Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Back At It, Take Two

Well, I have completed my first week of my new job. And it's a good job. A fun environment, an interesting line of work...and of course, it's a job. Employment is good.

For those of you not hanging on my every word and unfamiliar with my employment saga, I will sum up: this is the fourth job I've held so far this year, and All Gods And Demons Willing, I will be holding it for a long time to come. I lost my job at a magazine when the magazine closed its local office. That was in January. In February I took a job at a nonprofit service agency, but I didn't like it all that much. In April, I left that job for a wholesale company, and I lasted until June. Now I've got a new job, and I think I'm gonna like it here.

This year has been a strange one, with its ups and downs. And it's been a humbling experience. I've always had an opinion of myself which has been revealed to be...a bit overinflated, shall we say. I always thought I could do ANYTHING. I've been made aware of my limitations. I've learned humility, and I've learned the value of sometimes leaving well enough alone. I left the service job because it was bad, and I took the wholesaling job because I thought it would be interesting. It turned out to be the worst experience of my professional life, and I was fired at the end of May. Getting fired is a unique experience for me. I tend to be loyal to a place once I find my niche. I never found my niche at this place. I don't know if that speaks to a fault in me or a fault in the place, but it was humbling to realize I really couldn't fit in there. Maybe something's wrong with me. Or maybe this is just part of the process of growing up. Learning what you can and can't do.

I've always found looking for a job to be far more stressful than working, and June was a very stressful month for me. This last period of unemployment lasted longer than any I've had in a long while, and while I was glad to see it end, it gave me an opportunity to take stock of my life up to now. See where I am, what I need to be doing. There is much that's unfinished. The worst part of being unemployed isn't just being unemployed. It's being home during the work day and seeing what goes on in your neighborhood when you're not there. It's seeing the state of your fellow unemployed men, and coming to terms with unpleasant facts.

I enjoy being employed. I enjoy being a productive member of society. Filing for unemployment was a moment of personal humiliation for me. It felt like I was admitting a great failure. And I'm sure that I'm not alone in that respect; I'm sure many people who are on unemployment would much rather be working. But then there are the guys in my neighborhood. The ones who aren't even trying any more. The ones living off their girlfriends or their mothers. The ones so strung out that they need a Red Bull to get started in the morning (that alone is a thing to be despised). It's with a mixture of pity and disgust that I regard these men. I mean, they couldn't have started out like that. They must have had hopes and dreams once, right? Must have had some kind of ambition beyond being a Wellfare case. It was unsettling to venture out mid-morning and see them mill around, eyes devoid of hope or aspiration. It made me think of my cousin. He must have had a life's ambition, once upon a time. Before he became jobless and broke at age 40, embittered at his lot in life, that bitterness fermenting into paranoia and racism, until finally he crossed a line, and that was that. What happened? What causes the squelching of human potential? Is it some character flaw in the individual? It is just a series of twists of fate that leads a person down a certain road? And could it happen to me? I'm not that different, after all. I had hopes for a better life once, and dashed hopes always lead to bitterness. Where could that bitterness take me? It's not hard to see myself going down that road. It wouldn't take much. Just a nudge down a slippery slope of anger, and that would be it for me.

But I guess there is some hope left alive. I mean, I got myself a job, and it's a good job that pays pretty well. Well enough for me to move somewhere else? Maybe. Somewhere nicer? We'll see.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Call to Arms

On this day, 231 years ago, a group of very intelligent men reached a number of conclusions. They concluded that Man is an intelligent creature, both capable and deserving of mastery of his own fate. They concluded that personal freedom was a right Man is born with, and that the purpose of government is to safeguard that freedom. They furher concluded that, when a government can no longer serve the best interests of the people, then the people have the right to get a new one. Thus, came the American Revolution, and born out of its fires was the United States of America. In its day it was a rare thing, and a bold experiment: a country based on an IDEA. An idea that Man is born with rights, rights that no monarch can give or take, and that governent must defend those rights.

Over two centuries have passed since that day. America has seen struggles, both foreign and domestic, and has gone from a simple thought exercise to a world power. The virtues of equality and personal liberty, virtues upon which the nation was founded, are now beacons of light throughout the world. The notion that EVERYONE is equal is considered the cornerstone of international law. The report of that Shot Heard 'Round The World still echoes. The legacy of the American Revolution - the notion that the people have the right to rebel against an oppressive ruler, and can even WIN - is alive and well.

But, irony of ironies, the land that gave birth to this idea is in danger of losing it. One of the most openly corrupt Presidential administrations in recent memory has dealt the last straw to its credibility, commuting the sentence of a convicted traitor. Over the course of the last seven years, the Bush administration has started a devastating foreign conflict that it seems incapable of concluding satisfactorially, has dismantled social programs that preserve the economic stability of working Americans, and has successfully split the country in two. With an agenda fueled by big business and religious fundamentalists, the administration has appealed to the basest instincts of its constituency, and has turned an old fashioned conservative base into a ravening mob of reactionaries. The administration has capitalized on a largely-imaginary cultural conflict within America, convincing half the country that the other half wants to destroy them. It has a created a culture where violent ignorance is a virtue, where anything new or different is wrong, and where the President is God.

And in this new climate, an important point often goes missing: freedom has been lost. This is the core tennet of democratic society: in a true republic, the citizens only lose their freedom if they GIVE IT UP FREELY. Republics throughout history almost always transform into empires at some point, and there are many reasons: sometimes a country becomes to large and unwieldy for a republic to effective govern. Sometimes a great disaster occurs, and the people demand a more efficient response. Sometimes a tyrant gets himself elected and slowly assumes more power under the populace's noses. America is on the verge of succumbing to this process. The form of Christian Fundamentalism that holds sway in the United States is one of total surrender: the idea of giving oneself to God fully. Surrendering responsibility for one's own life, and instead trusting completely in some higher power. This idea has been translated into government. Out of fear and ignorance, the people have surrendered control of their own electoral process. They have put their faith and trust in a group of businessmen and good-ole-boys, and look the other way when the government commits acts of heinous corruption, having no choice but to trust that what they're doing is for the best.

But there is a choice, even if the people can't see it. 231 years ago, the Founding Fathers of this nation saw they had a choice. They could either quietly endure the yolk of an empire, or they could rise up and oppose it. It was not an easy process, nor was it ever guaranteed to succeed. But it was RIGHT. And in the end, right prevailed.

Right MUST prevail again. On this day, most auspicious of all days, I call upon my fellow Americans. Rise up. Take action. Pull your heads out of the sand and see what's happening. Protest. Write your Congressman. Call for impeachment. Call for referendum. Do whatever you must, but get the message through. We must DEMAND an end to this bid for empire. We must DEMAND that our nation, our government, and our society hold itself to a higher standard. The United States was one a great hope. It was the land of reason, of liberty, and of opportunity. We CAN NOT allow the future of this nation to be shaped by religious fanatics and glad-handing opportunists. We CAN NOT forsake personal freedom for the illusion of safety. We CAN NOT allow ignorance and bigotry to become the values of this great nation. If we do allow all these things to occur, then we were never worthy of it in the beginning - and I will not believe that. Not yet.

There is a belief that America is blessed by God. And that belief has been abused. God blessed Man with reason, with free will, and with liberty. It is Man's duty to use these gifts to the best of his ability. God created Man so that Man might aspire to God, and America as it once was, devoted to liberty and freedom, was where Man could do so freely. THAT is why we say "God Bless America." America is where we use our brains and our hands to improve the quality of life of ourselves and our fellow man; that is why we are blessed. We must not lose that. We must not foresake that blessing.

The time is now. This time will never come again, and if we lose it, we will never get it back.

Rise again, Sons of Liberty. Your country needs you.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Defending Niccolo

Perhaps no political philosopher in the history of political philosophy has gotten a worse rap than Niccolo Machiavelli. It says a lot about public perception about someone when his name becomes a byword for evil. The term “Machiavellian” has become synonymous with ambitious, self-centered politicians who seek to further their own ends at the expense of their country. This is a sad thing, I think, because it’s just the kind of thing Machiavelli himself was trying to avoid. A scholarly reading of his work reveals a far more complex philosophy, and one far less nakedly evil. As a medievalist and a student of humanity, I think it’s high time we revisit old Niccolo’s ideas and look at them properly. Maybe then we can understand how he got to be such a reviled thinker.

As with any great thinker, Machiavelli was a product of his time and place, and as such we need to put his ideas in proper historical context. Living in 16th-century Florence, Machiavelli was born into a complicated world. The Europe of his day was just starting to emerge as a modern society, and Italy in particular was a wild place, divided into a number of independent, quarrelsome states. Regimes changed hands at the drop of a hat, and a variety of vastly different interests fought for power. Merchant families like the Medicis. The mercenary warlords known as condotierres. Even the Pope had his own army and his own secular kingdom. Machiavelli himself was a government minister in Florence after the Medicis were expelled…and when the Medicis were reinstated, things did not go well for him. He was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled, and it was in his exile that he first began to write The Prince, his most famous work of political theory. Looking at this world and Machiavelli’s place in it, it’s easy to see how it shaped his beliefs and what he judged to be chief concerns. Stability. Strength. Wisdom. And of course, keeping wise courtiers on your side.

(Please note: I’m working from the Harvey Mansfield translation, which is considered to be a good balance between accuracy and readability, so bear with me if the wording is quite what you’ve heard before.)

The Prince is basically a how-to book for the new ruler. It attempts to be an instruction booklet for what a person who’s recently been made ruler of a kingdom should know and should expect. Machiavelli talks somewhat about the various ways a new prince can be put in power – conquest, election by the people, appointment by a conspiracy of nobles, etc. – but he makes it clear that, no matter how a prince comes to power, once he’s in power he has but one chief concern: creating and maintaining a stable kingdom. And this is where, I think, most people start to associate Machiavellian thought with pure evil; because Machiavelli believes this concern to be of such importance that a prince is justified in doing whatever he has to to meet it. It’s the kind of thing that sticks in the craw of moral philosophers, who believe that there are some things a person just shouldn’t do no matter what, but it’s a very modern notion. It’s the birth of Realpolitik, the doing of what is necessary for the good of the country even if it’s morally distasteful.

Now, in Machiavelli’s time, a crucial element in maintaining a stable kingdom meant having a well-trained and well-equipped standing army, to better defend a kingdom’s borders from potentially hostile neighbors. And as a former government minister, he knows what he’s talking about. The best army, he says, is a citizen militia. Mercenaries can’t be trusted – Niccolo apparently had a REALLY bad experience with one particular condotierre during his tenure – and a prince can’t count on the loyalty of foreign auxiliaries. This is good common sense, I think; any country should at least have a national guard, and recruiting from the people ensures their loyalty. They’d be fighting for their homes, if not necessarily for their leader.

The second pillar of a stable kingdom is the mitigation of internal politics. According to Machiavelli, it’s less important for a new prince to stay on good terms with his allies as it is to win new ones. He advocates reaching out to enemies or potential rivals and making peace, rather than simply rewarding supporters. After all, that’s where the real threat to stability lies. The people who support you are either going to continue to support you or will expect some kind of favor or reward for their support, and that kind of system of favors and obligations is what brings leaders down. But in reaching out to a rival, and offering them friendship, THEY become obligated to YOU. And that’s how a prince should operate.

The third pillar of a successful regime is for a prince to surround himself with reliable advisors. The ideal advisor is a wise man who is unafraid to tell his prince the truth, but only when the prince asks. The prince needs to keep his advisors on his terms, or else risk being controlled by them. Freely-given advice is to be avoided; courtiers who freely volunteer their opinions usually have some other motive. It’s also important that, if you have more than one advisor, you should keep them from talking to each other, lest they conspire together.

It’s all a lot of common sense, really, when you stop to think about it. In order to rule effectively, a ruler needs a clear head and a stable footing. Granted, when it comes to specific issues, Machiavelli shows off the dark side of Realpolitik. Many of the things he advocates can be quite disturbing to a modern reader. For example, should a prince conquer a formerly free people, Machiavelli advises following the ancient Persian example: destroy their country and scatter their people to other parts of the realm, so that they can never come together in a cohesive enough force to be a threat. It’s a rather distasteful thing to contemplate morally, but pragmatically it makes sense. A people used to governing themselves will never submit willingly to a conqueror, and while Machiavelli does admit there are other ways to deal with this situation – influencing the politics of the conquered people in a prince’s favor is another option – the way he advocates is the simplest and most efficient.

That’s how, I think, Machiavelli wound up being an avatar of evil in modern western thinking: he advocates stability of the state over individual rights, and efficiency over morality. As products of Western Democracy, we tend to see the oppression of the people by the state to be the worst evil imaginable. Machiavelli himself did not have a high opinion of democracy. Not exactly disdain, but rather an understanding that democracy is a good idea on paper that doesn’t really work in practice. Rule by the people is a dangerous thing, because the human animal tends to be selfish, avaricious, and capricious. When the people elect a leader, they will invariably vote for the candidate who they think will serve their best interests, and those don’t always coincide with the best interests of the country. A student of Classical history, Machiavelli knew too well that republics have a disturbing history of either turning into tyrannies or tearing themselves apart – sometimes both – so it would be wise for a leader to dedicate himself to creating a stable state, rather than appeasing the whims of the masses or seeking to glorify himself.

In fact, a close reading of The Prince indicates an attitude toward the people that is surprisingly liberal. It is the greatest wish of the common people, Machiavelli maintains, that they be left alone. So long as the government is not actively oppressing them, they’ll be happy to just get along with their lives. It’s a basic truth of political theory: happy people don’t rebel. So if a prince has to deal with a political revolt, he’s clearly not governing right.

It speaks to perhaps the most misquoted statement from the work, “it is better to be feared than to be loved.” That statement has been taken grossly out of context. Here it is in proper context:

“From this dispute arises whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The response is that one would want to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to put them together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one of the two. For one can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, and eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering you their blood, property, lives, and children…when the need for them is far away; but when it is close to you, they revolt. And that prince who has founded himself entirely on their words, stripped of other preparation, is ruined; for friendships that are acquired at a price and not with greatness and nobility of spirit are bought, but they are not owned, and when the time comes they cannot be spent. And men have less hesitation to offend one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread punishment that never escapes you.” (Chapter 17)

Machiavelli goes on to say that if one can’t be loved, one should at least try not to be actively HATED by the people. Being unpopular is not the same as being oppressive, and a prince should take care not to become that. But the sense of the paragraph is clear: one cannot rule by goodwill alone. It’s nice to have goodwill if you can get it, but you also need rule of law behind you. Goodwill can go away, but rule of law stays with a ruler as long as he rules. Basically, Machiavelli is saying that it’s better to be an effective leader than a popular one, and it’s a shame that this truth has been twisted into a hateful meme.

Machiavelli makes it clear in his work that, while he considers human beings to be largely incapable of governing themselves, he acknowledges the power of the people when they gather in force and revolt against a bad leader. So it’s essential for a leader to keep the state stable, because a stable state means a happy populace. It’s also essential for a leader to at least APPEAR to be morally good, so as to serve as a role model for the people. Of course it’s always good to try to be a virtuous person, but sometimes personal virtue must be put aside for a greater good. There is a dichotomy present, that Machiavelli acknowledged and that few of his contemporaries would ever admit: that, in order to do that most virtuous deed of preserving the freedom and prosperity of his country, sometimes a prince is forced to do un-virtuous things. Sometimes a prince must cultivate a public image that is very different from who he actually needs to be to run his country. Ends justify means, but only if the ends are just to begin with – and even then, Machiavelli imposes limits. Excessive violence is NEVER acceptable, especially toward one’s own citizens. Not only is that morally reprehensible, but it also leads to civil unrest; the worst thing a monarch can do is undermine himself.

This philosophy is far from what the word “Machiavellian” conjures up in the imagination. In fact, a true Machiavellian is anything BUT self-serving. A prince who follows Machiavellian philosophy to the letter would be a man almost completely devoid of personal ambition, who seeks only to serve his country, and is willing to sacrifice his own personal morals to the service of this cause. An ideal that probably doesn’t exist – and is surprisingly close to the ideal of the elected official as well.

Machiavelli’s historical bad rap is due to a lot of factors. Most of western culture has its origins in British culture, and the Britain of the 16th century was fiercely opposed on general principle to all things Catholic and Continental, so Machiavelli would already have had two strikes against him. The Enlightenment of a century later introduced the concept of the basic goodness of man, and the American branch of this school of thought introduced the notion of the inalienable human right to personal freedom, perhaps the polar opposite of the pragmatic enlightened despotism Machiavelli advocated. And of course, as proponents of Fascism reaped horrors of world war and genocide during the mid-20th century, giving heavy lip service to the concept of Realpolitik all the way, such thinking fell out of favor.

And now, here we are, in the early 21st century, and we’re not doing much better. The United States, the great power of its time, is led by the most un-Machiavellian leader in the history of the world. In fact, the election of George W Bush is a concrete example of the inherent flaw in democracy: the people didn’t vote for the best person for the job. Instead they voted for the candidate who seemed most like an Average Joe to them. And an Average Joe should not be entrusted with the leadership of the most powerful country on Earth.

President Bush has his team of advisors, but they are predominately self-serving and only tell him what he needs to hear. Rather than look to the stability of his nation as a whole, the President has decided to reward supporters alone with lucrative government postings and contracts, and leave others out in the cold. The country is in the midst of a protracted foreign conflict with no clear purpose and no exit strategy, ostensibly to liberate the Iraqi people, but in reality to fulfill some vague agenda set down long before any terrorist attack was launched on the United States. Niccolo Machiavelli would be infuriated by it. Of course, he’d be outraged in different ways than most liberal thinkers would be. Pragmatist as he was, Machiavelli would probably find the concept of a war for an ideal to be unbelievably wrongheaded. In his day, wars were fought to acquire land or resources. And of course, they still are. But wars are also fought over concepts like freedom, abstract concepts that a pragmatic thinker would oppose. I think the bald-faced lying would be distasteful as well: when a monarch invaded another country, he just invaded another country. There wasn’t any kind of talk of liberating the people – especially a people who never explicitly asked to be liberated. It would be the half-measures involved that would infuriate Niccolo, I think: either openly call it a play for empire or don’t do it at all. Fighting a war of vague ideals is just cowardly. And reckless.

America is a nation founded on ideas, and I don’t know if a pragmatic, realist approach to government would work in the United States. We’re very concerned in this country with abstract notions, with the nature of morality, with things that can’t necessarily be quantified. Staying the course, sticking to one’s principles in the face of opposition, are the things that appeal to the American mindset, and changing allegiances or doing underhanded things to keep things together are anathema to traditional American values (which isn’t to say we don’t do them, but we just don’t like to think about it). But injecting a little pragmatism into the situation might help. A leader who cares more about what’s best for the country than what the Bible says would be a refreshing change. I’m not advocating a dictatorship by any means, but I’m definitely opposed to a theocracy. Government based on the tangible world is better than one based on the next one.

And having the trains run on time does have its appeal...