The Consequences of Reckless Rhetoric
1 hour ago
To be a Catholic child in the fifties was to imagine yourself at the center of concentric circles of belonging. They included not only the other Catholics that we knew, not only, even, all the Catholics we saw at other parish churches when traveling, but all Catholics who ever were or would be on the face of the earth—plus quite a few saints we knew by name who were now, we believed, with God in heaven but still close enough to talk to because they were always watching over us like grandparents looking down from high front porches.
In other words, the religious identity we acquired in childhood was a primal identity that absorbed and conditioned all the others. This communal formation began, almost imperceptibly, with the transformation of the seasons.
Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-CA), who in 2008 was elected as a carpetbagging congressman from a Northern California district, cast city secession as the wave of the future: 'Large, centralized command-and-control structures were very much a 20th-century phenomenon, actually a throwback to medieval governing modalities. We have been relearning the lessons of the Enlightenment, that human institutions produce far more satisfactory results when powers are decentralized and dispersed.' (102)The Enlightenment arguably provided justification for the revolutionaries to hasten the centralization of political (and economic) power, while the medievals had a better grasp of decentralization, despite the pretenses of various claimants to imperial power.
People who call themselves 'Libertarians' are of course welcome to take this position, and say that nobody has the right to interfere in such choices. But they can only do so, in my view, because the huge temperance campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries actually greatly reduced drinking in this country, helped by Lloyd George's clever use of World War One as a pretext to bring in the wise and effective licensing laws which did so much to reduce the menace of drunkenness in Britain in the 20th century. I'm told this was only a problem with seaports. Well, I doubt it, but even if true, look at a map and see how many of our great cities fit that description. Interestingly temperance is still a major issue in works of fiction written in 1932 ('South Riding') and 1959 ('No Love for Johnnie'). In the former, a corrupt and presumably Labour councillor is a Methodist lay preacher and temperance advocate (who secretly drinks when away from his home area and unrecognised) . In the latter, an ambitious but frustrated Labour MP breaks a huge taboo and risks offending many of his voters by taking his first drink, a step which turns out to lead him on to general failure.
I don't think they really understand just how devastating unrestricted drinking is in the lives of poor people, though I think we are soon going to find out.
They have also swallowed whole John Stuart Mill's 'On Liberty' as if it offered a definitive answer on a question which must surely always be very carefully shaded.
Hence the silly false parallels that are sometimes made, suggesting that there is no difference in principle between telling someone what to think (the case of the Johns) and stopping someone doing himself physical or mental damage, damage which will also ruin the lives of others.
What principle is this, actually?
The role of the political intellectual in 18th century France is not easy to understand without a broad knowledge of French political and cultural life. I will put a few facts on the table to help. First, in the 17th and 18th century, the French not only dominated European literature but had no serious competitors. Some people outside England admired Shakespeare, it is true, but the French and nearly everyone else preferred Racine and Corneille, and, beside Shakespeare, most major English writers were enamored of French literature. Moliere, Boileau, La Fontaine, La Bruyére–along with Racine and Corneille–were adored throughout Europe. Read in translation, they (except for Moliere) fail to impress English-speakers, but they were masters of verse and of prose. Unfortunately, this meant that when far inferior minds and characters mastered the French language–Voltaire and Rousseau,, to name two–they too were adored. A second fact is that French political life, from Louis XIII on down, was dominated by the court. There were no parties, only court factions and favorites. (I am of course exaggerating a bit). There was no Locke because there was no Shaftsbury. The best that one aspire to was to be a tutor to one of the princes, as Fenelon had been. As for the English Enlightenment, it had the great advantage of being second-rate, provincial, and behind the times. In Britain, the really smart moralists and political intellectuals were the Scots–Hutcheson, Hume, Kames, Smith. Voltaire, who had an entirely second-rate mind that harnessed a first-rate literary talent, admired Locke, but second-raters often admire their equals.
Unfortunately, as Americans we tend to view the period from 1500-1800 from the English point of view and we overrate, as a result, the English contribution to European culture and fail to grasp the greater significance of France. For reasons I do not understand even today, I liked French literature in my youth and had enough hours in college for a major. While I am far from being a learned student of French literature, I count myself very lucky to have accidentally (it seems) fallen in with the French. This week I am reading Balzac’s wonderful first signed novel, Les Chouans, and the poetry of André Chénier, whom I have not read since a college survey course. In English, I am reading the Guizots’ popular history of France for children–some children is all I can say–and they spend about 100 pp. on the literature of Louis XIV’s reign. To think of a period that included all the writers I have already mentioned, but also Bossuet and Pascal–two of the most brilliant religious writers of the past 500 years and absolute literary masters–staggers a mind that is used to thinking of 17th century England as a high point.
There is an important sense in which we must live in the past if we are to experience the present sanely and fully. It is only knowledge of earlier generations and their accomplishments that makes it possible to judge our own generation and to strive for higher standards. Reading even Wodehouse reminds me of how far we have fallen from the excellence of his plots and the grace of his imaginary world. I read yesterday an account of someone who had been in company with the great French dramatist Racine. The subject of Sophocles came up, and Racine whipped out a Greek text of the Oedipus and translated it for his friends, who knew the French theater well. The writer who tells the story says it was the most moving dramatic experience he had ever had. My point is that Racine did not measure himself by the contemporaries he excelled but by the best. That is the trouble with generational jingoism–the Rush-Sean-Mark twaddle about America as the greatest little country in the history of the world. Even if it were true, this attitude breeds complacency, a satisfaction with the second, or in our case third and fourth rate, that prevents us from ever striving to do better.
I've been somewhat critical of law enforcement here at EW, mostly because of what I see as a system that has gradually morphed over time from one that protected liberty to one that erodes it. Indeed, as individual LEOs became "professionalized", American law enforcement ceased being a system in which citizens secured justice for themselves, on a level playing field, facilitated by law enforcement and the courts, to a literal "us" versus "them" arrangement on a steeply tilted playing field where the massive resources of government are brought to bear against presumably innocent individual citizens. In other words, ownership of the laws and the law enforcement process shifted from individual citizens to an amorphous "the people", thus divesting individual citizens from the justice process except as a collective (when enforcing the law), or as an isolated defendant (when targeted by law enforcement). This divestiture is so complete that jury nullification, that foundational right whose pedigree extends back as far as the Magna Carta, is viewed with contempt and hostility by those in the justice system and those who publicly profess this right are persecuted, pilloried, and/or proscribed from jury service.
It is in this context which LEOs, people just like any of us,* find themselves at odds with the interests of their neighbors while simultaneously being exposed to the worst pathologies of their neighbors. Rare is the person who is truly happy to see a cop in an official capacity.