Archive for July, 2020

The Politics of Perplexity in Twenty-First Century America

Friday, July 17th, 2020

In the context of twenty-first century America, “politics” is perhaps one of the most curiously irritating words in the English language. I know from personal experience – whether from observing others, or from paying attention to myself – that there is a visceral reflex to feel something between annoyance and disgust upon hearing the word. If politics rears its ugly head, you may think something along the lines of “I’ve had enough of that, thank you!” before rapidly extricating yourself from an unwanted intrusion into an otherwise perfect day. Alternatively, I suspect many of us know people who hear the word “politics” or some related term and can immediately launch into an ambitious lecture on what is wrong and what should be done that somehow promises (implausibly) to solve all our social, political, and economic problems in one fell legislative swoop. We’re surrounded by bitter disputes – online and on television, in print and in person – over political issues, to the extent that it can be hard to stomach contemplating (much less discussing) politics without feeling a little irritated, even disgusted, with both our neighbors and ourselves.

These powerful emotional reactions should give us some pause for reflection. In theory, if not always in practice, the United States of America is a democratic republic, ruled by representative officials in the name of its citizenry. Even without considering the matter deeply, it should be clear to us that such a government cannot function if its citizens are entirely disengaged, as radical factions across the political spectrum will be left to do the politicking on our behalf. Whether we like it or not, our nation’s political life will likely remain interested in us even if we are uninterested in return. We might as well make the best of it, and get down to the business of figuring out where, exactly, we went wrong, and what might be done to repair the damage.

Since the early twentieth century, the predominant approach to teaching American students about their form of government has been in the form of what is known as political science. This perspective is primarily (though not exclusively) concerned with educating students about the practical mechanics of their government and the political dynamics of the American electorate – in short, the branches of the United States government, their differing roles and jurisdictions, group behavioral dynamics, and so forth. All of these political institutions and phenomena are generally treated as abstractions that can be measured and predicted with some degree of accuracy using scientific methodology and data analysis.

The meaning of political science must be carefully qualified and defined. Science is derived from the Latin scientia, or knowledge. The majority of ancient, medieval, and early modern political thinkers used the term political science to refer to the study of politics as a domain of the humanities. They studied politics in light of inquiries in philosophy and history: they did not, as a general rule, conceive of the art of government as something that could be understood as an institutional abstraction that operated independently of the deepest human needs and desires (such as for law and virtue), or the eternal problems that confront every human individual and society (what is justice and truth, and how de we find them?). Above all else, classical political science aimed at cultivating self-governing (moderate) individuals that would be capable of wielding political power responsibly while refraining from tyrannical injustice. Hence, in the conclusion of Plato’s Republic, Socrates teaches Glaucon that the highest end of political science is to teach the soul to bear “all evils and all goods… and practice justice with prudence in every way.” (Republic, Book X, 621c).

Modern political science operates on an entirely different basis and different assumptions about human beings and political life. It begins with the premise that human beings, like all natural things, are subject to mechanical laws that render them predictable. Once these laws are understood, the political life of human beings can be mastered and directed towards progress (understood as material comforts and technological innovation) to a degree that was never remotely possible in prior eras of human history. This view of political science emerged first among certain thinkers of the Enlightenment, and became a close companion to the development of the entire field of social science in the late nineteenth century. Both modern political and social science emerged from a common intellectual project that aimed to apply modern scientific methods and insights to the study of very nearly every aspect of human communal life – economics, social dynamics (sociology), religion, sexuality, psychology, and politics, among others.

This application of human technical knowledge to endemic social problems, economic systems, and political institutions (among other domains of human life) was expected to deliver unprecedented advances that would mirror and eventually surpass the tremendous technological and intellectual achievements of the Scientific Revolution. Max Weber, a social scientist of incredible imtelligence and one of the most brilliant minds of the early twentieth century, fully expected that the complimentary discoveries of both natural and social science would ensure that human “progress goes on ad infinitum.” For many intellectuals in Europe and the United States in Weber’s day, human social and political life had become like a machine that could be kept in a perpetual state of inexorable forward motion. This view remains a powerful one within certain spheres of the social sciences and general public, and has been articulated perhaps most eloquently in the public sphere by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, among others, even if it is gradually declining in popularity among the greater mass of the American citizenry.

Academically, this modern scientific approach to understanding American government had many apparent advantages that explain both its widespread acceptance and its continued influence within the academy. For one, it enabled teachers to focus on explaining the structure of U.S. government with a focus on the technical mechanics of government that can be mastered intuitively by most students, regardless of their particular political views and prejudices. Similarly, it relieves teachers and students of having to focus on tiresome historical minutia or obscure philosophical debates that bear no obvious relevance to contemporary issues: students can study their government based on recent experiences that are more easily comprehensible for them than those of, say, two hundred years ago. Above all else, contemporary political science treats the study of American government in utilitarian and mechanistic terms, thereby minimizing occasions for awkwardly passionate or unsolvable confrontations over thorny issues that touch on moral as well as historical and philosophical complexities. What many students will learn from this education is that the American form of government is perfectly reasonable, orderly, and balanced, with predictable mechanics that ensure its stability and perpetuity; in short, it makes sense. And not only does the American government operate like a well-oiled machine, but it also leaves individuals tremendous room to define themselves and act within an ever-expanding horizon of freedoms. Government exists mainly to resolve practical matters of policy and administration, leaving moral questions largely to the domain of the private sphere.

Many may rightly ask: if this model is true, then why does the American government function so poorly in practice? And why are Americans so remarkably inept at finding common ground for resolving pressing political issues? Indeed, there are alarming trends that should inspire us to doubt the viability of this interpretation. Polling conducted over the past decade consistently shows that Americans of all political persuasions are increasingly distrustful of both their governments and of their fellow citizens who hold opposing views. Rigid ideological voices have emerged among both liberal and conservative parties that insist that dialogue is impossible and compromise on any issue is a sign of political weakness, and that a candidate’s quality should be determined by ideological considerations rather than by competence and experience. As electoral politics have devolved into brutal slugging matches between increasingly extreme views, the actual levers of political power have gradually shifted into the hands of a theoretically subordinate but frequently unaccountable and inefficient bureaucracy.

The fruits of this widespread culture of distrust has been the breakdown of civic life and political order amidst frustration and mutual recrimination throughout American society. Many are understandably frustrated with a system of government that seems incapable or unwilling to fulfill its most basic functions. For that matter, generations of young Americans have now grown up in the shadow of a dysfunctional government that leaves them with little incentive for acting as responsible and engaged citizens. It should be no wonder that there are now voices who now ask questions such as the following: if our current Constitution is a product of eighteenth century political circumstances and ideals, should we not perhaps craft a new political system that is better adapted our contemporary needs and values?

Perhaps these are all passing fads, and some bearable equilibrium will return in short order. I am doubtful that such an event is likely in the near future. Recent events have shown that contemporary Americans of all political stripes are divided not merely by petty partisan differences over policy decisions and electoral contests, but even more importantly by fierce disagreements over fundamental questions about the nature of political life and American civic identity that transcend mere partisan disagreement, and we are not remotely close to resolving these disputes. What is it to be a human? What is freedom? What is justice? We do not have common answers for any of these fundamental questions, nor do we seem (at least, as of this writing) to have a clear direction for amicably resolving these disputes in the public sphere.

Yet these disputes, however unpleasant and acrimonious, provide us with a hint of where, exactly, we may have gone wrong. Far from liberating us from antiquated concerns, our modern political education (and the novel mode of thought that created it) may lie at the heart of our perplexity. Modern political science has worked tremendous wonders in allowing us to track the chimerical shifting of public whims in opinion polls or understand the psychology of group dynamics, but it has also obfuscated our ability to grapple with and comprehend problems that are part of the permanent condition of our species. Political institutions and policy alone cannot solve America’s most vexing problems. And we should remember that representative government depends ultimately on the qualities of both officeholders and voters to function properly; institutions abstracted from the body politic cannot rule themselves. Our government, as John Adams observed in 1798, “was designed for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams thought that republican government could not exist without some degree of self-government among the citizenry, or else it must devolve into a mass of petty tyrants; we are, perhaps, in the process of proving his point for him.

I suspect that the root of modern American political dissatisfaction is not so much in our continued subjection to an apparently antiquated form of government, nor merely in our frustration with the peculiar idiocies of our political parties, but rather in our own failure to accurately comprehend and utilize our form of government. In an era of change and tumult, we would do well, as the American novelist and essayist John Dos Passos put it in 1941, to “look backwards as well as forwards” as we attempt to extricate ourselves from our current political predicament. While we may face many distinctly twenty-first century problems in certain respects, our most pressing problems – justice, love, truth, goodness, and so forth – are as old as the human species. We live in troubled times: but so, too, did prior generations of Americans. I hope that, if we can find it in ourselves to turn back and reconsider the first principles of American government, its deep roots in English political life and philosophy, we may yet discover a firm foundation that will give us a lifeline from our current perplexity, and enable us to engage more fully in a life of dutiful, informed, and responsible citizenship that can be passed on to future generations.

Unprecedented?

Saturday, July 11th, 2020

I have to date remained silent here about the COVID-19 pandemic, because for the most part I haven’t had anything constructive to add to the discussion, and because I thought that our parents and students would probably prefer to read about something else. I also try, when possible, to discuss things that will still be of interest three or even ten years from now, and to focus largely on issues of education as we practice it. 

Still, COVID-19 has obviously become a consuming focus for many—understandably, given the extent of the problem—and what should be managed in the most intelligent way possible according to principles of epidemiology and sane public policy has become a political football that people are using as further grounds to revile each other. I’m not interested in joining that game. Knaves and cynical opportunists will have their day, and there’s probably not much to do that will stop them—at least nothing that works any better than just ignoring them.

But there is one piece of the public discourse on the subject that has shown up more and more frequently, and here it actually does wander into a domain where I have something to add. The adjective that has surfaced most commonly in public discussions about the COVID-19 epidemic with all its social and political consequences is “unprecedented”. The disease, we are told by some, is unprecedented in its scope; others lament that it’s having unprecedented consequences both medically and economically. The public response, according to others, is similarly unprecedented: for some that’s an argument that it is also unwarranted; for others, that’s merely a sign that it’s appropriately commensurate with the scope of the unprecedented problem; for still others, it’s a sign that it’s staggeringly inadequate.

As an historian I’m somewhat used to the reckless way in which the past is routinely ignored or (worse) subverted, according to the inclination of the speaker, in the service of this agenda or that. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me why Rome fell as a way of making a contemporary political point. But at some point one needs to raise an objection: seriously—unprecedented? As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” To say that anything is unprecedented requires it to be contextualized in history—not just the last few years’ worth, either.

In some sense, of course, every happening in history, no matter how trivial, is unprecedented—at least if history is not strictly cyclical, as the Stoics believed it was. I’m not a Stoic on that issue or many others. So, no: this exact thing has indeed never happened before. But on that calculation, if I swat a mosquito, that’s unprecedented, too, because I’ve never swatted that particular mosquito before. This falls into Douglas Adams’ useful category of “True, but unhelpful.” Usually people use the word to denote something of larger scope, and they mean that whatever they are talking about is fundamentally different in kind or magnitude from anything that has happened before. But how different is COVID-19, really?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not unprecedented in its etiology. Viruses happen. We even know more or less how they happen. One does not have to posit a diabolical lab full of evil gene-splicers to account for it. Coronaviruses are not new, and many others have apparently come and gone throughout human history, before we even had the capacity to detect them or name them. Some of them have been fairly innocuous, some not. Every time a new one pops up, it’s a roll of the dice—but it’s not our hand that’s rolling them. Sure: investing in some kind of conspiracy theory to explain it is (in its odd way) comforting and exciting. It’s comforting because it suggests that we have a lot more control over things than we really do. It’s exciting, because it gives us a villain we can blame. Blame is a top-dollar commodity in today’s political climate, and it drives more and more of the decisions being made at the highest levels. Ascertaining the validity of the blame comes in a distant second to feeling a jolt of righteous indignation. The reality is both less exciting and somewhat bleaker: we don’t have nearly as much control as we’d like to believe. These things happen and will continue to happen without our agency or design. Viruses are fragments of genetic material that have apparently broken away from larger organic systems, and from there they are capable of almost infinite, if whimsical, mutation. They’re loose cannons: that’s their nature. That’s all. Dangerous, indisputably. Malicious? Not really.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not unprecedented in its scope and ability to be lethal. Epidemics and plagues have killed vast numbers of people over wide areas throughout history. A few years ago, National Geographic offered a portrait of the world’s most prolific killer. It was not a mass murderer, or even a tyrant. It was the flea, and the microbial load it carried. From 1348 through about 1352, the Black Death visited Europe with a ferocity that probably was unprecedented at the time. Because records from the period are sketchy, it’s hard to come up with an exact count, but best estimates are that it killed approximately a third of the population of Europe all within that little three-to-four-year period. The disease continued to revisit Europe approximately every twenty years for some centuries to come, especially killing people of childbearing age each time, with demographic results that vastly exceed what we might determine from a sheer count of losses. In some areas whole cities were wiped out, and the death toll in Europe alone may have run as high as two hundred million: the extent of its destruction throughout parts of Asia has not been ascertained. Smallpox, in the last century of its activity (1877-1977), killed approximately half a billion people. The 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic killed possibly as many as a hundred million. Wikipedia here lists over a hundred similar catastrophes caused by infectious diseases of one sort or another, each of which had a death toll of more than a thousand; it lists a number of others where the count cannot even be approximately ascertained.

Nor is the COVID-19 pandemic unprecedented in its level of social upheaval. The Black Death radically changed the social, cultural, economic, and even the religious configuration of Europe almost beyond recognition. After Columbus, Native American tribes were exposed to Old World disease agents to which they had no immunities. Many groups were reduced to less than a tenth of their former numbers. Considering these to be instances of genocide is, I think, to ascribe far more intentionality to the situation than it deserves (though there seem to have been some instances where it was intended), but the outcome was indifferent to the intent. The Spanish Influenza of 1918, coming as it did on the heels of World War I, sent a world culture that was already off balance into a deeper spiral. It required steep curbs on social activity to check its spread. Houses of worship were closed then too. Other pubic gatherings were forbidden. Theaters were closed. Even that was not really unprecedented, though: theaters had been closed in Elizabethan London during several of the recurrent visitations of the bubonic plague. The plot of Romeo and Juliet is colored by a quarantine. Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of tales that a group of people told to amuse themselves while in isolation, and Chaucer’s somewhat derivative Canterbury Tales are about a group of pilgrims heading for the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket for having given them aid while they were laboring under a plague. People have long known that extraordinary steps need to be taken, at least temporarily, in order to save lives during periods of contagion. It’s inconvenient, it’s costly, and it’s annoying. It’s not a hoax, and it’s not tyrannical. It’s not novel.

So no, in most ways, neither the appearance of COVID-19 nor our responses to it are really unprecedented. I say this in no way to minimize the suffering of those afflicted with the disease, or those suffering from the restrictions put in place to curb its spread. Nor do I mean to trivialize the efforts of those battling its social, medical, or economic consequences: some of them are positively heroic. But claiming that this is all unprecedented looks like an attempt to exempt ourselves from the actual flow of history, and to excuse ourselves from the very reasonable need to consult the history of such events in order to learn what we can from them—for there are, in fact, things to be learned.

In responding to the plagues and calamities of the past, it is perhaps unsurprising that people responded, then as now, primarily out of fear. Fear is one of the most powerful of human motivators, but it is seldom a wise counselor. There have been conspiracy theories before too: during the Black Death, for example, some concluded that that the disease was due to witchcraft, and so they set out to kill cats, on the ground that they were witches’ familiars. The result, of course, was that rats—the actual vectors for the disease, together with their fleas, were able to breed and spread disease all the more freely. Others sold miracle cures to credulous (and fearful) populations; these of course accomplished nothing but heightening the level of fear and desperation.

There were also people who were brave and self-sacrificing, who cared for others in these trying times. In 1665, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire quarantined itself with the plague. They knew what they could expect, and they were not mistaken. Everyone in the town perished, but their decision saved thousands of lives in neighboring villages. Fr. Damien De Veuster ministered to the lepers on Molokai before succumbing to the disease himself: he remains an icon of charity and noble devotion and is the patron saint of Hawaii.

The human race has confronted crisis situations involving infectious diseases, and the decisions they require, before. They are not easy, and sometimes they call for self-sacrifice. There is sober consolation to be wrung from the fact that we are still here, and that we still, as part of our God-given nature, have the capacity to make such decisions—both the ones that protect us and those sacrificial decisions we make to save others. We will not get through the ordeal without loss and cost, but humanity has gotten through before, and it will again. We are neither entirely without resources, but neither are we wholly in control. We need to learn from what we have at our disposal, marshal our resources wisely and well, and trust in God for the rest.