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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Posted by: George | February 27, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 9

 

The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices by deputies of their own election; these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 9

Much of the debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists rested upon the same basic goal: creating a government that would ensure liberty and prevent tyranny. The Antifederalists generally argued that a weaker central government would reduce the risk of tyranny. Smaller governments, many of them, would be harder for one despot to control. The Federalists argued that a strong central government would prevent influence and threats from other countries and promote internal harmony. The way to prevent tyranny, they argued, was through checks and balances.

In Federalist No. 9, Hamilton argues that the proposed constitution did not eliminate the further check of state governments. Indeed, it made states “constituent parts of the national sovereignty” by representation in the Senate and by leaving “in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power.”

As I discussed with Federalist No. 6, the founding fathers had a dark view of humanity. Or, maybe we could just say they were realists. They knew that humans often succumbed to the “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” The balance of powers built into the proposed constitution—the separation of powers across three branches of government and between the national and state governments—is an acknowledgment of this dark side of humanity.

Many feel that we are now living out the fears of our forefathers. We are at a point in history where the foundations of our government are being tested. In earlier posts in this series, I have said that our character will also be tested. This was Whitman’s concern when he wrote Democratic Vistas. He argued that people had to develop the knowledge and character to participate fully in a democracy and we would not have a true democracy until we had people capable of participating in it.

All but the most loyal Trump supporters acknowledge that we are in unusual times. We are living alternative history. It is a history that has the power to change us—for the worse.

We might lose our sense of what is normal and support a leader who violates many of our values. Or, we might react to a threat in a way that mimics that aggression. With either option, we have lost ourselves—something of our values—and we have contributed to the loss of a national political dialogue. If we are not speaking to our neighbors, we have lost the very foundation of democracy.

Both scenarios are forms of mimesis, or imitation. Mimesis is fundamental to human nature, to our ability to make connections with others. Anthropologists have found, for example, that when people from different cultures first meet, without sharing a common language, they imitate each others gestures and make a fundamental human connection. That form of mimesis can create bonds and bring us together.

Mimesis can also have negative effects. When confronted with aggression, the actions of a bully, we can mimic that aggression, actively or implicitly supporting it. Or, we can react to the aggression with escalating aggression.

In Conrad’s Shadow, Nidesh Lawtoo discusses how Joseph Conrad’s “The Duel,” generally regarded to be a minor tale, presents a theme central to Conrad’s works. Conrad believed, according to Lawtoo’s interpretation, that the very foundation of social violence—even war—rests on our mimetic reaction to aggression. He writes: “a violent, irrational attack triggers an equally violent defense—no matter how rational the defender is—which, in turn, will continue to fuel the initial attack. And once this interplay of attack and defense, action and reaction, is set in motion between the two parties endowed with equal force, a feedback loop generates a spiral of reciprocal violence fueled by an affective, contagious, and thus highly infective mimetic psychology. The duelists are thus not in control of violence; it is the reciprocal logic of violence that controls them” (p. 18).

This is human nature, but human nature is not human destiny. Over the next four years, we cannot become Trump.

While it is not easy, the key is to step out of the cycle. This is possible. We have models. We have Thoreau, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King.

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 | February 15, 2017

Lessons from the Federalist Papers, No. 8

The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 8

Hamilton continues the concern that the states, without a strong federal government, will seek their own interests, including some advantage over neighboring states. Because a “War between the States” would be likely, Hamilton predicted the rise of standing armies and strong leaders at the expense of liberty and rights.

Hamilton is writing about the balance between security and liberty. When we feel threatened, we want a strong military. Hamilton writes, “The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and preportionably degrades the condition of the citizen.” Furthermore, “It is the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.”alexander%20hamilton%20the%20musical

In contrast to a nightmare vision of states fighting states, Hamilton argues that, with a strong federal government, we could become an “insulated” nation, protected from the dangers of the Old World by an ocean.

The concern about the delicate balance between security and liberty is as old as our nation. It didn’t appear ex nihilo in the aftermath of 9/11 with the so-called Patriot Act. Hamilton predicted it.

In these uncertain times, it does not seem we have to fear the rise of the military, but many of us are concerned about a president who uses fear to rise above the checks and balances that Hamilton endorsed.

Trump called James Robart a “so-called judge” for halting the travel ban on a selection of Muslim countries, none of which sent terrorists our way. Even Trump’s own nominee to the Supreme Court found this “demoralizing.” Last Sunday, Stephen Miller, a senior Trump advisor, asserted, “The powers of the president, as we shall see, are substantial, and will not and must not be questioned.”

The concern about the delicate balance between security and liberty is as old as our nation. It didn’t appear ex nihilo in the aftermath of 9/11 with the so-called Patriot Act. Hamilton predicted it.

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 | February 8, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 7

     It is sometimes asked, with an air of seeming triumph, what inducements could the States have, if disunited, to make war upon each other. It would be a full answer to this question to say—precisely the same inducements which have, at all times, deluged in blood all the nations in the world.

 Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No 7

Hamilton and the other Federalists were convinced that only a strong federal government could act as a sufficient restraint to prevent war among the states. It is a fear less vital these days. We don’t tend to think of ourselves as Pennsylvanians or Virginians. We don’t think about protecting state interests to the extent that it might lead to another war between the states.

 We are divided in other ways.

 Living in a farm community or a major city is more likely to separate us than state boundaries. Our geography seems to affect our politics as deeply as race, gender, and income. And race, gender, and income are profound differences.

 We used to come together—find some common ground as we talked through our fears and hopes at church, in bowling allies, and at our neighbor’s kitchen table. We read the same newspapers and watched the same thirty minutes of television news. We weren’t split off into camps that watch Fox News and camps that watch MSNBC.

 Now, we scream at each other. Communities are divided. Even many families have split into factions.

 So many people have told me they have stopped watching the news. It’s just too depressing, they say. It is just too hard to watch.

 They are talking about cable news. When we watch hours of it in a day, we are doing more than taking in information. We are experiencing a kind of trauma. It is almost like watching the Twin Towers come down over and over again.

 In such times, how do we continue to stay informed? How do we remain witnesses to an unfolding history? How might we position ourselves to act?

 I have been watching less cable news. I have probably gone from watching three hours of news shows a day to watching maybe thirty minutes. Instead of skimming across the surface of news, I have concentrated on going deep.

 I am reading articles that cover a topic in detail, like David Cole’s “Trump Violates the Constitution” in The New York Review of Books. I am reading books on public policy and history, like Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I am reading foundational texts, like The Federalist Papers.

I also read some conservatives, like Andrew Sullivan, but I need to find more sources on the right that are doing reasonable commentary and real journalism.

 As I read print sources, I find that I am better informed and less traumatized.

 I am going to read deep. I am going to try to maintain a dialogue, even with those on the other side, even when it is uncomfortable. I am going to write some checks.

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 | January 29, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 6

            A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only untied in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.

            Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, No. 6

In Federalist No. 6, Hamilton provides a historical catalog of human failings. He takes a little stroll throgh history. He points out the moral failings of the “celebrated Pericles,” the “ambitious cardinal” in the court of Henry VIII, the “bigotry of one female, the petulance of another, and the cabals of a third,” all of which are meant to be antidotes to our “Utopian speculations.”

As I was reading No. 6, I was thinking of the values that constitute the foundation of our national experiment. We tend to gravitate to what Kenneth Burke calls “God terms,” concepts like freedom and democracy. These are, we assume, the foundations of our enterprise. But Hamilton points in another direction. Instead of looking to “Utopian speculations,” he looks to the dark side of human history, to men who are “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” Hamilton himself was a man not unlike Pericles, a man of great gifts and unfortunate limitations. Maybe, No 6 has a little self-reflection in it.

After reading No 6, here is what I want to suggest: The central foundation of our constitution is a recognition that human beings are horribly flawed creatures who are, even in their best manifestations, even with men like Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, a mixed bag.

They might rise to the occasion. They might be laid low by their baser instincalexander%20hamilton%20the%20musicalts. This is not a new view of humanity. It is at least as old as Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates describes the human psyche as a chariot with two horses: one that pulls the chariot toward the sky, toward the divine; the other that wants to plunge it toward the earth, toward an “earthly body,” toward the all too present failings of flesh, toward the “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.”

This is the view of humanity upon which our institutions rest—here rest is meant to convey stability and continuity.

Here is how I sense our present moment in history. The hopeful Trump supporters believe he is the new Reagan. The despondent anti-Trumpers fear he will be the next Hitler or Mussolini. I suspect that he might be the next Huey Long, who seemed to be cutting through governmental bureaucracy but was building a house of cards that did not fall until after he was out of office, long after he was a departed soul.

Whatever the course of history, we can, counter-intuitively, find solace in Hamilton’s dark view of humanity. Our institutions were shaped by the history human failings. We can likely withstand another flawed leader.

As I have said before in this series, as I will certainly say again, our institutions will be tested, our character will be tested.

Because I agree with Hamilton, because I acknowledge that human beings are horribly flawed creatures, I have hope.

Our institutions will stand because we will rise to rise to the aspirations of our forefathers, and to Walt Whitman, who believed that we would develop into the kind of citizens who would, one day, at some point in the future, deserve democracy and freedom.

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 | January 20, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 5

 

     They who well consider the history of similar divisions and confederacies will find abundant reason to apprehend that those in contemplation would in no other sense be neighbors than as they would be borderers; that they would neither love nor trust one another, but on the contrary would be prey to discord, jealousy, and mutual injuries; in short, that they would place us exactly in the situations in which some nations doubtless wish to see us, viz., formidable only to each other.

     John Jay, Federalist Papers, No. 5

John Jay was fairly consistent in his arguments for a strong central and unified government. The country, as a union, he wrote, will be stronger and less likely to be drawn into unnecessary wars, and it will be better able to negotiate treaties. If, on the other hand, we form a loose confederacy, we will be also run the risk of internal strife.

I like John Jay. If he showed up in my neighborhood, I would take him out for a few micro-brews. I generally agree with him, but I don’t think a little strife is a bad thing.

clintonI understand what he is saying. If the young country split into four separate countries, these independent countries might go to war with each other. So, having a strong union would prevent something like a war between the states. Oh, yea. Never mind. That happened anyway.

On this point, at least, I am going to side with Cato, one of the Anti-Federalist. In Cato I, published on September 27, 1787, he (probably George Clinton, not the George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelics, but George Clinton who was the Vice President under both Jefferson and Madison and Governor of New York, yea, that George Clinton) wrote to his fellow citizens, urging them to engage in civic discourse, to participate in the decision about the proposed constitution, to take responsibility for the country’s future:

Your fate, and that of your posterity, depends on your present conduct—do not give the latter reason to curse you, nor yourselves cause of reprehension, that you have done right in this life, that blunts of sharpness of death; as individuals you are ambitious of leaving behind you a good name, and if in the reflection, that you have done right in this life, that blunts the sharpness of death; the same principles would be a consolation to you, as patriots, in the hour of dissolution, that you would leave to your children a fair political inheritance, untouched by the virtues of power, which you had acquired by an unshaken perseverance in the cause of liberty—but how miserable the alternative—you would deprecate the ruin you had brought on yourselves—be the curse of posterity, and the scorn and scoff of nations.

Cato (George Clinton who took the name of a Roman senator who tried to preserve the republic) was saying, Act now, engage in the process, as if our actions on this day will determine the future of our children.

 On this day, a new president will take office. It is historic. The Chief Justice will swear in our first anarchist president. You heard me correctly. Not anti-Christ. Anarchist. He has already shown us that he intends to appoint a cabinet that will destroy the very institutions that they have been entrusted with leading.

As I said in an earlier post, our institutions will be tested, our character will be tested.

As John Jay advised, I do not plan to be petty. I do not want to create discord out of jealousy or injuries. I want to act for my children and their future. Like Cato, who was pretty funkadelic for his times, I believe a little discord is not a bad thing. I will take part in this grand experiment.

Tomorrow, I will be among those at Women’s March for Arkansas. Let’s get funky.

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 | January 13, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 4

     It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purpose and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military virtue, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans.

     John Jay, The Federalist Papers, No. 4

 

If John Jay had been one of my classmates at Old Dominion University in 1969, he would have been willing, I imagine, to crunch into one of the seats of my mother’s 1966 VW Bug and drive four hours to Washington, DC, for the privilege of marching, with a few hundred thousand hippies, against the war in Vietnam. I have no doubt that I would have asked him to join me. I have no doubt that he would have come along.

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Jay clearly didn’t like war, and he believed that a stronger federal government would deter war. Instead of a loose confederacy, whose weakness would “invite” war, the strong federation would “tend to repress and discourage it.”

Now, over two centuries later, most of us tend to agree with the Federalists because, in the end, they won the argument. They wanted the young country to adopt the proposed constitution, and the constitution was adopted. We tend to push the antifederalists aside. Their arguments, their concerns, tend to recede into background as so much historical noise. Most of us, myself included, tend to think that the antifederalists were, well, the opposite  federalists—that is, opposite of the good guys.

Here is what we, as a nation, as a community, have tended to forget: The antifederalists were not anti-American. They contributed deeply to our national identity and values. They wanted a weaker federal government because they were concerned that a strong federal government “tends to establish a despotism, or, what is worse, a tyrannic aristocracy.” A strong, centralized federal government might damage, compromise, or destroy “this only remaining asylum for liberty.” This was the concern Robert Yates of new York expressed in Brutus I, which was published October 18, 1787.

Here is what I believe we, as a culture, should remember—what we, as a community, should embrace as part of who we are as a country: We need to learn from the federalists and the antifederalists because, at this point in history, we need to embrace the values that serve as the foundation of this nation. This includes the aim to avoid unnecessary wars and despotism. This includes finding the proper balance between strength and checks on power.

Posted by: George | January 6, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 3

     Because when once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will not only consent to serve, but also will generally be appointed to manage it; for, although town or country, or other contracted influence, may place men in State assemblies, or senates, or courts of justice, or executive departments, yet more general and extensive reputation for talents and other qualifications will be necessary to recommend men to offices under the national government—especially as it will have the widest field of choice, and never experience that want of proper persons which is not uncommon in some of the States.

    John Jay, The Federalist Papers, No. 3

In No. 3, John Jay wrote that a stronger central government, the kind in the proposed constitution, would prevent unnecessary wars. His argument was, in part, that state governments often have trouble finding competent citizens to serve in key positions; the federal government, on the other hand, would naturally attract the “best men” across the thirteen states. These “best men” would be less likely to make bad decisions and be swayed by local issues. They would, thus, be more likely to keep us out of bad wars.

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In 1787, Jay’s claim—that the “best men” would rush to serve in the national government, for the benefit of the entire country—seemed reasonable. Self-evident, even. After the extended and torturous 2016 election, Jay’s claim is a little hard to accept. Even with a much larger pool of potential candidates—we can now also look for the “best women”—we have come up with a comic hoard to run the country. How can they protect us from unnecessary wars?

Congress has the lowest approval rating in the history of modern polling. In March 2016, the approval rating for congress hit the all-time low of 4%. I don’t know for certain what the margin of error was for this poll, but it might have been around 4%, which means, at least conceivably, the actual approval rating might be closer to 0%. It is hard to believe that it could be so low, unless the number of “disapprovers” included the moms, dads, brothers, sisters, cousins, children, and fair-weather friends of pretty much every silly member of congress.

In the presidential election, the country also set records. At just about any point in the election process, the unfavorables for Trump and Clinton exceeded the favorables. Many, maybe most, Americans voted against one of these candidates. Many chose to not vote at all.

How have we gotten to the point where our national politicians are perceived as being a basketful full of deplorables? I write perceived as being because polls about “favorables” are  about, to state the obvious, perceptions.

Just maybe, just possibility, Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton may not be qualitatively different when judged by the whatever abstract code of ethics you might want to choose than Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, both of whom showed their darker selves in elections, especially when they were running against each other. But we revere Thomas and John, and we think Donald and Hillary are sadly flawed.

Here’s what I think is going on. We are moving too fast and skimming across the surface. We have multiple 24/7 news channels and Twitter and Facebook and fake news. There is substance, but it’s hard to find.

Time is accelerating. Even the pace of symphonies is accelerating. We are exposed to more media. So, we bound across the surface of information. The only messages that resonate are the ones that reinforce our current beliefs.

This is why, at least in part, the Clinton email scandal would not go away. Clinton kept saying, It’s complicated. Citizens of our great country, who skimmed across the surface of Clinton’s attempts to explain her server, tended to think that complicated is a synonym for lie.

A few days before the election, as I was driving home from my night class, I listened to an NPR story about the Clinton email scandal. The reporters (didn’t catch their names, I was driving at the time) had actually read the FBI report that (more or less) said Clinton had been careless but not criminal. I watch a lot of television news. I read newspaper stories online. I had never heard the information presented in that radio show.

I heard all kinds of interesting little tidbits. Until Colin Powell was Secretary of State, the State Department was basically a scribal institution in a digital age. Powell not only bought computers—as lot of them—but he also checked, personally, to make sure the computers were being used. When he visited embassies around the world, he would sit at computers, login, and make sure someone there, in that embassy, had been done something—anything—on it.

Hillary Clinton might very well be the most qualified person to run for present in a long time, but she is an alien in cyber space. The NPR story claimed that she doesn’t even know how to use a desktop. Colin Powell attempted to move the State Department into the digital age; Hillary Clinton asked her staff to find her a “new” BlackBerry phone that was like her old one. The model was no longer being made, so her staff had to buy a used one on eBay.

Clinton and her staff were basically clueless to the subtleties of the digital age. They didn’t collude to hide emails on a server, which had already been in the basement of the Clinton’s home. They were all, I repeat, clueless. They weren’t smart enough (in terms of technology) to hide anything.

As I was listening to this radio show, I was thinking, The email scandal actually was complicated. Why wasn’t this reported more widely, more substantially? All of the pundits (insert your own dose of irony here) on 24/7 news channels commented at length on Hillary’s email server. How many of them read even a portion of the FBI report? Why wasn’t this kind of information part of our national debate during the election?

It’s because, in our mass media digital society,  complex, subtle, informed analysis (slow analysis) will always be trumped (pun intended) by 140 characters (fast responses).

That’s what has changed since 1787 when John Jay wrote Federalist No. 3. That is why smart, competent, normal people are reluctant to run for office.

So, let’s slow down. Read an FBI report or two. Read a book. Listen to some NPR. Heck, come along with me, let’s read The Federalist Papers together.

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

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

Posted by: George | December 31, 2016

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 2

    Admit, for so is the fact, that this plan is only recommended, not imposed, yet let it be remembered that it is neither recommended to blind approbation, nor to blind reprobation; but to that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand, and which it certainly ought to receive.

John Jay, Federalist No. 2

John Jay frames the need for a new constitution by writing about war and peace. From the first conception of an independent American nation, as the Articles of Confederation were drafted, the colonies were at war and the new citizens’ “habitations were in flames.” As we look back, we can easily fail to understand a fundamental part of our history: This first formation of a new nation was an act of imagination. Our forefathers had to imagine that they would win independence, and they had to imagine what kind of new government might bring security and prosperity to a new nation in the new world. They had the principles of the Enlightenment to guide them, but they did not have a history specific to the task. And they were imagining this new reality, which we often take for granted, in a time of war. “It is not to be wondered at,” Jay writes, “that a government instituted in times so inauspicious, should on experiment be found greatly deficient and inadequate to the purpose it was intended to answer.”

The first imagining of a new kind of government, the first experiment, as conceived during war, failed. And so a second act of imaging was needed. Jay writes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787: “In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects, they passed many months in cool, uninterrupted, and daily consultation; and finally, without having been awed by power, or influenced by any passions except love for their country, they presented and recommended to the people the plan produced by their joint and very unanimous councils.”

Jay’s point is that now, in 1787, in a time of peace and with the knowledge of one failed experiment, the forefathers were able to conceive of a better constitution, a new imagining and a new experiment. This, he says, is an imagining that is more likely to succeed, if ratified.

In No. 2, Jay’s words are also a call to citizenship. When he says that the recommendation of a new constitution is not a recommendation to “blind approbation” or “blind reprobation,” he is asking his fellow citizens to bring “patriotism, virtue and wisdom” to the public debate over whether or not the new constitution should be ratified. He is calling for nothing short of a new kind of citizen. The new experiment, as Whitman later wrote in Democratic Vistas, cannot be realized without a new kind of person. This new person, this new citizen, must be educated and informed. Otherwise, public discourse, though imagined, cannot be realized.

During the 2016 election, I saw this exchange between a Trump supporter and a reporter:

Trump Supporter: Trump is going to build a wall, and he’s going to make them pay for it.

Reporter: Who is going to pay for the wall?

Trump Supporter: China.

You can see a line of thought in this short exchange, if we add a missing step—or misstep—in the logical sequence. (Is “logical” the wrong adjective here? Maybe.) Here’s the full sequence, with the missing link in italics: Trump is going to build a wall. They are going to pay for it. China built the Great Wall of China. Therefore, China must be the country that will pay for the Great Wall of America, which will be capped off with a neon TRUMP. Okay, I added the part about the Trump sign, but you get the idea.

In another interview, a different Trump supporter said he was angry at Obama because he wasn’t in his office during the 9/11 attack. By “office,” he clearly meant the Oval Office. Obama couldn’t be there because 9/11 happened in 2001, and he wasn’t president yet. George W. Bush was president, and Bush wasn’t in the Oval Office, either. He was reading some children’s book about a goat to a second grade class in Florida. I’m sure it was a lovely book about a lovely goat and the little kids were probably lovely, too. I’m also sure that Bush did less damage when he was out of the Oval Office. So, I don’t blame Bush at all—for that.

It is easy to smirk at these grotesquely ill-informed comments by citizens of our country in the twenty-first century, both of whom, I assume, voted on November 8, 2016. So, let us smirk, but just for a moment. Then, let us reflect.

Before the election, I was watching about three hours a day of political news on television and reading additional stories about politics and political issues online. Since the election, I have been watching less than an hour of news a day. If this keeps up, I predict that I will meet these Trump supports at some point. In time, I will be as ill informed. We will become brothers in our country’s experiment in government. Grotesquely so.

I am sure that John Jay would tell me to snap out of it, to buck up and get back in the game. Part of the force of Jay’s frame of war and peace in No. 2 might be lost on a contemporary audience. He was writing in “the mild season of peace” to citizens who lived daily with memories of a brutal war for independence. With even the mention of war, Jay is laying bare these memories. Part of his call for his fellow citizens to be patriotic, virtuous, and wise includes this: People died for your right to be an informed citizen, so do not come to this debate blind.

More have died since. I am going to have to move past the pain and discomfort I feel as I watch the news or even conceive of hearing, over and over, the phrase President Trump.

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

Posted by: George | December 26, 2016

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 1

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less that the existence of the Union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

            Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1

 Hamilton begins the Federalist Papers with a statement about American exceptionalism and the fragility of its experiment in government. A little over a decade old, the new government, one of “the most interesting in the world,” is clearly not working. The union, he writes, may not survive.

 Eugene O’Neill once said that there is not present or future, there is only past. His plays are filled with characters who are haunted by demons of their own creation, so it makes sense that he saw only the past. That’s not how we experience our institutions. We experience them in the present and only the present, as if they always existed, as if they were God created, as if they will survive and sustain us until the end of days.

 If we read history, we know better. The Revolutionary War could have easily collapsed, the South could have won the Civil War, and the Japanese could have prevailed in World War II. When Hamilton wrote Federalist No. 1, he did not know that the constitution would be adopted and that the government it established would exist for over two centuries. At stake, Hamilton believed, was not just the future of his country but the broader issue of whether or not people could establish “good government from reflection and choice.” If this experiment failed, it would contribute to “the general misfortune of mankind.”

 If we are unable to establish “good government,” Hamilton believed, the failure will lie with our pettiness, our failure to consider “the public good.” He expected a “torrent of angry and malignant passions” to “be let loose,” that some will attempt “to increase their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.” Rather than fight invectives with invectives, Hamilton asks us to embrace the conflict as “a lesson in moderation.” Part of the lesson is accepting, however we might be inclined to react, that the opposition may have “upright intentions” and focusing on “the evidence of truth.”

 It is the tone of No. 1 that is most interesting. I am not going to be nostalgic here for a time past. Eighteenth-century American politics were not always civil. Jefferson and Adams could be particularly nasty, even to the point of doing something like fake news about each other. And we can find nastiness in the Antifederalists, a less cohesive group that opposed adoption of the new constitution. In Brutus IX (January 17, 1788), one of the Antifederalist essays, the author argues against granting the federal government the right to establish a standing army and, more specifically, as generally assumed, against Hamilton in Federalist No. 1. Brutus writes:

From the positive, and dogmatic manner, in which this author delivers his opinions, and answers objections made to his sentiments, one would conclude, that he was some pedantic pedagogue who had been accustomed to deliver his dogmas to his pupils, who always placed implicit faith in what he delivered.

Now, you might say this is pretty nasty stuff, even if not as nasty as some of the attacks during our recent election. Brutus does not say anything about the size of  Hamilton’s hands. And, despite the ad hominem attack, Brutus writes: “I shall now proceed to examine the arguments they advance in support of their opinions.” Despite calling Hamilton a “pedantic pedagogue,” Brutus engages in a high level of argument.

Nastiness is not the most fundamental problem we have right now. It’s the lack of substance, the tendency to dismiss the opposition with adjectives.

 We certainly have journalist and essayist who are writing at a high level, who are building arguments. My concern is that the good is often lost in the ocean of the bad. Has our discourse been democratized or diluted? When the Federalist and the Antifederalist debated, we had a small number of men (yes, all white men) publishing substantial essays in a small number of newspapers. It was easier to raise the level of political discourse. Now, it seems like we are trying to lower the sea level with a teacup.

 But we should try. We should take Hamilton’s advice and learn moderation.

 

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

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