Friday, October 25, 2013

Partisan Politics, Part II

     There are many plausible reasons for the media’s hatred of the Republican Party. Chief among these, in my view, is the Republicans’ embrace of the Religious Right. Nothing so antagonizes the intelligentsia as Biblical literalism does, as well it might. The God of the Bible endorses slavery, genocide, child sexual mutilation, the subjugation of women, and the damnation of everyone, no matter how otherwise praiseworthy, who does not ultimately confess his or her faith in an implausible savior. It is understandable that educated Americans would begin their search for political affinity with this question: How can I, a thinking and decent person, count as allies people who accept all the evil in the Bible as the literal word of God? Most in our universities and the media are unwilling to do so. Well, so far I cannot blame them. On the other hand, the Republicans are not wrong about everything. Unfortunately, the natural partisanship of human beings too easily yields a politics of simple opposition: What my enemy endorses I must oppose. Since the Republicans endorse and accept the Religious Right, I—so reasons the intelligent Leftist—must oppose the Republicans on everything.

     It is for this reason I have come to believe that the Religious Right is dooming the Republican Party. Perhaps, if the Republicans divest themselves of the fundamentalists, they will stand a chance of fair reportage. Realistically, it may be too late in the day for that. Alternatively, they could make it their business to recapture the media and the universities and the courts—the Long Campaign—but I do not see them even making the attempt. Short of that, and the odds are anyway still pretty long, they will simply have to abandon the Biblical literalists and their fellow travellers. The Earth was not created in six days; Adam was not made of mud; Eve was not made from Adam’s rib; there was no worldwide flood; Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed by God in punishment for homosexuality; sex is not a sin; and any text that approves what Joshua did to Jericho, or that fails to condemn slavery, or that prescribes stoning for adultery, or that endorses everlasting torment, was not inspired by a God worthy of worship—these must be planks on a new Republican platform.  Otherwise, the Republicans are likely to calcify into a religious millstone that drags down sound fiscal policy.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Partisan Politics, Part I

     During the last hundred years of the Roman Republic, before Cæsar launched the transition to autocratic rule, there developed two main coalitions in Roman politics. These were the Populares, who promoted the interests of the poor, and the Optimates, who promoted the interests of the rich. Earlier in Roman history, the ancestors of these political coalitions were the plebeians and patricians; in those days, there was no distinction between economic and social class—generally the rich men were aristocratic patricians, for instance—and something of this class loyalty persisted all the way down to the time of Marius and Sulla. It was the plebeian Gaius Marius who adopted the Populares, while the patrician Lucius Cornelius Sulla advanced the cause of the Optimates. Ironically, in the very next generation, the patrician Julius Cæsar became a Popularis, while the plebeian Pompey Magnus wound up defending the Optimate cause. One might think that as social and economic class began to dissociate, party cohesion would likewise have melted a little. Instead, it seems to have intensified. The Optimates and Populares found themselves literally at each other’s throats, unable to compromise on anything. Ultimately, their mutual antagonism led to social and political chaos, which in turn almost begged for an authoritarian solution. Augustus’ long and stable reign yielded the material benefits that political chaos always endangers. He proved in the laboratory of history that the Romans, whose ancestors had sworn never to tolerate a king, ultimately cared more about bread and circuses than they did about liberty.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Departing from History

     What could keep us from repeating history? Are Americans on a historically determined arc from liberty through chaos to tyranny? In profound ways, we really are different from any prior culture. Through science, modern people have unraveled truths of nature and ourselves that settle the primordial questions of mankind. Superstition and religion are inbred in us—science has told us even that—but rational, scientific explanations for phenomena are ineluctably supplanting those of faith and fantasy. Fundamentalists dispute Darwin’s theory of evolution, but they do so increasingly with arguments about data and gaps in the fossil record. Essentially, they have conceded the main point, which is the efficacy of the scientific method. This is an enormous difference. Further, the discoveries of science are accessible as never before. If the Library of Alexandria preserved ancient wisdom for many centuries, it was nonetheless limited in effect because limited in access. Moreover, it could be burned in a day—and was. By contrast, the Internet cannot be destroyed by anything short of an extinction event, and its information is in principle available to all people everywhere at trivial cost. This is another enormous difference between our world and the world of our ancestors.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Civic Virtue and the Relevance of History

     This blog has proceeded from the point of view that America is accelerating through unprecedented change. A phase transition, if you will. The problem is how to navigate changes like these. History, perhaps, can provide clues to what we can expect. For instance, the Romans went from a city of citizens all of whom performed military service to a city of subjects who outsourced their defense. Is our professional, all-volunteer force—which looks eerily like the Roman army after the Marian reforms—a precursor to an outsourced military? Ultimately, there were hardly any Romans in the Roman legions. In our case, perhaps we will hand over our defense to drones and robot soldiers. Such mechanical mercenaries will be less susceptible to economic temptations than the troops of late Antiquity, who were happy to bankrupt the empire and dethrone emperor after emperor with demands for ever higher wages. On the other hand, what of the corporations that soon may provide robo-troops for a fee? History tends to validate Machiavelli’s famous warnings against mercenaries.