John Adams, “Thoughts on Government” (1776)

Asked for advice by a fellow member of the Continental Congress who was going home to help draft a new constitution, Adams sketched his ideas in just under 3,000 words.

The purpose of government, he writes, is to promote “the happiness of society.”

From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

A review of the best thinkers on the subject, he goes on, will conclude that the best form of government is a republic, and “the very definition of a Republic, is ‘an Empire of Laws, and not of men.'”  The best government, therefore, must ensure “an impartial and exact execution of the laws.”

Describing a government with powers divided between a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judiciary, he notes that “Great care should be taken . . . to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.” He believes that all executive officers should be elected for a single one-year term. “This will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Alternatively, he suggests longer terms, but again without the possibility of re-election. Judges, on the other hand, “should hold estates for life in their offices . . . during good behaviour” to ensure their freedom from influence.

To limit the accumulation of excessive wealth by a few individuals, he recommends sumptuary laws. “Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them I know not,” he remarks.

Essential to such a government’s success—a government whose foundation is “some principle or passion in the minds of the people”—is universal education.

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that to a humane and generous mind, no expence for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

Equal justice for all; honest government based on free and fair elections; a limit on the accumulation of personal wealth; and universal education aiming to produce an informed and intelligent citizenry. Still good ideas, and still more aspirational than realized.

Pop philosophy from a mystery writer

“You see, when I was young I had democratic ideas. Believed in the purity of ideals, the equality of all men. I especially disbelieved in kings and princes.

. . . “Since then, I’ve traveled and seen the world. There’s damn little equality going about. Mind you, I still believe in democracy, but you’ve got to force it on people with a strong hand, ram it down their throats. Men don’t want to be brothers. They may, someday, but they don’t now.

“My belief in the brotherhood of man died the day I arrived in London last week, when I observed people standing in a tube train, resolutely refusing to move up and make room for those who entered. You won’t turn people into angels by appealing to their better natures, just yet awhile. But by judicious force you can coerce them into behaving more or less decently to one another.

“To go on with, I still believe in the brotherhood of man, but it’s not coming yet awhile. Say, another ten thousand years or so. It’s no good being impatient. Evolution is a slow process.”

The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie (1925)

Another solution

From The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, by David Edmonds, pp. 191-192:

In July 1938 Franklin D. Roosevelt convened an international conference, in Évian-les-Bains in northern [sic] France, to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis . . . [but] the conference, attended by representatives from more than thirty countries, made no progress; there was no loosening of immigration controls. Politicians feared increasing Jewish immigration would be hugely unpopular; four in five Americans were opposed to allowing in a large number of refugees. A poll shortly before the conference in the United States revealed that a majority of Americans believed that the Jews bore at least some responsibility for their persecution. The Australian delegate at the conference summed up his government’s attitude and probably the attitude of others: “It will no doubt be appreciated that, as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”

An indirect consequence of failure at Évian was that the Nazis came to believe that, if foreign states would not take their Jews, they would have to find another solution to the Jewish problem.

Knowledge and intelligence

Amid clear signs of a neo-fascist movement led by Donald Trump and fueled by social media propaganda and disinformation, news reports and polling tell us that American voters are concerned above all with the price of gasoline and groceries, and that they are almost certainly going to elect a majority of Republicans in the House, and quite possibly in the Senate, too—not to mention dozens of state races with neo-fascists on the ballots for positions like Secretary of State, which will put them in charge of counting votes in the 2024 presidential election.

Counting on the knowledge and intelligence of American voters suggests a serious lack of knowledge and intelligence.

2022, meet 1950

Lionel Trilling, writing in the preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950):

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. . . . The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action, or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas. . . .

When we say that a movement is “bankrupt of ideas” we are likely to suppose that it is at the end of its powers. But this is not so . . . . It is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.

So much for the idea that 1950 was a long time ago (or that these words apply only to the United States).

A weakling who lacked self-esteem

Agamemnon . . . pushed his way imperiously to the front of Arisbe’s stall, slid the ceramics back and forth choosily, and broke one of the most beautiful vases, which he paid for in haste at a word from Arisbe; then fled with his retinue amid the laughter of the onlookers. . . .

“He will take revenge, that one,” I said to Arisbe; and it troubled me deeply that the great and famous commander in chief of the Greek fleet was a weakling who lacked self-esteem. How much better it is to have a strong enemy.


“In heaven’s name, how can opinions differ about a case that does not exist? That was invented especially for the purpose?” “Even if that’s true, once something has become public knowledge, it is real.”

. . . I still believed that a little will to truth, a little courage, could erase the whole misunderstanding. To call what was true, true, and what was untrue, false: That was asking so little (I thought) . . . . Then I understood: . . . we were defending everything that we no longer had. And the more it faded, the more real we had to say it was.

—Christa Wolf, Cassandra, pp. 52, 84-5 (1983)

Salman Rushdie

Sending Salman Rushdie earnest best wishes for a full recovery.

The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas — uncertainty, progress, change — into crimes.

—Herbert Reade Memorial Lecture (6 February 1990)

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

Imaginary Homelands p. 391 (1992)

I do not envy people who think they have a complete explanation of the world, for the simple reason that they are obviously wrong.

—Salman Rushdie — Talking with David Frost (1993)

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.

—Statement in The Wall Street Journal, Salman Rushdie: “I Stand With Charlie Hebdo, as We All Must” (7 January 2015)

We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992–2002

Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.

The Times of India, ‘Don’t allow religious hooligans to dictate terms’ (16 January 2008)

Take the Fifth, eh?

Dedicated to TFG & Co., with apologies to the great Duke Ellington.


If you,
must take the Fifth, eh?
you,
will quickly find yourself to be in prison.

If you,
don’t take the Fifth, eh?
you’ll
find an even quicker way to prison.

Hurry, hurry, stop your mumblin’
All your clever schemes are crumblin’

When,
you take that Fifth, eh?
soon,
you’ll be sitting pretty up in prison!

War Crimes and Amnesty International

This week Amnesty International published a report criticizing Ukraine for putting soldiers in residential areas. The report begins, 

Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February, Amnesty International said today.

Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets. The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”

Not every Russian attack documented by Amnesty International followed this pattern, however. In certain other locations in which Amnesty International concluded that Russia had committed war crimes, including in some areas of the city of Kharkiv, the organization did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces located in the civilian areas unlawfully targeted by the Russian military.

Despite the last paragraph and the many preceding Amnesty reports that have identified Russia as the perpetrator of war crimes in its invasion of Ukraine, this report produced outrage among supporters of Ukraine. Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal:

The head of @Amnesty Ukraine @OPokalchuk resigns, saying that the organization created an “instrument of Russian propaganda” with a report accusing Ukrainian forces of breaking int’l law that ignored local researchers concerns and gave too little time for Ukrainian MOD response.

This controversy invites reconsideration of the whole notion of “war crimes” and the question of whether the moral standards that we at least attempt to uphold in peacetime can be applied as well in wartime. At one end of this debate one might argue that war is itself a crime, just as murder is a crime. If war is a crime then trying to regulate its conduct by “humanitarian” rules reminds one of the British army in the American colonies, outraged by the colonists’ habit of hiding behind trees instead of fighting out in the open. If the aim in a war is to win by any means, it might seem that no wartime conduct—including rape, torture, and wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians—can be rationally condemned.

However, if we want to consider war as a crime, let’s compare it with something we all agree is a crime: murder. We don’t condemn people who defend themselves against attempted murder, even if that defence results in the death of the attacker. We don’t condemn a police officer for shooting in self-defence or to protect civilians from a murderous attack. Can we condemn a country like Ukraine, defending itself from an unprovoked invasion, for any tactic it uses in that defence? If we stay with the analogy, the answer must be . . . yes. Someone who successfully disarms and immobilizes an attacker, for example, acts within the law; but if he goes on to torture his attacker, he becomes guilty of a crime. Likewise, a police officer who subdues an attacker and subsequently abuses or murders the suspect is subject to prosecution.

If we carry that logic to Amnesty’s criticism of Ukraine for, in some instances, stationing troops and weapons in residential areas, what judgment do we reach? The key idea would seem to be necessity: an action that is necessary to self-defence is justifiable. If Ukrainians were to torture and summarily execute Russian soldiers they have taken prisoner, for example, these would be acts of gratuitous cruelty, unnecessary for self-defence, and therefore unjustifiable, criminal acts. The question, then, would seem to be whether putting troops and weapons in residential areas is, in some cases at least, necessary to Ukraine’s self-defence. Without access to detailed information we can only speculate. On the face of it, however, we can see that Russia is a much larger country, with a much larger army and many more weapons than Ukraine. In such circumstances, one is inclined to give Ukraine the benefit of any doubt. If such tactics are the only way to preserve the few soldiers and weapons that one has to defend oneself, how can they be condemned? In addition, the Ukrainian army and government clearly have overwhelming popular support: the people in residential areas used in this way either support these tactics, or are freely allowed to protect themselves by leaving for safer refuges. Certainly I have seen no reports of Ukrainian civilians protesting against their army’s tactics—whereas there have been reports of Ukrainian civilians protesting against the Russian invaders. 

The insistence by Amnesty that both sides conform to the same humanitarian standards seems to be an arbitrary adherence to rules, regardless of real-world circumstances. It’s as if someone faced with an attacker intent on murder is criticized for pulling out a switchblade or throwing acid in the attacker’s eyes. Circumstances matter. Soldiers who kill enemy combatants are not considered to be murderers, even though they kill people just as murderers do. This distinction seems obvious to most people. Responding to critics, Amnesty’s Secretary General, Agnes Callamard, writes on Twitter,

@amnesty has documented tirelessly Russia aggression, war crimes in Ukraine: https://amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/03/latest-news-on-russias-war-on-ukraine/… Today we report on Ukraine tactics endangering civilians. To those who attack us alleging biases against Ukraine, I say: check our work. We stand by all victims. Impartially.

Callamard’s failure to recognize the difference between behaviour under one set of circumstances and the same behaviour under very different circumstances is confounding. If she were in charge of the Emergency department of a hospital, she would by this standard insist that patients be treated in the order of their arrival, regardless of how urgently they need care. This would be “impartial,” and it would also be grossly wrong.

In addition, as Amnesty’s critics point out, Russian propagandists will seize on this report to justify Russia’s bombing of residential areas, schools, and hospitals.

We must resist our natural tendency toward binary thinking, which would invite us to consider Russia and Russians as villains, Ukraine and Ukrainians as heroes (or vice versa). But without condemning all Russians, we can still conclude on the evidence that the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime. And without concluding that all Ukrainians are noble, brave, and honest, we can still judge that Ukraine is the victim of unprovoked aggression by a much larger country. And those judgments cannot be ignored when assessing the wartime behaviour on either side.

Amnesty’s misstep here, whatever its origins, undermines its credibility, if not fatally, then at least profoundly. It would be wiser, perhaps, for AI and similar organizations to restrict their work to peacetime violations of human rights, leaving war crimes to the press and to organizations like the International Criminal Court. I have in the past sponsored Amnesty International activities among high school students, organizing letter-writing campaigns on behalf of political prisoners. At least until there is a clear repudiation of this Amnesty report on Ukraine, I will have to think carefully about any further involvement with them.

Kasparov on Trump, Orban, and demagoguery

Garry Kasparov:

“What Orban has most in common with Trumpists is they view democracy only as a vehicle to its destruction. The demagoguery, nationalism, racism, are means. Win, then undermine and control the institutions for perpetual power and with it, money.

“In stable democracies, rich people often get into politics. In corrupt democracies, politics are a means of enrichment. Not mere lobbying and kickbacks, but wielding power directly to shake down companies, to loot the state and the people.

“Demagogues can be terrible for many reasons, but pull back the curtain and you always find them and their followers filling their pockets. It’s banal, pathetic, and not as interesting as grand ideological and psychological analyses, but mostly they’re just thieves.”

—4 August 2020, on Twitter

Reforming the constitution

Those republics . . . that started without having a perfect constitution . . . may perfect themselves by the aid of events. It is very true, however, that such reforms are never effected without danger, for the majority of men never willingly adopt any new law tending to change the constitution of the state, unless the necessity of the change is clearly demonstrated; and as such a necessity cannot make itself felt without being accompanied with danger, the republic may easily be destroyed before having perfected its constitution.

—Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527), Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius. Tr. C. E. Detmold

Through stories we shape meaning

Gavin Francis, writing in the London Review of Books:

It’s through stories that we shape meaning, and we need to get better at explaining how pernicious and destructive the wrong stories can be.

The remark comes at the end of his review of a book about cases of mass hysteria or illness, The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness, by Suzanne O’Sullivan.

But it resonates far beyond that context.

Unfortunately, most of us opt for binary thinking and simple stories that relieve us of the burden of critical thinking and the discomfort of ambiguity. The results are, as Gavin Francis says, pernicious and destructive.

History

Freedom, justice, education, and equality seem to have little to do with the ingredients required to produce a great civilization. Slavery, despotism, illiteracy, and inequality often help and certainly do not hinder the building of an empire. The essentials are low labour costs, abundant natural resources, abundant energy supplies, monopoly markets, military superiority, and social and political stability at home.

To concentrate all of these in a single society is difficult enough, which is why historians have no need of a calculator to count the “great civilizations.”

To hold on to them, however, is as unlikely as true love that lasts a lifetime, which is why even the greatest of great civilizations have dissolved in the blink of an historical eye.

The desire for freedom, justice, education, and equality, far from being among the essential causes producing a great civilization, appear to be the fruits of such greatness. Prosperous citizens of a dominant society begin in their affluence to acquire education, to philosophize, to yearn for freedom, justice, and equality. (Freedom and equality are incompatible, of course, as Will Durant points out in The Lessons of History: “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”) Affluence, however, produces other, less benign fruits: corruption, decadence, laziness, self-indulgence. The dissolution begins at the same moment that the greatest heights are achieved. Sophocles writes his tragedies and Plato writes his dialogues as Athens descends into the imperial despotism of corrupt oligarchs. Phidias sculpts the gods out of marble as the slaves mine silver and row the Athenian galleys into a war with Sparta that destroys Pericles’ great society in a single generation.

Most people live their lives apart from these cyclical struggles. If lucky enough to avoid being swept up by wars and revolutions, they grow from children to adults, fall in love, find ways to earn a living, raise families, amuse themselves as they can, grow old, and die. In every society only a small percentage of people (men, mostly) strive obsessively to take more than their share, using the tools available to them, whether they be spears or hedge funds. From among these narcissists and sociopaths arise the “great men” of history with their compulsions to rule, to horde, and to erect monuments to themselves.

The immediate pleasures of life lie in physical health: strength, energy, movement, eating, sleeping, and sex. Longer-term consolations come from nature, art, music, literature, and the vast corridors of knowledge in all its forms. Ironically, most science and “high art” emerges from the wars, violence, and inequalities of great civilizations. As Orson Welles famously ad-libs in The Third Man, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

How many of us, I wonder, would hesitate to trade the Renaissance for five hundred years of democracy and peace? A few brave and noble souls venture into politics in the true spirit of public service to battle against the ambitious egotists who tend to dominate that world. Most people, however, simply pray to be left alone by the Caesars, Napoleons, and Rockefellers. Like Voltaire’s Candide, they long only to cultivate their gardens, happily leaving history to others. Most people, I am inclined to think, would gladly trade ten Renaissances for five hundred years of democracy and peace, if only they could.

Democracy

When it comes to selecting players for the Major League Baseball all-star teams, letting the fans vote is almost universally derided as a surrender to popular ignorance. When it comes to selecting governors, congressmen, senators, and presidents, however, the same system is regarded as sacred.

Or, as Will Durant wrote in The Lessons of History,

Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.

Advice for liars

Headline in The Guardian:

Fox and friends confront billion-dollar US lawsuits over election fraud claim. Rightwing networks Fox News, OAN and Newsmax could be found liable in cases brought by voting machine company Dominion.

So, apparently you can lie about guns, you can lie about abortion, you can lie about immigrants, you can lie about refugees, you can lie about women, you can lie about racism, you can lie about foreigners of all sorts, you can lie about history, you can lie about COVID, you can lie about terrorism, you can lie about the economy, you can lie about your political opponents, including the President of the United States. You can lie about all these things and much more, without suffering in the least. On the contrary, these lies can bring you millions of fans and huge profits.

But if you lie about a corporation, they will sue you into bankruptcy and destroy you.

Which says something about what we value, eh?

How stupid? *Really* stupid.

These are the actual words spoken by the Governor of Tennessee yesterday:

“We’re not looking at gun restriction laws in my administration right now. There’s one thing to remember, criminals don’t follow the laws. Criminals break laws,” Lee told reporters. “We can’t control what we can’t control.”

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, June 5, 2022

Oddly, the governor did not announce that he will be repealing Tennessee’s laws against murder, robbery, and assault, on the grounds that law-abiding citizens don’t need such laws and criminals won’t obey them anyway.

Binary thinking, again

I wrote about binary thinking way back in 2018, here, and not so long ago in March, here. But people keep doing it, and I keep noticing it until the itch just has to be scratched.

The latest example comes out of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It seems that some people who generally identify themselves on “the left” politically have decided that they should write and speak in support of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, because the U.S. is supporting Ukraine.

The logic is classic binary thinking: We know that the U.S. has been guilty many times in the past of neo-imperialist wars, of invading small, weak nations, of supporting unpopular and corrupt governments in those small weak nations; we know that American armies have committed war crimes; that the U.S. government has lied and covered up its misdeeds; etc. Hence, the U.S. is bad. If the U.S. is bad, then its ally (in this case, Ukraine) must be bad, too, and its adversary (Russia) must be good. Therefore, go Vlad!

Binary thinking attracts us because it is so simple, and clear, and consoling. Alas, the truth, far too often, is complex, and muddy, and confusing. But it’s still the truth. In this case, the nasty Pentagon is on the right side. Perhaps next time, the nasty Saudi leader will do something good. Or Boris Johnson will say something true, sensible, selfless, and profound. This is life, folks, and unless we simply prefer to be deluded, we have to accept complexity, muddiness, and confusion.

Frank Sinatra, by many accounts, did terrible things, especially when drunk, which was apparently pretty common. He also was a phenomenal singer. Binary thinkers have to choose: they either love Sinatra for his music and overlook his bad behaviour, or they cannot overlook his bad behaviour and so are forced to hate his music, too. The rest of us are stuck with complicated thoughts and feelings. We keep repeating to ourselves Bryan Stevenson‘s wise dictum: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

That goes for nations, too.

Frederick Douglass on women’s rights and the failure of governments

Observing woman’s agency, devotion, and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “woman’s rights” and caused me to be denominated a woman’s-rights man. I am glad to say that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognizing not sex nor physical strength, but moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of republican government, to which all are alike subject and all bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex.

In a conversation with Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she was yet a young lady and an earnest abolitionist, she was at the pains of setting before me in a very strong light the wrong and injustice of this exclusion. I could not meet her arguments except with the shallow plea of “custom,” “natural division of duties,” “indelicacy of woman’s taking part in politics,” the common talk of “woman’s sphere,” and the like, all of which that able woman, who was then no less logical than now, brushed away by those arguments which she has so often and effectively used since, and which no man has yet successfully refuted. If intelligence is the only true and rational basis of government, it follows that that is the best government which draws its life and power from the largest sources of wisdom, energy, and goodness at its command. The force of this reasoning would be easily comprehended and readily assented to in any case involving the employment of physical strength. We should all see the folly and madness of attempting to accomplish with a part what could only be done with the united strength of the whole. Though his folly may be less apparent, it is just as real when one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the world is excluded from any voice or vote in civil government. In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world. Thus far all human governments have been failures, for none have secured, except in a partial degree, the ends for which governments are instituted.

War, slavery, injustice and oppression, and the idea that might makes right have been uppermost in all such governments, and the weak, for whose protection governments are ostensibly created, have had practically no rights which the strong have felt bound to respect. The slayers of thousands have been exalted into heroes, and the worship of mere physical force has been considered glorious. Nations have been and still are but armed camps, expending their wealth and strength and ingenuity in forging weapons of destruction against each other; and while it may not be contended that the introduction of the feminine element in government would entirely cure this tendency to exalt might over right, many reasons can be given to show that woman’s influence would greatly tend to check and modify this barbarous and destructive tendency. At any rate, seeing that the male governments of the world have failed, it can do no harm to try the experiment of a government by man and woman united. But it is not my purpose to argue the question here, but simply to state in a brief way the ground of my espousal of the cause of woman’s suffrage. I believe that the exclusion of my race from participation in government was not only a wrong, but a great mistake, because it took from that race motives for high thought and endeavor and degraded them in the eyes of the world around them. Man derives a sense of his consequence in the world not merely subjectively, but objectively. If from the cradle through life the outside world brands a class as unfit for this or that work, the character of the class will come to resemble and conform to the character described. To find valuable qualities in our fellows, such qualities must be presumed and expected. I would give woman a vote, give her a motive to qualify herself to vote, precisely as I insisted upon giving the colored man the right to vote; in order that she shall have the same motives for making herself a useful citizen as those in force in the case of other citizens. In a word, I have never yet been able to find one consideration, one argument, or suggestion in favor of man’s right to participate in civil government which did not equally apply to the right of woman.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter XVIII. 1891

The mystery of mass shootings in the U.S.

So far, the categories include . . .

  • white supremacist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Islamic extremist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • disgruntled employee with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • mentally ill teenager with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught father with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught boyfriend with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Chinese nationalist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Anti-Semitic neo-Nazi with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • misogynist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • xenophobe with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • incel with semi-automatic weapon(s)

I don’t know—they are all so different! Hard to see any pattern here.

U.S. Politics: The South Rises Again, Again

In the 1850s the southern, slaveholding states realized that they were losing, demographically. The U.S. was expanding westward, its population growing, and most of the growth was in non-slave or anti-slavery states. As this trend continued, the slaveholding states would be outnumbered in the Senate, and the slaveholding voters would be outnumbered by those opposed to slavery on economic grounds or (less often) on moral grounds. The clock was ticking. How long would it take for the new majority to impose its will and outlaw slavery altogether?

The demographic reality provoked fears that festered into paranoia and then hysteria in the South. Lincoln’s election convinced the slaveholders that it was now or never, and the Confederacy was born. Four bloody years later, the Confederacy was dead and the Old South lived under federal occupation for more than a decade. In 1877, as part of a back-room deal to resolve a deadlocked presidential election, Rutherford B. Hayes got the White House in return for the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states. Thus Reconstruction ended and ninety years of anti-black terrorism and Jim Crow laws began.

In 1965, a century after the Civil War, the federal Voting Rights Act finally ensured voting rights for all citizens. This triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, like the military victory a hundred years earlier, provoked a backlash among the white Christian nationalists who had fought to preserve Jim Crow, and lost. The Democratic Party, which for most of its history had been, in the South, the party of slavery and white supremacy, became the party of civil rights and social justice. The Republicans, originally the “party of Lincoln,” now became the last bastion of conservatives. GOP leaders welcomed disillusioned white Southerners and other conservative former Democrats into their ranks, thinking that they could control the more unsavoury elements among them, i.e., the most outspokenly racist and vicious. 

Once again, however, demographics began to tell against white supremacy. The nation became increasingly non-white, non-Christian, and multicultural. Once again, white Christian conservatives began to feel their “way of life” being threatened. Now, however, the divisions were not primarily geographic—the Old South vs. the northern and western states. Instead, the new divide was urban vs. rural. 

And that’s where we are today. A minority of mostly white, mostly Christian conservatives is using every anti-majoritarian tool it can find to resist the liberalizing tendencies of a growing majority of urban Americans who are more diverse, less religious, less prejudiced against racialized people, and better educated. These more liberal urban voters support abortion rights, support gay marriage, support voting rights for all citizens, and are not terribly alarmed by immigrants or Muslims or transgender people. To the white Christian, “pro-life,” anti-immigrant minority, such attitudes seem to signal the end of their “way of life” in the same way that the election of Abraham Lincoln was seen by whites in the slaveholding South as a mortal threat. 

The Republican Party, instead of using and controlling its most extreme members, has been taken over by them. The Democratic Party, with former Republicans and quasi-Republicans like West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin at one end, and activist progressives at the other end, constitutes a large but divided and perhaps irreconcilable majority. The outnumbered Republicans, using gerrymandered House districts, the anti-democratic Senate, and the anti-democratic Electoral College, hope to regain control of the Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. If even those methods do not suffice, they will use dark-money funding and lies spread by right-wing media to finance and justify the invalidation of elections that don’t go their way.

The Confederacy may be dead, but the Old South, with its white supremacy and religious bigotry and appalling ignorance, is like a virulent bacillus that can be suppressed but never completely eradicated. When conditions are right, as they are today, it breaks out again. Buckle up!

Lincoln’s Proclamation and the white riot in New York

Frederick Douglass recounts Lincoln’s careful attempt to avoid making the Civil War about freeing the slaves—an attempt that, like more recent attempts to appease racism, failed.

The proclamation itself was throughout like Mr. Lincoln. It was framed with a view to the least harm and the most good possible in the circumstances, and with especial consideration of the latter. It was thoughtful, cautious, and well guarded at all points. While he hated slavery, and really desired its destruction, he always proceeded against it in a manner the least likely to shock or drive from him any who were truly in sympathy with the preservation of the Union, but who were not friendly to emancipation. For this he kept up the distinction between loyal and disloyal slaveholders, and discriminated in favor of the one, as against the other. In a word, in all that he did, or attempted, he made it manifest that the one great and all-commanding object with him was the peace and preservation of the Union, and that this was the motive and main-spring of all his measures. His wisdom and moderation at this point were for a season useful to the loyal cause in the border States, but it may be fairly questioned whether it did not chill the union ardor of the loyal people of the North in some degree, and diminish rather than increase the sum of our power against the rebellion; for moderate, cautious, and guarded as was this proclamation, it created a howl of indignation and wrath amongst the rebels and their allies. The old cry was raised by the copperhead organs of “an abolition war,” and a pretext was thus found for an excuse for refusing to enlist, and for marshaling all the negro prejudice of the North on the rebel side. Men could say they were willing to fight for the Union, but that they were not willing to fight for the freedom of the negroes; and thus it was made difficult to procure enlistments or to enforce the draft. This was especially true of New York, where there was a large Irish population. The attempt to enforce the draft in that city was met by mobs, riot, and bloodshed. There is perhaps no darker chapter in the whole history of the war than this cowardly and bloody uprising in July, 1863. For three days and nights New York was in the hands of a ferocious mob, and there was not sufficient power in the government of the country or of the city itself to stay the hand of violence and the effusion of blood. Though this mob was nominally against the draft which had been ordered, it poured out its fiercest wrath upon the colored people and their friends. It spared neither age nor sex; it hanged negroes simply because they were negroes; it murdered women in their homes, and burnt their homes over their heads; it dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp-posts; it burned the colored orphan asylum, a noble charity on the corner of Fifth avenue, and, scarce allowing time for the helpless two hundred children to make good their escape, plundered the building of every valuable piece of furniture; and forced colored men, women and children to seek concealment in cellars or garrets or wheresoever else it could be found, until this high carnival of crime and reign of terror should pass away.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter XII. 1891.

History rhyming: justice be damned, let’s try to appease the bigots

In his last autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great orator and abolitionist recalls the months that followed Lincoln’s election in 1860. Many in the North were desperate to do whatever they could to appease the Southern secessionists and persuade them to return to the Union.

During all the intervening months, from November to the ensuing March, the drift of Northern sentiment was towards compromise. To smooth the way for this, most of the Northern legislatures repealed their personal liberty bills, as they were supposed to embarrass the surrender of fugitive slaves to their claimants. The feeling everywhere seemed to be that something must be done to convince the South that the election of Mr. Lincoln meant no harm to slavery or the slave power, and that the North was sound on the question of the right of the master to hold and hunt his slave as long as he pleased, and that even the right to hold slaves in the Territories should be submitted to the Supreme Court, which would probably decide in favor of the most extravagant demands of the slave States. The Northern press took on a more conservative tone towards the slavery propagandists, and a corresponding tone of bitterness towards anti-slavery men and measures. It came to be a no uncommon thing to hear men denouncing South Carolina and Massachusetts in the same breath, and in the same measure of disapproval. The old pro-slavery spirit which, in 1835, mobbed anti-slavery prayer-meetings, and dragged William Lloyd Garrison through the streets of Boston with a halter about his neck, was revived. From Massachusetts to Missouri, anti-slavery meetings were ruthlessly assailed and broken up. With others, I was roughly handled in Tremont Temple, Boston, by a mob headed by one of the wealthiest men of that city. The talk was that the blood of some abolitionist must be shed to appease the wrath of the offended South, and to restore peaceful relations between the two sections of the country. A howling mob followed Wendell Phillips for three days whenever he appeared on the pavements of his native city, because of his ability and prominence in the propagation of anti-slavery opinions.

While this humiliating reaction was going on at the North, various devices to bring about peace and reconciliation were suggested and pressed at Washington. Committees were appointed to listen to southern grievances, and, if possible, devise means of redress for such as might be alleged. Some of these peace propositions would have been shocking to the last degree to the moral sense of the North, had not fear for the safety of the Union overwhelmed all moral conviction. Such men as William H. Seward, Charles Francis Adams, Henry B. Anthony, Joshua R. Giddings, and others—men whose courage had been equal to all other emergencies—bent before this southern storm, and were ready to purchase peace at any price. Those who had stimulated the courage of the North before the election, and had shouted “Who’s afraid?” were now shaking in their shoes with apprehension and dread. One was for passing laws in the northern States for the better protection of slave-hunters, and for the greater efficiency of the fugitive-slave bill. Another was for enacting laws to punish the invasion of the slave States, and others were for so altering the Constitution of the United States that the federal government should never abolish slavery while any one State should object to such a measure. Everything that could be demanded by insatiable pride and selfishness on the part of the slave-holding South, or could be surrendered by abject fear and servility on the part of the North, had able and eloquent advocates.

Happily for the cause of human freedom, and for the final unity of the American nation, the South was mad, and would listen to no concessions. It would neither accept the terms offered, nor offer others to be accepted. It had made up its mind that under a given contingency it would secede from the Union and thus dismember the Republic. That contingency had happened, and it should execute its threat. Mr. Ireson [?] of Georgia, expressed the ruling sentiment of his section when he told the northern peacemakers that if the people of the South were given a blank sheet of paper upon which to write their own terms on which they would remain in the Union, they would not stay. They had come to hate everything which had the prefix “Free”–free soil, free States, free territories, free schools, free speech, and freedom generally, and they would have no more such prefixes. This haughty and unreasonable and unreasoning attitude of the imperious South saved the slave and saved the nation. Had the South accepted our concessions and remained in the Union, the slave power would in all probability have continued to rule; the North would have become utterly demoralized; the hands on the dial-plate of American civilization would have been reversed, and the slave would have been dragging his hateful chains to-day wherever the American flag floats to the breeze. Those who may wish to see to what depths of humility and self-abasement a noble people can be brought under the sentiment of fear, will find no chapter of history more instructive than that which treats of the events in official circles in Washington during the space between the months of November, 1860, and March, 1861.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter X. 1891.

Bigotry cannot be appeased: it is unappeasable. It must be denounced, opposed, and defeated. Otherwise, it never ends.

If Only

“If only they could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably.”

“You mean, the Spartans and the Athenians?”

“No.”

“Oh!— the Greeks and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Goths and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Saxons and the Celts?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Moslems?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Jews?”

“No.”

“The Jews and the Arabs?”

“No.”

“The Catholics and the Protestants?”

“No.”

“The Irish and the English?”

“No.”

“The Europeans and the Amerindians?”

“No.”

“The Iroquois and the Hurons?”

“No.”

“Hmm . . . the Han and the Manchu?”

“No.”

“The Chinese and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Koreans and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Japanese and the Russians?”

“No.”

“The Russians and the Germans?”

“No.”

“The Germans and the French?”

“No.”

“The French and the English?”

“No.”

“The English and the Americans?”

“No.”

“White Americans and Black Americans?”

“No.”

“Liberals and conservatives?”

“No.”

“Communists and—”

“No.”

“Monarchists and—”

“No.”

“Unions and management?”

“No.”

“Ah, I know! The Sunnis and the Shia!”

“No.”

“The Indians and the Pakistanis?”

“No.”

“The Arabs and the Iranians?”

“No.”

“Maybe . . . the Kurds and the Turks?”

“No.”

“The Turks and the Armenians?”

“No.”

“Okay, I give up. If only who could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably?”

“Humans.”

Re-post: Frankenstein, the internet, the fake trucker “protests,” and why democracy is breaking

From June 2019: The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster.

Read the whole post here: https://ericmacknight.com/wordpress/2019/06/01/why-democracy-is-breaking/.

Isaiah Berlin on Joseph de Maistre and the reaction against the Enlightenment

What the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin . . . . Joseph de Maistre and his followers and allies . . . formed the spearhead of the counter-revolution in the early nineteenth century in Europe.

History and zoology, [wrote Maistre], are the most reliable guides to nature: they show her to be a field of unceasing slaughter. Men are by nature aggressive and destructive; . . . when men are sent to war, to exterminate beings as innocent as themselves for no purpose that either army can grasp, they go obediently to their deaths and scarcely ever mutiny. When the destructive instinct is evoked men feel exalted and fulfilled.

Maistre felt that men are by nature evil, self-destructive animals, full of conflicting drives . . . . It is only when they are kept under constant control and rigorous discipline by some authoritarian elite . . . that they can hope to survive and be saved.

If the State is to survive . . . the source of authority must be absolute . . . . Only then will men learn to obey it. . . . Without a clear hierarchy of authority—awe-inspiring power—men’s incurably destructive instincts will breed chaos and mutual extermination. The supreme power—especially the Church—must never seek to explain or justify itself in rational terms; for what one man can demonstrate, another may be able to refute.

The best government the world has ever known was that of the Romans . . . . 

Dark instincts govern man and societies; only elites which understand this, and keep the people from too much secular education, which is bound to make them over-critical and discontented, can give to men as much happiness and justice and freedom . . . . The notion that reason is sufficient to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. . . .

These gloomy doctrines became the inspiration of monarchist politics in France, and together with the notion of Romantic heroism and the sharp contrast between creative and uncreative, historic and unhistoric individuals and nations, duly inspired nationalism, imperialism, and finally, in their most violent and pathological form, Fascist and totalitarian doctrines in the twentieth century.

—From “The Counter-Enlightenment,” in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin (1979)

Why do conservatives hate science?

Attempts at religious reform aroused popular anger because the inborn conservativeness of man is nowhere stronger than in the field of religion. The religion of his fathers must not be criticized, even if his own profession of it is but an outward show. The most malicious kind of hatred is that which is built upon a theological foundation. On the other hand, the resistance to scientific novelties was due to an intuitive, if unconscious, appreciation of their revolutionary nature. The slightest and the most innocent scientific innovation is but a wedge which is bound to penetrate deeper and deeper, and the advance of which will soon be impossible to resist. Conservative people are undoubtedly right in their distrust and hatred of science, for the scientific spirit is the very spirit of innovation and adventure—the most reckless kind of adventure into the unknown. And such is its aggressive strength that its revolutionary activity can neither be restrained nor restricted within its own field. Sooner or later it will go out to conquer other fields and to throw floods of light into all the dark places where superstition and injustice are still rampant. The scientific spirit is the greatest force for construction but also for destruction.

—George Sarton, The History of Science and the New Humanism,  as quoted in The Practical Cogitator, Charles P. Curtis, Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, editors

James Lovelock: “Gaia may destroy humans before we destroy the Earth”

In an article published in The Guardian, 102-year-old James Lovelock warns that the Earth may destroy us before we succeed in destroying the Earth.

Along with Lynn Margulis, Lovelock in the 1970s popularized the “Gaia hypothesis”—the idea that the Earth and its inhabitants form a single complex interactive system. I remember thinking, “Well, of course!” when I first read of this idea half a century ago, but apparently it remains, somehow, controversial.

“I don’t know if it is too late for humanity to avert a climate catastrophe,” Lovelock writes, “but I am sure there is no chance if we continue to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems.”

He also mentions nuclear power:

But we should also not become over-reliant on renewable power, which will leave us with an energy gap. We need to build more nuclear power stations to overcome that, though the greens will first have to get over their overblown fears of radiation.

To which I say . . . well, of course!

I strongly recommend the entire article. And, Dr. Lovelock: thank you!

The Next Mission

Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex,” which has grown beyond imagination since he coined that phrase, has provided the means for the Vietnam War, the Iraq Wars, the Afghanistan War, and numerous other U.S. foreign policy boondoggles of lesser consequence. The motive for these tragic misadventures, however, comes from a hubristic ideology of American moral superiority, and of its military, economic, and political invincibility.

After the final debacle of the Vietnam War in 1975, the lesson of that conflict should have been clear: intervention in a foreign country to create and prop up a corrupt, unpopular government is a grave error bound to end badly. (To hope that the U.S. foreign policy establishment should also have learned that such interventions are grossly immoral—a point understood perfectly well by millions of Americans who protested against the war—is probably too much to hope.) In 1954 the CIA told Eisenhower that, should the referendum promised to the Vietnamese people be carried out, Ho Chi Minh’s communists would win. The referendum was scuttled, and instead the U.S. entered on the long path leading to April, 1975.

In the years immediately following the war there was grumbling from the military and its supporters that the soldiers had been betrayed by gutless politicians in Washington, but the country as a whole was eager to leave Vietnam behind, and no national “autopsy” of the war took place. Two decades later, however, a group of Washington insiders who favoured the “stab-in-the-back” theory of Vietnam came to power. These were the “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons,” men like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Richard Perle, and Paul Bremer. These men held powerful positions, officially and unofficially, in the administration of George W. Bush, who took office in 2001, and they had the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 

When the 9/11 attacks occurred in the fall of 2001 the neo-cons seized upon them as a golden opportunity to expunge the memory of Vietnam forever and prove both the superiority of American arms and the invincibility of her economic and political power. This is why the invasion of Afghanistan, which began as a short-term project to punish the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and their supporters, evolved into a fruitless 20-year attempt to build a modern democracy in that country. That is why Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, was invaded on the flimsiest of lies and manufactured pretexts, and why Saudi Arabia, from whom most of the 9/11 terrorists originated, was left alone. The neo-cons really believed that Americans would be welcomed in the streets of Baghdad and throughout the region by cheering crowds strewing flowers, and that the United States could re-form the entire Middle East into a series of pro-Western democratic (or at least quasi-democratic) states that, along with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states would provide the U.S. with a copious supply of oil while, with Israel’s help, suppressing the Islamist insurgencies that threatened the U.S., its Arab allies, and Israel.

It was all a stupid fantasy.

The fantasy was powered by the neo-cons’ ideology, to which they clung with religious fervour, impervious to all evidence and reasoned argument to the contrary. (Notice the religious implications of the language used by the U.S. military, for whom a campaign is a “mission.”) The obvious corruption of the local officials put into power by the U.S. invaders, and of the local elites who pocketed the billions and billions of dollars that the U.S. poured into Afghanistan and Iraq, made no impression whatsoever on the neo-cons. (The profiteering of the neo-cons’ supporters back home in the arms industry, the construction industry, etc., leeches sucking their sustenance from the bloated military-industrial complex, no doubt made an impression, but of a different sort.)

And now, after Joe Biden has taken the difficult and courageous step of removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan after two decades, the cycle begins again. Already today’s neo-cons are repeating the old arguments: the military was not properly supported, we could have stayed more or less permanently at little cost, a bit more time would have made all the difference. The innocent victims of the Taliban, especially the girls and women, are pushed continually to the front as the new neo-cons say, “See? See what injustice we perpetrate by leaving?” (Meanwhile the corrupt Afghan elites with their bulging Swiss bank accounts go unmentioned.)

How many years must pass before the foreign policy establishment in Washington and their military-industrial allies are ready to promote yet another ill-fated project in their religious campaign to defend the purity and superiority of America?

The lesson of 1975, 1989, and 2021

For the third time now I have witnessed from a distance a political cataclysm that has dominated world news reports for days, or weeks. In 1975 it was the fall of Saigon, marking the final victory of communist forces in Vietnam and ending a conflict that lasted three decades. In 1989 it was the collapse of the Soviet Union’s post-WWII “Iron Curtain,” including the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania, all of it recorded breathlessly by television cameras. And now, in 2021, we are watching the end of the American occupation, the collapse of the Afghan government, and the re-establishment of Taliban rule in Afghanistan after twenty years.

In all three cases, a dominant “super-power” attempted to exert its influence in foreign countries by propping up corrupt governments that lacked popular support. In all three cases, the attempts succeeded for decades, albeit at significant cost in lives and money. In all three cases, the super-power was eventually forced to withdraw, and local control was reasserted.

After 1975 there was a good deal of public handwringing in the United States. What were the “lessons of Vietnam”? In the end, the U.S. government learned only two lessons. They were both military lessons, and they were both wrong. Lesson 1: end military conscription, because an army of draftees was unreliable. Lesson 2: keep the press away from combat and strictly control their access to soldiers. 

The real “lesson of Vietnam” was political, not military, and it was also the lesson of the Soviet Union, and the lesson of Afghanistan: invading other countries, installing corrupt puppet regimes, and ignoring the will of the people is a costly blunder that always ends in defeat.

Since 1975, Vietnam has rebuilt its economy and established amicable relations with its former nemesis, the United States. Since 1989, the nations of Eastern Europe that were formerly under Soviet domination have managed their own affairs, with varying degrees of success. In Afghanistan, we can only hope that the worst fears of a second Taliban government will not be realized, and that the Afghan people will be able to create a national consensus that respects the wide variety of beliefs and values that they hold. 

And among the world’s super-powers, we can only hope that the simple and obvious lesson of 1975, 1989, and 2021 will finally be learned and put into practice.

We need nuclear power to escape from climate change disaster

Dear Important People:

The recent spate of climate disasters around the globe must draw our attention to a truth that people in the environmentalist movement, with few exceptions, do not want to hear:

There is no path to a carbon-free energy future without a significant increase in nuclear power.

The common fears surrounding nuclear power—radiation and waste storage—are overblown. Nuclear power is the safest, cleanest energy source we have, and the only one capable of replacing the energy we now get from fossil fuels. Solar and wind power have their place, but they cannot supply enough energy, and enough 24/7 power, to meet the world’s needs.

I hope you will use your platform to help overcome public fears about nuclear power and promote, first, the continued use of existing nuclear power plants, and second, the urgent and rapid development of new nuclear power plants as an essential element in our fight to preserve a livable planet for our children and grandchildren.

Sincerely yours,

Eric T. MacKnight

Anglo culture in the New World

Racism
Xenophobia
Provincialism
Aversion to learning foreign languages
Aversion to foreign food
Exceptionalism
Cultural arrogance
Aggressive patriarchy
Homophobia
Sexism
Anti-Semitism
Religious bigotry

Anti-intellectualism and aversion to education, especially among the working class


Are there positive aspects of Anglo culture? Of course. The rule of law, for example, or the idea of liberty (Milton, Locke, Burke, etc.). Unfortunately, both the rule of law and the idea of liberty have been subverted by racism. One recalls the line attributed to Gandhi when asked what he thought of Western civilization: it “would be a good idea.” So would liberty, justice, and an impartial rule of law.

Frederick Douglass: July 5th, 1852

. . . Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? . . . Am I . . . called upon . . .to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

. . . I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. . . . This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. . . .

. . . I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. . . .

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. . . .

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is . . . a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. . . .

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor.

You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. . . . It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster . . . !

But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that the right to hold and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic. . . . But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. . . .

Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.

I have detained my audience entirely too long already. At some future period I will gladly avail myself of an opportunity to give this subject a full and fair discussion.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. . . .

    —“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (1852). A speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York

Bipartisan Football

The elephant extends his trunk and holds the ball on end, ready to be kicked through the goalpost.

The donkey, five strides behind the football, is skeptical.

(Joe Manchin, waving pom-poms and running along the sideline, leaps and cheers.)

Elephant: Come on, kick it through those goal posts!

Donkey: That’s what you said before. And then you pulled the ball away at the last moment, and I fell on my ass.

Elephant: That was then, this is now.

Donkey: And the time before that, same thing.

Elephant: Let’s not dwell on the past. I am here on behalf of responsible moderates in the Senate who want to put some points on the board.

Donkey: I’d rather score a touchdown.

Elephant: Wouldn’t we all! But let’s be realistic: three points is better than nothing.

The donkey hesitates. The clock is ticking.

Donkey: No funny business this time. Do I have your word?

Elephant: You have my solemn word of honor.

Donkey: All right, then. Here we go.

The donkey runs and takes a mighty kick at the ball, which the elephant whisks out of reach at the last moment as the donkey’s kicking foot, finding nothing but air, arcs high above his head. The donkey flips backwards, remains horizontal for a split second, and then crashes heavily to earth on his back.

And what do we get from all this?

Peanuts.

Thackeray Knew Trump

He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way—and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world? 

—William Makepeace Thackerary, Vanity Fair (1848)

Israel and Palestine: No Justice, No Peace

A democracy founded on equal justice and civil rights for all citizens is a ridiculously utopian vision, but it is also the only realistic solution.

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

—The Balfour Declaration (1917)

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 

—Martin Luther King, Jr. (1960s)

No justice, no peace. 

—Slogan used in protests against police violence (from the 1980s)

If God as some now say is dead, He no doubt died of trying to find an equitable solution to the Arab-Jewish problem.

—I. F. Stone (1967)

Impelled by centuries of persecution culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, the State of Israel was established on land captured by Great Britain from the Turkish Ottoman Empire and inhabited for centuries by Arab Palestinians. Despite the Balfour Declaration’s pious but vague stipulation that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” quite a lot was done, and thus in the effort to resolve one gross injustice a second gross injustice was committed and has continued to this day.

“If the Jews give one-tenth the devotion to Arab relations that they’ve given to the land, they can build a secure homeland,” wrote I. F. Stone in 1945. That did not happen. Instead, a political and economic struggle was spun into an ethnic struggle featuring implacable hatred on both sides. The abortive U. N. partition plan of 1947 sparked a war that resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel by force. In 1964 Stone wrote, “The usual Jewish attitude toward the Arabs is one of contemptuous superiority.”

Partition has never been the solution to such conflicts, whether it appears in the form of a wall, a border, a system of apartheid, or endemic prejudice that institutionalizes injustice. No justice, no peace. So long as the State of Israel’s slow-drip ethnic cleansing continues, though the level of violence fluctuates and creates at times the illusion of peace, the war will go on.

There is no reason to expect this atrocious situation to change. It would require extraordinary events and extraordinary leaders—one thinks of F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela—to imagine a better future and bring it into being. What’s needed is not a “two-state solution” but a single inclusive democracy founded on equal justice and civil rights for all citizens, whatever their religious, racial, ethnic, or linguistic differences. That’s a ridiculously utopian vision, but it is also the only realistic solution—not just for Arabs and Israelis, but for all of us, everywhere.