Monday, October 14, 2013

The Furies

"The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree." So writes Frank Rich today in "The Furies Never End," in New York Magazine (
Rich rightly recognizes the deep anti-federal, anti-democratic roots of our present problem. It reminds me of a grad school classmate in the early 1970s who wondered about political theory in a society that hates politics. It reminds me too of the comment someone made at the time of the second Iraq war, wondering how Iraq could be effectively reconstructed when the occupying power itself was run by folks who themselves had little love for government.
It would be nice to believe that the anti-federal, anti-democratic dynamic in American society had surrendered once and for all at Appomattox, but almost a century and a half after its defeat on the battlefield it still never quite goes away. And, although America has suffered the most from libertarian and social-contractarian ideology, the debate is at the core of what has rendered so much of modern political and social life so problematic.
Aristotle famously called the one who first founded a polis "the greatest of benefactors," for while human beings, "when perfected," are "the best of animals." if "isolated from law and justice" they are "the worst of all" (Politics, I, ii). In the Catholic tradition, Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 72, art. 4) adopted Aristotle's reasoning and considered human beings naturally political: "homo est naturaliter animal politicum et sociale, ut probatur in I Polit. (cap.2)."
But, at the outset of the modern era, others posited a primordial pre-political state of nature,  a notion which has ever since served implicitly to undermine the legitimacy of serious social and political commitments. Rousseau, for example, answered Aristotle with an alternative, totally pejorative account of the origin of civilization (Discourse on the Origin  and Basis of Inequality Among Men, 1755). Some years later, he published his own alternative utopian society (On the Social Contract, 1762), with lots of classical resonances, but with the unmistakably modern premise, as stated in the opening chapter, that human beings were born free but are everywhere in chains. Rousseau was willing to recognize the family as natural - "the most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one" - but only during the time children remain dependent on their parents, after which "all return equally to independence." The social order Rousseau ended up espousing has seemed to many in fact to foreshadow modern totalitarianism. To those who might share Rousseau's initial libertarian premises, that just confirms their negative assumptions about government's inevitable trajectory. To those with a more traditional (e.g., Aristotelian) appreciation of government, such a government's totalitarian trajectory more likely confirms the moral fallacy of modernity's initial premises.
In a sense, such academic discourse seems far away from the less evidently intellectual posturing of contemporary anti-government activism. Yet it remains important to recognize that this apparently uniquely American conflict about the legitimacy of our national, democratic, constitutional government has deep roots in the modern world's weakening of all natural social and political bonds among people.
Thus, for example, on TV recently, I watched someone argue against the Affordable Care Act's "individual mandate" on the grounds that healthy, younger people were being compelled to purchase insurance not to support health care for themselves when they will eventually need it but health care for others in the present. Imagine that! One could not ask for a more explicit expression of the anti-communitarian premises which are at the root of the anti-government tendency in American politics - and which are so sadly on display in the current political impasse in Washington.

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