Reflections on American politics from one who thinks the republic needs constant attention.
Monday, January 31, 2011
Government and Extremism, a continuation
My earlier blog began with some stuff from the NY Times that struck me as odd, viz., that according to the Times, the U.S.'s "overriding concern is that the same people who are clamoring for change [interesting choice of words here] could choose leaders who are hostile to the U.S., or are even extremists."
So, two possibilities scare us: hostility to the U.S., whatever that means, and "extremism." Now, first, the hostility part, whatever that might mean. I mean I have some hostility to the U.S. and especially its government. Apparently, even the Fox News people have some hostility toward the U.S. these days, no? Certainly Tea Partiers and even or especially "liberals" have hostility, are hostile to the U.S. these days too, no?
My point? What kind of standard is this? Either it is meaningless or it is meant to conjure up pictures of gun-wielding fanatics or crazies, like Loughner, who have, quite inexplicably not realized that the U.S. is on a mission that will benefit the entire world, if not the cosmos as well! How could anyone, especially in the Middle East [as we call it; they who live there call it "home"], be hostile to the U.S? I mean, after all, we just got through with invading Iraq and killing thousands of its civilians to "help them" and to make "the world safe for democracy." Is this the thanks we get - "leaders who are hostile to the U.S."? And this is especially troubling in Egypt where we have spent billions helping to prop up Mubarak and his rather repressive regime over the course of the last 30 years. Talk about being ungrateful!
But the other standard - "extremism" - got me thinking - or asking: "Who are the extremists here, the protesters, the rebels, or Mubarak and his government?" And because this seemed to me like a strange question to ask, I asked another: "Why does it seem so strange to ask if those in power, those in government, are extremists, and not those in the streets?" Then I thought: "Hey, maybe this has something to do with the idea, the phenomenon of 'government' itself." That is, maybe the connection, blurred as it is, between "government" and "extremism" is not an accident or an aberration.
Then I thought about Machiavelli, whom I consider the creator or inventor of "government," at least in the modern sense of that phenomenon. After all, Machiavelli is known as "a realist," that is, as one who knew what had to be done to get where we - that is, we human beings - want to go or get to how we want to live. [The latter question was not difficult for Machiavelli: Human beings, most of them, want to live comfortably, relatively freely, while perhaps enjoying some glory or grandeur that comes from living in a "great nation," that is, one noted for its power, its prosperity, and its development, a lot like ancient Rome. I will return to this question soon.]
Maybe Machiavelli was a realist because he knew, "discovered" might be too strong a word, that extremism is absolutely essential as the foundation of any decent, that is, relatively stable, prosperous, and free, society. Also, Machiavelli realized that what was necessary at the outset is also necessary at other times, times of danger, or that is all the time because dangers are always present or almost present. The "best" statesmen see these dangers coming and act against them when others don't see them. A chilling thought if you think about it.
Ah, but here a difficulty arises: Extremism is, willy-nilly, threatening and people, at least most people, shy away from it, a behavior that seems to make sense given the dangers of extremism. So extremism needs to be hidden, not to say domesticated. [An important distinction I suspect, but only suspect now.] Where can we hide the necessary extremism, the necessary extremists? Answer: Government. More particularly, in a powerful and/or energetic government which will draw those attracted by extremism into it and foster or strengthen their tendencies, their desire for extremism. Here it is hard to beat Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist, speaking about the love of fame: "...the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds,...prompt[s] a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit...." And, of course, for his fame or glory or even his immortality. [We are still quoting Hamilton!]
So, draw these types into government and their extremism may be made to look like something else entirely - for example, necessity or rationality. It might go something like this: "Hey, I hate to torture human beings or kill innocent civilians, but I have to do so. You cannot make mayonnaise without breaking some eggs. You cannot create and maintain a decent society without breaking some heads. It takes great courage or resolve for me to behave like this, but I will do it - and let the consequences be damned."
And there is or could be considerable truth to this speech as a troublesome issue raises itself: What if we human beings have "souls" and these "souls" are harmed by doing injustice? This was the basis for the question Socrates bugged everyone with: Is it worse to suffer or to do injustice? Our answer, like Machiavelli's and the Athenians: It is worse to suffer injustice and, hence, we allow ourselves to kill, maim, and torture innocent human beings because this is "realistic."
But even Socrates' question gets lost in the business of government, which is I think precisely what Machiavelli intended. There is work to be done, "extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit" that must be undertaken, even if the cost to ourselves or "souls" is dear. Extremism lies hidden in the recesses of our government, of any modern government and this is what the Egyptians in the streets are rebelling against. It is most interesting that in taking what is labeled a "careful" or "prudent" stance toward the events in Egypt that our president is seen not as a supporter of extremism but as a moderate. And the beat goes on.....As Jefferson said, a little revolution every so often is a good thing. He knew, I think, from whence he spoke.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Government and Extremism
"A little revolution every now and again is a good thing, as healthy in the political world as storms are in the natural world." Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, circa 1776.
Sometimes what is written in a newspaper is most revealing about our blindness. For example, in the New York Times, dated Saturday, January 29, 2011, the following paragraph appears: “In each case [Middle Eastern countries], the overriding concern is that the same people who are clamoring for change could choose leaders who are hostile to the United States, or are even extremists.”
A couple of things at least. First, do those people “clamoring for change” view themselves as “extremists?” I don’t think that they do. I think that they think that Mubarek, the leader of Egypt, is the extremist. And, of course, there are some pretty good reasons to think that they are correct. After all, Mubarek has ruled Egypt for 30 years but only with the help of rigged elections – where he garners something 88% of the vote – and with the help of his “secret” police – who are of course not “secret” to the Egyptian people!
But, of course, those “clamoring for change” must be extremists because they are out in the streets and, worse than that, refusing to obey the duly constituted authorities. However, again, this is illusionary because according to those in the streets, there are no “duly constituted authorities” in Egypt. The government is illegitimate and oppressive or it is illegitimate because it is oppressive, a thought that should not be strange to a people who began their “peoplehood,” as it were, with a Declaration of Independence justifying treasonous war in the face of similar oppression.
This points me in the direction of another observation, more interesting to me than the first one: Government is a way of hiding extremism and extremists. I would argue that this is precisely what Machiavelli understood about government, as well as others like Max Weber [who understood modern bureaucracy better than most]. That is, government disguises extremism and extremists, making them look like the “duly constituted authorities” even while they pursue schemes and projects and policies that can only accurately be described as extreme.
Don’t believe me? Well, ask yourselves: Isn’t a war waged against a tactic, say “terrorism,” extremist, as well as one waged to eradicate evil or “a war to end all wars” or “to make the world safe for democracy?” All of these justifications have come from the “duly constituted authorities” in the United States. But what about “a war on poverty,” or “a war on drugs,” or “a war on crime?” [For those in my presidency class this semester, a question: Is the office of the presidency an excellent way of disguising or hiding, by legitimizing, extremism? Sounds like a good final exam question to me.]
Or, to take another example, one that hits closer to home for me and where I work and live: Who are the extremists on college campuses, the students or those BOBs – Basic Old Bureaucrats – who are trying to change what they call “student culture,” a “culture” that seems rather impervious to the BOBs attempts to change it? As I just realized, it is the students who are presented to us as extremists, that is, they allegedly go to extremes when it comes to sex, drinking, and even apparently “freaking out,” if the latest survey on student “stress” is to be believed. But isn’t this like saying that it was not Socrates’ proposal in the Republic for the rule of philosopher kings, including the arranging of marriages, that was radical but, rather, those who would resist such rule? This seems to be a wee bit insane, does it not?
But aren’t those BOBs who are most committed to their project of rationalizing life at Assumption College, and at other colleges and universities that tolerate and promote what is called the “Student Life” movement, the extremists? After all, what sane person would think that it is possible, to say of nothing of desirable, to rationalize human life on a college campus where young people congregate not to be “socialized” but, rather, to be free one last time before they enter what is called “the real world?”
And isn’t this true of those who would rationalize human life generally, whether that rationalization is seen as the work of “the free market” or the work of a pervasively powerful government as allegedly proposed by liberals?
Ah yes, they are extremists. But put these people in a government, make them “officials,” and watch what might well be called “a magic show:” The extremists disappear into “government officials” or BOBs or others who have committed themselves to participating in the attempt to rationalize human life. The point here is: The extremists disappear into the government and reappear in those who resist! And, of course, perhaps the worst of the newly created extremists are those who point out, call out, this “magic show.” So, those who see most clearly are called extremist. But then Plato/Socrates knew this too as illustrated by the Republic. And don't forget what happened to Socrates!!
Friday, January 28, 2011
Obama's State of the Union
A Story and A Point
Based on Walter Karp’s book Buried Alive
The story first:
“Once, on a radio discussion show, the moderator, vexed with me for ‘tearing down America,’ began delivering a long harangue about the horrors of dictatorship in Yugoslavia, a country he had recently visited. How then, he asked in conclusion, could anyone really criticize American politics when you compare our freedom with Tito’s repressions? That is the true internationalist voice of the nationist. He extols liberty in America by comparing it with despotism abroad. The republican, by contrast, compares liberty in America with one standard only, the one established in the principles and promise of the American republic itself. To the nationist, new-fashioned patriot of the twentieth century, American is always a nation among nations.”
From what I gather Obama, in his State of the Union address, compared the United States with, among other nations, China to show that we are lagging behind. That is, Obama did not compare the US to China to “extol” us but to criticize us, to show that we needed to “shut up and get to work.” [Obama of course used code for this latter phrase.]
Now, by doing this, notice how Obama mimicked or copied the moderator mentioned in Karp’s story, and also spoke as a “nationist” and not as a “republican.” [The small “r” is crucial here because even Republicans are “nationists.”]
And think about it: What questions disappear as a result of Obama’s argument? [One possibility: Distribution of wealth in this “republic.” Another possibility: The state of our political order today, ala’ the Tea Partiers’ concerns.] What questions become prominent? [One possibility: How to make sure that when more people go to college so they can compete in the “new” globalized world economy their education will be sufficiently vocational or useful.]
Generally speaking, is the rhetoric of our presidents “republican” in the sense of being focused on whether or to what extent “We the People” or our government are reaching those standards “established in the principles and promise of the American republic itself?” Or is it “nationist” in the sense that it directs our attention overseas and makes us think that our greatest challenge[s] are abroad, thereby blinding us to the challenges that confront our republic here at home?
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
A few passages from Karp with relevance today
“the citizen-turned-nationist,” Karp, pp. 19-20, Buried Alive
“The virtues of the citizen-turned-nationist would be simple, logical, and straightforward. For the sake of the nation, whose strength abroad demands ‘complete internal peace,’ he would do all that ‘internal peace’ requires. He would forego the exercise of his liberties – to speak, to act, to voice independent judgments – and urge his fellow citizens to do likewise, for the sea of liberty is turbulent and weakens the nation in the performance of its ‘international duties.’ For the sake of internal peace he would rest content with his lot and cease dividing the counsels of the powerful with selfish demands upon his government. In domestic affairs he would mind his own business and ask for nothing. In foreign affairs he would mind everyone else’s business and call hotly for action. Eternal vigilance, liberty’s steep price, he would willingly abandon because only a people that shows ‘confidence’ in its rulers can provide them with the power to act forcefully abroad. Mutual respect, which citizens pay to each other simply because they are fellow citizens, he would replace with the patriotism of mutual suspicion – ‘positive polarization,’ as a presidential administration would call it fifty five years later. His own ‘vital patriotism’ he would display by condemning as ‘disloyal’ and ‘un-American’ those who still cherish the republic and still fought to preserve and perfect it. Sedition, the crime of weakening the nation by critical words, he would undertake to root out among his neighbors (‘America – Love it or leave it’), although officially no such crime exists in America. Such was the new-molded citizen envisioned by the warmongers of 1916 and extolled every since by the promoters of nationism.”
Think of JFK’s inaugural address and the famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” [Recall another possibility, one a citizen might ask: What is my government doing to me? Ah, but of course this possibility falls outside the purview of a president who was said to head an administration popularly referred to as “Camelot”!]And keep in mind that a colleague of Dr. Schultz has characterized him, jokingly, as being “anti-American.” Of course, that colleague is correct if being an American means being what Karp calls a “nationist” or what I would call a “nationalist.”
Friday, January 21, 2011
The Two Americas
But that is a line of speculation for another day. Today it occurred to me that these two Americas are also embedded in our Constitution as well. Particularly, I was thinking about the presidency and, more particularly, about the impeachment process. My recent research has convinced of at least two things, First, there has been a political campaign, at least since the impeachment of Richard Nixon, to lay the impeachment provisions of the Constitution to rest, to kill them, to render them moot. As a result, Nixon argued before he resigned that a president could only be impeached and tried for crimes, that is, statutory crimes. Presidents could not be impeached and tried for what might be called "political offenses," such as violations of the principles of the Constitution as interpreted by the Congress. Moreover, in this light, Nixon's decision to resign is significant but more significant was the decision of the House leadership not to pursue impeachment after Nixon had resigned. By this logic, impeachment is about removal from office, not about accountability in office. For most practical purposes, this guts the impeachment process as it was conceived by the men who helped create it, men who were after accountability as well as removability.
And this is the second thing I have concluded about the impeachment process: That it was intended to be a tool by which government officials, and especially presidents, could be held accountable for their actions while in office. And this accountability need not eventuate in removal from office. In fact, the tool works best in ensuring accountability if it is clearly disengaged from removability. For example, Clinton's impeachment would have made much more sense had the Congress adopted what was clearly the intention of the Constitution, viz., that conviction for "impeachable offenses" need not result in removal from office. Clinton's behavior certainly did not warrant removal from office, at least not for most people, but it did warrant castigation or condemnation, even a public shaming as it were. Half joking, maybe a scarlet letter would have been appropriate!
So understood, the impeachment process is clear evidence that there are two presidencies or two presidential possibilities embedded in the Constitution. There is the presidency of, say, Richard Nixon, where the underlying principle is: "If the president does it, that means it is not illegal." This is the presidency that is above the law and even above legal standards, perhaps even those embedded in the Constitution itself. This is a reflection of Hamilton's "energetic executive," an executive capable of and encouraged to act with "secrecy and dispatch."
Then there is the presidency of impeachment provisions, an office that can and should be held accountable for its occupants actions, and not merely those actions that violate the law. This presidency would have to answer for its actions, such as Nixon's "secret bombing" of Cambodia [an article of impeachment that was not approved by the House against Nixon] and the Reagan administration's actions "supporting democracy" around the world, actions which were described by none other than Ollie North as much more controversial than the diversion of funds during the Iran-Contra scandal. This presidency is a reflection of Hamilton's argument in the Federalist that the impeachment process was created to be "a national inquest," that is, an inquest into what Hamilton labeled "political offenses," not criminal offenses.
Anyway, worth thinking about on this snowy Friday when classes have been cancelled and I am waiting to blow some snow!! Go Jets!!! Go Bears!!!