When I think of the role of government, I think of three things that ought to be preserved, reformed, and enhanced by positive and energetic governmental or quasi-governmental action: the security of the state, the stability and order of society, and the prosperity of the economy. Government does not merely protect these things; it actively encourages them, either through direct action or through partnership with lower entities in society and the economy.
The first responsibilities of statecraft are the preservation of the state, through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic war; and the preservation of society, through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic revolution. Human society and states being organic and evolving entities, there is no single constellation of institutional arrangements that can preserve the state and society perpetually. Therefore constant reform, constant reorganization, constant vigilance and responsibility on the part of statesmen, is crucial for the maintenance of what stability and tradition can be maintained.
A society and state undergoing too much reform becomes radical, while a society and state undergoing too little reform becomes decadent. Wise statesmen must advance reform at the right pace, preserve tradition in the right degree, balance interests in the right order, and impose order with the right methods, in order to keep what is best of the state and society in a competitive, changing, and dangerous world.
Moreover, the state and society coexist and have always coexisted- there has never been a society not protected by some form of government, nor a government not sustained by some form of society. To privilege one over the other is a rationalist conceit that can lead only to excesses. For that matter, the economy has always existed too, though it is not quite so influential in the affairs of men as society and the state are.
All this is to suggest that, though the conditions of the state, society, and economy may and certainly do change with the tides and winds of history, the principles of human nature and the nature of politics stand with the stars and planets of the human soul. The ultimate objective of any truly empirical political science is not the discovery of the best form of society; it is rather the discovery of those axioms and maxims that best encapsulate the truths of human behavior in political settings across time and space. This, then, may be applied towards the devising of better systems of politics, administration, economy, society, and more. But it ought to go unspoken that before prescriptions can be made, the nature of the problem of politics ought to be understood- and thus political science ought to be geared first towards understanding, and then towards action.
The author, portraying Pontius Pilate at USC’s Live Stations of the Cross, April 14th, 2017.
Memoirs of Pilate, Memoirs of Mine
“On the Jewish holiday, anxious to preserve the peace of Rome, I tried a just and innocent man before a crowd of his own people. I found no fault with him; but had I let him live, the high-priests would surely have fomented rebellion, and many lives would be lost without reason.
I washed my hands of the blood I knew was on them, and uttered two words- “Crucify him“- as I sent him to die at Golgotha. I am not proud of my decision- but then, no one in public life can be proud of much. The peace of Rome was kept, for a time, and I had done my duty. I will not rest easy, but I will have the respite of knowing a greater crisis had been averted.”
So might Pontius Pilate, Procurator and Governor of Roman Judea, Servant of Tiberius Caesar, have written in his diary in 33 A.D.
Such thoughts flashed through my mind, too, on April 14th, 2017- Good Friday. I had dressed in a cheap toga, stood before the Tommy Trojan statue at the University of Southern California, and condemned a friend portraying Jesus to “death” as the extras jeered and chanted “crucify him!” I was portraying Pontius Pilate. It was the USC Catholic community’s annual Live Stations of the Cross performance, complete with cheap Halloween costumes, a full cast of principles and extras, and a makeshift wooden cross stained with syrup-blood. We walked the path of the cross from Tommy Trojan to the courtyard of the USC Catholic Center’s chapel, pausing after every act to read the Station and recite a prayer. The guards whipped and taunted Jesus the whole way, as did the crowd, while confused onlookers watched and snapped photos with their iPhones. And beneath the church bells we crucified our lord and savior. I crucified our lord and savior- it happened, in the play, at my orders. It was a powerful experience.
Being Pontius Pilate was a symbolic task for me. I study and write on politics, history, political theory, and a dozen other subfields- the art of the state and the study of human nature are my provinces. Further, I seek not only to understand this most fraught and relevant of subjects, but to practice it as a political operative, policy advisor, or public servant in some capacity someday. I already do practice politics, in a way- I’ve worked for various Republican campaigns in California. A friend laughed when I told him I’d been chosen to be Pontius Pilate- “They made you the politician? Of course they did!” It was fitting.
But it wasn’t fitting only because I study and work in politics and Pilate did too. There are other, deeper reasons. But first, a look at why Governor Pilate did what he did.
Killing Jesus to Save Rome
As I read up on Pontius Pilate and reflected on his choice, in the weeks before the 1,984th anniversary of the Crucifixion of our Lord, my childhood sympathies with the Procurator of Judea received a rational boost, and took firmer shape. Back on Ash Wednesday, 2016, the fantastic military/international affairs web magazine War on the Rocks published an interesting little piece entitled “Jesus as a Security Risk: Intelligence and Repression in the Roman Empire” by Rose Mary Sheldon. Looking at the events from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, 33 A.D., through the eyes of “a fictional [intelligence] chief of station in Jerusalem” who presumably advised the military governor Pontius Pilate on how to maintain security in the province, the piece paints a different picture of the Passion than most of us Christians consider. It looks sympathetically through the eyes of those Romans who made, and carried out, the decision to crucify Christ.
First off, as any ancient historian can affirm, Roman Judea under the reign of Tiberius- roughly corresponding to the time of Jesus’s ministry- was every bit as tumultuous and bloody a place as any conflict zone in the Middle East in the 21st Century, complete with foreign powers striving for influence and dominion, local insurgencies fighting for various messianic or less-than-messianic objectives, and a tenuous peace maintained only by the balancing of forces and the strict disciplining of dissent.
Second, Governor Pilate and other Roman authorities routinely dealt with such dissent with overpowering and often absolutely brutal force. Ms. Sheldon cites the Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions that dozens of men claiming to be the “Messiah” had been assassinated or executed by Pontius Pilate and other Romans, for spearheading popular uprisings. Timothy B. Shutt, in one of his phenomenal lectures on the origins of Western political thought, notes the historian Philo’s contention that after one such Jewish revolt, several hundred dissenters were crucified at once, so much that all the trees for miles around were harvested for cross-beams, leaving behind a decimated landscape. There are even hints of this regional chaos in the Gospels- note that John refers to Barabbas as a “revolutionary,” and while history remembers the two men crucified at Jesus’s right and left as “thieves,” Matthew refers to them as “revolutionaries.” Looking at the historical context, it’s not hard to guess what crimes these three had been guilty of- quite possibly crimes against the Roman state governing their lands.
It doesn’t take a leap of faith to go from this situation, to the notion that Jesus himself was such a revolutionary with the same sorts of political and military ambitions as the two “thieves” and Barabbas. Certainly, there were political implications in his teachings (as his persecuted followers, starting with St. Stephen, knew very well as they went to their deaths in the subsequent decades.)
But such an interpretation seems far-fetched, and against the basic point of Jesus’s teachings of the non-earthly nature of his kingdom to come. In any case, Pontius Pilate himself does not even seem to have come to this conclusion as the events unfolded in real-time. (Remember that all four Gospels portray Pilate as trying to convince the crowd to let Jesus live.)
Rather, as Ms. Sheldon argues, the mere fact that Jesus was stirring up trouble and quasi-dissent against Rome, and simultaneously enraging local Jewish sectarians and inspiring their violence, in a time when such revolts happened every year at great human cost, was enough for the Romans to seek proactive action, however reluctantly, to preclude what might have become a full-fledged revolt. And innocent people dying was not the only thing at stake. If peace could not be kept in Judea, more legions would have to be deployed there to restore the fragile peace- legions that could otherwise be parrying the Parthians further north, or keeping order in Libya, or pacifying the Gauls and other Celtic barbarians in Northern Europe.
What if the Pharisees launched massacres of Jesus’s budding following, or vice-versa, requiring Pilate to request further reinforcements to quell the violence? What if the nearby Parthian Empire, always a thorn in Rome’s Eastern side, took advantage of the chaos to expand its own influence to the shores of the Mediterranean? What if chaos and war broke out in another part of the Empire, sucking away sparse resources from Pilate’s command?
One of the cardinal political beliefs of the Romans was the primacy of political order, regardless of its fleeting nature and the tremendous sacrifices and unpleasant actions required to achieve and maintain it. Whatever the merits of Jesus’s teachings and life, it seems that his existence and actions were a threat to the stability of Roman Judea, both in the long-term geopolitical sense (depicted in Ms. Sheldon’s article) and in the immediate political sense (depicted excellently in Mel Gibson’s interpretation of Pilate’s dilemma, in the film The Passion of the Christ.) Sheldon summarizes the political and security nature of Pilate’s choice:
“Pilate was acting in Rome’s self-interest. In the context of the first century occupation of Palestine, this meant nipping any revolutionary action in the bud…. The governor of Judaea made a political and military decision for the protection of his province.”
In a way, Pilate literally had no other choice- he was doing his duty as a political figure and assuming responsibility for Judea’s stability, regardless of the consequences for justice. He in fact believed that what he was ordering was unjust, and washed his hands to symbolize his innocence of Jesus’s blood. (It goes unsaid that he was not, in actuality, innocent of that blood.)
Pilate’s duty was to Caesar, and to Rome. In carrying out his duty, he crucified Christ. He had to, given the circumstances and his imperatives. But that is not all- the reasons for Pilate’s crucifixion of Christ were nascent in his very nature as a public leader, even his very nature as a human being living in political society. The crucifixion of Christ was not a mistake, nor a miscalculation, nor an exemplification of pure and pernicious evil, nor even a small utilitarian sacrifice in the name of the greater good. Rather than any of these things, it was a tragedy- a tragedy depictive of the greater tragedy of human social and public life. It was representative of the social and political manifestation of Original Sin which we all inherit and practice, simply by being human and living in and participating in and partaking of organized society.
The Choice of Gods
Jesus himself recognized the tension his fellow (non-divine) human beings experienced, between following divine command and maintaining temporal order. His admonition to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21) would seemingly resolve this tension- a hierarchy of authority with God at the top and world order, the civilization, the state, the city, the family, etc. further down, or some permutation of those, might conceivably be possible (and indeed is the division of authority Catholic subsidiary theorists seemingly endorse.)
But almost any theologian will tell you that “render unto Caesar” is not as simple as a 1st Century A.D. endorsement of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” It’s too complex to delve into here, but in short, bear in mind the fundamental connectedness and unity of social mores and public order. Jesus, too, complicates the picture with an apparently contradictory order: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24.) He was talking in context about “mammon,” or worldly wealth, but his statement presumably applies to the state, the lord, the king- in a word, to Caesar- as well.
What are we to make of this? A literal reading of Matthew 6:24 would imply, depending on context, one of many potential courses of action- perpetual civil disobedience even to the point of death, or Christian anarchism, or a theocratic fusion of divine and temporal authority, or monasticism generally divorced from the laws of the state, or something that similarly refutes the authority of Caesar and affirms only the authority of Christ. Indeed, these have been some of the responses Christians have answered with when figuring out how to order society to bring about the Kingdom. None of them have brought the Kingdom to Earth.
The fact is, all people who live in a civilized society- and in particular, the leaders of civilized society, and even more particularly, the leaders of civilized society who happen to be Christians of any sort- necessarily serve two masters: Caesar and Christ. Our non-Christian brothers and sisters do not necessarily believe they serve Christ, but all the same, the universal moral demands of kindness and selflessness C.S. Lewis documents in The Abolition of Man as “The Tao” generally tug upon every civilized human heart, regardless of cultural or experiential conditioning. There is a universal human nature that features benevolence and love. Meanwhile, James Burnham’s “objective science of politics” dealing with raw configurations of social power common to societies of men everywhere, which he explores in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, seems to be more or less applicable to polities across recorded history. There is a universal human nature that features amorality and force.
The “Tao” of C.S. Lewis, those behaviors and principles of virtue and dignity which order our treatment of each other, more or less corresponds with our service to Christ. The “objective science of politics” of James Burnham, those behaviors and principles that order our social relations and promote peace and order to preclude chaos and destruction, more or less corresponds with our service to Caesar. Both are in us; due to how we are wired, due to our nature, due to our Original Sin, we must necessarily serve two masters, both Caesar and Christ.
That is a tension we must confront. It’s not as simple, as Isaiah Berlin insists it is in his magisterial essay The Originality of Machiavelli, as a choice between one way to be good and another. There are indeed at least two ways to be good, as Berlin recounts- the life of the statesman and the life of the monk, the one oriented towards a healthy polity, the other oriented towards a healthy spirit. And a monk should not attempt to be a statesman, nor should a statesman attempt to be a monk. But a mere focus on which path of life we ought to take is not the sole question we must ask, for statesmen still have souls, and monks still live in societies.
There is a deeper question, a deeper tension.
Original Sin and Political Reality
The great question before us is this- can we be truly good human beings while being good citizens? Can we truly serve both Caesar and Christ and retain sanctity of conscience as good Christians?
Reinhold Niebuhr’s answer is a resounding “No!”
Niebuhr, the great American Protestant theologian of the mid-20th Century, infamously argued that it is quite possible for individuals to be good, but quite impossible for larger groups including states and societies to be good, if goodness is defined, as it ought to be, as the capacity for self-transcendence and service and sacrifice to higher causes, finally including service to God through sacrifice for fellow human beings. A man can give himself up for those around him. A society cannot- and any statesman who would sacrifice his country for other countries would be committing the worst of evils upon his own people. Niebuhr argues that such a statesman would deserve nothing less than execution by hanging.
This little snippet of Niebuhr’s political philosophy- excellently detailed and presented in full in the collection Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics: His Political Philosophy and its Application to Our Age as Expressed in His Writings, edited by Harry Davis and Robert Good- is worth pondering. Niebuhr’s political writings overflow with the social and political application of Original Sin, and his basic thesis on political and social life can probably be formulated in a single sentence:
Because of the Original Sin latent in human nature, human society and politics will always be fundamentally unjust, corrupt, and brutal, in need of both secular order and spiritual guidance- which are fundamentally incompatible
In other words, there can be no Heaven on Earth. The City of God is celestial, beyond our collective reach; though individuals might live generally holy and humane lives, saints- regardless of their sacrifice- still acknowledge themselves to be sinners, and are correct in at the very least a socio-political sense, and a sense of their human nature. We are forever condemned to inhabit the City of Man.
Any study of history, when informed by a realistic appraisal of human nature and political society, will support this claim. The glorious and virtuous city-states and empires Machiavelli celebrates- the Roman Republic, Athens, Persia, Israel- all acquired their states through conquest, and built their cities on the skulls of the vanquished. Machiavelli himself argues that every just order is founded on some prior injustice of sorts. And this is not limited to the empires and city-states of antiquity- the great Medieval civilizations, especially Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate-Empire, were attained through conquest and bloodshed- and kept order by the same means. Jack Weatherford’s interpretation of the Mongol empire reveals similar moral dichotomies. Turning to modernity, we see Europe’s great, free nation-states- Holland, France, and most of all Great Britain- build empires abroad on the bones and through the sweat of the natives of their domains, while by the 19th Century suppressing their own working classes. We Americans are no different, having conquered our continent through the veritable genocide of Native American cultures, or at the very least the extermination of their political power and freedom.
Who can say, though, that the order, stability, and freedom of Rome, Athens, Persia, Israel, Tang China, Abbasid Islam, the Mongol Khanate, France, Holland, and America was all for naught? Who could say it was pernicious? Who could say that the world would have been better off had none of these great empires come to prominence and ruled their domains with brute force and wise statecraft combined?
Great cities are built on the skulls of the vanquished. The innocent are slain along with the guilty. Poverty stands next to prosperity, peace next to violence, all existing in a broader, morally repugnant yet morally necessary whole. And the fate of Christ in the empire of Caesar is certain. As Niebuhr tellingly and fittingly said, “nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals upon the same Golgotha…” And here’s the rub- the moral rebels, the Christs, who rail against the temporal order are right, more right in the ultimate sense than the legionaries who crucify them. But they are a threat to the temporal order in which humans live, laden as it is by Original Sin, an order that for all its sinfulness and cruelty and temporality must be preserved. For that Christ goes to the cross.
Here, then, is the dilemma of the statesman, and in particular the Christian statesman- St. Thomas More, perhaps.
By the very nature of the statesman’s profession, he manages, protects, and advances, through unsavory means, a finite, morally compromised political order whose very existence was brought forth and is maintained through such unsavory means. The statesman, in a very real way, must sacrifice his capability to live a good and Christian life in the interests of the broader public good, so that others may live good and Christian lives or whatever sorts of lives they please, kept in safety, harmony, and comfort by the statesman’s responsibility and vigilance. George Orwell meant, but never said, apparently, that “we rest easy at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.” And to paraphrase Machiavelli, “A true statesman must love his country more than his soul.” The ways of Caesar are not and can never be squared with the ways of Christ.
This is not a mere the-ends-justify-the-means utilitarianism, nor is it a fanatical and revolutionary egg-cracking omelet-making in the sake of worldly salvation. As Isaiah Berlin’s Machiavelli says, “the moral ideal for which no sacrifice is too great- the welfare of the polity, is the highest form of social existence attainable by man.” But “in choosing the life of a statesman or an active citizen, one commits oneself to a rejection of good behavior.” It is necessary that someone does this- this way of life is the only way to “create or resurrect or maintain an order which will satisfy men’s most permanent earthly interests.” And as any political realist knows, without order- the most prominent of men’s earthly interests- there can be no civilization, no virtue, no justice, no society, no progress. All this is tainted by the original sin of political reality, which in turn is tainted by the Original Sin endemic to the human breast and to our fallen human nature. There is no Heaven on Earth.
The Fullness of Christ’s Sacrifice and Love
In a way, the statesman is simultaneously Christ and Anti-Christ. He is a Christ in that he sacrifices a thing fundamental to his life- his conscience and, very likely, even his soul- so that order might be maintained, so that his countrymen might live more happily and in no fear of death or anarchy. This is sacrificial love in a form almost more sublime than mere earthly death in the protection of the state and people- it is a forfeiture of one’s own conscience to a cause greater than self. Christ gave up his life on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven; statesmen give up their consciences at the throne so that their people might live.
On the other hand, the statesman is most certainly the Anti-Christ- he practices the wicked Machiavellian doctrines and cults of power and order and war, his hands are unwashably stained with Christ’s blood and the blood of innocents, he must practice force and fraud and treachery to maintain a political society whose nature is not love, but is force and fraud and treachery. He is the realization, and defends the unholy realm, of Original Sin.
And in a way, it is not only the statesman who is the Anti-Christ- for every citizen and subject of any political society is similarly guilty, for they partake in the fruits of political order which is purchased through force and fraud. They did not commit the crimes, but their happiness rests on the fact that rough men committed such crimes for their sake. It is not only Pontius Pilate who crucified Christ- it was the Roman citizens who stood by, the Pharisees and their followers who demanded the crucifixion, the Roman soldiers who did the dirty work, and all the rest. Every political order is basically cruel, at least as cruel as the Roman one; every inhabitant of any political order has such cruelty as the price of their safety.
Is it not now obvious how Original Sin most vividly manifests itself in the City of Man? But such barbarity is not the ultimate reality.
God, in his infinite love, mercy, forgiveness, and wisdom, knows that Man will be imperfect- knows that Man will sin against him, and in fact does sin against him by the mere fact of his living in naturally unjust political society. He knows all this, and loves us anyway.
We cannot build a Heaven on Earth- we can never behave, in an ultimate sense, as we ought to behave, for we are laden with Original Sin. We cannot save ourselves.
And that is why, in the broadest sense, Christ died for us, to save us- we need his salvation, and he, in his love for us, saves us from our sin, our sin which is endemic to all our actions and all our institutions. Nothing earthly, nothing of man is ultimate reality, valuable though it is; God is the ultimate reality, and we in our weakness approach him only through the sacrifice of Christ- His sacrifice of himself for us. His sacrifice for us, remember, at our hands- at my hands. At the hands of Pontius Pilate, the statesman, the defender of the temporal order of Rome.
Why I Portrayed Pontius Pilate
As the FOCUS missionaries here at USC remind me often, “we crucify Christ every day.” How much the more in public life, in the life of the state and society? How much the more for he or she who accepts the responsibility of the statesman? As I argue, the duty of the statesman is as follows:
“The first imperatives of good statecraft are the preservation of society through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic revolution, and the preservation of the state through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic war. The best way to do this is to promote the preservation and ameliorative reformation of political order, domestic and international.”
I played Pontius Pilate for many reasons, but above all, for a reason of ritual importance to me. I wanted to have the experience of crucifying Christ in the name of the public good- the experience of having his blood on my hands in a figurative sense, and vainly attempting to wash it off- the experience of the tragedy of statecraft- to humble myself, in preparation for a potential future in public life. For the knowledge that we always do some form of evil in statecraft, it seems to me, does not engender a moral cynicism. It seems to me that, rather, it would inculcate a moral humility in the leader- the knowledge that no action of his is ever fully good, ever fully justified, ever fully just, and that he forever has the blood of Christ on his hands. This, in turn, would make him ever the more sensitive to the preservation of human dignity where possible, through preserving and reforming society and the state; meanwhile it would steel him against the utopian and perfectionist illusions so many earnest young activists and new politicians destroy themselves with, or, at times, destroy the world with.
Given the tragedy of human life and the tragedy of the statesman’s responsibility, I thought it was only fitting that I learn it now. Such is why I volunteered to portray Pontius Pilate- to remind myself of the solemn obligation of the statesman and citizen; to remind myself of the humility in which I, broken flesh, must hold myself; to remind myself that nothing I ever do will ever be perfect or lasting such as God’s good work, and that we in politics do not bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth, nor should we try to build an equivalent; to remind myself that I, and all mankind, need Christ’s love and grace and sacrifice and salvation, for we have sinned merely by our social organization.
I only wish I could communicate this understanding, if it is correct, to others like me, with similar ambitions. For we are all Pontius Pilate, in public life, and we all need Christ’s salvation- the love and forgiveness of the man we condemned to the cross.
The Art of the State: Political Principles of Machiavellian Realism, Burkean Conservatism, and Hamiltonian Nationalism
Edited by Luke Phillips
Maxims of human nature, empirically observed and poetically crafted, provide the closest things to scientific truths available to practical men of public affairs. The epistemological challenges of consciousness and bounded free will preclude us from observing our own behavior and that of our fellows with the ease and precision of, say, the scientists’ observation of hydrogen atoms, celestial bodies, or bacteria cultures.
This being said, we are neither a blank slate- there is order within human nature, barely perceptible to us even though it is. The study of history, society, and statecraft, buttressed by theoretical frameworks, can lead a thinker to something approaching a systematic rationality of human political life. But such an understanding, it seems, cannot be comprehended out of context, and to the extent that it can be communicated it can only be known through maxims and axioms for one to ponder.
Thus, the “science” of politics is more like the art of wisdom- it cannot really be objectively communicated, theorized, or taught; it can only be observed and learned through experience, though not through experiment. Three thinkers, all practical men of affairs, who have in their own ways sought out to learn the science and wisdom of public life, are honored in this collection of such principles. They each confronted the challenges of modernization of traditional societies, and the organization of power domestically and internationally; they each sought both to preserve and to reform. And in my view, there are few theoretical muses who are simultaneously such practical guides for thinker-actors of the 21st Century United States.
Niccolo Machiavelli’s realism, Edmund Burke’s conservatism, and Alexander Hamilton’s nationalism have all been influential in my own education, though through their maxims rather than through their systems. Isaiah Berlin and Clinton Rossiter have helped them speak to we moderns a little more clearly.
As I have mentioned before, I hope to write a commentary and reflection upon these maxims of statecraft in due time, and in a few decades perhaps I will be worthy of writing my own treatise of axioms of politics; but for now, the maxims of Machiavelli, Hamilton, and Burke will suffice, as told through Berlin and Rossiter and edited by myself. All errors and confusions in interpretation are mine; all logical inconsistencies and theoretical contradictions reflect, as Hamilton and Machiavelli and Burke saw it, the inconsistencies and contradictions within human nature.
The Political Principles of Machiavellian Realism (Isaiah Berlin, edited by Luke Phillips)
(From “The Originality of Machiavelli”)
A “SCIENCE” OF POLITICS
What superior men seek is the fulfillment and glory that come from the creation and maintenance, by common endeavor, of a strong and well-governed social whole.
Only those will accomplish this who know the relevant facts. If you make mistakes and live in a state of delusion, you will fail in whatever you undertake. We can achieve what we want only if we understand firstly ourselves, and then the nature of the material with which we are working.
The best source of such information is a mixture of shrewd observation of contemporary reality with whatever wisdom may be gleaned from the best observers of the past, who invariably will teach that men are in need of firm and energetic civil government.
We can only obtain systematic knowledge of the required techniques of government if we look at the practice and theory of the most successful societies we know.
Men must be studied in their behavior as well as in their professions. There is no a priori route to the knowledge of the human material with which a ruler must deal.
There is, no doubt, an unchanging human nature the range of whose response to changing situations cannot be determined; one can obtain this knowledge only by empirical observation.
Men are not as they are described by those who idealize them, nor by those who want them to be widely different from what in fact they are and always have been and cannot help being.
One must be on guard against those who do not look at men as they are, and see them through spectacles colored by their hopes and wishes, their loves and hatreds, in terms of an idealized model of man as they want him to be, and not as he is and was and will be.
THE ENDS OF STATECRAFT
To make it possible for different men to pursue different ends and goals according to their own particular skills, governments are needed, for there is no hidden hand which brings diverse human activities into natural harmony.
Men need rulers because they require someone to order human groups governed by diverse interests and bring them security, stability, and above all protection against enemies, to establish social institutions which alone enable men to satisfy their needs and aspirations.
Men will never attain this unless they are individually and socially healthy; only an adequate education can make them physically and mentally sturdy, vigorous, ambitious, and energetic enough for effective cooperation in the pursuit of order, power, glory, and success.
Techniques of government exist, although the facts, and therefore the methods of dealing with them, may look different to a ruler and to his subjects.
It is certain that unless there is a firm hand at the helm, the ship of state will falter. Human society will collapse into chaos and squalor unless a competent specialist directs it.
Though freedom and republican rule are preferable, there are situations in which a strong prince is preferable to a weak republic.
THE NATURE OF MAN AND SOCIETY
Men seem for the most part to be ungrateful, wanton, false and dissimulating, cowardly and greedy, arrogant and mean; their natural impulse is to be insolent when their affairs are prospering and abjectly servile when adversity hits them.
Men care little for liberty, and place it well below security, property, and desire for revenge, which rulers can easily provide.
Men are easily corrupted, and difficult to cure.
Men respond both to fear and love; if these emotions cannot be combined, fear is the more reliable, provided that it does not turn to hate, which destroys the minimum of respect that subjects must retain for those who govern them.
Men ought to be improved but not transfigured, not superhuman.
Society is, normally, a battlefield in which there are conflicts between and within groups. These conflicts can only be controlled by the judicious use of both persuasion and force.
Energy, boldness, practical skill, imagination, vitality, self-discipline, shrewdness, public spirit, good fortune, firmness in adversity, strength of character- these are the admirable qualities indispensable to a durable society.
A good society is a society that enjoys stability, internal harmony, security, justice, and a sense of power and of splendor.
Power, magnificence, pride, austerity, pursuit of glory, vigor, discipline, the virtue of old- these are what make states great.
Such a society, community, and polity satisfies men’s permanent, unchanging desires and interests.
Men cannot survive in decadence. States and societies which have lost the appetite for power are doomed to decadence and are likely to be destroyed, by enemies foreign or domestic.
WHAT OUGHT TO BE WANTED
A great political order can be created in the predictable future, because such has been realized in the past. Such an order can be created and maintained in the most desirable condition that can, as both history and observation teach, be attained by men.
The reason some polities became great is that there were men in these polities who knew how to make them great.
They did this by developing certain faculties in men, of inner moral strength, magnanimity, vigor, vitality, generosity, loyalty, above all public spirit, civic sense, dedication to the security, power, glory, expansion of the polity.
What was done once can be done again. The glories of old can be revived if only men vigorous and gifted and realistic enough can be mobilized for the purpose.
The moral ideal for which no sacrifice is too great- the welfare of the polity- is the highest form of social existence attainable by man. It is attainable, not unattainable; a world within the limits of human capacity, given human beings as we know them, creatures compounded out of these emotional, intellectual, and physical properties of which history and observation provide examples.
THE ART OF STATECRAFT
In order to cure degenerate populations of their diseases, founders of new modes and orders may be compelled to have recourse to ruthless measures, force and fraud, guile, cruelty, treachery- surgical measures that are needed to restore a decayed body to a condition of health. These qualities may even be needed after a society has been restored to health, for men are weak and foolish and perpetually liable to lapse from the standards that alone can preserve them on the required path.
The qualities of the lion and the fox are not in themselves morally admirable, but if a combination of these qualities will alone preserve the polity from destruction, then these are the qualities that leaders must cultivate.
These qualities must not be cultivated solely for self-interest- they must be cultivated because this is how one becomes a leader capable and worthy of wielding power.
Human societies are in need of leadership, and cannot become what they should be, save by the effective pursuit of power, of stability, of greatness.
Mere lust for power is destructive; it must be oriented towards higher ends.
THE MORALITY OF STATECRAFT
There are two worlds, that of personal morality and that of public organization. There are two ethical codes, both ultimate; two exhaustive alternatives between two conflicting systems of value.
If a man chooses the morality of public organization, he must suppress his private qualms, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of society, or during its pursuit and maintenance of power and glory, will go to the wall.
Such ruthless methods are necessary as a means to provide good results, in terms of a secular, humanistic, naturalistic morality.
In choosing the life of a statesman or active citizen, with enough civic sense to want your state to be as successful and splendid as possible, you commit yourself to a rejection of good behavior.
There exist at least two sets of virtues- let us call them the Christian and the pagan- which are not merely in practice, but in principle incompatible.
All these maxims have one property in common: They are designed to create or resurrect or maintain an order which will satisfy men’s most permanent earthly interests.
The Political Principles of Burkean Conservatism (Clinton Rossiter, edited by Luke Phillips)
(From “Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion”)
The mixed and immutable nature of man, in which wickedness, unreason, and the urge to violence lurk always behind the curtain of civilized behavior.
The natural inequality of men in most qualities of mind, body, and spirit.
The fallibility and limited reach of human reason.
The essential role of religious feeling in man and organized religion in society.
The civilizing, disciplining, conserving mission of education.
The mystery, grandeur, and tragedy of history, man’s surest guide to wisdom and virtue.
The existence of immutable principles of universal justice and morality.
The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes.
The inevitability and necessity of social classes, and consequent folly and futility of most attempts at leveling.
The primacy of the organic community.
The prime importance of property for liberty, order, and progress.
The uncertainty of progress- and the related certainty that prescription, not purposeful reform, is the mainspring of such progress as a society may achieve.
The indispensability and sanctity of inherited institutions, values, symbols, and rituals, that is, of tradition.
The need for a ruling and serving aristocracy.
The fallibility and potential tyranny of majority rule.
The consequent desirability of diffusing and balancing power- social, economic, cultural, and especially political.
The rights of man as something earned rather than given.
The duties of man- service, effort, obedience, cultivation of virtue, self-restraint- as the price of rights.
THE VIRTUES OF MAN, SOCIETY, AND GOVERNMENT
Reverence, contentment, prudence, patriotism, self-discipline, the performance of duty- the marks of the good man.
Order, unity, equity, stability, continuity, security, harmony, the confinement of change- the marks of the good society.
Dignity, authority, legitimacy, justice, constitutionalism, hierarchy, the recognition of limits- the marks of good government.
The absolute necessity of conservatism- as temperament, mood, philosophy, and tradition- to the existence of civilization.
The Political Principles of Hamiltonian Nationalism (Clinton Rossiter, edited by Luke Phillips)
(From “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution”)
THE NATURE OF MAN
Men are driven to strive and to achieve by their “passions,” of which the most politically significant are the desire for esteem, the anticipation of gain, and the love of power.
Men also wish to preserve and advance their “interests,” which are the physical and psychological fruits, real or merely hoped for, of their strivings. It is next to useless to preach to men about their duty as citizens to control their passions and rise above their interests.
There is, however, a variety of political techniques through which passions can be steered into channels of healthy creativity and interests can be secured against the assaults of fear and envy.
WHY FREE GOVERNMENT IS NECESSARY
The worst of social ills are disorder, violence, instability, and unpredictability- in a phrase, “the hydra Anarchy.”
The worst of political ills is a weak government unable to cope with the convulsions of anarchy, because the next stop beyond anarchy is not chaos but despotism.
The most likely candidates for the role of despots are demagogues.
In a disordered world, there is more to be feared from a dearth of political power than from an overdose of it.
STEWARDSHIP OF THE PUBLIC GOOD
The test of a sound and viable government is its ability to use old techniques and invent new ones that can harness the passions of men and enlist their interests in the service of the common ends of society.
Encompassing the mass of private interests, yet rising above them to live a life of its own, is the interest of all men in the pursuit of these ends- the general welfare, the common felicity, the public good.
No society can survive and prosper unless its citizens understand the commands of the public good and can generally, whether lured by carrots or threatened by sticks, be made to obey them.
No society can survive and prosper unless it has ways to nurture “choice spirits,” men of uncommon virtue and talent, and to place them in positions of responsible authority.
HOW TO RUN A GOVERNMENT
As the opinions of the people are the decisive force in the political process, so the confidence of the people is the principal support of government.
Confidence is inspired chiefly by an honorable, dignified, efficient administration of public affairs.
It is also inspired, up to a point, by the sounds and appearances of such an administration.
The cutting edge of power is energy- the use of power imaginatively and forcefully in the public interest-which is the indispensable quality of good government.
The executive is the chief source of political energy.
An energetic executive is as necessary to the success of democratic government as it is to any other kind.
Banks, factories, and armies are as important for the freedom and progress of civilized men as schools and churches. The authors of constitutions for those who aspire to be such men will make room in their planning for such instruments of society.
The happiness of men in a civilized society depends to a critical extent upon the capacity of good government, not merely to keep order and to protect them in the enjoyment of their rights and property, but actively to promote social, economic, and cultural growth.
I’m spending today reading some essays from the archives of The Public Interest magazine, housed over at National Affairs. The Public Interest, which sadly ceased publication around 2005 or 2006, was the home-journal of the original neoconservative movement. (I’ll note right off the bat that by “neoconservative,” I refer to the former New Dealers and former Communists who sought to update the institutions of the New Deal for a modernizing world while preserving traditional society. This first generation, which inhabited the public sphere of the 1950s through the 1970s and included such luminaries as Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and James Q. Wilson, was succeeded and survived by a generation of inferior hacks like John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol, who turned their once-divided attention from the homeland abroad, and ultimately launched the ill-fated Iraq crusade of 2003. To distinguish between talent and ineptitude, I shall refer to the Bell-Moynihan generation as the “First Generation” neoconservatives, and the Podhoretz-Kristol generation as the “Second Generation” neoconservatives.)
Anyhow, enough rant and slander. The First Generation of neoconservatives- whose works are best theoretically documented in the writings of Daniel Bell, but are perhaps more beautifully and practically applied to policy by the writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan- could be described as “Morally Traditionalist/Economically Nationalist” or, to suit the Millennial Generation’s dialect of political English, “Socially Conservative/Fiscally Liberal.” As Michael Lind notes in his excellent early book Up From Conservatism, the Second Generation of neoconservatives turned from fiscal liberalism to whatever the libertarian right wanted by the 1990s. And they abandoned the Burkean conservative temperament so cherished by Bell and Moynihan for what is better called reactionary populism, peddled by the southern Christian Right. For all intents and purposes, the Second Generation of neoconservatives destroyed the legacy of the neoconservative intellectual movement, and only in the recent wake of the Trump phenomenon have center-right thinkers began to revisit O-G neoconservative ideas in their fits of self-examination prompted by the visceral destruction of the Republican establishment’s power by then-candidate and now-President Trump.
I’m glad these thinkers- people like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat in particular, and perhaps Sam Tanenhaus and others as well, Reformicons all- are returning to the Moynihanian constellation of ideas socially conservative and fiscally pragmatic in nature. Because for all intents and purposes, the basic problems identified by the First Generation of neoconservatives- problems with ineffective governance, the pernicious effects of unchecked greed, and the hollowing-out of anything resembling traditional society and morality in the West- are the same problems we face nowadays, made worse by time, poor policy, and inaction or insufficiently-informed action. Our government is dysfunctional, our market system is out of control and without a lodestar, and our society is fragmented and disillusioned beyond belief.
Although critical thinking and policy imagination will be crucial for finding solutions to these problems and inaugurating the next great epoch in American history, we’re not building something completely new. The body of work of the neoconservatives of the 1960s and 1970s offers up outlines and blueprints of new solutions and a better temperament than that which we approach problems today, and is worth in-depth study and updating by people looking for solutions today.
In a way, that would be a return to and a restoration of an age-old American tradition, more than anything else. As Michael Lind argues in Land of Promise and Hamilton’s Republic, pretty much all that is good with American political economy, constitutionalism, and social policy has been instituted by morally-traditionalist, economically nationalist Hamiltonians- from the Federalists to the right wing of the Democratic-Republicans to the Whigs to the Lincoln Republicans to the Progressive Republicans to the New Deal Democrats to the Vital Center bipartisan establishment of midcentury and, finally, to the neoconservatives- and their late New Deal Democratic and Rockefeller Republican patrons- of the late 20th Century. After about Nixon and Ford (and only experiencing a very slight resurgence in some of the appointed officials of the Clinton administration) the old Hamiltonians were out of government, and remain out of government to this day.
Again, what we’re looking for is not Neo-Neoconservatives, for those might just as likely be Second Gen-ers as First Gen-ers. Rather, we’re looking for new versions of the original neoconservatives- something like “Neo-Primo-Neoconservatives-“ to make an intellectual and political comeback, updating Bell and Moynihan’s (and Nixon’s and Johnson’s) works for the similar problems of the second and third decades of the 21st Century. Salam, Douthat, and Tanenhaus technically fall under the description “Reformicon;” but if they ever actively and consciously promote the work of the First Generation of neoconservatives in their studies and advocacy, perhaps they could then better be named “Reclaimicons,” reclaiming an old form of conservatism rather than reforming its newer form.
This is more important now than ever. American society is entranced by a new political-philosophical ethos that closely fits the mold of being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” if the actual habits of our coastal elites and the presumed ideas of the upcoming Millennial generation are any indicator. One need only read a little bit of Daniel Bell to realize just how pernicious the Imperial Self and the Golden Calf- the true gods of the “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”- can be to the preservation of flourishing of civilization. My view is that the very fact that “socially conservative and fiscally liberal” is to most people today an unthinkable combination, is one of the signs of the decadence of our times.
Anyhow, enough of the rambling rant. Below are links to some essays by Daniel Bell that pretty well exemplify the original neoconservative temperament. To quote a cartoon of my childhood- “take it, friends. Arm yourselves with knowledge.”
Jakub Grygiel and Robert D. Kaplan are both literary classicists, foreign policy realists, geopolitical thinkers, and exquisite writers and thinkers. Both harken to Rome, at times, when seeking a mirror for the dramas of the present day. But they come, in the past, to very different conclusions concerning what from that past we ought to learn. Two passages, one profiling a good Roman, the other a great Roman, illustrate the differences in Kaplan’s and Grygiel’s analyses- differences which have troubling implications.
Grygiel’s Orbis essay “Agricola: A Man For Our Times” meanders from Roman decadence to counterinsurgency strategy, but its chief wisdom is in its commentaries on the Roman provincial governor Agricola. In short, Agricola was a family man and a skilled military strategist who served the Empire honorably in putting down native rebellions in Britain. When he returned to Rome, he was disgusted by the decadence of Emperor Domitian and the court, and retired to his farm to serve and protect his family. Grygiel argues that virtue is so crucial, that if it cannot be maintained in public life, it is honorable to retire from that life.
Kaplan’s concluding chapter in Warrior Politics, “Tiberius,” looks at the Roman Emperor (and first successor of Augustus) Tiberius, examining his career and accomplishments. These accomplishments- mainly in bringing peace to the northern frontiers and restoring dignity to the Emperor’s position- were huge, and Kaplan notes that some have argued that Tiberius kept Rome great for the succeeding centuries. In the second half of his imperium, however, the Emperor devolved into “the worst sort of tyrant,” and thus is justly remembered not for the prudence of his middle-aged statecraft, but the cruelty of his old-aged rule. Kaplan more or less concludes that Tiberius ought to be remembered for his skill, rather than for his character.
In a way, Grygiel’s Agricola represents the public virtues of a Thomas More, humble principle in the face of decadent corruption and naked power, the salvation of individual honor and conscience in a cruel world. Kaplan’s Tiberius, meanwhile, represents the public virtues of a Machiavelli- a results-oriented quasi-utilitarianism that values skill and success for the sake of the peace and order it brings. Agricola embodied goodness; Tiberius embodied greatness. To paraphrase Lord Acton- great men are seldom good men.
One is tempted to recall Isaiah Berlin’s The Originality of Machiavelli and conclude, throwing their hands in the air, that one may either live the life of a saint, or the life of a prince. Berlin himself, in that magisterial essay, counsels that a dialectical synthesis of Christian and Machiavellian virtue is impossible, and would only make hypocrites and monsters of those who tried. Machiavelli and More, too, seem to echo this sentiment- for Machiavelli loved his city more than his soul, while Thomas More died first a servant of God and not the king.
There’s a moral price-tag on each ethical system. Agricola’s character, in compelling him to resign the public service, forfeited all ability to positively influence the direction of the Empire in a public role. It is of course impossible to know how things would have turned out, had he remained in public life; but there’s a sense that Agricola, for all his virtue, in some sense yet abandoned his responsibility to the glory of Rome and the survival of his civilization. Whether or not that is justified by his duty to his family, I am not quite sure.
Tiberius’s character, meanwhile, was cruel and calculating, at least in his later years. And despite his great triumphs in the defense of Rome, his capriciousness and cruelty- which in some ways bolstered his ability to stay in power and keep order in the Empire, and were in some ways arguably necessary- hollowed out his support and destroyed his reputation, to the detriment of the office of the Emperor. Worse, the conduct of unprincipled bad behavior on the part of Tiberius paved the way for further cruelty, this time divorced from Tiberius’s cunning wisdom, by succeeding Emperors like Nero and Caligula. Cruelty, the ultimate price of order, destroyed order in its own time, where virtue could have saved it.
So is this the ultimate reality of political ethics, then- that one may live honorably but ineffectively, or dishonorably but effectively, in public life? Must we be either Richard Nixon- brilliant, visionary, and indomitable while cruel and deceptive and paranoid- or Robert Gates- a man of great character and duty and talent, yet consigned to resignation to uphold one’s own dignity?
I’m not quite sure, because there seem to have always been exceptions of sorts- President George Washington comes to mind. Baltasar Gracian’s maxim- cunning as a serpent, innocent as a dove– reminds the ambitious of the need to wear many masks, and be many things, simultaneously. Washington was, as most of his biographers learn, in every respect a good and decent man. But he was also a man who knew how to “be not good” and use cruelty and deceit when his country required it.
It may be that temperance, moderation, and prudence- being as they are unteachable and undefinable, yet somehow learnable and practicable- make up the only path to reconciliation of goodness and greatness (and George Washington was nothing but temperate, moderate, and prudent.) The greatest quality of a statesman, then, would not be the ability to get things done in the interests of the greater good. Nor would it conversely be self-sacrifice and duty to higher principles even to the point of death. One must be neither Caesar nor Christ- one must, in some odd and imperceptible way, be both, if they would lead and serve.
The real political virtue would in reality be prudence, directed towards the twin imperatives of goodness for its own sake and for the sake of honor and image, and greatness for the sake of the preservation of the common good. This does not easily lend to an easy moral code- rather, it is something that must be taught through reflection on and practice of the contradictory truths of life.
Were it not for the life and legacy of someone like George Washington, it’s hard to believe that this synthesis is even possible. It’s still hard.
Guest Contributor Sophia Justice Warren: The Intersectional Oppressiveness of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
If you’re intersectional and woke, you’ll let intersectionality impregnate your mind and purpose like a Facehugger from “Alien,” and then burst forth from your chest in renewed form, ready to tear down all the oppression of humanity in the interest of building a better world in the here and now. That’s how this stuff works.
By Sophia Justice Warren
The creator, manager, and main contributor of this blog, Luke Phillips, has been kind enough to let me share my thoughts here, in his respect for all points of view. He might disagree with someone’s ideas, and even view them as dangerous, but he’d never be so callous as to block them from speaking on a public forum. (This, by the way, is a private forum, so he’s extremely magnanimous for letting me write here.)
So first off, my thanks to him- he’s the best.
(Even though he’s one regressive son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t consider himself a feminist or an ally. So screw him. But thanks anyway Luke!)
If you haven’t already, go ahead and follow this link to a looped version of “Do You Hear the People Sing” and its reprise, from the 2012 Hollywood version of Les Miserables. Listen to that deceptively melodious and intersectionally odious piece of musical literature, which frankly ought to be banned by international law and scrubbed from the internet, while you read my takedown of its oppressive lyrics. Maybe someday you can be as woke as I am.
So “Do You hear the People Sing”- it’s a really nice-sounding song, I concede, and upon first listen it almost sounds revolutionary, as though its writers cared about human rights and personal expression. The French Left has evidently considered lobbying to make the French-language version into the French national anthem several times, without realizing what a reactionary backward step that’d be.
But just look at its intellectual history and environment, which no piece of work should ever be separated from. I’m sure conservative classicists have their own definition of what such an analysis would include, but I mean one thing and one thing only- look at the intersectional positions of the people whose minds birthed this song.
Victor Hugo, that bastard, was a French republican nationalist and was once a Catholic. (Read: white, rich, male, justifies his privilege by belief in a “God” who also happens to be white, rich, and male. Freudian narcissism much?)
Now look at the songwriters and producers of the 1980 French musical version of Les Mis, and, I suppose, their British and American counterparts who translated the songs, including “Do You Hear the People Sing,” into the even-more oppressive and imperialistic English language. A cursory Google Images search reveals them all to be white men. Notice a pattern here?
Anyways, the fact that Les Mis was literally created by a bunch of white guys, living and dead, is not nearly the biggest problem with it. For that, you can just go to the lyrics. Every lyric is a rubbishy piece of trash, frankly, but I’ll just highlight the worst transgressions of human rights.
First- The lyrics are totally masculo-normative and hetero-normative:
“Do you hear the people sing?
OK, “people” is gender-neutral etc., with some problems but not crippling ones. So off to a good start-
“Singing the song of angry men…”
Stop. Right. There.
Men? MEN? As though men- and they’re talking about straight white French men, by the way- have any reason to be angry.
Straight white French men don’t have their very humanity questioned in the canons of Western literature.
Straight white French men don’t have to worry about making less money than their labor and services are worth.
Straight white French men aren’t stigmatized because of who they love or how they use their sexuality.
Straight white French men have the world on their side- so don’t give me this shit about them being “angry,” either in 1832, 1980, 2012, or freaking 2017.
Or better yet, I don’t give a shit about them being “angry.” And the songwriters should’ve been woke enough, at the very least, to bring the actual concerns of the actually oppressed- women, people of color, gender minorities- into the song. That they don’t, means they don’t think those concerns are important.
Second- the experiences of actually oppressed people of color are trivialized:
“It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again…”
Right. As though the white French peasantry and middle class of the mid-19th Century was anywhere near as oppressed as the victims of British and American slavery, people of color all, or anywhere near as oppressed as the equally-literally-enslaved people of color in South Asia, Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other regions victimized for their racial makeup by the white supremacist depredations of American, German, British, Spanish, Portuguese, and, yes, French colonialism!
This is wrong. “Slave” is a term that ought not be used lightly- terms that describe the literal appropriation and ownership- ownership!- of the bodies of people of color should never, ever, EVER be used to describe the “plight” of privileged white people who think their leaders aren’t letting them into city hall enough and who’re concerned they get 21, not 22, square meals a week.
When the term “slave” is applied to decidedly non-enslaved European whites, it removes that term of any meaning and trivializes- dehumanizes, even- the experiences and needs and rights of those who are actually enslaved. Rubbish.
Third- the song’s a shill for stupid fucking Christian understandings of human nature, theology, and morality- which marginalizes other religions and especially marginalizes those who believe faith is not important for moral living (and who rightly believe that faith can in fact be an instrument of oppression-)
First, a few personal points. I hate few things more than I hate Christianity, in all its hypocrisy, its delusional and irreconcilably contradictory demands for righteousness and humility, its anti-humanist emphases on suffering and sacrifice, its otherworldly mysticism, as though there can be a Heaven anywhere but what we make on Earth. I also hate the oppression it forebodes for sexual and gender minorities and generally anyone, even not a sexual or gender minority, who views sexuality and sexual expression as integral to human identity and central to human freedom. Pre-Christian Roman Europe was oppressive for many reasons; but the advent of Christianity brought an oppression of the soul which Roman patriarchy and pagan bloodthirstiness cannot begin to approach.
One more thing, before approaching the topic at hand. There are those- Luke Phillips included- who argue that Western modern liberalism, and its child, postmodernism, from which much of my woke-ness springs- is in some ways a mere “devolution” of Protestant Christianity, with all the emphasis on equality and individuality and communitarianism and none of the “moral realism” or emphasis on divinity or demand for the formation of character.
There might be an ounce of truth in the postmoderns-as-devolved-Christians argument, but it is mostly wrong, wrong, wrong. If anything, intersectionalists are much more advanced versions of the Rousseauian and Robespierran prophets who shook the Christian chains off of human freedom and started us along the great path of social enlightenment, whose clear pinnacle and conclusion is exactly what I believe and practice and preach.
But that is an argument for another time.
Meanwhile, let’s look at the Christianity within “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
“Will you join in our crusade?”
An appeal to “heaven” for the rectitude of their oppressive actions. Sure is insensitive and incensing to use the term for the Medieval Catholic Church’s attempted genocide of Muslims, though, as though it were something noble.
“They will live again in Freedom in the Garden of the Lord…”
More bullshit about the immortality rewarded if only you follow the big invisible man in the sky’s nonsensical and oppressive “commandments.”
“They will walk behind the ploughshare; they will put away the sword…”
A clear reference to the supposed “pacifism” of Christian living. (Look at Christianity from its very beginnings to see how fake that is.) I’m not sure which Bible verse it comes from- probably Fallopians 69 or something.
Fourth- the song is overtly and overly nationalistic and militaristic, promoting the sort of jingoism that has been the sole cause of war after war after unjust war-
“Will you give all you can give so that the banner may advance;
Some will fall and some will live, will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France…”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of revolution, including revolutionary violence, if such is necessary to bring down patriarchy, racism, and institutional oppression.
But the characters of Les Mis aren’t just talking about fighting the supposed “injustices” raining down on them. A brief look at history reveals them to be French nationalists, republican nationalists but nationalists nonetheless, whose vision of patriotism is not substantively different from Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” ethos.
Nationalism is a very dangerous thing.
Patriotism is also a very dangerous thing.
Justifying “sacrifice” and “martyrdom” in the name of a state and nation is tantamount to racism and jingoism, and should never be lauded. It assumes that there are nations and countries rather than one common humanity, and that individuals ought to profess loyalty first to those entities closest to them. The great Marxist thinkers highlighted the fallacy of this analysis, and the failure of Communism- that bastardization of TRUE socialism!- was not due to any intellectual or economic contradictions within the Marxist tradition, but rather because those who sought global revolution before national revolution were marginalized in the Communist Party of the early 20th Century. Humanity is the political unit- states and nations are the unjust and illegitimate domains of capitalists and aristocrats. “The people” means the people of all humanity.
So when the characters of Les Mis sing of shaking off the “chains of oppression” they are supposedly bound by, they do it with the same legitimacy that Donald Trump voters do it- a love for their “home” corresponding to a blind disregard and hatred of those outside their “home.”
Want to know how and why the First and Second World Wars started?
I hope it’s clear, then, that “Do You Hear the People Sing” is not the revolutionary universalistic anthem so many poor unfortunate souls believe it to be. It is, rather, something like the Jacksonian Revolution of 1830s America- it superficially advances towards things that aren’t entirely wrong, but it neither seeks to overthrow the corrupt and oppressive institutions of the past, nor to expand true equality of rights to all the marginalized of a particular society or, indeed, of the planet.
In that sense, “Do You Hear the People Sing” is literally no different from Disraelite Toryism, Rooseveltian Progressivism, New Deal Democracy, or Rockefeller Republicanism- an inherently nationalistic, conservative, quasi-reactionary ethos meant to reform society just enough to quell the just uprisings, so that true revolutionary change is strangled in its cradle. The primary goal is the preservation of fundamentally unjust institutions, to preserve the privilege of those who inhabit them. The primary goal is not universal human justice, is not the alignment of humanity and human society and human institutions with the ultimate moral ideal of intersectional equality, and is not human progress in any real form (though conservative “Reformers” like Luke Phillips will undoubtedly argue that they are trying to advance society at as quick a pace as it can be advanced along while preserving “what is best of it.”) Benjamin Disraeli and Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller, all cast themselves as “reformers,” as does Luke Phillips today. The thing is, “reformers” all try to preserve the structural violence of the modern patriarchal west for its own sake. That is unacceptable.
A total fucking bastard named Barry Goldwater, despite being wrong about literally everything else, was right about one thing and one thing only:
“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Once you’ve found the truth, the only way is all the way- defend it, advance it, preserve it, eliminate all opposition to it, that it may flourish and reorder the world in accord with your inmost conscience’s prejudices.
And that is what we, the disciples and practitioners of intersectionality, are called to do.
I hope you’ve realized, reader, who the enemy is, and what you must do.
By Luke Phillips
Oh handmade strip of boulders jutting past Aquia’s sands
Into the broad Potomac, central vein of Yankee lands-
How many visions have you seen, amid the fading years?
How many lives, how many deaths, how many human tears?
Where Captain Smith beshored his boats, a-coming from the sea
Where Washington and Rochambeau once marched to make us free
Where Lincoln and his Generals traversed, pursuing Lee
Where bondsmen freed escaped along the path to Liberty?
In later years I’ve stood upon the rocks placed there by man,
Who gave your locale meaning through the dramas by their hand
I’ve whispered to the heavens and the waters of my plans
And heard them whisper back that, when those plans fall, they’ll still stand.
Glorious futures, born in my brain, perhaps borne on your strip
May fall upon your rocks and crack, just like so many ships
Or may come to fruition, or likely not- we’ll see-
But if they do they’ll be traced back to days of you and me
When I stood upon your jutted rocks and looked out to the sea.