The Eyes of Argos

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“Mercury, Argos and Io” by Abraham Bloemaert, circa 1592. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, is invoked by Josiah Ober to warn a slumbering citizenry of the danger of tyranny. “Vigilance and readiness to respond,” Ober warns, are the duties of a participating citizenry if they wish to preserve their democracy from the ever-present risk of elite capture. Argos “was bewitched into slumber and then killed in his sleep by the trickster-god Hermes at the behest of tyrannical Zeus.” A vigilant citizenry, Ober cautions, “must not be lulled into sleepy inattention by rhetorical incantations.”[i]

In times of crisis, paternalistic demagogues promise salvation in the name of the people. Mercury—Rome’s patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, and trickery—stands in for Hermes in many depictions of Argos’ slumber and demise.

What happens when the delegated authority of elected representatives—delegation being a necessity of a large and complex modern state—is captured by elites to legislate in their own interests and against the common interests of the people? What happens when the sovereignty of the people is co-opted and democracy is corrupted? (more…)

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The Uniform of U.S. Grant (Part 1 of 2)

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Ulysses S. Grant, spring 1865. (photo by Frederick Gutekunst)

As part of his “Letters from New York” at the end of the 19th century, José Martí wrote several articles about Ulysses S. Grant during the time when the former president was dying of cancer and finishing his Personal Memoirs to secure the financial stability of his family after his death. I have admired for many years Martí’s brilliant prose in these chronicles, and through them I have come to esteem the shining figure of U.S. Grant:

New York prepares to be thankful for the privilege of sheltering in its grounds the corpse of he who led the colossal army of the Federation from glory to glory against the slaveholding rebels…. He would fall, without rage, like an avalanche. Wherever he placed his eye, he planted the flag. (“Death of Grant,” August 3, 1885).

Not until I read British military historian Jon Keegan’s assessment of Grant as military commander (Keegan considers Grant a superior general to Robert E. Lee) did I become interested in reading Grant’s Personal Memoirs.[1]   (more…)

A Capable Demos

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The decline of western democracy shown in the domino theory. (Credit: Paraney / Wikimedia Commons)

“In imaginary Demopolis the citizens are capable of governing . . . . But the stunted civic education offered by real modern states may be unequal to the task of producing a capable demos. In the absence of adequate civic education, citizens lack the motivation and the skills necessary to govern themselves . . . . [That lack] fosters unstable perversions of democracy, as opportunistic politicians channel antityrannical sentiment into paranoia and warped nostalgia for a mythic age of national unity and civic virtue.”

Josiah Ober, Demopolis (2017, p. 161)

The illiberal populism of right-wing demagoguery by the likes of Donald Trump is just such a perversion of democracy. It is, as Ober observes (pp. 178-179), an outburst of political polarization that feeds on racial strife and exclusionary nationalism and projects a fierce hostility toward liberalism and liberal values such as tolerance. It is marked by a rhetoric of demonization. Populist despots, Ober insists, “can take power only when citizen self-government is reduced to a simple form of majoritarian tyranny” (p. 180), which can happen in the absence of adequate civic education.

Ober’s formulation of basic democracy is a thought experiment that helps us to envision the minimum conditions for a healthy polity of limited self-governance that provides sufficient security and prosperity without succumbing to tyranny. In addition to adequate security and sufficient welfare, basic democracy promotes political liberty, political equality, and civic dignity, which in turn reinforce and depend on the exercise of interrelated human capacities for sociability, rationality, and communication. (more…)

The Blame and Shame of It

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“Examination of a Witch” by Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Once upon a time, true Christians walked upon the American continent, and their religion was for them a living principle and a source of joy. One thinks of the indefatigable work of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in defense of the American Indian; the nightly dance rituals of American Shakers and their sober house furniture pieces—crafted so that angels could be received by saints. One witnessed how Martin Luther King guided an entire generation of civil rights leaders through the desert wasteland of mid-century America. (more…)

The Tyranny of Civic Ignorance

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“Tyranny,” by Henry Lyman Saÿen; located in Room H-143 of the US Capitol. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to the results of this year’s national civics survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (University of Pennsylvania) only 26% of US citizens can name all three branches of the government; as many as 37% cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment; 39% think the press should have government approval to report on any issue of national security.

This is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. “These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education,” observes the Center’s director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Why should we be concerned about chronic and systemic civic ignorance? Because it erodes the foundation of democracy on which we rely for our security and prosperity short of submitting to tyranny. That is Josiah Ober’s answer, which he explains by way of a thought experiment. (more…)

The Devil’s Dictionary No. 2: Moron

 

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“The Hell” by Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Recently our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, described our current President as a “moron.” I had not heard the word for some time; I certainly had not pondered on its meaning lately. The incident brought back memories of other cabinet members who held their presidents in similar esteem. Henry Kissinger, for example, was believed to have had a low opinion of Richard Nixon:

Though mitigated by admiration for certain elements of the Nixon character, Kissinger’s basic attitude toward the President was one of loathing and contempt.

(more…)

The One, the Few, and the Many

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Mr. Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency as a right-wing populist, and with the mindset of a demolitionist,[i] raises a question about the viability of democracy. While it is a mistake to conflate Trump’s demagoguery with democracy, his election to office reveals ambiguities over the meaning of popular governance in US political culture.

Trump has said of the government, “I alone can fix it,” which exhibits a preference for rule by The One. He has appointed a cabinet and undertaken a series of executive orders that reflect the interests and reinforce the power of the economic elite, which demonstrates the rule of The Few. Both tendencies are authoritarian. (more…)

Archangel Raphael

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“Archangel Raphael and Tobit and the dog” by David Ghirlandaio, circa 1484-1486. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Jorge Luis Borges in his History of Angels (1926), “primitive angels were stars.” In the Book of Job (Borges continues), the Lord speaks out from the whirlwind about the genesis of creation: “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (KJV, Job 38:7). The “German speculative theologian” Richard Rothe (1799-1867) affirms that angels have the attributes of intellectual force and free will. They are also capable of “working wonders, but not miracles. They cannot create from nothing or raise the dead.”[1] (more…)

A Democratic Alternative to the Devil’s Theology

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Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in his study.(Credit: The Merton Center)

Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, social critic, and political activist—was alert to how people tend to exaggerate differences between themselves and others in order to separate right from wrong and good from evil.  He called such exaggeration a trait of “the devil’s moral theology,” in which “the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong,” which “does not exactly make for peace and unity among men” because to be absolutely right, we must “punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”[i]

Who among us has never succumbed to moralism?  It is habit forming, contagious, and toxic.  It is today’s norm.  Hyperbole is the trope of choice.  Moderation in language, respect for the complexities of life, and deliberation of differences are rarely manifest in public discourse.  (more…)

‘The People’ in Trumpspeak

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(DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Mr. Trump’s widely criticized UN address contains an easily overlooked version of “the people” that should give a democratic citizenry cause for concern.  The speech was coarse, boorish, brassy, combative, and self-contradictory.  That was readily apparent.  It groped for power, which is Trump’s style.  But it was also a three-card monte con that deceptively proclaimed presidential sovereignty in the name of the people.  The rhetorical kitsch was a distraction that diminished and deposed the public it pretended to glorify.

The perverse subtlety of Trump’s brash rhetoric is hidden in plain sight, if we pause to look for it amid the clutter of cliché and misdirection of diatribe.  Placed in perspective, the diversion implies (points away from) a deft filching of popular sovereignty.  (more…)