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Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Third Thesis: A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

July 22, 2021

Third Thesis:  A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

But surely men praise the ability to rule and to be ruled, and the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be just this—to be able to rule and be ruled well.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter iv, 1277a25

            Aristotle’s Athens and the United States of America have at least one thing in common:  both had to think about what it means to be a “citizen.”  The USA had to think about citizenship because the nation was born out of revolution; and in defining the citizen, the State and the relationship between them, its Founding Fathers drew explicitly on the intellectual history of which Aristotle is an important part.  Aristotle, and the other thinkers of his day, had to reflect on the nature of citizenship because the ancient traditions were not so universally accepted as they had been.  Greece itself was governed by different, often warring city-states, with different political institutions and different views of government and citizenship.  Greek merchants traded with empires and nations that differed even more drastically from the Greek assumptions.  Western philosophy began along the coast of present-day Turkey, where Greek and non-Greek cultures, religions, moral and political assumptions from different nations collided on a daily basis.  At first, the earliest of those we now call “philosophers” primarily focused on scientific questions, such as how the world was made; living in a region where Zeus and Marduk and others all claimed the title “Creator,” some Greeks decided to try to use human reason to answer the question instead of relying on religious traditions and myths alone.  Later, this rational, humanist approach to seeking truth was extended even to morality and politics.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers lived as the Athenian way of democratic government was collapsing; Aristotle’s own student, Alexander the Great, would go on to destroy the independent Greek city-states once and for all.  It was a world in political transition, and transition demands attention.  What is a citizen? 

            Rather than rely solely on tradition, or on the laws of his own city-state, Aristotle sought to look at all the various definitions and to define what “citizen” meant in all of them.  To be a citizen, he said, was to be eligible for “honors,” that is, public office.  One who was a citizen had the right to have a part in making the laws, or in carrying them out by participating in the civic institutions.  This, he said, was what it meant to be a “citizen” whether one lived in a monarchy or some more representative state.[1] 

            At the same time, though, to be a “citizen” in a properly-run state is more than just giving orders and rendering judgments.  Aristotle argued that a properly-run state, whether it was governed by one person, a small group or by the majority, was run according to rule of law.  If the leaders acted according to the state’s constitution and for the good of the nation, it would be a healthy, stable society where its members could practice their personal virtue and strive for eudaimonia as well as their nature was suited; if the leaders acted without regard to the laws and traditions of the society, seeking their own good rather than the good of the society, it was a “deviation.”  Even a monarch needs to rule according to the laws and traditions that define the monarchy; for example, the Spartan kings had clear limits on their power, with institutional checks such as the Ephorate.  A king with no limits is a tyrant, acting only as suits his own whim.  Likewise, a government by “the best” could be an aristocracy, led by the most noble and virtuous persons respected by the society as a whole, or an oligarchy, rich property owners ruling the state in whatever way made themselves more money.  Majority rule could be democracy, where the people vote on whatever pleases them without regard for the overall health of the state and without limits on their fiat; or, Aristotle said, they could vote and govern within the limits laid down by their constitution, following the laws and traditions of the society that would ensure stability and the overall good.  Aristotle describes this sort of nation as a “polity.”  In each case, whether the nation is ruled by one, a few or many, the good option is the one that aims to carry out the laws and constitution, acting on prerogative only where the law is not sufficiently precise; the deviation is where the rulers replace law with their own will.

            Thus, even in a healthy monarchy or aristocracy, a citizen must be someone who is eligible to exercise civic authority, and also obey authority—even the monarch is bound by the constitution.[2]   But this understanding of “citizen” is particularly true in a democracy/polity, where all citizens are equally entitled to office, and the same person alternates between being ruler and ruled.  I myself, in today’s society, could be called to be a juror and thus to carry out the laws of my community, exercising judicial authority; that is one sort of ruling.  I choose the leaders of my society, who act as delegates for me and the other voters; that too is authority.  I could run for office; as we have seen, the requirements for public office today are surprisingly low.  In all these ways even I must alternate between being ruled (most of the time) and ruler.  That is the essence of a democratic polity.  And according to Aristotle, it is also the essence of statesmanship:  only one who is capable of being ruled is fit to rule free citizens.[3] A leader who cannot also obey, who has never known what it was to be under authority, is a tyrant, fit only to rule over slaves, not free people.[4]  Slavemasters or tyrants need not understand those under their command; they need only know how to use them effectively.  The leader of free people must know what is it to be a citizen, and must understand those they lead, in order to exercise authority for the good of the citizens.

            If we take Aristotle’s thoughts seriously, we much that is relevant for understanding democracy in the USA today.  In 1980, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Republican strategist and activist Paul Weyrich delivered a speech where he argued against the prevailing wisdom that Americans should support democratic participation in society.[5]  Until then, it had been part of our nation’s culture and education from childhood that to be a citizen was to vote; it was your “patriotic duty.”  Yes, sadly, much of our politics has also involved voter suppression, suppression of immigrants, of Black people and so on; but this was not so much inconsistent as it was a recognition of the principle that to be a citizen was to be a voter—racists and religious bigots didn’t want those “others” to be citizens.  This idea of fighting to keep citizens from exercising their civic duty to vote was the way Republicans should work to win power was different.  Now, people like me, who had attended compulsory Civics courses in state high school so that we’d be good citizens, who had grown up hearing that our nation was “the arsenal of freedom” and “a shining city on a hill,” were now to be kept away from the polls and discouraged from even wanting to vote.  At first, these efforts seemed small; Republicans began fighting against voter registration drives by nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, they began fighting against candidate debates sponsored by neutral parties and so on, seeking to make it harder for potential voters to learn about candidates or register to vote or become interested in politics, so that the most likely voters would be the older and more reliably Republican base who would, as they said, “crawl over broken glass” to vote against anything labeled “socialism.”  They founded FOX News and other partisan “news” organizations to not so much inform listeners from a particular ideological perspective, but rather to un-inform them, to rouse the emotions rather than feeding the mind.  These were attacks on the spirit of democracy, and attempts to weaken civic engagement in the majority.  These tactics aimed to promote apathy and non-participation, but didn’t directly attack the practice of democracy by people who sought to do so; it was most often a psychological warfare against democracy.  But in the last few years, Republicans have turned from attempting to dissuade people from voting or informing themselves, to actively seeing to stop even qualified and motivated people from voting.  Repeated efforts to “clean up voter registration rolls” or “fight voter fraud” removed tens of thousands of eligible, registered voters in Republican-dominated states.  Research was done to see where non-Republicans were most likely to live and what sorts of identification non-Republicans, and non-whites in general, were likely to carry, and to ban these as proof of voter eligibility; at the same time, gun permits and other sorts of ID which White Republicans were thought more likely to carry were declared the only legally acceptable proof that one was a voter.[6]  From the Republican perspective, this is just politics, doing what you can and must to win.  This is also why Republicans denounce efforts to allow more American citizens to vote as a “partisan power grab;” their own efforts in the opposite direction are a long-term strategy to grab and hold power, not by having the most supporters or even the most voters, but by disallowing and disenfranchising anyone who seems somewhat likely to vote against them.

            But while all of this may seem to Republicans like mere moves in the political game, from the Aristotelian perspective they are changing the constitution of the state itself, and attempting to strip millions of Americans of their citizenship.  The constitution, as Aristotle says, is not just a piece of inscribed parchment in a museum; it is the arrangement of offices in the state:  “the citizen-body is the constitution.”[7]  Who is eligible to hold office, and what those public offices do, is the constitution of the state; and who is eligible to hold office is a citizen of the state.  For most of us, the only public offices to which we aspire and for which we are undoubtedly qualified are voter and juror.  As voters, we delegate our authority to make laws, wage wars, enforce justice and otherwise govern on our behalf to proxies who take oaths of office to act on our behalf, not for their own selfish benefit.  As jurors, we act to give a voice to We The People in how those laws are applied to our fellow citizens.  Stripping someone of their right to vote, whether it’s based on their race, their zip code, or some more subtle method selected, as the courts said, “with surgical precision” to disenfranchise them, is denying them their citizenship.  Republicans like to talk about the Right to Bear Arms as a “sacred” right, enshrined in the Constitution; but the right to vote, and as a registered voter to be eligible for jury duty, are the true sacred rights of citizenship.  They are the very definition of citizenship.  What the Republican Party is engaged in today, with hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures dominated by Republicans, is nothing less than a strategic campaign to strip citizenship from millions of taxpayers, millions of people who either serve in our military or have family who served, millions of people either born in the this nation as the children of citizens, or who have undertaken to study and learn and withstood an examination of their worthiness more rigorous than any which many Republicans could possibly pass.  It is, as Aristotle says, an attempt to change the constitution, not through the prescribed method of amendment, but through skullduggery, corruption, intimidation and deception.  It is far more serious than what we often think of as “political games,” which reasonable people often ignore; and the results could be far more serious than those who are carrying out this plan want to admit, or even realize.  It is an attempt to drastically curtail, if not eliminate American democracy, all for the sake of winning one more round against the Democrats. 

            If you think democracy is important, if you think it matters, you must do everything possible to break the GOP, to either crush it into dust or to force it to reform itself.  This can only be accomplished if American independent voters, Democratic voters, and even Republican voters who love their country and their democratic (small “d”) heritage, vote straight Democratic in every possible election.  Not voting, or voting third party, will not accomplish this.  Voting for the “good Republican candidate” in the general election is still to vote for someone who made their peace with this decades-long plan to subvert not just the democratic process, but to undermine civic participation and patriotic duty for all citizens.  Whether liberal, moderate or true conservative, we must “mindlessly and mechanically” vote against literally all Republican candidates, including those who run in ostensibly nonpartisan races like School Board but whose public statements or voting record show them to be QAnon, Neoconfederate, “very fine people on both sides” Republicans—because all Republicans, at this point, have declared that both Nazis and anti-Nazis are either equal or the Nazis are better, simply by remaining in a political party where Nazis are welcomed, given tours of the Capitol by sitting Congressional representatives days before attempting a putsch, and whose crimes are covered up by elected Republican officials and their party information/propaganda outlets such as OAN, FOX News, etc.[8] 

            On the other hand, if you don’t value democracy, then perhaps you should continue voting Republican after all.  What, if anything, might Aristotle say to persuade someone on this point?

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter 1, 1275a22

[2] In the United States, and many other nation-states today, the “constitution” is a written document, the founding charter of the nation, spelling out the foundation of the laws and the political institutions.  Aristotle’s definition is looser.  While most states had a historical or mythological lawgiver, Aristotle only specifies that the arrangement of the offices of the country is its constitution; thus even a nation with no written constitution, governed by longstanding tradition and legal precedent, would have a “constitution” in Aristotle’s sense—so, good news for Great Britain.  Also, it is common for authoritarian regimes to have a written “constitution” that promises all sorts of rights, while the reality is very different; in this case, Aristotle would say that the actual constitution is what is actually done. 

[3] Politics book IV, chapter iii, 1277b7

[4] 1277a33

[5] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch September 24, 2015 (https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

[6] Rebecca Leber, “In Texas, You Can Vote with a Concealed Handgun Permit—but not a Student ID;” The New Republic October 20, 2014 (https://newrepublic.com/article/119900/texas-voter-id-allows-handgun-licenses-not-student-ids) ; also Camilla Domonoske, “Supreme Court Declines Republican Bid to Revive North Carolina Voter ID Law;” NPR May 15, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/15/528457693/supreme-court-declines-republican-bid-to-revive-north-carolina-voter-id-law), as well as other efforts in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, which historically have led to tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters being purged, only to subsequently proved only a few hundred were actually ineligible.

[7] Politics Book III, chapter vi, 1278b6

[8] 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/)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Second

June 9, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Second

Second Thesis:  A well-run state must pay attention to the relationship between economic and political power

For if the work done and the benefit accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, chapter V, 1263a8

ABSTRACT:  In discussing both the idealized states proposed by philosophers, and some states of his day widely considered to be well-run, Aristotle examines the role of wealth in society.  He rejects the extreme egalitarianism of Plato and Phaleas, as well as the restrictions put on the wealth of Spartan rulers, as being unbearable as well as impractical.  At the same time, he admits that rivalry between rich and poor can lead to factionalism and instability.  He argues that citizens need enough property to not merely live, but to live well; but he does say the state must have laws and policies to prevent the gulf between the wealthy and the rest from becoming so great that it undermines social unity’

            Book Two of Aristotle’s Politics is a survey of proposed ideal states, as well as some actual constitutions which were widely held to be successful.  Half of the chapters are devoted to criticism of Plato’s theories, particularly regarding property.  Plato himself was very concerned with the relationship between wealth and political power; it is therefore worthwhile to recall Plato’s views in order to see in what sense he and Aristotle might agree, and to better understand the nature of their disagreement.

            Plato’s political speculations in Republic begin with the individual rather than the group.  His Socrates and other characters are debating what sort of life is best for an individual, when Socrates proposes that they look at the State as an individual magnified.  In understanding how a well-run state would function, the group hopes to see how the individual soul should be arranged.  The individual can be said to have reason, passion and appetite; a city-state can be imagined as reflecting this structure.  The majority of people are farmers and other sorts of producers.  They are primarily concerned with material goods and satisfying their appetites.  They have no inclination or patience for higher education, or abstract thought, or for moral concerns beyond what is good for themselves and their households.  If they are drawn to political power, it is only as a business like any other, to enrich themselves.  Others are more drawn to military careers, as they desire honor and fame more than wealth and comfort.  These are the people governed by passion or spirit (Greek:  thumos).  In any society, only a few will be philosophers, lovers of wisdom, primarily governed by reason and desiring nothing more than to learn and understand.

            People seeking power either to feed their material desires, or in a lust for fame, are the least suited to hold power and will inevitably abuse it, putting their own gain before their duties to the State.  Only those who care the least about material comforts or the adoration of the mob can be expected to lead their society responsibly and intelligently.  Thus, the first division Plato proposes is between those who seek wealth and are denied political power, versus those who care little about gaining wealth for themselves and thus can be trusted to protect the rest:  the producers and the guardians.  These guardians are warrior-philosophers, devoted to a lifetime of physical and intellectual training, including martial and gymnastic practice, geometry, music and philosophy.  The producers want wealth and are welcome to pursue it; in exchange, they support the leadership and obey its instructions.  Among the guardians, the younger and more high-spirited individuals serve as auxiliaries, using their military training to enforce the law and to protect against invaders; they are driven by their thumos, and prefer honor over wealth, so they are rewarded with military honors and accolades for their service.  The older and wisest seek neither praise nor wealth, but wish mostly to be allowed to pursue knowledge; these are the leaders who guide the state out of a sense of duty, sharing the fruits of their learning to direct the state justly and wisely.  In return for their service, they are allowed ample time for study and philosophic contemplation.  Neither the guardians nor the auxiliaries are allowed any private property; they are supported entirely by the State, which collects taxes from the producers.  They thus have no incentive to accept bribes, or to engage in aggressive wars to gain loot, or any of the other personal or corporate corruptions that would undermine the smooth running of the state; they simply live peacefully as far as they can, prepared to defend the modest national wealth they possess but otherwise seeing to their own welfare.  Plato’s ideal republic is, in short, a society where those who have money are denied power, and those who have power are denied money but instead “give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs,” as a later philosopher put it.  Furthermore, Plato explicitly links the mixing of economic and political power as the corruption that undermines even the best state and, step by step, leads it to tyranny, where the government is entirely devoted to the profit of the tyrant and his toadies.

            Aristotle is also aware that differences in wealth can undermine a nation, and the desire for wealth can corrupt its leaders; but he rejects Plato’s radical solution of doing away with private wealth (at least for the leadership) altogether.  He agrees that the citizens definitely share some things; “at the very least, a constitution being a form of association, they must share in the territory, the single territory of a single state, of which single state the citizens are sharers.”[1]  But in Plato’s ideal republic, the Guardians are to have literally all things in common:  not only having common meals and sharing all property, but even sharing wives and children.[2]  Aristotle criticizes this excessive unity.  While it is possible to imagine such a society, Aristotle says that in fact the state benefits from being a diverse association.  Different individuals, with different abilities and aims, come together and work together for the benefit of the whole; that is what makes the state more self-sufficient than the individual or even the household.[3]  And while Plato explicitly seeks to break down the natural family relationships among the Guardians so that all will equally care for all the children, Aristotle argues that in fact this will lead to weakening concern for any children.  He makes a similar argument when it comes to property in general.[4]  Where one person is responsible for one household, that person will take care of the people and associated property; there are clearly designated areas of responsibility for each person.  Where everyone is equally responsible for caring for all the children and maintaining all the property, no individual has a specific responsibility to do anything.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  Thus, Aristotle argues, it is better that each man be responsible for his own wife and children, and that the property of the state be divided, some (like temples) for common use and cared for by the people as a whole, while others (such as farms and other means of production) privately owned, the responsibility of particular individuals who will bear the consequences if they neglect their proper work. 

            Aristotle also discusses Plato’s last dialogue, his Laws, wherein he seeks to give more concrete detail to the somewhat abstract idealism of Republic.[5]  While Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue, Aristotle has relatively little to say about it, since it is in many ways a rehashing of RepublicRepublic is an idealized state, and thus lacking on details and not too concerned whether its ideas could be actualized; the Laws keeps most of the original notions of Republic but provides more detail and clarification, attempting to present not just an ideal state but a framework for establishing a state based on those notions.  There are, for example, lengthy discussions of how to arrange households and farms, the role of foreigners such as traveling merchants, details of the education curriculum, and more.  Most of the details which Aristotle discusses have to do with property laws:  how much each citizen would be allowed to own, laws regarding its management, and political implications of these laws, among other matters.  There are two points in particular that appear in this book, and will become recurring themes later in the Politics:  the problem of faction, and the types of political structure.  As to structure, Aristotle mentions monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, and argues that Plato combines elements of oligarchy and democracy into a type Aristotle calls “polity.”  Aristotle in fact prefers so-called “mixed” constitutions over any pure example of the three types, seeing them as having the chance of avoiding the weaknesses peculiar to the pure types while drawing on their strengths.  He will say much more about this later in the Politics.

            Aristotle has more to say about the issues of money and politics.  He points out that a state like Plato proposes, where individual estates are limited by law, will in serious trouble unless population is controlled as well.[6]  In most states, neither births nor property acquisition are strictly regulated; people have as many children as they are able, and sometimes even more than they can support.  This “inevitably causes poverty among the citizens, and poverty produces faction and crime.”  Plato’s Laws would start each producer citizen with an equal estate, and limit the maximum increase of wealth to five times that, with the number of such farming estates firmly established; thus if the population were to grow, there would simply be no way for the excess to start their own households, and seemingly no way to absorb the new population into the economy.  Aristotle goes on to discuss another utopian thinker, Phaleas, who also discusses the social problems related to wealth.[7]  Phaleas too was concerned with how inequalities of wealth can undermine the stability of the state, by breeding crime and factionalism.  His answer was simple and direct:  eliminate differences in wealth.  The factions that so often divide and can even destroy the state are largely conflicts between the poor many and the rich few; eliminate the differences, and you eliminate the chief cause of factionalism.[8]  Poverty would be eliminated, and thus crime would disappear as well, Phaleas claimed, since no one would have to steal to feed themselves.[9] 

            Aristotle appreciates the effort Phaleas makes to head off factionalism, but finds several faults with this plan.  First, Aristotle says Phaleas pays inadequate attention to national defense; we don’t have any evidence to judge this claim, and the question doesn’t seem essential; the issues of foreign relations could be addressed without seriously undermining the internal economics, if equality of property were workable.  Aristotle’s other objections seem more substantial, as they touch on human nature itself, and provide reasons why such equality would be impossible.  Suppose, Aristotle says, it were possible to determine the perfect level of property for everyone, so that no one was either corrupted by luxury or ruined by poverty, but each had enough to live moderately and well; even then, there is no guarantee that everyone would be content.  Unless people’s appetites are also equal, what seems a reasonable allowance to one will seem to be penury to another; thus, unless education is equal so that all have the same characters and expectations, they will become discontent even with equality.  (He does concede that maybe Phaleas has assumed this equality of education, but doesn’t think this is clear.)  Furthermore, people don’t resort to crime merely from poverty; some, perhaps most are trying to get far more than they need, and it is the desire for easy luxury that drives them.  And people do not compete merely for greater wealth, but also for distinction, status and honor. Those who have worked harder, or who have fought bravely in defense of his nation, or who otherwise consider themselves “better” will resent being treated “the same.”  So while Aristotle sees some merit in paying attention to the divisiveness of wealth, he finds this sort of extreme state control of wealth unviable.

            Much of the difference between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is visible in their discussion of the Spartan government.[10]  Plato cites the Spartan as one of the best constitutions, largely because it separates the aristocratic, military leadership from the producers; the leaders strive for honor, while the others are focused on farming and producing goods.  His only fault with the Spartan model is that they don’t practice philosophy; compared to his republic, it is as if the Guardians proper were gone and the Auxiliaries were left in charge, without the benefit of learned, wise, steady leadership.  In Plato’s telling, even the perfect republic would eventually decline, first by abandoning the leadership of the philosophers, and then as a result becoming increasingly interested in money.  First the aristocracy declines to an oligarchy, rule by the rich few; from there it deteriorates to a democracy, where everyone rules and everyone simultaneously pursues their own private wealth, further mixing politics and money-making; and finally it devolves into a tyranny, where the most corrupt and ruthless individual seizes power and turns the state into a money-making enterprise for himself and his cronies.  It is a rationalist explanation, deriving from the principle that corruption of the individual or the state occur when the appetites overrule reason; and it is a somewhat idealized presentation of the Spartan constitution as well.

            Aristotle is much less enthralled with the Spartan ideal and more interested in the Spartan reality.  While Spartan men are supposed to be pure warriors living lives of material simplicity and concerned only with honor, Aristotle says in fact there are great differences in wealth between them, which weakens the nation and in particular leaves the Ephors, magistrates drawn from outside the aristocracy, open to bribery.  And it is not just the Ephors who fail to live up to the ideal of Spartan austerity; Aristotle writes, “They live a life of undue ease, while the rest have a very high degree of austerity in living, so high indeed that they really cannot endure it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.”[11]

            On the other hand, Aristotle writes somewhat approvingly of the council of Ephors itself, an institution Plato generally ignores.  While there seems to be no constitution with which he doesn’t find some fault, and he minds much to say about the character and competence of the Ephors, he does agree that they contribute to the stability of the state.  The Ephors were a council of five men, elected from and by the people, who shared power with the Spartan kings.  This clearly is a deviation from the aristocratic ideal, which is likely why Plato ignores it in the Republic; he is presenting a clean typology, while Aristotle is looking closer at actual cases.  In fact, he says, Sparta has this democratic element in its government, which may weaken the aristocratic ideal but does keep the people “quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office…  The point is that if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before.”[12]  This is a point that Aristotle returns to:  a “mixed” constitution is often better than a “pure” type, because it can draw on the strengths of several types of government.  Aristotle is greatly concerned about the causes of  factionalism and instability in the state, and how to avoid it.  Plato’s solution to the problem of instability is to put the most reasonable people in charge, and preserve them from the corrupting influence of money by forbidding them to own any private property—including even spouses and children.  Those with power, have no wealth; and those who are allowed private property have no power.  Aristotle says this is unbearable, and thus people will circumvent such restrictions if imposed on them; also, no one can practice the virtues of such as liberality, which involve proper use and sharing of wealth, if they have none.  Plato’s republic, or Sparta’s aristocracy, ultimately lead to the corruption of the people by denying them scope to practice the virtuous use of wealth, while allowing them only corrupt opportunities to obtain the wealth that people naturally desire.  So Aristotle argues that it is better to allow people the ability to obtain enough wealth, while also limiting the gap between rich and poor if it threatens social stability.

            Aristotle’s survey of philosophical political theories and of actual constitutions doesn’t focus exclusively on economic policies, but this is at the center of many of his criticisms.  There is advice here that would please the American “right” and “left” wings, which I suppose makes it “centrist” and perhaps even “practical.”  Conservatives would undoubtedly agree with Aristotle’s objection to Plato’s extreme egalitarianism, even communism.  Our conservatives would echo Aristotle’s view that each person will see to their own property better than the society as a whole can manage extensive common property; if you want production and trade to thrive, let specific individuals run their own businesses.  The view that the one who works should see a profit from their labors will also appeal to conservatives in our day.  And Aristotle’s view on the relationship between private wealth and virtue has parallels to conservative arguments against taxpayer-funded social programs.  Conservatives often argue that if society collects taxes to help shelter, feed and cloth the poor, this will undermine morality since it means taking money away from individuals who might have shared it freely, and also because if society as a whole is helping the poor, then no one individual is exercising the virtue of charity or liberality by sharing what specifically is that individual’s own wealth to give away.  Just as Aristotle says it is important that citizens not only have enough to live, but even enough to enjoy and enough to share, American conservatives today would argue that a society with high taxes to fund things like universal health care and tuition-free college not only robs individuals of the incentive to work, but also robs them of the ability to do good, and to be good and virtuous people, by giving personally to help others. 

            Liberals would reply that what matters is that the poor are fed and sheltered, and that if the state can accomplish this better then that is how it should be.  They would applaud Aristotle’s awareness that vast differences in wealth can divide, weaken, and possibly destroy a society.  A government that wishes to last must be a government that provides justice in the eyes of its citizens, and that includes justice for the hungry and cold.  While the rich may claim that they deserve more as the “better people,” everyone has a right to life, which means everyone must have a right to the requirements for life; if a society fails to provide either a chance to earn a living wage or help for those who cannot, that society devolves into a cold war between the rich and the poor, which could eventually go hot and end the society. 

            Aristotle is seeking political structures that avoid either extreme.  He is neither Rand nor Marx, though he could see the point in both perspectives.  Instead, he wants a society that can provide enough to every citizen to live a good life, while giving those who want more a legitimate and socially helpful way to earn it.


[1] Politics, Book II, chapter 1, 1260b36

[2] Plato is often criticized today for his totalitarian tendencies, but it is interesting to note that he treats women as people, with the same rights and responsibilities as men; he says they should have the same education and even be trained for military service.  Aristotle states that women are inferior, and in much of this chapter explicitly treats them as property more than people. 

[3] Politics, Book II, chapter 2

[4] Book II, chapter 5

[5] chapter 6

[6] Book II, chapter 6, 1265a38

[7] Book II, chapter 7

[8] chapter 7, 1266a31

[9] 1267a2

[10] Plato, Republic, book VIII, 542-550; Aristotle, Politics, book II, chapter ix

[11] 1270b28

[12] 1270b17

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

May 13, 2021

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

 For since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which everyone designs secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making, whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience…

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

Since the first shots of the American Revolution, this nation has been devoted to the notion that only representative government is just and morally legitimate.  With somewhat less unanimous affirmation, we have also held that representative government was the best.  As one of our former overlords, now believers in democracy, put it:  “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time..”  By contrast, others have argued that democracy might be “just” but that it was just too inefficient to survive; and still others have declared that democracy itself is not only inefficient, but also in some sense immoral and corrupting of its citizens.  Fascists, for example, complain that democracy makes a nation “soft” and “effeminate,” too peace-loving, coddling children and putting families ahead of the national economy.  Theocrats claim democracy is too “secular” and turns people away from God, specifically the theocrat’s own religious dogma and organization.  The rich complain that democracy allows the rabble too much power, failing to protect the powerful from victimization by the poor.

When the Berlin Wall fell, it was heralded as the final victory of democracy over authoritarianism and oppression.  The contest was settled; freedom had won.  Some called it “the end of history.”[1]  But with the rise of Islamist dictatorships and insurgencies, and Christian Dominionist and nationalist populist movements in the West, the longed-for golden age of prosperity and peace vanished before our eyes.  Instead, 2016 saw Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and many other retreats from the free politics and free markets that were supposedly triumphant, and a worldwide rise of isolationism, xenophobia, protectionism, racism and authoritarianism.  Nowhere was this more visible, or more catastrophic than in the United States, where a shallow, decadent, close-minded, deeply ignorant, deeply fearful egotist backed by oodles of inherited wealth took over first one of the major political parties, then the presidency, despite multiple scandals, ties to hostile foreign governments and losing the popular vote.  Despite the obvious lack of a serious mandate, he and his fellow business cronies threw themselves into reversing decades-long national priorities, undermining allies around the world while appeasing generational foes, and rewriting policies in ways that enriched themselves and their business interests.  Other nations looked on, our traditional democratic allies in dismay, dictators and strongmen in triumph.  In a few years the political conversation in the popular culture went from “Is history solved for all time?” to, “Is democracy dead?  Has the age of the authoritarian finally arrived?”

In 2019, the author of the notion of “the end of history” expressed disappointment about the rise in religious and populist authoritarianism, which seemed to refute his optimistic claims.  In the meantime, authoritarian governments had grown steadily bolder and more boastful over the supposed failure and imminent collapse of democracy.  Even the U.S. government chose people for important posts who said things like, “I’m not a big fan of democracy.”[2]  However, this year which supposedly showed the failure of democracy actually showed the ultimate weakness of authoritarianism.  If the authoritarians win, 2019 has shown us that the ultimate end of civilization, and possibly humanity itself could result.

As 2019 drew to a close, a doctor in China noticed a SARS-like virus in some of his patients.[3]  He sought to warn his fellow doctors, in an online conference, to take extra precautions to avoid infection.  The government of China, an authoritarian regime which prides itself particularly on its superior efficiency compared to the chaotic, individualist West, responded by immediately threatening him with prison for spreading seditious rumors.  By the time they finally admitted he was right, and that his efforts were heroic and patriotic, it was too late; the doctor himself had become infected and died of COVID-19, one of the first of what soon would be millions.  Donald Trump, who had earlier disbanded the NSA group formed to fight pandemics because it was an Obama initiative, declared that concern over the coronavirus was “the Democrats’ new hoax.”  While he initially seemed to be saying the the disease was real but the worry was politically motivated, his followers heard “hoax” and insisted (and still do) that the disease was fake.  Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said COVID-19 was just the common cold.  FOX News called it a “hoax.”[4]  All echoed Trump’s claim that the virus would never become a problem in the United States; we had 15 cases and soon it would be zero.[5]  Anyone who said otherwise, Trump, the Republican Party and the right-wing media proclaimed, was just trying to stir up trouble for political gain—pretty much what the Chinese government had said to silence the doctor who tried to warn others about the new virus.  By the end of his presidency, Trump’s non-response to the epidemic ravaging the nation had wrecked the growing economy left him by Obama, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, sickened millions, left many thousands with long-term or permanent disabilities, turned states against each other to compete for resources to fight to save their citizens without direction from the federal government, polarized the nation and left most of his base still convinced that the whole thing is just  hoax, and anyone who says otherwise or seeks treatment or a vaccine is a traitor.

Brazil is still a young democracy, having rid itself of a military junta in 1985. In 2019, right-wing populist and former military officer Jair Bolsonaro was elected President, and in 2020 he, too, faced the threat of the oncoming pandemic.  His response has been no different than the other authoritarians:  deny, suppress, scapegoat, and fail.  Brazil was on track to surpass the United States for the worst response to COVID-19; then along came India.  India, the world’s most populous democracy, initially seemed to fair pretty well against the pandemic, and its leader boasted about his nation’s superior response and mocked the nations who had warned of India’s vulnerabilities.  Instead, the authoritarian leader of the right-wing HIndu nationalist BJP, like his political ally Donald Trump, continued to hold massive political rallies, push for huge public gatherings, while failing to consistently advocate for masks, social distancing and other measures that are proven to provide cost-effective protection for the people.  As I write this, the Indian health care system is collapsing under the strain of literally countless multitudes of sick and dying patients; the dead pile up faster than they can be cremated, and bodies are being thrown into the Ganges river rather than being left to rot on land.[6]

None of this should be particularly surprising, and it points to the fundamental, often fatal flaw in authoritarian politics.  This nation is a 200+-year old philosophical experiment, attempting to prove that the theories of representative government laid out by such thinkers as Rousseau and John Locke are workable, despite all that was said against them at the time and since.  The guiding principle of Locke, and the revolutionaries inspired by him, is that legitimate government authority derives from the people themselves, and it is the task of the government to enact the collective will of the people.  Locke’s “social contract” style of thought has dominated American political thinking from the time we were arrogant colonials casting off the ties God had forged binding subject to king.  But Locke’s thought is itself partly founded on the previous Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, an apologist for absolute monarchy.  Hobbes argued that the government was based on a tacit agreement or “covenant” between the people and their government; they would give up certain rights such as the right to personal revenge against anyone they felt had wronged them, and agree to obey the laws of the government and trust in its justice; in exchange, the government (or “sovereign”) would protect the people’s fundamental, “inalienable rights.”[7]  Outside of such a commonwealth, every individual had a right to do or act as he pleased;[8] but since everyone had such a right, no one had any duty to respect the rights of others.  Without a strong outside force to bludgeon the rest of us into line, there would be unending conflict, war of each against all, and life would be nasty, brutish and above all, short.  The sovereign creates the laws of the commonwealth, imposes them upon the rest of us, and crushes opposition; we accept this because the alternative is miserable anarchy.  And since the sovereign creates the laws, it is not itself subject to them; it is above the law. 

Hobbes acknowledged that “the sovereign” could be a group as easily as an individual, but favored an absolute and unitary monarchy over a divided and hence weaker government.[9]  One reason he gives is that a king will be more attentive to the welfare of the kingdom.  Every person is most concerned with his personal wellbeing; if the national interests conflict with the personal interests of a leader, the personal will win out.  In a oligarchy or democracy, multiple leaders compete against each other and their interests will thus often be at odds with those of the nation as a whole; but a king’s personal interests are identical with those of the nation since it is his nation.  His ego is tied up with its success; its glory is his glory, its wealth his wealth.  Thus an absolute monarch will, Hobbes says, strive for the welfare of the people, not because he must or owes it to them, but because it is more glorious to rule over a rich, enlightened, peaceful, literate and artistic nation than over a vulgar, dirty, impoverished rabble.  The pride of the authoritarian leader is the motivation for national policy and guarantor of the national welfare.

This doesn’t work, but it does make one valid point:  authoritarians are motivated by their own egos, not some slavish devotion to “the common good.”  That is why Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and so many others held super-spreader rallies during a pandemic, where they could stand before thousands of adoring worshippers willing to risk their lives, and the lives of their families and neighbors, to stroke the Dear Leader’s ego.  It’s also why showing any concern for public health is denounced as disloyalty; it implies that something matters more than the leader’s glory.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-winning research in economics, fully-functional democracies (ones with a free and independent press, rule of law, free and fair markets and easy access to a meaningful vote) don’t have famines, and generally have longer life expectancies, because they must; if the people have power, the government must see to the people’s welfare or be voted out.  Where there is a compliant propaganda press, leaders who ignore the law without consequences, markets dominated by a few powerful monopolies controlled by oligarchs, and elections rendered meaningless by manipulation or flat-out fraud—-as we increasingly have under Republican policies, particularly during the Trump years——the government feels free to tell people they should be proud to die to keep the economy humming and to support the president.[10] 

In fact, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, the authoritarian cares about holding power; this might mean seeking to be loved by the people, but often means instead weakening, depriving, harassing, oppressing, and essentially warring on one’s own people.[11]  Kim Jung-Un is only one extreme example of this sort of tyrant; for every one “benevolent despot,” there are scores of Amins or Kims.  If the people are terrified, or simply too hungry to muster the energy to rebel and too ignorant to imagine any other possibility or figure out how to resist their oppression, the tyrant is safe.  And above all, the authoritarian wants to feel safe. 

The paradox is that the more power the authoritarian can seize, the closer he or she comes to being a full-blown tyrant, the less secure the authoritarian is.  The true patriot, who cares about the nation, its laws and traditions, can feel the most secure precisely because the true patriot considers power something to be used for some worthy goal, not something to be grasped for its own sake.  There is likely no one who fully meets that ideal, but some come closer than others; those are the ones who can lose magnanimously, win humbly and gratefully, lead or follow as required, and rejoice when the nation prospers regardless.  Plato’s ideal leader was one who didn’t wish to lead at all, but who recognized that the price of good persons refusing power is to have bad ones in charge over them.  Aristotle defined a “citizen” as one who both had a hand in making the laws, and was bound to obey them, capable both of leading and following as required.  But anyone who starts to love the power and the status will start to fear losing it.  Saddam Hussein, after becoming undisputed master of Iraq, predicted that if he ever lost power they wouldn’t find even the tip of his fingers intact; his enemies would cut him to pieces.  He had near godlike control over his subjects, with fifty-foot tall idols of himself and multiple palace complexes, but he lived in fear every day.  Aristotle observed that a stable country is one where as many people as possible feel they have a stake in its stability[12]  Locke said that the ultimate foundation of a true civil society is the will of the majority of the people.  Both are making much the same point:  that the state, and thus also the leaders, are actually stronger when power is shared.  The authoritarian fears their own people; that is why, Aristotle says, tyrants recruit foreigners as bodyguards, while in democracies the leaders are guarded by their own citizens.  The tyrant, and any authoritarian to the extent that they approach maximum personal power, is at war with their own people. 

Trump’s followers like to claim that he was a very successful president until he wasn’t, and that he can’t be held responsible for that because his wildly successful presidency was derailed by an unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophe.  The principle facts of this claim are disputable; Trump’s success through 2019 was not as stellar as he boasted, and many warned his administration of the dangers of a possible pandemic and even left a “playbook” for fighting one, which he threw away.  But these disputed facts aside, the real lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that authoritarian governments will fail to protect their people in the event of a catastrophe.  They do not feel themselves answerable to the people, so they look first to their own preservation and enhancement of power; the first instinct of the authoritarian is to regard warnings of disaster to be attacks on the leader’s image and power.  First, they will seek to silence the prophets of doom; next, they will seek to cover up the crisis when it occurs; then they will deny they were warned and/or deny that they refused to act; and at last they will grow impatient with the cries of the victims who make the leader look ineffective and too weak to fix the problem.  Whether it was a pandemic in 2019, or a war, or recession, there was always going to be some crisis.  And in a crisis, while a democracy might stumble as various groups try to wrap their collected heads around the problem and find a response based on multiple perspectives and interests, an authoritarian can be trusted to act swiftly and decisively—-for the protection of the leader, and against the needs of the people. 

I would like to believe that the failure of Trumpism to handle even a predicted crisis for which our government had spent years preparing and which we had months to see coming would lead to a world-wide recognition of the weakness of authoritarianism, and a return to the pro-democracy trends we saw towards the end of the 20th century.  However, the eagerness of Republicans to first act surprised at an attempted coup despite many warnings, then to ignore it and ask everyone to forget it and “move on,” and finally to justify it with false claims about the election, does not give me much confidence that they’ve seen any fault in the authoritarian model.  In 1980 Paul Weyrich argued before the National Republican Convention in Dallas that Republicans do better when people don’t vote, and therefore it was in the party’s interest to work against the democratic principles this country claims to champion.  Since then, the Republican party has worked vigorously to make voting as difficult and as pointless as possible, to undermine people’s confidence in the democratic process, to discourage civic interest or participation by the majority of citizens, and to convince their base that any fact that didn’t fit their preconceived notions, whims or prejudices was simply politically motivated “fake news” from “liberals” and should be ignored.  The culmination of this forty-year project has been to create a conservative electorate that lives in its own alternate reality, rejects science and history and any other expertise while blindly obeying any party mouthpiece, denies that it is even possible for them to lose an election, and is willing to resort to violence when counting the ballots tells them otherwise.  Republicans are so far from the principles of representative government that they openly work for minority rule, and embrace a failed coup leader as their best chance for victory—-victory for their party and the oligarchs who back it, regardless of the fate of the nation. 

I don’t know if the authoritarians will ultimately succeed, or if freedom-loving patriots will put aside previous partisan divides to defeat them.  What I do know is that there will continue to be crises that threaten this nation, and even this world.  And I know that authoritarian governments will not meet these crises.  It is in their interests, and in their nature to ignore bad news, cover it up, blame others for their failures, make bad things much worse and corresponding good fortune less beneficial for any but the ruling elite.  Eventually the people lose all faith in their government, which suits the authoritarian fine when things are going well since an apathetic and dispirited populace is more easily ruled.  However, when the government finally realizes that it must act, it will find that not only is it too late to avoid disaster, but the people will likely refuse to cooperate.  I cite as example the experience of Liberia during the Ebola crisis; the people had been lied to so often that when the government really needed them to undertake basic safety measures, they refused, and turned a crisis into a catastrophe.  As J.S. Mill wrote in his essay “On Representative Government,” even the most “benign” despotism tends to infantilize its subjects.  People under an authoritarian regime become passive, detached, and thoughtless.  And I would argue, authoritarianism also infantilizes the leaders.  We mature by encountering others with whom we must reckon and negotiate; but the authoritarian will not tolerate equals and thus never encounters an “other.”  Instead, as Aristotle said, the authoritarian surrounds himself with flatterers and sycophants.  A functioning democracy is a society of adults, who argue in good faith, who accept reality, who strive to be rational and just.  A despotism is a nation led by an overgrown toddler, who seeks to bully the other children on the playground.  In a high-tech, fast-changing world such as ours, with an unending stream of crises small, large and existential, we will not long survive as a race of toddlers.


[1] Tamer Fakahany, “‘The End of History’?  30 Years on, Does That Idea Still Hold Up?” Associated Press Nov. 7, 2019)

[2] Peter Wade, “Trump’s Fed Nominee Isn’t a ‘Big Believer in Democracy;’” Rolling Stone April 14, 2019 (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/stephen-moore-democracy-comments-822153/)

[3] Stephanie Hegarty, “The Chinese Doctor Who Tried to Warn Others about Coronavirus;” BBC 6 Feb 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51364382)

[4] JM Rieger, “Sean Hannity denied calling coronavirus a hoax nine days after he called coronavirus a hoax;” Washington Post March 19, 2020 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/19/sean-hannity-denied-calling-coronavirus-hoax-nine-days-after-he-called-coronavirus-hoax/)

[5] Mary Papenfuss, “It’s Been 1 Year Since Trump Boasted 15 COVID-19 Cases Would Soon Be ‘Close To Zero’” Huffington Post Feb. 26, 2021 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-15-covid-19-cases-anniversary_n_6039a526c5b601179ebd8ccc)

[6] “Amid India’s COVID-19 Surge, Dozens of Dead Bodies Found Floating in Ganges River;” CBS News May 11, 2021 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/india-covid-ganges-river-bodies/)

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part II, chapter 17

[8] I say “he” because Hobbes meant “he;” he treats women not as citizens themselves but as one of those things men fight over.

[9] Leviathan chapter 19

[10] Bess Levin, “Texas Lt. Governor: Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy;” Vanity Fair March 24, 2020

[11] Aristotle, The Politics, Book V, chapter xi

[12] Politics Book II, chapter ix

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: First

April 8, 2021

First Thesis:  The state exists to serve the people, to encourage human flourishing, and any aspect that fails to do that is unjustified

It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, book I, chapter ii, 1253a1

            The Founding Fathers of our American Revolution were deeply influenced by social contract political theory, particularly as described by John Locke.  The essence of Enlightenment-era social contract theory is:  Imagine humans living in a “state of Nature,” an existence without government or laws.  In such a situation, every individual is completely free.  When humans join together in a society, they give up some of those freedoms and rights they had in the state of Nature, ceding that power to the State or Commonwealth to control through laws, magistrates and so on.  However, each individual retains their “inalienable rights:”  those rights which, by their very nature and the nature of the social contract, cannot be logically said to have been given up.  The most obvious is the right to life.  Even Thomas Hobbes, who had the lowest opinion of human nature and thus believed the State needed the most power to control its citizens, still conceded that no one gives up the right to life.  If your government demands your death, you can flee, or resist in any way you can.  The reason you agree to live under the sovereignty of your king and country is to protect your life; if the government can’t or won’t protect your life, the only rational thing to do is try to protect it yourself by any means available.  A State that doesn’t protect the lives of its citizens has broken its side of the social contract, and thus is no government at all. 

            Locke, Rousseau and other social contract philosophers were more influential on the Founding Fathers than was the monarchist Hobbes.  They believed that humans are basically good or at least decent and rational, and therefore include not only life but also personal liberty among the inalienable rights.  Even agreeing to be governed is not so much a surrender of one’s basic freedom, as it is a modification of how it will be expressed:  through voting, and forming a government that reflects the will of the people.  But one point these democratic thinkers shared with Hobbes was their starting point:  the atomistic individual who, though perhaps only an intellectual construct, was the theoretical starting point and thus also the aim of the State.  There was little chance you ever actually made a decision to leave a state of Nature; you were born a citizen.  But still, the social contract thinker takes this idea of the pure individual in the state of pure anarchy as a given, and then proceeds with the thought-experiment of asking why and how a number of such individuals might join together to form a community.  In answering these questions, the social contract philosopher seeks to define the role and the limits of the State, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

            Social contract theory is often based not just on individualism, but on egoism.  Glaucon’s argument in Book II of Plato’s Republic is the classic example.  Glaucon proposes that any individual, if able, will strive to fulfill their ambitions and desires regardless of concerns for morality or justice; but since this results in chaos, the majority band together like sheep seeking the protection of numbers and the shepherd to save them from the wolves.  Humanity is thus divided between the majority of sheep, who make up the State, and the few supremely ambitious and powerful ones, who seek to live as wolves as far as they are able.  In this view, the State is a constraint on the “superior” ones, the cleverest and strongest and most politically adept, which everyone tolerates because the majority prefer its safety but which everyone, if able, would live without.  Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan is similar, and even goes so far as to describe the State as an “artificial person” created by the agreement of a large group of individuals to be welded into one will, that of the sovereign.[1] 

            Aristotle, by contrast, does not see the state as “artificial” or an unwelcome concession to the demands of the mob for protection from their more rapacious neighbors.  He describes the state as entirely natural, the culmination of the needs and desires of the individual and the only way the individual can be truly happy.  In Book I of his Politics he discusses how the individual’s natural desire and need to reproduce requires another and, from this union of male and female, the family is created.  The individual family can’t attain all the goods and security it needs alone, so families come together to form villages.  The village can provide its members with their survival needs, but Aristotle says that more than survival is necessary for happiness/eudaimonia; for the individuals to have what they need to not merely live but to live well, they require a polis, a state, which will have sufficient division of labor, markets, and cultural institutions such as law courts, education, the arts, and so on to allow its citizens to fulfill their human nature as not only living animals, but as rational beings who seek to learn and discuss and guide their lives philosophically.  Thus the natural needs of the individual lead inevitably to the city-state, which finally has the population and the sophistication to be fully self-sufficient.  Aristotle writes:

For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural.  This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we cal its nature…

            It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.[2]

This idea has many possible implications, which will only be fully shown later.  One might guess that if the state exists to secure the good life for the citizen, that the state will tend naturally to some sort of democratic or libertarian structure so as to better achieve its goal of the fulfillment of the individual’s true happiness.  Contrariwise, one might speculate that if the state is the telos of the individual, that something more like the anthill or the Borg collective might be its final structure, with the individual finding fulfillment in losing all sense of individuality.  While both of these guesses will prove wrong, the early indications in the Politics are for the second.  Aristotle accepts as given the existence of both slavery and patriarchy.  He quotes the poet Euripides as authority for the proposition that it is fitting that Greeks should rule all other people, and asserts that non-Greeks are naturally irrational and slavish and thus can only find their fulfillment as slaves to Greeks.  He further claims that women too are not fully rational, and thus are incapable of the sort of happiness which the citizen expects; a woman’s nature is to be guided by her husband.  While the state may exist to enable the citizens to achieve happiness, Aristotle denies that women and non-Greeks are capable of happiness since they lack the rationality essential to it; so they are not in fact citizens.  This, I would say, is the dark side of Aristotle’s way of thinking.  He has a view of human nature, which is largely based on his own nature as an individual and a member of a certain culture; he judges every deviation from that “ideal” as a failure to be fully human.  Social contract theory, by contrast, assumes everyone is essentially equal, whatever political inequalities may arise later.  It is much easier to sacrifice some individuals to the state if the state exists only for the sake of some of its inhabitants, who are deemed “citizens,” while seeing the others only as helpers, tools, adversaries or raw material for the citizens.  Even a Hobbesian social contract has a notion of “inalienable rights” to which all individuals are entitled; if the state denies them these minimal rights, they in turn owe the state no loyalty either. 

            On the other hand, the inherent egoism of much social contract thinking can undermine the community and even destroy it.  This can be seen most clearly in the extreme egoism which underlies much of American conservatism:  the philosophy of Ayn Rand.[3]   Despite the admiration she expresses for Aristotle in books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand utterly rejects his claim that humans are naturally social.  In a journal entry, Rand writes:

For instance, when discussing the social instinct — does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages? Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question) — does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal — isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?

Rand claims that the human individual is innately selfish, and should be; only the life of rationally-pursued selfishness fulfills our human nature as a rational animal.  She strongly doubts the claim put forth by Hume in the 18th Century and by other philosophers and psychologists to this day that humans have any natural social or cooperative sense; she believes this is imposed on us by our upbringing, and the sooner we shake it off, the better.  But even if this is wrong and the social instinct is natural, she still believes it should be rejected.  Only egoism gives proper due to the rational nature and the supreme value of the individual.  Thus, when she discusses the ideal state, it is only the barest of Lockean social contract:  the state as neutral party mediating between neighbors, with even large portions of the legal and penal systems handed off to the private sector.  Aside from maintaining an army for border security and maybe some police to prevent violent crimes, supported by voluntary taxation and service-type fees, everything is to be left to the unfettered capitalist.  In practice, however, attempts to actualize this philosophical libertarian utopia have universally failed.  So far, it hasn’t been as bad as the national attempts to actualize Marxism, but perhaps this is just because it hasn’t been tried on that scale.  Certainly, the attempts to manage Sears according to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy were a disaster leading ultimately to the destruction of one of our nation’s longest-lived retailers; and Honduras, a country largely run on Objectivist-style conservatism since the 2009 coup, has spiraled into poverty, crime and dysfunction where even basic road repair is beyond the government’s capacity, and necessary infrastructure like an airport can’t be built because no individual is willing to shoulder the expense alone.  But despite the failure of these and other attempts to run human affairs according to Rand’s egoistic political philosophy, American conservatives continue to push her views as something more reliable than Gospel. 

            While Rand would say that the progression from men (social animals) to man (the free, independent egoist) is “the only possible progress,” Aristotle would say this would be a disaster.  Gods and brutes may be self-sufficient individuals, but that is not a life for humans; gods can live independently and be happy because they are not animals and have no physical needs, while beasts and brutes like Polyphemus are incapable of happiness because they are uncivilized.  Human nature is only fulfilled, he says, when humans use their human reason and human language to work out how to live together in justice and cooperation. 

            A political philosophy that sees politics as an unfortunate and unwelcome necessity, a yoke laid on the shoulder of the citizen to bridle their natural vitality, is bound to encourage the anarchic egoism we see in American conservatism today.  When “freedom” is described as the individual’s escape from all obligations or regard for neighbors, for laws or for cultural achievements, even democracy can be seen as oppression.[4]  To such a mindset, only anarchy would be truly natural and truly free, fulfilling the individual’s true nature as an independent free-floating atom of humanity.  And in such a state, as the social-contractarian says, life is nasty, poor, brutish and short.  If we are looking for a political philosophy, instead of an anti-political ideology, we need to find one that can guide social cooperation and help determine wise social goals.  Aristotle’s philosophy is one of the earliest attempts to analyze the nature of citizenship and the state, and still offers some advantages over today’s ultra-libertarianism.  At the same time, Aristotle accepts many aspects of his own culture without question which we today would regard as either quixotic (he declares money-lending “unnatural”) or abhorrent (his easy acceptance of racism, sexism, and slavery, among other things).  What we need to consider is if we can learn from Aristotle and find valuable insights which can be separated from the historical dross and repurposed to help create a more functional society today. 

            The state exists to allow the citizens to live their best lives possible.  So, who are these “citizens” who should benefit?  Can we expand citizenship, and the benefits of citizenship, beyond the limits Aristotle imagined?  If we can, and refuse to do so in order to protect the interests of some elite minority, does that represent a failure of our politics, and our justice? 

To be continued….


[1] Hobbes, Leviathan, Book I, chapters 14-16

[2] Aristotle, Politics, book I, 1252b27-1253a1

[3] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour February 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

[4] Andrew Kaczynski and Paul LeBlanc, “Trump’s Fed Pick Stephen Moore is a Self-Described ‘Radical’ who said he’s not a “Big Believer in Democracy’” CNN April 13, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/12/politics/stephen-moore-kfile/index.html)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: introduction

March 30, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  introduction

Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating good (habits) in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.

—–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter i, 1103b

            From the end of the 20th Century until now, I have seen a lot of division and confusion regarding our politics.  As a child I was largely oblivious to the existence or the end of legal segregation.  As a schoolchild I was part of the struggle over desegregation, and while I could observe the poverty of Black schools and desired that adults would fund all schools better, I was still a child and had little sense of involvement.  As I got older, I began to think more consciously about the relationship between myself and the nation I lived in, between the citizen and the state, the meanings of these terms and the mutual obligations entailed.  Without my quite being aware of it, these social questions that were affecting me, such as court-ordered bussing or draft registration, were parts of one larger question:  the relationship between the individual and the state. 

            Unknown to me at the time, the political parties were defining their different views on this question.  Race and the draft were the two issues that got people out in the streets when I was a child watching television.  We didn’t have as much discussion of things like “wealth gap” in those days, partly because it wasn’t nearly as big an issue; the wealth gap was a fraction of what it is now, and the middle class was strong and growing.  Both liberals and conservatives agreed that a citizen had a duty to vote, and devoted energy to train children to become citizens—-thought it is sadly ironic that there was still a lot of conflict and even violence over whether this citizens’ right and duty to vote should apply to nonwhites.

            My first introduction to philosophy was Walden, and I was particularly influenced by Thoreau’s essay “Economy.”  Thoreau presents his vision of human nature:  the ideal life is one close to Nature, eschewing luxuries, working enough to sustain life but little more, so as to allow ample leisure time for thought, writing and other pursuits to feed the mind and soul.  I don’t remember if I read his essay on civil disobedience at this time, but I still have the book I used and it includes that famous essay so I think I did.  Either way, I was already reading political philosophy at the age of thirteen, including critiques of consumerism and capitalism, representative versus radical democracy, and the general relationship of the individual to society.  Metaphysically and epistemologically, Thoreau is something of a mystic; the believed that God was literally in Nature and could be experienced directly by experiencing Nature, getting away from crowds and civilization.  In the woods, by his beloved pond, Truth gave itself directly to Thoreau.  In the bustle of society, in the ambition of politicians and the pressures to conform and in the strivings of empires, he found only falsehood and sin.

            I think the next major piece of political philosophy I picked up was Plato’s Republic.  Plato too is a mystic; Truth and The Good are transcendent reality, known directly by the mind open to receive them.  And also like Thoreau, Plato was something of an ascetic; he too thought luxuries and the pursuit of profit lead one into greater unhappiness and ignorance, while embracing simplicity in life allowed greater devotion to fullness of thought and spirit.  But whereas Thoreau politically was a cynic and almost an anarchist, Plato was anti-democratic, yearning for a Philosopher-King who would combine the philosophical insights of Athens with the rigid class distinctions and social discipline of Sparta.  In high school I didn’t really notice the disagreement, as I saw Plato’s republic as merely a thought-experiment expressing how reason should rule in the life of the individual; but as time has gone by I have come to see that Plato took this idea of enlightened monarchy seriously.  Plato is not an individualist; he yearned for a society with a wise division of labor, where those who were good thinkers did all the thinking and policy-making while those whose hearts turned towards business devoted themselves to producing and making money and left the running of society to the intellectual elite.  So while Thoreau is heir to Plato in many ways, politically he follows the example of Diogenes the Cynic, the fierce individualist, who rejected political partisanship and creature comforts alike in his pursuit of complete personal freedom. 

            Plato and Diogenes were both students of Socrates, but took different lessons from the teacher’s words and fate.  Which is best:  a well-ordered, stable society where everyone knows his or her place and strives to benefit the whole, or a society which is an aggregate of individuals, each striving to live out their own ideals and pursue their own happiness?  It seems to me that this is a conflict that occurs repeatedly in the history of thought, since it is intrinsic to the project of human social life in general.  China had Confucius and Chuang-Tzu; the Hellenistic Age had the Stoics and the Cynics; the Enlightenment had Hobbes and Locke; nineteenth-century America had the Capitalists and the Transcendentalists.  As societies grow beyond family-groups and clans, we’ve had to turn our brains to intentionally work out the relationship between the individual and the group, with some placing the emphasis on one and some on the other.  Does the individual exist to serve the group, and is the nature of the individual defined primarily as part of the group?  Or does the group exist to serve the individual’s needs, so that anything that does not nurture the individual is to be discarded?

            There’s been something of a resurgence of Aristotle in recent decades.  Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have been arguing for a return to virtue ethics, and a view of ethics as aiming for some sort of “good life,” some fulfillment of human nature.  On the other hand, political conservatives in the USA have promoted Aquinas and other Aristotelians, as well as Plato’s anti-democratic republicanism, not so much from any intellectual consideration as because they see both Plato and Aristotle as useful cudgels in their ideological war against “liberals.”  I’ve taught Aristotle as part of my Ethics classes for years, but only recently have I become interested in his political philosophy.  I believe he has much to say, and much that would defy the easy liberal-versus-conservative polarities we seem to love so much today.

            Aristotle’s Politics picks up about where Nicomachean Ethics leaves off. Aristotle’s ethics rests on his view that humans are rational animals, and thus not only have needs for basic essentials for life and desires for pleasant sensations while avoiding misery, but more essentially they need to live lives “guided by reason, or not apart from reason.”[1]  To attain this sort of life, one must cultivate habits that contribute to it; these are the virtues.  By contrast, habits that lead away from true human fulfillment (or “eudaimonia,” often translated “happiness”) are termed “vices.”  For Aristotle, the ethical life is a matter of cultivating virtues by acting virtuously, reinforcing those beneficial habits while avoiding acts that would tend towards vices.[2]  And in support of his linkage between morality, character and habit, Aristotle mentions that states themselves often employ legal codes that will shape the character of their citizens by using rewards and punishments to encourage good habits while discouraging bad ones.  For instance, we ourselves seek to be properly brave, neither too reckless nor cowardly, because if we are wise we know that hitting the virtue defined as the proper midpoint between these extreme vices will lead to our own true happiness; and societies seek to encourage bravery, industriousness and other virtues in citizens as a whole for the wellbeing of the community, so they use laws and other social pressures to encourage each individual to become a better person.  Aristotle would say that in doing so, the society is pushing the individual to become not just more socially useful, but also more personally happy.

            So even in his exploration of personal ethics and personal happiness, Aristotle sees an important role for the State.  This certainly distinguishes him from some ethical schools which have been important in American history, such as Transcendentalism; and it distinguishes him from some successors to Socrates, such as the Cynics and the Epicureans.  Today’s successors to Aristotle will likewise be less individualistic, but also concerned about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual; Aristotelians will not sacrifice the individual to the State as a Hobbesian would, since the individual’s happiness is the goal of the individual’s own activity.  Also unlike Hobbes, an Aristotelian will stress the character development of the individual, and stress the importance of cultivating the virtues.  Because of Aristotle’s view of the importance of both the individual and the group, it was natural that he would write both personal ethics and political philosophy, and base the second on the first. 

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I, 1097b22–1098a20

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, book II

Of Blood and Bullshit

January 14, 2021

Of Blood and Bullshit

            I am particularly interested by the fact that the Capitol Hill insurrectionists imagine themselves to be patriots.  One rioter was allegedly heard sobbing, “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”  Never mind that BLM never stormed the Capitol, that when rioters did attempt to storm government buildings they were met with far more force than the Capitol Hill insurrectionists faced, that BLM or Antifa never posed an existential threat to the nation, sought to overturn the normal functioning of the nation, or planned to seize and execute government officials, as the white supremacist rebels did.  It is a strange riot, a curious rebellion that, without a trace of irony, expresses outrage that its use of force is met with force.  They think they’re the heroes, that they’re the only patriots, that they are saving America. They expected the police to join them, the American people to either greet them as liberators or to slink away cowed, and Donald Trump to march up to the Capitol and reveal how their storming the enemy citadel would now insure his continued benevolent and completely successful reign for at least another four years.  Why?

            As Harry Frankfurt describes in his 1982 essay On Bullshit, there are lies, truth, and then this other sort of verbal action that is neither.  A truth-speaker says what the speaker believes to be true.   A liar finds the truth inconvenient, and instead speaks what the liar believes to be false.  And then there’s the bullshitter.  The bullshitter doesn’t care and often does not even know what is true.  Bullshit is disconnected from the entire true/false dichotomy.  The bullshitter is engaged with some other sort of activity.  Maybe it’s to impress or amuse (the “fish that got away” stories).  Maybe it’s advertising (“cats ask for it by name”).  Maybe it’s to win election (“My opponent is a socialist like they have in Venezuela who will destroy this country”), or to puff up one’s own ego or motivate one’s voters (“The only way I could lose this election is if it rigged”).  Whether the statement is true may not matter at all to the speaker; what matters is the reaction of the receiver.  The bullshitter seeks to manipulate rather than inform. 

            When everyone is sort of in on the joke, it doesn’t matter and, in fact, the BS might even be beneficial.  Imagine a coworker or friend who was always serious, who never exaggerated or speculated or dreamt; that would be pretty boring.  But if the hearer or reader mistakes BS for actual factual claims, then that receiver is deceived.

            Example:  “We’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!”  When DT said that, everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Many of his supporters on TV and elsewhere actually mocked “liberals” for treating it as a factual promise.  They said, “Liberals take Trump literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously——but not literally.”  Everyone knew and at least tacitly admitted that this was bullshit, but his supporters felt it was an honest expression of their desires and values.  But later, the line between bullshit and lying became blurred, as more and more people believed it was promise, a true statement of intentions with a realistic chance of fulfillment, when in fact it was never going to happen.           

            The “fraud” claims seem to be people believing the bullshit.  It was never impossible for Trump to lose a free and fair election.  As the COVID-19 response (largely another exercise in bullshit, or in DT;s terms “cheerleading” for the nation and “being positive” rather than being providing facts and warnings) faltered, losing became more likely.  But his followers took it as a statement of fact; he can’t lose, so if he does then someone cheated.

            As to DT himself, his “power of positive thinking” approach is that if he says it and convinces himself, it will happen.  So he inevitably believes his own bullshit.  He says what will please his audience (pure bullshit, since he neither knows nor cares whether what he says is true when he is saying it).  Then, since he said it, he is convinced that if he doubles-down, it will happen, whether “it” is a business making money for his investors, a loan being repaid, or a disease disappearing as if by a miracle.  He even argued in court, when suing Forbes for allegedly understating his wealth, that he is worth as much or as little as he feels on any given day; if he feels like he’s worth 10 billion he is, but if later he feels like he’s worth only 1 billion then now he’s only worth that.  So when he’s talking to banks about getting a loan and he feels like he’s worth 10 billion, he’s not lying; but if he’s talking to the IRS and feels like he’s about to go broke, that’s not fraud either.  Whatever he says, lo, it is so.

            At this point, what was probably somewhat self-aware bullshit has become full-blown self-deception.  Donald Trump long ago took Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy to its illogical conclusion, that if he told himself something and kept positive then the world would conform to his wishes.  As he told others he couldn’t lose, he was telling himself that as well.  As the flatterers told him he couldn’t lose, he believed them; as the true believers sought to motivate themselves and others with an upbeat message, he believed them; and soon his world was echoing that message.  As to his followers, the collection of QAnon cultists, white supremacists and other far-right ideologues that swarmed into the Capitol, all the evidence and their public statements show that they too believe the bullshit.  They are not tethered to the rules of evidence or logic that restrict so many of us, but allow their minds to run free across fantastic battlefields, trampling the bodies of their enemies.  They are the Powerful, Righteous and Knowing, while those who spent their lives learning and serving are the Weak, sheeple who follow “experts” and “recognized authorities” and “science.”   But they are not sheeple; they are too smart to be deceived by people with years of research and years of public service holding them back.  Instead, they are bold and clever enough —- to believe absolutely everything they are told by The Strong Man, The Big Man, Donald Trump, whose many failures in business are never his fault, whose many divergences from reality only reveal his hidden knowledge and his subtle strategy, and whose very excesses and boorishness show that he is One Of Us even though he has lived his entire life literally isolated in a golden tower and has repeatedly stated his “racehorse theory” that he and his family are genetically superior to everyone except other authoritarian billionaires. 

That is why the putsch failed, this time.  As Harry Frankfurt said in On Truth, a society needs truth; not necessarily Eternal Truth, but practical, pragmatic truths, facts about reality and realistic plans given the limitations of reality.  You just can’t do anything unless you know what’s real and what’s reasonably plausible, what needs to be done and what you can do.  The Capitol Hill insurrection was a case of thousands of people believing the bullshit and acting on it.  The factual claims are nonsense; they’ve been refuted in over sixty court cases.  This election literally has been litigated and relitigated dozens of times, and the result is always the same.  At some point, any reasonable person has to accept reality.  But people who believe the bullshit have chosen to reject the rules of evidence and reason that they would apply to any other part of their lives.  The positive spin of Candidate Trump, engaging in a little harmless, standard trumpery that “we’re going to win this election,” metastasized into something more dangerous; from a little harmless bullshit to a major shitstorm.  Then, the bullshit that somehow storming the Capitol would “save democracy” by handing Trump the victory led them to a stupid and dangerous course of action.  There never was a realistic plan; there were just fantasies of revenge and victory.  The terrorists who attempted to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan have since argued that they were never really serious; it was all just bullshit, guys being guys and talking big among themselves about how they’d like to “get” that authority they hated.  The Capitol Hill thugs were, in some cases, apparently doing the same thing:  bullshitting among themselves, then showing up for a rally to feel good, then following the crowd into the building, but with no realistic plan as to how this was all supposed to work or how it would accomplish anything good.  In fact, investigative reports state that they just assumed that at some point Donald Trump would stride onto the scene and tell them what to do next, set wrongs to right and win the day; while instead he was simply sitting in the White House watching on television, enjoying the chaos and the adulation of himself without any solid plan to give any orders beyond blocking law enforcement from getting any reinforcements from the Pentagon.  So once Pence, Congress and the physical Electoral College ballots escaped, the insurrectionists had nothing to do but wander around, loot and vandalize, post selfies and boast on social media, then leave.  Their delusional state is fully displayed in the fact that even after every member of Congress escaped and thus there was no way Joe Biden’s victory would not be certified, they still thought they’d won, that they were the heroes, and that the only future problems they might face were where they would display their Medal of Freedom.

And because they believed the bullshit handed them by Trump, Cruz, Giuliani, Hawley, Gaetz and other opportunistic politicians looking to gain popularity, people died, people were seriously injured, tax money that could have been used to defend the nation or fight the pandemic will be spent on cleaning up the mess, and many, many people who think of themselves as patriots are facing the real possibility of lengthy prison terms. 

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 is the natural culmination of a political party drowning in bullshit, incapable of engaging with reality in any meaningful way, incapable of solving real problems but well capable of creating them, only solving bullshit problems.  For three years the Bullshitter-in-Chief, DJ Trump, built walls to stop nonexistent caravans, subsidized farmers hurt by his trade war sparked by his misunderstanding of trade deficits, sabotaged the nation’s most reliable alliances through his incapacity to recognize a good deal when he got one while selling out to enemies because he can’t recognize a con, avoided prosecution only because he was President and then thought that meant he wasn’t a criminal who would land in jail the second he was no longer President so he continued adding to his future legal troubles, and finally got himself impeached for a petty shakedown of an allied nation and was again only saved by rank partisanship—-which his bullshit-addled brain turned into a pronouncement of innocence, leading him to repeat all his past mistakes.  He demands a favor in exchange for doing his job, then says it’s not a “quid pro quo” because he said “no quid pro quo;” I want a favor for a favor but don’t call it a “quid pro quo” and then it isn’t one.  That sort of evasion of clear meaning and clear logic is the hallmark of bullshit.  For three years, a reality TV star who’s production crew largely says was playing a part they created has confused his television role with real life, and further confused the selfishness of a family business conning marks with public service to better a nation, and bullshitted his way through. 

But as they say, “money talks; bullshit walks.”  Or as the pragmatic philosopher William James said, truth is what has “cash value.”  Truth is what works, what gets things done.  What works in the long run is what is true in the practical sense.  To update and expand on James a bit, bullshit may work in the short run, but ultimately it fails.  It can’t solve problems; it can only distract from them.  Bullshit, after all, isn’t even engaged with reality; it is oblivious to truth and thus oblivious to the real problems.  When COVID-19 hit, this political party could only respond one way:  bullshitting.  They covered it up, obfuscated, tried to build a wall which was as useless as the other wall they’d built, issued contradictory directions to states and other regional authorities and then told them they were on their own so they could hide behind the confusion they’d caused, all the while lining their own pockets by investing in stocks that would do well when the dam broke.  Which it did.  The President has said he deliberately downplayed the pandemic because he likes to be positive, rather than deal with reality.  His son-in-law and nominal head of the pandemic response has said they intentionally gave contradictory directives.  All this bullshit naturally made things even worse.  At the same time, the Bullshit President encouraged well-armed, poorly-educated paramilitary loyalists to blame the people trying to carry out those directives for all their real and imagined problems.  They prepared to and, in some cases, even killed others to defend their imagined rights against imagined threats, while all the time their real problems go worse.

The bullshit was walking, walking away rather than solving problems.  And finally, the problems became DJ Trump’s problems.  The pandemic he’d ignored and bullshitted was destroying the economic recovery he’d been left by his predecessor like a squandered inheritance wasted on a foolish prodigal son too vain to repent.  Hundreds of thousands of people were dead, millions more sick and unable to work, many crippled for life..  And people who were tired of the ineffective bullshit were looking to his opponent for real answers to their real questions.  But the Republican party, its information machines and candidates and operatives and paramilitaries and wealthy donors alike, are unable to produce real answers; instead they doubled-down on the bullshit.  They started screaming about fraud and undermining democracy itself even before the voting had begun, preparing to reject any result they didn’t like no matter how clear-cut.  And the ones with the guns and the lack of information or critical judgment, the poorly-educated paramilitary militias with their conspiracy theories and bullshit dreams of racial superiority, believed the bullshit.  They launched an insurrection, which has not yet ended, to try to overthrow the freely elected government of their nation based on the bullshit assertion that it was not elected.  They pursued strategies and tactics which could not possibly achieve the goals they wanted, because bullshit knows neither facts nor logic.  The bullshitters who had encouraged them in their delusions were shocked, shocked that anyone would act to save the democracy which the bullshitters had said was being destroyed, by trying to destroy the actual democracy and kill the actual elected representatives of the actual majority of voters.  Then the bullshitters do what bullshitters do:  they tried to bullshit their way out of the problem as they saw it.  This is a public relations nightmare for Republicans; someone believed their bullshit and created real-world problems while the Republican Party was engrossed in solving phony problems only.  So they made fact-free assertions, before anyone could possibly have any facts at all, that Antifa and BLM had been behind the insurrection.  Because that is what bullshitters do:  they bullshit.  They say whatever will help in the moment, and since they are unconcerned for truth they can speak instantly without having to wait for information.  They say, “I want no violence,” the same way they say “No quid pro quo”—-I want you to do this but I want legal cover so I’ll use words that contradict my clearly expressed desires.

In the meantime, the terrorist rebellion they’d incited with their bullshit, and which they continue to incite by sticking with their bullshit claims of fraud and their bullshit endorsement of racists and paranoids, of Proud Boys and QAnon, was left angered and hate-filled (since bullshit is great at stirring up passions) but without any clear direction or realistic goals (since that would require engagement with reality).  They may do a lot of damage; they are plotting mass murder, and no one really knows who will act on those plans and who is just bullshitting.  But they have no real strategy, no actual idea what winning or losing would look like, and absolutely no idea what they would do if they won or how they would solve the nation’s problems.  They only have their bullshit-fueled rage and bullshit-fueled dreams, dreams of vengeance and power and the magical end of all their problems.  And while their bullshit machines at FOX News and talk radio and the internet produce more bullshit, and their voter base drowns in bullshit and loses all sense of reality, the Republican leaders are incapable of offering useful ideas to solve the very real problems of the pandemic, of racial justice, of a floundering economy, and of a growing white nationalist insurgency.  They can only bullshit and hope that somehow the problems go away.

The bullshit has led to bloodshed, and likely will lead to more.  The bullshitters encourage and incite and protect the bloodshed, even as they denounce it.  They cannot do otherwise at this point; it would take too much self-awareness to change course.  They believe their own bullshit, or else simply cannot conceive of any alternative to bullshitting.  Pirro and Hannity and Jones and Dobbs and the rest cannot simply come out and start dropping truth, even if they know it; they’d lose their bullshit-addicted audience without gaining any new one from those truth-lovers, and thus lose all their power.  The demagogues like Hawley and Cruz and Gaetz are in the same fix; they have power over the bullshit mob only as long as they provide more bullshit, and will be cast aside in a second if they deviate from the established party line and thus lose any influence to stop the madness they started.  So the power in the Republican Party today can only be used to stop the solution of problems and to create new ones; it is incapable of being redirected to solve real problems since it is disengaged from reality.  The only real solution is for the nation to disengage from the Republican Party.  Some new, more pragmatic center-right party will emerge to fill the void, eventually; but until then there are only two sides to American politics:  the party that attempts to engage with real problems in the real world and looks for real solutions even if sometimes it misses, versus the party that attempts to avoid reality, that ignores truth, and which if it ever finds a real solution it is only like the proverbial blind squirrel finding a nut buried under a pile of bullshit. 

What the Right Gets Wrong: about Idolatry

January 4, 2021

What the Right Gets Wrong:  about Idolatry

I the Lord your God am a jealous God

—-Exodus 20:2

            What is “idolatry”?  The Religious Right would say that such things as Santeria and Voodoo are idolatrous.  They combine Christian and non-Christian religious practices into one religion.  In the case of Santeria, more common in my native Florida, they sometimes quite explicitly rename and rebaptize the orisha of Yoruba sorcery as Catholic saints.  Although in the days of slavery there was an attempt to make the religion seem Christian to outsiders, its emphasis on animal sacrifice, spirit possession and other traditional African practices show that it is far different from the Catholicism of the Cuban plantation owners and masters. 

            Many in the Religious Right consider Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be idolatrous as well.  Both religions use images of Christ and the saints in worship, and Catholicism in particular has a strong emphasis on the saints as intermediaries who can receive prayers, intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and even perform miracles to aid those who call on them.  All of this is abhorrent to Evangelical Protestants, and as a child I was often warned to be wary of those idolatrous Catholics.  Today however the Religious Right includes both Catholic and Protestant and they often set aside their theological differences in favor of political cooperation.

            Catholics and Orthodox, and maybe some followers of Voodoo and Santeria, would say that these saints or spirits are lesser beings than the Creator, even servants, and therefore it is no disloyalty to the Creator to pray to them.  Fundamentalist Protestants, on the other hand, reject all this imagery and iconography and ritual and prayer to intercessory powers, saying they are violations of the majesty of the One God.  God will surely smite such false worship, for the LORD is a jealous God.

            But many of the largest, richest Protestant churches, and the most powerful and celebrated preachers, are themselves idolaters.  The foremost example in the 20th Century was the Christian Nationalists.  In the 1930s a particularly odious example arose, the “German Christians.”  They sought to combine their primarily Lutheran heritage with the militarism and nationalism of Adolf Hitler. To them, any church that dissented from the rising political regime of the Nazi party was not only threatening the unity of the nation; it was rebelling against God, who established all nations and leaders and had chosen their nation to dominate all others as the foundation for the new Kingdom of God, the Holy Roman Empire reborn.  Not all Christians agreed with this mixing of nationalism and Christianity, however, and in 1934 a gathering of Reformed, Lutheran and United church leaders met in Barmen, Germany, where they approved and issued The Theological Declaration of Barmen.  Relying explicitly on Scripture for each of its main points, it argued that not only was this Christian nationalism theologically wrong, but that it was heresy.  In seeking to give the Church explicit political power, and in seeking greater union between Church and State, the German Christians were actually demoting the Church and turning it into an organ of the State (Barmen Declaration II, 5).  The Church should obey the Gospel alone, and not be swayed by allegiance to political movements (Barmen II, 3).  The declaration culminates with the final anathema, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans” (Barmen II, 6).  While the German Christians argued that the Nazi state was a Christian nation and thus the protector of the Church, those now known as the Confessing Churches argued that this pretense really meant replacing Jesus with the State as the center of concern.  The Church was being seen and being used as a means to an end, that end being the unity and strength of the State, and in particular the strength of the ruling political authorities of the State. 

            The Religious Right would say that this happened in a foreign land; while those Europeans were easily deceived, the United States is a blessed nation, a Shining City on a Hill, and could never be lured into idolatry.  Or, they might go further and say the Germans were corrupted because they were socialists; after all, Socialism is right there in the name “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”  Sure, they fought Communists, first on the streets of Germany and then across Europe; but really they were Socialists just like Stalin and Hugo Chavez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:  all Socialists, all exactly the same.  The Religious Right, on the other hand, are all Capitalists and thus love Freedom and are Good and Right—again, it’s there in the name “Right Wing.” 

            And because they are capitalists and capitalism is Good, many of them embrace a theology known as “The Prosperity Gospel.”  According to this theology, which has roots in the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale and more recently in such preachers as Jim Bakker, God wants all the faithful followers of his son Jesus to have “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).  Whatever you ask for, if you believe, you will receive (Matthew 7:7; Mark 11:24).  And so on, and never mind where the Bible hints that these are spiritual blessings (Luke 11:13); God knows you want nice clothes and a minivan and a good job and early retirement and three square meals plus a day, and God is good and wants you to have whatever you ask.  So just believe in God and Jesus, as the preacher tells you and describes them, and you will get all the worldly goodies you desire.  Believe in God and Jesus SO THAT you can get all the worldly goodies.  In the Prosperity Gospel, in the version of Christianity taught by chair of the spiritual advisory board serving Donald Trump, God and Jesus are there waiting for you to show up with your spiritual ATM card to withdraw cold, hard cash to buy everything you desire; or, if your credit runs out, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or obey your preacher closely enough.  Just as your worldly job is a means to an end, that end being your paycheck, so too does the Prosperity Gospel proclaim that if you work for God, He will give you an even bigger paycheck, and all this faith is the means by which you can attain worldly prosperity. 

            In Catholicism, we pray to the saints and to the Virgin Mother, who prays to the Father for us, who saves us from our sins, and that is called “idolatry” by the Evangelical Protestants.  In Evangelical Protestantism you pray directly to the Father through Jesus, and the Father will give you miracles and magic and fulfill your wishes for comfort and profit and even for power over others, and somehow that isn’t idolatry?  One prays to something that is not God to reach what is God; the other prays to God like a letter to Santa, making God the tool and prosperity the goal.  But of course, that’s Capitalism and therefore Good and therefore holy.  Right?

            No!  Idolatry is not whether you have an empty cross or one with the crucified Christ.  It is not whether you have no pictures in your church, or only pictures of Jesus, or pictures of all the saints.  Idolatry is when you make the ultimate reality, God, a tool of your own tiny ambitions.  As Kierkegaard put it:

If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth?  The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.[1]

            Idolatry is, in a way, the natural default for the human-deity relationship.  It is the childish (in Kierkegaard’s terms, “esthetic”) understanding.  God is to be understood and used; God acts and thinks just like us, and can be flattered like us, grows cross like us, kicks ass like we imagine we would do if we were gods, and showers money, political control, fame, military might and everything else we imagine as “good” on those who please Him.  And since most of us live in a patriarchal culture, we imagine God as an older, rather stern male ruler.  We want, as Kierkegaard said, a direct relationship to God, one that is straightforward, where we know the rules and know how to work the rules to get what we want, like a teenager who knows that if he or she just gets good grades and isn’t arrested for drinking then Dad will give them a car next birthday.  What we don’t want is what Kierkegaard says is true worship:  to love God, to know that God is beyond all comprehension, to orient all one’s own personal ambitions and values around that idea of being utterly transparent in the presence of God, who wants to be in that relationship despite the fact that literally nothing one could do could possibly “earn” one a spot in Heaven.     The Prosperity Gospel is not “gospel” at all, in any meaningful sense.  It is not “gospel” in the sense of being a message about Jesus, who said that if you follow his way you’ll end up like him, serving God and loving unconditionally, with no place to lay your head, carrying your cross.  It is not “good news,” but just the old “works righteousness,” the old magical thinking, the old drudgery, where you do everything to try to follow the rules laid down by your taskmaster the preacher in the name of the boss in Heaven and, if you’re good, you’ll get a raise and maybe even a Christmas bonus.  And in the sense that we use “gospel” to mean “truth,” it is most assuredly not gospel.  It is just a way to make the rich comfortable since they can measure their virtue the way we measure our value to the company by our paycheck; and it is a way to humiliate the poor in the same way, while pacifying them that if they just obey their human taskmasters who claim to speak in God’s name, they too can earn a promotion.  It is idolatry, pure and simple. 

            The truth be told, however, idolatry is not confined to the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”  It is central to the entire so-called “Religious Right.”[2]  Jerry Falwell Sr. described the USA as the last bastion for Christian mission and for worldwide evangelism.[3]  Without the United States, God would have no earthly basis for spreading the Gospel or for any of the other missions to feed the poor, bring medicine and other good works done by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Thus it is the duty of every Christian to support the U.S. military and American efforts to fight Communism everywhere.  While God may be able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones here (Matthew 3:9) apparently God needs the U.S. Army, Navy and all the rest to guard and spread His kingdom.  And in exchange for doing the good work of God, God will give the U.S. security and prosperity.  What hubris!  No longer are Christians to regard themselves as mere unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10); instead we can expect a payoff in this life.  If the U.S. government fights legalize marijuana, fights pornography, upholds traditional heterosexual marriage and enforces other purity and behavioral laws, it can expect God’s blessing.  However, doing that stuff Jesus talked so much about—-feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and so on (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Amos chapters 1-8, Micah 3, Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 5:8, Ezekiel 18:5-9, Luke 16:19-31, and the Epistle of James)—that would be too expensive, that would be “socialism” and take away from spending on the all-important military, and would reduce the poor person’s dependence upon the churches and thus might reduce their control.  What hubris!  What arrogance!  The Jesus who tells his followers to put away their swords, and assures them that he could call upon twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53), but who tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) needs the USA to carry out his purposes; and the God who could do all this needs the nation so much that He is willing to bargain with its leaders that if they’ll enforce this strict moral code (much of which is nowhere in the Bible) while leaving the private sector to decide whether or how to care for the poor (though the prophets said rulers would be judged by how the poor were treated) then God will provide worldly success and prosperity to the nation.  This is little more than the Prosperity Gospel for nations instead of for individuals; and it is just as idolatrous. 

            We don’t have to take my word, or Niebuhr’s word for the claim that nationalism is a form of idolatry, a betrayal of true and faithful religion.  The prophet Jeremiah dealt with much the same thing, in the final days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer. 7).  His book, which seems to have been dictated by him directly to his scribe Baruch, describes the sins of the rich and powerful as they plotted and blundered their way to destruction by the Babylonian army.  There was plenty of straight-up idolatry, the sort that literalists denounce, with people praying to the Baals even at shrines set up in the temple of YHWH.  But along with this, Jeremiah condemns as equally bad the social sins, such as oppressing the resident immigrant and the poor, stealing, perjury, and adultery.  But the people who did these things felt safe and had no desire to repent, because the temple of YHWH was there in the city and God needed that temple, the last one left after the ravages of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.  Speaking to the faithful church-goers, the people entering the Temple to worship the true God, Jeremiah says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words:  ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’” (Jer. 7:4).  Only if you repent of your sins, Jeremiah tells them, can you or the nation be saved.  But they did not repent, either of their crimes against the poor or of their combining of worship of YHWH with foreign deities.  And in the end, God allowed the city called by God’s name, the throne of David, and the Temple built by Solomon to honor the one true God to be destroyed—undoubtedly to the astonishment of those firm believers in Israelite exceptionalism, convinced as they were that God needed them and their nation and that thus they could bargain with God.  They were sure that if they agreed to offer sacrifices in the Temple then the LORD would simply look the other way while they robbed and oppressed the poor.  And as the prophet Amos made clear, it is not just the one who breaks the law to rob the poor who will be punished; even the powerful ones who creates unjust laws and profit from them are damned (Amos 2:8). 

            The one who denies food to the poor, or beats up a gay person, or imprisons an immigrant, or despises a different race, or burns down a mosque so that God will see and be pleased and reward them is exactly the same spirit as the one who cuts out a child’s heart as a gift to some god or demon so the sun will come up and the crops be plentiful.  It is human sacrifice, nothing more:  I will sacrifice this other person’s liberty, dignity, even their life so that some powerful spirit being will grant me power and success.  Falwell’s claim that feeding the hungry is a sin if done by a governmental agency but a virtue when done by individuals or churches is, at best, nonsense:  what else is the government for, except to carry out large-scale projects that many people need but that no one individual can achieve alone?  More likely it is not so much confusion and nonsense as it is that old-fashioned sinful evasion of God’s will, pronouncing human precepts as the divine will (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6-8, among others).  It is wrong, Falwell says, to allow a government to do God’s work of justice and care; it is holy to stop the government and leave it to your own will—if you decide to get around to it.  This is idolatry in its purest meaning:  self-worship.  The true worship of the true God is much harder and more troubling:  to care for those God cares for, the poor, the immigrant, the one without family to help (Psalm 146:9, James 1:27 etc.); and to do it knowing that no matter how much you give, it does not earn you anything extra (Matthew 20:1-16) since everything you have was a gift from the start. 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 201

[2] For a more detailed yet accessible discussion of this, see James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/ (The College of William and Mary, 1982), pp. 78-115

[3] Comey, p. 60

GOP Politics Are Killing Wisconsin Democracy, and Wisconsinites—and they’re coming for you!

October 12, 2020

GOP Politics Are Killing Wisconsin Democracy, and Wisconsinites—and they’re coming for you!

“Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort.”

—–Amartya Sen

            U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described the states as “laboratories of democracy.”  In our federal system of government, the states have considerable autonomy from the national government, and can implement many policies as chosen by their own voters and governments .  If something works at the state level, the nation may well implement it later; if it fails, the state can reverse course more quickly while the nation avoids the misstep in the first place.  In this analogy, Wisconsin’s health system is the frog in Ang Lee’s Hulk

            For decades, the Republican Party of the United States of America has expressed deep misgivings about democracy, and has sought to both legally restrict the ability of citizens to vote and to more informally discourage the majority of people from even trying.  The more informal, or even illegal methods they have adopted have included intimidation by “poll watchers” to threaten and harass legal voters, stealing absentee ballots in North Carolina, repeatedly purging voter rolls of thousands of legal citizen voters who live in primarily Democratic areas, and so on.  In Wisconsin, the GOP is carrying out its grandest experiment yet.  In 2010 they gerrymandered the state so thoroughly that even though 53% of Wisconsinites voted for the Democratic Party, 64% of the seats in the state legislature went to Republicans.  Democracy, rule of the people and by the people and for the people, is dead in Wisconsin, at least on the state level.  Instead, they have minority rule.  Republican politicians even admit that they are not representing the majority and see no need to do so; they only want to enact the desires of the “conservative voters” who sent them.  The disproportionately white, rural, and less educated minority will dictate to the more diverse, more urbanized and more educated majority, with little knowledge of or interest in the needs of the majority of the citizens. 

            Wisconsin has thus become the laboratory for the grandest experiment in democracy possible:  what happens when you abolish democracy?  What happens when you take the national priorities and policies of the Republican party, to reduce voter participation and weaken democracy itself in order to defeat the Democrats, and carry them out more ruthlessly than has been possible previously?  There are many states where the Republican party gerrymandered themselves an overwhelming majority in the legislature when the electorate was in fact only marginally Republican in the 2010 reapportionment period, but Wisconsin locked in not just a dilution of the will of the people, but its utter subversion.  We get to see what would happen across the nation if other states, and the nation as a whole, follow Wisconsin’s example and allow Republicans to replace functional democracy with the sort of “managed democracy” employed by Putin and other 21st century autocrats.  And the result of that experiment has been a disaster, not just for Wisconsin but the nation as a whole.

            Wisconsin has had the worst response to the COVID-19 pandemic of any state in the nation.  To be more accurate, they have had no state-wide response at all.  The only actions by the Wisconsin state legislature and Republican-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court have been to block any attempt by the Democratic governor to implement common-sense policies such as those enacted by neighboring states.  The state legislature seized control of the state’s pandemic response, and then basically shut down.  As a result, Wisconsin’s coronavirus numbers are climbing higher and faster than anywhere else.  Wisconsinites are sickened, some injured for life, and others dying because the Wisconsin Republican Party cares more about scoring political points over the governor than they do about actually governing the state.  They grabbed the wheel, popped open a beer to celebrate, and promptly passed out and let the car careen over a cliff.

            None of this should have surprised anyone.  It was all explained by the Nobel-prize winning work of Amartya Sen decades ago.  At a time when many economists were looking towards centrally-controlled markets like China and the USSR as the way of the future, Dr. Sen’s research showed how political structure, more than GDP alone, could foster the well-being of citizens.  His study of the Bengal famine of 1943 showed that the problem was not food production.  There was enough food, but the poor couldn’t afford it.  The colonial government could have helped them, but chose not to; they were appointed by the British Empire and were answerable to the Crown, not the Indian people.  Even when cultures and GDP were similar, as in Costa Rica and Brazil in the 1970s, life expectancies could vary by ten years or more; in Costa Rica the government was answerable to the people, while Brazil at that time was ruled by a military junta.  In a functional democracy, the government must keep the people’s support, and must listen to them quickly when their bellies grumble.  Colonial powers, military strongmen or other oppressors are generally deaf to the cries of the suffering; they have other priorities.  So while other economists were looking at the Chinese Communist regime with the hope that the country’s rising GDP would lead to greater freedom and a more humane government, Sen argued (and had the statistics to back up his claim) that this was backwards; democracy in fact drives economic development, and has other benefits for the citizens even beyond material prosperity, which leads to health, the elimination of widespread hunger, and so on. 

            When the Republican Party in Wisconsin turned its back on democracy, it likewise turned away from sound government that responds to the needs of the citizens.  Instead, it became a mechanism for the rural minority to rule over the majority.  Since epidemics hit urban areas first and filter into rural, less populated areas more slowly, the Republican base didn’t see any need to address the coronavirus pandemic.  The suffering it caused was far from their farms, and the people who were infected were strangers to them even though they were fellow Wisconsinites.  As the GOP politicians themselves said, they weren’t there to represent or worry about all Wisconsinites or even about the majority of them; they were only elected to serve the interests and desires of their conservative base.  This meant out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers, and the social conservatives who see the more liberal, educated and diverse populations of the cities as cultural enemies and intellectual contagion.   Better to keep their moral and mental purity, and let the virus finish off their opponents for them.  Just as drug use was only treated as a public health problem when opioids ravaged the white rural and non-college educated base of the GOP, so too COVID-19 was treated as a problem of the corrupt Democrat cities, and the Wisconsin state legislature is perfectly pleased to let the virus ravage people who didn’t vote for them in the first place.  It’s callous, short-sighted, even stupid, but it’s also perfectly natural, a pattern repeated across the globe and throughout history.  The more democratic a government, the stronger its commitment to free and fair elections, widening access to the ballot box, to rule of law and fighting corruption, to free markets not dominated by either excess regulation or to monopolies and cronyism, and to a free press keeping the people informed, the better its response to crises affecting the people. 

            The GOP Wisconsin experiment in extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression and pandering to billionaire donors and populist ressentiment has led to the result which even a passing understanding of political and economic philosophy predicted:  a government with no interest in actually governing, no motivation to take notice of the needs of the people it governs, with disastrous impact on the health and life expectancy of the people.  In the name of economic prosperity, the GOP rejected one of the primary drivers for true prosperity, namely democracy, and now the Wisconsin economy is hamstrung by the sickening of its consumers and work force.  What is worse, the public health infrastructure is nearing collapse, with the state already preparing to open a massive field hospital to handle the ever-increasing load of coronavirus patients. 

            Wisconsin’s Republicans have shown the nation the inevitable conclusion of Republican policies for the nation, if they are allowed to continue pursuing the strategy they mapped out in 1980 of relying on voter suppression instead of voter recruitment.  Just as Gov. Brownback in Kansas showed the utter idiocy of Republican economic theories by nearly bankrupting his state, the Wisconsin GOP has shown the moral and functional bankruptcy of GOP politics.  Republicans were not always “the Stupid Party,” as Bobby Jindal named them.  The Republicans I went to college with in the 1970s were, by and large, intelligent, thoughtful, patriotic and committed to the freedom of the individual expressed through voting.  That party is largely dead, and is not coming back anytime soon.  If and when Donald Trump, his family, his cronies, and his enablers have all been removed from power, and true, responsible conservatives return to lead a pragmatic conservative party, then it will be safe to vote Republican again.  Today, and next year, and likely for some years to come, the only way to protect the economy, the public health, and the security of this nation is to vote against every Republican candidate from the Presidential candidate down to county clerk, until they get the message that even conservative voters want responsive, responsible government committed to democracy and the public good.

SOURCES

Editorial.  “Cries of Voter Fraud Should be Aimed at Those Committing It:  Republicans.  Las Vegas Sun, July 16, 2020.  https://lasvegassun.com/news/2020/jul/16/cries-of-voter-fraud-should-be-aimed-at-those-comm/

Blue, Miranda.  “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote.”  Right Wing Watch:  a project of People for the American Way September 24, 2015.  https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/

Lambert, Jonathan.  “Good News about Democracy:  It’s Good for your Health.”  NPR July 4, 2019.  https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/07/04/738477296/good-news-about-democracy-its-good-for-your-health?utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=npr

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

Romano, Andrew.  “Wisconsin is Battling America’s Worst Coronavirus Outbreak, and Wisconsin’s Broken Politics are Partly to Blame.”  Yahoo! News October 10, 2020 https://www.yahoo.com/news/wisconsin-is-battling-americas-worst-coronavirus-outbreak-and-the-states-broken-politics-is-partially-to-blame-143650745.html

Paul, Shantosh.  “Eclipsing Dissent and Democracy.”  The Economic Times, April 4, 2020.  https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/eclipsing-dissent-and-democracy/

What the Right Gets Wrong: about the Antichrist

September 17, 2020

What the Right Gets Wrong: about the Antichrist

 

Historians say that America is an apocalyptic land. The Puritan settlers saw their struggle to tame the wilderness as an apocalyptic struggle, and later saw the hand of Satan at work against them not only among the natives and the wild beasts of the forests but also among their own neighbors. During the American Revolution pamphlets proclaimed King George III as the Antichrist. The Shakers believed that the Messiah had in fact returned, as a woman, their founder Ann Lee Stanley. Jumping ahead a few decades, in the early 1840s William Miller claimed to have deduced the exact date of the Rapture, through numerical calculations based particularly on the prophecies of Daniel. Around a half million people were sitting on hills in 1843 waiting to see Christ return—-this at a time when the entire population of the United States was only a few million, so it was close to 1% of the population by my count. Their conviction was so strong that, when Christ did not return, some went mad. Most returned home, to their unplowed fields and derisive neighbors. The event is known to history as The Great Disappointment.

But while thinking about the Rapture and the Antichrist has been an important part of American religion and even politics at times for even longer than we’ve been a nation, it was only in the 20th Century that this thinking became really systematized and mass marketed. In the 1920s a series of religious tracts, called The Fundamentals, was published and distributed freely to promote a socially conservative, biblically literal, and morally strict interpretation of Protestant Christianity in opposition to the godless and hedonistic culture of the Roaring Twenties, with its speakeasies, its flappers, and the devilishly seductive sounds of the saxophone. This was the beginning of what we today call “Fundamentalism.” And perhaps because the apocalyptic portions of the Bible are so clearly not “literally true” in any literal meaning of the word “literally,” Fundamentalists have been drawn to, even fixated on precisely those passages. A truly literal reading of the Revelation of John would look like a Godzilla movie: “I saw a giant beast with seven heads and ten horns standing by the sea,” and so on. The problem is that Daniel, Revelation and other apocalyptic writings, Jewish and Christian, Scriptural and extracanonical, were written using symbols, even code, which the faith community could recognize and understand but to outsiders would seem to be gibberish. An obvious example is where Jesus is described as a white-haired man with a sword coming out of his mouth; the unhistorical depiction of him as old symbolized his timeless authority while the sword symbolized the power of his words. Furthermore, apocalyptic writing is not linear; it is often depicted as a vision or dream, and like a dream it tends to skip around. There are two different descriptions of the end of the universe in John’s revelation alone. But the Fundamentalist Protestants were determined to find a single, literal interpretation for all these different prophecies, written by different authors centuries apart, as a response to the materialist scientific narrative they feared was taking over the culture. Ironically, in their desire to refute the scientific world view which they saw epitomized in Darwinism, they wound up accepting much of the scientific standard of “truth.” Prior to this time, most religious thinkers even in the Epistles had seen Scripture as both historically and symbolically true; and the symbolic was often viewed as more important. St. Augustine didn’t doubt the reality of either the history presented in the Bible nor its future predictions; but he believed the bare historical facts were far less important than the allegorical and symbolic elements, the spiritual realities revealed in these historical claims. For modern Fundamentalism, the strategy of confronting science with Scriptural “superscience” meant that the emphasis fell on the literal, historical claims, while the spiritual import was overshadowed. Augustine didn’t doubt that there would be a Rapture, but thought it far more important that you consider that you would meet God, whether in a thousand years or next Tuesday or both; so he didn’t seek to decipher the timeline. Fundamentalists have drawn out elaborate charts and maps of the coming end times, trying to identify some historical event or person as prefigured, making predicting the Rapture like an apocalyptic meteorological forecast: a prediction of coming facts whose value lies entirely in giving an accurate account of coming conditions so one can plan one’s activities for tomorrow. The result is that the more they focus on the “literal” truth and the coming factual events (which constantly change as one Rapture after another blows by) the less they focus on the things Jesus and the prophets said actually matter to God: to act justice, love mercy, walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8) and to give food to the hungry, to visit those in prison, and to welcome the alien (Matthew 25:31-46).

“Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)

 

The first error of the Fundamentalists was to think of “the” Antichrist. John writes that there are many antichrists; when we see someone acting and speaking in a way the opposite of the Gospel, we know that person acts from the spirit of Antichrist. As another Scripture says, “by their fruits you shall know them.” When someone praises violence and revenge, that is the spirit of Antichrist.(1) When someone says that anyone foolish enough to go overseas to help fight Ebola deserves to suffer and should receive no help, that person speaks from the spirit of Antichrist.(2) The typical Fundamentalist approach to finding “the Antichrist” is to look for “signs:” events or facts supposed to be associated with the Antichrist as described in apocalyptic Scriptures. He’s supposed to be a great leader, so they look for a politician, particularly one whose political pronouncements differ from theirs (since obviously the Antichrist will be a self-proclaimed “liberal” and not a professed “conservative” trying to deceive anyone). He’s supposed to be a world leader, so they look at the United Nations as the “world empire” and its Secretary General as its “emperor,” regardless of the fact that the United Nations lacks both the power and the cohesion for such a task. Rather than entertain the “liberal” suggestion that Daniel was writing about Antiochus, and John of Patmos writing about Nero, and that their words speak to us today by describing general traits of evil and the promises of God to overcome it, they insist that the “literal” Antichrist must be a single present or future “ruler”—-no matter how strenuously they must interpret and allegorize the Scriptures to find this “literal” truth!

Fundamentalists with their “Thief in the Night,” “Left Behind” and The Late, Great Planet Earth have turned the Antichrist into a mythological monster or boogeyman fully as much as Hollywood did with “The Omen.” In doing so, they turned themselves from participants in God’s work into the audience. They expect to be watching safe from Heaven while the “bad people” who mocked them suffer torments galore. And what is the dividing line? What is the distinguishing characteristic of the good versus the bad, the saved versus the damned? It is not, primarily, whether they loved their neighbor as themselves. In “Thief in the Night” the main character is a churchgoing Christian who never does anything harmful to others, but she isn’t a Fundamentalist. She doesn’t expect a literal return of Jesus. In “Left Behind” one of those “left behind” is a young pastor whose entire congregation and senior pastor have vanished, leaving him because he didn’t believe hard enough. The problem is that the apocalyptic scriptures clearly describe the suffering of the faithful, but the Fundamentalist theology states that the faithful will be raptured away, safely and painlessly escaping the torments so gleefully and intricately described. To reconcile these claims, the Fundamentalists posit a third group, the good-but-not-good-enough, who will suffer because they refused to fully embrace Fundamentalist theology but who were basically good Christians and thus will get another chance, after they’ve been tortured and persecuted for their faulty theology.

The Antichrist is an expression for the power of evil and rebellion against God. It is literally “anti-Christ,” the opposite of Christ. The Fundamentalist theology too often turns the Antichrist into a thing, an external threat only. To oppose the Antichrist it is said to be necessary to believe in the literal reality of the Antichrist, but not necessary to act like Jesus or to follow His teachings. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money,” (Matthew 6:24) but in the Left Behind Theology you can be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, so long as you have an intellectual conviction that the Antichrist will come and then Jesus will return. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” (Luke 6:20), but in the “Left Behind” Theology your poverty counts for less than nothing. A liberal or liberation theologian who believes that Jesus loves the poor and calls us to love the poor, that sort of Christian the Left Behind Fundamentalist will declare is either damned to Hell with the Antichrist or, at best, doomed to endure the Tribulation before finally being allowed to join the “right” Christians who escaped all the trials by simply having a belief. A Prosperity Gospel preacher who says the poor are cursed, that they lack faith in God and therefore God is denying them material wealth while the rich are the most blessed and Godly people, that one the Left Behind Fundamentalist believe will accept as a fellow Christian and, if he or she merely says “I believe the Rapture is coming” that one will be raptured away and escape all the trials and tribulations that John and Daniel said the faithful would face. By turning the Antichrist from a spiritual danger and into a monster, the Fundamentalists have bled all the life out of the Gospel. They have made the Gospel safe for middle-class and rich people who want to be saved like Christians without either living like Christians or even admitting, humbly and repentantly, that they have failed to live as Christians and must rely on God’s gracious promise to count them as Christians anyway.(3)

To further protect themselves from having to actually live like Christians, the Fundamentalists who embrace this theology fundamentally altered the Biblical teachings of the Rapture. Eschatological scriptures, whether Daniel, The Revelation of John, the War Scroll of the Essenes or some other canonical or extracanonical writing, are written to people who are suffering persecution. The faithful are suffering. Thus, when the writer describes the future, the faithful will suffer. The one blessing is that the suffering will end, with the victory of good over evil. “And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:22) The only mercy for anyone, faithful or faithless, is that the misery will end; but until that time we will all suffer together.

But in the Left Behind myth, only those who are “left behind” will suffer. The “good” people, the ones who affirm the literal truth of their teacher’s interpretation of the most obscure and controversial scriptures, will be raptured away, like passengers bailing out of a crashing plane and now floating gently to safety, watching with glee while those mean, wicked people perish in the fireball. Jesus may have said that the faithful are saved by showing love, particularly for the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), but for the Fundamentalists salvation is largely an intellectual matter: you accept certain facts and you are “saved,” while if you don’t then you are doomed no matter how much love, generosity and humility you have shown in your life. And conversely, one who accepts these salvation facts as presented can be a pretty prosperous and morally mediocre person, at best living up to the standards of middle-class respectability and perhaps not even that, perhaps even a very rich and powerful ruler just like the ones who persecute the faithful but avowing the right facts or at least giving lip service to them. You might even be a billionaire who has been accused, convicted or even confessed to a wide range of frauds, crimes, threats, sexual assaults, a braggart and a cheat, and be hailed by the “Left Behind” believers as “Chosen One” and “King of Israel” and other messianic titles. After all, the actual Christ, the humble, forgiving, weak, loving Jesus is hard to imitate, and it takes real faith to trust that figure to protect and save you; but the new messiah of the new gospel, the Prosperity and militaristic and lip-service gospel, who has all the worldly strength and worldly success, is easy to trust and easy to imitate, and many are those who find him (Matthew 7:13-14). So we find that richest, largest churches line up to proclaim Donald Trump as their messiah, literally, and see no contradiction between their Christian commitments and the lord they choose to shepherd those dreams——a lord who seems incapable of remembering even the simplest Biblical scripture, but instinctively quotes the Book of Satan.(4)

By changing “antichrist” from an adjective to a proper noun, from a spiritual to a political enemy, Evangelicals have inoculated themselves from the danger of ever having to take the threat of evil seriously. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28), but so-called “Evangelicals,” literally “Good-News People,” created a theology where a worldly, objective, particular political leader would be the greatest danger they had to face; and a worldly political leader can only kill the body. So a supposed future murderer and tormentor of the body became the greatest possible danger, and thus the greatest possible good became a strong man, a leader who would have the worldly power to beat that bad guy at his own game; and it was all fine if the protector and savior demanded that Christians sacrifice their ideals, their commitment to love their neighbors, the poor and the oppressed, and instead embrace lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride by embracing a savior who for years openly boasted of his indulgences in all of them.(5) But the person who would actually seek God, whether you call yourself “Christian” or “Muslim” or nothing at all, will be the one who gives up looking for and fearing future boogymen, and worries more about those who already threaten to destroy the soul.

1 Donald Trump: “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!” Twitter 7:56 AM · Nov 11, 2012; compare “Hate your enemies with a whole heart, and if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!” Book of Satan, III

2 Donald Trump: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences! Twitter 8:22 PM · Aug 1, 2014; compare Matthew 25:36.
3 See Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity
4 “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat;” Donald Trump, People, Nov. 16, 1981 (https://people.com/archive/in-the-manhattan-real-estate-game-billionaire-donald-trump-holds-the-winning-cards-vol-16-no-20/ compare “Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all!” The Nine Satanic Statements, https://www.churchofsatan.com/nine-satanic-statements/ . Also compare Donald J. Trump Twitter @realDonaldTrump
When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!
7:56 AM · Nov 11, 2012

Hate your enemies with a whole heart, and if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!
—-Book of Satan, III, 7.
5 “The seven deadly sins of the Christian Church are: greed, pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth. Satanism advocates indulging in each of these “sins” as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification.” – Anton LaVey, The Satanic Bible

Thoughts on September 11, 2020

September 12, 2020

September 11, 2020

 

 

I’ve tried to comment or reflect on the state of the world every year at this time as my personal 9/11 remembrance. This year I’ve been struck by a campaign ad Sen. Mitch McConnell is running against his challenger, Amy McGrath. The ad begins with an audio recording of her comparing the feeling she had when Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 election with the feeling she had after the 9/11/2001 terror attacks. The ad goes on to mock and attack her for this feeling, saying it shows she’s “wrong for Kentucky.”

As I wrote to Mr. McConnell, I agree the statements by McGrath are unfair. It really is unfair to compare Osama bin Laden to Donald Trump. Bin Laden killed around 3,000 Americans through his terror attacks and triggered an economic downturn. Donald Trump lied repeatedly, and continues to lie to the American people about the COVID-19 pandemic, because he has money in the stock market and doesn’t want to say or do anything that might cause stock prices to decline. Through his active sabotage of our nation’s efforts to defend itself against the threat of the coronavirus, he has killed more Americans than Osama even dreamt of. People who know about infectious diseases say that if we had responded reasonably, such as following the playbook President Obama left for a national pandemic response, we could have avoided up to 80% of the deaths we have suffered.[1] Even taking the more conservative 70% other models have suggested, that means roughly 135,000 American dead due to Donald Trump and his Republican party’s choice to hide the truth from the American people, to encourage suicidal behavior and to rely on fantasies and wishes rather than science, and to call on the moral, spiritual and intellectual dregs of “Christian leaders” to wrap this self-serving sacrifice of the lives of Americans and welfare of the nation in the swaddling cloths of Prosperity Gospel and Christian White Nationalism, and lay it in the manger as the new savior. If “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands,” then it is also true to say, “Osama has slain his thousands, and Donald his hundreds of thousands.” And of course, it isn’t even Autumn yet; wait until we really get into the holiday travel-and-party season with millions of Americans still firmly convinced that COVID-19 is just a Democratic hoax.

Osama also never undermined Americans’ trust in their electoral system. He didn’t tear the states apart, as he wished; in fact, he brought them together and forged the strongest sense of national unity we’d seen in a generation or two. Donald, on the other hand, invites foreigners to hack our elections, attacks the legitimacy of the election without evidence before it has even taken place, deliberately pitted states against each other to compete for medical supplies to fight COVID-19, encourages armed terrorists to murder Americans in the name of white supremacy, defends Confederate rebels and promotes conservative pundits who call for a “second Civil War,” calls peaceful protesters who take a knee at a sporting event sons-of-bitches and traitors, and promotes literally insane conspiracy theories about a worldwide conspiracy of Satanic-cannibal-pedophiles with (according to some) colonies in space. Osama would have been overjoyed if he had caused even half as much chaos and strife as Donald has.

McGrath is also unfair to compare Osama to Donald because Osama never faked bone spurs.

Osama also hoped to bankrupt the United States. This is something he could never accomplish on his own; he needed the incompetent acquiescence or the connivance of American politicians. He found both in the Republican party. First, GW Bush took over a country with a balanced budget on its way to paying off its national debt, and immediately threw it into deficit spending that didn’t stimulate the economy or improve national infrastructure but did help billionaires get richer. By the time he left office, his reckless deregulation of the financial institutions and feckless management of the economy had led us to the Great Recession. After eight years, President Obama had, despite Republican efforts to sabotage the national recovery, managed to put the country back on the path to fiscal solvency. Trump and the GOP wrecked that in one year, running up the greatest deficits the nation had ever seen with no other purpose than to enrich the rich while depleting Social Security, Medicare and other programs the poor and the middle class rely on. Now we are in an economic mess that makes the Great Recession look pleasant by comparison, because Donald refuses to protect the health of the people, the health of the nation’s infrastructure, or any other element of a sound economy. He does a passable job with the Stock Market where he and his golfing buddies like to make money, but that’s the full extent of his economic attention. Again, while Osama only promised, Donald delivered.

Those who were filled with dread in November 2016 have seen their worst nightmares come true—-or to be fair, maybe their second-worst nightmares, since (so far) Dolt45 hasn’t gotten us into a nuclear war so only the West Coast is burning and not every American city. And Mitch McConnell says I should vote for him because he stopped the impeachment, which would have removed an incompetent, treasonous and mentally unstable president* and replaced him with his hand-picked successor, Vice President Pence, who at least has experience botching an epidemic and thus might have had a clue what not to do. Somehow, if this election is to be decided over whether McGrath overreacted to Trump’s election or McConnell failed to react to Trump’s actions once elected, I don’t see how any reasonable person could hesitate to vote straight Democrat in every election from President to County Clerk, until the current Republican Party is disbanded and replaced by a competent center-right party.[2]

Mitch McConnell made sure that when a major crisis hit this nation, we would be led by the most incompetent, stupid, short-sighted and selfish person imaginable. The only response this blithering idiot has to the pandemic is to try to distract us by fanning the flames of race hatred and oppression, because he’s not only stupid and neurotic, he’s also racist. McGrath apparently had the foresight to realize in 2016 that putting a self-absorbed racist idiot at the helm of the ship of state would inevitably lead to us finding an iceberg to hit. Clearly, she is the wiser of the two candidates. Thank you, Mr. McConnell, for running a campaign ad that so clearly lays out the choice in this election, and why you are so terribly unfit for office.

[1] Isaac Sebenius and James K. Sebenius, “How Many Needless COVID-19 Deaths were Caused by Delays in Responding? Most of Them;” STAT June 19, 2020 (https://www.statnews.com/2020/06/19/faster-response-prevented-most-us-covid-19-deaths/)

[2] 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/)