This is the forty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVI: Elizabethan Drama 1
Part of the problem of deifying or vilifying political leaders is that each approach dehumanizes its subjects. History’s greatest and most powerful men were, after all, only human. None were gods; none were devils. To think of them as anything but human is misleading and dangerous.
The classic example is Hitler. He was a bad guy, to say the least. But to think of him as evil incarnate or some other non-human abstraction is particularly dangerous because it creates the false impression that such a man could not come to power again. By ignoring Hitler’s humanity, we lower our guard against the next Hitler, and perhaps inadvertently foster the conditions under which such a person may come to be.
For the same reasons, it is dangerous to deify leaders that we like. No matter who your favorite political figure is, that person is, underneath it all, an ordinary person. And like everybody else, that person is subject to passions, temptations, and personal flaws. And when a political hero is a living person, there is the dangerous temptation to grant them unlimited power on the assumption that they can and will wield it with superhuman competency and trustworthiness.
Beer of the week: Smithwicks Red Ale – When the nobles pressured Edward II of England to exile his favorite, Gaveston, he made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This red-brown ale comes from that very island. It has an aroma of toasted malt. The flavor is nicely balanced between that toasted malt and a bit of hops bitterness.
Reading of the week: Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe – This scene shows Edward II of England as neither saint nor devil. He is misled by ambitious underlings and lets his affection for his favorites interfere with his decision-making. But that does not render him totally incompetent. The rebellion that ultimately leads to his downfall is a back-and-forth affair; at one point Edward captures and executes several of the leading nobles, nearly ending the revolt.
Question for the week: What is the best defense against the worst people coming to power?
Earlier this week, there was a post in celebration of Casimir Pulaski Day. This post is meant to be a head-start on celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
The Irish are a prolific people in some ways. There are plenty of jokes about the leporine breeding habits of Irish Catholics, but I am more interested in their prodigious writing. The first reading on this blog was by Oscar Wilde. Subsequent readings included works by Shaw, Oliver Byrne, Lord Dunsany, and Jonathan Swift. American writers of Irish descent have also been featured on this blog; Poe, Twain, Fitzgerald, and James all inherited the Irish way with words.
But it is not just in literature that the Irish excel. So prolific are the Irish in America, that no fewer than half of this nation’s presidents were of Irish descent. It may be unfair to hold that fact against the Irish as a whole, but it is not clear what that fact tells us.
The aspiration to public office in America is often maligned as merely seeking to suckle from the public teat. Or, as H. L. Mencken put it, the politician under democracy “is a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole, aim in life is to butter his parsnips.” This is perhaps unfair to the politician; it could be that there is something more noble driving him.
Even if there is a righteous impetus for the politician, he still must suffer for his efforts. Every effort put toward political success in a democracy has its price in the form of effort that cannot be exerted elsewhere. The question of whether one can be a good politician and a good man is still unclear to me. It seems possible that one cannot rise to any reasonably high level in government without compromising everything that makes one noble. For Mencken, of course, the answer was more clear: even if a good man could get elected to high office, he’d soon either turn bad (because of the company he’d be forced to keep) or jump out of the window.
Though many an Irish-American has sought and found political success in this country, perhaps they would have been well to consider the words of fellow son of Ireland, William Butler Yeats:
The Muse is mute when public men
Applaud a modern throne:
Those cheers that can be bought or sold,
That office fools have run,
That waxen seal, that signature.
For things like these what decent man
Would keep his lover waiting,
Keep his lover waiting?
Beer of the week: O’Shea’s Traditional Irish Stout – Surprisingly, I have had relatively few Irish beers, so I was happy to find this one at the store. This stout is very dark brown with a quickly fading tan head. The aroma is slightly sour, of dark bread with hints of vanilla. The body of the beer is surprisingly thin. The finish is pleasantly smokey. This is not my favorite style of beer, but as far as dry stouts go, this one isn’t bad.
Reading for the week: A Model For The Laureate by William Butler Yeats – The first time I read this poem, it was part of an essay denouncing Yeats for his “anti-democratic philosophy.” The poem compares “good and great” kings, strong-armed tyrants, and democratic politicians. The more I read it, the more I am convinced that Yeats considered the last of these three to be the worst.
Question for the week: What is the greatest Irish contribution to our culture?
It is a ridiculous position to be in, but I find very often that I have to defend a statement that seems self-evident: war is bad. It is obviously bad for the people who die and for the people who are wounded physically and psychologically. But it is also bad for the people who pay for it with their taxes and for the economies that suffer because capital that could be invested in products that improve quality of life is instead invested in devices that blow things up.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “in all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.” The heads of government (and their cronies) are the sole beneficiaries of war.
As a response to my beliefs on this subject, one night I was accused of not “supporting our troops.” I had been drinking heavily and decided that my antagonist was correct; I have not done enough to support the troops. It is easy to forget that although it is politicians, the companies that pay for their campaigns, and career military men who are the cause and driving force of war, it is honest young men and women who suffer and die.
Then and there, I made a commitment to do something to support the troops: I wrote to my congressmen and senators, insisting that they introduce or support legislation that would bring home our troops stationed abroad. Of course, I have little faith in the efficacy of writing letters to politicians, but it was the best way I could think of to support the troops. If we really care about these young men and women (which I do), then the loving and compassionate thing to do is to bring them home, take the guns out of their hands, and pour them a nice, cold beer.
Beer of the Week: Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale – It surprised me when I learned that Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War. They certainly had their priorities straight by choosing beers over bombs. Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale is an Irish nitrogen widget beer. As I stated in the review of Guinness Draught, I am not sure that I understand how it works. Notwithstanding, the results are the same in this beer. The head is creamy, lasts forever and pours with some very attractive cascading. The aroma is of sweet roasted malts and the flavor is no different. The ruby brown beer is sweet and smooth and quite enjoyable.
Reading of the week: On Patriotism by Leo Tolstoy – “Patriotism,” writes Tolstoy, “[is] the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience… Patriotism is slavery.” For Tolstoy, patriotism is not a love of one’s land and people, but a “slavish enthralment to those in power.”
Question of the week: Is there a valid and meaningful distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism”?
When Barry H. Obama announced that he was going to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible in his second coronation, Dr. Cornel West said that it made his blood boil. He compared Dr. King’s “three crimes against humanity that he was wrestling with” to the problems that exist in this country today. Whatever you think of Dr. West in general, it cannot be denied that he is an eloquent speaker. And in this case, I think he makes a number of good points.
In his sermon entitled Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam, Dr. King lists “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” So how has the battle against these evils fared since Dr. King’s murder, and what is the status of these issues today?
Poverty: From the collapse of the housing bubble to government bailouts, no reasonable person will argue that economic exploitation and poverty have been fixed in this country, let alone world-wide. Our high unemployment rate is especially hard on the outrageous number of new college graduates who attempt to enter the workforce each year already well up to their eye-balls in debt. This is compounded further by the fact that government sponsored student loans are exempted from bankruptcy law, so there is absolutely no way out of them short of death. To be fair, poverty will always exist, and most of the poor in this country are a lot better off than the poor in some other places. Still, there is plenty of work to be done. For one thing, the poor (and specifically poor minorities) are disproportionately victims of our “prison industrial complex”, which leads me to:
Racism: Dr. West refers to the present prison system in this country as “the new Jim Crow.” More than a few people have called the “War on Drugs” the “War on Blacks”. The connection may not be obvious at first, but DrugWarFacts.org informs us that black Americans make up some 15% of drug users and 60% of all felony drug offenders in state prisons. According to Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, “In many American inner cities where the drug war is most earnestly waged, up to 80 percent of young African-American males have criminal records. These young men will endure a lifetime of legalized discrimination, and difficulty finding employment, often because they simply chose to put a prohibited substance into their own bodies.” The hypocrisy of Obama on the issue of weed is fairly pronounced. He has admitted to using marijuana and “blow”, yet if he had been arrested and prosecuted for these “youthful transgressions” he could never have become president. Still his administration has aggressively gone after these victimless crimes, even in states where marijuana has been decriminalized.
Aside from the “War on Drugs”, Dr. West points out that “not one executive of a Wall Street bank [is] goin’ to jail.” He also states that no wire-tappers or torturers under the Bush administration are being prosecuted. (He omits torturers under the the Obama administration, but they are not being prosecuted either.) Which is related to:
Militarism: It should be obvious at a glance that American militarism has gotten much, much worse since Dr. King spoke out against it. There can be no doubt that Dr. King would be extremely critical of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barry Obama. Rather than run out a laundry list of the awful things done in the name of “national security”, I will simply mention here that the United States government has targeted weddings, funerals and rescuers. Weddings. Funerals. Rescuers. The very thought of it makes me sick at heart.
What response can we have but to speak out against such crimes against humanity? “It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back” to its moral grounding.
I suspect that this post will not be popular with some readers. Some may be turned off simply because it is dark and unpleasant. Others may take issue with what they perceive as my political biases. I also suspect that some people will accuse me of being unpatriotic for being so outspoken against our duly elected chief executive and the government on the whole. But I take heart in the words of Dr. King:
“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.”
Beer of the Week: Guinness Original – The world’s problems shouldn’t drive you to despair; they should drive you to drink. Sure there are lots of problems in the world, but there is also a heck of a lot of good. And among the good things is beer. Quite a while back, I reviewed Guinness Draught. Since I am getting back to my anti-war roots with Dr. King, I decided to get back to the roots of Guinness by reviewing Guinness Original. This beer does not have the fancy nitrogen widget that gives Draught its trademark cascading and creamy head. The bubbles are larger and the color is a darker tan, but Original’s head is still quite impressive. The aroma is dominated by the dark roasted malt and the taste is a bit smokey but generally very pleasant and surprisingly fresh and light.
Sermon for the Week: Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – In the tradition of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. King stated that “Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State.” And like the Founders, King realized that the people must be willing to stand up against an unjust state, even if it “means being abused and scorned.” Since sermons are meant to be heard, not read, I have included a youtube recording.
Question for the week: Have you spoken up for truth and justice lately?
In honor of the Feast of St. Patrick, this post features two of Ireland’s greatest exports: George Bernard Shaw and Guinness Draught. Interestingly, plenty of the Irish population would argue that Guinness is proof that Shaw is incorrect when he claims that God is impotent and perfection has yet to be achieved: surely God is great and proof of His perfection comes in a pint glass. But leaving beer aside for the moment, let us consider our own existence and its implications.
It is beyond question that man is at the top of the evolutionary ladder. But is that because God chose the ladder to end at our imperfect level, or is it because creation (and indeed, God’s power to create) is limited to the slow and imperfect mechanism of evolution? As Shaw puts it, “can you conceive God deliberately creating you if he could have created anything better?” This understanding of God makes Him not an almighty and perfect being that condescended to create imperfection, but an ambitious and imperfect experimenter, slowly honing the craft of creation and building toward perfection. As dangerous as this idea is to conventional religion, it gives humanity a purpose; humans are no longer the lowly creations of a wrathful God, they are now the closest thing in the universe to perfection and part of a mandate to keep improving, keep building, and keep evolving spiritually and physically.
Beer of the Week: Guinness Draught – We may reconcile Guinness to Shaw’s world-view in the following way: God gave us beer, but only an imperfect prototype. Through the work of man it has evolved to what it is today. And man’s done a heck of a job. The technology and science behind the “draught” beer in a can is pretty impressive. I don’t totally understand it, but I do understand a tight, creamy head, and beautiful cascading, which is exactly what this beer has. I’m sure there are purists who will quibble that it is better on tap or that Guinness Extra Stout is better tasting, but this is actually a very good beer. Although I’d like it to feel a little more substantial to match the flavor.
Reading for the Week: The New Theology by George Bernard Shaw, an excerpt – In this excerpt of Shaw’s “Lay Sermon”, he outlines the theology he had been building toward: God as a driving force and will that is only effectual over an extended period of time and through the intermediaries of His own creation.
Question for the week: Does this interpretation of God do anything to address the question of first movement? Mustn’t there have been some first being on which evolution was to work? If so, doesn’t that establish some sort of minimum creative power in God beyond simple evolution?