Ideas & Stories Part 2 – Political Detour

When I began this project, I suggested that part of the conservative-versus-liberal dynamic stems from misunderstanding what is at stake.  In the next installment, I mentioned some key ideas and thinkers I would identify as forming my early worldview in ways which I still maintain.

I could sum up the previous post by saying that my foundation leaves me firmly convinced that the life of a society should be open to everyone, and that good social structure will reward good behaviors – and punish bad ones.

I do not want to get too political – yet.  In the first place, I haven’t yet gotten around to finishing the structure of my own later thoughts built on this foundation.  In the second, this is a roughly chronological account at least in these introductory parts, and when younger my political inclinations were formed more or less by default by what I saw around me.  For the sake of openness – and to make a point here that I will come back to – that was a sort of cynical conservatism which acknowledged the lackluster performance, standards, and morals of the Republican party, but given the Democratic agenda didn’t quite see who else to vote for.

(A drawback of this we’d-like-a-third-party conservative environment is that I grew up relatively unfamiliar with the Reagan-was-awesome fanbase but also distrustful of the GOP-party-line voting bloc, and as a result often feel that I don’t have a firm grasp on the relative size of these groups in American politics.  Which, however, has nothing to do with my topic today.)

What I did find from my first interest in politics is that relatively few people had much interest – or at any rate, much practical belief in the two things – if they’re really separate – I’ve always most valued.  Because I believed merit should be rewarded, I found honesty absolutely necessary.  I am inclined anyway to find it the most fundamental virtue – as the first temptation to evil was carried out by deceit, and as Christ would call Himself, among other epithets, the Word and the Truth.

I have said half-seriously for years that if I could establish a political party it would be the Honesty Party, and all that its candidates would have to do to remain in good standing would be to declare the principles they believed in and vote for them as they declared.  Unfortunately it is somewhat needless to point out that there are precious few actual politicians – or, apparently, constituencies – who appear to think this way seriously (although the reception Sanders gained, including, of all places, his speech at Liberty University, suggests it’s not an ideal entirely without support).

However, if regular honesty seems to have a very small support group, I’ve found even fewer people alarmed by what has perhaps been my most consistent worry: debt.  As in, debt is a risk.  Debt is quite often a bad idea – in fact, when there’s no plausible way to pay it off, debt is essentially dishonest.  I recognize the argument that carrying some token amount of debt as a sort of way to establish ones bona fides in a system dependent on credit makes a certain amount of sense, though what it really does is make me wonder about the system.

Of course personal debt all too easily becomes difficult to manage; while it’s harder to call a government to account, debt eventually becomes a problem even there.  Which traditionally America has been well aware of, but after paying down the majority of the debts incurred during the Great Depression and World War II, subsequent crises have seen deficit spending reach entirely new levels.  I don’t entirely trust the judgment as to the severity of those crises: so I wonder if the deficits are justified or merely contributing to the problem.  On the other hand, if the debt incurred really is justified, this is hardly better as it suggests we’ve endured sixty years of crisis – apparently without most people realizing it.

And we’ll come back to that idea in a while.  As a sort of spoiler for the next installments, having sketched some of my early idealism, I’m going to be sketching some of the questions that developed about meeting them – and some of the discoveries I’ve made about how they were and are, in fact, not being met.

The Worst Honor Harrington Book

I’ll start with the warnings.  First, this is a rant, and it’s a rant by a fan.  There will be spoilers.  Second, this is not actually about the worst Honor Harrington book (that I’ve read), which is Cauldron of Ghosts, but that’s properly a side story and not the main line.  And if I think David Weber’s been letting Eric Flint influence the main story too much, let alone the side story that’s mostly Flint’s own creation and responsibility, well, that’s not really the point here either.

Third, this isn’t really even about my complaints about certain ‘verse-building choices – the addition of treecat sign language, the title character’s developing psychic empathic powers, or even (since it doesn’t even show up in the book in question) the use of Mesan nanotechnology as a deus ex machina whenever Weber or his co-authors write themselves into a corner that requires something really implausible to get out of.  Or occasionally something really implausible to set up future conflicts.

No, this is about the problems with War of Honor, in which a number of David Weber’s authorial weaknesses combine in unfortunate ways, as well as one gigantic mistake by his characters that even Weber’s having them point out as a mistake they made doesn’t keep it from being a major problem with the plot.

I’ll get this major plot hole out of the way first.  The climactic battle only works out in Harrington’s favor because a heavy reinforcement for her understrength Manticoran force is sent to her unofficially from Grayson.  Yet the opposing Havenite fleet commanders knew the reinforcements were missing from their normal post on a “training” mission, and never even ask if the destination (or exercise area) is known.  And these are supposed to be the smart opponents, not the dumb ones that have been thinned out over the course of the series.  Of course these mistakes do happen in war – but this one is just a little too convenient, made in the execution of a plan that’s supposedly been worked over with several of the proverbial fine-toothed combs.  It sours the taste of the final victory – and piling on another improbable scouting coincidence that let Harrington know a surprise attack was coming and set a trap only makes it worse.

So the plot, as it concerns Harrington, has a rather hollow core.  But if the only problem were the military implausibilities, it could be shrugged off.  The history of military operations is in some respects nothing but a collection of really stupid decisions from people who should have known better, or others who just got absurdly lucky, from Carrhae to Agincourt to Midway.

No, what really grates is the Manticoran politicos.  For a change, the opposition parties (from the perspective of most of the main characters) have charge of things – and there’s not a reputable viewpoint among them.  Which, from Weber, whose work is distinctive in large part because of his dedication to presenting antagonists as openly – and mostly fairly – as possible, is an awful falling off.  His Havenite oligarchs that we start the series with are hardly sympathetic, but they’re as invested in trying to control the tiger they’re stuck riding as merely continuing to make a profit – not nice people, but not abnormal, and unsentimentally aware they’re stuck with a poor system, as far as they can see – or dare to see, at least.  His first batch of revolutionaries are presented symapthetically, even though their behavior is modeled on some of the worst excesses of the French and Russian revolutions.  The rather blatantly named Rob S. Pierre, in particular, is a fairly well-done portrait of an extremist with good intentions trying to deal with the results of his own initial success.

Of course one can write a series in flatter tones, with villains and heroes plain to see if not quite color-coded.  But that’s not Weber’s reputation: so when that’s the tone for the heroes merely domestic antagonists (while the foreign enemies and allies retain their respectful presentations – mostly), the book as a whole is jarringly out of place in the series – or the series as it was to that point.  As noted in passing above, I think Eric Flint’s influence as a co-author has had an over-simplifying effect on the series (to say nothing of Weber, partly because of Flint’s side series, ending up having to write himself out of a hole dug by not wrapping up the story where he originally intended).  But Flint writes openly uncomplicated stories with over-the-top hijinks: by way of cheap comparison, he plays Errol Flynn to Weber’s Humphrey Bogart.

Worst of all, however – though it’s only a tiny detail in one sense – is that War of Honor begins in the middle of a truce, and despite these open villains taking charge of Manticore’s government, and being presented quite early as perfectly willing to present a selective view of diplomatic correspondence for public – or even wider private – consumption, Weber can’t quite bring himself to have Manticore commit the final falsifications of correspondence that bring the war raging back.  Instead it’s pinned for plot purposes on Haven’s new Secretary of State and his staff.  Now said official is ambitious enough for any three normal people, but that’s par for the course among politicians even in this universe.  But it’s never convincingly explained exactly what he thinks he’s getting from the changes made – which are not specified.  (And, to put the side-stepping cherry on top, in the sequel he’s conveniently discarded before the question can be forced in Haven of what exactly the diplomatic responsibilities are between President and Secretary of State – as what he’s guilty of – that we’re told about – is more or less making changes without informing the President.)

Fortunately for Weber, the next two volumes published in the Honorverse were side stories – one Flint’s creation, the other Weber’s own idea to continue the story after the main plot wrapped up – and much lighter in tone, so that when he got around to finishing At All Costs, the volume that was supposed to wrap up the main story – even if it had in the meantime been dragged much closer chronologically to the other now-continuing intended-to-be-sequel series than Weber had planned – I at least was ready to see what happened without too much trepidation and the bad taste of this one rather forgotten.  But it’s a really bad taste.

Ideas & Stories Part 1 – Foundation M, L, K

In the initial installment in this series, I stated that I have concerns about how current political and social problems are being misunderstood.  This implies the somewhat audacious claim that I understand what is actually happening.  I am not quite so arrogant as to claim some kind of hidden insight, although in later installments I will talk about some things I think really are overlooked or underemphasized.

In this piece I am going to outline three background authorities that I have been in one way or another familiar with since childhood and which I still consider the legitimate framework for much of my ideals.  What I am not going to go into in detail here is my Christian faith, which is even more foundational – with which, I believe, each principle expressed here is consistent.

Presuppositions

However, the Reformed churches today – as I understand it this is thanks largely to Cornelius van Til – are at least familiar with and often enthusiastic expositors of the concept of presuppositions or worldview: that is, secondary beliefs or actions will follow from what one is most sincerely dedicated to.

One effect of this is that Reformed churches tend to emphasize preaching and conversion as the Church’s work, more so than any social improvements which may accompany the work incidentally.  It would be odd to expect an unbeliever to behave as a Christian without acknowledging Christ (and in fact, moral behavior of unbelievers has been used from the writings of the Apostle Paul onwards to shame and inspire Christians to give a better example themselves).

Generalized, we can say that not just principles of faith but any principles, once admitted, should be able to be worked out and give a point from which individual and social behavior can be critiqued and improved.  What is not going to happen is improvement without some kind of ideal to work toward.  This entire project is a somewhat chronological explanation of the development of my understanding of social ideals.  So in this piece I am laying out some of my initial and still valid ideals: in future additions I will trace further developments and additional insights.

Merit

Good behavior ought to be rewarded and bad behavior punished.  A just society will do these things.  This is perhaps the most fundamental principle, and whether I appeal to religious authorities – the Law and Proverbs and Epistles – or secular ones – fables and fairy tales and novels and plays – the consensus on the necessity of just desserts is unavoidable.

Lewis

C. S. Lewis, likely most famous as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, but also a scholar, author of other fiction and non-fiction, and popular Christian apologist, stands in here for two sets of influences.  Lewis’s moral thought – especially in Mere Christianty, The Abolition of Man, and The Screwtape Letters – has played a significant role in shaping how I evaluate morality.  In the first place, he shares this distinction with some other authors – I would point to G. K. Chesterton’s essays, for instance – in expressing moral principles in modern terms and contexts; and in pointing out that – regardless of actual practice – Christian principles are not going to lead always to traditional or comfortable conclusions.

But in the second place, Lewis more than any other author is repsonsible for my conviction of the need to include all kinds of people in our societies.  I grew up with the Narnia stories: with Talking animals and invading Telmarines turned legitimate (confirmed by Aslan no less) and a Calormene turned queen of Archenland; but also a treasonous Talking ape and wicked dwarfs and even a fallen queen of Narnia.  In short, one is judged by behavior – or even by the heart, a matter on which Lewis was willing to speculate more generously than many theologians.

King

Martin Luther King, Jr. will hopefully forgive me for playing a small game in my title with his now-famous initials.  I am not going to spend much time on King’s thought here, as it’s too broad to deal with in its fullness, but also, with regard to one specific principle, implied by everything I’ve outlined above.  That is the famous line from a 1963 speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I don’t know when I first heard this, but with regard to American problems specifically, it seemed to sum up everything that we need to accomplish.  Not only I, but I believe a significant number of Americans, took this admition as marching orders; as an identification of fault; as a call for action.  Only, I am not sure that number is as high as I assumed as a child, in fact it seems a minority so small as to be overwhelmed: we seem as a society at the moment willing to judge our rulers and public figures by almost anything except their character.

Review: The Silk Roads

Peter Frankopan’s 2015 book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is best understood as an intellectual exercise in narrative perspective.  As far as I can tell, the book does not depend on original research or even re-interpretation of previous research.  What Frankopan does in this work is to focus entirely on the civilizations of the Middle East, rather than drifting slowly West with progression of technology and global power as is common.

There are obvious successes in this experiment.  Frankopan explores the peripheries of the Roman empire and its western successors in much more detail than the standard western historical narrative allows, from the Persian and other kingdoms that contested Rome’s power to the huge flood of trade between Rome, the Indian states, and other powers – including, at a remove, China.  He describes the rise of Islam and the Islamic states of the Middle Ages in some detail, but including also those which did not turn to Islam – and examining how many of the most successful were those built on an appreciation for knowledge and other fine things, and allowing some tolerance in religion and manners.

The book is also useful, in that it provides an overview of western powers’ influence and interference through the colonial and modern eras.  Bribery and gunpoint were largely the order of the day, together with a general reluctance to treat Asian powers with even the token equality of political niceties.  The most surprising thing to me was the extent to which the British perceived their rival to be Russia – though as the British Empire being seen, in some ways, more important than Britain itself to prestige and prosperity, this is not actually surprising on reflection.

Where the narrative is least convincing is in its treatment of the question of why power moved away from the Middle East – the Ottoman Empire and other regional powers.  Frankopan depends mainly on a technological explanation, to the extent he answers the question at all.  He deals with medieval European powers as largely belligerent insignificant bywaters – not, admittedly, an unfair characterization at many times – and to some extent downplays the expansionism and internal conflicts of the state in the Middle East.  He noticeably avoids the longstanding explanation in the traditional western narrative that European powers in the Renaissance and after benefitted from a renewed interest in learning, and eventually learned the value of tolerance to statesmanship.  It is entirely possible this is done intentionally, another inverting of traditional western focuses: but it is hard to tell.  Usually Frankopan makes it clear when he is making a point, but I would say intention is not signaled in this case.

Frankopan writes clearly but is not a great stylist, and his idiosyncracies occasionally distract from his story.  He is, in dealing with the most recent events, perhaps too optimistic: even another five years perspective casts a pall on his views both of the Arab Spring and Chinese political intentions.  However on the whole I both enjoyed the book and found it very informative.  I would say the author succeeded in his goal of presenting a summary history in a new perspective – though next best, I suppose, to a similar work from an author native to the region – and would recommend it as a way to engage in the exercise yourself.

Ideas & Stories Part 0 – Introduction

There is a saying, or perhaps a joke, attributed in various forms to various statesmen or their critics but probably in substance as old as the first disagreement between movers and shakers of the first political regime, in which it is maintained that a conservative is someone who refuses to fix the problems that already exist, while a progressive is someone who is intent on creating new ones.  Beginning with this post, I plan to explore, based on my own upbringing, principles, and experiences, what it might mean – what at the moment I believe it should mean – to be a conservative who does want to make repairs to the political structure; or alternatively, a progressive dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the system.

Here we face the problem directly.  It is common today for political and social conservatives to speak as if the situation, as it is, is somehow the best that could be expected as a product of our ideals and legal principles, when it evidently is not, and which assumption serves as an excuse to pass over problems and belittle solutions.  It is equally common for political and social progressives today to speak as though improvements to the situation as it is can only be made by discarding the system and its ideals – even though their own ideas have grown within the system they so distrust, and their solutions on the whole aim to further its ideals, and become confused or impossible when they depart too radically from them.

I write here in extremely general – not to say vague – terms because in introducing this project I do not wish to demonstrate particular conclusions before illustrating the foundational analysis.  However, it is part of the purpose of this post to state in general terms the project I am undertaking.  I will therefore say that I have three essential theses I plan to demonstrate and defend.

Practically, social and political solutions to problems must be found, but must be found within an acknowledged system.  I do not believe it possible to discard the governmental machinery of particular political systems without actual revolution.  If reforms are attempted which ignore or abuse a system’s own regulations, the eventual result is traditionalist revolt, by those who were harmed – unintentionally or otherwise – and perceive the illegitimacy of the supposed reforms.  Unresolved injustices, on the other hand, result in the end in revolutions which at least begin intending liberalizations, although I am not convinced those experiences are in fact any more pleasant than the other kind.

It is also necessary to recognize that perceived problems are actual problems, especially in a democratic or representative form of government.  A perceived problem which actually exists is of course a real problem.  But a perceived problem, when the perception does not reflect reality, is at least an equal challenge to resolve.  A real problem can be addressed openly, and the solution can be judged effective or not, and a new method tried if the problem is not resolved.  A perception of injustice where there is none cannot be addressed except by education or rhetoric: any greater solution will only introduce new and actual injustices in satisfying those who wrongly believed themselves harmed, and even the effort of education diverts attention that ideally might be spent elsewhere.  It is perhaps most common for social problems to contain both elements, and rare that a real grievance even properly addressed will completely satisfy all concerned.

Finally, I will be exploring this last point: how currently perceived problems are the result, not just of failures to address previous abuses or of efforts to avoid social difficulties when they were first raised, but of misconceptions about details of certain principles we tend to speak of as universal, and about social structures we either assume or ignore without serious thought.  To the extent I have a unifying thesis in this project, it is that the heart of any solution which would resolve current political and social difficulties will lie in beginning specifically to attend to these misconceptions as they have distorted the middle things.  Grand political and social structures and ideals have been conceived, and thousands of personal improvements suggested, but everything in scale between the two has largely been left to muddle along somehow, and it is not surprising that the result is – a muddle.