Category Archives: Political Entertainment

The Spirit of Monarchy and the Spirit of Republic

Comp class yesterday was quite fun.  We started out digging into the text of the Declaration of Independence, a document that, for good reasons and bad, has become a sort of canonical document in America, good for quoting and waving as a talisman but not often good for reading.  My students immediately picked up on all of the John Locke and Montesquieu in the document; what they didn’t immediately see was that the document was not addressed to the English government at all but rather to the rest of the world.  The declaration part of the Declaration is a note to the nations that diplomatic relations should from this point forward happen directly with the government of America, not through the Crown.  Setting things in that frame helped, I think, make some more sense of the list of complaints.

We also spent a bit of time on Tom Paine, whose railing at the concept of hereditary monarchy in Common Sense is always fun to read.  If the royal family started out as the toughest gangster on the block, he writes, why in the world should anyone pay that institution any respect at all?  No grand philosophy going, but as people say facilely about certain public figures, his rhetoric is so powerful!

The bulk of the class, though, we spend talking about Montesquieu monumental On the Spirit of the Laws.  Most folks know it as the “separation of powers” document, and indeed it does prescribe that the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the government should not fall into the same human being’s hands.  But the real wonder of the document has to do with the spirit part–Montesquieu develops a full ethical theory of government after the manner of Plato’s forms of the city, and his insights bring together the best of Locke’s Commonwealth theory and the best sort of Platonic psychology to form a new theory of democracy.  

In a despotism, Montesquieu holds, the chief virtue of the population is fear: what angers the despot is deadly for the people, who have no protection from the laws, so the people who fare best are the ones who stay down.  In a monarchy, where laws buttress the state, honor is the premium, or rightful respect for the rightful king.  Here the people know their place (under the king) but nonetheless rightly expect a certain fixed order beyond the leader’s will.  In a republic or democracy, on the other hand (Montesquieu does not distinguish between the two), the people must be possessed of manhood, or somebodiness.  (I made that word up, though I’m sure I’m not the first.)  Because in a democracy every person is the highest authority (because everyone is an equal authority), education in that system must move towards a self-respect rather than respect of a king-who-is-not-one’s-self, and the fruit of that self-respect should be active participation in the community.

We finished off with one of the Federalist papers, in which Madison, writing as Publius, sets forth regional representatives as the cure for the mob rule to which pure democracy is prone.  I told my students that, although regional representation is simply the way things are for us, Madison and the Constitutional Convention really were sharp on that, given that their chief models for genuinely non-monarchical government were Rome, where the patrician families controlled the state, and Athens, where the population was only a few thousand.  I’m not sure that I communicated that as well as I should have, but such is life.

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Horowitz at the MLA

Impasse at MLA

Folks who have read my material over at the Conservative Reformed Mafia know that I agreed to participate in an experiment with J. Wizzle (a screen name, of course) in which we both reviewed David Horowitz’s Indoctrination U, he from the perspective of an undergraduate student and I from the perspective of a non-tenured university teacher.  I went in trying to be as open-minded as I could be about Horowitz’s project, but ultimately I found too many contradictions inherent in his philosophy to take him seriously.

I just read that Horowitz was invited to the MLA a couple weeks ago for a panel and that, predictably, the people whose careers he seems bent on ending didn’t receive him entirely enthusiastically.  Not any less predictably, the meeting was not entirely productive:

Mr. Horowitz may have a point about the absence of real discussion, since the two camps seemed to talk past each other. He and Mr. Bauerlein each criticized the professoriate for not acknowledging real problems in the classroom or the ways identity politics can infringe on academic freedom. “The danger to academic freedom comes from within, not from David Horowitz, Anne Neal, or Stephen Balch,” said Mr. Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University. In their remarks, Mr. Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ms. Cantú, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, did not respond to the supposed problems described by the other panelists; instead they offered defenses of academic freedom as essential for higher education, especially as rising numbers of adjunct faculty members lack customary protections.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in colleges where Horowitz hasn’t been much of a presence (though he’s made overtures to UGA’s College Republicans and indicated a willingness to bring his show to Athens).  I do, however, feel his influence, making doubly sure any time that students might misunderstand me to cover my backside and emphasize that I’ve said nothing directly disparaging the GOP or any of its affiliates.  (I know that shouldn’t be a problem for one who teaches Plato and Beowulf, but that’s how pervasive this nonsense is becoming.)  Despite his claims that he wants to take “politics” out of the classroom, in fact he has made quite clear to those of us who aren’t superstars in our institutions that he and his organization can make us more trouble than we’re worth to our schools, ruining our careers, if we dare to bring our fields of knowledge to bear on anything that the students don’t particularly like.

I was also saddened but not entirely surprised to see that Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation (which I reviewed here), was Horowitz’s fellow panel member and attack dog.  I should note his criticism of me, because he says unequivocally that I’m the problem, not Horowitz.  So here’s his quote from the Chronicle piece, responding to accusations that Horowitz deliberately misrepresents the professors he targets:

That kind of rhetoric may have been what Mr. Bauerlein had in mind when he said that certain professors on the left deny to Mr. Horowitz and other critics “any decent or honest motive. They don’t grant them the impulse to care about young minds and the curriculum. They cast them as partisan hacks, and that’s wrong.”

Indeed, I haven’t seen anything from Horowitz to convince me that he’s got any kind of honest motives.  I don’t think he cares about the students.  I think he is a hack.  So I suppose I’m one fo those “leftist” professors, meaning apparently that I’m not impressed with Horowitz.

Given that Bauerlein’s recent book (see the link above for a rather positive review) argues that professors should reassert themselves as teachers of wisdom and resist consumerism’s encroachments into the academy, I think that his backing Horowitz goes beyond the absurd and into the unintelligible.  After all, to put outside pressure on the teachers, to let them know that exploring the wrong topics will end their careers, is to put the students’ basest desires in the driver’s seat.  If a professor stays on the script that the consumer-students want, great.  If not, if the teacher decides to challenge some preconceptions or point out contradictions or do the sorts of things that teachers ought to be doing, then it’s curtains.  The result is that the consumer-students get precisely what they want, which may or may not be anything resembling education.

Of course, I realize that teachers’ drinking hemlock is nothing especially new, and I realize as well that teachers who criticize the powerful of the assembly are the ones most likely to drink it.  I just wish that people could be honest enough to call Horowitz the anti-intellectual that he is.

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Who Gets Paid?

The same political faction that was clamoring to preserve the part of a financial sector bailout package that keeps CEO salaries as high as CEO’s can manage, unhindered by the will of the plebs, mere months ago, is now blocking an auto industry bailout because they don’t want union workers making any more money than non-union workers.  Wealth, Labor.

I’m generally not the sort to strike people or even say overtly mean things, but I am going to shake my head in amused disbelief the next time somebody tells me that “conservatives” don’t like the nation’s “elites.”  It’s not even a clandestine class war any more: when it’s the billionaires, one faction wants unlimited tax dollars going their way.  When it’s auto workers, the same faction won’t budge until they can break up one of working people’s only sources of political and economic influence.  Wealth, Labor.

This is not hard.

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No Eucharist for ANY OF YOU!

SC Priest: No communion for Obama Supporters

I have to admit that I’m more conflicted about this story than some of my liberal friends would likely want me to be.  But I do think that the Eucharist is serious enough that the Church should be cautious rather than reckless in administering it.  After all, I’m very impressed with the way that certain Chilean priests denied the Mass to torturers from Pinochet’s prison system.  I’m horrified that Fr. George Zabelka, a Catholic army chaplain, did not immediately excommunicate the men flying the atomic bomber over Nagasaki, where they would murder thousands of Christians in one stroke.  (He repented very publicly after the war.)  And I think that the Church would do well to return to the old just-war tradition that witheld the Lord’s Supper from anyone who killed anyone in a war, especially those who did so in a war that the Church opposed.  So by no means would I ever make the eucharist the “private matter” that so many would make of “religion.”

That said, I do wonder whether this is the time to do so, and I wonder whether limiting the interdict to Obama voters isn’t an act of crawling into bed with the GOP in the manner that Jim Dobson and his ilk have.  I would propose a broader excommunication, but before I get to that, I should rehearse what’s actually happening here.  As with most excommunications (including the ones I mentioned above), the edict is not a permanent ban but a call to repentance:

A South Carolina Roman Catholic priest has told his parishioners that they should refrain from receiving Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama because the Democratic president-elect supports abortion, and supporting him “constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil.”

The Rev. Jay Scott Newman said in a letter distributed Sunday to parishioners at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville that they are putting their souls at risk if they take Holy Communion before doing penance for their vote.

In other words, parishioners can perform penance, publicly acknowledging their complicity with the public evil, and then live knowing that Christ has forgiven them.  Excommunication, from its earliest Pauline roots, assumes that contrition is a necessary precondition for repentance, and it’s basically a public acknowledgment that what one has done does not hold with what Church is all about.

Given that, I would have hoped that this South Carolina priest would have extended the call for repentance to those who voted in 2004 for the chief executive who was a perpetrator of an unjust war in 2003, to those who voted for any president who has not made the ban on abortion an actual policy priority, and for any president who advocated the proliferation of nuclear weapons, those diabolic engines so early used to exterminate all the Christians (and their beloved neighbors) in Nagasaki and which stand as the world’s foremost threat to eliminate children, pregnant mothers, and all sorts of unborn human beings.  I think that such a gesture would have been quite shocking to the good patriotic folks of South Carolina (after all, how could voting be a sin?), but I think it would have been the right sort of public gesture and started the right sorts of conversations, whereas a reasonable person could look at what Reverend Newman did and think his move an act of taking sides not against sin but against one faction’s sin while overlooking the sins of all other factions.

Had the priest made that sort of gesture, perhaps some in America would have remembered (the Church has always taught this) that our citizenship is not with any nation but with Heaven, that the votes we cast as sojourners here will always smell like the Prince of the Air.  Instead, he’s sent a fairly clear message: “Vote Republican, Go to Heaven.”

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Changing my Name to Chrysler

It appears I jumped too early on the “Changing my Name to Fannie Mae” thing.  If I’d just waited about a week, I could have just posted about auto makers again.

Privatize the profits, socialize the losses.  And people wonder why people get as suspicious of Big Business as they do of Big Government–we can see full well that they’re staying at the same motel room.

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Cute Little Idea

From 52 to 48 with Love

Someone mentioned this at work the other day, and I checked it out.  I don’t know that still photos, no matter how clever, can compete with twelve hours (in some areas) of AM radio every day, but it’s a nice gesture nonetheless.  I like the fact that both “fifty-twos” and “forty-eights” have submitted their photographs.

Nothing too substantial today; just a feel-good website.  Look for more substance in coming days.

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What’s the Matter with Kansas Now?

I know I’m weird for all sorts of reasons, and the most recent is that, after retreating into my paper-grading and preparing for my guest lecture at Emmanuel College the full week before the presidential election, I picked up a piece of polemical federal electoral non-fiction (a political book, if you’re not an Aristotelian) the day after my guest talk.

Thomas Frank is one of those political writers that actually makes his subject matter fun without making it a joke.  He’s obviously no friend of the GOP, but he’s openly critical of the “New Democrats” as well, largely because they’ve implicitly given up on economics as a point of policy, ceding the territory entirely to the Republicans and their global capitalist ideology.  In other words, part of the force of GOP caricatures of “liberals” as New-Left rich kids who don’t care about any actual laborers so long as nobody threatens their abortions and their sense of moral superiority comes from the fact that much of the party’s leadership has been targeting the folks who used to be called moderate Republicans, content to be “not the Conservatives” and giving a cold shoulder if not the middle finger to the people whose economic interests they used to represent because those poor folks are going to go God, guns, and gays anyway.

I do have to wonder, though, at the fact that such a careful writer would take half of the steps to an interesting historical insight and not take the other half.  Frank rightly notes that in the early days of Fundamentalism its most vocal proponents were left-wingers, decrying the Capitalist ideology that whoever lands on top of the industrial heap must be there because of some inherent and natural fitness to rule.  William Jennings Bryan especially opposed the onrush of such biological determinism because to allow such conclusions would be to cede to industrial Capitalism the legitimacy that scientific endorsement lends.  He also notes that for a series of bizarre reasons (definitely worth reading), those people who oppose evolution in the early twenty-first are the selfsame people most vocally behind the interests of the Capitalist establishment.  He notes well that an elaborate game of bait-and-switch becomes necessary, and moreover he points to the creation of the “liberal elite,” an imaginary enemy if ever there was one, is necessary and in most cases sufficient for convincing people to vote against their own economic interests.

The missing half is, of course, why genuine economic liberals, who traditionally favor policies that benefit the working poor, have embraced materialistic evolution, an ideology rooted in strife and supremacy, while retaining the largely Capitalist-limiting economics that were rooted in medieval Christian, desire-transforming models rather than the strange (perhaps even heretical) providence of natural selection and the invisible hand.  Personally, I find both combinations bizarre, but for reasons beyond my perception, Frank chooses to focus on one misfit rather than the other.  I know that the easy and cynical reading would be that he’s simply pandering to the Democrats who might buy subsequent books, but my gut tells me he’s a bit more thoughtful than that.

But then again, I do tend towards Pollyannaishness on occasion.

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