The Clare Spark Blog

December 3, 2012

Index to blogs on Lincoln, Sumner, Reconstruction

Lincoln, March 1865

Lincoln, March 1865

https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/. (Sumner’s advanced views and links with Captain Ahab)

https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/

https://clarespark.com/2011/03/30/eric-foners-christianized-lincoln/.

https://clarespark.com/2011/09/29/the-abraham-lincoln-conundrum/. (on attempts to link Lincoln with FDR and other moderates)

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/28/popular-sovereignty-on-the-ropes/.

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/. (on negative views of Charles Sumner)

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/.

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/09/lincoln-the-movie-as-propaganda/

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July 4, 2012

Index to Fourth of July blogs

Sumner as painted by Eastman Johnson

I included the most substantial blogs on America’s favorite holiday. The whole website is dedicated to the ongoing interpretation (including distortions) of the Declaration of Independence.

https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/  (Sumner argued that the Declaration of Independence had the force of law, hence must be seen as an anti-slavery document.)

https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/

https://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/28/popular-sovereignty-on-the-ropes/

https://clarespark.com/2011/10/04/coulters-demons-melville-john-adams-on-the-late-18th-c/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/

https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/21/milton-mason-melville-on-free-speech/

https://clarespark.com/2015/07/03/lets-pretend/

https://clarespark.com/2015/07/04/patriotism-perfectionism-excessive-parental-expectations-and-ocd/

April 1, 2012

Secularism and the Affordable Care Act

I asked my FB friends what they thought the word “secular” meant, and got a number of responses suggesting that it meant one thing: atheism.

It appears that the culture wars have done their job: to most of the responders, “secular” signifies atheism, which may indicate narcissism, nihilism, and amorality to them. But in its older meaning, pre-culture wars, “secular” simply referred to matters of this world, as opposed to other-worldliness in religions that emphasized heaven and hell. But more significantly, secularism is a political science term that refers to the separation of church and state, meaning that no religion has priority over others, and that no religion is the established state religion. In the U.S. we enjoy religious pluralism. But triumphalist religions have managed to minimize the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the separation of church and state. And culture warriors such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich have turned “the secularist” into the bogey man, insisting that the Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence before it, was divinely inspired, rather than the institutionalization of natural rights. But read the Federalist papers and see that Hamilton puts ultimate authority in the people, which is another word for popular sovereignty. Just as (later) in the French Revolution, power, knowledge and virtue had passed from Kings and Church to the People, who would then comprise the red specter to this very day, at least in the U.S. The U.S. Constitution was written to create a strong and effective national government, and owed its inception to epistemological materialism and to the Enlightenment. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/09/02/spinoza-as-culture-critic/.)

Alexander Hamilton was a church-goer, but to his most venomous critics he was not just a bastard-upstart, a foreigner, and a monarchist; he was a crypto-Jew, i.e., a variant of the anti-Christ. Recall that the Reformation convulsed Europe, with protestants (of many stripes) being defined as heretics by the outraged Catholic Church, who went on to purify their practice in the Counter-Reformation, a development that went on to censor such as Spinoza and other freethinkers at a time of burgeoning literacy among the lower orders.  (See Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel’s 2001 book on Spinoza and censorship throughout Europe following the underground publication of his works; there is now a shorter work published in 2009 treating the Radical Enlightenment and the roots of democracy. But I view J. Israel as a social democrat and doubt that we have the same genealogy for democracy and free thought, since my vanguard includes such as Hayek, von Mises, and the Friedmans, but not Maynard Keynes.)

For decades, I have followed the academic assault on empiricism, medicine, and psychiatry (including the “historicizing” and discrediting of all of the mental health practitioners, Freudian and non-Freudian alike). Doctors do not share any one religious or non-religious orientation, but they do focus their training on healing the sick, which means studying the human body in various states of health, trauma,  and disease. Theirs is a secular profession, but one that finds itself in conflict with those religions that see sickness and health as dispensations from God, as part of God’s plan for the individual and for the world. Thus we find unresolved and perhaps unresolvable conflicts over such practices as abortion, contraception, abortifacients, embryonic stem-cell research, and assisted suicide in the terminally ill.

I find it odd that in all the publicity over the Affordable Care Act that these culture war issues have not been emphasized, yet the cost of medical care and what is covered or excluded is related to larger conflicts over appropriate professional intervention in the processes of life and death. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the ACA comes from the religious Right that correctly fears government-run “death panels” or other instances of rationing (see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/29/james-pagano-m-d-on-affordable-care-act/). They are not paranoid in this respect. In an ironic coalition, God-Squads and Doc-Squads may find themselves on the same side.

Illustrated: Top: Jonathan Israel, Middle: Spinoza toy; Bottom: Joel Strom DDS, organizer for www.docsquads.org.

March 31, 2012

Nell Painter’s History of White People

Rather than summarize the scope of Nell Painter’s book, I ask you to read this review by a sympathetic colleague. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Gordon-t.html?pagewanted=all.

As  Linda Gordon’s NYT review makes clear, Nell Irvin Painter, a much honored historian, has written The History of White People (Norton, 2010), directing this synoptic intellectual/cultural history to a popular audience, hence biting off too big a chunk of history. Not so surprisingly, Professor Gordon, a well-known left-feminist, does not launch an ideological critique, for she shares the same social democratic/New Deal belief system. Gordon is a noted historian of the welfare state and feminist issues, but since she is of the same faction as Painter, she could not identify the slant of Painter’s book, which mocks the notion of cultural syncretism and the melting pot in favor of a salad bowl or multiplicity of American identities, defined in terms that rooted cosmopolitans would recognize: see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/).

Briefly, Painter reiterates the left-progressive (but not Marxist*) story of American identity, one defined in racial terms: American identity, the echt example of Manifest Destiny masquerading as universal messianic liberator, was in fact racist, imperialist, classist, sexist, etc. Howard Zinn could have written this book, and did. American identity is nowhere related to the revolutionary character of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or to the uniqueness of the conception of popular sovereignty—a notion of popular participation that would require several centuries and bitterly fought conflicts to be worked out, and even then, thanks to the unhelpful interventions of many progressives like Painter and Gordon, was undermined by boundaries to education established by corporatist liberal elites and their allies and pets, the teachers unions. For a chronology see https://clarespark.com/2011/10/24/turning-points-in-the-ascentdecline-of-the-west/.

The corporatist liberals are a movement of patricians who attached themselves to “intercultural understanding” as a solution to looming class politics from 1900 on, and who were especially threatened in the 1930s, when materialist analyses were prominent and popular. (See my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. Ralph Bunche and other anti-racist blacks—especially Abram L. Harris–writing in the materialist tradition and in opposition to German Idealism, are absent from her book, along with such as white antiracists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and many abolitionists, also Anglophiles in the sense that they celebrated libertarian ideals.)

In Painter’s account, New England Puritans were the bad guys whose ancestors framed the Magna Charta (dissed by Painter), and whose descendants were (with the exception of Ruth Benedict) nativists associated with the Republican Party. All other Americans (obviously blacks, but also non-Aryans) were  their victims.  But recent trends in intermarriage have blurred the sharp racial lines that were established by “scientific racism.” The latter is an ideology forged in Germany and England, and then eagerly taken up by American Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and those she associates with him, Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant  [although Zangwill dedicated his The Melting Pot to TR]. Into the brew add a host of American eugenicists and evil statisticians, who not only persecuted Appalachian whites and ethnic groups from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, arbitrarily designating themselves (the WASPS) as the natural elite and true white people, but originated, avant la lettre, some of the most repellent Nazi practices and beliefs.

Along the way, Professor Painter, like other social democrats, presents herself as a sympathizer to the working class and to anarchists and communists absurdly hounded by the proto-Nazi Republicans in the riotous and strike-ridden year of 1919. (Readers of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism will find some of the same miscreants, e.g., Margaret Sanger, only in his widely admired book, it is progressives who are the fascists and Nazis.) And yet, Painter does not recognize or acknowledge the German Romantic predecessors to multiculturalism and Nazism alike. Nor does the term “organic conservative” darken her palette. (See these take shape in the interwar period in numerous venues as I laid out in several blogs: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/, https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, https://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/.  In other words, the progressives and Southern Agrarians were as enamored of “Anglo-Saxon” collectivist/corporatist categories as the uniformly racist Republicans she taunts throughout.

I do not know why Painter wrote this book unless it was meant to lure Reagan Democrats away from the Republican Party, back to the Democratic Party as it has evolved under President Obama. Her work reminds me of a common designation by 1930s Stalinists whereby all Republicans were Fascists, whereas the multicultural Soviet Union was the home to the most amply realized freedom of the individual.

One or two last words: Although Painter is hostile to antisemitism, she is not sympathetic to Israel, or to “Jews” who insist on “having the last word.” I did find her description of Hiram Powers’s “The White Slave” to be a useful key to identifying the erotic appeal of Katherine McPhee’s big number in the last episode of Smash. Dressed in white drapery, country mouse McPhee as Marilyn Monroe, is hounded to death and caged by her [Jewish?] masked promoters/fans, with her allure defined by whiteness and the chains (bars of the cage) that link purity, sex, and submission. But any hip feminist would have seen through that one.

Hiram Powers' White Slave

*Marx admired the American Civil War as one of the great world revolutions. His communist supporters, writing in The New Masses during the 1930s, admired America for having developed the productive forces that would make the transcendence of capitalism a practical possibility. In those days, one could find radicals who admired the bourgeoisie as a progressive class. The New Left, mesmerized by black nationalist militants and Afro-centrists like Nell Painter, scrubbed away that interpretation of U.S. history. I rather  like her paintings however.

"Plantains 3" Nell Painter

January 28, 2012

Popular sovereignty on the ropes

I restarted my study of the making of the Constitution last summer, by reading the Federalist papers. I was very excited by Hamilton’s insistence on popular sovereignty as the fountain of authority that must guide the entire national government. (See “…The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Federalist #22. Hamilton’s emphasis, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]  Hamilton stressed the power of the House of Representatives as the most direct route to popular control of government.  I was somewhat shocked as the prevalent [Jeffersonian] line on Hamilton is that he was an aristocratic thinker, a quasi-monarchist, who declared at a banquet that the people were “a great beast.” This latter slap at popular sovereignty was disseminated by medievalist Henry Adams and no one has found any source to confirm Adams’s claim. And unlike Stephen Douglas (1813-1861), Lincoln’s opponent in the election of 1860, Hamilton was an abolitionist, and would not have approved Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty as a route to the expansion of slavery.

So popular sovereignty is linked, not to Rousseau’s notion of the general/popular will (an idea taken up by the Jacobins and by many leftists today), but to the deliberations of a representative republic in which, presumably, the House of Representatives is recognized by the other branches of government as the “pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”

We find ourselves in campaign season 2012, in a condition where “the consent of the people” is a dream. In this polarized polity, characterized by a mish-mash of religious, class, ethnic, and gender politics, plus a stunning ignorance of political science, economics, and American and European history and its bevy of authoritarian social movements, “the people” is a convenient fiction of demagoguery, trotted out as counterpoint to special interests/”the nanny state.”

What is a writer with a popular audience to do? What can educators, including parents do to instill the mental habits that would make a representative republic more than a recruiting slogan for conservatives wishing to restore the divine origin of such innovations as the separation of powers and checks and balances, all treated in The Federalist? “God” is barely summoned in The Federalist; rather these pamphlets were a scientific, materialist proposal and defense of an unprecedented national government that would halt the slide to chaos and failure under the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the U.S. Constitution, and before that, the Declaration of Independence were products of the Enlightenment. “We” were “Nature’s nation” and for many, bearers of a providential mission to lead the world in political democracy. When Charles Sumner asked “Are We A Nation?” in 1867, he envisioned “the people” as the repository of those rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and these “human rights” were universal, and, quoting James Otis, “without distinction of color.” (Sumner also nodded to The Federalist and Alexander Hamilton). For more on Providence and American mission, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.  Rooseveltian internationalists, leaders of the American Studies movement, were fond of trouncing the Founders and Herman Melville’s character Captain Ahab as messianic and rabidly imperialistic. Thus “American exceptionalism” has come to signify the overweening desire to dominate the globe, rather than the invention of a nation grounded in natural, i.e., universal human rights: life, liberty, and property. However guided by “Providence,” Sumner, echoing Hamilton, insisted that “We the people,” not “We the States” were the source of legitimacy for the Constitution.

Although the President, along with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has called for the beefing up of “education,” neither one suggested a debate about the curriculum, particularly who decides what is the proper training for would-be citizens. And by citizenship, I refer to a person with the critical tools to read the messages that affect all our choices. Here is where “protestant pluralism” founders on the rocks of neo-tribalism, “local control,” anti-intellectualism, populism, proto-fascism, and other man-traps. We are cathected to leaders who pander to our pre-existent prejudices or to reverence for ancestors, to the fear of an eternity in hell, to the presidential horse-race that the media promote, and to groupiness and partisanship in general. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/06/groupiness/.) We are constantly agitated and may enjoy the inner turmoil and suspense that a political campaign offers. Or we may feel helpless and permanently unrepresented in both high and popular culture, so turn inward to self, or to family, friends, employment, sports, and sex/personal appearance as primary sources of identity and purpose. Patriotism is taken to be a tic of “the Right,” not exemplary loyalty to human rights without distinction of color.

What I complain about here regarding our distorted and irrational political culture may seem so cosmic, so impossible to rectify, that a sane person must give up on this country and its survival as a representative republic. Indeed, the powerful historian Edmund S. Morgan denies that we ever had anything resembling popular rule, nor does he appear to be sanguine as to its prospects. (See his 1988 publication: Inventing the People, in which he concludes that we have moved from the politics of deference to the politics of leadership, i.e., the manipulation of public opinion.) So to be concrete, I suggest that each person concerned with her or his child’s education, encourage that child to look up the phrase “popular sovereignty” and to urge her or his teachers to discuss it in the appropriate grades. But first, look inside, and what do you see?  A terrified conformist, a romantic renegade, or a competent voter–a faithful seeker after truth, the universal truth that is the foundation of human rights and the glory of American nationality?  Captain Ahab, arousing his crew to find and fight Leviathan, echoed Milton’s Satan in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, when Ahab/Satan declared “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Are We a Nation? For more on Alexander Hamilton and the search for truth see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/ (retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke).

October 30, 2011

Collectivism in the history establishment

Gordon S. Wood, prize-winning historian

I have spent the last week trying to read Gordon S. Wood’s first book, The Creation of the American Republic (U. North Carolina Press, 1969), perhaps an expanded Harvard U. dissertation written under Bernard Bailyn. It was the beginning of Wood’s stellar career in writing the history of the early Republic, and an example of what was called in graduate school “the republican synthesis” as put forward by the most left-liberal professors in the field. If Wood is correct, then my prior enthusiasm for Alexander Hamilton’s bow to popular sovereignty in the Federalist Papers, is sorely misplaced. Rather, I am to view the Federalists as confidence-men, who cunningly adopted the time-worn phrase “popular sovereignty” (a feature of monarchies too) to install a fundamentally aristocratic government that did too much for individuals and the meritocracy, while betraying the “out of doors” “mobs” that had not only fought for liberty in the Revolution, but legitimated a Constitutional Convention in 1787 (319, 363, 382).

Although to read the Federalist papers, one might think that the Constitution advocated a government that was grounded in the House of Representatives, complete with separation of powers and checks and balances, in Wood’s reading, natural aristocrats (562 and passim; i.e.,  Alexander Hamilton, crypto-Jew*) sneaked in a government that made the Presidency tantamount to a monarchy and the Senate an aristocracy, while the judiciary would ever thwart the will of the truly democratic, public-interest-minded People, who were only apparently in control of the House of Representatives. This is populist reasoning that would find its apotheosis in the New Left that identified “corporate liberalism” as the enemy (big business and the state in cahoots at the expense of the little guy), and in the popularity of Noam Chomsky and in the OWS movement that has roiled the media for the last month. (i.e., corporations are NOT people).

I am not sure that I fully understand Wood’s argument. I certainly do not agree with one statement that seems to be crucial. After a long paragraph on the luxury debate (republican simplicity is threatened by pomp/consumerism, hence the source of decadence), Woods writes, “Like Puritanism, of which it was a more relaxed, secularized version, republicanism was essentially anti-capitalistic [what?** C.S.], a final attempt to come to terms with the emergent individualistic society that threatened to destroy once and for all the communion and benevolence that civilized men had always considered to be the ideal of human behavior. Right from the beginning of the Revolution there had been some Americans who had doubted the ability of any people, including the Americans, to surrender their individual interests for the good of the whole.” (418-419)

Here is another quote that suggests that the Federalists had cunningly co-opted the [indescribable, who were too diverse to put into one bag] Antifederalists: “Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments, their continual emphasis on the popular character of the Constitution,*** their manipulation of Whig maxims, their stressing of the representational nature of all parts of the government, including the greatly strengthened executive and Senate. In effect, they appropriated and exploited the language that rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics that was never again closed. [He goes on to say that “the real social antagonisms of American politics” were masked. The Federalists should have said that they were really aristocrats.] (562)

So is republicanism a good thing or a bad thing? This seems to be the double-talking voice of agrarian radicals, such as  Jefferson and Jackson, then the Progressive movement and of the New Deal, appealing to present-day “out-of-doors” democrats, massed to complain of “inequality.” It necessarily looked backward to an imagined medieval polity, where the Good King unified the people in a healthy body politic, one that had happily delegated the power to speak and act for themselves. It is a strange construction of Liberty, but also an awkward attempt to see nothing but “communion and benevolence” in a reinterpreted, truly “living Constitution” that ostensibly protects capitalism, unlike its pseudo-democratic pseudo-capitalistic predecessors in the 18th century. Think of FDR and his foiled attempt to pack the Supreme Court.

*Stephen F. Knott quotes Wood: “…Hamilton led a faction in the 1790s that ‘was promoting the interests of financiers and monarchists at the expense of the general public'”(208). Knott’s chapters 5 and 6 take up the Hamilton as Jew theme, citing such as Father Coughlin, Ezra Pound, and (subliminally) William Carlos Williams. See Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (U.Kansas Press, 2002): 112, 128ff. A particularly offensive line from Pound, writing in 1954: “Hamilton was a kike, a red headed scotch chew.” Knott also emphasizes throughout that Henry Adams was the origin of the fourth-hand rumor (taken to be fact by all the subsequent Jeffersonians) that Hamilton stated that the People was a great Beast. Henry Adams’s opposition to modernity and to Jews is not in dispute.

**Perhaps Wood was thinking of John Winthrop, who is often quoted by left-leaning liberals as a model for the New Deal. I laid out the Antinomian Controversy (1636-38) here in a four-part essay: https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/. Winthrop wanted medieval-type wage and price controls, while Hutchinson foreshadowed market economies.

*** When I was in graduate school at UCLA, Gary Nash pointed to the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 as the model of direct democracy. I suspect that Gordon S. Wood also compares more complex governing models to this example of popular radicalism. For instance, Pennsylvania at that moment had a unicameral legislature elected every year; also the state militia enlisted men elected their officers. This type of democracy harkens back to the Levelers of the 17th century English Civil War, and Wood makes the comparison himself. But I should not single out Gary Nash. The “republican synthesis” referred to the anticapitalistic Country party in England, that opposed Walpole’s economic measures, and was espoused by Joyce Appleby and her graduate students. Nash and Appleby were the chief organizers of the much contested National History Standards, and are both left-liberals. For a contrast, see Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (UP Kansas, 1985): 67, and fn25. Republicanism, he argues, contradicting Wood, commonly signified representative democracy. Not that FM discounts the penetration in America of Country party Opposition in Britain. Republicans in b0th North and South feared selfishness and effeminacy, though FM distinguishes between Northern puritan republicans and Southern physiocrats; the corrupters were “Standing armies, priests, bishops, aristocrats, luxury, excises, speculators, jobbers, paper shufflers, monopolists, bloodsuckers, and monocrats….” (77). McDonald is a self-described “paleoconservative” and also an indefatigable researcher.

August 1, 2011

Alexander Hamilton’s rational voice of the People

Hamilton, Madison, Jay, a.k.a. “Publius”

[Update, 4-18-17: despite the efforts of some academics such as Stephen F. Knott, AH is the villainous Founder, responsible for big government and the rule of money. So say the Progressives and their progeny. The Broadway show “Hamilton” is an outlier, perhaps its message of upward mobility inspired the cast and writer.]

This is an excerpt from Hamilton’s Federalist paper #22, a synoptic review of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and an argument for a strong national government. I am choosing a passage that seems to me to be directly relevant to the current debate over extending the debt ceiling.

I will quote only a portion of this lengthy document, and then offer a short comment of my own regarding my own strong response to words that seemed to leap from the page, reassuring me about the need for a thoroughgoing education in republican political theory in all our schools, in this case, the potential peril of a forced consensus.

[Hamilton, #22:] “…The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number, will over-rule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.  And yet, in such a system, it is even fortunate when such compromises can take place: for, upon some occasions, things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impractibility of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savour of weakness; sometimes border on anarchy.

…The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Hamilton’s emphasis. End excerpt, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]

[My comment:] Hamilton’s remarks, though taken out of their immediate 18th C. context, seem applicable to the frustration all rational persons must feel as the prolonged debate over the debt ceiling may or may not culminate in some highly flawed, even “contemptible compromise,” so that government will not grind to a halt.  But what inspires me is the “elitist” Hamilton’s final remark affirming popular sovereignty. Throughout The Federalist Papers we find the same commitment to reason, specifically to concrete analysis of the material challenges that faced the new nation. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison did not appeal to “tradition” that had ever favored King and Church as the fountainhead of “legitimate authority.” Even though the men who argued for the Constitution were sharply at odds over some policies, they agreed that the American republican experiment was unprecedented, and the most enlightened in human history–a Novus ordo seclorum. Measures for educational reform, insofar as they construct a better curriculum, cannot ignore the fundamental rationalism and materialism of the Founders. “Live free or die,” is not merely the motto of New Hampshire; it is the very essence of American exceptionalism.

For more on Hamilton’s Federalist #22, see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/28/popular-sovereignty-on-the-ropes/. The essential word here is rational. Hamilton was horrified by the mayhem of the French Revolution, and thought that the Constitution should protect us against mobs and demagogues. There is a strong implication in his view of popular sovereignty that education is crucial, that is, education in politics, rhetoric and its decoding, economics, and all the skills that would make for citizens, but not citoyens in the sense that Robespierre would have meant.

April 4, 2010

“What is truth?”

Giotto’s Pontius Pilate

Wander about public space these days and wear dark glasses, for it is very bad out there, and friends can turn out to be bosom enemies. I cannot recall a period during my lifetime (with the exception of the 1960s) when our country was this polarized about the very meaning of words.

In the pivotal chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab addresses the crew in an attempt to gain their allegiance as he pursues the White Whale, leaving commercial considerations aside. At the climax of his peroration, he declares, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is not a statement that has inspired much commentary from the academic establishment that tries to control acceptable [i.e., anti-Ahab] readings of Melville’s masterpiece, but it has inspired me for decades, and made me a renegade. In my reading, Ahab’s ruling idea is ultra-democratic and aligned with the antislavery men and women for whom the immorality of slavery was paramount. It also recapitulates the significance of popular sovereignty as partially established in the American and French Revolutions, and prefigured in the English Civil War of the 1640s. Over a period of centuries, mobs have been turned into citizens*, a process that is nowhere near complete, either in the West or elsewhere.

To continue Captain Ahab’s impudent assertion:  ruling classes, whether they were comprised of English aristocrats or Southern slaveholders who dominated the American government in the antebellum period (while Melville was writing his major fiction), could not keep their secrets from the public with impunity. (See Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a book Melville read before he commenced on his great whale hunt.) These new “levelers” (my sympathetic readers and I) expect the powerful, like all others,  to cough up the truth so that citizens may choose their representatives, not out of coercion or blind charisma, but because concrete policy, enunciated without double-talk,  protects them and helps improve their condition.

I looked for images of Pontius Pilate on the internet, and was not surprised to see a website entitled “What is truth” that asserted the subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. That is the winning line in our age of multiculturalism, an ideology and a practice that asserts that cultural (read “racial”) differences mean just that: we cannot reach each other over the “racial” or national divide to arrive at an agreement over what is or what is not a fact, as opposed, say, to an opinion based on limited knowledge. That we are all entirely irrational is now the ruling ideology, and if you want a job in academe or wish to ingratiate yourself with the mass media establishment, you had better adhere to that line. Sadly, some persons of my acquaintance who have a background in science, seem to doff their hats to power when they leave their laboratories or classrooms. When challenged, they wash their hands and defer to force. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/.)

*Think about the title of the “greatest”  movie ever, Citizen Kane. I had focused previously on the link to Cain and the Wandering Jew myth, but the word “citizen” is ironic and suggests that the writers had a dim view of the French Revolution, emphasizing the Terror as its essential gesture, rather than the movement away from absolute authority toward popular sovereignty.

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