Our most recent reading for the Great Books of the Western World reading project is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or at least a few chapters of it. Here, after having read the Constitution and several of the Federalist Papers last month, we are treated to a commentary upon the Constitution by one of the great thinkers and observers of the early 19th century.
While it is difficult to choose just one aspect of Tocqueville’s observations and thoughts to comment upon, what stood out to me the most is Tocqueville’s assertion, near the end of the selection we read, that the sort of government the United States has, in particular the limited powers of its executive, is only possible in a country that, like the United States, is granted a certain degree of security by its geography. (Also, I want to commend myself for the excellence of that run-on sentence.) Tocqueville posits that if a European country were to adopt a constitution which so severely curtailed the privileges and prerogatives of its executive it could not last long.
There seems to me to be a great amount of truth to Tocqueville’s observations here. The United States has only been in a position in which it was forced to defend its very existence twice in its history (or thrice, if we count the Revolution as well, though I omit that from consideration here as this predates the Constitution). While the United States has fought several wars, only the Civil War and World War II could be accurately understood as wars for survival. In both instances, the government has found it necessary to vastly expand the powers of the executive and temporarily suspend the limits typically imposed upon the executive and legislative by law. Lincoln was the president who came closest to the powers of a monarch and Roosevelt the president who came closest to the length of a monarch’s reign.
All of this raises important questions for the future of democratic government in the United States. In the face of the ever-present threat of terrorism and the ever-decreasing size (so to speak) of the world, the geographic isolation of the United States seems less important now than at any previous time and will, undoubtedly, continue to lose significance. Is it, then, inevitable that the United States must change its system of government and social life through a reduction in the liberties of the people and an increase in the powers of the executive in order to ensure its very survival? The advocates of, for example, the Patriot Act would seem to say that this is the case. Yet, the United States has a very firmly entrenched culture of individual freedom and limited government. Will this culture survive? Can it? Should it?
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which we just recently finished reading, the eponymous protagonist declares that “the body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing.” John Locke’s Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, our most recent read in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, might, without a great stretch of the imagination, be seen as a sort of extended commentary upon this assertion of Hamlet.
Hamlet’s assertion is that the king and the State or body politic need not be seen as identical, especially in the case, as it was with Claudius, of a usurper. The State is an abstraction, where as “the king is a thing.” If Hamlet exacts vengeance for the murder of his father by killing Claudius, then, the attack is not upon Denmark or the people thereof nor upon the ostensibly divinely instituted reign of kings. It is, rather, an attack only upon one individual who unjustly holds the title of king.
While I’m not sure that Locke had Shakespeare in mind as he wrote, his Second Essay is written to make much the same point. Here, Locke argues that “the king is a thing.” That is, while holding certain prerogatives and responsibilities, the king is subject to restrictions of the same kind that bind other members of society. The king is not entitled, any more than the private person, says Locke, to take lives, liberties, and properties away from his subjects. He may deprive those under his rule of these rights while fulfilling his duty to enforce the laws, but he may not do so in an arbitrary manner and for his own benefit.
The result of Locke’s thought, of course, like that of other similarly minded thinkers of the Enlightenment, is the modern proliferation of constitutional monarchies and kingless republics. Of course, Locke’s thought did not arise in a vacuum. The historical antecedents in British and wider Western thought are clear and worthy of acknowledgement. The monumental significance of Locke, though, is not be ignored. As such, it was both fascinating and joyful to dig into this particular Great Book.
There is so much worth commenting on in the opening pages of Aristotle’s Politics that it is difficult to choose just one or two things to discuss here. For now, I will confine myself to a thought that occurred to me while reading this and which links Aristotle’s ideas to events in the modern world. This is the notice I took of Aristotle’s linking of the family and the state.
While it is difficult to discern the direction in which causality flows, there can be little doubt, from an objective historical perspective, that the erosion of the traditional family in the modern world has been coincidental with a dramatic increase in state power. This is especially true of the increase in state control of matters which formerly were the prerogative of church, community, and family. The very existence of such things family courts and public schools testify to the truth of this proposition.
In the light of the relationship between the family and the state in the modern world, Aristotle’s discussion of the family as the most basic unit of the state here is quite fascinating and illuminating. What do you make of the relationship between the two in the light of Aristotle’s comments on the matter?
I am contrarian by nature. I rarely find myself in the position of agreeing with the most popular positions on any given issue. I often will even argue against my own opinions when I hear them espoused and spouted by others. I am more prone to changing my mind when in the company of those with whom I would be expected to agree than I am in the face of opposition. Argument excites me. There are few experiences I find more enjoyable than a passionate exchange of ideas. Unfortunately for me, there aren’t many of my sort around these days. Instead, it seems most people enjoy screaming into their echo chamber and having their prejudices reinforced by the feedback.
The movement away from meaningful discourse is an interesting facet of the liberal movement in the United States that has taken shape since the mid-20th century. The 1950s and 1960s saw the beginnings of the tenure system in American academia, designed to ensure the continued employment of Leftist college professors during the Cold War as well as the rise of the Student Free Speech Movement, which sought to secure the rights of college and university students to engage in political discourse, mostly though not entirely from the Left, without risking their academic futures. All of this, ostensibly, had the goal of creating an environment on campuses across the country which allow the free and active exchange of a variety of ideas. There was a hope that this dialogue would extend to society at large.
As time has gone on, however, the same movement which began with these demands for academic freedom and free speech have grown increasingly vociferous in their desire to ban alternative ideas from public discourse. Religious speech, in particular, has been targeted for banishment.
The recent grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York, and the subsequent reactions among the media, politicians, activists, academics, and the general public, demonstrate the univocality that has been cultivated by the Left in its suppression of alternative opinions. Only two opinions have been allowed to receive any meaningful amount of air time on the mainstream media outlets, and even of these two possible opinions one has remained the dominant refrain throughout. The metanarrative of American institutional racism and the mythology of perpetual oppression of “minorities” by “whites” (who falls into which category has changed quite a bit over the last century and a half) has undoubtedly been the dominant lens through which all of this is viewed. There has hardly been a news story about the events in New York and Ferguson that has not reminded the reader time and again that the police officers involved were white and the individuals who were killed were black. This constant emphasis on the races of the people involved in the incidents assures that the reader will get the message that race was the principle factor in the incident. The other viewpoint that has been allowed some measure of air time is the simplistic insistence that race was no factor at all, that this is all as simple as “good guys” and “bad guys.” Neither narrative, however, seems to me to capture the full complexity of the issues in either case. As a result, contrarians like me, who see the complexity of every problem and refuse to settle for simple explanations, find ourselves shaking our heads as we read and listen to the statements of those of every political stripe.
In the case of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, race does indeed seem to have been a factor. But the role that race played in this particular shooting is not as simple as the bumper sticker (or protest sign) understanding of its role. Michael Brown was not shot simply because Officer Wilson hated and/or feared black people. Life in the 21st century would be much easier if it were as black and white, so to speak, as segregation in 1950s Alabama. It is not.
Even before all of the testimony to the grand jury was released, I was already able to picture in my mind what almost certainly happened that day in Ferguson. There can be little doubt that Wilson’s words to Brown and his friend as they walked down the street were nowhere near as amiable as Wilson presented them in his testimony. I am a white male and even I, even on my best dressed day, have never had an interaction with a police officer that began with “excuse me, dear sir.” I have had two interactions with police officers in the last several months. In one instance, I was issued a ticket for jaywalking across an empty city street late at night. The officer began our interaction with “where you going?” and, at one point in the interaction, when I admitted that I had not noticed the crosswalk just down the block, he informed me I “must be blind.” Hardly a friendly interaction. Just a few weeks ago, I returned home from shopping to find that my street was blocked off for a marathon. When I asked the officer standing near the roadblock where I should park, he replied simply “not here.” When I asked what time the road would be reopened, he told me, “when it’s done” and walked away without waiting for a reply. In short, police officers in this country are not exactly known for being friendly and helpful.
After Officer Wilson’s undoubtedly rude comments to the men walking down the middle of the street, Brown’s response was certainly not, “Yes, sir,” nor any similarly deferential answer. Instead, his response was, without a doubt, a similarly rude and probably vulgar comment directed at the officer. It is here that we see the root of the problem. Both Wilson and Brown were conditioned by cultures that cultivate and reinforce a form of exaggerated masculinity which can and must be exhibited through vulgarity, rudeness, bravado, and, when these fail, violence. In the case of Wilson, this is the culture of American law enforcement. In the case of Brown, this is the culture of impoverished African-American communities. Both of them had the choice to transcend their respective culture’s expectations, yet both refused to do so. The result is that the one with the most accessible tool for inflicting the greatest amount of harm upon the other “won” the battle of bravado.
The answer to this problem is not to artificially inflate the number of African-American men and women on the police force or in city government in Ferguson or anywhere else. Even a cursory glance at the numbers of applicants versus new hires at police departments throughout the country shows why less blacks are hired than whites for law enforcement work. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the statistics for St. Louis County, the county in which Ferguson lies, just two weeks after the Brown shooting. The headline, which was later changed to fit the needs of political correctness, originally read “Qualified black applicants hard to find, chiefs say.” And the article itself showed that such is indeed the case. According to the article, very few blacks apply in the first place and, among those who do, few pass the requisite physical tests and background checks or meet the academic criteria. Do we honestly expect police departments to lower their standards for the sake of political correctness? If you needed brain surgery, would you choose the doctor who aced all of his exams and has a stellar record or one that failed his courses but happens to be a member of a racial minority? The answer is clear to any sane person and it should be equally clear in the case of those we allow to walk our streets with loaded weapons and the ability to take away our freedom.
If we want to increase the number of blacks on the police force as well as end these types of altercations between police and the members of the community, we must work to undermine the cultures of bravado, including both within law enforcement and within poor minority communities. In the case of the police, the best way forward may be to ensure that officers live within the communities they police, even if they are a minority within that community, and that they get to know the people of the community. To insist on professional behavior among police officers doesn’t seem too much to ask. Police officers must be reminded that they are here to protect our communities, not to occupy them.
In addition, our society in general is need of a reaffirmation of the virtues of authentic masculinity. The demonization of masculinity has given boys and men no way of developing their inherent traits in a positive, creative direction. African-Americans have suffered most from his demonization. Black masculinity was feared, hated, and suppressed throughout the Antebellum and segregation eras. The popular early 20th century film Birth of a Nation, for example, presents black masculinity as a dreadful threat to the modesty of white women. The end of official institutional oppression of the black male in the United States, unfortunately, coincided with the rise of a new form of feminism which demonized masculinity more generally. The result of centuries of suppression and denial of black masculinity is the exaggerated masculinity apparent in, for example, the lyrics of rap artists, who tediously detail their strength, virility, and wealth. It will require a great deal of work to undo the damage, but it is possible to take real and effective steps now.
Boys and men must not be told, as is currently the predominant refrain, that their masculinity is inherently bad. They must not be taught to hate and suppress natural male aggression and energy. On the contrary, they should be taught from a young age to control and direct it properly. The very word “virtue,” which has been replaced in large part by the decadent notion of “values,” entered English from the Latin word for manliness. Virtue is manliness purified, controlled, and properly oriented. Boys must be reminded that their strength does not exist for the purpose of imposing their will on those who are weaker, but for the sake of helping those who cannot help themselves. Every strength is a responsibility, boys (and girls) must be told, to those who do not have that strength. Teaching boys that respect, responsibility, and humility are manly virtues and that dressing and conducting oneself in an intelligent, courteous manner is becoming of a gentleman will do a great deal to change the current climate of social interaction, not only between police and community members, but more generally.
I spent some time thinking about the shooting of Michael Brown after the grand jury decision. The question I pondered for several days was would I have shot, if I were in the same situation? The only honest conclusion that I could reach is, if the situation could not have been avoided, and I believe it could have been had either man decided to behave in a manner befitting manliness: I would have pulled the trigger. I don’t know how many times I would have done so, but I would have done so. If a man who outweighed me by nearly 100 lbs. and was several inches taller than me was charging at me aggressively, as multiple eyewitnesses claimed he was, I don’t see any alternative. It is best, however, that we not put ourselves in that position in the first place.
I would like now to turn briefly to the case of Eric Garner and the more recent grand jury decision in New York. There seems to me to be an aspect of this case that is of the utmost importance but that has been almost entirely ignored in most discourse I have observed thus far. Whereas most of the popular narrative highlights race as the central issue, I believe the issue of government extortion is far more central. What we have here is not a case of racism, but of the government skipping several steps in its usual approach to its tactics of extortion.
Cigarettes, they say, are bad for your health. As a result, the government has decided to add a steep and ever-increasing tax to the cost of cigarettes. Last time I was in New York City, a little over a year ago, a pack of cigarettes costed more than 10 dollars in the Bronx. In instituting this extortion racket, the state has far overreached its purposes and purview to fine you for doing something that is bad for your health. The state is an institution created for the purpose of protecting your life, liberty, and property from other people. It is not the business of the state to punish you for doing things that might hurt your own health. That is the job of parents.
The liberal nanny-state, however, insists that mommy-knows-best. They hope that through continually raising the cost of smoking, the number of smokers will decline. The underlying philosophical principle here finds its roots in the early 20th century’s progressive movement and its notion that men can be perfected through social engineering. With the right laws in place, says the liberal social engineer, man can finally be perfected.
Seat belt laws are one of the simplest examples of this social engineering at work. Seat belts save lives, as they say. Because they save lives, the state will come and take away your money if you do not wear one. If one refuses to buy into this decadent understanding of the purpose of the state and so hand over one’s money to the state, the state will then take away one’s freedom. And, finally, if one attempts to defend one’s freedom against the encroachment of the state, one will be executed by the state. In other words, rather than defending life, liberty, and property, as the state was originally intended to do, the state will deprive you of all three in succession because it does not like your personal habits.
Certain representatives of the state decided to fast track this process for Eric Garner. He refused to give the state his money, so they attempted to take away his freedom. With a single, non-violent gesture of the arm and the plea, “please don’t touch me,” he refused to submit to the forces of the state who were attempting to strip him of his freedom. In the process of forcefully depriving him of his freedom, the officers involved, miscalculating the physical abilities of Garner, accidentally executed him before the officially mandated time.
I believe Garner’s statement “please don’t touch me” would be a more apt rallying cry for the protesters than their current chant of “I can’t breathe” and especially more cogent than the frequently heard chant of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” The former is not Garner’s defining moment and the latter perpetuates a clear fabrication on the part of Brown’s accomplice in his brutish activity before the shooting. It is “please don’t touch me” which sums up well the message that protesters should be disseminating. The crux of both the Brown case and, in particular, the Garner case, is a state that has overstepped its bounds by viewing its purpose as the improvement of mankind and its method as the imposition of power. “Please don’t touch me” is a fine bumper sticker and it fits well on a protest sign. Protect me, but “please don’t touch me.”
As I always do when I voice my opinions, I invite you to voice yours in the comments here as well. In the spirit of an authentic, non-hypocritical contrarianism, I offer my wholehearted welcome to those who disagree to disagree vociferously, but reasonably.
Now it is not the business of Christianity to defend our secularized Western culture from the menace of social or political revolution. From the Christian point of view there is not much to choose between passive agnosticism or indifferentism and active materialism. In fact, both of them may be different symptoms of the same spiritual disease. What is vital is to recover the moral and spiritual foundations on which the lives of both the individual and the culture depend: to bring home to the average man that religion is not a pious fiction which has nothing to do with the facts of life, but that it is concerned with realities, that it is in fact the pathway to reality and the law of life. This is no easy task, since a completely secularized culture is a world of make-believe in which the figures of the cinema and the cartoon-strip appear more real than the figures of the Gospel; in which the artificial cycle of wage earning and spending has divorced men from their direct contact with the life of the earth and its natural cycle of labor and harvest; and in which even birth and death and sickness and poverty no longer bring men face to face with ultimate realities, but only bring them into closer dependence on the state and its bureaucracy so that every human need can be met by filling in the appropriate form.
Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, p. 175
This is Dawson at his finest amid the world at its worst. Written at the height of Nazi power in Europe in 1942, Dawson here takes on the prophetic voice indicated by the title. He announces the events swirling about him, engulfing Europe, and destroying its culture as what they are: the judgment of the nations.
Dawson begins by exploring the rise of Western Civilization. He pinpoints those features that have been its strongest and most fundamental elements, including Christian faith, scientific reason, and the notion of human freedom. He shows how each of these ideas led to the great flourishing of creative activity in art, literature, and thought that have been the mark of Western Civilization for over two thousand years.
He then goes on to show the slow but steady dissolution of these elements beginning already in the Renaissance, progressing in the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, and finally reaching their boiling point at the turn of the 20th century. Dawson highlights the fracturing of Christendom, the turn to secularism, and the failure of 19th century liberal ideals as the driving forces behind the tumult of Europe.
Finally, having assessed and diagnosed, Dawson provides the prescription: a return to the center of European unity in the Christian idea of the Incarnation and its ramifications for thought on man, on society, and on the world. Through this recognition of its own center, the West can once again restore a proper view of humans and of the states, communities, and civilizations of which they are members. There is hope, Dawson assures us, even at the darkest hour of civilization, but this hope requires decisive action on the part of people.
I recommend this book for anyone interested in the rise and decline of Western Civilization and its consequences. I also recommend this for anyone interested in history and historiography more generally.