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: 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

Part 0
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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.

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.

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.

Some Thoughts about Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire is perhaps the best film which has been made about an athletic feat.  It twines together – with extensive substitution of the dramatic scene for already remarkable fact – the stories of Eric Liddell’s and Harold Abrahams’ preparation for the Paris Olympic games of 1924.  The Olympics merely provide the stage.  The true subjects of the film are faith and inclusion.  Liddell famously refused for conscience’ sake to run his best event due to a heat scheduled on a Sunday; Abrahams saw himself – here the film may understate the matter – as bound to show he could be fully both Jewish and a loyal Englishman.

I first saw the film as a child and have rewatched it several times over the years: it remains a favorite.  As a child, it was easy enough to understand the themes and classify the characters.  Liddell and Abrahams are clearly the protagonists of the story.  Their friends and teammates play roles of positive support.

However, the films strikingly different moral themes provokes asymmetric sympathies in quantity and type.  The British and Olympic bureaucracy are, if not quite villains, at least antagonists for Liddell.  The supremacy of the conscience in morality I had been taught already.  I would suppose I would not yet have known the formal phrasing of the Reformed dictum, “Christ alone is Lord of the conscience,” but the principle was already fixed, as well as the fact that Christ had warned us quite clearly that those who follow Him will face opposition which should be counted as an honor.  Liddell’s heroism was therefore clear and his vindication obvious and justified.

In contrast, the masters of Caius appear to wish to repress Abrahams but take no overt action: on a surface viewing Abrahams has no clear opposition beyond his own frustrations.  He was therefore a much less compelling character to my younger mind.  I had not yet been led to consider the question of inclusion as unsettled.  In fact I doubt the racial animosities Abrahams faces would have been portrayed in the same way had the issue appeared as unsettled politically as it does today.  Abrahams’ friend makes a thoughtless joke based on a stereotype and remains a friend; an unknowing order of pork (on a first date, as we would say today) is treated as a colossal joke; the masters of Caius may attribute Abrahams’ intransigence to his Jewish race but the legitimacy of their positions is not called into question as a result.  Abrahams desires to prove his loyalty despite being mistreated; the legitimacy, even the requirement, of that loyalty is not up for discussion.

On a more mature viewing, subtleties emerge.  The friend and the girl make the mistakes, but they realize them immediately.  The masters of Caius make their assumptions in oblivious self-righteousness and not to Abrahams’ face.  Worse, after attempting to force Abrahams away from his chosen methods, they comfortably assume the glory of his medal, assuring themselves that they foresaw the victory.  On a naive viewing, this seemed a kind of victory for Abrahams; to a more experienced eye, the hypocrisy stands out.  It is all too easy to imagine their reactions had Abrahams failed at the Olympics.  Worse, Abrahams’ Arab-Italian coach is found excluded from the Olympic stands, apparently even as a spectator: again the naive viewing can see this as a result of the professionalism question, but the mature eye is forced to consider the possibility of racism when Mussabini’s ancestry was so pointedly highlighted earlier.

Chariots of Fire opens and closes not with Liddell or in balance but in reflection on Abrahams.  The film’s creator David Puttnam – who produced this film which had a sort of direction by committee of its stars – had a Jewish mother himself and it is not hard to see his sympathies lying more particularly with Harold Abrahams.  In fact it seems almost miraculous that the difficulties of Liddell’s conscientiousness towards his ministry and strict keeping of the Lord’s Day are portrayed as well as they are – or then again, perhaps not, as one understood difficulty of loyalties might easily inform one’s understanding of another, per Terence’s declaration of human unity.

But a hint of a question remains about Abrahams.  He desires to prove he belongs by succeeding.  He succeeded, and found a kind of belonging.  But there is a reading of subtext, I think, which suggests that to Puttnam his understanding was, if not wrong, incomplete.  Mussabini follows the same logic, but it buys him no acceptance.  The masters of Caius follow the same logic, but they are not shown to be trustworthy.  Sibyl appeals to a form of the argument, but markedly does not fully accept or understand it.  Her truer appreciation of Abrahams’ own worth is shown by her comprehension and advocacy for the love of a good thing.  There is no real virtue in accepting only that which has already proved the benefits to one’s own self or society.  It is quite clear to the audience that Abrahams would in every sense be a true Englishman and credit to his country had he failed even to make the Olympic team: it is sincerely to be doubted whether we have all learned that lesson as comprehensively as we should have.

Review: Whistling Vivaldi

Whistling Vivaldi, by Dr. Claude Steele, currently provost of Columbia University, is mainly a summary of studies performed to investigate “stereotype threat”, a term coined to refer to decreased performance as a result of perceived negative expectations.

Steele opens by discussing what he calls “identity contingencies” – the fact that some things in life that we have to deal with will depend on who we are or who we are seen as being.  Stereotype threats are presented as instances of this, and the majority of the book is dedicated to examples of various experiments done to demonstrate that they actually exist – and perhaps most disturbingly, can be easily created artificially but intentionally simply by imposing divisions on a group and attaching expectations.

The remainder is spent discussing ways to address the problem.  The method Steele mentions more often focuses on creating positive expectations or otherwise offsetting the negative ones, by using vocabulary meant to be less threatening, by specifically addressing a negative stereotype fear with reassurances, or other techniques to create positive expectations among a population that would typically be stereotyped with negative ones.  He also briefly mentions addressing these problems by making sure that students learn to work in the ways that do work already for groups with high performance.

The circumstances under which the book was recommended to me – to say nothing of the title – suggested to me that Steele’s work would be reliant on anecdotes of mainly emotional value, an impression which proved quite misleading.  In fact I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit and would recommend it.  I found it disjointed in places: the “disjoints” come when he mentions various experiments or discoveries related to his main topic, and then reverts to the main point.  In a way the book is far too short – another way of looking at these rough connections would be to emphasize one of the book’s chief values, that Steele sticks to his point and doesn’t try to do too much.

From Beer Hall to Park

The riot in Charlottesville this past weekend can readily be recognized as an action straight out of Hitler’s SA playbook: stage a disturbance, and blame the Communists.  The “Communists” in this case are headlined by “Antifa”, a loose collection of anarchists, actual Communists, and various other radical and not-so-radical Leftists who proclaim themselves “anti-fascist”.  The rise of National Socialism to power (in the person of Adolf Hitler) has popularly been put down to any number of uncommonly harsh conditions in Germany: the unrealistic Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, the ineffective Weimar government – and so on.  But these explanations rooted in political or economic circumstances overlook the emotional factor: the root of this tactic is that people who would not – one assumes – ordinarily have sympathized with the Nazis were inclined to give them some credence due to their stated opposition to other groups.  It’s a standard enough political tactic, and it does not inherently have to lead to or give cover to violence.  But it can do that too, and the number of people who fell for it this past week is worrying.  Fool us twice, shame on us.

But why did it work?  It worked because there was another group present to blame.  Political scapegoats can certainly be manufactured or exaggerated easily enough, but it is easier to pull the stunt off if some person or group is already there, asking for the label.  The United States’ political scene is increasingly publicly interpreted in terms of Right and Left – which is odd, as actual variety of political views seems in my experience to be increasing.  To those who know they are considered “the Right” it seems that “the Left” has failed to take responsibility for the riots, violence, and vandalism resulting from its own protests.  Though the vast majority of “the Right” would prefer to distance themselves from neo-Nazis, white supremacy, and the like, there are twin fears which result in mere mumbling of platitudes.  The first fear stems from the – sometimes legitimate – assumption that many on “the Left” already see everyone on “the Right” as essentially Nazis-in-waiting: if the “rightist” condemns the white supremacist now, who will he be pressured to condemn next time?  The second is negative: if condemnation of the white supremacists is issued, but their also-violent opponents are ignored, how is the “rightist” supposed to convince his fellows he’s not really a “leftist”?  (The “Leftist”, of course, faces the opposite social pressure: if he admits a “leftist” protest got out of hand, how can he demonstrate he’s not really a “rightist” condoning unjust police violence and systemic oppression of women and minorities?)

We should recognize this kind of fear for what it is.  This is political thinking.  In a political party, I may not be expected to sing the copious praises of the candidate from the next town over at all times, but I am expected to show up at his rally and politely call him a “good American” and parrot whatever the catchphrase of this year’s campaign may be.  What we see, in short, is that violence is being politicized, with neither “the Right” nor “the Left” willing to criticize the vandals with whom they know they are grouped.

It would be as well to distinguish two sorts of civil disturbance.  (There may be others.)  The first – as in Ferguson or Baltimore – helps nobody, but there is a clear cause of perceived governmental injustice.  The second – as this January in Washington at the Inauguration or this weekend in Charlottesville – is about the advancement of a political agenda, simply and solely, by show of force, whether that force remains a demonstration of numerical strength or spills over into actual violence.  The first we should have some sympathy with (even if the crowd’s assumptions are not totally justified), though we can hardly condone the acts and may disagree about the facts.  C. S. Lewis notes for us that, “Hard words sound less unlovely from the hunted than from the hunter,” and I take the same to be true of deeds.  But the second is more complicated: legitimate and secured by law when peaceful; when violent, simply criminal.  The transition is often hard to identify.

If I have digressed this far, in many ways equating the habits of “Left” and “Right”, it should not be taken to obscure the point I began with.  I undertook in this piece to briefly set out the reasons I see for the reactions I’ve seen.  Todays “Left” at times radically misunderstand humanity and what would really happen if their goals were met; but they at least profess to aim at a further realizing of equalities enshrined in American law and ideal.  The “Right” sometimes falls short of even professing those goals – but the white supremacists and related activists who provoked the clash in Charlottesville are attempting to project on us an ideal twisted in essence and refuted in our history by force of arms and law.  To find evil continuing should surprise no one with an honest appreciation of history – even without the Christian doctrine of depravity – but to excuse it out of fear we ourselves will be later libeled is heinous.  And to a real extent, excusing an evil now would only add to the weight of the charge later.  “I was afraid,” is much more pardonable than, “I meant to do badly,” but the results are all too often very similar.

The Documentation Problem

The first work of science fiction and fantasy author Roger Zelazny which I read was his short story collection – turned into a novel of sort by means of the useful anachronism of supposing the protagonist of each to be the same character – My Name is Legion.  Although not one of the better of his works, I got a copy of my own when I ran across it in a used book store, because it had once caught my imagination, and I had quickly found his Amber series and other works – but my literary interests are not exactly the point right now.  The protagonist is, depending on your point of view, either nameless or over-named – and unidentifiable, having managed to erase his records.  In the 1970s Zelazny had already extrapolated something very like our “Information Age”: “Everybody, nowadays, has a birth certificate, academic record, credit rating, a history of all his travels and places of residence and, ultimately, there is a death certificate somewhere on file.”  The particular quasi-villain he imagined has not, that I know of, yet actually emerged – “[S]ome people set out to combine them.  They called it  a Central Data Bank.” – but I am not sure it is for want of trying (consider the recent attempts of the United States government to collect schools’ testing data, for instance), and the reason put in the mouth of the chief organizer – “… ‘[S]ome means has to be found to record and regulate… a society as complex as ours…'” – sounds presciently familiar.

Zelazny’s protagonist begins as an enthusiastic programmer for the project – but with time and promotions his worries grow.  It is really incidental to the main story, an explanation of why he is an unidentifiable person, so I will risk the spoiler and simply state that he gains a position of responsibility such that, with all records centralized, he can remove all records of himself.  An excellent solution – presuming he never comes to the attention of the authorities, otherwise his existence-on-record begins as a criminal one, starting with the misdeed of not having existed officially before being apprehended.

Thus far Zelazny: now my train of thought picks up.  I have similar misgivings about what we now call “Big Data”, especially when it combines with the government.  But I do not quite think the solution of erasing all paper trails is the correct one – or viable, for that matter.  What we need to do is to formulate some principle for who needs to know what, and what constitutes informational overreach.  There are, roughly speaking, two legitimate general reasons for personal information to be shared: the private and the public.  A doctor or investment advisor or lawyer will want to know quite a bit about me – or, as the thrillers have it, be paid far more handsomely than usual for working without that information.  On the other hand, if I am responsible for a large project or to a large number of people, they will also rightly want to know quite a bit about who I am.  But in neither case, as I simply exist, is it your business or the policeman’s business or anybody’s, really, what my name is or what I am doing.

Or where I come from.  Now, we have certain kinds of identification which exists in a sort of preventative sense.  I have a driver’s license primarily so that, when I drive, the police know who I am if I crash or even run a red light – and who they need to find if the fine does not get paid.  I am registered to vote so that, if I feel like voting and show up to do so, the election officials have some record of me as well.

What I find curious about this, however, is that so much of our information provision relies on previous information provided.  Virtually never do I hear the obvious suggestion made that if someone shows up with no documentation, the thing for the party concerned to do is to document them.  We know how to do this when we know we are starting from scratch – the pictures of voters waving their ink-stained hands in celebration in the new democracies in the Middles East have stuck with me, regardless of how poorly those governments may at this point seem to have turned out.  The thing about fingerprints, too, is that they are personal – unique in fact, or all but, as I understand it.  They’re also fairly permanent – though I am told they can be changed or removed, painfully – not dependent on an individual’s organizational skills when moving.  They also do not depend on the whims of an Office of Existence Certification somewhere as to what goes on the form.

All of which is circling around the point I want to make: it does not much matter whether my neighbor is from Pennsylvania or Paraguay.  The extent to which I want to see immigration controlled is pretty much for the relevant agencies to take down sufficient information for future identification and to confirm – as far as is possible – that the person is not wanted for actual crimes somewhere.  Maybe that really would mean a central data bank of fingerprints and such somewhere, that states’ police or other authorities could access.  But that’s about it: all this “qualification” and “vetting” and so forth has me rather dubious.

The question of voting, or other benefits attached to citizenship, is rather different.  Citizenship is not equivalent with existence, even for those of us fortunate enough like Paul to have been born citizens of a fairly stable entity.  A nation can make citizens: it does not make persons, even or especially when like China it attempts to end them.  I said before that my neighbor – let him be called by the everyman moniker Joe – could be from Pennsylvania or Paraguay with no difference made to me.  As far as existence goes, this is true: but if Joe is from Paraguay, I would like him to have some introduction to the American system first if he wants to vote, or have public monies assigned to him in the form of welfare.  If he desires, in short, to be part of the public system he ought to identify himself with it publicly.

To put my position briefly: I am opposed to most restrictions on movement, travel, and immigration, but am in favor of making and keeping formal divisions between citizens and non-citizens.  Details, of course, need somewhat more thought.

The Statue of Liberty

On the whole, I am impressed by most progressive “gotcha” arguments.  For instance, it is true that you make a poor case for the importance of good morals when you keep selecting blatantly immoral persons to serve as your representatives.  But – it makes a poor case for monetary equality when you keep selecting the very wealthy to serve as your representatives.  If we allege hypocrisy, there is too much to go around and hypocrisy makes a poor reason to choose between the parties.

Even more misleading is the charge that conservatives “don’t care” for a particular cause or group when they decline to back specific government programs.  All this charge shows is that the accuser has a paucity of knowledge or vision – one that fails to account for the hours and dollars poured into shelters, food banks, hospitals, pregnancy and childcare centers, schools, and so on by private effort.  The discussion of whether and in which fields a society is better served by directing its charity on a private or a public level (I do not entirely accept the common conservative argument that “‘charity’ from tax dollars isn’t really charity”) is certainly worth having: disparaging conservative intentions is ludicrous and has no connection with reality.

But in one case I do think conservatives ought to listen to the critiques.  “How,” asks the progressive TV host, “Can you talk about a ‘Christian nation’ and be so hostile to immigrants?”  Various texts are commonly cited – admittedly sometimes out of context – to demonstrate that the guarded or even inimical attitude common in conservative circles is not really consistent with the claims we typically make elsewhere.

The claim that the United States is – or even was – a “Christian nation” is dubious, except in the sense that Christianity is (and definitely was) the majority religion.  On the other hand, I believe – as a Christian – that Christian principles applied to law are entirely consistent with – a convenient and revealed guide to – Natural Law, which I might define as “the way the world and human societies best work”.  So I agree with the critics that conservatives – many if not most of whom are Christian, and as Christians often are “conservative” mainly because progressive goals are directly opposed to Christian morals – ought to be welcoming, helpful, and understanding of “[the] tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses”.

The question, since the Biblical teaching is so clear – and much of the “Western” tradition agrees, as for instance Terrance’s “I count nothing human as foreign to me” – why do conservatives have problems with immigration, or at the very least why are they perceived as doing so?  This really cannot be defended even by the dubious excuse of pleading ignorance about the correct answer.  The idea of a land that was – or is, or has been, or will be – open to all is even part of the national myth that gets bandied about in Independence Day speeches and on similar occasions.

So when the correct opinion is known, why is it – at least as far as public perception goes – so widely ignored?  Certainly quite a number of Americans are, and have been, hostile to immigrants.  This is in fact probably more common across all parties and factions in American history than otherwise, though there have also always been those courting the immigrant and minority votes as what we now call “special interests”.  On the conservative side, I suspect it ties back to the “Christian nation” myth.  Once you have your perfect society, humanity is very quick to overlook its remaining imperfections and suspect any outsider of trying to disturb it – to say nothing of forgetting how much trouble you had when you were the minority.

Another well-known part of the answer – I say “well-known” but as far as I can tell it is often ignored by much commentary on the subject – is that there is a class of illegal immigrants, that is, persons who are not supposed to have come into the country at all.  Now, the existence of this class is a morally problematic situation – I am inclined, though have not given the situation much serious thought, to advocate for free movement as an ideal – but the fact that these are formally law-breakers makes the conservative, who takes rule of law seriously as a principle and sees it regularly flouted, inherently suspicious.  Other immigrants of any description then gain a sort of guilt by association.  How much the action of various notorious criminals who happened to also be immigrants plays into this I am not sure.  It certainly does not help.

But this brings us to two other factors which are not usually accounted for.

Most Americans – not only conservatives – do not, I think, know much at all about the actual immigration laws.  Most, I suspect, assume they are fairly lenient, and so they direct more or less understandable anger at certain “classes” of immigrants they view as dubious, whatever the emotional overflow may taint.  In fact, as far as I can tell, currently immigration policies are fairly tight, and in fact favor the well-off – those who are assumed to “add to” a society – except for a few policies based on refugee status, whether that is because of religion, politics, or crisis.  Immigration policy, that is to say, is more or less governed right now by perceived national self-interest.  It is true that this policy is often advocated by conservatives, who would sometimes even tighten it further.  They have quite a bit of explaining to do – but I suspect most progressives would adopt similar policies.  As far as I can ascertain historically (though I could be wrong) they have tended to.  But for the average American, conservative or not, I suspect the actual state of things is not known.  Most, I suspect, take the inscription of the Statue of Liberty at face value and do not know how far it departs (and usually has) from the truth.

(Within this conception – however unrealistic – of what things currently are the support for e.g. limitations on immigration from Syria make much more sense.  If large numbers of people assume immigration is essentially unregulated, but current events make a potential group of immigrants potentially dangerous, why not subject them to more careful scrutiny as long as the particular crisis is ongoing?  The biggest blame here lies in persons not knowing about the restrictions and so on actually imposed – and on those responsible for informing them having failed to do so.)

Finally, the concept of charity or hospitality found in the Bible makes steady use of terms typically translated to make a distinction: “stranger”, “alien”, “foreigner”.  That is, there is a distinction made between a person who merely is living in a society, and a person born to it, a full citizen.  Most societies have had this distinction and maintained it is a good and necessary thing.  It ought to be made clearer in this country, though the current state of American politics, and the cloudy relation of Constitution, central government, and State authority, makes that a difficult project.  I would argue, though, that in some small part the conservative distrust of all immigrants is due to the fact that progressives are seen as trying to gain non-citizens the same rights as citizens, especially when it comes to voting and welfare – public money.  “If you’re going to spoil these people that aren’t even really Americans, let’s just get rid of all of them.”  It’s not a very charitable reaction, or a helpful one, or a practical one.  But it is a very human one.

The goal, as I have said repeatedly, is really known to all of us.  We want a free society, and by implication that means a society free to all.  Most conservatives, I believe, would subscribe to this abstract principle – and if not, I am really rather disappointed.  But desire to progress towards that goal is also thwarted by a muddle-headed muddle of actual policies and widespread ignorance of reality.