One Hundred Fiftieth

April 12, 2011

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, which began the American Civil War. And I’ve already seen several items noting the anniversary and a few offering explanations as to why the South was wrong.

I’m not going to say that the South was right, because in the most obvious respect, they weren’t–slavery was, and is, wrong, and the South was in large part fighting to keep it’s “peculiar institution.” But I do think it’s important to understand that the South understood itself to be fighting not primarily for slavery, but for (and this is my formulation) state’s rights, community, and tradition, as set against nationalization, legalization, and modernization. Though the South was tainted by slavery, these ideals are not themselves evil. Neither are they unequivocally good, but there is much to be said for them, and much to be said against their opposites.

There are many directions I could go with this–secession, Southern culture, how the War was prosecuted, Reconstruction, etc–but I don’t think it’s all that necessary to do so. I’m certainly not the most intelligent Civil War commentator out there. I think what’s most important to realize is how bad it was–600,000 Americans died at a time when the U.S. was much smaller than it is now–and to contemplate whether those deaths were necessary or unnecessary. People have described it both ways. I find that fascinating.


Homelesness and Uprootedness

May 8, 2010

Unsurprisingly, given that this semester I’m taking one course about the works of Herman Melville and another about those of William Faulkner, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about “America” as a culture distinct from that of Europe. America’s relationship to its cultural heritage is, to put it nicely, ambiguous. Now, I don’t have a grand theory of America to propound here, but I do have two concepts that I think are important to understanding how America understands itself.

First, I want to discuss “transcendental homelessness,” a term Georg Lukacs invents in his Theory of the Novel and defines as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” My professor used this term often to describe Melville, and I think it applies well to America as a whole (incidentally, Melville seems to me in many ways the quintessential American author). Americans are transcendentally homeless, because they want everywhere to be like America. Compare this to the concept of “American exceptionalism” that we hear so much about. “Exceptionalism” means that America believes it is somehow special, the culmination of history, but I think it is more the case that America has a hard time coming to terms with itself as a specific place in a specific time, preferring to see itself as an incarnation of a universal ideal to which all other countries ought to aspire. I am reminded of Melville’s constant references to Anacharsis Cloots, a participant in the French Revolution who said that the Revolution had to apply not only to France, but to all the world.

The other concept I want to apply to America is “uprootedness.” I mean for this to stand in opposition to the idea of “rootlessness” that sees America as a complete tabula rasa, placing man anew in the state of nature (credit to Therese of Inklings, who talked about this earlier this week). If “rootlessness” means America is cut off completely from the Old World, and represents a new beginning, then “uprootedness” means that America is based in the Old World, but because it was transplanted to the New, continuity could not simply be taken for granted. Every continued tradition had to be consciously continued, and that consciousness implied a reevaluation and modification. Look, for example, at the American South (the focus of Faulkner’s work). Its traditional structure was an attempt to remain in continuity with the aristocratic Old World, but it was necessarily a conscious imitation, not an unconscious continuation; while it “died” with the Civil War, it had hardly existed before that. Or look at the attempts to create a “city on a hill” in Puritan New England, a subject Melville is interested in; it was in some ways a conscious break from the Old World, but in more important ways a continuation of certain Old World religious ideas.

These two concepts are complementary, I think; one deals with America in relation to the rest of the contemporary world, the other with America in relation to its heritage. And both of them involve not a separation of America from the rest of the world, but an uneasy connection, an ambiguous bond. What I find really fascinating is that both Melville and Faulkner lead me to this same thought. It’s perhaps the strongest common thread I can find running throughout America, both North and South.


Incidentally, these are the books we read in the two respective classes; I highly recommend everything on this list, but italics I use to indicate particular noteworthiness, and the most important work on each list I bold.


  • Moby-Dick
  • Pierre
  • The Piazza Tales: The Piazza, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Lightning-Rod Man, The Encantadas, The Bell-Tower
  • The Confidence-Man
  • assorted poetry (mostly from Battle-Pieces; particularly good are “The Conflict of Convictions” and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)
  • Billy Budd


  • The Unvanquished (not Faulkner’s best, but a particularly easy read)
  • Absalom, Absalom!
  • As I Lay Dying
  • The Hamlet
  • Go Down, Moses

These United States

April 24, 2010

I’ve had several conversations recently about the nature of the Union binding together the several States. Many of my friends argue for the South’s position during the Civil War (states’ rights), while others of them, though fewer, argue for the North’s (secession is unconstitutional). And I was reminded of it again today by this post over at Saint Superman, which brings up new attempts to assert states’ rights following the passage of Obamacare, and argues that they’re inherently damaging to the Union.

So, I thought I’d try to write something about my take on the issue. Keep in mind this is all “speculation”; I am tentatively convinced by the arguments below, but don’t hold to these views particularly strongly. They’re just my efforts to unravel some complex issues.

To begin: If I take a legalistic approach, just looking at the text of the Constitution, I can’t see any definitive reading. It’s ambiguous – and, I suspect, intentionally so – as to whether states have a right to secede or not. It doesn’t mention anything explicitly either way.

But I still think the South had a good legal argument, insofar as there can ever be an argument for secession. Everything the American Founders could argue, the Southerners could as well. Yes, they had representation, but the population growth in the North and the movement westward meant that Southern states were beginning to have less and less control over national politics. It had always been a matter of compromise between North and South, but the election of Lincoln meant that it was no longer even that. The North could have its way in national politics without even really taking into account the South’s interests; that’s basically the same thing as not having representation.

Also, the South and the North were greatly separated by distance; I think people today have a hard time understanding that in 1860, you couldn’t fly from Texas to Maine in four hours or however long it takes. With such limited communication technology, a truly centralized government, of the kind we have today, wasn’t even conceivable.

And the South did have radically different interests than and a radically different culture from that of the North. They were linked economically, but so were the South and England. But the South had an aristocratic, rural, traditional society, while that of the North was egalitarian, urban, and modern. In a lot of ways, I think, the Civil War was about the modernization of America – the forced modernization of the South. Modernization is not inherently bad, and is in some ways necessary, but modernization at the point of a bayonet (and with everything burned to the ground) does not seem like the way to go about it.

Then there’s the slavery question. It’s true that a large part of the South’s complaints had to do with efforts to curtail and abolish slavery. And I’m as much against slavery as anyone else. But I don’t think the North had the right to step in and end slavery in the South without any regard for what would happen to Southern society after slavery was ended. The aftermath of the War – i.e. the abysmal failure of Reconstruction – was not an aberration. It was a direct result of the North’s idealistic belief that it could destroy the culture of the South and replace it with something better.

And then we look at today, and the various states that are threatening nullification. What are we to make of those threats? Brian at Saint Superman wants to see them as attacks on the Union itself. I’d rather see them as checks on the central government’s power. Yes, they’re an intentional provocation; it’s like the states and the federal government are playing a game of chicken. The states are betting they can pressure the government into changing its mind.

Brian says that this  means “federal sovereignty is subject to that of the states, and thus has and can have no real power over them but that power which they agree to cede on a case by case basis; the moment this becomes even a prevailing theory, the next logical step is to contemplate secession.” He has a sort of point. If the states can do anything to contravene the national government, it means the union is not strong enough to be indissoluble.

But, I think, that argument is based in Hobbes and his Leviathan, not in the idea of a social contract that our nation was founded on. The government is right, no matter what; if you don’t like it, deal with it. But do we really want an indissoluble union? I don’t think so. An indissoluble union seems to me like a perfect recipe for tyranny. I think that, rather, the state-union relation needs the same kind of play as the person-state relation; there’s a sort of testing of the boundaries on both sides, and the union is always fragile, because if either side oversteps certain boundaries, the union can dissolve. But the fact that either side can dissolve the union, means that both sides have an incentive not to do anything that will push the other side too far, and so the union is actually less likely to dissolve.

Of course, there’s still the question of whether dissolving the Union is practical at all in the modern world. Advances in technology have knit us closer together than ever, and the world has become increasingly contractual and legalistic, meaning there’s less room for change. Everyone considers the USA an entity, and there’s no real mechanism in place for dealing with the death of that entity. So such a dissolution is probably completely impossible – or, at least, it would be completely disastrous, meaning that in playing the “secession” card, the states are going “all in.”

Is this something that they ought to be doing in response to health care reform, of all things? I’m doubtful about that. But I don’t think we can cry foul at their doing it, saying they’re trying to destroy the Union, or that what they do will necessarily lead to its destruction.

Satirical Mythology

February 23, 2010

We read Gulliver’s Travels in my Early Modern Literature class a few weeks ago; it’s somewhat enjoyable, but marred throughout, I think, by overly specific satire and unfunny attempts at humor. The following I wrote specifically in response to Part I, but applies to the rest of it as well, I think:

Political satire does not age well.

The first part of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels had such a promising premise. There is a reason the word “lilliputian” has entered our vocabulary: the concept of an entire race of minuscule men captures the imagination in the same way as do the ancient myths. When children are taught about Greek mythology, they always read (and sometimes only read) the relatively short passage from the Odyssey detailing Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops. No one forgets the use of “no man” as a name, and no one forgets the idea itself of a giant, one-eyed man-monster. The Lilliputians are the same. Children often read the first part of Gulliver’s Travels, and after doing so, the six-inch-tall man remains in their imagination long after they forget the other details of the story.

What surprises me, in fact, is that it took until the eighteenth century for the Lilliputians to be invented. There were occasionally folk heroes like Tom Thumb, but until Swift, was there an entire race of them? Not fairy-folk, not magical in any way, with exactly the same sort of society as ours, only smaller? The idea may have as a prerequisite the kind of scientific objectivity associated with Newtonian mechanics. Before, to be tiny was to be magic, but once scientific laws are fixed, they apply to a six-inch-tall man the same as to a six-foot-tall one, and the magic is no longer necessary. Six-inch-tall men can be just that, men six inches tall, not demons or faeries.

There may be another requirement for Lilliputians to emerge: the cosmopolitan nature of an age with relatively fast and reliable travel. Ancient histories emphasize the foreignness of even nearby countries, Gulliver’s Travels the sameness of places far away. A key aspect of the Lilliputian myth is how, though they are smaller than us, they have basically the same concerns. They have emperors, farm the land, and fight over differences of dogma. To be compelling, we must be able to see ourselves as primarily human, and only secondarily of any specific nationality, for the Lilliputians are primarily a satire of humanity: men, but smaller, they show us how small we ourselves are.

But in Swift’s rendering, the satirical nature of the story is its downfall. Everyone knows “Lilliput,” but far fewer remember “Blefescu,” that the war between the two is a satire of religious wars in England, or for that matter that there is a war between the two at all. The problem is that, while the nature of the Lilliputian myth demands that the Lilliputians be a satire of humanity, Swift decided to make them a satire of seventeenth and eighteenth century England; Lilliput and Blefescu are England and France, Big- and Little-Endianism are Catholicism and Protestantism. In doing so, Swift makes the myth fallible. The comparison is one reasonable readers may disagree with; were the religious wars in England really a result of something as trivial as how to crack open an egg?

Worse (though it may boil down to the same thing), Swift makes the myth specifically historical. In doing so, he reduces himself to a three-hundred-year-old Englishman complaining about four-hundred-year-old Englishmen. It is not that specificity is in itself bad, but that Swift becomes so specific as to lose a sense of the general. “Lilliputian” lasts in a way “Blefescu” and “Endianism” do not, I believe, because “lilliputian” conveys a satirical myth, a timeless satire, while “Blefescu” and “Endianism” are political satires. Political satires are not timeless, and so political satires cannot last.

I could see it argued that this is a measure of Swift’s achievement: we are no longer moved by his argument because his side won. But that would be to say that literature is in the service of politics, that because Swift could use Gulliver’s Travels to win a political debate, even though that debate would be irrelevant within a few decades, it excuses him from having to write literature that is truly timeless. I cannot agree with that; literature’s task is to teach us about human nature, not about the nature of the Tories and Whigs, and failing at this is a real failure. The Lilliputians are a great addition to our modern mythology, but Gulliver’s Travels itself I must consider as only of historical interest.

Book Review: The Unvanquished

February 6, 2010

The first book we read this semester in my class on William Faulkner was The Unvanquished. I’d read it before, in 11th grade, but that was before I had any real idea of who Faulkner was, or where the excellences of this book lie; thus I got a lot more out of it the second time.

The first thing worth noting is that The Unvanquished is among the most accessible of Faulkner’s works. It’s written in a first-person voice, but it’s not stream-of-consciousness, for the most part. It’s an old Bayard Sartoris telling the story of his youth. Thus it doesn’t have anything nearly as incomprehensible as, say, The Sound and the Fury. Also, it takes the form of a Bildungsroman, beginning with Bayard as a 13-year-old boy during the Civil War and ending when he is 24 years old, a man, living in the reconstructed South. This gives it a clear direction and thematic unity; the book is about Bayard growning up and learning to deal with the new order of things.

I don’t want to imply that I prefer The Unvanquished to Faulkner’s other works. It is more comprehensible; but in being more comprehensible, I think, it loses something of what I consider one of Faulkner’s greatest strengths, the ability to convey the mystery and often seeming randomness of life, and yet draw a kind of inexpressible unity out of it. That’s what I love about The Sound and the Fury, or Absalom, Absalom, or the Snopes trilogy. I don’t think The Unvanquished succeeds at it to the same extent; but that’s because it doesn’t really attempt to. It’s a more traditional novel.

But still a quite excellent one. It focuses on the conflict between ideals and the harsh realities of life – justice versus order – and how Bayard comes to understand this dichotomy as he matures. Why are justice and order opposed? Because often doing what is just, according to strict standards of morality, results in chaos, and thus may not be the correct action. In the first section of the novel, Granny Millard lies in order to protect Bayard and Ringo, 13-year-old boys who have accidentally angered the Union army. She feels bad about this, but does not repent, exactly; she would do it again in a heartbeat. This theme recurs throughout the novel; our heroes must lie for the sake of order, then steal for the sake of order, and finally even kill for the sake of order.

Faulkner does not condemn them for this. I think he sees their actions as necessary, because the Sartorises are the aristocrats, responsible for keeping order in society, and the war has caused chaos – the Confederate government no longer rules, but neither has the Union re-established order. So the Sartorises must establish order themselves. Thus, in a way, it isn’t wrong for them to lie, and steal, and kill.

This can be slightly disconcerting for those of us who would like to have a strict proscriptive morality. But, after all, such a thing is impossible; that’s why we can’t kill abortionists even though what they’re doing is a heinous evil. I don’t really like this solution – it seems to make “order” into an intrinsic good – but neither do I see any other solution.

The novel ends with Bayard refusing to kill a man in order to avenge his father, a turn which could be seen as a rejection of his earlier behavior during the war. But I don’t think it is. During the war, Bayard had to kill the outlaw because he was a threat to society; after the war, when government has been re-established, Bayard cannot be allowed to exact revenge, for that would be no more than murder.

Until this point, Faulkner seems to reject all ideals in favor of living life, but he ends with Bayard standing up for an ideal – why? The point, I think, is that we need our moral ideals, but we cannot stand up for them until law and order are established. Order comes first, and once we have order we can try to purify and sanctify it. It would be wrong to reject all moral values in favor of a merely pragmatic enforcement of order by the government, but likewise it would be wrong to attempt to create an ideal society from scratch.

In a way, then, Faulkner is making the same argument as Thomas More seems to be making in Utopia, who says that statemen perhaps cannot succeed in making government good, but they should try to make it less bad. The similarities are perhaps fitting; both are inspired by Roman pragmatism as opposed to Greek idealism.

Abortion, Murder, Justice, Law

June 3, 2009

This is an important article. Read it.

So, Dr. George Tiller was a murderer – or, late-term abortionist, as you probably prefer to call him. He was shot down while in church by a someone who believed he was committing justifiable homicide – stopping a killer before he killed again. But that man was wrong, right? He shouldn’t have killed Tiller, right? It was murder, right?

Legally, of course, it was. But if you’re someone who believes that abortion is truly murder, that it is the taking of innocent human life, you don’t get off as easy as saying “Tiller was murdered, murder is always wrong, so Tiller’s murder was wrong”. Rather – and the article I linked to makes the argument better than I can – it was wrong, but because it was vigilante justice, not because it was murder.

And that brings us (though the linked-to article doesn’t go this far) to an interesting and somewhat disturbing point. Now, vigilante justice is wrong because it subverts the rule of law. It leads to chaos. You can’t kill someone to exact your own justice, making yourself judge, jury, and executioner, and then expect to re-enter society and have everything be fine. Vigilante justice is a rejection of the legitimate authority and an attempt to establish a new one; it is, in its essence, no different than revolution. A revolution of one man.

A revolution of one man to stop abortion is wrong for a number of reasons. But what about a revolution of millions? If everyone who believed that abortion was murder was actually willing to fight for that belief, to prevent the over one million such murders happening every year, they might actually have a chance of winning. Would it be wrong for them to do so? It would cause chaos, for a time. Wars always do. It would also have a real chance of preventing over a million murders each year. How would this be any different from sending an army in to stop a genocide?

What it comes down to, as far as I can tell, is simply a matter of prudence. We don’t fight because the revolt wouldn’t succeed. It would end up causing so much chaos that it wasn’t “worth it”. And as soon as we start talking about “worth it” – about weighing the good and bad results like that – it means there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such a revolution. It’s just wrong in the details, so to speak.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not gravely wrong. The man who killed George Tiller did something horrible. But that’s not because he believed evil was good, black was white. It was because he had no sense of prudence. He had a sense of justice, but no sense of law. Law, government, always asks questions of prudence. I think that’s another way of saying philosophy can’t govern, because it’s too impractical. Philosophy helps – the philosopher-king is not a bad idea – but it’s not enough.


May 14, 2009

Firstly, an amusing website:

Secondly, regarding the recent increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia; the one good thing to come of it, in my opinion, is that people are reminded of what actual piracy is. It involves armed robbery, hostage-taking, and death. Whether making unauthorized copies of a movie or song is immoral or not, it is nothing like actual piracy in its severity. No internet pirate ever killed someone.

Now, on to the Pirate Bay trial. So, the legal debate itself – whether or not providing links to copyrighted material is illegal when you are not providing the material itself – is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant. I tend to think the Pirate Bay should have won the trial on legal grounds, but I can understand the case against, given current copyright law. Really none of that matters, though; what everyone really cares about is whether or not piracy itself is wrong. Is it even possible to ‘steal’ information?


Turin’s Manifesto on So-Called Intellectual Property

I like to look at this historically. It used to be that data was intimately bound up with physical property. Before the printing press, copies of books were made by hand; the book was valuable for its content, yes, but primarily because it was rare, difficult to produce, requiring hours and hours of painstaking manual labor. If someone wanted to make a copy of a book they had in their possession, they were free to do so; it would require a lot of work, and the new copy would certainly be theirs, since they created the physical artifact.

Then the printing press came along, and it became easy to make many copies of something – if you owned a large and expensive piece of machinery and could put in enough manual labor to produce a single copy of it. Making one copy and making a thousand copies required the same amount of initial effort, with little extra effort added for each copy. This made it so that, if someone wrote a book, they could publish it and make many copies of it, selling each of them for a slight profit – but that the few other people who had printing presses (not just anyone, since almost no one had such presses) could make their own copies of the book and sell them.

There seems something unfair about this; person A wrote the book, but person B profits from selling it because he just takes the text and prints it, giving nothing to person A. It was because of situations like this that copyright law was invented – giving a limited monopoly on the rights to print copies to the person who wrote the book. Anyone would still be allowed to make their own copies by hand, if they wanted to, but it would require so much effort they would be better off just buying a copy; copyright law’s purpose was to make sure that, when the common man bought a copy of a book, he bought one from the person who actually wrote it.

And copyright was for a limited period of time, because eventually the work would become public knowledge of sorts, and it wouldn’t make sense at that point to restrict access to it. That, or it would be forgotten, and it wouldn’t make sense to stop people from making copies of a book that would otherwise never be read. It’s better not to have laws that destroy knowledge.

In the last few decades there has been a radical shift in how easy it is to make a copy of something. Making an electronic copy of an electronic document takes seconds, and costs next to nothing, and almost any form of data – movie, book, song, whatever – can be made into a digital file. So when someone “pirates” something, breaking copyright law, they’re not anything like the people who set up printing presses to make money from books they did not write; they aren’t making money, the people getting copies of the books and movies and songs aren’t being tricked into paying the wrong person for the content; rather, data has been divorced from physical property, and people are beginning to act accordingly. When books had to be physical objects, it made sense to say that those objects could only be sold by the people who actually wrote the books; now, when books can be costlessly transferred online, it makes little sense to say they still must be paid for, and that it is stealing to create a digital copy of something and give it away for free. Again: Copyright law is a cumbersome legacy from a time when there was no way to transfer information except through physical property.

The basic point I’d like to make is that advances in technology require us to come up with different ways of encouraging the arts. Yes, the existence of internet piracy may cause a problem for the current music and film industries; that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of internet piracy, which is a natural result of the current state of technology. Rather, it means we have to find new ways of making sure artists can make a living from their work.

Before the printing press artists functioned under a patronage system; the poet Vergil, for example, was under the employ of the emperor Augustus. When the printing press came along books could be sold directly to the public for profit, and so capitalism and the arts became bedfellows. Now, with internet piracy making any profit from selling something along the lines of the current system dubious, a new system is needed. What it will be, I don’t know. But something has to change, and getting rid of internet piracy isn’t the answer.

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