Richmond’s revenge

Because Lincoln was there, all of his biographers describe it. Here’s how Stephen Oates’s account starts:

At last Richmond came into view, with columns of smoke billowing up against the sky. When Lincoln stepped onto the docks, followed by a dozen sailors armed with navy carbines, black workers recognized the tall, gaunt man with the stovepipe hat. “Glory!” cried a black woman. “Glory glory!”1

The fall of Richmond is still tough for many to swallow down here. Last month, Corey Stewart won the Republican nomination to unseat Senator Kaine in part by defending the Confederate monuments built in defiance after the fall along Richmond’s Monument Avenue. And my aunt corrected me years ago when I told her of my plans to live in Northern Virginia: I was to say “Upper Virginia.” After Richmond, north was no longer on the Old Dominion’s compass.

We wish to indulge this regional pride, of course, without considering its source: an historicist (i.e., lacking a moral compass) account of the Constitution that gives legal sanction to white supremacy. This attack on the Founders’ natural-law principles didn’t stop with Richmond’s fall; on the contrary, as conservative political theorist Harry Jaffa points out, “if ever there was a nation annihilated politically on the battlefield that nonetheless imposed the yoke of its thought upon its conquerers, it was the Confederacy.”2

It seems that the movement toward moral relativism among American conservative leadership that Jaffa warned of3 is complete, and Washington only awaits its conqueror. Those who never gave up the Lost Cause may not have the satisfaction of watching Jefferson Davis stroll the singed streets of Georgetown and Capitol Hill. But they’ll have something better this fall: the world’s greatest exponent of white fascism, Vladimir Putin, will enter our abject capital in triumph, receiving the hosannahs of his vassal and his congressional supporters.

  1. Oates, Stephen B., With Malice Toward None (1977), p. 420
  2. Jaffa, Harry V., A New Birth of Freedom (2000), p. 86.
  3. See, for instance, his 1999 book Storm Over the Constitution, which accounts for the conservatives’ internecine struggle that seems to have ended with Mr. Trump’s election.

If memory serves, Mr. Trump shouldn’t

I remember. I supported Mr. Clinton’s impeachment and, once he was impeached, I wanted him removed from office. It wasn’t only the perjury, after all; it was also the obstruction of justice.

The case for Mr. Trump’s impeachment is exponentially stronger than the one that persuaded me twenty years ago. While Mr. Clinton’s actions diminished his office, Mr. Trump’s actions threaten our republic’s existence.  Tom Steyer puts the case for Mr. Trump’s impeachment into eight categories, and I incorporate his summary herein by reference thereto. However, this week alone merits the president’s immediate removal from office. In his continuing effort to make our nation’s intelligence apparatus his own, he forcefully denigrated our intelligence services before a hostile, foreign power.  He also expressed his willingness to hand over American citizens to a foreign adversary for questioning regarding vengeful, trumped-up charges. We learned this week also that Mr. Trump had clear evidence of Mr. Putin’s direct involvement in the 2016 presidential election scandal even before Mr. Trump was inaugurated the following January. Mr. Trump’s many statements exculpating Mr. Putin and the Russians since then — statements we now know to be disingenuous — deaden any political will to defend ourselves from a like attack on our elections this year or two years hence. His preference for the Russian dictator over his own intelligence services suggest that our executive branch is being undermined by a resourceful enemy. Mr. Trump is an existential threat to our country.

We shouldn’t wait to learn from the Mueller investigation why Mr. Trump puts our enemy’s interests ahead of our own. We must act now to remove him from office on the clear evidence that he does put our enemy’s interest ahead of our own. Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Russian government is demonstrably a clear and present danger.

Yet the political, social, and financial dynamics that led to Mr. Trump’s election remain with us, and they make it difficult to discuss impeachment with about half the country. How can we reach people like me, who supported Clinton’s impeachment, with the argument for Mr. Trump’s?

One step toward reaching them would be to separate the issue of impeachment from our longstanding, divisive policy issues.

The day after Helsinki, I participated in a rally outside the White House gates. All of the speakers mentioned Mr. Trump’s craven actions before Mr. Putin. But two of the three speakers spent most of their time talking about the kind of issues that have been knocked about left and right for the past thirty years. These issues are important, but they don’t represent immediate dangers to the republic.

Listening to the usual liberal rhetoric, most open-minded conservative listeners at such a rally would find themselves re-riveted to their one-dimensional, left-right framework that they share with most liberals, and these conservatives would become effectively powerless to hear the argument for impeachment. Put another way, if they hear most voices for impeachment link the issue with the liberal side of well-worn unraveling-era issues (campaign finance, gun control, tax cuts, etc.), they’ll consider the call for impeachment merely the desperate scream of a political party currently shut out of power.

In one respect, at least, Mr. Trump is like the Apostle Paul: he can count on a crowd’s divisions to get out of hot water:

But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. (Acts 23:6)

Paul’s accusers then began bickering over the doctrine of the resurrection. Paul ended up with the backing of half the crowd, which had forgotten why Paul was before the Roman counsel in the first place. The captain removed him before things really got out of hand. The genre here is almost comic.

Paul later expressed regret for his role in the incident — read Acts 24:21 — but I doubt Mr. Trump will ever regret using such a tactic. He retreats to unravelling-era issues to make an implicit claim to half of us. “You need me to win the issues for which you’ve fought so hard for a generation,” he seems to say. “Your part in this bargain is to ignore the clear evidence that I’m undermining our nation’s security.”

To remove the president, we — liberals, conservatives, and centrists — must focus on the arguments and evidence for removing him and not remain distracted by what divides us. To avoid this distraction, we need to discover life outside of the one-dimensional, left-right framework that cramps our public space. We need to remember not only Mr. Clinton’s crimes and punishment but also the restorative principles, perspectives, and experiences of our nation’s founding. We need to start to read and talk about those principles, and we need to act according to them, too. The Declaration of Independence might be a good place to start.

I must love this author

I find most of my books while reading other books’ footnotes. Winton Solberg’s 1958 book The Federal Convention and the Formation of the Union, which came in the mail yesterday, is the latest example. I discovered it while rereading Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book On Revolution. Arendt cites Solberg’s book four times in her footnotes.

She sites him enough to tell me that she’s a magpie of a researcher. A main point here, an inference Solberg never made there, and an overall appreciation for the writer in all four notes. Her sources seem fewer and better considered than most academics’ sources. Her appreciation reminds me that all books are commonplace books; some are just better footnoted.

As I thumbed through this first-edition Solberg, which I got for pennies over the Internet (plus shipping), I thought about Arendt’s reading of Solberg. It occurred to me, pacing in my little library, that I was holding a copy of the very edition Arendt had held. And in a sudden bout of reverence, I almost dropped the book.

Displacement

We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence.

– Henri Nouwen

When I woke up day after Helsinki, I wanted to act. So I made a sign and took it to the White House.

There I met two women who had woken up the same way. They had met as I met them: their signs had served as signals. The three of us became a fast people.

We would separate, walking along the fences, and return. When things were quieter, we told one another something of our stories. We were heckled a little, not much. Many tourists, mostly from overseas, took pictures of their families standing with us. After a couple of hours, when it started to rain, we turned again to one another. “I’m coming tonight. Are you?” And we left.

I thought of the big tree in whose branches refugees from the town found one another in Capote’s The Grass Harp. I thought of Henri Nouwen: “Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize.”1 And Hannah Arendt’s concept of freedom in action separated, ultimately, from its consequences.2 And Rosa Parks, and all the Rosa Parks before and after her who were stoned and sawn asunder.

We didn’t see one another at the big rally that night. The big rally was kind of like a big rally. An overseas media outlet interviewed me. There were television cameras, a short speech, chants, a longer talk that, with its pacifying drone, frustrated the crowd. The rally was purposeful and strategic, as necessary in its way as the senseless act of faith.

Then I waited for the train home. Another woman sat beside me on a concrete bench and put her own sign at her feet. When the train came, we walked into separate cars.

  1. Nouwen, Henri. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, p. 145.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, pp. 166 – 167.

Maybe why writing is hard

This morning, the more I write, the more my thoughts jump ahead of what I’m writing. The writing is making me think, and the thinking is making the writing very difficult.

Writing is hard anyway. Some people would like to hire ghostwriters to capture their thoughts. These people mistake writing for the visual transmission of one’s thoughts. Instead, writing is thinking. Writing makes us think, and the process of writing makes us discover realizations and examples and exceptions and connections that slow down the writing.

Ghostwriting carries an essential fraud, and not because one person is writing in another’s name. The fraud is the illicit self-protection the ghostwriter provides, similar to the self-protection each spouse can access in marriage counseling. If I am in marriage counseling, I have an out: when the counseling gets too close, I tell myself and my counselor that it’s my spouse’s fault. If I hire a ghostwriter, I have an out: I’m not challenged to fix the words and the thinking they represent because they’re never thrown back at me. The best marriage counselors treat “marriage counseling” as a necessary euphemism and get their clients to take responsibility for their own lives. And the best ghostwriters insist on involving their clients in the writing process.

Our president and his immediate predecessor wrote important memoirs. President Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, and President Trump wrote The Art of the Deal. President Obama wrote his memoir. President Trump hired a ghostwriter to write his, and the ghostwriter latter admitted that he never challenged his client. The two presidents couldn’t be any more different in their integrity and capacity for reflection.

Worthy of the saving

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of “moral right,” back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of “necessity.” Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south — let all Americans — let all lovers of liberty everywhere — join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

 – Lincoln (Peoria, 1854)

Democrats are split on what to amputate. Some would simply cut off the head, so to speak — the head being the current president. The public understands this sentiment so long as the president is removed the usual way, by defeating him in his bid for reelection. But some Democrats would go further. They would eliminate ICE, for example. Instead of eliminating only the head, who has been misusing ICE, they would eliminate ICE itself, which both the president uses and his immediate predecessor used to extensively limit illegal immigration. The Democrats are split on eliminating ICE, and the Republicans sense a winning issue leading up to this year’s midterms.

There are other points of potential amputation to save the patient, the American polity. Sue the president under the War Powers Act. Amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. Amend it to nullify Citizens United. And so on. All of these issues needed addressing before 2016, of course. President Clinton violated the War Powers Act in Kosovo. President Bush II won the presidency while losing the popular vote in 2000. And money has been running national politics long before Citizens United, which only made a deplorable situation worse.

The current Democratic despair is reminiscent of its despair during much of the second term of the second Bush administration. It’s more intense now because the financial, political, social, and media walls seem to be closing in on the Democratic Party. The president makes frequent, unprecedented attacks on democratic and republican norms and institutions (e.g., elections, legal immigration, the FBI, the free press), but none of this bothers a large segment of Americans. Democrats — and many independents and Republican never-Trumpers, too — are left defending democracy itself as well as these institutions that have long been eroding in the public’s estimation. But how to save democracy?

This question about means quickly turns into a question about ends, however. “How to save it?” points to “What are we saving?” Is the Union, the Constitution (as it survives today) and its brand of republicanism worth saving? Have we washed our republican robes sufficiently to make our Union, in Lincoln’s words, “forever worthy of the saving”?

From a political standpoint, this conversation is unfortunate. The president and his supporters attack those seriously discussing these greater issues that his own election and conduct raise. It’s ironic, yes. Even as the president’s attacks on democratic and republican institutions give rise to his opponents’ reexaminations of those institutions, the president characterizes his opponents as un-American for doing so. Particularly for Democrats, who have been as guilty as the Republicans since World War II of turning our republic into a corporate-run empire unresponsive to its people, this is a difficult conversation. But covering up the big questions with a campaign platform of “Us, too, but we’re nicer about it” didn’t win in 2016, and it shows even fewer signs of prevailing in the future.

These issues have been discussed in certain circles before. For instance, George W. Bush’s blind eye toward torture, his invasion of Iraq, and his support for encroachments on individual rights in the name of national security lead to at least an academic debate about how to fix our system and what in the system is worth fixing at all. Movitvated to write in part by Bush’s push against the executive branch’s constitutional limits, political theorist Dana Villa in 2008 concluded that “the only way to prevent ‘legitimate’ structures of political power from devolving into structures of domination is to make sure we provide for both individual rights and the institutionalization of public freedom” — i.e., a public space where men and women can develop their political voice and practice.1 One of political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin’s last essays, “Agitated Times,” urges the immediacy of democratic agitation at the local level in order to challenge national assumptions. He concludes his 2005 essay with this ironic sentence: “Democratic agitation takes time.”2 Democracy must begin again at the local level — in many cases it must recreate a local level — and it must tune out the noise of those who would silence it.

Actions of post-World War II Democratic administrations raised issues similar to those raised under Republican administrations, and to fail to admit it is to fail to address those issues. Wolin wrote about some of them during the latter years of the Carter administration. In his 1980 essay “The People’s Two Bodies,” he concluded that Carter’s  “historical mission” was “to prove a mass basis for a new state — corporate, bureaucratic, technocratic, and managerial.”3 Every modern presidency seems to have made Wolin, who wrote for over half a century, question the responsiveness of our institutions, including some major aspects of the Constitution’s federal system, to the American people.

Issues involving empire, racism, xenophobia, and public participation won’t disappear with the current president. We must admit, despite the president’s desire for the country’s entire attention, that he is only another floor built perilously higher on a bad foundation. Moving from merely examining his dizzy, tottering eminence to also inspecting matters down closer to the foundation may be a short-term political loser, but in the long run, such self-examination is our only chance to make our Union worthy of the saving.

  1. Villa, Dana, Public Freedom, p. 300.
  2. Wolin, Sheldon S., “Agitated Times,” in Fugitive Democracy, p. 448.
  3. Wolin, Sheldon S., “The People’s Two Bodies,” in Fugitive Democracy, pp. 390 – 391.

Being and politics

Paul Manafort helped [former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych] to pursue a “Southern strategy” for Ukraine reminiscent of the one that his Republican Party had used in the United States: emphasizing cultural differences, making politics about being rather than doing.1

– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (2018)

If politics is speech and action, as Hannah Arendt claims, then Nixon’s and Manafort’s strategies weren’t politics at all. For Arendt, there is no “politics of being.”

Arendt also wouldn’t like today’s “identity politics,” the liberal version of the conservative politics of being, even though this liberal mix of being and politics demands action instead of inaction.

While true politics (and timely action or inaction) is not being, it must be rooted in being. Politics’ roots are ontological: equality is political identity since it points to each person’s relationship with others before God.

But equality on paper is not what equality leads to, which is suffering and (eventually) maturity. A culture that recognizes maturity generally adopts lively, long-lasting politics and political institutions.

Immaturity is another term for the false self. The immature man puts pieces of himself together to serve as identity much as a child puts pieces of the world together to create generalities. This inductive reasoning eventually succeeds in putting the functional world together but doesn’t lead to maturity — that is, to true identity. Only suffering does.

To bring maturity, suffering must have two components, permission and pain. Both permission and pain were present in the word “suffer” during King James’s reign. In the Bible James commissioned, Jesus bids his disciples to “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” Jesus himself is made “perfect through sufferings.” Though both of these uses of “suffer” involve both permission and pain, the former use emphasizes permission, and the latter use emphasizes pain. The opening we give to the universe when it waits at our door, peddling pain, and our long, fitful intercourse with this visitor, bring maturity.

I leave out how love figures in this.

The kingdom of God, like Arendt’s politics, is action. The action comes from maturity (i.e., true identity). God’s kingdom is the model for civil government and the authority for legitimate civil government. Other visions of politics, like Nixon’s and Manafort’s, are groundless imitations that keep us asleep on the couch.

Republican virtues, like private virtues, are important, but only if they get us off the couch and to the door when the universe calls. Virtue only prepares us for transformation.  We have to be not what we thought we were to see the kingdom of God. And we need a few such men and women to lead the rest of us to virtue, which itself is but a path to our own front door.

  1.  Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (pp. 141-142). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Liberal self-examination

My favorite part of a favorite book (Philip Gorski’s American Covenant, published last year) involves competing concepts of political time. Liberals understand political time as linear, pointing onward and upward on a graph (x = time; y = progress) – time as never-ending progress. In contrast, many conservatives understand political time as cyclical. For them, no new thing appears under the sun, and the future eventually leads back to the past.

Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, released two weeks ago, is largely structured around these time concepts. In Russia over the past decade, though, a cyclical cycle became “the politics of eternity” as Putin sought to keep power by way of creating crises and pretending that outside forces were acting to challenge the Russian people’s inherent innocence. Eternity is in the present; there is no political future — no plan of succession and no plan for a polity’s self-correction.

Russia has, therefore, already arrived in the political millennium. Putin’s millennium is different than the end of history Marx envisioned and the Soviet Union was working toward. Marx was, after all, a “Left Hegelian,” while the white nationalist philosopher championed by Putin, Ivan Ilyin, was a “Right Hegelian.” But all political eternities involve magical thinking as a replacement for history and facts, so Putin, in championing the old Soviet Union as an ideology-free Russia, can ignore Ilyin’s detestation of the Soviet model. Ilyin, as Snyder points out, would have loved Putin’s revisionism.

The ease by which Russia switched from cyclical to “eternal” thinking may explain how easily virulent nationalism has infected American conservatism over the past two years.

True American conservatives, mostly known by reference to their conquerer as “Never Trumps,” are already reassessing what went wrong and exploring how their political understanding was so quickly routed from the nation’s consciousness. Liberals, though preoccupied in opposing to Trump, need to reassess how their worldview also aided Trump’s rise.

How was liberalism complicit in the political atmosphere that gave rise to Trump’s election? Three things come to mind. First, American liberals failed to see how their “politics of inevitability,” as Snyder characterizes it, blinded them to Russia’s response to the failure of its own “politics of inevitability” in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Russia is, in this sense, thirty years ahead of us, Snyder argues. Our purblind politics is evident in retrospect: we laughed in 2012, for instance, when Mitt Romney declared Russia as our greatest adversary.

Second, American liberals failed to understand how their lockstep pro-choice position on abortion has for decades alienated half of the American electorate and undercut their fundamental argument about the primacy of life as a moral guide in crafting other areas of public policy. For many pro-life voters, national elections have for years represented a deflating contest between their hearts (morality) and their heads (middle- and lower-class oriented policies; financial regulations; steps to combat global warming, etc.).

Third, both the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity purport to be irresistible. In this sense, both deny agency, and therefore both have little need of or care for a vibrant public sphere. Because the politics of inevitability is irresistible only in the long run, it better protects the public sphere and the positive freedom that the public sphere requires. But not much better. This failure to regard public freedom (i.e., positive freedom, as opposed to negative and private, First-Amendment freedoms, generally understood as freedom from politics) should be a matter of liberal self-reflection, too.

If liberals take up self-examination along with the conservatives, self-examination could become, to a large extent, a joint conversation, maybe the first sane and extended one between the two factions in generations. The means by which such a conversation would occur could p0int to the rebirth of the public sphere.

[Photo of Timothy Snyder taken in 1996. By Frauemacht – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47883997 ]

All or nothing

John Stuart Mill surfs tension. In one chapter of Considerations on Representative Government, he pleads Tocqueville-like for democratic participation, but a couple of chapters later, his distrust of public opinion leads him to something like Hegel’s “universal class” – bureaucracy.1

Hegel thinks bureaucracy is history’s answer to history: bureaucracy’s professional universalism will resolve history’s tribal divisions. Bureaucracy is, admittedly, a bland eschatology, Hegel’s version of clouds and harps. But there’s peace.

Tocqueville’s greatest disciple, on the other hand, describes bureaucracy as “rule by nobody . . . an ever-present danger of any society based on universal equality.” In a bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt warns, “the personal element of ruler-ship has disappeared.”2

Ironically, the authoritarian Hegel gives a better account of today’s federal bureaucracy than the democratic and republican Arendt. The president’s withering attacks on the intelligence services test the universal rule of law. But is the rule of law also “rule by nobody”?

Just as ironically, then, the appeal of Arendt’s republican view of bureaucracy aids Trump. Mueller and the “deep state” (an updated, sinister “rule by nobody”) intelligence agencies have little power against what Hitler approvingly calls “the authority of personality.”3

Nationalism has its own eschatology, and eschatology puts tension to rout. The American government, of course, is built on tension. The Constitution both separates the government’s branches and redefines federalism to create tension. As history’s wave again begins to crest, Americans may choose to destroy their government rather than to endure this tension. Anything for peace.

[Photo of John Stuart Mill]

  1. I here paraphrase Dana Villa observations in his book Public Freedom at 135.
  2. Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics at 77 – 78.
  3. Vokler Ullrich, Hitler:Ascent (1889 – 1939) at 250.

Dénouement

Washing dishes this morning while listening to the HomePod play the New World Symphony. Hannah Arendt isn’t the only one who writes about the new world’s work on the old one’s mind. Reading between Tocqueville’s lines, of course, one learns more about the old world than the new. Democracy in America is about the beholder.

Dana Villa, writing in 2005, resolves his chapter on Tocqueville’s conception of a public sphere akin to “Montesquieu’s pouvoirs intermédiares” with this reversal of fortune:

It is an irony of history that the political conception of civil society Tocqueville introduced to Europe must now be reintroduced to America — from, of all places, a democratic and secular Europe.1

Researching the HomePod, I was sickened by this Apple ad. Our protagonist leaves a cramped public space — she apologizes her way out of an elevator car packed with impersonal shoulder blades — for her small apartment, which she widens with waves of her hand as the HomePod plays a favorite. If our new worlds are private ones, Tocqueville warns, the old world will hunt us down.

Title page of the autograph score of Dvorák’s ninth symphony

  1. Villa, Dana. Public Freedom (2008) at 45, 48.