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?

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A Pointillist Theology

A high school religion teacher once remarked to me that the only proof of God’s existence that she needed was to look out the window. “How could anybody look upon the wonder of creation,” she wondered incredulously, “and not believe in God?” I was not convinced.

Are not the awe-inspiring beauty and order the universe even more awe-inspiring if they are organic rather than miraculous? That is to say, isn’t nature more impressive than creation? Creation could have been anything that God chose, but nature had to be the way it is. Rather than focusing on the single miracle of creation, why not focus on the ever-accumulating individual discoveries of the world around us? If God created the butterfly instantly and miraculously, that would not make it any more beautiful. But the fact that the butterfly evolved over millions of years and is the distant progeny of the first spark of life, that is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Nietzsche would say that my teacher had an “old fashioned eye” that preferred “beautiful, decorative, intoxicating and perhaps beatific” myths to “simple truths, ascertained by scientific method.” But reason and scientifically discovered truths are every bit as beautiful as the old world views and aesthetics. In fact, they are even more beautiful. This is because the old views are static and limiting, but the “the richness of inner, rational beauty always spreads and deepens.”
Fiddlehead Kölsch

Beer of the week: Fiddlehead Kölsch – Fiddlehead ferns are a neat example of naturally occurring logarithmic spirals. Their geometric (near) perfection can be viewed as proof of an ordered universe. The quality beers from Fiddlehead Brewing Company are also proof of an ordered universe. This pale, cloudy ale has a soft, round bouquet with hints of pineapple. Although it is not overly hoppy, it is surprisingly bitter for its style and aroma. This is certainly a good beer, but for my taste the hops leave the mouth feeling a bit too dry in the end.

Reading of the week: Human, All Too Human, Appreciation of Simple Truths by Friedrich Nietzsche – Reading leads to reading. Reading Emerson led me to read Greenough and Landor. Reading Mencken led me to read Nietzsche. And reading Nietzsche led me to read more Nietzsche. This paragraph of Human, All Too Human directly follows the reading from two weeks ago.

Question of the week: Are the ideas of creation and evolution truly opposed?


Measure Of All Things

Last week’s question included an uncited quotation from H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Mencken mocked “Rousseau’s noble savage, in smock and jerkin, brought out of the tropical wilds to shame the lords and masters of the civilized lands.” How silly it seems to attribute such modern notions to man in a “state of nature.” (To be fair to Rousseau, he did not describe his “noble savage” as wearing anachronistic clothing, but his behavior and very nature were anachronistic.)

It is not likely to be a coincidence that Mencken’s delightfully caustic writing on the subject mirrors some ideas expressed in harsher terms by Friedrich Nietzsche. Mencken was a great admirer and translator of the mustachioed Saxon.

Nietzsche identified the traditional error of philosophers as the tendency to base a complete philosophical system on contemporary man. The problem is that contemporary man is a very small sample of all humanity. Since Rousseau had no way of knowing what primitive man was like, he simply attributed to primitive man the qualities of contemporary man. But man has been evolving for far longer than the few thousands of years of which we have written accounts. And, perhaps more importantly, man continues to evolve, even as we observe him. So what can we learn about constant, universal truths by first misattributing consistency to ever-evolving man?

Protagoras announced that “man is the measure of all things”, but what good is a measurement if the scale keeps changing?

Beer of the week: Ciuc Pils – This Romanian pilsner is very pale and very bubbly. The aroma is of sweet, cheap grain. There is not a whole lot to be said for the flavor. It is inoffensive, but not particularly good. It is always fun to try a beer from different countries, but there is probably a reason why Romanian beer is not more popular.

Reading for the week: Human, All Too Human, The Traditional Error of Philosophers by Friedrich Nietzsche – This paragraph, describing how philosophers err in assuming that there is something eternal about man, is part of the foundation of a book in which (to quote Mencken yet again) Nietzsche “showed that moral ideas were not divine, but human, and that, like all things human, they were subject to change.”

Question for the week: Does Nietzsche go too far? Is there nothing about humanity that is fixed and eternal?


Govern Less

Everybody ought to be familiar with Thoreau’s motto: “That government is best which governs least.” But does assessment not depend on what government is and where it comes from?

One understanding of the origin of government is the banding together of individuals for their common defense. “If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property,” writes Frédéric Bastiat, “a number of men have the right to combine together, to extend, to organize a common force, to provide regularly for this defense.” A government so organized may only do what each individual could legitimately do himself. And if the action of government is properly limited to the common defense, it is surely the best government that needs to act the least.

Such a government could not take from one group of citizens to line the pockets of another group any more than an individual could steal from his neighbor. Neither could such a government subsidize a given industry any more than an industrialist could demand that his neighbors fund the building of his new factory. When these things are done by individuals, they are called theft and extortion, so why should they be permitted on a larger scale?

But the idea that government sprang from the collective right of self defense is not universally accepted. John Stuart Mill identifies the origin of government (or at least most governments) as separate from “the people”. In many instances, government did not derive from organized self defense of the governed but from conquest of the strong over the weak. Such governments were “in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled.”

Again, is it not clear that Thoreau’s maxim holds true? At least for those who are subjugated by the hostile ruling class, the government is best which governs (or, if you prefer, subjugates) least.

The twist is that when the people take control of the government, either from the beginning as Bastiat suggests or after popular uprisings occur as identified by Mill, they almost invariably go beyond the scope of simple defense. The tyranny of the majority is every bit as dangerous as the outside forces that Bastiat’s society banded together to defend against. The majority is also every bit as dangerous as the conquering rulers that subjugated Mill’s society.

It seems that however the government comes to be, Thoreau hit the nail on the head.

Granola Shambler

Beer of the week: Berghoff Granola Shambler – It is still technically summer, and it is still warm out, so pumpkin beers can wait. A radler (also known as a shandy) is usually beer mixed with a soft drink such as pop or lemonade. Traditionally, the base beer is a cheap pale lager. Berghoff has attempted to make their radler a bit more fancy. First, they brew the beer with wheat, oats, rye, and barley malt to get a full, rich base. Then they add grape juice and citrus fruits for a refreshing tang. Personally, I think that the amount of fruit they use is over the top. But I do like the idea of trying to make a high-end shandy.

Reading for the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – Language is always equivocal, so it is important to start any serious work with definitions. On Liberty starts with the definition of liberty, not as freedom of will, but freedom from tyranny.

Question for the week: Is the organization of government for the common defense, like “Rousseau’s noble savage in smock and jerkin”, merely a fanciful tale to explain the creation of government?


Philosophers in the Rain

In his Notes on Democracy, H. L. Mencken applies his outrageous wit to the idea that gentlemen ought to go into politics to drive out the mountebanks (and for good measure, he describes the 19th Amendment prohibition on alcohol as a barrier to good men ever being elected):

Thus the ideal of democracy is reached at last: it has become a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union, save by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God. The fact has been rammed home by a constitutional amendment: every office-holder, when he takes oath to support the Constitution, must swear on his honour that, summoned to the death-bed of his grandmother, he will not take the old lady a bottle of wine. He may say so and do it, which makes him a liar, or he may say so and not do it, which makes him a pig. But despite that grim dilemma there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.

Read it again; I’ll wait.

His acerbic, cynical, and supremely clever writing will never get old. Unfortunately, it is really easy to let his delivery overshadow the message. There is much more to Mencken’s writing than bons mots. It is, I think, no coincidence that this quotation comes from a section of the book entitled Utopia. That word, naturally, has entered the English language by way of Thomas More’s philosophical fiction of the same name. In Utopia, the main character, Raphael Hythloday, expresses an opinion very similar to Mencken’s (although his presentation is not quite as humorous):

[A philosopher who joins the advisers to the king] will find no occasions of doing any good—the ill company will sooner corrupt him than be the better for him; or if, notwithstanding all their ill company, he still remains steady and innocent, yet their follies and knavery will be imputed to him; and, by mixing counsels with them, he must bear his share of all the blame that belongs wholly to others.

Raphael does not give up on the philosopher having a positive effect on politics, however. He claims that many philosophers have done their part to improve governance by writing books, “if those that are in power would but hearken to their good advice.” It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see More winking very emphatically at any ruler who happens to pick up Utopia.

To my knowledge, Mencken never made any similar statement. But if he didn’t believe something along those lines, why did he write on politics at all?

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Beer of the Week: Long Trail IPA – The India Pale Ale was invented to survive the long sea voyage from Great Britain to India. Extra alcohol and extra hops both acted to preserve the beer on its voyage. Raphael was a few centuries too early (and a fictional character,) but he surely would have appreciated having a supply of IPA for his long journey two the distant island of Utopia. And this Vermontonian IPA is a really tasty example of the style. It is unfiltered, just as the original India Pale Ales would have been. The aroma is dominated by floral hops. The flavor has hints of citrus and even a bit of caramel malt can be tasted through the hops. Many American brewers get overexcited about making their IPAs as bitter and hoppy as possible, but Long Trail has crafted a beer with a very good balance of flavors.

Reading for the Week: Utopia by Thomas More – Before the quotation above, Raphael Hythloday presents just how ridiculous he would seem in the court of the king of France. Where other advisers would advocate war, deceit, conquest, and financial trickery, he would advise peace, reform, and justice. And he’d be laughed out of the capital.

Question for the Week: Would it make any difference if, rather than being an adviser to the king of France, Raphael spoke of being a member of the American president’s cabinet?