The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Five Reflections on Dreams of El Dorado

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Five Reflections on Dreams of El Dorado

Since last summer I have found myself diving into the topic of the “American West” through books and film. I’ve spent most of the time working on a 3-5 blog post series covering Western films and action sequences, but I’ve also been reading about the West in the backgrounds. My first read was Peter Cozzens’ The Earth is Weeping and you can find my reflections on that book HERE. My second read on the subject is H.W. Brands’ Dreams of El Dorado. This book attempts to cover the broad history of the West, essentially from Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory all the way to Theodore Roosevelt being the first “cowboy” President. 

The book is a well-written and engaging overview of the time period. Brands' writing style is one of my personal favorites when it comes to covering a wide swath of history like this – focus primarily on individual topic/person storylines but find common themes and intersection points between them to give an idea of how those stories overlap. Then, without becoming too tendentious, incorporate some mild commentary on how you interpret the significance of these themes. For Brands, his title of "El Dorado" is the commentary that holds these episodes together. I found some of the stories he recounts more interesting than others (I’m sure it will vary depending on the person), but each one is given attention to historical context/detail and is often spiced up with fun anecdotes and quotes. An overview book like this can’t be exhaustive, but I walked away feeling like I knew and understood “The American West” more deeply than I ever have. For the history reader, I recommend this book.

Like my previous history book blogs, I’d like to share some reflections. The reflections are a mix of actual word for word quotes from the book, a paraphrasing of the words, a synthesis, and my own words. So take that for what it is.

1. The Dream of the West (the thesis of the book): The dream of El Dorado had originated with the Spanish conquistadores, but it persisted deep into the American period of the West where it represented opportunity and became the peculiar repository of American dreams. In the American mind, the West was not so much a place as a condition; it was the blank spot on the map upon which grand dreams were projected. Inevitably, the blank spot was filled in, by the very efforts of those seeking to attain their dreams. Their dreams drove them to feats of courage and perseverance that put their stay-at-home cousins to shame; their dreams also drove them to acts of violence against indigenous peoples, foreigners and one another that might have appalled them if they hadn’t been so hell-bent on chasing the dreams. A few would realize their dreams, many saw them warped, but many more would endure danger and hardship only to come up short. Yet so broad was the West, and so great its promise, that there were always others with dreams yet undashed.

Thomas Jefferson dreamed of an easy water route from the Missouri to the Pacific, but the Lewis and Clark expedition closed that door. The explosion of the Tonquin blasted John Jacob Astor’s dream of an American fur empire. Many emigrants to Oregon were delighted at how their long journey ended yet many more suffered in the passage, died, or found farming as difficult as anything back East. The forty-niners came seeking riches, which some did find, but many ended up laboring long hours in the underground mines asking why they had ever come west. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman dreamed of Christian salvation for the Cayute people of the Oregon territory but were ultimately killed by the very people they came to rescue. Brigham Young dreamed of a Mormon refuge beyond the reach of a gentile government but was ultimately unable to escape their reach. The cowboys who helped to define the West during the cattle drive years found themselves working the year around, at the beck of a cost-counting boss, wondered what had become of their freedom.

As the West passed from dream to reality, it became more like the East, until nothing significant distinguished the one from the other. The Great Plains were dotted with farms, including the bonanza spreads of Dakota and the debit-ridden parcels of Kansas and Nebraska. Railroads crossed the mountains, making the journey from St. Louis to San Francisco pleasant and swift. Dams were beginning to modify the aridity of the Great Basin and would soon restrain the flow of even the most powerful rivers of the West. The earlier West had been a zone of conflict; from the explosion of the Tonquin to the campaigns of U.S. soldiers against Crazy Horse, Quanah Parker, Captain Jack and Joseph, violence and armed conflict had characterized the American West. When the violence ended, most brutally and definitively in the massacre at Wounded Knee, the West, in its historical sense, was no more. A twentieth-century Horace Greeley might have sent his young protégé to Wall Street or Washington as readily as the West. 

2. The Mississippi River & the Louisiana Purchase: I’ve always known the Mississippi River was one of the world’s greatest rivers and played an influential role in American history, but it wasn’t until this book that I realized just how pivotal a place it had. The Mississippi River became the defacto frontier boundary after the Revolutionary War. So many goods and cargoes continued to travel by the Mississippi and out through the city of New Orleans that it was seen as the key to the American West. When France’s Napoleon offered the Louisiana territory to Thomas Jefferson, and thus full control of the Mississippi and New Orleans, Jefferson saw opportunity: for American expansion, for the individual farmer to find enough land to keep his own freedom, and for expanding trade as a quick route to the Pacific Ocean might be discovered. Unfortunately, his political ideology was against such imperialism.

The dream of the West in Jefferson forced him to turn a political somersault to justify the purchase of the Louisiana territory; but somersault he did. In deciding to launch Lewis and Clark’s discovery expedition he broadened the the federal government’s role again in supporting scientific research. The difficulty of Lewis and Clark’s expedition to find an easy route to the West coast proved to dash Jefferson’s dream of an easy route to the Pacific. If Jefferson could have foreseen how the Dakotas would eventually be used for giant bonanza farms in the late 1800’s he would have shuddered. Jefferson considered the vast tracts of land a guarantee of the independence of generations of yeoman farmers, who in turn would guarantee the independence of the American republic. Independence was nowhere in sight on the bonanza farms. The men who did the work on the farms were beholden to their bosses, and the bosses were entangled in a web of global commerce that controlled them far more than they controlled it.

The Mississippi River was so important to the future of the West, that Brands argues it was a possible deciding factor in Lincoln’s decision to make war on the seceding south:

“Even before his inauguration, Southern states began to secede: first South Carolina, then six more. The last two of the seven – Louisiana and Texas – were crucial. Had secession been limited to states east of the Mississippi, many Northerners, conceivably including Lincoln, might have been tempted to let them go. Hey would never be more than a rump country on the wrong side of history, weighed down by slavery while the rest of the civilized world, under the inspiration of democracy and industrialization was abandoning the feudal institution. But when secession leaped the Mississippi, it put Lincoln in the position Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had been in when they rejected the idea that any part of the great river [Mississippi] could be in foreign hands... Franklin hadn’t been willing for Britain or Spain to threaten access to the West; Jefferson wouldn’t suffer France to do the same thing. Now Lincoln refused to let the Confederacy endanger the West and jeopardize America’s future.” (286)

3. The Stories of the Oregon Territory:
My favorite part of the entire book is how Brands weaved together the stories of two men in particular - Joe Meeks & Marcus Whitman - into an impressively colorful and informative overview of the fur-trapping trade, the mountain men of the West, and the Oregonian emigrants in the settling of the American West. I'm fairly well studied in American history and I may have heard the stories of these two men in passing, but I am now shocked at how their lives have not been made into compelling Hollywood films.

Brands begins this particular thread with a colorful accounting of British and American efforts in the fur trade, how it was an early example of globalization, and the rendezvous system that developed with the mountain men like Joe Meek, fur company men, and Indians attending. Into this story comes one of the earliest emigrants to the Oregon territory, the missionary family of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who meet men like Joe Meek at one of the fur trading rendezvouses. The Whitman’s travel West, settle, and find their work with the Cayuse tribe difficult. The 24th chapter is the riveting account of how the Whitman's and others are murdered by the Cayuse who came to see them as the enemy. Since there is no state government, the fur trading companies and the now settled in Oregon Joe Meeks gets involved in the hunt for the killers and the chance to bring them to justice. This leads to Meeks’ arrival in Washington D.C. to persuade the government to declare it officially a U.S. Territory. Meeks would eventually become the first U.S. Marshall in the Oregon Territory and be the hangman for those charged with the Whitman’s murders.

It’s a fascinating and epic story that I can't help but hope they get the treatment John Adams got in that wonderful HBO series bearing his name. Seriously, I’ve taken notes on where each episode of the series would end and begin in the margins of the pages of the book. I need Tom Hanks, Spielberg, DiCaprio, or Scorsese to get on this immediately! 

4. A Slice of Life: One of the treasures of this book is when the author takes up several pages to detail and outline the day-to-day details of some of the major figures that make up the West. The two I’d like to recommend, the two I got the most enjoyment out of, was the detailed descriptions of life on a wagon caravan heading out to the Oregon country (pgs. 171-178) and the entirety of chapter 42 that covers the history and lives of cowboys and the cattle drive. It’s engagingly written and filled with quotes from those who lived it. 

5. The Myth of the West – Rugged Individualism vs. Federal Collective Guidance: The West is often viewed as the last bastion of American individualism but woven through its entire history is a strong thread of collectivism. The West was the land of wide-open spaces, but its residents were more concentrated in cities and towns than in most of the East. The West was primarily gained by the federal government through wars, treaties, and purchases. Thus, it was the federal government’s land and they decided what would happen with it. 

After making the Louisiana purchase, Jefferson decided to use federal funds to scientifically research and explore the newly owned land. This set the template that development of the trans-Mississippi West would be a top-down affair driven by the federal government that would reach its ultimate culmination by landing a man on the moon in the 1900s. The American East had been the handiwork of the original states, which antedated the Constitution and had claimed territory to the Mississippi. The West, by contrast, was called into American existence by the federal government. The overwhelming majority of land in the West was initially federal; nearly all of the Western states began life as parts of federal territories. 

These territories, unlike the East, were arid and not very suitable to individual farms. This meant that policies, laws and customs that had evolved in the East had to be modified, or wholly transformed, if the West was to thrive. Individualism had built the East, but it would fail in the West unless complemented by large doses of collective action. Irrigation was the central task and it demanded collective effort: dams, canals, and pipelines. No individual farmer had the ability to build such infrastructure. But farmers acting together could marshal the requisite authority and funding. 

Another way the federal government collectively guided the creation of the West is through privatization – giving land grants to private individuals to use, improve, in return for the ability to tax the land and production that came from it. Privatization had justified the grant of federal land to railroads to spur construction. Privatization was the heart of the Homestead Act. Privatization was what had made the California gold rush happen: 

“In 1848 gold mining had been something an individual could do profitably with minimal investment, just enough to buy a pan and some beans and bacon. By 1849 the pans were being supplanted by sluice boxes and candles, which required money to fashion and teamwork to operate. Hydraulic mining was more expensive still, demanding pipe, nozzles, and fittings that had to be manufactured in the East and imported. Quartz mining multiplied the required investment even more. Heavy, specialized machinery – digging device of various sorts, hoists for miners and ore, pumps to drain water from the mineshafts, giant stamps to crush the ore, chemical equipment to separate the gold from the quartz – necessitated capital amounting to thousands of dollars…The ironic result of all this was that in the 1850s Americans farthest frontier was also its least frontier-like, in any traditional sense. It was an industrial frontier, with corporate boards and banks calling the tune…America’s Industrial Revolution unfolded over decades in most of the country in the Far West it happened in just a few years.” (240-241)

The federal government also guided the protection of federal lands in the creation of national preserves and parks. The idea of setting aside federal land for a park cut against the privatization grain. It would deprive individuals of resources they could have put to commercial use, and it would deprive the government of revenues that could have been realized from the sale of such resources. Yet, it was the federal government’s will that would bring this about. 

Western individualism sneered, even snarled, at federal power, but federal power was essential to the development of the West. The individual cowboy, mountain man, and homesteader is a romantic and powerful image of the individualism of the American west – but none of them would be possible without the influential and guiding hand of the federal government. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Part-Time Mini-Review: Soul

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Part-Time Mini-Review: Soul


Overall Grade: B-

It felt like Soul was a step forward for Pixar when it comes to going back to their ambitious, risky, mature, and existential premises/themes from their most creative runs in the 2000's. Unfortunately, the final product rises to those heights only in brief spurts. What follows is a bit about the film and one major theological reflection I wanted to share, but was a bit too long for social media.

It's pretty engaging stuff overall - gorgeously animated, some creative world-building - and I found myself doing some serious reflecting on the worldview implied by the film. However, at the end of the day, the narrative feels cluttered & the "surprise" narrative turn at the end didn't feel right to me. It felt like our main character's ultimate "discovery is really one of those problems that could have been solved if the characters who made him a mentor just explained his role a bit more clearly. 

Additionally, there is one MAJOR omission in the world-building that kept gnawing on me. To share it will lead to SPOILERS about the theme, so be warned. 

The "pre-born" souls in this universe can't leave for earth until they've gained their "spark," which instead of a single defined purpose (as our main characters wrongly believe) it is more of a zest/desire to enjoy life and live it to the fullest, in whichever ways that might end up being. It's a nice message and frankly, it's a refreshing corrective for most of these kids animated features that make it seem as though every child is born with some kind of singular destiny (to play piano, to sing songs, etc). The primary issue I am having with this message is that the world the movie builds subverts the message into a dangerous one.

There is no God in the movie, even though we are dealing with the issues of souls, birth, and death. There is no mention that a Creator or designer inhabits the spiritual world of SOUL. Removing God changes the context of the message, "Live life to the fullest." After enjoying earth to its fullest – loving the beauty of nature, the warmth of community, the taste of pizza, the enchantment of music, etc. - who are these souls to thank for that? Gratitude and thankfulness are fundamental to a healthy enjoyment of life. Any parent knows that without learning thankfulness, children can quickly turn into entitled consumers. As Christian author G.K. Chesterton said, “When we were children, we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” and “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” 

In removing the presence of a Creator/designer of the universe, the filmmakers may have removed themselves from an unwanted religious debate, but they also turned their core theme of “live life unto the fullest” into one of selfishness. In the world of Soul, souls are created to consume experiences that make them happy and then they die and go to the “Great Beyond.” The evil in this world of Soul is to become too obsessed with a good and therefore become a lost soul. While this is a good message (one St. Augustine would likely enjoy), it overlooks the deeper evil created by the world they built: souls constantly consuming with absolutely nowhere proper to turn to show thanks, gratitude, and humility.

While a Christian could/should certainly embrace the message that we aren’t born with some singular “purpose” and are called to spark to the joy and wonder of life alone – it’s hard to embrace that message when it’s never directed outside of the self. In reality, Christians believe the joy and wonder of life is a gift given to us by our Creator and that our thankfulness, gratitude, humility, and yes, even service/obedience to that Creator is the proper response. This is what spiritual life is all about. 

Yes, God created us to enjoy (and manage and extend!) His creation – but as gifts from him and not as thankless consumers. To be fair, Soul is put out by a major corporation (Disney/Pixar) that likely doesn’t want to enter into explicitly religious debates and by showing a Creator they felt it went too far. While understandable, one can't enter the realm of spirituality timidly and with hands tied behind their back. Unfortunately, this impulse works to create a world in Soul where it’s creatures have no one to thank beyond themselves or others. It’s a world where the primary goal is inward and the possibility of true gratitude has been removed. Remove the Creator and the creatures are bound to worship the created.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”—G. K. Chesterton 


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Part-Time Recommendation: Finding the Right Hills to Die On

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Part-Time Recommendation: Finding the Right Hills to Die On


I recently received Gavin Ortlund's book Finding the Right Hills to Die On as a gift and was able to read it while traveling for the holidays. It's what I like to call a "bullet point" book - it has solid material, but it was mostly strong bullet points filled out with a lot of anecdotes and examples to make it work as a fleshed out book. I would argue that with bullet point books (unless you are completely unfamiliar with the subject matter) a good synopsis gives you the meat of the book. This isn't true for all books, which often defy "boiling down" - synthesis - or brief summaries. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who is not familiar with the idea of "theological triage" - the concept of prioritizing which Christian doctrines are worth fighting over and which ones we should agree to disagree on. Ortlund gives a fine introduction to the basic concept, providing personal stories and strong examples of doctrines that belong in each one of his tiers. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this for anyone already fairly familiar with the concept, as Ortlund stops short of providing a comprehensive projection of where the current theological landscape sits on his tier system or cares to interact with some of the more fundamental issues that arise with this endeavor (I'm thinking here of Christian Smith's articulation of the interpretive pluralism problem). That said, I think works as an excellent introduction for young Christians or those thinking about this topic for the first time.

Part of my reading process is to synthesize and paraphrase major quotes/ideas from the book to make a book summary. I thought you might get something out of the summary I created so I've shared it with you below. Keep in mind that this is my synthesis of Ortlund's key quotes (meaning it's mostly composed of his words) with a bit of light paraphrasing of my own. If you enjoy the synthesis, you can purchase the book HERE.


It’s easy to lose your balance when you’re standing on one foot. The strongest posture is one of balance between both feet: one of poise. In our theological life as well, we need poise. The character of the gospel is complex. It contains both truth and grace, both conviction and comfort, both hard edges of logic and deep caverns of mystery. It is at one moment as bracing as a cold breeze and the next as nourishing as a warm meal. Faithfulness to the gospel, therefore, requires more than one virtue. We must at times boldly contend and at other times gently prove. In one situation we must emphasize what is obvious, and in another we must explore what is nuanced.

This book is about finding the happy place between caring too much about doctrine and caring too little – the place of wisdom, love, and courage that will best serve the church and advance the gospel in our fractured times. In other words, it’s about finding the right hills to die on.

Albert Mohler has developed a helpful metaphor for this idea: theological triage. Triage is essentially a system of prioritization. We must acknowledge that different doctrines have differing importance, urgency, and require difficult decisions. We are all forced to do some form of this doctrinal triage – the real question is whether you will do it reactively by our circumstances or proactively by Scripture and principle. Ortlund lays out a theological triage of four different ranks:

  • First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself. (Ex. Trinity & Justification by Faith)
  • Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry. (Ex. Baptism & Cessasionism vs. Continuism)
  • Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians. (Ex. Millennium & Creation)
  • Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.
Why is it important to make doctrinal distinctions? It helps us to steer clear of the twin problems of doctrinal sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism. Equating all doctrines leads to unnecessary division and undermines the unity of the church. This is known as doctrinal sectarianism. It might initially sound good to say that ‘all doctrines are equally important,’ but it is a difficult statement to justify biblically. Paul, for instance, speaks of the gospel as a matter of ‘first importance’ (1 Cor. 15:3). On other topics, he often gives Christian greater latitude to disagree. Pursuing the unity of the church does not mean that we should stop caring about theology, but it does mean that our love of theology should never exceed our love of real people, and therefore we must learn to love people amid our theological disagreements. We should steer clear of theological wrangling that is speculative (goes beyond Scripture), vain (more about being right than being helpful), endless (no real answer is possible or desired), and needless (mere semantics).

Yet, the overall trajectory of our culture, particularly among younger generations, probably tends more toward doctrinal minimalism than sectarianism. Doctrinal minimalism is the mind set that refuses to take hard stances on any doctrine if it leads to division and wants to just focus on unifying actions. As much as we may appreciate the intention, carrying out this statement is not so simple. For instance, to ‘stop dividing and just love Jesus,’ we must define ‘Jesus.’’ When we do that, doctrinal division is unavoidable. Believe anything, and you are disbelieving its opposite and therefore dividing, in some sense, from those who don’t share your belief.

In the space between the wide roads of doctrinal sectarianism and minimalism lies the path of theological wisdom. We desperately need to cultivate the skills to do wise theological triage so that even when a doctrinal division becomes necessary, it is done with minimal collateral damage to the kingdom of God. In theology as well as in battle, some hills are worth dying on. If they are lost, everything is lost. This theological wisdom does not consider doctrines in the abstract, instead it considers doctrines in their ‘real life’ influence on actual people and situations and churches. You can get a secondary or tertiary doctrine wrong and still have a fruitful life and ministry – but the denial of a first-rank doctrine is a vital loss. First-rank doctrines are worth fighting for because their denial weakens the authoritative, corrective role that God’s word is supposed to have over us.

Ortlund offers the following set of four questions when attempting wise theological triage:
  1. How clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
  2. What is the doctrines importance to the gospel?
  3. What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
  4. What is this doctrine’s effect upon the church today?
Several distinctions can help in our task of wise theological triage. First, we should distinguish between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied. Related to this, we must distinguish between what must be affirmed when someone becomes a Christian and what must be affirmed as characteristic of growth in Christ over time. In addition, when a first-rank doctrine is denied, we must distinguish between a denial based upon ignorance or confusion and a knowing, willful denial.

Also, keep in mind that judgments about the personal salvation of others are precarious. Judgment is ultimately God’s to exercise and it is wise for us to be cautious. Rather than insisting on a positive articulation of every first-rank doctrine for salvation, a more careful statement would be that if someone knowingly and persistently denies a first-rank tenet, we can have no confidence of that person’s salvation. But it would probably be better to restrict our focus to whether we would allow such a person into the membership of our church than to speculate about the state of his or her soul. It is God’s business to regulate entry to heaven, and ours to regulate entry to the church.

The appropriate mentality corresponding to first-rank doctrines is courage and conviction. The book of Galatians reminds us that there are hills to die on and that justification by faith alone is one of those hills. Again, there are nuances involved in the doctrine of justification that genuine Christians can disagree on. But the fundamental claim that we are right with God by faith in Christ alone, apart from our good works – this is integral to the gospel and to every practical aspect of the Christian life. For instance, it bears directly upon how we relate to God on a daily basis, how we worship him, how we fight sin in our lives, and how we function as the church.

The appropriate mentality for second-rate doctrines is wisdom and balance. Second-rank doctrines are not essential to the gospel, but they are often important enough to justify divisions at the level of denomination, church, or ministry. These are issues outside the Apostles’ Creed but more important than, say, your interpretation of an obscure passage in Daniel. An example of a second-rank doctrine is baptism. While we should not downplay baptism, it would also be a mistake to elevate it to a first-rank issue alongside the gospel. Baptism does not set the boundaries of orthodoxy, such that those who get it right are orthodox and those who get it wrong are heretics.

The appropriate mentality regarding third-rank doctrines is circumspection and restraint. Most of the battles you could fight, you shouldn’t. And I’d go so far as to say that the majority of doctrinal fights Christians have today tend to be over third-rank issues – or fourth. We deeply need to cultivate greater doctrinal forbearance, composure, and resilience. But it is a historical irony that American evangelicals have tended to divide over the peripheral aspects of creation and eschatology while ignoring the more central aspects of these doctrines. Thus, many evangelicals focus more on the timing of the rapture, the identity of the anti-Christ, and the nature of the millennium (all, in my view third-rank doctrines) than they do on the second coming of Christ, the final resurrection, or the final judgment (all, in my view, first-rank doctrines)…Fighting over tertiary issues is unhelpful. But fighting over tertiary issues while simultaneously neglecting primary issues is even worse.

Finally, approaching the divisiveness surrounding any doctrine involves not merely its content but also the attitude with which it is held. The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. A lack of skill can simply be the occasion for growth and learning, but when someone approaches theological disagreement with a self-assured, haughty spirit that has only answers and no questions, conflict becomes virtually inevitable. Friends, the unity of the church was so valuable to Jesus that he died for it. If we care about sound theology, let us care about unity as well.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Five Reflections on the Indian Wars for the American West

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Five Reflections on the Indian Wars for the American West


After my recent kick of history books on World History and early American History, I found myself drawn to the settling of the American West. Outside of films and video games, this is a time period that has long been a bit of a blank spot in my mind. Were the movies and games about the West accurate? How should I think about what the Americans did to the Indians? To try and bring some light into these questions I picked up Peter Cozzens 2018 book The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. The book is an excellent read filled with tons of detail on the people, places, and events that shaped American interaction with the Indians as they settled the West. While Cozzens is not afraid to editorialize and qualify when needed, the book is more concerned with painting the picture than judging it. This won't be a book recommendation (although I do recommend it), instead the following blog will feature five broad reflections about the time period that struck me as I learned the sweep of these details. These are developing thoughts (thinking out loud), so feel free to interact with them and help me develop them. I hope they are helpful to you as you think about this time period and how it can influence us in our own.

1. The Basic Cycle of American and Indian Interaction: The scope of the book covers interactions with Native Americans in the Southern and Northern Plains, Apacheria, and the Northwest Pacific. While each encounter with the tribes in these regions can be considered unique they also seemed to follow a general pattern that can be helpful to outline.
  • Encroachment: The first step is American encroachment on Indian lands. Americans emigrated West to settle the land (farming, homesteading, ranches), search for resources (game, gold, copper, silver, etc.) or just for travel to another destination (trails and railroads). For example:
    • Gold Rush: “In August 1848, gold was discovered in California’s American River. The following year saw a mass migration unequaled in the young nation’s history. Within a decade, there were more whites in California than there were Indians in the entire West. Genocidal gold seekers decimated California’s peaceable small tribes, and the growth of white settlements in the newly organized Oregon Territory alarmed the stronger northwestern tribes.” (16)
    • Homestead Act: “In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act. Beginning January 1, 1863, and U.S. citizen or intended citizen, including free slaves and female heads of household, would receive title to 160 acres of federal land west of the Mississippi River, provided the claimant had improved the property, had resided on it for five consecutive years, and had never taken up arms against the United States…The population boom led to the creation of six territories between 1861 and 1864: Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, Dakota, and Colorado, which grew fastest of them all.” (25)
    • Buffalo Hunting: “With hunters in high demand, practically anyone capable of handling the deadly accurate .50 caliber buffalo rifle and mounted telescope was hired, and in the Mooar brothers’ wake came scores of misfits, miscreants, outlaws, and fugitives, drawn to the vast Kansas herds like flies to putrefying buffalo carcasses. Fort Dodge, in southwestern Kansas, became the center of the trade. In just three years, railroad cars hauled a staggering 4,373,730 hides to eastern markets. The Southern Plains tribes abhorred the wanton slaughter, but so long as the hunters remained north of the Arkansas River, the Indians had no recourse, short of war.” (156)
  • Skirmishes: Second, as the Americans emigrated West they engaged with the Indians – sometimes peacefully intermingling, but often leading to skirmishes of offense and defense. Sometimes naked aggression or simple defense is claimed on either side. The Indian tribes were not usually united in their response to this encroachment and still saw other tribes as their greatest threat, not the “white man.”
  • Peace Policy: In response to these skirmishes, the American government gets involved by protecting settlers, travelers, or business interests (railroad, hunters, ranchers, etc). They create forts to maintain control, order, protect travelers/settlers and extend their presence throughout the West. They generally sought to protect their migrating citizens by punishing Indian war raids on settlers/travelers, and closing off Indians to their own territory through a system of treaties and agencies/reservations. This policy is known as concentration – removing Indians from land whites wanted to some far-off land. Some tribes respond immediately with surrender and receive mostly peaceful treatment. Others are not sure how to respond and do so with mixed interest, others are not interested at all. Once on these concentrated lands, the job of turning Indians into Christian farmers would begin.
  • Breakdown into Violence: Whether by overzealous settlers/miners, corrupt agency officials, genuine miscommunication, deep seated mistrust, uncontrolled war raids on white settlers/travelers, or any number of issues – peace, trust, and treaties are constantly broken. The army is called in to police, raid, and sometimes destroy Indian groups deemed outlaws, rebellious, or not amenable enough to the treaty/reservation life. The U.S. frontier army is poorly funded, understaffed, undersupplied, and composed of poorly educated and skilled men. The existence of a solider in this era was tough and typically wound up filled with drinking, whoring, gambling, or deserting. The officer corp. was at best a fractious group filled with grudges and ambitions. When they could, the Army would smartly use enemy tribes as scouts and allowed them to lead battles and kill without mercy. Any battle won by the Army was devastating to Indian unity and confidence whereas any battle won by Indians (think Little Big Horn) was met with such shock by the American populace that it only meant renewed men and resources were thrown at the issue. Continually encroaching whites, broken treaties, boredom, loss of game (the Buffalo), not accepting a farming existence, disunity among the tribes, incompetent or corrupt generals, officials, and chiefs all lead to a series of raids, battles, and massacres across the West reduced the Indian tribes of the West to the loss of their existence or to subsistence and dependence on government rations on a reservation.
  • American Dominance & Indian Destruction: In each area of the West the story might be a bit different, but the story is consistent: each tribe is ultimately taken out of existence or removed to a small reservation area, often not of their choosing. Their existence on the reservation is often at subsistence levels and exploited by corrupt officials and bootleggers. “In the blink of an eye, the Ute culture had vanished. An army captain marveled at the sudden transformation of the Ute country. ‘As we pushed the Indians onward, we permitted the whites to follow, and in three days the rich lands of the Uncompahgres were all occupied, towns were being laid out, and lots being sold at high prices. In short order the Uncompahgre Valley – previously a desert – became the garden spot of Colorado, covered with bountiful farmland and orchards.’” (356)

2. Law and Order:
The stories of tracking down Indian outlaws who raided American settlements seemed oddly familiar to the early 1900's FBI tracking down the outlaws and gangsters who “raided” banks and other places for survival, for fun, for pride or whatever reason they mustered. Story after story could be told of authorities hearing of a raid, unrest, warriors hiding out on reservation land, or of influential leaders that could lead uprisings, and a (mostly) well-meaning proactive arrest or meeting with Indian leaders/warriors could spark a violent conflict due to misunderstandings and frustrations and distrust. In this way, many of these moments read like police reports about arrests gone bad and neighborhoods violently responding in kind. As I think back on such events, like the botched arrest of Sitting Bull and the chaotic beginning to the Wounded Knee battle (massacre?), I am reminded at how difficult it is to find peace and unity when both sides harbor fundamental distrust of the other. On another level, this isn’t just about distrust, but about different ways of living.

3. A Clash of Civilizations: This is a story not fundamentally of law and order vs outlaws or good natives vs evil imperialists (though there are strong elements of that), but a story of the clash of emigrant people with different ways of life. The story of the American West being settled can be read as the reactionary death throes of the Indian way of life being stamped out by another. The arrival of Europeans into the North American continent and their interactions with the Native tribes forever altered them. Horses, guns, religion, and disease introduced by the white European changed Indian culture forever.
  • “In the two and half centuries between the settlement of the Jamestown colony in Virginia and Lincoln’s cautionary words to the Cheyenne chief, a relentlessly expansionist white population had driven the Indians westward without regard to treaty obligations or, sometimes, even simple humanity. The government of the young American Republic had not intended to exterminate the Indians. Nor had the founding fathers simply coveted Indian land. They had also wanted to ‘enlighten and refine’ the Indian, to lead him from ‘savagery’ to Christianity, and to bestow on him the blessings of agriculture and the domestic arts – in other words, to destroy an incompatible Indian way of life by civilizing rather than by killing the Indians.” (13)
Most of the tribes of the American West were hunters and gatherers and moved periodically with the game (mostly buffalo) they hunted and the seasons of the year. It is important to understand that the Native tribes of the plains cannot be summarized by the “noble savages” stereotype that often predominates our memory (this is typically a trope used to contrast against the evil American). The Indians of the plains had a strong war culture that took a central role in their life. It was normal to go to war against other tribes and raid them for the best horses, women, and hunting grounds. From an early age, young boys were trained up to become warriors:
  • “…the patterns of tribal government and warfare among the Rocky Mountain and Plains tribes were strikingly similar. Fathers raised their sons to aspire to great martial deeds, and training for a warrior’s life began early. At age five or six, boys were made to run long distances and to swim streams and were regularly deprived of food, water, and sleep – all with a view to toughening their bodies. Between the ages of seven and ten, boys received their first bow and arrows and were taught to shoot first for distance and then for accuracy. By the time a boy reached adolescence, his riding skills were unparalleled; he was, to quote Colonel Dodge, not only the finest soldier but also ‘the best rough rider and natural horsemen in the world.’ By age eighteen, a young man was expected to have counted coup, stolen a horse, and taken a scalp. At age twenty, he had perhaps shown enough ability to lead a small war or raiding party. By twenty-five, he might be a sub-chief. If he had been successful, he could expect to have won many war honors and stolen many horses and perhaps even have two lodges (tipis) with a wife and children in each.” (48)
The Indian tradition of “scalping” and mutilation of the dead in war horrified the whites and was seen as an example of the savagery of the Indian. Additionally, many warriors did kidnap, rape, and mutilate innocent women and children during their raids. While this is true, it’s also helpful to see these actions from the view of the Indians:
  • “Indian scalps counted more than those of whites, whom most Indians considered inferior opponents. At the Fettermen Fight, warriors contemptuously tossed the scalps of soldiers on the ground besides their victims. The mutilation of enemy dead was a common Plains Indian practice in which both sexes indulged. Westerners considered it conclusive proof that Indians were irredeemable savages; for their part, the Indians believed that disfiguring an enemy’s corpse protected the killer from the dead man’s spirit in the afterlife.” (49)
  • “The Pawnees did most of the killing at Summit Springs, and they killed without mercy. The Cheyennes expected as much. ‘I do not belittle the Pawnees for their killing of women or children because as far back as any of us could remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child they could run across of the Pawnee,’ said a Dog Soldier survivor. ‘Each tribe hated each other with a deadly passion and savage hearts [that] know only total war.’ Sherman and Sheridan’s notion of total war paled beside that of the Plains Indians.” (110-111) 
As Americans moved West, two ways of life clashed. The Western way of life centered on owning and working the land, building permanent cities, and instilling secular governmental authorities to oversee law and order could not have been more different from a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life that saw war and raiding on neighbors as part of life. This brief reflection should not be intended to justify American or Indian actions, just to note that at a fundamental level, their engagement involves a clash of civilization and not just a clash of ambition.

4. The Randomness of Massacre: The term “massacre” is loaded with baggage. As I read story after story of battles in the Indian Wars, it became clear that the motive behind “massacre” can sometimes be hard to pin down. The easy thing to do is point fingers at the indiscriminate killing of women and children – and yes this went on in both American victories and Indian victories. I am not here saying both sides are equally guilty nor am I knowledgeable enough to say which side was worse. I simply want to share the reflection that it seems surprisingly easy to go from “orderly” war to massacre – much easier than we’d like to think. For instance, after the Battle of Wounded Knee, the author Cozzens shares this anecdote:

“The search for survivors began. Combing the field, a humane private came across a dead woman and her baby, who was sucking on a piece of hardtack. He picked up the child and cradled it in his arms. Continuing on, he found another dead woman with a baby still alive beside her. Her carried both infants to the hospital tent, where a number of Indian women had gathered. As he neared the tent, the private encountered a burly sergeant, who suggested he smash the babies against a tree; otherwise, the sergeant said, ‘someday they’ll be fighting us.’ The soldier recoiled in disgust. ‘I told him I would rather smash him than those little innocent children. The Indian women were so glad that I saved the papooses that they almost kissed me.’” (458)

Imagine if that “humane private” had got caught up in other business and was not the one to deliver the babies and the burly sergeant’s desire had won the day? The difference here between a story of good-hearted humanity and a cold-blooded murder of babies turned on such utter randomness. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t praise or judge either character because they are decision-less pawns, just that if someone else had randomly been there the outcome might be horrifically different - and our judgment of the sides would be irrevocably altered. How many “massacres” turn on these random moments: A weak person doesn’t stand up to a sadist, a miscommunication leads to chaos, a good intention is misconstrued, etc? We want to judge, and we should judge, but our measurement of the actions of others in the heat of war and death should always reflect the insight that given the right circumstances we are capable of monstrous atrocities.

5. What Else Could Be Done: Perhaps the most haunting thought I had while reading this book was simply, “If I could go back and be a leader of the American expansion, could I have done any better? What else could have been done?” The easy route is to simply judge the American actions and they deserve tons of righteous judgment. However, when one is required to not just judge their actions but then get into the nitty gritty of alternative actions, then one is forced into some very difficult questions. For instance, with the remove of a hundred and fifty years it’s easy to say we should have left the Indians alone and let them have states/territories of their own. However, was that politically feasible? Remember that with the gold rush of 1848, more people poured into California than Indians populated the entire West! How do you hold back the active and growing population of Americans? Do you use the army to police them and kill them from expanding into lands that are little occupied and little exploited? Remember, you just fought an exhausting Civil War that led to the deaths of half a million Americans. If you do use force, how quickly are you thrown out of power and your protest amounts to nothing else? Think of the furor that arose from Indian raids that resulted in murders, kids being kidnapped, and women raped – how do you respond to that? Peaceful and lawful is the obvious response, but what do you do when the warriors responsible are being harbored by a peaceful tribe that won’t give them up? What do you do when genuine mineral resources that can be used to the betterment of society and social wealth just sits fallow because it's part of a large area of "hunting grounds" for a tribe? These are real issues.

None of this is to excuse horrific behavior, but it is helpful to understand the context in which it arose. Additionally, think of the perspective of the Native American – how were you to react? Could they have reacted better? Would it have mattered? Colonel John Gibbon put it thusly, “Put yourself in his place and let the white man ask himself this question: What would I do if threatened as the Indian has been and is? Suppose a race superior to mine were to land upon the shores of this great continent, trade or cheat us out of our land foot by foot, gradually encroach upon our domain until we were finally driven, a degraded, demoralized band into a small corner of the continent, where to live at all it was necessary to steal, perhaps to do worse? Suppose that in a spirit of justice, this superior race should recognize the fact that it was in duty bound to place food in our mouths and blankets on our backs, what would we do in the premises? I have seen one who hates an Indian as he does a snake, and thinks there is no good Indian but a dead one, on having the proposition put to him in his way, grind his teeth in rage and exclaim, ‘I would cut the heart out of everyone I could lay my hand on,’ and so he would; and so we all would.” (221-222)

I mentioned before that a fundamental element of this story is a clash of civilizations and I wonder if it was possible for the growing Western culture of the Americans to peacefully co-exist with the hunter-gatherer culture of the Indians: could they have lived in two peaceful countries of their own if cooler and more peaceful heads prevailed? Would one culture have to give way to the other? Would it have been possible for the Indian leaders or American leaders to restrain their warriors/settlers/miners from invading the space of the other and causing problems?

I have no idea. It could be that given the right leaders, we’d live in a vastly different and more peaceful world today with a thriving Indian population. Or, and this is a historical judgment not a spiritual/moral one, it could be that the Indian population fared better at the emigrating Americans of the 1700’s-1800’s who did as much as their current worldview allowed than they would have from any other expanding civilization in history up until that time. I don’t know and that is haunting.

What I do know is how I can act in my day and age. An understanding of how American ambition, power, and limited/corrupted moral worldview influenced their historical relations with the Indians in the settlement of the West should inform us today in how we interact with each other. We must be more willing than our ancestors at calling out current injustices and at using our moral convictions to restrain the ambitions of our neighbors (and our own) that infringe on the rights of others. We must always remind ourselves of the cycle of violence and how revenge is sweet in the short term but leads to broken communities of mistrust and disunity in the long term. These communities are easy to exploit and destroy. With the same moral conviction we use to call out the unjust ambitions of our neighbors we must forgive our enemies. We should be wise in our critique of the historical actions of our ancestors with an eye for how their failures (and successes) can inform us today. The historical circumstances are never the exact same (making all comparisons an art more than a science), but that doesn’t mean we cannot grow wise from reflection that begins with the question, “What else could be done?”

“Less than a generation had passed since Red Cloud had won his war on the Bozeman Trail forts but then gradually lost the peace. The Lakotas had held the Crow lands they had conquered for less than a decade. It had been just fifteen years since the great but ultimately Pyrrhic Indian victory at the Little Bighorn. Now nothing remained. The Lakotas, the Cheyennes, the Arapahos, the Nez Perces, the Utes, the Modocs, the Apaches, and even some Texan-hating Kiowas and Comanches had tried to coexist amicably with the white man, but he would not be peaceably contained. Tribes had divided bitterly over the issue of war or peace. The Indians who had gone to war against the government had usually done so reluctantly, and they had lost their land and their way of life anyway. Accommodation had failed. War had failed. And the bullet-riven Ghost shirts buried with their wearers in the mass grave on the lone knoll above Wounded Knee Creek were ample proof that religion too had failed the Indians. There was no room left for the Indians in the West but what the government saw fit to permit them. One elderly chief who had witnessed the march of events from the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 to the tragedy at Wounded Knee four decades later saw nothing remarkable in what had transpired. ‘The government made us many promises,’ he told a white a friend, ‘more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.’” (466)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Some Reflections on Conservative Political Philosophy

6:25 PM 0
Some Reflections on Conservative Political Philosophy

By my estimation, the political philosophy of Conservatism does not seem to have a good reputation in America (or the world) today. I've identified as a Conservative for most of my life and this has mostly meant agreeing with what had been traditional conservative views of the last 20-25 years: smaller government, balanced budgets, protection of the unborn, less taxes, reformed welfare, strong national defense, etc. Although these positions weren't always consistently articulated or perfectly represented in Republican candidates, my support has mostly gone to them. However, in the last five years, many of these positions have become marginalized in the Republican party and in some cases, entirely extinct. In fact, the ideological and platform change undergone by the Republicans in the last five years has pushed me to think more deeply on what "conservatism" means, what I truly believed, and why. Additionally, my recent viewing of the musical Hamilton and reading of Jospeh Ellis' The Quartet has provided a large spark to my investigation.

To this end, I took a friend's advice and picked up Roger Scruton's 2019 book How To Be a Conservative. Scruton is a British philosopher and writer, but he writes broadly enough about Conservatism that it's a good read no matter the country you come from. I enjoyed his articulation of the conservatism so much that I began summarzing/paraphrasing a chapter at a time on my Facebook page. Now that I've gone through the entire book, reflecting on each chapter, I think it would be helpful for me to try and create a kind of overall reflection by synthesizing his direct quotes and my own paraphrasing/structuring of them. What I'm trying to say is this - what follows is my own concoction that includes my own thoughts, direct quotes from Scruton, and lightly edited/re-worded versions of his quotes. In all - I think there's a lot to glean here and much that I fully agree with.

As I begin, let me state my own personal view on "conservatism" - I am committed foremost to the truth, beauty, and goodness of God. To the extent that a political party and ideology seeks to preserve the truth, beauty, and goodness we have inherited in our society I am a conservative. To the extent it seeks to extend and deepen in new ways the truth, beauty, and goodness in our society, I am a progressive. From here on out - this is a Leaman/Scruton synthesis:

The core of the political ideology of Conservatism tells us that we have collectively inherited good things (peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life), those things are difficult to create, easy to destroy, are currently under threat, and we must strive to keep them – especially when worse things are proposed in their place.

The great problem of politics is figuring out how we can live in peaceful community with each person enjoying their freedom and pursuing their goals. In other words, what kind of society can retain individual freedoms while remaining a united and harmonious community? Or to put the issue into broader philosophical terms, “How can we be diverse and unified at the same time?” The Conservative ideology believes that any successful answer to this question must acknowledge two important truths about societies we have learned throughout history:
  • Sense of Community: A successful society must develop in its individuals a sense of “we” – a love for home and the people in it that spurs them to call the community “ours” and take the non-contractual obligation of being a steward and a guardian of the community. This philosophy of settlement is the primary fact from which all community and politics begin and is central to conservatism. This sense of community cannot ultimately be achieved by a top-down contract where an alliance is made between the people and the state toward a goal that is rationally managed to that end, but must come from the bottom up world of face to face interaction and community association (in family, clubs, societies, schools, workplace, church, team, regiment, universities, etc)
  • Historical Embedding: A successful society must develop in its community a sense that it is not just an association of those who are alive but also of those who came before (the dead) and those yet to be born. Thus, successful societies must see themselves not just as temporary communities for their own benefit, but as a community inheriting benefits from those who came before and passing them on to those yet to come in an unbroken line of obligation. 
In light of these two truths (I’ll call them a “Community-Historical Society” from here on out), Conservatism (which really came into being as a political philosophy with the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the overcoming of religious conflict, the rise of the secular state, and the triumph of liberal individualism) should acknowledge, protect, and encourage the beautiful and good developments received by our society. Below is an overview of seven of the most important institutions/policies that we have inherited and should protect for ourselves and for those who are yet to come:

1. The Nation State: The society that has most successfully developed the sense of community and a historical embedding is the nation state. Societal cooperation and harmony among individuals with different skills, tribes, religious beliefs, and ethnicity, requires a politics of compromise. Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance – in something like the way people identify themselves with a family – the necessary forming of agreements among neighbors both to grant each other space and to protect that space as a common territory will not happen. Ultimately, the nation state is the by-product of neighborliness, shaped by an ‘invisible hand’ from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. Additionally, it is the sovereign nation state that when international disputed arise, can resolve them by treaty rather than through force. Sovereign nation states are legal persons and should deal with each other through a system of rights, duties, liabilities, and responsibilities. To make these dealings possible, nation states must be sovereign – that is, able to decide matters for themselves – and also willing to relinquish powers to those bodies charged with maintaining international agreements and the law that governs them. The nation state is worth conserving against the contemporary forces of globalism that seek to dissolve their sovereignty.

2. Traditional Liberalism: A successful Community-Historical society protects the freedom of the individual as one of the prime purposes of the state. Ultimately, it is the concept of citizenship in a nation state where these freedoms are outlined and protected by the state that has proven the best safeguard of individual freedom. Citizenship enables strangers to stand side by side against authority and to assert their common rights. It therefore provides a shield against oppression and an echo to the dissenting voice. Traditional liberalism, which grew out of the Enlightenment that proposed a universal human nature, governed by universal moral law, from which the state emerges through the consent of the governed, is the view that such a society is possible only if the individual members have sovereignty over their own lives. These sovereign rights force people to treat you as a free being, with sovereignty over your life and as one who has an equal claim on others’ respect. Rights, then, enable us to establish a society in which consensual relations are the norm, and they do this by defining for each of us the sphere of sovereignty from which others are excluded. The classical liberal tradition of constitutional thinking should be understood in this way, as addressing the question of how to limit the power of government, without losing its benefits – namely that of the sovereignty of the individual. That tradition has given us the fixed points of liberal jurisprudence: the doctrine of the separation of powers, the theory of judicial independence, and the procedural idea of justice, according to which all citizens are equal before the law, and the judge must be impartial. If we look at rights in this way, as instruments that safeguard sovereignty, and so make free dealings between sovereign partners into the cement of society, then we see immediately why freedom rights have the best claim to universality.

3. Free Association: A successful Community-Historical society grows from below through the associative impulse of human beings that create civil associations. From the raw material of human affection, we construct enduring associations, with their rules, offices, ceremonies, and hierarchies that endow our activities with intrinsic worth. Schools, churches, libraries; choirs, orchestras, bands, theatre groups; cricket clubs, football teams, chess tournaments; the historical society, the women’s institute, the museum, the hunt, the angler’s club – in a thousand ways people combine not just in circles of friendship but in formal associations, willingly adopting and submitting to rules and procedures that regiment their conduct and make them accountable for doing things correctly. These association grow from below, through relations of love, respect, and accountability. Free association is necessary to us because intrinsic values emerge from social cooperation; they are not imposed by some outside authority or instilled through fear. This view of civil association extends to the conservative view of the military and policing, which ought to exist to protect the freedom of the individual not to control it. Military and policing institutions should be an expression of civil society, rooted in the local community, and responsive as much to local conditions as to the requirements of national government.

4. Secular Law: A successful Community-Historical society develops a secular law that derives from national sovereignty and can adapt to the changing conditions of the people. It is one of the triumphs of our inherited Christian civilization to have held on to the Christian vision while acknowledging the priority of secular law. This was not achieved without intense conflict, and a slow, steady recognition that a society could be founded on the duties of neighborliness and yet permit distinctions of faith. The achievement of Christian civilization is to have endowed institutions with a religious authority without demanding a religious, as opposed to a secular obedience to them. But religious obedience is not a necessary part of citizenship, and in any conflict it is the duties of the citizen, and not those of the believer, that must prevail. The story of the Good Samaritan, offered in answer to the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’, tells us that love of neighbor, while a religious duty, does not require the imposition of religious conformity, and is not a form of brotherhood. It is directed as much to the stranger as to the friend. You love your neighbor by administering to his needs in adversity, regardless of whether he belongs to you through family, faith, or ethnic identity. Thus, it is through religious toleration and a secular law that a community of different religions can still be unified and can still protect the most important person – the individual willing to question whether the majority is right.

5. Private Property and Free Exchange: A successful Community-Historical society encourages a market economy based on private property and free exchange. It is only when people have rights of property and can freely exchange what they own for what they need that a society of strangers can achieve economic coordination. Three key truths here must be embraced: 1) Economic activity depends upon knowledge of other people’s wants, needs, and resources 2) This knowledge is dispersed throughout society and is not the property of any individual 3) In the free exchange of goods and services, the price mechanism provides access to this knowledge – not as a theoretical statement, but as a signal to action. Prices in a free economy offer the solution to countless simultaneous equations mapping individual demand against available supply. These three points are tied together and lead to the conclusion that the price of a commodity conveys reliable economic information only if the economy is free.

6. Civic Cultural Unity: A successful Community-Historical society can absorb and integrate people from various cultures, even those bearing strange God, through a strong and unified civic culture. Thanks to the ‘civic culture’ that grew in the post-Enlightenment West, social membership was primarily freed from religious affiliation, from racial, ethnic, and kinship ties, and from the ‘rites of passage’ whereby communities laid claim to the souls of their members. This is why it has become so easy to emigrate to Western states – nothing more is required of the immigrant than the adoption of the civic culture, and the assumption of the duties implied in it. Our obligations to others, to the country and to the state have been revised in a direction that has opened the way to the admission of people from outside the community – provided that they , too, can live according to the liberal ideal of citizenship. The long-term effect of this has been to open Western societies to immigration, and to impart an ideal citizenship that, it is hoped, will enable people of disparate origins and backgrounds to live together, recognizing that the real source of their obligations lies not in that which divides them – race and religion in particular – but in that which unites them – territory, good government, the day-to-day routines of neighborliness, the institutions of civil society, and the workings of the law. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

7. Obligation of Gratitude: A successful Community-Historical society must embrace the core truth in the political ideology of Socialism, the truth of our mutual dependence. We need to do what we can to spread the benefits of social membership to those whose own efforts do not suffice to obtain them. The more we take from our arrangement in society, the more we must give in return. This must remain an obligation of gratitude and cannot become a contractual obligation from the state. How this is to be done is an intricate political question, but the socialist movement is not the answer as it confuses misfortune with injustice, divides rather unifies, will produce a welfare state that will inevitably collapse, creates rents on the taxpayers earnings rather than redistributes, and is based on a zero-sum fallacy. This obligation of gratitude acknowledges how we are inheritors of good things from our ancestors (I suppose you could call this Western civilization privilege?) and protectors of these good for those coming after us. This is why some form of a collective welfare system and stewardship of the environment should be core conservative causes. 

There you have it - two core principles and seven major points of protection to help outline a better Conservative political philosophy. What do you think? Is this a helpful summation?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Part-Time Recommendation: The Quartet

7:25 PM 0
Part-Time Recommendation: The Quartet
The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis: 9780804172486 ...
I've been trying to read Brothers Karamazov for the past two weeks, but every time I pick it up, I keep thinking about world history and how much I'd rather be reading history texts. You've had this problem right? Anyways, I've learned that unless I have the motivation, I won't do it. So, for the time being, I put it away and picked up Joseph Ellis' The Quartet, a book on the "Second American Revolution" I picked up after watching Hamilton sparked my re-interest in the founding of the country.

I heartily recommend this book to you. I completed in two days and I predict I'll be taking notes and reflecting on it for weeks. What does Ellis mean by a second revolution? Ellis says the American Revolution wasn't about fighting to make America a nation, it was about fighting for the sovereignty of the thirteen states and once the war had ended, the weak Articles of Confederation were insufficient to manage a nation. The first revolution was about freedom from Britain, but a second revolution was needed to make the thirteen states into a nation. As the author puts it:

My argument is that four men made the transition from confederation to nation happen. They are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison…my contention is that this political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.

The book is well-written, direct, and extremely knowledgeable on the subject. Reading it in the context of the volumes of the three volumes of World History I read earlier in the summer has been eye-opening. I'm struck by two things in particular:

1. How the overwhelming pattern in world history is after the revolution the United States would succumb to interstate rivalries, wars, and power struggles creating a power vacuum that would allow European powers to to form entangling alliances and treaties that and carve out new confederations and regional alliances. Such diverse and widespread cultures as we saw in the colonies typically don't remain united, they descend into centuries of fights. It seems, we have this "second revolution" to thank for that!

2. The book does not shy away from the failures and comprises of these founding fathers. In fact, the more human realism(without being tendentious and axe-grinding) we give to our founders, I believe the more awe and gratitude historical perspective gives us of them. Figures like Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were no perfect and in many ways were men that indulged in the vices and worldview they grew up in. However, once we are able to acknowledge this, we are able to more fully grasp how these men. each in different ways, were able to rise above and distance themselves from the vices and worldview they grew up in. Just as the stars shine brighter the darker the night grows, the more historical perspective we get on human behavior, leadership, and the use of power - the more their star shines. They are not perfect men and I'm not one who looks to divinize them, their work, or the nation they helped found - but I've become so much more grateful for their them, not less, the more I learn.

Anyways, if Hamilton peaked your interest in the founding of the nation, then this book is a substantive, yet accessible, way to jump in. 

You can buy it HERE from Amazon.