Book excerpts

‘American earth in old October’

Driving up to Geneseo tomorrow morning for the Front Porch Republic conference, and a long October drive made me think of this bit from Of Time and the River, what might be my favorite description of Fall (from “Telemachus”):

October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are ful, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run. The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.

The corn is shocked: It sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples — this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all: the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning, up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.

There is a smell of burning in small towns in afternoon, and men with buckles on their arms are raking leaves in yards as boys come by with straps slung back across their shoulders. The oak leaves, big and brown, are bedded deep in yard and gutter: they make deep wadings to the knee for children in the streets. The fire will snap and crackle like a whip, sharp acrid smoke will sting the eyes, in mown fields the little vipers of the flame eat past the black coarse edges of burned stubble like a line of locusts. Fire drives a thorn of memory in the heart.

The bladed grass, a forest of small spears of ice, is thawed by noon: summer is over but the sun is warm again, and there are dais throughout the land of gold and russet. But summer is dead and gone, the earth is waiting, suspense and ecstasy are gnawing at the hearts of men, the brooding prescience of frost is there. The sun flames red and bloody as it sets, there are old red glintings on the battered pails, the great barn gets the ancient light as the boy slops homeward with warm foaming milk. Great shadows lengthen in the fields, the old red light dies swiftly, and the sunset barking of the hounds is faint and far and full of frost: there are shrewd whistles to the dogs, and frost and silence — this is all. Wind stirs and scuffs and rattles up the old brown leaves, and through the night the great oak leaves keep falling.

Trains cross the continent in a swirl of dust and thunder, the leaves fly down the tracks behind them: the great trains cleave through gulch and gulley, they rumble with spoked thunder on the bridges over the powerful brown wash of mighty rivers, they toil through hills, they skirt the rough brown stubble of shorn fields, they whip past empty stations in little towns and their great stride pounds its even pulse across America. Field and hill and lift and gulch and hollow, mountain and plain and river, a wilderness with fallen trees across it, a thicket of bedded brown and twisted undergrowth, a plain, a desert, aand a plantation, a mighty landscape with no fenced niceness, an immensity of fold and convolution that can never be remembered, that can never be forgotten, that has never been described — weary with harvest,potent with every fruit and ore, the immeasurable richness embrowned with autumn, rank, crude, unharnessed, careless of scars or beauty, everlasting and magnificent, a cry, a space, an ecstacy! — American earth in old October.

And often in the night there is only the living silence, the distant frosty barking of a dog, the small clumsy stir and feathery stumble of the chickens on limed roosts, and the moon, the low and heavy moon of autumn, now barred behind the leafless poles of pines, now the pinewoods’ brooding edge and summit, now falling with the ghost’s dawn of milky light upon rimed clods of fields and on the frosty scurf on pumpkins, now whiter, smaller, brighter, hanging against the steeple’s slope, hanging in the same way in a million streets, steeping all the earth in frost and silence.

Then a chime of frost-cold bells may peal out in the brooding air, and people lying in their beds will listen. They will not speak or stir, silence will gnaw the darkness like a rat, but they will whisper in their hearts:

‘Summer has come and gone, has come and gone. And now —?’ But they will say no more, they will have no more to say: they will wait listening, silent and brooding as the frost, to time, strange ticking time, dark time that haunts us with the briefness of our days. They will think of men long dead, of men now buried in the earth, of frost and silence long ago, of a frorgotten face and moment of lost time, and they will think of things they have no words to utter.

And in the night, in the dark, in the living sleeping silence of the towns, the million streets, they will hear the thunder of the fast express, the whistles of great ships upon the river.

What will they say then? What will they say?


Historical reasoning and ideological bias

One of the great myths often invoked in debate, political or otherwise, is the objective, undisputed truth of so-called “history.”  In reality, history is the result of a certain competition in interpretation of events, where interpretations themselves are impacted by biases and ideological underpinnings.

Here are a few paragraphs from Expert Political Judgment, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Phil Tetlock’s book on political forecasting, that take this skeptical approach to historical learning farther than most.

P. 145

Learning from the past is hard, in part, because history is a terrible teacher.  By the generous standards of the laboratory sciences, Clio is stingy in her feedback: she never gives us the exact comparison cases we need to determine causality (those are cordoned off in the what-iffy realm of counterfactuals), and she often begrudges us even the roughly comparable real-world cases that we need to make educated guesses.  The control groups “exist” – if that is the right word – only in the imaginations of observers, who must guess how history would have unfolded if, say, Churchill rather than Chamberlain had been prime minister during the Munich crisis of 1938 (could we have averted World War II?) or if, say, the United States had moved more aggressively against the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (could we have triggered World War III?).

But we, the pupils, should not escape all blame.  A warehouse of experimental evidence now attests to our cognitive shortcomings: our willingness to jump the inferential gun, to be too quick to draw strong conclusions from ambiguous evidence, and to be too slow to change our minds as disconfirming observations trickle in.  A balanced apportionment of blame should acknowledge that learning is hard because even seasoned professionals are ill-equipped to cope with the complexity, ambiguity, and dissonance inherent in assessing causation in history.  Life throws up a lot of puzzling events that thoughtful observers feel impelled to explain because the policy stakes are so high.  However, just because we want an explanation does not mean that one is within reach.  To achieve explanatory closure in history, observers must fill in the missing counterfactual comparison scenarios with elaborate stories grounded in their deepest assumptions about how the world works.

& P. 161

This chapter underscores the power of our preconceptions to shape our view of reality.  To the previous list of judgmental shortcomings — overconfidence, hindsight bias, belief underadjustment — we could add fresh failings: a) the alacrity with which we fill in the missing control conditions of history with agreeable scenarios and with which we reject dissonant scenarios; (b) the sluggishness with which we reconsider these judgments in light of fresh evidence.  It is easy, even for sophisticated professionals, to slip into tautological patterns of historical reasoning: “I know x caused y because, if there had been no x, there would have been no y.  And I know that, ‘if no x, no y’ because I know x caused y.”  Given the ontological inadequacies of history as a teacher and our psychological inadequacies as pupils, it begins to look impossible to learn anything that we were not previously predisposed to learn.

Excerpts from Diary of a Man in Despair

Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most rewarding books I’ve ever read. The author is an aristocrat, a writer and a genteel reactionary who had a truth to tell about the character of life in Nazi Germany. He had a hatred for the Nazis that is peculiar to the traditionalist right.

The first few pages are concerned with Reck’s encounters with Oswald Spengler, who, apparently, was pretentious and took himself too seriously.

I still remember our first meeting, when Albers brought him to my house. On the little carriage which carried him from the station, and which was hardly built with such loads in mind, sat a massive figure who appeared even more enormous by virtue of the thick overcoat he wore. Everything about him had the effect of extraordinary permanence and solidarity: the deep bass voice; the weed jacket, already, at that time, almost habitual; the appetite at dinner; and at night, the truly Cyclopean snoring, loud as a series of buzz saws, which frightened the other guests at my Chiemgau country house out of their peaceful slumbers.

This was at a time when he was not really successful, and before he had done an about-face and marched into the camp of the oligarchy of magnates, a retreat which determined his life from then on. It was a time when he was still capable of being gay and unpreoccupied, and when he could sometimes even be persuaded to venture forth in all his dignity and swim in the river. Later, of course, it was unthinkable that he expose himself in his bathing suit before ploughing the peasants and farmhands, or that he climb, a huffing and puffing Triton, back onto the river bank in their presence!

He was the strangest amalgam of human greatness and small and large frailties that I have ever encountered. If I recall latter now, it is part of my taking leave with him, and so I am sure it will not be held against me. He was the kind of man who likes to eat alone – a melancholy-eyed feaster at a great orgy of eating. With a certain amusement, I recall one evening when he joined Albers and me for a light supper. It was during the final weeks of the First World War, when there was not a great deal one could set before one’s guests. But, discoursing and declaiming the whole time, Spengler finished an entire goose without leaving us, his table companions, so much as a bite.

His passion for huge dinners (the check for which was later picked up by his industrial Maecenas) was not his only diverting attribute. After I had met him, still before his first major success, he asked me not to come visit him at his little apartment (I believe it was on Agnesstrasse, in Munich). The reason he gave was that his apartment was too confined, and he wanted to show me his library in surroundings appropriate to its monumental scope.

Then, in 1926, after he found a way to the mighty rulers of heavy industry and had moved to the expensive WIdenmayerstrasse on the banks of the Isar, he did, indeed, invite me to see the succession of huge rooms in his apartment there. He showed me his carpets and paintings, and even his bed – which was truly worth seeing, because it looked more like a catafalque – but he became visibly disconcerted when I said that I was still looking forward to seeing the library. After overcoming his reluctance to show it to me, I found myself in a rather small room. And there – on a well-battered walnut bookstand, alongside a row of Ullstein books and detective stories – stood what are commonly called ‘dirty books’.

But I have never known a man with so little sense of humour and such sensitivity to even the smallest criticism. There was nothing he abhorred so much as humbug; yet along with all the magnificent deductions in The Decline of the West, he allowed a host of inaccuracies, inadvertencies, and actual errors to stand uncorrected – such as that Dostoyevsky came into the world in St Petersburg rather than in Moscow, and that Duke Bernhard of Weimar died before Wallenstein was assassinated – and important conclusions were drawn from these errors. Mistakes like these could happen to anyone; but woe to the man who dared make Spengler aware of them!

… To repeat, he was truly the most humourless man I have ever met; in this respect, he is surpassed only by Herr Hitler and the Nazis, who have every prospect of dying of a wretchedness compounded by their own deep-rooted humourlessness and the dreary monotony of public life which, under their domination, has taken on the rigidity of a corpse and is now in its fourth year of suffocating us to death. But h who believes that I want to do Spengler an injury by recounting his many weaknesses is in error. I need not cite his indispensable early work on Theocrates, nor the fact that he gave form at least to the presentiments of an entire generation. Whoever has met him knows about the nimbus of the significant that attached to him and that was not dissipated even in his off-guard moments; knows that in him lived the representation of the best in humanist pedagogy; knows about his countenance, which reflects the same stoicism found in busts of the late Roman period.

He also has an encounter with Hitler himself, a man whom Reck believes to be the embodiment of the proletarianized elite. You get the idea that Reck is disturbed by the virtue-shaped void that characterizes Hitler and his regime.


Gordon Tullock: The Vote Motive

I recently read The Vote Motive, Tullock’s basic introduction to public choice, the field he and James Buchanan helped pioneer as the economic analysis of government.  The volume is very slim, yet very insightful.  Many of Tullock’s observations challenge deeply held assumptions about the way politics works.  Why do people ascribe a different morality to public, as opposed to private actors?  Do individual votes “matter” from a results perspective?  Why is majority rule so coveted among modern democracies?

I have personally found the questioning of widely believed truths, regardless of the subject matter, to be particularly stimulating and often rewarding as well.  Four or five years ago I dropped the view that it was important for a citizen to exercise their right to vote in a society with institutions shaped, at least somewhat, by democracy.  I didn’t need a ton of persuading and it was Tullock who did most of the legwork to get me there.  The truth was I had never sat down and really thought about why voting was so crucial or attempted to reason my way to a conclusion.  It was simply ingrained in societal norms and taught in school starting very early.  Woe be unto those who don’t believe voting is all it’s cracked up to be.  There is very little room for heretics among the voting fanatics.

Well I can tell you it felt really good to throw off that political dogma and to embrace the fact that your individual vote means almost precisely nothing when it comes to changing political outcomes.  The only way your vote “means” anything, the vast vast majority of the time, is to the extent it makes you feel good.  That’s it.  And so I can’t help but smirk when I see the confused faces of people churning through that startlingly new and scary mental calculus – the same one I churned through a handful of years ago – the first time someone questions what they presumed was a given.

The median reader of this site is perhaps more likely to already doubt or disown the assumptions Tullock attacks in the following quotes, yet I still think they are worth reproducing here.

Excerpts from The Vote Motive.

On politicians’ motives (p. 59):

The analysis of the politician’s tactics indicates simply that he is attempting to be re-elected to office, not that he is attempting to maximise the public interest.  We think this situation is realistic, and, in particular, that politicians trying to be re-elected are more likely to be re-elected than those who are not.

There is no reason why we should be disturbed by this phenomenon.  The market operates by providing a structure in which individuals who simply want to make money end up producing motor-cars that people want.  Similarly, democracy operates so that politicians who simply want to hold public office end up by doing things the people want.

On bureaucracy (p. 61):

Bureaucrats are like other men.  This proposition sounds very simple and straightforward, but the consequences are a radical departure from simple orthodox economic theory.  If bureaucrats are ordinary men, they will make most of (not all) their decisions in terms of what benefits them, not society as a whole.  Like other men, they may occasionally sacrifice their own well-being for the wider good, but we should expect this to be exceptional behaviour.

Most of the existing literature on the machinery of government assumes that, when an activity is delegated to a bureaucrat, he will either carry out the rules and regulations or will make decisions in the public interest regardless of whether it benefits him or not.  We do not make this assumption about businessmen.  We do not make it about consumers in the market.  I see no reason why we should make it about bureaucrats.

On logrolling, or the “the practice of exchanging favors, especially in politics by reciprocal voting for each other’s proposed legislation” (p. 79):

All of this is perfectly normal, not only for British politics but for democratic politics in general.  Indeed it is also normal for non-democratic politics, although we know less about them, and hence it is not so clear there.  In all democracies that I know of there is both public criticism of logrolling as immoral, as well as the widespread use of it in making government decisions.

and p. 86:

We should not be unhappy about these very common democratic practices, although normal discussion of them is condemnatory.  There is no reason why minorities should not be served by democracies.

On majority voting (p. 92):

The total cost inflicted upon society by various rules is calculated by simply summing these two cost lines, as in the total cost line.  The low point on this line is the optimal voting rule for the society.  Only by coincidence would it be the simple majority.   For important matters, I think in general it would be well above the majority and, indeed, most formal constitutions require more than a majority for at least some matters.

Majority voting is thus generally not optimal.  For important matters we would require something more.  This conclusion is in general accord with constitutional processes throughout the world.  But my opinion is that ‘reinforced majorities’, say two-thirds majority, should be used much more widely than they now are.  Indeed, I have on occasion recommended that the President of the United States always veto all bills in order to compel a two-thirds vote for everything in both houses of Congress.  Startling though this proposal is, the analysis which leads to it is fairly orthodox political economy.

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Dom Aidan Kavanagh on sacramental discourse

From On Liturgical Theology:

It would be foolish not to recognize that placing sacramental discourse prior to, above, and in a role which subordinates theology in the modern academic sense is a difficult if not incomprehensible move for many people. We generally think of the two sorts of discourse the other way around, theology coming first and sacramental discourse very much later as a possibly implied excursus off the former. Sacramental discourse in fact is often thought of as theological adiaphora best practiced by those with a taste for banners, ceremonial, and arts and crafts. It is regarded as an academically less than disciplined swamp in which Anglican high churchmen, Orthodox bishops, and many if not all Roman Catholics and others are hopelessly mired. …

The relationship of embroidery to the driving of a diesel locomotive seems easier to demonstrate than the connection between stoles and proclaiming the Gospel. Something here seems to have been enthusiastically trivialized. Incongruities are joined, reality warped, meaning maimed. Artifact becomes plaything, sacramentum a rubber duck.

Human language about worldly matters such as reality, life and death, City and Church, always goes “sacramental” when it gets beneath mere surface appearances. Scientists start talking about charmed quarks; Christians start talking about tombs and wombs. While the City may often seem little more than a cluster of stores and alleys, it is more than this because people live and work there, and their corporate aspirations image the City as exalted, timeless, with streets of gold and walls of precious stones, a heavenly Jerusalem. While the Church may often seem little more than an institution like all others, it has from the beginning been deemed more than that because its members are graced people. St. Paul called it a Body, a mysterious entity to which only the intimate metaphor of marriage between man and woman, that primordial human society, gives access.


Felix Morley on maintaining a Republic

The conclusion of The Power in the Peoplepublished in 1949:

The United States has developed a civilization of its own, and no apologies are needed. This civilization owes much to Europe, but it is different from that of Europe. Owing something also to Asia and to Africa, the American way of life is nevertheless basically dissimilar from anything those continents have produced. In this country men have stood alone, unfettered by status, unhampered by the State, contracting with each other in an essentially free Society. So standing, men have grown strong, and have prevailed. They have prevailed because it is only when Man stands alone that he rises above himself, hears the still small voice of conscience, and hearkens to the Authority of his Creator. Then, paradoxically, he is no longer alone. “And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.”

The American civilization is neither mature nor fully stabilized. Its pains, therefore, are those of growth, not dissolution; of strength, not weakness. This civilization will continue to grow as long as it is based on the assumption that people are generally honorable and trustworthy, simply because of their humanity.

That is what most Americans mean when they loosely use the word “democracy.” Of course, a faith in human goodness is not at all the same thing as democracy, which, as an abstraction, means the “rule of the people” and, as a political system, means the unrestricted majority rule that our Constitution so carefully forbids. But a belief that Man is honorable for himself is Christian and liberal and inspiring. It is democratic to the extent that it opposes the privileges and restrictions of status. And for a civilization based on that belief there will be a bright future, so long as the people retain the power that is in them.

Because it has a faith in the individual, American civilization is hostile to any seizure of power from the people, and is particularly hostile to the seizure of this power by centralized government. From the assumption that Man is honorable comes the conclusion that self-government is desirable. To assist self-government the American is expected willingly to accept the conventions and reasonable regulations of a free Society. But he is also expected to oppose resolutely all arbitrary government by the State. The power is in the people. They must retain it. (more…)