Your Congressman, Shaper of Souls

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

 

 
 

Aristotle’s
remarks in his Politics struck me as quaint and almost silly when
I first read them in college: The statesman or legislator must mold
his subjects like a potter molding a vase (book
7, part 4
), and must shape future citizens by prescribing their
education, even down to what kind of music they should be taught
(book
8, part 3
). The goal of politics is to perfect virtue (book
7, part 1
) according to the constitution (monarchy, aristocracy,
democracy) that is best suited to the basic temperament of the citizens
(book
3, part 7
). At the time I laughed, thinking that the state was
just an impartial referee. It caught criminals and fought our enemies.
Boy, was I wrong, on both counts: The legislator of course is not
an impartial referee, and the laws do shape citizens, down
to their very character.

The American
character

Coltishness,
and not suspicion, is the typically American characteristic. Anyone
who has traveled to the poorer parts of the world, or who has merely
flipped through National Geographic for that matter, is familiar
with that pinched, distrustful frown of those on the edge of life
who want to know: Are you a threat or a benefit? We are different.

In 1989, a
friend and I were walking through the village of Eisenach, visiting
the birthplace of J.S. Bach, in what was then East Germany. Approaching
us on the sidewalk in the distance was a young man: Smiling, swinging
his arms, and bouncing up on his toes with each step. I turned to
my friend and said, “Twenty dollars says this jackass is one of
ours.” And so it was.

Our readiness
to smile and wave, and our genial impulsiveness, may make us the
butt of European jokes (famously: Otto
von Bismarck
‘s “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards,
and Americans”), but at the same time they earn us a kind of admiring
indulgence. Even when we are held in the very fist of power in a
strange country, this character, this indulgence, are evident. Consider
James Stewart, playing the American doctor Ben MacKenna (and Doris
Day as his corn-fed, wholesome wife) in Hitchcock’s The
Man Who Knew Too Much
(1956), dressing down a Moroccan police
inspector at about 6:45 in this
clip
. He thinks that he can just state the truth and walk out!
What a puppy! Or consider Patrick Swayze, playing the American doctor
Max Lowe, getting up in the face of the Indian landlord who threatens
to shut down his free clinic, in this
clip
from City
of Joy
(1992). Gawd, doctor, don’t you know this man can
crush you like a bug? Hundreds of examples like this could be provided,
starting from Twain’s The
Innocents Abroad
.

The point
of these foreign comparisons is not for contrast-gaining
against other nationalities, but to better illustrate ourselves.
As Santayana
says, travel forces philosophical reconsideration upon us. The contrast
can provide a present-day direct reference for bringing our national
character into focus.

Another, indirect,
way to do this is to compare ourselves to the past. Look into the
faces of these merchants from the dawn of capitalism: Drer’s merchant
Oswolt
Krel
; Holbein’s merchant Georg
Gisze
; Gossaert’s merchant;
Petrus Christus’ goldsmith;
and finally Jacques
Coeur
. There is a ferocious caution in the eyes of these men,
any of whom could have been crushed and their wealth confiscated
at any time, given the precarious status of property at the time.
Especially poignant is the story of Jacques Coeur, whose financial
genius and fortune held fifteenth century France together until
he was destroyed by the envious courtiers of Charles VII. (And where
is the historical novel telling his story? And — up until a few
years ago at least — where was his biography?
Lost in that great chronicle of neurotic kings and bloodthirsty
warriors.) Now, compare those faces with these portraits in the
Great Hall of the New
York Chamber of Commerce
. True, most of them are not the material
of great biographies. But the very fact that they are commonplace
and still exude the image of power and confidence in property is
a testament to the triumph of capitalism not too many generations
ago. Will this last? How many millionaires of today would think
the title of “captain of industry” a sneer instead of an accolade?
Or try this simple test: Draw up a list of the ten greatest biographies
from the United States of 200 years ago and compare it to a similar
list from the present. Is the moral seriousness of George Washington
found in any man alive today? Does the character of Huck Finn still
live in us?

And more to
the point of our discussion here, what the heck do the laws have
to do with it?

The
shaping power of the law: direct power is unnecessary

The “general
and permanent” laws of the federal government that are codified
as positive law are a subset of the 50 “titles” of the U.S.
Code
. And this Code is a subset
of the entire chronological list of laws, staggeringly enumerated
in the United
States Statutes at Large
. In addition to these, and just as
valid, are the rules issued by the agencies of the federal government,
collected in the Federal
Register
, which is over 80,000 pages in length. Naturally, laws
and rules often overlap, most conspicuously in the Tax
Code
, which may be over nine million words, though nobody knows
for sure. In none of this is there any statement so bald and indiscreet
as to suggest that you and your goods are owned by the state. But
some threat of force must stand behind all these myriad laws and
rules.

Examples of
jackbooted use of force by the police at every level of government
are depressingly abundant on the Internet, and victims do find their
activity and very likely their characters “shaped” by this encounter.
But such ham-fisted methods are otiose when the IRS, at the direction
of any official, can reinterpret the rules to threaten your property,
or when routine encounters with the police result in preemptive
“takings” of your property. Examples of the former: The Western
Journalism Center
, whose tax-exempt status was threatened after
its criticisms of the Clinton administration; Paula
Jones
, who was audited after revealing Clinton’s assault on
her in 1997; Katherine
Prudhomme
, who faced an IRS audit after embarrassing Gore and
Clinton at a town hall meeting in 2000; the NAACP,
whose tax-exempt status was threatened when its Chairman Julian
Bond criticized George Bush in 2004 — not to mention the master
in using this tool, Dick
Nixon
. The stress of these threats are sometimes enough to drive
their victims to suicide: For example, Bruce
Barron
, Mitch
Snyder
, Denise
J. Simon
, and Finn
Caspersen
. As for “takings,” consider the IRS’s power of jeopardy
assessment
, or more generally, see Richard
A. Epstein
‘s eponymous book.

Considering
this caprice in the devastating application of law that sometimes
its
own functionaries do not understand
, it is no wonder that the
IRS is the most
feared
apparatus of the state.

The shaping
power of “social engineering”

“Social engineering”
often means government manipulation of public education, not to
impart knowledge, but to shape the attitudes of children. Sheldon
Richman’s Separating
School and State
and others
give ample evidence of that, as do the originators of the phrase,
Josef
Stalin
and Deng
Xiaopeng
. Here we begin to approach the modern version of Aristotle’s
“legislator as demiurge.” The freely admitted purpose of shaping
attitudes for democracy by the AFT,
by the NEA, and
by other teachers’ unions, which are all very much agencies of the
state, not just because of their union power but because they make
up a good
block of all delegates
to the conventions of the two largest
political parties, sound very much like Trotsky’s ranting for the
New
Socialist Man
,” when he proclaimed that under his system “the
average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe,
or a Marx.”

The most
critical tool for “shaping” mass democracies

Subtler than
the foregoing in molding the very personalities of citizens of mass
democracies is the division of “public” and “private” morality,
a tool which works in three ways.

When I raised
questions (swiped from Henry Hazlitt’s The
Failure of the New Economics
) in my first “macroeconomics”
class in college, I saw how most students became bored or indifferent
to the entire subject of economics because it made a frontal assault
on their common sense. So, you’ve been taught that thrift is virtuous?
Sorry — doesn’t apply here. You think that government indebtedness
is a vice? Sorry, that doesn’t work in this field. Often teachers
of this new wisdom — starting with Keynes himself — made a point
of ridiculing those who espoused such bourgeois views. In nearly
every other field, your common sense is fundamental to crossing
the bridge from ignorance to knowledge. But not in the science that
is most critical to the defense of freedom. Conversely, it is its
basis in common sense that makes Austrian economics such a breath
of fresh air to those who are jealous of their freedoms.

In the first
application of this tool, the division of public and private morality
enrolls all those adolescent dreamers as patriot arms of the state.
Those who are willing to submerge their “private” sense of morality
to the needs of the state create the pilots to firebomb cities,
the killers to do “black ops” for the CIA, and the personalities
like Gordon
Liddy
, who admitted he would have had no problem murdering journalist
Jack Anderson, who was an inconvenience to the Nixon administration.
Such people are not like those who espouse the “Auschwitz prison
guard excuse” of “just following orders.” They are different in
that they feel a mystic union of themselves with the power of the
state. Typical of them are the (largely male) readers of Tom Clancy
novels, whose (unintentionally) hilarious plots feature one man’s
ability to single-handedly turn an entire bureaucracy to do right,
as he dreams it to be.

In the second
way, the division of public and private morality cuts off the natural
ascent of men of virtue into public office. Under this division,
holders of high office do not have the conspicuous integrity and
honesty that mark a community leader — traits which Aristotle specifically
emphasizes for his contention that politics is the culmination of
ethics. They are Kennedy’s “best
and the brightest
,” those who know better than the rest; they
are the Charlie Wilsons who steal
tax dollars to arm the mujahedeen
because they know what’s “right
for America.” The addiction to womanizing so common among this caste
is not so much a forgivable failing that should not greatly interest
us, as an expression of their aloofness from conventional rules
of behavior.

Finally, through
this ethical bifurcation the virtue of tolerance is elevated above
all others in order to prevent arguing our deepest convictions in
the public forum. Those convictions are forced into the status of
belief, which “tolerance” places off-limits to debate, when they
should be forced into the status of principles, which should be
subject to the most public and vigorous debate. Thus a principled
man like Ron Paul is made to seem like a religious
crank
. Thus the courteous argumentation that builds mutual respect
and a common passion for the truth never takes place. Tolerance
so-called creates a “truth” for your gated community, and another
one for mine. It directly defies any imperative
to will your standard of right and wrong as a universal law.

All of the
minutia of controlling education and the arts — Aristotle’s dreams
for soul-shaping curricula, like all dreams of this ilk, including
Plato’s
eugenics for the benefit of the state
, and Tommaso Campanella’s
soul-shaping art in The
City of the Sun
— are swept aside by this thrifty dichotomy.
As long as morality is private, all art becomes purely decorative.
A preference for Vladimir
Tendryakov
is no better than one for Chuck
Palahniuk
; Dali
is no better than Andres
Serrano
; Aristide
Maillol
is no better than Joseph
Beuys
. Any serious discussion of their merits would put the
(bourgeois and commonsensical) individual mind on equal footing
with “experts” in the state-sanctioned universities. With a strategic
investment in education and patronage that equivocate real merit,
resorting to detailed, hard-to-enforce prescriptions is unnecessary.
The simple linchpin idea, based on a misconception of tolerance,
is etched repeatedly in the mind by nearly every TV show, movie,
and novel.

The
last refinement in the lawgiver’s shaping of the soul

When Charlton
Heston gave an address
to the NRA
on December 7, 1997, he conducted an interesting
thought experiment. He first innocently asked how many own a gun.
Then he paused and asked how many did own a gun, but thought better
of revealing this in public. He drew an eloquent lesson:

You
have been assaulted and robbed of the courage of your own convictions.
Your pride in who you are, and what you believe, has been ridiculed,
ransacked, and plundered. It may be a war without bullet[s] or bloodshed,
but there is just as much liberty lost: You and your country are
less free.

The application
of the law in, say, a speeding ticket, is fairly random. Not all
speeders are ticketed, and some very minor speeding offenses are.
But the law which forces the driver to be alert to the possibility
of such a ticket is very different from laws which are multitudinous
and which intrude on behavior formerly regulated by custom and convention.
Is there a working man anywhere in a modern democracy who doesn’t
know that one politically incorrect word to the wrong woman in the
workplace can get him sued? Because the law stands athwart an area
that used to be monitored by mores and ordinary courtesy, it enforces
a self-monitoring in its subject citizens, who must be alert to
the many directions from which countless ill-defined laws may strike.
No forced, government-mandated implant in the brain is necessary:
The subject citizen, without firing a shot in opposition, without
murmuring a word in public debate, is unconsciously enslaved by
his own will. Our public faces may not yet be unconsciously stamped
by the Deutsche
Blick
of several generations
ago
, but in a very significant way we have already lost many
freedoms, which no radio talk show blather can recover.

What
is the tool for withdrawal?

In a nation
where government exacted about 5% in import taxes, when laws were
clear and few and aspired to be the culmination of common-sense
notions of right and wrong, the customary shapers of our character
ruled: Our parents, our teachers, our literature, music, and sports.
This is no longer the case. We are no longer the free people who
are unafraid to speak up for the right, who are jealous of our freedoms.

Violent self-defense
is a reflexive response to tyranny. But even if an exasperated citizenry
were forced to this legitimate last recourse, it may very well fail
to undo the insidious influence of the laws as described above.
Also, a violent response is a frontal assault against the state’s
greatest point of strength. To illustrate: Many of the swelling
ranks of the domestic armies will be Iraq-Afghanistan veterans.
They have returned, miffed that they couldn’t get their hands on
America’s enemies; but now you’re here: surly, uncooperative, with
a family in tow. Who’s gonna win that one? Violence is a tar
baby
: It will further entangle you in a system that knows the
language of violence very well. Furthermore, it’s unnecessary.

tienne
de La Botie
, the philosopher of the nonviolence of Gandhi and
Martin Luther King, clearly demonstrated that all governments, no
matter how brutally in control they may be, must have the support
of their subject citizens to stay in power. All that is required
to topple them is to simply withdraw that support. The key question
is: What twenty-first century tools will make this happen, tools
which are just as effective as nonviolent confrontation was in the
last century?

The limitations
of voluntaryism

One response
contends that almost any peaceful civic activity, such as voting,
is almost as counterproductive as violence. It says that there is
little that we can do to improve public matters, that, like Voltaire’s
Candide, we can only “cultivate
our garden
.” This is also the response of “voluntaryism.”
It holds that all coercion, especially that of the state, is immoral,
and that we must withdraw our support. Yes, certainly, but how specifically?
Voluntaryist John A. Pugsley provided a list of 15
ways to withdraw support from the state
. Among the more practical
of these suggestions: Don’t buy government debt, (legitimately)
avoid taxes, create or at least patronize alternatives to government
services like the post office, and educate by personal example.
Others seem very problematic: Don’t patronize businesses which have
contracts with the government, don’t use public libraries, engage
in civil disobedience, and become an expatriate. In spite of this,
Pugsley’s voluntaryist article is at least right in asking the absolutely
critical question: What specifically are the tools for withdrawal
of support from the state?

Conversely,
one might arrange it so that the government doesn’t want
the support of people like you. Do the equivalent of a union shop
slowdown: Courteously obey the laws with the intent to turn the
laws against themselves. Always drive 10 miles per hour below the
speed limit. (You can leave early and listen to Murray
Rothbard on audio tape
or get
him on iTunes
.) Make the traffic cameras an expense to the state,
instead of a cash cow. Go as slowly as possible through airport
security (“Gosh, five times through the scanner, and it was that
darned money clip!”). Send 10 pages of useless documents with your
census report and give a muddled reply to every question.

But the foregoing
highlights the weakness of voluntaryism: It is essentially peevishness,
orneriness. And it will stay that way until we discover a tool for
withdrawal of support that will be as effective as nonviolent confrontation.

The
tool within the self

Lila Rajiva
describes five
responses
of intellectual self-defense that are a kind of jujitsu,
a side-stepping of those charging at you with ill intent. While
she doesn’t describe her approach as a philosophy, it certainly
does rest on a consistent general outlook, and it is not at all
voluntaryist.

A reconsideration
of how we are to mold our own characters is the best antidote against
the state’s insidious efforts to do so. This approach must avoid
the doctrinaire aspects of voluntaryism, which not only would keep
you out of the public libraries but would preclude any effort to
promote Ron Paul or anyone like him in the public arena. This begins
with a principle of non-activity: Our resources are limited, and
most activity will only entangle you in the institutional web of
defeat. I am thinking of the wu-wei
of Daoism. But if you like, find your first principle in the prohairesis
of Epictetus: Nothing can truly disturb you except that you will
your assent to it; and for the most part this assent is not given;
it is not acting.

In any case,
think that you carry with you a small crowbar: What can you possibly
do against the armor of the state? For the most part, nothing. But
your apparent lassitude protects a vigilant mind that will one day
see the crack in this hardened armor. The opportunity will come
naturally, effortlessly. And you will know how to pry it apart.

How is that
applied, specifically? Not by wasting time and resources in unfocused
activity, but by working only the chinks in the armor. Stand fast
in “the
thicket of the law
” while we still have a remnant: Support groups
like the Oath Keepers, who
instill an awareness of the Constitution in those who wield the
force of the state; the Second Amendment
Foundation
; the Internet
Freedom Coalition
; the Center
for Constitutional Rights
. Or think how an inexpensive seed
will grow to split concrete: Give to open one student’s eyes through
Birthright Unplugged.

Again,
what is the tool for withdrawal?

“But look!”
you say. “See how you yourself have been molded by the very laws
you complain of! I don’t want to be like that — I don’t want to
hide myself, I want to say out loud that congressman Blodgett is
an ass. I want to get up in the face of the clerk frisking me at
the airport. I won’t back down!”

That is exactly
what we all aim for. We are not about to give away the coltish,
impulsive, brave character that is our birthright as Americans.
But: It is a long-term project. It is a project that fails if it
stops at some kind of stoic conditioning of the self. But we do
not yet know the tool that will make this a civic, a public, project.
I hope that it may be you, or someone like you, who, while standing
in line to check out groceries, or while driving to work, suddenly
discovers it. — It will be so simple that everyone will wonder how
they never saw it.

March
6, 2010

Terry
Hulsey [send him mail]
is a writer living in Fort Worth, Texas.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts