Winning two lotteries

For two hours online before almost every show, Hamilton sells up to forty tickets by lottery for ten bucks each. Your odds of winning are less than one in four hundred. Two weeks ago, on our first try, we won.

Victoria had applied on the train to New York, and she told me we had won as we checked into the hotel. I didn’t believe it. I searched the Internet to learn more about this scam. Nothing. We went to the theater, and they put us at the front of the line. Victoria took a picture of me there with the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” marquee over my shoulder.

We gave the ushers our golden tickets, and they seated us in the second row.

Hamilton says it holds the lottery for people who want to see the show but can’t afford tickets. That’s a good definition as any of most teachers I know. I feel as if Victoria and I that afternoon somehow represented all teachers.

Hamilton is about how you make it. It starts with Aaron Burr singing this question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore . . . Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”1 We all have accidents of birth, such as our gender, race, our family’s religion and its social and economic conditions – heck, even our parents themselves, and our siblings, relatives, and neighbors, not to mention our own personalities. How does Alexander use or, in many cases, overcome these accidents?

I use the word “accident” in its Aristotelian sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a property or quality not essential to a substance or object; something that does not constitute an essential component, an attribute.”2 If Alexander is not the sum of his accidents, who is he? What, in other words, is his “essential component”? Does he – do I – even have a core identity?

Personal identity has political as well as ontological and psychological implications, and Hamilton is, of course, a political play. The play itself is tame as political plays go. Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted to tell a great story, innovate by making most of it hip-hop, and get the facts (mostly) right. In these respects, Hamilton can be compared to, say, Edmund Morris’s Dutch, the Reagan bio that reads extremely well, introduces an important innovation (a fictional character), and gets the facts (mostly) right.

To get the facts right, Miranda made friends with Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow. When Miranda first rehearsed part of the first act, Chernow was “shocked”: all the Founders are black and Latino. According to Miranda’s book on the musical, Chernow got over his shock in five minutes and became “a ‘militant’ defender of the idea that actors of any race could play the Founding Fathers.” (“Militant” is Chernow’s word.)3

It’s the casting rather than the lyrics that raise Hamilton to a truly political play. In other words, the casting moves the play from one about historical politics to one about political mysticism. The casting examines equality, which I think is the political term for “essential component” — or true identity.

Representative government itself is a form of political mysticism. I vote for or against my congresswoman, and by my participation on Election Day she stands in my stead in Congress. Voting, in this way, is an act of faith, much as receiving the Host as the body of Christ, in whatever sense you might do so, is an act of faith.

Consider the representation happening the night Mike Pence, freshly elected to represent us all as the Senate’s president, saw Hamilton. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Burr, spoke for the entire cast in addressing Pence from the stage after the show. The cast, he said, represented a particular America: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America . . .” The cast, standing behind Dixon, was visibly diverse in terms of race, gender, and national origin.4

Their costumes made the representation more pointed. The blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women, and men behind Dixon were dressed in Revolutionary-War-era clothes artfully brought up to date. The diverse America, Dixon seemed to be claiming, is the original or essential America – the new and true America.

In this respect, Dixon was only making explicit what the show’s casting had always made implicit: because “all men are created equal,” anyone can relate to the Founders.

At the heart of our country’s political mysticism is our relation to the Declaration’s Equality Clause. This relationship allows me not only to travel to every session of Congress in the person of my representative but also to travel in time to our nation’s Founding. Lincoln describes this mysticism in an 1858 speech. Although half the country has been settled by people whose forebears weren’t in America at the time of the Founding, Lincoln says, they still relate to the Founders in a way that is stronger than blood relation:

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.5

This connection – this “electric cord” Lincoln discovers in the Equality Clause – is an act of political faith based on who we are – the children of God. I believe with Lincoln that, with a lot of hard work, this connection can again link “the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together.” Once we make that connection, we may rediscover our polity as a large family of our brothers and sisters.

It’s understandable that a newfound belief that people of color may play the Founders made Chernow “militant.” A reconnection with our nation’s mystic origins (another way of saying that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”) can reconnect our spirits with our patriotism.

We bring this love-based militancy to political battles in which some forces seek to define some group – a race, a religion, a socioeconomic class, or the unborn, for instance – as less than human. If my vote is an adult expression of my divine origin, as I have implied, then a commission that seeks to disfranchise me seeks to make me less than human. If the Supreme Court rules, after purporting to review the circumstances of our country’s Founding, that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit,” then the ruling is void ab initio.

Whites have no reason to be proud that the culture currently celebrates people of color playing the Founding Fathers. It’s not as if all people of color have always been dying to play the parts. The Black Panthers, for instance, quoted Chief Justice Taney’s “no rights” language extensively to discredit the racial basis of the Constitution.6 I think also of James Baldwin:

I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.7

The Panthers saw the Equality Clause differently than they understood the Constitution: they argued extensively that the Clause is inconsistent with racism.8 And Baldwin’s implied counsel to whites points us back to the difficult work of discovering our true identity. Because only what is ab initio matters; all else are mere accidents, even the events of the Founding. Hear Lincoln’s praise, the year following his “electric cord” speech, of the Equality Clause’s author:

All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.9

Lincoln says, then, that the events depicted in Hamilton, and the Declaration of Independence itself, are “merely revolutionary.” They are merely the plot and lyrics, not the casting. “Merely revolutionary” may sound like an oxymoron, but compared with the ontological content of the Declaration’s Equality Clause, the events of our nation’s Founding are mere accidents.

It’s sad that the chapters of our revolutionary history are filled with accidents: our nation’s gestation and birth were in large part products of genocide, fratricide, slavery, and war.10 It’s shallow and self-defeating to hide from our sad history or to censure those who bring it up. But we can’t fully confront our history, either, if we don’t discover through spiritual work that we’re loved despite it all. The key to that work is discovering our true identity. Our nation, finally, is not the accidents of its birth, important as they are, just as we are not the accidents of ours.

For me, then, Hamilton is about how the country makes it. Our sights must be trained on the invisible, inner man.

It’s not all hard work, I guess. Even monks, who dedicate themselves to their interior lives, have days off. Thomas Merton, then over sixteen years a monk, one day found himself on a Louisville street corner. Then and there, he had an epiphany: he was human. Everyone around him, he then knew, whether he knew them or not, were his brothers and sisters. “A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.”11 It changed his life.

Happy Fourth. May we, in some mystical sense, reconnect with ourselves and with our nation’s Founding, and act from there.

  1. Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: the Revolution: Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, with a True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America. New York, NY, Grand Central Pub., 2016, at 16
  2. “Accident.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/1051?rskey=JeB09H&result=1#eid. Accessed 3 July 2017.
  3. Miranda, supra, at 33.
  4. Mele, Christopher, and Patrick Healy. “‘Hamilton’ Had Some Unscripted Lines for Pence. Trump Wasn’t Happy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/us/mike-pence-hamilton.html?_r=1. Accessed 3 July 2017.
  5. Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech at Chicago, Illinois.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, Library of America, New York, NY, 1994, pp. 439–458, at 456.
  6. Meister, Franziska. Racism and Resistance: How the Black Panthers Challenged White Supremacy. Bielefeld, Transcript-Verlag, 2017, at 65.
  7. Baldwin, James. “Down at the Cross.” Baldwin – Collected Essays, New York, NY, The Library of America, 1998, pp. 296–347, at 300.
  8. Meister, supra, at 78 – 79.
  9. Lincoln, Abraham. “To Henry L. Pierce and Others.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, Library of America, New York, 1996, pp. 18–19, at 19.
  10. A great book in this respect is Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750 – 1804. It is also the role of a Machiavelli, according to Leo Strauss, to dismiss the founding of our nation because of the injustices that led to it. Machiavelli, according to Strauss, “would not hesitate to suggest a mischievous interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase and of the fate of the Red Indians. He would conclude that facts like these are an additional proof of his contention that there cannot be a great and glorious society without the equivalent of the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus.” Thoughts on Machiavelli, pages 13 – 14.
  11. Merton, Thomas. “A Member of the Human Race.” A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, Doubleday, New York, 1996, pp. 345–346, at 346.

Wang Bi on Charles Wright

Sunlight is blowing westward across the unshadowed meadow,
Night, in its shallow puddles, / still liquid and loose in the trees.
The world is a desolate garden . . .

– Charles Wright, “Images from the Kingdom of Things” (2006)

The dawn of tribalism is both a force (“blowing”) and a movement (“westward”). Its effect on the West (the western meadow) is as involuntary and disorienting as synesthesia (“sunlight is blowing”). An intellectual understanding of tribalism (seeing sunlight) misleads democrats and republicans: they assume tribalism’s dangers are evident to all, even to those who feel a primal attraction to its force (“blowing”).

In tribalism’s brief dawn, the three branches of government, understood here as light’s three primary colors, converge and pan like a searchlight. They discover Western democracy, like the passing night, holed up in the “shallow puddles,” that is, ironically, in the least democratic of institutions: the “trees” of the federal bureaucracy and the various intelligence communities.

chinese art photo
Photo by Naomi Chung’s Daydream Art

“. . . Wang Bi was acutely aware that he lived in dangerous times, and it is quite possible to read his commentary to the Laozi, on one level at least, as a strategy for survival.” — Richard John Lynn, The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te ching of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi

Feature image photo by Internet Archive Book Images

Fire and rain

As a teen, I thought that sages lived in a rosy kingdom of their Twenties. No one understood more than James Taylor and Neil Young. Older people, except for Bobby Kennedy, lived elsewhere. Bobby was dead and pushed his hair out of his eyes, so we listened to him, too. How long have generations passed on early, their lives cut short by the next generation? What started it, radio or war? It seems as old as the Divided Kingdom, founded when Rehoboam likened his pinkie to his father’s dick.

The slighter gestures

B and her boyfriend just got into Reykjavík. They’ll tool around Iceland for about eight days. Lots of pictures, please.

B’s into the better self-help books. Last Tuesday she told us about two favorites, one of the go-getter variety and one that points out the virtues of acceptance (“very Zen”). She likes the tension between the two. Victoria quoted Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which defines navigating this tension as wisdom.

resistance photo
Photo by Monika Kostera (urbanlegend)

Can I justify avoiding a public life? I don’t mean a grand one, which I don’t have the personality or calling for. I could avoid a “normal” public life by claiming that there is no longer a public realm — at least not the kind that would support a republic. No public means no public life and no republic. B’s a sculptor, among other things, and maybe she can show me how to help chisel a public realm out of our mass culture.

But a person’s action can create a public space, and even, for a moment, a public and a republic. My sister, to my knowledge, doesn’t hold up signs, but she volunteers to help the poor. That’s creative as art.

Calls to elected officials and a meeting with the local police chief have felt very republican. Protests have felt very democratic. It’s funny that political parties have taken on these names. In Georgian England, if you were called a republican, you were accused of wanting to set up a republic. Similarly, democrats back then were accused of plotting a democracy. The names meant something. I’d like to see the United States restored to both forms of government.

It may be like what Merton says about saints and men: if I want to be a saint, I’ll first have to become a man; that is, I’ll have to discover my humanity. And if we want to be something other than a plutocracy, we’ll first have to discover public life.

Thomas Merton likes E.M. Forster on World War I: “For what, in that world-gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?” One can perceive Merton’s struggle for wisdom in this monologue about Forster’s quote:

Genuine dissent must always keep a human measure. It must be free and spontaneous. The slighter gestures are often the most significant, because they are premeditated and they cannot be doctored beforehand by the propagandist.

And so perhaps it is saner and nobler to expect effective protest from the individual, from the small unsponsored group, than from the well-organized mass movement. It is better that the “slighter gestures” never find their way into the big papers or onto the pages of the slick magazines. It is better not to line up with the big, manipulated group.

True, he who dissents alone may confine his dissent to words, to declarations, to attitudes, to symbolic gestures. He may fail to act. Gestures are perhaps not enough. They are perhaps too slight. (160)

Merton goes on to praise the then-current Civil Rights movement.

One can hear Merton’s search for wisdom also in the title of the book from which I’m quoting: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965).

Photo by MJWein

Resistance training

My average day reverses the generations of John Adams’s republicanism. He studied war and politics, he said, so that his children could study (inter alia) philosophy and commerce and so that his grandchildren, in turn, could study things like painting and poetry. I wake up with a proclivity for poetry and philosophy, which by the first bell gives way to commerce. After work, I settle in for politics and war. John Quincy Adams, anyway, proved his father wrong: he died in the U.S. Capitol fighting the Slave Power and warning the country about civil war. Curran‘s “eternal vigilance” presupposes a public life. My father wasn’t president, but he would often take me canvassing.

A holy caesura

The Bible is silent today. Jesus’ people – his mother, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the rest – are observing the Sabbath. Jesus himself is dead, and his body rests in a tomb. Today everyone agrees about that. The only action is in Matthew: the chief priests and Pharisees come “in a body to Pilate” and successfully persuade him to seal the tomb and set a guard. The audience patiently examines the magician’s hat. Easter and the rabbit come later.

One could wish that this Sabbath today were better observed. Peter’s identity has been stripped from him. He has followed Jesus for three years, but as Jesus says, he has yet to be “converted.” Many of Jesus’ other followers have seen their political aims collapse: “We had been hoping that he was to be the liberator of Israel.”

The New Testament’s most dramatic conversions are reserved for the religious. Peter and Paul, whose stiff doctrines cause them, respectively, to wield a sword and execute arrest warrants, are silenced. Jesus later asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these others?” But Peter no longer claims to out-love others. Paul, for his part, disappears from Acts’ pages for years. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Democracy and republicanism don’t work without the conversion of the religious – I do not say religious conversion. The proposition that all men are created equal is proven in the grave.

[Quotes are, in order, from Matthew 27:62, Luke 22:32, Luke 24:21, and John 21:15.]

America first

These days I’m grading and grading. Some of my kids’ speeches are good. The school’s subscription databases, though, suddenly seem so dated. I’ll update a student controversy, one that mirrors an article from the likes of Issues and Controversies: “Should the United States provide direct support for pro-democracy movements in the United States?”

My seniors don’t know what to think. We were openly horrified this past spring, but now any discussion of it is effectively banned. The speeches’ chosen topics have coalesced around global warming, stress & mental illness, and the need for manned space travel. To this aging ear, the speeches sound of would you betray us? would you divide us? would you, after all, prevent us? This generation’s rendezvous with destiny may come as a hurried, hunted assignation.

Abortion and today’s vote

I am pro-life. I think the Constitution, as interpreted by the Declaration of Independence, recognizes, under most circumstances, a human fetus’s right to life.1 I don’t think any of the four party candidates for president on today’s ballot share my views, though one recently switched to a pro-life position.2

I respect people’s pro-choice stance. Most of them condemn most abortions but don’t think a government should make decisions affecting the mother’s body. Indeed, when I see “Choose Life” license plates, I wonder if the driver is a pro-life person acknowledging the mother’s right to choose or a pro-choice person begging that mothers consider alternatives to abortion. And I know parents – both pro-life and pro-choice parents – who are more noble than I: they have adopted unwanted children.

Many Evangelicals will vote for any major-party presidential candidate who claims to be pro-life. This year, then, many Evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump.3 Most of them have made their peace with a candidate whose lifestyle is hardly Christian and who recognizes no need for redemption. They have also made their peace with a candidate whom they recognize as being largely outside of the American conservative tradition. Many of these Evangelicals even agree with the conclusion, stated in a letter signed last week by hundreds of American political science professors, that Trump’s candidacy is “a grave threat to American democracy and to other democratic governments around the world.” These Evangelicals are willing to dismiss that threat because Trump claims to be pro-life.

How did we get to the place where many Evangelicals are willing to risk democracy itself in order to vote for someone who claims to be pro-life?

I’ll hazard an answer. We Evangelicals don’t know our political science. We persist in a form of Constitutional exegesis that we would, I trust, never apply to the Bible.

Most Evangelicals are strict constructionists, which is a far cry from favoring the Founders’ original intent. Strict constructionists look at what lawyers call “the four corners of the document” – in this case, the United States Constitution – without any guiding principles except principles resembling those of statutory construction. If strict constructionists don’t find the answer in the Constitution, they put it to a vote.

Robert Bork calls the operation of strict constructionism “majority morality.” Here’s how it works as it moves from Constitutional interpretation to the political sphere:

There is no way to decide these questions [that place moral positions at odds with one another] other than by reference to some system of moral or ethical principles about which people can and do disagree. Because we disagree, we put such issues to a vote and, where the Constitution does not speak, the majority morality prevails. (From Bork’s book The Tempting of America)

In our pluralistic society, Bork says, the controlling values are the majority’s. But is it really a majority’s prerogative to decide what’s right? Isn’t this the kind of nihilistic thinking conservatives often attribute to liberals?

Here’s conservative Edward J. Erler‘s response to Bork:

Indeed, Madison, like Jefferson, argued . . . that a majority may do only those things “that could be rightfully done by the unanimous concurrence of the members.” Thus it is not simply the will of the majority that “rightfully” rules in a democracy, but the rational will of the majority. In the same vein, Jefferson wrote that “[i]ndependence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law.” Thus, it is clear that Madison and Jefferson viewed the people as a moral entity, not simply as a collection of discrete value-positing individuals. The positivism of both Bork and Rehnquist is predicated on a kind of moral relativism that ultimately leads to nihilism. (Edward J. Erler, in his introduction to Harry V. Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution, p. xxix)

What, then, makes a strict constructionist a strict constructionist? At bottom, the denial of self-evident truth. Strict constructionists adhere to the letter of the Constitution even in situations when traditional Constitutional construction would lead jurists outside of the text. (John Marshall, for instance, sometimes would argue a Constitutional provision only to reinforce a finding he would make chiefly through natural law.)

Our literalism, however, often obscures or even excludes truth. We are often like the Pharisees, whom Jesus said “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23).

What drives strict constructionists to overly fixate on the Constitution’s text? Partly the same literalism with which some Protestants approach the Bible in response to the Enlightenment. Partly their core belief that no one can divine the Constitution’s spirit or distinguish between its ideals and its political compromises. And partly their reaction to the progressives’ Living Constitution doctrine, the notion that the Constitution says what each generation of Americans says it says.

But strict constructionists never meet the Living Constitution adherents’ argument that we can’t know what the Framers meant. Instead, they reinforce the Living Constitution adherents’ argument through their over-insistence on the Constitution’s letter.

We can, though, usually know what the Framers meant. It’s no secret. While a lot of important, fundamental matters divided them — the nature of federalism and the extent of the franchise, for instance – a relatively new philosophy and an older heritage united them: Lockean liberalism and the broader notions of natural law and English common law. These three sources contain the legal equivalent of “justice, mercy, and faith.” Original intent, then, is an open mind informed by a vigorous legal and constitutional tradition. Beside it, Strict constructionism and the Living Constitution appear merely as simplistic rules of statutory and constitutional construction that, as Erler says, promote a “moral relativism that ultimately leads to nihilism.”

We church folks can get this. Long ago, I saw the wisdom of this Christian adage: if you have the Spirit without the Word, you blow up. If you have the Word without the Spirit, you slow up. If you have the Spirit and the Word, you grow up. Taken from biblical exegesis and applied to Constitutional exegesis, this adage in succession describes the Living Constitution, strict constructionism, and true original intent.

How does original intent apply to today’s abortion issue?

We might look at how Lincoln applied original intent to an earlier scourge, slavery. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution a pact with the devil and burned it in front of audiences. Lincoln admitted that the Constitution contained horrible compromises benefitting slavery, but he supported it nonetheless. Though Lincoln maintained his “personal wish that all men every where could be free,” he recognized that the Constitution protected the Declaration’s truths concerning equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – the very seeds that he hoped would grow to destroy slavery.

Lincoln believed that the Declaration’s truths were protected by the Constitution’s mean compromises, and he described the relationship between the Declaration’s truths and the Constitution’s compromises in a biblical metaphor, quoting this passage from Proverbs: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” For Lincoln, the Declaration’s truths are the apples and the Constitution is the picture:

The assertion of that principle [“liberty for all”], at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple – not the apple for the picture.

One must preserve, protect, and defend the picture of silver – the Constitution – not for its own sake but for the golden apples’ sake. The abolitionists sought to keep the apples without the picture. Lincoln’s moderation would preserve both the apples and the picture long enough to amend the picture to become a fuller expression of the apples.

One can imagine a conversation between Lincoln and Garrison that would largely track a famous conversation in the 1960 movie A Man for All Seasons between Thomas More and his son-in-law, William Roper:

Roper: So now you’d give the devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

The antebellum South, of course, took an exegetical position opposing Garrison’s. It sought to keep the picture without the apples. That is, it wanted to enforce the letter of the Constitution in order to have fugitive slaves returned and to maintain their advantage in the House of Representatives. Unlike Lincoln (and Jefferson and Madison before him), however, the South didn’t believe that the Declaration’s truths should be used to interpret the Constitution and to thereby limit slavery’s expansion.

Steeped in strict constructionism, the South in its rebellion proved just as willing to destroy the Constitution – the picture of sliver – as Garrison had been. Indeed, strict construction’s literal, truth-starved exegesis always leads to nihilism and to the destruction of the document interpreted.

Our Constitution, at least as our highest court has interpreted it, supports a right to choose. That support is contrary to the truths contained in the Declaration of Independence. We have a situation precisely like the one Lincoln and Garrison sparred over.

We cannot participate in our Constitution’s destruction, either during today’s election or in the dangerous days that follow it, in order to end abortion. The Constitution protects the Declaration’s truths, and those truths protect a fetus’s right to life.

We cannot, in screenwriter Robert Bolt’s terms, “lay flat” our country’s Constitution in order to “get at the devil.” Congress should not shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood, which receives no government funding for abortion, anyway. The Senate should not shirk its duty to consider President Obama’s or a President Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees. And the people should not rebel against the Union because of an election, as much of the South did in 1860 and 1861. And today we should consider voting for candidates who uphold rather than tear down our Constitutional institutions and traditions.

I am not offering a solution to the abortion issue.

I do suggest, though, that if we hack down our Federal government to go after abortionists, what will be left if we succeed? When the Constitution lies flat and the devil turns on us in the form of anarchy or autocracy – or of one then the other – where will we hide?

  1. Because it involves the right to life, I see abortion as a Federal issue and not, as it once was, a state issue.
  2. CharismaNews has cast doubt on Donald Trump’s pro-life stance. Conservative columnist George F. Will finds the idea that Trump would appoint conservative justices ludicrous, given his big-government stances. Two weeks ago, even John McCain said he wasn’t sure who would be better at appointing Supreme Court justices – Hillary Clinton or Trump.
  3. Many Evangelicals also support Trump because of his pro-Israel rhetoric, and they believe his rhetoric despite his penchant for retweeting information from anti-Semitic web sites, despite his campaign chief executive’s anti-Semitic web site, and – worst of all – despite his championing of the foreign policy of Russia, the country that has fought proxy wars against Israel since Israel’s founding.

Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

I’ve just finished reading an extraordinary book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written in 1951. Its author, Hanna Arendt, was a political theorist and a Jew who was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis and, years later, placed in an internment camp by Vichy France. Arendt’s book offer insights into our own state of affairs. Here are some excerpts:

The older nations enjoyed constitutions which implicitly or explicitly (as in the case of France, the nation par excellence) were founded upon the Rights of Man, that even if there were other nationalities within their borders they needed no additional law for them, and that only in the newly established succession states was a temporary enforcement of human rights necessary as a compromise and exception. The arrival of the stateless people brought an end to this illusion.

***

One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization [i.e., the right to deport people] . . . . But one should bear in mind at the same time that there was hardly a country left on the Continent that did not pass between the two wars some new legislation which, even if it did not use this right extensively, was always phrased to allow for getting rid of a great number of its inhabitants at any opportune moment.

***

The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error. The assumption of infallibility, moreover, is based not so much on superior intelligence as on the correct interpretation of the essentially reliable forces in history or nature, forces which neither defeat nor ruin can prove wrong because they are bound to assert themselves in the long run. . . . Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.

***

. . .since the middle thirties, one mysterious world conspiracy has followed another in Bolshevik propaganda. . . . The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time. . . . The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all ‘the plausibilities of the world’ (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense.

***

…they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

***

With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all against all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world.

***

If it should prove to be true that we are imprisoned in Hobbes’s endless process of power accumulation, then the organization of the mob will inevitably take the form of transformation of nations into races, for there is, under the conditions of an accumulating society, no other unifying bond available between individuals who in the very process of power accumulation and expansion are losing all natural connections with their fellow-men. Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.

***

A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for— for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number— becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority. And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the “good for” applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically— namely by majority decision— that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof. Here, in the problems of factual reality, we are confronted with one of the oldest perplexities of political philosophy, which could remain undetected only so long as a stable Christian theology provided the framework for all political and philosophical problems, but which long ago caused Plato to say: “Not man, but a god, must be the measure of all things.” (Emphasis added)

***

The final excerpt, of course, describes the dilemma Abraham Lincoln discovered in Stephen Douglas’s Popular Sovereignty doctrine expressed in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This dilemma precipitated Lincoln’s return to politics and was a major subject of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. All of natural law is based on political equality, and political equality is based on the existence and reign of God. That’s a political restatement of the two greatest commandments, from which all the law and the prophets also hang.

The Declaration and Donald Trump

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Since the Civil War, American conservative and liberal national officeholders have been, in an important sense, all liberals. Conservatives and liberals both defend the Founders’ liberal ideology drawn from John Locke, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment philosophers. Conservatives and liberals, of course, emphasize different aspects of the Founders’ liberalism. Today’s conservatives, generally speaking, want to conserve liberalism’s emphasis on free-market capitalism, which hitched up with liberalism around the time of our nation’s founding, and on individual rights. Today’s liberals want to expand the reach of liberalism’s equality and its removal of barriers from social and economic opportunity.

Donald Trump represents a break from this implied agreement on the goal – that is, on Lockean liberalism – between America’s two major political parties and the modern conservativism and liberalism they have represented. Trump is more like a conservative in the eighteenth-century English sense of the word. He may be the first monarchical American presidential nominee.

The Indictment

One can find similarities between Trump’s illiberal positions and the actions that King George III and, by implication, his Parliament are accused of in that most liberal of American state papers, the Declaration of Independence. (Most of the Declaration amounts to a bill of particulars supporting its indictment of a monarchy, at least as monarchism was practiced by King George. The Declaration’s more famous and soaring rhetoric is chiefly in its preamble, of course, to which I will return.)

Here are a few of the Declaration of Independence’s particulars against Trump.

Trump’s incitements to violence against protesters at his rallies (e.g., “Knock the crap out of them”) and his traffic with white supremacists recall a particular: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” His bullying of Judge Gonzalo Curiel for what lawyers call “a civil advantage” by calling the judge “a hater” and “a Mexican” brings to mind the accusation that George “has made judges dependent on his will alone.”

His promise to loosen libel laws against the press for negative reporting against him is, of course, an attack on the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. To abridge the First Amendment to this extent is right up there with “taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our governments.” His justification for limiting the press’s freedom – “I’m not like other people” – is the justification monarchs have used for such actions for centuries.

Even his stands on particular issues seem extreme enough to warrant a particular from the Declaration’s indictment. His penchant for tearing up trade deals, according to most economists who have studied his proposals, will have the effect of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.” His harsh immigration proposals, including the construction of a Mexican-funded wall along our Mexican border and his temporary ban of Muslim immigration, remind me of this item from the Declaration’s indictment: “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither . . .” And his refusal to rule out the tactical use of nuclear weapons as well as his refusal to support measures aimed at halting nuclear proliferation threaten the use of “Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

But, more than anything else, Trump’s overall disdain for democratic and republican forms of government, from his failure to master the basics of seventh-grade civics (e.g., his belief that judges sign bills into law) to his assertion of a kingly prerogative to contradict himself without accountability, to his lack of any proposed republican means of carrying out his promises – instead, he asks us repeatedly only that we trust him – makes him seem like an eighteenth-century British monarch. To give King George credit, he was a constitutional monarch on his side of the Atlantic, but if our Declaration is to be believed, he acted as an absolute monarch over here. It is this brand of conservativism – this cynical, Patriarchalist, and Hobbesian view of mankind’s need for an autocratic ruler at the potential cost of individual and collective liberty – that Trump espouses.

The Equality Clause

Trump faces indictment not only by the Declaration’s bill of particulars against King George. Trump stands indicted also – and more significantly – by the Declaration’s preamble, particularly by its most precious member, the Equality Clause: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Equality is the political term for the true self. As political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa has established, the Declaration’s expression of mankind’s essential equality presupposes a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. Or as Jesus put it:

But you must not be called “rabbi,” for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. (Matthew 23:8 – 9, REB)

Because we have a common Father and Rabbi, we “are all brothers.” To say that we are equal, then, is to say that God is our Father. It is to say that we are children of God and that each of us is a child of God. It is the foundation for individual identity. Many, of course, express their essential selves in less religious terms or in different religious terms. No matter how it’s expressed, it signifies an individual yet universal identity that challenges sometimes-externally advanced identities based on ethnicity, religion, race, or social class.

By contrast, Trump offers us a tribal identity. He regularly re-tweets material from white supremacist sources. His campaign’s chief executive’s infamous web site denigrates both blacks and Jews qua blacks and Jews. He traffics in racial conspiracy theories, such as the false claim that President Obama is not a United States citizen. Trump gets many of his talking points from Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who champions and quotes approvingly a formerly disgraced white fascist.

Trump’s actions are consistent with the words of the Confederacy’s chief philosopher, John Calhoun. Calhoun in a famous Senate speech stated that “there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition” that all men are created equal – the very proposition to which the Gettysburg Address claims that our nation was dedicated. Individuals have no rights, Calhoun believed; rights attach to individuals only as members of a race, and then only when that race earns those rights over the course of generations.

Lincoln and the Declaration on Trump

Taken alone, according to Lincoln, the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, which take up over half of the Declaration’s words, would amount to a “merely revolutionary” document. The more important section is what Lincoln called the Declaration’s “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times”; that is, the Declaration’s Equality Clause. According to Lincoln, it is the Equality Clause, even more than the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, “that to-day, and in all coming days . . . shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Trump’s campaign is certainly a harbinger of reappearing tyranny. The entire Declaration of Independence rebukes it.