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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Posted by: George | May 11, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 14

Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course.

James Madison, No. 14

Reading the Federalist Papers is like sitting around with old friends chatting about old times. The old friends jar our memory. The Federalist Papers bring our history, our origins, our values, and our uniqueness, back to us, putting current events into a new perspective.

We can easily forget that our government was an experiment. While a democracy once existed in Athens and a republic once existed in Rome, these governments could not serve as precise models for what was emerging in the United States in 1787. In Federalist 14, Madison calls the proposed government “an extended republic.” It is not a democracy like that of Athens, where all citizens actively participated in every major political decision. It is not a republic like Rome, where representatives were elected from a city to rule an empire. In the proposed government, citizens would elect representatives from a country that was lready expansive, much of it frontier.

In Federalist 14, Madison asks us to have hope in our experiment “for the whole human race.” He asks that his fellow citizens guard against cynicism: “No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language, Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled th_002blood, which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.”

In 1787, Madison was asking Americans, who identified more with their states than with a weak central government, to have faith in a new form of government and to remain American citizens, unified as they had been during the Revolution. Don’t let, he says, a small faction split apart and divert us from our common purpose.

Now, we have an approved constitution. We also have traditions that support the principles of separation of powers. Some of these traditions, once broadly enumerated in the constitution, relate to how agencies operate, even agencies that emerged centuries later, like the FBI.

The FBI is, of course, not mentioned in the constitution, but the need for it to operate independently is a long-standing tradition, one that evolved from the doctrine of separation of powers.

Our republic is still an experiment. It can still fail. It still needs the protection and faith of the American people.

We should remain optimistic. The constitution was eventually ratified. We have survived constitutional crises.

But we need to place our optimism in the right place. The constitution cannot defend itself. Traditions do not exist apart from what Hegel called Objective Spirit, what we might call our evolving understanding of how we should ethically relate to others. We must place our optimism in the collective action of the American people to protect our constitution, our traditions, and ultimately our democracy.

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 | May 6, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 13

The supposition that each confederacy into which the States would be likely to be divided would require a government not less comprehensive than the one proposed, will be strengthened by another supposition, more probably than that which presents us with three confederacies as the alternative to a general Union. If we attend carefully to geographical and commercial considerations, in conjunction with the habits and prejudices of the different States, we shall be led to conclude that in the case of disunion they will most naturally league themselves under two governments.
Alexander Hamilton, No. 13

In Federalist No. 13, Hamilton argues that a central government will be less expensive to administer than the cumulative cost of a number of smaller confederacies. Beyond a brief reference to efficiency of the British empire, the kind of reference that led to accusations that Hamilton was, at his core, an Anglophile, he offers no evidence to support his claim.

His stronger argument is an exercise in reductio ad absurdum. If we are going to divide the United States of American, which was a plural noun at this time, how might the new nation be split? No one, he says, seriously endorses thirteen tiny nations, so how many confederacies should we form? Two? Three? And how should the states be sorted out? Pennsylvania, in Hamilton’s view, was particularly problematic and ran the risk of becoming “the Flanders of America,” that is, a Germania Inferior under the control of larger nations.

That splitting up the nation was seriously considered is a little shocking to modern readers, but we have to remember that the states were, just a few years earlier, colonies under British rule. The country had not yet developed a national identity. Some say that national identity did not come until after the Civil War. I would say it only began to emerge between 1855, with the publication of Leaves of Grass, and 1871, with the publication of Democratic Vistas.

In graduate school, one of my professors said, “If not for Chaucer, the English would not know how to be English.” He never explained this, and I never figured out how “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” instructed the British to have a stiff upper lip. I have, however, often said to my students, “If not for Whitman, we would understand America’s potential. We would not know who we are and who we could be.” In Democratic Vistas, Whitman wrote:

[G]eneral humanity . . . has always been full of perverse maleficence, and is so yet. In downcast times the soul thinks it will always be—but soon recovers from such sickly moods. I myself see clearly enough the crude, defective streaks in all the strata of the common people; the specimens and vast collections of the ignorant, the credulous, the unfit and uncouth, the incapable, and the very low and poor. . . . We believe the ulterior object of political and other government (having, of course, provided for the police, the safety of life, property, and for the basic statue and common law, and their administration, always first in order), to be among the rest, not merely to rule, to repress disorder, etc., but to develop, to open up to cultivation, to encourage the possibilities of all beneficent and manly outcroppage, and of that aspiration for independence, and the pride and self-respect latent in all characters.

Like Hamilton, Whitman recognized the dark side of human history. Yet, he also believed that humanity might move toward perfectibility, that a democracy must go beyond the typical duties of government to protect citizens and property. A democracy must also play a role in developing the potential of individuals, men and women of all races. The potential of democracy itself would not be achieved until it produced individuals able to participate in it. Whitman saw this is as a dialectical movement—government and individuals must historically develop together.

If Whitman were alive today, he would probably say that we may be, in this political climate, moving further away from democracy rather than closer to it. The kind of republic he called for in Democratic Vistas would embrace open education and support the arts. It would promote public discourse of diverse voices.

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 | April 12, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 12

It is astonishing that so simple a truth should ever have had an adversary; and it is one, among the multitude of proofs, how apt a spirit of ill-informed jealousy, or of too great abstraction and refinement, is to lead men astray from the plainest truths of reason and conviction.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 12

The central argument Hamilton advances in Federalist No. 12 is that a strong central government will promote commerce, which will in turn promote “those darling objects of human avarice and enterprise.” Hamilton was writing in the early stage of capitalism, so he intriguingly sees commerce as an unquestioned good. That’s not surprising. But he also has no problem pairing “avarice” and “enterprise” as equally good. That’s a little startling to modern readers, even serious capitalists, which points to how often arguments beyond question in one context, a historical era or culture, might seem absurd in another.

alexander%20hamilton%20the%20musicalThis is both the appeal and limitation of common sense as a mode of argument. A truth might appear to be “so simple” that it “astonishing” that anyone would have the gall to question it. To Hamilton’s credit (and the credit of his century), he knew he had to do more than say “it’s common sense.” He knew he also had to present more substantial arguments. And he did.

This not always true in our time, so it would benefit us to understand what is at work with the “common sense” argument.

In The New Rhetoric, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca write: “Common sense admits the existence of unquestioned and unquestionable truths; it admits that certain rules are ‘beyond discussion,’ and that certain suggestions ‘do not deserve discussion.’” In other words, when you make a claim and you say that it is “common sense,” you are saying this is so obvious that I don’t even need to support it with data or facts and, if you question it, . . . well, then, you’re just stupid.

Common sense arguments typically rely on cultural norms, but the application of these norms is not as simple as we might first suspect. We might say that it is common sense to get out of the rain (more convincing in Detroit in the middle of winter than in San Antonio in the middle of summer), or that it is common sense to buy life insurance (more true if you have a spouse and young children than if you are seventy without any family). When common sense emerges from ideology, it becomes even more murky. Some people think it is common sense to say that lowering taxes will create jobs or anyone who works hard in America can make it.

And then there’s the so-called Muslim ban, which was shut down by so-called judges. Here is President Trump’s justification from way back in June, 2016: “You know, I hate the concept of profiling. But we have to start using common sense, and we have to use, you know, we have to use our heads . . . we really have to look at profiling. We have to look at it seriously.”

The interesting thing about common sense arguments is you don’t even need fake news or alternative facts to back them up. They are self-sufficient and hermetically sealed, impervious to counter attacks.

The common sense argument can be an extension of power, like saying, “Because I said so. So there. Shut up, you moron.” We are going to hear a lot of common sense in the next four years.

Here is what we need to remember: If the common sense argument is self-evidently true and beyond question, as it claims itself to be, it is true for a limited segment of the world and a narrow band of history. We need to ask ourselves two questions: Is this how we want the world to view us? Is this how we want history to view us?

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 | April 1, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 11

Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all. . . . Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere. . . . It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 11

The basic argument in Federalist No. 11 is that we need to have a strong union to have a strong navy, and we need a strong navy to protect our national interests from European influence.

To current readers, it might seem to be one of the least consequential of the eighty-five Federalist essays. We now have a strong navy. We are not so worried about being pushed around by Europe. On first reading, it seems like the concerns Hamilton expressed in No. 11 have evaporated in the last two and a half centuries.

But maybe not. I could comment on how a strong navy is not going to protect us from cyber warfare and the influence of other governments on our elections, that Hamilton’s concern, if updated and expanded, is even more real, more portentous now, at this moment. That would be pertinent and timely, but I would rather use this essay to explore the dark side of the Federalist Papers, which means also exploring the dark side of the Enlightenment and Modernism. Here, in Federalist No. 11, I would argue that we see a fear of the Other, which is as American as democracy and freedom.

In this series, I have been arguing that the Federalist Papers can teach us about important American values, which formed our institutions, like the importance of separation of powers. I have argued that our institutions were formed to prevent one leader or one group from dominating all others. Using primarily Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, I have argued that our institutions are only as good as the citizens who support them. If we hope to sustain our institutions, we must become good citizens, which must include a commitment to include others, even those we consider the opposition, so that they too can participate fully and consciously in our democracy.

The Federalist Papers, however, have a dark side, as does the constitution that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison argue their contemporaries should adopt. These figures and their writings and their constitution are products of the Enlightenment, which was a moment, the moment, within the unfolding of Modernism. We are still under the sway of the Enlightenment and Modernism, so it is hard for us to see the dark side of it. But it has been seen for a long time, repeatedly. In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel wrote,“The Enlightenment was not very enlightened about itself.” In The Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1944), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote, “Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings.” In Shadows of Ethics (1999), Geoffrey Galt Harpham wrote about the inability of “rationality to stay rational, to avoid a moment when rationality is subjected to its other.”

Here are terms that we tend to associate with the Enlightenment and Modernism, if we look at only a thin slice its history: rationality, objectivity, freedom, democracy, humanism, equality, science, skepticism, certainty, progress, and technology. These are the hopes we have not yet fulfilled.

Here are terms that can be associated with the Other of the Enlightenment and Modernism, if we are willing to view the fullness of history: industrialization, capitalism, urbanization, fascism, hegemony, slavery, colonialism, ideology, gender/sexism, heterosexuality, alienation, dehumanization. This is what we tend to forget.

Certainly, some of the terms existed before the origins of Modernism in the early sixteenth-century and the Enlightenment in the eighteen-century, but the particularized meanings we now embrace and how these terms interact with each other did not always exist. Historically, how can we separate modern democracy from colonialism and slavery? The meaning of heterosexuality as we know it dates to the early twentieth-century. A few decades earlier, its meaning was closer to what we would now call sex addiction.

It is important, Hegel said, to negate the Enlightenment and Modernism. In the recently published Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra argues that most people, good citizens and terrorists alike, are angry at our modernist world, which “is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.” So, George W. Bush was accidentally almost right when he said that terrorists hate us for our freedom.

It is also important, Hegel said, to negate the negation. As Michael Ignatieff wrote in his review of Mishra’s Age of Anger, “[Y]ou cannot reconstruct faith in the future if you give no credit to what political faith has actually achieved in the past” (New York Review of Books, 6 April 2017). We need to embrace contractions, and we cannot ignore that we are historical beings. It is within history that contradictions play out. We cannot be smug; we cannot be still.

We have eliminated slavery, but we have not ended human trafficking or racism. We have achieved marriage equality, but we are still troubled by where some people urinate. We now have maps without colonies, but colonialism still exists in global economies and cyberspace. Our experiment in democracy has survived for two and a half centuries, but it is under threat from within and without.

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 | March 16, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 10

Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

James Madison, Federalist No. 10

 

Madison is arguing that bigger is better—more precisely, that bigger is less dangerous. In consort with Hamilton and Jay, as I have remarked in posts on earlier Federalist essays, Madison assumes we humans are deeply flawed. Thus, we should expect the new government will need to guard against those who advance “unjust and dishonorable purposes.” If we adopt the proposed constitution, if we have a stronger central government, then factions will be less successful with their “wicked projects.” Interestingly, within the larger theater of a national government, with its more diverse terrain, we can find security in our distrust of each other—in other words, the factions of flawed humans will be checked by the human flaws of other factions.

This is a strikingly optimistic view of human imperfection. We will be saved from bad people by pitting more and more bad people against each other.

It is almost like Madison is taking us into the Bizarro World of Superman comics where everything is inverted. Instead of idealistically hoping for security through harmony among factions, we can add more factions and thlet them beat each other to a pulp until they are too weak to do much harm. There’s a logic here, maybe one more Machiavellian than first-century Christian, more dystopian than utopian, but a logic nonetheless.

In 1988, the Democratic National Convention was in Atlanta, and I was teaching at Georgia State University. One of the designated protest zones, the areas where protesters could legally congregate without disrupting the convention or attracting press coverage, was Woodruff Park, just a block from my office. So, I often walked down to the park early in the morning, before the protesters sauntered off to non-protest zones where they hoped to further their cause, whatever that was.

I was curious, maybe also a little bored by being enclosed in my office during the relatively cool summer mornings. And, I was feeding a vague nostalgia for the 1960s—vague because the protests seem to have no focus and the protesters little grit.

Each morning, I watched the youth of America, thirty or forty of them, who wore their anarchy on their tattooed arms and legs, make plans to disrupt the political order. Each morning, they would gather in one large group, arguing about where to go and what to chant. They couldn’t agree on much of anything, as is typical of anarchists, and other humans, but especially anarchists. Eventually, they would split into smaller and smaller groups until little protest movements of two or three people would drift off in search of oppression to press against.

Then, as I watched the artfully tattooed youth, I palpably felt myself aging, my nostalgia slowly sweating out my pores. Now, in this new Bizarro World of Trump comics, I am seeing some hope in the dark side of human nature.

Then, the young anarchists couldn’t get organized. Now, we have a key presidential advisor talking about “deconstructing the administrative state,” the Speaker of the House proposing a new health care plan that is opposed by many key Republicans and maybe even President Trump . . . Democrats and Republicans joining together to say that a Trump tweet about Obama “wire tapping” Trump Towers is pretty much a lie.

To quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, “Human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together . . . Mass hysteria.” Yes, anarchy, factions distrusting each other . . . maybe not such a bad thing.

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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