Commentary

In my quest to read the books I own that I haven’t read yet, I’ve made my way to Will Durant’s 1939 The Life of Greece, a tome of the history of ancient Greece. I’m unsure how some of his details – nevermind his inclination to give the Greeks’ own classical historians as much creedence as possible – hold up to more modern scholarship, but the outline looks familiar enough. Durant clearly holds to the dictum that historical events are there to learn from: the following selections come from his account of the rise of Athens’ democracy.

Hesiod

“Hesiod, with rough candor, shows us the ugly farmers upon whose toil rested all the splendor and war [and?] sport of the aristocracy and the kings. Homer sang of heroes and princes for lords and ladies; Hesiod knew no princes, but sang his lays of common men, and pitched his tune accordingly. In his verses we hear the rumblings of those peasant revolts that would produce in Attica the reforms of Solon and the dictatorship of Peisistratus.”

Quirks of Language

“In [southern Boeotia] once lived an insignificant tribe, the Graii, who joined the Euboeans in sending a colony to Cumae, near Naples; from them the Romans gave to all the Hellenes… the name Graici, Greeks; and from that circumstance all the world came to know Hellas by a term which its own inhabitants never applied to themselves.”

Tourism Old and New

“The traveler entering Attica from eastern Boeotia would come first to Oropus… a frontier town as terrifying to the tourist as any such today. ‘Oropus,’ says Dicaearchus about 300 B.C., ‘is a nest of hucksters. The greed of the customhouse officials here is unsurpassed… Most of the people are coarse and truculent in their manners, for the have knocked the decent members of the community on the head.'”

Motives

“As in Sparta and Rome, so in Athens the overthrow of the monarchy represented not a victory for the commons, or any intentional advance towards democracy, but a recapture of mastery by a feudal aristocracy…”

Draco

“…[Draco] attached to his laws penalties so drastic that after most of his legislation had been superseded by Solon’s he was remembered for his punishments rather than his laws. Draco’s code congealed the cruel customs of an unregulated feudalism: it did nothing to relieve debtors [sold into] slavery, or to mitigate the exploitation of the weak by the strong; and… it left to the Eupatrid [aristocratic] class full control of the courts, and the power to interpret… all laws…

“The poor, finding their situation worse with each year… began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth. The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them… prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established… civilization.”

Solon

“[Solon] disappointed the extreme radicals by making no move to redivide the land… But by his famous Seisachtheia, or Removal of Burdens, Solon canceled, says Aristotle, ‘all existing debts…’ …and cleared Attic lands of all mortgages. All persons enslaved or [enserfed] for debt were released…

“Solon [began] with an act of amnesty freeing or restoring all persons who had been jailed or banished for political offenses short of trying to usurp the government. … It was in itself a revolution that the laws of Solon were applied without distinction to all freemen…

“Invited to make himself a permanent dictator he refused, saying that dictatorship was ‘a very fair spot, but the was no way down from it.’ Radicals criticized him for failing to establish equality of possessions and power; conservatives denounced him for admitting the commons to the franchise and the courts… He [had] followed the mean and preserved the state…

“Legally his work marks… the beginning of government [in Greece] by written and permanent law. Asked what made an orderly and well-constituted state, he replied, ‘When the people obey the rulers, and the rulers obey the laws.'” …[T]he establishment of a peasant proprietor class [in] ownership of the soil made the little armies of Athens suffice to preserve her liberties for many generations.”

Aside

Durant, recounting the legend of Solon’s advice to Croesus, translates the Greek hubris – in his transliteration “hybris” – with the remarkable turn of phrase “insolent prosperity”. The phenomenon – whether it properly accounts for the Greek term – is undeniable; conclusions are here left as an exercise for the reader.

Peisistratus

“…[T]he Assembly voted that Peisistratus should be allowed a force of fifty men. Peisistratus collected four hundred men instead of fifty, seized the Acropolis, and declared a dictatorship. Solon [] published to the Athenians his opinion that ‘each man of you, individually, walketh with the tread of a fox, but collectively ye are geese,’ … [and] resign[ed] his interest in politics…

“The wealthy [factions] of the Shore and the Plain… expelled the dictator. But Peisistratus… re-entered Athens under circumstances that seemed to corroborate Solon’s judgment of the collective intelligence. A tall and beautful woman…. costume[d as] Athena… led the forces of Peisistratus into the city, while heralds announced that the patron deity of Athens was herself restoring him to power.”

“…[T]he wisdom of [Peisistratus’] policies almost redeemed the [] unscrupulousness of his means. … He made few reprisals… He improved the army and built up the fleet… but he kept Athens out of war…

“Archons were elected as usual, and the Assembly and the popular courts, the Council of Four Hundred and the Senate of the Areopagus met and functioned as before, except that the suggestions of Peisistratus found a very favorable hearing. … When… the dictatorship was removed, these habits of order and the framework of Solon’s constitution remained as a heritage for democracy. …

“He gave employment to the needy by undertaking extensive public works… To finance these undertakings he laid [a new] tax… The poor were made less poor, the rich not less rich. The concentration of wealth which had nearly torn the city into civil war was brought under control…

“[N]ew buildings of stone and marble reflected the radiance of the day… By establishing the Panathenaic games… Peisistratus brought to his city not honor only, but the stimulus of foreign faces, competition, and ways… A committee appointed by him gave to the Iliad and the Odyssey the form in which we know them.”

In Context

“The ‘tyranny’ of Peisistratus was part of a general movement… to replace [] feudal rule… with the political dominance of the middle class in temporary alliance with the poor. Such dictatorships were brought on by the pathological concentration of wealth, and the inability of the wealthy to agree on a compromise. …[T]he only political freedom capable of enduring is one that is so pruned as to keep the rich from denuding the poor by ability or subtlely and the poor from robbing the rich by violence or votes.”

Cleisthenaic Coda

“The Athenians were not quite pleased to see the leadership of the state pass down without their consent to the young Peisistratids, and began to realize that the dictatorship had give them everything but the stimulus of freedom. …Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who had conspired [against Peisistratus’ son Hippias] for [] passion rather than for democracy, were transformed by popular imagination into the martyrs of liberty. …

“The [banished] Alcmaeonid [aristocrats], led by [] Cleisthenes, entered Athens in triumph… Cleisthenes.. set up a popular dictatorship… [then] proceeded to establish democracy. …

“The democracy was not complete; it applied only to freemen, and still placed a modest property limitation upon eligibility to individual office. But it gave all legislative, executive, and judicial power to an Assembly and a Court composed of the citizens, to magistrat[es] appointed by and responsible to the Assembly, and to a Council for whose members all citizens might vote, and… by the operation of the lot, [in which] at least one third of them actually [participated] for at least a year of their lives.”

On Stating the Obvious

Several years ago, students I was teaching at the time asked that I try not to connect thoughts with words like “obviously” and “of course”. It wasn’t, they said, that they doubted the logical connection of one idea to the next, but that, from their perspective, these were not “obvious” connections but new ones. These students felt that my using these phrases made it hard to ask questions or seek clarification, because they implied these concepts, despite being new, shouldn’t need further explanation and the students were somehow unsatisfactory themeselves as if they did not understand immediately.

Put in these terms, my students’ case made good sense. In fact, I would even say it made obvious good sense – with the understanding, in using the word here, that in this situation I am actually the one learning, and so better able to tell whether a claim is “obvious” or not. I have attempted – with varying success – to avoid these phrases and others with similar implications when possible in the classroom.

In the school, the teacher has an institutional authority, which is not always used wisely. In other contexts, an attempt to provide an explanation or correction by its very nature is a claim to a similar authority. So, in those contexts as well, the goal in assuming such an authority is not to parade your own superiority, but to make those things you already know become obvious to those you address. I have offered an anecdote here to demonstrate how even normally harmless words can hinder such attempts to communicate. It is always our responsibility to watch our words carefully, but this is especially true when attempting to instruct others.

Reflections on an Old Textbook

Having limited access to the local libraries at present, I have been making some inroads on the set of books that is on my shelves but so far unread.  One of these was Dr. Hutton Webster’s Early European History, which appears (from names in the front) to have been acquired somewhere by my parents and scrounged by myself from some stack of books which they had, eventually, decided to pass on.

This text, as explained by Webster in his preface, is a selection and rearrangement from two previous textbooks, his Ancient History and Medieval and Modern History, chosen to meet then-new requirements put forward during the 1910s by New York’s Regents’ Syllabus and eventually the National Education Association.  It appears that a two-year course in European history was recommend for all or certain high schools, of which this volume met a requirement for the study of “ancient and Oriental civilization, English and Continental history to approximately the end of the seventeenth century, and the period of American exploration”.  The book I have read is the second, or “revised”, edition published in 1924.

After the manner of textbooks, each chapter concludes with several questions for study, which take many forms: factual review, discussion of students’ experiences, reflection on famous (or less famous) sayings or statements about the period covered in the chapter, and what amount to prompts for further research: that is, questions, usually factual or comparative, that could not be answered simply from Webster’s text.  Webster recommends that his text be used in conjunction with readings from original sources (of which he himself had also prepared several collections, though appears not to have reorganized these to match the new recommendations: I believe he cites four or five such volumes throughout this textbook).

Whether such original sources would suffice to answer all of the research questions I am unsure, but from my memories of studying such topics, and my guess as to the extent of these “extended, unified, and interesting extracts” such as would be provided at the high school level, I would guess not – which however raises the question of how much additional research students might have been expected to do.  (The answer, almost certainly, is that this varied extensively from school to school even where this textbook was used: what Webster had in mind, as a college professor writing for high schools, I don’t know how to guess.)

As far as his topic goes, Webster’s story proper moves from early civilizations in Egypt and the Middle East (which appear to be his “Orient”); to Greece and then Rome as unifiers around the Mediterranean; then to the civilizations of the surviving (Byzantine) empire, the Arabic Islamic caliphate and its successor states, and the European states rebuilding from invaded Roman provinces, through years of feudalism and Papal supremacy to Renaissance, Reformation, exploration, and colonization; and finally to some account of France and England through the seventeenth century.

This is recognizeable as the “Western civilization” narrative (at least as it’s generally thought of in America – one suspects European authors might not drop Poland, Russia, and the Austrian Hapsburgs, to say nothing of the smaller central European states, out of the story quite so soon).  It appears to be an arrangement intended by the recommendations mentioned above.  Without access to Webster’s other textbooks, either as constructed for this set of recommendations or in their original form, I don’t know how he would have considered this to fit into history as a whole.

Webster appears to have considered himself primarily an anthropologist, and it’s worth noting some of the peculiarities he displays in his introductory chapter and throughout the book.  He considers history to begin with written records, and for writing to be a prerequisite for considering a society civilized.  He considers “savage”, “barbarian”, and “civilized” to be at least roughly scientific classes, the first indicating a tool-using society without metals, and the first two without writing and likely nomadic.  In this summary I am not fully representating the degree to which Webster acknowledges the lack of clarity in these distinctions.

It is worth noting here Webster’s thoughts on race.  He again considers race as it appears in history to be essentially scientific.  Notably he considers the Semitic peoples to be White; and is inclined to see the Pacific and American tribes each as a separate “race” – making five instead of the common three.  However he considers this purely descriptive, likely an artifact of separations in prehistory, and is entirely in favor of what we would call mixed-race relationships: he considers this the obvious thing to have happened in the colonial era, and students are in fact asked to show that mixing of the races is a benefit, if not requirement, for a strong civilization.

On the other hand, Webster does consider that a civilized society is essentially justified in fighting other societies still in a savage or barbaric state, and even subjugating them – although his arguments seem somewhat sophistic.  He appears to assume the barbarian society will always – or as close as no matter – have started the fighting, and is insistent that while conquering the barbarians is all to the good, the conquered people ought to be given equality as soon as practicable: he seems, for instance, to view this as a strength of early Rome, and a failure to completely extend citizenship over later conquests as a great source of weakeness in the later empire.  He dislikes slavery – and while he spends little time on conditions in any colonized area, that may result from the assigned subject matter, or even his editors.   Webster himself seems to have been at least at the fringes of some kind of civil rights activism, at least by the standards of mainstream early 20th century American academia.

At the same time, some of Webster’s judgments are made in ignorance, though whether wilfull or incidental it is often difficult to say, having no really clear knowledge myself of the state of American scholarship at the time.  He does not seem quite aware of the extent of the central and south American native civilizations before European colonization, to say nothing of their North American societies; he considers that only the Chinese and Japanese in Asia had – apparently in his judgment even at the time of his writing – actually reached the point of being “civilized states” which is, by his own criteria, demonstrably false and here I think he really should have known better, though he shows a tendency, as he progresses through the years, to lose track of his essential definition of civilization (writing, with the urban life and establishment of  settled agriculture which he suggests tend to be contemporaneous)  and instead judge societies as only “really” civilized if they possess the most modern technology.

As a textbook, these factual and ethical flaws – together with whatever judgment one may make on the legitimacy of the overall narrative – are its greatest drawback.  Webster’s style is simple, readable, and engaging, and the questions he provides for study, while not entirely consistent in phrasing, number, or seriousness from chapter to chapter, are quite good.

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.

The Seat of the Pharisees

From within the American tradition, perhaps the strangest of Jesus’ teachings is found in passing in the final discourse recorded in the Gospel of Matthew before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”. (Matthew 23:2,3a ESV)

This text is remarkable because the Pharisees are known best to us from the gospels as the hypocritical opponents of Jesus.  Even here Matthew’s record immediately passes back to further warnings against the Pharisees – “but [do] not [do] the works they do.” (Matt. 23:3b)  The rest of the chapter is taken up with various warnings against those works, and condemnation of the Pharisees for corrupting the Law of Moses.

This is surprising as well because Jesus had often invoked His superior authority as the Christ to correct Pharisaic teaching or justify His deviation from their illegitimate standards.  Further, this instruction is recorded as happening shortly before the Resurrection and Ascension, briefly after which the Church would be declared free of the Mosaic regulations.  Still, that could be explained: Jesus reminding His disciples to maintain deference to a legitimate authority until its rule passed away.  We are, after all, not ourselves the Christ.

I still find it difficult to face, because Christ here commands obedience to authorities who immediately are identified as evil.  Duty to authorities is hardly an uncommon theme in Scripture.  But the difficulties are not always framed so starkly.  Where David respects the kingship of Saul, he is still a fugitive and we know from long familiarity David’s story ends, as we judge these things, happily.  Christ and the Apostles teach respect for all authority, but usually somewhat separated from condemnations of that authority or even warnings of suffering inflicted by evil rulers.  Here we have the immediate contrast, which leaves no doubt about the Christian principle of submission to authority.

There is one clearly Scriptural remedy against rulers who abuse their authority: flight.  From the Exodus to David’s adventures mentioned above to Elijah’s sojurn in Phoenicia to Mary and Joseph’s flight back to Egypt, and then in Jesus’ instructions to flee the seige of Jerusalem, Peter’s supernaturally-aided escape from prison, and various escapades of Paul, running away from evil is always seen as legitimate.  (Almost always: Jeremiah records a prophetic warning not to flee from – or fight – the conquering Babylonians but rather surrender.)

In contrast, the favored American arguments, of throwing up law and legitimacy against usurping acts of the authorities, stands Scripturally on shakier ground.  In Biblical terms, the authority of a position seems to be personal and to come from having been put in a position of authority.  The odd rebellion is instigated at divine command, but the framing is that God is judging the ruler.  Allowing for a nation to have formally endorsed a rule “by the people”, it would seem that their representatives would still retain even abused authority until removed.

However, it is also the case that what the Reformed often call lesser magistrates are not bound to enforce unjust or unlawful commands from superiors.  Jonathan defended David against Saul; Ahab’s minister Obadiah protected the prophets; Agrippa would have freed Paul except for Paul’s own appeal to Caesar’s court itself.  In more modern terms, we might recognize this as the principle which has declared “just following orders” an insufficient excuse for immoral conduct.

In many areas there is growing concern about abuse of authority, and thus how we are to respond.  We may find ourselves faced with a necessity to refuse unjust requirements – and then to flee or accept unjust retribution, which is persecution for righteousness’ sake that Christ says is a sign of promised blessing.  But the elements outlined above suggest active resistance – in contrast to this non-violent witness – is not the role of the private citizen acting on his own.  It is of course possible for subordinate authorities to fail to act; it is possible for subordinate authorities to resist improperly what are in fact just commands.  But I conclude that to identify legitimate resistance to tyranny, the Christian should look for movements being led by or at the very least cooperating with those other authorities which are given for our good in this world.

Police, Anecdotally

With regard to the recent killings of Americans by American police, and subsequent protests, two rhetorical positions are being taken which are essentially incoherent.  There is one attitude which talks of revolution and issues often obscene threats against the police – and then assumes that in every physically violent confrontation between protestors and police, the police are at fault.  The idea of a hostile mob which can be restrained to only react to its targets is laughable.

But at least that stance has a certain thoughtless consistency.  More baffling is the assumption of those who purport to care about law and order, but are unwilling to entertain the idea that the police are ever at fault.  In the American civil tradition, built originally on a distrust of the powerful, this is baffling in a way it might not be if rulers and administrators were assumed to stand outside or above the law.  An unshakeable assumption of police – or other official – innocence is in fact to slide back towards that frame of mind, where the appearance of stability is valued over justice.

An acquaintance suggested the other day that it would be possible to identify which jurisdictions still police properly and which have fallen into a security mentality by noting where the bright blue associated with the police is still worn, and where departments have adopted other or darker colors.  The idea appears plausible: good police should want their role to be clear, and that is a positive role: as Chesterton, while well aware of abuses, noted, the linguistic roots of “police” and “polite” are the same.  I have of course no idea how one could substantiate this supposal, and would further assume that a study would find many exceptions even should it prove a general rule.

What I do have ideas about are things that have happened to me.  Outside the city – and often inside – I suspect the majority of public encounters with police have to do with traffic; especially as it’s rather rare (and I have been told in some jurisdictions intentionally avoided or even proscribed) for police officers to be out on the public streets without a report of crime.  Apart from the occasional time I’ve been in the vicinity of other police activity, this has certainly been true for me.  I’ve picked up my share of speeding tickets, properly given all but in passing and duly paid, but the following are all experiences I have had:

  • I was pulled over for running a red light.  The officer said, likely because I had no other record, that if I reported to pay the fine on the indicated day, he would rewrite the ticket for a lesser offence with a lower fine and no record.  This happened.
  • I received a ticket, well away from home, for speeding on a highway.  Several months later, I received a refund, with the code used for tickets issued in error.  The ticket had not been either an error or unfair; there did, however, appear to be a sherrif up for re-election in the county the ticket was issued in.
  • A significant time after I had moved into an apartment, residents began receiving tickets for parking on a nearby bridge, which had not been posted as a no parking zone.  According to city ordinances, that bridge was in fact in a class which was not supposed to be free for parking: but after a couple months, I assume their were complaints – I myself noted the inconsistency and lack of a sign when I paid the fine – and tickets were no longer issued and people began parking on the bridge again.
  • A left hand turn lane was blocked by police apparently assisting at an accident: I needed to turn left and following other traffic turned left from the next lane over.  The second car of the two at the first incident pulled me over.  The officer asked if I had been drinking, which I had earlier, and naturally the officer performed a few sobriety tests, including eventually asking me to blow through a breathalyzer.  At this point he implied I would be arrested if I refused, and refused to tell me what would happen, either way, after the test.  I passed, and he again implied he would have preferred to arrest me but was now constrained by the result.  I did receive a warning for the left turn – which noted my race as Hispanic, which by my appearance seems an unusual assumption which even the dim lighting of the fast food restaurant parking lot doesn’t quite seem to justify.
  • I received a ticket for parking in a bus lane, which I had done.  The amount of the ticket was significantly higher than prescribed by city ordinance.  On consulting with more knowledgeable persons including a local police officer I knew, I was told if I contested the ticket what was most likely was that I would end up paying the ticket, that it was unlikely to be reduced and even if it was I would still pay the (relatively nominal) court costs in addition; or, if the issuing officer happened to be unavailable, it would be thrown out completely because it would be too much of a hassle to sort it out at another date.  In the end I paid the ticket as given.

There’s a theme that runs through these incidents: control, especially of information.  I value information, and I’m relatively good at finding it: in most cases I was able to look up the relevant statutes fairly easily.  But of course that doesn’t apply in the moment, and we see that even if we set the use of force aside, ignorance is a weakness against even a claim of information.

I’m willing to look at any single incident and find excuses that could provide re-interpretation of events.  A cop trying to give a kid a break; a new guy on the job trying to do the job; and so forth.  But I suspect there are a lot of people with similar stories, if they were told.  It’s not like I’ve been particularly inconvenienced by any of the results.  I’m unlikely to be considered a threat, by normal stereotypes, so at any of these times the money really was the only likely cost.   And the money from fines I probably would have spent on books or games or other recreation – and I already have the money to spend on more books than I have shelves for.  But put these same incidents in the lives of a class liable to be considered a risk, or for whom fines represent more than a couple hours’ work, and we are talking about very different conseqences.

After one of the previous police killings in recent years, during following protesting, my pastor at the time – for those to whom it’s significant, a black pastor of a multiracial congregation – made a point of saying in church on Sunday that there were undoubtedly corrupt policmen, flawed practices, and irresponsible departments, but respect was still demanded: that the police did still go out and stand in the way of actual trouble-makers, and that if all the police were to simply quit or refuse to do their jobs, the eruption of violence and trouble would remind us right away why we have police to begin with.  And that’s merely omission of a current good: really clearing away the institutions we have would be far worse.

Revolution is a far messier business than protestors mostly remember to begin with.  However, while I doubt that Jefferson’s description of the formation of governments in the opening of the Declaration of Independence should be taken as prescriptive, but historically it certainly seems descriptive.  Eventually, abuses not corrected lead to revolution: the task is to correct them.