9/11/22: How bin Laden is Winning

September 12, 2022

9/11/2022:  How bin Laden is Winning

Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR BOOK!

—–Patton, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (1970; 20th Century Fox) film

            In sports, the great strategic coup is when one side can break the code the other side uses, read their signals, or best of all, steal their playbook.  When you have your opponent’s playbook, you know what they’re going to do almost as soon as they do; you can see their lineup and know what they’re going to try, and work to counter it immediately.  You know how they’ll try to defend against you, and avoid their traps.  It almost takes the need for great athletes and coaching out of the game, which is why it was such a huge scandal when a prominent NFL coach was alleged to have stolen his opponent’s signals.  It was seen as such a big advantage that it ruined the game.  In much the same way, the Watergate scandal began as an attempt by the Republican party to steal the political playbook from its Democratic rivals, to know their strategic intentions, to wiretap their communications, and thus to know everything they were planning to do so as to counter it immediately.  Again, since the point of a political campaign is supposedly to have a contest between ideologies, policies and visions of the future, this was seen as sleazy because it gave one side too much advantage.

            The same principle applies in war, of course.  In that great movie Patton, Gen. Patton wins a decisive victory over the German army because he read Rommel’s book on military tactics and knew what to expect from the attackers.  At the battle of Midway, the Americans turned the tide of the war because they had broken the Japanese code and knew their entire battle plan.  But in war, this is not seen as “unsporting,” as if the victory was somehow sullied; the goal is to win, to survive, and stealing the opponent’s playbook is simply good intelligence.  It may not guarantee victory, but it comes pretty close.

            In 2004, the United States stole al Qaeda’s playbook.  Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass, is a pseudonymously published text, written in Arabic and said to have been read by most of al Qaeda’s top leaders.[1]  It is a strategic plan for how a militarily weaker force can use terrorism and political maneuvering to seize power.  The first step is to use low-level terrorist attacks to force the governing power to spread its forces out to provide security.  Of course, this ultimately can’t work.  Sure, you can guard all the government buildings, military bases and so-called “legitimate targets,” but then the terrorists switch to places of worship, shopping malls and markets, schools and anywhere that’s vulnerable.  These smaller, near-constant attacks are the real point, but the terrorists also need to appear powerful and visible in order to recruit; so they should stage the occasional major, flashy attack that grabs international attention.  This in turn gains more foot soldiers, suicide bombers and saboteurs to further undermine the local government.  The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, essentially, publicity stunts.  The ongoing civil wars, assassinations, bombings and looting and chaos in Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria and other countries with large Muslim populations are the primary strategic work.  When a local government can no longer provide even basic security or services due to the relentless attacks of terrorists within its borders, it will collapse into chaos, or “savagery,” with small groups banding together along ethnic or tribal lines to fend for themselves.  At that point, the writer using the name “Abu Bakr Naji” says, the jihadist group that cause the trouble in the first place can step in to fill the power vacuum, as the most powerful local force, and begin providing services (as the “management” part of the equation) to win the people over.  Eventually, the author claims, people will be so grateful for some sort of stability that they’ll accept, and eventually even love the same terrorist group that previously made their lives so hellish. 

            And where does the United States fit into all of this?  So far as I can see, it doesn’t, and that’s the point.  The jihadists aim to establish a caliphate, and the major powers are in the way.  They can’t really be integrated into a caliphate unless either they all convert to Islam or accept second-class status as dhimmi paying tribute to their Muslim overlords, neither of which is likely in the foreseeable future.  But the Soviet failure in Afghanistan convinced the jihadists that all these richer, more powerful nations could be bankrupted, which would in turn lead different regions and groups to turn on each other in a struggle for resources.  At that point, they would be unable to continue their international cultural hegemony.  Right now, people from Riyadh to Rome, Beijing to Bagdad  and points in between, no matter what their professed religion, preferred economic system or political structure, want Levis and hamburgers and Hollywood movies and countless other trappings of Western culture.  They want Western styles and standards, and even Western freedoms.  They rightfully reject our colonial, imperial history, but often in the name of our own values of equality and justice.  And even if they want the fruits of Western culture without Western values and principles, they find that is wanting the tree without the root; the goodies are byproducts of millions of free individuals working together in creative and innovative ways that other cultural systems don’t.  So if you’re a jihadist, or other authoritarian, you need to stop the flow of Western culture itself into your realm.  Osama bin Laden saw this as clearly as did Khomeini, but they had different strategies.  The Iranian strategy has been more traditional:  seize power in a country, gain regional political and military influence, and control your borders, educational system, and press, to keep out foreign influences.  Bin Laden’s plan was more aggressive:  lure the United States and Europe into expensive, unending wars, while undermining their international allies in more moderate Muslim nations like Indonesia, until the Western powers first lose the ability to support their allies, then become consumed by internal dissention and conflict, and finally lose the ability to export their poisonous ideas like feminism and democracy. 

            So, we have the terrorists’ playbook.  We know what they want to do, and what they want us to do, so we can choose to target efforts to frustrate them while avoiding the missteps they count on us making.  They want us to bankrupt ourselves, abandon our allies, internationally isolate ourselves, adopt a siege mentality where we waste resources trying to turn every important infrastructure or social gathering point into a fortress while growing more and more anxious as this fails, turn on our own fellow citizens over sectarian, ethnic and regional differences in a misdirected effort to gain a sense of physical and psychological security, until we finally collapse as a “United” States of America.  All we have to do to win the war the jihadists started on September 11, 2001 is to not do those things, and as far as possible do the opposite:  avoid national bankruptcy, build up our international alliances, preserve overall internal security and a safer society rather than trying to fortify every school, church, grocery store etc. while leaving all points in between as free-fire zones, and above all, we should build stronger ties of mutual trust and support among different groups within our society.  That is how you win the War on Terror.

            The Republican Party has not done those things.  In fact, it has done the opposite.  Slowly at first but with exponentially increasing speed, the Republican Party has followed the script al Qaeda wrote for us.  Our national debt has gone up dramatically whenever Republicans have seized control of our federal finances, while state governments under Republican control have generally relied on federal funds to keep them afloat far more than have comparable Democratic-run states.[2]  Republicans consistently push policies that help the rich while taking money away from the poor and middle classes, now actually proposing to raise taxes on half of all Americans just to preserve the tax cuts for billionaires and corporations they passed in 2017.[3]  They spent four years shredding national alliances that their predecessors of all political stripes spent decades or even centuries nurturing, while praising foreign dictators for being “strong leaders” and “smarter than us.”  They defund public schools and vilify teachers as a class as “groomers” for some alleged international Satanic pedophile conspiracy, while sending armed guards into schools allegedly to keep the children safe but who spend more of their time physically subduing the students themselves than any actual protecting.  They work tirelessly to bring guns into more homes, churches, schools, stores, in some places even bars, despite evidence that this will only increase the violence and loss of life among citizens and despite poll numbers showing most Americans want more sensible gun control, not less.  And through a continuous torrent of hateful and fearful rhetoric, cruel and pointless laws, certifiably unqualified judges making rulings that threaten national security, domestic tranquility and shred all trust and respect for the once-independent but now blatantly partisan judiciary, they work tirelessly to divide Americans and pit them against each other, feeding their base with the absurd belief that the White Evangelicals who are numerically a minority but who dominate all aspects of our society are somehow the most persecuted people on the planet, who must arm up and lash out to “defend” themselves from Jewish space lasers and NASA pedophile colonies on Mars.  If the GOP had studied Abu Bakr-Naji and said, “Here’s what the jihadists say we’re supposed to do,” they could not have done a better job of following bin Laden’s script. 

            Are Republicans actively seeking to conspire with al Qaeda to fulfill bin Laden’s plans?  Not really; but they might as well be.  The seemingly paradoxical and nationally destructive actions of the GOP in this century make sense when we remember that “terrorism” isn’t an ideology; it’s a strategy.  The Republican response to jihadist terrorism has often amounted to “fighting fire with fire.”  In response to the reasonable fear Americans felt about bloodthirsty religious fanatics burning with hatred towards the U.S. government and democracy in general, Republicans have increasingly courted support from bloodthirsty religious fanatics burning with hatred towards the U.S. government and democracy in general, except that they fight for White Supremacy and the Confederacy instead of Islam and the Caliphate.  And these domestic terrorists, naturally, adopt many of the same arguments, tactics and goals of other successful terrorist groups:  sowing fear and division, encouraging hundreds of low-level terrorist attacks and violent crimes with very occasional high-profile operations to raise their visibility and help recruit followers, trying to stretch the resources of the lawful authorities while wearing down the will to resist among the people.  The people who advocated for “religious” private schools as a way to preserve segregation, and then reorganized themselves and rebranded as the “Moral Majority,” who came out days after the 9/11 attacks while the World Trade Center was still smoldering to blame the Jews and feminists and liberals and thus sought to sow division and hatred among neighbors at a time of maximum national unity, have continued that work of divisiveness and deceit to this day. 

            Again, I ask rhetorically, are they all or even most trying consciously to destroy the USA?  Not really.  When Jerry Falwell Sr. and the other future founders of the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition etc. first set out to defend the “religious” private schools, (the “segregation academies” that were set up to circumvent the Brown v. Board of Education decision) they didn’t think of themselves as fighting to overturn the Constitution or relitigate the Civil War; Falwell described himself as a “superpatriot” even before he was “born again” for Christ.  At the time, he stated he saw desegregationists like MLK as part of the godless Communist threat against the nation, while the segregation academies were founded by Evangelical churches and thus were religious schools, so defending them was defending religious liberty.[4]  But this very “super” patriotism blinded him to the Gospel truth, which King represented, that all people are God’s children and should be treated with equality and dignity, regardless of skin color or even nationality.  Falwell’s religious politics confused the Kingdom of God, the United States and the status quo, which tends to this day to idolize (literally) the social status quo of Falwell’s youth in the 1950s.  This is a politically powerful synthesis which elevated many pastors, politicians and others to wealth and influence, and birthed many socially prominent organizations; but theologically, it is idolatry, weakening the spiritual power of the “Religious” Right.[5]  And not only is its source of power flawed, but its moral compass is misaligned; instead of pointing towards the Pole Star which for Christians is Christ who saved the world through love, humility, folly and weakness, it points towards a Gospel that both needs the United States as a worldly base, and privileges the United States because it serves the Evangelical cause.

            In its early embrace of the segregation academy movement, the nascent Religious Right allied with White Supremacists and other domestic terrorist movements.  Indeed, this alliance goes back even further to the founder of Christian Reconstructionism, Rousas Rushdooney, whose conversion to Evangelicalism led him to neo-Confederate circles and thus to become a slavery defender and Holocaust denier.  The founders of the Religious Right were racists in some cases, and in other cases racist-adjacent or racist-allies.  And that means they were, as they once said of a political opponent, palling around with terrorists.  They didn’t necessarily endorse the methods of the KKK or American Nazis, but they did adopt many of their political policies (attacking public schools, women’s equality, workers’ rights, racial justice and so on) and much of their rhetoric (fear of foreigners and their contamination, and obeisance to American military imperialism).  And that political agenda, suited to the needs of a politically weak, morally corrupt minority, was pretty much identical with al Qaeda’s goals decades later:  divide America, weaken it, plunge it into chaos, play upon the fears of White Protestant Evangelical Conservatives, start a civil war or something close to it, and then take over by imposing a new power structure based on racial and ideological purity.

            The reason it seems as if the Republican Party has spent the last 20 or so years playing the part written for it by Osama bin Laden is that al Qaeda and the Know-Nothings, KKK, American Nazis and White Supremacist terrorist groups have similar agendas, and thus adopt similar tactics.  These domestic terrorist groups have in turn corrupted or co-opted more “mainstream” conservative groups and gradually radicalized them, until we reached the point where today it is not unusual to hear terrorists’ words uttered by elected government officials and a U.S. Congressman who fled the terrorist mob on January 6th 2021 personally gave a flag that had flown over the Capitol to a convicted insurrectionist—and the world barely batted an eye.[6]  We may have won the war against the jihadists, but one political party surrendered in the War on Terror, switched sides, and now fights to not only keep terrorism alive to threatened American lives, but seeks to inject its agenda into the American political mainstream. 

[1]Abu Bakr Naji Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass, translated by William McCants (2006:  The John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University) https://www.academia.edu/24287794/Abu_bakr_naji_the_management_of_savagery_the_most_critical_stage_through_which_the_umma_will_pass

[2] Allan Sloan and Cezary Podkul, “Trump’s Most Enduring Legacy Could Be the Historic Rise in the National Debt;” Washington Post January 14, 2021 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/01/14/trump-legacy-national-debt-increasee/) For an example of Republican economics on the state level, see Jeremy Hobson, Dean Russell and Samantha Raphelson, “As Trump Proposes Tax Cuts, Kansas Deals with Aftermath of Experiement;” NPR October 25, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/2017/10/25/560040131/as-trump-proposes-tax-cuts-kansas-deals-with-aftermath-of-experiment) For a discussion showing how Republicans tend to rely on Federal subsides of their states more than the Democrats whom they call “moochers,” see John S. Kiernan, managing editor, “Most and Least Federally Dependant States,” Wallethub March 15, 2022 (https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700)

[3] Rep. Don Beyer, chair, “Senator Rick Scott’s Plan to Raise Taxes on Working Families and Slash Essential Programs Would Cost Jobs and Reduce Economic Growth; Joint Economic Committee Democrats April 13, 2022 (https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/democrats/2022/4/senator-rick-scott-s-plan-to-raise-taxes-on-working-families-and-slash-essential-programs-would-cost-job-sand-reduce-economic-growth)

[4] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right, “ Politico  May 2014 (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133)

[5] James B. Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” 1982:  College of William & Mary (https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/)

[6] Aaron Pellish and Marshall Cohen, “Republican Congressman Presents Convicted January 6th Rioter with Flag Flown Over U.S. Capitol After Her Release from Prison;” CNN September 11, 2022 (https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/10/politics/louie-gohmert-january-6-simone-gold/index.html).  So a U.S. Congressman awards a national honor to a perpetrator of one of the greatest terrorist attacks against this country on the anniversary of another, and the circle is complete.

Freedom, Abortion and a Tale of Two Philosophies (Freedom, Taxation and Abortion, pt. 2)

September 6, 2022

Freedom, Abortion and a Tale of Two Philosophies

“I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

—–Dr. W. A. Criswell, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1973

Southern Baptists (should) work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.

—–Southern Baptist Convention official resolution, St. Louis, MO, 1971, reaffirmed 1976

            The so-called “Christian Libertarian” ideology of abortion, which guides the Republican Party’s statements, judicial appointments and legislative actions, is deeply incoherent.  It defines a “person” as a free individual with the God-given right to make voluntary choices whether to enter into agreements, to give charity (or not), and to dispose of his property (including his physical body) as he sees fit.  I use “he” here thoughtfully, for this paradigmatic “person” is male.  Women, by contrast, are to “submit graciously to their husbands.”  Their freedom is constrained; they are slaves, as libertarian philosophy defines slavery, because their autonomy can be taken from them at any time and handed over to another:  most directly it is given to a person-under-construction within them, and functionally it is given to the males around them who claim the rights of guardian of that unformed, unborn alleged person.

            I say “alleged” because it was not until six years after Roe v. Wade that Protestant Evangelicals declared war against abortion.  Until that time, many agreed with the leader of the Fundamentalist movement within the Southern Baptist Convention, W. A. Criswell, twice President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the large and highly influential First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas.  The Fundamentalist position looked to the Creation story in Genesis:  “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”[1]  This agrees also with Jewish teaching, which is appropriate since the Christian “Old Testament” is largely the Hebrew Bible with a few editorial differences; the Jewish position is that the unborn fetus is a potential person, gradually formed, that does not become a full person until he or she draws a first breath.  The Hebrew words for “soul” and “breath” are in fact the same word; there is no linguistic distinction in either Hebrew or Greek, the two main Biblical languages, between “spirit” and “breath.”  That is not to say that Evangelicals thought we should have abortion at will, since they generally frowned on fornication and preferred to keep sex risky so unmarried persons would refrain from it; but it wasn’t in itself seen as a sin.  In the years before and immediately after Roe v. Wade, abortion was seen primarily as a Catholic issue, as it was only the Catholic church that went so far as to say abortion, contraception or any sexual act without the possibility of procreation was inherently sinful even between married persons (or alone).[2]

            And this fact points to the cause of the incoherence of the Republican position on abortion.  Sen. Barry Goldwater, long considered the archetype of Republican conservatism, was married to a founding member of Planned Parenthood in Arizona.[3] Republican support for family planning was strong and continuous in the years before and after Roe, since it fit well with their claims to be a small-government, individual-freedom party.  But at this same time, other political forces were brewing in American conservatism.  The so-called “Religious Right” began in the mid-1960s in an effort to defend segregation in education.  In response to the Brown. v Board decision desegregating public schools, White Evangelicals founded a network of “segregation academies,” private schools from kindergarten up to college with Bob Jones University.  Since these Whites-only schools were founded by churches and religiously-affiliated groups, they claimed tax exemption as “charitable institutions.”  In 1969 a group of African American parents sued, claiming their discriminatory policies meant they could not be considered “charitable institutions” and thus should be denied tax-exempt status.  Rev. Jerry Falwell and other Evangelical leaders rallied to defend Bob Jones and its segregationist policies, as they considered tax exemption for “religious” schools to be an existential issue for “religious freedom” regardless of how spurious or malicious the claims of “religious” intention were.  After a series of political and legal setbacks, however, the fight to defend segregation was eventually lost and Bob Jones was forced to admit Black students as fully equal members of the student body to keep its status as a “charitable” institution, and the “segregation academy” strategy was mostly done in.  It was a religious fraud from the start, and the Republican Party largely saw through it.  However, political activist Paul Weyrich had long been seeking to persuade White Evangelicals to switch from the Democratic to the Republican party, and he saw his chance.  Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other religious and lay leaders had an organization with no cause to rally around; Weyrich had been trying for years to find a cause that could attract Evangelicals.  Together they decided that abortion would replace segregation as the central cause of the new “religious right.” 

            But now that they had adopted anti-abortionism as their central cause, they needed an ideology that would justify this.  After all, Fundamentalist Protestants were divided, because the Bible does not actually condemn abortion.  Most so-called “pro-life” scriptures are the grossest eisegesis .[4]  For example, Ex. 21:22 cites case law to state that causing an accidental miscarriage is to be treated as a civil crime against the family, not as a murder; it was only by reinterpreting the original Hebrew that Christians were able to claim that the Jews had been wrong for 2,000 years and that this passage was actually intended to protect the unborn, not the injured woman.   Catholics can claim the teaching authority of the Church to interpret what they say is an unclear text, but Fundamentalist Protestants have no such legitimate response; if the Bible is ambiguous, they need to allow freedom of conscience.  The New Testament says nothing at all about abortion; poetic references to a person being “secretly formed in my mother’s womb” say nothing about when the “mere water” becomes a “living soul;” and the Torah is ambiguous at best, with thousands of years of Jewish interpretation saying one thing and about 50 years of Evangelical interpretation saying the opposite.  So the Bible alone cannot end the debate.  Libertarian philosophy, particularly Ayn Rand’s Objectivism which has been adopted as the intellectual axis for Republican political rhetoric, is strongly pro-choice; if freedom (specifically understood as property rights, the right to one’s own body and to private property as the product of one’s own bodily action) is the most important attribute of a person, to deny a woman freedom to choose whether or not to use her body for reproduction is to deny her personhood.  When the Religious Right decided to ally with the Republican Party around the slogan “pro-life,” neither side had a conceptual explanation as to why abortion should be seen as so terrible. 

            The Catholic Church, by contrast, did have a philosophical conceptual framework by which to condemn abortion:  natural law morality.  “Natural Law” refers to the idea that we can look at nature itself and determine moral principles.  Nature, it is said, has goals, and anything that would frustrate the goal of nature is unnatural and thus immoral.  An acorn is a future tree; if it falls to earth and finds adequate moisture, it will grow into a mighty oak.  A fertilized human egg’s natural goal is to implant and grow into a baby, so a freshly fertilized ovum is, naturally and thus morally speaking, not essentially different from any voting, job-holding citizen, entitled to all the same rights.  This is referred to in the philosophical biz as “the teleological view of the world,” which is a Ph.D. way of saying that everything in the world has a goal or purpose and is most properly understood not by what it is now, but by what it will become.  While Catholicism did not always oppose early-term abortions but originally followed Aristotle’s own thinking that “ensoulment” (the moment when a soul enters the fetus and it becomes a person) occurs sometime around the end of the first trimester, from about the 1800s on it has pointed to the moment of conception when a new thing was formed, a thing which would eventually become a person, and hence was truly already a person at that point.

            Libertarian philosophy can actually grant all of this, and still defend abortion choice.  Just as Republican politicians say that taxation is slavery and that it is immoral to force a rich man to give up even his spare change to save the life of a child, so too pro-choice moralists like Judith Jarvis Thomson and libertarian philosophers like Ayn Rand say a woman has a right to disconnect herself from the unborn person within her at any time.  If the fetus is viable at that point, of course it has a right to life; but if it is not, that does not change her right to bodily freedom.  After all, bodily freedom is the foundation of all other property rights, as John Locke said, so the woman is asking nothing more or less than what the man asks by demanding the right to his wages or investments.

            In adopting natural law to attack abortion rights, it is necessary to do more than simply define the zygote as a person.  It is also necessary to define the woman as the natural environment of that person.  A man is allowed to ignore a dying child whom he could easily save because, it is said, he has no essential connection to that child.  He is a free an autonomous individual, as is the child, and they have no relationship to each other except negatively:  each has the right to not be interfered with by the other, and to form voluntary relationships as they may choose.  But a pregnant woman, the argument goes, is essentially connected to the unborn child.  Even if the conception was without her consent, now there is a person inside her and she must nurture it, at risk of her own life and health, until it can be delivered alive.  Some conservatives, inconsistently with their moral theory but with more sensitivity towards the woman, are willing to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life; and some fewer are even willing to bend if childbirth would damage or destroy the woman’s health or future without actually killing her.  Many, however, are willing to require women to die to carry medically nonviable pregnancies to term, and have written laws to enforce this, regardless even of whether the woman consented to impregnation in the first place.  While a man is defined primarily as an economic agent, a property-producer and property-owner, a free individual, a person, a woman is defined as a childbearer; her freedom and hence her personhood is restricted by whether another person demands use of her body for the next two-thirds of a year, minimum.  This is not regarded as the state enslaving the woman, but merely as nature itself; nature gives the fetus life, and gives the woman an ovum that conceives life and a uterus that nurtures it, so nature itself has the goal that women should have babies.

            The problem with natural law thinking has always been epistemic egocentrism; that is, what it thinks it “knows” is too often conditioned by the person making the definition.  Aristotle sought to define the natural rights and duties of people in terms that made sense to him, a Greek-speaking freeborn male citizen.  To him, it was natural that women be treated as second-class citizens, since he saw them in terms of “how is this being different from me, who is the standard and norm?”  What makes women different from men is biology, so he looked at those biological differences and defined women’s “natural” status in those terms:  as mother, and wife, keeper and nurturer of the household, but not as economically or politically engaged.  And since the natural end of a person is eudaimonia, and only someone fully engaged in social activity with other good persons can attain eudaimonia (translated as “happiness”), women are incapable of eudaimonia and thus not full persons.  And since non-Greek speakers of both genders don’t live the sort of life Greek male citizens live, have different social arrangements (empires rather than city-states) and don’t philosophize as we Greeks do, they are not fully people either but rather are natural slaves, to be owned and guided by Greeks as living tools.  Catholic versions of natural law thinking largely did away with this idea that personhood was limited to one nationality only, at least until colonialism made it convenient to revive the idea for both Catholic and Protestant masters; but the perspective of defining “woman” in terms of what makes her different from “man,” instead of in terms of what makes them the same, has persisted throughout history until today.

            This is not inevitable, even on natural law standards.  First, as Aristotle points out, humans are inherently social, political animals.  We are not fulfilled as individuals living alone in the forest like a leopard, nor even as isolated families; we naturally form communities of families that support their neighbors, trade with them, intermarry and socialize.  That is our true, full happiness, our eudaimonia, our fulfillment of our human nature.[5]  As the African saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child; if you doubt this, consider how many children an individual family would raise if a man and woman alone had to feed, raise and protect their children in a world of lions, bears, rattlesnakes and cobras, sickness which could leave one or both parents incapacitated for a time, and so on, with only those tools the two adults could make for themselves.  The Republican claim that this idea is somehow anti-family is either rhetorical bullshit[6] or simple idiocy.  Natural law says that we live in larger communities, which sustain the families within them.  This in turn indicates that the rich have some obligation to the poor, to prevent the deaths of children and their parents, particularly when this can be easily accomplished by simply giving up a bit more in taxes so that they only own ten yachts instead of twelve.  And if we understand the nature of woman first as person, the same as a man, as a rational being who has a uterus the same way a man is defined as a rational being who happens to have testicles, then we will see the natural goal of a woman as personhood, and define her reproductive duties in those terms.  If anything, given the number of pregnancies that result without female consent versus those without male consent, we might need to define the duties of the father as higher than those of the mother, more inclusive.  If she can be required to give up two-thirds of her life for a year, why should the male not be required to give up two-thirds of his property at the moment of conception and two-thirds of his earnings for the year?  If the woman can be required to subordinate everything she has accomplished up to that point, and everything she intended to accomplish for the next year, why would it be unfair to ask the man to make a sacrifice that reflects a similarly permanent impact?  It’s not as if he’s being asked to endure morning sickness, sleeplessness, pregnancy itself or labor; he’d just be giving up some property to aid in the nurturing of his child. 

            The libertarian argument against reproductive choice fails, since libertarianism is in fact based on the notion that individual choice outweighs social utility or even the life of another.  The Fundamentalist Christian argument against abortion rights fails, because the Bible is itself ambiguous and the argument itself was originally a hypocritical, cynical political ploy by a group of failed segregationists to win political power rather than being a serious moral or theological argument at all.  The natural law argument against abortion fails, because there is an inherent bias built into its perception of “nature” whereby the (male) speaker accepts himself as the neutral standard, and every deviation from that standard is defined and directed by how it differs from that standard rather than by looking for commonalities.  There are pro-life arguments that have integrity; Don Marquis FLO requires serious thought, and the Catholic Church can argue from the teaching authority of the Church to define what is “natural,” thus relying not on reason but on obedience to Papal teaching, which is at least consistent.  But the arguments that are driving Republican rhetoric, legislation and judicial action fail.  Anyone who does not agree that women are naturally slaves has no moral choice but to vote against any Republican on any ballot, until such time as the control of the Religious Right is broken and the Republican party fully embraces democracy and human equality regardless of race or gender. 

[1] Genesis 2:7 (KJV)

[2] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origin of the Religious Right;” Politico May 27, 2015 (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133/)

[3] Bennett Roth, “Planned Parenthood Once Had GOP Pals;” Roll Call April 13, 2011 (https://rollcall.com/2011/04/13/planned-parenthood-once-had-gop-pals/)

[4] “Esegesis” means “reading into scripture what you want it to mean,” as opposed to “exegesis” meaning “allowing the meaning in the scripture to come out.” 

[5] Aristotle, Politics, book I

[6] in Harry Frankfurt’s understanding of the term, as verbiage with no connection to truth.  Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2005)

Freedom, Taxation and Abortion

August 30, 2022

Freedom, Taxation and Abortion

If we tax you at 50% you are half slave, half free.

—–Sen. Rand Paul

I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being.

—–Sen. Rand Paul

            The Republican platform is deeply incoherent, and this points towards a lack of integrity in the politicians and party members themselves.  In this essay I shall explain what I mean by this statement, and why it matters.

            The Republican party of today is dominated by anti-tax activists who call themselves “libertarians.”  Grover Norquist famously said he wanted to cut taxes until the Federal government was small enough to drown in a bathtub.  Some of this comes from the frequently discredited and repeatedly failed theories of “trickle-down economics” and “the Laffer curve.”  The first of these refers to the claim that if we cut taxes on the rich and powerful, they in turn will spend that money creating jobs, stimulating the economy, donating to charity and generally raising everyone up.  This theory was behind the 2017 Republican tax reform plan, which drastically slashed taxes on the rich and on corporations.  “The Laffer curve” refers to the claim that if we cut taxes, it will increase tax revenue because people will work harder, earn more and thus in the end wind up paying more in taxes.  This theory was also used to justify the GOP-backed tax cuts for the wealthy in 2017, and was largely responsible for the state tax policies of Republican Gov. Brownback of Kansas.  These policies have consistently led to lower revenue, greater government indebtedness, leading to inflation and economic stagnation; but this is not an essay about economics or economic incompetence, so I will leave that discussion for another time and place (and likely another author). 

            It does interest me that one political party would continue to push economic policies that have repeatedly failed, with the dogged determination of WWI generals who sent millions of soldiers to their deaths by ordering them to fix bayonets and charge the enemy machine guns.  But what interests me more is the philosophical argument for the libertarian anti-tax movement.  This is a moral claim, and thus has weight regardless of the economic consequences.  This argument was famously put forth by Robert Nozick, and is referred to as “The Tale of a Slave.”  In short, he asks us to imagine a slave, who is beaten and abused, forced to work for a cruel taskmaster, and the fruits of his labor seized.  In a series of steps, Nozick proposes slightly better conditions for the slave:  he’s treated better, his working conditions improve so that he only works part of the week for his master, then he’s allowed to do any work he wants so long as he gives 3/7ths to his master, then all the other slaves are allowed to vote how this money will be spent, until finally the slave himself gets to vote—though of course, the money is being spent by the majority’s will and not his own.  Nozick asks, at what point does he cease to be a slave?  The implied answer is, never—he just has better conditions.  So long as anyone, even a democratically-elected government for which you voted, can take a portion of your earnings and give it to the poor, sick or hungry, you are a slave to the government.  This is the thinking behind Rand Paul’s claim that paying taxes is equivalent to slavery.[1]  This claim is also echoed, usually without any intellectual argument that would make it intelligible to most people, by conservative politicians, pundits, and right-wing activists in media from major newspapers to Twitter.  As Nozick makes clear, any time you use tax money to help someone—whether it’s providing emergency care at the hospital ER to the indigent, or Medicaid to a baby with a heart defect, or a free lunch at school so a hungry child can get at least one meal a day and focus a bit better on their classwork, or Social Security and Medicaid so those too old to work can live the rest of their lives without eating cat food—-you are enslaving some poor billionaire somewhere who had to pay taxes to provide these things.  Taking even as much money as Elon Musk earned while I was typing this essay, and using it to save a life without Mr. Musk’s specific permission, is slavery; but allowing the poor to suffer and die so that some billionaires can race to see who can get to the Moon first is actually the only moral option. 

            This is the part that needs to be said out loud, because it has powerful implications beyond mere debates over the capital gains tax.  Nozick is not merely making an economic claim that cutting taxes on billionaires will help everyone; he is making a moral claim that even if cutting taxes leads to greater suffering and a weaker economy, it is still the only morally acceptable option.  Ayn Rand makes the same point in her writings, even more forcefully and directly.  When so many Senators, Congressional Representatives, Governors, and others are reading Atlas Shrugged as if it were a combination of moral scripture and economic genius, we need to pay attention to the fundamental moral claim of Republicans and many other conservatives today:  that no one should be compelled to help another, even if it is easy for them to do so, even if they could save lives with no real inconvenience to themselves, just using the money generated as interest on the investments they or their ancestors made years ago. 

            That is a moral argument that is worth having.  Nozick’s writings are not nonsense.  It seems inconsistent with the social contract theory of John Locke, which was a prime motivator for our American Revolution and our Constitution.  Locke saw representative democracy as an expression and protector of the freedom of the individual, rather than as enslavement.  Locke’s view of government was that a moral society was one where every citizen agreed to be bound by the rule of the majority, pooling part of their resources in exchange for security and other services that none could provide adequately for himself or herself.  Because our representatives work for us and act according to our collective will, they are instruments of our free action, the means by which we accomplish what we really need and want.  But even if I think Rand, Nozick and similar thinkers are missing the fundamental intellectual foundation of this nation, they’re at least making a coherent argument, and can be debated on those grounds.

            Robert Nozick has his “Tale of a Slave.”  Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson has her “Famous Violinist Argument.”  She asks you to imagine you wake up and discover that, while you were unconscious, members of the Violin Music Lover’s Society connected you with tubes to a famous violinist.  They tell you that he will die if disconnected from you; he has a mortal but not permanent kidney injury, and will require nine months to heal.  It’s unfortunate, but yours is the only blood that is compatible with his, so you must remain connected to him.  After all, violinists are people, and people have a right to life, and if you rip out the tubes connecting the two of you he will die and you will be a murderer.  Besides, it’s only for nine months; after that, you and he will be fine.  Thomson argues that in such a situation, no one would really insist that it was morally impermissible for you to free yourself.  It would be a great kindness to continue to nurture the famous violinist until he could be safely disconnected from you, but you have been robbed of your freedom and have every right to reclaim it.  After all, it is your body and your life.  Thomson says this is equivalent to the issue of abortion.  Even if the unborn fetus is a person with a right to life, the mother also has rights that are equally valid.  We don’t enslave one person to save another.  And while some argue that by engaging in sex, she “invited” the fetus into her body and made a tacit promise to nurture the growing baby, Thomson says that makes no sense either.  Suppose, she suggests, people-seeds drifted around, and if one got into your house and took root in the upholstery it would grow into a baby.  Sure, you could guarantee this would never happen, if you never opened your windows, had an airlock on your doors, and had no rugs, sheets or other textiles in your house.  (You’d probably have to wear vinyl instead of fabric too, but she doesn’t mention that.)  If you were willing to live a sufficiently miserable life, you could guarantee no people-seeds drifted in.  Otherwise, even with the best screens and other precautions, you might someday have to uproot a baby-sprout from your rug—in effect, get an abortion.  In the same way, she says, people engage in sex for many reasons; but even if the sex is voluntary, that does not prove the fetus has the right to commandeer the woman’s body and take it over for its own, for nine months or nine minutes.

            This is, in effect, a libertarian argument for abortion choice.  People are free individuals, and are bound only by explicit commitments they have freely made to other individuals.  Just as Elon Musk is a slave if he’s required to give even nine minute’s worth of his yearly income to save the life of a sick child if he doesn’t want to do so, so too a woman is a slave if she must endure being hooked up to another person’s circulatory system against her will.  This is why Ayn Rand defended the right to abortion choice.  No woman is free, she said, if she is not free to control her own body.  After all, the fundamental property, the one thing each of us owns from the start, is our own body; everything else we ever do or own flows from that, so if we don’t control our own body we have no freedom at all. 

            But the Republican Party today says a woman does not own her own body.  While no man can be compelled to save another person’s life, a woman can be compelled to give up three-quarters of a year to another.  From the libertarian perspective, this is slavery.  It is slavery even on the frequently ignorant and patriarchal terms by which Republicans often understand pregnancy.  The USA has the highest rate of maternal death of any wealthy nation, so forcing a woman to carry through on a pregnancy is forcing her to risk her life; by contrast, an abortion in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy is much safer, at least when no laws have been enacted to make it more dangerous for women.  And many women who survive pregnancy and childbirth find their health permanently damaged.  Leaving aside the great risks involved, a woman is increasingly being told how she must live her life during pregnancy.  No one punishes a man who damages his sperm through drinking or smoking, even if it may lead to defective offspring; but women are threatened with imprisonment for any sort of behavior that might harm their unborn child.  Then there is the excruciating pain of labor to consider, followed by hospital bills that potentially could bankrupt a woman or take years to pay off—-and all of this assumes she simply leaves the baby at the hospital to be put up for adoption.

            All of this assumes the more gentle and humane forms of abortion ban.  In many states, the laws are more restrictive, or are so ambiguous through intention or legislative incompetence that doctors are unsure whether abortion might be legal or not.  This allows Republican politicians to force pregnancies and then deny responsibility, blaming the doctors for not also being lawyers able to parse out convoluted legal language as well as not being mind-readers able to discern legislative intent.  Too many laws specifically require women and girls to give birth after rape.  What is sexual slavery, if not forcing a person to procreate against their will?  If a woman drugged a man, forced Viagra into his system while he was tied down, and used him to impregnate herself, no one would say that man now owed her two-thirds of everything he has or earns for the next year.  The only risk to him would be tendon injury from all the high-fives he’d get from other men.  A child as young as ten can be raped, by a stranger or a family member, become pregnant, and forced to bear a child while a child herself, risking her life, her health, her ability to have children by choice later in her life, and be left with a lifetime of emotional and mental trauma, with no choice in the matter at all, because a group of well-to-do men thought the female body could simply “shut the thing down” as one GOP Senator put it, or that if it didn’t then it can’t really be that bad, since it’s just giving birth and what is the point of being a woman if you don’t give birth?

            Women are also being forced to carry pregnancies that cannot possibly lead to a live baby, but which may lead to a dead mother.  There’s a widespread, insane belief that doctors can simply move an ectopic pregnancy so the embryo can develop normally.  In fact, either the doctor must end the “pregnancy” or the woman will die.  Others are told they must carry fetuses known to lack a brain, or a skull, either because the law directly says so or because the doctors are too afraid of draconian laws to risk aborting even a nonviable pregnancy.  At this point, we’ve gone past the slavery of Republican policy in general, which justifies itself on the grounds that it is protecting unborn life; women are enslaved even when there is no life to protect, except their own. 

            So, there you have it.  It is slavery to make a man give up part of his life to save the life of another, even when the sacrifice is easy, small and largely painless and the benefit immense.  But it is somehow morally necessary to require a woman to give up part or all of her life, even when the sacrifice is painful and possibly permanent.  Our American Revolution is built on the principle that our society is one of voluntary relationships; the citizens (all male at the time of the Constitution’s writing) freely enter into an agreement with one another to live according to certain rules, which are themselves based on the collective will of all.  But a woman can be enslaved even when she has offered no consent or agreement, not even implied, except insofar as legislators regard having a uterus to be implied consent to nurture whatever comes to grow there.  Libertarian philosophy, which so many Republicans claim to follow, says that a person is a free, rational agent, whose only obligation is to keep whatever contracts they freely adopt as their own.  As Ayn Rand put it, selfishness is a virtue, the virtue of living one’s life as a human being instead of accepting slavery.  But even those Republican Congressmen who require all staff to read Atlas Shrugged or who themselves might even be named after Rand refuse to treat women as people.  By their own standards, they treat women as slaves, first to their freshly–fertilized eggs and often to the man who forced that fertilization on them.  And women are slaves to the state, which can define, often in contradiction to the woman’s own religion or belief, that the  fertilized egg is a person with more rights than her to her body.  Women are slaves to a state that can declare when a fetus is alive and when medically ending a pregnancy is “abortion” and thus murder, versus when actual doctors can make the diagnosis as to whether or not a viable pregnancy exists.  Every woman in a Republican-dominated state is a slave, whether she is pregnant or not, since if she becomes pregnant then she is instantly chattel and anyone who can legally be enslaved at any moment is essentially enslaved already.  Whether I agree with this analysis is really beside the point; Republicans have embraced Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick and other libertarians, have adopted this definition of personhood and freedom, and then declared women are not in fact free and not in fact people to the extent that men are.  If taxation is slavery, as millions of Republicans and a multitude of Republican leaders declare, then an involuntary pregnancy is slavery a thousand times over.  To deny this is to deny the personhood of women.

[1] Simon Maloy, “Rand Paul, Dorm Room Philosopher:  Why His ‘Slavery’ Nonsense is so Outrageous;” Salon July 7, 2015 (https://www.salon.com/2015/07/07/rand_paul_dorm_room_philosopher_why_his_slavery_nonsense_is_so_outrageous/)

Seventh Thesis Attributable to Aristotle:  The Wisdom of the Crowd

August 25, 2022

Seventh Thesis:  The Wisdom of the Crowd

For it is possible that the many, no one of whom taken singly is a sound, man, may yet, taken all together, be better than the few, not individually but collectively, in the same way that a feast to which all contribute is beter than one supplied at one man’s expense.

—-Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xi, 1281a39

            Aristotle was not an unqualified fan of democracy.  After all, his father had served in the royal court of Phillip of Macedon, and Aristotle also served the king and tutored his young son, later known as Alexander the Great.  When Alexander led his armies into Persia, Aristotle settled in Athens and founded a school to rival Plato’s Academy, which he was able to do in part because of his connections with the monarch.  And yet, despite his past and continuing benefit from royal patronage, he actually writes more favorably about democracy than does his former teacher.  He’s not utterly devoted to democracy, but he’s not a strict monarchist or aristocrat either.  He mostly seeks to see the strengths and weaknesses in every form of government, and seeking to describe how each monarchy, oligarchy or democracy can be the best of its sort possible.

            Aristotle’s mentor, Plato, famously argued that politics should be the domain of a political elite, the Guardians, with highest authority resting with a philosopher-king:  only when philosophers are kings, or kings consent to become philosophers, will society be well-led and the people be truly happy.  While the majority are necessary as producers, and a society can’t exist without farmers, crafters and others, these represent the belly of the state; just as an individual must have food but shouldn’t be ruled by their stomach, so too the state needs all those producers who are led by their appetites and who in turn feed the state literally and economically, but it should be led by its mind—-that is, the educated, self-disciplined philosophical elite.  The majority, he says, are led by their desire for money and things, and within limits should be allowed to pursue these things as their activity sustains the state; but in an ideal society, they would be permanently banned from political power.  The few who lead the state, by contrast, are fit to lead precisely because wealth and glory alike mean little to them; they desire to know and understand, and this understanding both gives them the temperament to lead for the good of the state rather than personal gain and gives them the ability to do so competently.

            Aristotle agrees that the absolutely ideal state would be one led by a morally perfect king, with the wisdom and self-discipline to do what is best for the state in every situation.  However, such a moral exemplar would be like a god among us mortals, and gods are rare these days.  It is difficult even to find and identify the best and the brightest by our more ordinary, incomplete human standards.  So while a philosopher-king might be the ideal, and a moral aristocracy nearly as good, more generally we have to deal with ordinary people and such political accomplishment as is practically achievable.  And for this, he says, the wisdom of the majority is often as effective as a supposedly select elite group of decision-makers.

            It is clear that Aristotle is not arguing that the majority has some sort of privileged status.  He’s not arguing, as Locke did centuries later, that political power is only legitimate when it reflects the will of the majority and thus that a political mandate flows solely from a collection of free individuals consenting to elect representatives to express their collective will.  And he’s certainly not advocating, as seems to be the trend today, that the “elite” are evil, corrupt and/or stupid oppressors and the ignorant, emotional masses are the sole arbiters of truth.  Man is not the measure of all things; there is truth, and truth is not only desirable but necessary for good political decision-making, and often truth is known by one or a few.  But in a large group, such as the entire collection of free citizens in a democracy, one person will be expert at one thing, and another knowledgeable about another.  Farmers will know more about feeding the state, soldiers and officers about defending it, philosophers about educating it and about justice, and so on.  If you have enough people together, someone in the group is going to be well-informed on whatever issue the group is discussing.  Therefore, allowing everyone to speak and have input is as likely to lead to sound decisions as selecting a small group of experts to make all the decisions.[1]

            Aristotle goes on to point out another advantage to letting the majority have a voice in major decisions.  If we confine government to those who are considered “the best,” we are inevitably shutting out the majority.  This can become a source of internal dissent and division within the state.  If everyone has a voice, everyone has a stake, and has more assurance that the government will look out for their interests too.[2]  At the same time, an expert’s knowledge matters in many areas.  A ship relies on its captain; armies are led by the generals rather than popular opinion; a doctor is more likely to know something about medicine than is a random group off the street.  The solution which Aristotle cites, following the example of Solon and other past lawmakers, is the scrutiny.  Let experts hold sovereign power in whatever areas of state government require specific knowledge; but at the end of their term of office, the people as a whole can evaluate their work, and either praise their good leadership or hold them to account for their failures.  In this way the people have a voice, but not in a way that drowns out or devalue actual expertise.  And if someone should complain that it is unjust or foolish to let some dumb yokel stand in judgment over an actually knowledgeable expert, Aristotle points out that it is not one person who stands in judgment, but the whole citizenry.  In addition to his earlier argument that a large group will contain as much collective wisdom as is likely in a select few, the fact is that they are the ones who have to live with the results of the leaders’ decisions.  As he says, the one who lives in the house has more to say about its comfort than the architect, and the diners rather than the cook decide whether the meal is delicious.[3] 

            This sort of debate continues from ancient Athens until today.  In Republic, when the listeners complain that the proposals would make the people miserable, Plato has Socrates reply that the theories they are laying out are not aimed to make any individual happy, but to create a happy state overall.[4]  To do this, he says, it is necessary to have each person stick to what he or she does well, and not meddle in the tasks of others; traders should stick to business, farmers to farming, soldiers to fighting, and the philosophers, educated in virtue and general knowledge, should lead.  To the individual who complains that this is in fact a miserable state, Plato says they are wrong, mistaken, because they think too highly of their own limited perspective and interests.  Aristotle by contrast says it is the residents of the state that know what it is like to live there, and thus they have the requisite knowledge to know whether the state is doing its job of providing an environment where humans can flourish. 

            There can be no doubt that, on the whole, Aristotle’s political philosophy is more congenial to modern representative democracy than is Plato’s.  Plato’s Republic and Laws assume leadership by a intellectual and military elite, basically Sparta with philosophy, with a centrally planned economy limiting the size of large plantations, restricting the numbers of citizens, severely limiting immigration and the numbers of resident aliens, and requiring leaders to live lives of strict austerity with little personal property.  While Plato aims to imagine a smoothly running state, Aristotle pays more attention to the individuals within it.  For Aristotle, the state exists so that the people in it can achieve full happiness; while he and Plato would agree that the citizens should be temperate and socially responsible, he is less inclined than Plato to denigrate the importance of the happiness of individuals or to sacrifice their enjoyment and prosperity to some ideal of social harmony.  Plato’s republic seems more like the People’s Republic of North Korea than it does like the United States of America, in that it rejects giving the majority any say in government, embraces national poverty and collectivism over either private or national prosperity, and is largely isolated culturally and economically from the rest of the world.  Aristotle is much more inclined to see the state as an environment where each individual can pursue their own happiness, in community with others.

            Plato’s model is a rather idealized vision of Sparta, as a land ruled by an aristocracy devoid of personal material interests, where the leaders live for the state and serve in the public interest and in return are supported by the state with their meals, shelter and basic needs provided, but little else.  Aristotle by contrast points out that the actual Spartan leaders often chafe at the restrictions on private wealth and are in fact quite open to corruption and bribery due to their natural desire for some private wealth and their inability to gain it legitimately.  This in turn points to another problem with Plato’s political philosophy:  he seems to rely on a false vision of human nature.  Republic starts as a thought experiment:  to get a better idea of what the good individual would be like, let’s imagine the perfect state, a sort of individual magnified, look at the divisions of function in such a state, and then look at the individual again to see how that structure would be reflected in the person as microcosm of the State.  It makes sense to say that the state is a mixture of mind, passion and appetite, the Guardians, Auxiliaries and Workers, and then to see the individual as mind, heart and body with the mind ultimately (ideally) in control; but when we imagine a group of philosopher guardians and their philosopher-king as individuals solely motivated by thought, we’ve entered fantasyland.  Aristotle’s leaders are real people, each with passions and desires as well as (hopefully) education and temperament to control these and lead effectively, if not perfectly.  Aristotle looks to the wisdom of the crowd partly because he recognizes that no one is completely devoid of reason, and partly because no one is completely ruled by reason, either; in a world where everyone is part fool, the safest course is a political system that can bring many perspectives together as mutual corrections on one another. 

             Even in his own day, though, Aristotle’s support for democratic principles was qualified; and if he could see conditions today, he’d have many worries.  While Aristotle thought it was best for political stability if the majority felt involved in and invested in their society, he was not a fan of just anyone having an equal voice.  First, he notoriously accepted slavery and patriarchy, which even Plato rejected.  So even the freest city-state Aristotle could envision would deny any vote or voice to well over half its population.  Plato by contrast embraced gender equality, even proposing women participate in the same exercise regimes as men and serving in the military, probably not as hoplites since that takes greater upper-body strength but as more lightly-armored archers.  Plato also had no use for slavery, since slaves were foreigners and he imagined a state where ideological purity was important even for the workers, and slaves only exist to create wealth for the lazy. 

            It is possible to reject Aristotle’s sexism and racism as not essential to his overall political philosophy, and to find value in it.  Even disregarding these repugnant traits, Aristotle still had concerns with giving too much power to the uneducated, undisciplined many.  This was why he cited with some approval the practice of restricting the vote to people who met some minimum property requirement (a common practice also in the early days of our own republic).  Aristotle proposed limiting the vote to those who owned their own weapons and armor to serve as hoplites.  This would have two benefits.  First, as Robert Heinlein later argued, those who serve in the military to defend the state have shown they are willing to take responsibility for its welfare even at the risk of their own; and second, the armor and weapons of a hoplite aren’t cheap, and anyone who could afford them definitely had some significant wealth.  The majority would be unable to vote, though they would have the hope of doing so if they could earn enough money (and then, by leaving their arms to their heirs, insure their children would be able to vote and be full citizens themselves). 

            While I think Aristotle’s insights can be reconciled with our more egalitarian understanding of people of different genders and nationalities, I don’t think he could accept the impact of social media.  Indeed, even some in the social media business worry about its corrosive effects.  In Aristotle’s day, two sides would stand before the assembly and make their speeches, each getting a chance to argue.  It wasn’t a perfect method; after all, Socrates and his accusers had argued before an Athenian jury of 501 randomly-chosen male citizens, and Socrates was condemned and executed; but a similar assembly had been convinced to go to war with Sparta, which proved to be an absolute disaster.  But at least both sides had their “day in court.”  On the internet, more often “truth” is a simple numbers game.  If a thousand ignorant, emotional fools say one thing and a dozen informed, rational experts have a different opinion, the dozen will scarcely be heard; the thousand will simply drown them out with a cacophony of insults, memes, Straw Men and other fallacious arguments, and threats of violence.  The state that sets its policy based solely on the majority opinion of such a misinformed, malignant mob will be like a ship steered by a committee of the blind.  Actually, it will be worse; the blind crew of the ship would at least recognize they’d hit rocks and were sinking, while time and again we see voters who flounder the state and, faced with the very disasters they were warned against, either are completely confused or refuse to even admit the problem. 

            The “wisdom of the crowd” does not require extraordinary wisdom in any one person, but it doesn’t happen spontaneously either; the mere existence of a crowd does not guarantee wisdom.  After all, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the crowd killed both Socrates and Christ.  But Aristotle is pointing towards something that political philosophers and political scientists, together with students of group psychology, have noted repeatedly:  that groups that have effective mechanisms for communication have a better track record than do authoritarians.  Dictators and tyrants, whether it be in politics or business or almost any field, have blind spots, and tend to be ruled by their own fears and appetites; unchecked by others, the CEO often bankrupts the company on foolish gambles, the Leader wastes money on monuments to himself and lives on military conquests, and the Hierarch burns the heretic whose words change the world.  Both Plato and Aristotle recognized that extreme democracy and mob rule opens the door to demagogues who turn into tyrants, and that the tyrants have no interest in the welfare of the state; the tyrant rules only for his own profit and comfort, lacks all self-discipline and self-awareness, and misrules through arrogance and an active warfare against the very citizenry he claims as “his” people—in much the same sense that a callous shepherd sees the flock as his mutton.  In this time of rising calls for authoritarian leaders, we would do well to remember that they generally fail, and when they do they fail monstrously, taking many with them; while the wisdom of the crowd and a more democratic constitution may avoid extremism and chart a humbler, more careful and deliberate course.

[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xi, 1281a39

[2] 1281b21-1281b32

[3] 1282a14

[4] Plato, Republic, Book IV

Sixth Thesis Attributable to Aristotle: Aim for the Middle!

July 19, 2022

Sixth Thesis:  Aim for the Middle!

It is clear then both that the best partnership in a state is the one which operates through the middle people, and also that those states in which the middle element is large, and stronger if possible than the other two together, or at an y rate stronger than either of them alone, having every chance of having a well-run constitution.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, chapter xi, 1295b34

            I am just an interested amateur when it comes to Aristotle; I don’t read him in Greek.  My translation comes from Penguin Classics, translated by T.A. Sinclair and revised by Trevor J. Saunders.  I don’t know which of these two chose to translate Aristotle’s word for those who are neither rich nor poor as “the middle sort of people” or similar locutions,  but I understand the reasoning:  that “class” or “middle class” is an anachronistic phrase, with vaguely Marxist associations and other modern implications which are alien to Aristotle.  Nevertheless, “middle class” as it is commonly used fits pretty closely with what Aristotle apparently means.  He describes the political situation of the polis, the city-state, as a struggle between the rich and the poor, the oligarchic and the democratic elements.  In practice, this works out to rule by the few versus rule by the many, since there are more poor than there are rich; but essentially it is about different views of justice.  The poor argue that everyone should be equal, and thus everyone should be citizens, having a part in ruling the state; this tends towards democracy since the more citizens there are, the more power is shared and the more the state reflects the will of the majority (remember, Aristotle defines “citizen” as one who rules and is ruled in turn, who both makes and obeys the laws).  The rich argue that they are better, more educated, smarter, and that their wealth in fact pays for more of the functions of the state, and thus they should have a greater share in running it; essentially, the rich few will be the citizens, the others more residents who obey and are cared for, who contribute by their labor, but trust their betters to make the laws.  States where the well-off have more power will thus tend to be more oligarchic, while states where the poor have more clout will be more democratic.  Both groups will continue to eye each other suspiciously, however, fearing exploitation:  the rich fear confiscation of their property, while the poor fear oppressive laws and taxes that benefit only the rich and preserve their power.

            Such a situation obviously leads towards factionalism and thus towards instability, as each group vies for power over its opponents.  And instability, or worse yet, civil war and revolution is not good for anybody.  It is not good for the individual, who needs a stable and safe environment to survive and live a good life.  And it is not good for the state, since naturally every government wants to survive as long as possible. 

            Aristotle argues that a well-run, stable state will not pander to the poor or the rich, but will instead present itself as a servant of both.  A wise oligarchy will claim to be protecting the poor, and will do enough so that they can reasonably believe their interests are not being crushed; and a democracy will protect the rights of the rich and convince them that they have nothing to fear.[1]  But he further argues that both oligarchies and democracies should aim to strengthen the middle class.  First, if the oligarchs (rich) or the democrats (poor) want to convince the other side that they have their best interests at heart, they can’t have policies that overtly favor their own side.  You can’t say “eat the rich” and expect the rich to support your government; and you can’t expect the majority to trust you if, as Aristotle says of some oligarchs in his day, you vow “to be hostile to the people and do all I can against them.”  Of course a government is going to look to its own preservation and its own constituents; so an oligarchy is going to have policies approved by the rich few, while a democracy must have the approval of the many poor; but if a government wants stability and long-term survival, it must be seen as just by the majority, so that more people want it to continue than don’t.  So, whatever form of government prevails, if it is wise, it will govern in ways that will win approval from at least some of the other groups; and that means governing from the center.

            But even if the government seeks to avoid political divisions, Aristotle says they are inevitable.  In every state, he says, there are some who favor oligarchy and some who favor democracy.  There are always going to be rich and poor, and their interests will conflict no matter how much the ruling class may seek to mollify the other group.  Cultivating the “middle group” stabilizes the society by introducing a third group between the two extremes.[2]  When the oligarchic party threatens to seize total control and trample on the rights of the majority, the middle class will feel threatened and side with the poor; but if the radical democrats threaten to destroy the rich as a group, the middle class will feel its property rights threatened and side with the rich.  The result is that, instead of widely polarized and hostile factions, the two groups have a rough balance of power, with the middle shifting to preserve the status quo.  For this reason also, a society with a stronger, secure middle class is less prone to tyranny than either a pure oligarchy or radical democracy; “for tyranny often emerges from an over-enthusiastic democracy or from an oligarchy, but much more rarely from intermediate constitutions or from those close to them.”

            This search for stability preoccupies Aristotle’s political thinking.  A state, or a constitution, seeks its own long-term survival; and the greatest threat to a constitution is factionalism.  Oligarchies are thus innately unstable, as they generally have two sources of factions.  First, all states have a struggle of rich/oligarchic party versus poor/democratic party; in addition, an oligarchy generally has at least two rival parties even within the ruling class.  Families and allies struggle against each other to rule, while also struggling to prevent the majority from overthrowing all the oligarchs; and in this, one power-group within the oligarchy may even side with the disenfranchised majority, promising them greater power and prosperity in exchange for their support.  The road to stability is to have a middle class that can temper the extreme tendencies of the other groups and to mediate between them.  The constitution that favors this sort of “government from the middle” is what Aristotle calls “polity,” which combines democratic and oligarchic elements in a “mixed” constitution, governed by rule of law.

            But even more than the political advantages of a society with a strong middle, Aristotle argues that the “middle sort of people” have a moral superiority that supports social stability.[3]  He begins his argument by referring back to the Nichomachean Ethics, where “we stated that virtue is a mean, and that the happy life is a life without hindrance in its accordance with virtue.”  If this is so, he claims, then the moral life must be “the middle life, consisting in a mean which is open to men of every kind to attain.”  That is, the best, happy life is not reserved for the very rich or the destitute, the powerful or the powerless, the genius or the dolt, but is a balanced life, one with adequate but not excessive goods, with both active social engagement and time for quiet personal learning and philosophic contemplation, neglecting neither mind nor body.  He applies this ideal of balance and the mean to the state as a whole, “for the constitution of a state is in a sense the way it lives.”  And the state consists of people who are rich, poor, and somewhere in between.  The well-ordered, happy state will aim at that “in between.”  But the middle class is not best simply because they’re “the mean between the extremes” of wealth and poverty.  This economic condition tends to promote virtues which make them not only happier personally, but better citizens.  Aristotle says it is easier for them to obey reason than it is for either the rich or the impoverished.  The rich, he says, tend to be arrogant, ambitious, and never really get used to taking orders or following rules.  Even in childhood, whether at home or school, they never really learn to accept discipline, because they are used to having everything they want when they want it.  The poor, by contrast, are used to poverty and social weakness; they know all to well how to submit, but don’t learn how to rule.  As we saw earlier, a good citizen must be able to obey and to command, since to be a citizen is both to obey the laws and to take part in making them.  The one group is used to treating others as servants and slaves, the other to being treated as servants and slaves; so a state with only or primarily extremes in wealth and poverty will be a collection of masters and slaves, contemptuous rich and envious poor.  While a healthy society would be a partnership of friends bound by mutual sharing, a state with no middle class is nothing but enmity between the rulers and the ruled. 

            Not only does economic division divide the state and sow enmity among the people; it also corrupts them individually.  The rich, Aristotle says, are more likely to be driven to “crime on a large scale” due to their arrogant spirit.  They are eager to rule, and feel it is their due; and if their desire for power, or wealth or anything is thwarted, they are more likely to commit great crimes to get what they want.  Today we might imagine a man born rich, whose hunger for more wealth and fame leads him to repeated massive frauds, serial adulteries, ultimately perhaps even attempting to overthrow his own government, all utterly without shame because he feels entitled.  The poor, by contrast, Aristotle says are “more than averagely prone to wicked ways and petty crime” due to their customary “wickedness.”  Those who are neither rich nor impoverished, he says, are less inclined to either sort of vice; neither arrogance nor petty avarice drives them.  They neither seek honor for its own glory as the rich are inclined to do, nor avoid office if responsibility falls to them, as the poor might since they must work constantly just to eat; they can take the time from their own affairs to help run the state if called upon.  We see that today, in the comparatively low voting rates among the poor, and in the overweening desire of so many billionaires to either become politicians or to demand politicians act at their beck and call.  Aristotle argues that it is the middle class that knows how to obey and command, to serve responsibly and to exercise authority with restraint, and which is less inclined to crime because they suffer neither the need of the poor nor the decadence of the rich.  And Aristotle says that it is among the “middle sort” that we find that community of equals that he sees as the ideal state, an association of free person and equals.  The larger and more powerful this middle class is, therefore, the happier, better run, less corrupt, less lawless, and more mutually supportive and friendly the state will be.

            In our nation’s politics, candidates have long aimed at appealing to the middle class—rhetorically, at least.  Whether it’s Republican attacks on “elites” in defense of “real America,” or Democratic attacks on “the 1%,” both parties claim to be working to protect the middle class against the powerful; and Republican attacks on “illegal immigrants” or “urban” voters are likewise attempts to convince the middle class that it is under attack by the poor, which is more weakly echoed by Democratic attempts to stir up “suburban moms” against “rural” hordes of gun-loving White-supremacist “deplorables” who would impose their alleged bigotry on the majority.  Aristotle didn’t have to contend with mass media; in his day, if a politician wanted to lie to you, he had to do it to your face or at least in your general proximity.  It is often hard for voters to decide who is really representing “the middle people” and who is really promoting the interests of either the very rich or the poor.  While we have a larger percentage of “middle class” people than Aristotle could have imagined, that percentage has been shrinking, and the poorer class has been growing, while the power of the wealthy has only grown.  While there is room to argue whether we are still truly a representative democracy or have slipped into oligarchy, the trend is troubling, we are clearly moving towards a more oligarchic, more polarized, more extreme society, which Aristotle argues means greater instability and greater risk of eventual collapse.

[1] Politics Book V, chapter ix, 1310a2

[2] Politics, Book IV, chapter ix, 1295b34

[3] Politics, 1295a34-1295b28

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: conclusions (pt. 2)

April 16, 2022

            Democracies, by contrast, aim for general prosperity if they know what’s good for them.  In modern history, it is often noted, most revolutions occur in times of rising prosperity, when the majority feel that they are not gaining the economic and political benefits they deserve fast enough.  Aristotle would expect this, and would add that democracies become unstable when people find themselves suddenly poorer.  If the majority has enough now and some reason to expect as much or better in the future, they are generally content.  Also, a democracy is not tied to the welfare of a single individual, or even a small group.  The Clintons or the Bushes or the Trumps could be forever eclipsed, and our democracy would be none the worse; in fact, it would arguably be strengthened.  In a democracy, power rests with the many, so a regular rotation of the particular office-holders is healthy; thus, it is to a democracy’s advantage that as many people as possible have the education and power to participate in politics.  In fact, for Aristotle that is the very definition of a citizen:  one who both rules and is ruled, who both helps make the laws and obeys them.  If one has no meaningful vote, one is not a citizen; in a tyranny where only one person makes the rules, there is one citizen and everyone else is a slave, or if you prefer, a subject. 

            So, for a democracy, the best political strategy is to strengthen the middle class, to provide educational opportunities to as many people as possible, and to promote the general prosperity of all, the exact opposite of the interests of the oligarchy or tyranny.  The democracy will seek to include, perhaps not all the residents, but as many people as possible, since the more voters and participants in the democracy, the more people will feel they have a stake in the welfare of the state and thus the less factional infighting, subversion and crime will threaten social stability. [1]

            Democracies have one other, substantial advantage over other forms of government:  the wisdom of the crowd.  Aristotle says that the best sort of government, if it were possible, would be to have a perfect king, the wisest and most virtuous person, to rule over the rest and lead them in growing morally as well as practically; but such a god among men is at best vanishingly rare.  More often the one or the few who lead an authoritarian state are no wiser or noble than the rest, and too often worse.  But if you have a group, it is more likely that some will be more knowledgeable on this matter, others wiser on that, some more patient, others more decisive, and so on, and the ones who are wiser concerning the matter at hand, or have characters more suited to the situation may be able to persuade the others or at least prevent disastrously bad choices.  As we know, sometimes this “wisdom of the crowd” doesn’t pan out; sometimes the better ideas get shouted down, either by an ill-informed mob or a clever demagogue.  But often the worst decisions, the really world-historical cock-ups come from authoritarians, whether it’s Napoleon invading Russia, Russia invading Afghanistan, Trump’s decision to make the states fight each other for resources to fight COVID-19 or whatever.  Democracies have made atrocious decisions, particularly morally; but again, it takes a number of people and institutions to go wrong at the same time for a democracy to go astray, while an oligarchy may collapse through the failure of a few or one person. 

            Less anecdotally, Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics for research that supports this claim.  For example, he points to Costa Rica and Brazil, two countries that had similar cultures and similar GNPs in the 1970s.  Costa Rica was a democracy, however, while Brazil was ruled by a military junta.  As a democracy, Costa Rica had to provide for its people, so it largely scrapped its national army and spent is resources on health care, infrastructure and other things the people wanted.  Brazil was an oligarchy, and only had to please the military elite and a few wealthy backers; so they spent a far greater percentage of their national budget on weapons, on big development projects that make money for the owners of big construction companies, and so on.  The average life span of a Costa Rican was ten years longer than that of an average Brazilian.  Again, remember, there was no meaningful difference between the wealth of the two societies; each had the same amount of money to spend per citizen, but the democracy spent the money in ways that benefited more people.  Sen also researched several modern-day famines, such as the Bengal Famine of 1943.  At that time India was not a functional democracy; power rested with the colonial occupiers, not with the people.  As in famines generally in the modern world, there was in fact food available; it was just too expensive for many people to buy, and the government didn’t care enough to feed them all because it didn’t need to care.  Sen is careful to point out that he is discussing real functional democracies:  those that have not only free and fair elections, but also free markets, a free press, and rule of law.  If the country is hamstrung by corruption, or monopolies allow a few people to control all production, or the press does not provide the people with complete and honest information on which to base their desires and their votes, merely having a vote every few years is meaningless; but where all the institutions are healthy, democracy and the wisdom of the crowd generally lead to policies that are better for the majority and for the health of the body politic.

            If an oligarchy wants to stay in power, it must weaken the people, keep them ignorant and poor, and frightened.  Nothing makes the school tighten up like a shark.  So the autocrat wants the people in constant fear; nothing aids a tyrant as much as a crisis.  But for the most part, a real problem demands real solutions, which the autocrat has little interest in providing and generally little competence; so instead the oligarchy or tyrant seeks to gin up class hatreds, religious bigotries, racism, conspiracies and so on.  Once the monsters of the people’s imaginations are unleashed against them, a faux savior can step forward and say, “I am the only one who can fix this.”  If Capt. Bligh could have kept his crew constantly on the lookout for sea monsters, H.M.S. Bounty would doubtless have returned to England with her cowed, obedient crew, some even grateful for having been saved from the imagined terrors.  Instead, they saw the warm, welcoming islands and the people who lived without floggings or scurvy, and mutinied against their true enemy.

            A democracy (or better, a polity, to use Aristotle’s term) is most safe when the people are happy.  It depends on as many citizens as possible feeling invested in the welfare of the nation as a whole.  Its leadership does best if it can demonstrate competence.  The leaders of a democracy know that would-be tyrants are always lurking in their midst, ready to seize power by presenting themselves as the people’s only savior.  Hobbes’ leviathan always seeks to overthrow the promised land where every one sits under their own fig tree.  So the leaders of democracy have little motive to panic the people with bogeymen, and every reason to solve the real problems—or at least the problems the people feel are real. 

            To put it bluntly and in today’s context:  the tyrant, oligarch and would-be autocrat will seek to ignore or cover up dangers such as climate change, pollution, a threatened epidemic or other such threats that would require a collective response, as this would mean empowering experts to plan, and the people to implement the plan, dispersing power away from the autocrat.  The tyrant seeks to divide the people, make them loathe and fear their neighbors, so the tyrant can step forth as the only one who can protect them.  The tyrant creates the monsters and then promises to slay them, for the small price of your soul.

            By contrast, the democratic leader, the public servant, needs to keep the people happy rather than afraid or angry.  Such a would-be “good shepherd” needs to find and solve real problems, so that things continue to go as comfortably and steadily as possible.  And such a leader needs cooperation and buy-in from the people.  It is not an accident or genius that Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  We are the change we seek,” while Trump said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  This is the essential difference between the democratic (small “d”) and autocratic forms of government:  one seeks to both please the majority and to move it to solve its problems, while the other requires only passivity from the masses while it sees to the desires of the leaders.  That is why one party frets about climate change and the associated droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, increased epidemics and other disasters predicted by An Inconvenient Truth and increasingly prevalent today, while the other worries about CRT, mosques, trans people and whether the parental rights of rapists are being properly respected.

            If you want a government that at least attempts to provide prosperity for the majority, at least tries to identify real problems and real solutions, and mostly supports a stable legal system, you have to fight for democracy.  The alternative is a government that actively seeks to harm, impoverish and oppress, that makes actual problems worse while manufacturing others in addition, and which twists the legal and economic systems to benefit its leaders.  Aristotle told you over 2500 years ago, so don’t act all surprised.

[1] Aristotle is practical about this; he does not favor “open borders” without qualification, and mentions as an example one city-state that let a large group of immigrants settle in its borders who later overthrew the government.  In Greece in his day, there were multiple Greek-speaking states, each with its own distinct political culture and values; if you were a Spartan with a long history of ascetic militarism in reverence to the war god Ares, you wouldn’t want a bunch of merchants from Aphrodite-loving Corinth moving in and demanding the laws be changed to accommodate their more hedonistic lifestyle.  It was not uncommon for there to be communities of resident aliens, who did not have the rights of citizens even though they were expected to obey the same laws, just as there are today in most wealthy democracies.  Before a foreigner became a citizen, you would want to make sure they accepted the values and traditions of your society; and in the relatively small states of the day, you would likely want to limit the numbers of new citizens coming in at one time lest you literally change the demographics, and thus the society itself overnight.  One thing the United States does better than just about any other nation is turn immigrants into citizens, who often have more knowledge of the national heritage and more devotion to the national project than many so-called “native sons.”  But even in this “melting pot” we have some border controls, and a system one must submit to if one wishes to become a citizen.  Aristotle would say that we are broadening our democracy and thus giving it a more stable foundation, but he would also approve us not just allowing any resident to vote who had not first learned what it means to be a citizen of this nation, and shown their willingness to accept our key values.  Aristotle says the purpose of education is to train citizens in the knowledge and virtues they need to support the state; thus a democracy must teach democratic virtues, an oligarchy must teach oligarchic virtues and so on, and a state that brings in new citizens faster than it can properly educate them is bound for instability and ultimately for collapse.

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: conclusions (pt. 1)

March 29, 2022

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Conclusions

            I’ve been working through Aristotle’s ­Politics for awhile, trying to lay out some principles to understand our situation today.  However, recently I’ve begun to suspect we may have hit the snooze button on the ol’ Doomsday Clock once too often, and that if I have anything I want to say, maybe I’d better say it now.  Besides, it’s not a bad practice to write the conclusion of a book (paper etc.) first, and then go back and do the argument, and then the introduction where you confidently predict you’re about to prove what you know you’ve already written.

            There’s a lot in Aristotle we need to just throw out.  His views on slavery and women, to name two notable examples, are rooted in his time, and in fact weren’t even particularly enlightened 400 years before Christ.  Plato, for one, advocated for equality of education between men and women as well as political equality and, with some adjustments, even physical training and military service; and in Meno he famously has Socrates discuss geometry with a slave, demonstrating that even a slave has the same innate ability to learn as any citizen.  In fact, since Plato argued that all learning is in fact recollection, he was saying that even slaves have the same innate knowledge that all humans have.  Aristotle by contrast thought only free-born Greek-speaking males were really human.  But if we accept that Plato was right, we can find that Aristotle’s other views are quite independent of his more notoriously parochial and oppressive prejudices.

            Let’s start with his linkage between human nature, ethics and politics.  Aristotle believed that there was one human nature.  We postmodernists may debate this today, but I think the question is not whether, but how much commonality there is between people, and how important it is.  Scientists tell us that across the globe, humans have certain qualities in common.  Obviously, we are all physical beings, as Aristotle says, we are animals, capable of movement and sensation, and thus requiring a certain level of physical satisfaction to be fulfilled (what Aristotle calls “eudaimonia” and we commonly translate “happiness”).  But we humans are also innately social; for example, deny humans access to other humans, say by locking them in solitary confinement for a long time, and they may go insane.  We need to see other human faces.  Children can suffer permanent damage if they aren’t talked to, looked at attentively, and physically comforted as infants, even if all their physical needs for nutrition and health care are met.  And as well as being social animals, we are thinking animals.  There is some debate among scientists as to how unique this is in nature, so some would challenge Aristotle’s claim that humans are unique in being rational animals; but whether we are unique or just rare, it is true that humans are rational as well as social animals.  Thus, we are not living a fulfilled human life unless we are part of a community that allows us to sustain ourselves physically and mentally.  We live in groups because no one of us alone can fully satisfy their needs; we need to live in groups, to trade with one another, to learn from one another, for mutual protection and cooperation.  The purpose of society is thus to provide each one with the conditions they need to thrive and be satisfied.  That doesn’t mean all need to be equal, and in fact humans generally divide up their tasks so that some produce food, others primarily craft, and generally some are leaders either for some joint task or for overall cooperation in the community.  This, too, seems to be natural, as indicated by studies of human cultures and those of social primates such as bonobos.  So a good society is one that allows for the flourishing of the social, rational animals that live in it.  This includes citizens, who are those who have a part in making the laws and in following them; it also includes those like children, resident aliens and perhaps others who contribute to society and depend upon it, but may not have any direct part in making its laws.

            Since a good society provides a sustaining environment, it must include attention to the economic divisions.  A large wealth gap divides the society and creates factions.  Aristotle was strongly (or primarily) concerned that society be stable, and a stable society is one where the people mostly felt they had a stake in the status quo.  There are bound to be richer and poorer, and these two groups often have antithetical interests; but where the poor are still able to live fulfilled human lives and the rich still feel some kinship with the poor, any struggle between them can be confined to the politics of the group itself, without either side feeling the need to overturn society as a whole. 

            This is also part of Aristotle’s discussion of the various forms of government.  He mentions the classic types known to Greeks:  monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.  He also divides these between “deviations” where the society is governed by the whim of the ruling power and exists solely for its benefit, versus proper forms of government that follow the rule of law and exist for the welfare of everyone.  Thus you can have a kingship, with a single ruler who governs for the welfare of the nation and according to the settled laws and norms of the society, with due attention to his various counselors and other officials; or you can have a tyranny, where the rules bend or break to satisfy the desires of the dictator, and everyone else exists only to please and enrich him.  You can also have a ruling class of the best and noblest aristocrats, or an oligarchy of the richest governing in order to protect and increase their personal wealth.  And you can have the mob rule of a democracy where the poor use their combined strength in numbers to plunder the rich, or a constitutional democracy (what Aristotle calls a “polity”) where the laws are made by the majority but for the welfare of the state, and it is settled law rather than the passions of the crowd that determine the actions of the government.  Ultimately, though, Aristotle says that this three, or six, or maybe more (if you mix and match characteristics) comes down to two forms of government:  rule by the many (who tend to be the poorer) or rule by the richest (who are the fewest, and perhaps ultimately only one). 

            Aristotle says you want a stable society; humans can’t live their best lives if the society is in constant turmoil of faction, crime and revolution.  And to achieve this stability, the government should aim not at the welfare of the rich or the poor, but at those between these two extremes—in today’s parlance, the Middle Class.  Whatever form of government rules the state, if the middle class is strong and feels valued and protected, it will be a force for stability.  When the poor are too strong and the society starts to turn on its “best and brightest,” to “eat the rich,” the middle class will feel threatened and side with the rich; when the rich decide the poor need to be “taught a lesson” and seek to crush the majority with harsh laws or to impoverish them with excessive taxes and demands, the middle class will side with the poor lest they find themselves impoverished by those same oligarch-sponsored policies later.  Ultimately, then, a society that aims at the middle will be more stable than one that aims to promote the interests of either the rich or the poor, and ultimately all three groups will get what they really need:  a stable society that is fair to all, and thus where all can fulfill their needs and be as happy as their health and personal circumstances allow.

             Here’s where we get to the part that really interests me today.  Ever since the rise of authoritarian populists like Trump, Duarte, Bolsonaro, Farage and others who seem to prefer the policies of Putin and Xi and other “strong” leaders, there has been a lot of chatter in the press and social media about the “death of democracy.”  I am no prophet, or if I am then I’m Cassandra since no one believes me anyway; so I won’t say whether the authoritarians or democrats will ultimately prevail over the next century.  I will say, without reservation, that if the authoritarians win, it will be a disaster for the human race.  This was obvious long before Trump botched (and intentionally sabotaged, according to some of his own family and administration) the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was obvious long before Putin’s debacle in Ukraine, which was supposed to be a surprise lightning conquest and now will be either a Pyrrhic victory or ignominious defeat for Russia, tarnishing its national reputation at every level.  It was obvious long before Brexit promised the English national prosperity and prestige but instead delivered the economic chaos which the economic experts they despised had predicted.  It was obvious, largely, due to the words of Aristotle.

            Ultimately, Aristotle said, there are two factions in every state.  The poor favor democracy, since there are more of them, so naturally they claim that the majority should wield more power and the government should be in their control; the rich favor oligarchy, since they are few but individually rich and powerful and thus argue that they do more for the state and thus should control it.  If you follow the oligarchic logic to its conclusion, the two end-points on the political spectrum are tyranny and democracy.  Any oligarchy is just tyranny by committee or by clique.  And while we can hope the tyrant or oligarch will seek to gain and hold power by ruling justly and beneficently, it is not obviously in their advantage to do so.  More generally, the few or the one seek to weaken the many, by keeping them as poor, ignorant, miserable and powerless as possible.  Aristotle said that in oligarchies, the government officials take vows to treat the people (that is, the majority) as enemies.[1]  Furthermore, oligarchies are inherently less stable than democracies.  While a democratic state is likely to have an oligarchic faction, an oligarchy will have both a democratic faction and factions within the oligarchy itself, with rivalries between the various ruling families.  Thus the authoritarian has less incentive to make the state prosperous, wise or powerful, since these things could wind up creating challengers for the throne. 

to be continued…..

[1]Aristotle, Politics, Book V, chapter xi, 1310a2.  Today, our oligarchs and tyrants almost always claim to be saviors of the people (a pattern reaching back to Rome) even when their actions do nothing but harm and oppress.

Fifth Thesis Attributable to Aristotle: Which Form of Government is Best?

January 25, 2022

Which Form of Government is Best?

It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong.  They are all deviations from the right constitutions.  They are like the rule of a master over slave, whereas the state is an association of free men.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter vi, 1279a16

            What is the best form of government?  This was a real concern for Aristotle.  On the one hand, he was teaching in famously democratic Athens; on the other, his father had been physician to the king of Macedon, and Aristotle owed his own career to his connections to the Macedonian royal court.  He had also studied under Plato, who was an Athenian himself but born to the aristocracy, and distrusted democracy.  Aristotle preferred to observe the world, collect opinions from disparate sources, and then draw conclusions; and he had a wide range of experiences and philosophical influences from which to draw.  And while this gives his political philosophy a prima facie practicality that Plato’s rationalist idealism lacks, it may also explain the problem with answering this question; for before we can say which form of government is best, we have to know which forms there are, and Aristotle is not particularly consistent on that point.

            Aristotle describes six forms of government in his most intentional list.  Government, he says, can be rule by one, a few or the many; thus the three legitimate forms of government are monarchy, aristocracy or what he calls “polity.”  These are the three “correct” forms of government, when the governing body acts primarily for the welfare of the state and all the people.  For each of these, there is also a “deviation,” where the government acts not for the good of society but for the benefit of the governing power:  tyranny, oligarchy or democracy.  The deviations are also the forms where the government acts without constraint from laws or customs, at the whim of whomever controls the levers of power; these written and unwritten laws really are the state, so a government which seeks to preserve the state will obey the rule of law rather than any human or group.  A king is a single ruler who acts within the prerogatives of his office, with respect to custom and his council, for the good of the kingdom; a tyrant is a single ruler who acts in whatever way benefits him personally, without regard for any legal or institutional constraints.  Aristocracy is rule by “the best,” the wisest and most virtuous, the elite minority who act for the good of the whole; an oligarchy is government by the rich and for the rich.  Democracy, in Aristotle’s terms, is rule by the mob and demagogues, for the many (which means “the poor” since there are always more poor than rich), regarding anyone with any sort of superiority as an enemy, whether it be riches or noble birth or even virtue.[1]  A “polity,” by contrast, is rule by the majority, but with rule of law rather than rule of the mob, and with an eye for the welfare of all rather than what we’d call “class warfare.” 

            But having worked out this classification in Book III of The Politics, Aristotle doesn’t stick with it.  For one thing, these six are ideal types in a sense; many constitutions actually mix elements from two.  For example, Sparta was a monarchy, but the Ephors were elected by the people and had considerable power.  Aristotle himself favored a mixture of aristocracy and polity, so that both “the best” and “the many” had a voice and each side had to work with the other.  So if asked which of the six forms of government is best, it seems Aristotle’s answer is that none of them are; the best is a combination of the best elements of rule by the few and the many, so that neither the rich nor the poor might exploit the other but both should work together for the good of the state. 

            At other times, Aristotle seeks to simplify his discussion down to its barest essence.  In a sense, rule by “the one” or “the few” is just a matter of degrees, so at times he conflates them.  In any state, he says, the rich tend to favor oligarchy, since they benefit from rule by the richest few; the poor, being most numerous, favor democracy, since rule by “the many” favors them.  Both sides argue that they are the strongest and best able to govern the state, and thus deserve to rule.  When discussing this debate/power struggle, Aristotle writes as if there are essentially only two forms of government:  oligarchy or democracy, rule by the few (rich) or the many (poor).  But again, elsewhere he has extensive discussion of tyranny and the strategies of the tyrant/monarch, including different forms of tyranny. 

            So, Aristotle presents a formal classification of six forms of government, but at times lumps the “correct” and “deviations” together to make three, other times lists two, and still elsewhere discusses how actual city-states often don’t strictly conform to any of these types and thus present an indefinite number of “mixed” constitutions.  And he does not dismiss out of hand the claims of any to be the “just” form of government.  He writes:

            It has already been stated that while all men have some kind of justice in their claims, not all of them have a claim that is just in an absolute sense.  (a) The rich argue that they have a greater share in the land, and the land is of social interest; and further, that they are more to be relied upon to fulfill their contracts.  (b) The claims of the free and well-born are closely related:  the more nobly born are more fully citizens than the non-noble, good birth being held in esteem in every country; and the offspring of the better sort are likely to be better men, for good birth is excellence of stock.  (c) Next we shall mention the equally just claims of virtue, for we always speak of justice as a social virtue, and one which is sure to bring all the other virtues along with it.  (d) And surely the majority have a better claim than the minority, as being stronger, richer and better, if we balance the larger numbers against the smaller.[2]

Aristotle concedes that all of these have some claim to rule the state, but that only one has an absolute claim—and that one is humanly impossible:  rule by a person of the highest virtue.  A person of absolutely superior social virtue would be as a god among men, and “there is no law that embraces men of that caliber.”[3]  Such a leader is the law to themselves, and ought to be law to all the others.  If such a person, motivated entirely by the good of the society and with no personal ambition, could be found to run the government, of course we’d have a government that aimed at the common good.  Since the virtue of a citizen is both to rule and to be ruled, to order and to obey in turn, this absolute paragon of virtue would not be part of the citizen body since such a person would obey nothing but his own virtue; for the perfect person to obey anything else would be to obey the lesser. 

            However, such superior virtue is vanishingly rare, essentially nonexistent.  Instead, in the actual states we live in, we find a mixture of rich and poor, more and less virtuous, established families and obscure houses, a variety of claimants with some just claim to rule.  Therefore, the best state is going to be one that can accommodate all of these, balance their demands, and incorporate them into the government together.  A correct constitution is one that aims at the common good; and in the real world, that includes the welfare of rich, poor, superior, mediocre, as many different persons and backgrounds as possible.  For this reason, the best form of government is going to be a mixed constitution, neither purely oligarchic nor purely democratic, but giving enough to each side so that neither feels shut out or endangered and thus no one has reason to oppose the welfare and stability of the society.

            This idea is also behind our own Constitution.  We have a House of Representatives, which is designed to give “the people” the most direct representation practically possible.  With short terms of office and every member up for reelection, its members have to constantly appease the mob or be voted out of office.  The Senate has higher standards of membership, requiring thirty years of age and nine years of citizenship, as opposed to twenty-five years old and seven years’ citizenship for a Representative.  Its members serve longer, and turnover is staggered, allowing for greater stability.  There are fewer of them, which encourages more collegiality and discussion.  And essentially, Senators represent the states, not the people directly; for the first 125 years of this nation’s history, Senators were appointed by state governments rather than elected by the people.  Even today, with Senators elected by the people, they were always expected to be the thoughtful and dignified body, even if the House was comparatively more raucous and volatile.  The Senate is, by design, more oligarchic than the House, with the intention of giving both “the mob” and “their betters” a voice and a share in government.  The Founding Fathers didn’t want a monarchy, nor did they want an Athenian-style democracy with every matter decided directly by the people; they wanted a representative democracy with aristocratic elements to put a brake on runaway popular passion if need be.  Their historical model was an idealized version of “the People and Senate of Rome” from its republic, or more historically the English model with the House of Commons and House of Lords (with the “lords” replaced by patricians serving temporary terms of office). 

            Of course, for this system to work as intended, the Senate has to live up to that responsibility as the long-term, greater-common-good thinkers as opposed to the immediacy and parochialism expected of the House.  When people speak of “the breakdown of decorum in the Senate,” that is the real problem they are noticing.  The problem isn’t that Senators are being rude or even dishonest with one another; that’s only a symptom.  The problem is that instead of one legislative body of partisan demagogues, we have a political party of partisan demagogues in both Houses.  The fact that Secretary of State Clinton was targeted by eleven Benghazi investigations over the deaths of four people, while Republican Senators and House members join together to oppose any investigation into an armed mob overrunning the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow a duly elected President and impose minority rule, is all the evidence needed to show that many Senate Republicans have abandoned even the standards of responsible behavior they would have insisted upon just a few years ago.  Because of this, the Aristotelian idea of a détente between those who proclaim themselves “the best” and “the many” is breaking down; the former elite (White males, esp. with money) and the majority are losing trust in one another, with White male Republicans increasingly calling for a second Civil War rather than allow “liberals” to take control simply because they keep winning elections.  And in a sense, they’re right.  Tyranny of the majority is still a form of tyranny, and the increasingly minority, former majority White non-college males who dominate the Republican base, and the primarily White male billionaires who dominate the Republican donor list, have a right to demand protection from undue attacks.  That does not mean the rest have to accept their understanding of “undue,” but it does mean that reassurances and a commitment to consideration of their concerns is necessary.  Sometimes just showing some respect and listening to the other can go a long way.  Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by appealing to White rural voters, not because he’s one of them but because they felt that Democrats talked down to them.  Despite being a silver-spoon elite who’s said repeatedly that billionaires like himself are genetically superior to working-class drudges who lack ambition and vision, his language and his emotionalism seemed to be talking to and for them instead of down to them, while people like Hillary seemed condescending despite her own blue-collar roots because of her law-school background and numbers-heavy policy proposals.  No one is going to trust a government that seems to regard them as inferior, and most people will respond to feelings, such as a candidate who “speaks my language” at least as much as to what the candidate has actually said.

            For a government to fulfill its function, which is to support human flourishing and happiness (eudaimonia) by giving citizens a community that nurtures a good life, it has to be reasonably reasonable, supportive of the virtues while inhibiting vices such as corruption, and stable.  Aristotle says people need a certain kind of life to be fulfilled and content:  not just consumer goods and pleasures, and not just individual autonomy since that much they could have outside of a community.  These things are important, but they are not all, and excessive luxury or excessive individualism can be as destructive as the absence of these things.  Humans are social animals; they cannot fulfill their human nature without a community of individuals and households relating to each other, trading goods and services, discussing each others’ insights on life, marrying one another, and mutually working to determine the best ways to live together.  A state where people are generally content and mostly believe the government is fair will be stable, allowing such social goods to flourish; one where a great many of the citizens do not trust the state to treat them fairly or to provide such social goods will become increasingly volatile, and eventually liable to social strife and revolution.  Much of Aristotle’s advice centers on the chief causes of political instability, and how any form of government can prevent “a change of constitution.”  While changes of constitution can be gradual, too often they involve violence and chaos that render any real human happiness impossible.  His study of politics is thus not merely “academic;” it is a search for political stability.  The causes of the downfall of governments, and how to prevent these, will be the subject of the next chapters.

[1] Democracies such as Athens used to exile any citizen who seemed so powerful that he could possibly take over.  In Athens, all the free citizens voted, once a year, who should be exiled.  The story is told that one year an illiterate citizen wished to cast his vote to exile Aristides the Just, and approached a stranger on the street to write the name for him.  It just happened that the person he asked was Aristides the Just himself.  Aristides asked the citizen if Aristides had ever wronged him.  The man replied, “No, I don’t even know him.  I’m just tired of hearing ‘The Just’ all the time.”  So Aristides wrote his own name on the ballot and gave it back to the man, who cast his vote.  Enough other Athenians agreed with him, and Aristides the Just was sent into exile—for being too famously honest.

[2] Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter xiii, 1283a29

[3] 1284a3

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Fourth Thesis–The Rule of Law

October 28, 2021

Fourth Thesis:  Rule of Law Totally Rules

We begin by asking whether it is more expedient to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter XV, 1286A7

         It has long been debated whether a “benign despotism” is a better form of government than any other.  In this regard, even Plato’s philosopher-king seems to be an example:  take the best, wisest person of all of us, and empower that person to make decisions; by definition the best person will be the one who makes the best decisions, so this wisest and most benevolent despot will make better judgments than any group of lesser souls ever could.  J.S. Mill takes pains to argue against the notion of benign despotism, precisely because it seems so logical and is so often accepted, at least tacitly.  People may say democracy is better because no one person has the wisdom and benevolence to wield unlimited power; but often they go on to say or wish that if such a one did arise, that person should be given sole rule and the power to back up their decrees. [1]  In Christian political thought into the Enlightenment, monarchy was often assumed as both the most natural form of human government, and as reflecting God’s own reign; Jesus is the King of Kings, raised from lowliness and from death to rule, and your local king was Christ’s viceroy.  Whether the secular humanist or theocratic model is preferred, the agreement is that the ideal government would be one where a supremely good person had supreme power as well, and was free to make decisions and set policies for society unchecked either by lesser persons or by the dead letter of the law.  Aristotle, too, discusses such arguments.  He uses the analogy of a doctor; wouldn’t it be better to have a doctor who was well-trained and perceptive who could prescribe treatment based on the unique problem at hand, rather than one who read the treatment from a book? 

         But while there are arguments in favor of the benign despot, Aristotle rejects the notion.  Ultimately, he says, the best society will be one that is run according to written laws and unwritten customs, with individual case-by-case human judgment kept to a minimum.  Returning to the analogy of the doctor, he says, suppose you feared your doctor might have been bribed by your enemies; in that case, wouldn’t you prefer that he treat you according to previously-established rules and procedures?[2]  This is the situation in the state.  The supposedly “benign despot” still has appetites and desires that may run counter to yours, or even to the good of the nation as a whole.  Furthermore, every group has its own interests:  the poor want power given to the many since they outnumber the rich, while the rich want power restricted; the military, the agriculturalists, even the tradesmen all have their own agendas.  A stable government is one that is accepted as just and beneficial by all, or at least by the overwhelming majority.  If the state is run by a king who is furthermore unchecked by laws and customs, each person will fear that the decisions of that king are bought by their competitors.  The law, Aristotle says, is “intellect without appetition.”[3]  It is both general and, usually, long-established, and the same for everyone; it is what has been.  Everyone knows “the rules of the game,” as we say today, and can accept that there’s “nothing personal” when things don’t work out in their favor.  Aristotle even goes so far as to say, “he who asks law to rule is asking god and intelligence and no others to rule; while he who asks for the rule of a human being is importing a wild beast too; for desire is like a wild beast, and anger perverts rules and the very best of men.”  So even though he says elsewhere that if it were possible to have a single morally superlative ruler, that would be like having a god who should be obeyed unquestioned, in fact he claims that in a realistic society with realistic people we should be governed by good laws.  It is these laws which will in turn educate the citizens and leaders, turning them into the kinds of people who can know how best to apply these general principles to actual cases.

         While Aristotle discusses this primarily in relation to monarchy, his comments about rule of law apply to all governments whether they be rule by the one, the few or the many.  A “correct” government is one that rules in the interest of the state as a whole; a “deviant” one rules in the interests of the rulers.[4]  And it is rule of law that protects against arbitrariness and self-serving government.  In fact, the laws (written and customary) reflect the constitution.  Aristotle’s definition of the “constitution” of the state is the organization of the citizen-body:  who has authority, who holds what offices and so on.  The laws reflect this organization, laying down general principles whereby this authority is exercised.[5]  So rule according to the laws precisely is rule that seeks to preserve the state, and thus the only justified government at all. 

         In Aristotle’s time, it was an established practice that someone leaving office would present an account of his tenure; if he was found to have failed or acted corruptly, he could be punished.  In our day, President Trump sought to overthrow those “unwritten” laws, norms and customs of government, as well as many of the written laws, in an attempt to subvert the established principles of our government on January 6th, 2021.  In response, he was impeached by the House, but was not sanctioned by the Senate.  This is despite the words of Mitch McConnell, then leader of the Senate, who said, “”Former President Trump’s actions (preceding) the riot were a disgraceful – disgraceful – dereliction of duty,” and, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”[6]  In an Athenian “scrutiny,” this would have been all the cause needed to punish.  In fact, though, the entire administration had been one of ignoring both written and unwritten rules, particularly when the financial profit of some government official was at stake or the political and personal feud of some person was being pursued.  And in fact, there are still many cases when politicians of both parties use government information to profit in the stock market, use their power to protect their personal investments, condemn in their opponents what they praise in their allies and otherwise put the interests of themselves and their faction over the welfare of the state as a whole.  Whereas Aristotle considered the unwritten norms and customs of the state to often be even more crucial in decision-making than were the written laws, today the unwritten norms are shredded if it suits the power of demagogues.  And too often, those who think themselves championed by some demagogue not only tolerate violations of law and custom:  they demand it.  Now, it is largely the “conservatives” who seem least interested in “conserving” our traditions of government; recent polls have indicated more than half of Republican voters are ready to abandon our Constitution’s democracy in favor of some vision of “America” that better suits them.  When I was in college, I heard that same sort of rhetoric from self-professed “liberals,” who referred to the government’s written laws (whether it was student government or national) as a “toolbox” from which the leaders could select whichever “laws” would help them promote their agenda, while leaving the rest aside.  Always, whether it’s liberal or conservative, the impulse to abandon rule of law, norms, and rituals of government represents a faction and its leaders putting themselves ahead of the health of the nation.  There is no true “enlightened” or “benign” despot; anyone with governmental power and office is either a servant and executor of the laws of the nation, or its enemy.

[1] John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xvi, 1287a32

[3] 1287a23

[4] Politics Book III, chapter vii, 1279a22

[5] Book IV, chapter I, 1289a11

[6] MacKenzie Sadeghi “Fact Check:  Yes, McConnell Said Trump Was ‘Practically and Morally Responsible’ for Capitol Riot;” USA Today February 16, 2021 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/02/16/fact-check-mcconnell-said-trump-was-responsible-for-capitol-riot/6767311002/)

Reflections on 9/11:  Twenty Years Later

September 12, 2021

Reflections on 9/11:  Twenty Years Later

            “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ “

—–Jerry Falwell Sr. September 13, 2001

            I recently heard an interview with Hillary Clinton, who was a Senator from New York in 2001 when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon, killing over 3,000 Americans (at the time the number was estimated to be at least twice that).  She recalled the horror of that day, and the overwhelming emotion of personally visiting Ground Zero days later.  She also recalled the way Americans of all political, religious, ethnic and social backgrounds rallied around the nation, and each other, to support their nation and to offer support to one another.  I recall that time of dismay but not despair, and how everyone from rock stars to politicians to Muslim imams to Catholic priests to atheists to countless millions of average Americans did whatever they could think to do, whether it was holding a telethon to raise money to help the families of the lost, to leading interfaith prayer services, to writing to encourage one another to take heart and stand together against bloodlust and chaos, to joining the military to defend the nation. 

            But one group did not join in this great impulse of unity:  Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and countless other Evangelicals and culture warriors.  They sought to divide.  They sought to blame their fellow Americans.  They sought to turn the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor into a political advantage for the Religious Right.  As al Qaeda was seeking to turn Americans against one another, the leaders of American Evangelicalism were helping them, unwittingly I believe, by succumbing to fear and loathing of their neighbors and to their own sense of moral superiority.  God was punishing the nation; but surely God wasn’t displeased with them, so it must be their political foes who are to blame.  Simply rid the nation of liberals and feminists and pagans and anyone who didn’t share the agenda of White Evangelical Christians, and we could all sleep peacefully; until then, we’d have to wait in dread, moment by moment, for a wrathful God to smite us again.  Even though the Bible never condemns abortion, even though Jesus flouted the subservient role his culture assigned women by defending Mary as she sat with the men listening to his words instead of feeding and serving them, even though women like Priscilla were early leaders of the Church in apostolic times, Jerry Falwell Sr. had no hesitancy in blaming feminists and pro-choice Christians, among others, for the 9/11 attacks, as he sought to turn others against his political opponents.  President Bush denounced his statements, even some other Evangelical leaders chided him, and he apologized; but he had spoken from his heart, said the quiet part out loud, and in the moment when almost every other American was looking for ways to support their neighbors he revealed that he and the other Culture Warriors were more interested in scapegoating. 

            In 2001 the atheist and iconoclast Christopher Hitchens denounced the al Qaeda terrorists as the last gasp of a dying ideology.  The forces of freedom and civilization were too strong; while terrorists would be able to unleash events, they would never turn the tide.  The barbarians, as he put it, would fail and fall, though they might do a lot of harm to their own people and to others along the way.  In 2021, by contrast, the conservative Culture Warriors, American citizens, are the ones attacking America, and the nation faces a far greater danger than it did in 2001.  When COVID-19 first appeared, White supremacists started urging each other to spread the disease at every opportunity.  Today they continue to fight efforts at moderate, common-sense public health measures like wearing masks around unvaccinated children.  The difference is that when the Religious Right, (mostly White) Evangelicals tried to turn 9/11 into another battle in their Culture War, they were shut down by everyone from President Bush to the hoi polloi.  In 2021, President* Trump’s White House actively encouraged people to resist efforts to fight the pandemic.  Almost immediately after describing the fight against COVID-19 as a war and himself as a wartime president, Trump showed that he was willing to fight—against doctors, against scientists, against political and religious leaders trying to organize a resistance; but he was fighting to help the virus he himself had labeled “the enemy” in this war.  If he was a wartime leader, he was Benedict Donald.

            President Bush rallied the nation to join together and fight against a common threat, and his popularity soared; it wasn’t surprising when he won reelection.  Trump denigrated his own experts, divided Americans, and actively worked to sabotage efforts by others to fight against the common threat; and for this reason it was not too surprising that he lost.  Bush fought against terrorists; Trump and the Republican party describe the January 6th terrorists who stormed our nation’s Capitol as “political prisoners,” refuse to form a bipartisan commission like the 9/11 Commission that investigated security failures and other problems revealed by the terrorist attack.  It shouldn’t be shocking that they are doing this.  Falwell and Robinson revealed twenty years ago that this is who they are.  This is what the right-wing Culture Warriors do.  Democracy means compromise and tolerance of The Other, your neighbor; if you think that having a gay neighbor or a Wiccan or Muslim neighbor, or a woman who votes and has her own job and speaks her mind as a neighbor, means that an angry but nearsighted God will smite you in His attempts to punish them, then the last thing you want is tolerance, compromise, or democracy.  These things are deadly threats to the right-wing culture warrior.  They are even bigger threats to the people who make millions of dollars by merchandising hate and fear.  Whether its conservative “news” organization selling advertising time, or panhandlers and charlatans on television and in megachurches, or sellers of gold and guns and MREs and other goods supposed to help survive the coming apocalypse (which inexplicably the buyers were both preparing to survive and expecting to escape via The Rapture), or a politician relying on anger and fear to turn out the base in the next election, there is a huge Culture War Industrial Complex driving the nation towards chaos for the many, profits for the few.

            If we want to fight al Qaeda and its allies, if we want to honor our fallen, the only meaningful way to do so is to reject the Culture Wars by rejecting, shunning, voting against the Culture Warriors until the entire money-grubbing, vote-whoring enterprise crashes.  We’ve tried to fight the Culture Wars with reasonable arguments, democratic processes and simple refusal to engage.  That got us a right-wing government that consciously helped spread an epidemic among the American people, hoping to undermine the political fortunes of Democratic leaders who tried to require people to wear masks in much the same way they are required to wear shoes in restaurants to avoid spreading germs.  It got us a government and a political party working to sabotage effective methods to fight a deadly pandemic, while using insider information to generate profits for its leaders who invested in everything from hydroxychloroquine to body bags. Ignoring the Culture Warriors got us riots and insurrection, attacks on national and state governments, and police officers murdered by White supremacists so that BLM can be blamed.  Ignoring the Culture Warriors of the Religious Right has gotten us years of conservative media and religious leaders calling for a second Civil War.  We need to take them as seriously as we took the threat from al Qaeda, because they are more dangerous and more despicable.  That does not mean fighting with the same violence they have shown in their assaults on teachers, nurses, law enforcement, the press, peaceful protestors, kids working after school whose manager has told them to ask customers to wear a mask, and others.  But it does mean fighting in even greater numbers and greater determination, by marching, by phoning political leaders, by leaving churches that condone right-wing paranoid delusions and thuggery, and by voting against the GOP at every opportunity, voting straight Democrat until the Republican party either collapses and is replaced by a legitimate center-right party, or reforms itself by purging the QAnon cultists, the White supremacists, the dictator coddlers, and most emphatically by repudiating the corrupt, seditious and profoundly ignorant leader and his enablers who have turned today’s GOP into MAGA: Moscow’s American Guerilla Army.

For further reading:

Insurrection Fallout:  Politico September 11, 2021 (https://www.politico.com/news/insurrection-fallout)

Brian Naylor, “Senate Republicans Block a Plan for an Independent Commission on Jan. 6th Capitol Riot;” NPR May 28, 2021 (https://www.npr.org/2021/05/28/1000524897/senate-republicans-block-plan-for-independent-commission-on-jan-6-capitol-riot)

Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, “Boycott the Republican Party;” The Atlantic March 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/)

Dirk Vanderheart and Conrad Wilson, “Oregon Lawmaker who Opened Capitol to Far-Right Protestors Faces Charges;” NPR May 1, 2021 (https://www.npr.org/2021/05/01/992713857/oregon-lawmaker-who-opened-state-capitol-to-far-right-protesters-faces-charges)

Ailsa Chang, “Investigation Lays Out Plot to Kidnap Michigan’s Governor;” NPR July 28, 2021 (https://www.npr.org/2021/07/28/1021892785/investigation-lays-out-plot-to-kidnap-michigans-governor)

Richard Winton, Maura Dolan and Anita Chabria, “Far-right ‘Boogaloo Boys’ Linked to Killing of California Law Officers and Other Violence;” LA Times June 17, 2020 (https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-17/far-right-boogaloo-boys-linked-to-killing-of-california-lawmen-other-violence) At the RNC later that year, Mike Pence linked these killings to BLM rather than mention they were carried out by White Supremacists

Karma Allen, “Man Who Helped Ignite George Floyd Protests Identified as White Supremacist:  Police;” ABC News July 29, 2020 (https://abcnews.go.com/US/man-helped-ignite-george-floyd-riots-identified-white/story?id=72051536)

Jake Pearson, “Republican Billionaire’s Group Pushes Unproven COVID-19 Treatment Trump Promoted;” ProPublica March 26, 2020 (https://www.propublica.org/article/republican-billionaire-group-pushes-unproven-covid-19-treatment-trump-promoted)


“Police:  Richmond Riots Instigated by White Supremacists Disguised as Black Lives Matter;” WSLS 10 July 28, 2020 (https://www.wsls.com/news/virginia/2020/07/27/police-richmond-riots-instigated-by-white-supremacists-disguised-as-black-lives-matter/)


Margaret Carlson, “Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Profiting Off Pandemic Pain, Are the Ugly Faces of GOP Corruption;” Daily Beast Jan. 3, 2021 (https://www.thedailybeast.com/kelly-loeffler-and-david-perdue-profiting-off-pandemic-pain-are-the-ugly-faces-of-gop-corruption)

Matt Steib, “Trump’s Disregard for Blue States Is at the Heart of His Shoddy COVID Response;” Intelligencer July 31, 2020 (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/trumps-war-on-blue-states-is-worse-than-previously-thought.html)

Minyvonne Burke, “In 9/11 Speech, Bush Pays Tribute to ‘America I Know,’ Calls Out Domestic Terrorism Threat;” NBC News September 11, 2021 (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/9-11-speech-bush-pays-tribute-america-i-know-calls-n1278986)

“Biden, Obama and Clinton Mark 9/11 in New York with Display of Unity;” CBS News September 11, 2021 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-obama-clinton-911-new-york-display-of-unity/)

Laurie Goodstein, “Falwell:  Blame Abortionists, Feminists and Gays;” The Guardian September 19, 2001 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/19/september11.usa9)