Friday, January 9, 2009


When a great writer dies, I usually try to read his books, especially if I haven't read anything by him before. Such is the case with the death late last year of Conor Cruise O'Brien, an Irish writer, statesman, and contributing editor to the Atlantic. I'd never even heard of O'Brien, which was my loss, I suppose, as I'm about halfway through 1994's On the Eve of the Millennium: The Future of Democracy Through an Age of Unreason and really enjoying it.

O'Brien's big idea is that the concepts of liberalism and liberty formulated during the 18th-century Enlightenment are worth holding onto and protecting against their fundamentalist opponents, particularly the Catholic Church and Muslim radicals. But O'Brien is no starry-eyed Rationalist, and he's no particular opponent of religion or even Catholicism itself. His call is for a different kind of reason:
The Enlightenment we need is one that is aware of the dark, especially the dark in ourselves. An Enlightenment that is on guard against hubris. An Enlightenment that is aware that there is far more evidence extant in favour of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin than of Rousseau's doctrine of Original Virtue. An Enlightenment that respects the religious imagination, but not the claim of some religious to know what God wants from us and to have the duty to enforce that knowledge.
I don't think I agree with his next to last assertion; to take away religion's right "to know what God wants from us" is to remove its teeth and to render it harmless--even if such claims need to kept separate from the secular state by and large. And I don't agree with his distaste for the former Pope ("I frankly abhor John Paul II," O'Brien says), who, despite his opposition to birth control was a great humanitarian who did as much as anyone to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. But O'Brien gets it right here for the most part--Western culture and Enlightenment values are worth defending, but not if they don't take into account how supremely messed up we are as a human race.

The second chapter of On the Eve of the Millennium is essentially a history of the American presidency, an office in which O'Brien is interested (for obvious reasons) but for which he holds little respect. The problem with democracy in general and the American sort in particular--even though it's the best system we've come up with--is that there's an inevitable and unfortunate conflation of democracy and popularity. That conflation results in politicians who don't make teleological decisions for the state and instead do what they do because it'll win them votes.

The last fifty years of the American presidency have been marked by this phenomenon. It's O'Brien's assertion that no president since Eisenhower has made major decisions based on anything other than an appeal to popularity. (He has high praise for Eisenhower because of his unpopular condemnation of Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt, an invasion which took place just before the U.S. presidential election and for which the president risked his re-election.) But lest we think we have fallen from some sort of Golden Age, O'Brien voices this kind of respect for only three other U.S. presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, all of whom went against their personal interests for the interests of the country. And he has particular disdain for Thomas Jefferson, whom he calls "a brilliant manipulator of the media, as befitted a dedicated and successful seeker after popularity . . . A different kind of genius: more disturbing, but not less interesting. A genius, after all, in the moulding of public opinion."

Jefferson, of course, championed freedom--even, it must be noted, freedom for African Americans--and owned more than hundred slaves. When my fifth-grade teacher told us all of this disconnect in his life, she made reference to history's flesh and blood, to the contradictions in all of us that are even more glaring and obvious in great men. But this explanation assumes Jefferson's greatness, and even more it assumes his honesty. O'Brien casts those assumptions into doubt, and his is a convincing argument, even if I'm not enough of a historical scholar to say if he is correct or not.

On the Eve of the Millennium was written during the early years of Bill Clinton's administration, but nothing that happened after 1994 was likely enough to change O'Brien's impression that Clinton was in the Jeffersonian mold, much more interested in popularity than in America. But I found myself thinking about Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, whose approval rating has hung below 40 percent for some time now.

I'm no particular fan of Bush, I must note, but he might break the American mold in ways O'Brien had not anticipated. It's difficult to say, for example, that his refusal to pull troops out of Iraq is based on a desire for popularity. If the war began that way--and I'm not saying it did--it certainly isn't anymore. And while it's not the same thing as rejecting popularity, Bush has repeatedly attempted to buck the Republican party line on issues like illegal immigration (an issue, however, on which he later reversed his opinion) and economic bailout, though he had little choice on this last one.

O'Brien's recognition of original sin is particularly useful here, however. One need not be a Catholic or a Calvinist to have a dim view of human nature. In the Republic, Plato disapproved of democracy because the masses are fundamentally stupid. Let's change that a bit: People, in all social strata, powerful and weak, are stupid, which is exactly why democracy is important--if we get a stupid leader, we can toss him out (unless, that is, we're faced with an even worse option, which I believe was the case in 2004).

So merely going against the tide of popularity is not enough. To be great the way Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower were great is to buck the masses and to do the right thing. Bush might have been a great president if he'd been a maverick (in the parlance of our times) in a smarter way--if he had picked his battles more successfully, if he'd have sought wiser counsel instead of always listening to the voice of his heart.

After all, it's a heart of darkness we all have, the darkness that O'Brien describes and warns us about--the real darkness we need an Enlightenment not to eliminate (for it is something integral to our humanity) but merely to recognize. And that George W. Bush followed it ensures a negative legacy for him. I do not think he's worst president ever or even of the post-Eisenhower era. (That dubious honor surely goes to LBJ, a master kowtower of the highest breed whose Great Society made him popular in the North but set race relations back 75 years.) But I do not believe, as does Karl Rove, that history will vindicate him and set him in the pantheon. If anything, he will become a cautionary example of Bishop Wilson's great lesson, memorably quoted by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: "Firstly, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness."


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

It's difficult to say, for example, that his refusal to pull troops out of Iraq is based on a desire for popularity. If the war began that way--and I'm not saying it did--it certainly isn't anymore.

I wonder, though, whether his refusal up to 2004 was at the least a species of popularity-seeking among the GOP base. I think that the strategy surrounding electioneering has changed, the emphasis now on securing and mobilizing the base without pissing off the undecided voter, but I'd say that's nonetheless a kind of consent-manufacturing.

One need not be a Catholic or a Calvinist to have a dim view of human nature. In the Republic, Plato disapproved of democracy because the masses are fundamentally stupid.

I know we read Plato differently, and this is one of those places where our differences are evident: I'd say that Plato considers the masses unfit to rule a city without asserting that they're fundamentally stupid. If one wanted to adapt Plato's politics to modern vocabularies, one might say that modernity's and modern democracy's big mistake is to assume that all intelligence is political intelligence. (Plato and John Gardner? I like that.)

Michial said...

I think you're probably right about the GOP base. Maybe the issue is not so much that Bush is a misguided maverick as it is that his interests are so narrow as to alienate most of the country--at least in the latter days of his presidency. I wonder if that still doesn't count as individualist behavior; a magnanimous way of reading such narrowness is to say that he has principles he sticks with. But I don't have access to his inner world, and so I can't make that call.

I suspect we're both reading Plato through our individual Christian anthropologies, and I also suspect that my Calvinism darkens my view of humanity more than your Mennonite beliefs. (I could be wrong there, however. I don't know much about Mennonite theology.)

But I do like your interpretation there, that my reading of Plato disregards the notion of social place.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how legitimate anthropology involves a recognition of one's place. The terrible legacy of the 1960s and '70s is the notion that we create ourselves. I don't believe we do. But that's fodder for another post.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Perhaps I've been infected with New Historicism, but I tend to read his and other GOPers' frequent and public disavowals of "poll numbers" as themselves bits of political campaigning--since not everyone who answers the phone for a random poll is going to show up come election day, Karl Rove's MO seems to be to convince a sizable voting bloc that they're a persecuted minority so that every one of their votes is needed. (The trick, of course, is then to bet heavily on the public's short memory and convince them that the same ideology is "mainstream" and that one's opponent is "fringe.")

With regards to Plato and my Anabaptist ways, certainly an account of the Church as one player in a larger world-drama rather than Christianity as a universally descriptive anthropology flavors my account of Plato, and that's probably why a Mennonite looking at Romans 13 sees a description of "those" magistrates while a Calvinist will likely see an account of "us" citizens. The pronouns matter profoundly, and they determine to a large extent one's sense of place.