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What Hamilton a modern liberal?

Friday, June 26, 2015
Of course not. Nobody serious, including Ron Chernow, thinks that he was. Look, I can appreciate William Hogeland's frustration with the Jefferson-Hamilton debate, and totally agree that we can't project our modern political divisions onto the founding generation. On the other hand, America is a Founding-obsessed country and we have to accept that fact. It might be annoying to scholars, but U.S. politicians and activists are going to continue to identify themselves with major historical figures in order to legitimate their policies. This is particularly important for liberals, who want to change things.

Hogeland is correct that Hamilton's involvement in the Newburgh conspiracy was stupid. And there is plenty of evidence that Hamilton wasn't much of a small-d democrat. However, when one looks at the total package of policies that Hamilton argued for, and his overall vision for American society, we see a capitalist, socially mobile, industrial society based on free labor; a country with a strong military and robust national powers. By comparison Jefferson's vision of a rural society of yeoman farmers and a weak state doesn't look all that attractive, especially when you consider Jefferson's complicity with slavery. So the question isn't really whether Hamilton was what we would call a liberal or not, but whether he was a modern. And by all reasonable accounts he most certainly was.

On another note, Hogeland trots out the tired idea that the nationalists were out to crush populist reforms. Oh boy, here we go with Beardian analysis of the critical period again. Here Hogeland is falling for the very mistake he criticizes others for - trying to slot previous generations into contemporary contexts. It's important to recognize that in evaluating historical figures & events we understand the set of problems they faced as they understood them. The nationalists were concerned that the republic was going to collapse into class conflict within states and territorial rivalries between states. This was a perfectly reasonable fear. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Shays rebellion was a major factor at the Convention & during the ratification (this is disputed by historians). To smear the nationalists as anti-democratic presumes that 1) democracy as we know it was much of a norm (it wasn't - the U.S. in 1789 was one of the most democratic regimes on earth), and 2) their evaluation of the "populist" legislation directed at capital was motivated by class interest. However, the problem with Shays Rebellion (and what scared the hell out of the country's leaders) wasn't the policies that the insurgents were proposing so much as the fact that they led an armed rebellion on a state capital and the national and state governments were impotent. The critique of republics was a tendency towards instability and disorder, which could ultimately lead to tyranny. The founders were worried that if they didn't make reforms the republic would collapse into a bunch of petty tyrannies. And they were probably right to do so.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:57 AM

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On the Possible Demise of a Symbol

Tuesday, June 23, 2015
I grew up under the confederate battle flag. Although I moved around quite a bit as a young man, it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I lived in state where it wasn't prominently displayed. It was everywhere you looked. And as a young man I didn't think much of it. I was distinct among many of my peers in that I considered it a good thing that the South had lost of the civil war, and I always understood that the War had been about the preservation of slavery. Maybe that was because I grew up in areas that were (by regional standards) fairly cosmopolitan, or because my parents were from the North, but then that didn't save many of my friends from falling prey to the glamor of the Lost Cause. The power of place is quite extraordinary. After a few decades good northern liberals can find their children becoming confederate sympathizers, and even detecting more than a bit of drawl in their own speech.

However, despite my resistance to pro-confederate propaganda, it took a very long time for me to link it to the stars & bars. I'm therefore somewhat sympathetic to those who are confused by the strenuous calls to expunge the battle flag from public life. If you don't see a necessary connection between the War to Defend Slavery and an idiosyncratic southern symbol, then it's hard to see what gets people to riled up. Of course, if the symbol is so innocuous it shouldn't inspire great resistance to its elimination, but people's views aren't always very coherent so I'll leave that be.

It took me a long time to realize that rather than a harmless symbol or a minor issue, the confederate flag is a gratuitous insult to the millions of people whose ancestors suffered under a system of oppression and still do. Despite the fact that I was (and am) a liberal, I still needed to be educated on this matter. It's no surprise then that unreflective southern conservatives (something of a triple redundancy) should take so long to come around.

I'm hopeful that the awful events in Charleston will finally result in the confederate battle flag disappearing into history. I hope that in a few decades it is as anathema to display that symbol as it is to wear the swastika. But I also hope that liberals realize that it will take a very long process of cultural education to persuade southern society that they have anything to be ashamed of. Getting rid of the battle flag would be an important victory, but the forces of evil that wield such influence in the South have suffered much more colossal defeats in the past and refused to give up the struggle for white supremacy. It's a siege, not a battle.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:22 PM

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Times Change, You Better Change Too

Tuesday, December 16, 2014
If human history is any guide, Vladimir Putin's foreign adventures are plausible, perhaps even admirable. Adopting the standards typically applied to historical figures, Putin successfully established Russia's influence in its "near abroad" and even made a significant territorial acquisition. If he'd been ruling in the 16th century, he'd probably be considered a success.

Unfortunately for Putin, he's living in the early 21st century, and it's becoming increasingly clear that his political approach is kind of a disaster. You see, there's a reason why there haven't been a many major changes in the political boundaries of states in the last 50 years, with the notable exception of states growing smaller ( crack-ups & secessions like Yugoslavia or Eritrea) and a couple of fairly equitable mergers (Yemen & Germany). Outright annexations of neighboring territory - which we used to call conquest - has happened much since WWII.

And why is that? There are lots of reasons, of course, but to me one of the more salient is that in the modern world conquest is stupid. Look at Putin - he's wrecked his economy and has politically isolated himself. The rise of nationalism has made direct occupation of a foreign population totally counterproductive - you're never going to get a return sufficient to pay for the costs of occupation and your restive, probably very unproductive captive work force.

These days the smart imperialists have relied on establishing client states instead - intervening to install friendly governments with at least a patina of legitimacy. That's what the U.S. tries to do, and even THAT really doesn't work that well (see: Iraq, Afghanistan).

So, sorry notsorry Putin, I'm afraid that your anachronistic policies are resulting in a well-deserved comeuppance. There's 99 things about the modern world that is depressing, but the goofiness of foreign conquest ain't one of 'em.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:42 AM

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On Ferguson

Tuesday, November 25, 2014
In his Discourses, Machiavelli had this idea of "salutary justice." The idea was that every so often the people had to try & execute a public servant in order to remind the rest who they worked for. I'm less concerned about what Wilson did or didn't do than the message this lack of an indictment sends to the country. As it stands today police officers can shoot anyone they like without any accountability. Hardly a recipe for a free society.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:32 AM

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Profound Words

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
A wonderful piece by Charles Pierce at Esquire reminds me of when I was immature enough to confuse cruelty with strength. Alas that insight is altogether lacking in too many of my fellow citizens.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:38 PM

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Catching Up

Monday, March 10, 2014
Wow it's been a million years since I wrote anything here. Some updates:

1) I've been keeping quite busy, between the research I do as part of my job, my own research projects on the side, learning the piano, writing, and (of course) roller derby.

2) This was originally a blog oriented to commenting on politics, much like the 1000's of other similar political blogs. I never really found my own voice, or much of a large audience, and most successful political bloggers joined up with larger institutions. This was probably inevitable, although I still find it pretty sad. I write a lot less about politics now, obviously, and my personal engagement in is less than it's been in, well, forever. What's interesting is that I probably pay nearly as much attention to political news as I always did. I remain pretty well plugged in to what's going on, with the national and international scene at least. I've fallen out of the habit of blogging about it, but I'm still very much attuned to the events of the world. One odd thing about taking an emotional and professional step back, however, is that I feel that I'm better capable of detached analysis of what I see. When I was all consumed with what was happening, it was very difficult to keep things in perspective. I'd never have thought that doing less of something might help you cultivate better judgment about a sphere of interest.

3) One political tidbit: there's been a series of articles questioning a) why Democrats don't do more to push economic populism, although it's a clear political winner; and b) why Democratic officeholders were suddenly willing to embrace gay rights. To me the answer to both question is essentially the same: the need for fundraising. In the wake of Citizens United, left-leaning candidates for office are under enormous pressure to secure sources of campaign funds. Since even pro-Democratic campaign contributors are suspicious of labor unions and generally opposed to redistribution, it's just too risky to adopt a bold stance against inequality. It is however quite easy to do something about issues like gay rights. If you're wondering why a politician is or isn't doing something logical, always ask yourself - how does her decision affect her ability to raise campaign funds? Suddenly a lot of otherwise counter-intuitive actions will make a great deal more sense.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:21 AM

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Mandela and Autonomy

Friday, December 06, 2013
I've spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out how much control we have over our lives. Indulging in Stoic philosophy during times of emotional stress has become something of a habit, and beyond this I've been trying to reconcile my withdrawal from political life with my convictions and my psychological well-being. As far as I can tell, the nub of the problem lies in what sort of life you're living. We're restricted by our native capacities, be they intellectual, emotional, or physical, but of far greater import is the degree to which our immediate social context gives us meaningful opportunities. People from wealthy backgrounds always have considerable flexibility, but in modern middle-class democracies that freedom is extended much further. It seems to me that one of the real consequences of the depressed economy, to say nothing of the generation-long decline of middle class economic security, is the diminishing of those personal opportunities. One doesn't have time to take up the violin if one is working two jobs in order to stay out of poverty.

Parenthetically, I think that this basic realization - that freedom is contextualized by circumstances - has important consequences for how we approach the world. Take the discussion in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death. Joshua Tucker at WaPo argues that we should avoid "great man" theories of history and recognize the degree to which other factors shaped the end of apartheid. To quote:

But of course there are myriad factors that political scientists have identified that contribute to democratization in addition to the actions of particular individuals. These include:
- Broad structural factors such as socio-economic development in the country, especially focusing on GDP per capita
- The extent to which opposition forces in a country are unified and/or connected to or isolate from the broader mass public
- The extent to which the regime itself remains unified in the face of demands to democratize, or splits into different factions (often referred to as “hard liners” vs. “soft liners”)
- Pressure from forces outside the country — including foreign governments, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations like the European Union, and international financial organizations like the IMF or World Bank — to democratize, often as conditions for future aid and/or membership.
- Removal of external forces that had either directly exerted pressure not to democratize in the past (e.g., glasnost in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe), or that had previously restrained from criticizing an authoritarian regime because of geo-strategic considerations (e.g., the end of the Cold War)
What strikes me is that with the exception of the first one, each of these factors were not only exogenous forces. Mandela reacted to these objective circumstances, of course, but he also shaped them. What he did or didn't do had an effect on how unified the regime or its opponents were and the degree of international pressure. We have to recognize that it is precisely how a leader understands and works to change external conditions is precisely what makes that leader "great."

And it's the same thing in our own lives. We have to make decisions about what is feasible, and then choose how much we want to push against the world, to try to shift it just a bit, either for our own sake or for others. Where I'm beginning to part company with the Stoics is that it's not enough to say "the world is outside of my control, I can only choose how to react to it" because we are part of that world. How we behave within the bubble and trouble of life has something to do with what that world looks like. Whether it's choosing to sit on the top of a column and ponder the divine or zoning out in front of the TV are fundamentally unsociable stances towards the world. They are ways to alienate ourselves from life, and the more I consider the question the more I think that this is a terrible mistake.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:56 PM

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