On the false romance of history

15 11 2010

Since we have been rolling with criticisms of Tony Esolen’s romanticist view of history, it is only appropriate that we analyze his newest article concerning the role of community participation in the context of modern capitalist democracy. Perhaps the most pat refutation of the premise of the whole article, which seeks to draw parallels between the degeneration of a pure citizen-based democracy and the autocracies in the ancient world, is to point out that the vast majority of the population in the ancient world could not participate in the polis. The veiled undertone of romanticizing Greco-Roman society is the avoidance of the fact that those societies were fundamentally slave societies, or built on rigid class hierarchies. It goes without saying that women were basically the possession of the paterfamilias, and those who had any real political power were few and far between. It should also be stated that even in our country of rigid income inequalities, the number of people making actual decisions about the course of society far outnumbers the proportion of people who would have done so in ancient Greece or Rome.

That being said, the idol of the Catholic political right in America, the principle of subsidiarity, is indeed a two-edged sword; a danger not addressed in the article. For while Dr. Esolen rails against government bureaucrats telling the Boy Scouts how to run their organization, he fails to mention the real impetus for such intrusive interventions began during the Civil Rights Movement. For if the South would have continued to practice the principle of subsidiarity, the schools and businesses of the South would have never been desegregated. Why did it take federal troops to allow black students to enter into historically all-white schools? While they might argue that such things would have happened on their own without the intervention of the power of the general nation state, the principle of subsidiarity does not automatically lead to justice in and of itself. Sometimes local control only seals and reifies local prejudices and injustices.

The other aspect that these people fail to question is subsidiarity in the religious realm. We can state here that this disconnect is perhaps due to the radical distinction between the sacred and the profane that has emerged in modern culture. Whereas in the traditional polis the rule of power reflected the rule of the cult, in our society power and the sacred have little to do with each other. All the same, it seems a little disingenous to want your school’s curriculum to be governed through local control yet have your church’s ceremonial micromanaged by a group of individuals half a world away. Or it seems odd that people will rail against the dictates of Washington all the while wrapping themselves in the righteousness of slavishly following the dictates of Rome. Is not the local parish committee planning the liturgical dance for the Easter Vigil subsidiarity in its purest form?

That being said, the most delusional part of the essay centers on the idea that it is the federal government which is destroying local action on the part of citizens. That is complete rubbish, as the government does not create the social order, but at most facilitates the forces that shape late capitalist society. If you want to know why people are so atomized, look not to the Supreme Court, but the local strip mall; not to the federal bureacracy, but to the office of the multinational corporation that moved the local factory to China. Conservatives speak about social malaise as if capitalism didn’t exist; as if capitalism is not the disrupting social force that sells the Xboxes, pornographic smut, and market pluralism that peddles licentiousness as good for profit. In other words, to pretend that it is “big government” that is destroying the local community is to be a clown of the ruling class. You would best look to your local friendly neighborhood Walmart for an answer as to what is destroying our “social fabric”.

In other words, it is rare to see so much naive propaganda in one article, even if it is dressed up in seemingly erudite references to the classical world. Such essays are quixotic exercises in useless navel gazing. I say screw nostalgia. Love this capitalist stupor for all its worth. In the end, I don’t think things have ever been any different.



10 responses

18 11 2010

This commentary was spot on Arturo.

Yes, Leah, to see how some on the Right, like myself at one time, couldn’t see the other way around ; that while the local gov’ts and states were to serve as a “check and balance” against the abuse of federal power, why couldn’t the federal gov’t “ordained and established by We the people..to establish justice..”, act as a “check and balance” against localized injustices and tyrannies?

The thing of it is, it took me quite a while to relaize this as a person with conservative leanings, is that subsidiarity has to be coupled with solidarity or it becomes the localized tyranny that we’ve experienced throughout history. OTOH, solidarity without being structured by subsidiarity becomes that crusading “brotherhood of man” ideology, of say the activists that don’t even know their own kids or ever speak to their parents because they’re too busy out trying to “change the world into a better place.” This blogger summarized it pretty succintly the a few weeks ago http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2010/10/subsidiarity-where-responsibility-begins.html.

OT, but I started reading that blogger for his running commentaries, mostly negative, about the Left Behind novels.

16 11 2010

I didn’t say gay people were pedophiles–I said the Greeks practiced pederasty (not the same thing–look it up). Human behavior is complex, and while I’m not a fan of social-constructionist theories, I think that with sexuality there is a large component that is societally defined. It’s misleading to speak of Ancient Greeks, e.g., as “gay”, since that implies that homosexuality in their culture had the same meaning, or was construed in the same way, as it is now.

Btw, regarding the Scouts, I wasn’t being anti-gay. I wouldn’t approve of an adult gay man leading a troop of prepubescent and adolescent boys; by the same token, I wouldn’t approve of an adult straight man leading a troop of prepubescent and adolescent girls. Ditto a lesbian leading a troop of girls or a straight women leading a troop of boys. The issue isn’t pedophilia in the strict sense or whether being gay is all right or not. The issue is that the potential temptation to sexual misbehavior has to be minimized, in my view. Sexual misbehavior of adults towards late pre-teens and teens (which is not pedophilia and given marriage ages in pre-industrial society is probably not even “deviant”) is commoner than we’d like to think, and situations involving children should minimize the possibility of this.

Hope this clears up my intended meaning.

15 11 2010
random Orthodox chick

But yeah, your whole point on the homosexual issue is a good one. I find the irony hilarious.

15 11 2010
random Orthodox chick

I don’t normally pause to post such a reactionary comment but:

Gay people are not pedos.


15 11 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Perhaps. But that also assumes that political decisions actually have any real influence, and aren’t just rubber stamping the policies already determined by large corporations and other institutions not determined by democratic vote.

15 11 2010

While you do make some interesting points here, I must point out that this sentence:

“It should also be stated that even in our country of rigid income inequalities, the number of people making actual decisions about the course of society far outnumbers the proportion of people who would have done so in ancient Greece or Rome.”

Is false.

I happen to live in a city with a population of about 324,000, which is very comparable to Attica durring the golden age of Athens. While it is certainly true that the franchise was far more restricted in Athens, where only about 40,000 were able to vote, than in my city, you clearly demonstated last week that the vote, in itself, is not really an exercise of political power.

Now the lowest deliberative body in Athens to exercise real political authority was the council of 500. This means that for every 600-700 people there was somone with real power and authority involved with matters of state. My city council has 10 members, which means there is one for every 23,000 of us.

I expect the situation is typical for most Americans.

15 11 2010

“All the same, it seems a little disingenous to want your school’s curriculum to be governed through local control yet have your church’s ceremonial micromanaged by a group of individuals half a world away. Or it seems odd that people will rail against the dictates of Washington all the while wrapping themselves in the righteousness of slavishly following the dictates of Rome. Is not the local parish committee planning the liturgical dance for the Easter Vigil subsidiarity in its purest form?”

This? Is sheer awesomeness. Also I’ve noticed a certain kind of willful ignorance among people who complain about how “the 60s” ruined everything, but are opposed in real life to the actual evils that this same time period eliminated (yes, Rand Paul, I’m looking at you). As in middle school, one’s real tormentors are usually the people you see on a daily basis, not faceless administrators. There’s a reason why Nina Simone wrote a song called, “Mississippi G—-” rather than “Supreme Court G—–.” I mean, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was an entire state agency devoted to preventing blacks from engaging in subversive activities like enrolling at Ole Miss, voting, and going to public libraries. So you’ll have to excuse me if I’m more suspicious of local government than the people in Washington.

15 11 2010

There are few things more annoying than ideologically driven history. Of course this was something conservatives used to criticize and is now something they do in spades. I may have even done it myself. I think someone once said that history was a mirror. That person sounds pretty wise somedays.

15 11 2010
Henry Karlson

A couple years ago, I began writing a science fiction story based upon a dark, PKD like world, where the United States existed, in principle, while the city-states held most of the power. There was constant conflicts between the city-states and the federal government; the police force had the greatest power, and most city-states, because of their localism, became police states. This was the background for the story, which was to be a time-travel based story; but I wanted to get the horrors that can come out of subsidiarity, to show it, by itself, could not solve all problems and would lead to others. The point, of course, is one which I stand on often: a truth disconnected from other truths leads to heresy, a good taken apart from other goods becomes an evil, and beauty without the harmony of the whole becomes ugly.

This is an unedited, complete stream of consciousness draft (and so many sentences need much improvement), of the first chapter to show what the story would have been like: [note to Arturo: if you feel this is too long to post, feel free to delete the chapter]


Benjamin Gibbs, who went by the name Ben, wasn’t in a good mood. He didn’t like driving on Meridian Street. It was always a hotbed of trouble, especially at night. But there was nothing he could do about it. He was told he had to come in and answer some questions, and he was told that he had to do so at once – or risk more than the loss of his job. This wasn’t a routine checkup on his work, but something more. Something was up, troubling his federal bosses. He knew if he didn’t give the right answers, or didn’t come in, he might not be a free man much longer. Not that anyone in the city really was free, but at least he was alive. The average life expectancy in a prison was five years.

He was only a few more minutes of driving time from his destination when he saw the red lights of a police car flash behind him. “Pull over,” the cop inside it said through a loudspeaker.

“Damn,” Ben thought. “Should I try to outrun the cop? If I get to the Foxman Building, I would be out of his jurisdiction. But if I don’t get there…. It’s not worth the risk.” Giving a big sigh, he pulled over.

“Get out of the car,” the voice over the loudspeaker shouted. “Slowly. There. Just like that. Now show me your hands. Good. Now stay put.”

Three doors opened up from the squad car. A tall, fat cop with a large mustache stepped out of the car, followed closely behind by two teenage “deputies.” As usual, the cop had no badge indicating his name or rank on his person (this was done so that no one could know who it was that had harassed them and take out revenge at some later date and time).

“Anything wrong, officer?” Ben asked.

“We’re just collecting money for the police retirement fund,” said the cop. “Now you know that there are two ways we can get it. Willingly, which isn’t as much fun, or unwillingly, which I’m sure Tim and Ned would enjoy.” One of the teens, a tall, thin youth with a bald head gave a bit of laugh. “Heck, why should I let them have all the fun?” The officer pulled out a large, metal club from under his shirt, and quickly hit Ben in the stomach with it, making him keel over in pain. “Now then, which is it?” The officer then hit him on the back, cracking a rib.

Before he was able to give any response to the officer’s request, the teens had come over and started kicking at him. This was to make sure he didn’t do something sudden which would put any of them into danger.

“Your money,” shouted the officer. “You wouldn’t want to be brought in for resisting arrest, would you?”

In between the kicks, Ben was able to get his hand in his pocket and take out his wallet. He knew there was nothing he could do, at least for the moment. This had become standard police procedure over the last decade. They were a law unto themselves. They could do whatever they pleased anywhere within their jurisdiction. While the official crime rate in the city was at an all time low, this was because anyone who had criminal inclinations knew the police force was the best place for them to be. They could steal from the civilians using legal means, instead of risking imprisonment. And so they ruled the city with an iron fist; the mayor, after all, was only a figurehead put into office to make sure the police continued to have complete control over Indianapolis.

“Here, take it. I’m all too happy to help,” Ben said, grinning slightly despite the pain. He knew what would happen when the police officer looked at the identity card within. One of the deputies, in between kicks, bent down and greedily took the wallet from his hand.

“Now who do we have here?” the officer asked, looking at the id card. “Benjamin Gibbs. Employment: G.S.O.” The officer motioned to his deputies to stop kicking. “G.S.O. is it? Which branch?”

“Computer,” Ben said, as he started to slowly get back up. G.S.O. Governmental Special Operations. People employed by the G.S.O. were federal workers engaging in various black op projects. As long as they were employed by the feds, they were given special treatment, even by the police (the police were afraid of retaliation).

“Did I tell you to get up?” the officer barked. “No. I didn’t. Just stay there. Let me check into this,” the officer continued, tapping on Benjamin’s identity card. “We’ve got to be certain that this card isn’t stolen or a fake, now don’t we?”

The officer took out his security computer and pushed the card through it. Within seconds the readout told him everything he needed to know. The card was real. Shrugging, he removed all of Ben’s cash from the wallet, and then through it and the card back at Ben. “We appreciate your contribution, sir,” the cop said, with a tinge of sarcastic humility. He reached into his pocket, and took at a decal of a golden star. “Accept this as a token of our appreciation,” the cop continued, and then threw it down next to the wallet. Then he motioned to his deputies to get back into the car. As soon as the nameless officer had got back behind the wheel, the car sped quickly off so that Benjamin would have no chance of reading its license plate.

Despite how much pain he was in, Ben knew he had to report in to his superiors. They wouldn’t take any excuses from him. He didn’t have to drive, the car would do it for him. He just needed to show up. Once there, then they could have their own medical staff take care of his wounds. Before he went through the G.S.O. inquisition, that is.

“How did it come to this,” Ben thought as his car drove off. “America divided against itself, everyone fighting everyone else just to survive. This wasn’t what the founders wanted for us. Not at all.”

Ever since the war, the United States had not been the same. The federal government had lost a lot of the power it once held over the country. Its years of empire-building had caused a great backlash upon the land by the rest of the world, that the people of the United States wanted something different. Subsidiarity became the new law of the land. Instead of having a powerful central government, it was thought the solution would lie in the restoration of state’s rights, and turning the United States into a Confederacy of Independent States. Yet, it was quickly apparent to the largest cities of the nation that this new situation could be used to their advantage if they were treated as independent states of their own, and thus cities with over a million people were turned into independent city-states with their own laws and governance. For some places, like Seattle, this worked well. But for other places, like Indianapolis, the situation quickly turned grim as they became brutally run police states, with Indianapolis being the worst.

The federal government still held some nominal sway over the nation, and the independent states granted federal lands independent sovereignty. But the feds wanted more. They wanted things to be as they were in the golden age of the 20th century. Plans were being put into effect to make it happen, to find a way for the federal government to regain control over the nation. And that was, at least in part, what Ben’s team at the Foxman Building was working on.

15 11 2010

Excellent post, and I agree as to the fatuousness, ahistorical romanticism, and just goofiness of the article. I’d just like to add two areas in which Esolen’s grasp of history is either woefully ignorant or deliberately disingenuous. Not only ignorant (or disingenuous), but spectacularly so.

One, he states, ” Why should anyone care to tell the Boy Scouts…that they must do what no one within living memory would have done, and that is to saddle the boys with homosexual scoutmasters — with men for leaders and role models who have failed in the single most momentous and fearful transition that the boy must negotiate….” Anyone who has studied ancient Greek history knows that homosexual role models were the basis of showing boys how to negotiate the transition to manhood. That was the whole idea of paiderastia. Nota bene: I’m not favoring gay scoutmasters–I actually think it’s a bad idea, and agree with the Scouts on this issue. I’m just saying that it’s really weird to praise to the skies the culture of the ancient Greeks, of all people, and then turn around to rail against gay men being role models for boys!

Second, it’s funny that Esolen, as a Catholic, praises subsidiarity in the religious realm and stands up for local preferences. It is exactly such local preferences that led to the founding of the Catholic school system in this country, since the Protestant-dominated school districts tried to indoctrinate those Popish Catholics away from their obeisance to the Whore of Babylon. Prayer was allowed in school, all right, as long as it was Protestant. I might also add that such charming incidents as the burning of Catholic churches in Louisville in the 1840’s, calls on restriction of immigration from Catholic countries, the Know-Nothing Party, the opposition to JFK solely on the basis of his church, and so on, were also manifestations of the local polis-centered views. Esolen is entitled to his opinions, but to support the very same system that would have oppressed him or denied that he was a “real American” on the basis of his religion a mere century and a half ago, or less, is truly dumbfounding.

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