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Simply Service

History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empireby Edward Gibbon, presents an alternating image of the Roman military.  At times, it’s the savior of the empire; at times, it’s the cause of its downfall.  At times, it’s the only institution carrying forward the essence of the people; at times, it aligns with foreign forces.  At times, one gets the impression that the Roman soldiers were driven centrally by a sense of honor; at times, the impression is more of a collection of mercenaries.

As is the way with history, these changes were both causes and effects — amplifying the direction that the circumstances, the enemies, or the emperor dictated while also changing the course of history.  How differently the people must have looked at soldiers in each of those epochs.

Over the course of my life, the United States has treated its military personnel with a complicated, often contradictory, presentation.  In the times of the old movies, the nation was all but uniformly convinced of the honor of such service.  After the ’60s, and with Vietnam, we experienced a flip.  Rather, we experienced a division, with one part of the culture flipping to present military service as inherently suspect and the military condemnable as an institution.

At the same time, both sides of that division focused more on personalities and archetypes, or at least that is how it has seemed.  If the portrayal is one of villainy, the characters are villains; if it is one of honor, such is invested in the personage of demigods, often performing superhuman feats.

What we need in our time is a sense of the honorable hero defined simply by service, holding the lines and traditions in a way somewhat better than we arguably deserve.  What we need even more is for those heroes to be honored by more than a day — but rather by a history-changing imitation.

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Paths of Injustice

This week, my ongoing efforts to be better cultured landed Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory on my television.

The generals in the French army order a regiment to take a German fortification during the First World War.  It’s an impossible command, and the attack fails, with large segments of the force pinned down such that to charge is to die instantly.  The general in immediate command demands a show trial and execution of three randomly chosen soldiers as an example to the others, and their colonel asks to represent them as their defense.

The officers conducting the court martial hearing give Colonel Dax no chance.  They treat one soldier’s medals and proven bravery as no defense against the charge of cowardice in this case.  Another soldier’s testimony that he didn’t charge because he had been knocked unconscious by, and pinned under, a falling dead body is insufficient to overcome rank speculation that he could be lying and could have inflicted a serious head injury on himself after the fact.

Kubrick subtly interweaves the very human tendency of the generals to rationalize their acceptance of injustice because they had conflated their own interests with the good of the  military and the country.  In his closing argument, Colonel Dax expresses shame at being a member of the human race:  “The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice.”

Watching that scene, I wondered how it is that we have not all been acculturated against such behavior.  (Unfairness in state and local politics were in my thoughts.)  But then my mind separated the themes of the movie and its imagery.  The court martial consisted of a group of white men in military costumes before a national flag in a large room at Schleissheim Palace.  One can’t deny that our society has been well trained to see injustice in such settings and with such characters as that.

We too easily lose sight of the reality that the particular cause in whose name human beings treat each other unjustly is not ideological or demographic.  Not only traditional authority types are wicked or prone to rationalizing harm to others.  Any one of us can fall into the same role.

Insisting in the name of identity politics or intersectionality that only certain types of people can be inhumane is a dangerous mistake that our civilization seems at risk of making.

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“Publick Occurrences” – The Fundamentals: Patriotism & Faith

As part of the recent Providence Journal sponsored “Publick Occurrences” panel discussion at RI College, I’d like to share some thoughts I prepared, but did not have the chance to put forth. The event’s premise – “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?” and the polarization of public discourse – leaves us two factors to consider:

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On This Day in Old Rhode Island

Gail Heriot gives Rhode Island history some national attention today:

On this day in 1776, Rhode Island (officially the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) renounced its allegiance to George III—a full two months before the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. For such a little squirt, Rhode Island was fiercely independent. It refused to send a delegation to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and for a long time refused to ratify the Constitution the Convention produced. Finally, after the Constitution was up and running, President Washington was inaugurated, and the 1st Congress was assembled, Rhode Island was reminded that if it isn’t part of the United States and America, then it’s a foreign country. If it’s a foreign country, then tariffs can (and likely will) be imposed. Meanwhile, Congress passed the Bill of Rights, which reduced some of the concerns of Rhode Island citizens. Rhode Island decided to be “in.”

As a naturalized Rhode Islander (so to speak), I find myself wondering… what happened to our state?  How did that independent spirit become a willingness to follow and to give other centralized power of us?

Or maybe there’s more consistency than that read would suggest.  What if underlying that old cantankerousness was really just an attempt of the insiders of the day to make sure that folks in other states couldn’t meddle with their “I got mine” arrangements.

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Benighted in the Enlightenment

Taking recent celebration of the Enlightenment as a cue, Yoram Hazony lays out some of the flaws and consequences from an overly zealous promotion of reason as a guide and source of meaning:

For Kant, reason is universal, infallible and a priori—meaning independent of experience. As far as reason is concerned, there is one eternally valid, unassailably correct answer to every question in science, morality and politics. Man is rational only to the extent that he recognizes this and spends his time trying to arrive at that one correct answer.

This astonishing arrogance is based on a powerful idea: that mathematics can produce universal truths by beginning with self-evident premises—or, as Rene Descartes had put it, “clear and distinct ideas”—and then proceeding by means of infallible deductions to what Kant called “apodictic certainty.” Since this method worked in mathematics, Descartes had insisted, it could be applied to all other disciplines. The idea was subsequently taken up and refined by Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as Kant.

In the popular imagination, the Enlightenment was a sort of stage in intellectual evolution.  To the contrary, Hazony suggests that the driving theories of the Enlightenment weren’t so much unknown prior to that era, but repeatedly rejected because of the obvious dangers.  The breakdown of the family, the lonely solipsism of the modern age, the devastation of secular ideologies over the past couple centuries — these and more grew out of the essentially mystical notion that individuals could tap into some fount of reason.  Gone is the wisdom of the ages and any cultural mechanism for learning and remembering truths that the average Joe or Jane would not bother or be able to conceive after some time with hand on chin.

The “aim” of Enlightenment figures “was to create their own system of universal, certain truths, and in that pursuit they were as rigid as the most dogmatic medievals.”  Like other areas from which human beings strive to derive meaning — such as government and capitalism — reason is really just a tool.  Meaning must come from elsewhere… and will, for better or worse.

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The 1984 Version of #LoveWins

It’s difficult to believe that this isn’t fake, but Rod Dreher tends to be reliable, so there you go:

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Yeah, yeah, there are something like 30,000 public high schools in the United States, each open for something like 36 weeks of the year, so a single flier in Atlanta, Georgia, can’t be taken as representative, even if this isn’t a joke or a prank.  But my how this jibes with the sense of progressives’ definition for “tolerance,” reminding me of my parody song, “Shout Down the Hate.”

If it is a joke, by the way, it’s awfully elaborate, involving (apparently) the school’s parent, teacher, and student association, which writes on its Facebook page:

Instead of demonizing and demoralizing students for their desire to protect themselves and bring some sanity to the wild west of America’s gun laws, how about harnessing that incredible energy? Grady High School in Atlanta is doing it.

Yup.  “Harnessing that incredible energy,” because (as the flier says) “individually we are different; together we are Grady!”  (Is that anything like being Negan?)

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The One Percent… and All the Rest

Clearly, Michael Morse had his tongue in his cheek while writing his recent op-ed thanking the one percent — by which he meant humanity’s innovators:

I like nothing more than to envision myself the great survivor — a person for the ages, one who leads, invents and survives. Truth be told, without the 1 percent who actually do invent, I would be living in a dilapidated lean-to, or worse, I would be skinny as a rail because I have never hunted or killed anything on purpose, don’t know an edible mushroom from a magic one, and probably would be relegated to eating bugs and pine needles. As for leading, my guess is I would lead myself to ruin as soon as I figured out how to ferment wild grapes and berries.

As Morse cleverly implies (and one can’t help but think it’s intentional), the luxury of modern life isn’t only made possible by those few innovators.  Somebody has had to make the products and provide the services that create our luxury, and somebody else has had to provide the products and services that they needed.  And of course, somebody has had to pull together the corporate and (yes) government structures to enable the work, and others have had to provide the investments and take the risks to make it all a reality.

Society is a cooperative endeavor, for which we all ought to be perpetually in mutual gratitude.  How different things would be if we would carry that attitude in defiance of those who dice us into identity and interest groups in order to play us against each other for their own reward of wealth and power.

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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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