Idiot America

In my various and assorted writings I have had occasion to borrow ideas from other thinkers. My advisor at Northwestern used to say that “we are all intellectual shoplifters.” But I have tried to acknowledge when I have shoplifted an idea here and there. I have even shoplifted my own ideas from time to time! But, as I say, I try to give credit where credit is due.

In any event, I have referred a number of times to the marvelous book by Charles P. Pierce titled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land Of The Free. It is a book written by a journalist who knows how to put words together and who has his finger on the pulse of the country he loves.  Despite this love — or because of it — he worried that we have wandered far off the path that founders like James Madison set us on many years ago and are now wallowing in a sea of confusion where we no longer recognize the truth when it stares us in the face; where we have replaced confidence in reason and science with gut feelings and flagrant lies.

At one point in his book (and note here how I give attribution!) he holds forth:

“. . . Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of excisions made and not made, to reduce everything to salesmanship. Debate becomes corrupted argument, in which every point of view is just another product, no better  or worse than all the others, and an informed citizenship is abandoned to the marketplace. Idiot America is the development of the collective Gut at the expense of the collective mind. It’s what results when we abandon our duty to treat the ridiculous with ridicule. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and we not only surrender our right to punish them at the polls but also become too timid to punish their ideas with daily scorn . . . . .

“The rise of Idiot America. . . is essentially a war on expertise. . . . [It] reflects — for profit mainly,  but also, more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

“This is how Idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they must both be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkey neck preacher out of the Church of Christ’s Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an ‘expert’ and, therefore an ‘elitist.’ Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He’s brilliant, surely, but no different from the rest of us, poor fool.”

Pierce is not ridiculing America, he is ridiculing the fact that America has allowed this to happen. And this was before a certain self-proclaimed business tycoon was elected to the Presidency, if you can imagine! Americans can little tell the difference between fact and fiction, they have allowed important distinctions between truth and opinion, between science and faith to disappear in a fog of indifference. Many today, even many teachers of high school biology, accept that dinosaurs lived alongside cavemen; they deny evolution and climate change; and they think science is simply someone’s opinion. Pierce attributes this to national apathy, an indifference to what is happening around us and a willingness to believe whatever we are told as long as it makes us comfortable. We do not allow that there are uncomfortable truths — like the truth about the warming globe we live on, for example.

I do think Pierce is on to something, though I would also fault the education system. That I respect his arguments should be obvious from the fact that I have quoted him repeatedly and at length. But George Berkeley said it long ago in a very few words: “Every opinion should be tolerated for what it is worth.” We need to engage our critical thinking faculties and submit every claim from whatever source it might arise to scrutiny to see whether or not it makes sense and whether or not we must accept it — like it or not. We might do well to bear in mind Curtler’s Law: consider the source: who said what and when? Above all else we need to teach critical thinking in our schools. All of them at all levels.

Truth its not opinion and science is not fiction. And there are some people who know more than others. There are experts and there are dunces. The latter may be entitled to their opinions, but critical scrutiny should allow us to dismiss their claims out of hand. If we do not allow these basic distinctions then we are indeed the idiots that Charles Pierce says we are.

Advertisements

The Highest Court

In the early part of the eighteenth century Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, or more simply, Montesquieu, wrote his famous book The Spirit Of The Laws. It had a seminal impact on subsequent political theory and was instrumental in helping James Madison and Thomas Jefferson plan out the United States Constitution. Of special importance was the division of powers as sketched out by Montesquieu. His predecessor, John Locke, had also argued for a separation of powers though he thought the judiciary should be a part of the legislature — after all, who are better to judge of illegal acts than those who made the laws in the first pace?

But Montesquieu thought differently. He thought the judiciary should be a separate power entirely. As he put it:

“Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and the executive. Were it joined with the legislative the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.

“There would be an end to everything were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or the people, to exercise those three powers. . . “

What Montesquieu is concerned about here, as was Locke, is the loss of freedom among the citizens if those in power above them be not separate and apart from one another, checking and balancing.

Our Constitution embodied those same concerns and insisted that the Supreme Court be a power separate and distinct from the executive and the legislative. Toward this end, the members of the Supreme Court were not to be elected but appointed for life. They were not to be influenced by special interests or to be in the pocket of the president or the Congress. Or special interests, for that matter. For the most part our history had borne this out: the members of the Supreme Court have shown themselves to be remarkably independent thinkers: those appointed by Republican presidents often voting liberally and those appointed by Democratic presidents voting conservatively.

That was then. This is now. We are finding an increasing tendency in the Court to vote in accordance with those who appointed the judges desired them to vote. Or with those powerful interests that have the politicians elected in the first place. We now talk about “conservative courts,” or “liberal courts,” whereas the Court is supposed to be neither conservative nor liberal: it is to be independent of political machinations. That was the ideal and it is what makes for that vital separation of powers that makes the machine of the Republic run smoothly.

When members of the Supreme Court — or any court for that matter — are answerable to special interests or particular political agendas the ideal is shattered and reality comes crashing through in the form of abuses of power and corruption of the first order. We saw this in the case of Citizens United, a recent decision of the Court to allow corporations to have the same powers as individuals despite the fact that they have none of the attributes of citizens. Yet that decision now allows the corporations to spend millions of dollars in order to determine who is elected to political office. Clearly this flies in the face of the intention of Madison and Jefferson — and Montesquieu.

In discussing the Citizens United decision Judge John Paul Stevens, a former Supreme Court judge appointed by a Republican President, noted that:

“Unlimited expenditures by nonvoters in election campaigns — whether made by nonresidents in state elections or by corporations, by unions, or by trade associations in federal elections –impairs the process of democratic self-government by making successful candidates more beholden to nonvoters who support them than by voters who elected them.

“Corporate wealth can unfairly influence elections when it is deployed in the form of independent expenditures, just as it can when it assumes the guise of political contributions. . . The decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction.. . .”

That decision, not to mention a number of more recent decisions, was decidedly based on political considerations and special interests rather than an attempt to discover what the  U.S. Constitution determined was in the best interest of the citizens of this country. We see here, then, a clear example of the imbalance that can be realized when the highest court in the land is beholden to the executive or the legislature — or those, other than the voters themselves, who put the politicians into office. This is the very thing Jefferson and Madison were most concerned about. Indeed, it might be said without exaggeration that the country takes a step “in the wrong direction,” as Judge Stevens suggested, every time the Supreme Court decides what a particular political party, or those who support those parties, insist would be in the best interest of a select few of our citizens. The very thing Montesquieu warned us about so many years ago: “[the court] might behave with violence and oppression.”

Worldly Philosophy

Ours is not an age in which we want to have much to do with those who pursue ideas for their own sake; rather, ours in an age that stresses the practical, the “cash value” of ideas that must result in immediate gratification of the pleasure principle. It is said, for example, that the young  should avoid college courses in such things as philosophy, history, and literature because “what can you do with them?” They are impractical and don’t lead to a better job and, presumably, happiness ever after. This has not always been the case. There was a time when knowledge was pursued for its own sake and the practical was an after-thought.  Moreover, as it happens, such things as philosophical ideas can have immense practical payoff. Take John Locke.

I am reading a remarkable book written by Richard Pipes entitled A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. In the early pages of that book, while trying to probe the causes of the revolution in Russia, and indeed the root causes of revolutions around the world, Pipes points out the immense influence of the English philosopher John Locke.

“In his political writings Locke laid down the foundations of the liberal constitutions of Great Britain and the United States. But his philosophical treatise [Essay Concerning Human Understanding] inadvertently fed a very different, liberal current of political thought. The Essay challenged the axiom of Western philosophy and theology that human beings were born with ‘innate ideas,’ including knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong. This notion had made for a conservative theory of politics because, by postulating that man comes into the world spiritually and intellectually formed, it also postulated that he was immutable. From this it followed that the principles of government were the same for all nations and ages. According to Locke, however, man is born a blank slate on which physical sensations and experiences write the messages that make him what he is.”

The implications of this radical change in the perception of human nature were picked up by such thinkers as Helvétius in France who expanded Locke’s thesis into a full-blown political theory that centered around the notion that human beings were imperfect and the political state was necessary in order for them to become fully human. This implied that government is justified in “far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.” As Karl Marx would have it, “The whole development of man . . . depends on education and environment.” Thus was born social science and close at its side materialism and with it capitalism with all its warts and imperfections. It no longer mattered that man was created in God’s image because God was effectively dead. As a result, man could become anything the governments and their agencies determined he could become. As Helvétius had noted:

“Man is totally molded by his environment. Thus a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings.  . . . . Good government not only ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number but literally refashions man.”

The people do not know — parents do not know how to raise their children, for example. But the state knows and we need to simply follow the lead of those in power to realize our full human potential.  Not only does this idea drive the social sciences, but strange as it may seem it has permeated our colleges and universities in our day as growing numbers of radical faculty members openly regard education as the indoctrination of the unformed young into the “correct” way of thinking and acting — namely how their professors themselves think and act. I kid you not. Nor do I exaggerate.

It was especially during the period from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth when this way of looking at things had the most powerful influence outside the academy. It was the intellectual background for the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Constitution of the United States which was founded on the hope that through civil laws, education, and social engineering citizens would develop civic virtue and ignore their own self-interest in order to realize the common good — through which they themselves could become better human beings. Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of John Locke in his study, be it noted.

In any event, this shows us that ideas written down in his closet by the unworldly philosopher can have immense impact on the real world in which most people dismiss such esoteric stuff as “irrelevant” and go about the business of doing business.  And one might think also of the writings of Karl Marx, as mentioned, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These were “worldly philosophers.” For those who want practical results and are willing to think about why and how those results are to be brought about, it might pay to read what philosophers, historians, and novelists have had to say — and regarding the latter I am thinking about the immense impact of Charles Dickens’ novels in England in the midst of widespread poverty and a diffident Parliament that seemed to be heading the country toward another”Reign of Terror.”

Strict Construction

During the Reagan administration Attorney general Edwin Meese and Judge Robert Bork and other conservative spokesmen demanded that the Constitution be interpreted as the founders intended it, that there be a “strict construction” of the Constitution in attempting to decide contemporary court cases. This view has been around for some time, but it rests on the questionable assumption that we can know what the hell the Founders meant when they wrote that document in the eighteenth century. We can’t. We don’t even know what we ourselves mean when we say or write something today — even our own words in many cases! Can anyone reading this please tell me, for example, what the dickens our President means when he tweets his endless drivel? Does he even know?.

James Madison, who authored the Constitution in large part, and who kept copious notes on the proceedings of the Convention when the document was being discussed, insisted that his notes be kept private until after his death. In his words, it was better that people make of it what they can on their own, that his notes remain unpublished

“till the Constitution should be well settled by practice, and till a knowledge of the controversial parts of the proceedings of its framers could be turned to no proper account.”

In a word, it is better, in the view of the founders themselves, that no attempt be made to try to determine what a group of men — most or whom disagreed with one another on nearly every topic — might possibly have meant, especially hundreds of years ago. As John Murrin says in his excellent book, Rethinking America, ”

“Even if we decide to accept the accuracy of these accounts, they only tell us what one man [Madison] thought, not why the majority voted as it did or what the majority assumed it was doing.”

Strict Construction is a fiction. It demands that we strive for an impossible goal: to know what a group of men thought years ago in the heat of debate and during a time when thirteen colonies had very different agendas and there was yet no sense of a “united” states. Murrin concludes that

“The real question is not what the drafters thought they were writing, but what the people believed they were implementing [when they ratified the document].”

And that, as we know, is an impossible quest. But, then, so is “strict construction.”

Whom To Trust

This is a post from four years ago which still seems relevant except for the fact that the lowered intelligence I speak of became even more apparent in the recent presidential election.

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow the youngsters to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all. The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.
Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I would label the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this onmslought. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.
I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:
(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.
(3) Fact is that which enough people believe. (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).
I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.
What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

Adam Smith Revisited

The usual take on Adam Smith is that he was the father of modern capitalism, an apologist for man’s greed and ambition, inventor of the notion of the “invisible hand” that would lead to prosperity and happiness for one and all in a capitalistic economy — trickle down, as it were. The fact is that he was much more famous in his day for his moral philosophy as author of  The of Moral Sentiments in which he insisted that human beings were born with a natural sympathy for one another that would temper their dealings and — in the case of capitalism — keep them from gouging one another and making huge profits at the cost of exploiting their workers and screwing one another.  As he said in Moral Sentiments:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render this happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s reference here to the supposed selfishness of human beings is a direct reference to the cynical Bernard Mandeville who insisted that thinkers like Lord Shaftesbury and Adam Smith were all wet to insist that men were naturally virtuous because, in fact, they are selfish and self-seeking. Mandeville’s infamous little book The Fable of the Bees, which develops this theme at length, was severely attacked by an eighteenth century English audience led by thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Bishop Butler, Francis Hutchinson, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith who agreed that Mandeville was all wet. The group even included such skeptical thinkers as David Hume, though he was not as vociferous a proponent of the moral sense theory as the others. And these thinkers were supported by John Wesley and his Methodistic followers who were very active, especially among the very poor.  In any event, these  folks were all great minds that comprised what came to be called the Scottish “moral sense” school of philosophy, insisting that humans are born with a natural sensitivity to others, that we all exhibit the “social virtues” of sympathy, benevolence, compassion, and fellow-feeling. As Smith notes, sympathy cannot be a disguised form of self-interest or we could not explain how a man could sympathize with a woman feeling the pains of childbirth. Sympathy is primal; it is not self-interest posing as something else.

The theme was presupposed when he later wrote Wealth of Nations. Very few have read the 900 page book, but they have perused the pages and picked out passages that reinforce their own particular views of the nature of capitalism and the desirability of the capitalistic enterprise to guarantee human happiness. It is not necessary to repeat here what I have written before of Smith’s reservations about raw capitalism, nor to repeat the excellent comments on my blog by Jerry Stark, except to note that Smith had serious concerns about the deleterious effects of the profit motive on human beings.

To be sure, there is no question but that capitalism has improved the lot of most people in this society. We live in a country where the average person has so many things that would have made kings jealous in Smith’s day, we live longer, and we are healthier. But what is noticeably lacking today is the social virtue that Smith presupposed in his treatise. And without moral sensibility, the “fellow-feeling” of which Smith speaks, capitalism is reduced to fierce competition among people who are all reaching for the same goals of fabulous wealth, status, power, and prestige. Somewhere along the line the social virtues that Smith simply assumed were prevalent in humankind have all but disappeared, and the ugly qualities that are accompany capitalism are left unrestrained by the gentler, human sympathies.

The fact is that the eighteenth-century thinkers who founded this nation, who wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution,” all presupposed the very same social virtues that Smith speaks of. They assumed, as James Madison says quite clearly in a number of the Federalist Papers, that virtuous people would elect wise and virtuous leaders who would promote the common good. This was axiomatic in English and American political and moral thought at that time, and was regarded as the sine qua non of a republican government. And yet we look around and fail to see much virtue at all; it has been replaced by the greed and avarice that capitalism breeds when it is not tempered, as Smith simply assumed it would be, by the social virtues. Recall Madison’s comment in Federalist Paper #55:

“Were the pictures which have been drawn of the political jealousies by some among us [Mandeville?] faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

I have spoken before about the transition of the word “virtue” into “value,” and the consequent reduction of virtues to feelings that are not in the least bit shared by all, but are purely subjective and personal. You like what you like and you value what you value; I like and value what I like and value. And that’s an end to it. But this seemingly innocent alteration in the way we look at things and speak about things reflects a deeper attitude toward our fellow human beings, a lack of sympathy and fellow-feeling accompanied by a conviction that there is nothing that is valuable or true, and that human happiness can be bought and paid for by grubbing about in the market place, trading stocks, exploiting our fellow humans, accumulating as much stuff as possible, climbing the political and social ladder, and ignoring our responsibilities to one another.

We have come a long way, baby, in the name of “progress.” What is not so clear is that we are any the happier or that what we have thrown away was not more valuable than what we have kept.

Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.

Madison’s Amendment

In an interesting article about the original 20 items on James Madison’s Bill of Rights — reduced to 12 after considerable debate in the Continental Congress and later to 10 during the ratification process —  it is made fairly clear what the man was thinking when he wrote those amendments.

We know that the major concern of those who were debating the Constitution was the issue of ratification. How to write the Constitution in such a way that the required number of states would agree to it? Originally it mentioned the abolition of slavery, but that had to be cut to assure that the Southern states would climb on board. A number of those items also had to be cut from Madison’s 20 “Rights,” though they were eventually reworked into later amendments — such things, for example, as restricting Federal judicial powers. Another was added as late as 1992. Compromise was necessary in a new nation where individual rights, and the rights of the states themselves, must be guaranteed. The original Second Amendment reads as follows:

 James Madison

James Madison


 

“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person,” said Madison.

The final clause was dropped, sad to say. But, like that clause, the remaining part of the statement makes it abundantly clear that the major concern in this amendment is the right of the militia to bear arms, since the right of “the people” is predicated on the claim that “a well armed and well regulated militia” is necessary to guarantee that the country remain free. And the reference to “military service” in the omitted clause also makes it clear that the militia was of major concern — for reasons of self-defense.

It is a wonder in these days of heated debate over the need for some sort of gun control to limit the sales of automatic weapons to possible terrorists in this country that few bother to recall what the founders were most concerned about when they agreed to the Second Amendment. Much is said about our “Constitutional Right” to bear arms, but nothing whatever is said about this so-called right being predicated on the maintenance of a militia. With the disappearance of the militia the right to bear arms also disappears. At best, one could argue that the National Guard has such a right. But not every Tom, Dick, and Sally — and certainly not those who are not of sound mind.

Note: After writing this post I was pleased to read an article quoting various Constitutional lawyers on this topic that support what I have said here:

For almost 200 years after it was adopted, the Second Amendment was interpreted to protect the right for militias to bear arms, but not individuals. In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Miller that restricting access to shotguns or machine guns by citizens outside the military was permissible. . .  .

[Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe added that] the Second Amendment does not stand in the way of gun legislation to make the country safer.

“The largest misconception is that the Second Amendment justifies — or ever has justified — our nation’s abysmal record in protecting innocent people from avoidable gun violence, . . . The Second Amendment and the Constitution as a whole are abused by those who treat them as a sick suicide pact.”

So while there is a legitimate political debate to be had about the merits of gun control, Tribe says, conservatives are wrong to make it a constitutional issue.

This, of course, does not imply that the debate over gun control will end, though it should quiet those who argue that carrying automatic weapons is a “right” guaranteed by the Second Amendment. However, it most assuredly will not.

 

Movers and Shakers

Machiavelli (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli’s Prince was written in the sixteenth century ostensibly as advice to the rulers of Florence — especially Lorenzo de Medici — about how to achieve and maintain power. Or it may have been written to alert the common folk about what their rulers were up to. It is so vivid and frank that people like Jean Jacques Rousseau have been tempted to insist that it is satirical: surely, politics isn’t that rough and cut-throat! The Catholic Church disagreed with Rousseau and banned the book soon after it appeared.  For my part, I think Machiavelli was being quite honest: politics is, indeed, a matter of doing whatever it takes to achieve the desired objective.  And the “objective” is always to gain and maintain power. In his day, it was the Medici family who pursued that goal. In our day it is the corporations where the CEOs make 475 times as much money as their average employee and “morality” is a word never used.

In fact, there is a most interesting and provocative parallel here that might have missed a great many readers of Machiavelli’s classic. The Medici were the wealthiest family in Florence. Today’s power-brokers are the very wealthy, as was the case in Machiavelli’s day. Money is power. Thus, while we like to delude ourselves about democracy resting upon the power of the people, Machiavelli would insist that the people who have the power are, in fact, those who hold the purse strings. The people simply go through the motions and exercise the very few options open to them.

Thus, while you and I might bemoan the fact that the planet is suffering from severe attacks by greedy people and something must be done and the quicker the better, as long as people like the Koch brothers are the ones who decide what will be done, the planet must suffer.  They hope to stack the political deck with hand-picked puppets and rid the country of restraints on “free enterprise” — by such as agencies as the EPA. To be sure, today’s movers and shakers failed to achieve all they hoped for during the past election, despite the millions of dollars they spent to guarantee that the puppets they had selected for public office were successful in the national elections. But they have sworn that this will not happen again in the mid-term elections. And given their determination together with the money they have at their disposal, success seems inevitable. The vision of the fore-fathers that was framed in the Enlightenment optimism of the eighteenth century, the vision that assured those who embraced their new nation that the people will in fact rule in this Democracy — as reflected in Madison’s statement in Federalist Papers that those in positions of political prominence would be removed if they failed to attend to the voice of those who elected them — turns out to have been a pipe dream. Sad to say.

In then end, then, those of us who care about our planet and our country will have to sit by with hands tied and watch those who rule — who are, in fact if not in principle, the movers and shakers of today. They are the ones who hold the reins of power by means of the amount of monies they have to spend on electing puppets who will respond only to the pull of the strings that are wielded by the power-brokers themselves. And, of course, those same people could care less about the planet or their country. They care only about the bottom line. They are blinded by greed and the love of power and care only about what will bring them what they want. So let’s not fool ourselves. Machiavelli told us all about it centuries ago, and things have not really changed that much since then. Those who have money and power seek only to maintain their positions of strength while the rest of us seek the latest diversion they provide us with.

Does this mean that I, personally, will no longer hope for real change, that I will no longer send in my piddling amounts of money to help support those few politicians who seem to have something resembling a conscience? Certainly not. One must free one’s hands and continue to swim against the tide if it is certain to be heading in the wrong direction. I will continue to hope and I will continue to struggle and raise my shrill voice. But though I am not a pessimist or even a fatalist, I am a realist who has learned from the wisest and brightest of those who have passed before me. I have a pretty good idea how things will turn out.

The Second Amendment

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution in close association with his friend Thomas Jefferson, did not think a Bill of Rights was necessary. Alexander Hamilton agreed and said in a lengthy discussion of a possible Bill of Rights in Federalist Papers #84,  “The Constitution is its own Bill of Rights.” These men worried that if a list of such rights was drawn up something would be left out or, worse yet, folks would think those were the only rights that citizens have. Indeed, Hamilton went on to note that a Bill of Rights is both “dangerous” and “unnecessary,” since he thought such rights are clearly implied in the Constitution itself and need not be specified or if specified could be circumvented by devious minds. Hamilton assures his readers that “Here in strictness people surrender nothing [by not having their rights specified]; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations. . . . [the Constitution] contains all which in relation to their objects, is reasonably desired.” Further, the men thought that citizens’ rights were self-evident, a favorite concept of Enlightenment thinkers.

But since several states were reluctant to ratify the Constitution without a specified Bill of Rights, Madison eventually drew up a list of twelve such rights that were soon pared down to ten. The one that is most talked about these days is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, the Second Amendment. This right was specified because the Founders regarded militias, raised by the states and paid by the states as the need arose, as essential to the freedom of the American people. Their model, in all likelihood, was Cincinnatus, the citizen/farmer in the early days of Rome, who fought when the need arose and then went back to his farm when the danger had passed. The founders were known to have greatly admired the Roman Republic, using it as a model for their own government. And given their experience with the constant presence of the red-coated British, they were very concerned about the possibility of a standing army — even their own army — that would strengthen the government and weaken the people’s freedom.  Indeed, when they were considering ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton had to assure his New York readers, in Federalist #24, that they need not fear the presence during peace time of a standing army: it simply wouldn’t happen.  The states would retain the power to raise militias when necessary and disband them when the danger had passed: they would be “well regulated.” Thus, in order to avoid a standing army, state militias were essential. Not only had the conjoined militias won the Revolution after all, but, during Washington’s presidency, a collection of several state militias amounting to 17,000 men was quickly rounded up and, led by the President himself, headed West to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. The word got out that the militia was headed their way and the Rebellion broke up. At that time it was determined that the militias could safely protect the citizens of the new nation.

The point of this little history lesson is to show that the Second Amendment was less about the right to keep and bear arms than it was about the need for armed militia. Indeed, when, much later, in 1934, the Congress passed the National Firearms Act to keep such things as sawed-off shotguns out of the hands of gangsters, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court whose decision clearly centered around the Founders’ express need for a militia. In their decision, they reasoned that “The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.” Might not the very same thing be said of today’s automatic weapons?

In fact, if you read the Second Amendment carefully, you will see that it presents us with a compound statement in which two clauses are interdependent. It reads, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In other words it states that since a militia is necessary to defend freedom, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The statement is quite precise: one thing necessitates the other. If there were no need for a militia — as, say, if there were a standing army, navy, marine corps, air force, and national guard — then there would be no grounds for the so-called “right” to keep and bear arms. And, conversely, the right to keep and bear arms need not be recognized when the need for a militia disappears — because of the presence of a standing army, for example.

The relentless attempts by the arms manufacturers — for the most part — to bully this Congress and the Supreme Court into allowing any and all weapons in the hands of any and all citizens, regardless of age, flies in the face of the Second Amendment as it was written and understood for many years. The arguments by groups such as the NRA tend to focus exclusively on the “right” itself, and ignore the explicit concern for militias. But, assuredly, the fact that state militias are a thing of that past implies that the right to keep and bear arms can no longer be said to be protected by this Amendment. Perhaps in the end Hamilton was right — certainly with respect to the Second Amendment: it has proven to be “dangerous.”