The suburb of God

“Ye are the light of the world. A suburb that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” — Matthew 5:14

“For unto you is born this day in the suburb of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” — Luke 2:11

“By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a suburb which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” — Hebrews 11:8-11

“And I John saw the holy where can i buy accutane for acne suburb, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” — Revelation 21:2


The storms that started south of Roanoke continued until soon after the big thunderclap around 2:00 this morning. We had been asleep for about four hours at Betty’s when it woke me up.

Nashville got seven inches of rain. Columbia got less, but enough wind to knock down power lines. Some of them and their poles occupied the right lane of a road we took from the spur to Betty’s. Police were blocking off lots of flooded roads.

What a walk! This morning I played the student of the vernacular landscape, a term John Stilgoe credits to John Brinckerhoff Jackson to mean the landscape “made and used by most people most of the time.”1 Stilgoe says anyone can do it:

“Unorganized, unafraid of mishap and getting lost, often appearing ignorant especially in front of locals, the few do what anyone can do—move along slowly, look, listen, think, and try to learn later about what turned up.”2

Or maybe it’s not so easy. Austen Allen quotes Stilgoe: “With care, inquirers can understand the landscape conjurings of others, but only rarely can they escape, even momentarily, the contemporary mindset.”3

Homogeneity is democracy’s cul-de-sac. It’s the dead end of the French Revolution with its concept of “le peuple,” which, as Hannah Arendt points out, carries “the connotation of a multiheaded monster, a mass that moves as one body and acts as though possessed by one will . . .”4

“It never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them.” — Julius in Teju Cole’s Open City

White space is rarely public space in the United States. But much Black space is public space. “Let me be clear from the outset. We didn’t do this neighborhood to ourselves.” — Jean Luck Godard in John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon.

Sarah Daleiden wonders if “a Black landscape” is “a place that supports neighbors to focus on the civic so we can walk toward freedom from racism and the inequities and trauma it can trigger and produce in any of us.”5

Black landscapes can’t afford homogeneity. “All Americans can learn from people who have had to look at themselves with a two-ness,” Walter Hood says, reflecting on Du Bois’s famous term. “People should see that they themselves, and landscapes, have multiplicities: we should be moving through space that constantly reminds us that women are equal, that we owe responsibility to natives who were here beforehand, that Black hands built our landscape.”6

Landscape, as much as anything, “signifies how we personally come to something, to a place.”7

[Thank you, Bethany, for Black Landscapes Matter, edited by Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, University of Virginia Press, 2020.]

  1. Stilgoe, John R. What Is Landscape? (p. 211). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Id. at 213.
  3. Allen, Austen. “Site of the Unseen: The Racial Gaming of American Landscapes.” Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 102.
  4. Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin Classics, Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, page 84.
  5. Daleiden, Sara. “The Beerline Trail: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 154.
  6. Walter Hood. Afterword. Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 175.
  7. Allen, supra, page 129.

A kangaroo court

Dear Sen. Warner,

I know the public documents, videotape, and proffered evidence at the former president’s trial yesterday was damning, but it hardly registered with half of our country. What would still register — miraculously, perhaps, at this late stage of our national unraveling — is courtroom testimony. Take the Constitution seriously concerning the court you have become. Call many, many witnesses; compile oral as well as documentary evidence, and argue from that. Subpoena rioters and police officers. Subpoena the former president’s former insiders. Subpoena “hearts and flowers” witnesses. Let the trial go on for months if necessary. Nothing else will make the nation understand that you are taking the events during and leading up to January 6 seriously, and nothing else will make it understand why.

Courtroom testimony and a through trial would, I think, slowly drive a wedge between the irreconcilable believers of the former president and the sensible but cowed members of his party. On the other hand, mere opening statements, closing arguments, and proffered facts from unnamed sources reported in newspapers that Republicans entirely discount — no matter how compelling you believe those proffers to be — are leaving you open to the justified claim that you have constituted yourselves into a kangaroo court.

Democratic officeholders often ridicule their Republican colleagues for their fearful adherence to the will of the former president’s base. However, calling witnesses may also upset many in your own base, who want much of President Biden’s agenda passed immediately.  But nothing on President Biden’s agenda, as important as the first few weeks in office are to a new president, is worth the potential price of the republic.

Defend the republic the way the Constitution designed that defense for cases like the one at bar — by an actual trial, the more important of which sometimes take weeks and months. Real trials compel sworn testimony. Do your duty by the Constitution. Call many witnesses.

Categorized as Civil

Transcendent matters

From today’s New York Times:

A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Congress could not sue to enforce its subpoenas of executive branch officials, handing a major victory to President Trump and dealing a severe blow to the power of Congress to conduct oversight.

In a ruling that could have far-reaching consequences for executive branch secrecy powers long after Mr. Trump leaves office, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed a lawsuit brought by the House Judiciary Committee against Mr. Trump’s former White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II.

On Mr. Trump’s instructions, Mr. McGahn defied a House subpoena seeking to force him to testify about Mr. Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation. The House sued him, seeking a judicial order that he show up to testify, and won in district court in November.

But two of the three appeals court judges ruled on Friday that the Constitution gave the House no standing to file any such lawsuit in what they characterized as a political dispute with the executive branch. If their decision stands, its reasoning would shut the door to judicial recourse whenever a president directs a subordinate not to cooperate with congressional oversight investigations.

“The committee now seeks to invoke this court’s jurisdiction to enforce its subpoena,” wrote Judge Thomas B. Griffith. The Justice Department, “on behalf of McGahn, responds that Article III of the Constitution forbids federal courts from resolving this kind of interbranch information dispute.”

“We agree and dismiss this case,” he wrote.

From The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship by Ernst Fraenkel (1940):

More than 300 years ago a similar demand was made in England. King James I, in his famous message to the Star Chamber (June 20, 1616), declared that in political questions the decision rested with the Crown and not with the Courts.

“Encroach not upon the prerogative of the Crown. If there fall out a question that concerns my prerogative or mystery of State, deal not with it till you consult with the King or his Council or both; for they are transcendent matters . . . As for the absolute prerogative of the Crown, that is no subject for the tongue of a lawyer, nor is it lawful to be disputed. It is atheism and blasphemy to dispute what God can do . . . so it is presumption and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a King can do, or say that a King cannot do this or that.”

The straightforwardness of this message has scarcely been surpassed by any spokesman of the Third Reich. (36)

Categorized as Civil

Sadism and civic impotence

A friend’s homely benediction last week: “Well, now that we’ve solved all the world’s problems . . .”  It was perfect: all we had said had the force of cliches.

We “solve the world’s problems” because we sense we were made to tend our land together. But we have no civic plot to tend. So we talk politics with an open and informed impotence.

We are living out Tocqueville’s warning about a purely representational civic life:

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. . . . This rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves . . .1

If citizenship amounts only to voting once a year and staying out of jail, then we’re in jail already, talking about how they should run things on the outside.

The news usually speaks of this enervation, but (applying something like Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading) so does reading the news. And Matthew Fox:

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney defines masochism as “I can’tism.” Whenever we say “I can’t,” as in the expression, “I can’t be creative,” or, “I can’t change anything,” or “I can’t be mystical,” we are setting ourselves up for the sins of the sadist, who is always waiting to tell us, “You can’t, but I can.”2

“You can’t, but I can.” Isn’t that what the president has been telling us since he accepted his party’s nomination?

What do the president’s pardons of war criminals say about us?

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Norton 2007) at 603 – 604.
  2.  Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality (1983) at 229.

The church rescues Il Duce

In June of 1924, Mussolini was in trouble. Fascist thugs with ties to him had murdered Italy’s top Socialist parliamentarian, Giacomo Matteotti. The public assumed that Mussolini had ordered it, and Italy was in an uproar. Even conservatives were beginning to distinguish between nationalism, which they embraced, and the overthrow of democracy, which they weren’t prepared for. Mussolini’s opponents had caught him acting above the law. As David I. Kertzer puts it in his 2014 book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, “The end of the regime seemed near” (1431).1

The regime had begun only two years earlier with the support of a vital constituency. Within days of becoming prime minister, Mussolini had taken immediate steps to make good on his promises to the church to restore its influence in Italian society. He had his new cabinet attend a Mass and ordered them to kneel (832).

Mussolini had followed up this symbolism with action:

He ordered crucifixes to be placed on the wall of every classroom in the country, then in all courtrooms and hospital rooms. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He restored Catholic chaplains to military units; he offered priests and bishops more generous state allowances; and to the special delight of the Vatican, he required that the Catholic religion be taught in the elementary schools. (1058)

The Vatican was delighted. Having lost most battles in Italy’s decades-long culture war, the church in 1924 “had no particular fondness for democratic government” (1091). It had political reasons for overlooking Mussolini’s unsavory past, his previous association with the left, and his obvious ignorance of religion. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, admitted with a chuckle that “Mussolini thought all Catholic holidays fell on Sundays” (1035).

Gasparri called Mussolini a “great character.” Mussolini was a colorful character, anyway: unlike his predecessors in office, Mussolini held frequent, entertaining rallies with his political base as if he were perpetually running for office. He often denied what most people before his day called reality, understanding that “people were ruled most of all by emotion, and that their reality had less to do with the external world than with the symbolic one he could fashion for them” (1250). Having watched Mussolini’s rise and his early days in office, Gasparri concluded that “Providence makes use of strange instruments to bring good fortune to Italy” (1035).

Church leaders visit the White House this week.

A month after Mussolini’s crisis began, the Italian church gave him its full support. The Pope published an article in the Vatican newspaper denying Mussolini’s involvement and directing Christians to avoid even legal means of dismissing Mussolini. If Mussolini were removed, the Pope warned, the political left would rise, and the church was incapable of making an alliance with the left (1454).

The Pope’s article, along with a subsequent speech the Pope gave that complemented his article (1466), was a political tonic for Mussolini. He survived his crisis, and by January of the following year, he was publicly taking full, triumphant responsibility for Matteotti‘s murder as well as other recent violence:

If all the violence was the result of a particular historical, political, and moral climate, then I take responsibility for it, because I created this historical, political, and moral climate. . . . Italy, sirs, wants peace, wants tranquility, wants calm. We will give it this tranquility, this calm through love if possible, and with force, if it becomes necessary.

The inference in Mussolini’s admission, of course, was that his political survival was more important to Italy than the rule of law. Kertzer calls this speech before parliament that month “the most dramatic speech of his career.” After the speech, Kertzer writes, “the Fascist assault on the last vestiges of democracy in Italy began” (1501).

When a nation’s church looks for a political solution to its spiritual crisis, God may come to that church in the guise of Pontius Pilate. Who will it be, Pilate asks his politically minded visitors, Jesus or Barabbas? God seems to have asked the Italian church a similar question: a republic or a tyranny? The church’s choice became its nation’s fate.

  1. Numbers in parentheses are location numbers within The Pope and Mussolini‘s Kindle version.

Republicanism and redistribution

Today’s plan by Elizabeth Warren is more republican orthodoxy. She wants to keep private equity firms from looting and destroying U.S. corporations.

I first read about private equity firms in Robert Kuttner’s book, published last year, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?:

Invariably, a private-equity takeover means an even deeper squeeze on worker wages, benefits, and job security. The truly nefarious aspect of the private-equity business model is that windfall profits are typically extracted in advance, so that when the actual operating company falters, the equity partners experience very little loss, if any. The model turns on its head the usual incentives to operate a business prudently and to view workers as long-term assets. Private-equity partners accomplish this trick by borrowing heavily against a newly acquired company, paying themselves an exorbitant “special dividend,” as well as management fees, that together typically far exceed the actual equity they have invested in the company. Then then move to aggressively cut costs. If they succeed, they often sell the stripped-down company to someone else. if they cut too deeply, they’ve already made their fortune up front, and they can use bankruptcy either to shut down the operation or to shed its debts and restructure it.

As an example, Kuttner gives Bain Capital’s takeover of KB Toys in 2000. Bain sent KB into bankruptcy, shedding 10,000 jobs but raking in a 360 percent gain on its investment.1

If you want some background for most of Warren’s policies, read Kuttner’s book as well as Ganesh Sitaraman’s 2017 book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. Sitaraman, the book’s back flap reports, is a law professor as well as Warren’s former policy director and senior counsel. It was Middle-Class Constitution that tipped me off to Warren’s republican roots.

By “republican roots,” I don’t mean that Warren was a Republican, though she was. And by “republican” (lower-case “r”), I don’t refer to a party but to someone who supports a republican form of government, as opposed particularly to a monarchy. The republican-monarchist debate was big in England during the seventeenth century and big here around the time of our revolution. We should debate it anew: our president wants a monarchy, and he’s trying to tear down what’s left of republicanism.

England’s seventeenth century brought the republican theorist behind Sitaraman’s title. James Harrington’s 1656 book Commonwealth of Oceana describes what Sitaraman calls a “middle-class constitution.” Harrington’s idea is based on the balanced constitution of Aristotle and Polybius — the one, the few, and the many — except that the balance isn’t simply the short-term avoidance of the ancients’ frequent civil wars between the haves (“the few” in the ancient constitutions) and the have-nots (“the many”). His insight was the constitutional potential inherent in the “middle people” (our middle class) who were unknown to the ancients.

James Harrington

Harrington had two principal insights, according to Sitaraman. First, “If inequality between rich and poor created strife, relative economic equality should eliminate internal conflicts, create a stable government, and guarantee freedom.” Political freedom, as Hannah Arendt points out in On Revolution, was the express purpose of both the American and French revolutions. Both revolutions started with liberation from monarchy, but only the American one ended with what would be a longstanding republican constitution. The French Revolution was taken over by the destitute, and the purpose of the revolution’s “relative economic equality” wasn’t to guarantee freedom but to guarantee bread.

The success of the American Revolution relative to the French one would not have surprised Harrington. The economic inequality in France fed the revolution, but in the long run it starved freedom. Napoleon was as much of an absolute ruler as Louis XVI before him.

Warren’s policies don’t set out to create a revolution in the French tradition or otherwise, but to restore us to our current revolution, which began in 1776. Her economic policies have a political end (“political” still in the larger sense: republican vs. monarchical government) — republican freedom.2

Harrington’s second insight, Sitaraman continues, was that “if the balance of property changed, the political system would change as well.” We’ve lived through Harrington’s insight in reverse since the mid-1970s: our middle class has shrunk and the rich have gotten far richer; consequently, we’ve become (as  Jimmy Carter pointed out) an oligarchy. Our political system has changed for the worse.

Harrington’s plan for addressing the economic inequities of his day was enacting agrarian laws, which would cap real estate ownership by annual yields and end primogeniture in favor of equal distribution to the children of large fortunes.3 Our situation is too complicated to be addressed by agrarian laws, as Warren’s plan today attests.

Before Harrington and the Hebrew Revival that influenced him, republican theory concerning property was much like today’s classical liberal theory: defend property rights with almost no exceptions. But Harrington’s then-new republican theory, which came as the threat of a republican form of government was being realized in England, changed republican orthodoxy. Harvard Professor Eric Nelson points out Harrington’s influence on Montesquieu’s and Jefferson’s views on the limits of private ownership:

It is a measure of Harrington’s extraordinary influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought. Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life.4

Montesquieu explicitly states his fear that economic inequality would sink a republic: “Inequality would enter at the point not protected by the laws, and the republic will be lost.”5  Sitaraman summarizes Montesquieu’s proposed solutions:

The answer Montesquieu suggested, was to “regulate to this end dowries, gifts, inheritances, testaments, in sum, all the kinds of contracts.” Passing on wealth to others in an unregulated fashion would “disturb the disposition of the fundamental laws.” After a long discussion of innovative methods for regulating the transfers and concentration of wealth, Montesquieu recognized a practical reality: “Although in a democracy real equality is the soul of the state, still this equality is so difficult to establish that an extreme precision in this regard would not always be suitable.” He therefore suggested establishing outer bounds of wealth and then passing laws that will “equalize inequalities” thorough “burdens they impose on the rich and the relief they afford to the poor.”6

A mid-1880s letter from Jefferson to Madison addresses the mass unemployment Jefferson was observing in France at the time. Here’s the more theoretical part of the letter: 

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Jefferson here seems to propose the end of primogeniture with regard to inheritance, an indexed property tax rate, and the grant of small parcels of land. But he leaves a qualified door open for other ideas (“legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind”), and he says that the unemployment of those who wish to be employed is a sign that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.”

Jefferson’s concern for what America could do to avoid the kind of economic disparity he saw on the streets of Paris should be ours, too. It’s certainly Warren’s concern. Her concern for economic fairness, I believe, is not borne chiefly out of compassion but out of statesmanship.

Our heritage of Atlantic republicanism, therefore, has always been anchored in an awareness of how economic disparity can undermine a republic. Republicans who fail to share that concern are republicans in name only.

  1. Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, at 111.
  2. Ganesh Sitaraman, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, at 53 – 55.
  3. Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, at 79.
  4. Nelson, supra, at 86.
  5. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, at 5.5 (45).
  6. Sitaraman, supra, at 57 – 58.


Earlier this week I got a fundraising email from my congresswoman. Here’s how it started:

Peter, I didn’t get into politics to play it safe.

I spoke out immediately on behalf of our federal workers when Trump needlessly caused a shutdown. I’ve taken on the NRA in my district to push for comprehensive, common sense gun safety legislation.

And recently, I’ve called on both Ben Carson and Kellyanne Conway to resign, because they’ve betrayed the public trust by lying and violating the law.

I don’t apologize for a single word or action. But when you take on Donald Trump’s closest allies, you make yourself a target.

Monday’s Post. I get the paper edition to support free press and to take in the essential irony afforded by each morning’s layout.

Here’s my response in lieu of cash:

Dear Rep. Wexton,

But you are playing it safe with respect to an impeachment inquiry. Playing it safe is what the Democrats did in 2016. The stakes are much higher now than then because this moment may be the last in which to investigate the president for his impeachable offenses. If you want to play it safe, look at the polls: before Congress opened the impeachment inquiry against President Nixon, only 19% of the public wanted him impeached. It took leadership for a Democratic House to impeach the president then, and will take leadership for this Democratic House to open a formal impeachment inquiry against our president.

I found patronizing Speaker Pelosi’s remark about wishing to see Mr. Trump in jail after the expiration of his term of office. As I hope you and the speaker know, there is far more at stake this year than the fate of Mr. Trump. We have the republic to consider.

In light of what’s at stake, your stands with respect to the HUD and press secretaries seem not bold but pusillanimous.

I am not a Democrat, but I voted for you in hope that you would stand up to this administration’s many-faceted attack on our Constitution before it is too late. The balance of power on which our Constitution rests, as well as the political freedom it was designed to protect, may rest on what the House does about Mr. Trump this year.

Peter Stephens

Stolen voices

Victoria and I talked this morning about our fears of not being heard. For my part, I’ve been working on a book that I may or may not ever finish. I’ll let Victoria speak for herself.

Hannah Arendt’s vision of the political is essentially positive: the political is a realm where people are seen and heard. All creation, it seems, wants to be seen and heard, to express the god-ness that God has placed in each.

° ° °

Today’s Post.

When I teach, I teach too much. That is, I talk too much. This summer I’ve worked hard on a plan to talk a lot less this fall.

I talk so much I didn’t know that one of my students, forced like the rest into relative silence, was working hard this spring choreographing an award-winning musical that meant so much to me and many others. What kind of talk is that, that doesn’t care to know its listeners?

° ° °

The most important prayer is what’s prayed through us: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Or the most important prayer is whatever’s on your mind: “You have not because you ask not.” Are these concepts so different? Because prayer is fundamentally communion, its content — the petition side of the operation — won’t come together outside of communion. The petition side is about hearing and being heard, the real presence that always expresses itself in communion.

° ° °

We all know by now that, despite his almost 11,000 false or misleading claims since becoming president, the president can count on the unwavering support of a very large base. That’s because, for the first time in their lives, many people in that base feel heard by their government. (The “familiar themes” in today’s headline refer to themes the president made to his base in 2016.)

° ° °

Consider two verses in which three steps seem to do the job of two:

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.. – Romans 10:17 (NASS)1

And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. – 1 John 5:14 – 15 (NASS)

Our dyadic Western minds want to truncate these verses into simple, two-figure propositions: “Faith comes by the word of Christ,” and “If we ask anything according to his will, our prayer will be granted.” It’s not so simple, or at least it’s not so mechanical. In the former proposition, we’ve left out our hearing God. In the latter, we’ve left out God hearing us.

Hearing and being heard are among the most triadic and capacious of actions and are close to the ultimate “mediators,” to employ Charles Pierce’s concept.2

° ° °

Walter Lippmann in his essay “The Indispensable Opposition” defends freedom of speech with a unique argument: we need what our opponents have to say:

Unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.

° ° °

Five things (among many) that steal voices:

  1. Abortion. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, whether you see abortion as murder or as the lesser of two evils, you are probably not pro-abortion. Abortion silences voices. The birth of a hero saga turns the births of Moses and Jesus into tales of survival; each hero in his birth survives an edict to kill babies. In a sense, considering the number of sperm that never fertilize eggs, we are all survivors. We are also all heroes. (I’ve listened enough to my students to finally understand this.)
  2. Poverty and economic inequality. The French Revolution focused on the poor’s need for food, and it discovered that the poor speak this need with one voice, fulfilling Rousseau’s concept of the General Will. On the other hand, the American Revolution, when it addressed the poor at all, focused on the poor’s need to be heard. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, John Adams believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings. Adams’s thinking about the poor was in this respect different from Robespierre’s: “The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.”3  The American  Revolution focused not on discerning and addressing the General Will but on forms of government, including (imperfect and incomplete) forums for the expression of specific viewpoints. The effective price of admission to these forums keeps many people out.
  3. The destruction of the local community and of Tocqueville’s mediating institutions.
  4. Facebook. Ironically, I suppose.
  5. That image I just saw for a split second: a rock star’s windmilling his last chord, raising his arms in triumph. The next split second: his adoring crowd.

° ° °

Arendt on the “too apathetic or too stupid”:

It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 193017 that 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.4

° ° °

and this from U2 (moments before the Edge windmills the last chord):

I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
I get so many things I don’t deserve
All the stolen voices will someday be returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard

Your voices will be heard
Your voices will be heard

° ° °

There. I’ve said enough.

  1. All Scripture quotations in this post are taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
  2. “When processes of comparison grow complicated, new ‘third terms’ or ‘mediators’ may be needed at each stage of one’s undertaking. . . .  it is by means of the use of a ‘third’ that each act of comparison is made possible, — whether the case in question be simple or complex. And the mediator plays each time the part which Pierce first formally defined.” — Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, at 301.
  3. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  4.  Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, pages 311-312.

Primal political events

There’s Euphoria, another TV show I’ve never watched but read about in, this time, The New Yorker Today. Euphoria is about the homeland generation, the generation I teach. I didn’t know all of this was going on outside of my classroom.

The New Yorker review accounts for “all of this” in part by citing this generation’s “primal political event” — 9/11. The review’s account wouldn’t work for Hannah Arendt: for her, violence isn’t a political event but merely signals a political failure. Her vision of the political is broad and positive, as is (I’m discovering) Roland Barthes’, who distinguishes between “the political” and “politics.” For Barthes, “the political” is “a fundamental order of history, of thought, of everything that is done, and said.” Arendt, too, defines the political as something like pure act and speech. “Politics,” on the other hand, for Barthes is “the same old story, the discourse of repetition.”1

Arendt and Barthes were of the same generation, born nine years apart, like Victoria and me, and a century before my students.

I was born halfway between those writers and my students, and my own primal political event was a mere placeholder. It was the scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More argues with his son-in-law, the impetuous William Roper:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

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

Sir Thomas 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 is 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, do 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!

I first saw the movie when I was my students’ age. I was euphoric: never man spake like this man.2 Get a load of some of the movie’s other dialogue here.

I guess it’s only a kind of justice that the generation I teach is portrayed on TV (outside of life) as having been defined by a political event outside of politics, and that my own primal political event happened not in life but in a movie. Viewing it this way, 9/11 is a kind of Truman Show, a TV show — or a movie, rather, about a TV show. The Truman Show was released just three years before the planes hit, and that attack out of the blue seems to have been anticipated by a TV studio’s light fixture falling from what Truman had taken from birth to be the sky.

I call A Man for All Seasons a “placeholder” for a “primal political event” because the dialogues between More and Roper — and More and Cromwell and More and Norfolk and More and Henry VIII — were eventually replaced for me by the real-life dialogue between Edward Coke and King James I, not a Tudor this time but England’s first Stewart monarch. Coke argued for the common law and therefore for lawyers, for the continuation of their archetypal function as a civic priesthood, a mediator (if not always an intercessor) between God and civil society.

Coke’s context was James’s attempt to become England’s judge as well as its king. James’s rejoinder to Coke, according to Coke, was “that he thought the law was founded upon reason, and that he and others had reason, as well as the Judges.” Here’s Coke’s account of more of the dialogue, beginning with his reply to the king:

that true it was, that God had endowed his Majesty with excellent science, and great endowments of nature; but His Majesty was not learned in the laws of his realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of his subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason but by the artificial reason and judgement of law, which law is an art which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it: and that the law was the golden met-wand [measuring rod] and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protected his Majesty in safety and peace: with with the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, with was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Braxton saith, quod Rex non debit esse sub homie, sed sub Deo et lege [the king ought to be under no man, but under God and the law].3

Did the conversation really stop there? If so, was it because Coke threw some Latin at the king? There’s this scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Henry engages the engaging Margaret, More’s daughter who is then engaged to Roper, with a little Latin. Margaret answers in a torrent. The king loses the thread and turns away.

Our own executive, too, has answered calls for his circumscription by the rule of law with accusations of treason. His understanding of the State doesn’t extend past his mirror, but our larger problem is the modern concept of the State, which James here well articulates. The State is sovereign, so the State threatens the political. And both the State and political sovereignty are modern concepts. In fact, for me these two concepts define modernity. They are modernity’s violent and primal political event, to redeploy that oxymoron.

I’ve always liked Coke’s bold description of law as based on “artificial” reason best construed by lawyers and judges. Some evangelicals, in the spirit of Roper, count how many signers were Christians. Hannah Arendt instead counts how many lawyers were in the colonial legislatures when the first state constitutions were drafted after July 4, 1776 (the Gettysburg Address’s contender for “primal political event”). Lawyers writing constitutions: so much treasonous artificiality, according to the colonies’ sovereign, King George III.

We need art and the artificial. I saw The Truman Show on my TV, after all. In Barthes’ playful prose, he acknowledges, “the political is constantly present, but hidden.”4 The political (as opposed to “politics”) is in what Richard Howard calls in his preface to Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text “an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowing, bubbles, trial balloons, ‘phylacteries,’ as he calls them, of an invisible design . . .”5 There’s some political religion for you: phylacteries. Overt reminders for their wearers to keep the law.

Jesus had no problem with phylacteries, you know. He just didn’t like broad ones — ones to be seen by men and not by the Pharisees wearing them.6 He wasn’t lopping off phylacteries to get at the Devil.

Maybe if our schools passed out phylacteries, there wouldn’t be so much sex in Euphoria.

Howard’s isn’t the only preface to demonstrate how fragments — reality’s intrusions onto ideology — are sometimes a writer’s instinctive response to the modern thirst for sovereignty. Consider Greil Marcus’s preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, the latter written as a kind of newspaper-blog in Germany in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power:

One thing that linked Benjamin, Aragon, Adorno, and Chtchelgov (and, for a moment, Ruttmann, before he became a Nazi) was the philosophical conviction, or instinct, that the totality had to be resisted, even chipped away, even defeated, by the fragment: the street, the sign, the name, the face, the aphorism, the evanescent, the ephemeral, the worthless, the unimportant, the meaningless.7

And Benjamin’s One-Way Street reads like Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text — seemingly random fragments piled like sandbags against ruinous politics that, like sovereignty in man’s hands, have no concept of banks or boundaries.

Both books, of course, read a lot like any reporter from the past 700 years compiling cases construing the common law. (You’ve seen these reporters — numbered, beige books behind lawyers who are interviewed on TV from their firms’ conference rooms. I’ve never heard of anyone, lawyer or otherwise, reading one from cover to cover.)

Here’s some more political religion for you: sovereignty is God’s alone. As Arendt says in the context of the political, “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.”8

It’s Father’s Day, and James I thought himself a father to his people. In fact, James was the first patriarchalist king, adopting the modern theory of sovereignty espoused by the likes of Robert Filmer and known today as the Divine Right of Kings. The Athenian polis, the argument perhaps goes, should be replaced by permitting the Athenian domestic dictatorship that supported it to overrun its banks.

An in-law of mine once defended her vote for our president to me this way: he’s a good father.

More from that New Yorker app: if your father seemed a remote figure, here’s why.

  1. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, at 218.
  2. John 7:46.
  3. James R. Stoner, Jr., Common Law and Liberal Theory, at 30.
  4. Barths, supra, at 219.
  5. Richard Howard, “A Note on the Text” in Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, at viii.
  6. Matthew 23:5.
  7. Greil Marcus, preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, at xvi.
  8. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, at 163.