Posted by: George | April 15, 2018

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 23

This is one of the truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it, and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 23

As a rhetorician, I was struck by the idea that a proposition could carry “its own evidence along with it.” Of course, Hamilton qualifies this idea. It only works for someone with “a correct and unprejudiced mind.”

In Federalist No. 23, Hamilton is arguing that the federal government should not be limited in protecting us against foreign threats. This proposition carries “its own evidence along with it” because it implies what Aristotle would call a common topos, an accepted argument that can apply to most situations—the necessary relationship between the ends and the means. If we agree the federal government should protect us (the end), then it should have the necessary means to do so (the means).

This is not the ends justifies the means argument in a qualitative sense, that is, a good end justifies bad means. Rather, it is the ends warrants an appropriate means argument in a quantitative sense, that is, a necessary end warrants a sufficient response. Hamilton does not argue here for moral expedience. He does, rather, argue for the democratic process.

The argument is interesting, but what is more interesting is Hamilton’s faith that this argument will find minds that are “correct and unprejudiced.” Can we, in this time, advance sound arguments with the same optimism? If Hamilton were here, I think he would say, “We must.”

M.M. Bakhtin, the Russian discourse theorist who lives through the Stalinist purge, wrote about addressivity. The audience we address can shape our discourse because we expect a certain kind of reaction. The reverse is true, also. The nature of our arguments can shape the response of our audience—potentially even transform the audience.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of maintaining our values. We should not allow Trump to turn us into Trump. We need to practice sound arguments, hold to our values, and trust our fellow citizens. If we are unwilling to trust the democratic process to protect democracy, then we have already lost.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

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Posted by: George | April 2, 2018

Lessons from the Federalist Papers, No. 22

Hence it is that history furnishes us with so many mortifying examples of the prevalency of foreign corruption in republican governments. How much this contributed to the ruin of the ancient commonwealths has been already delineated. It is well known that the deputies of the United Providences have, in various instances, been purchased by the emissaries of the neighboring kingdoms.
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 22

Numbers 21 and 22 of the Federalist Papers catalog “other defects” of the “present Confederation.” In the middle of No. 22, in the middle of a paragraph, almost hidden, Hamilton expresses his concern that other governments might “purchase” influence with our government, especially with “persons elevated from the mass of the community.”

While this is included in “other defects,” both Hamilton and Madison have already written about their fear of foreign influence. Repeatedly. Here, in Number 22, Hamilton could not avoid returning to this theme, even in an essay that is meant to be a bit of a waste bin, a place to throw the bits and pieces of arguments that didn’t quite deserve the weight and scope of an entire essay.

So, Hamilton returns to the core theme of the papers. History shows us that human beings are easily corrupted. They give way to their own egos and greed and petty revenge. They focus on what is expedient in the short run. They ignore the commonwealth, the collective good of the people and the nation. Only checks and balances will prevent a corrupt individual or privileged group from destroying the republic.

And now, it is accepted as fact by anyone who is capable of sorting fake news from real news that the Russians tried their best to swing the election to Trump or, failing that, create enough discord to render Hillary Clinton ineffective. And now we are learning that Cambridge Analytica stole personal information from Facebook so that it could be used in the Trump campaign.

Not surprisingly, Trump seems to have no interest in insuring a fair and just midterm election in 2018, and he even congratulated Putin on his reelection, which was never in doubt.

And now, the Sinclair Group has made reporters at every one of its 190 some stations read the same script claiming that real news is actually fake news and this is not good for our democracy. Local reporters were forced to read the script in what could be described as the first appearance of state television in our country. While there might not be a smoking gun, smoke is drifting from Russia to Trump to the Sinclair Group.

And now, our country has progressed from appearing to be Orwellian to being Orwellian. When I read Animal Farm in high school, I knew it was a tale of what was happening in Russia. That is what happens over there, I thought. It could not happen here.

And now, it is here.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

Posted by: George | November 12, 2017

Why I Hate Kurt Vile

Before I explain about why I hate Kurt Vile, I need to explain why I love Courtney Barnett. At this moment (may it pass sooner than the Trump presidency), they are, though it leaves a dent in my soul to acknowledge it, a package deal of sorts.

For about two years, I have been fixated on Courtney Barnett. I hope not in an unhealthy way, but maybe. She’s a place I like to visit often, and it is a good place.

If I had to analyze it, I would say I am drawn to her authenticity. She is like the cool chick you wanted to hang out with in high school but you never had the guts to talk to because she moved on the edge of cliques as if she belonged without belonging, as if she were accepted without even caring about being popular. And you were the guy who wanted to belong to any group but ended up eating lunch alone. Even when you were a stupid teenager, you knew these two worlds could orbit near each other but never synch up.

And yes, the “you” here is “me,” but maybe a little less pathetic. I didn’t always eat lunch alone. I had some friends. But I never talked to that girl.

When I listen to Barnett’s music, I feel like I am recapturing some lost opportunity, like I am hanging with that girl. It’s a pretty powerful feeling.

So, when I found out she was doing a show at the Ryman, my favorite place to see live music, I bought a couple of tickets and invited my friend Rod. He’s a bass player in Nashville. He’s a great person to take to shows because he hears things I would never hear on my own. This was going to be a good night. The Ryman, Courtney Barnett, and my best music buddy Rod.

Then, I heard Kurt Vile was going to be part of the show. I had listened to him before, on the recommendation of a student. I didn’t care for him, but I didn’t have a visceral reaction. I assumed he would be opening, so I wasn’t worried yet. Then, Lotta Sea Lice, their collaboration album, came out. I did not like it at all. I started to worry, but I thought it would be okay. She would probably do a set on her own. I could suffer through a little of Lotta Sea Lice (Courtney with Kurt) for a little of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Courtney without Kurt).

No such luck. They came on together and remained together. It was nada but a Lotta Sea Lice.

After the first song, Rod leaned to me to complain about how the “bass player” was playing on a regular guitar run through a bass amp. I was wondering why everything sounded flat.

After about seven songs, I leaned to Rod and said, “Let’s go. This sucks.” He smiled and nodded and I am sure was glad I was going to put an end to it. As we were walking out, Courtney began to sing “Depreston” while Kurt was futzing around with his guitar knobs. (I mean “nobs” literally, not “nobs” as in a good Blues song, where “nobs” means something sexual, like “balls.”) This song (Courtney without Kurt) was what I drove five hours, each way, ten hours total, to hear. I asked Rod if we could listen to this song. We stood by the door with the ushers and I was almost ready to suggest we go back to our seats, and then Kurt, happy with his nobs, began to play what I am sure he would call a “guitar solo.” I said to Rod, “That was great until he started to play. Let’s go.”

I vented all the way to the car and part of the drive to Rod’s house.

Here is a highly edited summary:

I hate Kurt Vile.

I hate the way he looks.

I hate how he walks, all bent over, like Bartleby the Scrivener, without Bartleby’s work ethic.

I hate how his guitar tech (who wears a nice suit, by the way) tuned his guitar eight times before the show began and then his guitar was out of tune.

I hate how he can screw up the mix at the Ryman, which has about the best acoustics of any music hall in the world.

I hate his song writing, which shows a profound disrespect for the language, any language.

I hate how he counts off before every song and then plays off the beat, not in the way a good jazz musician plays slightly off the beat to add texture, but totally off the beat, like the way a junior high school drummer plays off the beat while thinking, “This is awesome.”

I hate how he thinks he is some kind of combination of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits without any understanding of their craft.

I hate how he stares into the microphone when he sings, as if it were a mirror.

I hate how he thinks he’s Kurt Cobain when all they have in common is half a name.

I hate how he thinks he’s shredding when he’s playing half notes where a sixteenth note would have fit.

I hate, most of all, how he may have ruined Courtney Barnett for me. Forever.

I do not express all this with any sense of satisfaction. I wish I could be more Zen about the whole affair. I am afraid I’m finally becoming that old guy who doesn’t understand the new wave of disaffected youths. I’ll get over it. I’ll be okay. I needed to vent. I will get back to writing about The Federalist Papers soon.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

Posted by: George | September 29, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 21

No. 21The most palpable defect of the subsisting Confederation is the total want of a sanction to its laws. The United States, as now composed, have no powers to exact obedience, or punish disobedience to their resolutions, either by pecuniary mulcts, by a suspension or divestiture of privileges, or by any constitutional mode.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, No. 21

I have not posted a while. I have been stuck. I have been trying to find a lesson from Federalist No. 21, and I have been lost.

I have had trouble finding an important lesson here. I have also been watching Ken Burns’ documentary about Vietnam.

I was one of the student who protested the war in Vietnam. I went to Washington, DC, more than once to protest. I was there on November 15, 1969, when about a half a million people said that the war should end.

I think I have been stuck because Alexander Hamilton was, in many ways, a radical. He was also, in many ways, a conservation. He wanted order. He wanted a strong central government that could enforce it laws. He was also a constant foil of Thomas Jefferson, who advocated constant revolution.

I appreciate everything that Hamilton did for our nation. I also appreciate his dapple-ganger, Thomas Jefferson.

I understand the need for order. I also understand the need for change. I also understand the need to disrupt. I am feeling that more and more right now.

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for Vietnam?” This is the question John Kerry asked this is 1969. I am proud of my country. I am proud that my father served in World War II. I am proud that my brother served in Vietnam. I am proud that I protest the war, which my brother came to question. I believe that we need to embrace the best values of our country.

This is the message in Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. He said that we do not have a democracy—yet. But we can get there. We need to get there. We will get there.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

Posted by: George | September 3, 2017

Lessons from the Federalist Papers, No. 20

Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred. The important truth, which it unequivocally pronounces in the present case, is that a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governs, a legislation for communities, as it is a solecism in theory, so in practice it is subversive of the order and the ends of civil polity, by substituting violence in place of law, or the destructive coercion of the sword in place of the mild and salutary coercion of the magistracy.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Federalist No. 20

In Federalist No. 20, Hamilton and Madison offer another “melancholy and monitory lesson of history,” this one from recent times—the troubles produced by the loose confederacy of the United Netherlands. They explain how a weak confederacy like that in the United Netherlands leads to problems and they attempt to solve the problems by covering it with patches, essentially ad hoc committees without clear authority or traditions. The result is that the “government over governs” in an attempt establish order.

What I find most interesting about this essay is what drives the analysis. Hamilton and Madison trust in the unequivocal truth that can be found in history and experience. History and experience may not be simple, but we can find truth there. We are also better off with a government that establishes order through rule of law rather than violence. But, to have rule of law, we need laws and a legal system. For Hamilton and Madison, the first step toward rule of law was the adoption of a strong constitution with checks and balances.

We have those institutions. They were established, at least as concepts, by the very constitution that Hamilton and Madison promoted in their essays. Since the adoption of our constitutions, these institutions have historically evolved, building the traditions that add strength and authority to a concept.

Notice the word concept. Go searching for the material reality of our legal system. You will find buildings, yes. A building can be turned into a parking lot easy enough. You will find lawyers and judges and police officers, certainly. They can be fired. You don’t even have to fire all of them, just some of them. If those who remain feel vulnerable, the institution collapses.

The only material reality, the only foundation we can trust, is informed citizens who support our institutions.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

 

Posted by: George | August 8, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 19

Whatever efficacy the [Polish] union may have had in ordinary cases, it appears that the moment a cause of difference sprang up, capable of trying its strength, it failed.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Federalist No. 19

Our constitution, as the Federalist Papers attest, is a product of smart people who learned the lessons of history.

Hamilton and Madison wrote their essays quickly, which means they wrote from the knowledge of history they carried with them, the knowledge they used to construct a constitution and a form of government that could survive not just mundane events of normal times but also the more extreme challenges of abnormal times, the kind of threats that fill the history books of Greece, Rome, Germany, Poland, France, and England, times distant and recent.

But I’m not so sure Hamilton and Madison anticipated the kind of threat we face at this moment, a time when we are obsessed with scandals and distracted from the machinery of government.

We can see it in the rhythm of news coverage, especially on 24/7 news channels. The anchors often began their shows by saying, “We have a lot to talk about today.” Then, they launch into the enduring scandals of the Trump administration, like potential collusion with Russians to tamper with elections, and the handful of new scandals that broke in the last day—or the last hour. These are not normal times.

Sometimes, with nostalgia, even tears in my eyes, I think back on news coverage about scandals during the Obama administration. News shows might spend the better part of a week talking about how Obama bowed too deeply before the Emperor of Japan or held a Latte in his right hand as he saluted a marine.

These were normal times. We were not so distracted and could attend to a broader range of news about our government, mundane and subtle changes that often affect our lives.

We might even have time to talk about cultural values. Again, with nostalgia, I remember when Miley Cyrus danced on her stripper pole. On Morning Joe, for several days, the panel spent entire blocks on Miley and her stripper pole. Mika Brzezinski, a mother of daughters, was particularly concerned about the message Miley was sending young women. Rightly so. I miss Miley and her stripper pole.

In these abnormal times, if Miley started to act trashy again, I’m not sure we would notice. If we did, we would probably say something like, “Well, that’s not so bad. At least, she’s not working in the West Wing.”

In these peculiarly abnormal times, our attention is diverted. Our attention is distorted. When Trump began criticizing his own Attorney General, I began to hope that Sessions would remain strong and assert the independence of the Department of Justice. I was cheering him on. Then, I thought, “Damn, I’m defending Jeff Sessions.” I hadn’t given much thought to what the Attorney General is doing to reverse policy on voter ID laws, protection of LGBT rights, punishment for minor drug offenses, and Affirmative Action.

Secretary Sessions is working the machinery of government every day. He doesn’t attract much attention, but his actions have consequence.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

 

 

Posted by: George | July 31, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 18

The more effectively to nourish discord and disorder the Romans had, to the astonishment of those who confided in their sincerely, already proclaimed universal liberty throughout Greece. With the same insidious views, they now seduced the members from the league, by representing to their pride the violation it committed to their sovereignty. By these arts, this union, the last hope of Greece, the last hope of ancient liberty, was torn into pieces; and such imbecility and distraction introduced, that the arms of Rome found little difficulty in completing the ruin which their arts had commenced.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Federalist No. 18

Fake news was not born in the digital age. If we study history, Hamilton and Madison argue, we will see it has always existed and it had the power to destroy countries, especially loose confederacies. The Romans used fake news—their “arts”—to destroy the remnants of the Greek empire.

If fake news has always been with us, why are we so distressed by its current manifestation? Our nation seems to have survived Jefferson and Adams telling half-truths or outright lies about each other, Russian propaganda, the Watergate assault on our democracy, Reagan’s memory lapses, and Clinton’s “that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” statement. So, what’s different?

With the proliferation of media (talk radio, 24/7 news channels, blogs, and social media), the sources of information have become flattened. A significant portion of our population views a story invented by a be-pimpled teen in Rumania, packaged as a valid news story, and shot out across social media as beyond doubt—as true as a story in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

As media has proliferated, it has become easier to seek the news that reinforces rather than challenges beliefs. We have less dialog across the political spectrum to promote critical thinking.

The other major difference is time. When Hamilton and Madison were writing The Federalist Papers, news took days and sometimes weeks to spread throughout the colonies. Now, the effects of fake news, lies, and contradictions unfold in seconds.

On July 26, at 7:55 am, just last week, the president tweeted the following message: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……” He didn’t finish his sentence until 9:04 am. He had a little attention problem, I guess. Or, maybe we should have realized there was going to be a really long delay to the rest of the message because he put in a bunch of extra ellipsis dots.

So, what happened during the intervening hour and nine minutes? According to BuzzFeed, some generals at the Pentagon were afraid the president was going to declare war on North Korea in a couple of Tweets, spaced an hour and nine minutes apart for dramatic effect.

Here, in one social media event, we can see all of the dangers of digital communication. If the president is announcing policy on Twitter, then every medium is equally valid. If the president can announce major policies on his phone, information is not vetted. If branches of government and the American people believe that every word the president utters is important and the president shots out messages without much thought, the result is confusion, with potentially disastrous outcomes. While you might not consider a tweet from the president to be fake news, it has the same effect. Truth and clarity are lost in the muck and mire and too much information.

One other difference I should probably mention: the fake news that destroyed the Greek confederacy came from the Romans. The fake news that endangers our nation comes from the White House.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

Posted by: George | July 16, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 17

The operations of the national government, on the other hand, falling less immediately under the observation of the mass of the citizens, the benefits derived from it will chiefly be perceived and attended to by speculative men.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 17

 Political commentators seem to be puzzled by the segment of Americans who remain loyal to Trump. After all, since the day Trump announced he was running for president, he has generated one scandal after another. The scandals are not so much resolved as they continue to linger at the borders of newer scandals, overlapping and interlacing into wonderous geometric patterns.

 Even compared to Nixon’s second term, Trump’s campaign and administration have been incomprehensively amoral, lurid, rash, salacious, arrogant, corrupt, and [insert your own string of adjectives here].

 How could it be, reporters and pundits ask, that Trump continues to have the support of even 35 percent of our citizens? Who are these people? Well, maybe that 35 percent are not what Hamilton calls “speculative” thinkers.

 In Federalist No. 17, Hamilton again addressed the Anit-Federalist concern that the new constitution will allow too much power to ooze from the states and collect around the central government. To allay these concerns, Hamilton argued that power will more likely ooze in the opposite direction—toward the states—because state governments will more directly impact the lives of citizens. Only a small segment of the population—speculative men—will be interested in the more distant central government and its national or international duties.

 I am not sure that I follow Hamilton’s logic—that the states will be more powerful because citizens will be more engaged with state politics. But I do think he is right that speculative—roughly meaning “theoretical” in this context—citizens will be engaged in politics at the national level and with a different focus and perspective.

 Speculative thinkers—most reporter and pundits, except maybe those who work for Fox News, are among this group—cannot react to a Trump tweet without imagining how it might affect international diplomacy, American’s standing in the world, international trade, or even the future of democracy. Those who are not speculative thinkers—some of Trump’s 35 percent, maybe many of them—are more likely to read a Trump tweet without being sucked into implications of repercussions of unintended consequences. They are more likely to react abnormal tweets with no more chagrin than when Uncle Billy walks up to little Tommy and Suzie and says, “Pull my finger.” It’s not funny, but, you know, that’s just how Uncle Billy is—always has been, always will be.

 I think there might be some true in this, but it is also painting the 35 percent with a broad brush. And, it’s pretty condescending. I am sure there’s more to it.

 I would assume, for example, that many among the 35 percent are too preoccupied with working several jobs to pay bills that they don’t have the mental energy to think through the implications of every Trump tweet. They need their lives to improve now, not three and a half years from now. They want to give Trump a chance to do his job.

 I am not saying I agree with that line of thought, but it should be respected.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

Posted by: George | July 1, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 16

 

It is in vain to hope to guard against events too mighty for human foresight or precaution, and it would be idle to object to a government because it could not perform impossibilities.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 16

The Federalist Papers were written quickly. After John Jay ceased to contribute due to health problems, Hamilton and Madison were writing one or two essays a week, usually without reading what the other had written. Themes are repeated, sometimes intentionally for emphasis and sometimes as a result of haste.

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One of the recurrent themes among the Federalists Papers—the central theme of No. 16—is a concern that, without a strong central government and a standing army, states will refuse to follow federal laws or bicker with each. Perhaps, a full civil war might emerge. The Anti-Federalists were just as concerned that the central government might dominate the states. And with centralized power, a tyrant might come to power.

In the Hamilton quote above, he admits that events might emerge that the framers of our constitution could not foresee. Even with a strong constitution, Hamilton is saying here, challenges to the government will occur, even if we cannot predict how or when.

Nonetheless, the framers gave us checks and balances. This structure could not ensure the survival of the nation, but it would improve it chances. In Federalist No. 16, Hamilton writes about the importance of a constitution “competent in its own defense,” courts that could declare laws “contrary to the supreme law of the land, unconstitutional, and void,” and “a people enlightened enough to distinguish between a legal exercise and an illegal usurpation of authority.” The people, he says, are “the natural guardians of the Constitution.” So, too, is the press. During Watergate, the press and the people saw us through our most significant constitutional crisis. The press and the people are much needed now, and the very survival of the press as we know it is uncertain.

While the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the press, there is no guarantee the “guarantee” will survive. The people, “the natural guardians of the Constitution,” must protect this right.

It is not overly dramatic to say that the press is now under attack, and Hamilton would not have been able to predict how this assault would materialize in the twenty-first century. The Netflix documentary Nobody Speak (2017) reports on the efforts of billionaires, acting like petty dictators in third-world countries, to buy newspapers and control their reporting. The White House has banned television cameras at press briefings. President Trump is using Twitter to label mainstream news media Fake News and, most recently, to launch venom at Mika Brzezinski, cohost of Morning Joe. This is not democracy.

But how can we support the press? Even though it may be painful to keep up with the news these days, we must pay attention to good news sources—that is, keep our subscriptions to newspapers and magazines, watch good news shows and give them shout outs on social media, go to news websites and support them with our hits and clicks.

We can also give them support reporters by understanding the stress and pressure they are experiencing. I am speaking about more than the pressure of trying to learn how to function in a world of fake news, some of which is generated by the White House. I am also speaking of the frustration reporters feel trying to explain how far the behavior of our president is beyond even normal political corruption. Richard Nixon, his re-election campaign, and his administration might have been undermining democracy behind the scenes, even compiling enemy lists, but Nixon understood that he had to mimic respect for his office in public. Our current president doesn’t even understand that.

As we try to figure out how to act in an era of alternative history, we need good reporting more than ever. It is important that we support journalists that are doing the difficult and tedious work of reporting and speaking, in the midst of chaos, with a calm and strong voice. They are easy to identify. They are the ones that President Trump is attacking.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

Posted by: George | June 7, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 15

We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. . . . It is true, as has been before observed that facts, too stubborn to be resisted, have produced a species of general assent to the abstract proposition that there exist material defects in our national system; but the usefulness of the concession, on the part of the old adversaries of federal measures, is destroyed by a strenuous opposition to remedy, upon the only principles that can give it a chance of success.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 15

 

We tend to freeze our identities—personal, family, tribe, and nation. We talk about how things might have changed, but these seem to be passing thoughts, fleeting notions that we don’t really believe. We might say that we were naïve once upon a time, that our family went through difficulties, that our favorite baseball team fell apart in the August heat, or that our nation has a glorious history, but we don’t seem to believe such events had much of an impact on who we are essentially.

We tend to ignore flux and change and history. If we were more able to live in flux and chaos and change, we would see that it is a miracle that we won the revolution, that the nation survived long enough to adopt its constitution. Our early history was precarious, and here we are, at this moment in history, all precarious again.

In Federalist No. 15, Hamilton writes of the country being in “the last stage of national humiliation.” Sounds familiar. In 1787, he saw a new country, yet unformed, that could not repay its debts. Heard that recently. These facts were “too stubborn to be resisted,” yet too many Americans opposed remedy. Facts being ignored. Heard that on the news this morning.

America was not, in 1787, a great nation, but soon our experiment would take shape and other nations began to look to us for hope—eventually even stability. They embrace the symbol of America. When we fall short of our ideals, they express their disappointment. What we often dismiss as anti-Americanism is often complex—just as “pro” as it is “anti.”

Last week, I attended the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik. As I was waiting for a session to begin, I ovewaltwhitmanrheard a professor from Iceland (I didn’t catch his name or institution) talk about how his students were “having trouble dealing with what is going on in America.” That students in Iceland viscerally react to American politics was a bit surprising, especially since so many of our students seem to be oblivious.

In our isolation, speaking only English, reading American authors, watching American television and movies, watching local news, it is easy for us to forget that the rest of the world knows the welfare of America affects them—their futures and safety and dreams. They also essentiaiize America. For them as well, America is a symbol. They want it to be something good, something stable, an aspiration. They know all too well that we have not reached the promise of democracy.

In Democratic Vistas, published in 1871, almost a century after The Federalist Papers, Whitman says that we have not yet achieved democracy. That would wait on universal suffrage and the development of individuals who would be able to participate in democracy. He wrote:

I will not gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing. To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay.

Notice the “him or her.” Whitman is not consistent in his use of non-sexist pronouns, but he is consistent in his advocacy for the education of women and the expansion of voting rights.

We can easily forget how recent these rights are—and how fragile they remain. In “The Abortion Battlefield” (New York Review of Books, 22 June 2017), Marcia Angell writes:

     Women couldn’t vote in the United States until 1920 (fifty years after African-American men), and until 1936 they could lose their citizenship if they married a foreigner and lived abroad. As for their children, citizenship was conferred by the father, not the mother. Until 1968, job ads could specify whether men or women would be hired, and that year women were paid 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. Remarkably, women could be denied credit without a man’s signature until 1974, and until 1978 they could be fired from their jobs if they became pregnant. . . . They were expected to submit to their husbands sexually, and martial rape did not become a crime in all states until 1993.

When we hear the chant “Make American Great Again,” a desire to return to the essential American, which is somewhere in the past, we need to ask whose America we are recreating from faulty memory or our ignorance of history. The “Again” signals a turning back of the clock, but to what era? Before 2015, when gays could not marry in most states? Before 1993, when it was legal for a husband to rape his wife? Before 1978, when women could be fired for being pregnant on the job? Before 1920, when women could not vote? Before 1868, when African Americans could not vote? Before 1863, when African Americans were still slaves? Before 1787, when, according to Alexander Hamilton, things weren’t so great?

I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is a Great America back there. If Hamilton were around, I think he would agree.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

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