Saturday, January 31, 2009

Quartered Safe Out Here

This past fall I read an excellent memoir by George MacDonald Fraser about his time with Britain's Fourteenth Army ("the Forgotten Army") in Burma during World War II. I figured I might share a few of my favorite passages from Quartered Safe out Here with you. On the lighter side of things:

I wondered then, as I wonder now, what the Church of England's policy was about padres who put themselves in harm's way; giving comfort to the wounded and dying, fine, but ethical problems must surely arise if Jap came raging out of a bunker into his reverence's path; the purple pips on the chaplain's shoulder wouldn't mean a thing to the enemy, so... [sic]. And if padre shot a Jap, what would the harvest be - apart from three ringing cheers from the whole battalion? In my own Church, the highly practical Scottish one, it would doubtless be classed as a work of necessity and mercy, but I wasn't sure about the Anglicans. (110)

Having fought against the Japanese, Fraser was a proponent of the atomic bombing of Japan. Turnaround was fair play, he argued, and the Japanese had it coming. Besides, as a man who had seen Japanese soldiers fight to the death in combat, Fraser had little patience for theories that Japan was on the verge of collapse. All that makes the following passage even more powerful:

If, on that sunny August morning, Nine Section had known all that we know now of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and could have been shown the effect of that bombing, and if some voice from on high had said: 'There - that can end the war for you, if you want. But it doesn't have to happen; the alternative is that the war, as you've known it, goes on to a normal victorious conclusion, which may take some time, and if the past is anything to go by, some of you won't reach the end of the road. Anyway, Malaya's down that way... it's up to you', I think I know what would have happened. They would have cried 'Aw, fook that!' with one voice, and then they would have sat about, snarling, and lapsed into silence, and then someone would have said heavily, 'Aye, weel,' and then got to his feet, and been asked, 'W'eer th' 'ell are gan, then?' and given no reply, and at last the rest would have got up too, gathering their gear with moaning and foul language and ill-tempered harking back to the long dirty bloody miles from the Imphal boxes to the Sittang Bend and the iniquity of having to go again, slinging their rifles and bickering about who was to go on point, and 'Ah's aboot 'ed it, me!' and 'You, ye bugger, ye're knackered afower ye start, you!' and 'We'll a' get killed!', and then they would have been moving south [toward the new front in Malaya]. Because that is the kind of men they were. And that is why I have written this book. (221)

So who were these men of Nine Section, in one little corner of the 17th Division of the 14th Army?

With the exception of Parker, who I suspect voted Tory if he voted at all (free lances are a conservative lot), and one or two of the rustics, who may have voted Liberal, [the men of the Border Regiment] were Labour to a man, but not necessarily socialists as the term is understood now. Their socialism was of a simple kind: they had known of the 'thirties, and they didn't want it again: the dole queue, the street corner, the true poverty of that time. They wanted jobs, and security, and a better future for their children than they had had - and they got that, and they were thankful for it. It was what they had fought for, over and beyond the pressing need of ensuring that Britain did not become a Nazi slave state.

Still, the Britain they see in their old age is hardly 'the land fit for heroes' that they envisaged - if that land existed in their imaginations, it was probably a place where the pre-war values co-existed with decent wages and housing. It was a reasonable, perfectly possible dream, and for a time it existed, more or less. And then it changed, in the name of progress and improvement and enlightenment, which meant the destruction of much that they had fought for and held dear, and the betrayal of familiar things that they loved. Some of them, to superficial minds, will seem terribly trivial, even ludicrously so - things like county names, and shillings and pence, and the King James Version, and yards and feet and inches - yet they matter to a nation.

They did not fight for a Britain which would be dishonestly railroaded into Europe against the people's will; they did not fight for a Britain where successive governments, by their weakness and folly, would encourage crime and violence on an unprecedented scale; they did not fight for a Britain where thugs and psychopaths could murder and maim and torture and never have a finger laid on them for it; they did not fight for a Britain whose leaders would be too cowardly to declare war on terrorism; they did not fight for a Britain whose Parliament would, time and again, betray its trust by legislating against the wishes of the country; they did not fight for a Britain where children could be snatched from their homes and parents by night on nothing more than the good old Inquisition principle of secret information; they did not fight for a Britain whose Churches and schools would be undermined by fashionable reformers; they did not fight for a Britain where free choice could be anathematised as 'discrimination'; they did not fight for a Britain where to hold by truths and values which have been thought good and worthy for a thousand years would be to run the risk of being called 'fascist' - that, really, is the greatest and most pitiful irony of all.

No, it is not what they fought for - but being realists they accept what they cannot alter, and reserve their protests for the noise pollution of modern music in their pubs. (177-8)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kitsch, Emotion, and Ego

I would like to pass on to everybody here a good link I received, which came from Steve Sailer’s blog

The main theme of that blog post is that finding joy in kitsch is a way to stroke our ego. When we cry at the sight of a tragedy, that is understandable, and even good. But when we cry not because of the tragedy but out of appreciation for our own fine moral sentiment, that is egotistical. We turn a perfectly healthy emotion inwards upon itself, thus perverting it. “A love of kitsch is therefore essentially self-congratulatory.”

I was struck by the similarity of this idea to a passage I recently found in the works of St. Francis de Sales:

When overcome by anger, [many people] become angry at being angry, sad at being sad, and irritated at being irritated. By such means they keep their hearts entrenched and soaked in anger. It may seem that the second fit of anger does away with the first, but actually it serves to open the way for fresh anger on the first occasion that arises.

St. Francis and Sailer both point to an interesting, and very common, phenomenon. It is essential to our happiness to control and cultivate our emotions. Yet when we consciously strive to do this, we either lose control over our emotions, or in controlling them we become egotistical. It almost seems we would be better off if we stopped trying and just let our emotions run wild. How are we to reconcile self-control with humility?

St. Francis gives us the answer:

[Y]ou must humble yourself before God, implore his mercy, prostrate yourself before the face of his goodness, and ask for his pardon, confess your fault and beg for mercy in the ear of your confessor to receive absolution. But when that is done, remain peaceful, and having detested the offense, embrace lovingly your lowliness which slows down your advance in virtue.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Year of Revolutions

A. J. P. Taylor, my new rabbi in the field of history, wrote a number of essays about the year of revolutions, 1848, many of them for the hundredth anniversary. (If you have ever heard me say that I am suspicious of dances since 1848, that would be a comment upon the relative merits of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 – when the Viennese waltz was at the height of its craze – and the revolutions of 1848. But I digress.) Should I teach a European history course some day, a passage like the following would do much to clarify the significance of the year within a broader historical framework:

Eighteen forty-eight was the link between the centuries: it carried to the highest point the eighteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of man, yet, all unexpectedly, launched the social and national conflicts which ravaged Europe a century later. Socialism and nationalism, as mass forces, were both the product of 1848. The revolutions determined the character of every country in Europe (except Belgium) from the Pyrenees to the frontiers of the Russian and Turkish empires; and these countries have since shown common characteristics not shared by England, Russia, the Balkans, or Scandinavia. Politically speaking, a 'European' is an heir of 1848.

-Taylor, 'Year of Revolution', Manchester Guardian, 1 January 1948, in Napoleon to the Second International, 158.

As this passage suggests, however, the revolutions of 1848 did not affect Russia or the United States. Taylor explains:

The ideas of 1848 spread later to Russia; and the Russian revolutions of the twentieth century were in the true spirit of 1848. In fact, Russia, missing the disillusionment which followed the failure of 1848, alone retained faith in the revolutionary course. America was already democratic, and therefore for her, though there was no need for revolution, there was no need for disillusionment either. For a generation after 1848, and even longer, America offered to the peoples of Europe the economic and political prizes which failure had denied them in Europe. Still, 1848 left no tradition in either Russia or America.

-Taylor, introduction to The Opening of an Era: 1848, ed. Francois Fejto, in Napoleon to the Second International, 175.

Eighteen forty-eight created the modern obsession with economic equality, but this value surpassed political liberty for a strange reason:

'The right to work' was a protest as much against social inequality as against harsh living conditions. Nevertheless, by formulating this protest in economic terms, it launched the idea that liberty and political equality were negligible, or indeed valueless, in comparison with food and clothing. This idea was not intended by the social revolutionaries of 1848, who took up economic grievances principally in order to add greater force to their political demands. All the same, the damage had been done. Continental socialism, which had its origins in 1848, wrote off political democracy as bourgeois and accepted the doctrine that violence and intolerance were a small price to pay for social change. Class war took the place of the struggle for political liberty, and the Rights of Man were a casualty of 'the right to work'.

-Intro to The Opening of an Era, in Napoleon, 177.

Finally, Taylor, who saw himself as a man of the Left – though his greatest joy was smashing golden calves wherever he found them – provides this interesting insight into the limits of reason in the political sphere and the importance of tradition:

Peaceful agreement and government by consent are possible only on the basis of ideas common to all parties; and these ideas must spring from habit and from history. Once reason is introduced, every man, every class, every nation becomes a law unto itself; and the only right which reason understands is the right of the stronger. Reason formulates universal principles and is therefore intolerant: there can be only one rational society, one rational nation, ultimately one rational man. Decision between rival reasons can be made only by force. This lesson was drawn by the great political genius who observed the events of 1848: 'The great questions of our day will not be settled by resolutions and majority votes - that was the mistake of the men of 1848 and 1849 - but by blood and iron.' After 1848, the idea that disputes between classes could be settled by compromise or that discussion was an effective means of international relations was held only in England and America, the two countries which escaped the revolutions.

-Intro to The Opening of an Era, in Napoleon, 184.

Taylor believed in reason and therefore recognized what modern liberals do not: there can be only one truth. The zebra may be both black and white, but he cannot be both striped and not striped. Likewise, either all men are created equal and endowed with certain corresponding rights, or they are not. Holders of each position might both consider themselves rational, but they cannot agree and would be hard pressed to coexist except on the basis of some shared belief which could circumscribe their disagreement, a belief springing from habit or history.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Life: Imagine the Potential

In light of the recent inauguration and today's March for Life, this seemed fitting.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Virtues (and Vices?) of Tintin

I was recently reading an Economist article, "A Very European Hero", which pointed out that a 1949 French law - still in force - prohibits children's books from showing cowardice, laziness, lying, crime, hatred or debauchery in a positive light. Luckily for Tintin, the intrepid Belgian cartoon character and one of my childhood heroes, this is not a problem. "An overgrown boy scout, whose adventures involve pluck, fair play, restrained violence and no sex," Tintin can be counted upon to "seek the truth, protect the weak and stand up to bullies.... He defends monarchs against revolutionaries (earning a knighthood in one book). His first instinct on catching a villain is to hand him over to the nearest police chief. He does not carry his own gun, though he shoots like an ace. Though slight, he has a very gentlemanly set of fighting skills: he knows how to box, how to sail, to drive racing cars, pilot planes and ride horses. He... is quick to defend small boys from unearned beatings. His quick wits compensate for his lack of brawn."

What's not to love about such a hero? Well, some critics are skeptical of Tintin and his creator Hergé, whose real name was Georges Remi. (Just reverse the initials and you get his nom de plum.) For starters, there is the first comic, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets". It portrays Russia's Marxist rulers as deceivers and cold-blooded killers. This depiction has upset some academics, but seeing as how it is historically quite accurate (ignoring, of course, Tintin's many slapstick escapes), this is no real grounds for criticism.

Then there is the somewhat infamous "Tintin in the Congo", first published in 1930. "Its Africans are crude caricatures: child-men with wide eyes and bloated lips who prostrate themselves before Tintin (as well as Snowy his dog), after he shows off such magic as an electromagnet, or quinine pills for malaria.... It is a work of propaganda—not for “colonialism”, as is often said—but more narrowly for Belgian missionaries, one of whom keeps saving Tintin’s life in evermore ludicrous ways: first dispatching a half dozen crocodiles with a rifle then rescuing him from a roaring waterfall, seemingly unhindered by his advanced age and ankle-length soutane."

Unfortunate, to be sure, but it seems Hergé was more of an unwitting propagandist for the Belgian Congo than a committed racist. In "The Blue Lotus" we find our hero explaining to a young Chinese friend, "All white men aren't wicked. You see, different peoples don't know enough about each other. Lots of Europeans still believe that all Chinese are cunning and cruel and wear pigtails, are always inventing tortures and eating rotten eggs and swallows' nests." This hardly sounds like rampant racism to me.

Philippe Goddin, in his 2007 biography, raises other questions. In the Economist' words, he points out that "Hergé spent the war working for Le Soir, a Belgian newspaper seized by the German occupiers and turned into a propaganda organ.... [In] 'The Shooting Star', and its initial newspaper serialisation... [there is a] panic unleashed when it seemed a giant meteorite would hit the earth. In one frame... Hergé drew two Jews rejoicing that if the world ended, they would not have to pay back their creditors. At that same moment in Belgium, Mr Goddin notes, Jews were being ordered to move to the country’s largest cities and remove their children from ordinary schools. They were also banned from owning radios, and were subject to a curfew. In the news pages of Le Soir, these measures were described as indispensable preparations for an orderly 'emigration' of Jews." "The Shooting Star" first appeared in the newspaper in 1941; when it was released as an album in 1942, Hergé deleted the drawing of the Jews, of his own accord.

Again, "The Blue Lotus" seems to tell another story. First published in 1934, the story is unambiguous about the perfidious nature of the Japanese occupation of northern China and the fraudulent Chinese 'attack' on the South Manchurian Railway, which had been the pretext for aggression in 1931. The reader's sympathies clearly lie with the Chinese, both within and outside the International Settlement in Shanghai, whose European and American masters come off better than the Japanese, but hardly without criticism. (Though Hergé does not reference the fact, it is interesting to note that Shanghai became a haven for Jews escaping the Third Reich during the 1930s, as seen, for example, in the film The White Countess.) Hergé's actions during the Second World War deserve scrutiny, perhaps even condemnation, but readers would be remiss to simply discount his creation for this reason; indeed, Tintin himself would never approve of the sort of compromises his creator seems to have committed.

With this in mind, I was pleased to read that "filming is supposed to begin in earnest [in 2009] on a trilogy of Tintin films to be directed by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, using digital 'performance capture' technology to create a hybrid between animation and live action.... He said a film-maker like Mr Spielberg should be given free rein, and told his wife: 'This Tintin will doubtless be different, but it will be a good Tintin.'" Should you need further inducement to look forward to this trilogy, the Economist writes, "Any child reared on 'King Ottokar’s Sceptre', a Balkan thriller; or 'The Calculus Affair', about a scientist’s kidnap, will later feel a shock of familiarity when watching Hitchcock films or reading Graham Greene. It is all there: the dangerous glamour of cities at night; the terror of a forced drive into the forest; a world of tapped hotel telephones and chain-smoking killers in the lobby downstairs."

If "all societies reveal themselves through their children’s books," as the Economist contends, one that reads the adventures of Tintin is probably doing all right.

Special thanks to Santiago Ramos for bringing this article to my attention.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Christian Political Mythology

A while back I was reading a blog post and got to thinking about how we, as Christians, view the world. Is this life a place of exile or a pilgrim land, through which we merely pass? If we are merely passing through, we would do well to ignore the world, even hide from it, and focus on the end goal, our return (reditus or nostos) to the Lord. On the other hand, if this present life is a gift from the Lord, then it should not only be noticed, but cherished. How we understand the Christian response to politics is largely colored by our understanding of our present state. (I have recently been reading Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy, which has perhaps fueled my interest in legitimacy, law, subversion and such questions.) So what exactly is our present state? I have been trying to piece together a few archetypal insights into what you might call a Christian political mythology. Here it is:

Once upon on time there was a great and glorious kingdom, ruled by an ancient and wise King. Though His dominions were vast and rich, one day He decided to create a new land for His kingdom. Yes, create. Somewhere in the distant seas He decided to raise an island. He drew up plans, dispatches the greatest engineers and landscapers in the kingdom and a lavish island world was made. Legend had it that some of the most spectacular wonders of this land were the product not of His servants' hands, but of the King's own mental powers.

On this island He chose to settle some of His leading citizens. But in spite of choosing only the finest of settlers, and in spite of the lavish world He had created for them, the island settlers revolted against the King. And so, He decreed, their island home would no longer be a place of privilege, but of exile.

As the years passed, the distant King became increasingly relegated to the stories of legend. There were rumors among the islanders that at some distant time His armies had come and smashed the greatest wonders of their island home. But many of them doubted that these stories were true. They began to doubt that there were other lands, a splendid capital city with streets of gold, or a great and benevolent King Who ruled there. Some of the islanders even began to doubt that there were such things as greatness or benevolence.

But then a very curious thing happened: the King returned to His island. At least, that is what certain small gatherings of people began to claim. First they whispered it in the dark, but soon some were shouting it in the streets. He had returned, showing Himself to those of His subjects who were still faithful. He assured them that greatness and benevolence and love were indeed real, and He was the embodiment of them all.

But then something as curious as the King's return occurred (or so the story was told). He left. The King left the island once again. He had ordered those willing to listen to live as His faithful subjects and then He had left. But not without promising to return again (and this time, He said, there would be no confusion: He would come in power and might with all the royal armies). Moreover, He promised that those who remained faithful citizens of the kingdom, who proved themselves in the midst of this rebellious land, would be taken with Him back to His capital city, where they would rule with Him.

But what, the faithful asked, were they to do in the meantime? Should they seize control of the island, making war on their fellow islanders? Many doubted that had been the King's intention. Indeed, from time to time secret messages would be smuggled back and forth between the King, on the mainland, and His faithful subjects on the island. Though He exhorted them to love one another and remain faithful to Him, He never spelled out exactly how the island should be governed. While a handful of the islanders proclaimed themselves to be in open rebellion against the King, most simply doubted His existence. Some even stated publicly that they wished there was a King beyond the seas, but - alas - they were convinced there was none.

Some of the small number of open rebels, denouncing the tyranny of the King, demanded a government of the people, a democracy. The vast majority, doubting there ever had been a King, did not see themselves as rebels, but nevertheless thought this a good idea. Could they too, the faithful wondered, enter into such a government? Or would it be treason, a betrayal of their beloved King? Some said they should have no dealings with rebels. Other insisted that by sitting in council with the doubters, perhaps the faithful could win them over. And, after all, the King had left no governor to rule the island in His stead. Was it really treasonous to form a democracy, which might try to govern according to His will, in His absence? Some insisted the faithful should band together in one corner of the island, where they might live according to the King's laws, abandoning the rest of the island to the rebels. Other thought the King would want them to extend His reign across the whole of the land.

This, it seems to me, is the basic place of the Christian: we live in a world which was once a gift, became an exile, but has been transformed into a rite of passage, a preparation for some great reward and responsibility to come. How do we, Christians, live in the midst of a secular world? Do we abandon the political realm to the secularists? Do we try to seize government to impose virtue upon the unbelieving? Can we compromise with those do not share our moral views?

Insofar as the world is in rebellion against God, we are subversives in such a world. But we are also restorationists, traditionalists, loyalists trying to defend the monarchy of Christ the King. We are revolutionaries, insofar as we are called to change the world. But we are also pilgrims, ever called to remember that something greater lies beyond this world, and in our future.

These, it seems to me, are the conundra of Christian political philosophy. Relating them in a single story does not solve them but it does, I hope, at least bring the questions into slightly sharper focus, by bringing them into relation with one another.

This post first appeared on the Quincy House blog a few days ago.

La Llorona

For those looking forward to the new March of the Zapotec EP from Beirut next month, this video of the song "La Llorona" seems to be the only preview available. Hope you enjoy.

A separate EP, though they will be sold together, Beirut's Holland is also due out next month.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Remembering God

On this day in mid-January, mired with projects for work, the beginning of a new semester and no small sense of ennui, my memories sift to reveal one nearly perfect day in Copenhagen (side note to Steve: this is not to imply that the days once you arrived were not as good!) Arriving from sunny, yet hectic, Italy the brisk cold of Scandinavia awakened in me a curiosity and willingness to explore.

That day I walked miles along the river, taking photographs of the light dancing on the water, leaning over bridges and sitting under trees. The hours slipped away without seeing nary a museum or monument, but rather reflecting on my life, as well as universals, to the background music of a foreign land. I did not make any life changing decisions or discoveries that day, but the memory stands as a crystal-clear photograph in my mind as a day of peace of mind and heart.

Today, when the reality of daily labor seems much more present to me than theology, I see a glimpse of God in my memory. Augustine, in his Confessions, suggests that God's presence can be found in this slippery creature of remembrance. The memory serves as more than a catch all for learned skills and dates from one's life, but also as a apparatus for compiling an image of God's potency in our lives.

As I recall that day in Copenhagen, I see not only the trees, the water and the brightly colored building, but also a sense of God's hand in my life, working in my experiences and my thoughts that is much clearer to me now than it was on that hazy day. Suddenly, the work of day seems to be more than a list of tasks that I must plunge through, but a memory in the making that I will return to, noting God's presence and providence in my work this day.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Taylor on History

I have been reading the essays of A. J. P. Taylor, lately and I happened upon this passage and thought it quite instructive:

In most European languages 'story' and 'history' are the same word: histoire in French, Geschichte in German.... It would save much trouble if we had the same coincidence of words in English. Then perhaps we should not be ashamed to admit that history is at bottom simply a form of story-telling.

Historians nowadays have higher aims. They analyse past societies, generalized about human nature, or seek to draw morals about political or economic behavior that will provide lessons for the present. Some of them even claim to foretell the future. These are admirable ambitions which have produced work of high quality. But there is no escaping the fact that the original task of the historian is to answer the child's question: 'What happened next?'

-Taylor, 'History in Fiction,' Times Literary Supplement, 23 March 1973, in From Napoleon to the Second International, 36.

It is quite true. Historians who do “narrative history” are shunned; indeed the phrase has become a byword for writing which lacks footnotes and historical rigor. Not that there is any reason to assume that narrative structure means bad history. I have seen plenty of “history” organized in the most awful way, lacking substantial citation, written with meaningless social science terms and possessing the fluidity of an elementary school science paper. And this sort of thing is sometimes championed as great scholarship, while mere “storytellers” are seen as “populists,” whose crime, so far as I can tell, is writing books that people actually want to read.

This too struck me as a keen insight:

Our fiction [that of historians] comes in quite another way [from that of the historical novelist] and is all the more dangerous for being usually unconscious. We take the characters of the past too seriously. Most of our evidence until fairly recent times is about the thin top layer of society - kings, nobles, ministers and high clerics. They may be a poor lot but they are all we have, and we blot them up beyond their deserts. Experience teaches that hereditary succession is not a good way of producing ability. Yet we go on treating kings as though they possessed the sort of ability shown by men who had to fight their way to the top. Of course we acknowledge bad kings, according to the immortal phrase of Sellar and Yeatman, but we also find good kings and even great kings.

My late colleague Bruce McFarlane described Henry V as 'the greatest man that ever ruled England.' Great, say, compared with Churchill, let alone Cromwell? I do not believe it. I doubt whether he was much improvement on Ramsay MacDonald. Looking around the crowned heads who have bestrewn the European stage over the centuries, I cannot see any other than Frederick the Great as a man of more than common abilities, and even his abilities were on the thin side.

-Taylor, 'History in Fiction,' 41.

While I might disagree with Taylor's analysis of some of Europe's monarchs (though I suspect he knew so much more than I on the matter that a disagreement is not worth voicing), the insight is definitely a valuable one: to say that King Thus-and-Such invaded Whatsitcalled or built a bridge over the River Thingamadoo may say more about the instruments he inherited than the dexterity with which he wielded them.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Dangerous Game," part II

First of all, thanks, Aaron and Steve, for the responses, both of which are helpful in clarifying this parallel for me. Wilberforce and his “willingness to play the game of politics” is especially interesting to me. Was he influential in drafting laws abolishing slavery? Was he for gradual or sudden (a la our own Emancipation Proclamation) abolition? How entrenched was slavery (not merely the slave ‘trade’--which the U.S. stopped participating in 1808) in England at the time?

But let me bring this back to the United States. At the time of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, there was a range of opinions regarding the issue of slavery. I see four main positions cropping up: 1) slavery is a moral good, justified by the Scriptures (this would be what I would call the true “slaveholder’s position”); 2) slavery is a “right” that citizens of states and territories should be able to “choose” for themselves (Douglas’s position, and one that never answers or thinks one should answer whether slavery is right or wrong); 3) slavery is a moral wrong, but one that nevertheless requires us to have “due regard for its actual existence among us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way and to all the constitutional obligations thrown about it” (the official position of the Republican party at the time of the ‘58 debates, and thus Lincoln’s own position); and 4) slavery is wrong and thus should be abolished immediately, more or less regardless of circumstances (the extreme “abolitionist” position).

Is this range of positions, this spectrum applicable to our current abortion debate? I think so, and, in fact, without recognition of it, I think any reference to slavery in the abortion debate is destined to be fruitless. For example, Alan Keyes’s dabbling in the “dangerous game” of historical comparisons--his assertion that Obama is “holding the slaveholder’s position”--is clearly a misrepresentation. Obama’s position most closely resembles Douglas’s (2): he has never (to my knowledge) presented abortion itself as a positive good, but rather stated that the “right” to choose it is something he will always protect (as Douglas vowed always to protect the right of states and territories to choose whether or not to make slavery legal.)

It would seem, then, on the topic of abortion, that we have plenty of “abolitionists” and plenty of Stephen Douglases (positions 4 and 2). Where, though, are the Lincolns in all this? Where is “position three“?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Learning to Play a “Dangerous Game”

This just in from guest contributor Zach Czaia:

Aaron offered me the opportunity to post months ago. I’ve been enjoying the fruits of others’ wonderings and so figured I’d offer a wondering of my own (a wandering wondering at that) in the hopes that some of you all might offer your own insights on the subject.

In preparation for a graduate class at CUA called the “Eloquence of Lincoln,” I have been reading a good deal of Lincoln’s writings--consisting of letters and speeches mostly. I’ve been especially impressed and intrigued by his part in the debates with Stephen Douglas, when he ran for (and lost) the Illinois senate seat in 1858.

A cliff’s notes of the debaters’ key positions: Lincoln holds that slavery is a moral wrong, and that its being allowed to flourish in the new territories (Kansas and Nebraska) goes against the Founders’ initial vision of the institution as an inherited evil. (This position naturally puts him at odds with the Dred Scott decision equating slaves with “property.”) Douglas, meanwhile, refusing to ever publicly state whether or not slavery is “right” or “wrong,” campaigns on “the great principle of popular sovereignty”: what is important in this debate is that the people of a given state or a territory must have the right to decide for themselves whether slavery (or other institutions and laws) have binding power.

The introduction to my copy of the debates (ed. Robert Johannsen) warns that “it is a dangerous game to search for present day problems in past history; those who seek will generally find, regardless of the record.” This may be so. It may also be an interesting gloss on Lincoln and Douglas. (Lincoln’s assertion that the equality of all men--including slaves--is held by the “Founders”; and Douglas’ that the Founders’ always understood that declaration to exclude blacks, both seem to me to be an interpretations. In the case of Lincoln, the interpretation is revolutionary; in the case of Douglas, deeply conservative. The seeds for both positions, though, do seem to be present in the writings and actions of the “Founders.” Although I’d be happy to hear other arguments on this point.)

In any event the results of Lincoln’s presidency, which got its start in “searching for present day problems in past history” could certainly be described as “dangerous,” as well as salutary for the country. So, perhaps, might a thorough comparison between the case of slavery and the case of abortion.

My brother recently pointed me to the 2004 Illinois debates between now President-elect Obama and often-presidential nominee Alan Keyes. (I’m guessing you, Steve, have already had a pretty good taste of them.) The debates are spirited, certainly fascinating to consider in light of the historical moment we’re in now. Neither Keyes nor Obama (in my opinion) rises to anything close to what Lincoln and Douglas gave us in 1858. Keyes did, though, in his typically controversial manner, introduce the parallel I’m interested in, beginning his campaign in Illinois by dropping this bomb:

"I would still be picking cotton if the country's moral principles had not been shaped by the Declaration of Independence," Keyes said. He said Obama "has broken and rejected those principles — he has taken the slaveholder's position."

In the (many) YouTube clips I watched on the ‘04 debates, I didn’t hear this statement greatly fleshed out, which to me, is a shame. A “fleshing out” of this and other possible parallels is my goal here. Which comparisons are helpful to make from this moment, which ones are not? Why or why not?

(For example, I do not find Keyes’ comment about the “slaveholder’s position” helpful. Obama’s question about this view seems valid to me: if O. is supporting the slaveholder’s position by supporting the “woman’s right to choose,” wouldn’t that then make the woman the “slaveholder” and the unborn child the “slave”? If this is the case, it is difficult to see how the powerless position of many women who choose to abort their children is comparable to the powerful position of the slaveholders.)

In order that I don’t go on overlong, I end with an example of a distinction and reflection of the kind that (may) be fruitful in “fleshing out” this parallel:

For instance: The institution of slavery, as Lincoln points out, was a colonial inheritance of Britain and not something that was made or enacted by the new nation. (An evil that was tolerated.) This is different from abortion, a procedure that, while it may not be ‘new,’ is new insofar as it is legally protected. This difference suggests that a (not unprecedented) moral resurgence in its citizenry would be necessary for the institution of abortion to be abolished.

Any thoughts on this? Very rambling, I know. My first-ever blog post.

Steve, I was curious to know if you knew much about the legal history of Roe v. Wade and could comment on its relationship to the key legal cases on slavery.

One final thought: has anyone here seen Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire? Best (and only) documentary I’ve seen on the issue of abortion.

Ponzi Schemes and Social Security

Lately I've been reading quite a bit about the Madoff scandal. In case you have not yet heard, Bernie Madoff, a previously well-respected money manager and former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange, is accused of operating a gigantic Ponzi scheme since the late '70s, resulting in losses to his clients now of around $50 billion.

The basic idea of a Ponzi scheme is fairly simple. The operator of the scheme pays his old investors returns out of money he takes from new investors, rather than out of profits. Mr. Ponzi takes on investor A as a client, usually promising him a fairly high return on his money in order to entice him to enter the scheme. Then, when Mr. Ponzi needs to pay that investor his money back, he does so not out of the profits he makes on any trades he has transacted, but out of the money brought in by new investors. This is essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, but with a twist: Mr. Ponzi pockets all the money he can without the investors noticing it.

Ponzi schemes can become complicated, and Madoff obviously found ways to disguise what he was doing for a long time. Madoff's firm had several branches, not all of which were tied into this Ponzi scheme, and Madoff undoubtedly tried to cover his crimes with legitimate trading activity. He also was careful not to offer his investors absurdly high returns which would be sure to set off red flags.

Nevertheless, Ponzi schemes are doomed to failure, and failed in Madoff's case, when in the midst of an economic downturn investors withdraw their money from the scheme. Thus, essential to the ongoing success of a Ponzi scheme is the growing pool of investors. Madoff of course knew this, and recruited heavily.

All this brings me to my question: How exactly does Social Security differ from a Ponzi scheme? I fail to see any essential difference between the two. In social security the government collects money from its "investors" (i.e., tax-payers) and promises to set it aside and pay it out again in the future. In the meantime, what do they do except raid an account that is supposed to be kept in trust? Moreover, Social Security is having the same classic problem that faces all Ponzi schemes: not enough new money coming in. In the case of Social Security, the generation that is going to retire in the near future did not raise enough children. So, when they retire they will demand to withdraw their money, but there will not be enough young people paying into Social Security.

I hope I am wrong about this, and I very well may be mistaken about some of the details, but I do believe that I have the essentials right.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Higher Education: Practice for the Welfare State?

Eric Gibson, who has recently been visiting colleges with his high school son, recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled "Pleading Poverty: Colleges Want Parents to Foot the Bill for Their Largess". He writes:

I've been wide-eyed on some of my visits, struck by the extent to which being a student today resembles living at Versailles, where Louis XIV's every whim was so thoroughly accommodated that there was even a Superintendent of the King's Furniture. One college tour guide proudly informed us that upon arrival every freshman is issued a brand-new laptop. Even if the students already have one? Why, yes, the guide replied....

Until I started these tours, I used to assume that college kids tilted left politically because they were young and impressionable. Maybe, but it's also because they get introduced to the welfare state at a tender age and become addicted. The government (college) offers cradle-to-grave (matriculation-to-graduation) care and feeding, levying higher taxes (tuition) on the populace (parents) whenever the spirit moves them -- which is every year. Not even the actual government is that brazen.