“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.
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?
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?
The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week revealed yet again the terrible state of political discourse in our country. One clear problem involves the call by Senate Republicans to block any and all Obama nominations. This certainly looks like a dereliction of duty, and has been called an “impeachable offense.” (Of course, the most vocal critics of this behavior, ignore the attempted filibuster by Senators Kerry, Clinton, and Obama upon the nomination of Justice Alito.) But what I think is more telling is the personal vitriol toward members of the Court.
All of the biggest political actors had the tact to express their condolences at the death of Justice Scalia, but plenty of casual tweeters expressed their joy. Even worse than the schadenfreude over the death of a Supreme Court Justice were the attacks on (the still very much alive) Justice Thomas. Thomas became a “trending topic” on Twitter because there were so many people wishing that he would be the next member of the Court to die. Two particular themes came to the surface though these Tweets: the perception that Thomas was a mere puppet who always followed Scalia, and the racially charged claims that Thomas was either a slave or a traitor to his people.
I will ignore the racial statements. Those who made them deserve our scorn, but the statements themselves are not worth addressing. They are beneath the dignity of the Court and they are beneath me. The idea that Thomas was a puppet for Scalia, however, is worth evaluating.
According to SCOTUSBlog, Scalia and Thomas agreed in 78% of cases. This is lower than the percentage of cases where Thomas agreed with Alito (81%) and lower than the percentage of cases where Scalia agreed with Chief Justice Roberts (84%). But perhaps more tellingly, that number is positively dwarfed by the percentage of cases where the liberal justices agree. That same source tells us that Justice Breyer agrees with each Justice Ginsburg, Justice Kagan, and Justice Sotomayor a full 94% of the time. The lowest agreement rate among the liberal justices is 91%. Any claim that one or more of the Supreme Court Justices are mere puppets who vote the way they are told is probably nonsense. But if there is any legitimacy to the idea, the statistics indicate that we should be looking at somebody other than Thomas.
There are plenty of areas where I disagree with Justice Thomas, but it is simply ignorant to claim that he is not an independent thinker. He is a prolific dissenting voice on the court, and perhaps that alone is worthy of admiration. It would have been so much easier for him to “just go along” with Scalia, but Thomas was and is his own man.
Beer of the week: Yankee Buzzard IPA – This IPA from Wisconsin Brewing Company is also known as beer #002. Yankee Buzzard is hazy and has a pleasant, hoppy aroma. Hops certainly dominates, but unlike in many IPAs, here they are balanced nicely with the malty body. This is a very good IPA, especially for somebody who does not favor over-the-top bitterness.
Reading for the week: Kelo v. New London, Dissenting Opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas – The City of New London used eminent domain to kick several of its citizens out of their homes and turn the land over to the drug company Pfizer. The Supreme Court ruled that the city did not violate the Constitution by doing so. Justice Thomas, predictably, dissented. In part, I chose this reading because the public response to this case was so negative; most states now have laws that prevent this kind of eminent domain action. But mostly, this reading shows the way that Justice Thomas works. His appeals to original texts are especially interesting to me. (In case the Readings page of this blog left any doubt on that point.)
Question for the week: Do the Justices of the Supreme Court venture too far into the world of practical politics (as Justice Thomas believes), or does the Supreme Court have a right (or duty) to effectuate policy?
It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”
First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.
But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:
1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)
This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)
Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?
2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.
What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?
I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.
It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?
3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.
This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.
Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…
Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.
Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).
Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
Could anything be less obvious? In all of the most visible ways, men are anything but equal. Some are strong, some are rich, some are intelligent. Very few are all three. In every measurable way, men are simply not created equal. In fact, the inequality of man has been carefully studied and tends to fall into a bell curve.
However, our societal dedication to the idea that everybody should be equal has occasionally resulted in efforts to “rectify” natural inequalities. This can be done either by giving the disadvantaged a leg-up or by handicapping the advantaged. But both of these remedies miss the real meaning of equality in American society.
The way in which all men are created equal is “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Everyone, regardless of his strength or wealth or intelligence, is possessed of equal rights. It is our rights that make us equal, and attempting to achieve other, less meaningful equalities by modifying our fundamental rights is a dangerous mistake.
Beer of the week: Daisy Cutter Pale Ale – This is a delicious and popular pale ale from Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago. Daisy Cutter is a slightly hazy, amber beer. The aroma is of floral hops with a hint of pine. The body is pleasant and malty with a good hops kick that leaves a pleasant tingle. Overall, this is a very well balanced and very tasty brew.
Reading for the week: The History of Rome by Livy – In much of the English-speaking world, “tall poppy syndrome” refers to a collective desire to disparage or attack the most successful or prominent members of society. This reading contains the origin of that expression: symbolic advice to strike off the heads of the tallest poppies.
Question for the week: Is there a minimum sort of equality in strength/wealth/intelligence required to exercise the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
The Confederate battle flag was ceremoniously lowered from the South Carolina Capitol this morning. The democratic process worked as well as it ever does. A duly elected legislature voted to remove the banner from the government-owned building. Nothing to it.
But the debate over flying the flag on state property has spilled into questions about whether businesses should be allowed to sell the Confederate battle flag or whether private citizens should be able to fly the flag on their own property.
Recently, Scott Hancock, an associate professor at Gettysburg College proffered a novel solution to the “problem” of people flying the Confederate flag in their own yard. If he had his way, the town government would pass an ordinance defining what the flag stands for. He does not propose any specific wording for this ordinance, but his suggestion would apparently be along the lines of: “It is hereby ordered that the Confederate battle flag shall be understood to represent treason, racism, and chattel slavery, and that the flying of said flag shall be seen as an endorsement of same.”
Before going into why Professor Hancock’s proposal is a bad one, I would like to acknowledge a few important points that he is correct about. First, he acknowledges that freedom of speech (like all of the rights that are primary to the American way of life) is a negative right. This means that the power of speech is not something that the government gives to its citizens, but something which it cannot take away. He also acknowledges that the most reasonable and effective method of dealing with the objectionable speech of others is to simply ignore it. Beyond these points, however, Professor Hancock seems to be profoundly misguided.
The most obvious mistake that the professor makes is the determination that a simple majority of people are capable of determining what a word or symbol “means” to everybody. Perhaps in the realm of the purely utilitarian, such is the case. A simple majority could, by democratic vote, determine that a red octagon posted at an intersection means “cars approaching this intersection must stop and yield right-of-way.” But private speech cannot be so restricted. If the legislature passed an ordinance that defined the word “swag” as only “such plunder as is carried off by pirates”, that would have no effect on how frat boys and rappers use the word or what they mean when they say it.
When Professor Hancock says that the Confederate flag does not represent bravery in battle, camaraderie among brothers-at-arms, or an independent spirit, what he is really saying is that the flag does not mean that to him. To everybody who flies the flag with the intention of conveying the aforementioned virtues, the flag absolutely does represent them. And just because one person does not agree with that interpretation of a symbol does not mean that he can legislate what the symbol means for everybody, even if he has a majority on his side.
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a symbol’s meaning is in its use. If person A flies the Confederate flag to show his pride in the independent spirit of the South or to express his belief that states’ rights are primary to national sovereignty, that is what the flag stands for. If person B views the flag and does not (or chooses not to) understand A’s meaning, then there has simply been a breakdown in the language game. B cannot declare unilaterally that A was the cause of the miscommunication and create new rules to suit his own understanding.
Beer of the week: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA – This strong, clear IPA is quite good. It is also very, very hoppy. In fact, the first sip was so hoppy that I was a bit overwhelmed by the strong aftertaste. As I kept drinking, however, I found that the beer actually has a strong malt backbone under all of that hops. Once I got over the initial bitterness I found that this beer is actually quite well balanced.
Reading for the week: Philosophical Inquiries by Ludwig Wittgenstein, §40-47 – This reading shows how we have to be careful in attempting to define the “meaning” of words or symbols. If I say “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ a certain piece of fabric, red with a starry blue cross,” I am saying something quite different from “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ slavery, oppression, freedom, or history.” Even the meaning of the word meaning is not unequivocal!
Question for the week: Rather than an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as something bad, why not pass an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as the official flag of racial harmony? Wouldn’t that be likely to have a more positive result?
As I mentioned before, I am something of a linguistic anarchist. The English language does not have rules in the way that geometry or French does; there are only stylistic choices. Don’t misunderstand me, some choices make the speaker sound uneducated or even stupid. I positively bristle at people saying “Bill and I” when they mean “Bill and me”. But I suspect that the source of this problem is actually pedantic and ill-informed educators who brow-beat children for ever saying “Bill and me”, even when that is the more appropriate expression.
But English is not unique in this regard. Even languages that have strict rules are still subject to different interpretations because all language is equivocal. In The Federalist No. 37, James Madison wrote that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Even if English is more unique than other languages, questions of style are found in every one.
Did you notice my use of “more unique”? Did you scoff at my word choice? I picked that word because it is a pet of pedants. Time and again pedants point out that the word “unique” means “one of a kind”, so it cannot admit of degrees. Either something is unique or not; there is no more or less uniqueness. I contend, however, that the word unique is just as equivocal as any other word and that it may very well admit of degrees.
Take, for example, a six-pack of beer. For the sake of convenience, we will imagine 8 ounce cans of Coors Light. (Such a thing exists, I’m told.) There are no visible markings to tell one from the other. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that not one of these beers is unique. They are not one of a kind; each is just like the others. They are probably even just like thousands or tens of thousands or more. Each beer is not unique.
That is, until we look closer. In 8 ounces of water, there about 7.5×10^24 molecules. That number is mind-bendingly large. Of course, there is no mechanism capable of measuring water to the molecule, so any measure of 8 ounces is bound to vary in total molecules. The odds of any two of our hypothetical beers having exactly the same number of molecules is practically zero. Furthermore, beer is not pure water (mercifully.) Beer also contains alcohol, dissolved carbon-dioxide, yeast, unfermented sugars, minerals, and so forth. Each beer is certain to have slightly different amounts of each of these. Even if the difference is immeasurable with common tools, we know that such variation must exist. Oh, and the cans themselves are different. Sure, they all look the same, but there is no way that the aluminium is totally free from impurities. Each can surely has slight, even unobservable differences. When viewed this way, each beer is unique.
So each beer is not unique and each beer is unique. We haven’t violated the law of non-contradiction, the word unique is simply equivocal. The fact is that we do not always mean the same thing when we say that something is unique. As a result, we totally understand the idea that something can be more or less unique. If we swap one of our hypothetical Silver Bullets with a can of Miller Lite, it makes perfect sense to us to say that the Miller is very unique with respect to the others cans. We could also say that because most people couldn’t tell a Miller Lite from a Coors light if it were not for the branding, the Miller Lite is not unique among the 5 Coors Light cans. It’s all about perspective.
All that said, I don’t use the word unique with comparatives. I prefer the common understanding that the word does not admit of degrees. That doesn’t mean that the use of comparative uniqueness is wrong, only that I think that it sounds bad. It is a question of style, and saying “very unique” is the linguistic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; one person may find it comfortable, but others may be justified in assuming that he is an idiot.
Beer of the Week: Whitewater Wheat IPA – For a long time, I avoided beers in the Samuel Adams line. The Boston Beer Company makes so many different beers (over a hundred according to BeerAdvocate) that I’ve always thought they spread themselves a bit too thin. I like trying new things, but sometimes it is best to just focus on what you are good at. However, when I reviewed their flagship beer I was reminded of how they got so big in the first place, so I’ve decided to try some of Sam Adams’ more experimental stuff. This beer is a wheat IPA, a style that I’ve never been impressed with. It is cloudy and light with a foamy head, like a wheat beer ought to be, but has an aroma of piney hops. It is actually pretty refreshing despite being quite flavorful. The hops and traditional wheat beer spices leave a pleasant lingering tingle on the back of the tongue. This isn’t my new favorite, but it is promising enough that I’ll keep trying different Sam Adams beers.
Reading for the Week: The Federalist No. 37 (Excerpt) – Madison, recognizing that language is necessarily equivocal and imperfect, wrote that “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Samuel Adams may have been an Antifederalist, but his cloudy beer nicely reflects that cloudy nature of human language.
Question for the week: Do you have an English language “rule” that you would like to defend? Or a common (mis)usage that you’d like to rail against? Feel free to comment.