« previous post | Main | next post »

March 08, 2005

Washington's birthday, r.i.p.

Don Herzog, The Bartlett Files: March 8, 2005

I want to take note of a cultural change.  I think it's politically significant, and I think there is little or nothing the government can do about it.  No, I do not think it is earth-shatteringly important.  But our politics has rhythms besides the daily news, the year's legislative agenda, and the decade's wars, too.  Not to sound portentous, but the quiet cultural change I'll note may well be a sign of a bigger seismic shift.

Americans started celebrating Washington's birthday while the great man was still in office.  Parson Weems published his first book on Washington in 1800.  That's the one with the immortal story of six-year-old George's noble honesty:

"George," said his father, " do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?"  This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself:  and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie.  I did cut it with my hatchet.""Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold.  Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

Weems invented that story, or at least no one has ever surfaced any independent evidence of its truth.  But other striking stories were true.  Though it drove John Adams batty, Washington refused a salary for his service as commander in chief.  A latter-day Cincinnatus, he astonished the world by quietly returning to his farm after the war.  (It remains a stunning accomplishment of American politics that when he's not re-elected, the commander-in-chief does not promptly arrest his rival and send out the armed forces to maintain control.  Instead he politely packs his bags and vacates the White House.  Plenty of other countries only wish they could expect half as much from their generals.)  Only reluctantly did Washington agree to attend the constitutional convention — he presided over itand to serve as president.  And then he insisted on the anti-monarchical "Mr. President" as a mode of address.  Washington was the model of selfless republican citizenship and devotion to the common good.  And for many decades Washington's birthday was a public event, marked with parades, speeches, cherry pie, and the like.  It still is a public event in some places, but often as a tourist attraction.

Michael Walzer once distinguished between holidays and vacations.  Holidays are public events, celebrated by the citizens together.  Vacations are private, leaving individuals to go about their own business as they see fit.  And Washington's birthday had started drifting from holiday to vacation before Congress acknowledged the change with the Monday Holiday Act of 1968.  To secure a three-day weekend, that Act moved the great day to the third Monday of February, which ironically never can fall on Washington's actual birthday of February 22.  When President Nixon proclaimed the holiday, he turned it into Presidents' Day, glomming it together with Lincoln's birthday.  Either way, the event is now a three-day weekend marked by immersion in the serene and tawdry pleasures of private life.  Parades, speeches, and cherry pie now seem quaint, even hokey.

My favorite representative, surely yours too if you're a faithful reader of this blog — I mean of course the remarkable Mr. Bartlett disapproves.  This year, Roll Call (2/22) quoted him:

We're losing our history and how we got here.  I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned to me on Presidents Day that we were honoring Lincoln or Washington or anyone else.  It's become an opportunity for sales and a day off of school and it's no longer a recognition of these two very key people in our history.

So Rep. Bartlett has repeatedly introduced the Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act.  It would require the federal government to refer to Presidents' Day by its still official statutory name, Washington's Birthday.  And it requests that the president annually proclaim Lincoln's Birthday on 2/12 and call on the people "to observe such anniversary with appropriate ceremonies and activities."  (Ah, legislation-speak.)  Rep. Bartlett might feel differently if he knew that contemporaries wondered about Washington's religious commitments.  Jefferson delighted in a story that on leaving office and responding to an address from the clergy, Washington dodged a point-blank question on whether he was a Christian.

No matter:  the Act wouldn't require much.  And still it goes nowhere fast on the Hill.  I don't think the federal government can get us to celebrate Washington's Birthday in public, with parades and the like:  that feels like the creepy totalitarianism you'd expect in North Korea or Albania in the glory days of Enver Hoxha.  "Public holidays require coercion," noted Walzer.  I doubt that's right as a general matter, but it sounds right about trying to turn vacations back into holidays.  The feds might ask us to publicly celebrate Washington's or Lincoln's Birthday.  They might even make block grants available for interested communities.  (Right, that would invite scam artists to cash in with the hypocritical appearance of virtue.  Not to mention groans about the absurd use of taxes.)  But actually getting the citizens to show up with due public spirit?  Forget it.

Me, I don't like parades or shopping malls.  I don't like decline-and-fall stories about American history any better than I like onward-and-upward stories of inevitable progress.  I am agnostic on whether the death of Washington's birthday qualifies as good news or bad.  But I'm sure it's news.  And I know plenty of people on the left and right who think it represents an impoverishing immersion in private life.  How, they ask, shall we teach our children — and remind ourselves — of the virtues of republican citizenship?

It's a good question, but I want to press another thought.  If the only handle you have on the public/private distinction is that it's standing in for the state/market distinction, then you're in the clutches of market fundamentalism — and you won't be able to think or talk intelligently about the death of a once proud American holiday.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d834536ae669e200d83422b44753ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Washington's birthday, r.i.p.:

» Morning Links 3/08 from Pseudo-Polymath
Bill Wallo has penned a "few good posts". Morning quote from Mr Gewirtz An obit from Mr Motls Mr Herzog has some thoughts on our greatest President. And a sonnet from Mr Epps.... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 8, 2005 8:48:18 AM

» Parsonists from Done With Mirrors
Don Herzog at Left2Right laments the passing of Washington's Birthday as a true holiday. Actually, being a professor, he avoids lamenting it; he "notes" it, but in language redolent of regret for things lost. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 9, 2005 9:47:25 PM

» Market Fundamentalism from AnalPhilosopher

I always enjoy reading law professor Don Herzog, who lives and works in my home state of Michigan. See here. Conservatives, of course, despise commer... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 11, 2005 12:23:32 PM

Comments

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

It might usefully be noted in passing that there are those of us who do not share Mr. Herzog’s views on what he terms market fundamentalism and who believe it is possible to think or talk intelligently about this or any other topic nonetheless. Anyway...

If I recall correctly, the original W also thought he was entitled to a virtually unlimited expense account and, in perhaps its last act of fiscal prudence, Congress insisted that our first president make do on a salary instead.

Be that as it may, and admittedly speaking as the crass materialist sort of American who believes the urge to consume should never be thwarted by holiday closings (how dare they shut down the malls on Christmas day!), I offer a bit more perspective.

Holiday derives, of course, from “holy day” and holy days come in at least two varieties: festive and celebratory, on the one hand, and penitential and reflective, on the other. Now, before we get our church / state hackles all raised, it seems to me that the secular sense of holy, to invoke a bit of an oxymoron; that is, to declare or set something apart and deem it somehow distinct from the quotidian, is or can be a valuable civic instrument if we are at all interested in bequeathing our history and culture as a people (warts and all) to our children.

I remember my father wearing his fake poppy on Veterans’ Day and taking our family to Arlington Cemetery (we lived fairly close) to watch the changing of the guard at the Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers on Memorial Day and so forth. I admit not to have passed these sorts of traditions on to my own children and I think they are in some small way culturally impoverished because of their father’s negligence.

Viet Nam and the '60s in general seem to have been a watershed experience in the U.S. when it comes to such things. I think, also, the subsequent post-modern (and dare I suggest largely leftist) critique of the Founding Fathers, the de-mythification of our litany of great dead, white men, etc. has also taken its toll. We seem to be able neither to celebrate our own successes as a nation nor to reflect in sorrow on our own nation's sacrifices without hearing the harping whispers of “Yes, but …” in our ears. “Yes, but they really were racists…. Yes but look at how many of the ‘enemy’ we slaughtered.” All true, and yet I still want them to shut the hell up just once in a while and let us wave a flag either in joy or sorrow.

Should anybody be required to do so? Of course not. Should the state encourage it? No, I think the state should stand aside and leave the business of patriotism (its market, as it were) to society, collectively and as individuals, to do as we please. The state shouldn’t tell us to eat our green vegetables, either, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do so.

Meanwhile, if we’re going to celebrate Washington’s Birthday as some sort of “holy day” at all, let’s not overlook the real controversy. I strongly support compromise between the Julian calendar zealots and the Gregorian calendar advocates and recommend that we take both days off!

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 8, 2005 9:11:38 AM


Posted by: Shag from Brookline

Upon the expiration of his second term, do you think the current George W will quietly return to his ranch and chop the tumblin' tumbleweed? Will Congress years later declare his birthday a holiday? The original George W, it was thought by many of us, could not tell a lie. Now that this cannot be verified, what can we believe? Can it be said about the current George W that he can tell a lie?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Mar 8, 2005 10:40:00 AM


Posted by: john t

The declaration of a Martin Luther King day was a catalyst for the creation of Presidents Day,history being pushed aside for the contemporary. To me Washington was the indispensable man,except in a society where cell phones,suv's,dvd players,and the sensuous take not precedence but dominance. Whadja expect? Poor old Bartlett,tattered and bloodied as he is,seems to be on the right track.

Posted by: john t | Mar 8, 2005 11:08:32 AM


Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com

Dare it be mentioned in polite company the coercion (boycotts, etc) that forced MLK day upon us. Oops that automatically makes me a racist.

Posted by: noahpraetorius@hotmail.com | Mar 8, 2005 11:15:35 AM


Posted by: Don Herzog

john t, Congress and Nixon came up with Presidents' Day in 1968. MLK Day became a federal holiday in 1986.

Shag, yes I am quite sure that President Bush will quietly pack his bags and go. Aren't you?

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 8, 2005 11:15:40 AM


Posted by: Dallas

When President Nixon proclaimed the holiday, he turned it into Presidents' Day, glomming it together with Lincoln's birthday.


Claim: The federal holiday observed in the United States on the third Monday of February is officially designated as "Presidents' Day."

Status: False.

http://www.snopes.com/holidays/presidents/presidents.asp

(Gotta watch these profs - they like to sling hash.)

Posted by: Dallas | Mar 8, 2005 4:15:49 PM


Posted by: Perseus

DAR:

The debunking of the Founders began long before the post-modernists appeared on the scene. Left-leaning Progressive historians such as J. Allen Smith, Vernon Parrington, and Charles Beard basically charged that the Constitution was a reactionary document that all but repudiated the democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence: "the drift toward plutocracy was not a drift away from the spirit of the Constitution, but an inevitable unfolding from its premises." (Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought). Other scholars, however, have been busy "Vindicating the Founders" (Thomas West) from such charges, most of which are flat out wrong.

Posted by: Perseus | Mar 8, 2005 5:34:25 PM


Posted by: Don Herzog

Thanks, Dallas, that's interesting. A whole lot of regular media sources have reported the Nixon story as hard news. And it's posted at the website of the US Embassy to Sweden. I'll do some digging in my nonexistent spare time and see what I can surface on this.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 8, 2005 6:27:18 PM


Posted by: Gerry

Commentary on this has missed the forest for the trees. Regardless of Nixon's role, the holiday has become known as President's Day in the culture at large. And I think that that is a bad thing. Students today know frightfully little about Lincoln and even less about Washington. A Congressional declaration acknowledging each of their birthdays by name would be a tiny step in the right direction.

Despite D.A. Ridgeley's cheap shot at Washington, any American would have to acknowledge that either he or Lincoln was America's greatest president.

Posted by: Gerry | Mar 8, 2005 8:26:11 PM


Posted by: Untenured Republican

Gerry:

I think you must be confusing them with Grover Cleveland.

UR

Posted by: Untenured Republican | Mar 8, 2005 8:55:11 PM


Posted by: Don Herzog

Dallas is quite right about the story about Nixon being a myth, even if it appears in all kinds of newspapers and some government websites. For more on the actual history of Washington's Birthday, see here. Page 2 of the story explains what Nixon did and how the myth kicked in, a cautionary tale about the internet and the repetition theory of truth.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 8, 2005 9:18:06 PM


Posted by: Untenured Republican

I take it that the real issue lurking under this tale is what place "civic republicanism." We have many different political traditions from which we draw a sense of communal meaning, and in relation to which, specific historical acts resonate as embodying or flouting those values. For some, the most important, defining American image is that of a collection of individuals rising up against a tyrant in the name of individual freedom. This image seems to play unusually well among those "market fundamentalists" referred to, who tend to see the hand of George III in their every tax bill. For others, the image of an army sweeping over the lands of the Slave Power, breaking the chains of a subjugated people--this image, interestingly, causes me to free associate to the image of a principled judiciary stepping in to defend a lone individual from being subjected to treatment which otherwise seems to express the will of some majority. For others, a radio address, a voice telling us we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and the power of a great governmental engine harnessed to stamp out hunger and disadvantage. The Washington image does seem to be one which does not resonate with us anymore at all. So what?

So this: I find it interesting that when I began watching our government's transformation post-9/11, though I could find many voices pro and con, the con voices always focused on the Patriot Act and the danger of the gradual erosion of the speaker's *individual* liberty, a concern intriguingly near to the kinds of concerns that animate the market fundamentalist. I kept harping on separation of powers, the troubling precedents of tribunals whose judges work for the executive, the increasing deference of Congress to the White House, and the coup de grace, the judiciary's thinly veiled acquiescence to these trends in _Hamdi_, likening the criminal procedure protections of the Fifth Amendment to bureaucratic procedures for the termination of social security benefits (roundly and stupidly championed by the media as a great victory for opponents of the administration, which now has to get a note from teacher [from itself actually] before locking someone up and throwing away the key). I kept ranting about a new Caesarism, of which impulsive warmaking seemed but a key criterial symptom. I wondered if anyone read Roman history anymore.

Interestingly, among my conservative friends, there seemed little cause for concern: have *you*, *personally* been detained? How *many* people have been detained? (I chalk that up to market fundamentalism too: whose freedom should matter to me but my own?) Among my liberal friends, the fact of a failure of separation of powers seemed vastly overshadowed by (1) the fact that their own personal library records might very well be read by law enforcement officers, and (2) the sheer fact of war, because as we all know, war is *always* wrong (see V.I. Lenin for the detailed explanation of why, apparently).

A voice in the wilderness. Don is right: we no longer value civic republicanism because we simply no longer have the slightest clue what it is. The most popular Augustan delusion was that the empire was *still* a republic. Happily for us, we don't even know what that means, and so the slow progress towards ceasing to be one that was the twentieth century has transpired without anyone noticing what was lost. Lucky us.

Posted by: Untenured Republican | Mar 8, 2005 9:22:55 PM


Posted by: Jay Cline

As Mr. Ridgley has raised the spectre of secular holy days, I will endeavour to fulfill a promise to Noah in an earlier posting (constitution: part one) to come up with a creation myth for my civic religion. At least, if I can whip something up before this post goes stale.

Posted by: Jay Cline | Mar 8, 2005 9:32:51 PM


Posted by: hick

"Civic republicanism" has little to nothing to do with what now passes for conservative patriotism. The term itself--republican, "res publica", having to do with the public, e.g., secular--does not seem applicable to what has become the GOP, which is quite monarchical, militarist, and opposed to secularism. The Founding Fathers debate has reached the bo-ring stage, but it's obvious they were not bible-thumping baptists or puritans. Perhaps they were hypocritical tories and estate owners; nonetheless not so far in perspective (certainly in Jefferson's case) from the French philosophes. I wonder if a Tom De Lay has ever perused Jefferson thoughts on the Book of Revelation ("the work of a madman," etc.)

Yet the greatest farce of the US "republicans" is in claiming Lincoln as their spiritual ancestor. Lincoln wrote poetry, was acquainted with Emerson and Whitman ( I won't dare mention the "lavender" overtones, also noted by Carl Sandberg), and also denounced the protestants. He opposed the east coast financiers, suppoted agarian policies, and tried to move towards a national banking system. Some of his comments on economics are far closer to say FDR than to any supply-side moron. Really Uncle Abe probably would have supported Nader.

Posted by: hick | Mar 8, 2005 10:15:02 PM


Posted by: Tad Brennan

Untenured Republican:

Extremely interesting comment. Thanks.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 8, 2005 10:15:13 PM


Posted by: Perseus

By UR's strict Whig standards, Washington and Lincoln would both be guilty of Caesarism.

Posted by: Perseus | Mar 8, 2005 11:13:40 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Was I taking a cheap shot at Washington? I thought I was paying a rare compliment to Congress. Oh well. Washington would invariably make my short list of the greatest presidents. Beyond that, it seems to me that ranking presidents is pretty much a mug's game.

My thanks to Perseus for the correction. I tend to confuse when trends occur with when they hit my event horizon.

Oh, and my thanks to hick for helping to elevate the tone of the comments.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 8, 2005 11:15:44 PM


Posted by: Untenured Republican

I think I've lost the thread. I was talking about Rome. And this relates to "secularism" how? The Romans were secular humanists? I can't even follow the linguistic argument, hick.

However, very perceptive of Perseus (at least as to Lincoln)--I may have to change my party affiliation again. We Whigs have been in a state of consternation ever since they brought those damn Know Nothings into the Party and changed its name. The Abolitionists I didn't so much mind, but it seems that of the three, only the Know Nothings remain.

Lincoln's a funny case, our very own Uebermensch. Arguably the ends justified the means. He got his heart's desire: to be a Founding Father, by dismantling and reassembling the thing for us.

Posted by: Untenured Republican | Mar 8, 2005 11:36:23 PM


Posted by: Hick

Yes, tone. Heritage! Tradition. Gravitas, even. Oratory worthy of Rotary meetings. Not about tone, man. Eloquence, though amusing in some contexts, proves nothing, and generally obfuscates matters as much as it elucidates them.

Again: Jefferson denounced Christianity, and especially the Book of Revelations, and did so not in a Shakespearean or Johnsonian pettifogging "tone", but in crisp rational prose. I bet even De Lay or LaHaye, the potato chip protestants marching us towards doom could understand it.

My heartiest laugh so far today though was brought about by one Keith Burgess-Jackson, who asserts, like some Bob Forehead of Blogopolis, that "conservatives detest commercialism."

Heh heh. Yuk yuk. I got ya: Halliburton, Bechtel, and all the other war-profitting corporations are doing this as a patriotic duty.

Posted by: Hick | Mar 8, 2005 11:46:22 PM


Posted by: Perseus

By strict Whig standards, Washington could also be accused of Caesarism for these two major transgressions:

1) Washington's telling the House of Reps. to take a hike on grounds of secrecy when it demanded to see the diplomatic papers concerning the negotiation of the Jay Treaty.

2) More importantly, his Neutrality Proclamation. The proclamation (and Washington made several more of them) was justified in Hamilton's Pacificus series, which provided the expansive reading of executive power that presidents now routinely invoke.


As for Jefferson, I don't know of many conservatives who are all that fond of that gilded carriage Jacobin (i.e. French-loving, secular, limousine liberal).

Posted by: Perseus | Mar 9, 2005 1:25:13 AM


Posted by: Jay Cline

Actually Jefferson would be appalled at today's invasive federalist nature of the Democratic welfare state.

Posted by: Jay Cline | Mar 9, 2005 6:13:47 AM


Posted by: Jay Cline

Oops. I meant "socialist nature". My apologies to Jefferson. But count this conservative as a fan of Jefferson, please.

Posted by: Jay Cline | Mar 9, 2005 6:17:30 AM


Posted by: hick


Jefferson would be far more appalled, as would Madison and probably Lincoln himself (and any number of democrat or moderate presidents), at the triumph of Hamiltonian elitist finance on the British model and the loss of agrarian America.
Arguments could be made that the last sound US economic policies occured with FDR, if not Woodrow Wilson.

Posted by: hick | Mar 9, 2005 10:08:53 AM


Posted by: Untenured Republican

Perseus:

Ditto re Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence is a fine thing, but my *picture* of him is essentially Gore Vidal's. Irritating man.

Posted by: Untenured Republican | Mar 9, 2005 10:11:58 AM


Posted by: Untenured Whig

Regarding Washington, I can't speak to the specific examples. I just want to make sure that I'm understood that a stronger civic republican intution about the importance of separartion of powers does not automatically equate with as weak a presidency as possible (that would be to slide toward what I think of as the liberal mistake, akin to the market fundamentalist mistake of regarding as weak a government as possible as always good). I'm all for a vigorous executive. But we do have these intuitions (or we should) about "balance", and some clear examples from history of "going too far." I think that these intuitions mostly come from our appropriation of a certain interpretation of Roman history. We know it when we see it. Thus, for example, I became very uncomfortable about Bush's treatment of Peter Fitzgerald (as Gerry Trudeau sadly reminded me the other day). I want the Prez to do his job, but I don't want the courts or legislators too cowed.

BTW, I'm a big fan of a lot of what gets said by the so-called market fundamentalists. But I think that it is a view which can lead to a distorted picture of what government is and what our relationship to it should be. In Hegelian terms, we shouldn't be so *alienated* from it. That path leads to Oklahoma City.

Posted by: Untenured Whig | Mar 9, 2005 10:20:50 AM


Posted by: No Labels Please

I think Mr Herzog raises, perhaps indirectly, an important point. If it has become too unfashionable to celebrate Washington's birthday, then that is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem : America has become too divided and cynical to agree on a common set of values or celebrate any type of common heritage.

Because of the incredible diversity of America, the lack of a shared set of cultural or civic values is a real problem. The left's agenda to greatly increase the government's role in social matters has been greatly compromised by this lack of felt common purpose. Intrestingly, much of the left can barely conceal disdain for many of the types of shared values traditions and experiences [parades, oh my, never mind religion!] that typically hold societies together.

Posted by: No Labels Please | Mar 9, 2005 10:56:59 AM


Posted by: hick


What is it citizens should be celebrating on President's Day? If anything it would be freedom from the monarchy and from state religion--i.e. classical republican values, that is to say secular values. The neo-con blog boys keep forgetting that the American usage of republican has very little to do with traditional usage--recall the Spanish republicans, the Irish Republican army, the french republicans.

Yeah, parades, man, that's what we need--USA! we kick muthaf-in ass

Posted by: hick | Mar 9, 2005 11:25:59 AM


Posted by: Terrier

And the rightwings constant harpings on the alien government that only wants to bleed your hard earned wealth has led to a separation of the people from their government. Washington is no longer one of us. He is the vampire stalking the halls of the IRS. The executioner of your freedom. The rapist lying in wait for your pocketbook. The fantasy of people who feel no power or responsibility in themselves and thus attribute all their problems to some foreign force over which they have no control. The damage this has caused to the nation is far greater than liberal professors caused by questioning Washington's expense account.

Posted by: Terrier | Mar 9, 2005 11:45:39 AM


Posted by: Untenured Whig

Hick:

There has been a breakdown in communication: though the groups you mention certainly did use the word "republican" (and I see all these usages as tracing back to the French, ultimately), the set of ideas that Don and I were talking about were ideas that go back to *Rome*, and which influenced some of the Founders through their knowledge of Roman history. Much of this Francophilic tradition you are talking about has *very* different views about what government should look like and why. Separation of powers and rule of law are "republican" issues in this sense. While an affection for these things is, I suppose, compatible with the French revolutionary tradition, there are reasons to think otherwise. That's not to say that that tradition didn't see itself as having a relation to Rome as well--but it's a somewhat different one, I think. That's not to attack it, that's just to say that we were using the word to refer to two completely different things. Singing: "You say Rousseau, I say Montesquieu. You say Rousseau, I say Montesquieu; Rousseau! Montesquieu! Rousseau! Montesquieu! Let's call the whole thing off..."

Posted by: Untenured Whig | Mar 9, 2005 11:56:46 AM


Posted by: Tad Brennan

Hick, Terrier--

Just chill a little, okay? You've got some decent points to make, but we generally try to keep the flame-level down on this site (or at least that's how it seems to me).

I agree that certain elements of the right bear some responsibility for painting the govt as an alien force--Untenured Republican/Whig up above made a good point about how some of the "market fundamentalis" rhetoric can lead in directions that rationalize Oklahoma City. The thing is, when UR/W made that point, he did it in a really interesting way, that showed he was not being a cookie-cutter Republican, Whig, or anything. That's cool--I think it does everyone a lot of good when people don't play to type. (More professorial version: I think political affiliations are not natural kinds).

But running down parades--geez, where's that at? Have you actually been to a good July 4th parade recently? I don't care where you come from on the spectrum, you are going to get a lump in your throat. I remember a time when my wife and I came back to the States after living abroad for a few years and happened to be in Tucson for a football parade. Just a beautiful event, heartbreakingly sweet, especially after living overseas. And you've got to check out the Fourth of July parades here in Evanston, Illinois--Country Home magazine says it is the third best in the country, after D.C. and Boston.

Look, one way we can celebrate our freedom from a state religion is by watching a parade in which a contingent of gospel singers from Chicago's South side is followed by a float sponsored by Falun Gong followed by the Planned Parenthood Marchers followed by the Sons of Ireland. I watched it last year before our own neighborhood float was marshalled in, and I just felt awe-struck and humbled: only in America.

I remember talking to a grad student from Germany who was describing a train-ride through Pennsylvania, seeing all the small churches lining the valleys, onion domes and steeples. This was when Sarajevo was still under siege, and he was so impressed by our ability to live side by side--something Europe still needs to catch up on.

So, yeah, we need parades. We need them because they are beautiful and inspiring and because they show us our friends and neighbors professing their own values and faiths, differing values and differing faiths, but united in our love of America.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 9, 2005 12:11:08 PM


Posted by: Untenured Whig

Terrier:

And all these yahoos are *deluded* in thinking that they have no control over what goes on in Washington, right? And if not, it's a good thing too because they are, after all, yahoos? Hmmm. Suppose that you are a citizen, confronted with a lawsuit because you violated the EEOC's regulatory interpretation of Title VII, facing a judge who defers to that interpretation (Title VII is remarkably thin textually, but the EEOC's regulatory pronunciamentos are rather extensive and detailed). What are you going to do? Write your Congressman? Vote differently? Good luck. The yahoos and Max Weber might find themselves in substantial agreement about how the world works, and I'm with Weber on that one.

The feeling of alienation comes not from the professoriate. But there is a perception, far from unjust, that the professoriate is part of a larger system (the justificatory arm of it, as it were) over which citizens have precious little control. Naturally, things look differently if you *agree* with what it does, or are a part of it. But that begs a lot of questions...

Posted by: Untenured Whig | Mar 9, 2005 12:17:30 PM


Posted by: Terrier

Whig, I never said anyone was *deluded*, I was merely describing the attitudes that I have observed and certainly your response confirmed that I was correct in my assessment. I feel sorry for those that have no real American patriotism. One of my fondest memories is marching in a parade carrying the American flag next to my father, a 35-year veteran.

Posted by: Terrier | Mar 9, 2005 2:18:25 PM


Posted by: hick


Another amusing feature about the American college-boy conservative, as opposed to his uneducated yahoo cousin, is how he usually refrains from referring to Scripture to buttress his points, as he may have done when at his high school valedictorian speech; now he is, after a few semesters with da Classics, using Tacitus or Marcus Aurelius or Julius Caesar or Plato or whatever ancient pagan tyrant to give some support to his Toryish desires. So an Aurelius, a prototypical Roman strong man (with a nice writing style, 'tis true) now replaces the King James Bible on the young Solon's shelf.

The writings of rationalist moderns--say Rene Descartes or Newton himself--are not to be detected among the Great Books with which young Solon develops his gravitas; for a Descartes is far too close to logic, the most dire of threats to the trailerpark-Augustan edifice.

Posted by: hick | Mar 9, 2005 2:40:00 PM


Posted by: Tad Brennan

Hick--

I don't get it. There are so many other sites around the web where you can engage in unrestrained name-calling. Why do it here, where the people who run the site seem to be aiming for something different?

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 9, 2005 3:11:38 PM


Posted by: hick


No name calling--simple obversation: When "Christians" or putative conservatives turn to say Plato or Aurelius to buttress their points, I laugh.

And instead of the endless, futile frat-boy policy debate, how about some well-demarcated criteria? I note that there are these "professional philosophers" about: so does that mean logic, and only logic, shall be the arbiter? All statements confirmable by either inductive or deductive means? Like most grad. student discussions, this isn't about argumentation, or proof or evidence, its about manipulation, racketeering, about positioning. I have yet to read a rational defense of theology on any of these Xtian blogs. Why? Because there are none.

Posted by: hick | Mar 9, 2005 4:24:42 PM


Posted by: Untenured Whig

Thanks Tad.

I suppose that it is foolish to dignify this sort of thing with a response, especially since I was already being so nice in suggesting that we were using the same word to allude to different (sub)traditions, rather than saying that he didn't understand the putative essence of republicanism. The rest I can only chalk up to pure projection, having not been reared in a religious environment at all, and being far too many decades and degrees away from my college years (during which, if memory serves, I festooned the Black Banner of Anarchy in my student apartment and read Bakunin). Either that, or politic-ism. As for ressentiment of *style*, well that's a new one to me. I never thought much of the Harlan Ellison School of Honesty myself. There is a way we (or our words) smell when we haven't bathed, and I suppose we could call that "natural," but the others prefer that we use soap before entering enclosed spaces. I don't mind.

I'd be delighted to quote Descartes (perhaps we should look in _Discourse_ II?) or Newton on their political views, but frankly, I don't know much about what they were. The great Hobbes, now his views I know. Arguably, what makes Hobbes possible is part of the problem. Perhaps he would care to Enlighten us? Instead of Terrorizing us?

As for Terrier, I think he may have misunderstood me, so I have no barbed words for him at all. I was interested in *causation* (my first sentence began with the word "and"); you can't get alienated from leviathan if there's no leviathan to get alienated from--a necessary but not sufficient condition. My comments suggested that I find this alienation deplorable and even dangerous. (Hick, in his own, somewhat different way, finds it desirable, as long as it is alienation from the right *team*). Re-education of the yahoos might help (we could set up little camps, say; it hasn't been done yet, but perhaps a suitably concise anthology could be edited of the Quotations of Chairman Rawls?), but another possible option is a smaller, more decentralized and more citizen-responsive government. Transfer of states' responsibilities to the federal level, and delegation of legislative powers to executive agencies, while perhaps unavoidable (depends upon how big government *has* to be), might be part of the problem. I like a world with more citizens, and citizen-politicians, and fewer bureaucrats and lawyers. But that's just me.

Posted by: Untenured Whig | Mar 9, 2005 4:54:46 PM


Posted by: Untenured Whig

Earth to Hick: I'm not a Christian, unless I must be by virtue of some stipulative definition of yours.

Posted by: Untenured Whig | Mar 9, 2005 4:59:26 PM


Posted by: hick


Hobbes, the social contact, the sovereign, etc. are pretty much irrelevant, or at the very least, I don't think in those terms--nor in Rawlsian or Gewirthian ethics--"Oh, yes the people should do this, or has this duty, obligation and so forth." Gewirth's "system" is about as near as any philosophical dweeb comes to a real objective ethics, but in Malthusian scenarios--and I do not think we are so far from those, e.g. war, famine, plague, natural disasters--the rational man standard, or idea that we must value other's rights to survival since we somehow value our own, is quite ludicrous. I think behavior is far more determined-- biologically and economically--than is supposed by philosophical or political types anyway, so I have problems with the entire notion of ethics or rational politics (or theology for that matter). "Civilization and its Discontents", not to say the Origin of Species, are more accurate guides to how groups behave.

Posted by: hick | Mar 9, 2005 5:48:08 PM


Posted by: Terrier

For the record, I was responding to No Labels tiresome slander of "much of the left can barely conceal disdain for many of the types of shared values traditions and experiences." Would you spend a moment asking him to tone down his rhetoric, Tad? It is actually personally offensive to me to hear this kind of drivel when I was raised by a career military man who was also a lifelong liberal and Democrat. I would suggest listening to liberals to understand what we stand for and not just parroting Rush, then I would not have to hear these wildly inaccurate insults. That, I think, is one of the points of this site. Don't treat me as a half-human caricature and then ask me to tone down my rhetoric. I don’t wander around here accusing most conservatives of working to substitute theocracy for the Constitution so quit making sweeping statements about me that only show you to be ill-informed, insensitive, and disrespectful.

Posted by: Terrier | Mar 9, 2005 6:13:05 PM


Posted by: David

Hick:

There's a difference between describing *how* groups or persons behave and proposing *why* someone or some people should behave a certain way. The former is a descriptive endeavor concerned with causation. The latter is a prescriptive endeavor concerned with practical reason, that is, what recommends taking a course of action or committment to a code of behavior. If you dismiss the possibility of rational choice or persuasive ethical principles, then you really have no business taking part in a discussion about politics or morality. Because moral and/or political arguments all recommend some collective course of action, they must appeal to practical reason in some sense. By dismissing the possibility that one course of action is favored by some objective standard (i.e., reason), then you have no footing on which to recommend a particular political arrangement or moral system. All you are left with is your personal preferences. All you can say is that you like one system more than another--that one would please you more. But, that sort of claim has no persuasive authority vis-a-vis others without appeal to practical reason. So, why come to a blog like this to say anything? How are you possibly going to affect our political and moral positions?

If you claim that there is nothing (i.e., no reason) to recommend one path as opposed to another, then you have no basis for complaint one way or the other--except to say, again, that you don't like it. If there are no impersonal principles of action to appeal to, when someone comes to kill you, or torture you, or tax the hell out of you, then all you can say to them is "I don't like being killed, tortured, or taxed up the wazoo." That alone is unlikely to change your fate (I assume the killer lacks a natural motivation to please you, and even if he did, he would have to employ *reason* to determine that a course of action would agree with his motivation), and you would have no basis for moral/political complaint. You will find yourself in Hobbes' "state of nature," where suddenly the arguments of Hobbes, Rawls, Kant, etc. start to make a whole lot of sense.

But, even on a personal level, it seems absurd to deny the existence of practical reason. When you have two choices in front of you--walk into moving traffic or wait for the "walk" sign--what considerations make you choose one course of action over another? You appeal to some standard of action, whether you want to admit it or not. And if you don't, it won't be long before you've made a choice you regret. This is typically what we're talking about when we appeal to rational choice in our moral and political arguments, except that we're aware of choice in the context of a social life. The rational agent surrounded by other rational agents sees the wisdom and possiblity of managing the actions of others; and given his resources, he is rational to effect such management through collectively enforced coordination. This is the basis of morals by agreement, seen in the contract tradition of Hobbes and Rawls (though, we shouldn't equate those two too quickly). If you don't see what recommends escaping a state of nature through collective agreement, then I wonder how you've made it this far.

I'm not saying that moral and political philosophy has no difficulty dealing with rationality. But, if you're going to dismiss rational choice period, then I don't see what there is to argue about on a blog like this. As I said, the very debate presumes that reason is a guide--that *something* should persuade us to change our proposed moral/political arrangements. So, if you're unwilling to permit that presumption, then there is no place for you in the debate.

Posted by: David | Mar 9, 2005 9:07:38 PM


Posted by: hick

That really isn't the point. Not to sound too, uh, continental, but ethics discussions are typically so abstracted from historical and economic reality as to be nearly useless. What you term practical reason, obligation, the rational man standard, social contract, geschellschaft or whatever: those are great in a society of fairly like-minded human beings. In Chicago 30s or Munich 20s or Moscow '17 or Paris or San Francisco '68 (or LA 2005) where are those people that want to, as LBJ asked, reason together? For fairly affluent college students in nice colleges or law schools, ethics can be abstracted, defanged, taken out of nature: for say starving peasants all over the world it's not such a polite matter.

I do believe in general in what you guys call deontology. Don't lie or hurt or commit crimes. Yet if 50% (25%?) of the population IS succeeding by non-ethical means--lying, stealing, swindling, pimping, which is not far from the truth in say vegas or LA--then what obligations are there beyond perhaps a sort of thieves' honor, if that? Practical reason might lead one to open a casino, if not a whorehouse. Is Jerry Buss starting the LA Lakers practical reason? Practical reason is a means of survival, a means of getting things, of succeeding. And in some sense, in a society where many are marginalized and reap little benefits from the state or private sector, practical reason might lead, not illogically, to one deciding to, say, commit crimes.


And why should, say, the associated neo-con bloggers of Peoria State or whereever you guys are, team up and open a whorehouse, at least where it is legal? Lucrative, entertaining, perhaps gratifying.

Posted by: hick | Mar 9, 2005 10:17:31 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Actually, LBJ lifted the line from Isaiah 1:18. By that point in U.S. history, people were already sufficiently ignorant of the Bible to notice. At least when Lincoln asserted that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," many knew he was quoting Matthew 12:25. Just an idle thought on our lost cultural heritage, really. Please go on with the diatribe.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 9, 2005 10:31:52 PM


Posted by: Jay Cline

Sounds like an Israeli-Palestinian argument, "No, you yield first".

Posted by: Jay Cline | Mar 10, 2005 12:00:59 AM


Posted by: Jay Cline

Say, hick, how 'bout us po' boys who actually respect a little egercashun?

(I just descended to that level, didn't I? drat!)

Posted by: Jay Cline | Mar 10, 2005 12:04:13 AM


Posted by: hichickk


Before any ethical discussion commences, what sort of views the participants have towards materiality and theology broadly construed should be decided upon as well. Those who start from Hobbesian materialist premises and assume that people act in their own self-interests most likely will have quite different views of ethics and responsibility than will theists or classicists, or marxists for that matter. The field never begins at level, however, as playingNietzsche recognized in his mockery of the English social contract theorists: the social contract begins with vikings or huns or centurions or cowboys arriving to rape and plunder.

Posted by: hichickk | Mar 10, 2005 12:36:58 AM


Posted by: hick

"the very debate presumes that reason is a guide--that *something* should persuade us to change our proposed moral/political arrangements."

If you think that "reason" is what is guiding or persuading people towards decisions--ethical or not-- I think you have a very short sighted view of psychology. Few humans choose certain courses of action or buy things on some notion of "what would be the most reasonable or just thing I should do in this situation"; they are, however trite and utilitarian it sounds, acting to maximize pleasure, they are consuming, they are furthering their social or economic status. Yes?
And if they can get away with maximizing pleasure or their profits by deceit or crime many choose to do so. And a great criminal or businessman--say Larry Flynt--may seem utterly unethical and anti-social, but his "rational choices" are nonetheless paying off. I guess I don't see any necessary connection between rational choice and ethics: in many situations an unethical or criminal act could be a rational choice. Say Cyber-pud's a great but neglected programmer, college educated, who has been denied numerous jobs by silicon valley software companies. So he decides to pursue a life of crime ( non-violent though). He designs a great program to counterfeit $20's, makes hundreds of 'em, passes 'em off, buys the services of pretty asian escorts with them, yet never gets caught. Unethical? Or he taps into say Walmart Inc.'s bank account and siphons off thousands into his account. Or he does the same from Larry Flynt or vegas casinos or Bill Gates. These would all be quite rational and complex decisions, and crimes as well, yet are they all unethical? And if he is never caught what is the difference.

Posted by: hick | Mar 10, 2005 1:15:10 AM


Posted by: Untenured Whig

Jay:
There was an argument?
I'm now officially bored. But unless someone wants to change the litterbox, I feel compelled to take my leave. Eventually he'll get bored too, and then the thread will die completely. Perhaps the entire site. I know I'll think twice before bothering in the future.

Posted by: Untenured Whig | Mar 10, 2005 7:11:00 AM


Posted by: abab man

Mr. Herzog,
I guess I see this as more of a call for introspection than to consider how market fundamentalism does or doesn’t allow one to intelligently converse on this issue. Maybe you should have left off your last paragraph, because to me the more important question is the first. “How, they ask, shall we teach our children — and remind ourselves — of the virtues of republican citizenship?” … or American citizenship?
The Founding Fathers, (Washington), as you have shown are/is as much a subject of fable as of fact. The legends and the ceremony are to remind us of what, we wish or hope, we hold dear, as much to commemorate the actual person or event. It is funny you mention the tale of Washington and the cherry tree, and somehow the thread comes down to Hick proposing (I think, I was having a hard time following his train of thought) anything is ethical as long as you do not get caught. Is it any wonder you see the death of Washington’s Birthday?
I am not agonistic about this; I see it as bad news. I see this as more than “an impoverishing immersion in private life”. If we are having a hard time teaching and reminding ourselves of the virtues of republican citizenship, what does that say about our attention to the responsibilities of republican citizenship? If we, not the societal we, but you and I, allow holidays to become vacations, when will we reflect on the privilege and the good luck we have to have been born at this time and live in this place? What gratitude do we owe, what debt do we still have to pay, to those imperfect men and women who have come before us? Is this hokey? Probably. Even so, I’d like to believe there are more people on both the left and right side who believe the same way. To protect what we hold dear we first must remember just what we do hold dear and why it is important. Holiday’s and celebrations can help. Letting them go might very well be just another nail in America’s coffin. Trying to legislate this pubic spirit, or relate it to a state/market distinction is just fiddling while Rome burns.

Posted by: abab man | Mar 10, 2005 10:09:04 AM


Posted by: hick

"somehow the thread comes down to Hick proposing (I think, I was having a hard time following his train of thought) anything is ethical as long as you do not get caught."

No, but count on putative conservatives to misread and mock positions or conclusions that irritate them. Like most law and ethics scholars the majority of people posting here continually assume a level-playing field--not the case, by any means. And they ignore naturalism, whether it's of the Hobbesian or Darwinian type.

Moreover, expecting humans to ponder the consequences of their actions when they make a decision is naive. I think legalized gambling is unethical, and there is evidence to support that, yet millions of people disagree.

Americans grow up in an environment which stresses hedonism and individuality--obligation or consequences is hardly ever the primary concern for consumers. A kid growing up in say California does see a society run by Larry Flynts, Jerry Busses, Hefners, Snoop Doggs, if not Al Capones. Ethicists should be far more cognizant of that.

Not that I entirely share Singer's views, but his ideas on cattle and eating beef are interesting. The cattle market does deplete the topsoil, they require huge amounts of energy (transporting feed or cattle to slaughter, then shipping out the beef), and of course there is the issue of pain. Sure appears as if they feel pain--knowing this, though I am not vegetarian, I try not to eat beef. That sort of analysis is real ethics--you look at actions and practices in the real worlds--say eating, gambling, transportation, crime--and then make decisions or recommendations. The Tory dream of some extracted moral principle is just that, a dream: indeed, a valid deontological ethics was provided by Gewirth anyways in Reason and Morality, but I get the sense due to the secret anti-semitism of much law and ethics people that he is not taken seriously.

Posted by: hick | Mar 10, 2005 11:59:09 AM


Posted by: Tad Brennan

abab man--

Thanks for your note. I agree with you on the importance of reflecting on how appallingly lucky we are to have been born in the U.S. and on "commemorating the imperfect men and women who have come before us". (The interesting thing is not whether Washington committed adultery or not--adulterers are a dime a dozen. The interesting thing is that this guy, whether adulterer or not, had a chance at monarchic power supported by public adulation, and he walked away from it. In the history of the human race, that is a less common occurrence than adultery. Ditto for Martin Luther King's adultery. If you want to reflect on the moral grandeur of King, only think how differently the Palestinian situation would have evolved it it had been led by a King instead of an Arafat).

Where we might differ--or at least where I will certainly differ from some conservative readers of this blog--is over the possible beneficial roles for public intervention. I am actually inclined to think that governmental actions of various sorts could make a small but positive difference in our national attitudes. You can't legislate attitudes, of course, but you can shift money around, and sometimes money can lead to changes in attitude. (Thought experiment: suppose that no municipality were permitted to expend any public funds on fireworks shows, even indirectly through provision of emergency services. Do you think attitudes would not shift if a generation of kids grew up without fireworks shows? Sure they're just symbols, just dimestore pyrotechnics, but the whole experience shapes our sense of civic identity).

So I'm all for introspection, but I don't think we should assume from the start that we have to fight this battle without the aid of governmental intervention.

Terrier--

Thanks for your note. Sorry I put your nose out of joint. Yes, I'm the one who asked you to tone down your rhetoric (or words to that effect), but I'm not the one who treated you "as a half-human caricature". That was a different guy, calls himself "No labels please", and he and I don't function as a bloc. I might or might not be the guy who was "making sweeping statements about me that only show you to be ill-informed, insensitive, and disrespectful"--depends on which sweeping statements you have in mind. That aside, there's probably enough evidence on the table already to convict me of being ill-informed, insensitive, and disrespectful, no matter how this question turns out, so I'll plead to that one, too.

Should I have said something to No Labels Please about his line ""much of the left can barely conceal disdain for many of the types of shared values traditions and experiences"? Well, I didn't like that line, myself, and I was actually thinking of putting in my two cents about how some of us lefties are very fond of our shared American traditions and values.

And then before I could write it, wouldn't you know it, Hick bursts in with his bit about how parades are for morons, not even attempting to conceal his disdain, and confirms exactly the caricature that No Labels Please has just put forward. Took the wind right out of my post. 'Cause with Hick stepping in to confirm the stereotype, I couldn't deny that *some* of the left is like what NLP said, and he had never claimed that *all* of the left was like that (notice his quantifier), and after that it was just down to haggling over the price, as G. B. Shaw put it.

But hey, better late than never when it comes to being even-handed:

NLP--would you mind changing that to "at least a few though surely not all of the left can barely conceal disdain for many of the types of shared values traditions and experiences"? I think that would be more in keeping with the tone of this blog, as far as I can discern it.

Play nice, everyone, that's all I'm asking.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 10, 2005 12:54:56 PM


The comments to this entry are closed.

« previous post | Main | next post »