Letter to the editor, 10.27.09

My following letter to the Daily Beacon, the U. of Tennessee’s student newspaper, appeared on October 27, 2009.

For an exemplary misunderstanding of economics, freedom, and human action, refer to Amien Essif’s October 19 column, “Resisting self-interest an act of freedom”.

 In order to understand the human world, we must first recognize that each and every person is responsible for his/her own actions.  External authorities can restrict individual actions, but cannot force individuals to act.  You picked up a newspaper today and began reading.  You are reading out of your own volition.  No government, no religion, no community, no party, no corporation, no family, no philosophy department, nor any other authority outside of yourself can force you to read this letter.  

 Human freedom is a fact that can only be escaped in the imagination, and Essif’s column is an escapist’s trip down the rabbit-hole.  He who will publicly complain about the restrictiveness of capitalism’s conveniences has strayed far from reality.

 Essif admonishes “private institutions whose first interest is making money–and I’m not talking about people.”  If he is not talking about people, he imagines the animate in the inanimate.  His column, however intriguing, becomes fictional when he asserts that corporations–and not the people within them–have any interests at all.  No corporation has ever had any interest that was not in fact a human interest.  Pick any corporation, and remove all of its human interests; you will then find it has no interests whatsoever.

 Essif says that “Nabisco, acting individually, can practically force me to buy a package of crackers.”  Forgetting the absurdity of this statement, let us examine reality.  What have the generally good, honest, hard-working people of the Nabisco corporation done?  They have fed the hungry, and they have done so by acting in their own interests.  Essif’s purchase of crackers, far from restricting his freedom, is evidence that his freedom is relatively unhindered by false authorities.

 The false authority Essif worships is the community, an entity incapable of thought or action.  So, predictably, all of his faulty logic culminates in the exaltation of communal living.  Communal life is simpler in the sense that it is less complex, but it is harder in the sense that it requires much more work.  To spend five minutes of labor on a pack of crackers would be impossible for a practicing communist, whose mere sustenance hangs often in the balance.  Essif should be free to go forth and live as he pleases, on a commune, but neither he nor anyone else should ever have the authority to force the restrictions of communal living on those of us who understand freedom and cherish it.

Respectfully,

Alex Winston

Junior in political science

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Letter to the editor, 09.17.09

Obama schoolchildren

This letter appeared, with some cosmetic edits, in the University of Tennessee’s student newspaper, The Daily Beacon, on September 17.

Sam Smith’s friday column, “Criticism of Obama’s speech outrageous,” was nothing if not educational. While reading it, I learned that I am “either a hateful individual or a nincompoop.” I learned that I am “involved in the madness and mistruths,” that my behavior should be called into question, that I should refrain from expressing myself, so that the country can move forward. I learned that I am perhaps an adherent to “the worst sentiments among us like covert prejudice and ignorance.” I learned that I do not accept the fact of Obama’s presidency. I learned that all opponents of the White House’s unconstitutional plans for healthcare and energy are small-minded and petty. I learned that I am a global citizen, although I do not recall accepting the rule of a global government. These revelations say nothing about me, but they speak volumes of the columnist’s attitude toward those who disagree with him.

At the risk of being outrageous, I will criticize Obama’s speech to the nation’s schoolchildren. I take no issue with the speech’s content. It spoke of hard work and self-reliance. It could have been written by a staunch conservative. The speech, however, was not given in good faith; it was disingenuous. It was pure demagoguery. If Thomas Paine was correct in writing that “infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what [one] does not believe,” then Obama’s speech epitomized infidelity. He preached hard work and personal responsibility, but his policies encourage laziness and collective responsibility. If Obama had spoken in good faith, his message to America’s youth would have been: “I hope you work hard for your country, but if you do not, don’t worry. It is not your fault and it should not be your responsibility. I will force your hardworking, responsible neighbors to give you food, cash, cars, homes and healthcare.”

Respectfully,

Alex Winston

Junior in Political Science

Melville’s Billy Budd: a Commentary on Burke vs. Paine?

 Paine Burke

Paine (left) wrote Rights of Man as a dagger against Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France

When I began reading Billy Budd, I established a literary and apolitical mindset, but it was an admittedly weak one that could not withstand Melville’s torrent of political references. For example, Melville named Billy’s merchant ship Rights-of-Man, which he left to board a man-of-war called Bellipotent (the names could not be more politically provocative). Because of my intimacy with both Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, I kept both men’s philosophies in mind as I read. Their opposing books, following the French Revolution, became the bases of classical liberalism and modern conservatism. In my opinion, Melville uses Billy Budd to glorify Paine’s liberal view and humiliate Burke’s conservative one.

Before explaining how their relative political philosophies fit into this story, I want to summarize briefly Burke’s and Paine’s worldviews. Burke’s Reflections emphasized the importance of traditional institutions (like church and monarchy) and the rule of law in society. According to Burke, society must run according to written law, however unjust that law may seem. Burke claimed that natural rights did not exist unless they were established by law, and only a change in the law could enable them to be practiced. Burke believed that people needed a legal ruler. In The Rights of Man, Paine exhibited enlightenment views such as individual rights inherent to human existence, peace, freedoms of expression and action, low taxation, and republicanism. According to Paine, society must run according to natural law. He claimed that it was dutiful to break unjust or unnatural laws. Paine believed that people should rule themselves.

Captain Vere shares Burke’s strict adherence to the rule of law, despite its probable injustice. Vere says, “Our vowed responsibility is this: That however pitilessly that law may operate in any instances, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it” (2510).

Vere also holds Burke’s traditional belief that the people need a ruler. Vere says, “The people have native sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition; and how would they take it [mitigating Budd’s penalty]? Even could you explain to them—which our official position forbids—they, long molded by arbitrary discipline, have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate” (2511).

The same tone expressed here by Vere is consistent with Burke’s Reflections. Burke believed it a bad policy to ever circumvent the law (even in a difficult case such as Budd’s), because he believed the law made people habitually virtuous, and that if the law was not enforced, the people’s habit of virtue would be broken. According to Burke, people are not intrinsically good, but have inherited a system of law and religion that molds them to be good. To undermine the structure of the inherited system, then, is also to risk losing the inherited goodness of the people (this logic also plays out in Vere’s mind, as seen above). To Burke, there are no natural laws; laws are made by men, not nature. This opposes Paine’s views that natural laws exist and should be recognized, and that people have an inherent affinity for natural laws, which gives people natural virtue.

A fundamental difference between the dueling English thinkers that Melville must have known: Paine believes man is intrinsically virtuous and Burke believes man is intrinsically vicious. Melville portrays Billy and Claggart, the master-at arms, as having beliefs parallel to these. Claggart is angry and puzzled by the unsophisticated righteousness of Billy’s character, and later, Billy is as shocked and enraged by Claggart’s evil lie. Is Claggart not like Burke–is Billy not like Paine, in their expectations of others? Claggart and Burke expect vice; Billy and Paine expect virtue. It is no coincidence to Melville that each expected from the other that which they harbored within themselves. Melville describes Billy as good and Claggart as evil—and not only evil—but abnormally so. “To pass from a normal nature to [Claggart’s] one must cross ‘the deadly space between’,” writes Melville (2488). So not only does Melville suggest that some people are good and some evil; he also suggests that the evil ones are aberrations, and that among these are men like Claggart and Burke.

Even today, Edmund Burke is among the most respected English legal scholars ever, and before writing Reflections, he had earned a reputation as a friend of liberty. Melville explains that Captain Vere was very well-read in political non-fiction. In the cases of both Burke and Vere, there is mystery as to why such educated and liberal-minded men as they were would favor law over right. Many of Burke’s critics believed that he was ambitiously hoping to win a sizable pension from the king when he wrote Reflections, and George III expressed his admiration for the book. In Billy Budd, when Vere dies, we learn also of his secret ambition. Melville writes of Vere, “Unhappily he was cut off too early for the Nile and Trafalgar. The spirit that ‘spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fullness of fame” (2521).

I actually see Melville’s Billy Budd as a fictional continuation of Paine’s arguments in The Rights of Man. To illustrate this, I will present a series of quotes within the two works in which Melville seems to echo Paine’s words:

On war contractors:

Paine: “That there are men in all nations who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of nations, is as shocking as it is true.”

Melville: “war contractors (whose gains, honest or otherwise, are in every land an anticipated portion of the harvest of death)” (2515).
On God and injustice:

Paine: “The name of the Creator ought not to be introduced to witness the degradation of his creation.”

Melville: “It was noted at the time [of Budd’s execution], and remarked upon afterwards, that in this final scene the good man [chaplain] evinced little or nothing perfunctory. Brief speech indeed he had with the condemned one, but the genuine Gospel was less on his tongue than in his aspect and manner towards him.”
On first principles:

Paine: “It is unnatural that a pure stream should flow from a foul fountain.”

Melville: “The Mutiny Act, War’s child, takes after the father.” (1511).
On monarchy:

Paine: “We must shut our eyes against reason, we must basely degrade our understanding, not to see the folly of what is called monarchy.”

Melville: “How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?—Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King” (2509).

Billy Budd, as a whole, may be viewed as a story against war. If not for war, Billy would never have left his peaceful trading ship, and the awful series of events that make up the drama of the story would never have occurred. Melville’s antiwar message echoes the sentiments of Paine, who writes, “Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of government.” This follows from Paine’s belief that men are virtuous absent of law. Burke would never agree to such a statement, for it is his belief that man is naturally the enemy of man, but that his warring nature is restricted by the rule of law.

Another similarity is the way in which contemporary society remembered Billy Budd and Thomas Paine. Both were heroes who the newspapers called villains. Both were publicly ridiculed and lied about. Paine’s contemporaries called him—though he professed his belief in God—a blasphemer and an atheist, and a seditious agitator. Melville presented newspaper stories that incorrectly portrayed Billy Budd as a mutinous criminal. Paine died in impoverished obscurity—hated by the very multitudes who once shared his revolutionary spirit—despite his magnanimous contributions to society. On a smaller scale, Billy perished in much the same way.

Melville closes by writing, “The above, appearing in a publication now long ago superannuated and forgotten, is all that hitherto has stood in human record to attest what manner of men respectively were John Claggart and Billy Budd” (2522). One cannot help but wonder if he is not also talking about the manner of men that were Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

The conservative views of following the law to the letter and believing in intrinsic evil are supposed to seem unjust in Billy Budd, because Melville favors the liberal view. Whether or not the debates between Burke and Paine inspired this story, only Melville knows for sure, but the similarities are compelling.

Works referenced:

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. New York: Oxford University
Press. 1993

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man. Rights of Man and Common Sense. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (Everyman’s Library), 1994.

All page numbers cited from the following work:

Reidhead, Julia, Ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Seventh Edition. Volume B. 1820 – 1865. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

The role of government, as taught in university

welcome to the dark ages

I like studying the arguments of those who disagree with me, mostly because of the proof that they provide, that the American educational system is worthless, even at its highest levels. In my earnest opinion (and I think most would agree), Americans should not spend a penny on anything that is worthless, and they certainly should not be forced to do so.

The modern “progressive” professors, perhaps in different words, are telling me the following consistently: not only is big government a reality, it is preferable to limited government, and it is the proper choice for people in this country–the people need big government. From a slightly related project that I felt worthy of posting here, I give you my response to a major university class on policymaking:

“I was disappointed to learn that the current expansive roles of government, many of which have been stolen from the unsuspecting individual, have become an assumption unworthy of discussion in America’s university setting. Expansive government is accepted among many so-called intellectuals as an unavoidable reality, like the presence of air, or the passage of time–theoretically, these realities can be removed, but there is a dependency in humankind that keeps us from beginning their removals, for fear of suffocation in the case of air, fear of boredom in the case of time, or in the case of removing government excess, fear of choices.

Dependency on government is not a creation of post-Enlightenment wisdom (boldly assuming that such a thing exists); it is ancient and awful, morally corruptive and mentally corrosive. Dependency has locked the door to a vast room called freedom (a room we loved for its superior rewards, despite its pitfalls), and allowed us only to enter a narrow space that seems comfortable to some at first, but is ultimately restrictive to everyone. This narrow space is a high-tech world of limited products, limited jobs, limited entertainment, limited incomes, limited choices, limited words, and even limited thoughts–all limited by the anti-competitive forces that shape this narrow reality, distract the rational human mind with cheap excuses for education, progress and entertainment, and keep locked the door to freedom. Most of government is unnecessary imposition, and its number one priority is to keep those imposed upon from realizing how sorely they are being screwed.

The belief that the role of government is limited to the protection of individual rights and private property is now seen in the “intellectual community” as a primitive ideal; it has been relegated to the rank in the U.S. that it served in numerous fascist and totalitarian regimes. Just as the philosophy that advocates individual liberty, classical liberalism, has been viciously (and correctly) called anti-slavery, anti-monarchy, anti-German, anti-English, anti-Soviet, and anti-Italian in the past, it is today earning the title “anti-American”, not because of its unwavering principles, but because of the disappearance of America’s principles. This is saddening when we realize classical liberalism is the ideal philosophy upon which the country was founded.

“But,” we are told, “democracy allows the people to vote for new roles of government–roles the people want government to assume.” It is as if we are supposed to believe a warped version of history in which, against all evidence to the contrary, the horrific decisions of the masses–from enslavement to inquisition to lynching–are absolved, and the perpetrators are proven wise. I am not buying it.

Progress should not be named for its conformity to public opinion; it comes only in the advancement of individual liberty for every individual party. An increase in market competition can be called progress, as can the emancipation of individuals from bondage, but something like the coercive confiscation of individual property (and by this I am referring to the taxing of an individual’s labor) should never by called progressive. A tax levied on an individual’s income is always restricting to individual progress, whether or not public opinion supports it. Even those who may appear to benefit from the redistribution of printed labor are restricted from production by the realized incentives of laziness. Moreover, the confiscation of individual property (your labor is your property) is precisely what America, in its foundation, was trying to escape and avoid forever.

Big government is old and unnecessary, and America proved it. For hundreds of years the people of England and France tolerated high taxes and endless international conflicts under the “protection” of their kings. Monarchy was popular. It was, in the opinions of the so-called intellectuals of that era, necessary and proper. It seemed good, but it never really was good, was it? People began to realize this, and they became “enlightened.” People will soon become enlightened again about the unnecessary impositions of yet another sour government. History points to a lengthy, violent and impoverishing end to the narrow confines in which Americans suddenly find themselves, as they realize the growing illegitimacy of U.S. democracy, and understand that their democratic choices are only illusions; I hope, however, with faith in the wisdom of good Americans (despite the coercions of their rulers), for a reasoned and rational end to the exponential growth of government, and if I did not believe that were possible, I would not be writing for it, because my pen would be an insufficient weapon for the battle.”

Shakespeare, who made America and beat Hitler

Shakespeare, taking names and kicking a**

In modern democracies, politics and popular culture are inseparable. While a small percentage of Americans know what was discussed on Capitol Hill this week, a significant number know who was booted from American Idol, and observing this tableau, a political mind may be repulsed. For the liberal philosopher, turning the minds of an apathetic or propagandized public seems an impossible hill to climb. Average people do not really care to read about the meaning of life, the unnecessary confines of their society, or the causes of human suffering. Average people do, however, enjoy a good show. Since the times of the American continent’s first presses and playhouses, in England and its American colonies, that show was Shakespeare. Long before the Beatles, the prolific poet from Stratford-upon-Avon may have posthumously been America’s first British pop sensation-and its most influential. Shakespeare’s attention to detail in the individual identities of his characters, and his intellect for relative moral standards, infused English and American cultures with an unprecedented appreciation for individual liberty, which led to the American Revolution and United States Constitution. Shakespeare’s cultural legacy is the defense of individualism that pervaded everywhere his work was popular, and in the ways that truly matter to society, Hitler was defeated not by the bomb-dropping Allies of World War II, but by a dead English poet wielding only a feather.

This realization came to me as I was reading The Federalist, the famed series of newspaper publications that circulated in the United States in 1787-88. The carefully constructed papers succeeded in persuading the American people to ratify the newly formed Constitution. In the second essay of the series, one of the mystery authors (later revealed as John Jay) refers to “the poet” without explanation, as if every reader should already know that “the poet” is Shakespeare. This is evidence that, to Jay and his intended audience, the American public of 1787, Shakespeare was an assumption that required no specific definition, like air, earth, moon, sun or divinity, or even humanity itself. There is no comparable figure in 2008. When we hear “the poet” today, we need an antecedent, so as not to be confused as to whether it is Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Donne, Hughes, Eliot, Kipling, or Whitman-we do not conditionally assume one. The same can be said for our other modern influences. There is no modern actor, writer, comedian, singer, musician, pundit, et cetera, whose proper identity is an informal extension of common title, so Shakespeare’s influence on early U.S. culture is, by our standards, immeasurable.

The extent to which Shakespeare shaped America’s early cultural identity is a subject of debate among historians, and each critic brings a unique perspective to the argument, sometimes adding invention to observation. All agree that Shakespeare profoundly shaped England’s language and culture, and most believe the American identity was consequently Shakespearean. Few, however, will go so far as to say Shakespeare was a major factor in American independence. The argument that Shakespeare had little effect on America’s revolutionary founding is centered on the mystery of Shakespeare’s own politics. What Shakespeare’s characters believed was often abundantly clear, but the playwright’s own political opinions will always remain a mystery. It is true that Shakespeare contributed nothing concrete to political discourse. He was an artist. However, the mystery of his politics, along with the variety of characters he created, is actually central to my argument, because as soon as the public learns a writer’s opinions, a large sector of it will ignore his work. We learn, in Shakespeare’s world, that no one’s opinions are right. This realization is the essence of the United States’ liberal individualistic founding, and Shakespeare made it popular in England and the United States. In this way, Shakespeare founded the United States as we know it.

Historians give credit for the modern concept of the self to English philosopher John Locke, who argued that the infant’s mind is a blank slate shaped by experience, but he published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, a century after Shakespeare penned his works containing more than one hundred main characters and thousands of developed side characters, each having unique identities. Locke, they claim, is one of American liberty’s founding philosophers, but Locke may have only been observing what Shakespeare revealed in England a century before. In Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1998), Harold Bloom argues that “personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness.” This seems accurate. We see a multitude of personalities in English, American and French cultures not often seen elsewhere. Distinctive personalities, seen in a positive light in our country, are in non-Shakespearean cultures considered a social obstacle. In talking to a Chinese exchange student, I discovered that in his culture, people have difficulty understanding why anyone would want to restrict the powers of the government. While Shakespeare’s cultures reject government coercion of the individual, collectivist cultures like China’s fear the potential chaos of individual freedoms.

Shakespeare’s influence in America has been taken to the extreme by more than one critic. In 1917, Charles Mills Gayley authored Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America, which argues that Shakespeare had direct contact with liberal leaders in Virginia. Most of his argument is based on a single unpublished letter received by Shakespeare from William Strachey, a liberal member of the Virginia Company. Gayley claims Shakespeare was intimately and directly involved in the beginning of American liberty, but there is little evidence his claim is true. While his assessment that Shakespeare has left a heritage of liberty in England, France, and America is correct, Gayley has-whether imaginatively, vainly, or greedily-overstepped in attributing political beliefs to a political mirage.

The United States and England embraced Shakespeare throughout the nineteenth century, and until radio and television formats revolutionized media, Shakespeare remained dominant in American and British popular culture through print and performance. The individualism highlighted by Shakespeare’s characters remained on the consciousnesses of these nations well into the twentieth century. Early in the twentieth century, when other modern societies turned to combinations of socialism, nationalism, totalitarianism, or fascism-and did so with seeming success-England, France and the United States were, for yet unexplained reasons, unable to undo individualism, despite pleas from religious, scientific and interested communities. Germany was not so lucky. Before Hitler’s prominence, German culture had scientists, religions, artists, philosophers, and politicians-all arguably more refined than those of any other nation. For this reason, many intellectuals in England and the United States admired Germany’s Nazi socialism prior to the onset of war.

F.A. Hayek describes the evolution of Germany’s national socialist thought in The Road to Serfdom (1944), which is considered among the most important social criticisms ever written, and is a warning to politicians in all individualistic societies. In it, we learn Germans believed that in realizing the advantages of socialism, they had discovered an advantage over Anglo-American individualism. He quotes German Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald saying, “I will explain to you now Germany’s great secret: we, or perhaps the German race, have discovered the significance of organization. While the other nations still live under the regime of individualism, we have already achieved that of organization.” This reveals the cultural difference between Germany and England during World War II: individualism. For some reason, English culture cherished individualism while German culture esteemed organization. Germany had an advanced scientific and artistic society; what German culture was missing was the Shakespeare effect. The underlying presence of Shakespeare explains the awareness that standards are relative to the individual (and not society as a whole), to which the inhabitants of England, France, and America so desperately clung during World War II.

Germans felt socialism was the answer to their economic woes. However, implementing socialism required the unscrupulous denial of certain individual rights, and Hitler was the only leader strong enough to make it work. It was not until after the outbreak of war that we became acutely aware of the dangers of Germany’s collectivist thought. Their patriotic socialism, though it may seem favorable in concept, becomes an uncontrollable and brutal beast in practice, because socialism can only be implemented by means most socialists detest. With its comfort in conformity, corporate interest in government, promises of safety, and mystical faith in the benevolence of power, socialism is more similar to the tyranny of the past than the prosperity of the future.

Although we did not formally recognize the evils of Nazi socialism until Hitler showed them to us, something in our culture told us it was wrong-and that something was Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s redefinition of the English language throws a wrench into the very notion of “organization” in society. It was Shakespeare’s personalized characters that instilled individualism, which made American independence seem so right. It was the same individualist lens through which socialism seemed so wrong. Everywhere his work is popular, individual liberty is Shakespeare’s legacy, and in the absence of his popularity in America today, we should realize we are at greater risk of internalizing collectivist ideals; in the spirit of Shakespeare, let us not be governed by them.

Dead Sea and Masada (05.20.08)

Today we went to Masada and the Dead Sea–both were beautiful and unique.

Masada’s history, which glorifies religious terrorism, is more than a little ironic.  Historically, we regard Jewish terrorists with reverence, but presently, Islamic terrorists are considered lower than the salt floors of the Dead Sea.

Standing atop Masada, one can look down on creation, and almost see the word of God.  It is the closest view of revelation I have ever experienced.  What so-called religious scholars have defined as revelation, or the literal word of God, is nothing more than hearsay.  Revelation is by definition direct, from creator (or creation) to individual, and cannot be designed in human language.  Therefore the only experience one can rightly call revelation is a direct individual experience that requires neither language nor interpreter.  Creation and creator speak for themselves, and are best understood through the studies of science and philosophy, as well as rational individual existence.

My first attempt at poetry: “I am a human”

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned from Shakespeare is that the leading edge of social reform is always artistic.  Shakespeare created individualism before it was ever really known.  I write social commentary all the time, but I have never tried to form it in a more attractive, presentable, widespread way.  “I am a human” is my first attempt at poetry, and I hope the literary types will keep that in mind as they read.  It is short, simple, and important (I think).  Here:

To whom it may not concern:

I am a human.
I want peace.
I want love.
I want song, dance, and laughter.
I want health.
I want rights,
to live happily ever after.
I want friendship.
I want opportunity.
I want to learn on my own.
But the only thing
I really need
is for you to leave me alone.
I am a human.
Who are you?

Your humble servant,
We the People