Democracy

Several months ago, an acquaintance complained that the problem with conservatives is that we don’t believe in democracy. In fact he might have said “Republicans” instead of “conservatives”; either way he seemed frustrated not only with the antics of a few Congressional bigwigs, but with the fact that they continue to receive, if not whole-hearted support, at least votes. It’s hardly a defense, and more reveals the depth of the problem, to point out that the same charges can be leveled at the Democratic party’s political managers and those who continue to vote for them. Actually I thought the statement quite a perceptive one, if not quite as damning as intended.

It is quite true that conservatives, on the whole, do not “believe in” democracy. First, quite a few are, by habit if not conviction, religious and specifically Christian; and in that vocabulary one “believes in” an ultimate good or goal, which earthly governance, since there are immortal souls to care for, is not. Even in earthly affairs, Rome and Westminster have both claimed the state should support the church; and “Christendom” has not truly lost its appeal. This is not an argument for or against such a position; it is a statement of fact about habits of mind. Further, Christian imagery – to say nothing of human history – tends to the hierarchical. If some have concluded – Milton and Lewis, Congregationalists and Presbyterians – that a democratic order tends to restrain tyranny of men over men; that only democratic principles capture the equal share of the dignity of Adam we all possess; well, they may have thought so, but others have not.

Second, conservative theorists on the whole do not “believe in” the good sense of demos – the people. This is neither unreasonable nor a surprise. Progressive theorists do not believe it either – all their programs must be, at first, imposed by force in theory; and in practice, maintained by such. The history of governance – if we can call it that – by greatest numbers (or loudest voices) is not entirely encouraging, and apart from innovation, it would be difficult to point to a specific benefit gained as our governments across the world have become – at least in theory – more democratic. Of course the democratic idealist can point to all variety of mitigating factors: a legacy of monarchy; colonies abroad even while democracy took root at home; perpetuation of national jealousies; unwillingness to actually extend democratic rights to all; and so on. On the other hand, the critic can counter that no “democratic” society has fully and ideally established itself, and could suggest that the dominance of democracy today as an ideal, so that all but the most dictatorial of regimes at least pay it lip-service, could turn out to be just a historical curiosity when seen from the distance of another five hundred years.

It is next necessary to examine the idea of “democracy”. And here again we see a quite accurate assessment hidden in my friend’s complaint. “Democracy” to a conservative refers mainly to a system of government. The government is taken to be set up by the people – or at least, for it to continue, it must be acknowledged to a great enough extent to ensure stability. (These are not exactly the same idea; but are close enough for my purpose today.) But other than this axiomatic sort of democracy, it is not of particular consequence to most conservatives exactly what form the government takes. It is of course plausible that democratic forms will be most stable, but if a monarchy or oligarchy or other form yet to be devised should better secure personal freedom, a free society, and good living – the conservative would have no objection.

I want to dwell on this for a minute, because this seems to me a foundational divide in how we talk about self-government. In the conservative ideal, this means the man governs – or behaves – himself; the family governs itself; the town, the state, the nation – each likewise; and power should be exerted “downwards” only to the extent these lesser authorities are unable to govern themselves. “Democratic” government is here conceived of in the sense that the citizen, the man who belongs to a city, has a say in what his own city does; but the city, if it belongs to a state or a nation, considered as a union of cities and other communities, has a say in what the nation does. A man can know his own neighborhood, and enough else that he may wisely enough govern a city, or choose someone to do so; unless he spends his days himself in the effort, he is unlikely to really know what the city itself requires from a more far-reaching government.

This principle is hardly recognized any more, and barely articulated, even by intellectual conservatives; and practically speaking even the States, for decades now, no longer decide themselves how to choose their senators to send to Congress. Instead, another sense of “democracy” has taken hold: where the individual is a member, to the same extent and in the same way, of every level of society and government that might affect him. It is, when you realize this, unsurprising that we now end up trying to raise all the same issues in almost every election of every official. The most widely-extending government is seen as the first and best; smaller units being mainly convenient for official purposes. In fact most Americans practically take this for granted; but progressive politics tends to make it part of the program, while conservatives are still trying to fight it.

If one were to look for a cause for its appeal, I have one to suggest: that in the conservative sense of democracy, the responsibility of each entity for its own self-government can be – has been – taken so far as to actually preclude government acting “for the people” generally. The starkest example, possibly in all history, is the American colonies declaring their independence, proclaiming the liberty of man – and keeping their slaves. But worst examples are easy to identify. What is more common is for the well-meaning to lose sight of less fortunate realities. Chesterton would hardly have considered himself a conservative, yet in the modern American sense, by virtue of being religious and a traditionalist, he could scarcely be identified as anything else; so I take the liberty of using him for an example. He relates in his autobiography how, at a certain labor meeting, a speaker produced bafflement if not resentment by seriously underestimating the degree to which his listeners might have run into trouble with the police. That which has been is that which will be; and there is nothing new under the sun.

This, I think, is what my friend was really getting at, and the point that in my observation frustrates progressives most about support for conservative politicians. Even if progressive policies may be at fault for, say, the state of various cities; well, the conservatives make mistakes too, and at least – thinks the progressive – we’re trying. Why isn’t that more popular?

It has – if I may be so bold as to suggest I can offer enlightenment – it has to do with how you are trying. The final reason conservatives “don’t believe in democracy” is that “democracy”, when the progressive makes this complaint, rarely refers to government “by the people”. He may, for the sake of argument, have gotten “for the people” down as a goal better than the conservatives do; but the actual democratic element has been lost somewhere. Not only is it national instead of local, top-down instead of popular; progressive “democracy” usually refers to the modern system of government, managed by bureaucrats appointed by “representatives” chosen from candidates selected by parties whose existence is more or less codified and secured by law. The situation is most pronounced in the United States, but hardly different elsewhere, whatever the claimed advantages of “parliamentary” government. The preferred form of this management – one can hardly call it government any more – is to enact mandate after mandate and let the bureaucrats or the judges – also rarely elected – sort it out.

But lest you doubt the repugnance of the procedure, consider: even a schooling mandate is, in a sense, anti-democratic. If we really believed in the good sense of all men, why favor the one who can read, right, and cypher? And if this is so of any such mandate in theory, national requirements are even more so. I am not disputing the benefits of schooling – though I find the years we require dubious – but trying to make a point about the nature of even a policy few would be so bold as to call detrimental. The progressive, no less than the conservative, does not simply believe in democracy. The difference, if there is one, is that the progressive’s vision proceeds from the highest level downwards, and makes exceptions – to be recorded, and registered on the newest version of the required form – only under duress.

In one sense, I am dealing in “no true Scotsman” terms here. If you reply that you find very few Republicans – or even Libertarians – actively trying to curtail and repeal the unwieldy national bureaucratic structure that barely asks for popular input, I can hardly prove otherwise. I wind up concluding that the Republican party is not particularly conservative in any meaningful sense; and then I can answer the progressive wondering why Republicans keep getting votes only by pointing out that the Democrats transgress further still upon conservative principles. Whatever their theories beforehand, progressives in power seem to regard national management by regulation and edict as a positive good, and have no regard for local custom or dissent.

The situation is, as I intimated at the beginning, somewhat dire; virtually anyone who showed actual intent to dismantle our top-heavy edifice before it topples over would receive my political interest. If you point out that there are progressives doing the hard work of engaging with and rebuilding their neighborhoods, while conservatives move further away – I will reply that, supposing this stereotype to be accurate, even Gentiles do the works of the law. It is in any case hardly an argument against conservative principles (although an indictment of conservative self-righteousness) to say the progressives are actually being more conservative. Meanwhile, I have yet to find any progressives really interested in redistributing the political power that puts us all in danger from the whims of the men at the top. Almost every Republican politician, if pressed, will admit the primacy of local self-government as an ideal; most Democratic ones, as far as I can tell, would be confused by the question.

Even the presidency of Donald Trump failed to awaken most progressives to the principle at stake – that the threat of immense power in the wrong hands is too great to trust to always keeping it in the right hands, but must be relieved by reducing the power available to wield. No: the progressive always has one more right or preference or policy or program that in his conception is so important it must be achieved by national – or wider – imposition. But an actual democrat would know that men must be left free to govern themselves, not merely to choose their dictators.

Vacc to School

Although it seems like schools just let out for the Summer, we’re more than halfway through the break. I’ll be starting orientation activities in four weeks – and I really don’t want to have to put that mask back on, let alone deal with any attempted re-institution of all those social distancing rules and online (or even “hybrid”) schooling protocols.

And there’s really no reason I – and at least the vast majority of other teachers and students – should. Even with the new variants, the vaccines seem to be pretty good.

In point of fact, my best estimate is that at the school where I teach the measures would already be completely unnecessary: vaccines were made available very early on to staff, students last year were on the whole eager to take their turn, and the school population is overall quite healthy – but if concerns about the coronavirus persist, I’m also quite sure the school administration will take steps – whether to provide a sense of security and solidarity, or merely to fend off any potential legal quibbling, I couldn’t quite say.

But the fact is that those conditions which justify avoiding further abnormal precautions at my school don’t quite apply yet a lot of places, and returning to normal isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense unless we all take steps to get back to normal. And the obvious step is to get your COVID vaccine if you haven’t yet. There are plenty of ways to find out where: here’s one that allows you to look anywhere in the US.

Here’s a quick summary. I don’t really have single sources for these: it’s a matter of stayng informed and following a bunch of reporting. If you’re really curious I can dig up some of the recent stories.

  • Take this thing seriously. We’ve seen in Italy, in weeks-long “spikes” especially in metropolitan areas, and now horrifically in India what can happen when this virus goes uncontrolled, especially in a high population-density area. And schools are pretty high-density during the day.
  • There are very minor health risks – most seem to be related to heart conditions – but if you know that might be at risk you probably already have a doctor who can confirm one way or another.
  • There are some moral concerns about how vaccines are developed – most commonly whether particular research uses (or builds on) cells procured by abortion – but even Roman Catholic moralists I’ve read (who tend to be the most cautious) have largely approved at least the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
  • With a large enough population, we’ve seen the vaccines aren’t perfect: but they clearly lower risk of infection, reduce the severity of illness if infection happens, and significantly reduces risk of further transmission. Yes, even with the variants.

I don’t even have a great idea who reads this thing any more, but I want to get this out there. A year and a half of these restrictions is enough when there’s no reason it should need to keep going: we’ve got the resources to stop it, but everybody has to take a part.

Vacation Reading

While on vacation, I tend to read other people’s books, rather than (or in addition to) the ones I actually brought with me. Some quick notes:

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture – Hans Rookmaker, 1970
Rookmaker examines the explicit messages and implicit worldviews conveyed by painting in different styles. He also explores connections between artists’ expressed philosophy and their work. The latter is the most successful theme in the work, although I suspect that by focusing on artists he overstates the degree to which modernist etc. ideas were minority and even “hidden” opinions before mass media. The power of his thesis is hampered by two things: first, although he recognizes the focuses created by iconography and devotional art his defense of them as a Protestant is at best half-hearted; and second, he seems to me to have little love for his own Dutch tradition, suspecting it of already transitioning towards the modernity he distrusts. As a result he does not quite appear to have a role to give to beauty.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century – Charles Haskins, 1927
Haskins’ work gives an overview of learning in the twelfth century. He details works made newly available in Europe through contact with the Byzantines, Arabs, and Moors, as well as outlining developments in education from monastery and cathedral schools and court establishments to the initial stages of the recognizeable university. Appears to be one of the earlier attempts to correct perceptions of the “backward” Middle Ages and extended “Dark Ages”.

Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought – David Fischer, 1970
Fisher theorizes that good arguments about history follow a logical structure, albeit one not (fully) captured by formal logics as developed for strictly verbal or mathematical proofs. This work attempts to discover those rules by illustrating failures of argument, organized around several themes. When it comes to stating theses, finding and analyzing data, and organizing formal arguments (as appropriate), it’s a very useful resourse. Fischer is a little hindered by his rejection of relativism while refusing to set a firm standard himself. He insists in introducing the work that he is interested in “fallacy” primarily in form and that the primary responsibility of a historian is to make his working premises clear – but later rejects several common and plausible sets of premises, mostly having to do with relating history to moral judgment, as themselves fallacious.

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard, 1885
Probably the best known of Haggard’s books, at least in part due to the number of film adaptations. Also looks to me like an inspiration for significant parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A decent thriller marred for current reading by subservience to the racial theories of the day, it seems to me that its actual literary value will be difficult to judge without significantly more cultural distance from those particular errors. It’s worth noting that Haggard clearly felt something was wrong with the scheme, but also wasn’t going to challenge it: he uses “Negro” only a few times and explicitly rejects ruder forms, prefering descriptions of individuals to stereotypes (though ironically one suspects the success of this work set a few); and includes an African love interest for an English gentleman – though ultimately kills her (not him) off complete with a monologue about how it wouldn’t work out.

In Praise of Good Order

The following reflections are prompted by my recent vacation. I admittedly do not travel to new place a great deal: one of the results of living a good distance from family and older friends – to say nothing of the disruptive effects of our now-decling pandemic – is that time I have to travel typically is spent in visiting with those family and friends.

What struck me particularly in the past couple weeks is the fact that family does not sprawl. I don’t mean this geographically: my family is, for various reason, scattered now across the country and beyond. Although maybe I do mean it – I’ve never known or lost track of a number of extended family members I’ve never been able to meet easily. But family, practically, will mean those family members one does live and interact with: as distance of space or relation grows, a new family nucleus establishes itself – known parents, grandparents, and so on, interlocking with other families but not quite the same. Or, tragically, a person can find himself cut off from family – from interaction – by his own will or theirs.

But I noticed something odd, which I will represent with the symbol of each-his-own-car. Each family member is also a bundle of individual interests and – here is my question – these interests are today regularly (given sufficient wealth) unconstrained – if one can maintain a vehicle, one can go where one wants and do as one pleases. Religion, hobbies, purchases, leisure, fitness.

I don’t know that this is a bad thing – but the other odd thing is that to find these we scatter to the four winds and only later wind up back to the family center, the home. Life oriented on a home is good. But I find myself and see others reluctant to abide this natural if involuntary orientation to a shared center in the two other spheres of religion and civil society.

In the first case, the American church of course features its denominations, and it strikes me that even the Roman Catholic organization’s parishes are hardly held to definitively.

In the second, I have been struck by the number of people who resent jury duty; the lack of enthusiasm – I admit fault here myself – for open meetings of local government (to say nothing of the difficulty in finding such information, which seems not to be widely resented); the number of people who expect officials to fix everything for them; and a corresponding number (I’m more prone to this temptation) who don’t expect them to get anything done at all. As somebody pointed out to me recently, you tend to get what you expect, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that when it comes to any given problem it can seem that half the politicians don’t want to change a thing and the other half think micromanagement of behavior is the only solution.

The odd thing about these involuntary connections is that they indicate duties which need to be voluntarily assumed to be maintained. Even family can become virtual strangers through distance or abandonment; the other relationships seem even more vulnerable to neglect.

I don’t propose to explain the origin of our dissociation: it’s hard to tell the symptoms from the causes, and too tempting to blame modern phenomena. In broad strokes it’s easy to say something like: “Americans get hung up on “freedom” and don’t want to interfere, but family life tells us somebody has to watch the kids”. I have my theories, ranging from the Christian declaration that the fear of Lord is a necessary guidance to half-learned principles of good urban design to the thought that perhaps prioritized the concentrated over the distributed is not always wise.

But all I really want to do here is note the necessity of these natural but involuntary – as far as the facts of their existence and relation to individuals – structures and encourage you to participate in yours. We are, I think, very good at building order and community in what might be called “communities of interest” – a shared passion, skill, or hobby – but I suspect us at times of trying to replace the more important responsibilities to the common good of disparate peoples with attention to the easier-to-manage organization of the like-minded.

Review: The Rings of Saturn

I received an email notification yesterday that the due date for this book did not automatically renew – I suppose someone else had a hold on it – which bumped it up my reading list, though I still had plenty of time, given how quickly I read and that it’s Summer break right now. Yesterday evening I meant to read for a bit and then watch a movie: instead I finished the book.

The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn) is a recent (1995) masterpiece from German author W. G. Sebald. (The W. G. stands for Winfried Georg – one wonders what his friends call him but authors are entitled to initials in these circumstances.) I am not in a position to comment on the original but Michael Hulse’s translation work – although apparently supervised by Sebald himself – deserves commendation.

The work is framed by a trip – mainly walking – along the Suffolk coast, a year or so prior to the book’s publication. The sights and events of the trip serve as prompts for discursions on all manner of topics from herring fishing to Belgian colonialism. As nearly as I can tell, there are no fictions perpetrated, though the selection of facts is Sebald’s and to actually verify his accounts would require duplicating his research. The tone seems to owe much to Thomas Mann, although something indefineable makes me suspect Sebald was also familiar with Izaak Walton.

Like much of Mann’s writing, this is not a cheerful work. The overall effect is much like listeing to a sad old man yarn in a tavern. Sebald presents an occurrence of illness – apparently mental – as the impetus for beginning the book. With much of the other introductory material it is then dropped and never mentioned again, but melancholy – as his Victorian biographical subjects might have said – pervades the work. Those subjects seem also on reflection – although it does not obtrude often – to have been selected at least in part through some fascination on Sebald’s part with real or suspected homosexuality. As the account wanders on, dreams and dream-imagery, often bordering on nightmares, occur with increasing frequency. Even real happenings – assuming them actual – become odd: it is really quite strange as an American to find ghost towns (or the next thing to them) in Auld England.

But in fact, while evidently written with elaborate care, the end of the book is not quite satisfactory. The trip never quite wraps up; its events become confused in the narrative – as I said, this is clearly deliberate – with those of an earlier visit; the final digression as written evidently relates much more closely – as it touches on Germany itself – to Sebald’s own concerns than it does to the history of the area he has toured through, which is a marked departure from the majority of the book.

The work demands re-reading but not, perhaps, very soon. I find on proof-reading I have not even mentioned the work of Thomas Browne – another framing device which, apart from Browne’s interest in (and creation of) the fabulous I do not profess to understand.

President Trump, Part 2: The Fall of Trump

I wrote a Part 1 way back in January, focusing on the political mistakes made by the Democracts that gave President Trump a viable chance at re-election, but never got around to writing the second part. It’s going to be shorter, from what I remember, than originally planned, because I’ve forgotten what all details I meant to work in.

President Trump entered the early part of 2020, approaching the heart of the campaign season, in a surprisingly strong position. He had weathered a ham-fisted impeachment attempt where the personal motivations appeared to overwhelm any actual interest in the not-that-doubtful charges. The Democratic platform has friends in high places, and some traditional support in low ones – but Trump had done what decades of Republicans had failed to do, and appealed directly for minority support, on the obvious grounds that whether they really cared or not, Democratic policies hadn’t, on the whole, worked out.

And he was out in front of the coronoavirus thing. He’d insisted it was serious; over several months as it spread worldwide and to the US he’d been gifted foreign (Chinese), international (the WHO), and Democratic (chiefly in New York) mismanagement to dunk on – which isn’t good statesmanship, but plays well with a populist base. The staredown with the political establishment was, in short, going extremely well.

And then he blinked.

It’s not a surprise, of course, that many people resented the restrictions put in place to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. There were a lot of things that weren’t known about the specific disease; and it was hard to believe, given the spread that continued to happen, that the measures were actually effective. Models showing what could have happened without preventative measures were not successfully explained, and their relatively short-term outlook was open to criticism.

But Trump had made his campaign run by taking on the GOP cronies; there is no good way to explain why he suddenly reversed course on the severity of the problem. Reporting suggested that by March at least two national emergency plans had been developed, one by a team of experts hand-picked by Kushner, and one by a panel of medical industry experts. Instead of using either plan, instead of trying to play FDR and lead the nation against a threat everyone know acknowledged, and which President Trump could have legitimately claimed to have been right about first, he threw in with the reactionaries. Instead of playing the big man in charge, which he’d done so successfully, Trump followed what he saw as his base’s mood. About the only thing he did get on track was the vaccine development authorization effort.

Then, once the coronavirus reality had truly set in, and states – almost all of them, even the most reluctant – started organizing ways to conduct elections by mail or with significant mail components, Trump again took on the inevitable instead of embracing it. It’s arguable he was forced into this logically by the previous stance; but politicians change their minds and hold incompatible positions all the time, and Trump had displayed his mastery of the art. Many of the criticisms leveled at mail-in ballots are entirely reasonable – but instead of trying to do the necessary the best possible way, Trump positioned himself in the way of the inevitable.

It should be mentioned that both of these stances belie the accusationg of fascism. Given every excuse to find an emergency and accumulate more power to the government and his own decision-making, President Trump declined.

It’s also difficult to say for sure how much these decisions contributed to the eventual loss of the election. My thesis is that Trump’s evident influence with the base would have carried at least the vast majority of his actual voters, while actual leadership in the crisis would have convinced enough of the doubters – again bearing in mind the Democratic candidates and platform. The only other plausible counterfactual I see is that the anti-authoritarian strain among Republican voters is in fact so strong that, if President Trump had done as I suggest and maintained his insistence on the coronavirus being a crisis, the GOP base would have split and we’d have seen an actual contested primary.

Ideas & Stories Part 5 – The Lincoln Postulate

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The Gettysburg Address is a convenient length for memorization, but the designers of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC made the remarkable choice to include a portion of a yet more insightful address made by Lincoln: I refer to his second Inagural. It is doubtful whether all the tomes laboriously compiled by the efforts of scholarship have significantly added to Lincoln’s recognition of the causes of the Civil War; and oversimplifying, where Lincoln recognized complexity and competing motives, and was unwilling to allege pure villainy, seems to me to actively harm our own comprehension of faults and causes – and effects.

I quote here a selection from Lincoln’s most profound and moral judgment offered in the speech: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is [an] offence… which… [God] now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war… shall we discern therein any departure from those attributes which the believer in a living God always ascribe to Him? … [I]f God wills that [the war] continue, until all the walth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword… so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

It may easily be argued that forced labor for another is not always unjust. How else, for instance, is a poor thief to pay back what he owes for what he stole, than to see at least some part of the wages of his work given to his victim? (Assuming he has work, the ensuring of which and what to do if not is not the point here.) But for America to have proclaimed freedom and liberty for all men, and then to keep some in life-long slavery, is easily recognized as a violation of the most basic principle of honor, which is honesty. The Founding Fathers recognized this, but shied away from carrying through their principles in fear of civil unrest and for their own fortunes, even though American independence did see some measures taken in the succeeding years to reduce and remove slavery in several states independently.

But the overall offence remained. It is noteworthy that Lincoln sees the joint responsibility “both North and South” – where Southern apologists wish to downplay any role played by slavery (in contrast to the writings of the times) and many today wish to justify themselves by only villifying those they can cast conveniently as the “slaveholders and rebels”.

In God’s providence, the Civil War ended mere months after Lincoln’s speech; but we can hardly have been said to have heeded Lincoln’s warning. Measures imposed on the southern states were motivated as much by revenge as concern for the freed slaves; and removed purely in political manuevering with no concern for – with wilfull ignorance or at times even approval of – the resulting treatment of black citizens.

Although black slavery and anti-black racism have dominated American political crises for some time, at no point do I see a concerted effort to put race aside, treat the victimized as citizens, and assess what may actually be due in restitution or, as we say, “damages”. Perhaps the closest was the effort immediately after the Civil War to settle former slaves in ownership of land confiscated from the southern grandees or otherwise available; but land policy has hardly been a bright point in American political management.

Speaking of land, much of the sovereignty over what the United States now governs was taken by force, often in violation of treaty or a succession of treaties, from other American nations. Which is known if ignored, but I mention it to make the point that there are many other “offences” which Americans might be held accountable for – often, as with slavery, excused on specious racial grounds. We might consider this particular set of violations offences against the right of property, essential to our understanding of freedom, and even – though as best I can tell, apocryphally – sometimes alleged as the original word replaced later by “happiness” in the Declaration.

More recently, various manias for sterilization, euthanasia, and, most publicly, abortion have placed us in defiance of the right we declare to life for “all men”. If we alarmed by civil unrest and public obscenity, we can hardly do other than say, with Lincoln, that we have gotten more than was coming to us, and the degree of the consequences is in God’s hands at this point.

The great need today is not new programs, new services, greater central organization, and so on, which are generally most popular today on all sides. We are in need of repentance, reform, and restitution, in consonance with principles and laws already known: incidentally also of restitution of our self-government to ourselves. It can hardly be argued that the modern American populace displays much self-control; but the opportunities were largely removed with the bloat of existing schools and roads and townships and congressional districts and bureaucracies and regulations and corporations to encompass larger and larger populations, instead of replicating the local organizations necessary to meaningful self-government.

Only repentance can be urged – even though we may yet find, with the later kings of Judah, that the corporate guilt built up is overwhelming and “all our boasted pomp of yesterday is one with Ninevah and Tyre”.

Review: Ellison’s Invisible Man

Reading Invisible Man produced an odd sort of emotional whiplash. Ellison’s prose is wonderful, and the reader is brought to identify with the struggles of his protagonist, who is misled by a series of abusive, hypocritical, or simply thoughtless superiors – as might happen to anyone. But Ellison, being and writing a black man in America, constantly considers not only his individual circumstances but his – or the character’s – role in relation to the racially-defined classes of his America and the power relationships – equally hypocritical socially as individually where we have said “all men are created equal”.

The emotional difficulty is this: Ellison’s wonderful prose creates identity between his narrator protagonist and the reader. But much of the tenor of discourse about racism today suggests that the identity is false – that for a white reader to perceive an identity with a black author’s concerns, especially about race, is not possible. I don’t believe this myself – Seneca’s dictum that “nothing human is foreign to me” is the right approach – but it colors the cultural atmosphere from which I read. That we all can identify with Ellison’s lament is in fact the point, and what makes the additional abuses heaped on his narrator’s life purely by an accident of skin color so horrific.

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” So Ellison writes in the epilogue, and a lovely thing it is to have said. But I am not sure if Ellison believed it; and his protagonist surely does not. Or, does not at the end; or, has found the certain defeat too certain, and is content to abandon humanity. Society having failed to respect his manhood – having failed, in the metaphor begun in the title, even see his humanity – one can only pity the descent of gullible youth into paranoia or perhaps insanity; the novel is a classic tragedy in somewhere between three and five acts depending on your inclinations.

Ellison’s writing is magnificent, and I highly recommend this book to any mature reader prepared to deal with a certain amount of obscenity, not so much of language but in fact of scene, both sexual and otherwise.

Ideas & Stories Part 4 – All Men

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In the previous most recent part of this series, I discussed the groundwork for re-asserting a view that in human fairs family must be the primary consideration and form in which to interpret the legitimacy of human activities and political structures. Yet this seems to conflict with the statement, taken in some form to be dogma by virtually every form of American politics today, “All men are created equal.” But – here we run into the problem that that phrase itself is, to some extent, an equivocation. There were unresolved tensions even as it was written.

While tacitly accepting the theoretical validity of that postulate, almost anyone today finds some shortcomings – at a minimum in its realization, but also in the actions of the men who approved it in the Declaration of Independence, and commonly even in the words it was written in. Without getting too far into the weeds, I am going to list some of the – at times competing – connotations bound up, even at the time of its publishing, with that phrase. This is merely those things that seem evident to my limited knowledge of the period: an expert could no doubt improve the list or even divide it differently.

1. Local Self-Government. The nature of the rest of the Declaration suggests that “all men” should be taken to mean something like “each self-recognizing independent society”. Not in quite those terms Jefferson does write that the colonies desired “to assume… [a] separate and equal station”, that is, the Declaration recognizes a change in status taking place – first claimed, and in the event then proved in war. Government is in the next paragraph claimed to be “the right of the people”, but not individual persons; but “the People” are seen not as all subjects of the British crown but particularly those American people represented by their Congress who authorized the Declaration. The key to this image is the fascination of the Founders with the Mediterranean city-states of antiquity.

2. Each Person. The English tradition of militating for civil rights; the Christian and especially Protestant insistence on individual conversion; the Enlightenment cogito: each of these and likely other influences can be linked to a strong – if often theoretical – insistence on the dignity and independence (ideally) of the individual, not on grounds of family or nation or accomplishment or anything but a common humanity. I think from the modern point of view it is easier to view this as more influential than it in fact appeared at the time but the influence of Locke and others cannot be denied.

3. All Free Men. It is evident historically that the American Founders for the most part would have expected – whether on theoretical, theological, or habitual grounds – some persons to take part in the governing of society and some not to. The ways this division can be represented are numerous, and – I want to emphasize – that it represents injustice inherently is not always clear. The contrast of the free man to a slave is obvious; but I also include in this category property owners compared to renters; recognized citizens compared to non-citizens; and, speaking generally, any rules put in place that state such-and-such a changeable status must be secured to participate in the government.

4. All Males. Because of the natural authority of fathers, monarchies and aristocracies (or if we wish to be less complimentary, oligarches) have generally tended to be male, with women holding a minority of these positions of authority in the historical record. The democratic ideal militates against this: but it is clear enough that few – indeed, hardly clear that any – of the Founders were advocates for pure democracy, however essential it seems to the modern world. In any case – even setting aside active suppressions of female involvment in politics – the mental habits and practical expectation would have been a continuation of a male-dominated, if not male-only political classes Europe would have been most familiar with.

5. All Whites. It is not clear that “race” had developed, at the time of the War for Independence, into the theoretical construct we would recognize today, or which we read defenses of even sixty years later. But the conditions – primarily America’s native tribes or nations being pushed away from land claimed by the colonies, and enslavement and trade mainly in Africans for the benefit of those descended from Europeans – which would harden into the next centuries’ racial theories were already practically in place.

Where the first two categories I outline here seem to me to illustrate the theoretical tensions, the later three cannot be forgotten as habits of thought. I have left out, but not forgotten, the idea of the head of household or head of a family, not because I think it was truly ignored, but because I think it was to some extent an assumption so used to being taken for granted socially that it seems to me to have been overlooked practically – not that I am an expert on the period. To the extent it had separate political import, that seems to me to have been very little, because of the social or legal assumptions that such a head would be male; but I am not actually familiar with the laws of the period themselves.

One could no doubt break down the possible connotations further. My point here is that the Founders had, to varying degrees of detail, considered these claims: but they had not resolved them, historically speaking, and certainly they were not prepared to treat particular conclusions as absolute principles. The Constitution in fact left citizenry to the states, and pushed even the end of the slave trade out to a convenient-seeming deadline which primarily served to further establish a more or less clearly delineated slave population. American political crises have been created mainly as the country seeks to resolve these conflicts.

President Trump, Part 1: The Democrats’ Failure

No observer of President Trump’s habits and character could be surprised to find him the chief architect of his own political undoing in 2020. More perplexing to most observers would the question how he came to be in a position where he was virtually the only person who could have gotten in his own way. Admittedly it is not necessarily accepted that he was in such a position: but I believe such a case can be made, at least about Trump’s position after surviving the first impeachment against him.

The role of the Republican party in strengthening Trump’s position is obvious and not particularly interesting, as it mostly consisted of doing nothing and letting Trump “lead”. In fact the failure of a Republican-controlled Congress for two years – with the Senate majority maintained longer – to do anything of consequence at all is in my opinion a greater practical failure than virtual anything President Trump did or did not do.

By it is also the case that the Democratic party played a role in strengthening Trump’s hand. The strategic errors made in the 2016 election have been much discussed: primarily the appearance that was created of gaming the party process to ensure Clinton won the nomination, and then the Clinton campaign’s decision to, if not outright ignore, at least not take seriously certain surprise battleground states. Trump’s base of support as a candidate was surprising, but intelligent practice of politics must account for the situation that obtains.

The role of the Democratic platform is difficult to criticize directly, as the casual observer can hardly sort intentional party strategy from media coverage largely favorable to its main tenets. The image of the party, due to those twin influences, however, is calculated to create resentment, because it appears to emphasize social disruption and casting blame – legitimate media roles where social faults exist – over actually addressing problems, which a political party must at least pretend to do.

When that agenda majors on abortion, encouragement of sexual perversion, and vocal if admittedly not much practiced calls for stifling regulation of business – all while letting the major corporations that provide platforms for online discourse roam unsupervised – the more traditional America is horrified. A vague worship of northern Europe’s successful form of democratic socialism that would have no legal ground in the United States’ Constitution without significant amendments – on top of a century of vaguely socialistic programs enacted in defiance of said document and combined with a wilful ignorance of, or failure to repudiate, socialism’s and communism’s disaster stories and fanatical excesses – is hardly better. American history, in contrast, appears to be mentioned by Democrats only in the negative – the occasional appeals to vilify Republican actions as unworthy of the Constitution they generally so blithely ignore is calculated to create no reaction but bitter laughter.

The Democratic-friendly media attempt to make a slogan out of “resist”, unaware that overall media political leanings make the Democrats appear nearly ascendant even when they are out of power, was mostly just funny – especially when their choice not to deal really was a choice. President Trump’s agenda was not entirely in line with recent Republican posturing; support, compromise, would have been rewarded had a few Democrats crossed the line. I don’t say President Trump did any better in making his attempts to deal attractive to Democrats than the Democrats have done making their party attractive to Trump’s supporters. But if the mafia don’s deal is refused, nothing is left but, to save face, humiliating the opposition: and it was quickly apparent Democrats would major on opposition to President Trump far more than they would contest any issue on its merits: a sort of negative of the Republican party’s failure.

All of this could be excused. All of this could even, ignoring my own views, be considered a moral stand of sorts. What is most difficult to explain is the ineptness of the Democratic opposition. To highlight that ineptness, consider the impeachments against Trump.

Yes, impeachments, because President Trump was eventually impeached, twice. He was not convicted the first time, and I have significant doubts whether enough senators will prove comfortable with the idea of convicting a person no longer in office for it to happen on the second try. But what were the charges? Well, first of all, here are some of the things Trump was not impeached for:

  • President Trump was not impeached for attempting to create a “Space Force” on his own initiative – which reportedly got the Pentagon to start drafting plans for such a thing. The organization of the military is the responsibility of Congress: this could easily be construed as a usurpation. Perhaps most people were thought unlikely to care, and articles of impeachment would have been thought too transparently motivated; but then, the eventual impeachment hardly scores better on those criteria. It is not entirely clear to me whether Congress eventually giving the thing some sort of formal backing makes the situation better or worse.
  • President Trump was not impeached for abusing a national emergency order to access military funds which were reappropriated to build his pet border wall. There is little doubt that the handling of immigration at the southern border could be considered an emergency, even if President Biden has decided to retract the order rather than take advantage of it to promulgate his own solutions, and even if a swath of judges seemed at times more interested in rulings that would create problems and frustrate Trump than they did in meeting demands of either law or justice, not that President Trump seemed to care that much about the conditions suffered by those enduring his emergency either. The emergency may have been legitimate: the transparent abuse of process, hardly. But then, securing conviction seems impossible: Trump’s defense would certainly – if he could have kept his temper – have been that he was pursuing the means he thought best to address the situation, and a precedent of impeachment for bad judgment seems like it would find little favor.
  • President Trump was not impeached for pardoning convicted and alleged war criminals. This received about two days’ worth of media attention, is indefensible, and is certainly an abuse of authority. But perhaps it broke no laws – beyond making a joke of the military’s own due process, which could hardly endear him to anyone who takes our military virtue seriously – and the case would be too hard to argue.

It’s entirely possible there are other instances I missed, but any of these seems at least of worthy of condemination than what actually happened. The articles of impeachment that were eventually brought against Trump a little over a year ago had, nominally, to do with attempting to pressure a foreign power to investigate a connection of a political opponent; which is disreputable, but – and here is what the Democrats missed – “everybody knows” politics is a load of dirty money and dirty laundry. If there was a misdeed less likely to turn opinion against Trump, I can’t think of it – especially when circumstantial evidence suggests Hunter Biden’s connections wouldn’t stand scrutiny themselves, the Democrat-led process was hardly squeaky-clean, and Trump’s threat to withhold aid was never followed through on.

Now, had President Trump made enough enemies in the Senate that conviction could be secured, the case would have been a good one for the Democrats to pursue: the conviction would publicly throw the “swamp” back in Trump’s face, implicitly secure Biden’s reputation from public derrogation, and, of course, remove President Trump from office. But the combination of Republican stonewalling and Democratic attacks – sometimes verging on slander – had made that impracticable. It’s not that Trump seems likely to actually have been innocent, mind: merely that the case was neither chosen nor handled in such a manner as to create certainty of guilt and stain senators irrevocably should they demur from conviction.

The second impeachment is in some ways more appalling still. President Trump certainly ought to have been impeached after the election, when he was discovered, on a recorded phone call, soliciting for a fraudulent election count. He was even recorded giving a specific number of votes to be found! After all the hyperbolic warnings about possible fraud by others, the public relations gain the Democrats could have made by parading this hypocrisy around dwarfs anything they might have gotten from success last year and a one-year Pence presidency. What, after all, could the Senate say in defence? And what could the Republicans in the Senate do the stonewall on a charge that obvious? And, reputation after standing behind Trump for four years and then having to convict being what it would be, how likely is it the GOP would stand up to really resist any but the most far-fetched Democratic proposals, for quite a while at least?

Instead, the second impeachment depended on taking the most negative view of a couple tweets. A precedent that implies politicians should refrain from encouraging protests of perceived injustice, or that implies politicians who do so will be held personally accountable for any rioting that ensues, is chilling – and would condemn a huge number of politicians over the unrest last year, if the principle were carried out consistently.

It is also telling that the reaction to President Trump’s alleged encouragement of insurrection was first to threaten, not impeachment, but instead abuse of a constitutional amendment meant to provide for conduct of the presidency’s business in case of illness. This impeachment was the results of Democrats being unable to bully others into doing Congress’s work for them. The impeachment process certainly takes longer, but it suggests an agenda more interested in trying to implicate Vice-President Pence in removing President Trump – and thus get Pence out of favor with Trump’s base – than one interested in seeing the law followed or justice done.

The Democrats agenda, while at least openly proclaimed, is not carryingly popular. This calls for a scrupulous honesty to win further support and deflect criticism, or successful villification of opponents: but they failed to put a dent in President Trump’s support by attacking him directly, because their motivations appeared to be those of resentment rather than principle; and their methods seem as venal as his.

In a country plagued by non-participation in elections, Democratic efforts did eventually create enough interest to remove Trump from office by election; but it can hardly be said that the number of those willing to support Trump was diminished in any way. Of the support that did fall away, much of it was surely motivated by Republican inaction, as sketched above – and by Trump’s own failures of character and control, which I will discuss in part two.