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”.

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.

Two Notes in Response to Today’s Rioting

America

In my American history textbooks, and I assume still today, it was noted with some pride that John Adams’ inauguration marked a peaceful transition of non-hereditary power in a context which made that – leaving aside the technically inaccurate superlatives these things accumulate – truly remarkable. Although I doubt President Trump quite anticipated the protests today would take the turn they did, his encouragement of the protestors and refusal even now to be more conciliatory than a request to withdraw from the Capitol makes it hard to say that tradition continues – arguably for the first time: even the Southern secessionists, as far as I am aware, let the Union states’ governmental functions continue uninterrupted. That’s an historical event and stain that will attach – whatever the other circumstances – to President Trump and his supporters, not his opponents.

The Church

The Reformed churches – I am speaking here as a Reformed layman – have generally taught the doctrine of the “lesser magistrate”, both in eccelsiastical and civil affairs. Although it’s most often invoked – at least in American circles – to justify defiance of wicked or tyrannical orders, it has its second edge, which is that there is no right of the private person to defy the magistracy as a whole. The layperson is not entitled to form his own church or to fight the civil authorities: the conscientious objector must accept civil penalties imposed or at most flee. No responsible authority appealed to has deigned to object to the election results as counted; no authority I am aware of, even those who supported the right of protestors to continue to appeal for further investigations, supports the attack on the US Capitol building and the Congress’s certification session – including the President who continues to cast doubt on those results. No reporting I am seeing indicates that any civil officials have orchestrated or helped organize – let alone regulate – the incident. Reformed theology is generous to a certain class of rebels, but theologically, today’s proceedings must be considered unlawful.* The exact term can be sorted out by the lawyers.

Commentary

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

Hesiod

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

Quirks of Language

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

Tourism Old and New

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

Motives

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

Draco

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

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

Solon

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

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

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

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

Aside

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

Peisistratus

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Context

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

Cleisthenaic Coda

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

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

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

Ideas & Stories Part 2 – Political Detour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Silk Roads

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas & Stories Part 0 – Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seat of the Pharisees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police, Anecdotally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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