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Semantics on the History of Ideology

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Leonardo’s Eye in Modern Times

Walter Isaacson’s musings on the interests and methods of Leonardo da Vinci in the Wall Street Journal give the impression that da Vinci’s style might be difficult to replicate in modern times:

Leonardo knew that true observation requires not only the discipline of looking very closely at something but also the patience to process observations and patterns. While painting “The Last Supper,” he would sometimes stare at the work for an hour, finally make one small stroke, and then leave. He told the duke of Milan that creativity requires time and patience. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” he explained, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”

To be sure, such a mindset has always been easier for those of means and those with fewer other responsibilities.  It seems self evident, however, that an era in which entertainment was sparse and labor and living generally were more tedious, the mind had more opportunity to wander.  Of course, nothing stops us, these days, from taking the time to observe and think, but there are so many distractions.

Isaacson goes in a different direction, toward professional focus:

Today we live in a world that encourages specialization, whether we are students, scholars, workers or professionals. We also tend to exalt training in technology and engineering, believing that the jobs of the future will go to those who can code and build rather than those who can be creative.

About this point, I’m not so sure.  After all, we are talking about Leonardo da Vinci, a singular man in history, and there are surely plenty of people with the inclination and smarts to pursue diverse interests.  Perhaps the bigger challenge is that “Leonardo’s passion was to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known” was a more feasible goal in his day.  There is so much more to know, these days; da Vinci’s waves of brilliance more readily crashed against the rocks of the unknown.

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Being Colonized by Our Betters

This pair of paragraphs from Rod Dreher on The American Conservative invites an interesting analysis of the nature of our country’s political and social division:

Starting in the 1960s, writes [political scientist Samuel] Huntington, “deconstructionists” of national identity encouraged “individuals were defined by their group membership, not common nationality.” Pushing identity politics was a time-tested strategy for colonialist regimes, for the sake of dividing and conquering subject peoples. But the governments of nation-states instead focused on uniting their disparate peoples. (Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement was about compelling the white majority to extend the promises of the Constitution and the Creed to black Americans — in other words, to fully unite them to the whole.)

Huntington says that this did not start from below, but was imposed from the top, by American political, legal, and cultural elites. He writes, “These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

In essence, our elites are colonizing us.  If that’s unique, it’s because the American project was unique.  Our would-be aristocracy has just taken some time to find the right formula, for government to grow, and for technology to advance.  The aristocrats have developed as a subculture, isolated and different from the masses of Americans, even if they didn’t have to travel an ocean to get to us.

This development is not without its irony.  During the reign of President Obama, some observers (notably Dinesh D’Sousa) characterized the president’s ideology largely in terms of its anti-colonialism.  One might fairly opine that the anti-colonialism of the leftist likes of Obama is superficial; the notion of colonizing per se isn’t what offends them, but rather that Western civilization did the colonizing.

This antipathy isn’t principled or genuine, as the pop-culture-loving, golf-playing Obama proved, but simply forms the basis for a rationalization to deprive others of their rights and to undermine the greatest country in human history for their own personal aggrandizement and advantage.

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The Transformation of Vermont

Take it as a warning or as an illustration of opportunity, but Rick Holmes’s history, in the Fall River Herald, of Vermont’s political transformation is a worthwhile read.

Basically, the interstate highway system brought “flatlanders” to the state for foliage viewing, skiing, and indulgence in a hippy aesthetic.  By the time the indigenous conservatives tried to push back, it was too late:

“The hippies won,” says John Gregg, a Vermont journalist whose office is a short walk from the Connecticut River. In a small enough place, the influx of new citizens, even in modest numbers, can change a state’s political trajectory.

Rhode Island is different, of course.  Our population is a bit bigger, and the particular flavor of progressivism isn’t hippy socialism as much as insider socialism.  An historically different flavor of immigration brought with it a little more cultural conservatism and a little bit less libertarianism.  Moreover, the “influx of new citizens” affecting Rhode Island isn’t the migration of relatively privileged progressives, but rather the deliberately lured clients for the company state/government plantation.

These differences bring with them unique challenges, but in both places it’s too late for an ordinary political campaign to change things.  Instead, we have to change the local culture, which is no easy task when the people who see the right way forward tend just to leave.

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A Reminder for Faith in Our Times

Baylor University history professor Thomas Kidd recently offered a useful reminder of the perspective of Benjamin Franklin, which would be timely for us to consider these days, as a society.  Writing about Franklin’s respect for, but personal ambivalence toward, religion, Kidd goes on:

Then came the Revolutionary War. Its weight, along with the shock of victory and independence, made Franklin think that God, in some mysterious way, must be moving in American history. “The longer I live,” he told the delegates in Philadelphia, “the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth, That God governs in the affairs of men.”

He repeatedly cited verses from the Bible to make his case, quoting Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Without God’s aid, Franklin contended, the Founding Fathers would “succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel.” At the Revolutionary War’s outset, as he reminded delegates, they had prayed daily, often in that same Philadelphia hall, for divine protection. “And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?”

My own understanding of how this all works is, in essence, that “God governs in the affairs of men” through our decision to follow Him.  He wouldn’t look upon the Constitutional Convention and say, “Well, fine. If you’re not going to pray, I’ll turn my back on you.”  Rather, the decision to pray or not affected whether the delegates were of unified mind in the direction of goodness, which is God’s hallmark.

The United States has done a great deal of good in the world, albeit with a great deal of darkness mixed in, too.  How things might have gone differently for our country and the world had the Constitutional Convention prayed, we cannot know, but we should take as a warning Franklin’s handwritten astonishment that his fellow delegates “thought Prayers unnecessary!”

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Venezuela Continues Down the Predictable Path of Socialism

In June, I noted how familiar and predictable Venezuela’s deterioration has been, citing Manzoni’s classic novel The Betrothed.  Seventeenth Century government meddling in the Italian economy created starvation-level problems, and naturally, the government looked for scapegoats.

Venezuela has continued along this predictable path.  As Jim Wyss reports in the Miami Herald:

Facing a bread shortage that is spawning massive lines and souring the national mood, the Venezuelan government is responding this week by detaining bakers and seizing establishments.

In a press release, the National Superintendent for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights said it had charged four people and temporarily seized two bakeries as the socialist administration accused bakers of being part of a broad “economic war” aimed at destabilizing the country.

Yeah… detain bakers and seize their establishments.  That’ll fix the bread shortage!

Watch this short Ami Horowitz report from Venezuela for more Manzoni parallel’s, particularly the part about how the powerful insiders continue to do just fine.  Please, please, folks, could we start learning from history and ignoring those whose main purpose is to deceive us into giving them more money?

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Walking the Narrow Path of Faith

Beginning with mugshot photographs of Russian Christians about to be murdered by the Soviets, John Burgess ponders what freedom means for Christians. He includes some good perspective for believers (Christian and otherwise) who fear the direction our society is headed:

The blessings of relative peace, prosperity, and humane governance in the modern West may further encourage us to think of freedom as the ability or right to fulfill our physical and emotional desires. Yet these desires, in fact, mostly control us. While we may believe that we have freely chosen to pursue what we imagine to be personal well-being and happiness, we are, in fact, driven by pride and sloth. …

Strengthened by spiritual practices and transformed by divine worship, the pure in heart attain spiritual freedom: the freedom to resist powers of evil and to live for God by worshipping him alone.

Indeed, with that as our goal, living in times of comfort can be more challenging:

Over the centuries, Christians have often recognized that they are more apt to discover spiritual freedom under conditions of persecution than when they are afforded toleration. When the Church is socially acceptable and when religious affiliation is more a matter of custom than faith, those who call themselves Christians are easily tempted to sell their inheritance of spiritual freedom for the pottage of social privilege and material wealth. This temptation is, perhaps, also ours in America today. A legally guaranteed right to religious freedom may too easily be mistaken for true Christian freedom.

And the key point:

Recognizing that human faith is feeble, Christians over the centuries have generally concluded that they should not seek persecution, even though we should be prepared to accept it.

Persecution, that is, is something neither seek nor avoid. In other words, neither persecution nor comfort should be the basic foundation of our decisions.  We are charged to move toward God, being neither distracted by the attractions of comfort nor intimidated by the promise of pain and difficulty.

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Roger Williams Exhibit Drifting from Its Mission

Such developments as this too often go unchallenged:

Hoping to avoid boring visitors with “the life of a dead guy,” staff of the Roger Williams National Memorial Visitors Center presented a new exhibit Saturday that brought the political leader’s provocative viewpoints into the 21st century.

The exhibit, “New and Dangerous Opinions,” is the center’s first new show in more than 20 years. It draws parallels between Williams’ exile from Massachusetts and modern struggles for equality, seen with the refugee crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement.

If the goal isn’t to maintain awareness about an important “dead guy” and the details of his life, why are we funding it?  Moreover, looking for modern parallels will inevitably turn the exhibit into political propaganda to advance a particular viewpoint and should not be maintained with taxpayer dollars.

One suspects, for example, that the “refugee crisis” is presented in a decidedly left-wing way and that the celebration of the Black Lives Matter movement is not accompanied by any parallel that isn’t encompassed by the progressive, Democrat-helping narrative.  One suspects, for example, that such an exhibit would never lead visitors to see a similarity between Roger Williams’s exile to Rhode Island and Christian small-businesses’ inability to decide what projects they will take for moral reasons.

Again, if taxpayers aren’t funding straightforward maintenance of historical artifacts, then the programs ought to be ended and the money returned to the people.  Let the exhibit designers find some other way to advance the progressive cause and the destruction of Western civilization that isn’t funded with money confiscated from people who’d rather keep it.

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Wisdom from the Bishop’s Mother

Bishop Thomas Tobin shared this memorable moment in a recent iteration of his regular column in The Rhode Island Catholic:

One year, when I was living in Youngstown, I went home for my weekly visit to mom just before Christmas and she asked me to take a tray of her prized cookies across the street to our neighbors. Of course I was happy to comply.

So, I grabbed the tray, put it under my arm like a football, and started out the door. “Wait,” she said, “hold it upright or you’ll crush the cookies.” And then I said something I still remember and regret: “It doesn’t really matter, they’re just cookies.” And she leveled me with this, her voice as stern as I ever heard it: “It matters to me; I made those cookies and I’m proud of them. Hold the tray straight!”

Boom! That’s how a mom corrects a fifty-year-old bishop, pulls him from his pedestal, and puts him in his place.

All that matters matters only because it matters to somebody.  That point is especially appropriate on Christmas Eve, as we await the celebration of God’s gift to us of His self and son.  A humble and humbling moment in a stable two millennia ago is still significant to us today because of to whom it mattered then and because of the millions to whom it has mattered since.

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Ignorance of Ourselves: The Lesson Never Learned

Reading Richard Ebeling’s brief summary of the economic misadventures of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-312 AD), the striking lesson is how stunningly we fail to learn the lessons of history, with Venezuela’s being a recent example:

Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff, a leading historian on the ancient Roman economy, offered this summary in his Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire(1926):

“The same expedient [a system of price and wage controls] have often been tried before him [Diocletian] and was often tried after him. As a temporary measure in a critical time, it might be of some use. As a general measure intended to last, it was certain to do great harm and to cause terrible bloodshed, without bringing any relief. Diocletian shared the pernicious belief of the ancient world in the omnipotence of the state, a belief which many modern theorists continue to share with him and with it.”

Finally, as, again, Ludwig von Mises concluded, the Roman Empire began to weaken and decay because it lacked the ideas and ideology that are necessary to build upon and safeguard a free and prosperous society: a philosophy of individual rights and free markets.

Ebeling details that there is much more to the error than simple price controls.  One underlying theme, however, of which we can’t lose sight is the hubris of the central planner.  As with quantitative easing, the planners don’t see themselves as flailing around looking for some solution.  They really think they’ve got a workable idea.  They aren’t entirely dismissive of the risks; they just think the risks are minimal.

And for the most part, the piece they’re missing is the likely response of the people.  Ebeling peppers his essay with descriptions of people’s reactions to Diocletian’s heavy-handed economic policies, and they all seem obvious.  We can guess, though, that they weren’t obvious to Diocletian.  If only he’d been able to imagine what he would do if he were in the position of his subjects.  If our own elites could do the same.

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The End Result of a Deliberate De-Education About Our Culture

Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen taps into an area of thinking that I’ve been spotting with more frequency.  To my observation that we have no excuse for repeating errors that have been known for millennia, Deneen might respond (emphasis in original):

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

During my lifetime, lamentation over student ignorance has been sounded by the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Mark Bauerlein and Jay Leno, among many others. But these lamentations have been leavened with the hope that appeal to our and their better angels might reverse the trend (that’s an allusion to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, by the way). E.D. Hirsch even worked up a self-help curriculum, a do-it yourself guide on how to become culturally literate, imbued with the can-do American spirit that cultural defenestration could be reversed by a good reading list in the appendix. Broadly missing is sufficient appreciation that this ignorance is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success.

To my suggestion that progressive government is setting up a sort of “company state” in which everything is ordered toward the business model of providing government services and making others pay for them, Deneen would add (emphasis added):

Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

Maybe his most important addition, however, is Deneen’s glimmer of hope:

On our best days, I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself.

That’s a difficult longing to fulfill.  As Plato noted all those centuries ago, people once deluded in such a way “deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth,” and powerful forces in our society will give them every opportunity and excuse not to evaluate their sense that something’s missing.

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