To Begin the World Over Again

Two weeks ago was the 4th of July. In less trying times the occasion is looked upon by the rest of the world as an excuse for Americans to express their particular brand of crass nationalism. It has become exceedingly easy in the last few years to view any American overtures about liberty and equality with suspicion and even disdain. America is, by many empirical measures among the worst developed democracies on Earth. And these shortcomings are not new to the nation. Even the Declaration of Independence, for all the eloquent universalism of its opening paragraphs, also contains descriptions of “merciless Indian savages”. The American constitution was designed to give slave-holding and rural states an outsized influence. And of course, America’s original sin; slavery, was maintained for decades after the Declaration of Independence. So our ambivalence about American independence is understandable. Some of the most morally eloquent and intelligent Americans have always had a complicated relationship to the day their nation was born or the document for which it is celebrated.

Something unique to American celebrations of Independence is the obsessive focus on the military and its heroism. It should not go unsaid that the American preoccupation with the martial is more suited to authoritarian countries than to democracies and is easily leveraged by those who would wish to turn America from the latter to the former. Donald Trump released a video this last week saluting current U.S. armed forces as “truly special people” and that “we are in awe of their courage, and we are eternally in their debt.” This sort of pandering is not unique to the current president but it does reflect a tendency for Americans to ignore the political and social meaning of the Declaration of Independence. It was a pivotal moment in world history, a moment of emancipation for some and an increase in net irony for others. And yet in the United States, on the anniversary of its signing, there is no attempt to explore its true value or the means by which it can help understand the political period we are currently surviving.

I came across a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr., delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, on or near the 4th of July, 1965. His topic was “The American Dream”. Below I have excerpted some of the sermon.

 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is a dream. It’s a great dream.

The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.

Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.

Here King is the man from the child’s textbook expressing his progressive view of American history that is still noticeably patriotic. It is the man sanitised to be respectable to a pearl clutching majority. But King went on to say;

Are we really taking this thing seriously? “All men are created equal.”And that means that every man who lives in a slum today is just as significant as John D., Nelson, or any other Rockefeller. Every man who lives in the slum is just as significant as Henry Ford. All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that can’t be separated from you. Go down and tell them, “You may take my life, but you can’t take my right to life. You may take liberty from me, but you can’t take my right to liberty. You may take from me the desire, you may take from me the propensity to pursue happiness, but you can’t take from me my right to pursue happiness.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights and among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Now there’s another thing that we must never forget. If we are going to make the American dream a reality,  we are challenged to work in an action program to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination. This problem isn’t going to solve itself, however much people tell us this… History is the long story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges without strong resistance, and they seldom do it voluntarily. And so if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment.

King here is his own figure, laying the foundations for the social democracy he never got to advocate for. It is interesting to note that in the recording of King’s speech when the Declaration of Independence is quoted it is reacted to by the congregants as if it were gospel. When King says “All men are created equal” he is met with a chorus of “Amen”.

Every ideology, every empire, every attempt to build anything has a set of foundational texts. The state or philosophy which is  being built always attempts to remain loyal to the foundational texts. These texts move us on a historical scale; they motivate our wars and justify our crimes. Although the last few centuries are frequently described as the “Age of Ideology” this is not a product of the printing press or any other invention of modernity. Alexander the Great kept a copy of The Iliad under his pillow during his conquests. He so loved Homer’s epic that he made pilgrimages to the ruins of Troy during his invasion of Persia and frequently imitated the actions of Homeric heroes.

For every society, these texts and stories are stitched together, sometimes awkwardly, and weave a tapestry of moral and political meaning. They are our North Stars, by whose light we orient ourselves and navigate forward through history.

But historically, the vision of America presented in the first paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence is very dissimilar to anything intended by the founders of America. There is a dissonance in American history created by the radical claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and that certain rights are natural and unalienable. This revolutionary proposition is at sharp odds with the institution of slavery in America.

Taken in its entirety, the Declaration is an immensely self-contradictory document, and read as such there is certainly a case to be made for discarding it. It was written by a slave-owner after all. It’s problems are obvious and glaring and not easily or rightly ignored.

 

But I disagree with the assertion made by some that the failures of the American revolution are reason to condemn to condemn the “American experiment”. There is no doubt, and no honest or moral denying the failures of the United States. American failures are not moulded by circumstance. But at the same time Jefferson and Washington were profiting off the scarred backs of their slaves, Thomas Paine wrote “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Paine’s hopes for a rebirth of human freedom were dashed in the American and then in the French revolution. It is worth noting that Paine died penniless, condemned by the founders.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in his book Achieving Our Country

You cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.

If America is to survive its current political crisis (formally known as the Trump Administration) it must abandon the shallow simplifications of the past. If America is to live up to the story it tells the world about itself; it cannot be the story of Jefferson or Washington. It cannot be the story of Hamilton either, no matter how catchy the songs. The history of America, of the America that matters, the America that is worth saving; is the history of people like Martin Luther King and Thomas Paine. It is the history of those who fought, for years and often with no hope of victory, against the slave trade, against segregation, against injustice, inequality and oppression.  It is a history of the silenced, the downtrodden, the poor and the hungry. It is a history of those who were loyal to idea of America and never bound by one they inhabited.

I’ve ended up accidentally writing a trilogy of essays, largely because of my own need to negotiate my relationship with the country I’m studying in. Next week I’ll be doing a less self-involved piece about why stupid ideas are popular and (on an entirely unrelated note) probably Jordan Peterson.

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The Revolutions Will Not Be Improvised

Journalists, pundits and the casual observer all had something in common in the wake of the US bombing of the Al-Shayrat airfield in Syria. Especially in the first few hours, before ideology and orthodoxy could set in, none of us knew what to make of it.
Many of Trumps more odiously vocal supporters are outraged. Leading figures of the Alt-Right were quick to condemn the attack and Trump as “just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet.”

They view this as a betrayal of the American isolationism Trump paid lip-service to throughout his presidential campaign.
Many establishment Republicans have praised Trumps actions. Even leading figures in Democratic party initially responded with guarded praise, tempered by the lack of Congressional approval and the hypocrisy of an administration that shuts its doors to victims of the Syrian conflict but uses their suffering to justify military action.

Public response has been predictably incensed. Hysterical declarations of the Third World War were issued, conspiracies that posit that the chemical weapons used in Syria were part of a ‘false-flag’ operation now run rampant through the veins of the internet. In short, we all responded as expected. Except for Trump, whose opposition to American to intervention in Syria has in the last 36 hours been painstakingly documented.

Many have called Trump hypocritical for his yielding to the interventionist foreign policy that Obama had rejected. The truth seems far more dangerous. We have no reason to believe that Trump was disingenuous in his opposition all these years. The volume and consistency of this opposition indicates a genuine, if occasionally incoherent, sentiment.
Indeed, the Trump campaign did push the narrative that voting for Hillary Clinton would be a vote for a war hawk, who would lead America back into the quagmires of the Middle East.
Unfortunately this is not hypocrisy. The Trump administration was, until the use of chemical weapons, making overtures towards re-legitimizing al-Assad.
It seems the crucial factor in this foreign policy reversal is in the videos of Syrian victims of chemical warfare. His description of the attacks was uncharacteristically lucid.

Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

A noble sentiment. One that does seem to require that those opposed to Trump acknowledge that he is not an evil man. Not yet at any rate. He is pompous, narcissistic, vulgar and profoundly ignorant. His psyche seems the closest to a tinpot dictator America has ventured in a very long time. But, despite his rancid proximity to evil, he is no Vladimir Putin. Not yet.

The majority of the positions Trump has adopted thus far have been more or less boilerplate Republican. Under any other president this would have been unfortunate for those Americans whose welfare, subsidies, abortion rights and childcare will be cut, but have little effect on the liberal world order. That Trump seems to have made a major foreign policy decision on impulse should concern us all. Assad using chemical weapons is an arbitrary line to draw, when joint Russo-Syrian forces are routinely bombing schools and hospitals. This new American interventionism of Trumps is propelled purely by public relations and the visceral reactions we all share in seeing children gassed to death. Under any other president, Republican or Democrat, this action would be nearly unanimously praised.

American Ideals
One of the darkest aspects of the Obama years is in his refusal to hold al-Assad to account, even after the now infamous ‘red-line’ on chemical weapons was crossed.
He had the power to limit civilian deaths and de-escalate the Syrian Civil War and in a fit of presidential pique he chose not to, largely because doing so would heavily alienate the Democratic base. In a profile by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic Obama claimed to be “very proud of this moment”, when he chose to break with the “Washington playbook”.

Obama is frequently described in the press and on television as thoughtful and dignified. He seems in this instance to pride himself on his independence from conventional wisdom.
However, his decision to leave Syrians to the mercy of their tyrant reflects a growing and perhaps even dominant strain of thought among citizens of Western democracies.

This is that they have no business involving themselves in ‘regional conflicts’. Those who argue  for the necessity of intervention in a purely pragmatic sense; to curb Russian or Chinese or Iranian impulses are accused of war-mongering, as was done to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. More worryingly, those who make the far more principled case for Jeffersonian democracy; the intentional expansion of human rights and democratic forms of government, are labelled Western Imperialists.
This line of thinking is best represented in the points and person of Noam Chomsky. It carries with it an antipathy to Western military force that largely stems from the Vietnam War. More often that not it requires citation of the incompetence with which the Iraq war was handled and how that incompetence ‘created ISIS’. Those who paid attention will be quick to point out that Iraq was a significantly more stable country when Barack Obama was inaugurated and that it was not until the US withdrew its forces in 2011 that Jihadists regained their ground. The withdrawal of American troops at its core boils down to a shortfall of popular support and a poverty of political will.

Most citizens of liberal democracies will defend the value of liberty and democratic institutions. If asked in a non-committal sense if they would prefer if the Middle East was more democratic you would be hard pressed to find a mainstream voice arguing against it. The burden of tyranny on the peoples of the Middle East are clear even from our current, detached distance. This much is evident in the short-lived hope many of us felt in the initial stages of the Arab Spring in 2011. Finally these dictators would be overthrown by their peoples. We all know how that ended.
Fundamentally we want people to be free from tyranny. We would just prefer if they managed to make themselves free without bothering us.
This is a dangerously immoral position to hold and it is one that is profoundly ignorant of historical reality.

Our culture and sketchy educations have painted a poor picture of revolution. We think of the success of the Enlightenment and American revolution as having sprung forth, from the hearts and minds of ‘the people’, like Athena from Zeus. In truth, they were complex interactions between pragmatic political actors, some of whom happened to support revolutions. The American revolution, frequently idealized as the archetypal revolution, was largely motivated by the growing abolitionist sentiment in Great Britain. Coupled with tax raises, this moved the Thirteen Colonies to armed rebellion. And rebellion it would have remained were it not for the support of the French Monarchy, who supplied the Colonists with guns and ships and prevented British domination of the American coasts.
If we require a point of contrast; the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, was similiarly motivated by high taxes. It was put down by George Washington himself. This was a local rebellion without the support of a major power, and it was readily crushed.
Revolutions succeed, rebellions fail.

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For decades however, popular culture and media has portrayed the fight for freedom as won by a small group of ‘rag-tag’ rebels. Luke Skywalker in his dinky X-Wing in Star Wars, the high school kids in Red Dawn. All it takes is resistance and rebellion. Grit and righteous determination light the path.
This view, though it makes for some very good films, has very poorly effected our collective understanding of revolutions. They are not spontaneous uprisings, certainly not the successful ones.  Revolutions require sponsors, and allies. The nature of dictatorship and tyranny is inherently totalitarian. In a closed system where the tyrant has the guns, no people’s revolt will ever be successful. For the people of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, North Korea, China and countless others, they cannot free themselves, however much they may wish to.

Earlier I referred to Jeffersonian democracy as the antidote to the poisonously amoral isolationism of Chomsky and Trump supporters alike.
If we are to defend and uphold liberal democratic ideals at home, we have no excuse beyond necessity to abandon them abroad. If you believe that Western intervention into the Middle East is doomed to failure on practical grounds that is your right and you may indeed be right. But if you claim to oppose that intervention on moral grounds, on ‘principled’  opposition to ‘Western Imperialism’, whatever that fluffy phrase means, you are not viewing the costs of tyranny and dictatorship with a clear mind. Jefferson wrote of an ‘Empire of Liberty’, one committed to the freedoms of thought, speech and association required in free societies. Whatever its faults, and they are many, the application of this Empire of Liberty has never approached the cruelty and malice of the Communist and fascist empires it opposed through the 20th century. It is a grave injustice to those who hope for liberty to even compare it to the theocratic empires that it faces today.

As free societies we failed those brave men and women who stood for their freedom in the Arab Spring. We routinely abandon homosexuals, atheists, women and all freethinkers to the molestation of theocrats and dictators.
There is never a better time to acknowledge our failure and our cowardice. Thankfully the people f these nations are resilient. If we choose to we can, and I believe should, defend and support their rebellious, their dissidents and protesters. And when the revolutions come, if they come, we must ensure that they will not be improvised.

A Letter Re: the Public

I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump. The last year we have been inundated with the man and all the reasons why the subject is sour are not difficult to find. Indeed perhaps that is one of the primary reasons many, myself included, find themselves so dismayed at his victory. Four more years of crudeness, ignorance and frighteningly un-impotent rage can exhaust those who look for more grace in their leaders. But this is not a piece about Trump’s failings. There are enough of those on pages like this.

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This is the sort of thing late night comedy wouldn’t get away with a few years ago.

I want to also draw your attention to the failures of the Democratic party and the American left wing in general. The cursory appeals to a generic better America, the institutional illiberality of their support for Clinton throughout the primaries and the sheer political inbreeding confirmed by the emails show a party dangerously out of touch with the spirit of the age and self-segregated within the gated communities of academia and media into delusion. The nature of the establishment arguments in favour of Clinton seem, especially with the perspective of hindsight, particularly sinister. The language of the ‘presumptive nominee’ lent the entire process a whiff of the banana republic. Those who proselytized to the unconverted voter how much Clinton ‘deserved’ the presidency as if it were some perverse reward for public service must now feel an affinity with every other imbecilic moral prophecy that spouts predetermination as somehow just. That it was ‘her turn’ seemed dogma in certain spheres of thought.
But even this has been said elsewhere in greater depth and detail.

I address this missive to the American voter. Those making merry and those in mourning in what I hope is equal measure.
In 1989 a man wrote an essay called ‘The End of History’. It defines much of the worst excesses of the global left.
The author, Francis Fukuyama argued that;

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

It’s easy to see now just how wrongheaded this thesis is. The details of the book are more nuanced and interesting. But what matters is that the idea above is what permeated the political left, throughout Europe and America. The inevitability of liberal triumph made us complacent. Our belief in the righteousness of our cause induced an intolerance of the ‘wrong’ ideas and of the ‘ignorant’ and ‘stupid’ people that espouse them.
This is the liberalism of my parents’ generation. The liberalism of Angela Merkel, Tony Blair and the Clintons. It is the liberalism that crowned Hillary Clinton and conspired to stonewall Bernie Sanders. It is the liberalism that the majority in our parents generation have now rebuffed.
This liberalism is not healthy. It is a foul reality when the right wing, the successors of McCarthy and Nixon, are those who appear most often in defence of the freedoms of speech and expression whose acquisition and defence were the greatest triumphs of the left. It is the liberalism that the majority in our parents generation have now rebuffed.
The right is no more sympathetic to those liberties than before, theirs’ is the radicalism of the oppressed, no, the principled. But that they are assuredly oppressed is an indictment of the liberal lefts capitulation to the worst impulses of the empowered. We are so convinced of the rectitude of our conviction that we grow contemptibly impatient with dissent.

We can already see this infirmity of principle seeping into the young. We see college students incapable of dealing with challenges to their ideology. So we silence. And censor. So a critic of Islam is an Islamophobe. A critic of Black Lives Matter is a racist. A critic of Hillary Clinton is a misogynist. We are nearing an abundance of intolerance. The right will not respond kindly to the protestations of the left. We have cried wolf, bigot and sexist so often and so loudly that even when it is true the sound of dissent dissolves in the white noise of partisan hackery that is our media.

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“They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.”-The late Sir Terry Prachett

The left, Democrats, liberals and progressives are now the political minority around the world. Not because of the ignorance or prejudice of our opponents but because of the frailty of our convictions in the face of convenience. It is easier to smear, to silence, to shame. We should know, the revolutions that gave us the freedoms we enjoy fought against those tactics.

The surge of opinion pieces lamenting democracy and its stupidity is the sort of thing that drives a movement like Trump’s. Our intellectuals and opinion makers show their true colours in these confessions of illiberalism. The ‘elite’, who have demonstrated that accusations that they are out of touch are warranted, because their naive belief in the inviolability of the liberal project has made them careless. The good life of the liberal intellectual in the cities of the nation has made them unwilling to consider challenges to the liberal world order.
But this is only an explanation. Who is to blame for what seems now to be the collapse of that order is irrelevant. The question must be what do we do next.

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The philosopher William James in his book The Principles of Psychology writes;

We cannot control our emotions…. But gradually our will can lead us to the same results by a very simple method: we need only in cold blood act as if the thing in question were real, and keep acting as if it were real, and it will infallibly end by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real.

James was writing of the nature of belief, but we should assume his words as a mandate to do better. If we allow the sins of our fathers to infect the principles of our conviction we will march a short route to chaos. We must dissent. We must argue. We must protest. And if we succeed we must promise not to abandon the promise of a liberal world as our parents have done. However difficult. However uncomfortable. We cannot simply allow history’s end.
To quote a Republican president of the United States;

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. . . . We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait

Remember the Ladies

“You have to know the past to understand the present.”
― Carl Sagan

Recently I have been reading a variety of correspondence between the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. In addition to being an unequivocal wealth of historical insight, the letters are surprisingly effective at humanising figures spoken of by most in the same breath as gods. It is a curious inversion of the laws of optics that the distance of time makes great men legends.
However, it seems that this rather pleasant order is upended with great women the same temporal distance from the present. So I felt the urge to help distribute the history of one such woman and ask for others to follow.
Continue reading “Remember the Ladies”