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A Song of Ascents: Some curmudgeonly criticism of the Southeast Students for Liberty Conference

Posted by nouspraktikon on October 5, 2018

Why is freedom good?

The regional Students for Liberty southwest regional conference was held on October 29th.  Being a fellow-traveler of all things libertarian I was pleased when a friend of mine told me he was scheduled to speak at the conference and I was invited to attend.  There are many things that might be said about SFL, both pro and con, but the salient issue on today’s campuses is the issue of freedom of speech and how to make an informational end-run around what has been dubbed “the Left University.”  SFL is one of a handful of organizations seeking to give college students a perspective which differs from that of the compulsory Left Classroom, and hence I deem it worthy of everyone’s support.

The alleged topic of the conference/seminar was “The problem of Authoritarianism.”  I have no idea why SFL picked that theme, but it was largely honored through avoidance.  Instead, another theme seemed to emerge spontaneously as the talks progressed.  It was briefly articulated by the philosopher who spoke mid-way through the conference: “Why is freedom good?”  Indeed, that is the nub of everything, is it not?

I suspect that I was the oldest person at the conference, and probably the only one who had the privilege of meeting such bygone freedom advocates as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio.   As such,  I was well positioned to play the role of the old curmudgeon bringing to bare all sorts of technicalities and arcane lore.  However, my better self realized that was unsporting, so I decided to join in the applause and stuff my carping criticism into these notes.  After all, the conference did what it did quite well, since, to put it in Biblical terms, there is “milk for babes” and there is “meat for the apostles.”  Now is the time to raise up children for the freedom movement, the business of ideological fine-tuning can be left to the apostles of the future…if there is to be a future.

Yet, to my surprise and delight, the talks seemed to mount a stairway of increasing significance and application.  Indeed, I felt myself riding on an intellectual escalator, at the top of which was the supreme answer to our question: “Why is freedom good?”  Of course this was just my personal perception, and each person’s mental escalation may be the moral deflation of someone else.  So let me give you a brief critical treatment of five speakers from the conference, and you may decide if you agree that the order of presentation was also an order of ascending significance.

The five presenters, each of whom represented a significant rung on the stairway to freedom, were in sequence: 1) an Advocate for Entreprenuership, 2) a Philosopher, 3) a Movement Leader, 4) a Libertarian Muslim, and finally 5) a Rogue Scholar.

 

The Advocate for Entrepreneurship

This presentation was the real milk for babes, and it was well done indeed.  Is there anyone who doesn’t realize that freedom, economic efficiency, and technological progress go together?  Unfortunately, yes, today’s youths, living within a cornucopia of technological wonders, are blocked from seeing the obvious connections between information and the free market through the interference of the Left Academy.  That’s why we need informal presentations to help people see the forest of capitalism from the trees of technical devices.  As the speaker noted, technological progress gets a spurt every time there is deregulation of an industry.  Today’s smart phone applications are an outcome of the unregulated environment of the 90s.  The Advocate did an excellent job of illustrating this with copious examples.  He was by far the most trend conscious and personable of the presenters, only occasionally slipping up with a reference to Taylor Swift, who apparently is now passe.

Nuf said!  After all, we all need to recognize that freedom promotes technology, the spread of information, and economic efficiency.  Well, except that, being the curmudgeon that I am,  I can’t help but peer around the corner of this tried-and-true thesis.  Is there no dark shadow behind the cheery gospel of technological optimism?  Are not command economies more efficient at generating instruments of destruction?  Not all technologies are benevolent.  What kind of technologies would we have today if the First and Second World Wars had never occurred?  In the absence of those cataclysms perhaps our technology today would resemble developments along the lines laid out by Tessla (the man, not the company)?  Instead we have a wide spectrum of technologies, some of them benevolent, but others highly problematic.  Just a thought…which I am tossing out like a monkey wrench into the wonderful but fragile works of the Randians and kindred humanistic utopians.

 

The Philosopher

The first job of a philosopher is to find the salient question in any venue and then pose it with clarity.  The fine representative of that profession who appeared at the SFL conference was able to articulate its basic theme: “Why is freedom good?”  He then proceeded to give what seemed like an exhaustive survey of all possible answers to the question.  He attempted to accomplish through analysis what I am trying to recap here synthetically.  Is there not a hierarchy of motives which impel us toward freedom, some of which are closer to wanting freedom for its own sake and some of which are only using freedom as an instrumentality for some other value which is considered the supreme end of life and action?  In short, the visiting philosopher seemed to be treating us to a “Critique of Pure Freedom.”  Fortunately his presentation was not quite as long or as frustrating as any of Kant’s critiques.

Again, the curmudgeon must make a confession.  I don’t particularly care for this kind of approach.  I’m sure that the visiting philosopher would have been miffed if I had labeled him as an “analytic philosopher”…since that moniker rightly belongs to the linguistic philosophers of the last century.  Rather, his philosophy, or rather his presentation was analytical in the sense that it came down to decision trees and processes of elimination.  If you are reading this and you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, that is understandable, since such a method is better shown graphically than discursively.   I consider that a weakness.   Its not that analysis doesn’t have its place.  The image of correct demonstration I have in mind is that of Kierkegaard using the ladder of reason to mount up to faith (or some primary axiom) and then throwing it down after having reached the summit.  To my mind, the visiting philosopher seemed overly attached to the ladder.

 

The Movement Leader

I am keeping people in this essay anonymous,  ostensibly to protect them from persecution.  To tell the truth, that’s mostly bullshit…I just have a bad memory and seem to have lost my notes.  None the less, there is some justification for the ostensible reason.  As they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.  Here I will outdo myself in subtlety and keep not only the speaker but his country of origin anonymous.  Actually, if you have a computer and the intelligence of a six year old child you should be able to find out the names of all the presenters in under three minutes, maximum.

Having said that, the next speaker was no mere scholar, but a front lines political activist from one of the most important nations of Latin America.  In the 1970s and 1980s this nation was the freest and most prosperous in the region.  Then something happened, and today it has become a brutal, impoverished, Marxist dictatorship.  Certainly this defies all logic, at least the utilitarian logic which states that people, having once tasted freedom, will never go back to slavery.  How is this possible?  Fortunately this speaker opened the floor to Q&A so that the attendees of the conference could probe him on this enigma.

According to the speaker, the key institution implicated in the downfall of his country was the military.  Although a “showcase of democracy” his country’s military retained the same privileged position which the armed forces of lesser developed Latin American nations occupied in their respective societies.  As the economy of the nation contracted after the oil boom of the 70s, the military contracted an unholy alliance with left wing politicians to retain its wealth and influence at the expense of other sectors of society.  I was not surprised at this analysis, but somewhat disappointed.  What, I wondered, about the influence of other sectors, notably the universities.  He said, yes, the universities were leftist, but the military factor outweighed all other sectors of the society.

He ended with an appeal for support, and an admonition that people in the United States maintain vigilance over their own freedoms.  He remained rather more sanguine about the prospects for freedom here than in Latin America, which is understandable given his perspective.  My own take away was that the notion of an irreversible evolution of freedom is part of the Hegelian, not the Classical Liberal, tradition.  For better or worse institutions need to be under constant repair and renewal in the face of the entropic forces of power lust and opportunism.

And again: “Is freedom good?”  This speaker did not directly address the question, taking it as a given.  However the context of his talk indicated a striving for societal good, a populist or democratic freedom rather than a libertarian ideology.  Freedom is good because it advances the well being of the nation.  It is well known that, until recently, libertarians had nothing but scorn for populism and nationalism.  However presented in the context of a Latin American country struggling against tyranny, one can more easily see that patriotism (in spite of its collectivist overtones) can be a potent adversary against the kind of left-wing nationalism which (paradoxically) is often in secret or not-so-secret alliance with the forces of globalism.  Perhaps for most people, freedom under an independent and limited national government is the most realistic goal on the historical horizon.  None the less, being a utilitarian construct, it falls short of the Holy Grail of libertarian theory…freedom for its own sake.

 

The Libertarian Muslim

Our penultimate speaker was that rarest of animals in the libertarian menagerie, a libertarian muslim.  Opening with a prayer, which I couldn’t follow well because of my extremely limited Arabic, he launched into his forceful and very articulate presentation.  Unfortunately it was pitched far above the heads of the audience, who were thinking of little other than “How in heck can you be a muslim and a libertarian?”  They had trouble getting beyond the messenger and into his message, a message which in itself was quite sophisticated.  I didn’t agree completely with his thesis, and it could have been challenged on its own premises, but so far as I could tell nobody else was in the mood or equipped for that kind of conversation.  This isn’t a dig at young people or college students, who I think gave the libertarian muslim a more courteous reception than he would have gotten among almost any other audience.  Of course I am discounting the two-faced reception of politically correct crowds, who would have smiled at the muslim in hopes of political alliance while secretly despising him for his belief in God.

However I relished the libertarian muslim’s talk as a survival, or perhaps revival, of a line in libertarian thinking which has long been dinned out by the clash of rival civilizations.  It is the same thread of reasoning which Rose Wilder Lane took up, only to be dropped by subsequent publicists.  This notion indicates that freedom is good because it advances the cause of civilization.  In this view, civilization is understood as a vast tapestry stretching, without significant breach, over the course of roughly the past five thousand years.  The term civilization therefore is twofold, having both a general and a specific meaning.  One the one hand there are specific civilizations, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, European etc., and on the other hand there is the cumulative civilization of humanity.  At critical points of juncture, the cumulative knowledge of the human species “jumps” from one regional civilization to another.

In tried and true Rose Wilder Lane fashion, the libertarian muslim was at pains to illustrate that the pedigree of rationalism, a key component of the freedom philosophy, was not indigenous to Europe, but rather jumped into Western Scholasticism from the “filosofia” of the muslim sages.  In truth, and in very truth, and not in lies, say I, this is pretty much correct.  The tradition of rationalism did indeed pass through a muslim (or at least Arabic) parenthesis from about the ninth to the twelfth centuries of the Western era.  I could quibble about a meta-civilization which absorbs all previous civilizations, but I won’t at this juncture.

Rather, the foremost question regarding the Lane thesis should be the relationship between reason and freedom.  Many philosophers who have claimed that their systems were the acme of rationalism have also claimed to be champions of freedom.  The prime example of such a philosopher, who’s claims are generally acknowledged by the Left but rejected by Classical Liberals is G. W. F. Hegel.  According to the Lane thesis, ibn-Rushd, (latinized as “Averroes”) is a kind of Hegel for Classical Liberals (a.k.a., contemporary conservatives and libertarians).  He was the bridge who transmitted reason from the Middle East to the Western World, thus becoming the middle term between Aristotle and Modernity.   This broader view of history eliminates any “dark ages” or rather localizes it in Europe.  Hence the light of reason never goes out, indeed, it never even flickers.  This view is comforting to those who seek to identify the progress of freedom with a putative uninterrupted progress of civilization.  Naturally, it is also very congenial to those who are either religiously or ethnically connected to the Middle East.  For the most part, the libertarian muslim’s presentation involved a restatement and elaboration of the Lane thesis, but this seems to have generally gone over the heads of those in attendance.

Although many other Middle Eastern luminaries can be thrown into this kind of discourse, ibn Rushd/Averroes (properly speaking an Andelusian, not a Middle Easterner) is the man to beat.  Unsurprisingly, nobody at the conference jumped into a technical discussion of Averroism…not even the philosopher, who I believe still remained in attendance.  If such an engagement had occurred, someone would have eventually broached the question of whether the rationalism of Averroes is indeed a philosophy of freedom.  Actually the metaphysical views of Averroes in relation to the human individual and freedom are highly problematic, and in many ways he is less a predecessor of John Locke (as per the Lane thesis) than the metaphysical collectivism of Teillard de Jarden.  Few people think of Teillard as a libertarian, in fact few think about him at all, they just hear about his system and say “gee wizz!”

In lieu of meaningful philosophical engagement, by the end of his talk the libertarian muslim was reduced to abandoning the philosophy of history entirely and switching to an impassioned cry for libertarian activism on the part of people from all faiths and factions.  Actually he didn’t advocate abandoning theory, only an obsession with redundant arguments over shopworn libertarian issues.  This is certainly a sensible admonition.  However there is also the troubling prospect of people forgetting or altering their fundamental principles in the heat of political conflict.  Certainly in today’s political hothouse, with its clash of civilizations and so-called “cultures” it is more difficult than ever to keep a rational head.  Meanwhile one must remember that rationality is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for “freedom” in the sense that libertarians use that term.

This is because “freedom” as it has come down through the Classical Liberal/Old Right/Libertarian tradition, e.g., through thinkers such as von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, means individual freedom.  In the system of Averroes, perhaps even more so than in the system of Hegel, “freedom” is an attribute of a collective organism which we would feign call by the reassuring name “civilization.”  While a sophisticated civilization may nurture individual freedom, excessive veneration of civilization and especially “a” civilization can be dangerous for liberty.  Furthermore, from any religious point of view (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.)”civilization” construed as the supreme value of human life can be considered a form of idolatry, or at least an attempt to reduce the transcendence of God to immanence.

Bearing this in mind, it should be clear that Averroism and Islam have little in common, other than coexisting in the head of an individual philosopher who lived nine centuries ago.  How Ibn-Rushd reconcilled his “filosofia” and his faith, I don’t know and it is not my place to know.  Similarly, there is something paradoxical about a libertarian muslim, but the speaker at our conference acquitted himself with courage and clarity.  If he failed to impart a deeper understanding of “civilization” to his audience, at the very least he inspired them with a clarion call for libertarian activism and engagement.   Similar to being a movement leader in militarized Latin America, being a libertarian muslim is a tough row to hoe.  The speaker has obviously experienced persecution, and expects further challenges in the future.

 

The Rogue Scholar

There are Rhodes scholars and there are rogue scholars, and which kind you are inclined to trust says a lot about you.  The legendary Justin Raimondo, writing from his sick bed, is presently lamenting the fact that his organization never received any awards.  True.  The information and research organizations which got the awards, never spoke up and changed the consciousness, or afflicted the conscience of America like the Randolph Bourn Institute and its web presence, the antiwar.com.  As for the decorated and the endowed, it is written “They have their reward already.”

Likewise, the late Rene Girard, though amply recognized in the twilight of his life by a seat in the French Academy, never fit comfortably into the departmental cubbyholes of academia.  Expatriated from his native land and with no proper profession, he was seen variously as an itinerant literary critic, a sociologist, a psychologist, a philosopher, or an anthropologist.  If he had lived a hundred years earlier he probably could have founded his own discipline, but he lived in an era when Western thought had ossified into exclusive, jealous compartments.  He brought a form of wisdom to the study of human behavior which was at once new and yet discoverable in both the Bible and the corrupted witness of mythology.  It showed how the bond of society was forged through force of imitation, and yet how, at a critical point in each society’s foundation the bond turned into the blood of sacrifice.  He called this mimetic theory (MT for short) and it has become a growing undercurrent in the social sciences for the last few decades.

In Girard’s understanding, increasing convergence on a model for imitation creates the primary tension within societies, as they reach the point where individuals lose their individuality in the frantic search for identity with the model.  The tension is only relieved when the model is expelled (through exile or death) and demonized, relieving the jealousy in society and replacing the dynamic of imitation with the bonds of collective guilt in the aftermath of mutual conspiracy.  This is what Girard called the scapegoat mechanism, and he saw in it the basis of all societal transformation.

The Rogue Scholar stumbled, unfashionably late, into the conference.  It was not a promising beginning.  I asked him if he had a power point presentation prepared.

“No.”

I wondered how he would explain the subtle nuances of the Mimetic Triangle without graphic support.  It didn’t seem to bother him.  He strode up to the front of the hall with confidence and pulled out his sole prop, his cell phone.  Then he dialed a federal prison in the state of Illinois.

“Hello, can I speak to Craig Cesal?”

“Hi, it’s me!”

As it turned out, Craig Cesal was serving a life sentence without parole for a victimless crime.  According to the Rogue Scholar, Craig had been a garage mechanic occasionally repairing trucks destined for shipping marijuana across the US/Mexican border.  Apparently many of the big guys in the smuggling conspiracy had gotten off making pleas for lighter time, but Craig had neither clout nor information to bargain with.   When asked what the most bitter aspect of his existence was, Craig mentioned the fact that perpetrators of violent crime, up to and including murderers, routinely rotated through the system with five, ten, or fifteen year sentences, while he was stuck there for the rest of his life.

Craig was a scapegoat.

Instead of explaining what a scapegoat was, the Rogue Scholar gave us a heart rending example of how human societies, whether those societies are criminal or civil, routinely scapegoat individuals.  The session ended with a heartfelt appeal to support Craig and his family.  In the end, nobody felt that they had been deprived of a thorough explanation of Rene Girard’s theory.  The theory had actually become incarnate, through the witness of an incarcerated man.

 

Conclusion:  Why is freedom good?

Freedom is good for any number of reasons.  It grows technology and expands the economy.  It gives us more choices and let’s us choose our own ideologies, even if they happen to be inimical to freedom.  Free minds and free markets strengthen every nation which embrace them.  Finally, liberty gives meaning to the story of human civilization, which is, or at least ought to be, a record of freedom’s victories.

Yet ultimately, for the libertarian there is no such thing as civilization, or even the human species, apart from the individuals who comprise it.  Just as the cosmos has no existence apart from the brilliant stars of which it is composed, society has no meaning apart from the individual person.  The dignity and autonomy of the person, although subsisting in relation to other persons, should be the building block from which all social realities are constructed.  Yet historically we see that societies are built not through trade and coexistence, but through sacrifice.

It was Satan speaking through a human mouth who said, “It is expedient that one man’s life be taken lest the people perish.”   Yet the measure of meaning is the sanctity of the individual.  Freedom is good because it is an inalienable aspect of the person.  On the other hand, it makes good political sense to isolate a small group and use animus to increase the degree of social cohesion among the majority. By logical extension, the most efficient and economical way of attaining world unity would be to turn the universal hatred of the human race against one man.  Yet such a unity would be a toxic unity, based on bloody sacrifice.

In the end it is a choice between human sacrifice and the Tenth Commandment, the word against envy.  We must learn to live and let live.  And more than just coexist, we must tolerate the fact that some people will be happier than ourselves.  We must resist the urge to destroy them, in full knowledge that as long as they live, our own happiness will be inferior to theirs.  That is the bare minimum requirement for calling oneself a “libertarian.”  The opposite of a libertarian would be an egalitarian.  All egalitarianism ends in human sacrifice, i.e., in death.   As long as there is even one sacrifice, even one individual to whom the great rights (great because negative, not their positive counterfeits) of life, liberty, and property  are not granted, then that is not a free society.

Or as they say these days, “Where we go one, we go all!”

 

 

 

 

 

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American dark age: How did the Cold War Era change from history to politically correct mythology

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 18, 2018

Rightly dividing historical periods

Schopenhauer said that the world exists as our representation.  No where is this more true than in the field of history. Yet God has not shared with humanity His prerogative of creation-from-nothing rather, even in the world of fiction we are but sub-creators, building our worlds up from the elements of thought and language with which our Creator has endowed us.  Moving beyond fiction we come to history and journalism, where we may bring our narrative style to the table of fact, but we are forbidden to create fables.  None the less, the falsification of history by a sinful humanity is ubiquitous to the point that even the best  chronicles contain a great deal of myth.   Contrary to the expectations of the Enlightenment, this promiscuous myth-building has not been dispelled by the dawn of scientific historiography or the rise of quantitative methods in the social sciences.  Rather, increased sophistication of technique has led only to larger and more comprehensive myths.

As Jaques Elul would no doubt reminds us, we have long since passed through the ominous portals of the Propaganda Age and are now deep into its final, most degenerate stage. And was it not another Frenchman, Malbranch, who assured us,

Fear not that I will lead you into a strange country

Perchance I will teach you that you are a stranger in your own country

Alas, and passing strange would it be if this very America that we claim to know and love is little more than a tissue of myths held up for our mental adoration.   Yet that is the very claim of those who are generously denominated “the left”…those who have reduced the early history of Anglo-America to little more than caracature, a semi-comic tableau of Delaware crossings, cherry tree choppings, of log cabins and caps made from the fur of raccoons.  Against this bathos they juxtapose the high seriousness of critical history, with terse chronicles of minorities and women struggling for various quanta of equality along a variety of indicators.  In all this struggle between the comic and the tragic side of American history, the left fails to tell us that it is they, not conservatives, who are really teaching us only the expurgated and trite Classics, and that we are not supposed to raise any embarrassing questions about the origins of our actual social order, not quite the ominous “New World Order” but the socialized American order, one settling into a cantankerous middle age.

This is quite marvelous, since we are forever hearing that the left is the sworn enemy of Classicism, and champions of the raw, the real, and the contemporary.  Yet the truth is almost the exact opposite.  The left is loath to depart from the most ancient and shop worn narratives of early America.   It avoids talking about recent times, at least anything which is genuinely novel, except where it can find some narrative continuity with the corrupted remains of the ancients.  I know that this sounds paradoxical to the point of incredulity, but you will find that it is true if you can see history, and historiography, with new eyes.  The key to this paradox is simple.  The left only wants to talk about those periods of American history prior to the left’s complicity in establishing the present regime.  Everything after this establishment is taboo, while everything before the present regime is seen through a standard narrative, a new Classicism where America plays the same part that Rome did in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Finding a starting point

Dredging up facts is the herculean task of journalism, not history.  For history the great work is establishing the correct boundaries between eras which differ in their essential characteristics.  The standard narrative of American history has not been mythologized through the inclusion of false facts, plentiful as such errors might be.  Primarily, history has been mythologized because the boundary markers between different regimes have either been moved, or were never clearly demarcated to begin with.  It is the very chronological framework which has been tampered with, and false facts have only been introduced where they have been required to shore up a fictional framework.

The idea that there have been fundamentally different regimes operating underneath the legal and symbolic superstructure of American history, while hardly the staple of public school history, is a reality tacitly acknowledged by historians of various political ilks, all of whom can hardly be brushed away as eccentric or biased.  A good synoptic vision of America’s saga through tacit regime change can be found on the website (  http://www.friesian.com/presiden.htm#new ) of neo-Kantian philosopher Kelley Ross, where he refers to the First (1789-1860) Second (1861-1933) and Third (1934-present) Republics, which to any historically educated mind recalls the similar sounding, but standard, divisions of French political chronology.  Of course the reason this kind of division is non-standard for American history, reflects a situation where each of the “republics” in question did not, as in the case of France, originate through the public proclamation of a new constitution.

Admittedly,  the idea of constitutional emendation crops up during and immediately after the Civil War of 1861-1865, endowing the “Second Republic”with three amendments pertaining to slavery, citizenship, and civil rights.  Conversely, the onset of the third regime, dating from 1934, exhibits no explicit change whatsoever in the organic foundation of the American state.  The legal framework remains fundamentally the same as that promulgated in the Constitution of 1787, but the  interpretation and application of that framework is fitted to an entirely new understanding of governance and policy.  Therefore, this third change in regime was not so much a change in the laws as a transition from legal to post-legal norms of social governance.

Garet Garrett, journalist and political commentator, coined the phrase “revolution within the form” to describe the political transition beginning in 1934.  As per the above, the constitutional form was retained, giving all subsequent political life in America a duplicitous flavor, since there was, even at the level of ideas, a double standard of constitutional standards and policy goals, a duplicity qualitatively different from the corruption of moral and legal norms which characterize all political systems to one degree or another.  Unlike “corruption”, i.e., evasion of public morality, there were now two established but competing systems of public morality.

To Garet Garrett’s mind this “revolution within the form” was a veritable coup d’etat against the constitution.  However he was singularly unsuccessful in convincing his compatriots and contemporaries that a genuine regime change had been effected.  Hindsight has vindicated Garrett, but at the time there were a number of factors which rendered this regime change opaque.  I refer to factors other than the popularity of the New Deal, and that many felt it to be both a boon to the American people and in their own advantage.  Rather, those who opposed the New Deal rarely saw its revolutionary character.

There were a number of reasons for this, beginning with the relative ease with which the  New Deal revolution was commenced.  It seemed to be a revolution accomplished almost entirely without violence, commendable at first blush, but serving to desensitize the public to the magnitude of the changes which were being worked on the body politic.   Furthermore, the ways in which the new managerial state differed from a constitutional republic were obscure to the public.  It was not immediately apparent that the combination of legislative/judicial/executive functions within the “alphabet agencies” were at fundamental variance to the principles of classical liberalism and the separation of powers.

Change in parties vs. regime change

However the most important reason why the public was not alarmed at the occurrence of regime change in 20th century America was due to the conflation of two qualitatively different processes, change in parties within a parliamentary republic, and regime change.  The latter was made to look like an instance of the first, and more over, was dragged out  over such a long period of time that the process looked legitimate and moderate.

When we take a slice out of time and see party X (supposedly committed to ideology A) and party Y (supposedly committed to ideology B) iterate between themselves, it is electoral politics, in all its glory and/or shame.  However when we take two slices of time and see that, at time T1 party X was espousing ideology A and party Y advocating ideology A’, and at time T2 party X is now espousing ideology B and party Y is advocating ideology B’ we know that sometime between T1 and T2 regime change has occurred.   The problem is that it may be hard to locate the precise moment when this happened, since the process is likely to have been both covert and insidious.  Certainly this is what we see in the extra-constitutional evolution of the body politic in the United States.

Not for Americans the Gallic clarity of having a “Second Empire” or a “Third Republic”, or a historical deluge marked by barricades and clarion voices chanting the Marseilles.  Rather, it is as if we wanted to be tricked into our future, without either violence (commendable) or deliberation (lamentable).    Perhaps two theories, both inherited from perfidious Albion, explain this susceptibility to “revolution within the form”: Whig history and Darwinism, which are just the natural and political sides of one potent thought, both internally coherent and morally ambiguous, if not catastrophic.  For those convinced that change is both incremental and beneficial, there seems no compelling reason to set boundaries or limits to anything.  This is particularly obvious with regard to legislation, since continuously sitting legislatures guarantee that there will always be more statutes, not fewer, until the very notion of laws becomes too complex for the human mind and everything defaults to judicial fiat.  Hence there can be no such thing as regime change, even if moral day turns to immoral night, since all variations are points along a continuum.

The War Against Clarity

None the less, a good case can be made that the era of regime change, that is,change into the political system that we know and love (or love to loath) happened sometime early in what we call “the cold war.”  We might even accept the nomenclature of Dr. Ross and call ours a Third Republic, and yet dispute his identification of 1934 and the start of the New Deal with the start of a new regime.   During the 30s and 40s there was still an opposition to the New Deal, which maintained its status as a partisan ideology.  Only in the 1950s did the New Deal (as substance, not slogan) become the actual regime.  This is because the old Right, largely the Republican party, maintained its stance of opposition.  Granted the opposition was sporadic and not particularly effective.  However there was still some unknown quanta of potential energy stored up in the opposition, and the hopes and fears of those alive at the time were limited by the thought that the hammer would drop and the normality which had existed before the depression and the war would be restored.  After the election of Eisenhower the kinetic energy of this dream had been expended, and it quickly became apparent that bureaucratic centralism was the new normal.

The “Cold War” is in some sense a misnomer.  First if all, it contained within its ambit a number of very large-scale hot wars.  However it was also a kind of dark age, in the sense that it was a time of multiple contradictory narratives which entwined in such a way as to mutually invalidate one another.  Following upon WWII, the American people had gotten used to conditions of censorship in the media and the public square.  The half-light of a cold war prolonged the obscurity, and lowered public, and even Congressional, expectations of executive transparency.  Those elements of the left which remained embedded in the government continued their duplicity, which may be taken as a constant.  More salient was the failure of the conservatives at the time to understand the situation with any degree of clarity.  On the whole they seem to have been incensed by the threat of foreign operatives, and unwilling to see that there were flaws in the  body politic which automatically generated leftward drift.

It all depends on what you mean by “was” was

As Garet Garrett famously noted in the 50s that “the revolution was” and the republic of Lincoln had long since been supplanted by the social democracy of Roosevelt by the cold war.  Furthermore the social democracy and the national security state were essentially the same organism, continuing the apparatus used to fight the depression and WWII into the Truman years, and then normalized by Eisenhower.

The Old Right of the time was powerless to do much more than react with righteous indignation at the post-Constitutional character of the new order.  Part of this was due to a lack of developed economic and historical doctrines on a par with the seemingly sophisticated Marxist system.  Granted, a renaissance in conservative thinking was well underway, first popularized by the publication of F. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944.  However these findings, notably those of Austrian economics, were still ill-digested among conservative politicians and poorly propagated within society.  As a result conservatives gazed outward at the Soviet threat, and their program was easily confused with that of the national security bureaucracy.  Initially, these were two distinct tendencies, and only later would a political ideology arise (neoconservatism) where they merged.  Moral consistency and concern for the rule of law were largely restricted to anti-communist investigations, and even this was dampened down after the demise of McCarthy.

Hence Social Democracy had crept in over the objections of the Old Right, and even over the will of the American people to replace a Democratic administration with a Republican one.  However, if we can epitomize those Old Right objections according to the understanding of Garet Garrett, that “the revolution was” we are left with an enigmatic doctrine of history, one that is conspiratorial in the pejorative sense of the word.  This would be the notion that, through a ruse, the government had been cunningly usurped by social democrats in 1934.  That was the best historiography that most conservatives could muster in the 1950s.

Now that was certainly a true thesis as far as it went, it is just that it didn’t go back far enough, either in terms of chronology or causation.  In fact the Great Depression, long presumed to be the socio-economic Big Bang which necessitated the New Deal, in fact had antecedent causes in the policies followed by central bankers.  American central bankers were, in turn, creatures of the Federal Reserve Act (1913) which was in turn the outcome of a confluence of interests between the Trusts and the legislators of the Populist era.  Contrary to Garrett, this was an era in which both the constitutional form and the social substance changed.

So how many revolutions does that leave us with?  Well, following on the Civil War we have the Progressive era as our Third Republic.  Thus we must revise the scheme of Dr. Ross and rename the New Deal, and all subsequent to 1934, the “Fourth Republic.”  Nothing has really changed since then in terms of the extra-constitutional organization of the state.  The significance of the 1950s is that this was period in which reorganizations of America’s system of governance (not necessarily something sinister in itself) was surreptitiously and, as it were, retroactively codified into regime changes.

Propaganda, then and ever since

This metamorphosis of America’s history, from the story of constitutional development to the story of extra-constitutional evolution, is an artifact of the Propaganda Age, whose unstated goal is to remove from the population its capacity to rationally articulate the basis of the commonwealth in an objective social contract.  This inability has, as one of its major consequences, an incapacity to distinguish between licit behavior and criminality.  What then, is this “propaganda” this potent elixir which is deemed capable of thrusting civilizations back into a state of nature?

Ellul informs us that this vaunted “propaganda” is nothing more than “technique.”  Not all technique is propaganda, but all propaganda is technique.  Specifically, the technique of persuading populations to concerted opinion and action.  The replacement of contract with propaganda as the major bond of society is correlated with the replacement of principles by psychology.  We see the effects of this in the postmodern world with the increased emphasis on feelings at the expense of facts, particularly in educational contexts.

However this is only the consequence, of which propaganda is the cause.  The early 21st century is no more propaganda-driven than were the 1950s, at which time the process had already attained full-throttle.  The cold warriors found themselves in the middle of this syndrome, and not just on account of the bitter American-Soviet rivalry.  Due to the perceived necessity of bureaucracies to protect themselves and the ongoing alarms of perpetual war, information restriction and manipulation became normalized, with consequences too far ranging to be mentioned in a short essay.

Here I only note that the most important consequence of this fostered ignorance was the retrospective understanding of America’s history itself, which ceased to be the clear outline of a constitutional republic, but the narrative of a democracy in which the popular will was constantly engaged in social metamorphosis.  From a progressive point of view this is a good thing, and of course we are not arguing about that here, since there can be no dispute over first principles.  However what can be stated without argument is that the normalization of this “progressive” viewpoint was attained through propaganda, or the substitution of objective cognition by emotional manipulation.  Clarity was the first casualty.

Political Mythos or Political Logos: The Ultimate Significance

If the principle of the rule of law is to have any meaning then the operations of government must be deduced, if not to philosophical premises, then at least to an original law-establishing covenant.  There must be an unbreached historical and legislative continuity from the moment of the covenant to the present moment of application.  If we focus on the moment of the covenant, through promulgation or revelation, the regime in question has a revolutionary legitimacy.  If we focus on the transmission, through time and legal deduction, then the regime has a traditional legitimacy.  Actually, revolutionary and traditional legitimacy are two sides of the same coin.  One might even venture that it doesn’t matter so much if the American regime was established in 1776, or 1787, or 1865, or 1913, or 1934, provided we can all agree on a starting point and then deduce the proper moral, judicial, and legislative applications for the present.

However this rational model of statecraft has ceased to be salient ever since we have entered into the Age of Propaganda.  Propaganda is not concerned with truth but with the power of information, be it true or false information, to control the commanding heights of society.  Hence in order to establish a propaganda regime it is necessary to obstruct any logical regression of current policy back to first principles.  Is it not fairly clear that something like this has been going on in America ever since the middle of the twentieth century?  Moreover this was not the predetermined outcome of technological development, but a consequence of the government’s vastly increased responsibility over welfare and warfare, responsibilities which required control over both the dissemination and restriction of information.

This is why even people who enjoy the study of American history are inclined to skip over the cold war.  It is, by very definition, a period of collective “black out” after which the body politic wakes up in a strange bed, forced to reorient and go on as well as possible.  The way back to any possible Age of Reason is blocked by multiple taboos, “McCarthyism” and whatnot, guarding the  historical rupture with all the assiduity of cherubs policing the portals of Eden.

Of course there are those, including Ellul himself, who suppose the  political Age of Reason, to be itself a myth.  Ellul bases his view on an argument that both reason and propaganda are the morally indifferent contraries of grace.  However this is theological meat too gristly for the children’s table, and since here we are dealing with simpletons, politicians and policies, I will leave the topic for future discussion.  Rather, let us suppose that it is better to persuade people with reason than to manipulate their desires.  Let us suppose that while Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx were equally sinners there was a significant difference in their policies.  Let us suppose that there is a logos, a fundamental sense of justice, or what C.S.Lewis called a “tao” innate in natural humanity which, while but the shadow of grace, still merits consideration and preservation.

On the basis of such principles, however endangered, conservatives and libertarians may go back and declare that the “revolutions” of 1913 and 1934 were deviations from correct constitutional practice, and anticipate a future restoration.  To that end it is imperative for historical investigators to penetrate the dense ideological, policy, and social fog of the cold war era, in the prospect of finding a genuine logos behind the standard mythos.

 

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“The greatest book since the Bible”: M. Stanton Evans and the vindication of Joe McCarthy

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 13, 2018

The best book since the Bible, kinda…

Alright, there are some serious competitors for that title, even if we limit ourselves to books on the cold war era.  Notably, Witness by Whittaker Chambers is a more literary, though less learned, revelation.   Yet beyond the hyperbole (courtesy of Miss Coulter) there lies a kernel of truth, or at least an application of the marginal utility theorem.   Unless you have, Blacklisted by History: The untold story of Joe McCarthy is the most important book that you have not yet read on American politics.  Indeed, it bears some faint likeness to the Bible, in that it centers around a resurrection, albeit in this case the resurrected reputation of a man who has been damned repeatedly by the Pharisaic court of American establishment history.  Like a Biblical epic, this damnation of Joe McCarthy transcends the fate of any particular man, however laden with interesting vices or admirable virtues.  Rather, this verdict has shaped the moral and legal precedents which have become the rotting core of modern America’s extra-constitutional political framework.  McCarthy and so-called “McCarthyism” (a term which is taken as synonymous with “witch-hunting”) have become the bywords and shibboleths of partisan conflict within our body politic, entailing the suppression of ideological meaning and accountability.

Indeed, the very contours of American history since WWII have been distorted through the astigmatic lens of Anti-McCarthyism, a standard narrative by which we presume to distinguish not just right from wrong, but left from right.  Yet, what if the standard narrative were itself wrong?  What if, instead of an ogre, Senator Joe McCarthy were a mid-20th century Paul Revere, cruelly shot off his horse while attempting to warn his fellow citizens of a stealth attack on their freedom and fortunes?   What if the opprobrium of  “McCarthyism” were a better characterization of the malicious and deceitful tactics of those who sought to thwart McCarthy’s investigation and subsequently endeavored, with near total success, to destroy his reputation?  If we are to believe M. Stanford Evans (1934-2015) the answer to all these questions is in the affirmative.  Moreover this is not just an impassioned cry by the late Evans, who as a libertarian and anti-communist might be expected to favor “tail gunner Joe”, but a measured verdict drawn from the vast amount of relevant empirical evidence which had become available by the time he started doing research for Blacklisted by History (2007).  This work stands at the apex of Evans’ long labors in the field of American political history, during which he was able to sift and reassess much of standard cold war narrative.

The currently available evidence, together with Evans’ skillful unraveling of the historical incidents which impacted McCarthy’s investigations, has newly empowered the pro-McCarthy narrative.  Yet even today, or rather especially today, truth telling is not a safe occupation.  Perhaps some future Oswald Spengler will pronounce the first half of the 1950s and the last half of the 2010s as the upper and lower harmonics of the same historical chord, or discord.  Evans termed the McCarthy story “the third rail” of cold war history, containing dangerous truths which, once grasped, might prove fatal to apprentice historians who long to stay respectable, employable, and keep up relations with polite society.   Fortunately Evans had the courage to grab the story and explore it with solid documentation and readable prose.  Hence today in the Trump era, as we labor under corresponding tales of deceit and betrayal, we can at last draw on the analogous events of a highly relevant historical period for our intellectual ammunition.  In the long run, Americans and all humanity have a vested interest in the vindication of truth, however distasteful such revelations may prove to be.  Where such revelation is rendered impossible, factions will be reduced to those modes of conflict resolution where the ammunition has ceased to be intellectual.

Context not pretext

Much of the value, and readability, of Blacklisted by History stems from the late Evans’ patient work as a re-educator, explaining the forgotten historical context of the cold war era, without which we can hardly form an intelligent judgement on its politics and policies.  The fact is, regardless of political opinion, that era, though within living memory, has become a persistent blind spot for the American public.  There are two reasons for this historical amnesia, the first being the conspiratorial motives of those who want the whole period either distorted or dropped down the proverbial memory hole.  However the public’s understandable distaste for an ugly era is perhaps an even greater factor.  American history nerds who can rattle off the precise number of musket balls embedded in the soil of Gettysburg are likely to profess astonishment on learning there were Soviet moles embedded  in Washington just sixty years ago…not to mention before or since.    As Evans notes, the fruit of this ignorance (whether willful or on account of deception) often leads to ridiculous error, like the popular image of Senator McCarthy chairing the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).   After all, you may not like the Electoral College, but you can hardly abolish bicameralism, at least not retroactively.

Evans begins by recounting the historical background which gave both meaning and impetus to McCarthy’s political mission.  Prior to some indefinable tipping point, possibly as early as the German defeat at Stalingrad, the synergy of the Soviet-American military alliance was nudging the two societies in the direction of an insidious moral convergence.  One concrete manifestation of this was the participation (at the time not considered infiltration) of Communists in the intelligence and foreign services of the United States.  Evans notes that it would have been miraculous if there had been no Communist personnel in key governmental positions, given the political dynamics of the period.  However all this changed with the onset of the cold war, after which Communist staffers were considered, quite rightly, to be a security risk.  During the immediate post-war period two broad developments occurred which were to have significant impact on the subsequent “McCarthy era” of 1950-1954.  First there were a series of preliminary investigations which identified, and presumably routed out, known Communists working for the American government.  Second, there was a changing of the old guard in the diplomatic and intelligence services, with stodgy conservatives being replaced by younger, more progressive, officials.  The new guard included such rising luminaries as Dean Achenson.  These two developments (the termination of the early investigations, and the rise of the new guard) would prove to be somewhat more than coincidental.

Two years after these preliminary investigations had been concluded, Senator Joe McCarthy raised the question of whether Communists were still being employed in sensitive government positions, issuing his challenge at first in a speech given in on February 9, 1950 in Wheeling West Virginia.  Clearly, the salient assumption in McCarthy’s mind was that the preliminary investigations had somehow been stalled, and the work which had commenced with great earnestness had at some point been broken off and left incomplete.  It is equally clear that, for whatever reason, certain people in the State Department and other agencies of the government didn’t want the issue of Communists working in the government reopened in public fora and, from the moment that McCarthy began speaking out, launched efforts to discredit his claims.  For the next several years a titanic battle waged over security and espionage in the Congress, the courts, and the media.  During these conflicts “tail gunner Joe” won some and lost some, but in the end was forced to retire from the field of battle in disgrace.  For several subsequent decades the moral credibility of Joseph McCarthy was generally ranked on a par with the divines of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the aftermath of the Salem witch trials.

However during these same decades, new archives and records have been made available to researchers such as Evans, frequently containing evidence which have compromised the exculpatory claims of McCarthy’s opponents.  Foremost among these are the Venona documents.  These are deciphered messages from the correspondence between Soviet intelligence headquarters (predecessor agencies of the KGB) and its operatives.  Actually cracked early in the cold war, this data could not be released during the “McCarthy era” for the same reason that the Enigma machine decodes could not be revealed until the Axis powers were defeated.  The personae mentioned in Venona bear a damning resemblance, not just to such celebrated Soviet assets as Alger Hiss and Robert Oppenheimer, but to many lesser targets of McCarthy’s investigations.  Apart from, and corroborating Venona, were piles of documents made available after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Last but not least were the dribs and drabs of documentary evidence released by the FBI and other alphabet agencies of the American government after their various statutory periods of sequestration had expired.   From these sources and others (i.e., retrospective witnesses and confessions) a very different image of the “McCarthy era” has emerged, and it is from these that Evans has assembled the most through vindication to date of the much maligned senator.

Manufacturing “McCarthyism”

At the beginning of the 1950s the Democratic party was still in control of Congress, and in response to the allegations which McCarthy had been making since the Wheeling speech, a select sub-committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was empaneled  to examine the possibility of security risks lurking in government employ.  The chair of this sub-committee was Millard Tydings (Dem-Maryland) who from the outset of the proceedings assumed an adversarial stance towards McCarthy and his claims.  Rather than pursuing the question of whether there were in fact Communists and Soviet infiltrators embedded within the State Department and related agencies, Tydings focused on McCarthy himself, faulting him for reopening cases which had already been disposed of by previous committees.

Tyding’s overall strategy was to portray McCarthy as a hothead and a dissembling researcher who had failed to turn up any new evidence since the previous investigation of security risks at  State.  That previous investigation, conducted  in the late 40s, had managed to generate a list of persons considered security risks, called the “Lee list” after the clerk responsible for assembling eighty or so cases.  This was a masked compilation of data in which the persons described were designated by numbers rather than names, preserving their privacy.  Tyding’s initial strategy was to trivialize McCarthy’s claims by insinuating no new research had actually been added to the Lee list by McCarthy and his staff.  Since names were not mentioned at the outset, identifying how many security risks McCarthy had uncovered, rather than who they are, became the focus of inquiry.  This derailed the hearing into a ludicrous debate on the number of people under investigation, with Tydings and his allies focusing exclusively on the number (was it 57 or 81 or 108, or did it keep changing?) rather than the substance, of the charges.  All of this, of course, for the purpose of making McCarthy look like a fool who couldn’t even keep the accurate number of cases straight in his head.  The possibility that there were still active Communist cells operating in government employ took a back seat to debates over McCarthy’s competence and character.

As bad as such misdirection might be, as Mr. Evans reveals, there was worse to come.  Today our politically correct language virtually equates “McCarthyism” with slander.  Yet Senator McCarthy’s initial intention was to preserve the anonymity of his cases to avoid any stigma being attached to possibly (though unlikely) innocent individuals.  However, with  the validity of McCarthy’s research in question, Senator Tydings pressed him to reveal the identities behind the cases, presumably in order find out if new and ongoing security risks had been uncovered, or if McCarthy was just trying to ride to glory on the back of the now stale Lee list.  Evans, with the benefit of historical retrospect, informs us that McCarthy had indeed uncovered a significant number of new cases and data, and furthermore that many persons initially placed on the Lee list were still in government service.  However, at that time, McCarty was under tremendous pressure from Tydings, and consented to release the names at the outset of the investigation, proving that there were indeed real persons connected with the suspicious, but hitherto anonymous, case histories.  Thus McCarthy evaded the ridicule of conducting a snark hunt only by putting his investigation in danger of being called a witch hunt.

Hence, as Evans painfully demonstrates, the cruel Inspector-Javert-like persecution which we wrongly denominate “McCarthyism” was initiated by this unmaking of identities upon the insistence of Tydings and his allies on the sub-committee.   Indeed, if our language accurately memorialized historical realities, we would be calling this kind of hounding “Tydings-ism”!  The procedure adopted by Tydings was that of slandering the innocent (McCarthy himself) or one might say “McCarthying” (here the term is apt!) his opponent.  However in terms of outcomes, this Tydings-ism, rather than convicting the innocent, protected the guilty.  Even unmasked, the targets of McCarthy’s accusations were generally able to deny the charges, either through skillful evasion or invoking the Fifth amendment clause prohibiting self-incrimination.  In the meanwhile many of them continued to work in their government positions.  In hindsight, the Venona transcripts and  other corroborating evidence indicates that many, if not most, of these were Soviet agents.   To maintain that no innocents were convicted at the time is not to say that, as a result of the miscarried proceedings, great and incalculable harm was not done to many innocents, however indirectly.

Truman or Truth?

Hence Tydings and his allies nearly succeeded in obscuring the actual security issues involved, deflecting the investigation with procedural, technical, and ad hominim  material which resulted in a committee report which largely exculpated the targets of McCarthy’s investigations.  Evans notes that this report (and others of a similar nature) was written by a then-anonymous staffer at the behest of Tydings, and its unequivocal findings did not accurately reflect the give-and-take of the bipartisan sub-committee.  So ended the first “round” in the McCarthy era battles.  Tydings was soon to get his comeuppance  when he lost a bid for reelection to his Maryland seat.  Yet during the process of the Senate investigation a broad range of institutional actors had been brought into play, ostensibly to cooperate with, but more often to hinder, McCarthy’s investigations.   These included Truman’s White House and the State Department.  The FBI, then under J. Edgar Hoover, was savvy to the truth of McCarthy’s claim that espionage within the government had managed to survive the investigations which had generated the Lee list a few years earlier.  However the FBI was largely sidelined due to its subordination within the executive branch teamed with an often adversarial legislative branch.

Indeed, with so many (and such opaque!) agencies, actors, cases and claims involved, the McCarthy era is difficult to resolve into a simple narrative.  Thus the unbiased but superficial observer of the era is likely to turn away, citing the tangle as an excuse for moral indecision.  However Evans copes with the complexity by taking up each cluster of actions, organizations, individuals and outcomes separately, weaving each thread into a loose chronological order.  It is the task of the reader to keep this overall chronology in mind, as each strand of narrative weaves into and reinforces the other.  The end result is a unity and a vindication.  Not necessarily a vindication of McCarthy the man so much as of the essential rightness of his cause.

Many of the narrative strands which Evans picks up for the edification of today’s reader concern well recognized institutions and personalities of the WWII and cold war eras which have since dropped below the horizon of public recollection.  Outstanding in this regard was the notorious Institute for Pacific Relations (IPR) and its associated journal Amerasia. both of which operated as poorly disguised Communist fronts.  This is one of the major strands woven back and forth within the chronological framework of Blacklisted by History, in such a way as to illustrate the intimate connection between blatant Communist propaganda and the manipulation of American foreign policy during the 1940s.  The often cited (by Evans) Amerasia case is a good example of the kind of evidence which should have been common knowledge among McCarthy’s contemporaries, as opposed to the kind of evidence (like Venona) which we are only privy to in historical retrospect.  Thus, while we are on firmer grounds today than ever before in validating McCarthy’s claims, those claims ought not to have initially outraged his contemporaries since they were made against the background of, and links to, cases of betrayal and infiltration which had already received public censure.  Rather, any skeptical reception of McCarthy’s claims about ongoing espionage and sedition within the government had less to do with the plausibility of the cases, than with obstruction by gate-keepers who both withheld information from the investigations and harbored their targets from any severe sanctions.

This obstruction took a number of forms during the period of the Tydings investigation.  First of all, under Truman, a doctrine of executive privilege had been promulgated, which placed severe restrictions on the ability of Congress to subpoena documents from executive departments without the authorization of the President.  For those of us who interpret the Constitution as a document establishing the supremacy of the Congress, this seems like an odd practice.  None the less, under ongoing conditions of war (both cold and hot) the American people and Congress itself have long acquiesced to executive prerogatives which seem contrary to constitutional principles.  In this instance, as detailed by Evans, background dossiers on the subjects of  McCarthy’s investigations were either embargoed or delayed by the State Department, which pleaded the necessity of authorization by the Truman White House, a Democratic administration which was in no rush to grant any such authorization.

Another way in which the Truman administration ran interference to McCarthy, albeit in place prior to the Tydings hearings, was through the institution of an in-house loyalty system which seemed to obviate the necessity of any outside audit of executive personnel.  As Evans documents, both the Congressional interviews with suspect officials and, presumably, the in-house loyalty system, were based on the honor system.   A denial that one were a subversive or the agent of a foreign power was always taken at face value by Tydings, the majority report, and the Truman administration itself.

McCarthy agonistes

None the less, in spite of vigorous opposition on the part of a Democratic establishment, McCarthy was able to raise public awareness of the espionage threat.  One by one, the more egregious cases on McCarthy’s list were exposed and turned out of the government.  Of course, the anti-communist momentum in Congress and the country wasn’t an exclusive result of McCarthy’s efforts.  Alger Hiss, the biggest fish in the barrel, had been brought down by the testimony of Whittaker Chambers with the support of a young Senator from California, Richard Nixon.  In those days Nixon was still a hero, and his time of demonization was still far in the future, but McCarthy’s nemesis was much closer at hand.  Initially McCarthy benefited from the common front among Republicans, then operating as a minority.  Thus even future enemies such as liberal Republican senator H. Cabot Lodge were in momentary alliance with McCarthy during the Tydings period.

This was all to change when the Democrats were swept out of power in 1953.  With the 83rd Congress, the Republicans were in the (what would seem) enviable position of having captured the Presidency as well as both branches of Congress.  Yet with hindsight the historically informed know that this will be McCarthy’s apogee, and his doom is near, irrespective of our sympathies and whether we focus on the hubris of the man or the nemesis of his enemies.  Yet, while Evans prepares us for this fall from grace by titling one of his chapters “The Perils of Power” it would seem that McCarthy handled the temptations of power about as well as anyone could.  It was during this time that the junior Senator from Wisconsin, still a relative rookie, got his chance to chair the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI).  Obviously this was a prize bully pulpit, apart from any implication that the man who filled it was a bully.  Again, Evans informs us that our current state of illumination has benefited from the unsealing of the Senate’s own records, which for fifty years had shielded confidential and security-related testimony.  Out of this mass of data Evans has extracted a picture of McCarthy completely at variance with the prejudicial stereotype.  Unchained and in charge of his own subcommittee, McCarthy was, if not quite a perfect gentleman, “politic” in the mannered sense of the word.   More fundamentally, due process and confidentiality seem to have been upheld in the PSI hearings. As Evans explains it,

Another salient rule of the McCarthy hearings was the rule that no one should be named as a Communist or a pro-Communist or subversive unless the person named was given notice and opportunity to respond directly–though there were exceptions when another witness would do such naming on an impromptu basis.  McCarthy repeatedly admonished people testifying not to use the names of those they were accusing until these conditions could be met with.  One result of this procedure was a series of face-to-face encounters in which accusers and accused were brought together in dramatic fashion.  Blacklisted by History p. 457

Apart from the success or otherwise of the PSI at the start Eisenhower era, at this juncture the bitter divisions between ideological and establishment Republicans were starting to manifest themselves publicly.   In part this was a reaction to McCarthy’s activities, and would soon would lead to dire complications for the crusading senator.  Furthermore, a dedicated anti-McCarthy cabal was growing in numbers and sophistication, with the senatorial cudgel taken up by the newly elected  Benton of New York after the defeat of Tydings.  With the Democratic recapture of the 84th Congress, Benton was able to launch his own counter-investigation of McCarthy.  This counter-investigation did not restrict itself to the refutation of anti-communist claims, but began to burrow deeply into McCarthy’s private affairs and character.  Brick by defaming brick, the towering mythology of “McCarthyism” was being patiently constructed by the enemies of McCarthy.

Diverging legends of demonization and sanctification

A surprising plus for McCarthy, albeit one which failed to save him in the long run, was his capacity for genuine bipartisanship.  As an anti-Communist first and a Republican second, he welcomed allies wherever they could be found, and find them he did.  There is nothing more shocking to modern political sensibilities than to discover that the Kennedys, Democrats to the core, were ardent supporters of tail gunner Joe in his heyday.  Undoubtedly, today’s identity-obsessed left would dismiss this as no more than Irishmen scratching each others backs.  Yet, in those days  there were plenty of Irishmen in politics, but not so many political philosophers, let alone potential martyrs.  There appears to have been some zealous affinity at work here, especially between McCarthy and the solidly anti-Communist Robert F. Kennedy.

To Evans’ credit, the Kennedy connection isn’t used as a magical vindication of McCarthy.  Tail gunner Joe’s reputation must stand or fall on the basis of whether his investigations were honest and beneficial to the republic, not on the borrowed glamor of charismatic associations.  Regrettably, any excursion into Kennedy lore entails a certain amount of tabloid voyeurism, but Evans keeps this to the minimum, focusing on the unavoidable intra-staff jealousies which played a subsidiary role in derailing McCarthy’s career.   More importantly, the point in history when McCarthy-saffer RFK was striving (unsuccessfully) to be McCarthy’s right-hand man, was still an age of aspiring ideologists.  Later, as America ripened into an age of propaganda, principles would become less important than personalities, and a steamy mysticism would envelop chosen political bloodlines.  Evans draws our attention the disturbing power of this myth-making, which took as its substance two zealous co-workers in the garden of justice, Robert Kennedy and Joe McCarthy, molding them into opposing icons of good and evil.

To schematize a story which Evans tells in satisfying detail, the political chessboard as it was arrayed at the onset of the Eisenhower era was roughly as follows,

Pro-McCarthy: old right Republicans (Taft etc.), the Kennedys and a few other anti-communist Democrats, some regional press, Hoover’s FBI, conservative groups

Anti-McCarthy: liberal Republicans (H. Cabot Lodge etc.), most Democrats, most Ike staffers, State Department, other bureaus of the federal government, national press (New York Times, etc.), left wing press and organizations

As the battle lines were drawn with increasing precision, the tendency was for individuals and groups to defect from the pro-McCarthy camp, and for previously uncommitted groups to opt in favor of the anti-McCarthy front.  Notably, certain persons connected to the armed services, which at the beginning were not affected by McCarthy’s crusade, became increasingly critical of him as his investigation broadened into areas the military considered its own.

McCarthy’s “Waterloo”

Regarding his taking on of the Army, there might be some, however sympathetic, who would claim McCarthy’s crusade went a bridge too far.  Yet as Evans points out “Army-McCarthy” taken as terms of opposition, is a misnomer.  In the wake of security concerns being brought to the attention of McCarthy’s committee, he authorized an investigation of the huge Signal Corps facility at Monmouth NJ.  Initially things went smoothly in cooperation with on-site Army personnel, who were generally enthusiastic about the senator’s support of their own internal security investigations.  However  McCarthy quickly  ran afoul of a supervening bureaucratic apparatus charged with monitoring loyalty within Monmouth and other facilities.   As soon as the commandant of the Monmouth facility was blackballed for cooperating with McCarthy, the commander of the next base under investigation suddenly became uncommunicative.  Apparently some network operating within the Eisenhower administration was running interference.   The next obvious step would have been to ferret out and identify the higher ups who were shielding the Monmouth moles.  This was never done.  Not, to be sure, for want of trying on McCarthy’s part.

A number of factors contributed to this inability.  Foremost among these was the penchant of his  enemies for countering investigations by McCarthy with investigations of McCarthy and/or his staff.  Evans enumerates a minimum of five separate instances where hostile inquiries were instituted against McCarthy 1) the Ad hominum attacks which diverted the Tydings probe,  2) hearings by Benton (pinch-hitting as chief nemesis post-Tydings) on allegations that McCarthy’s allies had influenced Tydings’ electoral defeat, esp. concerning one particular libelous image (what we would today call a “meme”) , 3) a spin-off of the same hearing which made a lengthy foray into McCarthy’s personal finances, 4) the Army-McCarthy hearings, 5) hearings by Sen. Watson (R. Utah) on McCarthy’s misconduct on 47 counts which resulted in censure on 2 counts.

Of these, the most formidable sounding are the Army-McCarthy hearings.  However as Evans tells the tale, it smacks of harassment (by unknown somebodies) of McCarthy’s staff.  G. David Schine, a youthful staffer, was suddenly called up for military service.  This sounds cruel by the sensibilities of any era post-Vietnam,  but even by the compulsory standards of that time it was a fishy move.   People working in sensitive positions (like congressional security investigations) were frequently granted draft deferments.  Furthermore, as the skeptical Evans is quick to point out, nefarious bigwigs such as the youthful Alger Hiss had been exempted from conscription during WWII, enabling them to do their country (dis-) service in other fields.  Thus the staffer’s drafting smacked of a gambit in which a McCarthy pawn was being put in jeopardy in order to exert pressure on the senator and his investigation.  Unfortunately another staffer (Roy Cohn) took the bait and began pestering the Army on behalf of his erstwhile colleague, whether for deferral or promotion or either.  This was portrayed as political interference with on-duty military personnel.    It was this petty and misdirecting affair which formed the basis of the Army-McCarthy hearings, and which managed to distract and irritate a senator in mid-investigation, a veteran himself, who had initially tried to enter into an alliance with the security hawks of the armed forces.   Of necessity, Evans goes into the matter in great detail, but this becomes less a history of the cold war than a history of the degeneration of policy debate into tabloid journalism.

The fifth column and the fourth estate

Although inconclusive, the Army investigation served McCarthy’s foes well, forcing him on the defensive and evoking his ire, consequently viewed as intemperance.  The same distortion and sensationalism which hounded McCarthy and his staff were also impeding his own attempts at rooting out Communist agents in the military and the government.  Evans covers all the highlights of the various investigations, not just those of the PSI but those in which McCarthy himself was the target.  More importantly, he explores the context within which famous testimonies were made, context without which excerpted highlights serve only to confuse and malign.

The highlights (which frequently became misleading headlines) analyzed in Evans’ volume are too numerous to mention within the space of a short review, but a single instance should suffice.  If any one phrase from the “McCarthy era” has survived in the fading American mind,  it would surely be Army prosecutor Joseph Welch’s famous j’accuse  “…sir, have you no decency!”  This was uttered in reference to the supposed victimization of the Army counselor’s understudy, Frederick G. Fisher Jr..  The indecency in question was McCarthy’s alleged outing of Fisher’s association with a Communist front organization, on the grounds of which the assistant counselor was removed from the prosecuting team.  Whether or not this was a career-ender for the young attorney, it was Joe Welch, not Joe McCarthy, who first brought Fisher’s fellow-traveling to the attention of the public.  Evans, always scrupulous in documenting the relevant paper-trails, in this case provides a photocopy from an actual paper.  The skeptical reader can find the clipping from the New York Times story of April 16, 1954 reproduced on page 568 of Evans’ amply referenced tome.  The relevant passage reads,

Mr. [Joseph N.] Welch today confirmed reports that he had relieved from duty his original second assistant, Frederick G. Fisher Jr. of his own Boston law office, because of admittted previous membership in the National Lawyers Guild, which has been listed by Herbert Brownell Jr. the Attorney-General, as a Communist-font organization. (ibid. p. 568)

By the date of the article it would seem that the actual outing of Fisher took place six weeks prior to the famously “indecent” remarks of McCarthy at the Army hearings.  None the less, it is the latter exchange which lingers in public memory.  As Evans remarks elsewhere, “…in political Washington, then as now, reality often ran second to perception.”

In similar fashion Evans proceeds to deconstruct the entire litany of incidents used to build the edifice of the anti-McCarthy legend.  Case by painstaking case he is able to apply new or neglected evidence in support of McCarthy’s exoneration.  Retrospectively, McCarthy can be saved, because Evans, and we who read his and similar works have what McCarthy’s contemporaries lacked, time and perspective.  However in the rapid flow of simultaneous events it was indeed perception, not reality, which won the race, with the Senate’s motion to censure McCarthy being his final lap around the political track.  The censure proceedings were themselves characterized by a hysterical zeal similar to that which had been used in false characterizations of McCarthy himself.  Thus the Republican dominated Senate, filled with enemies and fickle friends on both sides of the aisle, allowed itself to be buffaloed into voting two counts of censure.  That was one out of 46 ad-hock charges submitted by an anti-McCarthy interest group, plus one for good measure on account of nasty remarks by McCarthy during the proceedings.  After all, the Senate had to look like it was doing something about the McCarthy “problem.”

Scapegoat and Savior

After the censure McCarthy was shunned, his effective career ended.  He died, as they say, a “broken man” at the ripe age of 48, disheartened but still in harness.  After a mid-term election William Proxmire (Dem-Wisc.) a veritable photographic negative of everything Joe McCarthy ever thought or did, gained his seat in the senate.  It might be said that if ever someone had lived in vain, it was old “tail gunner Joe.”  Of course, that is precisely what the authors of the mainstream narrative want you to think.  However the reality is far more complex, and it is gradually being articulated by dissenting voices, among whom M. Stanford Evans is thus far the most readable and convincing.

Perhaps you, having read my summary article, find yourself intrigued with this fallen hero of anti-Communism, or conversely, it may be that you cannot shake the impression that Joseph McCarthy was a moral monster.  In either case, I urge you to fortify your knowledge by obtaining and reading Blacklisted by History: the untold story of Senator Joe McCarthy.  I think you will find the late Evans a safe and trustworthy guide into the underworld of cold war history and the McCarthy era, and not only because the book is voluminous and packed with footnotes and hints for further research.  I trust this book because it is the fruit of a lifetime of investigation into the invisible war between freedom and its cruelest enemies.  M. Stanford Evans ran the gauntlet of 20th century scholarship and journalism, scion of the heartland (Texas) yet Ivy league grad (Yale), conservative activist and journalist, he knew his sources and their backgrounds with the immediacy of an insider who was a political outsider.  Most importantly, the theme of his work is not trivial.

It is not trivial because, as literary anthropologist Rene Girard has taught us, all regimes are built on the bones of scapegoats.  In many ways, the nuances and taboos of American politics are dependent on a negative evaluation of the McCarthy era.  Now that, for better or worse, the Trump administration shows signs of violating certain of those taboos, it is important that we reexamine the origin of those taboos in the past.  This is not a matter of whether one approves or despises the present administration, it is simply that the course of events are forcing us to ask questions which were long left dormant.

One very non-trivial issue concerns how the doctrine of separation of powers should affect the transmission of information within the government.  A study of the McCarthy era reveals that the present virtually hermetic seal between the executive and legislative branches is neither an artifact of the constitution, nor a holdover from wartime secrecy, nor even a promulgation of the security state and its notorious “three letter agencies.”  Surprisingly, it turns out to have much more to do with “gag orders” instituted by the New Deal administrations to obstruct prying by the Dies and McCarthy investigations into security matters.  Even more surprisingly, this informational firewall between the branches was continued and reinforced by the Eisenhower administration, and for much of the same reasons.  You don’t believe me?  Read Evans.

Which leads us to the final consideration, did McCarthy actually live in vain?  Of course not, and Evans devotes the postscript of Black Listed by History to an enumeration of our ingrate  inheritance from tail gunner Joe, that alleged ogre.  Without belittling the  long list of secret and not-so secret agents who were turned out of their top-secret clearances, it seems to me that the salvation of much of Asia is the most relevant legacy which we can celebrate today.  Imagine a world without a Taiwan or a South Korea.  True, it may come about in the near future, but it was scheduled to come about in the 1950s.  I don’t refer to the very understandable cupidity of a Mao or a Stalin, but of the ideologues embedded in the IPR and Amerasia who had the power, at a perilous moment in history, to turn off the spigot of American support.  Admittedly, McCarthy was not alone in preventing this, but he was part of the essential follow up.  You don’t believe me?  Again, read Evans.

In conclusion, I must apologize for comparing a profane (although gentlemanly) work to Holy Writ.  Allow me to explain that there is an extenuating circumstance, apart from merely seconding the redoubtable Miss Coulter’s opinion.  Evans concludes with the Biblical analogy of Samson bringing down the temple of the Philistines on his own head, and likewise the untamed McCarthy, whatever his subsequent reputation, was effective in causing a great deal of collateral damage among the enemies of freedom.  It is an analogy drawn, appropriately, from the Book of Judges.  At last in Evans’ book we may have a valid judgement of McCarthy’s work, and of blood which cries out from the ground, not just for vindication but for succession and continuation.

 

 

 

Posted in Conspriacy Theory, Constitution, culture, Culture & Politics, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Human Action as a treatise on Philosophical Anthropology

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 4, 2017

Human Action;  It’s not your college “Economics”…but what is it?

Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the works of Ludwig von Mises knows that, while his works deal with economics, his thought is distinguished by what might be called,  misleadingly, a “multidisciplinary” approach.  I say misleading because Mises doesn’t just wander into various fields of history and policy at random.  Rather, at least in his magnum opus, Human Action, von Mises bases his exposition of economics and other social phenomena on a level of abstraction far too general to be circumscribed within one particular field of the social, or better said, the human sciences.  Even the term “science” here is somewhat suspect as importing all sorts of positivist notions regarding predictability, measurability, and so forth.  Perhaps “human studies” is the broadest description of areas which Mises was wont to involve himself in.  If we were to find a single word equivalent to “human studies” then certainly Anthropology would be the most apt substitute.  Yet nobody calls Human Action a work of Anthropology.  Why?

Superficially, this is because Mises takes an implicit understanding of Classical Christian anthropology and develops it in the direction of what we call “economics.”  More fundamentally, it is because few people today would even recognize Classical Christian anthropology, especially when it manifests itself in the work of an author who neither professed Christianity nor was writing explicitly on anthropology.  After all, von Mises embraced all sorts of moral and intellectual tenants which comport poorly with the classical Christian world-view, such as evolution and (fortunately, non-quantifiable!) utilitarianism.  None the less, because von Mises was part of the broader Judeo-Christian tradition, the bedrock of Christian Anthropology frequently breaks through the surface exposition of his putative “economic” treatise.  However, you won’t see it if you don’t know what to look for, and it doesn’t help that this classical, or Christian, anthropology goes against the very grain of Modernist and Post-Modernist “common sense.”

While in most Modernist views the human race is little more than the end result of myriad material causes, in classical Christian anthropology, “Man” in the sense of a singular “Anthropos” is the principle behind the universe, from which, as “Word” or “Logos” all other realities proceed.  The entire framework of this classical anthropology can be summarized as a movement through four terms, as follows:  From the Anthropos proceeds the individual, from the individual proceeds the species, from the species proceed groups.  Elsewhere I will try to explicate the framework in more detail, here I want to show how it is manifested in such an unlikely place as von Mises’ treatise, Human Action.

Again, I don’t want to make von Mises into some sort of Christianizing Platonist, or deny that much of the content of Human Action is based on Neo-Kantian or utilitarian principles which are alien to the basic framework.  None the less, the classical framework manifests itself in the very organization of the work, as can be seen from the arrangement of the contents.  The organization of the work in seven parts actually can be reduced to four themes.  I have highlighted the ontological/anthropological categories which Mises seems to have in mind at the right hand column.

I. The ideal

  1. Action as human essence         pt. 1            Anthropos–>Individual
  2.  Society                                         pt.2            Species–> Groups
  3. Individual exchange                 pt. 3             Anthropos–> Individual
  4. Market                                        pt. 4           Species–> Groups
  • The pathology, collectivism pt. 5              Groups–>Individual
  • attempts to compromise the ideal and pathology  pt. 6
    • History                              pt. 7

Structure of Human Action itself points the reader in the direction of methodological individualism.  You should be able to see the topical movement from essence, to individual, to species to group, repeated twice.

It may be that this organizational structure is not to be taken literally as von Mises’ last word on the ontological place of humanity within the universe.  It may even be that this organization was just the way von Mises thought a primary treatise on human action should be properly structured, somewhat like the scholars of the middle ages who felt that all treatises should be arranged according to the framework of Peter the Lombard, whether or not they agreed with Peter’s content or not.  None the less the framework bears the imprint of the classical Anthropological model, and testifies to  that model’s ubiquity and importance.  Certainly it differs from standard modernist and positivist expositions, which are based on the framework “from matter proceeds things.” This latter being what your man or woman on the street thinks of as “economics.”

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christian Education, Culture & Politics, Economics, History, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

An Epistle at the apex: Paul and the the Biblical basis of Libertarianism

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 15, 2017

From Turtles to Principles

You have probably heard the story of that old woman who insisted the Earth rested on the back of an enormous turtle.  If queried what the turtle rested on, she would respond, logically enough, “Another turtle.”  However if a persistent questioner asked what, in turn, the second turtle rested upon, she would laugh derisively, “Sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!”

This infinite regress of turtles is akin to the view that many Christian libertarians and constitutionalists share with regard to “the charter of our liberties.”  Now rest assured that I consider this to be the enlightened view with regard to the origin of human rights, that “We are endowed by our creator….” and that the contents of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.  I applaud my fellow freedom lovers who have embraced the theory that the natural rights made explicit in  human covenants is founded on the will and ways of God.

None the less, it seems to me that there is a gap in the understanding of most libertarians, even among those who profess Christianity in one form or another.  On the one hand, freedom is said to be founded on the basis of a “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  On the other hand, the content of this ethos is held to have been been specified by such major documents as the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791).  These are sometimes called “founding documents” but in fact they represent the fruits of a tradition, not an origin.  Now what was the immediate inspiration of these documents?   This is well understood and well researched, and we can trace what F.A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty” back step by step through the Whig Revolution, the English Civil War, the conflict between King John, the great barons and the church, and even into the misty years subsequent to the Norman Conquest.  Each of these epochs left a deposit of law in the form of written covenants, of which the Magna Carta (1215)is only the most famous.

However if we ask, “What is the ultimate (not immediate) origin of the Bill of Rights, etc.” we come up against a situation similar to that infinite regress of turtles which are needed to support the Earth.  All we get is a string of documents which leads back from the Magna Carta to the Norman Conquest and then, for a combination of linguistic and documentary reasons, stops.  Beyond that where do the precedents come from?  On the one hand, there are those who hypothesize a kind of Anglo-Saxon democracy as the matrix from which both political liberty and common law sprang.  On the other, there are those, such as Hayek himself, who wish to tie the British tradition of liberty back to the classical political philosophy of Cicero, Stoicism etc..  Keep in mind that Hayek was an evolutionist, albeit more of concerned with cultural than a biological evolution.

On the other hand there are Christians who state that the series of freedom covenants published in the course of British and American history have their ultimate root in the “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  However the “Judeo-Christian ethos” does not constitute the first item in a series of written documents.  It is indeed a case of “turtles all the way down” where “down” is not the true bottom or rather a quasi-bottom begging for further explanation.  Of course, Christians are in possession of a document which provides them with written warrant for thought and action, and it happens to be called the Bible. Note the irony of the ambiguous “Judeo-Christian ethic” being promoted as a basis of politics and rights theory by the same Christians who would insist on a scriptural warrant for any issues outside of politics.  It would seem that there is a special fear of becoming excessively scriptural when it comes to the Biblical foundations of politics.

And as a matter of fact, this fear is well founded.  For there are at least two deviations into scriptural politics which are likely to have catastrophic results, if indeed they are not outright heretical.  I will give a capsule critique of these theological tendencies before moving on to what I consider the true scriptural basis of politics.

Bad Axioms: The Violent Bear It Away

In our search for the axiomatic we don’t want to endorse the catastrophic!   Humanity is always looking for a principle to predicate its violence upon, a “causus belli” as it were.  Marxism is the best contemporary example, though there be others.  Those sects within the church which have been unknowingly or knowingly coaxed by Marxism into a united front frequently march under the banner of “New Testament Christianity.”  In this context, “New Testament” means up to and excluding the cross.  It is the moral teaching to, and subsequently of, the twelve disciples, led by Peter. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on this teaching to characterize it as perfectionism and communism.  It was a teaching appropriate to those who were striving after moral purity to separate themselves from an apostate Judaism, along lines similar to John the Baptist, or the Essene community at Qumran.   After the cross these teachings were replaced by the gospel.  Though they remain edifying and historically important narratives, they are not Christianity, at least, they are not the heart of Christianity.

However these teachings, perfectionism and communism, are useful for those who seek to sow confusion among Christians.  The virtue of these principles, for Marxists and other enemies of the cross, is that they don’t work, thus their adoption gives people the impression that Christians are not a church but as a camp of confused idealists. This vast camp of deluded Christians, who are not just those at the fringe of “liberation” theology so-called, but the majority of those within the mainstream denominations, are no doubt earnest in their desire to put their politics on a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately they have wrongly divided scripture, not realizing that, in truth, much of the so-called “New Testament” is in fact a continuation of the Old Testament, that the four evangelical witnesses which we call “gospels” are historical and biographical narratives which are only a preface to the Gospel of Grace proclaimed in the letters of Paul, this latter being the only operative gospel for our age.

At the other extreme from “Liberation theology”, there are genuine Christians who fuse together New and Old Testaments into a single covenant theology.  When this is applied with great rigor, the result is a rigidly legalistic system, such as was classically illustrated by Calvin’s Geneva, or the early Massachusetts Bay colony.  Unlike Marxist-inspired theology this covenant view is not a deception, but an honest error.  None the less, it is an error which has burdened and oppressed people in the past, and is likely to do so in the future, if there is any chance of its adoption.  No, we cannot go back to Moses.  Not that Moses is to be despised, for we are edified by the history of Israel.  But to treat Moses as a living letter of law is a misapplication of scripture, and inimical to the true gospel, just as Paul explained to the church in Galatia.   It is to Paul whom we must now turn.

The Pauline Basis of Christian Libertarianism

The way to make progress in ethics is through more geometrico, the much abused and needlessly feared geometrical method.  That is, in morals we ought to start with an axiom and end up with a body of legislation.  What we are offered today is, by and large, the reverse, since we begin with one or another collection of precepts in bad need of simplification and adaptation.  The precepts might alternatively be “the Judeo-Christian ethic” or New Testament theology, or the Mosaic code.  In all such systems the starting point is vague, complicated, and casuistic.  Now, reasoning out cases (casuistry) is a good and very necessary thing, but it should come at the end of a process of deduction, not at the beginning.

Fortunately, scripture is true to its word and provides us with the axioms necessary, not just for our salvation, but for organizing our societies.  The tendency towards axiomatic thinking is evident even in the pre-resurrection teachings of the Savior.  Christ’s willingness to group the precepts of the law into a hierarchy, with the law of love at the apex, contrasts sharply with the predominant rabbinical teachings on the law.  According to the rabbis each of the precepts stood on its own merit, without need of justification by any higher principle.  Conversely, a constant theme of Christ’s teaching was to point out how these independent precepts, if taken literally, would lead to rote behavior drained of empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  This early teaching to the disciples, as noted above, was not Christ’s authoritative message  to the church, which would commence on the road to Emmaus  and climax on the road to Damascus.  However the former teaching was prophetic in the broadest sense, not as prognostication but as propaedieutic, i.e., a kind of introduction.  It was hinting that Christian ethics, unlike rabbinical tradition, would be fundamentally axiomatic rather than casuistic.

The Apostle Paul is the primary revelator and redactor of church truth.  If we search his letters we are sure to find, among many other treasures, the key axiom upon which the organization of a godly society depends.  This axiom is found in a few verses within the most controversial and difficult chapters in the entire Bible, the 13th chapter of the book of Romans.  Now I realize that the very mention of Romans 13 is enough to cause alarm among Christian libertarians, and it is true that this is a portion of scripture which has been notoriously wrested into a shape cut to the specifications of tyrants.  However this reading, which we may designate as the authoritarian reading of Romans 13, I believe to be profoundly in error.

On the contrary, it is Romans Chapter 13 which, read aright, contains the authoritative formulation of the non-aggression axiom.  I am not aware that this has been previously noted, even by commentators who are generally considered sympathetic to libertarianism.  Generally, commentators are mainly interested in soterological issues, therefore those portions of scripture dealing with civil society, like Romans Chapter 13, are passed over without extended comment, except to note that obedience to legitimate governance is enjoined.  Few have done entire commentaries where the primary focus is on politics, economics, or civil society.  One exception is Dr. Gary North, who has written an Economic Commentary on Romans.  Yet even Dr. North who’s  quasi-libertarian views are well known, veers off from the fundamental moral issues discussed in Romans 13, in order to pursue some rather technical observations on the morality of debt, to the exclusion of other considerations.  His commentary on the heart of Romans 13, which are found in verses 8 through 10, is worth reading, if only to note its extremely narrow approach to the content of the epistle.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” John Murray does not think that love is an obligation. Rather, the sense of the passage is this: “Owe no man any thing, only love one another.” “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that dealing with others justly is the way that we should demonstrate our love toward them? Or does it mean that loving them fulfills the law? Which law? Moses’ law? Christ’s law?

Paul says which law: the Mosaic. “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The summary follows the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 5:17-21.The final clause is based on Leviticus: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Here is the same theme as the one Paul introduced in the previous chapter: no personal vengeance. Christ used a similar approach in his summary of the Mosaic law. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:16-19).

Love is mandatory, Murray writes. “If love is the fulfillment of the law this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love. . . . It is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice.”Murray places the decalogue, and through it, the Mosaic law, at the heart of Paul’s injunction. “This appeal to the decalogue demonstrates the following propositions: (1) the decalogue is of permanent and abiding relevance. (2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love. (3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility. (4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.”

The closest that North (here following, rather surprisingly, Murray) gets to the non-aggression axiom is his observation on the prohibition of vengeance.  Murray, North, et al, are wrong to think that Paul is endorsing the Mosaic law, although as covenant theologians we ought not to be surprised that they follow this line.  Rather, Paul is using elements of the decalogue the same way that an artist would use pigments of primary colors to paint an entirely new composition.  Romans 13 vv. 8-10 is not just a rehashing of Moses, rather, it is an entirely new revelation establishing human relations on the firm foundation of the non-aggression axiom.

In order to come to an understanding that Romans 13 is nothing less than the divine promulgation of the non-aggression axiom, it is helpful to divide the chapter into three portions.  I. 13:1-7 on civil governance, II. 13:8-10, the non-aggression axiom, III.13:11-14 provision for the coming of the Lord.  Although most readers of the scriptures read sequentially, which in the case of Romans 13 leads to highlighting the section on civil governance, as if it were the topic paragraph of an essay, an alternative method sometimes used by discerning Bible students is to structure the passage according to its “chiastic” pattern.  According to this method, the key elements in a Bible passage are liable to be found in the center of the reading, with the former and latter verses forming mirror images around a core concept.  Thus in the case of Romans 13, we would have the pattern,

I. 13:1-7 human governance ( duties towards civil magistrates)

               II. 13:8-10 the non-aggression axiom

III. 13:11-14 divine governance (duties in preparation for the return of the Lord)

Note how the non-aggression axiom seems encased like a jewel between present and future worlds, humanity and divinity.  This draws us into the center and substance of the relationship between sovereignty and justice.  Thus the student of scripture is compelled to take a closer look at the key text vv. 8-10, which appears following (in E.W. Bullinger’s translation).

8
Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
9
For this,“Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not
kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,Thou shalt not covet;”
and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely,
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
10
Love worketh no evil to his  neighbour: therefore love
is…fulfillment of…law.
Although Paul is doing something more than simply reiterating the Mosaic revelation, the selection of Mosaic elements through which the new message is expressed is very precise and gives us the key to the new law.  Note that only those elements of the decalogue which prohibit aggression are listed.  To be sure, the decalogue also requires positive obligations such as honoring parents, but the empahsis here is on prohibitions not obligations.  Specifically, these are commandments which prohibit the violation of the rights of others.  One might quibble at the inclusion of the tenth commandment against envy, in so far as this is a psychological state and not an active violation of someone’s rights.  However this list is not a bill of particulars, but the anatomy of aggression in general, and psychological realism informs us that envy is the primary motive force for the violation of personal and property rights. What we have in vv. 8-10 is in reality a type of equation, and a very exact equation at that, such that…
Decalogue 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10=the Law of Love
Everybody who knows even the first thing about Christianity has heard about the “law of love”…in the formula “love thy neighbor etc.” the problem is to define what love really means in this context.  This is what the central passages of Romans 13 reveals to us.  Again, substituting one side of the equation,
Do not (6,7,8,9) violate your neighbor’s rights, in fact (10) don’t even think about it!=the Law of Love
or if we phrase it in terms of political theory
The Non-Aggression Axiom=the Law of Love
This formulation will startle many people on the grounds that “love” in this context seems to be divorced from passion, and typically we think of love as a passion.  However, when we are trying to approach revelation on its own terms we are not obligated to define its words according to our own preconceptions and feelings, rather we have to let context determine exegesis.
From Paul to Locke
Skeptics will claim that I am reading the Lockean theory of natural rights back into Paul.  On the contrary, I suggest that John Locke, writing at the turn of the 17th and 18th century may have got his inspiration, not just from Christianity in a general way, but from a study of Paul’s first century epistles.  We know that Locke was a close student of scripture, and of Paul in particular.  To be sure,  Locke has always been problematic for Christian orthodoxy, which is why he was received into the cannon of the West as a philosopher, not a theologian.  However here we are speaking of the divine promulgation of rights theory, and its meaning for our own times, not the question of what  John Locke as a believer thought of the Trinity, or the non-Jurors, or the Book of Common prayer.
From John Locke the tradition of natural rights flowed on to the Whig radicals, on to the writers of the American founding documents, on to the abolitionists and other social movements of the 19th century, on to the populists of the American guilded age, on to the Old Right and non-interventionism, on to those movements which today call themselves libertarian.  However this Whig/Classical Liberal/Libertarian thinking has manifested as more than bare ideas, it has been written into covenants which have rendered rights explicit and binding.  To be sure, the non-aggression axiom has passed through non-Christian, even anti-Christian minds, notably Herbert Spencer, who is always mentioned in that regard.  But this does nothing to mitigate against the possibility, to my mind the virtual certainty, that the non-aggression axiom is ultimately a thing of divine institution.  Need we, like overzealous Donatists, fear that the sacrament of liberty has been defiled because it has passed through unclean hands?  Certainly not!  None the less, at the level of documentary tradition, what  a wonderful thing it would be if we could be sure that there was an unbroken chain of binding covenants, beginning with Paul’s writings and continuing down to the Bill of Rights and beyond.  Indeed, how enlightening it ought to be, for anyone to grasp that the non-aggression principle and the law of love were two but aspects of the same divine axiom.

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Is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a key for our crises?

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 30, 2017

Shakespeare’s unknown Roman play and what it bodes for us

With its popularity trailing far behind Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus is perplexing on a number of levels.  Not lacking in ether violence or passion, the bard’s not-so-secret formulae for success, Coriolanus seems saturated with the wrong sort of passion, and by comparison to that  other dark horse, Titus Andronicus, not nearly violent enough to make an Elizabethan B-grade movie worthwhile.  Coriolanus features a Rome without romance.  Women, yes, men, yes…but in the form of a nagging mother, and a wife long past the honeymoon stage, these against a background of uncountable war widows.  In other words, it focuses on the reality of relationships, not their rosy initiation.  Today people might, out of a sense of guilt, be willing to pay to see that kind of fare, but the Elizabethans were far too sensible to put up with it.   Yet they put up with Coriolanus, and so should we, for in that play Shakespeare is telling us a story which is political in a way that is far different from his other productions. It is closer to instruction than entertainment, although, for those with an eye for the nuances of history, far more interesting than simple entertainment.   Furthermore I maintain that Coriolanus speaks to us today in a prophetic voice that few past generations could have decoded.  After a few preliminaries, I will attempt a decoding…with what success, you may be the judge.

There is a difference between narratives where politics is embedded in human (especially sexual) relationships and those stories where relationships are embedded in politics.   Yes, and I know that “embedded” will be taken as a bad pun!  None the less, we don’t go to see Anthony and Cleopatra because we want to understand how the Second Triumvirate unraveled.  For the Elizabethan, sex and circuses were still an intermission within the normal life of the body politic.  Above sex, circuses, work, and all the other activities of civil society was the dreadful, and indeed numenous, question of sovereignty.  I say numenous since sovereignty entailed not just power over life and death, but, keeping in mind that the Reformation was still playing itself out, possibly power over eternal life and eternal death.  Thus, the dark shadow of the Tower of London fell across the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, at least mentally, if not quite physically.  For frequenters of the Globe, politics was close, perhaps closer than for all the intervening generations between them and us, we whom are beset by social media, and for whom politics is becoming all-in-all.  Against this dreadful background, theatergoers were torn between the drive to escapism and the drive to understand.  Arguably, Coriolanus satisfies the latter urge.

Not only that, but in addition to being political rather than erotic, Coriolanus is political in a way which is uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, and shows a surprising grasp of issues which one might have surmised were far beyond his scope of knowledge and interests.  Arguably, Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean play in which the dramatic action takes place in the context of a still-vigorous constitutional republic.  Normally, we expect a Shakespearean narrative to take place against a feudal background.  Even where the background is nominally republican, it is likely to be a Venetian facad or a Rome in transition to empire.  After all, Shakespeare was a subject of the Tudor, and briefly, Stuart, dynasties.  Yet Coriolanus reveals that Shakespeare was fully capable of appreciating the problems of electoral politics in a state where sovereignty was divided among different authorities.  A deeper look as Shakespeare’s life and times will soon show that he had a good knowledge of 16th century Italy, where republican institutions, though mostly usurped, were still a living memory.  Furthermore, he lived at a time of emerging republican sentiment in northern Europe, stimulated by the Reformation, and various constitutional experiments, conducted by the armed prophets of the more radical (Calvinistic, Zwiglian, Anabaptist etc.) branches of the Reformation.  But whether due to his sources, contemporary events or the universal solvent of his imagination, the bard could write with conviction and with empathy about life in a republican context.

Now, allow me to briefly spoil the play for you.  Apart from eccentrics (e.g., myself) and undergraduates under harsh curricular discipline, few will ever pick up the written play, and even fewer are likely to see a stage enactment, so spoiling is eminently justified.  If you know the ways of the bard you won’t be surprised to learn that he lifted the plot from Plutarch.  Plutarch in turn based his narrative on events which allegedly happened around 493BC in Rome.  This wasn’t our Hollywood Rome of the glittering marble temples, rather, it was a village, or perhaps a federation of villages, built of mud and straw and unified by a surrounding fortification, a wall or a ditch, allegedly built by Romulus, founder of the city.  None the less, this early Rome was already showing signs of its future destiny, encroaching on the surrounding tribes and subjecting them to its sovereignty.  Most importantly, for understanding Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Roman state was already divided among distinct socioeconomic classes, notably the plebian class and the senatorial class.  Furthermore, the fundamentals of the state’s constitutional order had recently been consolidated, with a republic being declared one generation prior with the expulsion of the last monarch, King Tarquin.

Going by the standard sources, mainly Plutarch, the most successful Roman military leader (a.k.a. “general”) around the year 493BC was a certain Caius Martius .  As per already established Roman custom, he acquired the cognomin “Coriolanus” when he conquered Coriolus, a city of the hostile Volciian federation.  Of course, there are recent critics who claim that Coriolanus is entirely mythical.  I don’t know on what grounds this is maintained, but I do know that making these claims is a great way to gain notoriety and possibly promotion in the academic world.  Indeed, I would wager that Coriolanus was not only an actual historical person, but that about 80% of Shakespeare’s dialogue gives us, while certainly not a verbatum transcript  of what transpired in 493BC, at least the gist of the historically salient events.  The contemporary reader of Shakespeare has to be tolerant of his occasional anachronisms, and keep in mind that the historical Coriolanus was speaking proto-Latin (significantly, intelligible to nearby Italian tribes) not Elizabethan English…and of course wearing neither a ruff collar nor buckled shoes.

Even so, if anyone wants to doubt the historical existence of Coriolanus (the person) it need have no bearing on the value of Coriolanus (Shakespeare’s narrative) as useful matrix for political thought.  To that end, all we need is a capsule summary of the the story’s highlights.  The play begins as Coriolanus, a Roman senator, returns victorious from beating the Volcii, and capturing one of their cities Coriolus.  He is promoted by his friends as candidate for counsel, the supreme magistrate of the Roman republic.  However Coriolanus refuses to make the obligatory and traditional appeal to the masses (the plebs) by showing his war wounds publicly.  The representatives of the pleb class, the tribunes, distrust Coriolanus from the start, knowing that he despises the common people as cowards and moochers on the public purse.  The inability of Coriolanus to change his public image by pandering to the masses gives the tribunes an excuse to revoke the election of Coriolanus to the consulate.  This causes a row with Coriolanus counter-claiming that the tribunal authority has been abused and that the office of tribune should be abolished.  Through all these altercations both the friends, i.e., senatorial class peers, and family (mother and wife) of Coriolanus urge their stubborn leader to tone down his rhetoric and appease the common people with flattery, or at least tolerance.  These attempts fail to make any headway with the proud and stubborn Coriolanus.  The issue is decided in favor of exiling Coriolanus, on the grounds that he was plotting to unilaterally change the constitution (abolishing the institution of the plebs’ tribunes) albeit exile is a milder sentence in lieu of capital punishment.  Bitter and seeking revenge, the exiled Coriolanus shows up at the doorstep of his, and Rome’s, arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, leader of Antium, chief city of the Volcian federation.  Coriolanus offers to join his invincible military skills with that of Aufidius in a war against Rome.  Aufidius agrees and together they conduct a successful military campaign all the way up to the gates of Rome.  The terrified Romans send out emissaries to Coriolanus asking him to have mercy on his own people.  Coriolanus, in character, refuses all attempts at compromise and threatens to sack the city.  At last his mother and wife come out of the gates to beg mercy from their son and husband.  Moved to pity by this maternal and conjugal appeal, Coriolanus at last relents.  Hence the Roman General of the Volcii, having liberated the lands that Rome had taken from her enemies, even though sparing Rome itself, returns to Antium, expecting to be hailed as a hero.  However Aufidius, jealous of being overshadowed by his Roman ally, gathers together conspirators from those who’s families were harmed by Coriolanus during his earlier, anti-Volcian, campaigns.  They assassinate Coriolanus in the public square of Antium.  As soon as they are satisfied by the death of Coriolanus, their mood instantly changes and they decide to grant full honors in burial to him as a military genius and ally.  Thus ends the play.

Pondering this old story from the perspective of the here and now, situations and personalities jump out which are disturbingly familiar.  The old saw about history repeating itself tempts us to judgement.  And yet…not quite so fast, for as soon as we think we have recognized a familiar face, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of incoherent fragments.  Therefore it will behoove us, before we join in the chorus of moral indignation, to familiarize ourselves with some classical political concepts.  Don’t worry, I will soon lead you to where we all want to go…an encounter with the clear and present dangers, here in America, now in the 21st century.  But if we want Coriolanus to serve us faithfully as a tool of political analogy to our own times, we will have to take a leisurely stroll through the forum of political conflict.  Then, perhaps, we will be able to separate ideas from innuendo.

The Fourfold Root of Classical Political Analysis

Why is Coriolanus important?  Not, as Freudian critics might wish, because it yields novel insights on the mother-child relation.  Indeed, not due to the depth of any of  its corporal characters or their mutual esteem or lack thereof.   Rather, the republic itself, is a kind of intangible lead character in its own right. Coriolanus is important because it deals exhaustively with the problem of sovereignty.  Our contemporaries have lost sight of the ultimate significance of sovereignty, and would rather avoid its correlative truth, which divides the ethical world into four parts, two pertaining to the sovereign, and two to the subject.  If the fundamental concept of politics is sovereignty then all permutations on politics will pertain to valuations of either the sovereign or the subject, which may be expressed as positive and negative couplets.  The classical term for wicked sovereignty is tyranny, while the classical term for the condition of being a wicked subject is treason.  Conversely, the good subject is the loyal subject.   The only terminological issue is how to characterize the antithesis of tyranny.  Coming at the end, not of history, but of Whig history, libertarians and conservatives are apt to characterize the couplet as liberty vs. tyranny.  However this opposition, however dear to us it might be, is not as robust a characterization as the classical usage which simply contrasted tyranny with justice.  So our classical couplets are justice/tyranny and loyalty/treason.  Obviously we can schematize this as a four cell diagram and use it as a general framework for any political situation involving sovereignty. This might refer to this as a political quadrilateral, namely, tyranny:justice::loyalty:treason.

I have outlined what seems to me the common sense framework for understanding politics.  However, there are numerous others,such as the Marxist interpretations. There are infinite variations on modern positivist and quantitative political analysis, some of which, and I am thinking particularly of the Public Choice school, have considerable merit.  Then there is Leo Strauss and his school, which sees misdirection, obscurity and esoteric meaning behind every political movement and manifesto.  While all these claim to be schools of politics, for none of them is sovereignty paradigmatic, rather, they embrace a bevy of other notions such as class struggle, human choice, literary deception, or simple “force.”  Any of these might be, for all I know, the key to the kingdom, but they differ from the classical consensus about the state and sovereignty.  The latter was a useful tool in the days of Aristotle and also those of Cicero, and it was also the mental window through which Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed and understood his political works, plays such as Coriolanus.  Even today, it still lies at the bottom of libertarian and conservative political theory, but usually in tacit form.

Armed with this classical framework, we should be able to read Coriolanus as something other than a simple morality play.  To be sure, our purpose should be to extract some moral conclusions from the work, however it will not be a “morality play” in the sense of positing a war between predetermined “children of light” and “children of darkness” from the outset.  We shall be called upon to judge, but our judgement should strive to be Christian, not Manichean.

First I will show how one could treat Coriolanus using a populist-leftist formula, and subsequently show how the same material could be used as the apology for a dictator.  Neither of these completely faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, and both are unedifying for contemporary political discourse.  They both stop short of recognizing that  the dramatic action in the play consists of an exchange of places between the tribunes and Coriolanus who are each in turn tyrannical and just, loyal and treasonous to the Roman state and its constitution.  In other words, if we go beyond persons to principles we will see that there is no one character or group of characters who personifies either justice or tyranny.  Rather, in unpleasant reflection of both past and  current politics, the protagonists exhibit, by turns, integrity or corruption of character depending on their ever-changing relationship to the political order.

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, Personality over Principle, the Left-Wing variation, “The tyrant exposed.”

Unfortunately, Marxism (defined as including those schools which are derived from it) seems to be the main highway of contemporary literary interpretation, preeminent on account of popularity, ease of understanding, and safe passage through the labyrinth of academic acceptability.  Honestly, I don’t have any particular critic in mind, but the method is so obvious that you or I can quickly whip up a dissertation with all the aplomb of a literary short order cook.  For starters, we can take it as axiomatic that Coriolanus is a simple tale of conflict between good and evil, between the masses of humanity and fascism.   It is an edifying and cautionary bit of ancient lore, featuring a particularly obnoxious villain as its protagonist.  The moral?  Stick on the right side of history and “the People”…or risk an unpleasant end.

Because the theme of Coriolanus is perennial, the left-wing critic need never fear obsolescence or  lack of employment, since in every generation the nuances of politics will easily reduce themselves to the same common denominator.  All that needs to be done is to find your man, your Coriolanus, your aristocratic bully, and voala! therein lies the contemporary political analogy.  But today, circa 2017, there is no need to search around for a scapegoat since ubiquitous Trump-hatred makes the choice obvious.  We all know that Donald J. Trump is bad, and with just the right reading of Coriolanus we might actually discover, if not precisely why he is bad, certainly just how bad he truly is.

While, obviously, I am being sarcastic toward the left-wing method, I am not saying that it is completely inaccurate.  Since left-wing literary criticism is always a species of propaganda, it behooves us to remember that effective propaganda must invoke a sufficient array of sound facts and verities to convince the target audience.  There is something incontestably sound in the identification of Donald Trump with Martius Caius Coriolanus.  We easily see the blowhard egoist in both, and frequent resonances of an all too familiar and obstinate pride in Shakespeare’s prose.  Coriolanus, like Trump, is not willing to stick to anyone’s script, however well intended or lovingly suggested.

A very little I have yielded to.  Fresh embassies and suits,  Nor from the state nor private friends, hereafter will I lend an ear to.  Coriolanus Act. 5, scene 3

But there is more to both Donald Trump, and even Coriolanus himself, than pure villainy.  The problem for the left-wing method is that it dare not go beyond this initial purview, lest the power of moral condemnation be dissipated within the complexities of the play.  It is only a safe method as long as the critic is restricted, either freely or under duress, to the stereotypes of class conflict.  It doesn’t particularly matter how these classes are defined, whether as a classical proletariat or the numerous victim classes of contemporary cultural Marxism.  What is important is that everything be seen from the point of view of distributive justice, that is, an unequal distribution of “stuff” among concrete persons and groups of people.

Now as the left-wing critic would surmise, Coriolanus has lots of “stuff” which the plebs lack.  Naturally, a significant part of this rests on an economic foundation, and an important conflict within both the play, and the early Rome which it portrays, was the bread dole for the non-landed citizens.  Whether to provide or withdraw this entitlement serves as an initial ground for the conflict between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the people.  However the most prominent “stuff” which Coriolanus flaunts, and the tribunes envy, are the intangibles of life such as dignity, reputation, virtue (especially courage) and power.  It is the attacks on these intangible disparities which drives Coriolanus to fits of self-justification, therefore confirming his status as a “hater” according to the nomenclature of modern leftism. Thus Shakespeare portrays him as cursing the common man, and under the only condition that Coriolanus would stand a chance to respect: man-at-arms.

You souls of geese, that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat!  Pluto and hell!  All hurt behind.  Backs red, and faces pale with flight and augued fear!  Mend, and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave my foe and make my wars on you.  ibid, Act 1., scene 4.

Vitrolic words, but prophetic ones as well!  For we observe General Coriolanus progressing from “international” conflict to internecine class conflict and finally waging war on Rome itself as a kind of one-man government in exile.

The list of putative villains, especially of the “fascist” ilk, could be extended almost indefinitely.  But Donald J. Trump?  Really?  Yes, really, albeit in a reality which is dictated by the rules of left-wing interpretation.  You see, the secret of left-wing interpretation is that it isn’t interpretation at all, rather, it is what more properly is called imputation.  The difference between interpretation and imputation is that interpretation uses observation and induction to guess the nature of external things, while imputation determines unilaterally the nature of external things based on its own unchallenged and supreme judgement.  A good example of imputation, and the one most germane to our inquiry, is the indisputable (within the sphere of political correctness) fact that Donald Trump is a fascist.  True, Donald Trump might be mentally and emotionally opposed to fascism, and his actions might also be inimical to fascism, but none of these factors count from the point of view of left-wing criticism.  The criteria of left-wing criticism regarding whether a person is a fascist or not, lies in whether fascism has been imputed to the person in question by the left-wing critic.  Of course the critic does not exercise any autonomous authority, but rather exercises a mandate, within the bounds of a specialized field, derived from the collective will of society.  The collective will of society, in turn, derived its authority over reality by displacing the sovereignty which had once been the prerogative of God.

 

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, pt. 2 Personality over Principle, Right-wing version, “The strong man pushed out” or “The scapegoat.”

 

Coriolanus starts off his career as a harsh but just military taskmaster.  That he is a hero of the republic is admitted not only by his peers in the senatorial class but even the common people, although the tribunes are uncomfortable with this admiration and seek to subvert it.  However Coriolanus gets into the danger zone when he, at the behest of his friends, begins to seek high civil office.  Although the masses of the people recognize his merits, they are offended by the aristocratic pride which is inseparable from the career of a roman warrior during the early republic.

The symbolic gesture, or rather non-gesture, which brings this antagonism to a crisis, is the ritual showing of the warrior’s wounds, an acceptable “political advertisement” in early Rome which is all but guaranteed to secure office for a qualified (i.e., wounded) candidate.  Coriolanus is over-qualified, with more than a score of war-wounds to his credit, but he refuses to show them in public, on the grounds that this would be pandering to the sentiments of the masses.  The refusal of Coriolanus to remove his robe might be  mischaracterized as  “a failure of disclosure.”  This, however, is one instance where a concrete action reverses the psychological reality behind the symbol.  If Coriolanus had divested himself of his robe and shown his wounds, he would have joined the ranks of candidates who were willing to purger themselves behind a mask of false humility.  However in failing to remove his clothes Coriolanus actually exposes his psychological nudity, revealing to the masses his proud contempt for their opinions.  A possible modern misinterpretation, though far closer to the spirit of the events than any anachronistic  notion of bodily modesty, would be that Coriolanus was “refusing to play the victim card.”  On the contrary, these ancient wounds were a source of pride, like the “fruit salad” ribbons worn on modern uniforms.  Remember that this (5thc.BC Italy) was still a primitive era and military decorations for the Roman army were far in the future.  In the mind of Coriolanus, the wounds were not too cruel, but too honorable, to be exhibited in public.  The non-landed classes had not earned the right to view them.

Although this is a major turning point early on in the drama, it does not manifest a clear division in the body politic over legitimacy or sovereignty.  There are as yet no clear tyrants or traitors.  The refusal of Coriolanus to reveal his wounds is a breach of custom, not the constitution.  It hurts his electoral chances, but not so badly that he doesn’t squeak by to victory at the polls.  The common people, or at least the politically aware among them, are deeply offended by the attitude of Coriolanus.  However offense is a psychological state, not an institutional reality.  Shakespeare shows himself wiser than our Postmodernist philosophers, and never conflates public action and objective states of affairs with the psychological reactions of his characters.  His masterful art in portraying the latter shows that this is not the result of an inability to portray mental states, but a respect for the independence of public institutions from subjective consciousness.  Significantly, in the play which bears his name, Coriolanus never engages in soliloquy, which further encourages us in the belief that this drama is fundamentally about political actions and institutions rather than psychology or human nature in general.

Actual constitutional problems start to arise in Coriolanus when the tribunes, further appraised of Coriolanus’ intended austerity and disciplinary program, threaten to revoke their election of him as councilor magistrate, Rome’s highest civil office.  Arguably, the tribunes have, through violation of due process, put themselves in a potentially seditious posture.  They are understandably incensed at what they consider a threat to the interests of the class which they represent, but this does not justify voiding the election.  One of the tribunes warns of Coriolanus,

Did you perceive he did solicit you in free contempt when he did need your loves, and do you not think that his contempt will not be bruising to you when he has power to crush. ibid, Act. 2, scene 3

The senatorial class rallies around Coriolanus and, for a while he is saved from the crowd, albeit his office is in jeopardy.  Due to the the impetuous and possibly unconstitutional stance of the tribunes, the impeached consular magistrate is in a position of relative strength which his friends and family urge him to capitalize on through a judicious and moderate appeal to the public.

Instead of moderating his tone, the irascible Coriolanus ups the ante by calling for the abolition of the people’s tribunes.  Now it is Coriolanus himself who seems to be threatening the constitutional order, hindering his friends from saving his career and possibly his life.  A decree of exile is passed, and Coriolanus leaves Rome, a putative tyrant but still not a traitor.  The final step is taken when he arrives at Antium and offers his services to Aufidius, the premier military leader within the Volcian federation.  As Coriolanus himself explains the situation,

Farewell, O world, thy slippery turns!  Friends now fast sworn, who’s double bosoms seem to wear one heart, whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise are still together, who twin as ’twere in love unseparable, shall within this hour, on the dissension of a doit break out to bitterest enmity; so fellest foes, whose passions and who’s plots have broke their sleep to take the one the other, by some chance, some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends and interjoin their issues.  So with me, my birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon this enemy town.  I’ll enter.  If he slays me, he does fair justice; if he give me way, I’ll do his country service. ibid, Act 4, scene 4

This is the penultimate turn, with Coriolanus cast as traitor against just Rome.  Unfortunately for Coriolanus, the potentially ultimate turn of events, which would have featured the sack of Rome as the epitome of a tyrannical city, and the apotheosis of its conqueror as the incarnation of justice, is averted by the timely supplication of his wife and mother.  Failing to nip Rome in the bud, the reputation of Coriolanus is hence fixed in amber as not so much a tragic as a pathetic figure.

However one must question whether, even if Coriolanus had sacked Rome, whether his action would have been rendered just simply on account of his success.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is a testament against the “might makes right” philosophy which the left has inherited from Machiavelli.  In the end Coriolanus recognizes that triumph over his native city would have been an empty victory, and there are higher principles of justice than military success and avenged pride.  The tendency of modern criticism, influenced by Freud and feminism, is to highlight the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, and indeed much can, and has been, said in that regard.  However the general’s abdication of final victory can also be seen as a surrender to higher principles of political morality, albeit the sanctioning power of this Platonic ideal is conveyed through the very tangible force of maternal and conjugal affection.

This principle of justice restrains both collectives as well as individuals.  The minions of Coriolanus refer to him as an “engine” which in Shakespeare’s English means a siege mechanism such as a battering ram or a siege tower.  When the “engine” comes to a halt before appeals to pity, we have a good example of a “right wing dictator” being stopped in his tracks.  However we have also observed that tyranny and justice are categories which can be occupied by the same people or groups of people successively.  Significantly “democracy” is a word which never drops from the lips of the tribunes, although it would have been totally within their character to use the term.  Rather, Shakespeare shares with most pre-Enlightenment thinkers a wary suspicion of what has, since Rousseau, been called the general will.  Although the late modern terms “democracy” and “general will” were not current in Renaissance times, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the general formula.  Thus a tribune declares,

What is a city but its people.   ibid, Act 3, scene 1

The events which transpire throughout the drama show that Shakespeare, though recognizing the populist formula as a truism, was keenly aware of the mischief which results when raising it to a supreme political principle.  The rejoinder of Coriolanus, though he speaks as an antagonist, and no doubt a villain in the eyes of the tribunes, utters verity when he cynically observes,

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation and bury all which yet distinctly ranges in heaps and piles of ruins.    ibid.

Principles above Personalities: The Constitutional Reading

Both the action of the tribunes and the action of Coriolanus, taken to their extremes, threaten to ruin the city.  The injured pride of the general, unchecked, will burn the city to the ground in vengeance, while the envy of the tribunes, in promoting a forced equality, threatens to reduce the order of society to chaos.  In spite of their atavistic tendencies, neither the tribunes, nor Coriolanus, nor any of the other characters can escape the equilibrium of the political quadrilateral, namely, justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason.  Loyalty to justice is treason to tyranny, while treason to tyranny is loyalty to justice.  The principles involved are transparent, however the placement of particular individuals and groups within the quadrilateral are, at least in real life, opaque.  One virtue of the stage is that heroes and villains can reveal their status with impunity to the audience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complicated, and instead of heroes and villains we often get synthetic hero/villains.  So in a psychological play like Hamlet these compound characters lend themselves to a kind of psycho-analysis, with fragments of the protagonist’s mind in constant motion.  However Coriolanus is a political play, and the various dramatis personae, while retaining their unity of character, move about within the space of the political quadrilateral, being treasonous villains in one instance, and loyal heroes the next.  Now, if you don’t see something very contemporary about this, I suggest you may be living on a desert island.

There is no better support for this assertion than to note how Coriolanus would have been a tragedy even if, or especially if, the treasonous general had been unconvinced by the supplications of his wife and mother.  If Coriolanus had sacked Rome he probably would have emerged as a king, the first king of a new dynasty.  Ironically, we are told that at the age of sixteen he was one of the heroes of the fledgling Roman republic, and had fought to expel the last Roman king, King Tarquin.  Unquestionably, Coriolanus sincerely believed in the principles of the republic, and that King Tarquin had been a tyrant.  If he had set himself up as a king at the end of his life, he would have effectively canceled his actions on behalf of the republic during his youth.  In effect, he would have annihilated the meaning of his own life.  As it was, listening to the plea of his family, he simply vanished from history, a tragic character perhaps, but not a true villain.

So yes, we may call Coriolanus a tragedy by common consent.  However when we resort to that label, without reflection, we are in fact highlighting the fate of personalities rather than the application of principles.  From an institutional point of view, Coriolanus is actually a comedy, in the sense of a drama with a fortunate ending.  After all, the republic is saved.  It is saved primarily from the revenge of Coriolanus, but in such a way as preserves the prestige and influence of the senate over the tribunes.

So what is the moral of this story?  And does it profit us in the least?

 Coriolanus is a play in which the  dramatis personae exhibit a chameleon-like shift of moral meanings, where a man’s virtues in war may be vices in peacetime.  It is Shakespeare’s gift to us, showing us, on the one hand, that politics has made a hell out of the blessings of creation, and on the other that personalities in the political world are not so much good or evil, as droughts on a checkerboard who take on their meaning from their position.  None the less, it is not an illusory or relativistic world.  The positions, the quadrilateral of justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason, are timeless principles.  Rather, the personalities and factions which occupy them are subject to maturation and degeneration, from time to time exchanging position, which creates the illusion that the categories themselves have undergone a metamorphosis.

Once we recognize the difference between personalities and principles, it will be safe for us to handle the knowledge which Coriolanus imparts.  The main principle which Coriolanus can teach us is that the problem of sovereignty is fundamental, however that sovereignty works itself out differently in a republic than in a monarchy.  If sovereignty is real, then each of the terms of the political quadrilateral is also real, and there can be no escape from coming to terms with justice, tyranny, loyalty and treason.  The sanctions which underpin sovereignty may be terrifyingly present, like the axe and bound rods carried in front of magistrates of the Roman republic, which give us the root of our word “fascism.”  Or the sanctions may be conveyed through some subtle nemesis, like the persuasive, maternal, embrace of a treasonous son.  However the sanctions are just symbolic of a higher reality, which is sovereignty itself.

However in a republic the political quadrilateral is not fated to to go through the endless cycles of musical chairs characteristic of a monarchy.  If “republic” and “justice” are synonymous, then the fatal symmetry of the political quadrilateral can be broken by bracketing out “tyranny.”  Hence in the schema of a republic may be represented as  Justice:[tyranny]::loyalty:treason.  The constitution provides a touchstone which prevents the formula from endless iteration among favored personalities, a relativistic cycle which leads ultimately to nihilism.  In a republic loyalty is absolute loyalty and treason is absolute treason, for which reason probity and forbearance is more important in a republic than any other form of government.  Thus Coriolanus and the tribunes are on alternative occasions absolute traitors and absolute loyalists, because the system is asymmetrical and unchanging.  How radically this differs from Shakespearean dramas which take place in monarchical contexts, plays such as Romeo and Juliet with their factional cries of “Montague! Montague!” or “Capulet! Capulet!”  In these factional states, it is hard to feel any strong dramatic appeal to justice, rather pathos is the predominating sentiment.  However Coriolanus, while personally pathetic, is just one personality in a drama with broader implications for justice.  If Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most republican play, then it is the one which comes closest to an adequate treatment of the relationship between sovereignty and justice, a relationship which can only be resolved (at the human level at least) by a republic.

It is characteristic of our present, globalized world, that  people have lost their belief in sovereignty.  It is a corollary of modern atheism, especially prominent in the peculiar atheism of people who profess to be religious, and who may even profess to be Christians.  We moderns, in our desire to be both enlightened and spiritual, find it most convenient to worship a god who has been emptied of the primary characteristic of God.  This theology is not without ramifications on the mundane level, and has led to a hollowing out of the social order.  It is leading to the abandonment of the nation state, to what one commentator has called the abolition of “borders, language, and culture.”

However if the question of sovereignty is inescapable, then it behooves our contemporaries to consider which kind of sovereignty is more palatable, monarchy or republic.  A republic is characterized by division of powers and geographical limitation.  Rome was a republic because there was a division of powers between the senate, the tribunes, and various other institutions.  Even more fundamentally it was a republic because it was limited by boundaries.  Originally this boundary was the ditch plowed by Romulus, but ultimately the boundaries became the limits of the known world.  In the process of boundary expansion and effacement, freedom was lost.  Coriolanus represents an early, unsuccessful, attempt to breach to the wall.  Much later, Caesar would successfully breach the Rubicon, a kind of symbolic wall.  The former action was, both dramatically and politically, comic, the latter tragic.  Today the citizens of sovereign nation-states should consider whether, as bad as the tin-horn dictators of yore might have been, whether our masked globalist elite (remembering that Greek for mask is “hypocrite”) is playing their role of the vengeful spoiler today, and with far greater sophistication.

 

 

 

 

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In the aftermath of Irma, these volunteers won in Florida

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 19, 2017

We were still surrounded by the debris of Hurricane Irma when the Volunteers showed up

Actually, it was a football game, one of those compulsive rituals which neither “the powers that be” nor the hoi poloi can ever say no to.  After all, who could deny the local fans their bread and circuses in the aftermath of a disaster?  Well, everything depended on who won…whether the spectacle would go down in the record books as a morale booster or moral misdemeanor.  As providence (do I hear someone say luck? Nah!) would have it, Florida won in the last seconds of a crazy game who’s merits on either side will be endlessly debated.  The Tennessee Volunteers returned home, perplexed and saddened.  Florida had, once again, been saved from itself.

But there were other volunteers in town that day.  Linemen of a different sort, hailing from Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and even parts of the state which were nursing their own hurts.  They weren’t watching football, although sometimes they worked within earshot of cheers and jeers from the high-tension game.  And yes, they were volunteers, even though they had been sent down by mammoth utility firms and could expect to draw overtime.  This is still America and nobody is forced to do any job they can walk off from.  But instead of “You can take this job and  shove it!” they arrived in large numbers, willing to work 24/7 in the humidity, often in the dark, and among the local fauna (think “gators” of the non-football ilk) which were spreading out into newly flooded zones.

In our neighborhood we had transformers down.  On the night of the storm, people had heard the  blast and seen the blinding blue ark light as the lofty cylinders seemed to turn into electric grenades.  Then darkness.  Days later there was still no electricity, and the Florida jungle was beginning to reclaim its own.  No heat, no cool, no refrigeration, no communication, and living off of canned and dry goods.  It could have been far worse as the water mains had kept their integrity.  Still, we were starting to wonder…

Then we saw the trucks.  We noticed (by we I refer to those who could read a map) a seal with the outline of the state of Indiana on its sides.  They had come a thousand miles, but the hardest part of their journey were the days of street by street, block by block progress until the worst hit part of town was rewired and on line.  They weren’t all from Indiana.  The man who went up in the bucket to replace our utility pole was from Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Bowling Green, Bowling Green

I wish I was in Bowling Green

Good old Bowling Green

And I bet he did!  But he had heeded the call to do a job which required a critical mix of physical endurance and intelligence.  The dead transformer was dangling in a virtual cats-cradle of wires and woods. When I murmured, “I can’t see how you will ever get that pole up.”  The Kentuckian answered, “Stick around and you may see more than you wager for.”  By literal hook and crook, mechanized to be sure, it all got up, poles, wires, transformers, until we heard the go ahead signal and the power returned.

I couldn’t help thinking that these men, who had come down from the regions around the Ohio river, were lineal descendants of the “volunteers” of yore, legendary men like Boon and Crockett, and the countless others who never became legends.  Historians can argue ad infinitum whether or not these were the men who “made America great,” or as per cultural Marxism, they were just land-pirates building a sand-castle civilization called the United States.  What is not arguable is that on short notice, their descendants had been mobilized and formed into an effective army to see that the swamp (here literally!) didn’t reclaim that network of urban humanity which calls itself modern Florida.

My general impression was that the whole operation, as befits volunteers, looked more like a “spontaneous order” than a command structure.  This was not to say that there was no planning, of which there was much evidence, but that the planning was horizontal rather than vertical, with the local agency and the out-of-state personnel cooperating on a case by case basis, combining local knowledge with volunteer can-do.  The federal government was invisible, although you could say that Floridians were the beneficiaries of a “national” effort by localities which had sent their people and resources across state lines to get the job done.  In military lingo you couldn’t say they weren’t regulars…just regular folks.

And that, my friends, is what makes America great.

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The Trump fizzle….the R3volution that wasn’t (and the one that was)

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 27, 2017

Trump’s non-revolution as an educational device

As of this writing pretty much everything which was promised in the salad days of Mr. Trump’s MAGA tours has been either hung up in pending legislation or put on the back burner.  Nobody, at least nobody who wasn’t born yesterday, really expected Ms. Clinton to go to jail or a physical wall to be built on the Mexican border, even assuming such things were desirable.  However few anticipated that  the President would morph into a double of his worst enemy, a.k.a., Sen. John McCain, which is pretty much what happened on foreign policy.  On the domestic front we now hear that refugee resettlement, something which is very different from voluntary immigration, can be expected to reach record highs.  The politics of blow-back, “invade the world and invite the world” is still as much the order of the day as it would be under any hypothetical Democrat administration.

I still retain a basic gut-level sympathy for Mr. Trump and his family, and a chivalrous disdain for the libelous attacks of the old-line media on their reputation.  None the less, I have lost any sense that a Trump revolution is afoot, unless that means a rebellion of Trump’s subordinates against their titular boss.  In place of a revolution, the most that conservatives and libertarians are likely to glean from this (possibly short-lived) administration is what, in patronizing terms, we refer to as a “learning experience.”  Yes, we are getting “a-lot-a-learning” taught to the tune of something far worse than a hickory stick…a broken heart.

On a deeper level, anyone who thought that a “Revolution”  was possible at this stage of American history is deluded.  However if we spell it R3volution, on the understanding that this is a counter-counter-revolution ( and if you see where the “3” comes in you are very clever!) then perhaps we have the basis, if not for hope, at least for a coherent narrative.

Put into schematic form that would be.

1.The original (libertarian) revolution against state absolutism. (a.k.a., the “Spirit of ’76)

2.The counter revolution of the administrative state under the pretext of various ideologies (egalitarianism, socialism, scientism).

3.The various attempts at counter-counter revolution launched against the New Order of the administrative/managerial state, usually labeled with that awkward term “conservatism.”

Basically, we are stuck at item 2, since we live in a historical situation where the administrative state has entrenched itself to the extent that most attempts at push-back fail before they become a credible threat to the New Order.  Mr. Trump’s revolution-manque is only the most recent and glaring example of this process.  Probably the best description of this situation was a series of essays written by an ex-editor of the Saturday Evening Post around the mid-point of the 20th century.

The Revolution Was

The man was Garet Garrett, a curmudgeon of the anti-New Deal resistance.  His thesis was that conservatives and moderates didn’t need to fear the advent of socialist revolution…since it had already occurred.  Of course by “revolution” he meant the authoritarian counter-revolution, not the American revolution, let alone any R3volution to restore the ideals of ’76.

Furthermore, Garrett underscored the permanence and near irreversible nature of the administrative state by articulating three reinforcing spheres in which the state made itself dominant and absolute. The welfare state, the system of international managed trade, and the system of collective security.  These were all solidly in place by the end of the Korean war.  These were each covered by an installment in his trilogy of essays, The Revolution Was(1938), Ex-America(1951), and The Rise of Empire(1952). (Note: the whole trilogy was packaged as The People’s Pottage , 1992)

Subsequent to Mr. Garrett’s analysis, but implicit in it, we see that so-called conservatives cavil at the welfare state, but accept it as the price of empire, while so-called liberals cavil at the empire, but accept it as the price of the welfare state.   Thus the people, through their representatives in Congress, were not liable to overrule the autonomy of the state bureaucrats, since the policy outcomes were always amenable to one or other section of the politically active classes.

A New (albeit false) Hope

Garet Garrett pointed out that at no specific point was the system of Constitutional government abrogated.  Rather, the Constitution was simply ignored and a substitute system of norms evolved to face changing contingencies.  Mr. Garrett dubbed this “Revolution within the form,” or in more exact nomenclature “counter-revolution within the form.”

The remedy therefore became opaque, since it was not a question of  legislating a new constitution, but of reasserting the salient provisions of the original, but neglected, law.  At the time of FDR the judicial branch occasionally still used it powers to limit the scope of the federal administrative state, a stance which was commonly thought to be the main justification for the doctrine of judicial review.  However, since that time, and especially since the ’60s the courts have become progressively (pun intended) subversive of the idea of any sphere of authority outside the administrative state.

An alternative to judicial redress was the possibility, however unlikely, that the American people would elect a libertarian president, or at least a kind of anti-FDR who would restore the Republic to its original vitality.  I had occasionally heard such sentiments voiced in libertarian and conservative circles prior to the election of Mr. Trump, however most people were surprised when the scarcely hoped for became incarnate in the form of a celebrity non-politician.  Or as it turned out, not.

We are left with what we should have started with, the prospects for political education and its impact on the legislative branch.  We now know that the “Hail Mary! pass” to a heroic chief executive doesn’t work.  Why? Because the theory of the unitary executive only works when it is in the interests of the administrative state.  When the chief executive opposes the interests of the (albeit “his own”) managerial class, the unitary executive crumbles like a sand castle at high tide.  We are at the high tide of statism.

If there is a silver lining to the present circumstances it is that the legislative branch can still throw a monkey wrench into the works, for good or evil.  In theory, a legislative branch that responded to the long range interests of the people, which is not that of the managerial state, could reverse the (counter-) revolution.  In theory, the right way to the right kind of freedom can be found…if only after exhausting every other way first.

 

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Africa through the Leftist looking glass

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 4, 2017

Leftist “Afrocentrism” is not Africa-centric at all, rather, it is Negative Euro-centrism

The cardinal, and supposedly indisputable, fact which determined modern Africa’s destiny is what people generally refer to as “The Partition of Africa” as if Africa were a huge cake that was cut into slivers by greedy and importunate dinner guests.  Indeed, there was a conference held in 1885 to ratify the European states’ spheres of influence in Africa, and it set the standard for determining the boundaries, not just of colonial Africa, but the territorial limits of today’s independent states.  Thus this phrase, and the image it evokes, has endured as the beginning of all disquisitions and inquisitions into the matters and morals of modern Africa.

Unfortunately this notion of “partition” fails the reality-test.  Apart from the history of European diplomacy, the “Partition of Africa” has no utility or even meaning.  In order to divide something up, the “something” has to first exist as a unified entity, and (except as a geographical concept) there never was any such thing as “Africa” to divide up.  In contrast, when historians speak of the division of Poland in the 18th century, they are referring to something concrete.  There was indeed a unified historic Polish state which suffered dismemberment at the hands of Prussia, Russia, and Austria.  Poland disappeared, its neighbors were enlarged.

This is not what happened to Africa.  Granted, something very important did happen in and on the continent of Africa during the late 19th century, and it happened (primarily) through the intervention of the European powers.  However, the actual process was precisely the opposite of a partition.  What happened circa 1885 to the various peoples of Africa was a process of forced unification, not forced division.  From the point of view of genuine Afro-centrism, or what might be more objectively called “ethnological realism” the 1885 event is better described as the (forced) unification of the African territories.

Yet somehow the myth of a division of a non-existent country called “Africa” has persisted in the collective imagination of world history.  The original impetus for this myth was, as everyone might suspect, the ignorance, chauvanism and pride (I abjure the term “racist” but you get the general point) of the European ruling classes at the height of Western world power.  It no doubt flattered them to think that they were able to enforce their will on territories who’s indigenous populations had no say in the matter whatsoever.

I won’t be going into the pros and cons of colonialism, a vast subject.  Rather, what I am arguing is the reality or otherwise of a single thought-construct, the “partition” of Africa.  After 1885 Africans found themselves inhabiting much larger political units than they had ever experienced before.  Some aspects of life in these larger units were beneficial, some were degrading, and let the chips fall where they may in each department of evaluation.  However what happened post-1885 was a unification rather than a sundering.  Sundering did occur in isolated instances, as when a boundary was arbitrarily drawn through the middle of a village, or though the grazing territories of a nomadic tribe.  However these were the exceptions which proved the rule.  The rule was that Africans woke up to a new reality, and in this reality they now were thrown into political relations with people whom they had had little contact with previously.  And these other people were not just the Europeans, but, most importantly, other Africans as well.

It is this unification which was the salient reality at the dawn of modern Africa, not sundering.  However, to say that unification was salient is not by any means a value judgement.  The pros and cons of this unification are all arguable, what is not arguable was its reality.  In fact the history of African politics, and of the rest of the world’s attitude towards Africa, largely revolves around the pros and cons of large political units.  Indeed, this is a theme which is hardly unique to Africa.  What is a nation?  What is a state?  What is the relation between these two, and are either of them or both of them good or evil?  This has been a universal theme since at least the times of the American and French revolutions.  However events on the African continent can throw these themes into either sharp relief or obscurity, depending on what kind of moral handle one has on the issues.

My thesis is that the political left has grabbed these issues at the wrong end, and that conventional discourse has slavishly followed the tone set by the left.  It is as if we had a telescopic view of Africa but were looking through the telescope from the wrong end.  This has had disastrous consequences, both for Africans and for everyone else.

Ethnographic realism and Federalism, Negative Euro-centrism and the unitary State

The seemingly abstract discussion above has more than historical relevance.  It is true that much of  Africa experiences debilitating social and economic conditions.  Furthermore, it is true that outside agents play a disproportionate role in the affairs of African states.  However it is singularly unhelpful to label these concrete conditions the result of “neo-colonialism” when in fact they are manifestations of the same globalist system which interferes in the affairs of non-African regions.  Due to the weakness of African political systems organizations such as the IMF, the World Court, and the so-called “peace keeping” UN military play the exaggerated role that they would like to assume throughout the world at large.  The reason why they are unable to play this role universally is that states outside Africa are stronger and less amenable to outside pressure.

And why are African states notoriously weak?  The general consensus is that “tribalism” (variously defined) keeps the political situation of all but the most stable African nations in a state of perpetual turmoil.  This is certainly true, however people have been analyzing the phenomenon of “tribalism” through the leftist looking-glass for several generations, and still no solution has been found to this problem, if “tribalism” is indeed a problem.  The leftist-Marxist view is that every African nation should have a unitary state, which will then enact economic and social planning to lead its population out of poverty and dependency.  Any groups which stand between the individual and the state are seen as running interference with this program are deemed reactionary.  Prominent among these groups are tribes, ethnic, and kinship organizations.

Does this sound familiar?  It should, since this has been the left’s prescribed rout to utopia throughout the world, not just Africa.   Worldwide, this started at the end of the 18th century, when the Paris Jacobin government abolished the provinces (the “tribes” of France) in favor of direct rule over localities by centrally appointed “prefects.” (N.B.:  This policy was extended to French West and Central Africa in the 20th century, and was inherited by the Francophonic states after independence.)

However in the case of Africa, the left ultimately envisions a continental union.  Hence the Marxian endorsement of the outmoded and Eurocentric notion of a “division” of the African continent circa 1885AD.  This is bad historiography but shrewd politics, since it gives substance to the myth of an undivided continental polity which should be restored in the future.  In fact what happened was not a division, but a forced unification of vast territories which have now become the nations on the African map.  If there had been no such forced unification there would have been no general problem of “tribalism” since the forcibly unified tribes would have been nations in themselves.

What has been done has been done, and today’s African political units are, and will remain, multi-ethnic.  This can be either a blessing or a curse.  If we look at it from the left-wing viewpoint, which I am equating with advocacy of political centralization, it interferes with the smooth operation of a unitary state.  However there are alternatives to this viewpoint.

The salient alternative is federalism, or having weak central governments and strong local governments.  The fewer rewards which can be contested at the national level, the less likely it is that various groups, ethnic, religious or otherwise, will have an opportunity to come into conflict.  Thus federalism, in any region, but notably in Africa, is likely to diminish the likelyhood of inter-group friction.

Advocates of political centralization generally fail to contest the above premise.  Rather, they claim that strong unitary states are necessary to resist outside pressure, generally framed as “imperialist” or some kindred threat.  However, even here the case for centralized unitary states is dubious.  In fact it is far easier for outside political forces to subvert a single political head than to deal with a multitude of layered political agencies.

Yes, the root problem in Africa is the one factor that the left refuses to blame: excessive political centralization.  Federalism would keep contentious ethnic forces from each other’s throats, and furthermore would minimize, though not eliminate, outside political interference in the affairs of the various nations.  The forced political unifications of 1885 are irrevocable, but their negative effects can be mitigated through decentralization.

Should be be surprised that the political solution for African nations is the same as the political solution for other regions of the world?  After all, the root human condition is the same everywhere.  That is what the left professes to believe.  Why doesn’t it endorse local autonomy and limited government everywhere on Earth?  Perhaps because it has simply adopted its historiography from its alleged imperialist enemies.

“Division of Africa” indeed!  Would that it were so.  We need smaller political units on every continent, so that people can easily trade, cross borders, and be friends.

 

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Mr. Trump’s deepest, darkest secret revealed!

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 26, 2016

He’s a Centrist!

Sarah Palin just found out, but I figured it out earlier…and psychologist/cartoonist Scott Adams probably had discerned the secret long before anyone else.  Surprisingly, the liberal media covered for Mr. Trump in this particular instance, battening down the kind of tight lid they normally reserve for Ms. Clinton’s emails.

Mr. Trump isn’t a Conservative, he’s a Centrist!

Of course Trump had blurted it out long ago.  In a candid moment (for he has no other kind) he declared, “This isn’t the Conservative party, this is the Republican party, get used to it!”  Few seem to have deduced a confession of Centrism from the statement, which is unsurprising since the prospect is so alarming that most political minds would banish the notion to that untidy abyss where mental monstrosities lurk.   After all, a genuine Centrist would be something new in American politics, a terrifying possibility which, in lieu of getting used to, we had better examine critically. Well, do you know anybody who voluntarily describes themselves as a “Centrist”?  I thought not.  We all want to be a little weird, trending to the left or right to assert our personal quirks.  As individuals we will have nothing to do with Centrism, but collectively….ah, there’s the rub…

Then again, what the heck is a Centrist, that Mr. Trump should be such a creature?  Perhaps the via negativa is our surest line of inquiry into the matter.  Thus we should proceed by a process of elimination, and winnow away the pseudo-centers until we get to the real core, the genuine marrow…or perchance that hole in the political doughnut called Centrism.

First we must dispense with the great national myth of Centrism, a hoary relic which functions, as intended, to make political and historical thought impossible.  Once, so we are told, there was a time in the primeval depths when we were all Centrists.  There were wonderful leaders, men like Lyndon Banes Johnson, who inherited a great country and aimed to keep it that way.  There were eloquent bards like Walter Cronkite who could express the American mind with an unequivocal unanimity, and dub this the “national consensus.”  Then there was some sort of terrible falling out, the bowl of Centrism was broken, and from its shards the warring demons of Left and Right were born.  So we are told.

We are not told that this so-called Centrism was a ploy to marginalize debate on the national level and consolidate a political duopoly.  If such be the case then this mythical “Centrism” can bear little resemblance to Mr. Trump’s politics, which is opening up new questions and exposing old divisions between the political class and the rest of us.  A painful process no doubt, but one which is essential if politics is to have any meaning distinct from administration.

A more recent form of alleged Centrism might be called Rhino-centrism.  Alas,  this is not an amiable obsessing over riparian mammals of the upper Nile, but a political disease.  However like the Blue and White Nile, Rhino-centrism is a confluence of two currents, crypto-liberals in search of power joined with conservatives willing to compromise for the sake of sinecures and security.  Confusingly, the former stream is called “neo-Conservatives” but at the point of convergence they might as well be called Centrists, albeit of the RINO variety.  These people uniformly hate Mr. Trump, so we can only guess that their Centrism is a horned animal pointing in the opposite direction from the elephantine Trump in the living room.

Then there are the chattering classes who call themselves moderates, but who are really just conservatives who are too fearful to broach the salient issues, knowing that doing so would be like touching a naked wire.  Mr. Trump has touched that wire, and we all have seen what happened.  Better safe than sorry!  Yet if these people are Centrists, what is Mr. Trump?

I, Ideologist!

Mr. Trump is a very unsatisfactory person for those of us who deem ourselves thinkers, especially thinkers on the right.  Let’s take two issues, one popular and one fairly esoteric.  One is hard pressed to think what Mr. Trump is going to do in the case of pro-life/pro-choice.  He waffles.  One surmises that he is genuinely of two minds on the issue.  In this regard his personal meditations would reflect the non-consensus of the American people…a kind of Centrism if you will.

At the other extreme is an issue which nobody except libertarians and lawyers care about, eminent domain.  The courts are now saying that the government can seize any land it wishes if the promotion of greater social and economic welfare can be demonstrated by the state.  It doesn’t take too much imagination to see Mr. Trump, with his real estate background and utilitarian mode of thinking, concurring in this doctrine.

As a libertarian I am offended by the doctrine of eminent domain, which asserts that the Earth ultimately belongs to the state.  Not to God, not to communities, not to individuals…to the state.  Qua ideologist I could never permit myself to vote for any magistrate who concurred with the doctrine of eminent domain.  Qua ideologist I would willingly sit this one out.  Indeed, there are good reasons adduced by conservatives to throw the election to Ms. Clinton…either by not voting or by voting for Mr. Johnson.  Perhaps the best argument is that, in expectation of a recession/depression, Ms. Clinton would be the one holding the hot potato.

Eminent domain!  Eminent domain!  Oh, if only everyone could see with my kind of moral clarity!  And yet, one wonders if Mr. Trump, so egregious in theory, would be so really bad in practice.  Could he be as bad as Mr. Obama, who with a flick of the pen is trying to transfer as much land from private to federal domain as possible?  Indeed, the land acquisition policy is beginning to take on almost Shammanic overtones, with the Earth as god and the state as its prophet.  Indeed, if you think that for-profit land use is bad, and surely it can be, wait until the advent of the false prophet…for unalloyed badness!

Likewise with pro-life.  Whatever his ultimate views on human life and sexuality might be, Mr. Trump could hardly make worse Supreme Court appointments than Ms. Clinton.  And while we are at it, what about World War III?  Might that not have something to do with life?  I don’t particularly approve of Mr. Putin, but a bit of “making nice” to the Russians might be preferable to Ms. Clinton’s harrowing neo-Conservative record of “creative destruction” and foreign entanglements.

Yes, as an ideologist I am offended by Mr. Trump’s lack of principle, by his shameless ferreting out of that elusive volunte general, i.e., the general will of the American people.  It smacks of “democracy” in the pejorative sense that Edmund Burke gave to that term, indeed, as a new form Centrism, simultaneously bold and enigmatic.  Yet, as a human being I am persuaded that we can live with Centrism…indeed, that we may not be able to live without it.

 

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