Sunday, September 25, 2016

G.K. Chesterton on the Wisdom of Fables and Fairy Tales

I recently stumbled across a very fine C.K. Chesterton introduction to a 1912 edition of Aesop’s Fables. With all his characteristic insight, Chesterton brings out the distinction between the wisdom of fables and the wisdom of fairy tales. Fables need animals to embody human types, strengths, and weaknesses. These animals and the roles they play are perfectly predictable. They cannot overcome their type, as it inheres in the very essence of what they are. Fairy tales, on the other hand, require not animals but humans. The characters there demonstrate not the littleness and predictability of a tragically limited human, but rather the heroic potential of human possibility.

Neither depiction of human nature is complete. Yet nor is some synthesis between the two necessarily desirable. Full of familiar contradiction, the two genres reflect the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of human character.
Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called "the revolt of a sheep" The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller's third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop's all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls. 
This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

"Fractured Republic" Reflections Part Three: The Benedict Option and the Melian Dialogue

This is part three of a three-part review of Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic. See also the introduction, part one, and part two of this review.

Yuval Levin concludes his discussion of culture in The Fractured Republic by invoking the so-called “Benedict Option.” Building off foundational philosophical work laid by Alasdair MacIntyre and popularized among contemporary traditionalist conservatives by Rod Dreher, the Benedict Option calls on conservatives to step back from the national culture wars and to focus instead on tending to their own gardens. By building strong, vibrant alternatives to the progressive mass culture, conservatives can preserve the permanent things of traditional social life while inviting others to join their thriving and (ironically) counter-cultural way of life.

A vigorous defender of subsidiarity, Levin is a natural ally for partisans of the Benedict Option. In his eloquent disquisition:
Conservatives should think about the preconditions for moral living in terms of building cohesive, attractive, moral subcultures in those mediating layers of society, rather than just struggling for control of the old institutions of a once-consolidated “mainstream” culture. It means focusing inward and close to home.
As he goes on to explain, cultural communities no longer begin from shared moral assumptions in our bifurcated society. The “solipsism of our age of individualism” has brought with it emancipation from the enabling constraints of traditional life, undermining institutions and practices that once served as common touchstones and bearers of shared meaning within an always-diverse populace. Given the intractable division within contemporary American society, Levin recommends we give up on finding “wholesale solutions” to govern our nation's increasingly disparate subcultures.
All sides in our culture wars would be wise to focus less attention than they have on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more on building thriving subcultures. For social conservatives mourning the loss of their dominant position in some of those core institutions, it is particularly important (and particularly difficult) to keep this imperative in mind.
Levin may well be right that it would be wise for all parties to withdraw from contesting the national culture. Yet herein lies what has always been my great frustration with the Benedict Option. The progressive left simply isn’t going to step back from waging the national culture war. They are winning. The spectacular decline of conservative cultural priorities on virtually every issue of consequence over the last several decades is stunning. As a friend of mine puts it, the Overton Window’s leftward drift has accelerated so dramatically, you can now see it move with the naked eye.

And yet all the great progressive victories have come despite the aggressive presence of organized, well-funded conservative campaigns to resist the left's cultural conquest. Imagine just how much faster cultural conservatism will collapse in the absence of such an organized, national political focus.

Levin recognizes this reality to some degree, and he notes that religious freedom, for example, can only be protected through a vigorous, offensive campaign to “keep open the space in which cultural conservatives might appeal to the larger society.” Yet the repeated insistence that conservatives concede the national culture reflects a failure to appreciate the enduring wisdom of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue: In war, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

In calling on conservatives to give up on the national culture while praying that the dominant cultural left will do the same, Levin asks conservatives to suffer far more than they must.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Against Usury

The following is adapted from a speech I gave at the Yale Political Union in the Spring of 2015 on the topic: Resolved, Nationalize Banks. Much of the speech was delivered in jest, though not all of it. 

Mr. Speaker, when oh when did the Chair of the Party of the Left become such a staunch apologist for the neo-liberal consensus?! If we are to believe the previous speaker, the choice before us is between a slightly more capitalistic, and slightly more socialistic economy. Our options on this telling are limited to blindly obeying the dictates of a morally insidious “invisible hand,” or sheepishly bowing to a cadre of Ivy-educated technocrats. Mr. Speaker, this is a false choice. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, both socialism and capitalism are so steeped in the filth of modern liberal ideology, that to defend either is to endorse a vision of human nature as perniciously absurd, as it is absurdly pernicious.

Mr. Speaker, impassioned debate over the proper division between commercial and investment banking and the optimal level of risk and leverage, is to ignore the central moral evil at the heart of our modern financial system. I speak of an evil so repugnant, that it has been roundly rejected by virtually every moral and religious tradition in the history of mankind. I speak of an evil condemned by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Cato, and by the great traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. I speak of course, of the moral outrage that is usury.

For millennia a dirty word, usury today has become an object of veneration. Economics courses across our morally and fiscally bankrupt nation preach the virtues of interest as the motivating force behind commercial and economic success. This has become a central plank in the unassailable dogma of the docile modern mind. Yet it remains manifestly obvious that an economic system built on usury—that is to say an economic system built on the wealthy taking advantage of the poor—is morally abhorrent.

“No!” some of our neo-liberal peers may reply. “Usury is not taking advantage of the poor; it is an economic institution that affects pareto optimal results!” So deep lies our indoctrination that we have grown blind even of self-evident moral facts. But to briefly state the argument, interest enables a wealthy lender in a position of utter domination to profit off of the labor and struggle of an impoverished man entirely at his disposal. It is to objectify labor and dehumanize the laborer. In its effort to transform private vice into public virtue, it eviscerates the moral bonds between neighbors any rightly constituted state exists to promote.

Mr. Speaker, the moral question at the heart of this resolution is does our banking system participate in evil. And Mr. Speaker, be it in the hands of a group of small, elite, wealthy oligarchs who work on Wall Street, or in the hands of a group of small, elite, wealthy oligarchs who work for the Federal Government, so long as our banking system participates in the usurious world of global finance, our shared wealth and prosperity will be a crime.

To be clear, I am arguing for nothing short of an utter rejection of the modern financial system. I am advocating for what might reasonably be described as a system of “neo-feudalism,” for a return to the pre-modern economy. To combat our fetishization of materiality, we must return to a more traditional and philosophically coherent understanding of “property” not simply as “private” or “public”, but as essentially corporate. We must undo the vicious divorce between persons and their proper social roles, and we must structure our economic system to strengthen, rather than undermine, communitarian wellbeing.

To overcome alienation, we must recognize that “private property” is a cancer in our culture. What wealth we have is necessarily held in common, not as measured by income redistribution or gini coefficients, but as measured by a proper understanding of the duties and trusts that hold our intertwined lives together.

Mr. Speaker, I do not have the time now to discourse at length on what a banking system in a properly constituted society would actually look like. But in brief, our best models lie not in the great socialist experiments of the 20th century, but in workers’ cooperatives and credit unions. We should look not to the failed acts of massive state empowerment, but to smaller yet far more impressive distributist successes, like that of the Mondragon cooperative in Spain. Simply shifting ownership of our irredeemable banking system from privately employed oligarchs to publicly employed oligarchs will do nothing to combat the true moral evil at the heart of our global economy.

Mr. Speaker, the state should not nationalize banking, the state should criminalize banking!

Friday, September 2, 2016

"Fractured Republic" Reflections Part Two: A Democratic Solution to a Democratic Problem

This is part two of a three-part review of Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic. See also the introduction and parts one and three of this review.

Yuval Levin reminds readers that political nostalgia for an era of midcentury national harmony rests on an unproductive impulse to restore a romanticized, imagined past. The underlying forces of social diffusion that have brought about the peculiar historical developments of the past century cannot be undone. And so, in a formulation inspired by James Madison’s famous closing words in Federalist 10, Levin argues that “we must seek diffusing, individualist remedies for the diseases most incident to a diffuse, individualist society.”

This prescription of democratic solutions for democratic problems again reflects Levin’s intellectual debt to Tocqueville’s masterful study of American democracy. But as I suggested in my previous post, I am skeptical that bolstering individual choice can effectively temper the excesses of an atomized democratic culture. Tocqueville too, I suspect, was far more pessimistic about democracy's capacity to regulate democracy than Levin may wish to believe.

To Levin, the “defining feature of twenty-first century America” is our contemporary “bifurcated concentration.” The forces of individualism dissolve mediating bonds across society, while cementing ever-more ossified and separate subcultures. In Levin’s words:
Individualism involves a corrosion of people’s sense of themselves as defined by a variety of strong affiliations and unchosen bonds and its replacement by a sense that all connections are matters of individual choice and preference. It breaks up clusters of people into more isolated individuals held together by more casual affinities and more utilitarian relationships—each bets understood in relation to the needs and wants of the individual.
Like Tocqueville, Levin takes this to be an inescapable development in a democratic social state. Against a long tradition in Western political thought, the two doubt the possibility of a mixed regime that combines aspects of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy to limit the political defects of each. In Tocqueville's words, "What is called mixed government has always seemed to me a chimera. ... in the end one discovers that in every society there is one principle of action that dominates the others." Instead, what is needed is the cultivation of essentially democratic institutions, which can nonetheless be used as if they were aristocratic in tempering the wilder temptations of the demos.

America's distinctive brand of Protestantism, for instance, plays a critical role in preserving freedom in American society. Tocqueville catalogs at length the harsh, invasive laws drawn from Leviticus which structure life in Puritan New England. Yet unlike in Europe (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter), religion in America does not derive its power from an external source of authority—an independent papacy, for example. Instead, laws enforcing stringent codes of religious morality are democratically voted on and ratified. Religion both limits and asserts democratic sovereignty.

Alongside religion, juries, voluntary associations, gender norms, and local townships all follow this basic pattern. Rather than checking democracy from outside, they build on democratic first principles to regulate American culture from within.

Such a culture of democratic self-regulation is Levin’s basic diagnosis for American society today. Gone are the days of a unified national culture. Rather than yearn for their return, we should invest in building an even more decentralized society. Individual choice is to be celebrated and expanded, rather than restrained in the interest of conformity and community. Our priority should be “to make the most of the narrowing circles of cohesion and reliance that we now tend to inhabit—not by constructing massive, centralized stores of authority, but by building smaller, decentralized networks of trust.”

But the self-segregation Levin extols is no substitute for community. Replacing unchosen bonds of obligation with custom-designed experiments in living may well deepen the ruthless atomization and the unrelenting worship of the gnostic self that plague contemporary life. A carefully chosen and curated set of Facebook group affiliations cannot compare with the rich, humane bonds of communal life. As Chesterton puts it in a masterful celebration of that which is given, not chosen:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.
Perhaps, then, what is needed is contradiction within our civic culture. Forthrightly aristocratic institutions—churches, universities, and the like—must regulate democracy not from within, but from without. To adequately check our worst impulses, they must derive their legitimacy precisely from their non-democratic roots. As the Tocqueville of Volume II of Democracy in America and later writings saw, we would do well to abandon our alchemical faith that democratic institutions alone can cure democratic ills.