Apogee

When you are at the highest point in your ascent, before the arc that is gravity’s rainbow returns you, gently or not, to fall to earth, that point is called the apogee.

I sat across from the young man at lunch and said “when I was young there was this phrase, ‘if we can land a man on the moon, we can…’ which would be filled in with some worthy but as yet undone thing.” How many of my countrymen know that this phrase is no longer available to us, because we made the mistake of trying again to land a man on the moon, and failed, through a lack of idealism and political will? If we can land a man on the moon, surely we can balance the federal budget… No. No, we can’t do those things, not any more.

Tonight I watched several episodes of the HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon, ending the night with the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. After that I went swimming around midnight with the pool light off, and in the dark I floated for awhile, looking at the stars. They will be there as long as we are. Longer.

I am sometimes asked what the title of this blog means. That’s simple. Cavafy wrote a poem called Poseidonians. I’ve quoted it before. It goes something like this:

The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival’s end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remebered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.

There is no poet who better captures the melancholy of the Hellenistic Age, the period when what would someday be called the Golden Age was only a memory. Of course, they did not know that history would remember them as a period of decline, a hiatus between the sunburst of Athens’ best moment, and the blood and iron of Rome. What would it have been like to have lived among them knowing that?

I lived through the apogee, the period that saw us struggle for equality, reach for the stars, discover new modes of individuality, and peacefully end the twilight struggle, witnessing the liberation of millions. We did those things, but that is behind us now. As Nietzsche says, in perhaps his most beautiful aphorism, “Other birds will fly farther.” I hope they will remember more than our mistakes, will remember what it is we tried to be. All that I have tried to do is live among you all, and make a few notes, as Brodsky says, provoked by the vista opening to both my inner and my naked eye.

That Mysterious Presence

“[Stimson] wanted to make all Asia our responsibility. That means if the Japanese would not let go of Manchuria, we would go to war with them. When I realized what he was up to, I called a Cabinet meeting and read Henry the riot act. I agreed that although Japanese behavior on the mainland of Asia was deplorable, we were in no way threatened, economically or morally. I have the impression that he thinks of himself as a stern moralist, appointed by heaven to force people to be good, even if he must shoot them first. I said that I would never sacrifice any American life anywhere unless we ourselves were directly threatened […]”

Deliberately, [Herbert] Hoover took a handkerchief; mopped his forehead; and continued. “I am told that men of great imagination can often foresee what wars are like and so will have nothing to do with them. [Stimson], of course, has no imagination at all, and as I am an engineer, I’m not supposed to have one either. But I do have something Roosevelt and Stimson will never have. Experience. Franklin goes on and on about how he hates war because he has seen war. As usual, he lies. He toured a battlefield or two after Germany had surrended. And that was that. He saw no war. Does he hate what he has never experienced? Who knows? But I had to feed the victims of that war and I don’t want anything like that to ever happen again. But Stimson does. Roosevelt does. I find them unfathomable. You know, Roosevelt tells this tall tale about when he was in the Navy Department, and the Marines were occupying Haiti – Professor Wilson’s contribution to their welfare. Anyway, Franklin claims to have written the Haitian constitution. As if he’s ever read ours! People forget that when I was elected president, we were occupying most of Central America and the Caribbean. I pulled the Marines out of Haiti, out of Nicaragua, and then when our war-lovers insisted that we invade Cuba and Panama and Honduras, I said no. They invoked the Monroe Doctrine. I invited them to read it. We should never possess more military strength than is needed to make sure that no one will ever dare invade us. But then after the … uh, debacle of 1932” – Peter saw a look of real pain in that round innocent-eyed bejowled face – “Stimson, still in my cabinet, sneaks up to Hyde Park to sell himself to the President-elect. Obviously, the price was right. Those two are made for each other. […]

“Mr. President, you must write all this for the Tribune.” Blaise was excited, to Peter’s surprise. Peter had not expected his unimaginative father to get the point to Hoover’s originality so perfectly disguised for so long from his countrymen by his forbidding and consummately dull persona. […]

Hoover stood up. “Naturally, a fallen statesman is always willing to mount whatever pedestal he can find. I’ll make some analysis of our elderly secretary of war’s peculiar view of the world, and his alliance with that mysterious presence in the White House.” Flanked by Blaise and Peter, Hoover moved with firm tread up the steps, where rambling roses grew to left and right.

“I am anti-war as you may have guessed but not because, as some deep thinkers believe, I am a Quaker, born and bred. I’m perfectly willing to fight if we have to. But I see something worse than war on the horizon. I am certain that the next war will absolutely transform us. I see more power to the great corporations. More power to the government. Less power to the people. That’s what I fear. Because once this starts, it’s irreversible. You see, I want to live in a community that governs itself. Well, you can’t extend the mastery of the government over the daily life of a people without making government the master of those people’s souls and thoughts, the way the fascists and the Bolsheviks have done. In his serpentine way, Franklin is going in the very same direction that they have gone in, and I think he knows exactly what he’s doing while Stimson is simply stupid, a common condition […]

“When the Depression was at its worst, everyone wanted to know what we should do. General Electric even offered to take over the government and run it for me like – well, General Electric, I suppose. Oh, I was given a great deal of advice. Finally, I was inspired to say, what this country really needs is a great poem. Something to lift people out of fear and selfishness.”

“Do you still think so?”

“Of course.”

“You should have written it, sir.”

“I am no poet. And there is still no poem by anyone – yet.”

Gore Vidal, The Golden Age, pp. 166-169

The Health of the State

One thing my postmodern friends seem to see more clearly than my libertarian friends is that we are where we are primarily in order to wage war on a spectacular scale: hence the need for a healthy fighting population, an educated (skilled) fighting population, solved social problems that would otherwise impede collective efficiency, etc. etc. Each collective military need generates its corresponding “system” (healthcare system, higher education system, etc.) This is ironic, since the libertarians generally think that the problem with where we are is that the government does not confine itself to military and police functions. But the thing about where we are is that everything is a military and police function. Details here.

The Nation You Now Live In

One of the categories on this blog is “liberalism, classical and pragmatic.” What is that? That is a concern with political freedom. Freedom is a complex, multivalent notion and it garners many conflicting accounts from people. Let me say a little bit about what I mean by freedom. First and foremost, freedom means freedom from this:

One way that the government can get itself into the position of being able to treat you this way is by playing on your fears, real or imaginary, of non-governmental threats to their freedom. And these threats are not nothing, and government exists primarily to protect you from them. That, as every liberal knows, is the timeless dilemma of government: how do we make government able to protect you from private oppression without becoming itself the instrument of far greater oppression? We have many mechanisms for trying to achieve this. Codification of fundamental rights is one. Democratic elections which can peacefully expel oppressive administrations is another. Rule of law, dictating proper procedures when the government uses its power to detain and to punish, is another. Separation of powers to limit executive overreach is another. Look, if you’re reading this, you speak English, which means that you must have some passing acquaintance with these notions as a part of our cultural heritage.

Now the power to tax is also a potentially abusive exercise of government power, which is why I call myself a classical liberal, because liberal simpliciter has come to imply a failure to appreciate this point. But here’s the thing: if the power to tax is exercised according to the rule of law in a democratic state, and the effects of such laws are not unduly burdensome because they respect sufficiently the ability to pay, there is really very little grounds for complaint. Yes, government should be kept small, for all sorts of economic reasons. But the exercise of power under rule of law in a democratic state is legitimate. By which I mean: consider the alternatives. We have had self-funding governments before. They are called “monarchies.” Until we find a way to make government magical and cost-free, this is the best we can do.

There are many people in this country who believe that being taxed at all is theft, and as such, an invasion of their liberty regardless of whether the tax respects ability to pay, is under rule of law, and is the product of a democratic state. Catering to the desire of those who so believe (and there are many many more such people than simply the wealthy; in a true democracy, wealth alone simply cannot equal political power) the previous administration enacted an extraordinary tax cut, and not during a recession when there might be a Keynesian argument for such. It did this in the name of freedom.

But it also did this. From the very beginning I have warned conservatives who care about freedom that wars of aggression, now euphemistically called “pre-emptive,” and the erosion of constitutional rights for the detained that has accompanied it, are the greatest threats to freedom there are. We have been reassured implicitly that these powers could never possibly be directed against ourselves, but only against mysterious, exotic Others, who speak a mysterious exotic Semitic language and practice a mysterious, exotic non-Christian form of monotheism. And so, to paraphrase Martin Niemöller, when they came for the Muslims, we said nothing, because we were not Muslims. (Do I really need to say again that we are not and have never been at war with “Islam” but with a criminal organization that claims to speak in its name, much as Anders Breivik claimed to speak for your civilization as he fired his rifle at children?)

And so at long last, they came for you. Or at least one of you. Donald Vance was working for the FBI, investigating possible military corruption in Iraq. Guess who ‘detained’ him? Guess who ‘interrogated’ him with ‘enhanced’ techniques? YOU DID. Your government did. But at least you are free… from enough taxation to pay for the government spending you voted for yourself.

The question is not “what is the meaning of freedom?” Yes, some will argue that we are not free unless various goods are provided, while others will argue that we are not free until they are no longer provided. But ALL agree that you are not free if you are tortured. And I believe that YOU are not free as long as you permit your fellow citizens to be tortured, and thereby expose yourself to the possibility in principle of being tortured. And some of us know enough history to know that torture thrives in an environment of xenophobic, aggressive, hypernationalism. Some of us are (now, at least) detached enough to know that this is precisely what we have been, and to some extent, still are.

So what is my question? Simply this: the German people subjected themselves to decades of reflection and self-criticism after World War Two. Are Americans as good as that? Or not? Are we capable of recognizing and taking responsibility for our betrayal of our own values? Can we strive to learn from this and do better?

Partisan

Though my initial disgruntlement over being characterized as “right-wing” has dissipated, and though I have on several occasions characterized in philosophical terms what the basis for the views here are, which I have labeled “liberalism, classical and pragmatic” this probably does not do it for people. For most, the bottom line is where you are on issues. So perhaps the following will help:

Here are some positions that are ordinarily classified as liberal or progressive that I hold:

1. Marriage equality. It is a requirement of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and will eventually be held to be by the Supreme Court.

2. Choice. The reasoning in Roe v. Wade is compelling, though not as an interpretation of the Constitution. It is a compelling argument for what state statutes on abortion should look like. In general when liberals talk about personal freedom, I’m right there with them.

3. Iraq. We should never have gone.

4. Taxes. They need to be raised by tax reform, especially by elimination of tax credits, in order to reduce deficits, and for the sake of equity.

5. Environmental protection. There should be some.

6. Enemy combatant detainees. Constitutional due process should be respected. Now universal moral standards of humane treatment of prisoners should be respected.

7. Discrimination law. It should exist. Racism is bad. Sexism is bad.

8. Tort reform. I’m against it.

9. Drug decriminalization. I’m for it.

10. Civility. I’m for it.

All of these are the product and expression of liberal values, that is to say, a concern with freedom and equality (except for environmental protection, which I regard as a conservative value, but since no one else will, I place it here for reader convenience). So why oh why am I rather frequently classed as a conservative? I think the following probably captures the principal reasons:

1. Markets. I’m for them. I think that when structured by the right sort of legal regime, they contribute to autonomy, efficiency, transparency and prosperity, and I like those things. So do you, because you don’t like coercion, waste, corruption and poverty, do you?

2. Public spending. I’m against it on the whole, though I accept its necessity/inevitability. Libertarians like Hayek and radicals like Foucault agree that the modern state is a great threat, and that the growth of its power is generally justified by appeals to welfare and security. Accordingly, I resist its growth, and am suspicious of appeals to welfare and security. I also resist it because it must eventually be paid for, and though I accept the notion of collective deliberation and decision-making that is essential to the concept of democracy, and I accept the idea of borrowing against one’s future, I am sensitive enough to the difference between persons to notice that in this case, one is actually borrowing against one’s own and even other people’s children’s future.

3. Religion. I am not unequivocally against it. I judge the tree by the fruits, or more precisely, I do not judge trees, I only judge fruits. Religion is a strange, mysterious phenomenon like poetry, and plays an important role in people’s lives. It is a part of the vast and largely hidden cultural background that shapes our assumptions, experiences and choices. Like the great John Locke I favor religious toleration (and see more things as religions than most), and find what I call Enlightenment Anticlericalism as much an ideology, as dogmatic and potentially as destructive as any other intolerant ideology (as well as having an extravagant notion of the extent to which we can see through, criticize and determine everything as we would like). When I gaze upward, I see nothing, and when I cock my ear, there is only silence. That said, there are many interpretations of silence.

4. The ‘cultural elite.’ It exists (though I think I would call it the ‘cultural middle class with delusions of grandeur’), and yes, it does think it is smarter and better than you, and therefore deserves your support and submission. I have lived too long among academics to have failed to notice that the contempt the common man bristles at is a very real thing, and is in no way adequately compensated for by championing public spending on the common man’s behalf that as often as not, the common man does not want. Especially since it is other people’s money, and the administration of it gives them more niches to occupy and things to do.

5. Constitutional interpretation. Originalism matters, though it is not the only thing that matters (nor does it invariably give you “conservative” results). Judicial restraint is desirable because it is more democratic, except when it isn’t.

6. Guns. I don’t have one, don’t need one, and don’t want one. But there is a moral value to self-defense, and a constitutional right to possess the tools necessary to exercise it. The First Founders wanted a revolutionary people to be armed against exploitation and oppression, and the Second Founders wanted victims of racism armed against their neighbors. I don’t have a problem with that. If you prefer, as I do, to not fight fire with fire, that is your right, but don’t make that choice for others.

I do not call myself a conservative because my commitment to the items on the first list is real, and passionate. But if the items on the second list are conservative, why not just say I’m a moderate? Well… I think that is because I view many of the items on the second list as liberal issues too, insofar as they express a concern with freedom, or else they involve commitment to democracy, to ‘people power.’ Perhaps the only thing on the second list that I see as unabashedly conservative is my lack of passionate hatred for religion. However, I suspect that for others, what pegs me as conservative is my lack of passionate hatred for wealth.

Actually, I have found that I am not invariably mistaken for a conservative anyway. Rather, I am mistaken for whatever you are not. I recall many years ago a conversation with a friend who made an oft-heard remark to the effect that as imperfect as the Democrats are, they are closer to the side of the angels than the Republicans. I turned to him, smiled, and said “so you’d rather be dominated by  bureaucrats and tort lawyers than by stockholders and MBAs?” That’s not playful pretend-cynicism; that’s what I really think. Because the twin stars of my politics are a hatred of domination and dishonesty. And that, if nothing else, guarantees that I will be “of no party or clique.”