I Spy

“The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.” – The American Credo (1920)

In the nearly 90 years since George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken published The American Credo, the country has changed quite considerably. It seems worthwhile to make note of some of the ways that their predictions have turned out:

  • “[T]he dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious” has been a staple of American foreign policy since the book was published. The whole of the Cold War was dedicated to the proposition that American-style “democracy” is morally superior to Soviet-style “communism”. Our latest military adventures have likewise been sold as “spreading democracy” to countries that have “bad” governments. (Even as the United States has actively participated in propping up violent dictators, so long as they were adequately pro-American, if not pro-democratic.)
  • It is more true than ever that virtually all actions violate some law or other. Federal laws alone are now so numerous that literally nobody can say how many there actually are. Additionally, many federal regulatory bodies have the power to enact rules and regulations that carry criminal penalties. So while there may be as many as 4,500 federal criminal laws, there may also be as many as 300,000 federal regulations with criminal penalties. Consequently, it remains nearly impossible to do anything “without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty.”
  • “In God we trust” is subject to more or less constant attacks, but so far without any success.
  • The goddess of liberty has been removed from our dollar coins. Her first replacement was Dwight Eisenhower, former general and chief executive. Not quite a “policeman in a spiked helmet,” but not too different either. Eisenhower gave way to more peaceful images of Susan B. Anthony and then Sacagawea. Now we are back to the presidents, although the mint now has such an insane supply that they have stopped releasing new presidential dollar coins into circulation. More important than the image on the coins, however, is the fact that in the middle of the 1960’s the United States officially reneged on the promise to pay silver on demand for its notes, paving the way for unprecedented manipulations of the supply of money.
  • The “swarms of spies, letter-openers, informants and agents provocateurs” are still at work in this country, but with more power than ever. Whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden have helped to highlight just how vast and pervasive American government spying is. And, true to Mencken’s observations, the vast majority of Americans do not put up any real protest.

The more things change, so they say, the more they stay the same. But it is hard to believe that even Mencken and Nathan could have been so cynical as to foresee the world as it is today. Surely the constant, and actually accelerating, decay of freedom must have a breaking point. How vast our freedom must have been if we are able to have lost so much.

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Beer of the Week: Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) – Although I have been aware of this Slovakian beer for quite a while, I never tried it until now. When I saw Golden Pheasant for sale in the past, it was always brewed under contract in the Czech Republic. This bottle, however, is the real deal from Hurbanovo, Slovak Republic. The beer is pretty and golden, with a nice white head that leaves decent lacing. It seems very much like any Czech lager, but there is something about it that seems a bit off, particularly in the aftertaste. It really is an ok beer, but there is just something about the Golden Pheasant that I don’t care for.

Reading of the week: The Spy by Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský – Hurbanovo, Slovakia, as it turns out, is named for Jozef Miloslav Hurban, a prominent Slovak freedom-fighter against the oppressive Hungarian regime. His son Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský was a poet and also a prominent Slovak nationalist. So a Hurban-Vajanský poem seems like a good pairing for Golden Pheasant. — The extensive use of spies and secret police against citizens is a sure sign of trouble for all freedom-loving peoples. It has been repeated through history, and the rulers who use those tactics number among the most notorious names in the annals of human society. This poem is a parody of the creation of man from Genesis. The devil forms a body of clay (and spit) and breathes life into it. And the result is not an ordinary man, but something far more evil: a spy.

Question of the week: There is an expression, the origin of which I cannot locate: “agent provocateur is a job so despicable that there is no word for it in the English language.” Do you know who said that? And is the agent provocateur really the worst sort of spy?


Wisdom for sale!

In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer relates a story of two “Scotchmen [who] were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning.” These men would go into the market and call out, “Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale.” This claim drew in the crowds and, ultimately, the attention of the emperor.

The twist in the story, however, is that the Scotsmen really had no interest in marketing their learning to make a profit. They had simply come to realize that if they offered to teach for free, nobody would be interested. Because the price tag is the first signal that the market sees, things that are being given away for free or sold cheaply are assumed to have little worth. Likewise, some people put extremely high prices on their products (even if they intend ultimately to sell for a much lower price) in the hopes that the product will appear more desirable.

I was a tangential party to a real life example of how asking price affects perception. One of my side jobs in college was dealing cards for a promotional company that ran poker tournaments as fund-raisers. The tournaments were well organized and quite successful. However, the owner of the business quickly discovered that some prospective clients saw his very reasonable prices and decided that they wanted to go with a more up-scale competitor. His solution was to raise the prices without changing anything about the product. And it worked. New prospective clients assumed that the high price was a good indicator of the product’s high quality. Business actually increased after the price went up, precisely because the price went up. Like Notker’s Scotsmen, the owner of the promotional company learned that sometimes you have to ask for more than you need, just to get people’s attention.

Modelo Especial
Beer of the week: Modelo Especial – The head on this beer faded so quickly that I couldn’t get a good photo of it before it was gone. Modelo Especial is a clear, gold brew. It has little aroma or flavor to speak of, really. It’d be easy enough to drink a bunch of this stuff at a party Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but otherwise, why bother? And don’t get me started on the price!

Reading of the week: The Life of Charlemagne by Notker the Stammerer, Book I, 1-4 – Charlemagne filled his court with educated men, such as the aforementioned Scotsmen, and had them educate the children of his kingdom. He found that the highborn children did not take to their lessons as well as the commoners. The lesson, again, seems to be that certain assumptions about value need to be carefully scrutinized.

Question of the week: How much does the asking price affect your perception of a product’s value?


Don’t be like them!

Peer pressure is an interesting and familiar phenomenon. It can also be very dangerous, particularly when alcohol is involved. The classic form of peer pressure is “to be one of us, you must do x“. If “x” is drinking, smoking, stealing, etc., this can be very problematic indeed. But peer pressure can also be used to encourage more positive behaviors or to enforce less dubious social mores. (“If you want to be one of us, you have to be respectful.”) So peer pressure is not bad per se.

One particular form of peer pressure that deserves a closer look is when there is a very specific non-peer group used as a counter example. In this sort of peer pressure, the form is “do NOT do x, lest you become one of them.” There remains the implicit pressure to conform to one’s own peer group, but the pressure is compounded by vilifying another group.

The Laws of the Old Testament are full of this sort of admonition. A several acts are proscribed specifically because they are perceived as gentile behaviors. And even when certain things are prohibited for reasons other than to keep the Jews separate from the rest of the world, there is still a hint that being different from the gentiles is the real goal. Moses Maimonides explained that the prohibition on eating pork was for sanitary reasons. Even so, he made a point of bad mouthing the (Christian) French while he was at it. “[W]ere it allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks.” Don’t eat pork, or you will be like the French.

Likewise, in A Counterblaste to Tobacco, King James I of England railed against the use of tobacco, arguing in part that it is unbecoming of Englishmen to take on the habits of “beastly Indians.” For good measure, he even points out that the English disdain the habits of the French and Spanish. If they refuse to adopt the customs of their near neighbors, how much worse is it to imitate New World savages?

Of course, the French were not only on the receiving end of this type of negative peer pressure; they practiced it as well. After invading Egypt, the use of hashish among the French became popular. Napoleon supposedly banned the consumption of hashish, not because of it’s deleterious effects, but because he did not want to see Frenchmen adopting the habits of lower-class Egyptians.

On this side of the Atlantic, the same thing can be observed. In addition to banning tobacco and alcohol, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith forbade his followers from drinking tea and coffee. One of his supposed revelations from God was that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” Frankly, I do not know if the prohibition on tea and coffee was specifically for the purpose of further separating Mormons from the rest of American society. But it is worth noting that something like 90 percent of American adults consume caffeine daily, making it the single most popular drug in the country. If the goal is to separate themselves from the rest of society, a rule against coffee seems like a good starting place.

About a century ago, the Department of Agriculture relied partly on the vilification of the others in advocating the prohibition of cannabis. In a report by R. F. Smith, the Department concluded that, “[t]he sale of the drug [marijuana] is not confined to Mexicans. American soldiers, negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites in general are numbered among the users of this weed.”

There you have it, don’t eat pork, lest your cities stink like France. Don’t smoke tobacco, lest you take on the habits of savages. Don’t take hashish, lest you be like lowly Egyptians. Don’t drink beer, wine, coffee, or tea, lest you fall in with non-Mormon Americans. And don’t smoke hemp, lest you be like Mexicans, negros, pimps, and the criminal class in general. You don’t want to be like any of them, do you?

Beer of the week: Dundee English-Style Ale – There may well be legitimate reasons to avoid pork, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, hashish, and cannabis. (Legality and health concerns spring to mind in particular cases.) But the fact that some group of “other” people consume them is not a legitimate reason. So I am going to smoke the occasional shisha (tobacco) and cigar. And drink this beer. Dundee English-Style Ale is a dark brass-colored ale has a foamy white head that leaves good lacing down the glass. The aroma is slightly sour and malty, like sourdough. The body is malty with hints of sour and spice. Overall, very nice beer. Dundee proves to be a good value yet again.

Reading of the week: A Counterblaste to Tobacco by King James I of England – Jeremy Bentham wrote of this pamphlet, “as the circumstances of the times did not afford the same facility of burning tobacco-smokers as for burning Anabaptists, [King James] was forced to content himself with writing a flaming book against it.”

Question of the week: Have you seen peer pressure used for good?


Learn By Example

A friend of mine once told me that his favorite Bible verse was from Chapter 6 of the Book of Job:

“Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together!
For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up. For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me.”

What he liked about this verse is that it helped put his own troubles into perspective. The calamities that befell Job were so great that it makes our own pale in comparison.

A similar philosophy was espoused by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things when he stated that it is pleasant to watch a shipwreck from the safety of the shore. There is no misanthropic impulse behind that statement, just the recognition that people are subject to all sorts of misfortune and that we are fortunate when we are not getting the worst of it.

Polybius went even further. According to him, “the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.” Is it really the only method? This seems like a step to far. Religion and stoicism spring to mind as two possible ways to learn how to cope with disaster that may not require looking to examples of unfortunate others. To be sure, both of them rely on examples to some extent (e.g. Job, the saints, Socrates, etc.) But I am not sure that they need them to be effective.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Rounder – My past experience with Blue Moon didn’t prevent me from trying this beer. Perhaps it should have. This Belgian-style pale ale is not much to write home about. The photo shows how clear this beer is. This is a bit surprising since there actually is some wheat in the recipe. The smell is fairly bland and grainy. It tastes primarily of malt, but there is just a hint of spice in the finish. The name comes from the idea that one could drink several rounds of this beer. I suppose that this would be a fine beer to drink a half-dozen of in a sitting. There is something to be said for that.

Reading of the week: The Histories by Polybius – At the very beginning of his greatest work, Polybius announces that he does not need to commend the study of history because “all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner… have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History.”

Question of the week: Is there any other method for learning to face disaster than to look to the examples of others?


Reluctant Executive 

As a child, I had a small book about the presidents of the United States. Each page was dedicated to a single president, with a portrait, a short biography, and a representative quotation. I was most interested in the quotations.

Of course, some of the quotations were merely political sound bites:

Harry S. Truman: “The buck stops here.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Ronald Wilson Reagan: “Tear down this wall!”

However, many of the quotations (particularly those of early presidents) expressed a certain amount of dread about holding the office:

Thomas Jefferson: “No man will ever carry out of the presidency the reputation which carried him into it.”
Martin Van Buren: “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
James Knox Polk: “I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close.”
William Howard Taft: “I am trying to do the best I can with this administration until the time shall come for me to turn it over to somebody else. ”

I was struck, even at a young age, by the way that many of the early presidents regarded the office as a terrible duty. Just by comparing the quotations, it seemed clear to me that the founders thought of the presidency as a personal sacrifice, while modern politicians sought office for personal advancement. I was, to be sure, a skeptical lad.

In my more mature reflections, however, I am still inclined to think that early presidential candidates had more pure motives than modern politicians. In part, that conclusion relies on the assessment that there is simply much more power in the oval office these days, and therefore more incentive for bad people to seek the office.

But perhaps the rhetoric has just changed, or perhaps I am just falling into nostalgia for a time that never really existed. At any rate, Presidents Day Weekend seems like a good time to give some thought to how the office of the president and the men who have held it have changed over time. So crack a beer and ponder why our society has given such immense power and influence to that office. An important question given Dwight David Eisenhower’s assessment that “any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy.”

Hop Hog IPA

Beer of the week: Hop Hog IPA – Lancaster, Pennsylvania has some serious American political history cred. It was the national capital for one day in 1777, as Congress retreated from British occupied Philadelphia. Lancaster was home to president James Buchanan and congressman Thaddeus Stevens. It is also the national headquarters for the Constitution Party. But most relevant for our purposes, Lancaster is home to the Lancaster Brewing Company. Hop Hog is LBC’s orangish, slightly cloudy IPA. As the photo shows, Hop Hog’s fluffy head leaves very nice lacing on the glass. There are hints of fruit (pineapple, perhaps) in the aroma and aftertaste. This is one of my favorite IPAs.

Reading for the week: Grover Cleveland’s Second Inaugural Address – Inaugural addresses are a window into the political history of our nation. From James Buchanan’s discussion on slavery in the territories, to Barack Obama’s reaction to the late financial crisis, inaugural addresses highlight the political questions of the day and the campaign promises that propelled the candidates into the White House. In Cleveland’s second address, his conservative and pro-business positions sound familiar even today, but his stance on Native Americans seems badly dated.

Question for the week: Is Presidents Day really about all of the past presidents, or is it actually just for Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays fall near it?


My Kingdom for a King

As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:

  1. A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
  2. A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
  3. A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.

These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?

Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.

Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”

Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?


Every Day a Holiday: Cinco De Mayo

It may be surprising to people with an American education to learn that at the very same time that the United States of America was at war with the Confederate States of America, a French army was pushing its way across Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine had been in place for nearly 40 years, so the thought of a full-on European invasion of Mexico seems rather shocking.

Shortly before the American Civil War, Mexico had its own, known as the Reform War. The immediate result was a fractured and bankrupt Mexican government. In 1861, the president of Mexico declared a moratorium on paying its debts, and the French were none too happy about that. Emperor Napoleon III, who had been elected as President Bonaparte but refused to leave when his term ended, decided that a Mexican regime change was in order. He sent a small army to “negotiate”. On the 5th of May, 1862, an outnumbered rag-tag Mexican army crushed the better trained and better equipped French invaders. Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated ever since.

It is always interesting to put historical events into context. While the Americans were being divided over the question of self-determination (and slavery), Mexicans were fighting for their own right to govern themselves. Their success at the Battle of Puebla was short lived, though. Just three years later, Maximilian I, born in Vienna into the powerful Hapsburg Dynasty, sat on his throne in Mexico City as Emperor.

As it turned out, Maximilian’s empire did not last long either. A successful republican revolt culminated in Maximilian’s execution by firing squad, just two years after the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Sic semper indeed.

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Beer of the week: Tecate – Cerveza Tecate is a standard Mexican adjunct lager. It is pale gold in color and quite fizzy. As far as aroma and flavor, there is not much to write. Cheap grain supplies the bulk of both. I could surely down more than a few of these on a hot day, but generally I would pick something more flavorful. Even the addition of lime and salt doesn’t do much for it.

Reading for the week: Memorabilia by Xenophon, Book I, Chapter 2, Sections 39-50 – Whether government is monarchical or democratic in form, it’s nature is always coercive. This reading by Xenophon includes a brief dialogue between Alcibiades and Pericles. In it, Alcibiades gets Pericles to define government coercion as “not law, but force.” The logical conclusion is that all conventional “laws”, from tyrants’ dictates to democratic legislation, are not law at all, but mere force.

Question for the week: When have you been surprised to learn that two historic events were much closer in time than your had realized?