Posts Tagged ‘January 6th Insurrection’

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Fourth Thesis

October 28, 2021

Fourth Thesis:  Rule of Law Totally Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] 1287a23

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

[5] Book IV, chapter I, 1289a11

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

Reflections on 9/11:  Twenty Years Later

September 12, 2021

Reflections on 9/11:  Twenty Years Later

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

—–Jerry Falwell Sr. September 13, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

For further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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