Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts

Friday, April 13, 2018

Quote: Gene Healy on the Imperiling Presidency


from The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power by Gene Healy. p. 265

Over the course of the 20th century, Americans have transformed the presidency from a modest chief magistrate into a national father protector invested with the responsibility for fixing every major problem in American life. We've matched that responsibility for fixing every major problem with powers that are unlikely to meet those demands, but are virtually certain to threaten the American constitutional order.
How do we choose the person who will wield these powers? By accident more than design, we've come to select the president via a competition that favors boundless ambition and power lust. The winner of that competition lives in a social environment that would corrupt a saint. And he walks the halls accompanied by the military aide who carries the nuclear launch codes. 
Published by and available for free as a PDF from The Cato Institute.


Friday, March 9, 2018

Belated Thoughts on International Women's Day


I don't have much fondness for holidays, thinking as I do that what is worth commemorating by such a grand gesture is worth remembering more often than once per year. Too I think that celebrating something once a year has less the effect of drawing its value into focus so that we vividly see its meaning than it does of giving license to forget about that meaning through the rest of the year.

That said, I have more faith in some holidays than others. I prefer those steeped at least in tradition, if not religion. Easter reigns supreme, mostly unscathed by modern culture because its preparatory period of abstinence and the ineluctable element of suffering at its heart are unpalatable today. I'm most skeptical of modern, secular, international holidays, as they mostly seem cooked up for contemporary appetites, concocted out of whatever elements happen to be at hand.

It's probably so, though, that many holidays and festivals which today are solemn have an inglorious origin, sometimes pragmatic and others simply expedient. I am reminded of two accounts from Livy, one of my favorite Latin authors and one not remembered well enough as a masterful storyteller, that remind us of what gets lost in the years of retelling.

The first regards how the Lupercalia, a Roman festival of purifying and fertility that included a nude trot along the Palatine, was begun even before the founding of Rome when two youths ran around naked for "sport and wantonness" (per lusum atque lasciviam), in honor of Pan. The second tale concerns the passing of Romulus, who was either carried away on a cloud during a sudden storm on the Campus Martius or, some say, torn to pieces by the senators.

Much like being torn to pieces, International Women's day is hard to like, and not just because I don't have faith in it, a modern, secular, international holiday if there ever was one. Rather it is the spirit of antagonism that never seems to have dissipated from its socialist origins. The first march was organized by socialist-suffragist-activist Theresa Malkiel in 1909 and caught on among the communists until in 1977 that uncorrupted body of wisdom, The United Nations, enshrined the celebration in History for every March 8th thence until the breaking of the world.

Despite my reservations, though, I forestalled this mild condemnation because I saw some good women posting good things, which was enough to give me pause. In my further considerations of the day I was reminded of the reaction I had roughly a decade ago upon opening a philosophy book written by a professor of mine in college.

It is the book's inscription to which I refer. First, it was dedicated to her sister, sadly deceased before the age of thirty. Second, that dedication is to "all women who, being great of mind and heart, are denied the life of one in the pain of the other."

My first thought upon re-reading this today, as a stay-at-home dad, was, I confess, one of crudest obscenity. I may not be great of mind but I have a few marbles rolling around up in my head and I spend some days rolling around actual marbles with my daughter. Equally, I will miss these months at home with her terribly when the day comes that I daily leave for the working world. Why should anyone "of great mind and heart" in such a situation, not be regarded?

My first reaction to that line a decade ago, however, was a profound sense of exclusion. Even then, with so little experience, I could not understand why one would narrow one's embrace like that, especially in preface to a book on philosophy. What more could bind all minds and hearts together than the pursuit of wisdom? Did Goethe overreach, and Beethoven when he set to music, Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt! ?

But then, though, something pricked my conscience, or I maybe I pricked my own conscience. . . at any rate it occurred to me that women were indeed excluded from many things, in many places, for a long time. Surely many felt excluded, but many surely never even conceived of a life other than what was evident around them.

Still, many and various people were excluded from the many and various things, and continue to be, so I'm not sure just how moved to be by the plight of any one group in particular, more than the plight of unfortunates everywhere and at every time.

In the end, I don't begrudge my old professor her dedication, for all honest emotion starts not in universals but in relations, often suffering, with our loved ones. I do, though, doubt the wisdom of factionalizing sympathy, and wonder whether it might do more harm than good. Perhaps when such sympathy is shared, it is best expressed through that which speaks to all. I am more moved to be a good husband, father, and son, by Shakespeare, for example, than by leftwing ideology and pink-stained influencers, less by hashtagged bromides than by the Bard's plainest, most haunting words, "I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!"

Still I don't begrudge women their day, but when I weigh the socialism and antagonism I see associated with and brought out on the day, it seems to me that like most recently concocted holidays it has done and continues to do more harm than good. To its organization's credit, though, the website for International Women's day urges us to "Make IWD your day! - everyday!" #Progress

Friday, January 5, 2018

Marxist University Press?


Perhaps, "Carolus illuminatio mea" ?
A few days ago I received via email and advertisement from Oxford University Press about their 50% Holiday Sale. That email came to me out of the blue, by the way, the first to have arrived at my inbox from OUP since I ordered my Oxford Latin Dictionary and Liddell Scott Greek Lexicon in college over a decade ago. Anyway I perused the titles and quickly noticed a particular bent.

Take a few examples along with the descriptions from OUP, which are often hilariously cliche-ridden. I'm not sure whether we can handle any more "explorations" or the earth any more "ground-breaking."

The Long Reach of the Sixties by Laura Kalman

The Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s was the most liberal in American history. Yet within a few short years, new appointments redirected the Court in a more conservative direction, a trend that continued for decades.

The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery by Daniel B. Rood

Offers a new version of capitalism, technology and slavery that differs from the Cotton South version that dominates nineteenth-century history. [Ed. That is, 19th century capitalism was "racial capitalism," i.e. "the process of deriving social and economic value from racial identity."]

Unequal by Sandra F. Sperino and Suja A. Thomas

A ground-breaking analysis of why most employment discrimination cases are dismissed, despite evident discrimination.

Healthier: Fifty Thoughts on the Foundations of Population Health by Sandro Galea

A trenchant argument for the urgency of population-level interventions in health -- and a strong rebuttal to those who question it.

Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity by Lori G. Beaman

Rigid identity imaginings, especially religious identities, block our vision to the complexities of social life and press us into corners that trap us in identities that we often ourselves do not recognize, want, or know how to escape.

Beethoven & Freedom by Daniel K. L. Chua

By exploring the musical philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno through a wide range of the composer's music, Beethoven and Freedom arrives at a markedly different vision of freedom. Author Daniel KL Chua suggests that a more human and fragile concept of freedom can be found in the music that has less to do with the autonomy of the will and its stoical corollary than with questions of human relation, donation, and a yielding to radical alterity.

The Return of Ordinary Capitalism: Neoliberalism, Precarity, Occupy by Sanford F. Schram

As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argued in the early seventies, in a capitalist economy, social welfare policies alternatingly serve political and economic ends as circumstances dictate. In moments of political stability, governments emphasize a capitalistic work ethic (even if it means working a job that will leave one impoverished); when times are less politically stable, states liberalize welfare policies to recreate the conditions for political acquiescence. Sanford Schram argues in this new book that each shift produces its own path dependency even as it represents yet another iteration of what he (somewhat ironically) calls "ordinary capitalism," where the changes in market logic inevitably produce changes in the structure of the state. In today's ordinary capitalism, neoliberalism is the prevailing political-economic logic that has contributed significantly to unprecedented levels of inequality in an already unequal society.

Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism by Charles W. Mills

Mills argues that rather than bracket as an anomaly the role of racism in the development of liberal theory, we should see it as shaping that theory in fundamental ways. As feminists have urged us to see the dominant form of liberalism as a patriarchal liberalism, so too Mills suggests we should see it as a racialized liberalism. It is unsurprising, then, if contemporary liberalism has yet to deliver on the recognition of black rights and the correction of white wrongs.

Limits to Globalization The Disruptive Geographies of Capitalist Development by Eric Sheppard

...globalizing capitalism tends to reproduce social and spatial inequality; poverty's persistence is due to the ways in which wealth creation in some places results in impoverishment elsewhere.

Black Natural Law by Vincent W. Lloyd

A Black intellectual class emerged that was disconnected from social movement organizing and beholden to white interests. Appeals to higher law became politically impotent: overly rational or overly sentimental. Recovering the Black natural law tradition provides a powerful resource for confronting police violence, mass incarceration, and today's gross racial inequities.

Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises by Anwar Shaikh

Competition and conflict are intrinsic features of modern societies, inequality is persistent, and booms and busts are recurrent outcomes throughout capitalist history. State intervention modifies modified these patterns but does not abolish them. My book is an attempt to show that one can explain these and many other observed patterns as results of intrinsic forces that shape and channel outcomes. Social and institutional factors play an important role, but at the same time, the factors are themselves limited by the dominant forces arising from "gain-seeking" behavior, of which the profit motive is the most important. (Description via http://www.anwarshaikhecon.org/)



Two books seem non-Marxist:

Pieces of Tradition: An Analysis of Contemporary Tonal Music by Daniel Harrison

Jenkins of Mexico: How a Southern Farm Boy Became a Mexican Magnate by Andrew Paxman

Plenty of the books seem apolitical, but I can't account for the lack of non-leftist politics. I don't know, either, just what the apparent disparity might indicate. Perhaps left-leaning books are disproportionately printed at OUP, perhaps non-Marxist authors are being turned away or are not sought, perhaps non-Marxists authors seek publication elsewhere, or maybe the liberal stuff is just what's new, popular, put forward, or on sale.

I'm not sure that any of that is good news.


Friday, December 1, 2017

The Alt-Right Owns Antiquity?


I've been meaning to write about this matter for a while, but this article by Curtis Dozier of Vassar College in Eidolon, an "online journal for scholarly writing about Classics that isn’t formal scholarship," edited by Mark Zuckerberg's sister, Donna Zuckerberg, got me thinking anew: where is the politics of Classics in 2017?

Eidolon's article, in its jejune way, raises some red flags when it asserts that, "the alt-right owns antiquity online," as its justification for compiling a database "to stand up against hateful appropriations of antiquity online."

On the one hand, this seems like a tempest in a teapot. My sense of the situation, unscientific to be sure, is that the left, especially the academic left, is spooked by the political rumblings of the last year and is trying to exorcise and purify its domains. With great reluctance it is realizing that it does not own the internet.

On the other hand, the matter may be quite serious.

First, the statement that "the alt-right owns antiquity online" is a probably a substantial exaggeration. Classics online, or anywhere, is not vital at all, it seems to me. (By vital I mean something that is healthy, active, and growing.)

Second, with respect to interest, it might be possible that the alt-right is right now more passionate about classics than is the left today.

Third, I'm not sure whether compiling a database will do more harm than good. A few weeks ago Jordan B. Peterson asked via a Twitter poll whether a website, and I am paraphrasing from memory, that would catalog neo-Marxist courses online, would do more good or harm. The giddy, hysterical, adolescent tone (and content) of the Eidolon article suggests to me the creators of "Pharos" have not publicly asked this crucial question.

Will a database work, ultimately, for or against debate, for or against free speech? Dozier wrote that he wanted to respond "Not to try to change the minds of those we were responding to, but so that the curious public would have access to a better way of understanding the past," but to what demand of public curiosity will Pharos respond? Too, in the absence of such curiosity, what will Pharos become?  Finally, why not try to engage people and change their minds? Why wouldn't that be preferable?

Maybe instead of compiling a database for the explicit purpose of not engaging ones adversaries, Dozier, Zuckerberg, and the staff of Eidolon should get out in the trenches, summon up the blood, bring their vaunted knowledge of the ancient world to their tongues, and debate their opposition in public in the real world in the spirit of antiquity.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Imperfect Knowledge


After wisdom and love, knowledge is perhaps the most sought after of human values. For such a precious thing, though, it is amazing what you can do without it. After all, most of what we do we do with imperfect knowledge. I'm not talking about ignorance of natural laws and phenomena which all proceed without any consideration from me whatsoever, but the deeds of daily life.

When I walk or drive down the street I don't have the positions of every other person constantly mapped with perfect accuracy. Rather, I have learned through trial and error how far apart everyone should be; what things look like when they are going as they should, and what things situations look like when they are dangerous.

When I shop, who can say what book will strike my fancy? When I eat, I don't really know what or how much I should consume before I sit down. I don't know just when I'll need to sleep or just how tired any given activity will make me. I do know all of these things, though, just well enough to get through the day.

Dealing with other people, of course, is a greater challenge. I know what kind of behavior most people will tolerate, so I smile, give thanks, hold doors, leave people their privacy, and so forth. Now some people need more or less of these things, and customs for observing such norms vary from time and place, but generally most of us can navigate society.

This sounds dreary, but perhaps ignorance is bliss, for who would want to know exactly how much he should eat, and just what book to read, and just how much a person does not really appreciate your gratitude or that you held the door for him? This is not so for intimates, though.

Habit fortunately fine tunes this heuristical, trial-and-error learning, and we know our loved ones well, so well do we read their signs. I can tell from the slightest look or intonation whether my wife or daughter are not themselves and, in the privacy of my home, I can scarcely camouflage my true feelings.

All of this is all well and good, then: we know how to interact with our friends and family very well and with strangers well enough, but what about when we have a lot of new variables we need to process quickly? Let us consider, for example, the seemingly daily onslaught of allegations of sexual misconduct in the news.

On the one hand, so many of these charges are so heinous that they trigger an immediate disgust response, bypassing our desire to evaluate the situation any further. One avoids anything associated with such matters as one does a contagious disease or poison. Is it legitimate to let our visceral reaction be the judge or are we obliged to use reason? If we are obliged to reason, then we have to consider the method. What should, for example, Alabama voters do in choosing between Doug Jones (D) and Roy Moore (R), the latter facing "an accusation that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a minor years ago."  (Also via The Washington Post)

Generally we rely on a large system of established protocols, aka the criminal justice system, to navigate these complex issues. It is a great luxury to be able to declare someone innocent until proven guilty and to defer judgment to a legal system that will adjudicate the matter based on objective, or at least defined, premises and processes. This system takes time, however, and what if we ourselves need to choose?

In assessing an accusation it seems our judgment will be based on three things. The first and most ideal would be evidence, but evidence needs to scrupulously to be gathered, verified, and analyzed, a time-consuming process. That process would be an investigation and a fine thing, but absent it, we stitch together the evidence in our own way, a way which will usually be cursory and unsystematic since we rarely have the time, inclination, or ability to do better.

Usually, we simply try to piece together what type of person or incident, a process invariably based on our experiences. If the accused is a lawyer, our judgment will be based on our experience with lawyers. If the other is tall it will reflect our experiences with tall people, and so on. We all make such judgments, though they are far from scrupulous and unbiased. Such processes may help us cross the street, but are unreliable in dealing with situations with so many new variables. Yet such methods are not unreasonable if better options of inquiry and investigation are unavailable.

Consider a few variables based on recent news:
  1. Do multiple allegations make guilt more or less likely, or neither?
  2. Does the fact the press seeks out potential victims and not the other way around make either party more or less trustworthy?
  3. Does when the accusers come forward make them more or less trustworthy?
  4. Do a person's gender, look, occupations, etc. contribute to anything?
  5. Does denial make the accused look innocent, or admittance better?
  6. Are the witnesses, and witnesses in general, reliable?
  7. Do ridiculous defenses harm the defense?
  8. Is the reporting source more or less credible from particular sources?
That's a lot to evaluate systematically or heuristically, but Alabama voters, for example, are deciding. Considering that case: is it preferable to presume Moore is innocent and risk bringing the upset to governance that a trial against him as a sitting official would bring, and worse, a disgrace to the office, state, and people and offense to the victims, if he is guilty? Or do you rule Moore out, and risk setting a precedent that such an accusation is sufficiently grave that it can can be used as a weapon. The middle path is the toughest: wading through all the facts you can gather and judging as best you can. It is a necessary if imperfect task we usually leave to jurors, who fortunately have more time and guidance, and a difficulty whose price we rarely bear ourselves, both in terms of the responsibility of getting the verdict right and in terms of defending our judgment.


We evaluate complex matters casually all the time and such informs our sense of life, that is, our basic appraisal of things. Such is why trials that become public tend to provoke strong responses, because disagreement is not merely about the facts of the case, but about the facts of life. Indeed, my eight questions above probably seem biased. Disagreement here is as meaningful and acrimonious as debate about taste in art, which also reflects one's sense of life.

When a verdict comes, will we revisit the case and change our judgment? What if all these accusations of recent months fade away and we never examine them? We may find that we tune out accusations like noise, which has its benefits. Is it better to live in a society where all accusations and epithets were hurled with abandon, and thus are routine and discounted, or one where such accusations are rare, but then in need of great scrutiny?

We seem to be somewhere in between, which is usually the hardest place to navigate.

P.S. This article in the National Review is some of the worst writing I've seen in a long time, but I think it illustrates a number of my points.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Left, Right, and Chicken


Yesterday afternoon I made a deal with my wife. We agreed that if we would leave the Democratic Convention on the television, for broadness of mind, then for the fullness of my stomach I would grill chicken. It seemed to me an awful waste of a big TV and I still feel the need somehow to cleanse the screen of liberal effusions, but I got to eat two dinners in one day. I also must confess that, amidst basting of the delicious foods, I was overcome with another appetite: democratic blood lust. Whether it was the public shaming of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the confused warbling of Paul Simon, the colic gassing of the Bernie Sanders crowd, or Elizabeth Warren's endless clucking about Donald Trump, I could not turn my eyes away. So much was I enraptured by the spectacle--here swooning there screeching--that I burned some of my delicious food. The Democratic affair didn't just afford me an excuse to eat, though, but confirmed three suspicions I've held for some time.

First, I find the liberal sell is a tough one. The liberal always has to persuade that he simultaneously loves America, its values, traditions and so on, but also wants to change it. Now if there were only a few changes this would not be so challenging, but when you have a laundry list of complaints, it's hard to sell the patriotic vibe. The old line, "If you love America, then make it better," is not an unreasonable or inherently unpersuasive one, but it requires moderation both for logical coherence and rhetorical efficacy.

Second, the left is immoderate. No amount of reform has ever been enough, nor it seems will it ever be. There are always new industries to be regulated, new groups to be protected, new rights emanating from the Constitution, new funds needing feeding from the tax trough, and on and on. Obama's desire to "fundamentally transform" did not even satisfy the liberal lust for change and new things through one administration, let alone one generation. I'm starting to think that the liberal impulse is rooted somewhere unhealthy in the psyche.

Finally, the left doesn't understand it is precisely its progressivism–its relentless tide of change–that most makes conservatives look askance at the changes. Immaturely and imprudently, they took Obama's relatively thin margin of victory in 2008 as a mandate for widespread change instead of a cautionary reminder to be moderate. The left refused to be content with the Affordable Care Act, but pushed more and more throughout the tenure of the Obama Administration, at whose end we now find a whole new list of grievances needing immediate redress.

The right, especially in America, will abide change and even embrace it, but no conservative anywhere will brook an unbridled gallop toward utopia. The left, however, expects the conservative to continue pouring moderates into the DC slaughterhouse just so we can be hamstrung by our increasingly irrational faith in the process which fails even to restrain liberalism, let alone conserve anything. The left will be astounded when it is the conservatives who either stop playing or change the rules of the game.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Where's the Eloquence?


In the wake of the attacks in Paris, there have been many conservative complaints about the Western response. We are not angry enough. We are not agressive enough. I would like to observe, with regret, that we are not eloquent enough. Can no one muster some well-shaped speech to rouse the hearts and minds of the free peoples? 

Take French President Francois Hollande's words, formless, shapeless, mush:
What the terrorists want is to scare us and fill us with dread. There is indeed reason to be afraid. There is dread, but in the face of this dread, there is a nation that knows how to defend itself, that knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists. [Source]
President Obama's response is a C-grade effort. There is no attention to any aspect of style whatsoever, but it's uncharacteristically comprehensible:
Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress.  Those who think that they can terrorize the people of France or the values that they stand for are wrong.  The American people draw strength from the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté and égalité and fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share.  And those values are going to endure far beyond any act of terrorism or the hateful vision of those who perpetrated the crimes this evening. [Source]
Perhaps the creative class will have a more shapely response. 

Comic John Oliver:
"As of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic f—ing assholes," Oliver said. "Unconscionable flaming assholes, possibly, possibly working with other f—ing assholes, definitely working in service of an ideology of pure assholery."He continued. "Second, and this goes almost without saying, f— these assholes. F— them, if I may say, sideways," he said. "And third, it is important to remember that nothing about what these assholes are trying to do is going to work." [Source]
French director Michel Hazanavicius:
Here in France, what we love is life. And the pleasures that go with it," he wrote. "For us, between being born and dying as late as possible, the main idea is to f––, laugh, eat, play, f––, drink, read, take a nap, f––, talk, eat, argue, paint, f––, take a walk, do some gardening, read, f––, give, f––, sleep, watch movies, scratch our balls, fart to make our friends laugh, but above all to f––, and eventually get a nice little handjob. We are the nation of pleasure, more than one of morals. One day, we may even name a plaza after Monica Lewinsky, and that will make us laugh. [Source]
Terrible attacks and this is the most elevated, impassioned speech we can muster? Fratboy level pottymouth and a limp ode to hedonism? I'm speechless.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Extra, Extra


Without fail, at the close of every quarter and semester comes to the teacher the question, "Is there extra credit?" To this inquiry I answer an affirmative, "no." The credit for the class is the coursework for the class. The time for that work was the last few months. The coursework is not fluffy extra credit assignments designed to make up for the fact that students have not done the work. The obvious problem with extra credit is that it removes incentive to do the work of learning the material for class. The more insidious issue is that too many students, and adults, learn to expect a way out of their errors.

In the ancient world, a man did not simply atone for his crime and move on with life. The shame and implications were borne out generation after generation until the stain of the crime had faded. Far from this today, it seems more and more people don't want to deal with the implications of their actions.

If you are promiscuous and contract a disease, there is a cure. If you bring a life into the world, but realize you don't want it, you end it. If you borrow but cannot pay back the loan, you are exonerated. If you fail your tests, you get additional opportunity for credit. If you fall into dishonor, just wait until people forget. Should you commit a crime, you can get off early for good behavior or cooperating with police. A few short years ago the height of Clintonian diplomacy was the "Russian Reset," as if the memories of foreign powers would be wiped clean.

Technology only amplifies our expectation of being able to erase our mistakes. If you misspeak, delete the post. If you take a poor picture, delete the picture. If you mistype... Since all of our mistakes can be erased, what cannot be must be the fault of some one else. The gap in logic only puzzles those who insist that man is always, or predominately, rational. Such systematic expectation that all undesirable results of our actions are the result of injustice bears with it the aforementioned result of incentivizing vice, but three worse.

First, it turns the stoic, who elects to endure his burdens, into a chump. The stoic student who put in his time holds the same diploma as the student who dozed through class. The free man who lives as a virtuous citizen holds his head high and just as free as shameless criminals.

Second and as we see, the virtues are themselves debased, for more are thought to possess them than actually do. The virtue of clemency is meaningless, for if there is no fault, there is nothing to forgive. So to with failure, for if one cannot fail, for what excellence is there to aspire?

Finally, when we don't reflect on our mistakes, when we don't bear their burden, we don't learn from them. No longer will men undertake the pains of pruning their wayward branches if there is an easy alternative. We buy into our appearance, which is that of a faultless, blameless paragon of excellence.

It is perhaps the case, then, that we should be skeptical of anyone whose ideology excuses or justifies everything he does. Alas, that includes most of us much of the time, and some of us all of the time. More trustworthy and honorable is the man who labors to live his ideas and in failure and success is worthy of clemency and excellence.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Article Awry

aka a dialogue with myself ending in aporia

I admire people who can write the same thing over and over again without stress or dissatisfaction. I have thought more than a few times what popularity I might garner if, for example, I could like so many conservatives, simply rail against liberals and President Obama day after day, or libertarians, be satisfied to remark incessantly about the evils of the government. It is my weakness, though, and my refusal to flim-flam my kind readers, that I try somehow always to say something new. It happens many times, then, that as I write I find I've made the remark before. So went the first article I attempted today. Sometimes, however, what I attempt spirals into something much newer, or at least discursive and convoluted, than I expected. Take today's second attempt.

I started writing about how exasperating it is that liberals always co-opt terminology and re-appropriate definitions. They seem to delight in blurring lines and distinctions, an observation which set me thinking about the literal definitions of the words discriminate and judgment, and how the critical faculties of differentiation (discriminare, to separate) and discernment (discerno, to distinguish) are essential acts of defining the world, and that the act of judgment  (iudex, judge) is essential as an affirmation of that definition.

My mind then took a different direction, namely the Aristotelian direction, when I recalled how in the opening of the Metaphysics Aristotle describes how man delights in the use of his senses and that man's reaction to the sense of wonder which the world kindles in him is uniquely human because he can react by forming concepts and growing to know the whole, partaking in some small way of the divine mind which created it all.

Such consideration I applied to the liberal mind which constantly embraces variation in definition, which thinks that objective reality or truth is a moralizing or controlling fiction and that everyone should do what's right for him. What kind of mind is that of the deconstructionist which sets out to prove the world unknowable? What to him is knowing? It struck me what contradiction there is between liberal faith in reason when we apply to it the blanket label of "science," and how weak that faith when the wheels of reason drive to a point contrary to their beliefs.

Then I began to wonder whether that position can be justifiably called liberal. Is it not right-wing, traditionalist, or at least willful in the Nietzschean sense, simply to plant one's flag in the ground and defend it, irrespective of rational, empirical underpinnings? On the other hand I question their commitments to the totems of the day and wonder whether they would truly fight for them if they didn't have the machinery of bureaucracy already churning and lacking only well-placed clerks. Is that the blood and guts of building a culture? Likewise, maybe their convictions are just reactions against their upbringing? I suspect much political liberalism is in fact personal revenge on past and parents.

So then they don't really believe in anything. They're like Nietzsche's last man, enervated into nihilism, only occasionally animated to life by the promise of bourgeois comforts. Can they live with this skepticism at the end of philosophy, history, and culture? Can any society be fully skeptical? How many people can cope with the variety and uncertainty of the modern world? Can any be fully traditionalist?

To that question I do not know the answer, except to propose moderation between a progressive society which is at liberty wholly to reinvent itself and a traditional one which is wholly beholden to the past. If such a path is the ideal, and if being moderate is aiming for the small center between extremes, then it is no surprise the world so often waxes wantonly from one end to the other. One wonders whether once you let skepticism out of the box, the end is inevitable despite the high points on the way there. Can a society tolerate reserved inquiry in the service of reserved truths, or will one predominate? Will the tense contradiction yield a civil war and rebirth? Reconciliation?

Is this contradiction simply part of man's nature or a problem unleashed by intellectuals?

Finally, the issue is unresolved and I am tired. I don't know whether I have argued both sides well and therefore have arrived at an impasse–a sort of Protagorean irresolution–or in the Platonic sense have missed some essential truth. Therefore, sad Keanu.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cicero, Frightful Reactionary


You know an academic just finished a book and is ready to start hocking it when they start publishing a lot of fun, fluffy articles that people will actually read. Enter Mary Beard's "10 Best Ancient Romans." We'll of course ignore the ridiculous title, which we assume was written by an editor, and won't castigate the author for applying such a ridiculous criterion of "best" to the category of Romans. Whatever that means, she wrote 10 blurbs, one about Cicero.

The whole list vexes me, especially that of Cicero, whose description especially irks me for three reasons.

First, saying that you have many reasons but not articulating them makes that pronouncement of them a dishonest qualifier. Obviously there is no space there for lengthy explication and evidence, but the ambiguity is misleading and confusing: is she emphasizing that Cicero was predominately reactionary or that he wasn't wholly reactionary? I guess everyone can think what he wants. The fact that she subsequently refers to the events of Catiline's conspiracy as a low point invites someone to interpret that as evidence of Cicero's reactionary views, although I fail to see how it does.

Second, the word frightful is a cheap shot. It's the kind of word people casually toss in when they want to let you know that someone doesn't hold the approved opinions. I guess Cicero wasn't a LibDem. Who knew?

Third, she mentions that Cicero was exiled for the summary execution of Catiline's conspirators as if it was justice, when in fact Cicero's exile was simply what suited the advancement of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar and provided Clodius an opportunity to take revenge on Cicero. In February of 58BC Clodius as tribune proposed a law which would exile anyone who did or had executed a citizen without due process. While a redundant law, it would exact revenge on Cicero and distract the optimates. It is telling that, when Clodius passed a law which further punished Cicero, forbidding him from living within 400 miles of Rome and forbidding anyone from giving him aid, Cicero didn't have trouble finding people to put him up.

As for the conspiracy itself, it is unclear whether the found arms sufficiently demonstrate intent to betray the fatherland and thus condemn Catiline's conspirators. If it was, then one could argue they had by taking up arms against Rome relinquished their citizenship.

I'm not exonerating Cicero here, and I'm not doing justice to the intricacies of the conspiracy either. I guess the situation deserves a little more than a glib remark.

Fourth, what of such forthright criticism and disdain for being a reactionary when others get a pass in the very same article? Ovid gets a pass for being subversive and opposed to Augustus' moral regime, the wife of that same emperor gets a pass for no other reason, it seems, than she was female, and Caligula of all people gets a pass after brushing off "most" allegations as "invented or embroidered." I'm not condemning Ovid, Augustus, or even Caligula, but why is Cicero held to a completely different standard. Usurers, corrupt emperors, provocative poets–everyone gets a pass and Cicero slammed in this list of favorite people? I guess it's still better than being compared to Obama.


I realize Beard wasn't out to pick out the most moral and upright Romans. (Who would do such a terrible thing like that nowadays?) Her selections are all colorful characters, but alas, bias has to enter. Perhaps less bias than insecurity, for her criticism reminds me of when someone qualifies their agreement with someone by adding, "Not that I agree with everything he says," as if anyone would assume such a thing. As if, though, I would assume anyone of notoriety today would approve of Cicero. As an aside, though, how typically liberal is this list??

A hypocritical conservative white man is in charge, women are oppressed, evil men are victims of bad press, and a cool hip author write about sex. Reaction and conservatism are out, opposition to traditional power is in. Worst: Caelius est in horto needs to be translated. O temp–oh never mind.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Presidential Rhetoric VIII: Martin Van Buren


Welcome to Part Eight of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
  7. Andrew Jackson
See Also: Presidential Rhetoric: Grading the Graders

We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of Martin Van Buren's inaugural address. Will there be any stylistic curiosities in this speech from the New York-born, Dutch-speaking president?

The text of the speech, via Bartelby.com


1. Fellow-Citizens: The practice of all my predecessors imposes on me an obligation I cheerfully fulfill—to accompany the first and solemn act of my public trust with an avowal of the principles that will guide me in performing it and an expression of my feelings on assuming a charge so responsible and vast. In imitating their example I tread in the footsteps of illustrious men, whose superiors it is our happiness to believe are not found on the executive calendar of any country. Among them we recognize the earliest and firmest pillars of the Republic— [1] those by whom our national independence was first declared, [2him who above all others contributed to establish it on the field of battle, [3] and those whose expanded intellect and patriotism constructed, improved, and perfected the inestimable institutions under which we live. If [A] such men in the position I now occupy felt themselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for this the highest of all marks of their country's confidence, [B] and by a consciousness of their inability adequately to discharge the duties of an office so difficult and exalted, [C] how much more must these considerations affect one who can rely on no such claims for favor or forbearance! Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.


While the opening sentence begins with the now traditional sentiments of modesty and following in the footsteps of great predecessors, two words stand out: cheerfully and happiness. This is the first time any degree of cheer or joviality has made its way into any inaugural address, and while these words don't constitute frivolity, they do mark a uniquely festive sense of gratitude for having inherited such a great nation from such great men. Van Buren's use of the word calendar is also worth a note, for on the one hand it can simply mean register, but also it can mean guide or example, and even by metonymy it can refer to the history of the presidency. The firm image pillars of the Republic is no throwaway, though, but itself becomes the foundation for the rest of the paragraph. Van Buren breaks the Founders into three groups of those who 1) declared independence, 2) fought for it, and 3) those who firmed and expanded it. This is a novel and engaging way of reiterating the feats of the Founders, and note with him who the indirect reference to the now nearly deified Washington.

The next sentence is a gradatio of increasing tension from phrases A-C, but it reads simply as a condition: If A and B, then C. Van Burn ends with a most surprising turn, an invocation to the people to regard him not as one of the Founders but to regard him as one of them and to judge him not with the gentleness with which they treated their forefathers, but impartially. A most uncommon sentiment, in and out of politics.

Finally, note the simple, lucid flow of ideas in connected pairs of conditions:
  1. I follow in the footsteps of great men
  2. who fall into three categories.
  3. If they were nervous about the duty, great as they were,
  4. how much must I be?
  5. Also unlike my predecessors, America was a nation when I was born, 
  6. so judge me as one of you and not one of the Founders.
This is a solid opening, full and formal but not orotund, and tightly organized.

Friday, June 13, 2014

It Could Have Been Worse


A strange quietude sets in during a president's second term. The opposition party falls silent, unable to excel their previous levels of hysteria or effect the desired change, they sit stolid but impotent. The party in power, however, is silent as well. Why could this be? Have they come to terms with their political sins? Are they full of regret? No, no, I say to you, dear optimist. We may enjoy a détente but there is no accord. Today, the vast majority of President Obama's supporters, I hazard, excuse or obfuscate his failings as follows.

The National Debt
How can you blame Obama for the national debt. Bush and Reagan did it too! It was actually Clinton who...

The Benghazi Affair
There's nothing to see here, this is a right wing conspiracy. If anyone was to blame it was Clinton, Kerry, or Rice, not Obama.

IRS Targeting
This is ridiculous. Stop watching Faux News. There were only a few people and the IRS went after democrats too. Ugh.

Drone Warfare, Kill Lists, and Assassinating an American Citizen
This is war. Besides they were obviously guilty and Obama read like philosophy and stuff before making any decisions. 

Invading Libya
But he left right away. And he didn't invade Syria or Iran. Iraq.

Afghanistan Withdrawal
Well there are fewer troops, right? And that was the good war and we won, right?

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)
Are you kidding? This is his greatest achievement, like FDR and LBJ and Kennedy. Sure it had technological problems, but it's so complicated anything would have. Besides Canadians made it so it was really their fault. Kathleen Sebelius owned up to it being her fault anyway. It may be inefficient, but as long as it helps some people. It'll get better over time, anyway. 

Quantitative Easings (The Stimuli)
Like all the economists said to do this. Paul Krugman said to do even more.

Solyndra Financing
Come on that was like one company.

"Cash for Clunkers"
Again that was like one program and it wasn't probably even his idea.

Currency Inflation
Things are so expensive because the corporations are making so much money. 

Russo-American Diplomacy
Yeah but they respect Obama because he's so articulate. Bush was such a cowboy.

Operation Fast and Furious
Obviously that was all on Eric Holder.

NSA Spying
Eric Snowden hates America. And the CIA obviously went too far but that has nothing to do with Obama. 

Like come on this isn't Obama's fault. The Republicans don't want to pass laws and they're in the pockets of the corporations. The Supreme Court is full of extremists. Fox news and talk radio are spreading lies about Obama and the Koch brothers are funding all of these fanatical groups. Things might be bad but it would have been so much worse with the other guy. 

It would have been worse. Even when you manage to conjure your inner Cicero and persuade your liberal interlocutor that Obama is to blame for any of the above, it always comes down to that: it could have been worse.

On the one hand such denial is understandable–who wants to confront shattered dreams?–on the other hand we're locked in a cycle of partisanship which seems to be spiraling down to the fulfillment Mencken's prediction that at last the American people would get what they want and deserve in the White House: a complete idiot. Of course the knife on which we perch cuts both ways. If you doubt me just watch the face of a republican recoil at the mention of Al Gore. People feel safe when someone like them is in charge, even if that person is but nominally or apparently similar.

If so many people aren't even willing to reevaluate their support of a politician, what hope is there that a majority are willing to change their mind about actual policies? That sense–that nostalgia for the Bush era when things "just felt better" and the feeling that things aren't so bad just because Obama is running things–that cozy sense people get when "their guy" is in charge, is killing us.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mini-Review: Thank You For Arguing

Thank You For Arguing. by Jay Heinrichs. Ch. 26

I don't know quite what to say about a chapter which begins with a leading quote that translates, "Quid multa? clamores," as "I brought the house down." The Latin is a self-satisfied remark from Cicero to his intimate friend Atticus (letter I.14) in February of 61 BC about a particularly quick comment the orator tossed off. The tendentiously-related English is from Ch. 26 of Jay Heinrich's Thank You for Arguing, in which Heinrichs purports to demonstrate the brilliance and utility of President Obama's rhetorical prowess. The gap between the English and Latin, though, speaks volumes. Namely, it says that the author is not serious about scholarship or precision, but is content to repackage serious work for lazy readers. I'll charitably assume this is the case rather than considering if the author hasn't done his homework or that the author of a book on rhetoric doesn't know Latin and Greek.

To cut to the chase, though, it's the title of the chapter, not the book, which held my interest in the store: Capture Your Audience: The Obama Identity: Steal the tricks of a first-class orator. Dear reader, that's one wacca away from full blown incredibility. Let's break this down.


Skipping over the introduction in which the author relives the glory of Obama's ascendency, the sloppiness starts. First we get the turn of phrase that "Aristotle wanted political speeches to be deliberative," which makes anyone who has read Book I of the Rhetoric cringe at the kitschy summarization of Aristotle's detailed taxonomy. Then, Heinrichs uses the word demonstrative, which doesn't explain to the reader what epideictic means in a formal, specific, Aristotelian sense. All political or demonstrative or forensic oratory be demonstrative in some loose sense? In fact Heinrichs goes out of his way not to use this word, saying on p. 30 that only academics use it because "they're just being demonstrative," which is his periphrastic way of saying people who use this word are assholes. I wonder what he thinks of people who write it in Greek! Third, he writes that "in a speech that seeks to bring people together, you want to get demonstrative" with no explanation. He's not wrong at all, but that statement tells us almost as little as his next, which reads, "Get to know demonstrative rhetoric better...you'll become a better orator yourself." Manum de tabula, discipuli, the master has arrived!

Worst perhaps is his tag that, "This is rhetoric the way the ancients taught it." Well, I know what he means, which is that this is authentic ancient style, but besides the fact that it's not, he's using a modern example of use to prove how ancient rhetoric was taught. We don't have to get into the history of rhetorical manuals and progymnasmata, but this is sloppy.

Next he breaks then-Senator Obama's 2004 keynote address at  the Democratic National Convention into five parts: Introduction, Narration, Division, Proof, Refutation, Conclusion.

In the introduction, he praises Obama for "establishing his character" at the beginning of the speech by citing Obama's phrase, "My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely." How does acknowledging your presence on a stage establish character? It was obvious he was standing there. Those words don't describe, explain, depict, or evoke anything.

In his demonstration of Obama's narratio he explains that "a moral" links Obama's character with the American way. A moral what? He has three choices:
  1. the moral teaching or practical lesson contained in a fable, tale, experience, etc.
  2. the embodiment or type of something. 
  3. morals, principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct.
I can't find what "moral" could mean in the speech.

Next he writes that "the good orator uses the division to represent both sides." The division of what? What is "the division?" Does he mean the division of the speech in to introduction, facts and details, proof, and conclusion? Is the division a part of the speech? He says to "use the division to sound like you're more reasonable than the other side," which is so vague and incomplete that you have to question whether he knows  what he's talking about. At any rate, it's impossible for such an explanation to be of use to anyone, let alone a layman.

Even if we assume that by division of the speech he means its organization into exordium, narratio, probatio, and peroratio, how could one say as he does that, "the good orator uses the division to represent both sides," an exceedingly general statement.

Then he cites the use of a catalogue as "proof," in place of, say, direct evidence like witnesses and contracts, argumentation from evidence or example, or even an emotional appeal. A list constitutes proof. Wow.

After this he cites the following as evidence of the entire refutatio:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.
That's not bad, but it's not at all enough by itself to constitute a full-blown refutatio.

As far as conclusions go, fine, let's say the speech has one, if only so we can admit it's over.

Finally, it's very telling that Heinrichs sees this speech as being successful because it's all about Obama, even though it was supposed to get John Kerry elected. This is a clever way of avoiding the fact that the speech failed. Of course many great speeches, even the best, have failed to produce the outcome their authors had hoped, but to call either set of Philippics, say, failures is not the same as to call this speech a failure. Cicero and Demosthenes might have chosen poor tacks of persuasion, hypothetically, but they didn't fail by having the ulterior motive of aggrandizing themselves. So either Obama wrote a bad speech or he deliberately threw Kerry under the bus to promote himself, a fact about which "Cicero would be proud." Don't let that tack-on about Cicero being proud pass, though. Heinrichs uses his presumption of Ciceronian approval to justify an ulterior motive which he imputes to Obama, all to avoid the fact that the speech failed. Now that is some rhetoric.


Now Heinrichs turns his attention to some of Obama's other speeches, citing and praising a line from President Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address in which Heinrichs finds an instance of prosopopoeia. Literally "to put on a face," this device most properly involves adopting a persona through which one speaks, especially the guise of a deceased. More loosely some categorize under the umbrella of prosopopoeia the use of the historic present and the introduction as speaking of any absent party. Cicero's usages are perhaps the most famous, especially the instance in the Pro Caelio (s.34) in which Cicero, adopting the character of Appius Claudius Caecus, excoriates the infamous Clodia, his wicked distant progeny. As notable is the use in the First Catilinarian (s. I.7) in which he pleads with Catiline in the voice of the Roman people.

The difference in Obama's usage is that there is no layer of mimesis, no moment in which he puts on the mask of another. He is actually speaking for the people. Also, Obama uses we 32 times throughout this short speech, and as such no given moment nor the whole is prosopopoeia.

After a some preposterous praise not worth our attention, Heinrichs characterizes the following passage as "pure enargeia," Greek for vividness:
One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year-old boy lay dead.
That's vivid? A sentence with no imagery, told in the present tense, with no amplification by structure, and no characters? Heinrichs is at pains to paint this scene as vivid, pointing out how the unfolding story seems to "zoom in" on the details as it progresses. But the narration is bland chronological, that is to say, normal. How is this order "cinematic" and "pure enargeia?"

Compare it to Cicero's vivid narration of the night raid in which the lackeys of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily, attempt to steal statues from the square at Agrigentum. We may identify in this passage against Verres (In Verrem II.IV), devices such as the vivid present, pleonasm, characterization, impersonal verbs (emphasizing action), diminutives, sarcasm, the charge of sacrilege, humor, imagery, assonance, emphatic placement, and climax, which constitute enargeia. There is no enargeia in Obama's sentence in which he tells a story with no details or characters in a past tense.

Heinrichs is aware of Obama's tense problem, though, for admitting the story is in the past tense he hurries to say that "it's in the service of demonstrative rhetoric" and that its "secret" lies in that alleged cinematic narration. Since demonstrative rhetoric is concerned with praising or censuring someone and is concerned with the present state, it's hard to reconcile this sentence to the speech. Heinrichs seems by demonstrative to mean simply anything that has a point.


The remaining examples which Heinrichs points out are not misnamed as rhetoric but simply bland and unremarkable instances. Calling attention to them, let alone lauding them, is akin to praising Transformers for adhering to Aristotelian tragic theory because its action takes place in one day. Yet Heinrichs seems to know his praise of Obama's rhetoric is not on the firmest  ground, conceding in his closing paragraph that, "Soon after taking office, Obama toned down his demonstrative rhetoric, choosing to deal with pragmatic policies between campaigns." First, the time "between campaigns" is usually referred to as a presidency. Second, Obama spoke ad infinitum and ad nauseam during his first term. He also spoke poorly, but just as poorly as he ever did. It's not surprising that liberals want to remember a perfect honeymoon, though.

Their desire to agree agree with and elevate their idol has clouded their judgment and this chapter of Heinrichs' Thank You For Arguing demonstrates what I've written elsewhere about reactions to Obama's rhetoric: if you already agree, you'll love it. Unfortunately, that's not the stuff of great rhetoric. Likewise, sloppy uses of terminology, sketchy examples, encomiastic editorializing, and imprecise explanations are not the stuff of great books. If you're looking for a sophomoric justification of Obama's greatness, though, this will surely float your boat. Thanks, but no thanks.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Trigger Warnings


It's not an idea immediately attractive to anyone with antennae for liberty, putting warning labels on academic content, so it's no surprise that a proposal to mandate professors at the University of Santa Barbara place such advisories–popularly called "trigger warnings" in the online feminist community–has earned ire. The plan is unpalatable to me for a few reasons.

The now infamous proposition by UCSB junior Bailey Loverin suggests that the liberty to present, discuss, and debate in an academic manner and context should be subject to fears of inducing fear, of all concerns, is inimical to a serious pursuit of knowledge. It's hard to reconcile a tradition which in so many ways sees itself descended from Socrates, Western Civilization's great gadfly swatted down by popular opinion, with tiptoeing around sensitivities and preferring safety to hard truths. At least, though, Socrates was charged with crimes of impiety and corrupting the youth, not simply terrifying onlookers. While in public it is decorous to avoid even giving offense, and while offense is not inherently desirable in environments of debate and inquiry, there giving offense is considered worth the risk.

Moreover, the suggestions not only that students–learners and investigators of the world–would prefer not to confront challenging ideas but also that so many of them would so decline the challenge that a school requires a mandatory alert system, is one chilling to the spirit of inquiry and academia.

Nonetheless, a degree of common sense would easily ameliorate the situation. Sensitive students should investigate classes ahead of time and professors should, in private consultation with the student, advise them whether a given course or class would be appropriate for them. The situation in the classroom is not so different from that of dining, in which before the meal someone with allergies might ask whether a dish contains a particular ingredient. In both environments the individual's concern is not simply fickle but serious: panic and anaphylaxis. In both instances, though, we ought to expect that the individual with abnormal condition make the necessary inquiries. Unfortunately the presence of mandated food labeling laws suggests in which direction the debate turned. The result of oversight is always the same: conservative uniformity.

It's prudent and liberal to accommodate personal, private requests when possible and it's not unreasonable that a university should expect from professors a standard of concern for students, but the enforcement of such a law as Ms. Loverin's not only privileges sensitivity over inquiry but requires a criteria which seems destined to expand to compendious size. Each instance stifles the curriculum.

It should not be thought, though, that such a preference for inquiry means that discussions of sensitive topics should be frank or designed to desensitize, for to the contrary discussions should impress upon students the seriousness of the topic. Likewise I don't suggest that institutions of higher learning have no interest or responsibility toward accommodating student needs, but only that such a law as proposed is an illiberal and counterproductive means, injurious to the university's other goals, toward reasonable ends.

Ad summam, students should be responsible for their behavior and thus should inquire about curricula before hand, and professors should accommodate those inquiries. If laws need to exist to ensure such common sense and courtesy, then the higher education die is already cast.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Presidential Rhetoric, Part VII: Andrew Jackson


Welcome to Part Seven of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson's inaugural address. Let us see if any of the blood and guts of Old Hickory are to be found in his first speech as president.

The text of the speech, via Bartelby.com


Given it's brevity, it's best to make neither introductory nor concluding but rather summary remarks about Jackson's speech. We'll also dispense with the customary line-by-lie analysis. First, Jackson's is by far the shortest inaugural so far, weighing in at only 1,100 words or so. Second, it's plain and free of tropes, figures, and flourishes which adorned previous speeches. Jackson is his most poetical when waxing about the military, but generally he's quite sober. Third, the speech is not structured rhetorically, with formal sections devoted to refutation, summary, and so forth. Instead, it is structured as a list with little regard for the delicate task of transitioning from topic to topic. Fourth, Jackson does not offer examples or stop to paint pictures. He's not trying to persuade. In fact, and most important of all...

Fifth, Jackson's not really trying to persuade at all, and instead he's simply listing his policies. He's not trying to win over his enemies by making his plans seem ideal or reasonable and he's not trying to paint a picture of a grand, unified America to compensate for the inevitable sour feelings which follow an election. Jackson is laying down his agenda, not making any attempt at any of the classic modes of persuasion: 

A. of the personal character of the speaker
B. putting the audience in a particular frame of mind
C. proof or apparent proof of the words themselves.
Jackson at times qualifies statements, stating that the debt is a threat to liberty or the economy should favor goods essential to national independence, but does not actually argue the points. 

We can state then that while the speech is political, it is so in a restricted sense because it doesn't advise, deliberate on, or urge so much as declare. Likewise it doesn't fit into Aristotle's epideictic mold at all since it doesn't bother to praise. Overall, we can conclude of it what we did of President Obama's Inaugural:

Aristotle at the opening of the Rhetoric identified the craft as that which utilizes the best of the available means of persuasion. The author of this speech would not seem to have availed himself of the potential means.
Still, there's a workmanlike clarity to the agenda as well as a noteworthy, if not praiseworthy, candor in its frank indifference to persuasion. Jackson is always crystal clear, if not memorable or persuasive. It's a plain, speech, if indistinct.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fear, Pity, and the "Used-to-Haves"


Aristotle famously argued (§ 1378 and 1452) that the impact of tragedy and oratory is very much contingent on the speaker's ability to arouse fear and pity in the audience. Who would think that a little bauble from the Huffington Post fulfills Aristotle's requirement. The poets and playwrights ought to be jealous. Alas for its humble author, the piece doesn't provoke the emotions how she intends. You see what was supposed to happen was simple: she writes about how terrible her life is and we feel pity. Then, of course, we wag our fingers at the usual suspects. Of course Aristotle could have told her (1386) that displays of the terrible often produce the opposite of pity, but nonetheless I'm feeling full of pity. Why?

Because no one deserves to be this foolish and it's a downright pitiable sight to see someone suffering who has absolutely no clue as to the causes of it. The world with all of its complexities seems to swarm around this woman who sees only her own unjust deprivation. What indignation she harbors that all is not the way things ought to be, as if all she had were secured by some omnipotent guarantor who has now been usurped by a cabal of corporate raiders. Of course it's a normal human reaction, as a certain philosopher observed, to assume that which has always been will continue to be, but letting a few years of luxury forecast the future demonstrates only that she' seen so little.

Conservatives and libertarians have overused the word entitlement, but no other word exemplifies her expectations. Because she works hard, because she has made a certain wage, because she has lived a certain way, she's entitled to further compensation, presumably in perpetuity. Never mind who actually needs her services, how often, and at what expense. Never mind that we only receive if we serve. We're supposed to empathize with her excruciating separation from bourgeois comforts to the point where we simply assent to the fact that what she possessed was not lost, but stolen. Yes, let us wag our fingers at those protean demons of deprivation, today the "Republican Congress" and "Corporate America!"

As an intellectual expression this is drivel ripe for ridicule. As intellectuals ourselves we want to reprehend the fool who has guzzled so desperately the PC Kool-Aide that she's stained with its cheap crimson glow. Nevertheless her utter lack of apprehension and comprehension of any facts or reason deprives us of any desire or reason to offer correction. We just sit and pity that evil, ignorance, which we fear for ourselves.

The author suffers genuinely I have no doubt, yet not from "The Great Theft," but from cupidity gorged on excess, incensed by privation, and rooted in ignorance. 'Tis true 'tis pity; And pity 'tis 'tis true.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

That Fair Wage


Fair. Oh what they've done to you, poor little word, treated so lovingly by The Bard,

Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections! (Prospero)

and by Keats,

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave (Ode on a Grecian Urn)

Chaucer,

Or if you'd rather, have me young and fair, (The Wife of Bath)

and Wodehouse,

Ever since their first meeting she had wanted a fair chance at those ankles (Piccadilly Jim)

For what crime are you so scurrilously appended to that stern word wage. Now the fair adjective sports a happy plethora of meanings: just, legal, ample, moderate, unobstructed, even, free from imperfection, clear, light, pleasing, and civil. Surely among these none fit the bill but just. When people clamor for a just wage they want a wage which is existing in justice. What could this mean in the absence of a philosophical system weighing virtue and distinguishing among proportion, rectification, reciprocity, and equity. (See V.5 of the Nichomachean Ethics.)

We can further chastise the sloppy use of fair, and their weaseling out the work of philosophy, but let us charitably presume well-intending simply mean that no one should unduly suffer by lack of essentials. What does this have to do with a wage? How can a wage be unjust? It's neither just nor unjust freely to exchange your services for any particular good. If you make the exchange, then it was valuable to you. Your wage is part of an exchange of services, not a measure of what you are worth or deserve as a person.

Similarly we may ask why a wage must be the sole means to security. Outside of a feudal economy of lords and serfs such socio-economic thinking is incredible. In a free economy and society in which no one is granted a legal monopoly, it's incumbent on the employer only to pay the agreed wage. In contrast, it may be incumbent upon everyone equally, if anyone, or perhaps especially family or friends or neighbors, to protect the weak from deathly lack. Yet why should the employer suffer the burden?

Of course the employer might not shoulder the burden but raise the cost of his goods if he hires the employee at the "fair wage" at all. In this case, the customers shoulder the burden of the employee. Why should they, purchasers of this particular good, support the employee? It's not self-evident, to say the least. In times past, friends, family, fraternal societies, and the like cared for the downtrodden. Professionals, such as doctors, treated the poor gratis as custom, not by bureaucratically managed legislative fiat.

It's curious, though, how often and many people are persuaded by the allure of the "fair wage." It just sounds so rosy. They don't seem to translate fair wage into more plain terms:

a demand from an employee to be paid a particular wage, regardless of how much he serves others, how well he does so, regardless of the demand in his locale and that demand over time, regardless of what other skills he might use more profitably, and regardless of, in fact, all variables save his own entitlement. Not quite so fair, by any of its meanings.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

So Let It Be Written


Two hundred twenty one years from the founding of the republic, in the year they called 2008, the people of the nation America turned out in record numbers to vote in a landslide victory for the first black president of the country, Barack Obama. At that time the nation was laboring in economic depression after the previous president, George W. Bush son of George H. W. Bush, also a president, had removed regulatory laws, permitting banking procedures that precipitated the crisis.

So committed to the presidency and the nation was the statesman Obama that before he assumed the office he established the Office of the President Elect, which prepared the way for the new administration. While the first speech of his administration, called the inaugural, does not survive, it was referred by the authorities of the time as being "worthy of marble" and comparable to the most ancient masters of public speaking.

Energized and empowered by his party's control of the legislature, the democratic President passed laws which halted the recession and began putting the nation's suffering unemployed back to work by funding new jobs. These measures were roundly supported by economists but pilloried by the defiant republican party who resented his leadership. Thus President Obama saved the economy by means of laws, without which the nation surely would have suffered beyond the scope of grief. In the following months, succeeding the President's efficacious recovery laws, the economy slowly stabilized and supported by further government spending, recovered slowly throughout his tenure.

After defeating the pirates East of Africa, President Obama began to reconstruct the nation's image throughout the world, which had been stained by his predecessor. He strengthened diplomatic ties with Russia, stood firm against the nuclear ambitions of Korea and Persia, called North Korea and Iran at the time, and by his most exceptional speech at Cairo renewed dialogue with the Muslims of the world, to whom he declared, "The people of the world can live together in peace." Indeed peace reigned throughout the rest of the President's administration, except for his deposition of an obscure tyrant from North Africa some years later.

Having secured stability throughout the world, President Obama sought to bring new security to America in the great tradition of progress. He drafted historic legislation which would bring affordable healthcare to all Americans. When the legislature brought the matter to the people, the people approved it. When the legislature voted, it was passed. The law was then challenged by several states whose claims came to the Supreme Court, at the time a body of radical conservatives, who eventually declared the law legal. Eventually the law took effect in 2013, after President Obama's landslide reelection, and after technical problems stemming from a foreign contractor, fulfilled its goal although healthcare costs would continue to rise due to lack of regulation.

Despite the fact that conservatives and anti-government radicals overtook the republican party and the House of Representatives, denying the president means by which further to enrich the nation, President Obama was one of America's greatest presidents. An apocryphal story best exemplifies the man and leader. When a dispute arose in the city Boston between an officer of the law and a college professor, President Obama invited the men, differing with respect to color of skin, to the White House to resolve the dispute. In the end, the professor and the patrolman by Obama were reconciled to one another, as the world was to America by that same president who was part Solon, part Solomon and whose only vice was the excess of virtue by which the nation's radical's restricted the country's final steps toward progress.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A New Convention


An old adage instructs writers to accept the criticism that something is wrong in their work, but reject recommendations to fix it. Another saying comes to mind: beware tinkerers. This sophomoric article in The Atlantic prompts these tidbits of wisdom not so much for what it says that what it doesn't. The premise isn't unreasonable: the constitution is imperfect. Fair enough, and I agree to boot. Even some recommendations are prudent. It's slipshod reasoning, gung-ho mentality, and lack of humility make it a poster example, however, of why change should be undertaken with great care.

This is my count of assertions, faulty reasoning, or incomplete ideas.
  1. Perpetual constitutions are impossible because Jefferson said so. 
  2. If Jefferson and Madison wrote a constitution today, it would be different. 
  3. The constitution too short.
  4. The constitution guarantees gridlock. 
  5. "The constitution failing" because Sanford Levinson and a "growing cadre" say so.
  6. We've learned a lot from science.
  7. Other countries "solved" what "cripples" us.
  8. Other countries learned from us, so we should learn from them.
  9. Stability equals old.
  10. More detail is better. 
  11. Because other countries' constitutions don't turn out exactly like America's, America's wasn't the model
  12. Because America's constitution is not copied and/or popular, it's less worthy of being copied.
  13. The government staying open and doing things is preferable to people who can't agree, not agreeing. Someone has to win and someone has to lose.
  14. Consensus does not equal majority. Derp!
  15. Something needs to be done about "campaign finance." Because that's a thing and the author said so. Clear enough?
  16. The constitution is too hard, the hardest even, to amend.
  17. Having more information available will help, because facts. 
There are prudent observations about improving representation and the concession that the amendment process might work is surprising, but the shoot-from-the-hip tone should terrify anyone of sound mind. The piece reads and reasons like a kid who just got the keys to the car. That we don't see mention of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, et al, should alarm us. I throw those names around not to appeal to their authority, but to chasten the exuberance which scientific and technological progress seem to be fostering in young people for the notion that you can remake a constitution, and thus nation and people, or make a new one, like a version of Microsoft Windows.

This thinking asks not of virtue or human nature beyond what present scientific trends seem to indicate. Worst of all, it seems to have no limiting principle. We find in such thinking no faith in specific principles but rather in "democratic ideals" and progress and managerial technocracy. Ready for a revolution?

The Present Mess


We stand five years into Obama's Administration of America's executive government and we the people have lost our minds, incapable of appraising the situation. On the left, while no one's staring doe-eyed into the starry gaze of the Chief Executive any longer, the chant of Change has yielded to dolorous defenses either of apathy, "What difference does it make?", or the tepid praise, "It would have been worse." On the right, while no one's challenging his legitimacy any longer, everyone's so disgusted that seldom does anyone bother about proper criticisms. All criticisms are taken as self-evident. Is there a veritable verdict?

The right swears to his incompetence and the left to obstruction. The right claims incompetence because it doesn't fundamentally disagree with Obama's policy of energetic government. Yes, it balks about the President's desire "to fundamentally change" America, but only because it resists change, not because it despises the status quo. President Obama didn't swoop in to replace an executive poised to overthrow the previous progressive orthodoxies of economic intervention, military intervention, income tax and progressive taxation, mandatory government schooling, deficit spending, and social welfare institutions. They're upset that he didn't brand this package in the guise of American Greatness and that Obama pandered to the populares–the disenfranchised and distempered–instead of rallying around the flag. By the time Obama had rebranded his rhetoric and tacked traditional, he was already caricatured as the Muslim Marxist. Today the republicans, then, can only momentarily interfere by their tepid utterances of "slightly less cowbell."

While the left not unreasonably blames republican obstructionism, it's not quite a proper claim. One obstructs what one opposes. Only an obtuse belief in democracy for its own sake, regardless of consequence, can lead you to chastise someone for refusing to sign onto pernicious plans. When there's no majority assent the left grows angry, not unreasonably when the dissent is rooted less in principle than spurious distrust, but disreputably when they demand cooperation from principled opponents under the presumed virtue of conformity.

On the one hand, the left cannot imagine Obama as incompetent, some because they lack the education they assume Obama acquired at some point in his hazy academic career–if you don't know anything I'm sure he looks bright, even vaguely profound–and others because they fill in his gaps of logic and planning, presuming such were left out lest the hoi polloi be blinded by the pure light of progress. On the other hand, they too believe in energetic government. All Obama had to do, they thought, was prune away special interests, modernize and streamline with technology, and explain himself and poof! Progress would ensue. Never mind that the government's monopoly on finance and law creates the special interests, that technology is in fact twitchy and complicated, requiring fine, uncommon, expensive minds, and finally that people don't like to be lectured.

It's perhaps that last point Obama and the left underestimated most. More than the Affordable Care Act's wobbly website and deference to insurance company interests, the fact that Obama spent what seemed like years hocking it to the people in his distinctly didactic tone exhausted us. Month after month we heard in the educating twang of his lecturing paeans and platitudes about efficiency and fair shares and investment and you know what? People are busy living, which is to say caring about their families and friends. We'd be able to do that if left alone. Obama underestimated just how much people can and want to think in Grand Designs.

Intellectuals like to wag their fingers at Americans because we're not consistently engaged in politics, because we disappear after elections. Surely there are such voters who expect their democratic sanction to usher in managed prosperity and progress, but perhaps we underestimate those who are prudently apolitical. Maybe the vice isn't apathy but the runaway designs from which people retreat simply to live in their little platoons.

What, then, is the end of those Grand Designs? Neither Utopia nor catastrophe but an irreducibly Byzantine network of ad hoc compromises with plans that would have fully failed if they had been fully implemented. So Obama and his agenda limp along, the praeclarus imperator shackled to Leviathan, the sum of all the faith and rage that brought him there.