Monday, November 23, 2015

Thank Sara Josepha Hale for Thanksgiving...

This Thursday, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving with a Turkey dinner and expressions of gratitude. Although the holiday has apparently become a target for the Politically Correct One Percent and Black Friday Capitalists alike, it is still a major US holiday, celebrated with turkey dinner.

Some may not feel very grateful, in the aftermath of recent ISIS attacks on Paris.

However, a look at the history of the Thanksgiving reveals that far from being a triumphal celebration of "white privilege," it is historically a solemn undertaking to demonstrate perseverence in the face adversity,  in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."  It was established due to a long campaign by an American woman writer and editor named Sara Josepha Hale, author of Mary Had a Little Lambwho personally persuaded Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the national holiday in the middle of the Civil War.

Growing from the roots of Thanksgiving as a tragic festival for a war-torn nation, the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth Massachussets mounted an historical exhibition dedicated to the holiday immediately in the wake of 9/11. 

It was  titled Giving Thanks: The Religious Roots of Thanksgiving. The show ran from November-December 2001 and was curated by Peggy M. Baker, Director and Librarian of the Pilgrim Society. It remains online at the Society website to this day, and makes for interesting reading at this time, when once again the world has faced atrocity and massacre. If anything, Thanksgiving is a holiday of resilience and endurance, and its meaning only grows over time.

In her online catalog, Baker noted that the legendary first Thanksgiving of 1621 was officially unrecorded, although it is alluded to in personal correspondence.  However, within two years it had become official in the Plymouth Colony: 

The Pilgrims’ first recorded religious day of thanksgiving was held in 1623. Plymouth had been stricken with a severe drought. "Upon which," said William Bradford, "they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress." That same evening it began "to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God… For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving."

And concluded: "Today, we still share the religious spirit of those earlier Thanksgivings:

  • an autumn thanksgiving to God for the blessings of the year is proclaimed,
  • our abundance is shared with those who are less fortunate,
  • and many families, before the feast, bow their heads in prayer."
Baker noted that the holiday became a national institution early in the American Revolution, and cited its celebration at Valley Forge as a significant turning point:

The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in gratitude for the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. The Continental Congress set aside Thursday, December 18th that "the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor." 
On December 17, 1777, the day before the first national Thanksgiving, George Washington was in winter quarters at Valley Forge. He wrote:
Tomorrow being the day set apart by the honorable Congress for Public Thanksgiving and praise, and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgments to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the general directs … that the chaplains perform divine service.
In addition to an opportunity for prayer, acts of charity were part of Thanksgiving celebrations, with Baker quoted none other than Sara Josepha Hale:

The Cheerful Giver
Although Providence has blessed our land with an abounding harvest, we must remember that there are among us many who will have but a scanty and insufficient share in this abundance. The civil war has given to our care many maimed and helpless men, many widows and orphans, many destitute refugees… Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving. (Sarah Josepha Hale, in Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1864)

"The Widow's Thanksgiving,"
Harper's Magazine, December 5, 1874

However, after the Revolution until the Civil War, Thanksgiving proclamations were largely issued by State Governors rather than the President.

Enter Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, who is credited as "the godmother of Thanksgiving" on the Pilgrim Society website, which says her 1827 novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, for popularized the holiday (although mistakenly placing it in the Massachusetts Bay), as well as her 1835 short story, "The Thanksgiving of the Heart," in her collection Traits of American Life, which published this description:

Our good ancestors were wise, even in their mirth. We have a standing proof of this in the season they chose for the celebration of our annual festival, the Thanksgiving. The funeral-faced month of November is thus made to wear a garland of joy...There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which a whole community participate. They bring out, and together, as it were, the best sympathies of our nature. The rich contemplate the enjoyments of the poor with complacency, and the poor regard the entertainments of the rich without envy, because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.

The website explains: "In these two books are the beginnings of what would grow to be one of Sarah Josepha Hale’s lifelong crusades. The platform from which she would wage her holy war was that of editor of Godey's Lady's Book."

The first year of her editorship, 1837, Sarah wrote the first of her Thanksgiving editorials. Praising the holiday for its domestic and moral influence, she suggested that it “might, without inconvenience, be observed on the same day of November, say the last Thursday in the month, throughout all New England; and also in our sister states, who have engrafted it upon their social system. It would then have a national character, which would, eventually, induce all the states to join in the commemoration of “In- gathering,” which it celebrates. It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.”

Sarah did not introduce the topic again until 1842, when she used the example of Thanksgiving to favorably compare New England to “Old” England:

“At this season every family, almost, in our land has the comforts of life, and nearly all have the hope and prospect of living thus comfortably through the coming seasons. In Old England it is not so. Thousands, aye, million of her people are suffering daily from the "want of all things!"

Sarah’s crusade for a national Thanksgiving really began in 1847, when she noted that:

The Governor of New Hampshire has appointed Thursday, November 25th, as the day of annual thanksgiving in that state. We hope every governor in the twenty-nine states will appoint the same day -- 25th of November -- as the day of thanksgiving! Then the whole land would rejoice at once.”

This was followed by editorials in 1848 (there were two that year!) and 1849. After a one-year gap in 1850, Sarah resumed her Thanksgiving editorials, continuing without interruption for more than 20 years.

As Sarah noted in one of her 1848 editorials:

“...the appointment of the [Thanksgiving] day rests with the governors of each state; and hitherto, though the day of the week was always Thursday, that of the months had been varied. But the last Thursday of last November [1847] was kept as Thanksgiving Day in twenty-four of the twenty-nine states -- all that kept such a feast at all. May the last Thursday of the next November witness this glad and glorious festival, this „feast of the ingathering of harvest,‟ extended over our whole land, from the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Plymouth Rock to the Sunset Sea.”

Sarah’s crusade was, therefore, two-fold. She wanted every governor of every state or territory to proclaim a Thanksgiving Day and she wanted that day to be uniform throughout America. Then, as she proclaimed in 1851, “There would then be two great American national festivals, Independence Day, on the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving Day, on the last Thursday in November.” She explained her choice of the last Thursday in November in this way.

“The last Thursday in November has these advantages -- harvests of all kinds are gathered in -- summer travellers have returned to their homes -- the diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some portions of our country, have ceased, and all are prepared to enjoy a day of Thanksgiving.”

Several strong themes carried throughout Sarah’s campaign. One was the importance of Thanksgiving’s religious connotations:

"THE FOURTH OF JULY is the exponent of independence and civil freedom. 

THANKSGIVING DAY is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings. These two festivals should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits of thought as inseparable from American life.” (1852)

Another was Thanksgiving’s role in unifying a geographically far-flung nation:

“ would be better to have the day so fixed by the expression of public sentiment that no discord would be possible, but, from Maine to Mexico, from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea, the hymn of thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised, as the pledge of brotherhood in the enjoyment of God‟s blessings during the year.“ (1854)

As years passed, Sarah’s editorials emphasized ever more strongly the unifying role that Thanksgiving could play within an increasingly divided nation. In 1859, she rhapsodized

We are already spread and mingled over the Union. Each year, by bringing us oftener together, releases us from the estrangement and coolness consequent on distance and political alienations; each year multiplies our ties of relationship and friendship. How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law? and who is a better fellow than our wife‟s uncle from St. Louis? If Maine itself be a great way off, and almost nowhere, on the contrary, a dozen splendid fellows hail from Kennebec County, and your wife is a down-Easter.”

That year, 32 states and territories, plus the District of Columbia, celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November.

In 1860, she wrote:

“Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished.

We have sought to reawaken and increase this sympathy, believing that the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people... We believe our Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”

Sarah’s hopes were, of course, not to be fulfilled. In 1861, the bombardment of Fort Sumter opened the Civil War.

Sarah reported that, in 1861,“this National Feast Day was celebrated in twenty-four States and three Territories; all these, excepting the States of Massachusetts and Maine, held the Festival on the same day the last Thursday in November. “ The “missing” states were, of course, those of the Confederacy.
Sarah did not give up the fight. Instead, she tried a different strategy. As she suggested in her 1863 editorial:

“Would it not be of great advantage, socially, nationally, religiously, to have the DAY of our American Thanksgiving positively settled? Putting aside the sectional feelings and local incidents that might be urged by any single State or isolated Territory that desired to choose its own time, would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become nationally in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?

Taking this view of the case, would it not be better that the proclamation which appoints Thursday the 26th of November (1863) as the day of Thanksgiving for the people of the United States of America should, in the first instance, emanate from the President of the Republic to be applied by the Governors of each and every State, in acquiescence with the chief executive adviser?”

Sarah’s questions were rhetorical.

On September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale had written to President Abraham Lincoln. The letter is preserved in the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Library of Congress. In it she wrote

”As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag -- could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.”

Sarah Josepha’s petition brought the result she was seeking. On October 3, Lincoln issued a proclamation that urged Americans to observe the last Thursday in Novemberas a day of Thanksgiving. 

Here's the text of Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation, as relevant today as in 1863:

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. 

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. 

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. 

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Thank you, Sara Josepha Hale, for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Revolt of the Elites

Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote The Revolt of the Masses in 1929. In his magnum opus, Ortega was critical of the phenomenon of "mass-man," which he saw as a harbinger of Fascism. Culture would be lowered to its lowest common denominator by the revolt of the masses, and so the achievements of civilization would be destroyed by the mob. 

The work was indeed prophetic, and Ortega had to leave Fascist Spain, living in exile in France and Argentina, until after the end of World War II. He had foreseen the earth-shaking struggle between civilization and barbarism, as in these excerpts:

When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not deceive ourselves, this is what is beginning to appear in Europe under the progressive rebellion of the masses. The traveler knows that in the territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal. Properly speaking, there are no barbarian standards. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made. 

Under Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the "reason of unreason." Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so. In their political conduct the structure of the new mentality is revealed in the rawest, most convincing manner. The average man finds himself with "ideas" in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideals live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words. 

To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and its decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed. But the mass-man would feel himself lost if he accepted discussion, and instinctively repudiates the obligation of accepting that supreme authority lying outside himself. Hence the "new thing" in Europe is "to have done with discussions," and detestation is expressed for all forms of intercommunication, which imply acceptance of objective standards, ranging from conversation to Parliament, and taking in science. This means that there is a renunciation of the common life of barbarism. All the normal processes are suppressed in order to arrive directly at the imposition of what is desired. The hermeticism of the soul which, as we have seen before, urges the mass to intervene in the whole of public life.

However, today's battle between civilization and barbarism seems to have turned Ortega's analysis on its head. The threat to civilization at this moment appears to come not from "mass-man" but from the elites who govern without any commitment to civilization itself.  From enabling the recent shootings in Paris, and allowing the looting of the Bagdhad Museum in Iraq, to permitting the destruction of Palmyra in Syria, Western elites have apparently abandoned the civilizing mission which once both defined the West and fueled the "soft power" necessary to conquer the world.  

Current campus "uprisings" at Yale, Columbia, and the University of Missouri, are among the latest symptoms of elite barbarism.  Uncivilized, and indeed Fascist, attitudes are obvious to the most casual observer. 

In this lies the heart of the current problem--for if Western elites are in revolt against civilization, then either they must be replaced, asap, or civilization cannot stand.  For elite legitimacy depends upon superior culture as well as character, which justify status.

That revolt in our time comes from the top, not the bottom; from the one percent, not the 99 percent; can be seen from the Ivy League addresses of the latest campus conflicts. 

It can also be seen in the background of former officials in the Obama administration, such as Thomas Vietor, lately reported working for Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign.

Although the former National Security spokesman for the Obama administration was mocked by conservatives as a "former van driver", who said, "Dude, that was like two years ago," when confronted with charges he altered talking points about Benghazi, Vietor is no surfer dude from San Diego. 

Rather, he is a bona fide member in good standing of the American Establishment. His is, by my reckoning, Thomas Vietor, IV. The Huffington Post announced that he became engaged to Michelle Obama's press secretary, Katie McCormic Lelyveld, in Paris.  Mrs. Thomas Vietor's 1939 wedding dress by Herman Patrick Tappe is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  His father's obituary in the New York Times gives some sense of the family's social standing:

VIETOR--Thomas Frederick III, 66 of Katonah, NY died October 1st, 2010 of cancer. The son of Carolyn Raymond and Thomas F. Vietor Jr., Tom was born and raised in Manhattan, graduated from St. Paul's School, the University of Pennsylvania and served in the Air National Guard. He was a member of the New York Yacht Club and a former Board Member of the Orchestra of St. Luke's. He spent his career at Johnson & Higgins and then Marsh. He retired as Chairman of Marsh FINPRO Global. He is survived by his wife Jeanne K. Windbiel, son Tommy Vietor of Washington, DC, daughter Taylor Vietor, stepson John Cunningham, sister, the Reverend Julie (Vietor) Kelsey of Branford, CT and numerous nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his memory to: GU Oncology Research Fund, Dr. David Nanus, 1305 York Ave., Box 403, New York, NY 10021.

Likewise, his grandfather's obituary in the Princeton Alumni Weekly:

After a long decline in health, Tom died of cancer on Jan. 14, 2001, in NYC.
Tom graduated from St. Paul's School. At Princeton he was an English major, was on the freshman crew team, the club squash team, and was a member of Ivy Club.
During WWII, Tom was a sergeant in the OSS where he served on General William Donovan's staff in Washington, DC. After the war, he joined Ruthrauff & Ryan, an advertising firm in NYC. Shortly thereafter, he joined Sullivan Stauffer Colwell & Bayless, where he specialized in radio program and television production. At various times he directed and supervised musical, drama, mystery, comedy, quiz, roundtable, and news programs until he retired from advertising. The last years of his working life were spent as the business manager of St. James Church in NYC, where he assisted the rector, Rev. John B. Coburn '36.
Tom's wife, Carolyn, predeceased him in 1995. He is survived by a daughter, Julie Kelsey, a son, Tom III, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, to all of whom the class extends its sincere sympathy.
The Class of 1938.

OSS was jokingly referred to as "Oh, So Social" because of the number of Social Register families represented in the precursor to the CIA. The 1905 Brooklyn Blue Book and Long Island Social Register lists one Mr. Thomas F. Vietor He married Elizabeth Bacon Allen, a descendant of Ethan Allen. His father, George Frederick Vietor, lived at 417 Park Avenue. This great-great grandfather attended Amherst and was a member of the Republican, Union League, Metropolitan, Sea View Golf, Rumson Country, Seabright Beach, and Automobile Clubs. They also had a 27-room mansion, with ten tiled bathrooms, in Rumson, New Jersey. It was designed by Harrie T. Lindeberg, who designed a home for the Rockefeller family in Pocantico, New York.

Strangely, however, Thomas Vietor, IV's hereditary membership in the One Percent Club, goes unmentioned in the official biography on the website of his current public relations firm, Fenway Strategies, which seems focused instead upon a certain alumnus of Punahou School,  Columbia, and Harvard:

Tommy Vietor worked as a spokesman for President Barack Obama for nearly a decade. Vietor served as the President's National Security Spokesman from January of 2011 through March of 2013 where he was the media's primary contact on all foreign policy and national security issues. From January 2009 through January 2011, Vietor was an Assistant White House Press Secretary responsible for foreign policy, education and labor issues.

Vietor joined Obama's senate campaign in 2004 and served as Obama's U.S. Senate spokesman. In 2007, during the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, Vietor worked as the Iowa Press Secretary, and continued his work on the campaign as a rapid response specialist in the 2008 general election. Vietor served as a Winter 2014 visiting fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, and was named one of the top ten communicators of 2014 by Campaigns and Elections magazine.

Because of the attitudes of the Tommy Vietors of this world, one may reasonably conclude that if Ortega y Gasset were alive today, he would be writing The Revolt of the Elites, for his words still ring true, just substitute "elite" for "masses":

Under Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the "reason of unreason." Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so. In their political conduct the structure of the new mentality is revealed in the rawest, most convincing manner. The average man finds himself with "ideas" in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideals live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Consolations of Philosophy

Kudos to James Taranto for speaking out in defense of philosophers. He wrote, in a Wall Street Journal post titled The Closing of the Republican Mind:

To our mind, the anti-intellectual undertones of the Republican debate—especially Rubio’s disparagement of philosophers—are all too resonant with the anti-intellectual attitudes that prevailed this week at Yale and Missouri. American higher education has become commercialized, politicized and dumbed down—less devoted to education and, as Nicholas Christakis found out, more to re-education. 

Philosophers are an easy political punching bag because, contrary to Rubio, there aren’t many of them. And anti-intellectualism on a debate stage is relatively harmless compared with on campus, where it does real violence to the life of the mind. John Podhoretz quipped on Twitter: “I wish Rubio had said ‘assistant professors of communications.’ ” It would have been even better if he—or someone—had said a word in defense of Western culture.

One doesn't need to be Allan Bloom to agree with Taranto that the Republican Party seems to have embraced anti-intellectualism. Taranto pointed out that John Kasich and Ted Cruz joined in the philosophy-bashing. As a Doctor of Philosophy myself, with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy as well, it was most distressing.

However, there may be a silver lining to this cloud. 

While Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz were bashing philosophers, they may have been taking swipes at a couple of philosophers on the platform: Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

It turns out that Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson have each published their philosophy, which makes them philosophers, by definition (you don't need to teach at a university to be a philosopher--Spinoza was a lens grinder, Eric Hoffer a longshoreman).

Trump outlined his philosophy in The Art of the Deal. And, unlike Rubio, who seems to think of making money as an end in itself, Trump declares that money has little meaning for him, "except as a way to keep score." 

The book contains an 11-step philosophy of success, summarized by Business Insider as follows:

1. Think Big;

2. Protect the Downside and the Upside Will Take Care of Itself;
3. Maximize Your Options;
4. Know Your Market;
5. Use Your Leverage;
6. Enhance Your Location;
7. Get the Word Out;
8. Fight Back;
9. Deliver the Goods;
10. Contain the Costs;
11. Have Fun.

By any definition, like it or not, that's a philosophy. 

He adds: 

I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do.

Which makes Trump an idealist.  

Likewise, Dr. Carson has published his philosophy in The Big Picture. He shares one proposition with Trump: "My concluding thought today is THINK BIG--my philosophy for success in life." 

However, contrary to Trump, he does not believe in keeping score. Rather, he argues: 

We have to learn that what matters most in the Big Picture is not whether we view ourselves as Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, young or old, smart or dumb, successes or failures. What truly matters most in this world is who we are in relationship to the one who created it. Then our right relationship with him will dictate our right relationship with others.

Again, a philosophical declaration. Which by echoing Kierkegaard's notion of "a Christian in Christendom" would make Dr. Carson a Christian existentialist.

So, there were at least two philosophers, with distinct philosophies, on the G.O.P. platform. In this, there is some hope for the future of the party and the Republic, because the most significant U.S. Presidents have had clear philosophies--stars by which they navigated stormy seas of politics, national and world affairs.

For example, Jacques Barzun wrote Lincoln's Philosophic Vision; Joseph R. Fornieri, Lincoln: Philosopher Statesman; Edward John Kempf, Lincoln's Philosophy of Common Sense. As the Lehman Institute Lincoln website notes, citing William Miller's Lincoln's Virtues, his "personal philosophy was based on reason and respect for the law:"

Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote: “The central idea of our Founding was the equality of man.” This was Lincoln’s central idea as well. The young Lincoln lived out that principle. Miller noted that “in the society around him young Lincoln found two great bodies of opinion with ethical implications. He would respond to both with an unusually high level of seriousness. One was the idealism of the new American republic. The other was the religion drawn from the Bible there in the [Indiana] cabin, and promulgated the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church and by the various gatherings of sects in New Salem.”

Likewise, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a clear philosophy. As the Encyclopedia of Political Thought puts it, he "represents the triumph of welfare-state Liberalism begun by Woodrow Wilson:" 

The philosophical rationale for FDR's Democratic Party Liberalism was that big government was needed to protect the people from big business. National state power could be used by ordinary people to force large corporations to serve the public interest, assist the poor and underprivileged, and preserve individual rights. 

And Donald Devine explained Ronald Reagan's philosophy as "Fusionism:"

How did Meyer, Buckley, and Reagan think about fusionism? Fusionism to them was a philosophical concept. It was a philosophy that considered the principles of freedom and tradition as naturally interrelated in a tension whose resulting moral force created Western civilization and its American offshoot. Tension (the term Meyer preferred to fusion) was a force that could hold traditionalism and freedom together, which made both part of one potential whole. It was not the unitary logic of an ideology from a single principle deducing necessary conclusions, but a synthesis, a synthesis that Reagan said described modern conservatism. Yes, he conceived a city on a hill, but one always fighting to uphold both principles; for he also argued “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

Devine concluded with some advice G.O.P. candidates might want to consider in future debates: 

That was Reagan’s secret to success and the only path forward. He was not a carpenter of stools but a synthesizer of Western wisdom, recognized as such by a sufficient number to be granted power. What the conservative movement needs most today is more philosophical debating clubs and less talk about power. If it gets the former right, the latter will follow.

More philosophical debate, please!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Spielberg's Bridge of Spies

What can one say about a movie which makes Soviet spy Rudolf Abel into a dignified and sympathetic protagonist, the US government into an undignified and unsympathetic antagonist, and portrays ordinary Americans as paranoid, hysterical, hostile anti-Communist fanatics who persecute a noble dissenter dedicated to human rights?

That it was directed by Stephen Spielberg? That it stars Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance? That it was based on the U-2 crisis in the Eisenhower administration, and subsequent multiple spy swap in the Kennedy administration? That it was filmed in Brooklyn, Berlin, and Poland? That it is titled Bridge of Spies?

None of the above.

Bridge of Spies may be a Spielberg blockbuster, but it is about as tendentious (and at 144 minutes, almost as long) as  D. W. Griffith's Confederate apology, Birth of a Nation. Like Griffith, Spielberg is a master of cinematic technique as well as a historical propagandist. His reenactment of the Francis Gary Powers shootdown is a memorably expert sequence of dramatic cross-cutting and special effects.

But at a higher level, the film falls far short of genius.

While paying lip service to the repressive Soviet regime (by including the building of the Berlin Wall and shooting of escapees), Spielberg's actual target appears to be what he depicts as mid-Century America's irrational fear of communism, which led to perversions of justice by an oppressive state. To show that American justice is unjust, that American democracy is undemocratic, and that American freedom is unfree, Spielberg and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Cohen twist history to fit into an anti-Cold War "narrative" and turn what could have been a simple spy story into what looks to this viewer like an attempted period adaptation of themes from Ibsen's Enemy of the People.

Some obvious rewrites of history to fit Spielberg's "narrative": Allen Dulles was not head of the CIA during Kennedy's spy swap, it was John McCone. The lawyer played by Tom Hanks, James B. Donovan, was not an innocent insurance attorney tricked into indirectly working for the CIA, but former counsel for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during  World War II.
Mark Rylance's Rudolf Abel was not punished by the USSR,  as Spielberg's cryptic ending suggests, but rather hailed as a hero of the USSR, lauded in a 1968 Soviet film about his exploits entitled Dead Season (one wonders whether Spielberg may have seen this movie) and whose portrait was featured on a Communist postage stamp.

Likewise, fear of nuclear war in 1962 was not a paranoid fantasy, nor a weird grade-school civil defense exercise, but occurred only after Abel's fellow spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg delivered secrets of the atomic bomb to the Russians, which in turn led to the very real Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 only a few months after JFK traded Abel for Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor. Thirteen months after what would become known as the Thirteen Days, a Communist member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee killed President Kennedy. Even paranoids have enemies...

Note that the real-life second banana in this drama, economist Frederic Pryor, has said that the film was not accurate about him--or his East German lawyer, either. He has noted the filmmakers took "liberties," for example, telling a Swarthmore College publication that Donovan's negotiations did not continue until his release:

"No, that was the biggest error. I had been prepared for my release about two days before it occurred. But because the East Germans weren’t happy about releasing me, they played a little trick. When my lawyer drove me to Checkpoint Charlie, they had us sit there for half an hour. The East Germans deliberately delayed the exchange of Powers and Abel, who were not supposed to be exchanged until after I was released. So I sat there until they finally escorted me to the border. It didn’t happen like it did in the movie at all."

So what? one might ask. Doesn't a creative artist have poetic license to play with facts to tell a better story?

Of course, if the story is better than the truth--but the plot of Bridge of Spies is worse--it is a lie told in service of political agenda designed to undercut faith in the American people, and reinforce a notion of moral equivalence between two sides in the Cold War.

As he did in Lincoln, in which Spielberg transformed Abolitionist Connecticut into a Slave State with the help of screenwriter Tony Kushner--making Henry Fonda's funny, humane, and warm Young Mr. Lincoln into a cold, corrupt, creepy autocrat more Stalinist than Stalin himself--Spielberg turns what could have been a taught thriller into a leisurely, bloated civics lesson about the dangers of intolerance, in Bridge of Spies,

To do this, he contrasts an admirably cool serenity and professionalism of Rudolf Abel to hysteria and extremism of American citizens and government agents. Yes, the East Germans and Russians who shoot refugees are bad--but New Yorkers who shoot bullets through Donovan's window are no better! Look, Abel is an artist! His wife is a musician! He is a cultured, sensitive, reasonable man! Not like the barbarians of New York and Washington!

When Tom Hanks asks Mark Rylance why he doesn't get upset, he only answers, "Would it help?"

How reasonable! How intelligent! How sophisticated!

How much better than the incompetent Francis Gary Powers, who can't even self-destruct his U-2, or use his suicide kit! How much smoother and better informed than student Frederic Pryor, who doesn't seem to comprehend the forces at play!

Yes, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance are also better actors than anyone else in the film! Just in case you didn't know who to root for...

In conclusion, what is most disturbing about Bridge of Spies is that Spielberg and the Cohen brothers have willfully constructed a narrative designed to pit James B. Donovan and Rudolf Abel against both the Americans and the Russians--in order to portray a Communist spy and his American lawyer as heroes.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Michel Houellebecq's Submission

French author Michel Houellebecq is in some ways a variation on America's Mark Steyn. Like the Canadian expatriate, he is a prolific writer and controversialist who did not graduate from university; he questions the conventional wisdom; he has been prosecuted for criticizing Islam and won in court; he is a multimedia content provider of films, books, website, recordings, television and radio; he is a lightning rod for both Left and Right--not to mention Islamic fundamentalists. Unlike Steyn, a persona non grata in academia, Houellebecq is professor of literature at the European Graduate School, where he teaches a course on the aesthetics of Frankfurt School Marxist Theodor W. Adorno; his work is classified as fiction rather than reportage; his focus is on France rather than America, and he has managed to escape pigeonholing as a right-winger, unlike Eric Zemmour, author of Le Suicide Francais (which has not yet been published in English translation). So, on second thought, perhaps Houellebecq isn't really France's Mark Steyn-- maybe he's more like France's Salman Rushdie.

In any case, Houellebecq's latest success de scandal,  Submission: A Novel, published in translation this month in America, created a sensation when it hit the bookstores in France just as Islamic fundamentalists attacked Charlie Hebdo and the HyperCacher supermarket. In the aftermath of that horrific mass murder, Houellebecq was given police protection by the French government--then cancelled his book tour.

All of which adds a frisson to reading 246 widely-spaced pages, with plenty of blank spaces at the beginning and end of each chapter, and lots of detailed sex scenes.  Which means, Submission is more a novella than a novel, more a direction than a destination. The dystopian plot, such as it is between long digressions on literature and philosophical musings, hinges on an academic crisis faced by a professor named Francois whose career depends upon conversion to Islam--following a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood Party in French elections. This event has led to the end of French secularism and its replacement by Islamism, with the cooperation of the nativist right-wingers (who like the family values in Islam) and the socialists (who go along out of political calculation). Purged from his university post, and at sea after completing his dissertation "Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel" Francois at first resists the change and contemplates escape--embarking upon an exploration of decadence, including a number of sexual encounters with prostitutes and girlfriends, visits to his sister in the French countryside, and a "farewell" to his Jewish mistress before she flees to Israel. Alone and adrift, Francois initially contemplates Huysman's conversion to Catholicism, visiting scenes from Huysman's time in a French monastery, then, after he is offered editorship of a prestigious scholarly edition of Huysman's works at Pleiade, and is invited to the palatial mansion in which Pauline Reage once wrote The Story of O, now home to his boss, Professor Robert Redigier, a former right-winger turned Islamist, who makes Francois an offer he can't refuse.  So, after a brief cost-benefit analysis, and noting that he has no Israel of his own to which he might escape, Francois plunges in, recites the Shahada at a mosque, and takes a tenured professorship at the Sorbonne, as well as the promise of three wives (he can't afford four yet), among other plums. 

Rediger, the academic grandee and politician who offers Francois the keys to the kingdom, plays Mephistopheles to Francois's Faust (and doesn't "Francois" sound curiously close to "France"?). Rediger in the novel is part politician and part scholar, and 100% ambitious as drawn by Houellebecq. The character's name is very similar to that of real-life French intellectual Robert Rediger, of whom Wikipedia informs us (we cut and paste in solidarity with Houellebecq's public stance that copying Wikipedia is not plagiarism):

Robert Redeker is a French writer and philosophy teacher. He was teaching at the Pierre-Paul-Riquet high school, in Saint-Orens-de-Gameville, and at the École Nationale de l'Aviation Civile. He is currently in hiding under police protection.
On 19 September 2006, a few days before the Islamic month of Ramadan, he wrote an opinion piece for Le Figaro, a French secular and conservative newspaper, which quickly removed the article from its public database. In it, he attacked Islam and Muhammad, writing: "Pitiless war leader, pillager, butcher of Jews and polygamous, this is how Mohammed is revealed by the Koran." He called the Qur'an "a book of incredible violence", adding: "Jesus is a master of love, Muhammad a master of hate."[1] That day's issue of Le Figaro was banned in Egypt and Tunisia.[2] Afterwards, Redeker received various death threats originating from one Islamist website (where he was sentenced to death; they posted his address and a photograph of his home). He requested and was given police protection.[2][3] A man has been arrested because of a hate mail he sent to Redeker.
On 3 October 2006 a group of renowned French intellectuals published "appel en faveur de Robert Redeker" (an appeal in support of Robert Redeker) in Le Monde, among them Elisabeth BadinterAlain FinkielkrautAndré GlucksmannClaude Lanzmann (with the editorial staff of "Les Temps Modernes") and Bernard-Henri Lévy. They see their most fundamental liberties endangered by a handful of fanatics under the pretense of religious laws, and decry the tendency in Europe to avoid "provocations" in order to not anger supposed foreign sensitivities.[4] The vast majority of the "official" responses was, however, hostile to the ex-philosophy teacher - including France's 'Le Monde' who "characterized Redeker’s piece as “excessive, misleading, and insulting.”
In Submission, Rediger takes the road not taken by Redeker in real life--submission to Islam--and therefore basks in worldly success, spiritual peace and bourgeois contentment. 

That, in a sense, makes Submission a counter-factual novel, along the lines of those "What if Hitler had won the Second World War?" books which describe Piccadilly Circus in London festooned with Swastikas after the Duke of Windsor and Wallace Simpson became King and Queen of England. Houellebecq has in effect taken France's history of collaboration with the Germans under Vichy and transposed its attitudes of acceptance to a contemporary threat.

Likewise, Submission recalls Voltaire's Candide: Or Optimism, with Rediger in place of Dr. Pangloss and Francois in Candide's role. As such, it is very, very, very French.

And again, Submission is also the title of the 2004 Dutch film by Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali that led to his murder and her exile. The gist of their film was that Islam literally meant 
Wait, there's more... Submission might have one more jeu de mots at work. To judge this book by its cover--a sheaf of manuscripts bound with red tape--it looks like a manuscript submission for publication, a doctoral dissertation, or a submission to the Academie Francaise

Perhaps in publishing this satire, Houellebecq has made his submission to the Invisible College of the Republic of Letters, an application from an engage French philosophe, in the tradition of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau to join the immortals of Western Civilization opposed to Superstition, Feudalism, and Religious Intolerance.

Whether Houellebecq manages to enter the Pantheon because of this book, only time will tell...but he certainly has made a courageous literary effort, taking a literary stand on behalf of France's civilizing mission in the Clash of Civilizations.