Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Why Marseilles in "Stillwater"


Why Marseilles in “Stillwater”

Peter Schultz


            The setting for Matt Damon’s movie, “Stillwater,” is Marseilles, France, where a young American woman is in prison for a crime she claims she did not commit. Matt Damon plays the woman’s father, who is seeking to get his daughter released after five years in prison. There will be no spoilers herein but the setting of Marseilles is an interesting one in light of its history during and after WW II.


            “In 1947, Marseille was the main trading port of the French colonial empire and it had a Pro-Soviet mayor, Jean Christofol, who was backed by the labour unions for longshoremen, transportation workers, and dockworkers. In the coming Cold War, both the center-left French government and the US tried to fight Soviet influence in Marseille while occasionally employing illegal means to further their goal: the Guerini gang was employed to disrupt union and electoral gatherings, back strikebreakers and support US-funded anti-Soviet labor unions.

“From the 1950s to the 1960s, the Guerini brother were exempt from prosecution in Marseille. The Guerini brothers trafficked opium derivatives illegally imported from French Indochina using the services of the Messageries Maritimes, a French merchant shipping company.

“From the 1960s to the early 1970s the major Corsican gangs called Union Corse by American authorities organized the French Connection, a heroin trade between France and the United States.”

            In other words, the US and Gaullist France used the Corsican mafia to remove communists or Soviet sympathizers from power, and replace them with the Corsican mafia after WW II. And in return for getting rid of the communists, who had been active resistance fighters against the Nazis during WW II, the Corsican mafia was given free reign to peddle their drugs and engage in other criminal activities.

            When you see the movie or if you have already seen the movie, you will appreciate how this history colors the actions of Matt Damon, creating a context in which an angry American seeking justice in Marseilles might appear as hypocritical, and even arrogant to the point of blindness about his situation. Americans seem to think that they can move through the world, allegedly seeking justice and freedom, without having to account for their past or present injustices and viciousness. As Gore Vidal use to say, “We live in the United States of Amnesia.” And that seems to be the case.


Monday, August 23, 2021

The Biden Presidency: High Hopes


The Biden Presidency: High Hopes

Peter Schultz


            I have high hopes about the Biden presidency because it could prove to be revelatory. That is, as Biden’s presidency flounders about, as it will no doubt do absent another 9/11 or 1/6, it might become obvious that the most important problem isn’t this or that presidency but the presidency itself.


            That is, it should become obvious that it is the presidency, the office itself, that has led to US imperialism, to the desire, shared by both conservatives and liberals, to regain or remake American greatness by imposing America’s will on the world. The presidency is an office that rewards will rather than deliberation, and it was intended as such. We expect our presidents to be “strong,” to act, much more than we expect them to be deliberative. Deliberation and execution don’t go together very well, while strength and action seem almost to define an executive power like the presidency. So, it is the presidency that allows politicians to take for granted that the US should seek to impose its will on the world, to seek and achieve greatness. And it has been this pursuit of greatness that has undermined the American republic, replacing It with an imperialistically inclined national security state.


            This aspect of the presidency, this danger, was known and commented on when the Constitution was being debated in 1787-1788. Patrick Henry claimed in the Virginia ratifying convention that the proposed constitution “had an awful squinting;” that is, it squinted in the direction of monarchy. And that meant it squinted in the direction of creating “a great and mighty empire” where there must be “an army, and a navy, and a number of things….” [Storing, 31] The proposed constitution looked to make the United States “respectable as a nation abroad, and rich as individuals at home” in order to achieve “the grandeur and importance of America until time shall be no more.” [30-31] As a result, the United States would “imitate…those nations who have gone from a simple to a splendid government….Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire….”


            The presidency would sit at the center of this great and mighty empire, both as its chief executive and as its commander in chief. Presidents could clothe themselves in military attire and ride at the head of the army, while nursing “dangerous dreams of national glory.” And what better way to gain national glory than by waging war, especially waging war endlessly. An Anti-Federalist argued that the happiness of the people depended more on the proper conduct of local affairs than on “all that glory and respect which nations achieve by the most brilliant military achievements.” Such achievements would shower the president with glory but would do little to secure the happiness of the people. As Patrick Henry said: “When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.” Americans should not “inquire…how you are to become a great and powerful empire, but how your liberties can be secured.”


            That the presidency was seen as potentially dangerous impacted how the presidency was constructed after the Constitution had been ratified and implemented. Washington saw the dangers, as is evident from his Farewell Address and his attempt, successful for a long time, to establish term limits for the presidency. He also refused to veto legislation unless he thought it was unconstitutional, deferring to the legislature in the making of laws. And as Hamilton argued in his Pacificus papers, the president was responsible for keeping the nation out of wars until they had been declared by the Congress. It was the president’s job to preserve the peace, while only the legislature could create a state of war. Jefferson ratified presidential term limits, as did every president until FDR ran and won a third term. And Jefferson helped create the process of congressional caucuses nominating presidential candidates, thereby modifying presidential independence. Some have argued that the creation of national nominating conventions was motivated by a desire to channel presidential ambitions in ways that would tie presidents to party platforms while advancing mediocre rather than meteoric candidates. Great men were not wanted in the presidency insofar as such men sought the glory that comes from undertaking great political projects like freeing slaves or enslaving freeman, as Lincoln put it in speech on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”


            So, perhaps it is time and a good opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the dangers of presidential power insofar as Biden has promised to seek normalcy after the disruptive Trump presidency. In the Trump presidency, as Biden seems to sense, one could see the dangers of presidential power as it has come to be on display. But those dangers weren’t due simply to Trump. They were and are also due to the presidency itself as an office that seems to beg for willful occupants, those who want to act without the deliberation needed to act wisely.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Reform Politics v. Care Politics


Reform Politics v. Care Politics

Peter Schultz


            I ran across these words in Christopher Lasch’s book The New Radicalism in America, in discussing Randolph Bourne: “If politics is defined as the impulse to reform society, as the tendency to elevate ideas into programs, then it is clear that the political impulse was by no means dead.” [p. 90]


            For some inexplicable reason the words “reform society” hit me and I began to wonder, despite the fact that these words and this view of politics is very common, whether this is the only or the best description of politics. What would happen if politics were to be defined as “building communities” rather than “reforming society?” Which is or should be the essence of politics and what’s implied by these different conceptions of politics?


            To “re-form” a society implies that its existing form is wanting, even that it needs to be “un-formed” first, and then reconstructed using “materials” not inherently present. For example, in “re-forming” a society, the emphasis is on “elevat[ing] ideas into programs;” that is, programs not natural or pre-existing, bureaucratic programs, programs administered by the government. On the other hand, communities require care or nurturing, which is a very different thing than creating and administering programs. You could say, for example, that Socrates was caring for, nurturing Athens and Athenians and was not interested in creating programs. Programs are, by and large, an alternative to caring or nurturing.


            For example, public schools are in the business of “re-forming” youth and are not, officially, caring or nurturing youth. The youth need to be “re-formed” because in their natural state they are unfit for, do not fit into society. So, as is often said, education is “socialization.” “Re-forming” society or youth implies that naturally, in their original condition, both societies and human beings are deficient in the sense of lacking things they cannot supply. And so caring and nurturing are of only marginal importance when it comes to “reforming” society. “Socialization” replaces caring and nurturing as the key to re-forming societies.


            On the other hand, communities are defined by caring and nurturing. Caring and nurturing are what make a community a community. Without caring and nurturing, there cannot be community. To say that politics should be about creating and maintaining communities is to say that the most important political tasks are caring and nurturing, which also implies that humans, in their original condition, have the potential to care and nurture other human beings. It may even be said, if you look at their behavior, that humans want to care and nurture others and are fulfilled when they do so. This is what Aristotle meant when he wrote that humans are “political animals,” they want to live in communities.


            So, reform politics and caring politics are very different phenomena, and they lead in very different directions. As noted above, it may be said that Socrates engaged in politics because he cared for Athens and Athenians, as illustrated in Plato’s dialogues and quite clearly in the Crito, where Socrates, using bad arguments, reconciles his friend Crito to his, Socrates’, impending death because Socrates knows that both Crito and Athens will be better off if Crito is reconciled in this way. Despite being treated unjustly by Athens and some Athenians, Socrates treats both Athens and Crito justly while demonstrating his caring for and nurturing of both Athens and Crito. So, if Socrates was a revolutionary, as he was, then he was a caring and nurturing one and this impacted decisively on his behavior.


            It seems to me that reform politics ends up, willy nilly, being or becoming militant. Re-forming society requires defeating the opponents of reform; that is, these dissidents are seen as unfit for the re-formed society. These dissidents become “enemies of the state” and should be dealt with accordingly, which of course would not involve caring or nurturing them. Re-formed societies must have “executive powers,” that is, the power to execute their programs and their enemies. Re-formed societies are militant through and through.


            It might also be the case that re-formed societies embrace, sooner or later, a transformational politics. That is, in their efforts to create re-formed societies, the reformers discover the need to embrace totalitarianism or the “extension of the political into the most intimate areas of existence.” [Lasch, p. 90] “….[I]f by politics one refers to the traditional business of government and statecraft, taxes, tariffs, and treaties,” then politics in the reformed society is “almost immaterial.” [90] Issues such as childhood, education, language, and sex are politicized and, before long, “culture wars” replace the more traditional political battles over taxes, tariffs, and treaties. In the US, what is rarely commented on is the fact that both sides in these culture wars are seeking to transform or “re-form” American society. Both sides are, willy nilly, totalitarian and for that to succeed they need “transformational leaders,” leaders with “visions.” So, the success of reformed politics turns on the existence of visionaries who possess a “will to power.” And needless to say, such visionaries are uninterested in, even opposed to caring and nurturing. It is relatively easy to see that much could go wrong.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Modern Project: Fanaticism Disguised as Realism

The Modern Project: Fanaticism Disguised As Realism

Peter Schultz


            In an essay entitled “The Heavenly City of Business,” Eugene McCarraher provides an illustration of the fanaticism that is buried in the modern project. Quoting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman:


“For globalization to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower it is. The hidden hand will not work with a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.” [p. 186 in The Short American Century, ed. by Andrew Bacevich]


            As McCarraher goes on, calling attention to “the religiosity” of Friedman’s language, that “Friedman salts his edict in unmistakably religious language.“ Thus, “…we glimpse an eschatological vision;….the commodity as sacramental token, material conveying the essence of the American spirit; understand corporate expansion culminating in judgment rendered and punishment administered.” [p. 188]


            There is, it seems to me, a fanaticism buried deep within the modern project or, it might be said, lying at the very heart of the modern project. As McCarraher points out, “Eschatology is always a narrative for a just and beloved community, ample with delight, innocent of violence, and complete and unceasing fulfillment. We long, as Augustine put it, for a ‘heavenly city’” but end up with “facsimiles of heaven that sometimes achieve imperial dimensions.” [188] And, of course, as Friedman’s argument illustrates, these facsimiles are only made possible and maintained by violence. And this fanaticism has been embedded in America’s history for a long, long time.


“…the American drive for global domination was not some fall from a state of republican grace that occurred after 1945. The roots of the modern American Century lie in an indomitable conviction, first articulated in Puritan theology, that business success was a sign of God’s providence and a token benediction for mastery over others.” [189]


            It has been argued persuasively that the moderns, that is, Machiavelli and those who have followed him, “lowered the standards,” that is, the ends sought in order to guarantee success. Hence, these moderns have been labeled “realists,” who, unlike the “ancients” such as Plato and Aristotle, rejected “idealism.” As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, he was not interested in imaginary republics but was, rather, interested in “the effectual truth.” He was interested in “what works,” and was unconcerned with imagining the best political order.


            If, however, in place of saying the moderns have lowered the standards we say that they politicized the standards, a different picture emerges. By politicizing the standards I mean they sought success, worldly success consisting of security, prosperity, some liberty, and generally “the amelioration of the human condition” in this world. To succeed in this fashion, the most important ingredients are power, overwhelming power, and a willingness and ability to use it, even in what Machiavelli described as “inhumanly cruel” ways. Or as Hamilton said in the Federalist, “secrecy, energy, and dispatch” are the key ingredients in any government worthy of the name.


            But it seems that in order to use such power in such ways, it is necessary to embrace the idea that the results will be worth it. That is, it is necessary for those with the power and those who have legitimized its use to believe that the results will be a transformed world, a world that is a “just and beloved community, ample with delight, innocent of violence, and complete and unceasing in fulfillment.” That is, it is necessary for those with the power and those legitimizing its use to believe that they can create heavenly cities here on earth. And, of course, once that is believed, then those who stand in the way of such a world must be dominated or even exterminated.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Some Thoughts on Tocqueville and Religion


Some Thoughts on Tocqueville and Religion

Peter Schultz


            In reading Marvin Zetterbaum’s book Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy, Zetterbaum argues quite sensibly that Tocqueville turned to religion “to remedy the deficiencies of the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood.” As did the founders of the American political order like George Washington who in his inaugural argued that it was essential for the nation to follow “the eternal rules of order and right” that were provided by religion. And in his Farewell Address, Washington said the “morality can[not] be maintained without religion.” So, Tocqueville, like other moderns, used religion to serve political purposes, as Zetterbaum pointed out.


            However, it would be better to say that the moderns used religion for worldly purposes. That is, religion was used to, e.g., allow the American experiment to succeed, where succeeding means obtaining power, security, prosperity, some liberty, or in a word “greatness,” or “empire.” The advantage of emphasizing how religion was used for worldly purposes is that other, even religious institutions – like the Catholic Church – may be said to have used religion for their worldly purposes, for their success, for their greatness, for their empire, for their fame, for their “immortality.”


            And this raises a question about the assertion that the moderns “lowered the standard” in order to guarantee success of their project. Is it that the moderns lowered the standard or that they politicized the standard, meaning that the standard became success or greatness? A lot turns on the difference. Because if the moderns politicized the standard, then it means that they fanaticized it by implying that the human task is or should be the pursuit of greatness. This pursuit of greatness leads away from the polis toward nations, as Machiavelli demonstrated, and, of course, nationalism is a kind of fanaticism or points toward a kind of fanaticism.


            So, fanaticism is then buried deep within the modern project. In fact, it might be called the essence of the modern project. And so when fanaticism appears, say as in the Inquisition or during the Holocaust or in a war terror that aims to eliminate evil from the world, we ought not be surprised.


            And isn’t the crux of the differences between Plato and Aristotle and, say, Pericles and Athens, just this? That Plato and Aristotle turned away from greatness or empire and tried to turn political life away from the pursuit of greatness and empire. It may be argued, for example, that Socratic politics was characterized by a double turn inward. First, Socrates wanted Athens to turn inward, that is, turn to domestic affairs rather than foreign affairs or empire. Second, Socrates wanted the Athenians to turn to the pursuit of virtue, of “making your soul the best possible,’ which required most importantly being just.


            Religion, spiritually understood, would represent such a turning away as was wanted by Socrates. But once religion is co-opted, made to serve worldly purposes, made to serve political purposes, it forfeits the capacity to have human beings turn away from the pursuit of success, from the pursuit of gratification, from the pursuit of greatness, from the pursuit of a kind of immortality, whether that pursuit be personal or political. And so it is not clear that while the use of religion might be beneficial in some ways, it cannot be useful in the most important way, that is, as an alternative to political fanaticism. In fact, as we have seen repeatedly, religion so used will in fact be used in the service of political fanaticism.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Assessing Obama: The Audacity of Embracing Conventional Values


Assessing Obama: The Audacity of Embracing Conventional Values

Peter Schultz


            Below is an email exchange with a friend. I hope you enjoy it. I know I did.


On Wed, Apr 19, 2017 at 4:18 PM Peter Schultz <lpkschultz@gmail.com> wrote:

Interesting piece. Seems balanced to me……to you too? 



On Aug 3, 2021, at 7:33 AM, Matthew B. wrote:

From The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
"Eventually, my rejection of authority spilled into self-indulgence and self-destructiveness, and by the time I enrolled in college, I'd begun to see how any challenge to convention harbored within it the possibility of its own excesses and its own orthodoxy.  I started to reexamine my assumptions, and recalled the values my mother and grandparents had taught me.  In this slow, fitful process of sorting out what I believed, I began silently registering the point in dorm-room conversations when my college friends and I stopped thinking and slipped into cant: the point at which the denunciations of capitalism of American imperialism came too easily, and the freedom from constraints of monogamy or religion was proclaimed without fully understanding the value of such constraints, and the role of victim was too readily embraced as a means of shedding responsibility, or asserting entitlement, or claiming moral superiority over those not so victimized" (Obama 30-31).


On August 3d Peter Schultz wrote:

Well, golly gee, Matthew, I thought one reason young people left home to go to college was to stretch, if not break, the influence of the family and its conventional moral base. If Family values were to be questioned, even challenged, it would be beneficial to leave its confines and enter the “academy”. Apparently, if we are to believe Obama’s account here, when he went to college he ended up not challenging the family’s conventional beliefs but reinforcing and then re-embracing them to avoid “the excesses” of challenges to “convention.” Or, perhaps, he became aware that in order to be a success and be honored and even achieve fame as a result of that success, it would be “prudent” to embrace the conventional “values my mother and grandmother had taught me.” So much for “denunciations of capitalism or American imperialism.” I guess Obama didn’t meet any teachers who could successfully challenge the lessons he learned from his mother and grandmother. I was more fortunate at Wake Forest where I met those who challenged me to question the conventional values I had imbibed at home. I feel sorry that Obama didn’t get to experience something like that, sorry both for him and for the nation.