Andrew Jackson on the Rule of Law

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Andrew Jackson

“But in order to maintain the Union unimpaired, it is absolutely necessary that the laws passed by the constituted authorities should be faithfully executed in every part of the country, and that every good citizen should at all times stand ready to put down, with the combined force of the nation, every attempt at unlawful resistance, under whatever pretext it may be made or whatever shape it may assume…

You have no longer any cause to fear danger from abroad; your strength and power are well known throughout the civilized world, as well as the high and gallant bearing of your sons. It is from within, among yourselves, from cupidity, from corruption, from disappointed ambition, and inordinate thirst for power, that factions will be formed and liberty endangered… You have the highest of human trusts committed to your care. Providence has showered on this favored land blessings without number, and has chosen you, as the guardians of freedom, to preserve it for the benefit of the human race. May He who holds in his hands the destinies of nations make you worthy of the favors He has bestowed, and enable you, with pure hearts, and pure hands, and sleepless vigilance, to guard and defend to the end of time the great charge He has committed to your keeping.

My own race is nearly run; advanced age and failing health warn me that before long I must pass beyond the reach of human events and cease to feel the vicissitudes of human affairs. I thank God that my life has been spent in a land of liberty, and that he has given me a heart to love my country with the affection of a son. And filled with gratitude for your constant and unwavering kindness, I bid you a last and affectionate farewell.”

__________

Excerpted from Andrew Jackson’s 1837 Farewell Address.  This speech was given to mark Jackson’s retirement from both the presidency and public life. He would spend the remainder of his life at his home in Nashville, where he died in 1845.

The first section of these elevated words came bounding into my mind this morning as I watched coverage of Cliven Bundy’s Nevada saga debated by a panel of experts on CNN. That this stand-off is happening is strange enough; that it’s being discussed in earnest by talking heads on major networks is positively surreal. If there is anything worth saying about this self-parodying story it’s this: arming a militia is not a substitute for settling your grievances with fellow citizens, government, or law through established legal channels. For twenty years, Bundy grazed 900 cattle on 600,000 acres of public land, and he’s racked up a million-dollar tab. Obviously he doesn’t want to pay, but that money is owed — owed to the American taxpayer. If Bundy, his friends, or anyone else in Nevada had an issue with the Bureau of Land Management or the proportion of land aggregated to the Federal Government in their state, then they could have made their beef known on the streets and eventually on ballots and/or bills. Instead, as numerous sources have described, they only now decided to grab their rifles, form a barricade… and “put all the women up at the front.” Real honorable, guys.

While being interviewed by Sean Hannity last week, Bundy compared himself and his gang to the Minutemen of the American Revolution. Hannity apparently didn’t see anything objectionable in this claim, nodding in agreement as if it’s inherently legitimate to challenge taxation and the powers that be, so long as you do it with a cowboy hat, gun, and accent. But it’s not. The rule of law is not a slogan, nor is threatening federal agents with violence a game. John Adams wasn’t prattling like a pundit when he observed we are a nation of laws not a nation of men. Folks like Bundy are fond of railing against the takers in our society who depend on forms of government assistance like food stamps. But Bundy has literally and knowingly been mooching off of the federal government for two decades, only to now be feigning confusion and outrage when the bill, visible from miles away, comes due.

Read on:

  • Martin Luther King describes when and how you should break the law
  • Robert P. George and Charles Krauthammer discuss: What was the American founders’ view of human nature?
  • Thomas Paine delineates society from government

Cliven Bundy

Thomas Piketty: Did Inequality Contribute to the Financial Crisis?

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Thomas Piketty

“In my view, there is absolutely no doubt that the increase of inequality in the United States contributed to the nation’s financial instability. The reason is simple: one consequence of increasing inequality was virtual stagnation of the purchasing power of the lower and middle classes in the United States, which inevitably made it more likely that modest households would take on debt, especially since unscrupulous banks and financial intermediaries, freed from regulation and eager to earn good yields on the enormous savings injected into the system by the well-to-do, offered credit on increasingly generous terms.

In support of this thesis, it is important to note the considerable transfer of US national income—on the order of 15 points—from the poorest 90 percent to the richest 10 percent since 1980. Specifically, if we consider the total growth of the US economy in the thirty years prior to the crisis, that is, from 1977 to 2007, we find that the richest 10 percent appropriated three-quarters of the growth. The richest 1 percent alone absorbed nearly 60 percent of the total increase of US national income in this period. Hence for the bottom 90 percent, the rate of income growth was less than 0.5 percent per year. These figures are incontestable, and they are striking: whatever one thinks about the fundamental legitimacy of income inequality, the numbers deserve close scrutiny. It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups.

Quite obviously, if the increase in inequality had been accompanied by exceptionally strong growth of the US economy, things would look quite different. Unfortunately, this was not the case: the economy grew rather more slowly than in previous decades, so that the increase in inequality led to virtual stagnation of low and medium incomes.”

__________

From the book that reviewers are calling “watershed,” “magisterial,” “a bulldozer of a book,” and at least a few economists are already crowning as the best economics book of the last decade: Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.

Though I’ve only been flipping around its 700-plus pages — and my economics-minded friends have expressed to me some qualms with the methodology and approach of its author — I can confidently recommend Capital. I’ve been engrossed by not only chart after chart of Piketty’s rigorous and wide-ranging data analysis, but also his refreshingly light and fluid (though translated, by Arthur Goldhammer) exposition and writing. The book is long, especially for a bestseller, but as you tread through its pages you’ll be surprised by how rarely you have to slog through the dense weeds of pedagogical jargon. Even for dilettante economists and laymen looking to understand the state of the economy today, the book is not just comprehensible and illuminating — it’s fun to read.

More economics:

  • David Ricardo’s famous description of comparative advantage
  • Robert Nozick compares taxes to enslavement
  • Calvin Coolidge warns against excessive and unnecessary taxation

Chart: US Income Inequality

“To My Mother” by Wendell Berry

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Peter's Farm

I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.

__________

“To My Mother” by Wendell Berry.

One of my favorite movies is Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition. There’s an unforgettable early scene in that unfairly forgotten film in which Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks) has just been lamenting to his adopted father John Rooney (played by Paul Newman) the recent rebelliousness of his eldest son. After listening, a quietly amused Newman stares fixedly out the window and responds. “Natural law: sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” It’s a brilliant line, one which — for better or for worse — the fathers and mothers of just about all of my friends, from early on to late adolescence, would hear now with a slight smile of recognition, as I would hope they’d read this poem.

I took the picture at my friend Peter’s farm near Keswick, Virginia.

More from Berry:

Wendell Berry

Lewis Lapham on the Crucial Role of Blogs

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Lewis Lapham

Nick Gillespie: Put against the broad array of the internet and this explosion in access to text, do more people have more access to more of the past, or do they just get lost in the clutter?

Lewis Lapham: Well, that’s the reason for curators. Yes, I’m a curator here. I’m like a museum director. And a lot of people who run blogs are the same. I mean, if you go to Truthout or Truthdig or Tomdispatch, essentially these are curated compilations or anthologies. And there’s going to be more and more and more of that, because as the internet becomes so crowded, it eventually becomes incomprehensible. So you’re going to have to find some source you can trust. And this, of course, is the secret of all successful American journalism — that’s the Readers Digest, that’s Time Magazine, that’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.

__________

From the tail end of Nick Gillespie’s reason.com interview with Lewis Lapham, former Harper’s editor and current curator of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Does the Beauty of the Gospel Story Attest to Its Truth?

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Does the aesthetic splendor of the four Gospels, when considered like works of literature, emit the ineffable whiff of something genuine? Is there a patina of truth — truth endorsed by beauty — coating the Biblical account of the Nazarene? Cahill explained the concept; Einstein flirted with the idea; C.S. Lewis, through his buddy Tolkien, was converted by it; and Julian Barnes paid it some provocative thoughts. You can decide for yourself.

From the pen of Thomas Cahill, writing in his even-handed historical survey The Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus:

What especially makes the gospels — from a literary point of view — works like no others is that they are about a good human being. As every writer knows, such a creature is all but impossible to capture on the page, and there are exceedingly few figures in all literature who are both good and memorable. Yet the evangelists, who left no juvenilia behind them — no failed novels, rhythmless poems, or other early works by which we might judge their progress as writers — whose Greek was often odd or imprecise, and who were not practiced writers of any sort, these four succeeded where almost all others have failed. To a writer’s eyes, this feat is a miracle just short of raising the dead.

As retold in Walter Isaacson’s biography, Albert Einstein had grappled with the question, too:

Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Einstein gave a remarkable interview in which he was more revealing than he had ever been about his religious thinking. It was with a pompous but ingratiating poet and propagandist named George Sylvester Viereck… For reasons not quite clear, Einstein assumed Viereck was Jewish…

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. ‘It’s possible to be both,’ replied Einstein. ‘Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.’

Should Jews try to assimilate? ‘We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.’

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? ‘As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.’

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? ‘Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.’

In Alistair McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis, there is an account of how, ultimately, the great medievalist don was swayed after studying the Gospels according to J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of them as “True Myths”.

To understand how Lewis passed from theism to Christianity, we need to reflect further on the ideas of J. R. R. Tolkien. For it was he, more than anyone else, who helped Lewis along in the final stage of what the medieval writer Bonaventure of Bagnoregio describes as the ‘journey of the mind to God.’…

Tolkien argued that Lewis ought to approach the New Testament with the same sense of imaginative openness and expectation that he brought to the reading of pagan myths in his professional studies. But, as Tolkien emphasized, there was a decisive difference. As Lewis expressed in his second letter to Greeves, ‘The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

The reader must appreciate that the word myth is not being used here in the loose sense of a ‘fairy tale’ or the pejorative sense of a ‘deliberate lie told in order to deceive.’… For Tolkien, a myth is a story that conveys ‘fundamental things’—in other words, that tries to tell us about the deeper structure of things. The best myths, he argues, are not deliberately constructed falsehoods, but are rather tales woven by people to capture the echoes of deeper truths. They are like splintered fragments of the true light…

In his somberly comic study of mortality, Nothing to Be Frighted Of, Julian Barnes imagines a moment in which some unnamed future generation could look back and evaluate the history of the now-disappeared Christian religion:

It lasted also because it was a beautiful story, because the characters, the plot, the various coups de théâtre, the over-arching struggle between Good and Evil, made up a great novel. The story of Jesus—high-minded mission, facing-down of the oppressor, persecution, betrayal, execution, resurrection—is the perfect example of that formula Hollywood famously and furiously seeks: a tragedy with a happy ending. Reading the Bible as ‘literature,’ as that puckish old schoolmaster was trying to point out to us, is not a patch on reading the Bible as truth, the truth endorsed by beauty.

__________

The painting is Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602).

Explore on:

  • Eric Metaxas answers the droll question – Would Jesus be a Republican or a Democrat?
  • Lewis, Wittgenstein, and Updike address whether we can assume the existence of God
  • Cahill contrasts the Greek and Christian worldviews

A Part of Being Human: John Updike Explains His Christianity

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John Updike

Questioner: Why do you think the theme of religion has played such a role in your writing?

John Updike: I was raised, without terrific ardor, as a Lutheran, and I’ve retained a grip on religion through several changes of denomination since. To me it is part of being human, and my own life would be the poorer if I believed nothing, or nothing of religious content. It also ties in – in a way – with the practice of fiction. Since, ultimately, why are we describing these unreal, imaginary lives, except to say that human life is important — it has a dimension to it that is beyond the animal and the mechanical…

Anyways, for all this, and being aware that there are some mysteries to the organic sciences, I don’t think the attempt to rest religious faith upon scientific observations is going to work. Scientific knowledge keeps shifting, as we learn more and more, and there’s less and less ground for religious belief, so that in the end those of us who are Christians have to believe as an act of faith and an act of will.

Questioner: I also remember reading that you saw that other belief-systems were religions of No, and you chose a religion of Yes.

John Updike: Yes, I did. And that terminology I got from Karl Barth, who I found of the twentieth century theologians to be the most comforting as well as the most uncompromising. He does dismiss all attempts to make theism naturalistic… He’s very definite that it’s Scripture and nothing else. I find this hard to swallow, but I like to see Barth’s swallowing it, and I like his tone of voice. He talks about the Yes and No of life, and says he loves Mozart more than Bach because Mozart expresses the Yes of life.

__________

John Updike, appearing on C-SPAN’s In Depth in 2005.

I recently read Updike’s twentieth novel Seek My Face, in which there is a winding paragraph about a Quaker service that is infused with the same tone and substance as the initial remarks from Updike above. It reads:

My mother, though, was quite Episcopalian, typically lukewarm, but she would never have called herself irreligious. We all went to meeting together a few times… I remember mostly the light, and the silence, all these grown-ups waiting for God to speak through one of them—suppressed coughs, shuffling feet, the creak of a bench. It upset me at first, you know how children are always getting embarrassed on behalf of adults. Then the quality of the silence changed, it turned a corner, like an angel passing, and I realized it was a benign sort of game.

As with the interview above, here his Updike’s mind at serious play. Although he penned these words as a septuagenarian, Updike not only remembered the restlessness of childhood churchgoing, he retained that benevolent and bemused sense of wonder well into adulthood. Filtered through his reading, experience, and intellect, it solidifies into his signature rich and dense storytelling.

In a recent interview, Ian McEwan said, among other things, “[Updike] was rather courtly, reticent; not an easy man to get to know. There was something of a polite mask there… I think he was the greatest novelist writing in English at the time of his death,” and “He could turn a sentence… He was very good on religious belief… and he understood about religious doubt. I mean he wrote beautifully on religious doubt.”

Watch the rest of the interview with McEwan, the novelist I’d nominate to be Updike’s successor as the strongest living prose writer in English, right here:

Churchill’s Energy

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Winston Churchill

“At No. 10 Downing Street everyone referred to the newly appointed sixty-five-year-old P.M. as ‘the Old Man.’ In many ways he was an alarming master. He worked outrageous hours. He was self-centered and could be shockingly inconsiderate.

Churchill cared little for obtuse political or social theories; he was a man of action: state the problem, find a solution, and solve the problem. For a man of action, however, he was exceptionally thoughtful and well read…

Afterward everyone who had been around him in 1940 remembered the Old Man’s astonishing, unflagging energy. He was overweight and fifteen years older than Hitler; he never exercised, yet ‘he was working,’ Kathleen Hill, one of Churchill’s typists, recalled, ‘all the time, every waking moment.’ Young Jock Colville marveled at ‘Winston’s ceaseless industry’...

He kept hours that would stagger a young man. Late each evening, at midnight or shortly thereafter, a courier arrived in Downing Street with the first editions of the morning newspapers, eight or nine in all. The Old Man skimmed them before retiring, and sometimes, Kathleen Hill later recalled, he would telephone the Daily Mail to inquire about new developments in a running story.

The prime minister’s day began at eight o’clock in the morning, when he woke after five or six hours’ sleep and rang a bell summoning his usual breakfast: an egg, bacon or ham or chipped beef (when meat was available), sometimes a piece of sole, all washed down by his glass of white wine, or a pot of tea, a black Indian blend. Then a typewriter arrived, accompanied by a stenographer—usually Mrs. Hill or Miss Watson—to whom he would dictate a stream of memos as she rapidly hammered them out and he worked his way through a large black dispatch box.

When boredom struck, he could be depended upon to make a ‘ruthless break’ in pursuit of a more enjoyable source of entertainment. The balm might take the form of dictating a letter, singing off-key renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps wielding his trowel to lay bricks in the gardens at Chartwell… He always kept his quiver full of possible activities: read a novel, feed his goldfish, address his black swans, parse the newspapers, declaim on England’s glorious past…

In relief of boredom, almost any action—short of the wicked—would do, with one prerequisite: it had to possess value, and Churchill was the arbiter of the value. There simply was none to be had by sitting through Citizen Kane or lingering in reception lines…

He possessed, John Martin recalled, a ‘zigzag streak of lightning on the brain.’… ‘If he hadn’t been this sort of bundle of energy that he was,’ recalled Martin, ‘he would never have carried the whole machine, civil and military, right through to the end of the war.’”

 __________

Excerpted from The Last Lion: Winston Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid.

In private meetings with his confidants, Hitler called Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s capitulating predecessor, a “little worm”. The Führer would come to refer to Churchill as “a superannuated drunk sustained by Jewish gold”.

Amongst his advisors, Churchill, who had a considerable talent at the easel, also had a pet nickname for Hitler, a failed artist. He would call him, in a voice derisively deadpan, “The housepainter”.

Hitler’s Laziness

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Adolf Hitler

“Adolf Hitler – remarkably, in a man whose father was the son of an illegitimate housemaid – had grown up with the middle-class confidence that he need never earn a living…

Had his father, a customs official in various border towns between Austria-Hungary and Germany, lived to see the publication of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggle), he might well have asked, ‘What Struggle?’… Alois, whose early life had marked a real struggle to leave poverty behind, and to acquire respectability and savings through boring government service in customs offices, had urged young Adolf to find paid employment. The boy had preferred to lounge about, to wear dandified clothes, to attend the opera and to imagine that one day he would become a famous artist. Hitler never had any paid employment, so far as one can make out, except when manual work was forced upon him as a temporary necessity when he was living in men’s hostels and dosshouses on the outskirts of Vienna…

Hitler’s indolence was to remain one of his most mysterious characteristics. Many would assume that a man who, in his heyday, strutted about in uniforms, and who presided over a militaristic dictatorship, who expected not merely his intimates but everyone in the country to click their heels and salute at the mere mention of his name, would have been up in the morning early, taking cold baths and performing Swedish exercises. By contrast, like many depressives, he kept strange hours, and spent most of his days on this planet sitting around doing nothing much, dreaming his terrible dreams, and talking interminable nonsense. [...]

By the time he became Chancellor, the pattern of life did not markedly change. He rose late, spent most of the day chatting, and would nearly always round off the evening with a film. Adjutants tried to find him a new film to watch every day. His earlier fondness for high culture began to diminish. He enjoyed ‘light entertainment’, and if women, such as his girlfriend Eva Braun, were present in the evenings, political conversation was banned – as was, of course, that cardinal sin, smoking.”

__________

From A.N. Wilson’s short biography Hitler.

I’m on a World War Two kick. A few weeks ago, after putting down Martin Gilbert’s indescribable study of the Holocaust, I wanted to move on to something easier to both read and stomach. I like A. N. Wilson’s columns — and I wasn’t going to dive into Ian Kershaw’s two-part, two-thousand-page biography of Hitler – so I started on Wilson’s short life of the monster. At fewer than 200 pages, it’s a highly rewarding text, one in which all heavy historiographical lifting and dry research is filtered through Wilson’s very readable prose. I usually hate that descriptor — readable — as it’s so often just a lazy euphemism for what is lazy or facile writing. But Wilson’s work is polished, seamless, and never overworked: it’s readable in the best sense of that bad word. Ivory Tower egotists might still pick at his scholarship — Wilson is a newspaper columnist who doesn’t speak or read German — but this seems to me misplaced. There’s room for an almost infinite number of books on the shelf.

While I was reading Wilson’s book, I occasionally tracked along in Kershaw’s more extensive work, which illuminates in equal measure the immeasurable extent of Hitler’s lethargy. Perhaps the most farcical testament to this trait comes in Kershaw’s account of the night of the D-Day invasion:

That evening, Hitler and his entourage viewed the latest newsreel. The discussion moved to films and the theatre. Eva Braun joined in with pointed criticism of some productions. ‘We sit then around the hearth until two o’clock at night,’ wrote Goebbels, ‘exchange reminiscences, take pleasure in the many fine days and weeks we have had together. The Führer inquires about this and that. All in all, the mood is like the good old times.’ The heavens opened and a thunderstorm broke as Goebbels left the Berghof. It was four hours since the first news had started to trickle in that the invasion would begin that night. Goebbels had been disinclined to believe the tapping into enemy communications. But coming down the Obersalzberg to his quarters in Berchtesgaden, the news was all too plain; ‘the decisive day of the war had begun.’

Hitler went to bed not long after Goebbels had left, probably around 3 a.m. When Speer arrived next morning, seven hours later, Hitler had still not been wakened with the news of the invasion…

According to Speer, Hitler – who had earlier correctly envisaged that the landing would be on the Normandy coast – was still suspicious at the lunchtime military conference that it was a diversionary tactic put across by enemy intelligence. Only then did he agree… to deploy two panzer divisions held in reserve in the Paris area against the beachhead that was rapidly being established some 120 miles away. The delay was crucial. Had they moved by night, the panzer divisions might have made a difference.

Jefferson’s Ten Rules

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Thomas Jefferson

To Thomas Jefferson Smith.
Monticello, February 21, 1825.

This letter will, to you, be as one from the dead. The writer will be in the grave before you can weigh its counsels. Your affectionate and excellent father has requested that I would address to you something which might possibly have a favorable influence on the course of life you have to run, and I too, as a namesake, feel an interest in that course. Few words will be necessary, with good dispositions on your part. Adore God. Reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence. So shall the life into which you have entered, be the portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss. And if to the dead it is permitted to care for the things of this world, every action of your life will be under my regard. Farewell. [...]

A Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life.

1. Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.

2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.

3. Never spend your money before you have it.

4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.

5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.

6. We never repent of having eaten too little.

7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.

8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.

9. Take things always by their smooth handle.

10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.

__________

Letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his friend John Spear Smith, on behalf of Smith’s son and namesake, Thomas Jefferson Smith. Jefferson, who was born 271 years ago yesterday, was 81 when he wrote this letter.

The Monticello website has an extended discussion of the meaning of rule #9, about which there has been considerable speculation. It ties into last week’s post concerning the Ayaan Hirsi Ali-Brandeis affair:

Jefferson’s intended meaning is the subject of some debate. Julian Boyd wrote an article on this in 1957, “The Smooth Handle: A Challenge to the Organization Man.” Boyd believed that this statement embodied how Jefferson thought citizens of a republic should behave, and was descended from a similar saying by Epictetus, “Everything has two handles, one by which it can be borne; another by which it cannot.” While debate was essential to a healthy republic, Boyd argued, Jefferson believed strongly that the exchange of ideas must always be civil, and he expressed this belief in his advice to “take things always by their smooth handle.”

This is only one interpretation, however, and without an explicit explanation from Jefferson himself, each reader is free to interpret it as they will.

More Jefferson:

Jefferson's Ten Rules

An Open Letter to Brandeis University

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Dear Brandeis University,

As one of the now thousands of voices to pipe up in this discussion, I want to express total support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali and condemn the recent attempts to minimize such a towering and indispensable figure. The choice to revoke Ali’s honorary degree in Social Justice is not simply an appalling precedent to set in regards to academic free speech; it is a capitulation to the false and pernicious belief that in a free and multi-cultural society, any group may be immune from being offended. In yielding to this 6,000-signature petition, you rob many more thousands of the opportunity to engage in a much-needed dialogue about Islam and women. The decision to instead bow to the atavistic urges of those few who would prefer to plug their ears and hum only affirms the ludicrous idea that feeling soft about what is most important in our lives may replace the adult imperative to think hard.

It is worth recollecting a pertinent anecdote:

In the days following Dr. Samuel Johnson’s compilation and publication of the first English dictionary, socialites around London were eager to fete the now famous lexicographer. There is an accompanying story from this period – probably too good to be true – which describes how, at a dinner party, a group of distinguished women approached their guest of honor. “Dr. Johnson,” said the women, “we would like to congratulate you for not including any profane words in your dictionary.” Johnson, ever tactful, replied, “Ladies, I congratulate you for being able to look them up.”

This wry rejoinder reveals much about the roots of the gag-reflex — this instinct to suppress or silence, even if it means going fishing for garbage in an ocean of words. There will always be some people who positively want to be offended. It is an easy impulse to understand, one which takes real effort not to see. Offense-taking is not merely a form of shutting up ideological adversaries, and thus painlessly shirking the burden to support your views; it is also a way to exhibit faux moral superiority. Yes, I am so pure that I won’t even go there.

And several centuries later, those pious few now have troves much larger than Dr. Johnson’s dictionary to rifle through, as a few keystrokes can unfurl a million Google results of interviews, books, articles, and essays which may then be conveniently quoted out of context and used to suppress provocative discourse. Anyone can do this: unlike argumentation, it takes no skill. In fact, Brandeis University, it is precisely what I set out to do as I glanced over your register of vaunted honorary degree recipients, looking for names to smear. I had neither the time nor attention to delve deeper into more of these luminaries, though two in particular immediately caught my eye.

The first is Tony Kushner, an immensely talented writer who has produced several second-rate movies and one of the best plays of the past half-century. He is also a figure who has repeatedly sneered at the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, treating as risible an idea that many modern Jews see as sacrosanct. Surely if any ethnic or religious group deserves protection from the barbs of hateful speech, it is the Jews. Yet despite some mild protest, Kushner was (rightly) awarded his honorary degree, using the moment to express solidarity with the Jewish people, support for Israel’s right to existence, and regret that his criticisms were “grossly mischaracterized.” Thus, from the depths of a contentious argument arose a platform for clarification and compromise. This is the First Amendment at work.

The second name is Leon Wieseltier, a critic and writer I have not read extensively but still respect (and not just because his ice-white hair has the distinct appearance of a fright wig). Wieseltier has openly and repeatedly ridiculed the persecution of the Christian Messiah, even joking that the solemn anniversary Good Friday should be called “Excellent Friday”. Did a single Christian raise a placard or write a petition in attempt to stop your University from conferring upon this man an honorary degree? No, and presumably because it is abundantly clear that recognition of a prolific public figure does not equal an endorsement of everything he or she has ever said. If other cringing minorities cannot assimilate this simple truth, that is too bad. But the way to teach them that one man’s dogma is another man’s doggerel is not to capitulate to their preemptive dissents.

Beyond their obvious parallels, the cases of Kushner and Wieseltier are informative because, despite their considerable esteem, Ali so far surpasses them in dignity and significance – and honor. She is an icon to millions, including me. Israel has never oppressed Kushner; Christians have never persecuted Wieseltier. But from her birthplace in Somalia to her adopted country the Netherlands and current home in the United States, the forces of radical Islam have followed Ali and tormented her all along the way. As a victim of forced marriage and genital mutilation, and later a target of numerous death threats, she has the right to criticize radical Islam. This right is not hers because of this harrowing personal experience, nor is it because she is a woman or former Muslim or Fellow of Harvard’s Kennedy School. It is granted her by our First Amendment, and guaranteed by those heirs of Madison who believe one citizen should not arbitrarily supersede another’s freedom of expression.

Ultimately, the central, unmentioned irony at the heart of this entire affair is the very name of your University. Surely you are not unaware of the immortal decision rendered by Justice Brandeis in his decision in Whitney v. California (1927), where he stressed that contentious disputes were the beating heart of the American political system.

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. [...] They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.

So what happened to our priorities? In the battle to produce a public discourse worth having, we must categorically affirm that not only will truth set us free, but only freedom will set each of us on the way toward finding truth.

__________

Additional reading:

  • Brandeis’s official statement on the choice to revoke the honor
  • Aayan Hirsi Ali’s response to Brandeis
  • The editors of Tablet magazine jointly condemn the Brandeis leadership
  • William Kristol’s powerful defense of Ali
  • previous post on Justice Brandeis’s concurrence in Whitney v. California
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