Disclaimer: Written deliriously at 4AM
I have found myself tossing restlessly in bed several nights this last week, plagued by a guilt that I wasted the summer away. This sensation arises from my ambition, not my memory; it comes because I consider the task of this summer to have been study, and when I reflect upon the studies I successfully completed these three months, I find that I did not attain anywhere near what in June I hoped to. A few essays out of dozens, a couple books out of scores, this blog, some research with a professor- I tasted a mere drop of the ocean of scholarly knowledge I hoped to drink.
And then I recall that I did not see a good many of the friends I hoped to see, either- my list of people to visit sits by my side, only a a few names checked. So many old faces I vowed to see, and indeed I saw them! But only in my mind.
Beyond these two broad areas, a dozen other goals I had taunt me from realities which will never be. I didn’t get a job. I couldn’t find an internship. I promised a friend I would send her letters over the summer- I only sent her one, and it came back stamped ‘Address not Valid.’ I failed to pay my tributes at the shrines of Jefferson or Madison, Hamilton or Washington, Adams or Franklin. I spent far too much time in front of a computer, and far too little time in the beauty of Virginia.
I tell my Dad of this, and he spends hours coaxing me out of my paranoia. (I love my Dad- I don’t think he knows precisely what the right thing is to say, but everything he says is epic, and he usually says enough of it that I’ve forgotten my anxiety by the time I stop him.)
And today, after a similar grey period followed by one of Dad’s pep talks, I took a run for the first time in several weeks. People say periodic and regular exercise makes you healthier and happier, and the empirical evidence I have observed points to the truth of this aphorism. The cloud-mountains high in the sky soaked up the sun’s gleaming, dying rays; the warm moisture of the Earth emanating from the pavement and dirt below us carried on it scents of beautiful decay; the green darkness of the forest peaked between branches and trunks; and the bugs and birds sang that riotous chorus of Virginia’s evening woods, deficient in the machine-gun chirps of Washington’s squirrels but fully recompensing for the loss in sheer volume of insects. Half my senses drank this in, the other half attentively listening to my Dad’s sermon-on-the-run on leadership.
The run, as every run on a normal day so magically tends to do, expelled all bad feelings previously lurking about my heart. And in this lightened state, some pictures of summer came to mind.
Lifting and placing great flat boulders in a muddy gulch. (Michael Bell and the Appalachian Trail Club accompanied me.) Paddling the Foleys’ kayak up through the shallow, narrow rapids of Aquia Creek, where John Smith once dared not go. (Eventually I had been turned back by the creek’s sheer impassibility in its upper reaches.) Parading about northwest Washington, D.C. with my family, Jake and Zach and I fully suited in our Class A Scout uniforms, seeking out (by code) sites and markers critical to our Boy Scout heritage. Schmoozing around in a restaurant with my colleagues (or FRIENDS) from SCIR, and moving tables about in a Starbucks, by the pure generosity of our hearts, with friends and colleagues from Near Crisis. Discussing with Artur Galystan the secrets and gossip of SIR business and success. Long hours in the trusty old minivan, all of us kids asleep, talking to Dad about politics. Upon a windy summit in the front range of the Appalachians, a summit called Old Rag, the best, Virginians say, in the State. Visiting with Jake’s friends, good friends of mine too, in the weeks after Jake’s graduation. The dignity and fun of the graduation day, the majesty of the hundreds of black-robed students in the heat of the sun, and the timeless stillness in the light of the Christmas lights put up in our yard- those greatest decorations. Grueling days of toil and sweat in a land we once called home, Carlisle, moving furniture for Uncle Steve and Aunt Jackie to their new hilltop abode. More grueling days doing much the same for our good friends, the Foleys. Long drives across the vastness of the mountains, through the heart of Appalachia, a true America if there ever was one. Pleasant visits with cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents, our blood, in Columbus, Ohio. Nights tending the fire, admonishing those who follow, watching the sparks journey to the height of the sky, there forever to keep their vigil in their extinguishment. The sins of the strip of Myrtle Beach, a center of young-people’s vacationing which, though it need not be returned to, must be visited. The sweet taste of rain contrasted to the salt of the sea, in the rare pleasure of a rainy day at the beach. Historic forts and headlands, houses and markers, proofs of a time that once was in Charleston, and never again will be. A speech delivered by Ehud Olmert, while all around me the ants of Washington stood listening. A thousand hours in the heady traffic of Washington, and a thousand country roads whose charm was in their place. Treasured books found in forgotten stores and basements, some given as gifts, some dirt-cheap, from the Civil War Store out in Wilderness to Grandma’s house to the antique shack in Fredericksburg. Pretty girls in the coffee shop Hyperion who should have been embarrassed by my compliments, had I been brave enough to give them. Spacious sandbars in the river’s midst, at Aquia Landing, wondrous places to view the orb of the sky in all its mighty glory. A fat cat who we call ours, who calls us hers. Meteors which cast their cuts ever quickly, lightning storms miles off which appeared to me as purple flashes in the night, the prettiest damn thing I have ever seen. The seventeen thousand candlebags in the Fredericksburg Cemetery that night, flickering in geometric pattern, showcasing the seventeen thousand souls buried beneath, dead by cause of failed politics. A raucous ride o’er the battlefield, through its woods; a less well-thought out one through up the mountain of Jefferson, one where I found in myself a thirst to explore; a fine, if rushed, tour on bike of Charlottesville. A bus trip to Knoxville after a pleasant evening atop mighty Union Station; a good few days with Heather Duncan, then; and a tour of Knoxville and a good trip back, talking to strangers. Fireworks on the carrier Yorktown on the day of our nation’s birth. Lawnwork and more lawnwork for Mom in our backyard. Festivals and fairs in the parking lot of our Church. Thoughts on the shore of the Potomac. Helpful hands in Francis House. Walks in that hall of heroes, the Marine Corps Museum.
All this, which I recall at this ungodly hour, does not even begin to list adequately all the things I did this summer.
It turns out that I did not truly waste summer, after all. It was chock full of a good many things which I would never have gotten to do had I not been home with my family.
I will return to USC content that I did not waste my time, that I in fact utilized my vacation as a vacation ought to be utilized. Now next summer I may very well spend in scholarship and work. But I will bear in mind that, so long as memories are made and life is lived, no time is truly wasted.
To answer simply, yes. The individual, by taking part in any action, holds a part of the responsibility for the consequences of that action, though never the whole, for other factors are always present. I do not view this in a legal context so much as in a causal context. Because there are an inestimable number of factors driving every event, those factors each hold a proportional share- though I doubt an accurate readout of those shares is attainable by us humans.
This is the historian in me speaking, and the historian in me finds the political rhetoric of today to be utterly ridiculous- Republicans insisting that the current debt crisis and the chaos in the Arab world are Obama’s fault entirely, Democrats placing the debacle of the Iraq War and the financial collapse entirely on Bush’s shoulders. And the fallacy of demonization and (angelization?) I see in politics, I see in most other ethical questions.
My main exposure to the thought experiment you present has been on the topic of rape. As you know, a large majority of feminists (and generally decent people) is so disgusted by cases of rape, that they place the entirety of the responsibility upon the shoulders of the rapists. And I agree with them in sentiment- women are not at fault for being raped, and rapists, in a just world, would be castrated and given the mark of Cain. But when I come to think of cases by themselves, it seems that girls can hold some agency in their NOT being raped, and thus in their being raped. For example, why would a girl choose never to return to a frat house in which she was raped? BECAUSE SHE KNOWS THAT FRAT HOUSE IS SEXUALLY MORE DANGEROUS THAN OTHERS, and that crimes there are less likely to be prosecuted. And therefore by avoiding that frat house she is taking a certain degree of responsibility in not letting herself get raped. And for the same reason she might choose to wear slightly more modest clothing, to get a little less drunk, to stop accepting drinks from strangers, to never go out without friends, to carry mace, or to do a host of other things which, in all honesty, will probably lessen her chances of being raped. If she were simply to assume that all boys are nice and responsible gentlemen, she [would be] making the very mistake which Machiavelli so callously cautions us against.
And rape is not the only scenario where this is the case. As a girl who goes out without adequately protecting herself did nothing to stop her rape, so a man who ventures into the wilderness without adequate survival gear does nothing to prevent his own death, a soldier who ventures on patrol without informing his superiors or comrades does nothing to stop his own capture, and a statesman who fails to pursue his nation’s security and prosperity does nothing to forestall the ruin of his own country.
Therefore, to a degree, everyone is partly responsible for everything that happens to them, more particularly those things which are foreseeable risks. We are cast out of the safety of the womb into this brutal, beautiful, and unpredictable world, and it is luck and wisdom which perpetuates our life. (Luck includes all external factors, including the care and love of others and a safe situation, while wisdom includes everything emanating from within us. I will not discuss divine interference here- that is another conversation.)
It would seem that a great many things, tragedies especially, most notoriously our own deaths, cannot be our own fault in any way. But I believe we do hold a share of the responsibility for at least our reactions to things that happen to others [and us,] and in our own death, the fact that we chose life. But this expands my answer to a level of metaphysics which I normally do not consider, and is in any case not pertinent to my answer to your question.
The last thing that must be addressed is the role of personal responsibility. As you will see in an essay I publish on my blog eventually, I do not believe anyone has any intrinsic rights, and I believe that believing passionately in one’s own rights creates a sense of entitlement which harms one’s humility in the face of greater things, one’s endurance in the face of unjust hardship, and one’s responsibility in the face of conflicting rights and duties.
Now if a person enamored with their rights was at fault for some grave crime, undoubtedly they would justify their conduct by the alignment of their actions with their rights. And if someone enamored with their rights failed to conduct an important duty, more likely than not they would argue that their rights trumped their duties. And this sort of demeanor, I cannot stand- and therefore I have always elevated duty above rights in my pyramid of virtues.
And, to use the thought experiment you first posed to me, I would infinitely trust someone with a car who saw it as his duty to protect human lives, over someone who saw it as his right to drive a car.
[In truth, this can only be one aspect of the wider phenomena of events, and I do not believe any person capable of accurately producing a workable theory of happenstances. I merely hope to illustrate one aspect.]
As per Obama, (I need to write a blog post on this) I think he is a principled but amateur liberal, pragmatic in foreign affairs only because he has been forced to be (and badly at that- the first two years saw a series of misinformed blunders in high politics, though his handling of the war on terror has been at least sufficiently vicious; but his crisis management has been Carteresque, as Libya and the bumbling Arab Spring statements seem to indicate. His team is a divided bunch of people and I question whether he knows what he wants in foreign policy other than a liberal world order which is slowly but surely evading his grasp.) He is skilled at playing domestic politics, having managed to push through landmark legislation, and he is charismatic enough to mobilize his own supporters; but he is not charismatic enough to either bridge the partisan gap or attract sufficent moderates to create a majority, and while I disagree with the accusations that he is any more divisive than any other President, he certainly doesn’t have the Americanaesque speaking style which has defined the greats. I think if any principle dominates the White House today it is confusion.
Since my political evolution, I have always tried to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. But [I have been disappointed again and again.] He does not appear to be incredibly competent in foreign affairs, nor a particularly unitary leader on the domestic front. Due to the fact that politics is always in flux, the shifting power bases give hostile commentators ample evidence to (wrongly, I think) suggest that Obama is seeking a monopoly on power and a destruction of the Constitution, and as the President is not particularly skillful, certain programs (such as the increased drone strikes, etc) which have been started out of frustration with the failures of other methods, have provided yet more ‘evidence’ for commentators trying to paint the president as bent on seeking more power.
I will probably hold similar views of every president in my lifetime though.
[This is by no means a conclusive review of my opinion. If Fate permits, I will record my complete opinion in another post sometime in the near future.
My thought on the Presidency in general and Obama’s presidency in particular has been unduly influenced by such radical moderates as George Friedman, Robert Kaplan, and Walter Russell Mead.
Abiasedperspective fully supports the President, and wishes him the best of luck in steering the ship of state through the turbulent waters it will surely pass through before his term is over.]
O my Comrade! I do not note this gleefully and callously, aiming to throw an egg in the faces of Libertarians! I simply call this general trend in order to expose what appears to be one of the unalterable realities of history- that big nations possess big governments and big foreign policies, and cannot easily be rid of them.
A quick survey of all the dynasties of China and Russia, and the Caliphates and the Sultanates, and the Mongol Khanates, the modernizing states of Europe and the globe-girdling empires they grew into, seems to suggest that large nations have big governments and big foreign policies not due to any ideological or ethical choice but simply due to the pragmatism of a thousand subsequent moments mushed together to make a general trend. Isolationism and internal retreat seem to have generally been periodic phenomena at best, and always either the result of a blessedly peaceful era or a poor policy choice which led to greater upheavals. Big governments to manage big territories, and big foreign policies to manage the foreign interests of those governments, seem to have been a natural state of things, and as the world grew more competitive and more interconnected, only became more vital.
I do not mean to suggest that this is an ethical reality. Most political affairs are anyway by their nature unethical, and the manipulations of power politics which accompany big foreign policies and big governments are no exception, save in the minds of the neoconservatives. But the fact remains that big governments and big foreign policies are, in big nations, unlikely to go away simply because the people wish it to be so. What might have been a potentiality in a state embracing a single bay and a few hundred square miles of territory is in no way possible for an empire whose territory extends beyond a mighty continent, whose power reaches to the farthest reaches of the globe.
And therefore it is not the STRUCTURE or PURPOSE of the government which is in our hands, but the PRUDENCE by which the structure is tended to and the purpose carried out. You are absolutely correct- it is not the size of government that is important, but how it is used. And therefore it is imperative that our statesmen accept the realities of power without sacrificing the principles which define our country in order to guide the ship of state through the turbulent waters of domestic and international politics. Because there are certain realities which will not change no matter how much we would like them to, and because those realities in fact are critical to our core interests as a nation, it is critical that they be maintained for the moment and adjusted as is necessary- and should they prove untenable, altered as profoundly as is necessary. But it is my opinion that the institutions of big government and big foreign policy, while nebulous, are too fundamental to our present national situation that while they must be prudently managed, they cannot be done away with.
I am of the opinion that Libertarians and those who agree with them on foreign policy and government issues, while of purest intention, are blinded by the beauty of a government constrained by laws alone. Such a government has never existed sovereignly in the history of this Earth, and is unlikely to exist in the future by devout emulation of governments which supposedly, but did not actually, fit this model. If the ultimate goal of government is a small government constrained by law, how are the statesmen at its helm to deal with the crises which invariably beset their polity, whose necessary responses exceed the meager means available to them by law? Certainly some might be properly dealt with, but constraints upon political creativity will ultimately prove cumbersome to the national interest, and be thrown away by those rising who are better capable of defending those to whom their charge is trusted.
Of course, this demeanor poses threats both to the sovereignty of other states and to the liberty of the citizens of the state- but is that not the drama of politics, the lifeblood of the literature of this Earth? And is it not, to a degree, a rather utopian prospect to dream that all problems of power politics might be solved by a just constraint of government by laws alone? Even our Framers, it seems, did not submit to this folly, as the Constitution they agreed upon (much to the irk of strict-constructionists) kept government civil not primarily by ultimate legal consequences, but by a fractious balance of power- the only institution which has ever proved to adequately maintain stability since Mankind’s first institutions were established.
Now the Libertarians, I think, are more ideologically pure than any other group which espouses what is in effect an ideology. And the Classical Liberal tradition they draw from is the greatest our Western Civilization has ever spawned, worthy of study and emulation by all statesmen and scholars. And Liberty is indeed among the sweetest fruits available to Man on Earth, a just cause of government and a happy attainment for individuals.
But I cannot accept an ideology that elevates it to the ultimate good, or a political philosophy that crowns it above all else. The Libertarians, I think, tend to see things as they ought to be rather than as they are. And the most successful enterprises in governance are not those which attempt to change the nature of men and polities, but those which strive to use both their natural attributes and defects while tempering their worst effects. I cannot see Libertarianism as anything more than a dreamy longing. A beautiful one, perhaps, but one still dreamy.
Now I qualify, that Libertarianism indeed possesses as part of its ideology a great many practical tenets which, in practice in the United States and other countries, have proved to be blessings in their situations. These include but are not limited to localized independent governance (what is there not to love about small towns?) small-business capitalist culture, non-aligned foreign policies, an emphasis on private business efforts over government interventions to solve social problems (though cooperation between the two has typically proven more efficacious than either) and a federalist respect of state sovereignty by national governments. While these successes are undoubtedly partly due to the geographic, demographic, and historic situation of the United States, their success cannot be doubted and must be factored into an understanding of our political reality.
Lastly, I must clarify that I am no fan of big government or big foreign policy for their own sake. Those who would suggest that the United States ought to attack autocracies to spread democracy or intervene to stop genocides and protect human rights, or that government ought to enforce strict moral norms within the country or institute programs to re-constitute equitably our society, I view as dangerous to the principles of liberty and order. I will argue out against any form of utopian governance and will fight for a balance of forces as is necessary to perpetuate the happiness of the American people.
But I will not do it as a Libertarian. Though invariably I might often be aligned alongside them, I will never fight for them.
In my recent entry on Black Confederate Soldiers I referenced a certain gem I found in the White Oak Civil War Museum. I have reproduced it here.
I have been unable to ascertain its origin, unfortunately, but it is nonetheless a powerful and useful little piece worth an occasional reading and reflection, not only for historians but for all thinkers whose dogmatism or skepticism draws justification from a myth they call ‘history.’ Those who read Art of Manliness might recognize it as a ‘Manvotional;’ more on those later.
I have copied the text as I found it, including the apparent original publisher and database.
“The Task of the Historian”
“The first requisite for all sound historical writing is the careful establishment of facts. This object is attainable only if the historian has full knowledge of the sources of information in regard to the period to be described. Furthermore, he must possess the gift of critically estimating the value of his sources according to the rules of historical evidence. But something more than mere chronicling of facts is expected of the historian. We look to him for interpretation of movements and of events.
To this task the historian must bring an insight into the motives which actuate men in various situations. He needs a power of discernment in state affairs and a due appreciation of the parts which economic, social, and [cultural] interests play in human affairs. Moreover, the historian should keep himself free from considerations of self-interest, that his interpretations may be objective, reasonable, and as free from bias as is humanly possible.
In style, he should be candid and unimpassioned, avoiding both panegyric and satire. To truth alone must he offer sacrifice. He must be fearless, incorruptible, untrammeled, conceding nothing either to hatred or to friendship, a citizen of no city, recognizing no ruler, and setting forth the result of his resources in a diction which the many may understand and the more educated [may] approve. Only by such a method can the integrity of a writer be established and his reputation as a historian be justified.”
The Lincoln Library of Essential Information
The Frontier Press Company, Buffalo, New York, 1924
Since the end of the Second World War and throughout history since, Germany’s government has apologized for the Holocaust to surviving Jews, to the State of Israel, and to the world community in general. Yet Turkey still refuses to recognize its genocide of the Armenians (or for that matter of the Greeks and Assyrians.) I note certain differences in the situations of the two states, which may offer some explanation:
-Germany has become an integral part of a community of states (the EU) where condemnation of genocide is a moral norm. Turkey is a part of no such community.
-Because of the development above, Germany has rewritten its national history to condemn the period in which the genocide took place as a national shame. Turkey views the period in which the genocide took place as a just revolution in its political system.
-The present German government views itself as entirely distinct from the Third Reich. The present Turkish Government views itself as the heir of the Ottomans.
-Germany has no serious geopolitical problems with Israel, and thus can afford to do it such a favor. Turkey has serious geopolitical problems with Armenia, Greece, and Syria, and cannot (or will not) afford to lose face in its rivalries with them.
-Individuals in Germany were able to overcome the hurdles there were to apology. Individuals in Turkey have not been able to overcome such hurdles.
None of this is to laud Germany for its behavior and contrarily condemn Turkey for its lack thereof; I am suspicious that Germany’s motives in apologizing were not purely humane, and I suspect that Turkey’s are not purely self-righteous. But I have outlined what I believe to be factors in the conditions of the two states which may explain their different courses of action.
If the opportunity presents itself, I may consider pursuing further research on this topic. It may be interesting, too, to expand it to other similarly notorious cases.
I’ve never been on a mission trip or anything resembling one, so I always appreciate when people tell me about theirs. Some time ago I fell briefly into the cynicism that mission trips are entirely self-serving endeavors, that people embark on them in order to feel a little less guilty and perhaps get the notion in their head that they are changing the world, when in reality they’re doing nothing more than perpetuating the helplessness of the Third World. After all I had met quite a few people from the most popular mission trip countries in college, and most of them were very much more competent and vigorous than me; it would seem, I thought, that offering them help would practically be insulting them.
But since then I have realized that such an understanding is just as flawed as the understanding that all is Hell in Africa- it allows only one dimension for the object being considered, whereas the nature of our world (and our species in general) dictates that all things are multidimensional beyond our comprehension (though we, of course, can discern a good many of those dimensions through honest thought and observation.) There is indeed a spiritual urge inside us which craves satisfaction, more strongly in some than in others, and service to God by service to his least fortunate creatures is the oldest means, besides hallucinating alone out in the wilderness, of pursuing that satisfaction. I do not doubt that some individuals probably have ulterior motives, not excluding pride and a desire to be seen as good by others, but this does not exclude that many or most likely possess that internal spiritual hunger earlier mentioned- and this, though it is indeed a ‘self-serving motive’ is by no means a wicked one! If the morality of our actions is to be judged by whether we gain anything from them or not, it seems that no one has ever done a truly good deed- for the happiness that comes with service is a treasure on its own.
And the societies to which thus-driven missionaries travel are not merely not-yet-developed versions of our own. The liberal internationalist sees a future world of global prosperity, where no one bears the sword and no one wears the chain, where there’s a chicken in every pot and the freedom from want is as safely guarded as the freedom of speech. I ought not repeat his folly and assume that a high standard of living is on the horizon for all, for all empirical evidence suggests that poverty is an ill endemic to our condition and will never be eradicated. Yet this curse bears with it an opportunity.
For if this world were perfect, what use would there be for virtue? Jesus commanded us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked; and if there are neither hungry nor naked individuals in our midst, how can we follow such a command? Now of course this is in part a self-serving assumption and of course any good soul would support the efforts of statebuilders and captains of industry to raise up the Third World to par with ours. But so long as the hungry cry, the opportunity to be Christ avails itself to all willing to take the opportunity.
Yet even if the poor nations of the Earth should rise up and assume their place beside the titans of our civilization, the chance to serve would still not be lost. The soup kitchens and orphanages and home-building projects and hospitals which you saw in Dominica are present HERE, in our First-World post-historical society! The scepter of poverty looms below the shining towers of our greatest cities! “Look down and see the beggars at your feet;” If anything can prove the endemicity of poverty, it is that we find it here. And though this is a cruel reality, it presents, too, the opportunity to serve. My youngest brother and little sister have been volunteering at our church’s poor-house for the last several weeks, and it just now occurs to me that they do mission work in doing so.
I am forced to consider myself and my own actions; and in all honesty, my ‘service’ has primarily been service to the organizations of which I am a part (and is thus not service but duty) or has been to the invisible face of the public in the form of conservation and construction work in parks. I have not served performing the corporal works of mercy for quite some time; perhaps that explains in part the loneliness of my soul and the wretchedness of my mind which I have come to know in the last two years. Voltaire admonished us of our guilt for all the good we failed to do in life; perhaps it is time that I, the cheerleader of some mystical quality called ‘balance,’ seek a just balance in my life, and perform service to the lowest tier of Mankind in tandem with those other services to self, duty, and family which I have become so notorious for glorifying.
You will likely find it ironic that I, who have never been on a mission trip, have just delivered a discourse exploring their benefits. Certainly a large part of that is due to my curiosity as to the spiritual development most seem to go through after returning.
Now, I will probably not be going on any mission trips any time soon. Money’s an issue, and beyond that I believe I can do more good at home than abroad. (Time to get involved with the homeless ministry at Church… And continue my studies.) But it’s always interesting to hear from friends and attempt to understand, somewhat, their experiences. Thus my opinions on the usefulness of this growing trend of service can be more informed by ‘experience’ than reason alone.