“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, July 22, 2005

what is it like to be a voter?

I am, stripped of a few eccentricities, a Keynsian liberal. However, I think liberalism's attempt to shake the existential edge off politics is futile and ultimately damaging. The left, when it is healthy, and the right, when it is not, both know that politics is all about dread and ecstasy.

That politics might be an existentialist errand is very much part of what I take to be the salient characteristic of contemporary election-based democracies. To get to that characteristic, let me quote a recent comment to one of our posts by Kmort, and then let me tell you why I believe his point is misguided:

“The Rousseauian impulse is I believe a big problem of yankee politics. Populism is as bad for authentic liberals as it is for the more intelligent conservatives. With a few higher standards for voting--say basic reading comprehension test at the polls (I would say ex-felons who pass it should be permitted to vote) or a college-degree requirement think of how much more accurate and meaningful the vote would be.”

If election based democracy is simply about input from those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, the “Rousseauian impulse,” which gives a free ride to those who have no such grasp, would seem fatally flawed. However, I don’t think election based democracy is about those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, at least if that grasp is defined in terms of having informed opinions about policy. In our opinion, a philosophical defense of democracy has to begin with a better description of how voting functions in a democracy in the first place. What kind of feed back is voting? I propose that we look for the answer to that question using Thomas Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat?

Now of course Nagel’s essay doesn’t seem like it is about politics at all. It is about the narrow set of questions that are posed by the cognitive sci school to frame the problem of consciousness. And, famously, Nagel suggests that these questions do not pose the central problem of consciousness at all : “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.”

What it is like questions grab hold of subjectivity, rather than deductive activity:

“We may call this the subjective character of experience. It is not captured by any of the familiar, recently devised reductive analyses of the mental, for all of them are logically compatible with its absence. It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing.2 It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons.3 I do not deny that conscious mental states and events cause behavior, nor that they may be given functional characterizations. I deny only that this kind of thing exhausts their analysis. Any reductionist program has to be based on an analysis of what is to be reduced. If the analysis leaves something out, the problem will be falsely posed. It is useless to base the defense of materialism on any analysis of mental phenomena that fails to deal explicitly with their subjective character. For there is no reason to suppose that a reduction which seems plausible when no attempt is made to account for consciousness can be extended to include consciousness. With out some idea, therefore, of what the subjective character of experience is, we cannot know what is required of physicalist theory.”

The defense of the participation of the people in the government has traditionally been couched in terms of their education and their information about the policy issues. The Kantian dictum about enlightenment -- that it is the people treated as adults, or grown into their adulthood -- is often taken to be about the people educated. Relieved of their superstitions by some suitable immersion in the bath of facts. However, to me the "adulthood" does not stand for a list of facts known. It stands for a complicated system of controls on behavior, for the capacity for a range of emotions, for imagination, for empathy, etc., etc. In the same way, defining the voters participation in the government in terms of checking things off the list of things known is much like defining the consciousness solely in terms of deductive or inductive mechanisms. Or, at a stretch, in terms of intentionality.

The picture I am against is like this: your educated voter looks up candidate x’s view on the issue of lowering or raising tariffs on the import of bananas, and looks up candidate y’s view of same, and – deciding which view accords with his own intelligent view of banana importation – votes accordingly. Votes, in fact, can be reduced to a digital function: for/not for.

I think this is a bare and distorted view of what voting is about, and how it functions in a democracy. The voter, on this account, merely confirms or disconfirms views represented by x and y. On this basis, we think, democracy has no real strength that would explain not only its survival, but its survival in competition with its rivals of all sorts. It would simply be a system with a lag in the decision making process, called an election, as opposed to say tyranny, where the lags are unpredictable, and are called the hysterical fits of the ruler. Since it is unlikely that any voter has the amount of knowledge to make a competent judgment about not only the banana import issue, but, say, subsidies to the ethanol industry and car safety standards and the proper foreign policy to assume towards Gabon, if election based democracies depended on a set of voters with competent listable knowledge alone, I wouldn't give it much chance of survival.

The question of success, here, is often obscured by the rhetoric of morality. Democracies are supposed to possess some moral superiority. I have my doubts about this. Any time a political system becomes dominant, you find intellectuals busy justifying the system as morally superior. So far, the most long lasting governmental arrangement known to man involved the ruler marrying his sister and being acclaimed, at some point or another, a god, before his dead body was embalmed and interred under a certain tonnage of rock. In my opinion, this doesn’t sound like the height of morality, although it makes for very impressive postcards. We think that the success of democracy, given the success of other governmental arrangements in the past, probably does not have to do with its moral status, and probably has more to do with structural qualities it possesses.

This is the reason I don't think voting is well described by the Lockean model. I don’t think voters are like that. I prefer the Nagel voter. The Nagel voter votes, of course, in the for/against mode. But the Nagel voter votes from what it is like to be him or her. This is why the motives of the Nagel voter aren't simply confirming or disconfirming, and why the appeal to him or her is going to be about the emotions around the issues, or the issues as passions. And why the idea that is sometimes bruited about by liberal commentators about injecting ideas into a race and the scandal of not doing so is wrong – not wrong morally, but wrong organizationally. When, for instance, in the last election, the Swift boat veterans threw mud at Kerry, it was a perfectly legitimate ploy. After all, we are voting for someone who is going to have mud thrown at them constantly. The people who believed the mud were likely not going to vote for Kerry anyway. But the people who were persuaded by that ploy were not persuaded so much by the idea that Kerry was, I don’t know, a coward or a traitor – it wasn’t the ideational content, in other words, that moved them – as much as they were moved by the response. This isn't to say the better man was elected. It is to say that politics is about electing politicians, not better men. And that the system's success is peculiarly linked to what makes politicians successful.

Of course, polls are not sensitive to these things: polls ask questions about itemized issues, in a pre-digested sentiential form. There are, of course, millions of Lockean voters out there, and they are variously scandalized by the lack of intellectual content in American political campaigns. And LI has sympathy for that indignation. In fact, my indignation is easily aroused about what I see as gross stupidity on the part of politicians. Or about lies. Etc. Of course, the latter is a good instance of the situatedness of a political slant. I find the lies leading up to the Iraq war very upsetting. But I find the lies Clinton used to cover up his sex with Monica Lewinsky very irrelevant, a proof, at best, that laws against sexual harrassment in the workplace have been badly framed.

Just as I don’t want to throw deduction out as the enemy of consciousness, we don't want to entirely junk the image of the well informed voter. But eventually, the voting input is about what it is like to be an Irish ex-cop in New York city, or what it is like to be a embittered ex writer and insane blogger in Austin, Texas, etc., etc.

So, in my example above, I am not as indignant about lies per se, due to my being well informed, as I am indignant because I am the type of person who gets indignant about certain lies at certain times, and that is finally due to my total situation. Now, if LI is right about this, it still begs the question of the social nature of that tacit knowledge. Votes are additive, whereas tacit knowledge is emergent. That's a perhaps inevitable discrepancy in social action. But I will reserve pondering that question for another time.

I will round this off with three paragraphs from Nagel’s essay that give us a sense of how the Lockean defense of democracy differs from a Nagel-like defense of it. The Lockean, remember, is one who, like the reductionist, believes the way to understand the functioning of a government is to find the elementary parts and their combinations. And, above all, to avoid the non-discursive. For the Lockean, the last sentence of the third paragraph in this quote contains an idea too shocking not to be wrong, since it seems to make it impossible to perfectly combine rationality and government. And, after all, if government is simply decision-making – with its past being a series of decisions made, and its future a series of decisions to be made - then the Lockean has to be right. But if what Nagel is calling experience is not a decision – if it is a style, a set of attitudes, unpredictable variations among language games – and if experience is what democracy depends on, then the decision to suspend a voter’s right to vote, or the decision to impeach the person voted for or in some other way suspend his voted upon term, has to be done with the utmost caution, since it injures the experiential core of democracy:

“In the case of experience, on the other hand, the connection with a particular point of view seems much closer. It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character of an experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it. After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat? But if experience does not have, in addition to its subjective character, an objective nature that can be apprehended from many different points of view, then how can it be supposed that a Martian investigating my brain might be observing physical processes which were my mental processes (as he might observe physical processes which were bolts of lightning), only from a different point of view? How, for that matter, could a human physiologist observe them from another point of view?10

... This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation. We describe it not in terms of the impressions it makes on our senses, but in terms of its more general effects and of properties detectable by means other than the human senses. The less it depends on a specifically human viewpoint, the more objective is our description. It is possible to follow this path because although the concepts and ideas we employ in thinking about the external world are initially applied from a point of view that involves our perceptual apparatus, they are used by us to refer to things beyond themselves—toward which we have the phenomenal point of view.

Therefore we can abandon it in favor of another, and still be thinking about the same things. Experience itself however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense here. What is the analogue in this case to pursuing a more objective understanding of the same phenomena by abandoning the initial subjective viewpoint toward them in favour of another that is more objective but concerns the same thing? Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”

Thursday, July 21, 2005

bloodsucking for fun and profit

Sometimes it is nice to see the face of the virgin in a gimme cup. And then, sometimes it is nice to see the face of Satan in a NYT article.

The article in question is about Costco. Costco is famous for paying its CEO a reasonable salary, as such things go, and doing the same for its employees. The latter policy has pissed off certain Wall Street poobahs.

Emme Kozloff, for instance:

“Emme Kozloff, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, faulted Mr. Sinegal as being too generous to employees, noting that when analysts complained that Costco's workers were paying just 4 percent toward their health costs, he raised that percentage only to 8 percent, when the retail average is 25 percent.

"He has been too benevolent," she said. "He's right that a happy employee is a productive long-term employee, but he could force employees to pick up a little more of the burden."

And here is a Deutsche bank hoodlum:

“Costco's average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam's Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco "it's better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder."”

Dreher and Kozloff are obviously sick with that sickness unto death that is the Bush culture. LI however, wishes them no other ill than a compensation package and a health plan like a Walmart greeter’s, children who hiss and spit at them in their old age, and a lifetime of permanent nightmares in which they wander, penniless, through the ruins of a country that they have made a career of debauching, chased by the people they have systematically shit upon who are armed with a healthy quantity of good dreamtime steel pipe. From all of us at LI, at least, they have our undying hatred. We just want them to pick up a “little more of the burden” of the inequality they have spread around with such abandon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

a monument to all fictional victories

There’s a nice article by Matthew Neujahr in the April Journal of Near Eastern studies about an odd Persian text called the Dynastic Prophecies. What is odd about the text is the account it gives of the war between Alexander the Great and Darius III. As all historians know, Alexander defeated Darius, pillaged his capital, and advanced to the boundary of India. But this is what the Dynastic Prophecies have to say about what all historians know:

“The most remarkable element of the passage follows: according to lines 13-17, the defeated Persian king retools his army and then defeats the Macedonians! The bald inaccuracy of this account is all the more striking in the face of the historically accurate, and occasionally quite specific, accounts contained earlier. (13) The text is further complicated by the fact that, following this account, the first six preserved lines of the final, fourth column (after which the composition proper ends) are divided into three sections by two horizontal lines drawn across the column width. Judging by the use of such dividing lines in this and the other exemplars of Akkadian ex eventu prophecies, this would seem to indicate three more significant reigns. Caution should, however, be urged in the interpretation of these six lines, as only fifteen cuneiform signs are at all legible; further, the use of dividing lines to separate reigns is consistent neither in this text nor in the other texts of this type....

Yet any understanding of the text that posits the inclusion of reigns by Alexander's successors simply serves to problematize further the reference to Alexander's defeat. As Grayson states, "It is extremely unlikely that the 'prophet' would deliberately falsify the outcome and aftermath of such a famous and well-known battle" as Gaugamela.”

Neujahr considers the various opinions of the archaeologists about this. The fact that a kingdom is overthrown seems to be a hard thing to simply reverse. So archaeologists, being rational people, have tried to reinterpret the text to change the meaning. Maybe the Macedonians referred to are some other group. Maybe it is some other Darius. But as Neujahr shows, these versions aren’t very convincing. We like his idea:

Some scholars have defended ignoring the problematic passage in Dynastic Prophecy III by claiming that this text, and other Akkadian works like it, are not intended to be histories. And this is quite true: there is nothing behind the authoring of the Dynastic Prophecy--nor for that matter any other text, Mesopotamian, Levantine, or Egyptian, that employs extended vaticinia ex eventu [prophecy after the event]--which could be mistaken for the ideology of the modern critical historiographer. In so dismissing the bizarre episode of Alexander's defeat at the hands of Darius III, however, these scholars fail to consider carefully the purpose for which these texts were in fact composed. The fact is that the Dynastic Prophecy is not history but propaganda. Everyone who has studied the text recognizes this. Saying that this text is not "history," however, is not enough; one must consider in detail why the composers of the text should have structured their propaganda in such a way. Framing political propaganda as a prediction of the future seals the position of the propagandist with the approval of the gods, those who control the fate of humankind. The trick is to have the audience believe that the prediction is reliable. This is done by "predicting" historical events. If the audience believes that the text is authentically old, then they are led to conclude that the "history" in the text was legitimately predicted, assuring them of the reliability of all the predictions in the text.”

This sounds very much like the newsgathering ideology of the Washington Post and the NYT, doesn’t it?

We are reminded of a poem by Robert Graves: The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon/ The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon./ As for the Greek theatrical tradition /Which represents that summer's expedition/ Not as a mere reconnaissance in force/ By three brigades of foot and one of horse/ Their left flank covered by some obsolete /Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)/ But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt /To conquer Greece---they treat it with contempt;/ And only incidentally refute /Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute/ The Persian monarch and the Persian nation /Won by this salutary demonstration: /Despite a strong defence and adverse weather/ All arms combined magnificently together.

PS -- a friend who read this post reports that it is much too dense for a mere post. Oh oh! We've shortened some of the quotes. The problem, my readers, lies not in ourselves but in our easy cut n paste tools. Apologies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

cornpone warmongering

In Morley’s biography of Burke, there is a nicely painted scene depicting Burke at the height of his power and madness. It was shortly after the execution of Louis XVI. Morley, we think wrongly, claims that Pitt was wrongfooted by the execution, since the public mood turned belligerant in France. This is part of the larger version, in which Burke had finally succeeded in stirring up reaction in England to the point of violence. This is Morley’s account:

“It would be a great mistake to say that Pitt ever lost his head, but he lost his feet. The momentary passion of the nation forced him outof the pacific path in which he would have chosen to stay. Burkehad become the greatest power in the country, and was in closercommunication with the ministers than any one out of office. He wentonce about this time with Windham and Elliot to inform Pitt as to theuneasiness of the public about the slackness of our naval and militarypreparation. "Burke," says one of the party, "gave Pitt a littlepolitical instruction in a very respectful and cordial way, but withthe authority of an old and most informed statesman; and although nobody ever takes the whole of Burke's advice, yet he often, or always rather, furnishes very important and useful matter, some part of which sticks and does good. Pitt took it all very patiently and cordially."

It was in the December of 1792 that Burke had enacted that famous bitof melodrama out of place known as the Dagger Scene. The Governmenthad brought in an Alien Bill, imposing certain pains and restrictionson foreigners coming to this country. Fox denounced it as a concessionto foolish alarms, and was followed by Burke, who began to storm asusual against murderous atheists. Then without due preparation hebegan to fumble in his bosom, suddenly drew out a dagger, and with anextravagant gesture threw it on the floor of the House, crying thatthis was what they had to expect from their alliance with France. Thestroke missed its mark, and there was a general inclination to titter,until Burke, collecting himself for an effort, called upon them with avehemence to which his listeners could not choose but respond, to keepFrench principles from their heads, and French daggers from their hearts; to preserve all their blandishments in life, and all their consolations in death; all the blessings of time, and all the hopes ofeternity. All this was not prepared long beforehand, for it seems thatthe dagger had only been shown to Burke on his way to the House as onethat had been sent to Birmingham to be a pattern for a large order.Whether prepared or unprepared, the scene was one from which we gladlyavert our eyes.”

In LI’s opinion, the wars against France were the first modern wars. And as such, Burke forged the ideology of reaction that links external war indissolubly with the domestic politics of class warfare. But of course this is merely one strand in the nexus, since warfare, so linked, can also change the social order in favor of that same spirit of equality Burke saw as the devil’s hand in the world. Burke, in his last years, is like the character in the Pushkin story, The Queen of Hearts, who stakes everything on gaining a magic knowledge of cards and succeeds up the point that the queen of hearts starts winking at him – another man driven mad by a queen.

Since the war in Iraq is of the type of these ideological wars, and since the cruel spirit of it has turned on all parties to the war, I think Burke’s warmongering is of more than historical interest. Although the collected intellects of all the D.C. eggheads and their hack journalist tools does not equal one Burke, still, his legacy lives in their hubris. The dagger trick (from which Morley reels, reminding us that he was Gladstone’s friend andthe man who hammered out the liberal policy on Ireland. Morley obviously thinks the cheap theatrics, here, are evidences of the spot of Irishness Burke could never rid himself of) is both miserable and potent. Its metamorphoses down the ages have brought us Joseph McCarthy’s list of 51 communists in the state department and Cheney’s image of a nuclear weaponed Saddam. The revolution has its dancing around the pole of liberty, the reaction has its dagger. To each its own drama.

In the letters on the regicide peace – what a title – Burke invents the rhetoric of the Cold War and the new World War IV war on whatever long before it was wheeled into place by anti-communist liberals and former America Firsters. This passage, dumbed down, could be tomorrows Washington Post editorial about continuing the Middle Eastern crusade:

“I am sure you cannot forget with how much uneasiness we heard in conversation the language of more than one gentleman at the opening of this contest, “that he was willing to try the war for a year or two, and if it did not succeed, then to vote for peace.” As if war was a matter of experiment! As if you could take it up or lay it down as an idle frolick! As if the dire goddess that presides over it, with her murderous spear in her hand, and her gorgon at her breast, was a coquette to be flirted with! We ought with reverence to approach that tremendous divinity, that loves courage, but commands counsel. War never leaves, where it found a nation. It is never to be entered into without a mature deliberation; not a deliberation lengthened out into a perplexing indecision, but a deliberation leading to a sure and fixed judgment. When so taken up, it is not to be abandoned without reason as valid, as fully and as extensively considered. Peace may be made as unadvisedly as war. Nothing is so rash as fear; and the counsels of pusillanimity very rarely put off, whilst they are always sure to aggravate, the evils from which they would fly.”

The last sentence is pure cornpone Churchillianism, much in favor on the right. And then there is Burke’s notion of perpetual war on the evil of atheistic, communistic governments. He compares the war on Revolutionary France, in which England was the obvious aggressor, to the minuet wars conducted against Louis XIV:

“If a war to prevent Louis the Fourteenth from imposing his religion was just, a war to prevent the murderers of Louis the Sixteenth from imposing their irreligion upon us is just; a war to prevent the operation of a system, which makes life without dignity, and death without hope, is a just war.
If to preserve political independence and civil freedom to nations, was a just ground of war; a war to preserve national independence, property, liberty, life, and honour, from certain universal havock, is a war just, necessary, manly, pious; and we are bound to persevere in it by every principle, divine and human, as long as the system which menaces them all, and all equally, has an existence in the world.
You, who have looked at this matter with as fair and impartial an eye as can be united with a feeling heart, you will not think it an hardy assertion, when I affirm, that it were far better to be conquered by any other nation, than to have this faction for a neighbour. Before I felt myself authorised to say this, I considered the state of all the countries in Europe for these last three hundred years, which have been obliged to submit to a foreign law. In most of those I found the condition of the annexed countries even better, certainly not worse, than the lot of those which were the patrimony of the conquerour. They wanted some blessings; but they were free from many very great evils. They were rich and tranquil. Such was Artois, Flanders, Lorrain, Alsatia, under the old Government of France. Such was Silesia under the King of Prussia. They who are to live in the vicinity of this new fabrick, are to prepare to live in perpetual conspiracies and seditions; and to end at last in being conquered, if not to her dominion, to her resemblance. But when we talk of conquest by other nations, it is only to put a case. This is the only power in Europe by which it is possible we should be conquered. To live under the continual dread of such immeasurable evils is itself a grievous calamity. To live without the dread of them is to turn the danger into the disaster. The influence of such a France is equal to a war; it’s example, more wasting than an hostile irruption. The hostility with any other power is separable and accidental; this power, by the very condition of it’s existence, by it’s very essential constitution, is in a state of hostility with us, and with all civilized people.”

This is madness. Yeats loved that about Burke, and it does move our admiration too. On the other hand, the legacy of this rhetoric is a terrible one. Burke’s apocalyptic strain has never been quite at home in Britain, but it found a home in the New World.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Burke and the appearances - the center will not hold

“… in an hundred instances, the Interest of our Empire is scarcely to be reconciled to the Interest of our Constitution.” Burke on India

In ‘The Context of Burke’s Reflections’, David Bromwich emphasizes how important to Burke’s notion of legitimate order was the metaphor and fact of theater. You could put it in Kantian terms: what is it in society that makes it possible to have dramatic interests? That question, although seemingly merely aesthetic and marginal, sinks a shaft that hits the center, insofar as that center is human nature itself. That nature is not repressed by society, but enlarges its primitive instruments in society, bending the sentiment of awe to the ritualized appearances of legitimate power, which are in turn linked to hierarchies spread throughout the social scale; and thus giving to the carrying on of the business of society its deep and fundamental dependence on inequality. This is the natural piety upon which the social has its only legitimate foundation. In Burke’s mind, there was no substitute for this piety, but there were parties within society who desired to supplant natural piety with another sentiment all together. The Jacobins, in his mind, represented one head of this many headed beast. The beast’s great instrument was money, which can operate as a sort of diminutive absolute of all appearances by dissolving them into their exchangeable value. This is the subtle common bond between capitalist and communist, both of whom operate from the basic assumption that money is the truth of appearances, and ritual merely the appearance of the appearances. Burke’s notion was that legitimate order was a system of counterpoises to the enemy of human nature. That enemy is the egalitarian spirit. And those counterpoises are explained, at different points in the history of civilization, by the different aspect that spirit takes. In the late eighteenth century, in Burke’s opinion, that spirit had divided itself into moneyed power in England, and mob power in Paris. Both were working to substitute an equalizing function for the grace that stood as the central social function that kept society from whirling apart.

Bromwich’s essay makes these points, and many others, by concentrating on a few texts around the time of the Reflections. We won’t go into the Bromwich’s densities, but they are very worth reading if you are interested in Burke. He makes the point, which I have not seen made elsewhere, that at the time of the unthroning of Louis XVI, Burke was involved in the complicated schemes to either preserve the power of Mad King George III or substitute the Regent for him. These schemes provoked rhetoric from Burke about George III quite as violent as the rhetoric from Robespierre about Louis XVI.

However, as we know, kings aren’t the emotional center of the Reflections – queens are. Bromwich quotes a very nice exchange Burke had with his co-worker on the impeachment of Hastings, the rather nasty but very sharp Philip Francis. Francis noted the famous passage on Marie Antoinette and wrote:

“If she be a perfect female character you ought to take your ground upon her virtues. If she be the reverse it is ridiculous, in any but a Lover, to place her personal charms in opposition to her crimes .... I despise and abhor, as much as you can do, all personal insult and outrage even to guilt itself, if I see it, where it ought to be, dejected and helpless; but it is in vain to expect that I or any reasonable man shall regret the sufferings of a Messalina, as I should those of a Mrs. Crewe or a Mrs. Burke, I mean of all that is beautiful or virtuous amongst women. Is it nothing but outside? Have they no moral minds?”

This, according to Bromwich, is the letter that ended their friendship. But Bromwich points out how interesting Burke’s reply is, since Burke chooses to defend himself not by reference to the character of the queen, but by reference to our dramatic taste for queens, and by implication, our social instinct for hierarchy:

“I really am perfectly astonish'd how you could dream with my paper in your hand--that I found no other Cause than the Beauty of the Queen of France (now I suppose pretty much faded) for disapproving the Conduct which has been held towards her, and for expressing my own particular feelings. I am not to order the Natural Sympathies of my own Breast, and of every honest breast to wait until the Tales and all the anecdotes of the Coffeehouses of Paris and of the dissenting meeting houses of London are scoured of all the slander of those who calumniate persons, that afterwards they may murder them with impunity. I know nothing of your Story of Messalina .... What, are not high Rank, great Splendour of descent, great personal Elegance and outward accomplishments ingredients of moment in forming the interest we take in the misfortunes of Men? The minds of those who do not feel thus are not even Dramatically right. "What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?" Why because she was Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, the Wife of Priam, and suffered in the close of Life a thousand Calamities .... You find it perfectly ridiculous, and unfit for me in particular, to take these things as my ingredients of Commiseration. Pray why so? Is it absurd in me, to think that the Chivalrous Spirit which dictated a veneration for Women of condition and of Beauty, without any consideration whatsoever of enjoying them, was the great Source of those manners which have been the Pride and ornament of Europe for so many ages? And am I not to lament that I have lived to see those manners extinguished in so shocking a manner by mean speculations of Finance and the false Science of a sordid and degenerate Philosophy? I tell you again that the recollection of the manner in which I saw the Queen of France in the year 1774 and the contrast between that brilliancy, Splendour, and beauty, with the prostrate Homage of a Nation before her, compared with the abominable Scene of 1789 which I was describing did draw Tears from me and wetted my Paper. These Tears came again into my Eyes almost as often as I looked at the description. They may again. You do not believe this fact, or that these are my real feelings, but that the whole is affected, or as you express it, "downright Foppery". My friend, I tell you it is truth.and that it is true, and will be true, when you and I are no more, and will exist as long as men--with their Natural feelings exist.”

The jeering of the queen, as much as her execution, pointed, for Burke, to the truth about the revolution – that it produced monsters. Bromwich’s best paragraph underlines this point:

“I look into myself and discover a feeling I hold to be just, or natural, and dramatically right. With what principle within which "passes show" am I then connected? The answer Burke gives is not quite an answer (it does not pretend to be), but the name of a mystery which he calls human nature. The curious suggestion of the passage on the Queen is that dramatic appearances, by recalling a belief in what is probable as well as proper, may confirm my sense of incorporation in human nature. Does Burke imply that what drama achieves eloquence also may achieve? Anyway, he offers a test of feeling. His originality consists in saying that it is a test in which I search for evidence of human nature in myself. Yet there remains a puzzle why, in 1790, his readers should stand in particular need of such a test. I surmise from other moments in the Reflections--for example, the early sentence in which the revolution is said to affect "the affairs not of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe" -- that Burke supposed the Jacobin ideology was capable of exerting a unique power. It could deprive men and women of the capacity to feel, or the capacity to know as human actors their own feeling for human sufferers. It is this discovery that impels Burke to speak of those who have thus been cheated of themselves as "monsters." The usage in his own eyes is simple and literal.”

Out of this moment in Burke grew the contradiction that animated his final years: the advocacy of a war against France for ideological reasons. This war was justified, in Burke’s eyes, by its apocalyptic terms: it was a war against monsters, against those who attack human nature itself. What is ignored, however, is that war is not a mere instrument. It produces a double change – a change in the object against which it is directed, and a change in its very directors. LI will take up this point in another post.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

When the forefathers were gluing together this nation, they were careful not to make it easy to conduct a war. It was by this time a wellknown political maxim that the executive branch used war to encroach on the rights of the people. The Federalist papers were much concerned with war. Jay, in Paper 3, made it an argument for a national government that the best men from every state would be attracted to the national government, and that thus the best men able to judge the reasons for and the conduct of, if necessary, war. Hamilton, in no. 6, includes a list of wars that reflect the indulgence of tyrannical rulers:

“The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, [1] at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the SAMNIANS. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the MEGARENSIANS, [2] another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias, [3] or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, [4] or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the PELOPONNESIAN war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth.”

Hamilton, in Paper 26, mocks those who claimed that the U.S. national government would decay into a warmaking body. As he puts it, pointing to clauses 11 and 12 of the 8th section ( which gave Congress the power to declare war and “to raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years”):

"The legislature of the United States will be OBLIGED, by this provision, once at least in every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot; to come to a new resolution on the point; and to declare their sense of the matter, by a formal vote in the face of their constituents. They are not AT LIBERTY to vest in the executive department permanent funds for the support of an army, if they were even incautious enough to be willing to repose in it so improper a confidence. As the spirit of party, in different degrees, must be expected to infect all political bodies, there will be, no doubt, persons in the national legislature willing enough to arraign the measures and criminate the views of the majority. The provision for the support of a military force will always be a favorable topic for declamation. As often as the question comes forward, the public attention will be roused and attracted to the subject, by the party in opposition; and if the majority should be really disposed to exceed the proper limits, the community will be warned of the danger, and will have an opportunity of taking measures to guard against it. Independent of parties in the national legislature itself, as often as the period of discussion arrived, the State legislatures, who will always be not only vigilant but suspicious and jealous guardians of the rights of the citizens against encroachments from the federal government, will constantly have their attention awake to the conduct of the national rulers, and will be ready enough, if any thing improper appears, to sound the alarm to the people, and not only to be the VOICE, but, if necessary, the ARM of their discontent.”

Clearly, the U.S. was not conceived, originally, to be a great oppressor nation. There were limits put to the military ambitions of the national leaders, few of whom could hope to have Pericles qualities, but all of whom were heir to Pericles’ temptations. Clearly, there was more involved in the two year review of military outlay than the dickering over the site where the next unnecessary fighter plane is going to be built. The shape of American foreign policy, insofar as it is aggressive, was meant to be addressed seriously by the legislature.

Unfortunately, Jay’s prediction was wrong. The national government now routinely attracts rascals, criminals and cretins (ie, the present administration), bogus think tankers, political consultants and the White House press corps – all much worse than the occasional Athenian whore. If my webfriend Paul is right (see his comments to my Thursday post), we have now invented the insta-war – never declare the end of the last war, so we can thaw it out and have it again, any time it is politically convenient. A recent Harvard Law review article on the anti-terrorism act, passed in 2001, mentions in passing that no war declaration was needed for the Korean war or the Kosovo war. Given the brutalized state of political intelligence in D.C., where the two parties consist either two shades of opinion, one pallidly for, one rabidly for continuing the immoral, unconstitutional and unjust war in Iraq, it is too much to expect that the constitution has any sway in the matter. It will take prolonged anti-war protest, using civil disobedience in all likelihood, to pull the D.C. krewe away from violating the precepts upon which this place was compounded together. As Hamilton puts it, “to sound the alarm to the people, and not only to be the VOICE, but, if necessary, the ARM of their discontent.” But I don’t want the FBI knocking down LI’s door for subversive activities. We, of course, mean “ARM” to be symbolic, as in, we are going to call Bush and Rove dirty names and such.


The tradition of perpetual war that has woven itself into the conservative liberal consensus was the devil’s bargain sealed after WWII, when the anti-communist crusaders identified the U.S. with a particular ideological slant. On the face of it, something peculiar is going on here: why would the representatives of order transform themselves into the advocates of war? The contradiction between order and war beats away, deep in the heart of conservative thought. The compromise that has embedded war into the social order – to the tune of about 400 billion a year in this country – is subject to the massive censorship that comes down upon any real look at war in the last hundred years.

What do I mean by censorship? I mean by looking at war not as an accident or a necessity, but as an institution.

To use an example that springs to mind: how often have I read that Lenin was a mass murderer because of the labor camp system that was started under his regime? And how few times, if any, have I read that Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill were much greater mass murderers, for the sustaining of trench warfare for four years in the heart of Europe – to say nothing of the fighting in the Middle East? In actual fact, Lenin, by withdrawing Russia from the War, was a net saver of lives. Russian casualties were horrendous on the Eastern Front. Seeing this, the Communists calmly pulled the plug on the project. It was the refusal to countenance more mass murder that made the Bolsheviks the enemy of the Western power – not the incipient Gulag.

However, war’s a freebie. At least, in the current conventional wisdom.

In LI’s opinion, the genealogy of this reliance on war, and denial of its real effects, goes back to Burke’s warmongering in the years of the French Revolution. Burke produced a model. In my next post, I plan to look at that.