A New Americanism

Why a Nation Needs a National Story
By Jill Lepore March/April 2019

Proud to be Americans: at a Trump rally in Huntington, West Virginia, November 2018 Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

The nation-state was in decline, said the wise men of the time. The world had grown global. Why bother to study the nation? Nationalism, an infant in the nineteenth century, had become, in the first half of the twentieth, a monster. But in the second half, it was nearly dead—a stumbling, ghastly wraith, at least outside postcolonial states. And historians seemed to believe that if they stopped studying it, it would die sooner: starved, neglected, and abandoned.

Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist, not a historian. But his 1989 essay “The End of History?” illustrated Degler’s point. Fascism and communism were dead, Fukuyama announced at the end of the Cold War. Nationalism, the greatest remaining threat to liberalism, had been “defanged” in the West, and in other parts of the world where it was still kicking, well, that wasn’t quite nationalism. “The vast majority of the world’s nationalist movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people, and do not offer anything like a comprehensive agenda for socio-economic organization,” Fukuyama wrote. (Needless to say, he has since had to walk a lot of this back, writing in his most recent book about the “unexpected” populist nationalism of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and the United States’ Donald Trump.)

Fukuyama was hardly alone in pronouncing nationalism all but dead. A lot of other people had, too. That’s what worried Degler.
Nation-states, when they form, imagine a past. That, at least in part, accounts for why modern historical writing arose with the nation-state. For more than a century, the nation-state was the central object of historical inquiry. From George Bancroft in the 1830s through, say, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or Richard Hofstadter, studying American history meant studying the American nation. As the historian John Higham put it, “From the middle of the nineteenth century until the 1960s, the nation was the grand subject of American history.” Over that same stretch of time, the United States experienced a civil war, emancipation, reconstruction, segregation, two world wars, and unprecedented immigration—making the task even more essential. “A history in common is fundamental to sustaining the affiliation that constitutes national subjects,” the historian Thomas Bender once observed. “Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.”

Officers of the American Historical Association at their annual meeting in Washington, D.C., December 1889

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history. This turn produced excellent scholarship. But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence. When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.

Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism?

Continue reading A New Americanism

Vladimir putin: “the liberal idea is obsolete”

Another must read, this one from the Economist of July 4, 2019

The global crisis in conservatism

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia’s president, has declared the liberal idea “obsolete”. It will not surprise you to learn that we disagree. Not just because he told the Financial Times that liberalism was all about immigration, multiculturalism and gender politics—a travesty—but also because he picked the wrong target. The idea most under threat in the West is conservatism. And you do not have to be a conservative to find that deeply troubling.

In two-party systems, like the United States and (broadly) Britain, the right is in power, but only by jettisoning the values that used to define it. In countries with many parties the centre-right is being eroded, as in Germany and Spain, or eviscerated, as in France and Italy. And in other places, like Hungary, with a shorter democratic tradition, the right has gone straight to populism without even trying conservatism.

Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as a disposition. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it best: “To be conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant.” Like classical liberalism, conservatism is a child of the Enlightenment.

Liberals say that social order emerges spontaneously from individuals acting freely, but conservatives believe social order comes first, creating the conditions for freedom. It looks to the authority of family, church, tradition and local associations to control change, and slow it down. You sweep away institutions at your peril. Yet just such a demolition is happening to conservatism itself—and it is coming from the right.

The new right is not an evolution of conservatism, but a repudiation of it. The usurpers are aggrieved and discontent. They are pessimists and reactionaries. They look at the world and see what President Donald Trump once called “carnage”.

Consider how they are smashing one conservative tradition after another. Conservatism is pragmatic, but the new right is zealous, ideological and cavalier with the truth. Australia suffers droughts and reef-bleaching seas, but the right has just won an election there under a party whose leader addressed parliament holding a lump of coal like a holy relic. In Italy Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, has boosted the anti-vaxxer movement. For Mr Trump “facts” are just devices to puff up his image or slogans designed to stir up outrage and tribal loyalties.

Conservatives are cautious about change, but the right now airily contemplates revolution. Alternative for Germany has flirted with a referendum on membership of the euro. Were Mr Trump to carry out his threats to leave NATO (see “The World If” in this issue), it would up-end the balance of power. A no-deal Brexit would be a leap into the unknown, but Tories yearn for it, even if it destroys the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Conservatives believe in character, because politics is about judgment as well as reason. They are suspicious of charisma and personality cults. In America plenty of Republicans who know better have fallen in with Mr Trump even though he has been credibly accused by 16 different women of sexual misconduct. Brazilians have elected Jair Bolsonaro, who fondly recalls the days of military rule. The charismatic Boris Johnson is favourite to be Britain’s next prime minister, despite being mistrusted by MPs, because he is deemed to be the “Heineken Tory” who will, like the beer, refresh the parts other conservatives cannot reach.

Conservatives respect business and are prudent stewards of the economy, because prosperity underpins everything. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, paints himself as a low-tax economic conservative, but undermines the rule of law on which businesses depend. Mr Trump is a wager of trade wars. Over 60% of Tory members are willing to inflict “serious damage” on the economy to secure Brexit. In Italy the League is spooking markets by toying with issuing government paper that would act as a parallel currency to the euro. In Poland Law and Justice has splashed out on a welfare bonanza. In France, in the campaign for the European Parliament elections, the rump Republican Party made more of a splash about Europe’s “Judeo-Christian roots” than prudent economic management.

Last, the right is changing what it means to belong. In Hungary and Poland the right exults in blood-and-soil nationalism, which excludes and discriminates. Vox, a new force in Spain, harks back to the Reconquista, when Christians kicked out the Muslims. An angry, reactionary nationalism kindles suspicion, hatred and division. It is the antithesis of the conservative insight that belonging to the nation, a church and the local community can unite people and motivate them to act in the common good.

Conservatism has been radicalised for several reasons. One is the decline of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” that it relied on, such as religion, unions and the family. Another is that the old parties on both right and left were discredited by the financial crisis, austerity and the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Outside the cities, people feel as if they are sneered at by greedy, self-serving urban sophisticates. A few have been wound up by the xenophobia of political entrepreneurs. The collapse of the Soviet Union, some believe, loosened the glue uniting a coalition of foreign-policy hawks, libertarians and cultural and pro-business conservatives. None of these trends will be easy to reverse.

That does not mean everything is going the way of parties of the new right. In Britain and America, at least, demography is against them. Their voters are white and relatively old. Universities are a right-wing-free zone. A survey by Pew last year found that 59% of American millennial voters were Democratic or leaned Democratic; the corresponding share of Republicans was only 32%. Among the “silent generation”, born in 1928-45, Democrats scored 43% and Republicans 52%. It is not clear enough young people will drift to the right as they age to fill the gap.

But the new right is clearly winning its fight against Enlightenment conservatism. For classical liberals, like this newspaper, that is a source of regret. Conservatives and liberals disagree about many things, such as drugs and sexual freedom. But they are more often allies. Both reject the Utopian impulse to find a government solution for every wrong. Both resist state planning and high taxes. The conservative inclination to police morals is offset by an impulse to guard free speech and to promote freedom and democracy around the world. Indeed conservatives and liberals often bring out the best in each other. Conservatism tempers liberal zeal; liberals puncture conservative complacency.

The new right is, by contrast, implacably hostile towards classical liberals. The risk is that moderates will be squeezed out as right and left inflame politics and provoke each other to move to the extremes. Voters may be left without a choice. Recoiling against Mr Trump, Democrats have moved further to the left on immigration than the country at large. The British, with two big parties, may have to pick between Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s hard-left leader, and a radicalised Tory party under Mr Johnson. Even if you can vote for the centre, as with Emmanuel Macron in France, one party will win repeatedly by default—which, in the long run, is unhealthy for democracy.

At its best conservatism can be a steadying influence. It is reasonable and wise; it values competence; it is not in a hurry. Those days are over. Today’s right is on fire and it is dangerous.

Immigration in 1924

Another Must Read, by George Will

Last century’s immigration debate makes today’s seem enlightened
By George F. Will June 28, 2019

“The Guarded Gate,” by Daniel Okrent. (Scribner)

“Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng . . .
O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?”
— Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1892)

If you think we have reached peak stupidity — that America’s per capita quantity has never been higher — there is solace, of sorts, in Daniel Okrent’s guided tour through the immigration debate that was heading toward a nasty legislative conclusion a century ago. “The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America” provides evidence that today’s public arguments are comparatively enlightened.

Late in the 19th century, immigration surged, as did alarm about it, especially in society’s upper crust — particularly its Boston portion, which thought that the wrong sort of people was coming. Darwinian theory and emerging genetic science were bowdlerized by bad scientists, faux scientists and numerous philistine ax-grinders with political agendas bent on arguing for engineering a better stock of American humans through immigration restrictions and eugenics — selective breeding.

Their theory was that nurture (education, socialization, family structure) matters little because nature is determinative. They asserted that even morality and individuals’ characters are biologically determined by race. And they spun an imaginative taxonomy of races, including European “Alpine,” “Teutonic” (a.k.a. “Nordic”) and “Mediterranean.”

Racist thinking about immigration saturated mainstream newspapers (the Boston Herald: “Shall we permit these inferior races to dilute the thrifty, capable Yankee blood . . . of the earlier immigrants?”) and elite journals (in the Yale Review, recent immigrants were described as “vast masses of filth” from “every foul and stagnant pool of population in Europe”). In the Century monthly, which published Mark Twain, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, W.E.B. Du Bois and H.G. Wells, an author informed readers that “Mediterranean people are morally below the races of northern Europe,” that immigrants from Southern Italy “lack the conveniences for thinking,” that Neapolitans were a “degenerate” class “infected with spiritual hookworm” and displaying “low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins . . . and backless heads,” and that few of the garment workers in New York’s Union Square “had the type of face one would find at a county fair in the west or south.” The nation’s most important periodical, the Saturday Evening Post, devoted tens of thousands of words to the braided crusades for eugenics and race-based immigration policies.

“The Great Race Passes”:
Edgar Lee Masters (“Spoon River Anthology,” wrote:
On State Street throngs crowd and push,
Wriggle and writhe like maggots.
Their noses are flat,
Their faces are broad . . .

Eugenics was taught at Boston University’s School of Theology. Theodore Roosevelt, who popularized the phrase “race suicide,” wrote to a eugenicist that “the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world, and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.” Woodrow Wilson warned against the “corruption of foreign blood” and “ever-deteriorating” genetic material.

Amateur ethnologists conveniently discovered that exemplary Southern Europeans (Dante, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci) were actually from the north. One wrote, “Columbus, from his portraits and from his busts, whether authentic or not , was clearly Nordic” (emphasis added). Okrent writes: “In an Alabama case, a black man who married an Italian woman was convicted of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law, then found surprising absolution when the conviction was vacated by an appellate court’s provocative declaration: ‘The mere fact that the testimony showed this woman came from Sicily can in no sense be taken as conclusive evidence that she was therefore a white woman.’”

The canonical text of the immigration-eugenics complex, Madison Grant’s “The Passing of the Great Race,” is available today in at least eight editions and is frequently cited in the Internet’s fetid swamps of white-supremacy sites. At the 1946 Nuremberg “Doctors’ Trial,” Nazi defendants invoked that book as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buck v. Bell decision upholding states’ sterilization of “defectives” (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a eugenics enthusiast: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”) and America’s severely restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. It based national quotas on 1890 immigration data — before the surge of the “motley throng.” Okrent writes, “These men didn’t say they were ‘following orders,’ in the self-exonerating language of the moment; they said they were following Americans.”

Four years before the 1924 act, 76 percent of immigrants came from Eastern or Southern Europe. After it, 11 percent did. Some of those excluded went instead to Auschwitz.

Hey you Democrats read this!!

To: All Democratic candidates

Dear Democrats, Here’s How to Guarantee Trump’s Reelection

You’ve got a historically unpopular opponent in the White House, but there are nearly a dozen ways you could still blow this.

by Charles Sykes, Politico Magazine, June 25, 2019

As you prepare for your first debates later this week, some unsolicited thoughts on what you could do to blow this election. With 20 of you clamoring for attention over two nights, the opportunities are abundant for you to kick off the primary season with an easy win for the president.

This might seem impossible. Donald Trump remains historically unpopular because the past three years have cemented the public’s image of the president as a deeply dishonest, erratic, narcissistic, Twitter-addicted bully. As a result, a stunning 57 percent of voters say they will definitely not vote to reelect him next year and he trails Democratic challengers in key states. Trump himself seems to have given up on swing voters, instead focusing on ginning up turnout among his hard-core base. But, as columnist Henry Olsen points out, this is unlikely to be successful because millions of “reluctant Trump voters” from 2016 have already shown a willingness to bail on him by voting for Democrats in last November’s midterms.

Even so, Trump could still win reelection, because he has one essential dynamic working in his favor: You.

Trump’s numbers are unmovable, but yours are not. He doesn’t need to win this thing; he needs for you to lose it. There are millions of swing voters who regard Trump as an abomination but might vote for him again if they think you are scarier, more extreme, dangerous, or just annoyingly out of touch.

And, you have some experience at this, don’t you?

Despite the favorable poll numbers and the triumphalism in your blue bubble, you’ve already made a solid start at guaranteeing another four years of Trumpism. Last week’s pile-on of Joe Biden was a good example of how you might eat your own over the next 16 months.

On Tuesday, Trump refused to apologize for calling for the death penalty for the Central Park 5, a group of black and Latino men who were later exonerated of charges that they had beaten and raped a woman in the 1980s. But rather than focusing on the latest Trumpian racial outrage, many of you spent the next few days hammering your front-runner for saying that civility required working with people like the late segregationist senators John Eastland and Herman Talmadge.

This week’s debates give you two more chances to form circular firing squads, turn winning issues into losers, and alienate swing voters.

Here are 11 pointers on how to guarantee that the most unpopular president in modern polling history wins reelection next year.

1. Hold firmly to the idea that Twitter is the beating heart of the real Democratic Party. 

Woke Twitter is convinced that anger over Trump means that voters want to move hard left. You should ignore polls showing that most Democrats, not to mention swing voters, are much more likely to be centrist.

2. Embrace the weird.

George Will carries around a small card listing all the things that you have said “that cause the American public to say: ‘These people are weird, they are not talking about things that I care about.’” A short list:

Terrorists in prison should be allowed to vote. End private health insurance. Pack the Supreme Court, abolish the Electoral College, ‘Green New Deal,’ … reparations for slavery.

“The country hears these individually,” says Will, “and they say I’m not for that.”

He’s going to need a bigger card.

3. Keep promising lots of free stuff and don’t sweat paying for it.

Trump and his fellow Republicans have run up massive deficits, but you can make them look like fiscal hawks by outbidding one another. People like free stuff, but they are less keen on having to pay for free stuff for other people, so talk as much as possible about having taxpayers pick up the tab for free college, day care and health care.

By one estimate, Elizabeth Warren’s various plans would cost about $3.6 trillion a year—or $36.5 trillion over 10 years. She insists she can pay for much of this with a vast new wealth tax that is politically impossible and constitutionally dubious, but, hey, at least she’s not Bernie.

4. Go ahead and abolish private health insurance. 

Health care should be a huge winner for Democrats in 2020, as it was in 2018. But you can turn that around by embracing a Bernie Sanders-like ‘Medicare for All’ plan.

Sure, the idea polls well and is wildly popular in MSNBC green rooms. But, unfortunately, when voters find out that it would double payroll taxes, cost trillions of dollars and lead to the abolition of private health insurance, support plummets—even among Democratic primary voters. In fact, when Democratic primary voters are told that Medicare for All would cost $3.2 trillion a year, support drops to just 38 percent. And that is among Democrats.

The numbers are even worse with the wider electorate. The Kaiser Tracking Poll found that Medicare for All’s net favorability drops to minus 44 percent “when people hear the argument that this would lead to delays in some people getting some medical tests and treatments.” Voters also turn sharply against the idea when they are told that it would threaten the current Medicare program, require big tax increases and eliminate private health insurance. Count on the GOP to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making those arguments.

5. Spend time talking about reparations. 

There may be no magic bullet to guarantee Trump’s reelection, but support for reparations for slavery may be awfully close. Even before Charlottesville, Trump’s record on race was horrific, and his winking appeasement of the white nationalist alt-right has been a running theme of Trumpism. But Democrats can neutralize Trump’s most glaring weaknesses by redoubling their support for reparations.

You have already made the hyperdivisive issue a big theme of the campaign and the Democratic House seems poised to pass legislationcalling for a study of the issue. Support for considering reparations has also quickly gained support in the 2020 Democratic primary, with contenders like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris expressing their interest in Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s plan. It’s a stark shift from previous presidential campaigns in which Barack Obama opposed reparations.

The problems here are obvious. No one really knows how reparations would work. The historic wrongs committed against African Americans are undoubtedly unique, but as the debate heats up, the questions will be: Who pays? Who is owed? How do we pick the winners and losers? And then there are other inevitable questions: Who else? The Irish? Jews? Native Americans? Asian Americans? Gays and lesbians?

What is clear, however, is that reparations are opposed by somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of white voters, so your support is a huge gift to Trump’s reelection campaign, which would like nothing more than to drive a deeper wedge between black and white Americans.

6. Trump thinks that immigration and the crisis at the border are winning issues for him. They aren’t. But you can turn that around.

Trump is actually underwater on the immigration issue. In a recent Fox News poll, 50 percent of Americans said Trump has gone too far, more than double the number of voters who think he hasn’t been aggressive enough. Family separations continue to shock the conscience of the nation and his threats to round up millions of illegals could backfire badly on him. Moreover, huge majorities favor giving legal status to the so-called Dreamers.

But you can flip the script: instead of talking about Dreamers, talk as much as possible about your support for sanctuary cities, double down on proposals to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and be as vague as possible about whether or not you really do support open borders.

7. Lots more focus on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

By no means allow voters to hear more about centrists who actually swung the House like Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey or Dean Phillips in Minnesota. Trump wants nothing more than to make AOC the face of the Democratic Party. You can make it happen.

8. Socialism. 

Trump will accuse Democrats of being socialists who want to turn the United States into Venezuela. This is a tired, implausible trope. But you can make it work for him by actually calling yourself socialists and loudly booingyour fellow Democrats who suggest that “socialism is not the answer.”

9. Turn the abortion issue from a winner into a loser.

Polls suggest that there is wide opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade and Republicans have drastically overreached in states like Alabama where they have outlawed abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

But here again, Democrats can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by moving to a hard-line maximalist position. While the public leans pro-choice, its views are quite nuanced. So, instead of talking about abortion as “safe, legal, and rare,” you should demand the legalization of late-term abortions, focus on taxpayer funding and express as much contempt as possible for people with different views.

A model for this is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who compares being anti-abortion to being racist. When she was asked whether her pro-choice litmus test for judges threatened their independence, she said:

“I think there’s some issues that have such moral clarity that we have as a society decided that the other side is not acceptable. Imagine saying that it’s OK to appoint a judge who’s racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic. Telling or asking someone to appoint someone who takes away basic human rights of any group of people in America, I don’t think that those are political issues anymore.”

You might recall how Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment played in 2016; this time around, Democrats can convey their contempt for much larger groups of people, which will be immensely helpful to Trump’s efforts to convince his base and swing voters that Democrats look down on them.

10. You can also turn a winner into a loser on the issue of guns.

There is a growing bipartisan constituency for reasonable restrictions on guns, including overwhelming support for expanded background checks. Trump’s GOP is especially vulnerable here because it remains a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association, which is stumbling under the weight of its own extremism and grift these days.

But you can easily turn this into a firewall for Trump by joining Senator Cory Booker’s call for vast expansions of the licensing of guns and banning certain kinds of weapons. Under Booker’s plan, “a person seeking to buy a gun would need to apply for a license in much the same way one applies for a passport.”

Let’s see how that plays in Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

11. As you try to get Americans more alarmed about Trump’s attacks on democratic norms, make sure you talk as much as possible about your support for court-packing.

Tinkering with the makeup and independence of the Supreme Court hasn’t been a winning issue since 1937, but, waving the bloody shirt of Merrick Garland as often as possible still feels satisfying, doesn’t it?

Given Trump’s deep unpopularity, losing to him won’t be easy. But don’t despair; remember, you managed to pull it off in 2016.


The Government Says the People Don’t Need Soap

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Once upon a time, there was a British woman named Emily Hobhouse. Born in Cornwall, she was a young woman on fire with the reformist spirit of the late 19th Century….

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When the Second Boer War erupted in 1899, Hobhouse got involved in relief organizations in England. The war was placed in the hands of Herbert, Earl Kitchener, one of the worst of the British Empire’s whack-the-bloody-colonials species of general. To bring the South African guerrillas to heel, Kitchener burned people off their farms. He sent the men off elsewhere in Africa. He confined the women and the children to camps to live in tents. And, yes, because this was the British Empire, there were separate camps for the white South Africans and for black South Africans. By the time Kitchener and the British were done, almost 30,000 detainees had died in the camps from starvation and disease.

When awful reports started filtering back about the horrible conditions in the camps that were set up to confine South African women and children, Emily Hobhouse decided to go there and see for herself. She left England in 1900 for Cape Colony. Things were worse than she’d ever imagined. She wrote lengthy reports back to England, informing the government and the English people about the horrors being done in their names. Emily Hobhouse wrote very, very well.

It presses hardest on the children. They droop in the terrible heat, and with the insufficient unsuitable food; whatever you do, whatever the authorities do, and they are, I believe, doing their best with very limited means, it is all only a miserable patch on a great ill. Thousands, physically unfit, are placed in conditions of life which they have not strength to endure. In front of them is blank ruin… If only the English people would try to exercise a little imagination—picture the whole miserable scene. Entire villages rooted up and dumped in a strange, bare place.

The women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears… only when it cuts afresh at them through their children do their feelings flash out.

Some people in town still assert that the Camp is a haven of bliss. I was at the camp to-day, and just in one little corner this is the sort of thing I found—The nurse, underfed and overworked, just sinking on to her bed, hardly able to hold herself up, after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients, with only the untrained help of two Boer girls–cooking as well as nursing to do herself.

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The British-built concentration camp at Bloemfontein was among the worst atrocities of the Second Boer War.

Next tent, a six months’ baby gasping its life out is on mother’s knee. Two or three others drooping sick in that tent. Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher. The father, a big, gentle Boer kneeling beside her; while, next tent, his wife was watching a child of six, also dying, and one of about five drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let these go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. I can’t describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery, and be able to do almost nothing. It was a splendid child and it dwindled to skin and bone … The baby had got so weak it was past recovery. We tried what we could but today it died. It was only 3 months but such a sweet little thing… It was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out, with a white flower in its wee hand.

Then, she went to another camp, this one at Bloemfontein, and it was a deeper, darker circle of hell. Hobhouse was struck hard not merely by the death and disease, but also by the absence of simple things. Things like, say, soap. She wrote:

The great lack has been soap. Neither in this camp, nor in Norval’s Pont, has any been supplied, and those without money have been unable to wash clothes or person properly. Men don’t think of these things unless it is suggested to them ; they simply say, “How dirty these people are! ”  I bought some soap in the town, and sent it in for immediate needs.

Upon her return to England, Emily Hobhouse found herself both celebrated and reviled. Worse, she found herself the subject of serious official harassment. When she tried to return to South Africa, she was seized on the dock and shipped immediately back to England, where she was interrogated on charges that she had been “trafficking with the enemy.” (As it happens, as author David Pryce-Jones notes, Hobhouse’s detention occurred on the day after another famous humanitarian, Sir Roger Casement, had been sentenced to death for his involvement in the Easter Rising in Ireland.)

At the same time, as some letters that came to light in 2001 revealed, the British authorities spent countless hours trying to explain away these atrocities with what we would today call “spin.”

For example, Lord Milner, who had been sent to South Africa to sort out the immediate aftermath of the war, wrote home of the camps:

It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it.

Emily Hobhouse died in 1926 and, shortly before her death, she wrote about her experiences in a memoir, one passage of which contained a phrase that her work had embedded in common usage.

My work in the concentration camps in South Africa made almost all my people look down upon me with scorn and derision. The press abused me, branded me a rebel, a liar, an enemy of my people, called me hysterical and even worse. One or two newspapers, for example the Manchester Guardian, tried to defend me, but it was an unequal struggle with the result that the mass of the people was brought under an impression about me that was entirely false. I was ostracized. When my name was mentioned, people turned their backs on me. This has now continued for many years and I had to forfeit many a friend of my youth.

As for Lord Kitchener, he consistently referred to Emily Hobhouse as “that bloody woman.”


This past week, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez kicked off a furor by using the phrase, “concentration camps” to describe what is happening to the detained migrants at the southern border of the United States. Almost immediately, AOC was accused not only of exaggerating the conditions in the detention centers, but also of cheapening the horrors of the Holocaust—which is sui generis among war crimes only because it adapted Lord Kitchener’s methods to use for modern, mechanized, industrial mass murder. By any reasonable definition, especially including Emily Hobhouse’s, what the present administration* is running on the borders are concentration camps.

Remember that episode in Bloemfontein in which Hobhouse deplored the lack of soap for the inmates at the concentration camp there? This week, an administration* lawyer went into court and argued that the detainee children are not entitled to toothbrushes and soap.

Remember how Hobhouse said that life in the camps “presses hardupon the children”? This week, lawyers went into a detention center in El Paso and, according to the AP, this is what the lawyers found.

Data obtained by The Associated Press showed that on Wednesday there were three infants in the station, all with their teen mothers, along with a 1-year-old, two 2-year-olds and a 3-year-old. There are dozens more under 12. Fifteen have the flu, and 10 more are quarantined. Three girls told attorneys they were trying to take care of the 2-year-old boy, who had wet his pants and no diaper and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt when the legal team encountered him.

A Border Patrol agent came in our room with a 2-year-old boy and asked us, ‘Who wants to take care of this little boy?’ Another girl said she would take care of him, but she lost interest after a few hours and so I started taking care of him yesterday,” one of the girls said in an interview with attorneys. Law professor Warren Binford, who is helping interview the children, said she couldn’t learn anything about the toddler, not even where he’s from or who his family is. He is not speaking.

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The conditions at the Border Patrol facility at Paso del Norte have reached a dangerous new low.

The women and children at the border

Binford described that during interviews with children in a conference room at the facility, “little kids are so tired they have been falling asleep on chairs and at the conference table.” She said an 8-year-old taking care of a very small 4-year-old with matted hair couldn’t convince the little one to take a shower. “In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” said Holly Cooper, who co-directs University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic and represents detained youth.

And people, important people, people with the power actually to do something about this stench in the nostrils of the world, spent the week quibbling over whether calling these hellholes “concentration camps” was proper rhetorical etiquette. One of those people was the inexcusable Congresswoman Liz Cheney, whose father, of course, made the United States a country that tortured by calling waterboarding an “enhanced interrogation technique.” There’s a special revolving spit in hell for people who poison the language with that kind of euphemism.

“I’m the one who put the families and children back together.”

In 1901, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was working as a physician in South Africa during the war, and who was loudly in support of what Kitchener was doing, smuggled a photo out of the Bloemfontein camp of an emaciated girl named Lizzie Van Zyl, who died of typhoid fever shortly thereafter. Doyle and his contact in Parliament, Joseph Chamberlain, used to photo to accuse the Van Zyls of neglecting their daughter, claiming that photo had been taken when Lizzie and her mother had arrived at the camp. However, Doyle and Chamberlain had not reckoned with Emily Hobhouse, who had met Lizzie in the camp and knew that the reason Lizzie had been starved was that her father was fighting as a guerrilla in the hills, and that Lizzie and her mother had been declared “undesirables,” which meant that they were given the smallest food rations in the camp. Cruelty is always the point.

The U.S. has lost track of over 1,400 immigrant children

Do you have old children? Read this and cry, our beloved land

Donald Trump and the Art of the Lie

By Andrew Sullivan

A tyrant’s path to power is not a straight line, it’s dynamic. Each concession is instantly banked, past vices are turned into virtues, and then the ante is upped once again. The threat rises exponentially with time. If we can’t see this in front of our own eyes, and impeach this man now, even if he will not be convicted, we are flirting with the very stability of our political system. It is not impregnable. Why is Putin the only person who seems to grasp this?

“I like the truth. I’m actually a very honest guy,” President Trump told a slightly incredulous George Stephanopoulos this week. Like almost everything Trump says, it was, of course, a lie. But it was a particularly Trumpish kind of lie. It was so staggeringly, self-evidently untrue, and so confidently, breezily said, it was less a statement of nonfact than an expression of pure power.

For Trump, lying is central to his disturbed psyche, and to his success. The brazenness of it unbalances and stupefies sane and adjusted people, thereby constantly giving him an edge and a little breathing space while we try to absorb it, during which he proceeds to the next lie. And on it goes. It’s like swimming in choppy water. Just when you get to the surface to breathe, another wave crashes into you.

This particular lie was in the context of a report from the New York Times this week, independently confirmed by ABC News, that Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio had found Trump lagging Joe Biden in most of the states he needed to win — even in Texas. The Times reported that Trump had instructed his staff to lie about this polling. When asked about it by Stephanopoulos, Trump simply followed his own advice. “No, my polls show that I’m winning everywhere,” he said blithely. And when you hear him, it sounds as if he is telling the truth. He’s gooood.

In Michael Wolff’s new book, Siege, Steve Bannon recounts on the record several bald-faced lies Trump told him to his face. About Trump’s trip to Moscow, where the alleged and likely chimeric pee tape was supposedly made, Trump insisted repeatedly that he had spent only a day there, and hadn’t stayed overnight, so couldn’t have employed any prostitutes at all. “This story was told to me a dozen times, maybe more, and the details never changed,” Bannon noted, even as evidence emerged that Trump had indeed spent two days and two nights there.

On the affair with Stormy Daniels: “Never happened,” he told Bannon. And when Trump insisted on these things, he was in the moment believable. This preternatural capacity to lie convincingly even when the truth is obvious is a very rare skill. Which is why it works, of course. You simply assume that a grown man with real responsibility wouldn’t behave that way. And you would be wrong. Bannon, Wolff writes, came to understand that the lies were “compulsive, persistent and without even a minimal grounding in reality.” This is not to deceive the public. This is simply the way Trump behaves — in private and public. It’s why I have long believed he is mentally unwell.

It is not true that all presidents lie in this fashion. Take that famous liar, Bill Clinton. Bubba’s lies were infamous —  but he was always calibrating them to avoid telling an outright whopper. A ridiculous parsing of the definition of “sexual relations” or “is” is different than outright denying reality and daring people to correct you. Clinton accepted reality and tried, in lawyerly fashion, to spin his way out of it.

In retrospect, the presidency of George W. Bush was a Trump harbinger of sorts. Recall this famous passage from Ron Suskind, reporting on the Bush White House for the Times:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create reality. And while you are studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

The joke, in the end, of course, was on them. Reality destroyed them, as it often does. In that time period, however, it also destroyed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

No, Trump’s only rival in this department — denying what everyone can see is true — was Sarah Palin, the lipsticked John the Baptist of the Trump cult. During the 2008 campaign, gobsmacked that this lunatic could be in line for the presidency, I began to keep track of everything she said out loud that was provably, empirically untrue. In the two months she was running to be vice-president, I catalogued 34 demonstrably untrue statements, which she refused to correct. She compiled nowhere near Trump’s volume of lies — it’s close to inhuman to lie the way he does — but her capacity to move swiftly on from them, along with the press’s supine failure to keep up, was very Trumpy. The short attention span of digital media has made this worse. And she got away with it. The base didn’t care; the media couldn’t cope.

Trump, too stupid to ape Clinton, and far more accomplished a liar than Palin, combines the sinister Bush-era kind of lie — “We do not torture” — with the Palin compulsion to just make things up all the time to avoid any sense of vulnerability. What Trump adds is a level of salesmanship that is truly a wonder to behold. He is a con man of surpassing brilliance and conviction, and every time he survives the fallout of a con, he gets more confident about the next one.

Continue reading Do you have old children? Read this and cry, our beloved land

Do you have young children? Read this and cry, our beloved land

The Uninhabitable Earth

Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.
By David Wallace-Wells *This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

In the jungles of Costa Rica, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out. Fossils by Heartless Machine

I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.

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The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.

Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines). Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”

But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.

In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

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The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*

The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.

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Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.

Continue reading Do you have young children? Read this and cry, our beloved land

Terry Pinkard on Hegel

The spirit of history
Hegel’s search for the universal patterns of history revealed a paradox: freedom is coming into being, but is never guaranteed.

History, or at least the study of it, is in bad shape these days. Almost everyone agrees that knowing history is important, but in the United States, except at the most elite schools, the study of history is in freefall. Our age seems to share the skepticism voiced by the German philosopher G W F Hegel (1770-1831) when he said that the only lesson history teaches us is that nobody ever learned anything from history. Why? The present is always new and the future is untested, leading many to sympathise with the American businessman Henry Ford’s pronouncement in 1921 that history is more or less bunk. Yet the very same Hegel also argued that, although things do indeed always seem unprecedented, history does actually give us a clue as to our ultimate ends.
We are a peculiar species: what it is to be the creatures that we are is always a problem for us – in part because we make ourselves into the kinds of creatures that we are, and because we explore this in all the different ways we live out our lives, individually and collectively. The study of history involves not only telling stories or piling up facts. In its larger structure, it is the account of humanity experimentally seeking to understand itself in all the myriad ways in which it gives shape to itself in daily life, and also how historical change is intimately linked to changes in our basic self-understanding. As Hegel put it in a series of lectures in 1822-30, ‘we’ are peculiarly our own products, and the philosophical study of history is a study of how we shape-shifted ourselves across time.
No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness. For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing. Here’s a simple example: as you are reading this, suppose you get a text message from a friend: ‘What are you doing?’ You immediately reply: ‘I’m reading a piece on Hegel.’ You knew what you were doing without having to have a separate act of thinking about it or drawing conclusions. Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. You didn’t look around and infer from the evidence. You didn’t need any particular introspection. In fact, in Hegelian terms, when you are doing something and you do not know at all what you are doing, you’re not really doing anything at all. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.
Secondly, Hegel thought that self-consciousness is always a matter of locating ourselves in a kind of social space of ‘I’ and ‘we’. Saying ‘I’ or saying ‘we’ is just speaking from one of two sides of the same dialectical coin. In many cases, ‘we’ seems to add up to lots of instances of ‘I think’ or ‘I do’, but in its most fundamental sense ‘we’ is just as basic as ‘I’. Each individual self-consciousness is fundamentally social. The generality of the ‘we’ manifests itself in the individual acts of each of us, but ‘we’ is itself nothing apart from the individual acts of singular flesh-and-blood agents. When I know what it is that I am doing, I am also aware that what ‘I’ am doing is, so to speak, the way ‘we’ do it.
It is a mistake to think that one side of the coin is more important: ‘I’ is not merely a point without further content absorbed completely within a social space (a ‘we’), nor is ‘we’, the social space, merely the addition of lots of individual ‘I’s. Without practitioners, there is no practice; without the practice, there are no practitioners. This is sometimes hard to see. Often, the ‘I’ tries to separate itself from the ‘we’ and rebel against it. (Think of existentialism.) Sometimes the ‘I’ tries to absorb itself fully into the ‘we’. (Think of what totalitarians dream about.) Sometimes the ‘I’ tries to stage-manage the recognition it seeks from the ‘we’ by pretending to be what it isn’t. (Think of the con artist.) All of these deficient forms of ‘I’ and ‘we’ make their various appearances in history.
Third, for humans, just as with any species, there are ways in which things can go better or worse for individuals within the species. Trees without the right soil do not flourish as the trees they could be; wolves without the right environmental range cannot become the wolves they could be. Similarly, self-conscious humans build familial, social, cultural and political environments that make it possible to become new, different and better versions of ourselves. But what we can make of ourselves depends on where we are in history. Your great-great-grandparents never dreamed of being computer coders. Medieval villagers did not aspire to become middle-level managers in a global trash-collection firm. Who ‘I’ am is always bound up with what ‘we’ do, but it is a mistake to take our individual acts simply as singular applications of something like general rules. It is better to say that we exemplify in better or worse ways what it is for us to really be us – for example, in friendship, chess-playing, vegetable-chopping or citizenship. The generality of the practice sets the terms in which I can flourish as any one of these things. Yet it is I who set the way in which I exemplify the practice, and ‘we’ all participate in seeing how well the two (‘I’ and ‘we’) converge and diverge….
Terry Pinkard is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University

Continue reading Terry Pinkard on Hegel

Two kinds of Truth

Donald Trump’s truth (better untruth) is of the second kind. And he probably doesn’t even know the meaning of a noble action. let alone the meaning of Michael Connelly’s words “truth as the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission.”

Bosch: “What that kid did was noble. When this all comes out, people will probably say he was stupid and naive and didn’t know what he was doing. But they won’t know the truth. He was being noble. And there isn’t a lot of that out there in the world anymore. People lie, the president lies, corporations lie and cheat.… The world is ugly and not many people are willing to stand up to it anymore. Why I did what I did was that I didn’t want this kid did to go by without… well I guess I didn’t want his killers to get away with it.”

Even serial killer Borders knew there were just two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that was the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission. And the other, malleable truth of politicians, charlatans, corrupt lawyers, and their clients, bent and molded to serve whatever purpose was at hand.

From Michael Connelly’s novel, of the same name.

US Constitution in Intensive Care

Trump has made my political science students skeptical — of the Constitution

By David Lay Williams

They used to love the Federalist Papers. Now they see holes in the essays’ arguments.

June 7, 2019

Portrait of James Madison painted by John Vanderlyn. Madison was one of the three authors — along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton — of the Federalist Papers. (N/A/Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation. )

Thomas Jefferson called “The Federalist” — the collection of essays written by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in 1787 and 1788, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution — “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Through the years, many others have echoed that high praise. The political writer George Will recently said the 85 essays, written for a few New York newspapers, under the pen name “Publius,” are surpassed as a work of political philosophy only by Aristotle’s “Politics.”

I’ve been teaching “The Federalist” to college students since I was a graduate student in the 1990s. While the arguments defending the Constitution’s provisions still stimulate students, I can report a striking change in their reactions to the work since the election of President Trump. Students today are far more skeptical of the argument in “The Federalist” that the Constitution’s famous checks and balances would be sufficient to keep a demagogue from attaining the presidency, for example — or exerting malign power should he attain office. They are dubious when Publius asserts that neither Congress nor the president could ever be susceptible to corruption, in part because of the Constitution’s structure. In short, they are more skeptical about the Constitution itself.

Smart students, of course, have always argued with some assertions in “The Federalist.” Some have always challenged Publius regarding the morally problematic compromises on slavery — the decision to allow the slave population to increase the voting power of slave states through the infamous three-fifths rule, for instance. They unsurprisingly object to the anti-democratic nature of the Senate (two senators per state, regardless of population) and the electoral college. Yet until now, there was a general sense in the classroom that these essays advanced a comprehensive, farsighted and relatively successful political philosophy — and that Americans have been largely lucky to have had the good fortune of such a founding.

But when I taught the seminar again this spring — for the first time since Trump’s election (I had last taught it in 2014) — the experience was radically different from anything had encountered before. The students approvingly noted that Hamilton was aware of the danger of states succumbing to the rhetoric of aspiring leaders who “beg[an] their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants” (Federalist 1). But they pointed out that the system Publius defends led to the election of a president who makes outlandish claims about the “tremendous crime” immigration brings, exaggerates violence in urban areas like Chicago, and retweets statements posted by white nationalists — and generally appeals to people’s basest instincts.

Publius repeatedly seeks to demonstrate how the Constitution will be uniquely capable of preventing corruption, including from “foreign gold” (Federalist 55); such corruption, he argues, would have to penetrate several branches of government to succeed undetected. (He also suggests that the incorruptibility of the Continental Congress should assure readers the proposed new government would be similarly immune to outside interference.) Yet students wonder whether the president’s failure to divest himself of various investments has specifically invited such corruption. And they wonder how Americans might even discover evidence of such corruption, given his concealment of his financial records, even after Congress has demanded it.

Publius insisted that by providing a buffer between the people and the direct election of their president, the electoral college was designed to provide a “moral certainty, that the office of president, will seldom fall to the lot of any man, who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” namely, “ability and virtue” (Federalist 68). To rebut that argument, my students point to the president’s flouting of established legal, political, institutional and moral norms, and even his penchant for petty name-calling.

The authors of “The Federalist” also thought that Congress — particularly the Senate — would tamp down the passionate excesses of the people, should they be stimulated by “artful misrepresentations” from any source (Federalist 63). But now my students watch as senators hold their tongues, terrified of being ridiculed on the president’s Twitter feed or angering Trump’s base.

Some students now see the Constitution as a flawed document, destined from the beginning to fail; for others, it has simply outlived its usefulness.

One might be tempted to explain the turn against “The Federalist,” and the Constitution, by arguing that students have been primed by leftist professors to reject everything associated with dead white men and the Western canon. But I continue to teach Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke and Tocqueville to generally approving classrooms. Students still delight in the insights to be gained from debating topics including Plato’s philosopher-rulers and Rousseau’s concept of the “general will.” Their skepticism seems limited to this one book.

The great danger in all this, it seems to me, is foreshadowed in “The Federalist” itself. In Federalist 49, Publius defends the choice to make amending the Constitution so difficult. Too many changes, too quickly, would “deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on every thing, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.” Without respect for the foundational law of the nation, he worries, the republic would become unstable and perhaps even collapse — the fate of Rome and all previous republics, as he well knew.

Americans have been working for well over two centuries to build that “veneration” that successful constitutions require — yet Trump is eroding it. His election and subsequent behavior is diminishing respect for the entire system the Framers created. And once people lose faith in the constitutional order, politics can, as Publius suggested, spiral out of control.

The Framers insisted that, despite how hard it is to amend the Constitution, the people would always retain the right to remedy future problems. But as Jean-Jacques Rousseau once cautioned, as states grow older, fixing structural problems becomes ever harder: “The people [in long-established republics] cannot bear even having someone touch their faults to get rid of them, like those stupid and cowardly invalids who tremble at the sight of a doctor.” Yet if citizens overcome that hesitation, he added, a sickly republic can be “reborn from its own ashes and, eluding death’s embrace, recapture the vigor of youth.”

The most promising way to redeem the Constitution may be for Congress to embrace the uniquely constitutional solution of impeachment, which Publius envisions as the proper response to the profound “abuse or violation of some public trust” (Federalist 68). The revelations of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III clearly establish such violations. The remaining question is whether Congress — “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country” (Federalist 10) — will do what’s necessary to save the system.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité