Tag Archives: Politics

Dr Johnson Hates My American Guts

Brunching Johnson by Henry Wallis
“Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig.” Dr Johnson seems to be saying this or thinking it of one person or another pretty much all the time. Re-reading Boswell’s hulking tome last month, I eventually came to understand that, in fact, I am among the vile.

Not that I really am a Whig; no one’s a Whig anymore (and I hope I’m not especially vile either). But for Johnson it seems that “vile Whig” and “American” are largely synonymous.

In his pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny (1775), quoted by Boswell, Johnson says of those bratty Americans that “their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe.”

“When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied,” he continues, “let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces… [T]heir own hemisphere would not contain them. But let our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.” Said with a hearty sneer.

Elsewhere Johnson refers to the fractious colonists as “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” Curbing an impulse of otherwise catholic philanthropy, he professes himself “willing to love all mankind, except an American.”

It’s hard sometimes to tell when Johnson is speaking in earnest and when he’s simply “talking for victory” (that is, taking a side and arguing it so as to win the question), but Boswell considered him sincere on this particular subject.

In Johnson’s mind, the divine right of kings was necessary to the smooth working of society (even if you did have to cut off their heads occasionally), and social subordination in the style of the British class system no less so. God may be no respecter of persons, but that’s divine prerogative and not a privilege accorded mortals.

Whiggism, on the contrary, suggests that class distinction, being a moral and historical fiction, may be jettisoned (or replaced, say, by an index of wealth or education) – and that the consent of the governed is the validating basis of any government.

As an American of colonial-era ancestry, this is mother’s milk to me. And so I perceive that I am indeed a vile Whig, a half-anarchist in the old Tory’s eyes. But it’s silly, at this distance, to take much offense, especially when you’re on the winning side.

“There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed,” the old sage says, and “subordination tends greatly to human happiness.” Boswell (child of privilege and heir to a semi-feudal estate) nods his purely disinterested agreement. “Were we all upon an equality,” Johnson suggests, “we should have no other enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.”

Cue the sounds of belching pigs and copulating monkeys. It’s a Whig’s world now, or something like it.


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Photos taken during the Poppycock-Balderdash debate of 1893 show the candidates’ policy positions in stark relief.

Johnny Clarke (actor) as Mr Nubbly ca. 1865, by Samuel Alex Walker.

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Political Melancholy

The Fall 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly has arrived in the mail, it’s theme: Politics. I consider LQ a guilty pleasure. Guilty because Lewis Lapham is a bit much sometimes, and because it’s expensive and takes up space we can hardly spare; but pleasure because it has such a nice smell, such a soft cover, and is so indulgently, gorgeously illustrated. Holding it, flipping through the pages, reminds you what a beautiful object a print periodical can be.

If you’re not familiar with LQ, it’s a magazine produced on the cheap, at least when it comes to paying its contributors, since most of them are dead. The bulk of each issue’s 200 or so pages are filled with well-chosen passages from authors of times past. “Contributors” to the current number – who run the gamut in brow elevation – include Solon, Emma Goldman, Gil Scott-Heron, Mark Twain, Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Malcolm X, Monty Python, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, H.L. Mencken, and (everyone’s fave) Notker the Stammerer, who flourished in the ninth century. This is like calling Montaigne and P.G. Wodehouse “contributors” to this blog because I quote them so often.

Politics, I said, was the theme, and of course it’s just what we need more of right now. Please, yes, more politics. Having suffered through a year plus of presidential electioneering and three very special televised debates, politics is the one thing none of us can get enough of. So, thank you, Mr Lapham. Really, it’s like treating a cold with a juicy cough in the face.

And yet, and yet… I open the pages and admit there is a same-as-it-ever-was kind of comfort in the words of founding mother Abigail Adams, wife to our second and mother to our sixth president. This from a 1775 letter:

I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power, whether vested in many or few, is ever grasping, and like the grave cries ‘Give, give!’ The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

Dear Mrs Adams! Such a graceful ager! I thought so ever since you were played by Laura Linney (opposite the immortal Paul Giamatti) in the 2008 John Adams miniseries. But who’s this now, Abby? Step aside and let’s make space for Mr Mencken, late of Baltimore, who comes in the person of Democritus Americanus to guffaw at the tragicomical farce of our benighted polity. God bless, he intones, our sacred candidates on the stump:

They will all promise every man, woman, and child in the country whatever he, she, or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They will all be curing warts by saying words over them and paying off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn. They will all know by then, even supposing that some of them don’t know it now, that votes are collared under democracy not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho.

It’s said we get the leaders we deserve. Mencken might agree, despite not coining the phrase himself. Personally, I guess we’ve been luckier than that on balance. But to think poorly of our elected representatives, and express ourselves in that direction, is a time-honored American tradition. Likewise, lamenting the decay of the present era relative to days of yore is a pastime of Homeric antiquity. Mostly, in our own case, it’s bunk. If we can survive the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the 1970s, I think we’ll survive the next few years, whether the election-day map is red or blue.

Every generation, however, has its special pathology, its popular malaise. Yesterday aboard my commuter train, while reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Renaissance Essays, I think I may have hit on our own diagnosis. In his piece on Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Trevor-Roper notes Burton’s admiration, from a bookish distance, for the Dutch and Swiss society of his day:

Those admired societies, in so far as they were active and industrious, animated by a desire for improvement, were, he believed, ‘free from melancholy’. From which it appears that ‘melancholy’ is not merely a temporary depression of spirits but a kind of pervasive social inertia, an incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.

“An incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.” Yes, this sounds about right: melancholy not as a merely personal burden but as a social malady, the reigning humor of a nation.

Burton has his special chapters on love melancholy and religious melancholy. If he were American and writing today, perhaps he would give us a chapter on the subject of political melancholy. The disease, I suspect, is untreatable at the state or federal levels. Though collectively expressed, it is rooted in individual cases. Personal treatment is necessary by personalized means. We can only wonder what a national cure might look like.


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Through Every Human Heart

I’ll be blamed (by myself at least) for posting on politics again, which I have generally ruled off-topic here at TNP(s), but I’m haunted by two particularly discordant public statements made yesterday – and I can throw in a literary reference by way of comment, so that makes it all copacetic, right? 

The first statement was uttered by our departing president in his Farewell Address.  He reminded us of the sense of “moral clarity” which he had always sought to preserve for himself and to provide for the nation:

I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.

The second statement was made by the Attorney General-designate, Eric Holder, in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Responding to Patrick Leahy’s pet question, which he has posed to all recent AGs and nominees for AG, Holder gave the senator his first-ever flat affirmative:

Water-boarding is torture.

Now for my literary reference, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:

In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments…Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.

This is precisely what was obscured by the sort of “moral clarity” on offer these past eight years: the admission that even the worthiest of human endeavors is built on compromise, and the sober conviction that we always have it within ourselves – as individuals and as a nation – to become our own worst enemy.

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A Brief Lesson in Civilization

It was an instructive, well-earned and ridiculously warm weekend.  The wife and I managed an escape from house and children to spend two nights holed up at the Goose and Turrets, a charming little inn on the coast at Montara, twenty miles south of San Francisco.  The grand three-storied house is a century old, set on a green property thick with fuchsias and fruit trees and wrapped about by a giant hedge like a castle wall that keeps out everything but the fog and the hummingbirds.  In the black of night, reading before the fireplace of our pine-floored room, the crash of colossal autumn breakers at the shore can be heard from a half mile away.

We spent Saturday and Sunday in the city.  San Francisco is famous for cold summers, but the latter half of September is gorgeous.  This year, that late September glory passed well into October and we found ourselves in shirtsleeves seated outdoors for afternoon tea, carrying our jackets rather than wearing them as we threaded a path below the skyline – astonished, despite the calendar and the fear for the economy, by the great parade of flesh and credit cards in the Union Square shopping district, and the children playing in shorts while parents dozed comfortably on the grass at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Given the passions of the presidential election and the daily carnage of the economy, it’s an odd time to indulge in a weekend away.  But such are the sacrifices we make for civilization.  It’s a raid on the barbarism of the age to sit at breakfast with strangers, to argue what is true patriotism and what sentimental claptrap, to map out schemes for agriculture, healthcare, and market reform, and to revisit all the absurdity, demagoguery, and serial elations and disappointments of a long, long campaign cycle.  It’s an even greater triumph of democratic discourse to change the subject – without drawing blood – to the lovely patterns on the china, the portrait of Marcel Marceau on the wall, the economics of travel by small plane, or the question of where to get a decent dinner. 

There is a peculiarly American habit of thought that allows us to imagine we are so individually determined as to owe little or nothing to the nurture of our country or the contours of its history, and that we owe even less to our fellow citizens.  It is a pleasure to be reminded now and again what a lie that really is.

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Marginalia, no.27

Man’s natural instinct, in fact, is never toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious and false…  It is so in politics, which consists wholly of a succession of unintelligent crazes, many of them so idiotic that they exist only as battlecries and shibboleths and are not reducible to logical statement at all… The ideas that conquer the race most rapidly and arouse the wildest enthusiasm and are held most tenaciously are precisely the ideas that are most insane.

~ H.L. Mencken

American democracy, says Mencken, comes to little more than “the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.”  Which hurts a little.  And yet it’s precisely now, during the braying raptures of the campaign season’s endgame, when a friendly face-slap is best taken.  For all his critiques of American society and religion, Mencken displays a pessimism with regard to human reason and the capacity for progress which can only be described as Calvinistic – and so in the end proves himself a true enough American, and a bit of a puritan to boot.

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Of Cabbages and Kings

My post of September 18 –with the quote about L’eclisse– sits on the page like a sour kind of parable.  The Fat Man is America, you see.  The lost 50 million lire is, according to your preference, a bundle of mortgage-backed securities or the $700B bailout.  But Paulson is no Antonioni, though no one else wants the director’s chair just now.  And not even in Bill Kristol’s sickest fantasies could Sarah Palin fill Monica Vitti’s toeless high heels.  The joke really is on us.  What’s left, then, but a slow shuffle down the street for a comfortless scotch or a glass of acqua minerale?

It sounds like a bad economist’s pun, but the problem, they say, is a lack of security – or, rather, having too much of the wrong sort of security.  But if we’re looking ahead to a long decline of empire, perhaps there’s a bright side to it all.  It may afford us leisure enough to take up old hobbies again. Time to start sketching flowers.  No drawing pad?  Here, use this scrap of napkin…  Flowers, at least, are nice to look at and tend not to have strong opinions on economic or political issues.  I can’t help but think of Montaigne in his cabbage garden.  He said so many of my favorite things.  One of them was this:

At a time when to do evil is so common, to do only what is useless is praiseworthy.

Which is nice encouragement, since it makes distraction heroic, and so many of the things I’m interested in doing right now fall into that ‘useless’ category.


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Marginalia, no.22

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.

~ Samuel Pepys, October 13, 1660

It’s an almost super-human talent, the ability to keep composed and smile winningly while being publicly dismembered.  No one lacking it is advised to enter politics.

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Political Zoology: A Cautionary Tale

Man is a political animal.  But seeing what the animal is, what may politics become?  …We have the faculty of secreting political wisdom and voiding it in the form of systems exquisite in their logic and their pertinence to our needs.  But we remain illogical and impertinent, so all our systems are realized in gross imperfection, since we have to operate them.

~ Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

The trouble with liberal democracy is the illiberality of the dêmos.  The politics of identity and the affirmation of grievance govern all.  There is an almost universal lack of generosity.  I do not exempt myself.  In fact, I consider myself an early victim of this kind of unhealthy political enthusiasm.

During the election of 1980 (when I was seven years old) my parents were on opposite sides of the fence.  My father, a republican, supported Reagan.  My mother, a democrat, stood by Carter.  I don’t remember my parents debating the merits or demerits of either nominee, I only recall their preferences – and the ubiquitous images of the candidates passing over the television screen every evening.  I was a Carter man.  Not for any valid reasons, but simply because I liked him.  He looked friendly and I was charmed by his southern accent and the fact that he had once been a peanut farmer.  My friend Roger, however, was for Reagan, who had the endorsement of both his parents.

One day while Roger and I were talking in my backyard we somehow hit on the topic of the upcoming election.  Things grew heated when he insisted Reagan would make a better president, and I countered that Carter was, in fact, a better man for the job than any second-rate actor.  Roger took offense, slandered Carter’s intelligence and then punched me in the face.  I turned my back and sat on the ground and cried.  Roger turned his back to me, too, pretending interest in a nearby shrub.  A sudden fury tore through my little frame.  I grasped the hard object nearest at hand then leapt up behind Roger and cracked him on the head with a metal corkscrew spike, the kind used to secure backyard swing sets to the ground.  Then, while he held his head and cried, I yelled out something definitive in favor of Carter and promptly banished Roger from my backyard for the day.

Seeing what the animal is…


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