American Idiots

The biggest mistake one can make, when on a remote trek, is to not bring a large variety of music. A paucity of music leads to repeating the same albums over and over again, which can have disastrous consequences for one’s mental health. Luckily my choice in music is excellent. I had the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” album to accompany me, with such gems as “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Respectable,” “Far Away Eyes” (my personal favorite), and “You Win Again.” Almost as good is my childhood love, Green Day’s American Idiot.

When the album came out ten (10!) years ago, in 2004, I was in 7th grade. That is, I was a complete political incubus. Like an amoeba, my political instincts were reflexive, I loved the gods the city worshipped, and I hated the gods the city did not worship. I hadn’t listened much to the lyrics then or later, but now that I was repeating the album constantly, as an accompanying refrain on my mountain ascents, I had cause to examine what the singer was actually singing about.

The titular song, “American Idiot,” is a triumphalist left wing punk ballad. The singer does not come right out with his political affiliations, but his statement: “well maybe I’m the faggot America/I’m not part of a redneck agenda” seem to put him on the left side of the aisle, right in the middle of the Kulturkampf. He has reason to celebrate, for although the issue of gay acceptance was up in the air until quite recently, it seems to have been decisively settled: gays are accepted now, get over it, it’s only a matter of time until the law catches up.

Perhaps on this issue he may be pleased, but overall, he should be appalled. Behold the following:

“Don’t want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It’s calling out to idiot America.”

He meant this to be an indictment of right wing types, idiots who watch Fox News and vote Republican and wave the flag and all that jazz. Such a criticism may, indeed, apply to them. However, it seems to apply much more to the left wing today, than to the right.

Case in point. A scientist lands a rocket on a comet, millions of miles away. Technically this is a stroke of brilliance, and deserves all the hearty praise we can offer. However, instead of focusing on this grand achievement, the moment was hijacked by the social justice warriors. The team leader’s shirt was deemed sexist, and the incident labelled #shirtgate. Gasp! faint! He then recorded a groveling apology for the jackals. When I see Nepalis plowing their fields with the same tools the Sumerians developed, and then consider what some of us in the West consider problems, I almost weep for our decline. I find cackling to be much more appropriate, however.

This sort of model happens all the time. Someone says something that is offensive to the gods the city worships, social media or the MSM whips up a frenzy, and the offending party either capitulates immediately or is attacked until he (almost always a man, it seems) issues some sort of apology. The jackals are satisfied, or more likely, they simply become angrier. This happens so frequently that it is redundant of me to even describe the cycle. Brandon describes it well in his excellent article on the cannibalization of the left.

Green Day caused a big ruckus when their album came out. But now, ten years on, it is interesting to see that the new* American idiots aren’t Bible-thumping, faggot-hating rednecks from Georgia – they’re young millenials, smug in their moral superiority, tearing people down with the virtual power of social media. What’s funnier, or perhaps sadder, is that these same people are, like me, kids who grew up listening to this album. Happy trails!

*A better word, in light of comments.

Reading the Laws, Part 2

I am writing this in the shadow of Annapurna II, one of the five peaks of the great mountain, and the first that any trekker will see. Annapurna is roughly at the latitude of Florida, and so even in November, the weather is relatively mild at lower elevations. However, at 11,000 feet, the slightest wind leaves one bitterly cold. Coincidentally, this forced exile from the outside has enabled me to continue my writer’s diary. I apologize for the brevity.

To summarize the foregoing, the nameless Athenian has refuted Klitias the Kretan’s argument, that the firmest foundation of a family is in enmity. For if the Kretan accepts the idea that the role of the lawgiver is to legislate for the highest good of his people, the highest good could never be obtained in a state of enmity, because it would result in the dissolution of the family – the highest evil. The Athenian continues by extrapolating the analogy of the family outwards, to the group, the village, and the state.

628b: The Athenian then brings the argument in the opposite direction: if the nature of man is himself conflicted, in that one part is superior and another inferior, and one will worst the other in a battle over the soul, is not the same true of individuals, groups, and states? Klinias concurs, stating that, as a man is composed of better and lesser parts, so too is a state, namely the noble classes forming the better part, and the lower classes forming the lesser part. Because Klinias has fallen prey to a crass classism, the Athenian catches him in a trap. If it is indeed true that the lower classes are inferior, but nonetheless they win over the noble classes in an intrastate struggle, does this not mean that the victorious state is, in fact, inferior? And the worsted state superior? This contradicts the principle of superiority through victory, since the victors cannot both be inferior and superior at the same time, thereby showing Klinias’ doctrine as contradictory and bankrupt.

628c-628e: Transitioning from this, the Athenian asks, “ἆρα οὖν οὐ τοῦ ἀρίστου ἕνεκα πάντα ἂν τὰ νόμιμα τιθείη πᾶς;” or “So would he [the lawgiver] not in all his laws [notice, τὰ νόμιμα, those things according to custom] aim at the highest good [τοῦ ἀρίστου, the excellent, related to the words ἀρέτη or surpassing excellence, and aristocracy].” The Athenian’s position is eudaimonistic, in that it sees the highest good, whatever it may be, as the ultimate goal of all law, as Aristotle saw it as the ultimate goal of all life. It is worth considering what the highest good could be in this case. Because for “highest good” Plato has written τοῦ ἀρίστου, the genitive form of τό ἀριστόν, the excellent, the particular valence of this word is vitally important. Aristotle saw the exercise of virtue as the highest ἀρέτη, or goodness, leading to the state of ultimate human flourishing, εὐδαιμονία. Aristotle most certainly drew from Plato, but it must be noted, ἀρέτη is much narrower, much more connoting moral goodness, while ἄριστος or τὸ ἄριστον can be the best of anything: the best morality, the best athlete, the best lawgiver. Thus, the highest good of the lawgiver could be amoral, but the Athenians staves off this interpretation by the extrapolation of his family analogy.

For the family, the highest good is the peaceful cooperation of its members, and by extension, so too with the group, the village, the state, and even amongst states. Thus, so far, peace is the highest good, because peace is most conducive to the flourishing of personal and civic excellence. Of course, peace need not be born out of moral considerations. A good peace, speedily and well concluded, is often the pinnacle of good statecraft. A good example of this is Diocletian’s concord with the Persians, after he installed an Armenian upstart on his ancestral throne and routed the Persian forces all the way into Mesopotamia. This peace held for generations, and was a lasting memory of the Illyrian’s illustrious reign. His considerations were certainly not moral, but pragmatic; securing the borders of the empire allowed for the peaceable exercise of commerce, which in turn allowed for Diocletian’s oppressive taxes. Diocletian reflects the Athenian’s injunction, that “ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ πρὸς πόλεως εὐδαιμονίαν ἢ καὶ ἰδιώτου διανοούμενος οὕτω τις οὔτ’ ἄν ποτε πολιτικὸς γένοιτο ὀρθῶς, πρὸς τὰ ἔξωθεν πολεμικὰ ἀποβλέπων μόνον καὶ πρῶτον, οὔτ’ ἂν νομοθέτης ἀκριβής, εἰ μὴ χάριν εἰρήνης τὰ πολέμου νομοθετοῖ μᾶλλον ἢ τῶν πολεμικῶν ἕνεκα τὰ τῆς εἰρήνης.” or “Just as with regards to the flourishing [εὐδαιμονίαν, a good daimon, or human flourishing] of a city-state and of a private citizen, the man keeping in mind only what concerns war will not become a good statesman, nor a complete lawgiver [the usual translation of ἀκριβής is strict or precise, but I am loosely translating it in the sense of completeness], if he does not lay down laws concerning war with an eye to peace, rather than lay down his laws concerning peace with an eye to war.”

629a-630e: Here the Athenian begins an extended analysis of a poem by the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, which basically states that regardless of a man’s other virtues, if he is not proficient in war, he does not merit the attention of the poet. The Athenian, along with Klitias and Megillos, declares himself in accord with Tyrtaeus, and then begins his “gentle interrogation” of the poet’s ideas.

First, there are two kinds of wars, no? Civil and foreign. It is assumed that Tyrtaeus praises the warriors of foreign wars, which is probably not far off the mark. Civil wars require military prowess, but they never yield military glory: the famous and comical case of Crassus, throwing himself into the Third Servile War due to insecurity at the glory of his fellow triumvirs Caesar and Pompey, failing to garner even a modest triumph after putting down Spartacus. Civil wars carry no interest, and so it is foreign wars that the poet, and the Athenian, are interested in. Yet, even more than foreign wars, there are foreign wars of great importance: the war against the Persians holds greater weight in the poet’s mind than, say, a border skirmish with some Thracians.

Second, if foreign wars impart glory, but important foreign wars the greatest glory, does it not follow that there is a hierarchy of glory, that “the union of prudence, wisdom, and courage is greater than the presence of courage alone?” That, the unity of virtues is superior to a single virtue? The point of this extended discourse becomes immediately clear when the Athenian continues his point that war, of all things, is not the basis of the state – the virtue of war, courage, is only one of many virtues necessary for the proper functioning of the state. Indeed, even evil and mercenary types can gain glory in war, fighting only for the salary or plunder they will receive, and not for the civic virtue that the lawgiver has venerated. The lawgiver and the poet, in honoring the soldier, honor him as part of the state, but not the core of the state. Thus, we must speak of the lawgiver “ὥσπερ τό τε ἀληθὲς οἶμαι καὶ τὸ δίκαιον ὑπέρ γε θείας διαλεγομένους λέγειν, οὐχ ὡς πρὸς ἀρετῆς τι μόριον, καὶ ταῦτα τὸ φαυλότατον, ἐτίθει βλέπων, ἀλλὰ πρὸς πᾶσαν ἀρετήν, καὶ κατ’ εἴδη ζητεῖν αὐτῶν τοὺς νόμους οὐδ’ ἅπερ οἱ τῶν νῦν εἴδη προτιθέμενοι ζητοῦσιν. οὗ γὰρ ἂν ἕκαστος ἐν χρείᾳ γίγνηται, τοῦτο ζητεῖ νῦν παραθέμενος, ὁ μὲν τὰ περὶ τῶν κλήρων καὶ ἐπικλήρων, ὁ δὲ τῆς αἰκίας πέρι, ἄλλοι δὲ ἄλλ’ ἄττα μυρία τοιαῦτα ἡμεῖς δέ φαμεν εἶναι τὸ περὶ” or “In this way, as what is true and the honorable to say when discussing a divine hero: that he placed the laws not looking only to the welfare of a certain part, and that the most lazy of them, but to the whole excellence, and according to classes created the laws themselves, but not according to those classes which the current propounders created [the laws].” NB: I am unsure what Plato/the Athenian means by the “current propounders.” Perhaps the poets, or the lawgivers, which he had just mentioned, or perhaps it is in reference to some political factions current in his city-state at the time.

Cold meetings at G-20

Hey gang, what’s up? World leaders meeting came to it’s logical end, so we can discuss that event. Seems that everything was as planned. Ukraine, sanctions, near East, China and koalas… And political rudeness. I know that Russian president isn’t in the stream of world love now, but rudeness is awkward – anyway. But we can’t decline that G-20 meeting was under his shadow. Just check your newspapers: Putin, Putin, rudeness, Putin and Obama, Putin and Merkel, Putin left G-20 before the end of the meeting, bla-bla-bla.

I have a couple of questions to all of you:

  1. What do you think about G-20 meeting? What can change in world after that?
  2. Do you think that political rudeness caused by lack of political will against strong Putin’s charisma and his ability to do as he want?

Welcome to the comments!

Matthew is backpacking through South Asia, and he’s a-blogging his thoughts

I’m an awful editor. And an even worse human being (just ask my ex-girlfriends). I had come across Matthew‘s travel blog awhile back, via Facebook, but had forgotten to provide a link here on NOL.

So, without further adieu, I present to you the Rickshaw Diaries.

PS: Seals have been raping penguins in Antarctica. Or something like that.

Florentine Liberty II: Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all, but Guicciardini seems more concerned with the danger of French domination.

The Florentine politics of the time goes through a series of shifts between secular republic, religious republic, and Medici dominated principality, which Machiavelli also participated in and commented on in writing. Indeed Guicciaridini and Machiavelli were friends, but their versions of republicanism were not identical. Machiavelli placed Rome first among the great republics of antiquity, with particular reference to the benefits of political competition, particularly between aristocracy and common people, for liberty and patriotic spirit.

Guicciardini also refers to Rome, but with less enthusiasm for the role of the common people and political conflict. He denies that the existence of two consuls sharing the supreme leadership role was evidence of a wish to stimulate political competition, but instead argues that it was a practical adoption to war time so that one consul could direct armies in the field while the other directed government business back in Rome. It was a not a scheme to limit individual power and any political competition between the two consuls was an unexpected and undesirable outcome, weakening rather than strengthening the republic. He applied a similar analysis to the double kings of ancient Sparta, who had a largely military role.

Guicciardini refers briefly but significantly to Plato indicating his preference for an ideal of order over an ideal of competition, for rational hierarchy over plebeian street politics. He does not follow anything like the strict enforcement of virtue and rule of the ‘wise’ advocated by Plato, but evidently finds that a preferable orientation to the liberty to challenge existing order. The detail Guicciardini provides of Florentine political history shows a drama of constant change and challenge, disorder and revolution, which might confirm Plato’s fears of democratic liberty, but also suggest the difficulties of applying Plato’s ideals to reality, particularly in a commercial world with a growing civil society.

Accordingly Guicciarini’s main source of inspiration was the Republic of Venice, which already had a history stretching back to the eighth century, and with claims to have its origins in Roman antiquity, in rather legendary stories of refugees from barbarian invasion seeking sanctuary in the marshes of that area. Venice was to survive as a  republic until 1797, when it was abolished by Napoleon. At its peak its territory stretched well down the Balkan coast of the Adriatic and was a major, if not the major naval and trading power in the eastern Mediterranean, so it did serve as a modern example of a powerful republic and the possibility of republican government in a largely monarchical world.

Another advantage of Venice from Guicciardini’s point of view was that it was a definitely aristocratic rather than democratic republic. There was an elective prince for life, the Doge, appointed by the aristocratic citizens of the city and ruling in cooperation with aristocratic councils. Fifteenth century scholars in Italy suggested that the constitution of Venice corresponded with Plato’s vision of a republic in the Laws, largely based on Sparta (where power was focused on the thirty man gerousia and five ephors rather than the citizens’ assembly itself based on a very restrictive definition of citizenship. This is Plato’s vision of a state that might exist in reality as opposed to the philosophical ideal proposed in the Republic. The great merchant and commercial wealth of Venice would have been disturbing for the Spartans and for Plato though, providing another example of the limits as well as real relevance of ancient republics for the modern world.

So Guicciardini is less ‘Florentine-Roman’ (democratic) and more Venetian-Spartan (aristocratic) than Machiavelli, but nevertheless he accepts that the poor have to be given some role in politics and that even if the poor are outside political citizenship at times, once a crisis brings them into politics it is very difficult to reverse that situation. The solution for Guicciardini is to allow the poor citizenship and some rights, in city assemblies, while excluding them from the highest offices of state. The high offices should be reserved to the aristocracy, with the highest offices to be held on a long-term, possibly even lifetime basis. The concern is to provide more stability and civic strength than Guicciardini believes is possible from the political activities of the poorly educated and unpropertied masses.

Guicciardini’s belief in liberty through the dominance of a responsible republic elite anticipates later ideas of thinking about liberty on the basis of conservative institutions for preserving order and property as preferable to democratic institutions and political contestation. Any thought about liberty is likely to have some element of this, some ideas about institutionalising property rights and legal stability, against the dangers of irresponsible temporary majorities. Whether a complete dominance of such institutions, with the risk of undermining them through overburdening them, is desirable or practicable is a matter of debate. Machiavelli and Guicciardini present a compelling classic Florentine compare and contrast on such issues.

Myths about Islam’s founder (Mohammed, Muhammad, tomato, tomato)

I’ve been slowly reading through Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples and one of the things that has stood out to me is the fact that Muhammad was not a “war chief.” The War Chief Thesis is nothing more than a vulgar urban myth perpetuated by the ignorant or the nefarious.

Muhammad was a merchant and used his influence as a con man – oops! I mean religious leader – to become a trusted arbitrator. The military expansion of Arab factions happened decades after Muhammad’s death.

Most American conservatives aren’t exactly known for their grasp of history, but some should know better than to deliberately spread false rumors about the origins of the Islamic caliphate. What sounds easier to produce, though, if your end goal is the permanent presence of a militarized police force in the Middle East?:

  • A false narrative claiming that Islam is inherently violent and expansionist
  • An honest narrative explaining that the Islamic caliphate of the Middle East (which ended up being dominated by Turks, not Arabs) was a complex unfolding that involved lots of factors, most of which were non-religious and some of which are still misunderstood or overlooked today

If you think I am strawmanning the argument in favor of a Western police force in the Middle East, think again.

Given that the case for an overseas police force is so shoddy, why do its opponents (including myself) have no clout whatsoever in terms of influencing outcomes? I think part of this answer is that many opponents of an overseas police force are just as bad at producing false narratives as the proponents of empire, but there has to be more to it than this.

Dr van de Haar’s new book is now available online

You can check it out at amazon here, and the official release date is in April 2015. It’s called Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology. I haven’t read it yet (maybe he’ll send me a free copy!), but you can get a flavor of his thinking by starting here (and his bio is here, by the way). His book can also be found on the sidebar.

I’m sure he’ll be adding some more insights into the book here at NOL when he gets a bit more free time on his hands.


EDIT: Updated to mention the official release date.