Category Archives: Freedom

 The Administrative State and the End of History

Francis Fukuyama just has to be wrong. Not about the end of history, for we are at history’s end (history being up until now the very imperfect record of how man has governed himself during some 50,000 or more years) but about the nature of the organizational structure of the last state.

The last state is/was not, of course, communist as Marx, Lenin, Mao and their followers would have it, nor was it the fascist state tried by Hitler and others, and still being tried by reactionaries today, but, and this a big but, neither was the last state liberal and democratic as described by Fukuyama.

The last state marking history’s end just has to be the administrative state. Not the fake autocratic democracies of present day Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Venezuela nor the real autocracies of China, Syria, Egypt and Cuba.

The administrative state is, or will be in most places, the last one standing because it is the only governing political structure that takes into account the huge differences there are among people. And that has to be the biggest discovery of the modern world, that people are different, and not because of the color of their skin. For much too long political leaders of all stripes have been devising governing structures that would attempt, unsuccessfully of course, to make people all the same, perhaps wrongly assuming they were. They’re not.

People are different. And our differences are now more than ever in view, if not in all instances thriving. And only the administrative state, among the world’s governing structures, tries to recognize and contain the differences among us while not just placing them within, but making then an integral part of, the constantly evolving, fluid and what seems to be the unwieldy and formless state structure encompassing them.

However, we’re not there yet. In fact it does still seem all too often  that we can’t yet govern ourselves, that our leaders, such as they are, are themselves most often at a loss what to do. So as I say it’s messy, life’s messy, but what we have come up with, the more and more global administrative state, is par for the course, probably the best we can do at present.

As crazy as this may seem, as crazy as it seems to me, there are those who would bring down the administrative state: —Steve Bannon, for example, but also the recent Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, an originalist, or one who would always go back to our founding documents as if they were no less relevant today than at their origin (if then).

These people and others, mostly of conservative, nationalist, and nativist views, many among the close advisors of President Trump, while trying to correct what they may see as the failures of present day societies, only make things worse by favoring this group or that group, their groupings based on ethnic, racial, sexual or other superficial divisions, never on the fundamental and individual differences among us, these being the only ones that really count. The real failures of our society including economic inequalities, family breakdowns, true believers turning into fanatical Islamic terrorists, the country’s lacking a moral center, the frequent and ubiquitous manifestations  of untruth and unreason) remain pretty much untouched.

The differences between us now coming out mean that we have to constantly confront an endless stream of issues and problems, and it’s only the administrative state that seems to be up to the task of handling them.  Here are two examples of the typical situations that we face all the time.

The first follows from the sale of recreational marijuana being allowed in Massachusetts. In November of last year 1.8 million residents went to the ballot boxes to vote to legalize recreational marijuana. The result was that growing, buying, possessing, and using limited quantities of the drug became legal in Massachusetts. How will the sale and use of the drug be regulated and controlled?

The second situation follows from the fact of the sale and distribution of foods taking place in public on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. The streets in the example, and in the pictures below are in Bangkok, but they might have been in lower Manhattan or New Orleans.

Both situations will mean, of course, that new regulations will be necessary, probably a lot of regulations (and who would want it otherwise?) on top of whatever codes and regulations already existed for this sort of thing. The bureaucratic state with all its red tape is here to stay. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of situations like these just in our own country’s history.

By the way we may be “great” now. But history, if nothing else, makes it clear that at no time in the past were we great. (History of course being one of the subjects of which our President is almost without any knowledge, that is ignorant.)

World wide there are millions, hundreds of millions of situations springing up where new regulations  are needed and necessary. And when the people who are living together are all different, as is the case now and has always been, it makes it even more difficult and complicated to resolve the problems arising from such situations. But we have to do it, and we have to do it by means of the last state standing.

In Massachusetts State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg is the top recreational marijuana regulator, with unilateral power to hire and fire the officials who will oversee the new billion-dollar industry. But things will probably not remain that simple. The State Legislature wants some of the action, and appears likely to strip Goldberg of her authority, perhaps creating an independent marijuana oversight commission instead.

Also Representative Mark J. Cusack, House chairman of the committee overhauling the voter-passed pot law, floated the possibility that a “new regulatory structure, such as an independent commission,” might work better for Massachusetts than the current plan. It’s worth reading the article from the Boston Globe, Lawmakers may strip treasurer of pot authority, as a fine example of the rapid growth, in this case, of state agencies. No end in sight?

From the Globe article: “…Advocates expressed worry that taking authority away from Goldberg would push the opening of retail shops further into the future. The treasurer’s office is the appropriate place for the Cannabis Control Commission because both this treasurer, and past treasurers, have shown a very high level of regulatory ability with the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which is the most analogous agency. Our fear is that moving the Cannabis Control Commission now, after considerable work has taken place in the treasurer’s office, will result in additional delays,,…”

The other article,

The World Capital of Street Food Is Banning Street Food,

is from the magazine Foreign Policy.

Bangkok’s bustling, roadside food stands are legendary. But with the Thai government’s new decree to shut down street food — in an attempt to improve safety and cleanliness — outrage is growing.

Below I’ve posted a few of the pictures from the streets of Bangkok. After looking at them imagine it your job to determine the amount and kinds of rules and regulations that would be necessary to be sure that people there in the streets were not at risk from the products they were buying. I’m sure you’ll agree that regulations (and a lot of them) will be necessary.

These two articles almost by themselves ought to make us, if we’re not already, believers in the Administrative State. For me it was like realizing where I had been living all my life, just as M. Jourdain in the Molière play realized he had been speaking prose all his life.

Link to Foreign Policy

Neil Gorsuch on the Administrative State

Just heard that Neil Gorsuch has been confirmed by the Senate to the ninth seat on the Supreme Court.

Will the new Justice undermine the administrative state, what I’ve called our “speaking mostly in prose?” And will he try to return us to the poetry of the past, to the Constitution, as he seeks to promote his own originalist position?

Scalia and Gorsuch

We are told that Gorsuch in respect to the Constitution is an originalist much like Antonin Scalia whom he greatly admired and whom he is replacing. The two men would do nothing that was not allowed by the historical moment, time, and spirit of the Constitution. In a more conservative court Scalia would not have permitted abortion, same sex marriage, probably not assisted suicide. Will Gorsuch be with him with similar positions?

Emily Bazelon and Eric Posner have written (see The Government Gorsuch Wants to Undo) that Gorsuch’s being on the court would be bad not only for the administrative state but even worse for the country.

“Judge Gorsuch,” they write, “embraces a judicial philosophy that would do nothing less than undermine the structure of modern government — including the rules that keep our water clean, regulate the financial markets and protect workers and consumers.”

Their words are a clear statement that the rules and regulations that we are obliged to live with, and while mostly complaining about, see them as more important than, say the much ballyhooed separation of powers, for our country’s well being. Think clean air and water, previous existing medical conditions, the safety of the work place, not to mention the rights of minorities whose presence was not even acknowledged in the Constitution or in the earlier history of the country.

In other words Gorsuch would strongly oppose the administrative state, placing himself “smack” in the company of Steve Bannon, who has called any number of times  for its “deconstruction.”

Trump of course didn’t understand what he was doing by choosing Gorsuch. And as for Gorsuch himself, one might ask if he, for all his otherwise brilliance and readiness to serve on the court, really understands the weakness of the originalist position, his own and the one he so much admired in his predecessor Antonin Scalia. In a world, our world, where change is everywhere and where evolutionary science is to be looked to for guidance, more so than tradition and yes more so than religion, stuck no less than tradition in the past, and needing desperately (think priests in the  Catholic church and terrorists in ISIS) to change.

As Judge Gorsuch himself put it in a speech last year (Summer, 2016) the Legacy of Justice Scalia, the administrative state “poses a grave threat to our values of personal liberty.” It would seem therefore that Gorsuch would go along with the House bills that would undo so many of the rules we have come to live with, rules that in most instances do not take away our personal freedoms but enable us to better enjoy them. Think environmental protection, rules of the road, the rules of our games, both road and games entirely dependent on rules and referees, as so much else in our lives. And all that has been a good thing.

Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, agreeing with Bazelon and Posner, has written  (see, Adam Liptak,  in a Times article,1/2017, In Judge Neil Gorsuch, an Echo of Scalia in Philosophy and Style,) that Judge Gorsuch’s stance on federal regulation was “extremely problematic” and “even more radical than that of Antonin Scalia —

“Not requiring courts to defer to agency expertise when an act of Congress is ambiguous,” she said, “will make it much harder for federal agencies to effectively address a wide variety of critical matters, including labor rights, consumer and financial protections, and environmental law.”


Judge Gorsuch’s writing does differ, perhaps, from Justice Scalia’s in one major way: His tone is consistently courteous and mild, while some of Justice Scalia’s dissents were caustic and wounding. (See above, Adam Liptak.) This difference was what probably got Gorsuch through the confirmation process and the questioning by the Senators so easily.

Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation probably means that for the time being the court will return to a familiar dynamic, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a moderate conservative, holding the decisive vote in many closely divided cases (again Adam Liptak). But most important Gorsuch’s confirmation will give added life to the originalist positions of the conservative Justices now on the Court, threatening what the more liberal and progressive courts have achieved up until now, especially if Trump goes on to choose still another originalist for a new SCOTUS vacancy.

In Orlando, a bald eagle flew into a sewer and died.

Is this piece below, what I would call Trump sightings during the week of December 17, anything more than sour grapes on the part of the writer? In some part probably. And yet didn’t Donald Trump, by his own distortions of the truth, by his out of all control tongue during the recent campaign, bring this and thousands of other no less extravagant and harsh judgments upon himself?
HARPER’S Weekly Review, week of November 17, 2016

Donald Trump, a real-estate developer endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, was elected president of the United States. Following the election, the Canadian government’s immigration website crashed, the Dow Jones temporarily plummeted, two LGBT suicide hotlines reported a spike in call volume, and more than 4.3 million Americans signed a petition asking state electors to pick as president former candidate Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote by a margin of at least a million but failed to win a majority in the Electoral College.elephant “The Electoral College is a disaster for democracy,” Trump tweeted in 2012. Trump appointed the editor of an alt-right news site as his chief strategist, and more than 400 hate crimes were reported across the country. The mayor of Clay, West Virginia, resigned after commenting favorably on a Facebook post that compared First Lady Michelle Obama to an “Ape in heels”; the deputy director of a corrections center in Memphis, Tennessee, resigned after writing on Facebook that “the KKK is more American” than Barack Obama; a school-board member in Little Rock, Arkansas, was investigated by the superintendent for wearing blackface; students in Indiana, Michigan, and Texas chanted variations of “Build a wall!” during their lunch periods; middle-schoolers in Oregon shouted “Go back to Mexico!” at an 11-year-old Colombian American; a banner that read “Death to Diversity” was hung in a Colorado library; a high-school student in Redding, California, handed out fake “deportation orders” to his minority classmates; a Maryland elementary-school bathroom was vandalized with the message “KILL KILL KILL BLACKS”; a Maryland Episcopal church sign advertising Spanish services was vandalized with the message “Trump Nation Whites Only”; an LGBT-friendly Episcopal church in Indiana was vandalized with a swastika and the words “Heil Trump”; a note reading “You can all go home now” was posted on a Muslim family’s front door in Iowa City; a Muslim teacher in Atlanta found a note in her classroom telling her to hang herself with her headscarf; Muslim girls in San Jose and Albuquerque reported having their hijabs forcibly removed from their heads; a Muslim student at the University of Michigan was threatened with immolation; swastikas were drawn on the dorm-room doors of Jewish students at the New School in New York City; “Trump!” was written on the door of a Muslim prayer room at New York University; a college student in Oklahoma threatened in a group messaging app to lynch black students at the University of Pennsylvania; a boy in Pennsylvania carried a Trump sign through the halls of his high school shouting “White power!”; signs advising white women not to date black men appeared on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas; a teacher in a Tampa Bay high school was placed on leave for allegedly threatening to “call Donald Trump and get you sent back to Africa”; a neo-Nazi blogger declared New Balance the “official shoes of white people”; and a neo-Nazi leader of the alt-right movement enjoined his followers to make “brown people … feel that everything around them is against them.” In Orlando, a bald eagle flew into a sewer and died.


The gap between us

Is there a gap in our society that needs bridging? Between say the followers of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, between those on the left and those on the right, between liberals and conservatives?

Furthermore do the present country wide demonstrations against newly elected President Trump, mean that the gap is there and still very much alive? Or is it what we would rather be the case, that the recent statements of President elect Trump, as during his talk with President Obama in the Oval Office, imply that the gap, while still there, is less than it was? For it does seem to be that just the fact of being the newly elected president nullifies the irresponsible positions and statements of the candidate who came before.

And what about Hillary? Was she speaking of a gap or separation between us when she said, “You know, to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?  The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, the ‘you name it.’”

Are there people like that? Are the “deplorables” real? The Blacks will tell you, yes, there are racists out there, as will gays confirm the presence of homophobics, women of sexists, immigrants of xenophobics, and Muslims of Islamaphobics.

So is the principal gap among us that between those of us who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and those of us who are not? No, I don’t think so. (Also, no one is never just any one of those sorry characters alone.)

The gap, I think the principal one, is as always the gap between the “haves and the have-nots,” these two groups out numbering by orders of magnitude racists, sexists, and the others. In fact, the gap between rich and poor has probably been with us since the advent of civilization some 10,000 or so years ago, that point in our history when wealth accumulation became possible.

Prior to that time in our history there were the so-called hunter/gatherer societies but the anthropologists who study these people have, as far as I know, not yet uncovered among them Hillary’s deplorables and the “you know whats,” nor the legions of the poor and the jobless of today. Was it, perhaps, because the land was only there to use, not to take, as in the time of the native Americans?

But I’ve done it once again, while writing losing my north, my direction. What I had intended to write about was not all the above but the single, and for me most troubling gap of all, that being the ability gap (or gaps). For it is, I believe, differences of ability that most separate us. Even in just one family sometimes these are not easy to overcome.

At one extreme these gaps are huge, that between me and Richard Feynman, or between me and LeBron James, or between me and Beyonce. Take any ability, any one of the seven abilities, or as Howard Gardner called them, “intelligences,”  —musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and an eighth, naturalistic, and then you will see that the distances between us in respect to any one of these is huge.

So we all might on a scale of 1-10, for each of these abilities, place ourselves in respect to the “amount” of the ability in our possession, the one end, a 10, representing respective abilities of Richard Feynman, Lebron James, and let’s say Bach or Mozart (in place of Beyonce), and at the other a 1 representing (there was a point when I wanted to say Donald Trump, but I no longer believe that, because in his  case things are changing, for the better?)…?

If we were to do this, scaling in this manner our own abilities, that which happens in school, almost on the first day, when we begin to compare others to ourselves and see ourselves being compared with others, then almost on that very first day the ability gaps between us are visible to teacher and student alike. When this happens, this kind of learning about our own “worth” compared to others, we may at best be only at a loss for words. If we’re lucky we won’t be at the bottom of the scale in anyone of the seven intelligences. But there may be those who are, and if so these might, and probably are in many countries, labelled à la Hillary the “real” deplorables, (except when it’s much too politically incorrect to do so).

I think it’s clear that everyone knows, if not understands, that abilities are not evenly distributed, and in order to go on living with one another, in order not to be constantly envious of one another, even occasionally coming to blows and doing battle, we have to learn to live with and accept our differences. Most of us probably do. For we have no choice than to accept that we are very different, one from another. In my own case I’ve long accepted a number of big disappointments about myself, that for example I’ll never make it to Master level of chess, or teach classes of differential calculus at MIT, and I know that I’ll never have a role to play in a production of the Metropolitan Opera.

It is on this very point that our public schools have by and large failed. Failed because they have tried to hide the differences among their students, not wanting to admit that their students need individual attention, their abilities varying so widely that it makes no sense to pretend they don’t and keep them all together working at the same task or lesson, and while doing so making little or no progress. (That which we call the failure of our schools.)

Even worse the school people have I think, tragically, because of the lives that are hurt by their doing so, made the goal of a four year liberal arts college education the goal of everyone. It can’t be of course but the school people go on acting as if it were, and as a result they go on neglecting the real abilities of the students, pretending that college is within the reach of their real abilities whereas too often it’s not.

Now I would return to the gap between us that needs bridging. For that gap, I believe, results to a large extent from the huge differences in our abilities. The poor white working classes, many of whom did not attend college and while in school were academically challenged to say the least, during the recent election by and large supported Trump. The college educated, the academically gifted, the members of the country’s elite ruling classes by and large supported Clinton. Different abilities may have brought this situation about, but now the differences seem to be differences of class.

I know of only two methods of closing what I will now call the ability and often resulting wealth gap between us. But the redistribution of the country’s wealth, that remedy for wealth inequality, which has been most often tried by governments, and perhaps even ever so slightly diminishing differences of wealth, is not one of them. Differences of ability are still not within the government’s power to modify, let alone change.

One method to bridge the ability gap is and has been for some time, religion. And in fact one religion, Christianity, for example, came upon the inequality scene among men with the principal goal of encouraging men to love one another, paying no attention to any inequalities, differences of ability, wealth, or class, among them. If I were to love say, LeBron and Beyonce, and love was returned, of what importance would then be our differing abilities? None at all.

So I’m not convinced that religion is not the way to go. It may be, but it is not my way. My way is science, which means looking about one with a kind of skeptical curiosity while wanting to know as much as one can about one’s situation, about one’s surroundings, about the people and the things that one (everyone, regardless of ability level) encounters, about where one is on the earth,… all of this being an attitude requiring no particular ability and to some not small extent being within the power of us all.

And this for some is where science and religion come together. Given a population of Christians (or Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, Sikhs, et al.) and scientists the gap between people would disappear because neither religion nor science would give importance to skin, surface differences, the very differences that ignorance makes so much of.

In the past religion, forgetting the spirit of the book while being taken up by the words,  has too often failed to be true to itself, while so far, anyway, science has not. Both science and religion point us towards the very deepest possible understanding of ourselves, of the meaning of life, and this understanding, within the power of each and everyone of us, doesn’t depend on any one or more, even on greater or lesser amounts of one or more of the seven abilities, as exceptional or extraordinary as these might be, the logical-mathematical ability of a Newton, the musical-rhythmic ability of a Mozart….

A few first thoughts on the meanings of liberal (really liberalism) and conservative.

The present time is, as Francis Fukuyama has argued convincingly, the end of history and the triumph of liberalism. And he might have said, given the triumph of liberalism, really a kind of liberal democracy, that the left/right, liberal/conservative and other such divisions are no longer valid, and that the world is coming together at the center.

Now there are those, perhaps even a majority of the literate citizens of the world, who don’t swear by what I now choose to call the triumvirate of liberalism: free trade, individual liberty, and the Rule of Law. One of those who doesn’t swear, at least about this, is the present Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump. And this, not his insensitive and bullying behavior regarding women, minorities, and just people different from himself, is the main reason I will not vote for him. In fact I’ve already voted and I voted for Hillary Clinton.

Didn’t we love, and in my own case still love the Wild West for the first two tenants of liberalism, free trade and  individual liberty? And it wasn’t just our own attachment. The West in the form of Western films has conquered the world, and in doing so has taught the world, as well as our children, a good part of what we meant and still mean by individual liberty. But also the West has shaped our thinking about free trade, because the Wild West was a lot about trading, about exchanging goods with the native Americans, about the ranchers and fur traders, and eventually the farmers, making mutually beneficial trade agreements among themselves.

What about the third tenant or characteristic of liberalism, the Rule of Law? For a long time the people of the West were without the Rule of Law. And I’ll admit that much of the attraction of the West came from the absence of law,  and also the absence of that bane of modern life, countless regulations. Sure there were the lawmen of the West, the Seth Bullocks, Pat Garretts, John Hughes, Heck Thomases, Bill Tilghmans, Wyatt Earps, Bat Mastersons, to name just a few  that come to my mind from the thousands of these representatives of the first law of the land.

But the lawmen were not enough. As we have seen it would take eventually the Federal government itself to quiet the fears of the more timid members of society, to secure by the Rule of Law  the lives of women and children, as well as to secure and assure while welcoming the tens of thousands of new immigrants who have always come here for the freedom and opportunity to work, with the result that the wealth of the whole country has grown substantially.

It is ironic that the Tea Partiers who would make a claim for their own higher morality are in fact partnering during the current presidential election  with the altRight, those crazies who among other things are monopolizing the talk on talk radio, talk radio being without a moral standing, and without reason and common sense, as well as partnering, although they would deny it, with the bigots, the racists, the climate change deniers, and partnering also , although they would deny this too, with the Republican candidate for President.

It is ironic that all these groups  calling themselves some kind of conservatives (whatever that means) would hold onto their own individual liberties, even if it means allowing one of their own to carry a concealed gun in a University of Texas lecture hall (why, Wyatt Earp himself wouldn’t have permitted that).

But now, instead of being satisfied with their own freedom, instead of marveling at the degree of freedom which we all enjoy in this country, they are convinced (conspiracy theorists all of them, along with their talk radio partners) that they are being pushed to the side, their own freedom, and jobs, threatened by newcomers to the country (immigrant families with children much like their own ancestors), threatened by the trade deals with other countries that have in fact no less enriched the TeaPartiers than all of us, threatened also as they say by the rule of Law,  threatened by the very  government programs intended to help, everyone of course, but in particular those who for whatever reason are unable for short or longer periods of time to help themselves.

These Tea Party conservatives and altRight talk show crazies would be free themselves to do whatever they wanted, while at the same time not allowing the country to help those in need. In their hands the word welfare, a beautiful word in my opinion, has become a dirty word. Also, and whatever else they may be they are not even true conservatives.True conservatives would always be for helping those in need, and in this regard certainly no less than the liberals. In fact we ought to stop using the names, liberal and conservative, at least until we know what we mean by both.

The following passage, from Foreign Affairs of Nov-Dec 2016, I take from a capsule review by G. John Ikenberry of Duncan Bell’s new book, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. This just one more of a spate of recent articles that have got me thinking about the meaning of liberal, liberalism, and conservatism, all three ideas still very much alive and very much in need of clarification. This blog a first attempt. Others to follow.

The liberal tradition has long had a deeply fraught relationship with imperialism. In the late nineteenth century, British liberals embraced free trade, individual liberty, and the rule of law, while also defending the United Kingdom’s empire. In recent decades, liberal internationalist ideas have found their way into arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention, preemptive war, and campaigns to spread democracy—all of which critics often deride as imperialism in new guises. Bell’s masterful study represents one of the best efforts yet to untangle the many ideological and political knots that bind liberalism and imperialism. In a series of rich intellectual portraits of leading Victorian-era thinkers Bell shows that most British liberals at that time saw empire as a necessary—or even vital—part of the liberal project that “civilized” states were pushing forward. Only much later, after two world wars and long struggles against fascism and communism, did the liberal vision became a more universal secular creed whose ideological and political principles could be reliably seized on by opponents of empire.

Holding onto the Past

Here I am with a blog entitled Holding onto the Past while believing firmly that there is no past, and by that meaning there is no history, there is only the present.

Let me qualify my statement in this way. There is no history in that what has happened can never be summarized, can never be experienced once again in the present, no matter how alive the description may be, say,  of the inbound electric street-car clattering up Summer Street in Boston, crashing a barricade and plunging through an open draw-bridge into the Fort Point Channel, killing 52 riders.  Follow this link to read about the original Boston Globe account (history) of the streetcar accident.

trolley-lede-web-newRight now there is no end to what is happening, for an infinite number of things, mostly things without beginnings and ends, are happening now continuously, and these things can never be summarized in a “history” to everyone’s or probably anyone’s satisfaction.

So in that sense there is no history. In the sense that the events of the present moment are part of an infinite series for which there is no possible summation.

Yet you will say histories are being written. People are making the past come alive. So how do we do that? How do we sum up somehow the Civil War, or the American involvement in Vietnam? We don’t of course. For the reasons given we can’t. Too much happened during those times and no one individual, participant, and especially no historian who probably wasn’t even there at the time, could tell us what happened.

So what can we say about the histories that we do write? Well when we write history here’s what we do. We take usually just one point of view of what happened and to the degree that that point of view does find wide agreement among us, then that point of view or interpretation becomes as it were the history of the war.

And this “history”may remain on the open shelves until it is replaced by someone else’s version, perhaps that of another historian, or perhaps even by a friend or acquaintance, or even by the historian’s wife or children, who will probably have themselves a lot to say about this guy’s, their husband’s or father’s war.

I’m not a nihilist. I don’t believe that history is entirely without meaning or truth. Nor am I writing about Francis Fukuyama’s popular End of History. Rather I’m saying that the definitive history of anything has not yet been written, can’t be written. Yes it’s true, as the prophet says, that we see all things as through a glass darkly.

The closest we’ve ever come to shedding the dark, and to seeing things more clearly has to be in science. There it does seem that the  scientists are getting closer and closer to telling us what may be the definitive and true history of the earth, of life on the earth, of the cosmos.

But the history of peoples, of nations, of civilizations, of the United States and of Europe, those histories while being written have not yet been written to everyone’s satisfaction. These histories are mostly without truth, and forever changing as we look at them as we must through different eyes and eye glasses.

So what is it that I could possibly mean by the headline, Holding on to the Past? cropped-ruins.jpgWell it doesn’t mean writing history. In fact in that regard I wouldn’t know where to begin. For at my birth everything else was already there, and the beginning of all that, was what?

My headline means rather taking things from the present and holding on to them tightly, because they and everything else that happens in the present are immediately past, and if we would not lose them entirely we have to somehow hold onto them.

In my own case I hold onto my ideas by posting them onto my blog. With the use of thousands of words and pictures, and more and more, with their videos, the NYTimes is holding onto a small but real part of the present, and is  a kind of yes partial record of our passage through the world.

Perhaps at their very best histories are records of the present now past, and the best histories are the best of these records.

But to repeat the very best records are never more than a very tiny part of all that is happening about us all the time. And man since he began writing histories, some tens of thousands of years ago, is to that extent, more at some times than others, say in ancient Greece and Rome, say in Renaissance Europe, holding onto the past.

Libertarians hope to see the world’s borders and barricades thrown open to the free movement of people and their wares.

What Trump and Pence, and Putin and le Pen, and many others, alas, don’t understand is that liberty and nationalism don’t mix, and that the free movement if goods and people is, and always has been, a big part, if not the biggest part of what it means to be free.

Liberty and Nationalism Don’t Mix,

(From FEE, the Foundation for Economic Education, 10/28/2016)

Inasmuch as one believes in liberty, he is to just the same extent an internationalist. Libertarianism without internationalism—without the idea that we are much better off sharing, cooperating, and transacting business with no thought to national boundaries—is simply incoherent, lacking a necessary component.

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015, his chauvinistic bluster has galvanized the old foes bigotry, racism, and white nationalism in a way not seen for many years. Support for Trump’s bankrupt isolationist ideas grew out of timeworn frustrations (many quite legitimate) in search of a scapegoat. Immigrants and outsiders of all kinds have been singled out for abuse, along, of course, with their supposed leftist and “cuckservative” apologists, regarded as tools of a globalist Jewish conspiracy. This noxious cadre of xenophobes, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis made Trump’s “Make America Great Again” their rallying cry, the banner under which to voice their opposition to political correctness, multiculturalism, and internationalism.

cobdenRichard Cobden Had a Dream

Richard Cobden (1804-1865) was an English manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, member of the Liberal Party, associated with two major free trade campaigns, the Anti-Corn Law League and the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty.
In his own words: “A newspaper should be the maximum of information, and the minimum of comment.””I believe it has been said that one copy of The Times contains more useful information than the whole of the historical works of Thucydides.”

Libertarians thus have occasion to defend the internationalism that is so central to our philosophy of liberty. An international brotherhood, classless, bound by mutual respect and committed to cooperation, was the dream of early socialism. Perhaps surprisingly, the practical ideal of nineteenth century free-trade liberalism was quite the same, at least in the abstract. Both socialists and free traders envisioned an end to the old world they had inherited, a world held in the shackles of power and privilege, in which commerce was the realm of royal favorites and special charters and one’s prospects were limited by his birth. Both foresaw a final end to history’s endless cycle of wars, a recognition of their futility and waste. The anti-protectionist liberal Richard Cobden dedicated much of his life and resources to this message of international harmony and peace.

Cobden looked beyond even the obvious material benefits of free trade, confident that its greatest impact would be felt in “the moral world.” With boundless optimism he compared international free trade to “the principle of gravitation” and saw it “drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.

Cobden’s sanguine predictions for a world transformed by the power of mutually-beneficial exchange recall Montesquieu’s similarly effusive praises of commerce almost exactly a century earlier. Montesquieu’s Enlightenment thought emphasized that “Commerce is a profession of people who are upon an equality”—that is, people who deal with one another as co-equals, without resort to subjection or domination. This he contrasts with both robbery and the systems of “exclusive privileges” that unjustly “restrain the liberty of commerce.”

Worldly and open-minded, these trade-loving liberals were ahead of their time—ahead even of our time—embracing a cosmopolitan worldview in which the prejudices of old had no place. Increased interaction with foreigners through trade, they believed, would help us see the errors in those prejudices, inherited from and representing less enlightened, more tribalistic eras. We would learn, through these dealings, that the ties that bind the human race, our similarities across national borders, are far more important than our superficial differences.

Following our classical liberal forebears—great champions of international comity and commerce—today’s libertarians hope to see the world’s borders and barricades thrown open to the free movement of people and their wares. We celebrate difference and diversity, delighting in the peaceful interaction between cultures, tastes, and languages, ever conscious of the moral and intellectual edification that results from such exchanges.

Economic Isolationism Leads to War

The arguments of Ludwig von Mises offer a compelling response to those in conservative and “alt-right” circles who believe that it is possible to promote limited government and nationalism simultaneously, without any contradiction. A free country in which the government apparatus is carefully confined to the protection of life, liberty, and private property is impossible in an environment that fosters jingoism and nativism, that closes itself off from trade and immigration. “A nation’s policy,” taught Mises, “forms an integral whole.”

For some, the greatness of America is tied to its ability to effectively exclude others and isolate itself.

As Mises shows in Omnipotent Government, nationalism is the inevitable “outcome of government interference with business,” which in turn dictates a foreign policy of antagonism toward other countries, looked upon for their resources as potential conquests. Mises understood that these phenomena—nationalism, protectionism, and war—are causally related. Once the government embarked on a policy of domestic economic intervention, intended to aid domestic industry, it must necessarily limit or prohibit, through coercive legal means, competition from abroad. Thus are nations locked in needless internecine conflict, old mercantilism revived as they misguidedly set their sights on a favorable balance of trade. Against the lessons of history, this is the retrograde insularity counseled by Trump, his supporters, and regrettably so many other voices in American politics, for whom the greatness of America is tied to its ability to effectively exclude others and isolate itself.

Political internationalism, though, is not the same as the social and economic kind. Neither is the desire for self-determination and self-government on its own an expression of wrongheaded nationalism. The old imperialist powers were examples of the baneful political variant of internationalism, as was the Soviet Union, and as is today the European Union. Such institutions are obstructive of genuine international friendship, for their foundations are the compacts of corrupt ruling classes. Setting this kind of multinational political super-state in opposition to toxic nationalism is to indulge a false dichotomy. Love of one’s country decidedly does not mean or imply a stance of distrust or bellicosity toward the people of other countries, nor does it call for restriction on trade. On the contrary, all nations the world over are best served by the maximization of the area over which specialization and trade are permitted to spread.

We have much yet to learn from great classical liberals like Cobden and Mises. Theirs was a hopeful message of a world bound not by coercive political chains but by the beneficial interdependence of billions of voluntary exchanges in a worldwide marketplace. To celebrate multiculturalism and internationalism is not to sell out our country. It is rather to herald a free and prosperous world in which authoritarian nationalism and its parochial ideas are just a memory.

Conservatism in need of life support and David Brooks is not enough

The Conservative Intellectual Crisis

David Brooks NYT, OCT. 28, 2016

I feel very lucky to have entered the conservative movement when I did, back in the 1980s and 1990s. I was working at National Review, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. The role models in front of us were people like Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk and Midge Decter.

These people wrote about politics, but they also wrote about a lot of other things: history, literature, sociology, theology and life in general. There was a sharp distinction then between being conservative, which was admired, and being a Republican, which was considered sort of cheesy.

These writers often lived in cities among liberals while being suspicious of liberal thought and liberal parochialism. People like Buckley had friends of every ideological stripe and were sharper for being in hostile waters. They were sort of inside and outside the establishment and could speak both languages.

Many grew up poor, which cured them of the anti-elitist pose that many of today’s conservative figures adopt, especially if they come from Princeton (Ted Cruz), Cornell (Ann Coulter) or Dartmouth (Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza). The older writers knew that being cultured and urbane wasn’t a sign of elitism. Culture was the tool they used for social mobility. T.S. Eliot was cheap and sophisticated argument was free.

The Buckley-era establishment self-confidently enforced intellectual and moral standards. It rebuffed the nativists like the John Birch Society, the apocalyptic polemicists who popped up with the New Right, and they exiled conspiracy-mongers and anti-Semites, like Joe Sobran, an engaging man who was rightly fired from National Review.

Students signing up with the College Republicans during freshman orientation last month at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Credit T. J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The conservative intellectual landscape has changed in three important ways since then, paving the way for the ruination of the Republican Party.

First, talk radio, cable TV and the internet have turned conservative opinion into a mass-market enterprise. Small magazines have been overwhelmed by Rush, O’Reilly and Breitbart.

Today’s dominant conservative voices try to appeal to people by the millions. You win attention in the mass media through perpetual hysteria and simple-minded polemics and by exploiting social resentment. In search of that mass right-wing audience that, say, Coulter enjoys, conservatism has done its best to make itself offensive to people who value education and disdain made-for-TV rage.

It’s ironic that an intellectual tendency that champions free markets was ruined by the forces of commercialism, but that is the essential truth. Conservatism went down-market in search of revenue. It got swallowed by its own anti-intellectual media-politico complex — from Beck to Palin to Trump. Hillary Clinton is therefore now winning among white college graduates by 52 to 36 percent.

Second, conservative opinion-meisters began to value politics over everything else. The very essence of conservatism is the belief that politics is a limited activity, and that the most important realms are pre-political: conscience, faith, culture, family and community. But recently conservatism has become more the talking arm of the Republican Party.
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Among social conservatives, for example, faith sometimes seems to come in second behind politics, Scripture behind voting guides. Today, most white evangelicals are willing to put aside the Christian virtues of humility, charity and grace for the sake of a Trump political victory. According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey, 72 percent of white evangelicals believe that a person who is immoral in private life can be an effective national leader, a belief that is more Machiavelli than Matthew.

As conservatism has become a propagandistic, partisan movement it has become less vibrant, less creative and less effective.

That leads to the third big change. Blinkered by the Republican Party’s rigid anti-government rhetoric, conservatives were slow to acknowledge and even slower to address the central social problems of our time.

For years, middle- and working-class Americans have been suffering from stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation. Shrouded in obsolete ideas from the Reagan years, conservatism had nothing to offer these people because it didn’t believe in using government as a tool for social good. Trump demagogy filled the void.

This is a sad story. But I confess I’m insanely optimistic about a conservative rebound. That’s because of an observation the writer Yuval Levin once made: That while most of the crazy progressives are young, most of the crazy conservatives are old. Conservatism is now being led astray by its seniors, but its young people are pretty great. It’s hard to find a young evangelical who likes Donald Trump. Most young conservatives are comfortable with ethnic diversity and are weary of the Fox News media-politico complex. Conservatism’s best ideas are coming from youngish reformicons who have crafted an ambitious governing agenda (completely ignored by Trump).

A Trump defeat could cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth. It was good to be a young conservative back in my day. It’s great to be one right now.

William F. Buckley in his office in New York City, in 1980. Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

The Comments

Following the David Brooks op ed piece there were comments, and at this very  moment, only a few hours after publication, there have been hundreds of them. And for the op ed writers of the Times this is not unusual, that hundreds read and respond with a comment to what they have read.

I haven’t read them, the hundreds of comments (nobody does, I suppose, except the Times editors themselves) but as usual, whenever I do take the time to read a few or more of them I’m impressed.

The Times Comment writers, at least the ones that I have read, are an extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent bunch of people. Would that they could somehow replace the present members of the House and Senate where pettiness, unreason, obstruction, along with a legion of other failings and shortcomings are the rule.

And the readers pounce, almost to the “man,” on David Brooks’ final statement, about how great it is to be a conservative right now. And this after he has persuaded his readers, and me too, that the barbarians out there who now go by the name of conservative, such as Rush, Beck, Hannity, Coulter, Alex Jones, Ted Cruz, Laura Ingraham, to name just the first few that come go mind, now dominate the social media. Young conservatives, in the manner of Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk and Midge Decter, who knows any?

Now a selection of the comments:

It’s true and maybe a kind of silver lining that the Limbaugh-Breitbart-Trump effect is making the kind of “old-fashioned” conservativism Brooks eulogizes here, à la Buckley, Kirk, et al, seem noble–a worthy and welcome counter to liberal ideals…. jbtodsttoe wynnewood

I am in my 50s and never identified with Buckley. I remember his show, however, and he wasn’t afraid to have discussions with people he disagreed with. There was give and take,… but the definitions of conservatism and liberalism have been lost…Tedsams Fort Lauderdale

Nostalgia about the past, wishful thinking about the future, and failure to connect the two with attention to substance, do not an argument make… GEM Dover

I was with you until the end. The future of Conservatism is bright? Point to a young Republican leader who will be the party’s standard bearer. All the young Republicans in Congress are know-nothing nihilistic Tea Partiers. Conservative intellectualism is dead…Carlin Rosengarten Singapore

A well considered article. Your basic problem …is that extreme gerrymandering and its concept of ‘safe seats’ which has allowed the crazies to take over your party. Because of Safe Seats, thoughtful Republicans cannot get through the primaries. The country is left with the detritus of your Alt-Right in the halls of Congress…. JR Montgomery County, PA

Yes, completely agree Brooks is insane for being optimistic, because he failed to name a single conservative politician who could lead the faithful out of their rabbit hole of moldy cheesy ideas. Let’s face facts, the once Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower has morphed into Trump, Cruz, and Palin. It’s over….Cowboy Wichita

Conservatism has lost its intellectual vibrancy–it’s led by noisy windbags who market a lifestyle where you can have your preferences and your prejudices confirmed 24 hours a day…. There are plenty of thoughtful conservatives out there–but few are in positions of real influence, either in government or outside….Michael Liss New York

It seems to me that our biggest political problem is that over the past 30-40 years, the conservative movement/Republican Party moved to a place where seeking compromise is an anathema because of a distrust in government. Thus, obstructionism is better than activism….I see more gridlock and inaction as the world continues to move past us…. America is a land of incredible resources (physical and intellectual) that are being wasted due to the fecklessness of our politicians and the unwillingness of Americans to do what needs to be done–remove these people from office. Dave Walker Valley Forge

….Where in that mess are the poetry quoting bon vivants of Brooks imagination? What we have instead are the humorless ideologues like Labrador, Lee, Cruz, and Ryan who do not either live or see the actual world….that is what Brooks should be worrying about. bboot Vermont

I think Mr Brooks is largely on the mark, though, as we all do when recalling our lost youth, he soft-focuses and romanticizes…. But he’s right that they comprise a Pantheon compared to what passes for a ‘conservative intellectual’ today….the Limbaughs and Coulters et al. who with Trump have hijacked the GOP, or rather, the GOP let itself be hijacked. ACW New Jersey

Brooks says that the keystones of conservative thought are “conscience, faith, culture, family and community.” I find that a peculiar assertion.
The root problem with “conservatism” is that it is not a coherent philosophy or worldview. It’s a Rube Goldberg political coalition. The grouping includes libertarians and authoritarians; backers of megacorporate oligopolies and believers in competition and free enterprise; those who want to cut taxes while increasing defense spending — and who have no credible answer as to how the shortfall will be covered…. tbrucia Houston, TX

I can’t help but feel a genuine pang of pity for Mr. Brooks here….
Look at 20th century as a whole, as objectively as you can…. [During] the Great Depression and the New Deal. Conservatives opposed the social welfare programs enacted to ensure the poor didn’t starve to death,… They also opposed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a national minimum wage and put enormous restrictions on child labor…. [and since then] very little has changed.
It’s not just the racism, or the misogyny, or the Jesus of it all. Underneath all that, there’s still the same old contempt for the less fortunate, and willingness to believe that the miserable burdens of poverty are a choice…
I think the larger problem is perhaps that conservatism is incompatible with a rapidly-changing world.
And the problem with simply waiting for the crazy old conservatives to die off is that crazy conservatives like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan and the others aren’t old…. reader CT

Politics Is Poison to the Human Spirit

Jeffrey Tucker, FEE
Friday, October 14, 2016

You know what we need right now? A trip to the mall, not even to buy, but to observe and learn. See how people engage with each other. Observe how they coordinate their movements in the public spaces without direction. Appreciate the kindness that salespeople show for customers whom they do not know, and how this ethos of mannerly sociability extends out to the hallways and the entire space. Consider the complexities of production that make all of this available to you without mandates or impositions.

Or perhaps we need a walk in the park while playing Pokemon GO, meeting new people and laughing with them. It’s fascinating how the mobile app creates a digital reality that sits atop the real one, and how we can all experience this technological marvel together. Strangers are given an excuse to speak and get to know each other.

Really, just any visit to an awesome commercial center, teeming with life and full of human diversity, would be palliative. Or maybe it is a visit to a superstore to observe the products, the service, energy, the benevolence, of the commercial space. We can meet people, encounter their humanity, revel in the beauty and bounty of human life. Or it could be your local watering hole with its diverse cast of characters and complicated lives that elude political characterization.

Also thrilling is to attend a concert and see how the arts and music can serve as a soundtrack to the building of community feeling. With public performance, there are no immigration restrictions to the category of “fan.” We can sing, clap, and dance to shared experience, and everyone is invited in.

And while in these places, we need to reflect on the meaning of the existence of these spaces and what they reveal about ourselves and our communities. Here you will see something wonderful, invigorating, thrilling, magical: human beings, with all our imperfections and foibles, can get along. We can provide value to each other and find value in each other. We can cooperate to our mutual betterment.

These spaces are all around us. And here politics don’t exist, mercifully. No one will scream at you or threaten you for failing to back the right candidate or for holding the wrong ideology or being part of the wrong demographic or religion. Here we can rediscover the humanity in us all and the universal longing for free and flourishing lives.

In this extremely strange election year, escaping the roiling antagonism and duplicity of politics, and finding instead the evidence all around us that we can get along, however imperfectly, might actually be essential for a healthy outlook on life.

Politics Makes a Mess of Our Minds

Some startling new evidence has emerged about the effect of this year’s election on the psychological well being of the US population. The American Psychological Association has released an early report on its annual survey and found that more than half the population reports being seriously stressed, anxious, alarmed, depressed, and even frightened by the election. Essentially, the constant coverage, dominating the news every minute of every day, is freaking people out.

I totally get this. I’ve felt it – some nagging sense that things are not quite right, that the lights in the room are dimming, that life is not quite as hopeful and wonderful as it usually is.

I’ve regarded this as my own fault; for the first time I’ve followed this election very closely. I made this awful bed and now I’m lying in it. The message that politics beats into our heads hourly is that your neighbor might be your enemy, and that the realization of your values requires the crushing of someone else’s.

That’s a terrible model of human engagement to accept as the only reality. It is demoralizing, and I’ve felt it this year more than ever. But everyone I know says the same thing, even those who are trying their best to tune it out. Now we have evidence that vast numbers are affected. It’s one thing for politics to mess up the world around us, but it’s a real tragedy if we let politics mess up our minds, spirits, and lives.

Continue reading Politics Is Poison to the Human Spirit

The History of Man is the History of Ideas, Ludwig von Mises

The history of mankind is the history of ideas. For it is ideas, theories, and doctrines that guide human action, determine the ultimate ends men aim at, and the choice of the means employed for the attainment of these ends.

In as much as I have a history myself, it has to be one of ideas

(because I’m not an artist, writer, or musician). If I were to write my autobiography where would I begin? Because I only remember the things I did —schools, summer camps, friends, playing ball, my mother boiling an egg for me for breakfast, my dad coming home at night smelling like the inner city Boston and with surprises in his pockets, my grandmother making peanut butter cookies during my visits to her home only a bike ride away…

But ideas? Were there any of these prominent in my own life before going away to college? Not at Phillips Andover where there ought to have been. Probably my introduction to a life of ideas only came during the summer of my freshman and sophomore years at Harvard College while biking in Europe and finding myself reading (why then? was it my age?) for the first time the sort of magazine and newspaper articles that I’ve been reading almost without stopping ever since.

Now I wonder sometimes what will survive my death? Probably my Ideas alone, to the extent they have a life after me (not a sure thing) somehow remaining, although not forever, say in my own blog posts, or captured by my wife and placed somewhere within the 40 or 50 volumes of her family archives. Anything else, such as a few pictures, will perish, if not right away, within a few years at most of my own disappearance.

Ideas, maybe even a few of my own, will survive. For Ideas do survive as we have seen from the histories we possess of the oldest civilizations going back thousands if not tens of thousands of years, in China and the Middle East, and also in Africa, the ancestral home of us all.

What for example is our country the United States of America? Is it the people, now some 350 million of them, as well as the other millions who lived here before us, including those millions who had been here for some thousands of years before the onslaught of the Europeans bringing with them disease and destruction? Or is it the few ideas of a few people that have made and continue to make the country what it is, or not infrequently what it would be at its best?

There was Thomas Jefferson’s idea that all white men were equal, Susan Anthony’s idea that men and women were equal, Martin Luther King’s idea that all men and women were equal.


And well before the three of them there were the ideas of the original Americans. Chief Seattle’s idea, for example, that which ought to have been, or even now should be, the country’s founding idea, or ideal, one alas not yet realized.

Seattle’s idea was that we humans have not woven the web of life, but rather are merely threads within it, and that whatever we do to ourselves we are also doing to the web. For all things in the web of life are bound together, all things connect, this idea being much like the Gaia idea picked up in our own time by many others since Chief Seattle.

Now given the importance of ideas in our history and for our lives shouldn’t the words being exchanged between the candidates during the debates reflect this importance, even contain the debaters’ ideas? Yet a close listening to or reading of the debate transcript finds few if any ideas therein. So what was going on, what was being talked about, first at Hempstead, NY, then at St Louis,  MO, and then next week, October 19th. at Las Vegas, NV?

Thoughts, ideas etc.  will be continued in a future Blog. But right now ideas are not in favor. Instead the principal subject matters addressed by the two candidates during the debate are much more this sort of thing. For example this notice I take from the Washington Post of 10/15/2016:

Woman says Trump reached under her skirt and groped her in 1990s.