True Freedom (Once Again)

Some of you will have read this post from two years ago. But I thought it especially relevant in light of the last post I passed along which takes “radical liberals” to task for going too far in their enthusiasm for freedom. I suspect many of them have not thought about what freedom is. Above all else, it requires restraint. I have expanded the discussion quite bit. I felt free to do so.

Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.

There are two sorts of freedom according to the philosopher Isiah Berlin: positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose any cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes, simply, the absence of restraints. But taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos. In the political arena it is law that makes freedom possible, as John Locke noted many years ago.

And that leaves the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied, or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.

One of the winning cards that was played in the most recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but somehow making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed about; they huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their political opponents and the power-brokers. All in the name of “freedom.” And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.

But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness,” because there is no suggestion that it will allow for restraint and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the din caused by the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who demand more and more freedom.

Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue at present who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. “Restraint” is not in his vocabulary. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.

Totalitarian Threats?

Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins Of Totalitarianism nearly 70 years ago and it focused primarily on Germany and Russia, the countries that at that time were most obviously totalitarian in their treatment of their citizens. One might think that such a book with that particular focus would be  dated and not at all relevant to today’s world. After all, Germany and Russia are no longer the countries they were when Arendt wrote. But the totalitarian tendencies about which she was most interested survive to this day — and not only in those countries, but elsewhere as well.

I venture to predict that as the pressures on all of the countries in the world become greater with the globe warming and food and water increasingly scarce the totalitarian threat will become an increasing concern: power will devolve to fewer and fewer hands to control unrest. And, as Lord Acton reminded us long ago “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But I also worry about today and about the trend in this country, led as it is by a man who completely misunderstands the workings of a free society, a man who has shown himself in sympathy with some of the most autocratic leaders on the globe and who has also shown those tendencies himself.

In any event I shall let Arendt speak for herself. I will only add that when she speaks of the “elite” she speaks about the “intelligentsia,” those who have had the most schooling (but may not be well educated) and have assumed leadership roles — those, for example, who have assumed positions of strength in our universities and colleges. And bear in mind that in the not-so-distant past the intelligentsia, especially the young radicals, tended to support the Jacobites, the Nazis and the Communists.  As she says:

“. . .  there is no doubt that the elite [in Germany and Russia] . . . did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past might force their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which totalitarian regimes are guilty and which announce themselves clearly enough in totalitarian propaganda. They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case, since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind [think: “New History”]. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last shall be first had disappeared. Injustices in the past as well as the present became intolerable when there was no longer any hope that the scales of justice eventually would be set right. Marx’s great attempt to rewrite world history in terms of class struggles fascinated even those who did not believe in the correctness of his thesis, because of his original intention to find a device by which to force the destinies of those excluded from official history into the memory of posterity. . . .

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots [again, think: “New History”], must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination with the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective, and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. . . .

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

In describing what might be said about the present state of many of our universities and colleges, not to say society itself, she is revealing to us the way the “elite” take over the minds of the young students and outside the academy how propaganda works by recasting the truth in the form of, shall we say,  “false news.” And her discussion of those who have “been excluded unjustly” from the seats of power and who now struggle to find a place at the table is timely indeed  — especially since the “excluded” in America have managed to elect one of their own to the position of greatest power in this country if not the world.

There is more, of course. A great deal more — including a remarkable analysis of the totalitarian type, which is to say, the type of person attracted to absolute power and the steps such a type will take in order to acquire and maintain power. Regarding Hitler, for example, she had this to say:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, this tendency is strengthened so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong.”

In reading Arendt’s analysis bells continually go off, especially her description of modern society with its “characteristic lack of discerning judgment.”  I put that down to our floundering education system, as you know. She understood power and its abuses perhaps as well as or even better than Machiavelli. More to the point, her analysis is timely and shines a light on contemporary America, revealing aspects of our present situation that we must always try to understand and struggle against if we are to remain free.

Sansculottism

One of the abiding mysteries of this most mysterious age in which we live — to put it mildly — is the persistent popularity of our chosen Leader who seems to be totally without any qualifications whatever to hold the highest office in the land. His popularity continues despite the revelation from day-to-day of his determination to bring shame to the office which he ought to be determined to respect and venerate.

One of my favorite blog buddies recently expressed her puzzlement over this fact, the alarming fact that this man continues to amaze, fascinate, and maintain his hold over the minds of thousands of people in this country. And despite the fact that I swore never to read or write about this man out of my very genuine concern that it raises my shackles and my blood pressure, I do think it worth a moment’s reflection. I suggested to my friend that it is what the French saw in the eighteenth century as they experienced the reign of terror that was their revolution, a time when the rise of what they called “sansculottism” — an extreme form of republicanism that roused the very poor against the aristocracy and the wealthy who refused to pay their way in France, shifting the entire financial burden onto the shoulders of the poor and disenfranchised, thereby making them and their country weak and sickly. The word used to describe the mind-set of those who rose against the power-mongers is the French word “ressentimnent,” which we loosely translate into “resentment.”

Ressentiment is an ugly beast and it grows and festers within the heart of those who see around them others who have what they think they ought to have. It is not simply jealousy, though it is certainly akin to that most ugly passion. It breeds a form of hatred that is directed against those around them who have the power and the wealth and seem to be rubbing their faces in their own privileged position. The French aristocracy knew the country was on the brink of starvation and insurrection and that an increase in their own pathetically small tax burden — which was a joke — might bring about some sort of balance or at least quiet down the growing unrest among those who suffered deprivation. But they refused and the resentment grew until it finally erupted in the reign of terror directed against those with wealth and position who remained in France — those who had not already fled in fear.

Clearly, there is no exact parallel between the French in the eighteenth century and today’s Americans. But there are broad areas of resemblance as those who regard themselves as deprived of power see around them wealthy men and women who lord it over them and who refuse to bear any of the political burden, except in so far as it increases their own wealth and prestige. Indeed, the power-brokers seem to find new ways to shift that burden to the shoulders  of those who can least afford it. And in this atmosphere there appears a man who is full of bloat and rhetoric, but who seems somehow different — like them, a womanizer, a crass fellow with bluster who promises them a piece of the pie that has been denied them for so long. The things this man does that horrifies many of those around him endear him to those who would be like him, arrogant, proud, domineering those around him, and abusing those who differ from him.

In a word, one might have expected something like what we are at present living through if we had thought about it a bit. It is really not all that surprising and it will not end until or unless those who have been denied access to the halls of power can somehow find themselves within those halls and portioned at least a small share of that power. This is the only way they can possibly gain some semblance of self-respect and cool down the passion of ressentiment that festers within their hearts.

It is doubtful that a revolution will be the alternative, since the passion doesn’t seem to have reached a fever pitch, but there will be continued attacks on the intelligent, the wealthy, those who seem to have what others lack, and those who pull the strings of power that makes life a burden for so many who are chronically deprived. And folks like Our Leader will continue to bask in the glow of popularity cast by those who see him as The Answer, one of Them, one who will lead them out of the mud that surrounds them.

Another Gem!

The delight one takes in reading exceptional literature (dare I say “great” literature?) is in finding the occasional gem. They are always there and that is what makes them exceptional. In the case of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, to which I have referred before, they are there in abundance.

The novel was written soon after the Second World War at a time when many an American intellectual was flirting with Communism, which appeared to be the way to deliver the poor and downtrodden from under the foot of the greedy capitalist power-brokers. In the novel the leader of a small group of intellectuals from New York has had a sudden change of heart and has deserted the Communist Party to the dismay and even anger of his small group of devoted fellow-travelers.

The news has come out of Russia of the atrocities that have been committed for years in the name of Communism, the millions of dead and the promise of millions more — all in the name of a “better way of life for all.” The leader of the local group, Gifford Maxim,  has risked his life to leave the Party to which he has devoted the majority of his adult life. He has had an epiphany of sorts as he has come to realize that the end does not justify the means when the means involve the death of so many of his fellow humans. He is no longer a member of a small community of like-minded zealots, “My community with men is that we are children of God.”

By way of reaching this conclusion, he has this to say to his former friends and devotees:

“And never has there been so much talk of liberty while the chains are being forged. Democracy and freedom. And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow-man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become. How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?”

In light of recent events in this country, when our feckless Leader loudly threatened to “totally destroy” an entire nation of people whose ideology differs from our own, a time when the air still rings with similar threats from the leader of the “other side” who refers to Our Fearless Leader as a “dotard” and labels him as “deranged”  —  neither of these men seeming to realize that countless human lives are at stake if these threats are carried out — it is a timely reminder that the hidden political agenda is to acquire and maintain power, to “impose” one ideology on everyone. There are no winners in this power game; there are only losers.

As Maxim reminds us, ours is the community of the “children of God.” We are all human with our many foibles, and the particular ideology we follow seems not to matter one bit. There are always those who will lord it over others, those who will take while insisting that they have the right to do so, those who simply want more of what they already have. It matters not whether we call it “Communism” or “Capitalism,” in any case, it is about power, and about who is to wield it and for how long.

Trilling is usually labelled a “Conservative,” though he regarded himself as a moderate; in any event, it is a simple matter to dismiss these sentiments as those of someone who thinks differently. We tend to do that sort of thing. But this would be a mistake, the very same mistake Gifford Maxim has made in following an ideology blindly, ignoring the atrocities for years out of the conviction that his is the only legitimate way to see the world. As Trilling himself has said, in another context entirely,

“Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties and of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.”

Committing oneself blindly to an ideology, any ideology, is a denial of our fundamental humanity. Labelling the opposition instead of listening to what they have to say leads to frustration, ignorance, and eventually to violence. Whether or not we are in sympathy with what the author of this novel has to say — and he has a great deal to say — it is well worth hearing. And to my ear it rings true. We all seem to be quick to condemn those who disagree with us and to see our way of thinking as the only way while, in fact, there are many ways to think and to see — and ours may not be the best way.

In any event, the end certainly does not justify the means when it involves the death of so many others who disagree with us, many of whom are totally unaware that they do so.

Corporate Power

I taught Business Ethics for many years and during those years I came across a great many reports of the abuse of the power of corporations. It became increasingly clear as I read and thought about this misuse that it stems from the fact that the publicly owned companies ignore the stakeholder because they are primarily (if not exclusively) concerned about the return on the dollar, i.e., profits that can  be paid out to shareholders (and overpaid CEOs who typically make 400 times as much as their  average employee). What I now take to be an obvious fact has many ramifications.

I have posted before about the oversight on the part of the founders who were so sensitive to the abuse of power and who simply did not see the possible abuses of power that might result from the millions of dollars the corporations rake in every year. — and this despite the fact that Jefferson, for one, was fully aware of the dangers of immoderate wealth in the hands of a few. But the founders simply couldn’t see this coming, clearly. They did realize, however, that the Constitution was a document that required up-dating from time to time; it is not written in stone. Henry Adam thought that when Grant was elected there would be a drastic overhaul of a document he realized was already out of date. But that didn’t happen. But, surely, one of the issues that needs to be addressed in our day is the abuse of the power of corporations that can simply buy elections and determine who is allowed to hold public office and what those who have been elected will do when in office (if they want to be reelected).

In 2010 the Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5-4  in the “Citizens United” case that corporations are “persons” and have rights of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Under that umbrella, they were given the green light to contribute to political campaigns — which they have subsequently done, in spades. Elections were increasingly a battle of the rich against the also rich, but the contributions of the corporations — not to mention those who run the corporations — have upped the ante considerably. Now we find ourselves faced with continuous requests for money from candidates and political parties to “take on” the corporations — as though this can be effectively accomplished.

I don’t buy the notion that corporations are persons and I think the claim I have seen argued that, as persons, they might somehow be shamed into behaving ethically is a bit dubious. If the shame were to result in lower profits corporate CEOs would simply pass along the losses to the customers until the PR people could direct attention elsewhere and convince the public that no real harm was done. This was the case with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the waters off Alaska a few years ago when Exxon sent a team of people up to the region of the spill where they cleaned up several hundred yards of oil from the shoreline and then had it filmed and used the film in a public relations campaign to convince customers that they had eradicated the effects of the spill. Ignored altogether, we have since discovered, were hundreds of yards of shoreline out of sight that remained covered in oil. It seems to be in the corporate DNA to do whatever it has to do to “right the ship” in the case of an accident and make sure the image of the company is not seriously damaged. They have public relations people who do nothing else but address this issue. And they have lawyers, who they often call “ethics officers,” whose job it is to see that they take no steps that could possibly end them up in court — because they identify morality with legality and pride themselves in “doing nothing wrong.”

The recent attempts by the current administration to weaken, if not eradicate altogether, the E.P.A. and other regulatory agencies is extremely disturbing because history has shown that the corporations will not police themselves and if their feet are not held to the fire they will do whatever it takes to increase profits, full stop. In an economy like ours regulations are anathema to the corporations and their highly paid officers. But from the public’s perspective they are essential.

Furthermore, those corporations should not be regarded as persons and given the right under the First Amendment to contribute to political campaigns. The founders missed this one, but we are becoming increasingly aware of the abuses of power by the corporations and the need to rein them in by limiting their impact on the public domain. The first step, clearly, is the rejection of the Citizens United decision which at least two of the judges who voted for it now realize was a mistake. And, if we cannot revise the constitution, we can certainly modify it to see to it that controls are placed on otherwise unfettered power. That is, we can if we have the will.

Is Change In The Offing?

Years ago I wrote the following blog (with minor recent additions) which no one read and which I now realize was a bit pessimistic. Perhaps that was just how I felt at the time — or I was using hyperbole to get a response. In any event, with the recent vote on the ACA by the Republicans in the House and the talk about voting the bums out of office I thought it might be timely to revisit the theme. Are people finally going to get off their collective butts and vote the bums out and try to elect people who will be responsive to their own needs? That’s the million dollar question at this point. How much does it take to make people realize that the real problems are ones that are being ignored altogether — problems like climate change and overpopulation? The answer is,  of course, it will happen when people wake up and realize that these problems are not theoretical: they will directly impact their lives in a very serious  way. In the meantime I wonder if my cynicism was out of order.

Generally speaking, radical change, if it occurs at all, comes from the top down. It is rare that those at the bottom of the food chain are able to effect meaningful change. There are exceptions, of course, as in the case of revolutions. But after their revolution the French would probably point out that the rascals who take over often exhibit the same qualities as the rascals who have been chased out. Lord Acton was right: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It doesn’t seem to matter who holds the reins of power, they tend to choke those at the other end.

My good friend Dana Yost made an excellent suggestion recently about how to change the mess that is college football, where corruption is rampant and greed is the name of the game. He suggested that the NCAA be scrapped and that limits be placed on coaches’ salaries — at least in the public colleges and universities. This would be an excellent start, but unfortunately this won’t happen. And it won’t happen because the only people who can effect real change in this situation are those in power and they don’t want to cut off their noses to spite their faces. There’s far too much money involved. Or the change could be mandated by government. But that won’t happen either, because elected officials owe their place on the public dole to the wealthy power-brokers who will resist change. The NCAA has considerable political clout. And in this case politicians are smart enough (barely) to know you don’t mess with sports in this country. It’s tantamount to messing with religion.

Solutions are sometimes so easy to see, not only in the case of collegiate football, but also in the case of the mess in our public schools, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that radical change is in order — elimination of the education bureaucracy that has a choke-hold on the system, and eliminating the ridiculous “methods” courses required of education majors, among other steps .But that won’t happen, either. The problem, again, is that those in power are not about to give it up. And only those in power can mandate change. It must come, once again, from the top down. The idea that real change can be effected in the schools by reducing teachers’ salaries is positively stupid. Teachers are already underpaid, and that’s a big part of the problem. But while it is obvious that change in the schools is needed, it won’t happen, either. The education establishment (the “blob” as it has been called) would have to be eliminated, or greatly reduced, and the only people in a position to do that are the members of the education establishment themselves. One might as well ask the local school superintendent to reduce the number of administrators in his school, or state university boards to reduce their own numbers instead of cutting academic programs. It isn’t going to happen if left up to the people in charge: it diminishes their control. Or, again, we could appeal to the politicians to make change. But the education establishment is powerful enough to exert considerable influence in political circles and politicians are smart enough (barely) to know which hand feeds them.

So, in the end, one must peck away at the fringes and hope that a sufficient number of people become disgusted enough to exert influence on those in power to counter the effects of those with big money who hold the reins. But, short of a revolution, it will take a huge effort to effect any of these changes, if it happens at all. And to make matters worse, there is no guarantee that change, if it comes, will be for the better. Often it is not — as the French will attest, and as we ourselves learned in the 1960s when we saw radical change initiated by the counterculture destroy civility in this country and, some would say, brought about the rise to the top of people like Donald Trump.

 

I ask again: has the time come when the sleeping giant, which is the American public,  finally wakes up and demands change?  Change in the case of the current administration can only be change for the better. Time will tell.

 

 

Tyranny of the Majority

One of the more captivating notions to come out of de Tocqueville’s truly remarkable book Democracy In America was the notion of the tyranny of the majority. Coincidentally, John Stuart Mill arrived at pretty much the same notion at about the same time and the two men became close friends and mutual admirers. The exceptional Lord Acton — whose name (are you ready for this because it will be on the Mid-Term?) was John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton — agreed with de Tocqueville and Mill about the tyranny of the majority, though he thought they were both all wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of Democracy. More about that below.

de Tocqueville convinced the French government to fund his trip to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to examine our prison system. Instead he examined our system of democracy because he was convinced this was the direction that all Western nations were headed and he wanted to be in a position to shout warnings if necessary and to help the process along if possible. But after visiting a number of New England town meetings he came away with a distrust of the majority rule — and with good reason. He said, among other things:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not changes their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

This is, surely, one of the most eloquent statements ever set down regarding the weaknesses of majority rule — which can indeed become tyrannical just as much as a single powerful King, perhaps even more so. But de Tocqueville didn’t stop there; he made an attempt to explain the psychology behind the tyranny of majority opinion:

“. . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. . . .I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and free discussion as in America.”

We do not often find ourselves in decision-making groups where the majority votes on large issues. Not as a rule, certainly. But we can recall the discussion and vote in our Congress not long ago over the question of the invasion of Iraq in which the wave of emotion swept the floor and the yeas had their day and the nays were derided as “unpatriotic” if not “cowards” or “treasonous.” We might call it “peer pressure” these days, but the force of the will of the majority can be powerful indeed; it is not always enlightened or even reasonable, and the voice of dissent is often silenced and refused a hearing when the majority is in full voice.

I mentioned Lord Acton above, and he tended to agree with de Tocqueville and Mill about what Acton called the “despotism of democracy.” In fact, he noted that:

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.”

This devout Catholic witnessed first-hand the tyranny of the majority when in 1870 he fought unsuccessfully the attempts of Pope Pius IX to institute the doctrine of papal Infallibility. As pressure from Rome increased one after another minority Bishop succumbed to the “latent power” of majority opinion until the doctrine was approved. Earlier, in discussing the American Civil War, he analyzed the despotism of democracy noted above. Like many Englishmen, especially among the wealthy classes, his sympathies were on the side of the South. He was convinced that the Northern states were not so much interested in the emancipation of the slaves as in subjecting all of the South to the authority of the national government and reducing the population to a single, undifferentiated mass. He was convinced that a plurality of nations within a single civil state was to be preferred to a homogeneous group of people who all looked, dressed, and thought alike.

Just as majority opinion tends to silence dissent, the movement toward Nationalism, toward a single (isolated?) geographical and political unit, as Acton saw it, was a movement toward homogeneity, toward like-mindedness; he fought it in the name of pluralism. As he noted:

“A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State that labors to neutralize to absorb or to expel [different races] destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include [different races] is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

In a word, the tendency to silence dissent, to follow the “latent power” of the majority opinion to a single point of view — thereby silencing the minority, the attempt to build walls and send certain peoples away from this country, are all insidious and in direct opposition to the open and free discussion of ideas and the freedom of opinion that are the warp and woof of this nation. Without this sort of freedom there can be no real freedom whatever. And this appears to be where we are headed at the present moment. It is time to call “foul” and consider where we are headed.

Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

Funny Pages

I was recently looking on the net at the various comics I enjoy reading each day when I came upon one that was trending toward political commentary. As the trend became obvious to the reader the final square of the comic was totally black. The next day the entire comic consisted of four black squares with a message in a small box in the center telling us that the Federal Bureau of Media Content had determined that the content of the comic was “inappropriate” and would therefore not be shown. My heart skipped a beat as I went to other comic pages to see if censorship was now the order of the day; but it was not. I realized that the artist was making a comment about the possibilities facing us all of a repressive government deciding for us what we can and cannot read or hear. The following day the comic strip focused on an innocuous “knock-knock” joke that was, we are told, approved by the Bureau.

Needless to say, this was disquieting since I, like all of us I suppose, simply take for granted that we can say, read, write, and think as we wish. It is other societies that must worry about censorship and the closing of lines of communication among dissidents. But then I reflect on the distinct possibility that this could very well happen in this country in spite of the First Amendment. Machiavelli taught us those lessons years ago.

I then realized that my own urge to write about the things that matter to me together with my ability to read others who agree or disagree with me have to say is something I simply take for granted. But I should not. We live at a time when those in power have the ability — and the desire I daresay — to shut down lines of communication and silence all opposition to the doctrines they regard as appropriate, to wit, those doctrines that support their political agendas and help them maintain control over the minds of the citizens of this country —  increasing numbers of whom are becoming docile and are apparently willing to go along with the political forces at work wherever those forces may happen to lead.

At the same time, I realize that I must guard against paranoia. My example was merely one comic strip which was making a bold statement. I must beware the tendency to leap to the nearest conclusion and suppose that censorship is waiting in the wings to be ushered forth on the stage of my realities.  In saying this I recall the sage comment: “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” It is wise to be cautious but it also behooves us all to keep our sense of balance (and our sense of humor) while we count our blessings that we live in a country that allows dissent and encourages disagreement with one another and with those in power. So far.

Impeachment?

I predicted quite some time ago that impeachment of this president would not be long in coming. After all, he alienates everyone he works with and is determined to ignore Constitutional restraints as he does things his way — even if his way leads down a blind alley. There are simply too many powerful men and women in Washington whose egos are as big as Trump’s to allow him to have his way! Apparently the movement to impeach is growing as a recent article in Huffington Post reports. I quote a part of that article here in order to give my post some credibility:

Trump has been trying to govern by impulse, on whim, for personal retribution, for profit, by decree ― as if he had been elected dictator. It doesn’t work, and the wheels are coming off the bus. After a week!

Impeachment is gaining ground because it is the only way to get him out, and because Republicans are already deserting this president in droves, and because the man is psychologically incapable of checking whether something is legal before he does it.

Impeachment is gaining ground because it’s so horribly clear that Trump is unfit for office. The grownups around Trump, even the most slavishly loyal ones, spend half their time trying to rein him in, but it can’t be done.

They spend the other half fielding frantic calls from Republican chieftains, business elites and foreign leaders. Trump did what? Poor Reince Priebus has finally attained the pinnacle of power, and it can’t be fun.

It is one thing to live in your own reality when you are a candidate and it’s just words. You can fool enough of the people enough of the time maybe even to get elected. But when you try to govern that way, there is a reality to reality—and reality pushes back.

One by one, Trump has decreed impulsive orders, un-vetted by legal, policy, or political staff, much less by serious planning. Almost immediately he is forced to walk them back by a combination of political and legal pressure—and by reality.

I also noted some time ago that Trump is an impulsive man and thought at the time that his impulsiveness would get him into big trouble. He is clearly incapable of seeing the broad canvas or imagining the consequences of his actions — or caring what is legal or moral. He simply has a notion and then acts — usually tweeting about it as he does it. And then he waits for the glory to descend on him, people giving him the applause he thinks he richly deserves. If no one else will shout how great he is, he shouts it himself. He seeks to impose his sense of reality on the world around him, to force others to see the world as he sees it — with him at the center. He is a spoiled, delusional child who needs constant reassurance that his way is the only way. It was clear from his campaign that this man would be unable to work within the confines of a republican system of checks and balances. He has always seen himself as a dictator — like the men he praises to the skies.

In any event after only a week on the job it is becoming increasingly clear that he will be removed in the not too distant future. I suspect the Republican powers in Washington will approach him and offer him the opportunity to resign — as was done with Richard Nixon. Given Trump’s ego he will probably refuse and impeachment will proceed. It will be ugly and there will be a hue and cry from Trump’s mindless minions who will be convinced (as they have been throughout) that this man can walk on water.

My main concern, which I share with a couple of my favorite bloggers, is the damage he will do in the meantime. But I try to find solace in the thought that the damage will be less than it would be if he were to remain in office for the full term.