Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Culture and Politics

In an essay reprinted in a wonderful collection, published in the Coleccion Austral and entitled Mi Religion y Otros Ensayos Breves, Miguel de Unamuno, the remarkable Spanish philospher of the turn of the twentieth century, offers a thought-provoking meditation on the relative value of politics and culture entitled, appropriately enough, "Politica y cultura." The essay argues that the region of Catalonia in the Spain of Unamuno's day was doomed to remain backward, undeveloped, and left behind by the march of progress because the inhabitants of the region devoted all their passion to politics and the fight for power and left little for culture, broadly defined. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that when a society is overly proccupied with politics, its culture stagnates, much to the detriment of its inhabitants.

To be sure he is right: in the end, culture--if we can define it as being, roughly, the expression of a society's relationship to the spiritual and eternal--is far more important than politics, which at best is but one aspect of culture. Nevertheless, much though TMH reveres Unamuno, we must take issue with him here, since we think that he overstates the case. Yes, politics is usually ephemeral, and, yes, it ought to be rooted more firmly, more thoughtfully, in culture. To be sure, a cultured discussion of politics is going to be one more amenable to compromise and to the promotion of civility, if not unity, which often is very desirable. And yet, when one is faced, as one frequently is in politics, with forces that, consciously or not, might destroy the order one is defending, then one may need to leave the museum, take up the mace, and fight in defense of that political system that provides the freedom that makes culture possible.

For it is a fact that throughout history, the highest and most noteworthy cultures, those have spoken with the most reverberate voices, are those which possessed political freedom, however imperfect those freedoms may appear today. The legacy of Athenian culture, for example, far suprasses that of the authoritarian city-state of Sparta; the culture of Republican Rome is far more valuable to subsequent history than the culture of the Empire after it was firmly entrenched. (That the Golden Age Latin writers wrote under the very early Empire is beside the point: Vergil, Horace, and Livy were all educated as free men, and if they wrote under Augustus, they may well have believed that Augustus was not an absolute ruler and that the Empire of their day shared power with the ancient Republican institution of the Senate. So argued Theodore Mommsen, perhaps the greatest modern historian of Rome.) To move to much more recent times, it is the modernism of Western Europe in the twentieth century that proved so vital: though many still read Joyce, who now reads any Soviet authors? Who, for anything other than historical reasons, watches the operas of Madame Mao?

But to ensure the freedom that sparks such creativity, man must always be willing to enter the political trenches. If the twentieth century has shown us anything, it is that freedom is not guranteed--it can be preserved only with care and with vigorous defense against those who think that liberty is a zero-sum game in the sense that they believe that they must take your freedom or mine in order to enjoy their own. If Alain Finkielkraut is correct that "Barbarism," to use Clive James' translation, "is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step," then one must always work vigorously--and in a democracy, that means politically--to ensure that society will successfully overcome the temptation to barbarism. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes we must dirty our hands and not just with the dust of fine old books.

And this is not to say anything that the Renaissance didn't know. In some ways, as Anthony Grafton and others have argued, the Holy Grail of the feverish cultural accomplishments of the Renaissance was the search for the perfect polity. The great scholars of the Renaissance studied Cicero and Demosthenes, Livy and Thucydides, in large part to learn from them about what made the best regime in which a man could realize his full spiritual potential, could be most free. This is the spirit of the deeply cultured Edmund Burke, the great English Parliamentarian of the late eighteenth century, who thought that important as culture was, the political life was necessary as well in order to ensure the peace and stability necessary for culture to flourish. And it is certainly the perspective of, say, the Federalist Papers, which everywhere look with a cultured eye to Roman history for lessons that shaped their view of how best to build our new Republican government. In the nation that they so carefully constructed culture has indeed flourished, but it has done so because, not in spite of, the Founders' strenuous efforts in peace and war.

Unamuno was no stranger to the great combative virtues of a passionate devotion to the truth and a clear assertion of what he thought was right. And while he is correct that man's spirit is more important than his wealth or status, wealth and status are doubtless the least worthy of political goals. The greatest goal of politics is to provide a polity that will ensure the greatest freedom for all--a freedom which will produce a truly great culture.

Don't Even Think about It!

We all know that conspiracies, while an ever-increasing staple on screen and page, don't really exist in the real world of politics. Whenever anyone, whether a John Bircher or Michael Moore, shows us evidence of a conspiracy, all we need do is wait, and the theory will eventually collapse under the accumulating weight of counter evidence. (This seems not to be happening with those who believe that "9-11 was an inside job." But these political Quixotes have from the beginning swallowed such a palpable falsehood that they are already committed to living outside the world of facts, and therefore no amount of evidence to the contrary will sway their faith.)

Indeed, major political conspiracies in an open society are by definition almost impossible, since virtually anything threatens their establishment and maintenance. Anyone with knowledge of one, for instance, can make his fortune simply by giving an interview to the New York Times, so the centrifugal pressures will always overcome the centripetal and tear such a plot apart. For this reason, anyone who believes in conspiracies is perhaps moving around the bend, and it is therefore best not to hang around conspiracists if one wishes to be taken seriously as an analyst of a very complex world in which free agents are constantly making free decisions day by day, hour by hour.

And yet. No, I don't seriously mean to imply that there is a conspiracy afoot in the current Administration when it comes to North Africa, but I do mean to say that the attitude of the President is so difficult to understand that one is tempted not to untie the complex knot with careful reasoning but simply to cut through it with that sharp if old, rusted, overworked, and disreputable sword named "Conspiracy."

One notes, for instance, that virtually the minute trouble began in Egypt, the Administration was applying great moral susaion to aid the uprising and remove Mubarak; a year and a half before, however, when the trouble occurred in Iran, the President remained stubbornly, unconscionably silent. As he did for the first couple of weeks during the uprising in Libya, though he later claimed he did so in consideration for the safety of Americans trapped in that country. But this excuse was nothing more than a justification, since he was far more eager when it came to Egypt, though many more Americans reside there than in Libya. Is the President, then, in favor of popular uprisings and against dictatorships? No: else he would have voiced as much support for the Iranians and Libyans as for the Egyptians. Is he for dictators and opposed to human rights? No, for then he would have supported Mubarak in Egypt.

And here one can see why a conspiracy theorist might say: the President seems to be on the side of anyone opposed to the United States. Both Gadaffi and the regime in Iran are anti-American, and the President has been very reluctant to support those who would imperil those regimes. Mubarak, for all his imperfections, was much more favorably disposed to America than his counterparts in either Libya or Iran, and yet the President was eager for him to be gone, even though many analysts predicted that Egypt would as a result become anti-American. One could put this a number of ways. To wit--another common denominator in these three situations is these countries' relationships with Israel: for whatever reason, the President has been far more eager to replace Mubarak, who kept the peace with Israel for many years, than to put pressure on Gaddafi or the mullahs in Iran, all of whom vigorously oppose the existence of Israel. One could put it still another way: the Venezuelan lunatic Hugo Chavez, who is doing his best to destroy one of the most vibrant and beautiful countries in the Western hemisphere, was, like President Obama, enthusiastic in his support of the rebellion in Egypt but is much more favorably disposed to Gaddafi and to the Iranian regime.

Let me make clear that TMH regards conspiracy theories as the crack cocaine of political discourse, since they appear so attractive, are quickly addictive, destroy one's capacity for reason, and in the end, always succumb, with pain, to the messy circumambient reality of things. However, in the case of the current troubles one can sympathize with those who believe such fairy tales. As with the crack addict, I don't want to be one, but I can certainly understand how folks get hooked, and I can also sympathize with their plight. The current Administration, in other words, is by its amateurish and terribly counterproductive policies, inviting people to draw unthinkable conclusions. Thank goodness we have the Administration's words to the contrary, because their deeds certainly are confusing.