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July 29, 2010

Can we all agree to be honest about the constitution?

Filed under: State,U.S.A — rmangum @ 7:04 pm
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I recently unsubscribed to the Cato Institute’s daily podcast. I’ve never been a big fan of Cato’s Right-Opportunist, Fabian approach to libertarianism, but there is a dearth of libertarian podcasts that analyze what’s going on inside the beltway (except when it comes to foreign policy, where Scott Horton’s Antiwar Radio will have a monopoly on the market for a long time). The main reason I stopped listening was one particular episode which featured a nameless wonk defending Obama’s use of CIA-directed drone attacks in Pakistan. I nearly broke my iPod. But a secondary reason was that seemingly more than half the episodes since I started listening were about issues related to the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the Constitution. This is to be expected, since this year has so far seen a lot of activity there: the Kagan nomination and important (as far as those things go) decisions on the second amendment and corporate money/free speech (take your pick). I became impatient with Cato’s relatively conservative take on the court, but what finally hit me was how boring I found the whole thing, especially compared with the daily exposure of the truly malevolent shit our government has been up to in the War on Terror. I finally had to admit to myself what I already pretty much knew: I do not care about the Constitution. At best it’s a thin, soft sheath over a vast iron truncheon. I do not care that most people don’t know that torture is unconstitutional, but I am horrified that they approve of its use, and I am unconvinced that correcting the former problem would help with the latter.

The Constitution in American political discourse is usually just a veil for other concerns and interests. Conservatives are most likely to identify as “Constitutionalists” who want to interpret the document “strictly” and according to its “original intent” (an analogy here to the fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic is probably quite apropos), but they do so because they think- rightly in many cases, wrongly in others- that the Constitution conforms to their conservative vision of America. But that doesn’t stop them from disregarding it during wartime (which in our lifetimes means all the time). Libertarians are often highly supportive of the constitution, but really would probably love to scrap everything except the Bill of Rights (addenda forced upon the document by the naysayers in the first place), and if they could design a machine to automatically protect against rights-aggressions they would do so in a heartbeat. Liberals should probably just come out and say they wish for the abolition of the second amendment.

Now I’ve just been going through the archives of the Journal of Libertarian Studies and come across historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s review of Thomas Woods’ (now of Meltdown fame) Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Hummel is quite rightly critical of the book- which I read when it first came out- from its asinine packaging and marketing (admittedly the publisher’s fault and not Tom’s), its glib style, and the barely held-together tension between libertarian, conservative, and neo-confederate sympathies. But most of all Hummel takes Woods to task for his “constitutional fetishism,” a feature far more appropriate to a conservative than a libertarian, even a conservative libertarian. He wonders why a libertarian ought to care about constitutionality per se, since,

The Constitution, rather than representing the culmination of the American Revolution, embodied in fact a reactionary counterrevolution, designed to reverse many of the previous victories of Liberty over Power.

This was precisely the position of Woods’ avowed mentor, Murray Rothbard, who always preferred the Articles of Confederation. The most charitable reading I can give Woods’ book is that he’s trying to win traditionalist conservatives over to a more libertarian position, but the book so effectively muddies the libertarian message that traditionalist conservatives are more likely to think that their position already is libertarian (or, vice versa, that libertarians are or ought to be traditionalist conservatives).

Then Hummel goes on to write probably the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read about the Constitution, with implications far beyond the libertarian political culture:

In the final analysis, there is no absolutely correct interpretation of the Constitution. From the outset, it was a political document, deliberately ambiguous in some clauses to ease its ratification, and contested right from the Philadelphia starting gate in 1787. Since then, competing theories about applying the Constitution have vied for political supremacy. American politicians have invariably embraced whatever constitutional theory fits their policy predilections. Over the two centuries and more the Constitution has been in force, only a mere handful of intellectually consistent statesmen has ever publicly concluded that government activities they favored for other reasons were proscribed under the Constitution. And I include among politicians all judges, because the courts have always been as politicized as the other branches.

An intriguing question is whether American political life could continue in good faith if we all admitted these facts.

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July 14, 2010

R.I.P. Harvey Pekar

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 10:22 am

Harvey Pekar died yesterday at his home in Cleveland. He was 70 years old, and those who have been following his career, or at least saw the movie based on his life, American Splendor, knew that he was diagnosed with cancer years ago. However, it is not yet clear which of his many health problems finally got to him.

Pekar was a fine writer, though largely ignored because he happened to write for the comic-book medium. I first heard of Pekar through his association with his friend and occasional illustrator, the underground comics superstar Robert Crumb. But Pekar’s work could not be more different than Crumb’s surrealistic style. More than anyone else, he showed that the comics can be a subtle yet powerful vehicle for realistic, human stories.

July 4, 2010

Anarchism and Patriotism

Filed under: Anarchy,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 1:03 pm
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Last night I did what I suppose what millions of Americans do for fourth of July: I watched a fireworks show at a local park. I was the designated driver for the evening, and I suppose not being drunk for the occasion had a certain detrimental effect on my enjoyment of the proceedings. I like hot summer evenings, outdoor grilling, and fireworks as much as the next guy, but I do not know what they have to do with America, or freedom, or anything other than a good time and a day off from work. I suppose fireworks are meant to remind us of “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and other such warlike imagery which, we are taught from a young age, are central to our national sentiment. One thing I don’t like is the flyovers by fighter jets and bombers which accompany the show. These remind me that the military is everywhere. They give me a tight feeling in my chest, an anxiety that is the opposite of a feeling of freedom.

Patriotism, even the kind which recognizes a difference between State and Nation, is usually anathema to anarchists (Emma Goldman, for instance), but I don’t think this need be the case. I’d like to quote extensively from an essay by the great English writer G.K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism.” He considered himself a true patriot and was indignant that patriotism was becoming identified in his country with the warlike spirit, or what he calls a “deaf and raucous jingoism.” His words can be neatly transposed to our own country’s situation as well:

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

. . .

We have to ask, then, Why is it that this recent movement in England, which has honestly appeared to many a renascence of patriotism, seems to us to have none of the marks of patriotism–at least, of patriotism in its highest form? . . . We are, as a nation, in the truly extraordinary condition of not knowing our own merits. We have played a great and splendid part in the history of universal thought and sentiment; we have been among the foremost in that eternal and bloodless battle in which the blows do not slay, but create. In painting and music we are inferior to many other nations; but in literature, science, philosophy, and political eloquence, if history be taken as a whole, we can hold our own with any. But all this vast heritage of intellectual glory is kept from our schoolboys like a heresy; and they are left to live and die in the dull and infantile type of patriotism which they learnt from a box of tin soldiers. There is no harm in the box of tin soldiers; we do not expect children to be equally delighted with a beautiful box of tin philanthropists. But there is great harm in the fact that the subtler and more civilized honour of England is not presented so as to keep pace with the expanding mind. A French boy is taught the glory of Moliere as well as that of Turenne; a German boy is taught his own great national philosophy before he learns the philosophy of antiquity. The result is that, though French patriotism is often crazy and boastful, though German patriotism is often isolated and pedantic, they are neither of them merely dull, common, and brutal, as is so often the strange fate of the nation of Bacon and Locke. It is natural enough, and even righteous enough, under the circumstances. An Englishman must love England for something; consequently, he tends to exalt commerce or prize-fighting, just as a German might tend to exalt music, or a Flamand to exalt painting, because he really believes it is the chief merit of his fatherland. It would not be in the least extraordinary if a claim of eating up provinces and pulling down princes were the chief boast of a Zulu. The extraordinary thing is, that it is the chief boast of a people who have Shakespeare, Newton, Burke, and Darwin to boast of.

America cannot look back on a long and deep tradition of high culture and intellectual distinction (though we have recently produced some of the finest world literature, from Whitman and Dickinson to Faulkner and Stevens), as England and the European nations can. But it has a far more glorious tradition of libertarianism, and it is this tradition which is forgotten, largely by the design of our education.  It is therefore a shame that the nation of Jefferson and Paine, of the Whiskey Rebellion and the spirit of ’76, of a long long train of religious dissidents and individualist anarchists, has as its best avatar of the soul Dick Cheney.

I recommend as devotional readings for the anarchist patriot the following: “Anarchism and American Traditions” by Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Origins of Individualist Anarchism in America,” and “Was the American Revolution Radical?” (an audio excerpt from the multi-volume history Conceived in Liberty) by Murray N. Rothbard.

P.S.- I was looking for some American flag pictures to accompany this post, but I found it too stomach-turning. Enough with the damn flag already. The less American citizens care about actual freedom or any of the worthwhile traditions of this country (like say, the Bill of Rights), the more they care about worthless symbols like the flag. I am reminded of a witty aside by literary critic Harold Bloom in one of his best books, The American Religion: “Creationism, I am now convinced, is only secondarily directed against the ghost of Charles Darwin. It is directed instead against all those who might deny that the Bible is a vast solid object, like a cliff or a First Baptist Church in a Texas city.” Similarly, American patriotism, 99 times out of a hundred, is only secondarily directed against those who hate America. It is instead a fierce defense of the American flag as a concrete object as it waves in arrogant victory over the cowed foreigner and the awestruck citizen, its stripes licking the sky like tongues of flame, its stars seeming like an explosion of sparks, the kind often seen when one has been punched squarely in the nose.

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