed. If the Traditionalist has faith in an unseen inheritance, it is still an earthly oriented inheritance. A Wisdom education believes in something transcendent above all traditions. 

One might think that Edelman gives us wisdom, because of his ability to see through traditions. I disagree. First, true education has to lead us somewhere, and Edelman merely deconstructs. Second, a wisdom education has to involve love, has to involve a giving of oneself to something higher. No societal critique works without roots in love of the Tradition.* I sense nothing of this in Edelman. He gives us logic-chopping straight from the freezer.

But even a “Wisdom” education rooted in love of the Tradition would not fully complete our education. Kern reminds us that there remains a fourth and final stage of education, one that even many Christians miss, just as the Corinthian church in St. Paul’s day missed it. The proof of their failure was their disunity. They used all of their wisdom to fight with each another. Indeed, being able to evaluate a tradition doesn’t mean that we will agree on what is right or wrong about the tradition. Perhaps one might arguably see some of this division of mind present even in Solomon, the wisest of the wise, and the presumed author of the somewhat confusing book of Ecclesiastes.

The final stage of education, then involves something beyond critique, and into the realm of Play, into the great dance of the Triune God, where unity and diversity cohere in the foundation of Being itself, where we are fully united one with another but are never more our own unique selves simultaneously.

Herein lies the Secret of the Gospel, and the answer to Edelman.

Dave

*If we could summarize the basic problems with the political Left and Right, it would be

  • The Right wants to uphold the Tradition with little to no critique of it.
  • The Left simply critiques the Tradition without any love for it (or, if they praise America, they praise it almost exclusively for being able to correct its mistakes–a perpetual motion machine of self doubt, and sometimes, self loathing).

Both sides have something to offer, and both sides often see with one eye closed. As I mentioned elsewhere, the first half of the 20th century shows us the horror that unquestioning love of a Tradition can bring. Since then we see the spiritual and moral vacuum of deconstruction with no place to stand with no map available.

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Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this fairly recent post in the dog-days of summer based on a few observations . . .

First . . .

In Ezra Klein’s recent podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Secondly . . .

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

And now, the original post . . . .

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. If we take the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, the conversation might look like this:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Are all our silly fights really about something important? If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.


A National Man of Mystery

Anyone who knows anything about the first half of the 20th century knows that the concept of “nation” has a lot to answer for. We have such familiarity with it that we need not rehash the sins of “nationality” here. Slightly less obvious might be the impact, or pendulum swing we experienced in the second half of the 20th century towards the individual related to the state, or the community. This manifested itself in a variety of ways:

  • The proliferation of international bodies like the EU, G-8, World Bank, IMF, etc.
  • Expansion of global markets, facilitated by the internet and the removal of boundaries on communication and information
  • Significant expansion of media technologies that allow us to radically personalize our world everywhere we go, like Facebook, iTunes, Netflix, etc.
  • Removal of barriers to self-expression, encapsulated in the hey-day of free speech in the 1960’s, and now, with the end of traditional beliefs and social norms about gender and sexuality.*

But, if the pendulum swung too far in one direction from 1900-1960, many think that it has gone too far in the other direction (i.e., Bowling Alone, Why Liberalism Failed, etc.). Some form of such swings might be inevitable from a historical perspective, and might even be healthy when mild, as it might prevent stagnation. But dramatic swings destabilize societies and make it harder to get our bearings. At such times, terrible mistakes can occur.

Over the past 5-10 years we have witnessed the reemergence of national populism. In America, the phenomena manifested itself with Trump’s election, but almost every democracy in the western world has dealt with this, both in old and established democracies (Brexit, Marie le Pen), and relatively new ones (Poland, Hungary, etc.). Some see in national populism the dreaded extreme pendulum swing, but authors Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin disagree. In their book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, they seek not to praise or bury the phenomena, but to understand its reasons for being and the nuances of the movement. Some critics of the book see it as a sympathetic defense of right-leaning populism, a Marc Antony style bait and switch. Instead, I view the book as a careful delineation of the nuances of the movement. Above all, we must resist the urge to cast the label “Fascist,” to all or even most manifestations of national populism. Yes, the authors believe that certain populist leaders have dangerous leanings, but others simply seek to stand against real/perceived excesses of progressive ideology. We must exercise caution in our examination.

The authors first remind readers that populist movements have always existed within democratic governments. Greece had so much direct participation that it scared off our own founders. Rome’s Republic often existed in uneasy tension with more populist strains. More recently, America has seen populist presidents like Andrew Jackson, and to some extent, Teddy Roosevelt, in addition to various populist governors like Huey Long. Some may dislike all of these leaders on balance, but even if one did, democracy survived, and the country stayed far away from “fascism” or even overt nationalism. Of course, we could arguethat, given the horrors of how national populism operated in Germany from 1933-45, we should avoid even minute drops of it.

Eatwell and Goodwin think that this both unfair and unrealistic. They distinguish between fascism and populism in a variety of ways. Fascist regimes have a strong racial ideology, they often wish to expand territorially, and they often have apocalyptic goals. But even if the similarities were more acute, we simply cannot avoid populism if we wish to remain democratic–we cannot ignore the “voice of the people” in a democracy.

I have sympathy for Eatwell and Goodwin’s presentation of their ideas, though I have written before that I think that democratic societies need “elites.” The question comes to, “What kind of elites?” It seems too easy to say that we need elites with connections to the “common man,” “on the ground,” but so it goes. The “elite” culture of Periclean Athens was a very public culture, accessible to the people (recall the free theater performances of plays). Their leaders often competed with one another as to who served in office, who led armies, and so on. Roman elites were likewise quite civically minded, and for much of the Republic’s history patricians did not greatly exceed the wealth of the plebs–and when this gap widened tremendously after the 3rd Punic War so began the breakdown of the Republic (one factor among many, to be sure). Medieval elites lived in castles, but defended the realm, and were obliged to host a variety of festivals and parties for their tenants. They socially mixed frequently with peasants. Our own founding fathers took great risks and served in the army. Some of them had farms or worked as ordinary town lawyers, again, with strong connections to the “common man.”

Perhaps the chicken of the Republican right in the 1990’s, starting perhaps with Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, pushed the left farther from the center. Or perhaps the egg of the radical progressive ideologies about immigration, abortion, sexuality, etc. have made it hard to maintain something of a traditional conservatism. Or possibly grander historical forces play upon us, or maybe still, we are now experiencing something cyclical akin to the changing of seasons. Whatever the cause, we now have elites at universities, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, and in certain segments of the media (a short list that I know does not apply equally everyehere) that drive the agenda of much of the left throughout the democratic world, and I think this is the main cause for the rise of populism.

For example . . .

  • We “know” that “Empire” is a bad word
  • “Nation” is increasingly becoming a bad word in certain circles
  • In the U.S. at least, we don’t want to give much autonomy to states or local communities to decide things, to have any variance on issues that divide us like abortion, gender, sexuality, immigration, etc.

So, all that certain segments of the political spectrum will leave us with is a stateless individualism with no unifying theme, culture, or nod to tradition. Very few can live in such a way or have ever lived in such a way. Older, more personal and familial conceptions of political realities, such as the “realms” of medieval kings, will not return any time soon.

So it appears that, unless we want civil wars across the western world**, we are stuck with the political entity of nations.

I concede, with Benedict Anderson, that there is something mysterious and imaginary about nations, but they undeniably exist, and people want some sense of identity within them. For that to happen, they need to take their bearings and locate themselves within the culture. The ancients often equated the formless and boundless ocean with chaos–moderns with freedom, and this might hint at the differences in how we interpret the meaning of our communities then and now. Nations may have less of a concrete reality than a particular individual, but for people to be truly human we need connections with others. These connections can only come with the presence of trust and familiarity. Dramatic change in law, demographics, and ideology make this hard to come by.

One reviewer rightly pointed out that whereas Eatwell and Goodwin take pains to point out the complexity and nuances of populist movements, populist movements themselves reject complexity–the problems we face have self-evident solutions. Maybe so, but I think that, as academic “elites,” Eatwell and Goodwin do one good turn towards rectifying the gap between elites and the common man. They have at least written a serious book about the “average Joe.”

For those who fear this movement on the right and the left, I would suggest them giving us something for us to feel tangible pride in as a nation. The right too often resorts to our expanded freedom to consume, but this comes from the nameless, faceless market–a stark contrast to what “going to market” meant in bygone eras. Many on the left constantly undermine our cultural inheritance and see the past and present as nothing but evil. They would offer instead foolish fantasies of a future that will always reside outside of our grasp. Neither approach will help us build a reasonable national identity and pride, and so neither approach will prevent the global rise of national populism.

Dave

*Free speech today is under attack on campus’ especially, which is ironic considering the modern free speech movement had its birth at the university. Perhaps this means that free speech is at its most vibrant when a) People wish to challenge the existing order, and b) The existing order is at least partially out of alignment with the rest of the culture, and thus ripe for a “fall” of sorts. Free speech in those contexts might just look like “saying what everyone is thinking (or at least the “right” “everyone”). Today there are plenty of people who fit into the first category, but perhaps the prevailing orthodoxy is not yet ready to fall, backed as it is not just by cultural elites but also most businesses. In the 60’s, the main forms of national culture sided with those challenging the existing moral and political order.

Also, free speech can never be an absolute value even in the context of academic freedom. For example, one might imagine a hypothetical Professor Smith, who advocates with extended argument an absurd defense of Jim Crow laws. Whether public or private, no college should allow his continued employment. The problems today are that 1) Such standards are very unevenly applied, with very slippery standards used to decide what is racist and what is not, and 2) Standards get formed very quickly that alienate, at minimum, very large numbers of people with different opinions that until quite recently were quite acceptable–one recalls President Obama’s support for traditional marriage in 2008, and 3) One can get “mobbed” for things far less than careful, systematically expressed thoughts.

**I dread the possibility, but could the U.S. separate into “Red” and “Blue” nations peacefully? One thinks of the famous dictum from the Chinese epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which states, “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” Maybe, possibly, we should not view the political union of the states as an absolutely fixed good. New York and Texas could easily go their separate ways, but what about the swing states, like Ohio and Florida? Like Kansas in 1854, one can imagine a frightful spectacle of their destiny decided by a few thousand votes one way or the other.

The lack of geographic contiguity would make the prospect difficult even with no violence, and so we would have the problem of 4-5 separate nations, new constitutions, etc. While nodding to the hypothetical possibly, we should do all we can to avoid it.

Machiavelli on Maintaining a Republic

Reading Machiavelli’s The Prince is akin to eating Twizzlers — it may not be good* for you, but it is a lot of fun.  That work in particular gave Machiavelli the reputation as one who believed, “the end’s justified the Unknownmeans,” one who could sanction anything if it accomplished his purposes.  As to whether or not Machiavelli truly meant what he wrote, or whether he merely sought to describe reality dispassionately, or if he sought to work evil in the hearts of men, or whether the above assessment is even fair at all . . . I leave this to the scholars.  What is obvious is that Machiavelli should not be judged only by his most famous/infamous of works.

In his Discourses on Livy none can doubt Machiavelli’s earnest belief about the superiority of the Republican form of government.  For example, one can’t help but think of our “Green Zone” failure in reading his thoughts on the futility of fortresses, which I include below for those interested (General Petraeus would not disagree with a thing, I think).

He starts off The Art of War mainly talking about how to maintain peace, and he makes illuminating remarks about the nature of professional armies in republics.  He writes the book as a dialogue, and has one of the speakers say,

for there is not to be found a more dangerous infantry than that which is composed of those who make the waging of war their profession; for you are forced to make war always, or pay them always, or to risk the danger that they take away the Kingdom from you. To make war always is not possible: (and) one cannot pay always; and, hence, that danger is run of losing the State. My Romans ((as I have said)), as long as they were wise and good, never permitted that their citizens should take up this practice as their profession . . . 

For those who do not know how to live another practice . . . are forced by necessity to roam the streets, and justice is forced to extinguish them.

Ottavianus first, and then Tiberius, thinking more of their own power than the public usefulness, in order to rule over the Roman people more easily, begun to disarm them and to keep the same armies continually at the frontiers of the Empire. And because they did not think it sufficient to hold the Roman People and the Senate in check, they instituted an army called the Praetorian (Guard), which was kept near the walls of Rome in a fort adjacent to that City. And as they now begun freely to permit men assigned to the army to practice military matters as their profession, there soon resulted that these men became insolent, and they became formidable to the Senate and damaging to the Emperor. Whence there resulted that many men were killed because of their insolence, for they gave the Empire and took it away from anyone they wished, and it often occurred that at one time there were many Emperors created by the several armies. From which state of affairs proceeded first the division of the Empire and finally its ruin. 

De Tocqueville too thought that professional armies ran counter to the interests of democracy.  He writes,

The equality of conditions and the manners as well as the institutions resulting from it do not exempt a democratic people from the necessity of standing armies, and their armies always exercise a powerful influence over their fate. It is therefore of singular importance to inquire what are the natural propensities of the men of whom these armies are composed.

All the ambitious spirits of a democratic army are consequently ardently desirous of war, because war makes vacancies and warrants the violation of that law of seniority which is the sole privilege natural to democracy.

We thus arrive at this singular consequence, that, of all armies, those most ardently desirous of war are democratic armies, and of all nations, those most fond of peace are democratic nations; and what makes these facts still more extraordinary is that these contrary effects are produced at the same time by the principle of equality.

Do Machiavelli’s and De Tocqueville’s analysis hold true for America today?

One thing is for certain: we do not want a return the Vietnam era, when many Americans turned against the military as they turned against the war.  This separation of the people from the troops is unfair to them, and poses dangers to a democracy.

Today, by a vast majority Americans support our military.  No politician can survive without doing so themselves.  I found it a bit comical to see both Vice-Presidential candidates in their 2012 debate fall over themselves talking about “supporting the troops” by increasing defense spending.  But we must realize that no classical or early modern theorist of government believed that standing armies aided democracy.  We should recognize also that having a large professional army arrived just recently in American history and can be traced to the difficult strategic decisions after the Korean War.  Thus, we live in unusual times and must take account of them.  We cannot assume that we can do whatever we wish with our military without any consequences to our democracy, just as bad economic policy will impact our freedoms.

In Machiavelli’s time fighting a war stood by leaps and bounds the most expensive thing a ruler could do.  Taxation happened in a much more irregular fashion as well, making monetary supply more volatile.  So we do not necessarily have difficulty paying our military, and so-called entitlement spending actually accounts for the most money in our budget.

Unlike Augustus and Tiberius (referenced by Machiavelli above) we have no reason to fear our military.  We want them home as soon as remotely possible from wherever they might be stationed.  Also many military men seem to me to easily transition into civilian life by working for technology companies, defense contractors, etc.  Our military academies continue to attract the cream of our youth, so Machiavelli’s worry about the worst sort of men attracted to the legal use of violence appears to have little cause now.  All in all, Machiavelli’s warnings about a professional military do not strike very close to home in America at this time.

But this should not mean that we do not heed his warnings.  The continual valiant service of the military may create a climate where the military can’t be criticized.  The power and technology of the military has now gone far and above the power of the citizens to resist the military, should the need arise.  Thus, the military could take over the government whenever they chose, though thankfully this appears highly unlikely.  The reasonable tension in the “Security v. Liberty” debate may need to include the decades long practice of the most powerful democracy having a large and continually active professional force.

Dave

*I like reading The Prince and think it has a lot of wisdom in it.  What bothers me, what leaves me cold at times, is where I think Machiavelli comes from — that his only desire is to build the City of Man.

Machiavelli, “On the Futility of Fortresses”

It may perhaps appear to these sages of our times as something not well considered, that the Romans in wanting to assure themselves of the people of Latium and of the City of Privernum, did not think of building some fortresses there, which would be a restraint to hold them faithful; especially as there was a saying in Florence alleged by our wise men, that Pisa and other similar Cities ought to be held by fortresses. And truly, if the Romans had been like them, they would have thought to build them: but as they were of another virtu, of another judgment, of another power, they did not build them. And so long as Rome lived free and followed her institutions and virtuous constitutions, they never built one to hold either a City or a province, but they did save some that had already been built. Whence seeing the mode of proceeding of the Romans in this regard, and that of the Princes in our times, it appears to me proper to put into consideration whether it is good to build fortresses, or whether they are harmful Or useful to him who builds them. It ought to be considered, therefore, whether fortresses are built for defending oneself from the enemy or to defend oneself form one’s subjects.

In the first case they are not necessary, in the second harmful. And I will begin by giving the reason why in the second case they are harmful, I say that that Prince or that Republic which is afraid of its subjects and of their rebelling, it results first from the fact that that fear arises from the hate which the subjects have for them, and the hate they have of the treatment given them. The ill treatment results either from the belief of being able to hold them by force, or from the little prudence of those who govern them; and one of the things that makes them believe they are able to force them, is to have their fortresses near them: for the ill treatment that is the cause of hatred, arises in good part because of that Prince or that Republic have the fortresses, which ((if this is true)) are much more harmful by far than useful: For firstly ((as has been said)) they cause you to be more audacious and more violent toward your subjects: afterwards there is not that internal security of which you persuade yourself, as all the strength and violence that is employed in holding a people are nothing, except these two: either you have always to place a good army in the field, as the Romans had, or you must disperse them, extinguish them, disorganize them, and so destroy them that they are not able to come together to attack you; for if you impoverish them, the despoiled ones will win their arms: if you disarm them, fury will serve as arms: if you kill the Captains and continue to injure the others, the Heads will spring up as those of the Hydra: if you build fortresses, they are useful in times of peace because they give you more courage to do evil to them, but in times of war most useless because they will be assaulted by the enemy and by your subjects, nor is it possible that they can resist the one and the other. And if ever they were useless, they are now in our times on account of artillery, because of which the small places, where moreover you cannot retire behind earthworks, are impossible to defend, as we discussed above.

I want to discuss this manner more tritely. Either you, a Prince, want to keep the people of the City in restraint with these fortresses, or you, a Prince or a Republic, want to keep a City in restraint that has been occupied in war. I want to turn to the Prince, and I say to him that such fortresses cannot be more useless to him in holding his Citizens in restraint for the reasons given above, for it makes you more prompt and less regardful in oppressing them, and that oppression will expose you to your ruin and will excite them so, that that fortress which is the reason for it cannot afterwards defend you; so that a wise and good Prince, in order to keep himself good and not give cause to his sons to dare to become bad, will never build fortresses, so that they will rely, not upon the fortresses, but on the good will of men. And if Count Francesco Sforza who had become Duke of Milan was reputed wise and none the less built fortresses in Milan, I say that in this case he was not wise, and the result has shown that that fortress was harmful and not a security to his heirs: for judging that through the medium of it to live securely, and to be able to oppress their Citizens and subjects, they indulged in all kinds of violence, so that they became so hated as described above, that they lost the State as soon as the enemy assaulted them: nor did that fortress defend them, nor did they have any usefulness for them in war, and in peace had done them much harm: for if they had not had them, and if because of little prudence they had not treated their Citizens harshly, they would have discovered the peril more quickly, and would have retreated, and would then have been able to resist the impetus of the French more courageously with friendly subjects and without a fortress, than with hostile subjects, and with the fortress, which do you no good in any way, for either they (fortresses) are lost through the treachery of those who guard them, or because of the violence of those who assault it, or by famine.

And if you want them to do you any good and to help you in recovering a lost State, where only the fortress remains to you, it behooves you to have an army with which you can assault those who have driven you out; and if you have the army you would recover the State in any case, (and) even more (easily) if the fortress did not exist, and so much more easily as men would be more friendly than they were to you, for you had maltreated them because of the pride of having the fortress. And from experience it has been seen that this fortress of Milan was of no usefulness either to the Sforza or to the French in times of adversity for the one or the other; rather it brought much harm and ruin to both, not having given thought because of it to more honest means of holding that State. Guidobaldo Duke of Urbino, son of Frederick, who is his time was an esteemed Captain, was driven out of his State by Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI; when afterwards because of an incident that had arisen he returned there, he caused all the fortresses that existed in that province to be destroyed, judging them to be injurious. For he being beloved by men, did not need them on their account, and with regard to his enemies, he had seen that he could not defend them; as they needed an army in the field to defend them, he resolved to destroy them. Pope Julius, after having driven out the Bentivogli from Bologna, built a fortress in that City, and afterwards had those people assassinated by one his Governors: so that that people rebelled, and the Pope quickly lost the fortress; and thus the fortress did him no good, but injury, and the more so, that by conducting himself otherwise it could have done him good. Niccolo Da Costello, father of the Vitelli, returning to his country when he had been exiled, quickly razed two fortresses that Pope Sixtus IV had built, judging that the good will people, not the fortresses, would keep him in that State. But of all the other examples, the most recent and the most notable in every way, and apt to show the uselessness of building them and the usefulness of destroying them, is that of Genoa which ensued in the most recent time. Everyone knows that in MDVII (1507) Genoa rebelled against Louis XII, King of France, who had come in person with all his forces to recover it, and having recovered it, he had a fortress built stronger than all others known up to the present time; it was impregnable because of its location and other circumstances, being placed on the apex of a hill that extended into the sea, called Codefa by the Genoese, and by means of this he commanded all the port and great part of the town of Genoa. Afterwards in the year MDVII (1512) it happened that the French forces were driven out of Italy, Genoa rebelled notwithstanding the fortress, and Ottaviano Fregoso seized the State, who, after sixteen months and with every industry, captured it by starvation. And everyone believed, and many counselled him, that he should preserve it as a refuge in any event: but being a most prudent man, (and) knowing that the good will of men and not fortresses maintained Princes in their States, destroyed it. And thus without founding his State on the fortress, but on his virtu and prudence, he has held it and still holds it. And where before only a thousand infantry usually were enough to overturn the State of Genoa, his adversaries have assaulted him with ten thousand and have not been able to harm him. It will be seen from this, therefore, that the destruction of the fortress did no more harm Ottaviano, than the building of it protected the King of France. For when he was able to come into Italy with his army, he was able to recover Genoa without the fortress being there; but without the army he could not come into Genoa even though he had a fortress there. For him, therefore, it was an expense to do (build) it and a disgrace to lose it: To Ottaviano the recovery of it was glorious and the destruction of it useful.

But let us come to the Republics which build fortresses, not within their own country, but inside the towns they acquire. And if the example given of France and Genoa are not enough to demonstrate the fallacy of this, those of Florence and Pisa will be enough for me; for the Florentines build fortresses in order to hold that City, and did not understand that to hold a City which was always hostile to Florentine rule, had lived in freedom, and had resorted to rebellion as a refuge for liberty, it was necessary in wanting to observe the old Roman method, either to make her an associate or to destroy her: for the virtu of fortresses is seen in the coming of King Charles, to whom they all surrendered, either through the treachery of those who guarded it, or from fear of a greater evil: for if there had not been one, the Florentines never would have based their holding Pisa on it, and the King (of France) could never in that manner have deprived the Florentines of that City: and the means by which they had maintained it up to that time would perhaps have been sufficient to preserve it, and without doubt would have stood the test better than the fortress.

I conclude, therefore, that to hold one’s own country a fortress is injurious and to hold towns that are acquired fortresses are useless: And I want the authority of the Romans to be enough (for me), who razed the walls of those towns which they wanted to hold, having taken them by violent means, and never rebuilt them. And if anyone should cite in opposition to this opinion that (example) of Tarantum in ancient times and of Brescia in modern times, both of which places were recovered from their rebellious subjects by means of fortresses, I reply, that for the recovery of Tarantum Fabius Maximus was sent at the beginning of the year with the entire army, who would have been more apt to have recovered it if there had not been a fortress: for although Fabius had used that means, if there had not been this means (fortress), he would have used other means which would have had the same result. And I do not know of what usefulness a fortress may be, if in the recovery of a town, a consular army with Fabius Maximus for its Captain is needed to recover it: And that the Romans would have recovered it in any event, is seen by the example of Capua where there was no fortress, and which they reacquired through the virtu of the army. But let us come to Brescia. I say that there rarely occurs that which occurred in that rebellion, that while the fortress remains in your power ((the town having revolted)) you should have a large army (and) nearby as was that of the French: for Monsignor De Foix, Captain of the King, being with his army at Bologna and learning of the loss of Brescia recovered the town by means of the fortress. The fortress of Brescia, therefore, ((in order to be of benefit)) also needed a Monsignor De Foix, and a French army which had to succor it in three days: Hence this example in contrast to opposite examples is not enough, for many fortresses have been taken and retaken in wars of our times, by the same fortune as field campaigns (have taken and retaken), not only in Lombardy, but also in the Romagna, in the Kingdom of Naples, and throughout all parts of Italy.

But as to building fortresses in order to defend oneself from external enemies, I say that they are not necessary to those people, or to those Kingdoms that have good armies, and are useless to those who do not have good armies: for good armies without fortresses are sufficient to defend themselves, and fortresses without good armies cannot defend you. And this is seen from the experience of those who are held to be excellent as governors and in other things, as was the case with the Romans and the Spartans; for if the Romans did not build fortresses, the Spartans not only abstained from building them, but even did not permit the City to have walls, because they wanted (to rely on) the personal virtu of their men to defend them, (and) not some other means of defense. When, therefore, a Spartan was asked by an Athenian whether the walls of Athens appeared beautiful to him, he replied “yes, if the (City) was inhabited by women”.

The Prince, therefore, who has good armies, may have on the frontiers of his State, or on the sea, some fortresses that could resist the enemy for some days until he could be checked; this may sometimes be a useful thing, but is not a necessary one. But when the Prince does not have a good army, then having fortresses throughout his State or at the frontiers, are either injurious or useless to him: injurious, because he loses them easily, and when they have been lost they are turned (make war) against him; or even if they should be so strong that that enemy cannot occupy them, they are left behind by the enemy army, and are of no benefit; for good armies, unless they are confronted by equally brave ones, enter into enemy country regardless of the City or fortress which they leave behind, as is seen in ancient histories; and as Francesco Maria did, who in recent times, in order to assault Urbino, left ten enemy Cities behind him, without taking any account of them. That Prince, therefore, who can raise a good army, can do without building fortresses: He who does not have a good army, ought not to build. He ought indeed to fortify the City where he lives, and keep it fortified, and keep the Citizens of that City well disposed, in order to be able to sustain an enemy attack so that he can (keep it) free by an accord or by external aid. All other plans are an expense in times of peace, and useless in times of war. And thus whoever considers all that I have said, will recognize the Romans as wise in all their other institutions, as they were prudent in their judgments concerning the Latins and the Privernati, where, not thinking of fortresses, they assured themselves of these people by wiser and more virtuous means.

Cultures are all Different, except when they’re the Same

It strikes me as a plausible proposition that anthropology developed primarily as a science out of democratic cultures. The openness fostered by democracy may contribute to curiosity and a desire for travel. Many consider the Athenian Herodotus the “Father of History,” but his work has many anthropological dimensions as well. I discussed in another post the archetypal Feminine within democracy, so it may be no surprise that the most famous anthropologists in the 20th century were two women, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

We can imagine the stereotypical male being almost a parody of an anthropologist–narrow, rigid, calling anything different “stupid,” or “dumb” (this could have been a marvelous Monty Python skit with John Cleese). So we can see how typical feminine traits of fluidity, appreciating context, nurture and acceptance, and so on, might fit women best–in general of course.

Many have written extensively on Ruth Benedict’s classic, Patterns of Culture, and I will not seek to say what has already been said. Briefly, however, Benedict seems to have two main goals:

  • To demonstrate that various aspects of a particular culture all interconnect and influence one another, and
  • To show that cultures are fundamentally different from one another, and are developed internally, not dependent on race or geography
  • Benedict of course makes many interesting observations about the societies she observes and her work has great merit. But, just as John Cleese might marvelously enact a parody of an anthropologist in the field, so too anthropologists can sometimes parody themselves. It is possible to be so open, so fluid, as to lose one’s moorings.

By this I mean that, of course cultures are different from one another, but this should not surprise us at all. People are different too. What I find more striking are the similarities across cultures that testify to the essential unity of human nature. For example, Benedict tackles how different cultures treat adolescent girls. In one place, young teens are primarily feared. The transformation they undergo has an element of sacredness about it, but, the sacred can also bring terror. So the young girls are sent away from the community to live in tents apart for months at a time. In another culture, they are celebrated and receive something akin to adoration, with men of the tribe literally bowing to them as potential and future mothers of the tribe. In Polynesian cultures, Benedict asserts that no one makes a big deal of adolescence at all. No ceremonies exist to mark the passing from youth to young adulthood, but . . . during this time teens are granted a great deal of sexual freedom, which they readily take advantage of until marriage.

Benedict’s strong accentuation of differences, however, have her miss the overall point. Each of these cultures treat the teen years as a distinct phase of development, each other them apply different standards of conduct for teens and others in the tribe treat them differently than either children or adults. To me, this seems more striking than their differences.

I find this emphasis on difference–not at all unique to Benedict among anthropologists–as a symptom of the democratic cultures from whence they arise which also stress individual differences and uniqueness. Paradoxically, I think this leads us towards a fascination with cultures that are tightly interlocked and cohesive, for democratic cultures can produce no such thing.

When a book gets reviewed positively by diverse thinkers such as Rod Dreher and Cornel West, one should take note. Patrick Deneeen’s Why Liberalism Failed partially indulges in too much romanticism for the past. His book is more of an essay or a thought-piece, and so it has holes. Still, I find his paradoxical analysis that Liberalism–by which he means the liberal democratic order that forms the foundation of both Republicans and Democrats–has failed because it has in fact done everything it set out to do, compelling, and an interesting companion to Benedict and other anthropologists.

Deneen argues that the Liberal order, which had its origins in with the work of Hobbes and Locke, set out to create a radically new society with a very different conception of how an individual relates to the state and one another. Traditional societies saw the state fundamentally as a community of persons pointed in the same direction with the same values.

Liberal society starts with the premise that recognizing and maximizing individuals, and the inherent competition that comes with it, will create a more prosperous and workable state. Liberalism seeks to free us from all group oriented authorities that are not consensual, be it tradition, community norms, etc. It achieved its goals in spectacular fashion and we all partake readily of what it has to offer. It has brought unprecedented prosperity, but left us adrift at sea in a mass of individuals. In turn, this has led to the rise of statism, and emotionally driven authoritarian politics. Gone is the world of George H.W. Bush. Welcome to the world of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. The success of Liberalism has brought us to place that will naturally usher in its demise.*

Deneen explains himself well on any number of podcast interviews, and the book has various and detailed reviews. I will mention two of his main points that might help us understand the polarity of the self-loathing expressed by some in academia and the progressive left, and the chest-thumping of the more nationalistic right.

Deneen mentions that Liberalism is supposed to make men “free” and “liberal” in their disposition. But the whole tradition of the liberal arts expounds a very different meaning of freedom. The great thinkers and writers from the ancients down through Austen and Dickens all characterize freedom as living with limits, be it the limits of nature, tradition, or the law of God. But the Liberal order defines freedom as acting without any constraint, be it constraints on the market, on family, on biology, and so on. So, Wal-Mart should be free to eradicate mom-and-pop Main Street. And, if every civilization that ever existed defined marriage in a certain way, that stricture simply sets up another bowling pin for the Liberal order to knock down. The whole history of the human past has no authority over the now.

Our orientation towards living without limits has led to our striking crisis of inequality. Our solution to this, however, is not to champion the limitations taught by the liberal arts, rooted in God, natural law, or nature itself, but instead to blame liberal education for being “impractical.” For Deneen, an insistent STEM emphasis only continues to feed the beast, though he surmises that we will avoid violence. John Locke himself argued that, of course his proposed new order would bring about a new kind of inequality. But this new inequality will give us much more overall prosperity, and indeed he was correct. Even the poor may not mind inequality so much because we all have iphones.** Still, the benefits of a liberal economy do not feed the soul.

So too, Deneen argues that Liberalism destroys “culture” as part of its operating procedure. To develop, culture requires place, habit, tradition, and local difference, none of which have a role in the Liberal state. We have no place, and if we live in a particular place for long, it may not have any “place” about it (suburbs are wonderfully convenient and give many obvious benefits, but most are interchangeable with each other).

I think this might explain why many in the west have a fascination with other cultures. The Pueblo and the Dobu people profiled by Benedict have a tight culture in which roles and identity stand out with perfect clarity to all who live within them. We may not want to live among them but we long for their sense of solidity. Conversely, the Dobu do not send out anthropologists to find out about us. A man who is full need not scavenge for food.

This may help explain the progressive liberal drive to limit free speech. They seek not the liberal idea of freedom, but taboos that might give us identity. I completely object to their methods and their goals, though I understand the impulse. You can only celebrate diversity for so long, until you realize that everyone has the same need to define themselves as a people, and we cannot define ourselves without living within limits .

Deneen’s book has few solutions in mind, and this has frustrated some reviewers. But he does he offer the following from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution:

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, [and] that instead of throwing away our old prejudices, we cherish them . . . . W are are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock of each man is small, and the individuals do better to avail themselves of the general captital of nations and of ages. . . . Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.

Dave

*In an interesting aside, Deneen points out that James Madison specifically sought to develop a government where different political interests were inexorably pitted against one another. He eschewed the idea of community almost from the start. These different and intractable differences would preserve liberty for each group by each interest group canceling each other out. Alas, he probably envisioned several kinds of difference, and not just two.

Or . . . perhaps just two versions of the same impulse? Many criticize Trump for his relationship to facts. But Oscasio-Cortez recently derided those who are “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

**Deneen said in a recent speech that he leads at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

Democracy and the Feminine

Any observer of our political and media cycles knows that we have a problem. Unfortunately, for as much as we talk about various problems, we seem no closer to solving them. We do not understand the roots of the problem, or what the problem even is. We have no common platform on which to stand to start to discuss it meaningfully. Here I do not wish to discuss red-state/blue-state divides, inequality, immigration, or any such thing. They all have importance. But we must go deeper into basic symbolic language to see what these issues mean in our context. Without this, we will continue to spin our wheels

Many who care not for President Trump seem mystified that he can violate a variety of established presidential norms and have more or less the same approval rating. The recent revelations of the Mueller report aside (and the partial indictment on the media that comes with it), one could point to many missteps and oddities. Those with other political perspectives felt similarly about President Obama. To their great frustration, neither a terrible Iran deal, or the labryinth of the financially unsustainable health-care bill–his two main initiatives–had any effect on his supporters. Neither president inspires(d) middle-ground opinions, and I believe that we can explain this only by understanding that neither one of them functions(ed) as traditional politicians, but rather as heavily symbolic figures. People identify with them primarily not through their policies or even their personal actions, but by what they represent.

If true, this may forebode difficult times ahead, for it shows that we disagree on fundamental things, and that whatever we say about the marginal tax-rate may only serve as a smokescreen for what we really mean beneath our words. We will fight hard for our narratives. This should impel us not just to understand the symbolic nature of our politicians, but also the “location” of democracy within traditional symbolic archetypes* I will primarily reference biblical models and explanations, but I readily acknowledge that other civilizations use many of the same understandings.

Much confusion exists as to the meaning of masculinity today. We can start correcting this by understanding that all of us, men and women, are “feminine” in relation to God. That is, the masculine is the originator, the beginning and the end, the initiator. The “masculine” is steady, solid, not in flux. We might expect the feminine to have a merely passive role, and true, we see the feminine as “becoming,” rather than “being.” It is God who seeks us out, hunts us down (think of Francis Thompson’s great “The Hound of Heaven”). But, the feminine plays a strong supporting role.

We can see this even in the modern penchant for guys to call cars and boats “she.” The feminine gives the masculine a context for action, a space to develop. Cars and boats both create a womb of sorts, and (most) every mythological hero needs a ship. Indeed, we are all born from water, just as God drew creation itself out of water in Genesis 1. And because it involves flux, so too the feminine can give flexibility to the straight and “narrow” nature of the masculine. Again, God is the “Masculine,” but both men and women are made in the image of God, and both have equal worth and dignity in His sight.

I confess that I find it rather silly that some feminists find the modern west toxically patriarchal. If we understand male and female archetypes, one immediately sees that modern democracy may be the most Feminine form of government in human history. We embrace change, possibility, and the new. We allow for individual expression and variation. While the west’s history with immigration has been somewhat erratic, overall we have welcomed far more foreign people’s than other cultures. Women are usually the best and most gracious hosts. In the U.S. and Europe, however, we see a reaction against some more feminine manifestations in our culture.

In human history, myth, and folklore the masculine tyrannizes much more often than the feminine. St. Francis’ marvelous Canticle of the Sun praises “Brother Fire” for being bright and strong, but fire so easily gets out of hand, flaring up at any time and place. So too, St. Francis honors “Sister Water” as being humble, clear, and pure. But Scripture, myth, and folklore all attest that, when feminine tyrants do happen to arise, they are the most dangerous.

One might see this in Medusa, Medea, and Jezebel. In Babylonian myth, the goddess of the sea, Apsu oversteps her bounds and inspires the other gods to rebel against her, with Marduk gaining the victory. Still, the feminine aspects of Babylonian thought lingered on in their culture ever after, with the goddesss Ishtar reigning over most aspects of everyday life.** True to their feminine nature, Babylon was probably the most cosmopolitan and open city in the ancient world, but so open, however, that Scripture refers to the city in the book of Revelation as the archetypal harlot to the world.

In his magisterial Democracy in America, Tocqueville says much in praise of what he observed. But he devotes some time to discussing “What Sort of Tyranny Democracies Have to Fear.” Though he does not use male/female categories of thought explicitly, one can see them when he contrasts two types of abuse of power. “Masculine” forms of government such as monarchy or aristocracy go wrong in obvious ways. They rage, they lash out. But such tyrants usually care nothing for what you think. They are too direct for such subtely. Tocqueville points out that the more masculine forms of tyranny may imprison the body, but they leave the mind free.

In contrast, democratic/feminine tyranny may be more rare, but will have greater power over individuals indirectly. They care not so much for the body but the soul. They don’t want you to empty the dishwasher, so much as they want you to want to empty the dishwasher. They want love, not obedience.^ They come for your soul and care little for the body, weakening one from the inside out.

Still, those that lament the feminization or infantilization of our culture have to acknowledge that, as already stated, democracy itself borrows much more heavily from feminine archetypes. It has no hierarchy for us to consult.^^ But, even if one wanted to establish a more masculine form of government like monarchy to counteract this, such an endeavor would be foolish and impossible. It seems, then, that we have an impasse between masculine and feminine visions.

I suggest, however, that the Church gives us a path forward, showing us how the feminine plays a crucial role in establishing, or reestablishing, a new sense of order. I will take just a few examples, but many more exist.

Postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida talk of the need for “radical hospitality,” a radical openness to the “other,” a radical extension of the feminine archetype. Such openness obviously invites chaos and self-obliteration. But, look again . . . perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Joshua sends spies to the Promised Land it is a woman (Rahab), and a prostitute who practices “radical hospitality,” that shelters them (my thanks, once again, to Jonathan Pageau for this example). So too Mary Magdalene, another loose woman, devotes herself completely to Christ before His disciples. Rahab’s openness to the new allows her to see that her civilization must be destroyed–by men of war. She becomes a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:31). But we must not also forget that she joins with Israel, and has her head shaved as a sign of her submission to the new order, and her devotion to God the Father.

Mary, the Mother of God, gives us an even more constructive example. Tradition tells us that she–in defiance of all expectation and tradition–was raised in the Temple, the very center of life for the people of God. Germanos of Constantinople marveled in the 8th century that

Do [we] not see a girl born as a result of a promise, and she at the age of three, being taken within the inner veil as an umblemished gift to live there without interruption, also being carried in procession by the wealthy among the people? . . . What then will this child become (Lk. 1:66). But as for us, the peculiar people of God . . . let us approach the Theotokos and approach the divine mysteries! . . . Let us see how the prophet admits her by his own hand and brings her into inaccessible places, having been in no way displeased, and without having said to her parents, “I am not undertaking this most novel practice and leading a girl into the holy of holies to dwell there without interruption, where I have been instructed to enter only once a year.” The prophet uttered no such thing; instead he knew in advance what would come to pass, since he was a prophet.

Wider Than the Heavens: Eighth Century Homilies on the Mother of God, pp. 163-4

Translator Mary Cunningham notes that,

The high priest was only allowed to enter the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the building, shielded by a veil, representing the boundary of the created order and the realm of divinity. The preacher emphasizes here the extraordinary exception that was made in admitting the Virgin Mary to this sacred space and allowing her to live there throughout her childhood.

Ibid, footnote 11

No doubt as a fulfillment of Rahab, her openness to God makes salvation possible. We might say that it is convenient that God could only become Man through a woman, but it makes “sense” mythicly and archetyply just as it does biologically. And in her Magnificat, Mary alludes that this “openness” will not destroy order but in fact reaffirm it. Her “radical hospitality” becomes not a tyranny of chaos, but instead, radical devotion to the new kingdom ruled by her Son.

When “I AM” is both Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6) the hierarchy can be inverted and reaffirmed at the same time. This forms the solution to our current political and social difficulty. On the one hand, the “Masculine” must acknowledge that the possibilities inherent in the “Feminine” might bring about our “salvation” (using that term in an earthly and limited sense). But even in a democracy, the “Feminine” must acknowledge that the openness they bring best serves the reaffirmation of order, and not its destruction.

Dave

*All of what comes after this point assumes the following:

  • That gender/sex differences are real, rooted in creation, and not mere social constructs (though some degree of variation may occur over time and space as to how these differences manifest themselves).
  • That certain mythological constructs/ideas are also not mere human constructs–however universal they may be–but go deeper, and express “real reality.”

**True to the potential of excessive openness in the feminine, Ishtar reigned over love, marriage, war, and . . . prostitution.

^We see this in some of the worst democratic tyrannies, such as the French Revolution. In a near parody of the impossible female, one could get imprisoned in Paris ca. 1793-94 for either being too excessive in one’s love of liberty, or conversely, not excited enough about liberty. So too in Stalinist Russia (for communism is a western form of government), you could be shot for not keeping up with the intricacies of party dogma.

Today the idea of safe spaces, of the regulation of language so no one gets feelings hurt, etc., conjures up the image of a smothering mother–in contrast to the typical bad dad who is absent or physically abusive.

^^Perhaps not surprisingly, the first great western democracy had Athena, goddess of wisdom, for their patron deity. Scripture also calls Wisdom “she,” for wisdom is subtle and contextual.


Stalinism as a Civilization

I have never quite agreed with Tolstoy’s famous quote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The quote seems to indicate to me that goodness is static, while evil has “interesting” variety.  I see it the other way round.  The great saints of the Church demonstrate great variety, whereas all the bad guys of history have little to differentiate them.  What, after all, makes Pol Pot that much different from Mao, or Nero from Cambyses, or Hitler from Stalin?  On the contrary, St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas, to take two contemporary medieval examples, could not be more different.

Of course I could also be misinterpreting the quote badly.

Reading Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization I thought of Tolstoy’s quote again and rethought it a bit.  

Kotkin’s goal for the book intrigued me.  Ok, he states, of course Stalin was a bad guy and Stalinism proved enormously destructive in many ways.  But no regime can last for as long as Stalin’s did without him doing something right, or at least, appealing to large numbers of the population with his ideas and “results.” In other words, not everyone got oppressed, and some must have benefitted from what Stalin did.  More than that, enough must have truly believed in what Stalin sought to accomplish not to just obey his directives, but to revere him as well.  Kotkin seeks to uncover exactly how Stalinism “worked” in every day life and get us beyond our cardboard cutout of Stalin as “bad dictator” without leaving it entirely. Looking at the city of Magnitogorsk gives him ample opportunity to do so, for it was a city built from nothing almost overnight according to at least what Soviets planned as purely “socialist” or “Stalinist” designs.

Is it possible that, “All evil dictators are alike, but each of them does their “good” things in different ways?

The book begins by discussing briefly the context of the rise of the “Stalinist city.”  Part of the appeal of communism in the 1920’s lie in the seeming collapse of the west.  In retrospect World War I seems to be the death knell of Europe, and many at the time felt the same.  Capitalism had, obviously, exhausted itself and brought about the grisly destruction of the war.  What else could one expect on a system rooted fundamentally in economic and class exploitation.  Socialism was so obviously the way of the future, only a stubborn fool would cling to it still.

Or so the argument went.

Given that for many ca. 1925 socialism represented the way of the future, socialism needed to be on the cutting edge of technology. Socialism had rational roots, and this rationalism would inevitably flee tradition and embrace the hopeful future.

To that end, the Soviets faced a few problems.

The first is that Russia was far, far behind the west in terms of technology and industrialization.  They needed to catch up in a big hurry, and not just for reasons of security, but also for ideology.  Socialism must show itself superior to capitalism in all respects if their revolution would spread.

The second is that Russia never quite experienced the Enlightenment and may have been the most traditional of European societies.   These traditions had their roots in the daily rhythms of peasant village life and in the multitude of small villages scattered throughout the country — the kind of places adored by Tolstoy.  These villagers invariably looked down on “cities” as enemies to their way of life and their faith, often with good reason.

To build the new humanity sought by socialists nearly everything had to change within the Soviet Union.

The “Magnetic Mountain” served as a perfect template for all of Stalin’s most important plans. Everyone knew that the mountains nearby contained enormous quantities of iron ore deposits, some of the largest in the known world.  And because the area stood as merely a barren wasteland in the steppes, they could build on a blank slate.  The new steel plant would be the largest in the world, and the people who came to work could be drafted from the villages, forging a new kind of humanity in the process (the use of the term “forging” was deliberate, tying the plant and economic changes to the social and political changes they sought).

Kotkin uncovers some fascinating, but perhaps obvious details about the design of the city.  Not just the village, but the family itself presented a barrier to socialist reform.  The original design of the living spaces were apartments.  Apartments had the advantage of economic efficiency.  They also helped “forge the new humanity, breaking down the village and then family unit in one go.  The first apartments had no kitchens or common space within individual quarters.  They located the kitchen’s and common areas in more central locations — no one should be excluded, and no one could exclude themselves (later buildings allowed for more family space).  The design of the buildings discouraged families from creating distinct identities for themselves apart from the people as a whole.

Equality formed the bedrock value, so each apartment should have equal access to the sun. Unfortunately, this meant that, with no courtyard, each apartment had equal exposure to the brutally cold winds that roared across the steppe 6-7 months a year.  Finally, as socialists defined value through labor, all apartments got built on a line equidistant from the plant itself. The prominence of the massive plant in the geography and psychology of the city made it not unlike the role of churches in medieval towns.  Mankind will be defined by what he worships, whether that be God or labor.

One of the most dreary aspects of this period was the politicization of all aspects of life.  The Soviets faced the embarrassment of needing capitalist firms to design most of the major parts of the plant.  But . . . socialists could show their superiority by getting more out of the machines than believed by the capitalists.  So if part ‘x’ was predicted to operate at ‘y’ speed and efficiency, we could do better.  We will operate at ‘y + ?’ efficiency, thereby showing the superiority of socialist labor.  Of course, this resulted in a host of mechanical problems.

This forced them into an uncomfortable choice.  Either socialist labor was not superior, or . . . “wreckers” existed within the plant — counter-revolutionaries and capitalists.  So, now those that worked the machines too hard might be subject to “unmasking” by true patriots and devotees of the revolution.  Of course, if workers were to be true participants in the revolution they had to have the power to “unmask” — and be expected to.

As you might expect, many got unmasked. Limiting production turned into treason, for it was “counter-revolutionary.”  Under the principle of equality, many party members got unmasked as well (though many got reinstated on the back end — the party had to cover for itself).

But Kotkin shows that despite the madness of the method, it won many converts.  The Soviet Union did get transformed into an industrial colossus, and had enough social unity to withstand the withering Nazi onslought in W.W. II.  By most any rational calculus, Stalin and the Soviets should have closed up shop in 1941.  How did they avoid this fate?

We have recourse to the standard answers, which include

  • The Russian Winter
  • The deep reservoirs of Russian nationalism the Nazi’s unleashed that mobilized an entire population
  • The brutal tactics of the S.S. turning local populations against the Nazi’s
  • The over-extension of the Nazi forces and the sound interior lines of Soviet defenses.
  • And again, the industrialization Stalin began allowed them to churn out tank after tank after tank.

All of these factors played a role.

However, we cannot overlook the fact that Stalin also had converts.  His program worked in the sense that it gave people a a new purpose, a new sense of belonging, a new sense of destiny and their own place within History and the cosmos. Many remained ambivalent, some opposed him — mostly in secret.  But many others no doubt believed.

This should give us pause.  No man is an island.  We would like to think that we would not fall prey to the design of the buildings, the alluring glow of the plant and the comradeship of the work.  None of these, we think, would have any impact on us.  We would not believe, we would not be changed.

Hopefully, we would be right.  But one lesson of Stalin’s Magnetic Mountain is that people are inextricably influenced by their surroundings, sometimes even against their inclinations.