Hegel, Hobbes, and the Dialectical Wisdom of Billy the Kid

The 1965-75 salad days of the baby boomers brought much political excitement on university campuses, but seldom of a very learned kind. Liberal and radical professors tried to breathe new life into the thought of Karl Marx, or of Marx’s own mentor, Hegel, but radical students mostly preferred simpler stuff, finding the Hegelian dialectic a secret well-kept. But various Canadian scholars continued to expound its mysteries. Charles Taylor, having first terrified undergraduates with a 600-page 1975 book on Hegel, took pity on them four years later with a less painful 150-page compression called Hegel and Modern Society. Starting earlier, George Grant managed a rather overpowering synthesis of Christianity, conservative traditionalism, Hegelian Marxism, existentialism, anti-American nationalism, and Spenglerian gloom, and achieved all this in little monographs of very modest size.

Perhaps he noted that large books of political philosophy by professors are mostly read by other professors. His little 1965 bombshell, Lament for a Nation, covered a huge waterfront in only 97 pages, encapsulating all of Canadian history from the 18th century to what he saw as the failures of both the Diefenbaker Conservatives and Pearson Liberals. Despite his bleak pessimism, he had a large public influence for the next couple of decades, affecting all three federal political parties.

The other Canadian quasi-Marxist scholar who had some impact in the same era was the U. of T. philosopher C. B. Macpherson, mentor of NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, and many other eternally hopeful Platonists. His favourite theme was the meaning of ‘democracy’, and his magnum opus was The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, which stretched Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on a Procrustean bed of Marxian analysis, with Hobbes emerging less bruised. Unlike Locke, Hobbes may not have had much influence on ordinary politics in his own time or since, but his relentless logic and fine 17th century prose has always attracted intellectuals, including many on the left like Macpherson, much as that would probably have surprised Hobbes himself.

Hobbes (1588-1679) left some thoughts for the ages, although not necessarily the ones that most interested Macpherson, like his useful caution to all pundits in all times: “For such is the nature of man, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance.” But the two Hobbesian concepts most often retained by both scholars and the wider educated public are these: that without the authority of the state, man ‘in a state of nature’ is condemned to a life that is ‘nasty brutish and short’, and his accompanying distinctive defence of human equality: any man can kill another.

Critics of Hobbes, past and present, have argued that both these claims can be disputed in terms of anthropology and history. The ‘state of nature’ of Hobbes, Locke, and other social contract thinkers has always been an abstract model, not an intended description of early human society. But his argument about ‘an equality of potential killers’ is more suggestive, and has turned up in surprising times and places, far from lecture halls and learned journals.

Consider the example of William Bonney, born William McCarty Jr., but best-known as Billy the Kid (1859-81). As a mythic Western outlaw and folk hero, inaccurately portrayed in countless Hollywood movies, it is not easy to separate the real Billy from many imagined ones. The only existing photographs of him, for example, appeared to show that he was left-handed, packing his gun on his left hip, but the photo was eventually proved to be a reversed print from the negative. There is also no agreement on his height and weight, true of many other mythic historical figures. Wikipedia gives his height as a fairly normal 5′ 8”, but many other sources claim he was much smaller. Some claiming he was as little as 5′ 2”, weighing only a little over 100 lbs. There is no disagreement, however, that he struck everyone who knew him as being slight and slender, and he undoubtedly had smaller hands than average; he once made a famous jail escape because he was able to slip his small wrists through his handcuffs.

There was additional evidence about his small hands. He claimed to have killed ’21 men, not counting Mexicans and Indians’, a likely exaggeration, although four can be identified by name, and another nine or twelve are quite possible, mostly in the course of the Murphy-Chisum ‘Lincoln County War’ of the late 1870s. However, while all the movie versions of Billy shows him using the famous 1873 single-action Colt .44 or 45, he did not do so. He was known to favour a less familiar 1877 .41 double-action, which he found necessary because he couldn’t fit his small hand around the larger guns.

The New Mexico territory of the 1870s was not a bad approximation of the ‘state of nature’, and Billy’s life, like that of several men who crossed his path, was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. But before his early demise, shot by his former friend Pat Garrett, Billy, an untutored disciple of Hobbes, left behind one memorable assertion, “All men are the same size, back of a Colt.”

This profundity would be demonstrated and improved on through the following century-and-a quarter. The first major users of the Thompson submachine gun, on its appearance just after the end of World War I, were not soldiers or police officers, but members of the Irish Republican Army and big-city American gangsters. Tommy guns were also popular with Depression-era American bank robbers. That led to the arming of F.B.I. Agents and state police with the same ‘equalizing’ Thompsons. During World War II, British aircraft made night drops of boxes containing thousands of much cheaper Sten submachine guns to resistance groups on the Nazi-occupied Continent. Mass-produced for 18 schillings, they gave lots of short-range firepower to their recipients. A few years later, AK-47 Kalashnikovs became the murderous equalizers of irregular fighting groups worldwide.

These could all be called examples of the ‘Hobbes-Bonney Theorem’. But they also suggest a less fatal future variation, say a ‘Jobs-Zuckerberg Theorem’. For what Billy’s .41 did for him until he ran into Pat Garrett’s .44 one night, is almost what i-phones and social media can now do for everyone. All human beings are ‘the same size’ back of a Tweet, from presidents, prime ministers, and billionaires to giddy adolescents. Fierce men with firearms can still readily disperse even the largest assemblies of Facebook Nation, showing this lately from Egypt to Ukraine. But not all political tests reach Hobbes-Bonney denouements. Here in Quebec, it was fascinating to observe how rapidly Pierre-Karl Peladeau, a legend in his own mind, found himself reduced to a figure of province-wide comic ridicule in a matter of hours. Similar instant transformations will surely follow over the coming decades. They may even engulf and devour radical Hegelian professors.

PAH Fifth 2014 Article


The Thwack of the Beaver’s Tail

Pauline Marois, in the thick of an election fight, has been unable to resist her fondness for talking complete nonsense. I especially liked her declaration that an election was no time to be talking about the future of Quebec, almost coincident with an assurance that it would soon be ‘sovereign, but without borders, exchanging tourists with British Columbia, and looking for a seat at the Bank of Canada. An enraged Bob Rae has commented that anyone claiming a Quebec departure from Canada would not cause ‘extraordinary pain’ was ‘simply lying’.

Both the Marois fog and Rae’s attempt to penetrate it reminded me of the days when I was a Quebec MNA in 1989-1994, the years of uproar that unfolded after the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accord, culminating in the 1994 election of the Jacques-Parizeau-led PQ, with the second Referendum following a year later. The most instructive part of this experience came to me as a voting member of the committee formed to hear evidence from various learned authorities on ‘the implications of Quebec sovereignty’, from January 1991 to January 1992. I read depositions from, and debated with, a long series of jurists, geographers, economists, and bond traders. I also wrote a lengthy minority report, called Imagining Sovereignty/Souveraineté d’Esprit, which I sent to all Members of the Quebec Legislature and all federal Members of Parliament.

We deliberated in a time in which Ontario was still dominant in the overall Canadian economy, and when Quebec was accustomed to many years of heavy Liberal or Progressive Conservative representation in the federal House of Commons. These conditions no longer apply, but even so, almost everything discussed has scarcely changed in twenty years. Since the PQ has found itself another colourful egomaniac in Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the Canadian mass media have been full of the same topics and speculations to which I diligently applied myself for a year.

Much detailed debate, past and present, has been composed of superfluous verbiage wrapped around two enduring confusions. The first is a hazily undefined difference between ‘sovereignty’ (widely assumed to be desirable) and ‘independence’ (not so much). The second is that whether somewhat deviously ‘sovereign’ or somewhat terrifyingly ‘independent’, an entirely new legal and constitutional definition of Quebec could be established by ‘self-determination’ alone, without regard to the response of the rest of Canada, or ‘ROCland’.

On our very first day, Bernard Landry, then not an MNA, but President of the PQ, actually argued that nothing very new was being contemplated, since both Ontario and Quebec had signed the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the U. S. I did not treat this claim with much respect, but also heard it countered by the other main witness of the first day, Gordon Ritchie, a senior Ottawa bureaucrat who had himself been one of the main negotiators of that very FTA. He startled both the Liberals and Péquistes on the committee with a comment worth reproducing at length:

We are talking about a political crisis of extraordinary proportions… a situation in which the rest of Canada will be obliged to reconstitute itself, It would have no national government, it would have no national institutions, it would have nine provincial governments… operating from entirely different points of view… And just in terms of the uncertainty of that, the economic and financial impact upon the creditworthiness of Canada and Quebec, upon the attractiveness of this region of the continent as a place to invest, the impact of this would be truly, truly, horrendous to even contemplate… it would be a very serious mistake to consider that somehow, we can take for granted, here in Quebec… that there will exist some wise and knowledgeable rest of Canada, which will see it as being in its interest to quickly and expeditiously reach agreement, to put in place almost exactly what we have just dismantled.  – Deposition before the Committee on the Implications of Quebec Sovereignty, July 28, 1992.

Ritchie let the cat out of the bag, or rather, a furious assaulted beaver, making a loud thwack of its tail. For the entirety of the ‘sovereignist’ movement, from the days of René Lévesque’s original proposal of ‘Sovereignty-Association’ through to Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s announcement that he intended to create a ‘republic of Quebec’ for his grandchildren, we have been told by political nationalists that they can demolish the existing province of Quebec and the existing Canadian state, without ceasing, in some strange attenuated way, to leave either an existing Canada or a future new ‘Sovereign ROCland’ rolling on much as usual.

That was surely the reason that, from 1970 to 1995, both the ‘associationist’ Lévesque and the ‘sovereignty straight’ Jacques Parizeau kept hoping that they could win over at least a substantial minority of non-francophone leading citizens, and a substantial, even if minority, proportion of non-francophone voters. Rare anglo PQ supporters have been welcomed with open arms, and anyone from the old anglo elite making friendly noises produced giddy exaltation. At a 1970s press conference in which Lévesque proudly displayed his acquisition of upper-crust Westmount anglo Kevin Drummond, almost a foot taller than he was, Lévesque gazed fondly upward at his prize, looking for all the world like a racehorse owner who had just acquired a handsome breeding stallion. But Drummond remained a freakish exception, as, two decades later, Guy Bertrand, Péquiste-turned-federalist-later-turned-Péquiste-again, was briefly for the opposing side.

Jacques Parizeau’s public reputation has never entirely recovered from his woeful ‘money and the ethnics’ explanation of the 1995 Referendum defeat. English-speaking Canada readily took this as evidence of unpardonable ‘racism’, not really one of Parizeau’s previous or subsequent faults. But Parizeau’s moment of bitterness was less an outburst of xenophobia than the mournful wail of a rejected suitor. “I will never give up on my anglos,” he had once declared in the early 1990s, but had finally been forced to do so.

All past PQ leaders had good reason for stressing the notion of an ‘inclusive’ political project, whatever private resentments some might have retained from the old order in Quebec. It was not only because of surviving, although weakening, sentimental francophone attachment to Canada. Even Parizeau, and certainly Lucien Bouchard, understood a more fundamental difficulty. A Quebec that entered into some kind of new and more remote constitutional arrangement with the rest of Canada needed internal English-speaking support, even if demographic changes might produce a future majority ‘Oui’ vote without it.

A ‘Sovereign Quebec’, however defined, that remained at least partially successful in maintaining a grumbling but more or less quiescent and productive anglo population, just might still keep its existing borders and still regard itself as remaining a sort of historical and geographic component of an enduring ‘Canada.’ But a Quebec in which a decisive referendum majority were to be won almost exclusively with francophone votes would not then enter a polite divorce, but inaugurate the horrendous kind of coast-to-coast upheaval warned of by Ritchie. That would not just mean a ‘difficult five years’, as Pauline Marois has put it. The Canada that has now existed for a century and a half would endure a mortal blow, with ‘Sovereign Quebec’ universally recognized as the parricide. What the most intelligent and tolerant nationalists realized a long time ago remains true now, whether or not a narrow ‘Yes’ referendum majority could some day be obtained. Canadian society, outside the fantasies of college lecture halls, is not much involved in ‘movement’; it has permanent concerns, like making a living, raising families, taking for granted geography and history, and avoiding dangerous and unnecessary leaps into the unknown. That is why most Canadians of whatever mother tongue mostly prefer the steady industry of the beaver to the stirring cry of the loon.

PAH Fourth 2014 Article

Professor Hare and Madame Tortoise

When Maurice Duplessis died in 1959, Pauline Marois was ten years old, living in a working-class and devoutly Catholic family. Jacques Parizeau, who came from one of the wealthiest families in Canada, already had his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and had been teaching at HEC for four years. He was then a federalist, remaining one for another decade, and spent most of that decade as an influential economic adviser in the Quiet Revolution. He would teach continuously at HEC from 1955 right up to 1976; Marois herself took a couple of courses from him in the early 1970s, on her way to an MBA.

Throughout his adult life, Parizeau has been above all an advocate of statist centralization, complacently immovable. Although Harold Laski, who had actually taught Pierre Trudeau at LSE in the 1940s, was dead by the time Parizeau got there, he seems to have formed his ideas in Laski’s long quasi-Marxist shadow. He often compared himself with Trudeau, whom he liked personally, once saying that the only difference between them was that Trudeau wanted ‘only one centre’, while Parizeau thought there should be two.

Even his own often-described 1969 conversion from federalism was one he imagined as being a consequence of his purely logical reasoning. He observed that Quebec was ‘never going to give back’ the governmental powers it had acquired in the 1960s, almost sounding as if he regretted the frustration this would cause all future would-be centralizing federalists. He would later often use this argument in trying to appeal to English-speaking Canadians, declaring that ‘Quebec had become a problem for Canada, as Canada had for Quebec’. Quitting his Finance Ministry post in the PQ government of the early 1980s as an opponent of the equivocal policies of Rene Levesque and Pierre-Marc Johnson, his subsequent 1985-95 decade as the leader of the temporarily small rump of fellow hardliners was less the climax of an ordinary career of political ambition and multiple offices – the necessary route for Pauline Marois – than because his utopian ‘technocrat’ convictions had make him a model of firm and inflexible purpose.

Marois began as a politically ambitious social worker, but by 1978, with an MBA from HEC now in hand, she briefly went ot work in Parizeau’s Finance Ministry office, but soon complained that he did not use her ‘to her full potential’. She made her own first failed bid for PQ leadership in 1985; in 1988, she attacked Parizeau’s leadership, among other things for his ‘archaic attitude towards women’, and threatening to quit the party, but Parizeau managed to reconcile her.

The 1989 election that brought both of them new seats also brought me to Quebec City as one of four Members of the anglo protest Equality Party. So I spent five years daily watching Parizeau serve as Chief of the Official Opposition, Marois sitting right next to him on the front bench. She was responsible for the official party platform, which at first led me to have an exaggerated notion of her unworldliness. The platform assured francophone federal civil servants that a Sovereign Quebec would simply rehire them all, and integrate them into the existing Quebec departments. paying for this with all the money saved by no longer sending any to Ottawa. This stunned me, but I later came to realize that Marois cheerfully talks and writes complete nonsense with bland confidence that it will have no effects in the real world, and not do her much harm.

Jacques Parizeau fascinated me. He had already become famous for dropping verbal bricks, as often falling on the toes of his own party as on anyone else’s. Probably the most remembered one was his comment of a decade earlier, that a ‘Oui’ would win a referendum if it were held at three a. m., after the bars had all closed, while failing in the daytime. He was still dropping them when I was in Quebec City, mainly because, even when most serious, he presented hopeful speculations as if they were pontifical certainties. When the Meech Lake Accord permanently failed in June of 1990, Parizeau immediately declared “I or Bourassa will lead Quebec to sovereignty,” and he has continued to predict such non-events ever since.

But he could also be impressive and even admirable. Despite his notorious emotional outburst on referendum night, I have never believed that Parizeau was racist or xenophobic. He made many speeches, not just before anglo audiences, but in the legislature, that were entirely generous and fair-minded in what they said about the English-speaking minority in Quebec. I once heard him give a long legislature address, summarizing what he saw as English Canada’s view of Meech Lake and other attempts at constitutional accord, which was one of the most intelligent and fair-minded accounts I ever encountered from anyone on that subject.

But he was no star in Question Period; it was House Leader Guy Chevrette and Party Whip Jacques Brassard who gave the Bourassa Liberals most cause for alarm. Parizeau, always ‘Monsieur’ to his not especially adoring colleagues, almost seemed like a stage actor, ‘playing’ his carefully-tailored role of affluent, anglophile, cultivated grand bourgeois. and not only very much a lifelong HEC doctrinaire, but a very ‘professorial’ professor. He was not quick-witted, but always a lucid, if unpersuasive reasoner, amiable, but visibly contemptuous of the ordinary game of politics. The 1995 referendum campaign finally brought his most intense emotions to the surface, moved to tears when joining in a PQ songfest. But he soon retreated to his usual sublime complacency and assurance of logical and ideological rectitude.

His desperate eventual alliance with Lucien Bouchard in the 1995 referendum provided a painful reminder of just how remote his professorial statism was from emotional nationalism. Nationalist crowds would greet Bouchard with cries of “On est avec toi, Lucien!”, inconceivable for him. He knew, well before dropping his ill-received ‘money and the ethnics’ line, that a referendum failure meant he had run his political course to its end. Not for him any late second coming in the manner of Bourassa, or continuance in a secondary role like Claude Ryan. Even if he had been willing to accept such a role in a post-Bouchard cabinet, he had no powerful PQ allies who would have made such a place for him.

Certainly Pauline Marois would not have been one. Tortoise-like, pushing past several temporary falls in fortunes, she has rolled on, her arguments of substance getting worse all the time, her determination and adaptability still carrying her forward. She will turn 65 at the end of March, probably little worried her chances of achieving a majority electoral victory will be much reduced by Parizeau’s recent attack on the ‘Charter of Values’, or even by his endorsement of the HEC report on Quebec’s dire future economic prospects. She will be almost exactly the same age he was when he unhappily ended his formal political career. Remaining a spectre at every PQ feast, rattling the chains of Quebec’s economically failing statist vision, trapped forever in his dogmatic and superannuated progressivism, it is now his fate to be largely ignored, even as he finally gets a couple of things profoundly right.

PAH Third 2014 Article

The Politics of Decline and the Leadership Factor

Anyone born after 1965 may now scarcely realize just now pervasive the idea of socialism was for over half a century after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Western adoration of Marxism-Leninism dwindled in the post-1945 Cold War years, but a broader faith in ‘social democracy’ did not. The New Left of 1965-75 brought some new adoration for Castro and Mao, but that soon faded. Western economic troubles of the 1970s, rather than encouraging further statism, reduced confidence in the ‘mixed economy’ policies widely adopted after World War II, and the influence of free-market economic thinkers gained wider and wider acceptance.

In the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan triumphed over Soviet Marxism, and restored domestic prosperity through deregulation and privatization. They were emulated worldwide, and in the following decade, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton largely endorsed the new dispensation. Today, five years since the worst financial crash since 1929, socialist ideas are scarcely making a roaring comeback, beyond stumbling Obamacare in the U.S. There is little sign of a re-appearance of the much broader ideological and legislative current of the first half of the century. But understanding that current can still offer insight on the present.

‘Social democracy’ transformed Britain in 1945-51. in some ways permanently, and with worldwide influence. Its practical implementation owed a great deal to the ‘planning’ long prepared by Fabian intellectuals, and to British ‘Chapel’ Christianity, ‘owing more to Methodism than to Marx’. Almost all the early Labour party leaders displayed this background, many first honing their political oratory as lay preachers.

However, Labour’s greatest leader, Clement Attlee, Oxford graduate and Gallipoli veteran, was an agnostic. Pipe-smoking and unassuming, he was a reassuring anchor of his party in the tumultuous two decades from 1935 to 1955. Even Margaret Thatcher admired him in her memoirs, as ‘all substance and no show.’ In the 1945 general election, the first in ten years, Attlee led Labour to a landslide victory, taking almost double the number of seats retained by Churchill’s Conservatives. The victory came not only from working-class voters, but from a substantial proportion of the middle class. Then and afterwards, the majority of voters were less attracted to the party’s more radical firebrands, like the fiery Welsh journalist, Aneurin Bevan. Attlee brought with him several capable lieutenants, Bevan included. Labour leaders in 1940 had provided necessary support to Churchill, who had given them major offices in his wartime administration, while he concentrated on the war. Attlee had been Deputy Prime Minister, and the stolid trade unionist Ernest Bevin had been indispensable as Minister of Labour.

The new government had not only a five-year apprenticeship in the exercise of power, but had no sympathy for Soviet Communism, and little more for domestic Marxist or quasi-Marxist intellectuals. It also had the advantage of dealing with a general population already familiar with years of state controls, and holding widespread belief, even among many Conservatives, that a decisive ‘collectivist’ change was both morally desirable and practically achievable. Despite a disintegrating Empire, and finances in ruins, Labour had no hesitation in launching a highly ambitious socialist program. Aneurin Bevan, drawing on a wartime plan, launched the still-existing National Health Service, and the Bank of England was swiftly nationalized. More gradually, nationalization was imposed on coal, iron, steel, railways, and airlines. Punishing taxes were applied to high incomes, over 90% in the top bracket.

The changes brought improved working conditions for millions of labourers, but no improvements in wages. Crippling strikes did not disappear. Other severe problems also proliferated, many the now familiar ones produced by peacetime giant state monopolies. By 1950, Attlee and his colleagues were tired and becoming more and more divided between Attlee-like moderates and radical Bevanites. The country did not enjoy coercive egalitarianism, by then associated with years of dreary austerity. In 1951, Churchill, although by then old (he was born in 1874) and ailing, returned to power, promising to ‘make Britain great again’.

Aristocrat-led Conservative governments followed for well over a decade. The old industrial working class declined steadily in numbers, so that the Labour Party needed more and more voting support from the middle class. Later Labour governments gradually shed even the rhetoric of 1945. In 1964, Harold Wilson campaigned on a promise of a ‘white-hot technological revolution’, meaning in practice mostly an expansion of universities. Post-Tony Blair ‘New Labour’ has lacked even that much of a slogan, and is not far from post-Thatcher Conservativism. Even the travails of British and world capitalism since 2008 have not produced many renewed calls for more statism. But the confident pro-capitalism of the Thatcher era has faded. The long collectivist turn in British politics, reaching back to the start of the 20th century, may be petering out, but with capitalism no longer much celebrated either, even on the right.

The Britain of 1945-51 showed that a parliamentary and non-violent leftist political movement could gain power, under a war-elevated and capable leader like Attlee. But even he and his best ministers hardly built a new ‘Jerusalem’ by attempting to run ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy through state monopolies, applying suffocating levels of taxation, and trying overall to make people behave in ways that most did not really wish to behave. Early doubts were heard: Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom had arrived in wartime (1944). and was soon followed by the early postwar Ordeal by Planning by John Jewkes. But free-market arguments had only gradual impact, even with Conservatives, led by noblesse oblige aristocrats until the 1970s.

Bankers, doctors, and other professionals largely disliked the new dispensation, some emigrating, but most stayed. However, even the enduring varieties of statism generated a host of new and enduring problems. As in the U. S. and Canada, libertarian thinktanks now press for more privatization in health services and schools. The current Conservative/Liberal coalition has made a few moves in that direction, but without Thatcher’s zeal and determination.

The ‘quiet revolution’ Attlee government had many conservative aspects. It gently adjusted the nation to the disappearance of long years of imperial power and overseas opportunities, and the painful acceptance of a secondary world role to the U. S., which it joined with it in resisting Soviet Communism and adopting its own nuclear weapons. Its welfare-state policies produced at least tolerable institutions, while its nationalizations unintentionally demonstrated empirically the follies of more utopian hopes. Margaret Thatcher made a necessary correction to the direction taken by Attlee, but her triumph came only after severe splits in both her own party and Labour’s, brought to a head by impassable crises. The postwar British economy, even if subjected to horrendous class conflict, might have done far better with policies more like hers, but for a time, that was not what most of the people wanted, and they had good reasons. The final irony of the mixed inheritance of Attlee’s 1940s collectivism and Thatcher’s 1980s individualism has been the subsequent arrival in both major British political parties of purely professional political leaders with no idea at all of where to go. In that, too, much of the world continues to emulate Britain.

PAH Second 2014 Article

Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Chameleon Politics

A new book recently appeared called JFK, Conservative. Its author, Ira Stoll, born about a decade after Kennedy’s death, has noted Kennedy’s 70% general approval rating among Americans, and tried to claim him for the right. He has a case. Kennedy did sound very different from his Democratic Party successors. He ran to the right of Nixon in 1960, was a Cold War hawk, and pushed a large tax cut at home. He had an active aversion to liberal doves in his own party. Ronald Reagan sometimes sounded more like him than all top Democrats since Jimmy Carter.

But Stoll’s ‘conservative’ Kennedy can be better understood as displaying the adaptive chameleon qualities of major political leaders. Their followers may settle for the old principle of ‘standing where they sit’, but leaders, like chameleons, may not only change colour, but more important, change to match the colour of the shifting background on which they find themselves. One colour may be required to please the activists and ideologues of one’s own party, a very different one by electorates. Kennedy came out of a very different overall climate of opinion fifty years ago, and in a Democratic Party still dependent on conservative Dixiecrat Southerners. In trying to make sense of politics today, it is still useful to recall just how large the chameleon factor can be, in both rhetoric and practice.

A striking demonstration of chameleon scamper was provided seventy years ago by James Burnham, a onetime Trotskyist, by World War II reincarnated as a tough-minded conservative. In his 1943 book, The Machiavellians, he contrasted deceptive ‘idealistic’ political language with that of a more ‘realistic’ kind, giving Dante’s De Monarchia as an example of the first, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses as an example of the second. He traced a Machiavellian succession in later Italian ‘elite’ political analysts like Pareto and Mosca.

Burnham agreed with Machiavelli in finding human nature and its political articulation largely constant over time and place. His study of Italian thinkers over the centuries was intended to enlighten Americans, by then accustomed to Franklin Roosevelt for a decade. The most startling passages in The Machiavellians are in the first three pages, which reproduce the now almost entirely forgotten official platform of the Democratic Party in 1932, and the addresses of Roosevelt in the election campaign that followed:

‘In the 1932 Platform of the Democratic party we may read the following:

‘Believing that a party platform is a covenant with the people… and that the people are entitled to know in plain words the terms of the contract to which they are asked to subscribe, we hereby declare this to be the platform of the Democratic party. The Democratic party solemnly promises… to put into effect the principles, policies, and reforms herein advocated…

‘We advocate:

‘An immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus and eliminating extravagance, to accomplish a saving of not less than 25% in the cost of the Federal government…

‘Maintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues…

We condemn:

The open and covert resistance of administrative officials to every effort made by Congressional committees to control the extravagant expenditures of the government… The extravagance of the Farm Board, its disastrous action which made the government a speculator in farm products…’

Burnham went on to show that this pledge was upheld by Roosevelt, in several speeches, including his July 2, 1932 one accepting the Presidential nomination: “As an immediate program of action we must abolish useless offices. We must eliminate… functions that are not definitely essential to the continuation of government. We must merge, we must consolidate subdivisions of government, and… give up luxuries which we can no longer afford… I propose… that government of all kinds big and little, be made solvent and that the example be set by the President of the United States and his cabinet.”

Roosevelt returned to these themes frequently throughout the campaign. In a radio address on July 30, 1932, for example, he concluded: “Any government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns. But… a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”

Burnham argued that Roosevelt and the men who compiled his party platform could not simply be dismissed as liars, nor that they were ‘utterly stupid, with no understanding of economics or politics or what was going on in the world…’

‘These men… though they doubtless knew less than everything and less than they thought they knew, were surely not so ignorant as to have believed literally what the words seem to indicate. Perhaps the words do not really have anything to do with cheap government and sound currency and balanced budgets and the rest of what appears to be their subject matter. [my emphasis; N. C.]

Not so differently, Burnham maintained, Dante’s De Monarchia, apparently an ‘idealized’ general work on morality and political philosophy, was not what it appeared. His Florence had been bitterly divided by partisans of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Ghibellines, and two quarreling factions of Guelphs, partisans of the prosperous city’s own political power. Dante had once supported one wing of the Guelphs, a defeated one, and bitterly disillusioned and exiled in the 1290s, he was by then writing a disguised advocate’s brief supporting a new Emperor. For Burnham, the great Italian poet was a devious political theorist, masking self-seeking and reactionary purposes in a language of pure ideals. Machiavelli, on the other hand, unveiled the nature of real politics with cool detachment, so candidly that he has ever since been an object of public condemnation and discreet private study.

As for Roosevelt, he did keep some promises, notably in pushing repeal of Prohibition. He briefly even tried to balance the budget, cutting military spending by a third. and cutting veterans’ benefits, federal employees’ salaries, and expenditures on research and education. But these actions were all soon seen as mistakes, and most benefits were restored or even increased by 1934. More than that, Roosevelt’s famous ‘100 days’ following his entry into office in March of 1933 were not just a shift in emphasis from his 1932 platform; they have been recalled ever since as representing an entirely different and massively interventionist political philosophy. However, what they actually constituted was Roosevelt’s lightning response to a nation-wide bank panic, to additional indications that the Depression was getting worse, and even to the frightening emulatory temptations suggested by the simultaneous arrival of Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany.

Roosevelt could hardly be counted a ‘conservative’, even in the months when, as a very popular and liberal New York Governor, he endorsed that conservative-friendly 1932 platform. Whatever can be said of New Deal economics, his intutive understanding of the desperate public mood in 1933 made him a chameleon par excellence. His transformation has continued to confuse liberal and conservative writers who try to explain past or present politics in purely ideological terms, their own or the ones they fondly attribute to political leaders.

PAH First 2014 Article

Neil’s 2013 Annual Review

[Sing to Air of ‘Good King Wenceslas’]

Thomas Wolfe once wrote a thought, that sadly lives forever;
You can’t go home again, he taught; you really do so never.
Pam Wallin shed prairie home, Duffy left the ocean,
Useful places they would roam; seemed a simple no-otion.

Having thought their only job had expenses porous;
Travel bought, they’d later sob, to sing in Tory chorus.
Afflicted with self-image bloat, from decades on TV,
They wound up in a sinking boat, from which they sang o-off-key.

As senators they did not look like Roman stern patricians,
Instead with office that they took to serve the P. M.’s missions.
Expenses not their proper right became a dreadful tangle,
Ensnaring helpful Nigel Wright, left in wind to da-angle.

Meanwhile Rob Ford was revealed as mini-Berlusconi;
Prim Toronto gasped and reeled, fearing more baloney.
Stephen Harper must despair chains he’d forged with tro-olls,
Daily thrusts from Tom Mulcair, raise Justin in po-olls.

Could the P. M. be brought down, by threats Lilliputian?
He must fight to keep his crown, trade deal his solution.
Hockey book his work of years, comes with labours frantic;
Kept at least some Jewish cheers; went to Lac Mega-antic.

Pauline Marois beat him there, gaining lots of pra-aise;
Hiding that her cupboard’s bare, shows she can ama-aze.
PQ’s found a ghastly way to delight its tro-ops:
Headgear cops to win the day, cheered on by the du-upes.

In the States, Obama shrinks, losing in his gambles,
Poll support now daily sinks, Obamacare a shambles.
Should have sought the elflords’ aid, Apple or else Google;
They deliver when they’re paid, only then will bu-ugle.

Putin claimed he’d make the call, stopping gas in Syria;
Miley swung on wrecking ball; twerked to teen hysteria.
Affleck’s Argo won awards, Iranians shown decei-eived;
Then Iranians sought accords, few were much relie-ieved.

The best of times, the worst of times, Dickens always knew;
Scrooge’s ghosts brought by the chimes, still thrill small fry anew;
Rejoice we still, to be alive, shrug off fear and danger,
Celebrate our buzzing hive’ good news from the ma-nger.

– Merry Christmas to All from Neil Cameron, December 2013.

PAH 16th 2013 Article


Appearance and Reality at Seventy-Five

All my adult life, my November 19 birthday has come when Remembrance Day was still on my mind. My father and his brothers and sister all served in the First World War, my father as a medic on the Western Front, his two brothers as riflemen, and his sister as a nurse tending wounded soldiers. My father’s service ultimately led to his early death before I was three, a quarter of a century after Vimy Ridge. The Spanish Flu killed his sister in 1918. My father’s brothers survived, but one of their sons, a bomber pilot, was killed in a 1944 raid on Berlin.

Neil Cameron of Montreal

Their deaths, joined with millions of others, came home to me fully when, with three friends, I first went overseas in 1960-61, working in England and hitchhiking all over Europe. Previously studying mathematics in university, the experience led me to start over in history. In Europe I began to grasp just how tragic the first half of the century had been, and how much it had shaped everything since. I also began realizing that distinguishing what happened in history from its constant mythic recapitulation was harder than I had thought, Half a century later, I now know that doing that is the work of a lifetime, as one learns new things from the past and new perspectives from the present.

I turned 25 in 1963, so the heavily mythical aspects of history have also long been long brought home to me by the assassination of John Kennedy three days before that. I heard the news in McGill’s Redpath Library, and when I left the building a couple of hours later, saw young women sobbing uncontrollably all over the campus. I was not comparably touched by this intense boomer grief. Only a few years older, I saw the world through the Dostoevskian filter of the deeply disillusioned literary figures of the previous two decades, and was far more influenced by Orwell, Koestler, and Camus than by any postwar political leaders. I did not dislike Kennedy, but had never been touched by his mystique. Having watched the 1960 Presidential election from Europe, I thought there was little to choose between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, two Cold War liberal hawks.. This may sound strange today, but was once commonly believed, including in the U. S., so much so so that Arthur Schlesinger produced a campaign pamphlet for the Democrats called Kennedy or Nixon: is there any Difference?

Like many young Canadians in the early 1960s, I was a ‘quasi-unilateralist’ anti-nuke, although growing more uncertain as I read the powerful arguments of the nuclear deterrence theorists. Kennedy was more hawkish than Nixon, and made me nervous, even when I approved of his actions. The possibility of worldwide nuclear annihilation was a theme of popular books and movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, oddly disappearing with the arrival of the real war in Vietnam. The last and most brilliant of these apocalyptic nuclear fantasies, the 1964 black comedy film Dr. Strangelove, actually showed an obsolete catastrophe by the time it appeared, based on the failed recall of a single H-bomb equipped B-52. New ICBMs were twenty times as fast, so that Soviet ones could arrive here in about twenty minutes from launch. When I watched the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis on TV in the Stanley Tavern, I wondered if I might be incinerated before closing time.

A year later, Jack Ruby’s bizarre murder of Lee Oswald swiftly launched the now 50-year-long mythic reconstruction of the Dallas events, laid on thick every November. I always found the assassination obsession almost ludicrously disproportionate. Many Montreal university students of the 1960s at least half-believed the early conspiracy mongering of Mark Lane, who came here in 1968 to plug his book, Rush to Judgement. I learned, from an American professor who knew him personally, that Lane was a colossal liar on all matters, and he was soon joined by a gigantic troop of honestly confused witnesses, plausible liars, and supermarket tabloid detectives. I have always been reasonably sure, on a conscientious and tedious reading over the decades, including the best of the conspiracy literature, that Oswald acted alone. But I have never expected that this view would ever completely prevail

Seventy years ago, Albert Jay Nock observed that only a few people try very hard to understand the real history of events; the many instantly convert all striking ones into myths. The fifty years since 1963 have shown him right. Conspiracy spinners have always been able to draw on a larger American myth, making the the Revolution a new Divine Revelation, the martyred Lincoln the sinning nation’s Redeemer. Kennedy’s murder provided a more recent and photogenic sacrificial lamb, and the invention of many rival Satanic agents. In Julius Caesar, after Brutus has called for all the assassins to stoop and wash their arms in the fallen demigod’s blood, Cassius says, ‘How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown!’ Brutus adds that the death will be marked in future ages ‘in sport’, thus long anticipating Oliver Stone’s JFK. Granted that Lyndon Johnson was a quite genuine monster, well-qualified for the role of Dallas Cassius, the conspiracists are unconvincing and inferior playwrights.

By the late 1960s, I was back in England, by then married and raising children, studying the role of the British scientific elite in both World Wars. I could by then see how much of WW II had been enshrouded in myths as well, in successive accumulating layers. I found the study of primary source documents both exhilarating and chastening. I found, for example, that Winston Churchill’s fabled matchless courage was genuine, but was combined with some huge faults, and that he had been a great mythmaker in his own right, obscuring how both Wars had quickened the overall decline of British power and the triumph of American hegemony. I also saw that the Wars displayed some enduring failings of all modern industrial societies.

Over my lifetime, I have had my own modest historical moments. I was almost blown up by an OAS bomb in Paris in 1961, and a few months later was in an equally tense Berlin, just days before the East Germans built its dividing wall. In August of 1965, I was in Berkeley, California, watching a New Left crowd of baby boomers mark the 20th anniversary of Hiroshima, and heralding a cultural revolution. I met creepy FLQ members in a Sherbrooke Street after-hours bar, two years before the murder of Pierre Laporte. In England, I interviewed many of its greatest scientists, including some who made crucial contributions to how WW II was won. From 1989 to 1994, elected to the Quebec Legislature as one of four candidates of the protest Equality Party, I had a ringside seat for the Canadian constitutional agony of those years. But I have mostly remained a moderately worldly history student and teacher, conservative, sceptical, and unfailingly fascinated by real human achievements and reliable foolishness. I have been very lucky, in when and where I was born, in the life I have led and thought, in my family, friends, and intellectual influences, and I am grateful to a God in whom I only partially believe. I learned early that studying and experiencing history will only be of limited help in changing oneself or changing the world, but that history is an antidote to the unrecognized madness and myth that always shapes the ideas of the moment. For that, it is indispensable.

PAH Fifteenth 2013 Article – Published on the Prince Arthur Herald website on November 19, 2013.