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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Books Completed in 2017

I didn't read as many books this year as I normally do. I found myself, in these weird political times, looking for contemporary analyses of our new political culture.  So magazines became more important than books.  Commentary, First Things, The Atlantic, National Review.  Agree or disagree with their points of view, the fact that others were as perplexed as I at the rise of Trumpist populism, and had intelligent things to say about it, kept me sane.  I did finish a few books though. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic 2007) Audio CD.  4 stars out of five.  

The best way to experience a Harry Potter story is not to watch one of the movies, or even to read one of the books.  It is to listen to one of the books being read and performed by an actor with a versatile voice range and a warm and gemuetlich voice.  Jim Dale and other gifted narrators of audible books have taught me to understand why the ancient Greeks preferred the oral tradition, in which the first works of Western literature were rendered, over the written.

American Ulysses, A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White (Random House 2016) Hardcover. 5 Stars out of 5.

I absolutely loved this Book!  No surprise, as I also loved Ronald C. White's A. LincolnMy full review is found here: 

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles (Penguin Random House 2011) Audible 2.5 Stars out of 5.  

Not sure what possessed me to listen to this Gatsbyesque book, as I have always despised The Great Gatsby.  Must have been a review from someone whose opinions I normally agree with.  The author's style is skillful and engaging, with a few similes, scenes, or passages that are moving, memorable, and even quietly truthful or important.  The main character/narrator's love of reading allowed for some enjoyable short digressions on the value of literature and the merits of certain authors' works.  But for all of that: I didn't really like it. Though set in 1938, nine years after the stock market crash and great depression brought the roaring twenties to an ignominious end, and 25 years before the dawn of the sexual revolution, the characters all seemed to be living in a world of moral apathy, with attitudes and behaviors more appropriate to a novel set in the 1970s. Maybe that's not an anachronism given the world of inherited wealth in which the novel is set (maybe aristocratic New Yorkers, and the social climbers who finagle their way into their lives, really have always acted this way, how would I know--but it does seem likely that this is yet another example of pop entertainment rewriting history to make it seem as though Americans of prior eras all had the same basic mindset and values as the 21st century author). In any event, I soon found that I had little desire to visit this setting or be with these people.  I admired the male author's ability to convincingly write in the voice of a female narrator (or maybe the audible performance by a female performer just covered up any flaws), but I didn't really enjoy that character, despite her voracious reading, which is usually the easiest way to make me like someone in either the real or the fictional world.  In the end, one character's decision to give up the most amoral aspect of his life provided a somewhat hopeful ending, but it wasn't quite enough to redeem the otherwise pointless plot. 

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (Trade Paperback [original publication date 1959]).  3.5 Stars out of 5.  

One of those Sci-Fi classics I always meant to read but never got around to in my Sci-Fi loving teenage years.  The Bad: Like most such polemical twilight zone morality tales, the plot's destination is boringly obvious from the outset, and the story hasn't aged all that well.  If it is possible to write an engaging page-turner set in a monastery (which I highly doubt), this author hasn't pulled it off. The Good: The author demonstrates that he's well versed in some of the inevitable patterns and recurrent themes of history.  (It was an interesting experience in mental synthesis to be reading this book at the same time I was listening, during my commutes, to the beginning chapters of Will Durant's, The Age of Faith, on audible, describing the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of a Medieval Christianity which would preserve and eventually seek to restore the lost texts and scientific knowledge of the classical world.) And there are a few eery symbolic touches that work well, as well as a couple of scenes that will resonate with me for a long time.

Grace Is not God's Back-Up Plan.  Adam Miller. Paperback. 4 stars out of 5. 

We know that Greek was not Paul's primary language, and historians inform us that he did not write all that well in that tongue. (His parents, devoted Jews, would have given him enough Hellenic learning to get on in the world, but would have been primarily interested in his instruction in Judaism and the Law.)  That may be one explanation for why Paul's epistles, on theologically difficult and sophisticated issues which he was trying to express in a second language, which were then translated from that not-very-fluent Greek, into the Latin Vulgate and then into modern European languages, remain difficult for most readers to follow, and have led to so much theological confusion over the centuries.  

Or maybe it's just us.  

In this book, the author paraphrases Paul's epistle to the Romans into a modern English.  It's a paraphrase, and not a translation.  He's not claiming that the original Greek supports his revisions.  That would be an exercise in linguistics, where the point of this book is for one Latter-day Saint, speaking personally and without authority, to give us his own subjective understanding of certain doctrinal truths as he feels they are being expressed by Paul.   Miller wants us to better understand the central role of grace in Christ's plan for our happiness.  It's a fine effort, and there are some gems of wisdom to be found here.  I was especially moved by his take on Romans 14: "When you meet together for worship, welcome those weak in faith.  Welcome those with worries and doubts and questions. But don't argue with them. Don't welcome them in as a chance to prove --again-- that you're right about something. . . .  God welcomes everyone, insiders and outsiders both.  Who are you to judge what people wear or eat?  Who are you to judge how people think or vote? Let God sort it out. . . .  Judge no more.  If you're desperate to use your keen sense of judgment, use it on yourself."

The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization Book IV), by Will Durant. (Simon and Schuster 1950).  Audible. 5 stars out of 5.

James Madison argued, in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (one of the most important but long forgotten tracts of the American founding), that Christianity had lost its way and soiled its purity when it had been joined with the secular government:

[e]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. 

This fourth volume in the Durants' amazing work of popular history can be read as a 10,000 page treatise in support of Madison's claim.  

Covering roughly a millennium, beginning with Constantine's embrace of Christianity and the final decades of the western half of the Roman Empire, and concluding shortly before the beginning of the Renaissance, the book tells us everything we could want to know about the apostasy and silliness which infected the Christian Church, and the society it was built on, during this period. But it is not a diatribe, and the achievements of the Christian faith, and of its most important and enlightened adherents and advocates, in at least preventing the post-Roman world from falling into total anarchy, and in reforming and humanizing the world, are also highlighted. The achievements and the failings of Islam and Judaism during this time period are also covered, respectfully and at length. 

Stefan Rudnicki's narration is excellent, and, as with the other books in the series, the most engaging information is not the copious history, but the author's wry asides and wise commentaries on human nature and the inevitable patterns of life and history which emerge from the same. ("Transmission is to civilization what reproduction is to life."  "War does one good.  It teaches people geography.") 

There is an attitude in these books which, if widely emulated, would go a long way towards making the world a better place. That attitude, for lack of a better phrase, is non-polemical. This is scholarship largely devoid of ideological intent, without any particular bones to pick or premises to prosecute.  We are told the story, and its effects.  The follies of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are offered up plainly and without sensationalizing. But the strengths of each movement, and its advances and gains, are also plainly acknowledged and credited. In discussing the lives of hypocrites and sinners, due regard is provided to their evils but also to their contributions. In discussing the lives of the saintly and devout, their goodness is acknowledged unashamedly, but without hagiography.  We meet scholars whose works advanced our understanding of the world, despite being punctuated by superstition and falsehood, and men and women of faith and valor, who sometimes acted in ways we would find horrifying. There were advances during these so called dark-ages, as well as retreats, in science, art, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. Much of the wisdom and learning of the classical world was lost, but much of it was also preserved and transmitted, to eventually play its own role in the development of thought and science.  Each of the three great Abrahamic religions of the day had their own important roles in that process.  And none are short shrifted. 

If we could be as non-partisan and temperamentally mild, about the ideological struggles of our own time, as the Durants are about history, the world would be a gentler place. Then again, history doesn't advance that way when it's moving forward.  

The best expression of the author's attitude is perhaps that taken from his own words, on scholarship, from pages 343-344 of the hardcover, following his praise of the achievements of Islam: "As men are members of one another, and generations are moments in a family line, so civilizations are units in a larger whole whose name is history; they are stages in the life of man.  Civilization is polygenetic--it is the cooperative product of many peoples, ranks, and faiths; and no one who studies its history can be a bigot of race or creed.  Therefore the scholar, though he belongs to his country through affectionate kinship, feels himself also a citizen of that Country of the Mind which knows no hatreds and no prejudices, or racial discriminations, or religious animosities; and he accords his grateful homage to any people that has borne the torch and enriched his heritage."

The Alps, a Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O'Shea (Norton 2017) Hardback. 2.5 stars out of 5.  Enjoyable anecdotes I can use when I follow my dream and to start a new profession and become a tourist guide in Switzerland. 

Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills, Trade Paperback. (Simon and Schuster 1992) . 5 Stars out of Five. An absolutely amazing little book, about an absolutely amazing little speech.  Especially helpful, in these days of resurgent Southern revanchism, and Calexit, as an introduction to some of the Constitutional and political arguments in favor of the inviolability of the Union, which were key to Lincoln's understanding of his role. 

The Once and Future Liberal, After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla, Hardcover (Harper Collins 2017). Two stars out of 5.  It would be heartening to see a liberal take on the evils of identity politics, and be willing to say that anti-white racism is still racism, and that anti-male sexism is still sexism.  At times, Lilla almost seems to be doing that.  But alas, his true concern, like those of the identity-advocates he seemingly chastises, is purely cosmetic.  His criticism of identity politics isn't that it is wrong, which it is, but that it doesn't sell well.  (Also, somehow, its Reagan's fault.)  He provides his own best analogy of his true problem with identity politics: He believes the 92 Democratic Convention should have let a pro-life speaker, whose liberal credentials were otherwise flawless, speak.  It was stupid and counterproductive to prevent him from doing so.  Not because Lilla is, himself, pro-life, but because he passionately wants pro-choice politicians to win.  And pretending to ideological diversity will help achieve that goal.  His criticisms of identity politics is ultimately the same: He's fine with the substance of liberal racism, and considers the violations of the 14th Amendment to which white and Asian males are regularly subjected to be among the Democratic party's greatest achievements.  He just doesn't think these points of view should be advertised. 

Best Remembered Poems, by Martin Gardner (Dover 1992) Trade Paperback. 2 Stars out of 5.  A collection of poems which were famous and beloved in their day, many of which the editor doesn't particularly like. Thus, more an interesting historical reference than something worth reading for its own sake. 

Metaphors be With You by Dr. Mardy Grothe (Harper 2016) Hardback.  I love great quotations, and this book had some excellent ones.  2,500 to be exact: 10 each on 250 different subjects.  The organizing theme, allegedly, is that each quotation is either a metaphor, a simile, or an example of personification.  But I'm guessing that theme was introduced after the fact, for marketing purposes, and that an earlier edition of this book exists out there somewhere with a different title and subtitle, as every list of ten quotations almost invariably contains at least one, if not two or three, quotations which are not metaphorical or figurative in any but the broadest possible sense (in that all language is etymologically symbolic).  Here for example is Goethe on laughter: "There is nothing in which people more betray their character than in what they laugh at."  A great quote to be sure.  But not really figurative, unless the word betray is a metaphor for reveal.  But that's pushing it.  And here's another thought on character, from Stendahl: "One can acquire everything in solitude except character."  Not sure I agree, but in any event, not really metaphorical.  And Thoreau's famous statement on reading: "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."  What exactly is being compared to what, figuratively, in this statement?  Unless the word "era" is only typically allowed to be applied to historical epochs, and not to the seasons of an individual's life (a dubious proposition), there is nothing metaphorical about this statement at all.  This trend bothered me enough that finding the quotes which broke the alleged reason for the collection soon became more interesting to me than finding the really good or resonant quotes.  Still, a great collection, worth having and using. Or just a good book for toilet reading. 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Broadway Books 2011) Trade Paperback. 3 stars out of 5.  A fun page-turner, especially for people who, like me, grew up in the 80s.  Adheres a little too closely to the plot which is laid out at the beginning, without any unexpected deviations which might have made it a better read.  Still, should be a great 2 hour movie. Very much looking forward to it. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

G. Vern Albright Tribute and Obituary

George LaVern (“Vern”) Albright (88), beloved husband and father, prominent local attorney, Air Force Veteran, and LDS Patriarch, passed away in the early morning of July 7, 2017, from heart failure, after 64 years of marriage to his Las Vegas High School sweetheart, Barbara Carruth.

Vern was born on May 30, 1929, in Albuquerque New Mexico, to parents George Harwood (“Bud”) Albright, a future Clark County Commissioner and “Father of the Las Vegas Convention Center” and Marjorie Eugenia Hageman Albright, a future beloved, beautiful and sophisticated grandmother. 

Vern was not blessed with a stable childhood, and spent his early formative years living with different relatives or foster families, in many different places, including New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Texas.  Beginning in the 7th Grade, Vern was raised in Las Vegas, Nevada by his father Bud and his stepmother Ellen Finnerty Albright.  Vern was the oldest of Bud’s three sons, and had the privilege of being an older brother to local Police Officer Karl Albright, now deceased (married to Sue Ellen Howell) and to local Convention Industry member Ken Albright (married to Kathy Oden).  Vern, Karl, and Ken carried on a weekly tradition of eating lunch together with their father for many years during their adult lives.

Shortly after he moved to Las Vegas, Vern’s friend Carl Christensen invited him to join a local Boy Scout Troop where he gained many friends, and from which he earned his Eagle at 16.  Vern met his future wife Barbara Carruth (daughter of Scott Heber Carruth and Ella Calista Earl Carruth) during their days at Las Vegas High School, and remained smitten with her for the rest of his life.  Two days before his death, he told one of his grandsons, “Barbara’s touch still electrifies me the same way it did when we started dating.”  Vern graduated from Las Vegas High School in 1947, and was chosen by his classmates to give the Graduation Speech for their class.  

At 18 years old, Vern was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by his lifelong friend, Lloyd D. (“Duko”) George. Vern was devoted to the Church and accepted and magnified many callings throughout his life.  He served a full-time LDS Mission to South Africa from 1950 to 1952, and was able to be one of the first 8 missionaries to open the work in Rhodesia.  He remained close to his Mission President, and to many of his missionary companions, for many decades after his mission.  Vern would later serve as a Bishop of the Las Vegas 28th Ward (“The Great 28th”), as a Mission President in Tampa Florida (1988-1991), as a Single Adult Ward Bishop, and, for many years, as Patriarch of the Las Vegas, Nevada Stake. 

After his time in South Africa, Vern was finally able to marry his beloved Barbara, who had graduated as Salutatorian from the University of Nevada Reno, and was working as a teacher.  They were married on August 25, 1952, in the Salt Lake City Utah Temple, by Spencer W. Kimball. Vern then resumed his studies at Brigham Young University and joined the Air Force ROTC. After he graduated, Vern and Barbara lived in many different locales as Vern served for 4 and ½ years (1954 – 1959) as an officer and pilot in the United States Air Force, fulfilling a boyhood dream to become a pilot.  He would later recount how well he had been prepared to learn to fly, by all of the childhood afternoons he had practiced dive-bombing in his imagination.

Vern and Barbara then lived in Arlington Virginia as Vern attended George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C.  Vern earned his way through school by working graveyard shifts guarding the Capitol building as a U.S. Capitol Policeman.  To balance this job with his rigorous school schedule, he slept in 3 hours shifts throughout the day and night, but still managed to obtain such good grades that he was invited onto the Editorial Board of the Law Review, and graduated early, and with honors, in 1961.

Vern then served briefly as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator for Nevada Howard Cannon, and then relocated with Barbara and their oldest children to Las Vegas, then a small but growing town, with few lawyers and lots of opportunity.  Vern quickly became the only Las Vegas assistant to Nevada’s U.S. Attorney, and subsequently joined the D.A.’s office, which offered higher pay, weekly felony trials, and the chance to do private civil work on the side.  These jobs allowed Vern to obtain invaluable experience, and prosecute over 50 jury trials in his first 18 months as an attorney, often against well-known local attorneys who had been practicing for decades, who were defending the cases by court appointment.  After leaving government practice, Vern continued to be appointed to prosecute criminal cases and also to defend a number of murder trials, but ultimately spent most of his career as a civil litigator, becoming a highly regarded and successful business attorney, and remaining a member of the Bar for over 50 years.  Vern tried his hand at family law, but could never have made a living in that field,  as, whenever a new client tried to hire him to handle a divorce, he would talk them out of getting one, and tell them what they needed to do to fall back in love with their spouse.  The firm he formed in 1970 soon received an AV rating, and still exists today as Albright, Stoddard, Warnick & Albright. In 1973, Vern served as President of the local Kiwanis Club, which, under his tenure, helped to establish and began to sponsor the Varsity Quiz program for CCSD High School students, which is still ongoing to this day, and recently honored Vern for his founding role.

Vern and Barbara raised four children, who all continue to live in Las Vegas: Mark, an attorney (married to Karyn Wasden);  Douglas, a commercial real estate broker (married to Megan Stromer); Karen, a homemaker and real estate agent (married to Paul Callister); and Chris, an attorney (married to Elaine Bowman).  In addition to his wife Barbara, his brother Ken, and his four children, Vern is survived by 18 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren. 

Vern’s children and grandchildren have many fond memories of Vern’s serious side, lecturing and teaching them about the importance of positive thoughts and that they would become what they think about, Emerson’s essay on the law of compensation, and the principles of the Gospel including especially the power of the priesthood, and the miracles he had seen in his own life when he or a loved one were called upon to exercise that power.

Vern’s children and grandchildren also have many fond memories of Vern’s fun side, including how he loved to sing, and teach them all the lyrics to, comedic songs during road trips; how much he enjoyed sneaking up slowly behind someone (in a melodramatic fashion for the benefit of others in the room who could see what was about to happen), and then scream and grab his victim under their arms to scare them when they weren’t paying attention; and how much he loved to embarrass his children on chairlifts by taking off his upper layers of clothing one by one and belting out a song, prompting his children to pretend he wasn’t with them and to ask loudly, “where are you from sir?”  He also loved to sneak out of hospital rooms when he had decided, against a doctor’s orders, that it was time to leave, and rejoiced to find out from a subsequent visitor that he was later being hailed over the intercom to return to his room.

Vern retained a keen intellect up until the end of his life, reading the newspaper daily and exhorting his children to read that day’s Wall Street Journal editorial, sometimes providing them a copy if he suspected they wouldn’t get around to doing so. Vern and Barbara’s children were blessed to be raised, and his grandchildren were blessed to be influenced, by a man who believed in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ; strict honesty; positive thoughts; hard work; service to others; and in doing fun things, which included, at one time or another over the years, motorboating, waterskiing, sailing, motorcycling, shooting, golfing, RVing, snowmobiling, travelling, attending plays and operas, and lots and lots of snow-skiing (but no camping if it could be avoided).  

Vern was a dynamic speaker and leader whose influence will never be forgotten by the many people, young and old, who were blessed by his service to his family, his Church, his clients, his profession, and his community.  His family is blessed by the knowledge he taught us, that, through the loving providence of our Heavenly Father, and the grace of Jesus Christ, we can all be with Vern and our other family members, once again.

Memorial services will be held at the following times and locations:
Viewing. Friday July 14th, 2017 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., at the LDS Chapel located at 3400 West Charleston, Las Vegas Nevada 89102. 
Pre-service Viewing. Saturday July 15th, from 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the LDS Chapel located at 3400 West Charleston, Las Vegas Nevada 89102.  
Funeral.  Saturday July 15th, at 11:00 a.m., at the LDS Chapel located at 3400 West Charleston, Las Vegas Nevada 89102.
Internment. Saturday July 15th, at 1:30 p.m. Palm Northwest Cemetery. 6701 North Jones Blvd. 

A luncheon will be provided after the Internment, at the Charleston Chapel. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

On the New Biography of Ulysses S. Grant: A Great Man's Legacy Refurbished

Just recently finished American Ulysses, A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White (Random House 2016), which I picked up mainly because White's A. Lincoln is one of my favorite Lincoln biographies.

I was not disappointed.  Indeed, I loved this book!  

What do you think of when you hear the name Ulysses S. Grant? If you're like I was before starting this biography, the thumbnail sketch you remember from school goes something like this: Great Civil War General (the General who Lincoln had been waiting for, finally, someone willing to fight). But had a drinking problem. And was a lousy President whose administration was rife with graft and corruption. Well, I no longer believe that thumbnail sketch, and I hope this book helps to restore Grant to his once vaunted and now long forgotten reputation. Clearly, he's been shortchanged, and clearly, this author came to love and admire him. Here's what I didn't know about Grant that I know now: 

  • The drinking claims were mostly rumor and innuendo, spread by military and political rivals. Other than a brief period of depression early in his military career, while stationed far away from his wife, Grant seems to have relied more on the consolations of literature than liquor to get through life's stressful patches. 
  • After marrying he inherited a slave from his Father-in-law. At a time when his poor economic condition might have been remedied by selling the slave, he instead took him to the courthouse and emancipated him.
  • He was the first President to mention Native Americans in his inaugural address, and he reformed the governmental agencies overseeing Indian affairs in an attempt to protect Native American rights. 
  • He was fiercely committed to civil rights for African Americans living in the South and to the dream of a nation where all Americans were treated equally before the law. Frederick Douglas considered him superior to Lincoln in this regard. 75 years before Presidents like Eisenhower and JFK sent the national guard to enforce desegregation rulings in Southern cities, Grant was sending federal troops to the region to protect black citizens from the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and from white attempts to suppress their votes. Alas, he was ahead of his time. The viciousness of white Southern Democrats and the apathy of white Northern Republicans meant that these policies ended with the end of his second term, as Americans were more concerned with a return to normalcy than following Grant's lead in supporting the rights of freedmen.
  • He was a trailblazer in establishing international tribunals to mediate disputes between nations, setting the example by agreeing to submit America's Alabama claims against Britain (for having built and sold raiding ships to the Confederacy) to such a tribunal. 
  • Having learned his military skills in the Mexican war, which he came to see as unjust, he sought to improve economic conditions in Mexico and supported efforts to establish a republican form of government in the nation. 
  • Yes, his second term was marked by the discovery of graft and corruption among certain of his appointees. But he was never implicated himself, and his own insistence that his administration investigate and prosecute corruption is what brought many of the scandals to light. 
  • His quiet leadership in the disputed election which occurred at the end of his second term, reaching out to both parties and both campaigns, and to the Republican controlled Senate and the Democratic controlled House, to agree upon the appointment of an independent commission to determine the outcome, averted a Constitutional crisis in a time when feelings about the Civil War were still strong enough to have otherwise led to a new bout of regional and political violence.\
  • A private trip he and his family took around the world at the end of his time in office turned into an unofficial goodwill tour for the United States, which substantially increased the standing of the nation abroad.
  • His memoir, written to provide for his wife, in a race against death as he was succumbing to throat cancer (shouldn't have smoked all those Cigars), was an economic sensation in its time, and is still considered today to be of landmark importance both as history and literature. Virtually every President who has written a memoir in the years since has mentioned Grant's memoir as the high mark against which all other entries in the genre are inevitably judged. 
  • His funeral procession became the largest public gathering to that time in American history. It was also a moment of national reconciliation, with many confederate veterans in attendance. The four leading pall bearers were two Union Generals and two Confederate Generals. 
  • For many years after his death, he was considered as part of a triumvirate of the three most important Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and Grant. But in subsequent years, Southern scholars criticized the Union's march to the sea and the loss of life Grant was willing to impose and suffer to secure Union victory; and played up the scandals of his second term; while a nation not much interested in Civil Rights forgot his advocacy on behalf of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. The old saying that the victors write the history, isn't always true. I'm glad I got to read this.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Founders' Forgotten Fears

Americans love to mine the lives and words of the founding generation for ammunition in many of our current political battles. That's healthy: certain arguments continue to endure in American life across generations, and as we continue to be inspired by the Declaration of Independence, and guided by the text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it's important to know and be familiar with the lives and political philosophies of the generation which bestowed those documents upon their heirs. 

But the founders lived in a very different world than the one they helped, in many ways inadvertently, to create.  And the more I learn about them, the more I find myself enjoying the study purely for its own intrinsic value and fascination, and without regard to seeking out ideologically useful quotes or allies.  It is fascinating to simply learn about their world and their lives more clearly, without worrying about any modern applications.  Why, for example, the Third Amendment?  And did they know how infrequently it would come up? 

Here are three things the founders feared, which, for better or worse, don't seem to agitate us much any more, examined here merely to better understand the world of Colonial America, and the mindset of its citizens, without any suggestion, one way or the other, that I agree or disagree with these points of view, or that they are or are not capable of any useful modern application: 

1. Democracy.  When the founders used the term "democracy" they intended it as a pejorative, synonymous with words like "anarchy" or the phrase "mob rule," and they viewed the rise of a democratic ethos in the country with the same degree of horror I now feel about the rise of enthusiasm for Sanders-style socialism among modern Millennials.  The founders opposed hereditary monarchy, but that didn't mean they were ready to turn the governance of the country over to the great unwashed. Even Jefferson, who would spin his Republican party as representing the majority of the common people, and accuse the Federalists, by contrast, of being the party of elitism, would opine that the voice of the people was not typically known for its wisdom. 

The golden mean solution, between hereditary monarchy and democracy, upon which the Founders originally hoped to build the new nation, was known as "filtration."  Indirect, representative, democracy, would ensure that the country's ultimate rulers were chosen through intermediate gatekeeper institutions, so as to prevent the vices of rule by the mob. And so: they created the electoral college, which was originally intended as much more than a mere mathematical exercise. As envisioned at Philadelphia, the members of the electoral college would be those whose lives of prominence proved to their fellow citizens that they were worthy to participate in selecting the American President, a choice which was not to be left to those citizens themselves. That you would have no earthly idea what "elector" you were voting for, whose name would not even appear on the ballot, was not really Madison's original idea. Similarly, for 125 years, until ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, Senators were not chosen by the direct democratic choice of the citizens living in a State, but by the State legislatures, ensuring a degree of separation between the legislators chosen by the people, and the U.S. Senators then chosen by those legislators.  This also provided some handy vertical checks and balances, intended to keep the Federal Government in check. 

We don't hear much about filtration any more (though George Will still likes to use the term), and most Americans are now pretty sure that democracy is what the founders sought to bequeath us. But were we to find ourselves in a face-to-face conversation with one of the founders, Alexander Hamilton let us say, freshly arrived by time machine into our living room, it's hard to say which side of that conversation would be more bemused and startled by tones with which the other used the term democracy.  

2. A standing military. Illustrating a point I have made elsewhere, about the dangers of speaking about the founders in the collective (, this next example is not necessarily true, to equal degrees, of all the founders.  But at least the Jeffersonian Republicans, if not always the Hamiltonian Federalists, were deeply concerned about the dangers of a standing military.  Steeped in Roman history, including the military exploits which allowed Julius and Augustus to turn the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, and aware that, for many years, the Praetorian Guard chose the Caesar, the founders were strongly aware, and many were deeply concerned, about the ways in which a country's military could take control of its civilian government, putting an end to self-rule.  Their solution: no standing military in peacetime. 

The founders, alas, could see into the past, but not into the future.  They were aware of the dangers of the Praetorian Guard, but could not foresee the power of biased journalism in an era of mass media communications, controlled by a tiny elite.  

Today, we still hold vigorous "guns vs. butter" debates about the proper scope and extent of our military vs. domestic spending, and we still argue with each other about the propriety of foreign military interventions.  We even have a growing chorus of both liberals and libertarians and now even Trumpian anti-globalist populists arguing we should dramatically downscale the presence of American military bases on foreign soil.  But it has been many, many, decades since any serious political voices in America have claimed that we should disband the military altogether, until the next war, let alone argued that this was necessary to prevent a military takeover of our governmental institutions.  To even suggest such an idea would strike most Americans today as grossly paranoid and delusional.  For that, we can largely thank the honorable way in which our military has comported itself throughout our history.

Unlike that of so many other nations over the course of the past 250 years, our own history offers few if any clear-cut examples of attempted military coups, led by successful or popular generals. Instead, again and again, our military has been a blessing to the nation, and its Generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower, have for the most part respected and renewed the precedent and ideal of civilian control.  If fear of a standing military has subsided, we can thank our military itself for that fact. Over time, both the military's victories and its deference, taken together, have largely obliterated this founding era fear.  The turnaround began when Madison was able to forestall complete disaster for America in the War of 1812, largely due to naval victories brought to him by ships he had voted against building when he served in Congress.  The Military Academy of West Point was seen, for many of its initial years, as a waste of money, and was often on the brink of political defunding, until its graduates proved, during the Mexican American War, and then the Civil War, the worth of professional training for military officers, by repeatedly outgeneralling the untrained political generals.  When we speak, today, of the debt we owe to our Veterans, we should be grateful not only for the lives they laid on the line to bring us ultimate victories in WWI, WWII, and the many battlefields of the Cold War, but also for having done so without becoming a threat to the sovereignty and self-government of the nation they had sworn to serve. 

3. The Rise of a Hereditary Aristocracy.  It will probably never be possible for Americans born after 1800 to understand the acute foreboding with which the Revolutionary generation viewed this threat.  It was in their minds all too likely that the work of the Revolution would be undone by the rise of an elite and hereditary aristocracy, to be treated with deference by the rest of the citizenry, and afforded special privileges and preferences under the law. And who could blame them for fearing this eventuality?  They were not only rebelling from a society in which such a hereditary aristocracy had been an ingrained element of societal order for as long as anyone could remember, but they were also well-read enough to know that the same had been true of virtually every society in the history of Western Civilization, from the Greek City-States to the Roman Empire, with aristocrats once again rising to power in the feudal Europe which succeeded to govern the middle ages after the fall of the Roman Empire.  

So great was this fear, that it almost prevented the formation of the Constitution.  George Washington's attendance at the Philadelphia Convention was vital to the success of that endeavor, especially as Hamilton and Madison, who had organized and called for the States to send delegates to the conference, had no intention of using the meeting for its advertised purpose.  Madison understood that his most important job, prior to the convention, was ensuring Washington's attendance, the only thing which could give the meeting any veneer of legitimacy for the radical and transformative work which he planned to accomplish once it was in session.  But there was a problem: a group of Revolutionary War Veterans had formed an organization which they called the Society of the Cincinnati, which was to hold its first meeting in Philadelphia at the same time as Madison and Hamilton's planned convention.  Washington had been invited to attend as the society's honorary first president.  But when word broke that future membership in the society would be bequeathed upon its initial members' first-born sons, Americans smelled a rat, and began castigating the society as the possible germ from which an American aristocracy might grow. Washington had to decline to attend the society's first meeting, to avoid being accused of seeking to establish an aristocratic body in America.  But to save face with his former compatriots, he offered an excuse which did not take any side in the criticism which the society's establishment was generating. This made Madison's job, of getting Washington to endure the awkwardness of setting aside that excuse to attend the Constitutional Convention, to be held in the same city and at the same time , infinitely more difficult.  That he somehow pulled it off anyway is one of many testaments to the man's political genius.  Without Washington's chairmanship of the convention's deliberations, ratification of the proposed Constitution by the States would likely never have occurred. With it, ratification became a foregone conclusion in many locales.  

John Adams, for his part, would go to his grave believing that the rise of an American aristocracy was inevitable, as the history of virtually every other nation he had ever studied amply demonstrated.  Rather than forestall it, he felt its inevitable rise should be accounted for in the government's structures, and he believed that this was the chief reason for states and the national government to have a bicameral legislature, as the Senate of any state or national government would inevitably become the place where the aristocrats' views were promulgated, to be checked and balanced against the commoners' assembly or congressional house.  His publication of these views, in a treatise on government published in his waning years after his retirement from public service, did more to damage his reputation, then and now, than perhaps any other act in his life.  At the time he was labelled, at best, a crank, and at worst, a monarchist. And today it is argued that Adams clearly became irrelevant after his initial contributions to the fight for a congressional resolution of independence, as his time abroad as an ambassador to the United States, separated him from the developing political philosophies of the younger minds who were writing the Federalist Papers, in which the need for checks and balances were based upon entirely new premises.  
This reaction demonstrates how early the fear of a rising aristocracy had waned once the Constitution was in place, as an increasingly larger and larger share of Americans, began demanding an increasingly egalitarian society, with such eventual consensus that the fear of any threat from an emerging aristocratic class soon dissipated. Today, we still worry about elites having too much power in our society, but these worries mainly focus on the very wealthy, or large multinational corporations.  If the wealth and power of these families and these corporations tends to be inherited, then the fears of an earlier generation about the emergence of an aristocracy may well still come to pass.  But nobody seems to think it will be titled or officially recognized; let alone given sole legal access to a Senate which has become the equivalent of the English House of Lords. Some might argue that an unnamed and invisible aristocracy might be even worse than an officially recognized one.  But until Bill Gates starts asking his fellow citizens to kiss his ring, the fear of an emergent aristocracy will likely remain in the past for some time to come.  

Sources: The Idea of America, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon S. Wood; American Creation and The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis; John Adams by David McCullough; Washington, A Life and Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow; Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power by Jon Meacham; James Madison by Lynn Cheney.