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.

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Red Light Cameras = Proof Evil Exists

Hey Dubya, here's your proof that evil exists.

“All agree that the legislature cannot bargain away the police power of a State. ‘Irrevocable grants of property and franchises may be made if they do not impair the supreme authority to make laws for the right government of the State; but [101 U.S. 814, 818] no legislature can curtail the power of its successors to make such laws as they may deem proper in matters of police.’ Metropolitan Board of Excise v. Barrie, 34 N. Y. 657; Boyd v. Alabama, 94 U.S. 645 . Many attempts have been made in this court and elsewhere to define the police power, but never with entire success. It is always easier to determine whether a particular case comes within the general scope of the power, than to give an abstract definition of the power itself which will be in all respects accurate. No one denies, however, that it extends to all matters affecting the public health or the public morals. Beer Company v. Massachusetts, 97 id. 25; Patterson v. Kentucky, id. 501. Neither can it be denied that lotteries are proper subjects for the exercise of this power.” – Chief Justice Waite

Despite the good intentions of public officials, in its “Request for Proposals for Automated Red Light Enforcement System,” the City of Knoxville’s legislature affects to “bargain away the police power,” which is forbidden by the United States Supreme Court in the decision above (Stone vs. Mississippi, 1879). The restriction invoked hinges on the debatable definition of “police power,” which is generally accepted as “the capacity of a government to regulate behavior and enforce order within its territory.”

Beyond the obvious illegality of camera systems, there are other noteworthy aspects of original intent that pertain to automated enforcement systems like the red light cameras in Knoxville. When we consider the constitutional framework of our government, the implementation of automated enforcement is offensive to the liberty intended. In opposition the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it assumes, searches for, and punishes the trivial moral shortcomings of free and good people-without probable cause.

The aforementioned “Request for Proposals” leaves the responsibility of policing public intersections to a private entity. This private entity is not a local company, and moreover has no responsibility to the electorate.  If the citizens do not like the way the firm operates, they cannot elect a new firm; it remains unfettered by political dissent.  Whereas the public police force has a primary objective of protecting and serving the people, the private firm’s primary objective is to earn a profit, even if at a cost to the rights, safety and happiness of citizens (as has been proven in Chattanooga’s case, among others).  With the “Request for Proposals”, the enforcement of a traffic signal is no longer for the benefit of the public, but for the benefit of a private firm.

There is a psychological change that takes place in drivers as a result of traffic light enforcement, which existed before automated camera systems, but is exacerbated by their introduction. When the rules of the road originated, it was not necessary to enforce their use. With rare and extremely unusual exception, people followed the signals out of an interest in their own safety. It is now unusual for drivers to follow signals for this reason; the reason now is to follow a law, without regard to safety. While people know the signals are there to keep them safe, they do not follow them for their personal safety. Because of traffic law enforcement, the objective of an automobile’s operator has been fundamentally altered. The driver’s original purpose, “to arrive at a destination as quickly as is safely possible,” has been replaced by a new one, “to arrive at a destination as quickly as is legally possible.” This psychological change, which can only be attributed to unnecessary and costly enforcement, has made American roads much less safe, because individuals are more apt to act for their own benefit than for the pleasure of authority.

It is unfortunate for lazy enterprises that good government practices rarely grant profitable contracts, and it is the policy of bad governments, as well as bad businesses, to reward mere association and sloth. Proper engineering and timing of signals will do much more for reducing accidents than any enforcement firms ever could, but these will require natural law and common sense to be used in place of coercion and lucrative contracts, an occasion rarely seen in our time. 

Automated enforcement contracts are a dangerous sign that we are but a step from the sort of fascism Mussolini called “corporatism,” and defined as “a merger of state and corporate power.”

Request for Proposals for Red Light Automated Enforcement:
http://www.cityofknoxville.org/purchasing/bids/0513_redlight.pdf

Stone vs. Mississippi (1879):
http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=101&invol=814

Fourth Amendment text:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“It is their right, it is their duty…”

The revolution is never over.

“…to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their security.” – Thomas Jefferson

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and when our framers ventured into the realm of a constitutional republic, they did so at great risk, seeking great reward.

The United States was founded on Jefferson’s philosophy, along with Thomas Paine’s.  “Every generation,” Jefferson wrote, “needs a new revolution,” because, as Paine noted, “when we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

Just as virtue is not hereditary, neither is constitution.  “The American constitutions are to liberty, what a grammar is to language,” reflected Paine.  “They define its parts of speech, and practically construct them into syntax.”  Just as a proper sentence requires attention to grammar, a proper liberty requires attention to constitution.  The failure to attend to grammar is perhaps an insult to the educational system, but the neglect shown toward constitution today is an affront extending beyond the realm of man–an offense to the Author of the laws of nature, wretchedly declaring that the senseless mob of human majority can overrule the mandates of God.

Whose right and whose duty is it to throw off a government that ignores constitutional liberties?  The civilian military first and foremost, for they have taken an oath to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic (this would include the FBI, CIA, President, Congress, and federal courts, when these groups extend their powers beyond constitutional limits); but ultimately the right and duty lie where the expense must fall–with the people.  What is the expense?  How much are we willing to give up to cling to liberty?  I yield again to Paine, who wrote, “can we but leave posterity with a settled form of government, and independent constitution of its own, the purchase at any price will be cheap.”  The ends (constitution) justify the means, which I hope will be peaceful, but control is rarely so yielded.

Regardless of the nature of the struggle, I will always stand on the side of constitutional individual liberty.  The natural moral code, given to us by God, requires that we disobey unjust laws, which now emanate from Washington DC with alarming regularity.  If this reads as a threat to the federal government’s usurpation of power, I have written with clarity.  In Jefferson’s words: “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.  When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”  All Americans, an overwhelming majority of whom have expressed their malcontent for Congress and the President, should together declare war against the current tyrants, who have unwisely declared war on our cherished Constitution of liberty.  Their supposed guards, if they find in themselves a single ounce of civic virtue, or a hint of concern for their fellow person, will certainly be leading the charge.  The others, who will read this and call it sedition, are the Redcoats of the new revolution, and should be pitied for their lack of faith in humankind.

Sean Hannity’s new corruption culprit: bloggers

A blogger with a tie, a microphone, and a superiority complex

“It’s absolutely bad for the culture.” – Sean Hannity on blogging, 04.07.08

The  criticism can be understood on a level of mere survival, because as its availability becomes universal, the Internet’s blogosphere will render obsolete Mr. Hannity’s line of work, reducing him and people like him to what they always should have been: ordinary.

The great irony of Mr. Hannity’s statement is that he is a political paleo-blogger–little more than a blogger with a tie, a microphone, and a superiority complex–as blogging fills the role once reserved to talk radio call-in shows.  His criticism of blogging is not unlike formal news sources’ long-standing criticisms of talk radio hosts. Being called an incendiary blowhard by those who profess to have some greater authority on politics has not taught Mr. Hannity anything in the way of respect for individual opinions.  It should come as no surprise that he practices that which he finds deplorable in others–it goes right along with his stance on the struggle against religious extremists.

Mr. Hannity’s statement unmasked, is that free speech is bad for the culture.  He has always used his platform as a way of influencing legislation, and here he has introduced his next target: freedom of speech.  Although Mr. Hannity would say he supports free speech, and that he wants all Americans to feel free to speak their minds, he will support denying them a conduit in which to speak it.  Closely monitored free speech, filtered by the call screeners, the news editors, or the corporate sponsors, is what Sean Hannity supports.  True freedom of speech is just too dangerous to Mr. Hannity’s version of freedom, so it must be restricted so as to prevent persuasive dissent against the mode of government Mr. Hannity and his colleagues have worked long hours to create.  Whether it corrupts culture is unclear, but blogging certainly is capable of adding a pure stream to the foul fountain of today’s media propaganda, just as it is capable of adding a foul stream.