Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

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

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/)

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 3)

August 19, 2020

III. Conclusions

 

The derivative nature of aggressive humor: Bergson’s theory is that laughter is intended as a social sanction. We mock the person who has fallen into habit and “mechanical” behavior, particularly when that has reached the point of impairing the person’s functioning as a living and social being. Self-deprecating humor is derivative of this; for example, I might tell a joke about my absentmindedness as a way of chiding absentmindedness itself, and thus all others who fall into my habitual failing.

Toddlers show us humor that is neither self-deprecating nor aggressive; it is simply without a strong sense of self-consciousness at all. There seems to be an innate desire to provoke laughter in others, and the young child will do whatever gets a laugh. It is only later, when we develop a sense of shame and thus an immediate tendency to try to hide our flaws, that we can consciously choose to violate normal standards by intentionally calling attention to our faults in deliberately “self”-deprecating humor. Humor is one of the ways we bond with one another. We share a laugh the same way we share a hug, or a compliment, or a snack, or our ancestors shared a session of grooming: social actions giving pleasure to another and thus strengthening social bonds. Aggressive humor, using humor not just to strengthen some bonds but to break others and to exclude some person from our fun, is what is derivative.

Because of course, as Bergson shows, some humor does chide or punish the socially deviant or harmful person, either to pressure that one back into society or to utterly exile. But the fact that something can be used aggressively does not mean that is its primary use, or even a worthy use. Children laugh together, but at some point they learn to laugh at another, most usually without regard to whether that causes pain. And as we mature and begin struggling for dominance among ourselves, humor becomes another weapon, first to tease and bully an individual and then to bully a group, or even a race. The ability to communicate gives us the ability to lie; likewise the ability to laugh gives us the ability to mock.

Sex, Death and More: “Oh Death, where is thy sting?” asks the prophet and the apostle; and while it may be faith that promises full victory, it is laughter that provides the first defense for many.[1] We often laugh at things that are the most important to us, because they are so frightening and/or tempting. The internet search to find the funniest joke in the world found a death joke; and here it is:

 

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guys says “OK, now what?”[2]

 

One of the oldest jokes I know, from the Vikings, is also a death joke, or more accurately a joke told at a death. Several men planned to kill a famous warrior and sent one of their group to scout ahead and see if their quarry was home. When the scout came back they asked, “Well, is Bjorn home?” He replied, “I don’t know if Bjorn is home, but his ax certainly is,” and fell over dead. I’ve read that a lot of Viking humor was like that: dark and violent. Death was a constant threat, and they dealt with it not only with the promise of Valhalla but also by making light of it. If you can laugh, it isn’t as terrifying.

Maybe that’s why there are so many jokes about sex. Sex is a prime motivator for much human activity, to say the least. Our nation spent the last several decades spilling more sweat and treasure to research impotence cures than preparing for the next pandemic. The TV show “Ally McBeal” used to refer to the penis as “the dumbstick.” This reflects several things about sex, most obviously that it’s funny. Much of the show’s humor revolved around the ridiculous situations characters got into because of sex, or the ridiculous sex they got into because they were such characters. Second, men and women seem to both agree that men are particularly controlled by the dumbstick. And for men, this seems to be psychologically problematic; they want sex and they are fascinated by it, but also somewhat afraid of the lengths they will go to and the risks they will take for it and in particular afraid that they are being manipulated by the women around them. The sex drive is powerful, and that power makes it frightening. Sex itself is also powerful. If God is that which creates ex nihilo, then sex is the closest thing we humans have to divine power: the ability to literally create life, so that two become three or more. The genders generally find each other mysterious and at times bizarre, but also indispensable and attractive; and this in itself generates tension. And often we relieve this tension with humor, sometimes good-natured and sometimes seemingly barbed.

There are also a lot of jokes about poop, something that is quite the opposite: repulsive rather than attractive, something we seek to be rid of rather than pursue, and which is the very opposite of creation, the waste products of life. It is not “important” in the way either sex or death is, but no one who has seen the beans scene in “Blazing Saddles” can be ignorant of the comic potential there. I’m not a big fan of scatological humor myself but I find it fascinating that it even exists.

All three of these are generally somewhat “taboo” in adult “polite” conversation. In different ways, all are psychologically powerful. And often, when something is “unmentionable” but also unavoidable, we use humor to discuss it more obliquely, taking the sting out. Bergson might say that each of these brings something “mechanical” to a human life, something controlling rather than controllable by the individual, and it is that tension between the lively expression of the individual and the universalizing and irrational aspects of life that provokes laughter. My hypothesis is again to look at the child. We learn to speak before we learn what things are supposed to be unspeakable. Children blurt out whatever strikes them in the moment, often in ways that would be judged wildly inappropriate for an adult. Sometimes this is because of the child’s ignorance. One story goes like this: Sally wouldn’t stop eating acorns, so her parents told her that if she didn’t stop she’d become very fat. One day in the park Sally saw a pregnant woman and said, “I know what you’ve been doing!” The humor relies on the fact that the child does not know; what would be merely gross if spoken by an adult is funny when said by a child who does not understand. My grandson finds farts hilarious, particularly if they come from an adult. When he loudly said “Uh oh!” when someone broke wind, it was funny because he understood what had happened but not that we don’t usually talk about it; “polite” conversation just tries to ignore it. At some point, a child is going to unconsciously voice some double-entendre, or announce some fact with a directness unforgivable for a serious adult, and the adults around will laugh. The child may have no idea what is funny but will still want to be part of the fun, and will want to repeat it. We thus learn what topics those around us regard as funny, and also (a little or a lot later) learn which topics we are not generally supposed to just discuss directly when making “small talk” or “polite conversation.” Some of us learn to discuss this topics more indirectly with humor, simultaneously raising the tension by presenting these taboo topics and releasing it through laughter. Others may memorize jokes to share about these topics, so as to be able to share laughter with each other even if one lacks the creative wit to create humor oneself.

I suspect (though I know no way to test this) that comedians are allowed more leeway in society precisely because there is something childish in humor. Whether a professional comedian or “the life of the party,” some people are particularly good at raising serious or even taboo topics in a way that evokes laughter, and we react in a way analogous to the way we react to a child saying something otherwise inappropriate: “Well, the tyke didn’t really mean it, so it’s okay.” The child can’t really mean it, since the child lacks the discernment; the comedian likewise doesn’t mean it, because he or she is only a comedian and therefore not “serious.” But sometimes the comedian “crosses the line” and says something the audience finds so repulsive that no humor can excuse it.[3] Gilbert Gottfried notoriously derailed his career with a tweet comparing the Fukashima nuclear disaster to a Godzilla attack. At that point it didn’t really even matter if the joke was funny; it was “too soon,” too painful, and no amount of humor was able to deflect attention from the human suffering. But generally Gottfried is able to say what would otherwise be terrible things in a way that provokes laughter rather than outrage. The successful comedian may say something that is taboo, or insulting, or otherwise generally not what we’re supposed to say, but does it in a way that evokes laughter; and that laughter seems to cause us to take it as “only a joke” even if we simultaneously see real truth in what is said. It is similar to the way we can “laugh it off” if a child says something true but also unmentionable; we sort of treat the comedian as not really “serious” even when we say, “Still, you know, she’s got a point.”

Maybe we allow comic discussion of topics that we avoid seriously discussing because in some way we take the adult comedian as in some sense a child, and give the comedian a similar leeway to speak the unspeakable—so long as it is accompanied by laughter. Without laughter, we remember that we are listening to an adult and judge by adult standards.

Humor and humility: Bergson claims that art aims to capture the individual reality or liveliness of its object. Too often our “utilitarian” concerns cause us to see everything as a tool, raw material, or obstacle to fulfilling our own desires, instead of seeing things and people as realities independent of ourselves. Art aims to break the dominance of utilitarian thinking by presenting its object apart from all functionality. The goal of a still life is not to sell apples or to stimulate the appetite; it is simply to present the viewer with the beauty to be found in a simple bowl of apples, existing for its own sake. Bergson says that comedy, by contrast, does not depict individual unique realities but instead depicts stereotypes and generalities. A good drama can be named after a particular person, such as Othello or Hamlet, and the drama’s quality will largely depend on how well the playwright presents the particulars of the protagonist’s personality. We want the dramatic protagonist to be “believable,” to seem like a real person. A comedy by contrast can be named for a type or generality: “The Jealous One” in Bergson’s example, or perhaps “The Jerk” to cite a more recent example. The comedic protagonist does not have to be “realistic;” in fact, that can get in the way of the comedy, particularly if it leads us to have too much sympathy for the character. It is more than enough if the comedic character is sketched in broad strokes, so we can recognize the type and the “mechanism” that is being lampooned.

But this claim that comedy is rooted in social structures depends on Bergson’s prior claim that humans are the only animal that laughs, or is laughed at; and scientific evidence indicates that this claim is wrong. Other animals have humor, small children have humor, and the essence of humor is much more basic and fuzzy than Bergson suggests. Laughter is a reaction to something that gives joy, and often what gives joy by virtue of being funny. We say “it’s funny because it’s true,” meaning that something seems funny because it expresses or reveals a truth in a surprising and generally oblique way. No one laughs if you simply state that men and women often do things differently; but entire comic careers have been based on comically stating specific different reactions of men and women, or the comedian and his or her spouse. But we philosophers don’t need to visit the comedy clubs to see this saying illustrated; we have our great hero, Socrates, the world’s first stand-up philosopher, who went down in history for his use of irony to reveal the absurdities of the social assumptions of his day and the presumptions of its leaders. Chuang Tzu also used humor to raise epistemological or metaphysical points.

Just as humor can be self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing, friendly or aggressive, so too it can be revelatory, falsifying or neither. Racist humor is aggressive and relies on false stereotypes, intending to dehumanize its target. Python’s “Banker Sketch” is closer to Bergson’s ideal; it relies on stereotypes not merely to dehumanize the target but also to rehumanize. One can see that sketch and laugh at those rich snobs, or see oneself in the Banker and resolve not to be like that. The joke that makes us laugh at ourselves, or at one of our idols, can be supremely revelatory. If art is supposed to reveal truth by presenting its object outside our usual framework of desires and tools, then humor can do so by presenting to us ourselves. We immediately perceive the world in orbit around ourselves, with everything either a tool or an obstacle. We can step away from that solipsistic perspective when we are caught up in our appreciation of beauty or harmony, in art or music; but we can also do so through learning to laugh at ourselves, and thus learning humility.

Why do authoritarians hate humor? As The Doctor said, “the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t change their beliefs to fit the facts, they change the facts to fit their beliefs.”[4] Authoritarians want authority over everything, including—-especially—-true and false. They want to be able to control others, by forcing them to accept the despot’s version of reality or, failing that, to at least force them to act as if they do. And they don’t want to be challenged, and any independent truth-claim represents a challenge to their power.

Despots can use humor to reinforce falsehoods or to undermine truth, and often do. They use racist and ethnic humor to dehumanize The Other and give their followers an inflated sense of self-worth which derives entirely from being on the good side of the despot. This is not essentially different than the actions of the schoolyard bully who humiliates one kid to put fear into the others that if they don’t laugh at the victim, they could be next. It is more dangerous, and more wicked since an adult should have a moral sense, but the social mechanics are identical. But humor can turn against the despot too. Humor exposes our pretensions.   As Bergson points out, the gap between empty ceremony and human life is particularly funny. President Ford fell down once due to a knee he injured playing football, and Chevy Chase made an industry out of his “Gerald Ford impression” pratfalls. The physical humor itself was funny because Chase could do the seemingly unnatural without injury and then shout, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” but the idea that the President of the United States is a mere human being subject to gravity and fleshly weakness like the rest of us added another layer of comedy. That was part of the social function of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Roasts, which used be a major yearly event. The President of the United States, and other powerful leaders, would allow himself to be laughed at, and would even join in the laughter. The President would respond with humor at the end, but only when he had shown he could take a joke and make a joke at his own expense could he make one at another’s. An authoritarian cannot stand to be laughed at, because an authoritarian does not want to be merely human; he or she must seem like a mortal god. Someone made a comment about President Xi being round and chubby like Pooh Bear, and now pictures of Winnie the Pooh are illegal in China. The authoritarian doesn’t mind being hated, but cannot stand to be laughed at, because when we laugh at anything we cease to fear it,—at least for a moment,

Humor also, as we saw, is a mechanism for social bonding. Authoritarians want to be the only center of social groups. Just as romantic love becomes a rebellion unless it is yoked to the authoritarian in a State-sanctioned marriage, so too when a group begins to laugh together they become a potential center of power. There is nothing so infuriating to an oppressor as the sound of the oppressed laughing among themselves; it means they’ve found joy that the oppressor did not control. If they can feed their own spirits and find joy in life without the permission of the authoritarian, what other rebellion might they find possible? Authoritarians always attempt to control anything that feeds the spirit, that brings joy to the lives of the people, whether it be art, or religion, or knowledge, or sex, or humor.

Epilogue

There is no virtue more beneficial than a sense of humor, and no divine gift more blessed than laughter. When we are overtaken by the goodness of life, and our whole being overflows with joy, we laugh. When the terrors and griefs of life threaten to overwhelm us, we laugh at our fears and cut them down to size. When our own egos threaten to outrun our capacities, we laugh at ourselves and again learn humility. When self-important leaders seek to humiliate and subdue us, we laugh at them and remember that they are mortal, the same as us. Gratitude and contentment, courage and endurance, humility and confidence, are all boosted by a proper sense of humor. And, it makes you laugh! What other virtue can say all that?

[1] Hosea 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:55

[2] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/03/07/287250640/what-is-the-funniest-joke-in-the-world)

[3] Sometimes the joke simply falls flat and the audience doesn’t think the comedian is funny or even trying to be. One notorious example of this comes from the 2016 presidential campaign, during the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner .[3] Traditionally part of the event has long been a roast, presenting opposing candidates the chance to trade some good-natured barbs with one another. It is not surprising that sometimes this gets a little close to the bone, but Trump took his routine to such an extreme of negative directness that the audience of polite Manhattan society began to boo and even heckle him. He didn’t so much make a joke that Hillary was corrupt as simply say, “She’s so corrupt you should vote for me; and she hates Catholics too.” At one point Trump said to Clinton, “I don’t know if they’re booing you or me,” and someone in the audience shouted back, “You!” Years later commentators pointed to this as one example of Trump’s lack of a sense of humor. He may say things that some find funny, but he is said to fundamentally lack two elements of genuine comedy: the ability to take a joke about himself, and the ability to tell a joke about another in a way that even the target has to admit is funny.

[4] “The Face of Evil,” Doctor Who

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 7)

March 28, 2020

In addition to the past and the present, the attempt to remove a sitting political office holder may be motivated by the future—that is, by anticipation of what he or she will do. This may seem unjust; and were impeachment a legal proceeding it would be, since we would be punishing someone for something he or she has not in fact done. But removing a leader is not a legal act, but rather a political one. That is not to say justice and morality are irrelevant, but only to say they are different.

From the time he was elected, before he had taken office, Obama faced calls for his removal based on acts he was expected to take. He would impose Sharia law. He would confiscate all firearms, in violation of the Second Amendment. He would arrest all observant Christians. He would imprison his political enemies. He would abolish capitalism and impose a communist system. He would impose black supremacy and strip white people of their rights as citizens. He would throw open the borders and allow immigrants from Mexico and other southern countries to pour in unimpeded and uncounted, to collect Social Security and to vote in our elections. And in fact, these fears motivated some people to extreme actions. A white woman carved a B into her own face, claiming to police that she’d been attacked by black men saying that now Barack was president and they could do whatever they wanted; she was caught because she’d used a mirror and therefore carved the B in her face backwards.[1] The Republican governor of Texas called for the Texas State Guard to watch the U.S. Army’s “Jade Helm 15” exercises because of widespread fears that Obama was going to declare martial law and imprison his enemies in abandoned Walmarts.[2] These fears about Obama’s plans, and the rhetoric and action they provoked, led liberals to give the whole phenomenon its own name: Obama Derangement Syndrome.[3] The thinking here was that large numbers of otherwise sane and well-informed people (as well as many who weren’t) were particularly prone to believe conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, and sometimes even to act on those fears.[4] Conservative politicians sometimes encouraged these beliefs, by saying that they “understood” these concerns, or by threatening armed resistance against the U.S. government if it carried out its alleged intentions; other conservative politicians denounced these beliefs and conspiracy theories.

Donald Trump, also, faced calls for his impeachment “from Day One” and beyond, at times based on things that he would do. It was alleged that he would use his office to enrich himself, that he would appoint corrupt and/or biased officials to important posts, that policy would be dictated by political agendas and flattery of the President rather than by science or competence, that hate crimes would rise, that the U.S.A. would become an international laughingstock, that Russia and other foreign powers would use money and favors to promote policies that weakened the United States, that religious groups other than Evangelical Christians would be discriminated against, that the environment would be degraded, that taxes on the rich would be slashed and then, citing budget shortfalls, programs such as Social Security would be gutted, that national immigration policies would be dictated by racism rather than morality or facts, and so on. Mr. Trump’s defenders in turn began to denounce “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

We could even say that this sort of prognostication has made it into the official record of the United States Senate. Adam Schiff, arguing for Donald Trump’s removal from office, did not appeal only to his past and present actions, but also to his future acts if he continued to hold the reins of power. He said:

 

 

 

“We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again,” Schiff, D-Calif., told the Senate. “He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.”[5]

 

 

 

Rep. Schiff was arguing, essentially, that based on his past behavior and expressed intentions, Donald Trump will commit acts that break the law, violate the Constitution and endanger the nation. Therefore, he should be stripped of political power not only because he has abused his office, but even more because of what he will do in the future.

The future, by definition, has not and does not exist; it is only possibility. Therefore, any action undertaken based on future events is problematic. But as Locke points out, sometimes it is necessary. To tell people they can only resist tyranny when the tyrant has seized power and clapped them in irons is at best pointless, if not sheer mockery. It would be like telling passengers who find that the ship they are on is taking them to the slave market in Algiers that they can do nothing because, after all, the captain is the captain, you must trust his judgment and authority, and that if you believe he is abusing his power then you can exit the ship just as soon as it reaches its destination and choose a ship with a new captain. At the same time, to mutiny three days out of dock, just because the ship was heading south and the captain has dark skin like an Algerian slaver, would also be insane. Locke, true to his empiricist philosophy, says we should base our judgment on observation and induction. If the captain repeatedly aims towards Algiers, despite repeated obstacles and repeated assurances that he’d never do such a thing, then it is reasonable to draw conclusions regarding his true intentions and to act on those conclusions. And if a politician with executive power should repeatedly act against the laws of the nation, against the expressed wishes of the people, putting his or her personal interests ahead of the general welfare, deceiving and suppressing liberty, it is reasonable to assume that he or she is actively seeking tyrannical power over the nation, and to act to stop this.

The reasons why conservatives were so convinced that Obama had tyrannical intentions were always a mystery to those of us who don’t watch Alex Jones or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Many of the anti-Obama (and later, anti-Clinton) charges seem insane, such as Pizzagate and the claims about NASA pedophile camps on Mars. The actual record of Obama, the actual evidence of his intentions, came largely from his bibliography and his having attended a UCC church led by the Afrocentric theologian Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The publicly available facts were that Barack Obama’s father was African, Muslim and anti-colonial; however, he had relatively little to do with raising Barack, who was instead brought up by his mother after his father left them. She was white, and while she was progressive for her time she had worked more intensely to insure her son was raised with so-called “middle class” values like education, hard work and caring for his fellow Americans than many conservative parents can boast. Aside from his skin, name and having spent part of his childhood in foreign countries, he had a childhood that many conservative politicians would have envied. He was attacked for having been a community activist, which conservative pundits claimed showed he was a radical revolutionary; but George H. W. Bush famously praised individual activism as “a thousand points of light” shining the way for the nation. And while Rev. Wright’s rhetoric can be fiery, as a freshman senator Obama’s behavior was not particularly shocking. Returning to Locke’s analogy, it was as if the new captain had said, “I’ve heard the climate in Algiers is nice this time of year, and they have some beautiful buildings,” but then had sailed a normal course. Maybe you’d want to watch him, but there’d be too little real evidence to make a reasonable claim that he was sailing to Algiers. And as President, the evidence was even more mixed: while there were certainly policy disputes and power struggles with the Congress whose leadership had declared that its top priority was to make him a one-term president, he never attempted to impose Sharia, confiscate all guns, or carry out any of the dire predictions made of him. He complied with court rulings regarding Congressional subpoenas, made his Secretary of State and other officials available for multiple public and private hearings, and generally behaved as we had always expect a president to behave. He never declared opposition to the Constitution, which he had taught and studied before becoming president; and his actions were mostly consistent with his words.

Donald Trump had a much longer public record, being both much older and much more famous before his election. He had said that he was genetically superior to most Americans, who lack his intelligence and industriousness and therefore allow themselves to be led by the superior men like himself.[6]   He attributes his success, and the failures of people like coal miners, to his own natural superiority and their inferiority.[7] To many, this sounds far more ominous than Obama having said he liked Rev. Wright and then hearing that Wright had said God should “damn America” for the sins of racism and the slave trade. After all, Obama didn’t explicitly endorse this claim by Wright; but Trump does endorse eugenics, which disturbs some people.[8] Claims by his ex-wife that he owns and reads a collection of Hitler’s speeches also raises concerns.[9] Add to that his divorces and bankruptcies, which together imply a lack of commitment to his promises, his legal history including lawsuits by employees and business partners he’s refused to pay, fines for racial discrimination at his properties, multiple acts of sexual assault, accusations of fraud at Trump University and other cases, most of which he settled rather than take to trial, and many people had serious doubts about his character. The Mueller Report and impeachment hearings revealed a pattern, witnessed and sworn to by many people, of obstruction of investigations which were lawful but he deemed “unfair,” as well as calling for investigations of people he disliked without any legal grounds, all to help his career. Furthermore, millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent at his properties, suggesting ongoing corruption; and his repeated claims that he deserves a third term and his complaints that various aspects of the Constitution are bothersome strongly suggest that he is not particularly devoted to the Constitutional limits on his power. These are some of the points of evidence that lead Congressman Schiff, and millions of others, to fear that Donald Trump is at best a compulsive, serial crook with unwitting or unreflective tyrannical tendencies, and at worst a full-blown authoritarian seeking to undermine our democratic institutions so he can add the United States of America to his business empire as one more hostile takeover.

By Locke’s standards, then, there was little ground to remove President Obama, and it is not surprising that he was not impeached and that he won reelection. The claims that he was an usurper, or that he had otherwise committed crimes that were disqualifying, were proven untrue by the standards we generally use to prove any historical fact. In other words, if we don’t know Obama was born in Hawaii, we really can’t say we know anything that happened which we did not actually see. Historical documents, eyewitnesses, and the coherence of evidence all testify that the Holocaust was a terrible crime, that the American Revolution led to the United States of America being formed from the thirteen British colonies, and that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and thus legally fit to hold office as President of the United States. Continued denial of these or any other facts backed by evidence of like quality is akin to psychosis.

Acts done during his presidency were occasionally challenged and denounced, but none were shown to warrant impeachment. His use of executive orders and his power struggles with the Congress headed by an opposing party were consistent with what we have seen in the past, and less extreme than what we witnessed during the Reagan administration and some other recent presidencies.

As to removal due to his future acts, these proved to be the most baseless. He never claimed any intention to do much of what conservative politicians and right-wing media said he was certainly planning to do, and in fact he never did. He never grabbed our guns, imposed Sharia, shuttered Christian churches, ceased deporting illegal immigrants, never arrested political opponents, never declared martial law, never sought to ban private health care or “socialize medicine,” nothing. While it is easy to see why many might have been alarmed at the rhetoric of Rev. Wright, the fact is that the American people did not elect President Jeremiah Wright; they elected President Barack Obama, who proved to be a steady, calm, clear communicator willing to talk to and listen to all sorts of people. And if there was any thought that he would betray the U.S. to the terrorists or wasn’t committed to fighting terrorism because he wouldn’t use the words “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” those fears were largely dispelled when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

By contrast, many (not all) of the concerns about Donald Trump have turned out to be well-founded.   He was fined for racist discrimination in his rental properties and admitted racist statements towards employees.[10] He bragged about committing sexual assault, then denied it, then threatened to sue the dozens of women who accused him of rape, groping, barging in on them while they were changing at the beauty pageant he owned, in short accused him of the very behavior he had boasted, but he never sued at all or testified under oath about their claims. He paid fines relating to various charges of fraud, including Trump University, a breaking scandal during the election for which, as soon as the election was over, he agreed to pay fines and damages. His campaign was accused of having improper connections to Russia and other foreign governments; since the election multiple campaign leaders and close Trump advisors have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of these charges. The Mueller report concluded that while there was no actual “conspiracy,” that was largely because the Trump campaign was too inept and too rent by personal rivalries among his staff to effectively conspire, and his administration was too weak to deliver on promises made to Russia because they feared looking like they were beholden to Putin—which, apparently, they were. Mueller also described ten separate instances of obstruction of justice carried out by Mr. Trump, intended to block investigation of Russian assistance to his campaign. Thus there were instances in the past that suggest that he was morally and psychologically flawed, and unlikely to be a good president. There is even some evidence that his campaign might have been illegal. In the end, though, there is nothing in the Constitution that says a lying, neurotic criminal can’t run for President. Even one with business ties to hostile foreign dictators can run, though he is supposed to be forbidden from actually holding presidential power while receiving income from foreign investments (U.S. Constitution Article 1, sect. 9, clause 8). So in that sense, the charges against Donald Trump were never as disqualifying as those against Obama; if the charges against Obama had a shred of truth in them, they could have barred him from even running for office. The charges against Trump were therefore less serious, in that sense; they were more serious in that they were put forward by people who meant them seriously—that is, who actually believed them and had evidence and reasons for those beliefs, rather than simply making baseless accusations to try to score political points by playing to paranoid delusions.

The evidence that Donald Trump is an usurper is weak; there has been no solid evidence that any votes were changed to get him elected, and even if his campaign did conspire with foreign governments the prescribed penalty would be a fine, not removal from office. The evidence that he is now a full-blown tyrant is also weak, being largely a matter of interpretation; he may be a corrupt authoritarian who is openly trying to rig his reelection and abusing his power in the process, but his abuses do not strike most people as directly barring them from what they want to do. But the evidence that he wants to exercise tyrannical power, wants to subvert representative democracy and undermine the other branches of government, is abundant and glaring. His words, his actions, the testimony of his confidants and aides all point towards this, just as if the captain should persistently steer towards Algiers. Even though, when circumstances or protests dissuade him, he might temporarily set another course, he always returns towards his original destination. It is therefore permissible, and I would say it is morally necessary to oppose him, before he can deliver the entire “ship of state” to the port of bondage. The only real question is what sort of resistance is required or allowed.

[1] “Cops: McCain Worker Made Up Attack Story;” CBS News October 24, 2008 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cops-mccain-worker-made-up-attack-story/)

[2] Jonathan Tilove, “Abbot Directs State Guard to Monitor Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas;” Statesman September 25, 2018 (https://www.statesman.com/NEWS/20160923/Abbott-directs-State-Guard-to-monitor-Operation-Jade-Helm-15-in-Texas) also Matthew Yglesias, “The Amazing Jade Helm Conspiracy Theory, Explained;” Vox May 6, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/5/6/8559577/jade-helm-conspiracy)

[3] Ezra Klien, “Obama Derangement Syndrome;” Vox February 23, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/2/23/8089639/obama-derangement-syndrome)

[4] Algernon Austin, “How Being an Obama Hater Warps Your Mind;” HuffPost October 21, 2015 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-being-an-obama-hater_b_8347142)

[5] Dareh Gregorian, “Schiff’s Powerful Closing Speech: ‘Is There One of You Who Will Say, Enough!’?” NBC News February 5, 2020 (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/closing-argument-democrats-say-not-removing-trump-would-render-him-n1128766)

[6] Caroline Mortimer, “Donald Trump Believes He Has Superior Genes, Biographer Claims;” Independent September 30, 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-president-superior-genes-pbs-documentary-eugenics-a7338821.html)

[7] Nate Hopper, “Donald Trump Once Worried About Coal Miners Getting ‘Black-Lung Disease’ from ‘Damn Mines’;” TIME June 1, 2017 (https://news.yahoo.com/donald-trump-once-worried-coal-215437514.html)

[8] Marina Fang & JM Rieger, “This May Be the Most Horrible Thing that Donald Trump Believes;” Huffington Post September 28, 2016 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-eugenics_n_57ec4cc2e4b024a52d2cc7f9)

[9] Marie Brenner, “After the Gold Rush;” Vanity Fair September 1, 1990 (https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2015/07/donald-ivana-trump-divorce-prenup-marie-brenner)

[10] Michael D’Antonio, “Is Donald Trump Racist? Here’s What the Record Shows;” Fortune June 7m 2016 (https://fortune.com/2016/06/07/donald-trump-racism-quotes/)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 5)

March 11, 2020

Application: Human action may be motivated by the past, the present or the future.

Actions are motivated by the past when we act because of something that has happened, or failed to happen in the past. For example, a society may punish a lawbreaker because that person did something terrible and society (or a judiciary acting in its behalf) has decided that this criminal “deserves” to be punished. Or, you may give someone $20 because in the past you agreed to pay him to cut your lawn, and he did in fact cut your lawn.

Actions are motivated by the present when they are reactions to something occurring now. If the police see a crime in progress and arrest the perpetrator, that action was motivated by the present. If you cry or laugh at a movie, it is because you feel emotions prompted by what is occurring in the present.

Actions motivated by the future are a bit more complex, because the future was not and is not, but might be. It is possibility. The agent is thus taking a particular actual action in anticipation of what the future might be. It could be argued that this is really a species of present motivation, because the immediate motivator is one’s present fear, desire or anticipation, and that subjective motivating feeling is actual in the present. But it is still useful to draw a distinction between actions motivated by present actualities versus actions motivated by anticipations of the future. For one thing, the latter are much more fraught. One may anticipate future rain and end up lugging an umbrella around on a dry day. One may marry because one believes the beloved will be a good life-partner, only to find that one or both of you is not up to a lifetime bond. The Precogs may name the wrong future criminal. It is thus a useful act of humility to remember that while one is immediately responding to one’s current fears or hopes, the future circumstances one is anticipating may be totally wrong. However, humans are creatures that plan. We live towards the future, which we anticipate as best we are able.

Why might one resort to force, or other methods of resistance, to try to remove a governmental leader such as a constitutional monarch in Locke’s day, or a president in ours? One might do it because the person holding the office did not deserve it or was not qualified due to some past circumstance. One could claim that the current office-holder was in fact an usurper, who did not come to the office legitimately and thus did not deserve to hold it now. Barack Obama faced calls for his impeachment from the moment he took office, and in some cases even before.[1] During and after the 2008 election for President of the United States of America, Obama was alleged to be, in essence, an usurper, not qualified to hold the office of President because he was not born a citizen. Since this claim allegedly rested on past circumstances, it was addressed most directly by simply producing evidence from the time to show the claim was false; this was done when documentary and journalistic evidence was produced of equivalent quality to that considered adequate to prove any other historical event. Legal documents, contemporary news announcements and eyewitness testimony was offered to show that Barack Obama was in fact born in Hawaii, and that his mother was a U.S. citizen. Despite this evidence, calls for his removal based on the “birther” conspiracy theory continued for years, most notably from Mr. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump has said that he faced calls for his removal “from Day One,” and that is true. Even before he took office, there were many who said he had committed crimes during his campaign that should have been disqualifying. Others said that he had lost the popular vote and thus did not have a mandate from the people. However, the alleged crimes were at that time unproven, and winning the majority of the popular vote is not in fact required under our Constitution. More serious were the charges that the vote had been manipulated and hacked, and that were it counted accurately he would have lost even the Electoral College vote.[2] If there had been a serious investigation, it might have shown that Donald Trump is in fact an usurper, and should be removed from office immediately. Of course, it might also have simply verified the official results. It might even have shown nothing, since many of the districts where Trump did best were districts that had easily-hacked voting machines with no paper record of the votes cast. In any case, no such serious attempt to verify the election was made, as Ms. Clinton chose to accept defeat rather than contest the election.

To be continued…

[1] Shane Croucher, “Donald Trump Claims Republicans ‘Never Even Thought of Impeaching’ Barack Obama. History Tells a Different Story;” Newsweek 10/22/2019 (https://www.newsweek.com/trump-obama-impeachment-republicans-democrats-1466865)

[2] Dan Merica, “Computer Scientists Urge Clinton Campaign to Challenge Election Results;” CNN, November 23, 2016 (https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/22/politics/hillary-clinton-challenge-results/index.html)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 4)

March 6, 2020

Now let’s take it one step further. The fundamental defining characteristic of a citizen is to play a part in making the laws that govern the society. This is recognized at least as far back as Aristotle, and it is a foundation of Locke’s understanding of the social contract. Suppose the usurper decides to use the powers of the office to pervert the next election, in order to hold onto power. In fact, let’s not even ask whether the office-holder is a usurper; that is irrelevant. Anyone who attempts to prevent a person from voting is robbing that person of the fundamental right of a citizen, and the fundamental right of a human being. Individual freedom is the fundamental inalienable right. I may freely delegate someone to represent me in the assembly or congress or parliament, to act on my behalf and with the other delegates to make laws in my best interests; Locke says that that is not surrendering my freedom but rather giving it expression in the society. On the other hand, even if I have other freedoms, without the right to participate in the making of the laws under which I live, I am not a citizen at all, but at best living in a state of nature, with no essential relationship to this government, free to disobey or oppose it as I see fit.

What makes the apparently non-violent and inconspicuous crime of vote-tampering so serious, more serious perhaps than graft or DUI manslaughter (to name two crimes by famous politicians)? To understand, we must return to Locke’s understanding of the origins and nature of government.[1] In a state of anarchy, people would live as their natural affections drew them and their reason guided them. Thus, we could have a society without a government, existing and interacting as individual and small family groups. But to have any relationship broader than that, we must agree to live together under shared laws and leadership, which (if it is to be legitimate) must be formed by the people and serve to express their collective will. Naturally, if the society that is the foundation of the government and for which it exists is itself destroyed, the government is dissolved. For example, if an invader uproots the community and destroys all the institutions binding people together, destroys homes and separates families, and leaves only scattered individuals, there is no government left and everyone is left back in the state of nature to try to rebuild a new society. Locke says little about this, saying history shows us enough examples that he need not belabor the point; also, it really isn’t his main interest. Locke is concerned with how the government itself might delegitimize itself, overturn itself, and become the enemy of the people and society it was supposed to protect. As we have seen, not every usurper is a destroyer of government. In fact, not every tyrant is a complete destroyer of government. A king or magistrate who abuses his or her power, but not to the point of utterly destroying the institutions of government themselves, may not destroy the government. This seems to be why Locke’s description of tyranny includes some limits on the right of forceful resistance: enough to resist the act of tyranny, but not more.

Some actions by a government, however, would so totally overturn the basis of civil government as to constitute war against the people themselves, effectively putting them back into a state of nature wherein they are entitled to create a new commonwealth on their own and to defend it against their former government as any citizen would against a foreign invader. The first of such actions is “when the legislative is altered.”[2] Locke “imagines” a government with three branches: a judicial, a federal and a legislative. The judicial consists of magistrates and judges and courts for interpreting and applying the law. The federal is the overall unifying head, which Locke suggests could be a king ruling for life but whose powers are limited by laws and traditions so that he is as much subject as master of the other two branches. The legislative is the branch which most directly expresses the will of the people. This is the body that is made up by representatives of the people, chosen by them and from among them, who gather together to consider the needs of the society and to create laws which all will live by. It is this legislative power that is the expression of the free will of each individual drawn together into one collective will, the will of the majority. When the legislative is altered, either by replacing the elected legislators with others chosen not by the people but by some other power (likely the king), or when laws are made without the consent of the legislature or those laws that are made are not enforced, then the will of the people is thwarted, the power they created to bind them into one commonwealth is broken, and they are in fact returned to their state of nature. At that point they cease to be citizens at all, but are merely bound servants to their overlords. In addition to such circumstances as a tyrant simply replacing the laws with his or her own will, replacing the legislators with the tyrant’s own stooges or simply leaving the legislature be but depriving it of the ability to act, the government effectively dissolves when it contrives to hand the nation over to the sovereignty of a foreign power (for example, the perception that Mary Tudor sought to hand the country over to Spain).[3]

Locke lumps all these possible corruptions together as “changing the legislative,” because they represent some sort of nullification of the people’s right to choose their lawmakers and/or the laws they live under. In addition, Locke discusses the possibility that the legislature itself could turn tyrant. Since the people form a government to protect their lives, their liberty and their property, a government that arbitrarily deprives them of these has failed to fulfill the purpose for which it was founded in the first place. This is so whether the legislature corrupted itself through greed or ambition, or was corrupted by the executive either by force, threat, bribery or some other means. If the government itself should not only fail to fulfill its duties to the citizens but even act against the very duties with which it was entrusted, Locke says, the people are free from all responsibility to that government and may establish whatever new government they believe will serve them better.[4] In such a case, they are not “rebels” against their government; Locke argues that it is the government which has declared war on the people and is in rebellion against their authority.[5]

So Locke recognizes a range of ways in which representative democracy can break down, and gradations of appropriate response when it does. In a usurpation, the people might not respond at all; they could choose to accept the usurper and in doing so provide his or her office with the legitimacy it requires: a mandate from the majority. Likewise, in cases of petty abuses (such as spending part of the office supplies budget on the premium coffee the mayor prefers rather than the generic freeze-dried which the city council approved) people might look the other way, or impose some sort of discipline, but no one could reasonably think violence or even arrest was justified. In such cases neither the continuation of the commonwealth nor the inalienable rights of the citizens are at stake. When the abuse of prerogative matures into tyranny, people may resist. If the police lack a proper warrant to enter your home, Locke says, you can resist their attempts to do so as you would any robber. Even in such cases, Locke requires a calibrated response; just as you can’t shoot a neighbor who’s holding your property if you can reasonably expect to regain it by legal means, so too you cannot use force if you have legal recourse against governmental abuse or overreach. So long as the courts are functioning, and the threatened injury not irreversible, the commonwealth is still more or less functional and problems may be resolved more reasonably. “Reason” is a key concept for Locke. He is rather optimistic about the abilities of common sense; he knows people are motivated by passions and desires, but he also believes they can obtain the knowledge and exercise the self-restraint they need to make reasonable choices, usually. And where the law of Reason has not been totally overthrown, that should be our first resort.

Even in cases of real tyranny, Locke says, people will not immediately rush for their flintlocks and bayonets. Locke knows that what he is writing has radical implications. His father served in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War, which led to the beheading of King Charles I and six years of Puritan dictatorship, eventually settling down to a constitutional monarchy with strict limits on royal power. He was well aware of the earlier arguments of Thomas Hobbes and the current views of many conservative critics, that anything less than absolute monarchy would degenerate into civil war and anarchy. But Locke, with his faith in common sense, argued that people are in fact unlikely to resort to violence over every little injustice.[6]  People are naturally inclined to seek peace for themselves, and to put up with a lot if they’re used to it or they fear radical resistance could make it worse. They are unlikely to react much if the injustice doesn’t threaten them, but concerns only one or a small number of people. But, if there is a pattern of injustices, and people see that their rights and liberties, the fruits of their labors and even their lives are endangered, and that things seem likely to only get worse over time, then they most likely will rise up against their oppressors. The only difference is that Locke believes they would be justified, since the true purpose of government is the welfare of the people and its legitimacy comes from their mandate alone; an absolute monarchy would condemn the people as rebels and sinners, but still be just as likely to face forceful and even violent resistance after prolonged and habitual misrule.

[1] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 211

[2] Locke, sect. 212

[3] Locke, sect. 213-18

[4] Locke, sect. 220

[5] Locke, sect. 227

[6] Locke, sect. 224-230

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 3)

February 26, 2020

What happens, however, if the representational government and the electoral system that insures it breaks down? And how might it do so? One possibility is someone could grab the reins of power who had no right to it, most likely by fraud. That would be a usurpation.[1] A usurper is one who seizes the office and power to which another is entitled. For example, in the Kennedy vs. Nixon election it was widely believed that Nixon had won, if not for the many fraudulent votes cast in Chicago on behalf of dead Democratic voters. The Democratic political machine run by Mayor Daly was very strong and could generally deliver Chicago’s votes (and with them Illinois itself) to whomever he chose. Nixon was urged to challenge the election but chose not to, allegedly saying such a challenge would be too divisive to the nation. I tend to believe this account, so let’s accept it for the illustration’s sake if nothing else. In such a case as this, JFK could rightly be called an usurper. He wrongly took the office that another person should have had but which was stolen by fraud. However, he was not a tyrant. He may have taken power belonging to another, but he faithfully executed the office of the presidency. He did what was Constitutionally required, not going beyond it in any meaningful way and not abusing or oppressing the citizens of states that voted against him. There were arguably some abuses of power under his administration, but none that raised much ire in his lifetime. Many considered him, then and now, to be a good president, even if his initial victory was questionable. Locke would say that an usurper may rightfully be opposed, but the opposition should be done legally and politically. If the majority of the people accept the usurper, then they essentially ratify the usurpation. This could be said to have happened in JFK’s election, or perhaps in Fatah’s takeover of the West Bank after Hamas won the election for leadership of the Palestinian National Authority 2007-2008 (I am not sufficiently versed in Palestinian politics to say for certain, but that is how it was depicted in the American press).

An usurper need not be a tyrant, nor a tyrant a usurper. As Locke describes it:

 

 

As usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]

 

 

 

A leader or magistrate may gain office illegitimately, but fulfill the functions of a proper office-holder. The people might even choose to accept that person as legitimate. Tyranny is more serious than usurpation. A tyrant might come into the office legitimately; a king might be born to it, a president or chancellor might be elected, and so on. What matters is what the person does with the office and its power. If the governor (in the broad sense of one who has governing power) uses that power for the good of the people and according to the will of the majority as expressed in the laws which their legislature, acting as their agents, has created, then he (or she) is a proper governor. If the governor uses the powers of the office for their own personal advantage rather than seeing first to the good of the people and to their instructions, then that person is a tyrant regardless of whether he or she was duly elected. Legitimacy, in Locke’s view, ultimately derives from the will of the ruled, not merely or mainly from the propriety of the succession.

This has practical and dangerous consequences. A tyrant may be opposed by force, according to Locke. An usurper, who is not otherwise tyrannical, may not be. Suppose, just as a thought experiment with clearly no relationship to reality because it’s completely impossible, the president of the United States (a country largely founded on Locke’s philosophical theories) were elected illegitimately. This could be said to happen whenever the minority of the votes determines the presidency due to a quirk in the Electoral College, as happened with each of the last two Republican presidents; but then again, all citizens have agreed to abide by the rules laid down in the Constitution so we could say that even in this case it was no usurpation. But suppose some votes were flipped in the election by a hostile foreign power with some sort of personal relationship to one of the candidates, say one with extensive business investments in that hostile country and thus vulnerable to influence by any government threatening those investments. Suppose further that the only “investigation” of such illegality was to be carried out by the alleged usurper himself, and officials he appointed, and that the body charged with removing an unqualified president was part of the president’s faction and refused to act. However, suppose the usurper proved to be competent and restrained, and did not threaten the rights of any citizen (except for the actual winner of the election, of course, whose right to fulfill the office was denied). In that case, it arguably could be immoral to use force against the usurper. First, Locke sees force as a last resort; if there are still viable legal means, they must be pursued. Second, if the government is in fact still carrying out the laws established by the legislature which in turn was elected by the will of the majority, and is protecting the rights and property of the people, there is no need for force. Third, as Locke points out, there are great practical challenges to force. Most people, he says, are willing to put up with a lot rather than attempt radical or violent change. Even if their government is not all it should be, if it’s functioning well enough and justly enough they’ll likely tolerate it. In that case, the lone “freedom fighter,” and not the usurper, who will be seen as the dangerous rebel or lunatic. It is only if the government is truly tyrannical and is seen as such by a large group of people that widespread use of force is reasonable.[3] In this hypothetical case, the usurper is not unjustly using force against any citizen, so no one has a right to use force against him; and if anyone did, that person would be the one seen as disturbing the peace and threatening the society. On the other hand, if one’s individual rights were infringed by force, Locke says, one would have the right to forceful self-defense. For example, if police try to invade one’s home without a proper warrant empowering them to do so, one has the right to shoot them. The determining factor is whether the wrong one might suffer is urgent. If it is possible to right the wrong peacefully and legally later, then one may not use force to oppose it; but if one is threatened in a way that no later redress could correct, then one may defend oneself by whatever means are necessary and available.

[1] Locke, chapter XVII

[2] Locke, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Locke, sect. 203-09

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 2)

February 18, 2020

 

At this crucial point Locke and Rand differ, and from this division a vast gulf opens between Locke’s vision for “civil government” which was absolutely crucial for our Founding Fathers and the so-called “conservatism” dominant in American politics today. On the origin and nature of civil society, John Locke writes:

 

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority.[1]

 

 

 

Locke’s view is a classic presentation of “social contract theory.” He asks us to imagine a group of individuals living in a “state of nature;” that is, without any politics or government. Locke believes that even without government, we would still be bound by “the laws of Reason,” which he treats as synonymous with “Nature” and “God” since God created Nature and it is human nature to be rational. Thus, unlike Thomas Hobbes, who supposed the natural inclination of humans was towards endless violence, Locke asserts that even in the hypothetical “state of nature” people would live guided by basic principles of reason and justice. Even so, without anyone to mediate between neighbors there would be disputes which would likely devolve into violence. Thus, in order to live together in larger groups in an orderly and peaceful fashion, humans create governments which in turn create laws to define acceptable behavior, magistrates to arbitrate between citizens, and to regulate the use of force if necessary to preserve justice and social order while avoiding the excesses likely with private vengeance. Essentially, each individual gives up some of that complete freedom he or she would have had to regulate their own private affairs and define relations to others, agreeing to live under the governance of a society ruled by the will of the majority. The core of this new society is the legislative body, which represents the collective will of the people. Locke believes this body should be chosen by and from among the people themselves, and that its members act as delegates to represent the wills of those who elected them. The laws made by this body would thus be the expression of the will of the people themselves. Hobbes in his Leviathan had pictured the State as an “artificial person” made up of the collection of all its members, ruled by the absolute will of its government; Locke retains something of this treatment of the commonwealth as a single being created by its members, but sees it as animated not by the will of one totalitarian king but rather by the collective will of the people themselves. Since this body is the expression of the people, and of each individual member, it has limits which Hobbes would not recognize, but also rightful powers which Rand (and other current conservative thinkers such as Robert Nozick) would reject. On the one hand, even in this democratic body animated by the will of the majority, the government must respect the essential value of each individual.[2] This puts limits on the possible “tyranny of the majority;” since in the state of nature one person would not have absolutely power over a neighbor, neither can the commonwealth claim absolute power over the lives and properties of citizens even if acting in the name of the majority. On the other hand, it can impose taxes to pay for such joint projects as the legislature has deemed necessary for the welfare of the people. Locke writes:

 

 

It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?[3]

 

 

 

Thomas Hobbes assumed that all humans were irrational, greedy, violent and fearful, and could live together peacefully only if beaten into submission; therefore he imagined a “social contract” whereby a group of people, rejecting the “war of each against all” of anarchy, chose to select one individual despot or a small group to bludgeon everyone else. Locke has a much more optimistic view of human nature, seeing it as ruled not only by emotions, but by feelings guided by reason; so the commonwealth he envisions neither needs to be so brutal nor should it be. But he is not so giddy with the power of Reason as Rand is; Locke knows that people are often ruled by their passions and desires, and that the “rational” interests of the individual citizens often do clash, so that in the end we need a mechanism to determine the will of the majority while we all agree to accept and live by the majority’s choice.

[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) chapter VIII, sect. 96

[2] Locke, chapter XI, sect. 135

[3] Locke, sect. 140

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 1)

February 17, 2020

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get?

 

 

….how can a man any more hinder himself from being persuaded in his own mind, which way things are going; or from casting about how to save himself, than he could from believing the captain of the ship he was in, was carrying him, and the rest of the company, to Algiers, when he found him always steering that course, though cross winds, leaks in his ship, and want of men and provisions did often force him to turn his course another way for some time, which he steadily returned to again, as soon as the wind, weather, and other circumstances would let him?

 

——-John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, sect 210

 

 

What’s so bad about Algiers? Warm climate, lovely beaches, so what’s not to love? From the 1500s into the 1700s, Europeans were captured and enslaved in Africa, from as far north as Iceland and more often from Britain south along the Atlantic coast and throughout the Mediterranean. At a time when Europe was backwards and underpopulated compared to the Islamic world, hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured and enslaved by pirates, by raiders, and by kidnappers, and sold in the slave markets of Algiers and other North African ports. Men were usually sent to be worked to death in the salt mines; women were more likely to become domestic servants and/or concubines. Some estimates put the total number of enslaved Europeans at a million or more. True, this is paltry compared to the numbers of Africans enslaved by Europeans, but the size and population of Africa greatly dwarfed Renaissance Europe as well. The demographic impact was locally significant, and the psychological impact far greater. At the time Locke wrote his groundbreaking work on representative democracy, the Second Treatise of Civil Government, Algiers was a destination of horror. A captain who consistently steered towards Algiers was one who endeavored to sell his passengers and maybe crew into slavery. And in such a case, says Locke, the passengers would have every right to join together to overthrow that captain and steer for a safer harbor, rather than meekly wait until they arrived at the shores of slavery to act.

Locke used this image to describe the relations between free citizens and their leaders. Citizens, he argues, do not have to wait until their government has robbed them of their freedom and livelihoods before resisting oppression. If they see that creeping despotism is threatening to reduce them to bondage, they can act to prevent it. But at what point? What is the progression of authoritarianism whereby a representative civil government morphs into something working not for the good of the people, but only for the ruled? When does the government become the enemy?

Today’s “conservatives” write and speak as if government is always the enemy, perhaps the only enemy of the people. John Locke would agree with Ayn Rand’s repeated assertion that “No human rights can exist without property rights.” And he might approve her claim that “the rational interests of men do not clash,” if that is interpreted to mean that all people live naturally under the law of Reason.[1] But he would disagree with her equation of government and criminality. For example, Rand equates Medicare with armed robbery and murder, saying the only difference is the number of victims and beneficiaries.[2] More generally, Rand argues:

 

 

Criminals are a small minority in any age or country. And the harm they have done to mankind is infinitesimal when compared to the horrors—-the bloodshed, the wars, the persecutions, the confiscations, the famines, the enslavements, the wholesale destructions—-perpetuated by mankind’s governments. Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights; it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. When unlimited and unrestricted by individual rights, a government is men’s deadliest enemy.[3]

 

 

 

To Rand, the vast majority of governments are nothing more than gangs of robbers, to which anarchy would be preferable. The only exception she sees is pre-New Deal United States, where, she claims, individual property rights were respected and government existed only to protect those rights. Leaving aside the historical simplification (such as the omission of slavery), we can see her vision of the “moral” state: an absolute minimalist government, run on fees for services instead of taxation by force, solely existing to provide a marketplace for individuals to trade goods and services with one another without interference from criminals or invaders. There is no such thing as “the public” or “public interest;” there are only individuals.[4]

[1] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Penguin Group USA, 1964) p.34

[2] Rand, pp. 95-96

[3] Rand, p. 115

[4] Rand, p. 103

Things the Right Gets Wrong, pt. 1: Immigration

January 20, 2020

Things the Right Gets Wrong, pt. 1: Immigration: two wrongs don’t make a right, but they do sometimes make a right-winger

 

We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

—-Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa

 

 

Six people have been arrested so far in connection with terrorist threats and plots in Richmond, VA this week.[1]   Right-wing pundits have renewed threats of “civil war” if the elected governments attempt to implement laws that they, private citizens with no legal education and speaking only for a minority of Americans, declare “unconstitutional.”[2] President Trump has openly sided with the violent extremists, echoing their paranoid fears without a whisper discouraging their violent intentions.[3] This is occurring at the eve of Trump’s impeachment trial, one that many GOP senators have promised will be short, look at no evidence, and completely exonerate him. As much as I would like to just stick to philosophy, I am reminded of Plato’s warning that the price of ignoring politics is to be ruled by evil men.

At the center of all of this talk of civil war and this eagerness to ignore crass and rampant corruption, we find this repeated conservative horror that American civilization is on the verge of collapse and that nothing short of armed force or at least the credible threat of violence can save it from the will of the foolish majority. Chants such as “Blood and Soil and “You Will Not Replace Us” reflect their real or affected fear of a “white genocide” where darker-skinned people from countries outside of Northern Europe either slaughter “real Americans” or settle for merely destroying our culture.[4] It is in this context that words such as King’s, coming from Republican elected officials for years, are so chilling. They are nothing less than a call to violence. They are also wrong.

If I have to argue with someone that racism is immoral, I’m doomed to waste the precious time I have on Earth to serve God and enjoy God’s good world. What I choose to do here and now is to say that their plan leads only to national suicide. Japan before the arrival of Perry, China before the Opium Wars, Russia under the Tsars, Spain under the Inquisition, or North Korea today: all followed or follow variations of Rep. Steve King’s mantra. Countries that wall themselves off from the world, convinced of their own superiority or obsessed with their own stability, wind up declining. Even Sparta stagnated and fell, an impoverished husk of a nation despite its powerful army. And Japan today, despite being an open and reasonably progressive democracy, is literally dying of old age.[5] I think to of the Mongol Empire. Mongolia was the largest land empire ever, stretching from the North Pacific to the Middle East, encompassing what we now call China, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North India, South Russia and more; and it all virtually vanished. Sure, you can find genetic evidence of Mongolian occupation, and plenty of ruins of cities they burned; but despite laws the Khan attempted to enforce to keep his people separate from the conquered foes, within a generation they were culturally absorbed. In China they became Chinese, in Islamic lands they became Muslim and so on.

By contrast, look at the Roman Empire. It initially expanded through extremely brutal military campaigns. However, it offered a truly vibrant culture, giving aqueducts, roads, Roman civil law, concrete, and more (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo).   It didn’t do most of this out of any sense of benevolence, but it did have a lot to offer. People wanted to become Roman citizens, and Rome was happy to oblige by making citizenship available even to those born and raised in other cultures. And Roman culture took as freely as it gave, welcoming all sorts of other religions (so long as they themselves also included a little Emperor worship, which got the Christians in trouble), foreign philosophies, foreign gods, foreign science and literature, new foods, new art and more. The testimony to the power of Roman culture is that when Rome fell, generations spent all their efforts trying to become the new Romans. Not only was Europe nominally under the Holy Roman Empire, but Roman laws, Roman architecture, Roman engineering, and even the Roman language for many centuries were the standards all later European cultures sought to imitate. The German “Kaiser” and Russian “Tsar” were their languages’ “Caesar;” even peoples who had never been part of the Roman Empire or whose ancestors fought it vigorously and successfully later sought to claim the Roman heritage. Much the same occurred in Islamic lands as the initial Arab conquests led to absorption of much of the culture of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine culture.

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, I saw a televised interview with a young British Muslim guy ranting about how evil the USA was and how great al Qaeda was for standing up for Islamic culture. He was wearing a NY Yankees baseball cap, without any apparent sense of irony. America may have become a mighty nation by conquering Mexican territory and successful involvement in two world wars; but it became a great nation because of its culture. People around the world want to watch our television and movies; they want our hamburgers and our Levis; they want our free markets, representative democracy, rights for women, free speech and so on. We are not great because we are paler than others; we are great because of baseball, rock and roll, and T-shirts. People want to be us; even our enemies don’t want so much to destroy us than to replace us, while taking over for themselves who we are.

Nations that strive for low immigration, conservative and unchanging cultures, and racial purity either die, or end up like North Korea, impoverished and backwards lands surviving only because most of the population is unable to leave. That is the end of the road which the white nationalist follows. Steve King may claim that he isn’t racist, that he “only” wants to keep out immigrants who aren’t “good Americans,” but this is foolish if not dishonest. He echoes the rhetoric of white nationalists while claiming to not understand what it really means. I say this instead:

 

“We can ONLY restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

 

What do I mean by that? The United States is better at turning immigrants into citizens than any other nation is or has been. We’ve been doing it for our entire history, and we know how to make it work. We’ve been most prosperous when we sought to welcome immigrants, and our economy has always suffered when we tried to shut out foreign goods and foreign peoples. That doesn’t mean “open borders;” that’s the Straw Man argument of the fearful and the racist. But we’ve been able to take in people from the Russian Jewish shtetls to the Bosnian villages and mosques to the Chinese cities and farms and a hundred other cultures, and within a generation they’re as American—or more!—-than the “patriots” who marched in Charlottesville with their torches and their red hats and their threats of civil war. “The hands that built this country we’re always trying to keep down.”[6]

Cultures, like individuals, change as long as they live. “Whatever is not busy being born is busy dying.” Anyone who wants to “restore” a civilization seeks to practice the mortician’s art, when what is needed is a midwife. Sure, you can embalm a culture so that, like a corpse, it looks as good as it once did; but first it has to be dead. A great civilization is one that grows, that produces science and art and prosperity, that attracts immigrants and imitators, that learns from other cultures and takes the best to use for itself. It is like the scribe whom Jesus describes, who has learned and preserved the traditions of the past while also embracing new insights and values, “like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”[7]

Civilizations can die from too much change too fast. Conservatives instinctively understand the values of boundaries and definitions, which liberals can overlook. Reform Judaism began as a modern revival or resuscitation movement, to help the spiritual heritage of the past live in the modern world. But a century later, it seemed ready to dissolve, as young Reform Jews became secular, or Buddhist, or some other faith. Reform has begun emphasizing Hebrew in worship and other conservative traits, to restore a sense of what it is to be Jewish, to be Reform Judaism. I don’t want to say that conservatives are always wrong, or that we should ever totally silence them. But right now our country is swinging more towards the example of the Amish or the Wahhabi, where all change is seen as evil until it is virtually forced. White nationalists refer to Donald Trump as “Glorious Leader;” North Koreans refer to Kim Jong-il as “Dear Leader.” Is that the sort of “patriotism” we need? No! That will not “make America great,” any more than cultural and racial homogeneity, militarism and cultural petrifaction has made North Korea “great.” The ideology of Rep. Steve King, Donald Trump and others of their ilk will kill America, merely to satisfy the xenophobic and those who, like so many despots, are willing to foster paranoia and resentment, knowing it leads to national poverty and decline, simply to satisfy their own ambitions.

[1] Ryan W. Miller, “Three More Suspected Neo-Nazis Arrested before Virginia Gun-Rights Rally, Authorities Say;” USA Today 1/17/2020 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/17/virginia-gun-rally-3-more-suspected-neo-nazis-base-arrested/4499733002/)

[2] Cydney Hargis, “Fox Nation’s Tomi Lahren on proposed Virginia gun safety laws: “Stop coming for the Second Amendment” or there will be a civil war in the U.S.” Media Matters 1/17/2020 (www.mediamatters.org)

 

[3] WJHL, “President Trump: Second Amendment is Under ‘Very Serious Attack’ in Virginia;” ABC 8 News (https://www.wric.com/news/politics/capitol-connection/president-trump-second-amendment-is-under-very-serious-attack-in-virginia/)

[4] David Neiwert, “When White Nationalists Chant Their Weird Slogans, What Do They Mean?” SPLC: Southern Poverty Law Center 10/10/2017 (https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/10/10/when-white-nationalists-chant-their-weird-slogans-what-do-they-mean)

[5] Francisco Toro, “Japan is a Trumpian Paradise of Low Immigration Rates. It’s also a Dying Country;” The Washington Post Agust 29, 2019 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/29/japan-is-trumpian-paradise-low-immigration-rates-its-also-dying-country/)

 

[6] Bruce Springsteen, “American Land,” Wrecking Ball 2012 (Sony Legacy) Here’s a pretty good version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02mZTyTbdTI

[7] Matthew 13:52