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Split Personality

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So, in the middle of everything else I’ve been doing, I’ve been reading a book.  The book is called The Wages of Appeasement:  Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America and it’s by Bruce Thornton, who is Victor Davis Hanson’s second-most-published writer on the VDH Private Papers website.  He’s also a professor of classics at CalState/Fresno.  At least, I think it’s Fresno, but looking at the book, I’m not sure why.

At any rate, a few things about the book before I start:

1) In spite of the title, the book hasn’t much to do with the Obama administration.  In fact, most of the space in the part of the book that is about the US covers Carter and Reagan.  I’ve suffered through enough editorial strongarming over titles in my day so that I’m not sure if the subtitle was Thornton’s or the geniuses at his imprint.

2) I get stuck, with Thornton, as I do with VDH, trying to find a way around the labels “liberal” and “conservative.”

Thornton is a “conservative” in the sense that he’s an anti-terrorist hawk, but he’s not a “religious conservative” (or even religious, as far as I can make out) and he is almost as critical of Reagan as he is of Carter. 

If I had to define a divide between one side and the other on religious matters in a book like this, it’s not between believers and nonbelievers, but between people who think bin Laden and company mean it when they say they’re doing what they’re doing for Allah and people who think bin Laden and company are only claiming a religious reason because it sounds good and what they really want is lots more money and jobs and things, because nobody can believe that stuff any more.

3) This is definitely going down on my list of books to hand people who declare to me that liberals are intelligent and conservatives are stupid.  It goes on the list with Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge and Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions and Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

Because I want to go on record here as saying that I wish there were more books in the world like this.

I don’t mean I wish there were more books on this topic, or taking this slant to this topic, although I largely agree with it.

I mean I wish there were more books whose design was to line up similar situations in different eras in history and to outline those similarities and also the differences.

You keep hearing that you need to learn from  history, but you have to do something like this in order to do it, and there’s very little of that kind of thing out there.

The book itself is more difficult to pin down, as a book, because it seems to change tone and focus about halfway through, when Thornton leaves history and begins to analyze the more or less present.

It’s important to understand that what he’s analyzing is not particular policies per se, although he has a go at some of those.

His more insistant focus is the habit of mind evident in most of the post-Vietnam US and the idea that democracy brings with it a tendency for societies to individualize beyond what is feasible to keep a society together.

That is, the tendency for democracies to morph from societies in which each person sees the “government” as something he does and therefore owes a duty to, to something that dispenses benefits of various kinds that he does not need to do anything to deserve.

Okay, I feel like the writing here is absolutely awful, but I can’t help myself.  It’s a complicated book.

The critique of democracy is so strong,  however, that I got to the last chapter wondering if he was about to come out against the idea of democracy altogether–or if he wasn’t, but that the implications of what he’d written were that no democracy could last for long in the face of its own interior contradictions.

In that last chapter, however, he suddenly goes “well the benefits of democracy are so great, they’re worth the risk” and takes off from there.

But I think it’s an interesting question:  is it possible for democracies to survive as democracies?

A fair number of the nominally democratic countries of Western Europe are only nominally democratic.  They are really largely bureaucratic aristocracies–places in which the “will of the people” has been replaced by top-down for-your-own-good regulation that cannot be significantly affected by anything but the most extreme responses of the populace. 

And the US, although nowhere near as far gone as, say, Belgium, seems headed in the same direction.

The simple fact is that the dirty little secret of democratic government is that the “will of the people” is not always the most intelligent choice, and intelligent people get frustrated with having to put up with voters who simply refuse to see what is good for them.  Left to themselves, actual voters tend to want to eat red meat, smoke cigarettes, drink liquor, and exercise only when they have to.  It drives health care costs up. 

Okay.  I’m being sarcastic.  But you know what I mean.

One of the things democracy needs to survive is people in it–specifically the most intelligent and well educated people in it–understanding that there are some things they don’t get to control.  And we all hate not having control.

But I also wonder if democracies lead inevitably to affluence and affluence leads inevitably to self-centeredness and fear.

Somebody I read once said that it’s much easier to be poor if poor is all you’ve ever been.  Once you’ve been rich, subsequent poverty feels much worse than it might have if you’d never have the contrast.

I wonder if part of the problem is just a matter of myopic self interest–I’m comfortable, and I don’t want anything to interrupt my comfort.  And if something is out there looks like it’s going to interrupt my comfort, I’m just going to deny it exists.   

That makes, at least, something of a rational explanation for the refusal of so many people to take jihadist rhetoric seriously, and then to excoriate anybody who tries to get them to take it seriously.

But I also wonder about religion.  Forget, for the moment, whether religion is true or not.

Just ask yourself this:  if you think that the only meaning in your life is the joy you experience living it, are you going to be more or less willing to die for your principles (free speech, freedom of religion, whatever) when those principles are threatened?

I know that I am not religious and that I can yet answer for myself that I would find it imperative to fight and even to die if necessary for the way of life I am committed to.

I don’t think that attitude is general to people who believe as I do in matters of religion. 

And for people for whom the comfort of the present has been accepted unthinkingly, I’m not sure such a feeling of duty to the whole exists at all.

But I also don’t know why I feel differently, or why people like Thornton and Davis and Dalrymple do, even though they’re no more religious believers than I am.

And that is, I think, enough blithering for the morning.

Written by janeh

March 25th, 2011 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Split Personality'

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  1. Sometime ago I made a post in RAM saying that the first book about the Bush administration that I would trust would be one published in 2190 by an historian born in 2140. I’m sticking to that!

    Liberal vs conservative. A random thought. FDR’s “New Deal” dates back to the 1930s which was 75 years ago. Jonhson’s “Great Society” is 1960s which was 50 years ago. The liberals seem to be mired in the past. Are they conservative in the old fashionede non-political sense of the word?


    25 Mar 11 at 2:09 pm

  2. You’ve got to define your terms. What is a democracy? If you mean government by the people, it’s not only the democracies of modern Europe that are ‘nominal’, it’s the ones in ancient Greece, the ones in present-day North America – all three of them – and the one founded at the time of the American Revolution, when all those United Empire Loyalists fled rather than live under the new regime.

    Whether wealthy democracies end up soft and spoiled and unwilling to tolerate disagreement within their own borders, things they can’t control at home and abroad and the necessity of sacrificing to protect something of enormous value…well, there are times when I despair on these points. It doesn’t bother me so much that some people can’t see that some Muslims, for example, would like to destroy the west. It does when the people we choose to lead us use these fears to manipulate us, rather than considering their actual level of threat. It hardly matters – except to the dead and their families, of course – if scattered terrorist attacks leave our lifestyle more or less intact. After all, this has been going on as long as most people now alive can remember. When was it that the IRA, various Palestinian factions, all those European Red this and that, the South American groups started cooperating in an effort to use terrorism to destroy the West? Back in the 60s? So far, all they’ve done is cause a lot of pain and suffering and death.

    Possibly they have had some success in shifting the major democracies (by which I mean any country that still has a more or less working system of handing and passing on political power through elections) a bit in anti-democratic directions, using the tactic of inspiring crackdowns. Some of their fellow-travellers are certainly still trying that sort of thing. Will they succeed longterm? I don’t know. I do think that being willing to die for your beliefs is a lot less important than I believed years ago. It’s more important to live for them; to work with and against people though politics as messy and nasty as they are. If you’ve gotten to the point at which you must kill or die to improve things, you’ve already lost and it will take generations to rebuild your society if you can do it at all. There are places I don’t need to mention that have gone hundreds of years – or even thousands – with few if any periods of safe and comfortable self-rule.


    25 Mar 11 at 6:06 pm

  3. Cheryl, I’m not all that familiar with the history of political violence


    25 Mar 11 at 8:14 pm

  4. Argg! Hit the wrong button!

    The political violence I recall are the gun powder plot in England which was aimed at the Parliament and various anarchist attempts to kill monarches and Prime Ministers.

    This “I don’t like the government so I’ll blow up a random bus” seems rather different.


    25 Mar 11 at 8:16 pm

  5. I’m not sure if the Gunpowder Plot was an early example of terrorism, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. The anarchists are definitely in political ancestry of those who think that using violence to make a political point, terrify enemies, provoke their opponents into some action that will make them lose the support of the population and so on. And all of these actions are not only incompatible with democracy (in any sense of the word), they delay or maybe even prevent the development of a democracy. After all, you can’t have a democracy if Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (or the republican equivalent) is operating in a society in which bombing buses is an accepted way to make a political point.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m not thinking too clearly what with getting over a cold and not sleeping and other things. I think I’m trying to make some vague point about violence (most definitely including suicidal violence) is a danger to a democratic system, so people being unwilling to engage in it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, there comes a point when any democratic society will have to defend itself, particularly against outside threats. I’m not sure whether some – maybe a lot – of the West sees the current level of violence directed against them by some Muslims as a threat – not necessarily because they don’t think that there are some Muslims who would most happily devote their lives to destroying the west, but because they don’t think they can do it. After all, terrorism from various sources has been directed against the western way of life as long as anyone alive now can remember, and except for the murdered victims, we’ve all muddled along quite nicely. Well, except for the latest economic collapse, but you can’t blame that on the Muslims or the Black Bloc.


    26 Mar 11 at 5:27 am

  6. Hmmm. Three things:
    1) Guy Fawkes is too late. Some of the roots of modern politics go back another generation to the Fifth Monarchy Men, with the motto “No King but King Jesus!” They believed the world was coming up on violent catastrophic change, that only they understood this, and, accordingly, only they should hold political power. In a way, they’re the ancestors of communists and fascists both–and were prone to political violence of the sort we’d now call terrorism, though more assasinations than bombs. (Bombs really don’t get far before dynamite.)
    2) We’ve started two hares on the democracy business. One question is whether democracy is a stable form of government, or is inclined to self-destruct. The other is whether a governmetn without effective limits is stable. I will go so far as to state that a national democracy without limits on the power of government is inherently unstable or short-lived. What you’ve done when the central government decides everthing–school prayer, abortion, smoking and sexual relations–is to raise the stakes of the elections. It makes the price of losing an election so high that sooner or later someone will kick over the table.
    3) As for the overall stability of democracy, I highly recomend–not for the first time, I’m sure–C. NOrthcote Parkinson’s EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL THOUGHT, which belongs on that shelf next to Sowell. (Short answer: Parkinson says no, it won’t last, and will eventually yield to monarchy: but how long it will last depends on a number of circumstances–which is true of all other forms of government as well.


    27 Mar 11 at 10:00 pm

  7. Or else we get a sharp correction as occurred in New South Wales here over this past weekend when the Australian Labor Party government, which had ruled in that state (and across most of Australia) for many years, was unceremoniously dumped in the greatest anti-government swing to have occurred anywhere in this country in at least the past 70 years. The reason for this was almost certainly that the people finally got sick of a political party which, like the Democrats in the US, purports to represent the working class and poorer elements in society but, in fact, actually represents nothing more than the Party’s politicians and political insiders and their personal interests.

    I think democracy is alive and well no matter how unstable it might appear from time to time.


    28 Mar 11 at 12:58 am

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