Xi and Me

It turns out that Xi Jinping and I have something in common: we are both fans of Goethe’s Faust. Indeed, Xi is said to even know the work by heart.

I wonder what aspects of Faust have been particularly meaningful to Xi, both personally and as relates to his current job as Dictator.  Here’s the passage that immediately came to my mind on learning of Xi’s Faust-affinity…

As a reward for services rendered, the Emperor grants Faust a narrow strip of land on the edge of the sea, which Faust intends to turn into a new and enlightened society by reclaiming land from the sea…along the lines of the way that Holland was created, but in a much more intensive manner. Faust’s land-reclamation project goes forward on a very large scale, and is strictly organized on what we would now call Taylorist principles:

Up, workmen, man for man, arise anew!
Let blithely savor what I boldly drew
Seize spade and shovel, each take up his tool!
Fulfill at once what was marked off by rule
Attendance prompt to orders wise
Achieves the most alluring prize
To bring to fruit the most exalted plans
One mind is ample for a thousand hands

Faust’s great plan, though, is spoiled (as he sees it) by an old couple, Philemon and Baucis, who have lived there from time out of mind. “They have a little cottage on the dunes, a chapel with a little bell, a garden full of linden trees. They offer aid and hospitality to shipwrecked sailors and wanderers. Over the years they have become beloved as the one source of life and joy in this wretched land.”

And they will not sell their property, no matter what they are offered. This infuriates Faust…maybe there are practical reasons why he needs this tiny piece of land, but more likely, he simply cannot stand having the development take shape in any form other than precisely the one he has envisaged. Critic Marshall Berman suggests that there is another reason why Faust so badly wants Philemon and Baucis gone: “a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogeneous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace…”

Faust directs Mephisto to solve the problem of the old couple, which task Mephisto assigns to the Three Mighty Men… who resolve the issue by the simple expedient of murdering the pair and burning down their house.

Faust is horrified, or at least says that he is:

So you have turned deaf ears to me
I meant exchange, not robbery
This thoughtless, violent affair
My curse on it, for you to share!

To which the Chorus replies:

That ancient truth we will recite
Give way to force, for might is right
And would you boldly offer strife?
The risk your house, estate–and life.

Xi seems resolved to ensure that the ancient pattern recited by the Chorus will be the one that rules in China.  And there are plenty of influential people in America who reject progress we made in evolving beyond this ancient and brutal pattern..by building a wall consisting of free speech, due process of law, separation of powers, and a written constitution, and fighting to defend that wall.  Such people evidently want to demolish the wall and let the ancient pattern be firmly emplaced here as well…apparently under the assumption that they will be the ones who ultimately direct the Mighty Men.

See Claudia Rosett’s related post: Xi Jinping’s Tianamen Vision is Coming for Us All.

My review of Faust is here.

The America Political Chernobyl

The meltdown wasn’t caused by engineers but by the Soviet political system’s dogma.

 

Nothing enrages my family, friends and colleagues more than when I assert that contemporary US political divisions are the same as those since the beginning of recorded history: ideology, race, and religion, rather than (easily ignored) Trump tweets (or the political spin thereof). So I will proffer that his tweets were divisive in that they challenged Progressive Democratic beliefs regarding these factors, but neither should be accepted on faith if America is to avoid an economic meltdown.

 

Empires and State Religions

The Soviet System’s accomplishments from Stalin’s time – industrialization and WW II, urbanization, restoration and expansion of Imperial Russia, etc., and the space achievements under Khrushchev were so impressive that American intellectuals generally agreed with Khrushchev’s “we will bury you” right up to Chernobyl in 1986. The plant failed because the Soviet system of top-down authority and suppression of the truth forced operators to ignore the inevitable failure and instead follow orders that guaranteed a meltdown.

 

Gorbachev’s glasnost” (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in response to the disaster removed the pillars of the Soviet system – adherence to beliefs given the status of religious dogma – causing it to collapse, something  Austrian economists had considered inevitable. Russia restored the Orthodox Church, but without any historical political legacy based on individual sovereignty, it morphed into a kleptocratic autocracy and a return to Russian Imperialism and military aggression.

 

Whether or not China discovered America in 1421 (or had a greater Empire than the Incas) it was a mercantilist empire several centuries ahead of the British in scope, science and technology, requiring “tribute” (kowtow) in return for protection and trade. Religion wasn’t an obstacle to entrepreneurial capitalism until Mao replaced de fact religious freedom with communist ideology in the early 20th century. China’s economic liberalization begun in 1978, that eventually led to a flowering of entrepreneurship in China’s attempt to restore and expand its earlier mercantilist empire, was accompanied by some religious freedom. Had political liberalizations followed, China’s demographics – a population four and a half times that of the US – might have already buried us.

 

Churchill may not have saved the British empire in the world wars, but the Empire saved his little island nation. At its 1920 peak it controlled about a quarter of the world’s land mass and population. Britain is a protestant Christian nation, which most analysts conclude fosters property rights and capitalism. The Church of England seceded from the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate the sovereignty of the Pope common to European empires at the time. The British legacy of democratic government and individual freedom and responsibility, the cornerstone of a market economy (admittedly at times too crony and mercantilist) is the source of its economic success and that of its former colonies, including the United States.

 

Uniting church and state elevates political ideology to infallible dogma accepted on faith. The U.S. Founding Fathers, following Britain’s lead, founded a Christian nation that guaranteed individual freedom of religion but forbade the formal establishment of a state religion.

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Four Views of Government

1–If the king did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit.

–the laws of Manu, 1500 BC

2–Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

–Often attributed to George Washington, although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he actually ever said it.

3–The speaker at a meeting, Grant, asks: “What is the prime knowledge acquired by our race? That without the rest is useless? What flame must we guard like vestal virgins?”

Members of the group give various answers: fire, writing, the decimal system, the wheel.

“No,” says Grant, “none of those. They are all important, but they are not the keystone. The greatest invention of mankind is government. It is also the hardest of all. More individualistic than cats, nevertheless we have learned to cooperate more efficiently than ants or bees or termites. Wilder, bloodier, and more deadly than sharks, we have learned to live together as peacefully as lambs. But these things are not easy..”

–from Robert Heinlein’s novel Tunnel in the Sky, in which a group of high school kids are stranded on a planet galaxies away, and have come to accept the idea that they are probably never going to be rescued. After a period of choosing their leader by acclamation, they have now decided to hold a formal election for that purpose.

4–Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.

–Congressman Barney Frank, also Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and (in somewhat different form) Barack Obama.

My Assertion: The first three quotes all have elements of truth and provide useful perspectives on the problem of government; the fourth one has no such redeeming value.

(I’ve been thinking about a post along these lines for a while, finally motivated to do it by a discussion at Sarah Hoyt’s blog.)

Your thoughts?

 

 

America’s Civil War 2.0: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

 It’s official: The Biden “return to normalcy” is more divisive than Trump’s tweets. America is now arguably more polarized than any time since the Civil War because of wide and deep disagreements over all three of the major sources of civil strife: ideology, race and religion. A large minority, more than prior to the Civil War, believe this will result in bloodshed. Tribal conflicts have been the order of the day since the beginning of recorded civilization. The development of nation states in Europe during the second half of the last millennium sometimes suppressed, other times magnified such strife.

Democratic politicians caused the first race war and are on the cusp of starting the second to overturn the existing political order of limited government, minority protection and opportunity based on individual merit that for over a century has defined America’s Exceptionalism and been a deterrent to the growth of their progressive administrative state.

The Cause of America’s First Civil War: A Disease of the Public Mind

The US has generally succeeded in uniting diverse populations because its Founding Documents protect individual rights regardless of race or religion, and the minority from majoritarian control. The majority of the original 13 colonies in the US were founded on the principles of religious freedom for various Christian sects. (By 2050 the number of Muslims is projected to double to about 8 million, a potentially politically divisive issue only if they reject America’s Founding principles and laws.) The US has assimilated virtually all races.

But it took a bloody Civil War to initiate the extension of Constitutional rights to slaves and their descendants. Battlefield deaths were at least one hundred times greater in America’s Civil War than the 7000 battlefield deaths in the Revolutionary War. Initially inclined to accept secession as the South’s Constitution emulated the libertarian US constitution but for the exclusion of slaves, the Northern Republicans formed a constitutionally dubious “nationalist” campaign to “save the union.” General Sherman’s “Total War” to impress and terrorize the civilian population with the moral superiority of the North created enmities that persist to the present. Both Northern policies set a precedent for subsequent inter and intra national wars around the globe.

Why did it take a Civil War? Less than 4% of slaves imported to the Americas ended up in what became the United States, the only country that fought a war (losing about 10% of its population) to end the practice. The War wasn’t fought over the issue of the abolition: only about 5% of Northerners were abolitionists, the same as in the South. Although most people North and South now recognized slavery as morally wrong, disagreements arose over the viability of various exit strategies (Lincoln’s plan to return slaves to African Liberia would have resulted in much higher mortality than slavery. Parenthetically, mortality rates were lower in the South than in African generally, much lower than in South America, and lower than for Northern slaves.) More free blacks owned slaves (7.5%) than did Southern whites (6%). Historian Thomas Fleming concluded that a Disease of the Public Mind, deep hatred caused by Southern Democratic segregationist politicians’ steadfast refusal to negotiate a future extension of rights to what they claimed were “racially inferior” African Americans made war inevitable.

What do Democrats Mean Today by “Our Democracy”?

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“Believing Untrue Things”

AVI:

Believing Untrue Things

More Motives on Untrue Things

Summary: People believe in the truth of ideas that don’t withstand even casual empirical scrutiny, e.g., that American police kill more black people than white people every year. Why do so many of us believe in and even defend vehemently the validity of bogus ideas when contrary evidence is easily found?

You can find many examples of this kind of thing in Amazon reviews of controversial books such as Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean:

5-Star Reviews

1-Star Reviews

The respective authors of the five-star and one-star reviews appear to inhabit separate factual universes. In one universe James Buchanan was a distinguished laissez-faire economist and originator of public-choice theory. In the other universe Buchanan, the Koch brothers and other prominent libertarians were members of a racist conspiracy. How can people on one side of a controversy remain ignorant about the other side’s arguments and even basic facts?

AVI suggests possible explanations that are worth reading, as always. I think the main problem is the poor quality of our primary and secondary educational systems, particularly in the teaching of history, math and basic statistics. Another big problem is the ignorance of journalists who were educated in our lousy schools, and modern journalism’s clickbait business model that incentivizes the promotion of controversy and conflict even more than was the case back in Front Page days.

Discuss.