Byam Shaw’s illustration for Poe’s William Wilson in “Selected Tales of Mystery” (London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1909) on the frontispiece with caption “A masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting story of “William Wilson” (published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine) is a semi-autobiographical tale of conscience worth invoking in the midst of our present political struggles. It is a ghostly story of conquering one’s alter ego, of the demoralizing consequence of slaying the second, better self. It is told as a cautionary tale, the redemptive purport of which comes from reflecting on the consequences of one’s own avarice rather than projecting blame outward.
The bane of unacknowledged greed, lust, and ambition, which is at the heart of Poe’s tale, can be extended beyond the individual to implicate a nation. Indeed, William Wilson’s struggle with his doppelgänger might serve well as a parable for collective contemplation. Understanding his moral demise should prompt us to reclaim the spirit of the nation. (more…)
Democratic Primary Debate Participants, 27 June 2019: Michael Bennet, Joseph Biden, Peter Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernard Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang. (Credit: DonkeyHotey / Wikimedia Commons)
You have heard it said before. I’ve said it myself. As a colleague recently grumbled: “The bar is low. All I want is a return to the rule of law.”
Indeed, the bar is set low for the 2020 presidential election if it means Democrats should nominate the person most likely to defeat Trump, that candidates competing for the nomination should do no harm to one another in the primaries, and that they and their supporters should rally behind the Party’s eventual nominee on the assumption that winning the election will return the nation to the status quo ante.
Is a reset enough? Is restoring the state of affairs as it existed before Trump’s presidency the right goal and the likeliest way to win the election? (more…)
From “Stories of Gods and Heroes” (1920) by Thomas Bulfinch with color illustrations drawn by Sybil Tawse. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I am among the apparent majority of American voters opposed to Donald Trump’s election and re-election. The majority wasn’t big enough in 2016 and may be too small in 2020 to overcome the negative effects of indirect election, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and foreign interference. As a citizen of a decidedly red state, I register my vote in full knowledge that it will not count in the final tally, since the presidential candidate with the most popular votes in Indiana, even if just a plurality, receives all eleven of the state’s electoral votes. Winner-takes-all rather than proportional allocation is the case in 48 of the 50 states, red or blue, big or small. It allows a candidate who loses the popular vote to win the office. If the electoral college was supposed to prevent the selection of a manifestly unqualified candidate, recent experience suggests that choosing the winner directly by popular vote might serve the country as well or even better. (more…)
Jefferson Memorial at dusk, 4 October 2011. (Credit: Joe Ravi)
“It’s come to that. I tremble for my country.” These chilling, Jeffersonian words could be the refrain of an unwritten elegy on the fate of the republic.[i] They are the lament of a judicious person I know in Washington, D.C., a person who has served in previous administrations of both political parties and now works as a policy adviser. They are words to express the inchoate angst lurking inside us. Could anyone—even someone stunned by the last presidential election—have foreseen our present predicament of government unhinged and politics gone vile? Yes, it’s come to that, and I, too, tremble for my country. (more…)
Progressive Democratic Candidate Liz Watson. (Credit: Liz for Indiana on Facebook)
Just before the midterm elections and immediately thereafter, I found myself feeling pessimistic and saying so to anyone within earshot. That was an unwelcome downer for friends and fellow progressives wishing to celebrate an election that gave the Democratic Party control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The “blue wave” may not have been as big as many expected (or at least hoped for), but one-party rule in the nation’s capital had been defeated at the polls.
The Democrats also made gains in governorships and other state offices. Even in deep-red Arizona, Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat and took a 5-4 advantage in the state’s nine Congressional districts.
The Arizona victory underscored my pessimism. Why could that red state, where my Hunt the Devil friend Oscar lives, show blue when Indiana, the state in which I reside, deepened its already dark shade of red? Maybe we progressive Hoosiers will never overcome Republican gerrymandering. Maybe Republicans do not even need to gerrymander to dominate in Indiana. It just seems hopeless. (more…)
Exhibition at the Grand Palace. “Me, Augustus, Emperor of Rome” (19 March 2014-13 July 2014) Around 44 BC. Julius Caesar, white marble. (Credit: Gautier Poupeau)
Consider for a moment that the way we communicate is an expression of who we are or are becoming. Do we communicate as a democratic people, as citizens of a republic, and/or as subjects of an empire—perhaps increasingly less as democratic citizens and more as imperial subjects, marking the impending loss of the soul of the republic?
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency chronicled the systematic growth of presidential power since the founding of the republic, a trend that has increased since the book’s publication in 1973. Jeffrey Tulis and his colleagues followed suit in 1981 and 1987 with a discussion of the rise of the rhetorical presidency and its deleterious effects on republican government. Demagoguery and government by mood, in Tulis’s view, mark rhetoric as a degraded form of political communication that undermines the interests of the public and destabilizes the political system. Of course, not all rhetoric is demagogic, but rule by presidential mass persuasion that bypasses the deliberative function of the Congress, by this estimation, erodes the constitution of the republic. While I have criticized the elitism of the rhetorical presidency thesis in general terms, the present degraded state of presidential rhetoric clearly is deleterious to the prospects of representative democracy and the future of the republic.
The whirlwind of today’s politics is exhausting and demoralizing. I am emotionally drained by the relentless storm of acrimony and dismayed by its destructive force. What is there left to say in the face of all of this? Many of us share a sense of anomie. Political talk is unmoored to democratic values.
The swirl of political communication is frenetic. We read distractedly in this digital age, observes Joe Moran. We skim; we don’t read anything that’s too long. We ingest information rapidly; we write and read urgently; we harvest quick bursts of words and images. “Perhaps,” Moran suggests, “we should slow down.” (more…)
1902 American cartoon about celebrating the Fourth of July. (Credit: Udo Keppler/Wikimedia Commons)
It was the day after the Fourth of July. Three of us met for breakfast at the local deli. There had been a sizable Families Belong Together rally the previous Saturday in our downtown square attended by two of us. I had missed the rally but had marched with a group in our city’s July 4th parade. Our group carried signs that called for keeping families together and endorsed more humane alternatives to detention.
The three of us were comparing notes over breakfast and, as is our custom, engaging in spirited debate. We like disagreeing with one another. Sometimes it’s each one of us opposed to each of the others; sometimes it’s two against one in short-lived and shifting alliances. Usually we find points of agreement, or at least partial agreement, in the midst of the give and take. We provoke and listen to each other for the sake of friendship.
This was the dialectical context in which I shared with my friends some reflections on the previous day’s parade experience. (more…)
Detail from “Government.” Mural by Elihu Vedder. 1896. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Democracy is a tricky word, as noted at the end of Hunt the Devil. Whether we’ve too little of it or too much depends on what we mean by it.
To Walt Whitman, democracy meant not accepting anything except what everyone else can have their “counterpart of on the same terms” (Leaves of Grass). He could never get his fill of this kind of democracy, which resonated with overtones of equality among differences and resistance to privilege.
The standard definition of democracy refers to rule of the people primarily through their representatives, free and fair elections, and decisions by majority vote. Fair enough, so far as it goes, but lifeless. (more…)
Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,“ engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tirelessly, Tom Englehardt works to raise our consciousness and tweak our conscience as citizens of an imperial war state. At TomDispatch.com, he offers a regular antidotal drip of posts by thoughtful and insightful critics of militarism. His newest book, A Nation Unmade by War, was released on May 22, warning that an empire made by war is also unmade by it.
A mere gesture to Englehardt’s observation is enough to underscore the country’s ominous trajectory.
We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as an empire. Nevertheless, Englehardt observes, America’s empire of chaos exists in a “cloud of hubris.” Hubris, you say? Yes, hubris—that condition of extreme pride and self-confidence, of outsized ambition that offends the gods, of overreach that leads to downfall. (more…)