Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Sacred State



[Updated below]

Since I'm lecturing tggp on politics and religion, I thought I should expand the thought:

The state always partakes of the sacred. We have theoretically split them apart here in the USA -- no state religion, no divine monarch -- yet somehow "flag desecration" is still a viable concept. You can't desecrate something unless it's sacred to begin with. I'm not saying this is good, or bad, it's just the way things are. Humans work the way they do, not how you think they should.

What I mean is: there is always an aspect to government that constitutes a civic religion. It has rituals, sacred places, heroes and demigods, a whole mythology. This is essential to its function -- otherwise, it would be nothing but a bureaucracy. This mythology is what makes it capable of being the object of the People's Romance. This is not exactly a new idea, but it suddenly popped into clarity for me. And it explains why I have the same complex relationship I do to both atheists (those who reject religion) and libertarian/anarchists (those who reject the state) -- I say "yes, I am in sympathy with you, but your rejection is simplistic, you don't understand how people and societies work".

I've recently been watching West Wing reruns with similarly mixed emotions. The show always struck me as hokey, sentimental, and enamored of yuppie/Clinton/workaholic values to an embarassing extent. Nevertheless -- it's a well-made show, most of the time, and one of the things it does well is provide insiders views on all sorts of obscure rituals of government, such as the procedures for clearing out the White House for a presidential transition. It takes a naive, civics textbook view of government and presents a mildly insiderish view of it, without cynicism. I'm not sure why I like the show, since my default setting is extreme cynicism bordering on paranoia, but maybe it's just a welcome relief, an anodyne.

To make up for it, I found this article which presents the black and bloody symbolic heart of nationalism in the best apocalyptic/academic mode:

Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion, Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle

Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime. The more usual arrangement elsewhere has been strongly forged links between spiritual and political power. This is because the only religion that can truly deliver the goods must have visible agency, worldly power... Wherever religion is fervently embraced, it follows in the minds of many believers that it is entitled to glory in missions of conquest that reflect God's will. Islam did this for centuries before European monarchies accomplished it for Christianity. And though religions have long survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith.

.... The social geographer Wilbur Zelinsky observes that the contemporary American flag has a visual power and presence for its believers that is comparable to the medieval crucifix. We agree. The flag in high patriotic ritual is treated with an awe and deference that marks it as the sacred object of the religion of patriotism. The flag is the skin of the totem ancestor held high. It represents the sacrificed bodies of its devotees just as the cross, the sacred object of Christianity, represents the body sacrificed to a Christian god.

The soldier carries his flag into battle as a sign of his willingness to die, just as Jesus carried his cross to show his willingness to die. Both the cross and the flag mark the border, the transformative point at which the believer crosses over into death. In both Christianity and nationalism the violently sacrificed body becomes the god renewed--in Durkheimian terms, the transformed totem. In Christianity the revivified totem is the risen Christ. In American nationalism the transformed totem is the soldier resurrected in the raised flag. On the basis of his sacrifice the nation is rejuvenated. As the embodiment of sacrifice, the flag has transforming power. Certain acts cannot be performed except in its presence. It must be kept whole and perfect, as holy things are, and ceremonially disposed of when it is no longer fit to perform the functions of the totem object.

Some citizens openly speak of the American flag as sacred. Can we disregard the impassioned testimony of others that it is not, and neither is the nation it represents? The answer lies in the ritual gestures that surround the flag...The sanctity of national symbols is protected by treating them gesturally as sacred, even while we insist in language that they are not. And when the god commands it, we must perform the ritual sacrifice, war, that sustains the group.


Cohesion in enduring groups is accomplished within a framework of violence as a structural rather than contingent social force, religion as the truth that we are willing to die for, and the re-presentation of society to itself through blood sacrifice rituals performed on the bodies of supplicants. The most powerful expression of this religious framework in the United States, and perhaps not only there, is nationalism. On the surface, we deny nationalism's religious attributes and functions in order to keep the the killing authority of the group from being challenged by sectarian faiths that have been stripped of the power to sacrifice the lives of devotees.


Heady stuff. It certainly helps to understand the appeal of red-state warriors, and the troubles sane urban cosmpolitans have in displaying patriotism and pulling the country together. Sending young men to die is good for you and good for the country's geist, apparently. But only when it works, and it hasn't worked properly in the last few wars.

[Update: didn't realize when I was writing this that Veteran's Day was imminent. That's one of the chief holidays (holy day) of the state religion, where the ritual sacrifice is celebrated and the sacred honor of the military is upheld and reinforced.

The epiphany behind this post helps me get outside of this ritual and be skeptical of it. Not that I have anything against veterans as individuals, but maybe holding them up as a holy warrior class is a bad idea. The results of the presidential campaign indicate that military service is not as big a deal as the right would like it to be.

I happen to be working at a startup run by Mercurians who don't have much to do with veterans or military culture, so no day off for me.]

22 comments:

TGGP said...

Your nationalism link is broken.

Like Razib, I don't think the future belongs to atheism. As I've noted elsewhere, libertarianism seems to a an historical loser as well. I get a little bit of optimism out of seasteading, but not much. I remain an atheist libertarian because the premises of those views do not rest on other people believing in them. God is what is not there whether you believe in him or not.

mtraven said...

Link fixed, thanks.

Re: libertarianism, to paraphrase Lenin, you may not be interested in the state but the state is interested in you. So it does matter what other people believe.

Re: atheism, I just find it boring. I've been around materialist atheists for decades, I've heard it all before. It's much more challenging for me to try to come up with some version of religion that makes sense.

God is what is not there -- that doesn't narrow it down that much. Pink unicorns aren't there either.

TGGP said...

It's not that we're not interested in the State. Libertarians talk about it all the time and blame it for more than it's actually responsible. Public Choice is essentially libertarian analysis of the State. It matters how the Church will respond to Galileo's teachings, but Galileo's beliefs are not predicated on the Church.

Many true things are boring, and it can be challenging to imagine fictional scenarios. That's not much of an objection to atheism.

Yeah, I know I didn't narrow it much, I was trying to cleverly turn a well-known phrase.

Michael S. said...

There is a confusion that I sometimes think is peculiarly American between nationalism and patriotism. Perhaps it arises because we are not in the habit of distinguishing our country from the state. When Americans speak of 'the state' they are likely to mean the political subdivision in which they reside, rather than the general apparatus of government and law. A Frenchman, by contrast, knows that 'la patrie' is quite another kettle of bouillabaisse from 'l'état" - and can love the former with the warmest sentimentality while mistrusting and perhaps fearing the latter. Of course the French have a much longer history of living under corrupt and abusive government than we do here.

The failure to make the noted distinction works on both sides. Consider how the new leftists of the late 'sixties began to burn flags, sew them to the bottoms of their filthy dungarees, etc.- behavior which, to most Americans, indicated their rejection of their country rather than a rejection of its government's policies. And it may be that the they really did hate their country - who knows?

The right, on the other hand, has all too often clung to bad leaders and bad policies that are contrary to its core beliefs, because it does not want even to seem to reject the dear old flag and 'the republic for which it stands,' notwithstanding that the founders would not recognize what has become of it.

mtraven said...

Yes, Americans don't have a national identity separate from the political entity that is the US. That's why "Department of Homeland Security" sounded so off. Germans have a heimat, we don't. Some people like to go around saying "I love my country but fear my government", but it is not clear to me what country they are talking about.

You are somewhat confused over the semiotics of the use of American flag by the sixties counterculture (of which the New Left was only one part). Burning the flag is pretty obviously a rejection of both government policy and national identity. This was, in my opinion, a mistake which played into the hands of the right which was in the process of appropriating the flag as a partisan symbols (every Oldsmobile in the 70s was plastered with flag decals, to the point that a pretty good song was written about it).

Wearning a flag on your "filthy dungarees" or as a shirt, as Abbie Hoffman did, is pretty obviously a different statement. That was an attempt to appropriate the flag and patriotic sentiment for a rather different set of values, one which is no less American than the ones conservatives like to parade.

The right, on the other hand, has all too often clung to bad leaders and bad policies that are contrary to its core beliefs, because it does not want even to seem to reject the dear old flag and 'the republic for which it stands,' notwithstanding that the founders would not recognize what has become of it.
Isn't that inherent in the very definition of the right? They are the party of blind obedience to authority, after all.

Michael said...

If Abbie Hoffman was trying to 'appropriate the flag and patriotic sentiment' rather than to depreciate them, it's news to me. I recall Eugene McCarrthy rather well, and how strenuously he tried to distance himself and his positions from those of people like Hoffman. Remember "Clean for Gene"? McCarthy was, I think, a patriot of the left, in that he sincerely wished his country well, as he understood it, and I respected him for that. So was the aged Norman Thomas, upon whom Staughton Lynd called seeking support for some anti-Vietnam War manifesto or demostration. Thomas refused, saying that he thought Lynd did not want peace, but rather wanted the communists to win. Hoffman much less resembled McCarrthy or Thomas than he did Lynd.

To define the right as the party of blind obedience to authority is certainly wrong. Where does that leave Burke, Randolph, Calhoun, Weaver, Kirk, etc.?

Vast segments of the historic right have been defined in terms of rebellion against rather than submission to authority - e.g., the sureties of Magna Charta, the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath, the Jacobites, a good many of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the Nullificationists, the Confederates, and most of southern conservatism since 1865. My two Virginia ancestors who were original members of the Society of the Cincinnati proved by their actions that they didn't believe in blind obedience to authority, and they were assuredly not leftists.

mtraven said...

That Abbie Hoffman did not share the all of the tactics or goals of Gene McCarthy does not make him unpatirotic. I suppose it is asking a bit much for someone like you to appreciate what Hoffman was up to, but see here. Also here for more on the shirt affair -- apparently wearing a flag shirt is only a crime when a dirty hippy does it.

As I said before, certain parts of the sixties radical movement (the ones who were more ideologically Marxist, like the Weathermen) did eventually devolve into hatred of America itself, and this tendency is still alive today. I don't particularly like this, although I have some sympathy, because it is difficult to love this country when you are fully aware of its bloody history and ongoing abuses. However, Hoffman represents something else entirely, or at least, he did in the early days of the movement. A later chapter in that book I cited is called "Giving Up on America". But that implies there was something to give up.

Right and left are elastic terms that can mean different things, but I think it's undeniable that being on the right involves a much greater respect for established authority.

ie, Burke: "We fear God, we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected".

You might be interested in reading this and taking this survey. Haidt is a psychologist who has identified a number of dimensions underlying moral reasoning and showed how conservatives and liberals differed. One of the foundations of morality was authority/respect, which conservatives pay a great deal of attention to and liberals, on the whole, don't.

Michael said...

It is facile to pick out one quotation from Burke to try to prove your point that the right is the party of blind obedience to authority.

You may not know that Burke was as sympathetic to the American revolution as he was appalled by the French. Here are a few remarks from his speech on conciliation with the Americans:

"The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered."

and later:

"Freedom and not servitude is the cure of anarchy; as religion, and not atheism, is the true remedy of superstition."

These passages do not support the contention that Burke advocated blind obedience to, or even respect for, just any established authority. Respect is due to an authority only if it is respectable. A legitimate, hence respectable, authority, is one that adheres to moral prescription and tradition - things which are not of its own creation, nor within its control.

Moral prescription, to almost everyone of Burke's time, was understood to be of divine and not human origin. Tradition was important because it represented the sum of human experience, and experience is "a better guide than reason." We find this distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority in political philosophy as long ago as Aristotle. It was the difference between monarchy on one hand and tyranny on the other; between aristocracy on one hand, and oligarchy on the other; and between polity or timocracy on one hand, and democracy (by which he meant mob rule) on the other.

Burke understood that the American revolution was based on morality and tradition, whereas the French revolution was not. You have matters back to front. The right (or at least, a good portion of it) does not believe that one of the foundations of morality is authority and respect, but rather that the foundations of authority and respect are found in morality and experience.

As for Hoffman 'giving up on America" implying that he thought there was something to give up - Benedict Arnold fought with distinction for the American side before defecting to the British. Arnold must therefore, like Hoffman, have felt that there was something to give up before he gave up on America. That doesn't make him any the less a traitor - nor Hoffman.

mtraven said...

I've actually got some mild sympathy for the Burkean position, see here and here.

That the American Revolution was essentially conservative is controversial, to put it mildly.

The right (or at least, a good portion of it) does not believe that one of the foundations of morality is authority and respect, but rather that the foundations of authority and respect are found in morality and experience.

I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.

As for Hoffman, I consider him a patriot, who was struggling to end an illegal and destructive war. I wish we had his like today. Call him a traitor if you wish, that's what the British called Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin.

Michael said...

On the American revolution's essentially conservative nature, Hugh Trevor-Roper (whose comment is hostile) in his essay "The Anglo-Scottish Union," makes the following obiter dictum:

"The first chapter in the story [of the unification of England with Scotland] is, admittedly, a story of mistakes. It is a story of attempted conquest and successful resistance. That attempted conquest broke the feudal interdependence of the two countries, which had been so obvious... in the twelfth century. That successful resistance [i.e., of Wallace and Robert the Bruce]... began as a baronial revolt - a revolt, as in eighteenth-century America, not of a people but of a planter class..."

Trevor-Roper's interpretation of the Amercian Revolution is mirrored by my old friend Mel Bradford's essentially favorable representation of the same event in his book "Founding Fathers" and "Original Intentions," as well as many of his essays. This view coincides with my own family's experience of that war. Of course, they were Virginians. Maybe people thought differently in New England. But even they were rebelling against excessive taxation and an oppressive central government, which are certainly right-wing themes.

I do not see what is unclear about the foundations of authority and respect being in morality and experience.

In Burkean terms, that authority is worthy of respect which adheres to the moral law and to tradition (which reflects experience, a better guide than reason). An authority which does not adhere to the moral law and which rejects tradition is not legitimate and is unworthy of respect.

Monarchy, aristocracy, and polity equally adhere to the moral law and tradition, and are therefore equally legitimate kinds of authority. Tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy (understood as mob rule) reject morality and tradition, and are therefore equally illegitimate.

Hoffman was a disciple of Herbert Marcuse, a Frankfurt-school Marxist. If adherence to this alien school of thought - which sought to destroy the existing society all the way down to its fundamental building block, the family, so that it could be rebuilt along utopian lines - can be termed 'patriotic,' then the word is devoid of meaning.

Patriotism is an attachment, not to the state, but to the 'land where our fathers died,' and to their historic customs and traditions, in the defense of which they not infrequently wet their ancestral soil with blood. Hoffman rejected all those things.

mtraven said...

Monarchy, aristocracy, and polity equally adhere to the moral law and tradition, and are therefore equally legitimate kinds of authority. Tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy (understood as mob rule) reject morality and tradition, and are therefore equally illegitimate.

Or rather: Monarchy is tyranny dressed up and made respectible by time, aristocracy is exactly the same thing as oligarchy, etc. Or alternatively, a monarchy is a tyranny where the subjects are too weak to even attempt to overthrow it. How do you think monarchies got started? Do you think violent seizure of power is like whiskey, and mellows with age?

Legitimacy is an interesting concept, because it's almost tautological. Louis XVI was the legitimate ruler of France, until he wasn't. Hitler was the legitmate ruler of Germany, until he wasn't. Etc. Rulers rule through whatever authority they can wield, there is nothing inherently moral about it. How do you think monarchs got to be the monarch? I pointed this out over a year ago old argument I was having with Moldbug (actually, it was on a post of yours). You may think belonging to some inbred royal family confers legitimacy, and that certainly used to be true, but thankfully it no longer is. It's hard to imagine the trend of history reversing itself anytime soon. The current government of the US is legitimate, despite your declaration that it isn't, because the preponderance of belief says that it is. Keep up your subversive activities and perhaps that will change, but I'm not holding my breath.

Your picture of the Frankfurt School is ridiculous. Like them or not, they were serious intellectuals, not cartoon villians. Hoffman himself was something of a cartoon and the fact that he studied under Marcuse is possibly the least interesting thing about him.

Patriotism is an attachment, not to the state, but to the 'land where our fathers died,'...

Exactly. Hoffman and the anti-war movement he was part of was battling the illegal and desctructive actions of the state, not the country itself. You seem to be making my point for me.

Michael said...

Your argument against the distinction of monarchy from tyranny, aristocracy from oligarchy, etc., is with Aristotle, not with me. I am just citing him.

For what it is worth, I believe that all forms of government gravitate towards rule by élites. In monarchies or tyrannies an élite arises from the impossibility of a single ruler being able to manage everything, and his consequent dependence upon hirelings. In a polity or democracy it arises from the unwieldiness of deciding every question by plebiscite or even by the votes of elected representatives.. Since élite rule is inevitable, we might as well quit vapouring about it and try as best we can to assure that the élite we have is a virtuous one.

Legitimacy is not a matter of time or royal/aristocratic 'inbreeding' but, as I have said, of adherence to the moral law (given, in Burke's understanding, as in that of our Founders, by the Creator) - and to custom and tradition, which reflect the cumulative experience and wisdom of generations. What we call the common law is nothing more than such custom, formalized by common assent on the part of rulers and the ruled alike over hundreds of years.

Any attempt to describe a philosophical school in a paragraph is bound to hit only its high spots. Based on a reading of "Eros and Civilization," though, I have to stick to my description of Marcuse as wishing to destroy the traditional ('patriarchal') family. He, in common with Marx, thought that it lay behind the institution of private property and hence capitalism. What, broadly speaking, differentiated the Frankfurt school from the dominant Leninist line of the day was that the latter, in the opinion of the former, laid too much emphasis on reorganization of industrial and agricultural production, and did not pay enough attention to extirpating the root of capitalism - the traditional family. The Frankfurt school thus correctly foresaw - but for the wrong reasons - that Leninism could not succeed.

In one place you describe Hoffman as a 'cartoon' and in another as a sincere 'patriot.' Isn't there an inconsistency here? His antics were not only directed against the actions of the state, but against the customs and traditions of his country. His antipathy to the latter was as serious an expression as any he ever made of whatever he derived from the Frankfurt-school Marxism he learnt from Marcuse. He was a clownish rapscallion who toyed with treason, like many of his ilk, and mostly got away with it.

As for the 'illegal and destructive' war - well, it was certainly an impractical one, proving MacArthur's point about the folly of engaging in land warfare in Asia. But the most destructive part about it was the American abandonment of southeast Asia to the communists. Nothing the United States did there matched the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia or the communist reign of terror in South Vietnam.

mtraven said...

Your argument...is with Aristotle, not with me. I am just citing him.

Well, unless you can get Aristotle to start commenting here, you will have to hold up his end of the argument.

For what it is worth, I believe that all forms of government gravitate towards rule by élites.
That is almost a tautology.

Legitimacy is not a matter of time or royal/aristocratic 'inbreeding' but, as I have said, of adherence to the moral law...

Er, no. You can keep saying that all you like, but that is just not what "legitimacy" means. I use the term in the sociological sense: legitimacy is whatever it is that keeps people accepting of a political regimen. Morality need not have anything to do with it; it's just one component of whatever system of ideas keeps the regime afloat.

I have to stick to my description of Marcuse as wishing to destroy the traditional ('patriarchal') family.
Well, it's been a long time since I've read Marcuse, but my guess is that this is a ridiculous distortion.

Here's an excerpt from Eros and Civilization, found more or less at random:
The technological abolition of the individual is reflected in the decline of the social functions of the family. It was formerly the family which, for good or bad, reared and educated the individual...Now, however, under the rule of economic, political, and cultural monopolies, the formation of the mature superego seems to skip the stage of individualization...

Marcuse is describing the effects on the family of modernity and capitalism, which are the real forces contributing the the destruction of tradtional social modes.

In one place you describe Hoffman as a 'cartoon' and in another as a sincere 'patriot.' Isn't there an inconsistency here?
No, his cartoonishness was in matters of presentation and tactics. That is completely independent from whether he was patriotic or not.

His antics were not only directed against the actions of the state, but against the customs and traditions of his country.
So what? Critiquing the customs and traditions of one's culture is itself a custom and tradition, not just in the US but in civilization generally.

But the most destructive part about it was the American abandonment of southeast Asia to the communists. Nothing the United States did there matched the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia or the communist reign of terror in South Vietnam.

We engaged in massive bombings of civilians, forced relocation, torture, and systematic destruction of entire regions. Seems pretty comparable to the Khmer Rouge to me. Perhaps our hearts were purer, but I imagine that doesn't matter much to the dead.

Michael said...

You can always READ Aristotle for yourself. Nothing stands in your way but laziness. There are English translations in print for those ignorant of Greek, such as the Loeb Library edition, available from Harvard University Press.

We were discussing how Burke understood the legitimacy of a government, not how you use the term. Again, you may have your differences with Burke or may not understand him, but it is not my job to remedy the second of those conditions. You can always do so yourself, from the original source. He didn't even write in a language that you don't know.

As I think I observed once elsewhere, you seem to get your notion of aristocracy from Harpers & Queen or re-runs of "Upstairs, Downstairs," rather than from a reading of classical political philosophy. It is easy in a vulgar sense to associate aristocracy with hereditary titles, coronets and supporters in coat-armour, orders and medals, and the like. None of these things existed in ancient Greece, yet Aristotle recognized that there were aristocracies and they were distinct from oligarchies. Although in both there was government by an élite, what distinguished an aristocracy was the possession by the élite of the trait of aretê or philotimia, imperfectly rendered in Latin as virtus. It was that moral excellence which rendered an élite worthy of ta aristeia, the 'meed of valour,' and of the description, hoi aristêes, 'the best men' (= Lat. optimates). If they did not rise to this character they were merely oligarchs.

Government by the many could also be based upon areté or philotomia. If so it was called polity or timocracy, if not it was mob rule or democracy. The same moral excellence was the criterion that distinguished monarchy from tyranny.

Thus, from an Aristotelian (and Burkean) point of view, all good forms of government were based in moral excellence; all bad ones lacked it. Can we not at least agree on an historical understanding of what these people believed? You do not have to believe in it yourself, although I think there's something to it. That is why I say that we should no more complain about the rule of élites than we do about the law of gravity. What should concern us is that the élite we have is virtuous.

On the subject of aristocracies, the irrelevance of titles and decorations is shown by the history of the American Revolution. Cornwallis and Howe were certainly aristocrats by all the standards you seem to apply, but by mine (and those of many others) so were Washington, Jefferson, Pinckney, etc. It is quite arguable, indeed, that the Constitutional prohibition against the granting of titles or nobility or chivalry by the U.S. government was motivated not by egalitarianism of the modern stripe (the Framers were not egalitarians!) but by a disgust at the wholesale ennoblement of hacks and placemen that characterized British politics under Walpole and his successors. Many such people did not have the aretê of an ordinary Virginia gentleman. Being a Virginia gentleman was quite sufficient for so grand a personage as Washington. As Louis XIV was supposed to have said, a king may make a nobleman, but only nature can make a gentleman.

As a self-proclaimed revolutionary, Hoffman was a buffoon and very far from a gentleman. He had no manners, and was, in fact, a slob. His traducing of this country's customs and traditions did not bespeak any great love for it. There is a type of criticism that is intended to reform the morals of the person or place being criticised, and another that is intended to wound or to destroy. Hoffman's was the latter.

You surely deserve the Walter Duranty award for equating American actions in southeast Asia with the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Asserting moral equivalency between the U.S. and the communist bloc was a frequent tactic of the latter's defenders during the Cold War. To find the practice alive and well all these years after the fall of the Soviet Union is astonishing enough, but to find it expressed in such an extreme fashion is simply breathtaking.

mtraven said...

You can always READ Aristotle for yourself. Nothing stands in your way but laziness.

It's more like lack of infinite time and brain capacity. I occasionally regret my poor education in classical philosophy and a great many other things, but there's only so much time in the day.

But you miss the point -- if you want to argue, you have to support your arguments yourself. Citing Aristotle as an authority doesn't cut any ice with me. He was wrong about a great many things (no slur on him; we've had a few thousand years to improve on his methods). All this talk of aretê and philotimia seems useless to me; it has no explanatory power. People do not agree on what constitutes virtue; politics and sociology seems especially decoupled from virtue. We live in a world vastly different from the world Artistotle was writing about; a modern industrial nation is a very different thing from a small Greek city-state.

We were discussing how Burke understood the legitimacy of a government, not how you use the term.

It's my blog, I discuss what I like. Burke's point of view (and yours) seems like vacuous, self-serving nonsense to me. What determines legitimacy? Morality? Who determines morality? Burke may have backed it up with divine authority, but I don't believe in divine authority so the whole structure collapses.

As I think I observed once elsewhere, you seem to get your notion of aristocracy from Harpers & Queen or re-runs of "Upstairs, Downstairs," rather than from a reading of classical political philosophy.

I have no idea what Harpers & Queen is, and as for "Upstairs, Downstairs", which I barely remember, are you denying that it presented an accurate picture of aristocracy at a particular time and place? And if it did, why shouldn't I base my notions on it rather than classical political philosophy? Classical political philosophy bears no authoritative weight as far as I'm concerned. The aristocracy depicted in Upstairs, Downstairs is bound to be more relevant than the aristocracy of Greek antiquity.

Thus, from an Aristotelian (and Burkean) point of view, all good forms of government were based in moral excellence; all bad ones lacked it.

Tautological, vacuous, useless.

Can we not at least agree on an historical understanding of what these people believed?

Maybe. I'm hoping their beliefs were somewhat more contentful than the way you are describing them.
As a self-proclaimed revolutionary, Hoffman was a buffoon and very far from a gentleman. He had no manners, and was, in fact, a slob.

Those kids today! And their music, it's just noise!

His traducing of this country's customs and traditions did not bespeak any great love for it. There is a type of criticism that is intended to reform the morals of the person or place being criticised, and another that is intended to wound or to destroy. Hoffman's was the latter.

You keep saying that, I keep saying you're wrong, and you keep saying it again. This is an exceedingly unproductive mode of conversation. I'm fairly confident I have better insight into what was going on in Abbie Hoffman's head than you do.

You surely deserve the Walter Duranty award...

Walter Duranty was an apologist for Stalin. There's only one person in this conversation who seems inclined to be an apologist for extreme political violence, and it isn't me.

Michael said...

You're the one apologizing for Pol Pot, not I.

Intent as well as ends must be taken into account in the moral evaluation of an action. The fire-bombing of Dresden killed many innocent civilians, but we do not consider it equivalent to the gassing of concentration camp inmates - do we?

American involvement in Vietnam was a mistake for reasons pointed out first by people on the right - e.g., Douglas MacArthur, whose admonition against land wars in Asia I mentioned earlier, and the news commentator Paul Harvey. It was largely the project of liberal Democratic administrations, beginning with Kennedy's destabilizing complicity in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, and continuing on an ever-bigger and bloodier scale under the architect of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson. Do not blame it on conservatives!

Nonetheless, the death and suffering that took place as a consequence of U.S. intervention there are not comparable, qualitatively or quantitatively, to the actions of the Khmer Rouge and the communist government of North Vietnam after the U.S. retreated from the South, for the same reason that the casualties of Allied bombing in Germany are not comparable to the victims of Auschwitz.

I find it peculiar that in your last reply to me you wrote "Morality? Who determines morality?" yet in your latest post on "The Psychic Unity of Mankind" you wrote:

"...we are qualitatively the same despite quantitative differences, that we all have language, consciousness, morality..."

Indeed, 'who determines morality'? If my point of view and Burke's are 'vacuous, self-serving nonsense,' then what do you call the above? You can't have it both ways.

mtraven said...

You're the one apologizing for Pol Pot, not I.
This would be offensive if it wasn't transparently ridiculous. You can't find a word I've written that could remotely be construed as an apology for Pol Pot.

As I've said before: don't we have enough actual points of disagreement without you inventing fantasies about what I have said or believe?

Intent as well as ends must be taken into account in the moral evaluation of an action. The fire-bombing of Dresden killed many innocent civilians, but we do not consider it equivalent to the gassing of concentration camp inmates - do we?
There are plenty of people who consider the firebombing of Dresden to be a war crime, although not on the scale of the holocaust.

American involvement in Vietnam...was largely the project of liberal Democratic administrations...Do not blame it on conservatives!

I don't think I was. I was accusing you of being an apologist for the manifestly immoral actions taken in pursuit of that war, which seems to be accurate.

And I thought we were talking about Abbie Hoffman, who was a leader of the opposition to that war, against both the liberal Democrats who started it and the Nixon administration that continued it. That's the political faction I identify with.

Nonetheless, the death and suffering that took place as a consequence of U.S. intervention there are not comparable, qualitatively or quantitatively, to the actions of the Khmer Rouge

Why not?

Qualitatively: Dr. Mengele's eyes would light up at some of the stuff we had going on in Vietnam. The CIA's Phoenix program deployed widespread use of torture and mass murder:

"In similar experiments at Bien Hoa Hospital in July 1968, another CIA crew arrived with a skilled neurosurgeon who, in one journalist's account, "implanted tiny electrodes in each brain" of three Vietcong prisoners. In the first rudimentary tests, the CIA behaviorists used "radio frequencies...to cause their subjects suddenly to defecate or vomit." Then, after placing the captives in a room and giving them knives, the CIA men "pressing control buttons on their handsets...tried to arouse their subjects to violence" After a week of repeated failure, the scientists headed home while "the psoners were shot by Green Beret troopers and their bodies burned."
-- from A Question of Torture, Alfred W McCoy

Quantitatively:
The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have killed 1.5 million Cambodians. The Vietnam war is estimated to have killed around 2 million Vietnamese. I suppose you can't pin all of those directly on American action, but the orders of magnitude are comparable.

The fact that we supposedly had good intentions is entirely meaningless. Pretty much everyone believes they act with good intentions. Hugh Trevor-Roper believes Hitler was "convinced of his own rectitude".

I find it peculiar that in your last reply to me you wrote "Morality? Who determines morality?" yet in your latest post on "The Psychic Unity of Mankind" you wrote:

"...we are qualitatively the same despite quantitative differences, that we all have language, consciousness, morality..."


The point of the last post was that humans are universally equipped with a moral sense. It doesn't mean they all produce the same moral judgments.

And the point of the earlier comment is similar. Burke and you say that a legitimate government is one that is moral. But who determines that? Hitler probably thought he was moral. Democrats and Republicans both think their party has a lock on morality. The Americans in Vietnam thought they were moral; the people they were torturing probably had a different idea. Burke thought the French Revolution immoral, the revolutionaries thought otherwise. This is why I find the idea vacuous, it does not give you any sort of decision procedure for deciding which government is best.

Michael said...

You are apologizing for Pol Pot when you depreciate his atrocities by comparing them with the actions of the U.S. government. It is the old game of moral equivalence played by apologists for communism ever since the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia.

You admit that people have a moral sense and you often make assertions that are clearly moralistic in character, particularly about the actions of governments. So despite your claims you do seem to recognize that governments may or may not adhere to the moral law, and that those which do are good forms of government and those which do not, are not.

To be sure all people do not come to the same moral judgments. There is, nonetheless, a rough but widespread consensus about a few things. The last six of the Ten Commandments, which deal with behavior towards other human beings rather than towards deity, have been broadly agreed upon in a great number of different times and places: respect for one's progenitors, for innocent life (as the Prayer Book has it, "thou shalt do no murder," which is a more accurate translation from the LXX than "thou shalt not kill"), for the integrity of others' marriages, for the private property of others (which is neither to be stolen nor coveted), and for telling the truth.

I am not an apologist for American involvement in the Vietnam war. The initial point I made was simply that nothing this country did there was as bad as what happened after the American retreat, in the killing fields of Cambodia or the re-education camps of Vietnam. To represent that as an apology for American actions there is an exercise in logical gymnastics.

Respecting the purported equivalence of the 1.5 million Cambodians killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide and the 2 million you cite as casualties of the war, don't you see a difference between herding unarmed civilians to their deaths on the one hand, and, on the other, the killing of Viet Cong and NVA forces who were endeavoring to kill American troops? There were undoubtedly some innocent civilians who were killed by American forces in Vietnam. Such things happen in every war; war is hell, yet it is not the same as purposeful genocide. As for enemy combatants, someone who is aiming a gun at an American soldier is not an innocent life. His death is not to be mourned like that of some hapless Cambodian who was slaughtered because he wore eyeglasses, and therefore was presumed to be literate, hence a 'class enemy.'

If we are to draw any lesson from the experience, it is that the deployment of American forces in Vietnam illustrates the unfortunate way in which the U.S. Constitution is vulnerable to 'amendment by stealth' through the ratification of treaties. In order to pass an amendment in the ordinary way, its acceptance by a Congressional supermajority must be followed by ratification on the part of three-quarters of the states. The Framers made it intentionally difficult. On the other hand, to accept a treaty obligation having equal force to the Constitution itself, all that is necessary is a presidential signature followed by a simple majority vote in the Senate.

Throughout the U.S. involvement in Vietnam we were constantly reminded it was the consequence of American obligations under the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). Under that treaty this country was obliged to come to the defense of a fellow signatory, just as with NATO today. Treaties like this override the requirement for a Congressional declaration of war in such cases, which is one reason why there has not been one since 1941 despite all of the subsequent American military adventures overseas. No one at the time the Constitution was framed conceived of the possibility of such multi-lateral treaties. The mischief of which these arrangements are capable amounts to a serious defect in present Constitutional law.

It seems to me that if you really wished to prevent a future episode like that of Vietnam, instead of trying to defend a malevolent jackanapes like Abbie Hoffman, you would support something akin to the old Bricker Amendment, to the effect that no provision of the United States Constitution shall be effectively superseded or repealed by the ratification of any treaty. Of course, Bricker was a conservative Republican, and it was "progressive" internationalist types who scuttled the Bricker Amendment.

mtraven said...

You know, I've heard that conservatives are in the habit of projecting their own sins onto their opponents, but I've rarely had the opportunity to experience it personally.

You are persistently engaging in apologetics for American atrocities on the theory that because they didn't rise to the level of genocide, they are perfectly fine; while accusing me of apologizing for Pol Pot, which I most emphatically have not done. I challenged you to provide some evidence for this accusation; you haven't done it. And since you mentions the Ten Commandments, maybe you should check out the one about bearing false witness.

You are the one who brought up the Khmer Rouge, for the sole purpose of excusing American atrocities, on the theory that they were not quite so bad. Now you are bringing up hoary phrases like "Such things happen in every war; war is hell". If this isn't apologetics, I don't know what is.

It's self-evident that you don't give a shit about the lives of Cambodians and Vietnamese. You've said as much elsewhere. Your effort to use millions of deaths as a cheap debating tactic that wouldn't fool a third-grader is tasteless, to say the least.

Michael said...

You were arguing moral equivalence when you wrote:

"We engaged in massibe bombings of civilians, forced relocation, torture, and systematic destruction of entire regions. Seems pretty comparable to the Khmer Rouge to me. Perhaps our hearts were purer, but I imagine that doesn't matter much to the dead."

It doesn't matter much to a dead person whether he died because he was run over by a bus because the driver wasn'y looking, or if his weasand was slit by a thug to facilitate the filching of his wallet. However there is a broad moral consensus that, despite their both ending in a person's death, the two actions are not equally culpable.

I have said that American involvement in Vietnam was a mistake, that it resulted from a serious flaw in our constitutional law, and that it involved a number of deeply culpable actions such as the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, which was both a moral wrong and a strategic blunder. It is true that I regret the loss of American soldiers more greatly than that of communists. But that is hardly apologizing for American conduct during the war. It is both incorrect and malicious for you to claim it is.

There were, as Norman Thomas observed, two sources of opposition to the American presence in Vietnam: those who wanted peace so that American boys could come home and out of harm's way, and those who wanted the communists to win.

I cannot admire the latter group, who in my observation accounted for most of the anti-war movement, and who, in my judgment, included Abbie Hoffman. Yuri Andropov, then the head of the KGB, boasted that "we [i.e., the communists] will win this war on the streets of America." They did, and the Cambodian genocide was one of the consequences.

mtraven said...

Arguing moral equivalence is not the same as excusing either party. I condemn aggression and mass murder no matter who is doing it or what their excuse is. Unlike you.

If American involvement in Vietnam was a "mistake", it's part of a pattern of mistakes that includes empire-building in the Philippines, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Iran, Chile, Iraq, and many other places. After awhile you have to wonder what's going on when such a fine upstanding country continues to make such gross errors.

There were, as Norman Thomas observed, two sources of opposition to the American presence in Vietnam: those who wanted peace so that American boys could come home and out of harm's way, and those who wanted the communists to win.

Nonsense. The major motivation of the antiwar movement was to stop the US government from prosecuting a criminal war. That's why Hoffman, despite his flaws, is a hero. Even leading architects of the war like McGeorge Bundy have admitted that the doves were right, so it shouldn't be so difficult for you to do the same.

Yuri Andropov, then the head of the KGB, boasted that "we [i.e., the communists] will win this war on the streets of America." They did, and the Cambodian genocide was one of the consequences.

More nonsense. The Soviet Union was backing North Vietnam; they never had any love for the Khmer Rouge, who received support from China. It was the Vietnamese who eventually overthrew Pol Pot.

The US bears a good share of the responsibility for the Cambodian genocide since it was our massive bombing campaign, which killed hundreds of thousands, wrecked the country, and radicalized the opposition, that enabled the rise of the Khmer Rouge. That, I suppose, is one of your mistakes. The same thing, roughly, is going on in Iraq -- another mistake.

Michael said...

Well, from my point of view, American foreign policy went off the tracks at about the time te United States annexed Hawaii. Grover Cleveland was probably the last president who was Constitutionally sound.

In the modern reading of Roman history there is a point at which the Republic ceased, and the Empire began. That point was not evident to the Romans themselves. The early principate kept up the Senate, the consuls, tribunes, praetors, ædiles, and all the other trappings of the old republic. Its official acts were still taken in the name of the Senate and people of Rome rather than in that of the emperor. Augustus portrayed himself merely as the first citizen, primus inter pares in the Senate. It was probably not until the deposition of Nero that Romans realized these old institutions were mere shells of what they had been, and that the real power rested in the nominee of the praetorian guard.

Just when an event equivalent to the crossing of the Rubicon took place in the United States is not certain. Lincoln altered forever the relationship between the states and the Union. Previously they had been constituent parts, afterward subordinate ones. But in many important matters there was little obvious change. The Federal government was greatly enlarged under Wilson by the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment; without the income tax, American participation in World War I would not have been possible, at least not on the scale it was. Roosevelt II expanded it further, Lyndon Johnson still more, and it has continued to grow apace under every president since then. I do not think American government is tending in the direction of the Roman empire. The power of the president has, if anything, waned compared to what it was under FDR. What has developed is a permanent government of bureaucrats and judges, with considerable independent and extra-Constitutional executive and legislative power. The old Republic is dead. Eheu fugaces!

That is, at least, my view. Yours, on the other hand, appears principally to be based on objection to recent U.S. governments taking the opposite side to the forces of 'progress,' viz., any socialist or communist regime anywhere.

Which factions the Chinese or the Soviet Union were backing in southeast Asia makes no difference. Soviet support and subsidy went to the anti-war movement in the United States. It prevailed and U.S. forces were withdrawn from Indochina. Genocide in Cambodia and persecution in Vietnam were immediately the consequences of U.S. withdrawal. Live with it.

Don't blame me for Iraq. I voted for Pat Buchanan.