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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

That Quarter Twist

There was a debate on DU about Roosevelt and other progressives and racism. Well, the ugly truth is that Wilson swept into DC and promptly segregated the civil service. All that glitters is not gold.

And the heyday of eugenics in the US was in the early part of the last century. The theory of eugenics was actively taught in universities and was literally a progressive plank. It was, tragically, American eugenics laws which formed a pattern for some of the early Nazi legislation. Not the proudest moment in our ideological history, to be sure.

I immediately thought of Chesterton, because I had just been reading (before the late personal crisis) Chesterton's The Appetite of Tyranny and thinking of Iran:
Indeed it would be inconceivable if we were thinking of a whole people, consisting of free and varied individuals. But in Prussia the governing class is really a governing class: and a very few people are needed to think along these lines to make all the other people act along them. And the paradox of Prussia is this: that while its princes and nobles have no other aim on this earth but to destroy democracy wherever it shows itself, they have contrived to get themselves trusted, not as wardens of the past but as forerunners of the future. Even they cannot believe that their theory is popular, but they do believe that it is progressive. Here again we find the spiritual chasm between the two monarchies in question. The Russian institutions are, in many cases, really left in the rear of the Russian people, and many of the Russian people know it. But the Prussian institutions are supposed to be in advance of the Prussian people, and most of the Prussian people believe it. It is thus much easier for the warlords to go everywhere and impose a hopeless slavery upon every one, for they have already imposed a sort of hopeful slavery on their own simple race.
Ah, yes. The fatal quarter twist. It is a sad societal truth that utopias with grandiose plans often quickly take that last twist.

Consider, for example, the sad tale of Geneva under Calvin, with its rapid evolution of a religious police, an inquisition, and a truly repressive society, exemplified perhaps by the deliberately slow burning of Servetus (Calvin would have let Servetus be beheaded, but Calvin also didn't exert his power to stop it, and Calvin had predetermined that if he ever got his hands on Servetus death would be the penalty) and Calvin's subsequent defense of the idea that the church was right to execute heretics. From there it was a hop, skip and jump to the issuance of quite strict regulations over clothing and food, and eventually Calvin required every Geneva citizen to address him in terms of the utmost respect. Criticism or disrespect was not tolerated. Calvin's startling theory that tyrants should be obeyed by individual citizens as should a good government, regardless of the abuses of such a ruler, might have something to do with this. (Such a ruler was still an instrument of God, perhaps serving as an instrument of God's wrath.)

This keeps happening over and over again in societies with utopian goals. One moment you are really concentrating on establishing an efficient train system for passengers and freight and making the trains run on time, and in just a couple of social breaths you are loading undesirables on the trains for an efficient and timely extermination - all in the service of the same goals. When individuals matter less than grand social goals, moderation goes to the wall.

I had never read Chesterton at all before the last few years, but two bloggers I really enjoy (The Anchoress and Assistant Village Idiot) induced me to give him a try. Well, to my awe and delight I discovered a writer who thought clearly and logically and was almost prophetic in his ability to predict where certain errors of then-modern thought would lead. Chesterton died in 1936.

So it was with a leap of the heart that I discovered that Chesterton's Eugenics and Other Evils was online at Wikisource, which has a list of Chesterton's works and links to some works for which the copyright has expired.

I suppose that hubris is human. I have been thinking along these lines because of the giant and hopeful bureaucracies we are erecting in the grand theory that the public just needs to be whipped into shape for its own good. In this moment in time, we have become an ahistoric society. The poorly educated hold sway.

But I doubt history will treat this particular moment in time with admiration. It depends, of course, on how far we go before correcting our course. Somehow I now think we are doomed to go too far before that correction. Berwick's interim appointment suggests to me that once again The Powers That Be have decided that the peasants are not only in danger of revolting, but damnably disgusting. In effect, the representatives of Congress are being treated as the citizens of Geneva were, and as for the citizens....

From the Eugenics book:
The wisest thing in the world is to cry out before you are hurt. It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially after you are mortally hurt. People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists. It is no answer to say, with a distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air.

My compliments for this very pertinent post.

Unrestrained power, always and everywhere, and regardless of the possessor, is calamitous.

Sadly, humanity seems to hew to the pendulum mode of progress:

Get oppressed almost to obliteration; revolt; wreck terrible vengeance on the old order; impose your own version of tyranny.....

rinse; repeat....
I am glad you have discovered Chesterton, very glad indeed. There is a near-hagiography of him over on chesterton.org, and it is largely true.

Wikisource also has some of his poetry. I highly recommend To E. C. Bently, which is at the front of The Man Who Was Thursday (and if I say it is also recommended, I will have to add that to almost everything I could mention). The Rolling English Road is a thing of wonder, especially when you know what Kensal Green represents. And, for all its apparent economic prejudice, The Song of the Wheels has some true gems swimming in a very rough broth. Once he likes his empty belly better than your empty head/Earth and heaven are dumb before him; he is stronger than the dead, is simply one of the most amazing couplets I have read.
Egads, things must have gotten bad if we're talking about Chesterton on an econo-blog!

I think the pertinent vector is that Progressives have converted the federal government from Uncle Sugar to the entity that "takes things away from you for the common good". Good luck making that a political winner.
Oh, I think Chesterton is a breath of fresh air in any debate on public policy.

When you read The Song of the Wheels, do yourself the favor and pleasure of reading it aloud, especially the last two verses. The music of language includes its timbre. (Actually, most of Chestertons poetry draws power from its declaiming.)
"The peasants are revolting!"
"--- You can say that again!"

For the cartoon:

Neil - try this one. It's short.

The big commercial concerns of to-day are quite exceptionally incompetent. They will be even more incompetent when they are omnipotent. Indeed, that is, and always has been, the whole point of a monopoly; the old and sound argument against a monopoly. It is only because it is incompetent that it has to be omnipotent. When one large shop occupies the whole of one side of a street (or sometimes both sides), it does so in order that men may be unable to get what they want; and may be forced to buy what they don't want. That the rapidly approaching kingdom of the Capitalists will ruin art and letters, I have already said. I say here that in the only sense that can be called human, it will ruin trade, too.

Here Chesterton is arguing against the marriage of politics and business in the attempt to defend incompetence. The monopolies he describes were mostly granted by the government.
Saloner - the pendulum is real, but when we look at our own history we can also discern real progress. This gives me hope.
Neil - also The Art of Missing the Point.
NJCommuter - That's fantastic..

Thank you for recommending it!
I've seen this non some of the "Right-wing extermist" forums I inhabit:

"It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged."

- G.K. Chesterton

Never more true than today!

pace Prof. Reynolds, I think we can probably get by with tar, feathers, and rails.

It's a grand American tradition!

w/v: summeat
Father Brown will solve all mysteries.
Neil said...



"Si vis pacem, para bellum"
Growing disparities of wealth and a separate political class beholden to those with money pretty much guarantee disaster. GK Chesterton was a favorite of mine when I was in my teen's and twenties. MoM,referring to either party as "Liberal" or "Conservative" conveys little meaning these days. Feinstein supports the Patriot act,the military commissions act,national biometric ID cards and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ( And her hubby made a pile of cash from them).Is she a "Liberal"? Bush and Cheney pushed these bills and wars and also the idea that the executive could declare anyone an enemy combatant,at which point they were no longer persons under the law. Are they Conservatives or liberals? Obama likes his unrestricted powers,does that make him "Liberal"? or "Conservative? Since it was "Conservatives" who were the primary pushers of the "Strong Executive" and "Liberals" who are now primarily abusing those powers perhaps we need better terms to describe our politicians. I nominate "Tyrant" as a substitute for "President".
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