Snippits From Adams

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

I discovered Henry Adams late in life and wish I had done so earlier. One can always tell when he is in the company of genius, and Adams is just such a one. Accordingly, I want to share some of my favorite thoughts from Adams’ autobiography, which he wrote in the third person and which is historically fascinating and philosophically provocative. Being the grandson and great-grandson of two American presidents would lead one to expect that Henry’s life would be eventful and in some ways it was. But he spent much of his life trying to determine what he was best suited to do and in many ways he felt out of step with the world around him. In spite of this, the man became a keen observer and one of the brightest minds of his day and his reflections still have the ring of truth today. For one thing, he was convinced that even after only 100 years the Constitution needed drastic revision, since, among other things, it gave the Senate too much power. With the large number of presidential appointments still awaiting Senate approval today, we can see the truth of what Adams had to say. And given the Supreme Court’s recent decision taking off all limits to political contributions, we can see that the Founders clearly ignored one aspect of power that has every sign of crippling their brain-child beyond recognition. The Constitution simply didn’t mention corporations, leaving the door open for all manner of bizarre judgments regarding their status in this polity. In future, we can expect the very rich to determine who runs for political office and what their agenda will be once they are elected — and no restraints on unbridled greed. Our democracy is in danger of being transformed into an oligarchy — though that ship has almost certainly already sailed. But let’s hear some of what Adams had to say in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Adams saw himself as one of many young men after the Civil War who awaited U.S. Grant’s arrival in Washington with great hope. Here was a man of action who would surely move quickly to revise and update the Constitution and make it more workable. But he was soon disappointed as Grant seemed unwilling to do much of anything, except to get himself involved in scandals. Adams described what he took to be the type:

“In time one came to recognize the type in other men, with differences and variations, as normal men whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil to power, apt to be distrustful of themselves and others; shy, jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward appearance; and always needing stimulants, but for whom action was the highest stimulant — the instinct to fight.”

In general, Adams didn’t trust men in power and said several times that he worried that when one of his friends came into power “he was lost.” Power did, in fact, corrupt, as Adams saw it. With tongue firmly in his cheek, Adams tells us what political power did to U.S. Grant:

“That two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

Like so many others, Adams placed his hope in the Supreme Court:

“Although step by step he had been driven, like the rest of the world, to admit that the American society had outgrown most of its institutions, he still clung to the Supreme Court, much as a churchman clings to his bishops, because they are his only symbol of unity; his last rag of Right. Between the Executive and the Legislative, citizens could have no rights; they were at the mercy of Power. They had created the Court to protect them from unlimited Power, and it was little enough protection at best. . . “

Unfortunately the founders simply didn’t foresee the power of corporations. Indeed, given the power of corporations today, the Supreme Court offers far too little protection as it happens! Adams was thoroughly disillusioned, as appears in the following observation:

“The political dilemma was as clear in 1870 as it was likely to be in 1970. The system of 1789 had broken down, and with it the eighteenth century fabric of moral principles. Politicians had tacitly given up. Grant’s administration marked the avowal. None-tenths of men’s political energies must henceforth be wasted on expedients to piece out — to patch — the political machine as often as it broke down. Such a system, or want of a system, might last for centuries if tempered by an occasional revolution or civil war; but as a machine it was, or soon would be, the poorest in the world — the clumsiest — the most inefficient.. . . . The [fore]fathers had intended to neutralize the energy of government and had succeeded, but their machine was never meant to do the work of a 20-million h.p. society in the twentieth century, where much work was needed to be quickly and efficiently done. The only defense of the system was that, as government did nothing well, it had best do nothing. . .”

Adams’ despair soon extended so far as to include most of his fellow citizens:

“The American character showed singular limitations which sometimes drove the student of civilized man to despair. Crushed by his own ignorance — lost in the darkness of his own gropings — the scholar finds himself jostled of a sudden by a crowd of men who seem to him ignorant that there is a thing called ignorance; who have forgotten how to amuse themselves; who cannot even understand that they are bored.”

In the end, Adams placed his hope in education:

“The object of education should be the [mind’s] teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. Throughout history the waste of mind has been appalling and, as this story is meant to show, society has conspired to promote it. No doubt the teacher is the criminal, but the world stands behind him and drags the student from his course. Only the most energetic, the most highly fitted, and the most favored have overcome the friction or the viscosity of inertia, and those were compelled to waste three-fourths of their energy in doing it.”

We can only hope that those few will somehow manage to resist society’s determination to force them into a mold of its making by turning them all into mindless robots, trained to do a job; that they will demand the best education available and continue to make the effort required to attain it. Otherwise, the democratic experiment in America will be judged a failure.



Senator Gone Amuck?

I have always kind of liked John McCain. I respected him as a man of principle though I thought him a bit too hawkish. I have never doubted his sincerity, but sincerity is not enough: Eichmann was sincere after all. One must also be aware of moral and, in this case, international implications. McCain’s trip to Syria raises serious questions about his sanity — and it may also raise constitutional questions about the role of Senators in international politics. A recent story tells us a disturbing fact about his current trip:

BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. Senator John McCain was photographed during a trip to Syria with a man implicated in the kidnapping by Syrian rebels of 11 Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims a year ago, a Lebanese newspaper said on Thursday.

McCain, a Republican, has been an outspoken advocate for U.S. military aid to the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and made a short, highly publicised trip to meet rebel commanders in Syria three days ago.

He has insisted that the United States could locate the “right people” to help among rebel ranks infiltrated with radicalized Islamists.

One must wonder who the “right people” are that McCain is speaking about. And what possible grounds could he have for talking about those “people” — despite official government statements to the contrary? McCain would apparently have the rebels believe that they may get official sanction and considerable monetary support from this country. It is not the place of Senators to play this kind of role in foreign policy. One is reminded of Dennis Rodman and his clown diplomacy with North Korea. Is McCain going to ask the rebels to do him a “solid” and take out the recognized government of Syria, which is currently supported by Russia — presumably our ally? Surely this borders on the comical, if not the bizarre.

In a word, even if his convictions about whom the United States should support are on firm grounds, McCain has no business whatever consorting with the rebels on behalf of the United States. Though he can tell them he has no official endorsement, he will surely be regarded by those rebels who desperately want U.S. aid as an official of the United States government.  One can assume that these rebels will now expect to get the aid the man has virtually promised. Though current policy might well change any day,  one must wonder what sort of situation will be created by “the right people” flying in the face of official government policy to aid rebels in a cause that their government has failed to fully embrace.

Barack Obama has been a disappointment as President of late and his policy toward Syria is complex if not incoherent. And the Congress becomes a bigger laughing-stock each day. They seem to play no role whatever except that of obstructionists who are determined to cripple the country if necessary in order to make the President look bad. But for a U.S. Senator who has run for President to take it upon himself to go to a foreign country and consort with known international criminals in the name of the United States is a new sort of low, even for American politicians. I cannot help but recall Henry Adams’ concern that the U.S. Senate was given too much power by the Constitution. He hoped that when Grant was elected President he would straighten things out. But Grant got caught up in a scandal of his own and showed himself to be an incompetent President. So the changes Adams hoped for never materialized. But even in his worst dreams, Adams wouldn’t have predicted that a U.S. Senator would take it upon himself to visit a foreign country and make overtures to a group that has yet to receive any official recognition from the government that the Senator presumably represents. This must be a diplomatic nightmare that Obama and John Kerry must somehow extricate themselves from.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to make excuses for these people. They really do appear to be as stupid and inept as we all thought in our worst nightmares. I’m with Adams here: there ought to be major changes in the Constitution to limit the power of the Senate and allow us to remove those in government who have shown themselves incapable of governing. Indeed, if such were possible there would be very few remaining after the house-cleaning.