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.

Review: Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel tells the story of Klara, a fully intelligent robot designed as a companion for a child. The style is simple but clear enough. The plot is suspenseful, and characters are compelling despite being lightly sketched: since there are only a few main characters we understand their personalities through their interactions.

I thought overall the effect was something like a short story – I particularly was reminded of Ray Bradbury – expanded to the length of a novel. The novel is a story and only a story. Ishiguro neither makes ethical or philosophical asides himself, nor allows his characters to digress. However, it’s not an adventure, and the conflicts are muted, meaning the book has the tone of stories “about” some theme, which I associate with the short story genre: the reader is invited to draw conclusions, or make arguments, about the choices of the characters. Possible candidates for a theme could be: religion and superstition (which I would argue seems to dominate the narration); personhood and uniqueness; and risk, success, and social duties.

I found this a difficult read in places as the plot eventually revolves around an illness – the existence of which as a fact I deal with very badly in my own life, perhaps partly due to having avoiding virtually any serious hurt myself. I was fascinated by how Ishiguro handled this in story – or rather that he doesn’t “handle” it: like the rest, it is just there, an element of the story which must be accepted, starkly unsettling as it can’t be ignored or explained away or minimized.

The other thing worth mentioning is the unique way Klara speaks, especially when compared to her internal narration (the book is written as her first-person account), although that also has its idiosyncracies, which mostly serve to illustrate how she experiences the world.

At the final verdice, Klara and the Sun is a good book. It’s the first I’ve read by Ishiguro: if one assumes his prize-nominated and -winning novels are even better, they also are certainly worth reading as well.

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.

Comments: Giles’ Six Old English Chronicles

I picked up this set of translations by J. A. Giles, some-time fellow of Oxford’s Corpus Christi college, in a used bookstore at some point. I’ve tagged this post “comments” rather than “review” because I my own lack of expertise and the nature of the compilation make the traditional review all but impossible. If I were either a fully-trained and practicing Latinist, or an authority on British history, I might be able to form more definite conclusions.

The six works included are translated from Latin originals, and mention in some form the invasions of Saxons et al., although beyond that I cannot conceive what particular theme was thought to unite them. I have no standing to dispute Giles’ claim that they are “all of essential importance to those who like to study history in the very words of contemporary writiers” – a noble goal – and yet the erratic arrangment of the resulting book leads me very much to doubt Gile’s primary claim was scholastic. I suspect, in fact, that he began the project as a dabbling in his spare time and eventually published out of vanity, or – less believably on the basis of likely sales – monetary need, or the request of some superior that he publish something, or that of students that his expertise be preserved.

My chief grounds for this suspicion are as follows:

  1. The apparent absence of any additional editing beyond Giles’ own. George Bell and Sons (the credited publisher) seem to have faithfully set the text they were sent, ignoring such howlers as the fact that the six chronicles are listed in a different order in the preface than the title page and the actual book.
  2. The openly amateur nature of the translation at times, most notably Ethelward’s Chronicle. The Latin, however corrupted, can hardly justify the choice to neither translate nor leave in the original text in several places. Similarly, the spurious account attributed to a “Richard of Cirencenster” has an absolutely muddled – and extensive – set of footnotes, some of which are evidently the original “translator”‘s and some of which must be Giles’ own, but I am unable to tell reliably which are which. Finally, Giles openly admits he had recourse to older translations, and in places as much as states he simply copied them, perhaps adjusting archaic language, when he thought they were already good enough.
  3. Giles himself seems undecided whether his work is driven by scholarship or interest. His preface takes pain to clarify his disbelief in Geoffrey of Monmouth and “Richard”. But the footnotes to Geoffrey are for the most part as painstaking in detail as for the works more “historical” to his own view, only occasionally protesting how vehemently he believes in its inaccuracy. He is inclined to believe Geoffrey at least thought his own sources were historical. Giles seems to encourage the reader to supposing that Geoffrey’s source may have been an expanded version of Nennius, whose work he is oddly content to take as fully historical, at least in intent, merely noting known inaccuracies despite the two telling remarkably similar stories. Geoffrey he seems to suspect of indulging a patron. Similarly, while he states in his preface that is “Richard” entirely spurious, he appears to actually suspect that that work is less fabrication than compilation, noting that much of it is copied or corrupted from Roman historians, chiefly Caesar – that in fact the only false representation may have been the pretense of the “discoverer” having knowledge of a specific original author. The “Iter”, or a record of travels (commonly kept, it appears, by Roman tax and military officials), Giles in fact excerpts entirely from “Richard”‘s narrative and treats as a completely legitimate copy of some other, otherwise unknown, source.

As regards the translation itself – at least where, as in parts of Ethelward and occasionally Geoffrey and Nennius, he does not just give up – he appears to have done a rather good job, at least in capturing author’s different tones, and also in presenting a unified voice for each, despite his own use of older translations. Ethelward’s is primarily genealogical, apparently sent in several installments to a relative married to some German king, and cramped by overly stylized familial affections. (The other works suggest it would be possible to figure out which king, and Giles thinks he’s worked out the right one, but I leave that aside for now.) Asser’s Life of Alfred is straightforward and inspiring, and if the reader does not quite believe all the legends I am not sure whether to blame Asser, Giles, wisdom, or a cynical age. Geoffrey is purely exciting, if incomprehensible in places, mainly due to the Merlinic prophecies. Gildas’s work is less history than sermon, and I recommend it – if not necessarily in this edition, which might be hard to find – to anyone as a corrective measure for today’s necessities. He was a man willing to blame his own “side” for their predicaments and chastise kings for their sins – a practice which seems to have eventually gotten him exiled to France.

Nennius is, as mentioned above, an earlier and more sober Geoffrey, though even he is hardly contemporary with the events he details: claiming to write in 858 AD. Giles states that various other authorities suggest alternate dates differing by up to a hundred years on either side – but on what grounds are unclear, as in date-keeping in their own time the chroniclers are rarely off (from our own estimates, or at least from Giles’ footnotes) by more than ten years, if that. “Richard” I suspect really is a spurious character, as he represents himself as a monk cribbing notes together in spare time and much reprimanded for such worldly pursuits by a superior – but I, like Giles, would like to think the actual collection of partial sources probably did exist somewhere, perhaps crammed on the back shelf of an abbey library, then abducted and subsequently forgotten for a hundred years by some Tudor lordling, finally being brought to light by some over-clever younger son. Giles does not illumine us as to who foisted “Richard” on the public, and I am not now in the mood to ruin my supposals by searching the internet.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery from these chronicles was the realization that Kipling’s would-be emperor Maximus, supporting character in the Roman portion of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, was an entirely real person – and if Kipling idealized him, perhaps not unbelieveably so, and his faults in Puck are his historical ones, if not all of them.

I would have gotten a better understanding from reading through with a map of Britain to hand: though it might not have resolved all difficulties, as the British geographers’ sense of place grows steadily more absymal as they get farther from Wales and Cornwall; the Saxons are as bad moving away from London; the number of towns no longer in existence or doubtfully identified or both is enormous; and Roman numerals, as Giles explains (for once quite clearly) are notoriously unreliable to read and copy and read again.

Altogether a fascinating volume to read, as the length of these comments may suggest, and the works – even Ethelward – are likely deserving of further attention and one can only thank Giles for introducing them, despite my intention to look for other editions next time.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I had never bothered watching this film before because it has a reputation as being not particularly good compared to the other Indiana Jones films from the ’80s. That just made it a candidate for my list of films I own but hadn’t seen; but having watched it now, I’d have to agree with the consensus.

In one sense this is a little surprising: individual scenes are well done, Harrison Ford is plenty charismatic, and the kid sidekick thing works quite well. So this review is more a list of reasons it doesn’t quite hold up.

First, the first act busted-deal-into-chase-scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It sort of explains how Indy, “Shorty”, and girl-of-the-film Willy get dumped into the actual crisis, and I suppose the idea of diamonds – lost in the deal at the beginning, given up on with maybe-noble motives at the end – gets introduced.

Second, there’s a little too much indulgence in the gross-out factor. From disgusting food to bugs everywhere to the details shown of the cultists’ ceremonies, there’s a lot in here that seems calculated to scare the audience, more than actually do anything for the plot. Although it’s not just the audience, which brings up the biggest problem.

Willy’s character doesn’t have a very clear role in the film. All the nonsense she goes through ought to get her some recognition or credibility. But actually her reactions throughout are played for comic relief: she’s not part of the group really or clearly outside it. Similarly, despite one scene which evidently used up the film’s entire allowed stock of sexual invitation and innuendo, she’s not a convincing love interest – or even a lust object. The way she’s mostly ignored makes her detestation moments more convincing than her flirtations; on the flip side Indy does mostly ignore her, seems interested only to the extent she is, if that, but also can’t seem to let her go. It’s unsatisfactory story-telling all around. The “fortune and glory” bit might have been used to develop that somewhere, but it really shows up a bit late in the film to build around. It also doesn’t help that Willy and “Shorty” mostly ignore each other completely.

In sum: the introductory act is very good; the fight/chase act starting with Indy’s rescue is quite good; it’s all the middle dramatic bit that really just falls flat. Probably was worth watching once.

Review: Scrooge

Scrooge is a musical version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. The film from 1970 is a lot of fun although there’s a lot of over-acting and the music is for the most part second-rate. Albert Finney is quite good as Scrooge; the Cratchitts are all very well acted, and are a convincingly happy family. Marley’s Ghost – played by Alec Guinness – is rather a disappointment, though the costuming and effects perhaps are mainly responsible. Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present is rather better, though his seasonal trinketry, much like the other effects, is cheap and a bit dated. The director was also perhaps a little too enamoured of flying wire effects.

But that’s about it for the negatives. It sells the story – which benefits from the exaggerated tropes of musical theater. Actually my favorite thing about the film might be that the period costumes – although I rather doubt a consistent period is achieved – actually are carried off as clothes being worn and not just costumes. There is, I think, often a little disbelief that people would ever have actually worn such outrageous old fashions; in this film, especially during the party scenes, the effect really is something like, “Oh, those clothes really would be worn by real people.”

About the only memorable tune in the thing is the instantly recognizeable ear-worm “Thank You Very Much”, which gets some startling use the first time it shows up – a bit of black comedy one doesn’t quite expect but which very much works – and sets up the later reprise quite well also.

I’m not sure it’s quite a Christmas classic but it definitely invites a re-watch or several.

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.