Friday, July 06, 2007

My own meditations

Inspired by Mark's, naturally.

One of the things that comes out here and actually makes me feel more than a little sorry for the guy is that he can write stuff like this:
John Paul would always read a country's best literature to familiarize himself with the soul of a nation he was visiting and I think there's much wisdom in that. I live in a country that can boast The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a founding document almost as important as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Those documents are the American Torah since America, like ancient Israel, is a nation founded on an idea rather than on an ethnos. Mark Twain was our Isaiah and Huck Finn remains the best glimpse into the greatness (and the sinfulness) of my people ever put on paper. I am proud to be part of a people that could have given birth to such a book.

I could go on an on, but you get the idea. I spend a fair amount of time criticizing the trivialities of politics (politics is properly trivial in relation to religion and culture). And I criticize our government for betraying American principles. But it was America that taught me those principles. In a hundred ways, she is my mother as much as my mother is my mother. I literally cannot count the ways in which the American Civilization has formed me and the gifts it has given me: gifts that are so much a part of my I strongly doubt I am even conscious of them, any more than I am conscious of the rules of grammar as I speak. Below and beyond all other things I feel for America, the fundamental thing I feel is gratitude: gratitude for her people, her heritage, her abundance, her rooted beliefs about equality before the law that are capable, like the slow pounding of the surf, of breaking down our own sins against justice. I am grateful for the very land, especially my own home of Washington, first among fifty equals and most beautiful state in the Union. I'm grateful for the sheer dizzying variety of people America can host. The genius of my people for bringing together ethnicities and religions and somehow defusing the fratricidal conflicts which, in the Old World, had gone on for centuries amazes me. The ability of Americans to self-organize, especially in times of crisis (New Yorkers on 9/11 were a proud and moving example), but basically all the time--which is why the US is a historic engine of industrial and technological innovation--is glorious to me. God has given human beings gifts and told them to knock themselves out using them for the good of others. America's genius lies in no small measure in the fact that it somehow created a culture that trusted this basic fact of divine revelation, unleashing the potential of ordinary people to do astounding things.

There's plenty of time and space for me to discuss our sins against God. But I think it is important to focus for now on what we've gotten right. Because I am grateful and always will be for the country that formed me. Americans have something of a reputation for being tiresome (particularly to non-Americans) in boasting about our country. I don't blame the non-Americans. I'd get tired too if my neighbor was constantly telling me that his mother was better than mine, because I happen to love my mother. But that's the point: I'm not interested in telling somebody who loves their country that my country is better than theirs. I believe everybody should honor their father and mother and I don't begrudge anybody their love of country. I think "USA! #1!" is not patriotism, but jingoism. I'm not interested in the USA being the most powerful nation on earth for its own sake. I'm interested in the USA being a good country. And I believe there is very very much good in my mother, America. I don't believe "My country, right or wrong" any more than "My mother, drunk or sober." But I do love her and shall be grateful to her forever.
And then can, in a fairly abrupt fashion, argue that American democracy is essentially a sham and that we're all just pawns to be shuffled around by the elites like Homeric spear-carriers.

Or at least that is what I get from this post:
We are ruled by a class of people who become more and more indistinguishable from each other and more and more dull in their self-serving dance of Power. The notion that these people takes seriously the idea that they are really part of "We, the People" is pretty silly. Clearly this is a class of oligarchs who happen to be skilled at manipulating sentimnent and imagery. It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. At pesent the economy is doing well enough for them to consider ordinary people more useful than expendable. But should push ever come to shove, our ruling classes would sacrifice the interests of ordinary people in a heartbeat.

There would be exceptions, of course. But the culture of oligarchs doesn't change merely because they are American oligarchs. The fall is not eradicated by American citizenship. Acton was wrong: power does not corrupt, for God is all powerful and without sin. But power in the hands of sinful men makes it possible for them to indulge their corruption without consequence. And our ruling classes, both in the states and in other positions of power simultaneously quarrel (for that is what pride does) and "network" in that mystical way that powers and principalities (and their human stooges) do, in order to look out for Numero Uno. It's a sort of parody of Koinonia. The devil, as ever, is the ape of God.
I would be very interested in how he contrasts this cynical game of the elites with his earlier assertions that we are now ruled (at least on the right) by secular messianist. A messianist is by their very nature a fairly polar opposite of the type of Machiavellian elite that Mark describes here. Indeed, I have half a mind to put together a compare and contrast listing Mark's various descriptions of the American elite to demonstrate just how self-contradictory they are.

He holds that the US political class consists of people who are secular messianists, power-at-any-cost elites, Wilsonians, and Machiavellians simultaneously. And oh yes, they are millionaires. If someone wants to explain to me how you can be all of these things simultaneously, by all means enlighten me. It certainly brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "man for all seasons."

I also find his reaction to someone who asks a rather pointed question to be rather than amusing:
Like you, I believe in a government of checks and balances precisely because I don't think humans can be trusted with too much power. I don't see what's so mysterious about the proposition that extremely powerful people are pretty likely to use their power to acquire more power and aren't going to be too choosey about ordinary people suffering if they get in the way.
What I think is interesting here is that Mark here again is not comfortable with the implications of his own arguments. He is basically arguing that democracy has failed and we are all in the thrall of an increasingly monolithic elite (certainly that is not an illogical inference given his statements), but then proceeds to argue in favor of the current system. If one takes his arguments seriously (and I don't), has he not made the case that the system is broken and hence should be replaced.

5 comments:

Christopher said...

It's funny how he can go from

Acton was wrong: power does not corrupt

to

I don't see what's so mysterious about the proposition that extremely powerful people are pretty likely to use their power to acquire more power and aren't going to be too choosey about ordinary people suffering if they get in the way.

Lord Acton observed that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" ; of course Acton being a Christian was referring to mortal men.

As for the rest . . . sometimes I think he may be channeling Chomsky or Howard Zinn.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Like you, I believe in a government of checks and balances precisely because I don't think humans can be trusted with too much power. I don't see what's so mysterious about the proposition that extremely powerful people are pretty likely to use their power to acquire more power and aren't going to be too choosey about ordinary people suffering if they get in the way.

You know, when my feud with Mark began, I would suggest that the Church adopt the principles of checks and balances between the faithful, clergy and hierarchy to prevent such abuses of power that the clerical sex-abuse crisis exemplified: isolation from accountability, a lack of transparency and self-protection above all. After all, could it not be said that "ordinary people" became inconvenient to the bishops' agenda of passing clerical predators from parish to parish, without the consent of pastor or their faithful?

But whenever I brought this idea up, Mark immediately shot it down with superficial cries about "apostolic succession," as if Christ Himself would be more aligned with malfeasant bishops than with the faithful they exploited and mistreated!

Christopher, Shea isn't channelling Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. He's channelling Bozo the Clown.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Acton was wrong; power does not corrupt...

Power not only corrupts, Mark; it isolates. Or have you ever done anything but a superficial reading of world history?

Power in the hands of a self-benighted elite -- which the bishops tend to see themselves as, btw -- free from any sense of accountability has been responsible for more tragedy and evil than humanity might want to realize.

Besides, Mark, look at yourself. How do you use your power? You use it to slander others, replace sound reasoning and evidence with personal attacks and straw-man arguments and ban anybody who has the audacity to disagree with you. And you think that's not corrupt?

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

I wonder how Mark would feel if his remarks were edited to include the portions in bold italics:

We are ruled by a class of people who become more and more indistinguishable from each other and more and more dull in their self-serving dance of Power. The notion that these people takes seriously the idea that they are really part of the body of Christ is pretty silly. Clearly this is a class of oligarchs who happen to be skilled at manipulating sentimnent and imagery. It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye....should push ever come to shove, our bishops would sacrifice the interests of ordinary people in a heartbeat.

There would be exceptions, of course. But the culture of clericalism doesn't change merely because they are Catholic bishops. The fall is not eradicated by apostolic succession...power in the hands of sinful men makes it possible for them to indulge their corruption without consequence. And our bishops, both in the diocese and in the Vatican simultaneously quarrel (for that is what pride does) and "network" in that mystical way that powers and principalities (and their human stooges) do, in order to look out for Numero Uno.


The Illustrious Mr. Shea won't want to admit it, but there's no inherent moral difference between the American politicians he vilifies and the Church leaders to whom he claims almost obsequeous allegiance.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

The combination of Secular Messianism (or Wilsonian Idealism, or whatever you want to call it) with Machiavellianism may seem paradoxical, but upon reflection I am of the opinion that is there no contradiction between the two. In fact, in practice they are often closely allied.

Machiavellianism has solely to do with means, not ends. A man may use machiavellian means to enrich himself, or he may use them to try and bring about utopia. Secular messianism, by contrast, has chiefly to do with ends. It involves trying to radically alter the social order on the belief that doing so will create some sort of utopia. Messianists have tended to be machiavellians, for they believe that the good involved in creating their new society is so great that any short term negative effects, be they terror, torture, murder, or lies, are all justified as a means of hastening it. Thus, you have people like Robespierre, who could talk constantly (and sincerely) about virtue while at the same time implementing the terror.

None of which is to suggest that Mark is right in labeling Neoconservativism secular messianist or machiavellian. Numerous paleo statements to the contrary, the neocons are not actually messianists. Nor as a rule are they machiavellians, though some, such as Michael Ledeen, do seem to be influenced by him.