Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Après ce blog, le déluge?

Two different views of our times came this blogger's way today. In the first, a French Revoultion expert — Simon Schama — sees our times as 1789 redux. Another view is supplied by BoBo Boy (David Brooks) in a review of the French and British versions of the Enlightenment as a guide to a coming worst of times. When Glenn Dreck virtually is crying, "To the barricades!" and the former governor of Alaska (the She-Bitch of the North) has sent away for a set of Madame Thérèse Defarge knitting needles, we are on the edge of the precipice of history. If this is (fair & balanced) historical meditation, so be it.

P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point.

[Vannevar Bush Hyperlink — Bracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] "Le déluge" (Professor Simon Schama)
[2] "French v. British Enlightenment" (BoBo Boy)

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On The Brink Of A New Age Of Rage
By Simon Schama

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Far be it for me to make a dicey situation dicier but you can’t smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage. The Spanish unions have postponed a general strike; the bloody barricades and the red shirts might have been in Bangkok not Berlin; and, for the moment, the British coalition leaders sit side by side on the front bench like honeymooners canoodling on the porch; but in Europe and America there is a distinct possibility of a long hot summer of social umbrage. Historians will tell you there is often a time-lag between the onset of economic disaster and the accumulation of social fury. In act one, the shock of a crisis initially triggers fearful disorientation; the rush for political saviours; instinctive responses of self-protection, but not the organised mobilisation of outrage. Whether in 1789 or now, an incoming regime riding the storm gets a fleeting moment to try to contain calamity. If it is seen to be straining every muscle to put things right it can, for a while, generate provisional legitimacy.

Act two is trickier. Objectively, economic conditions might be improving, but perceptions are everything and a breathing space gives room for a dangerously alienated public to take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations. What happened to the march of income, the acquisition of property, the truism that the next generation will live better than the last? The full impact of the overthrow of these assumptions sinks in and engenders a sense of grievance that “Someone Else” must have engineered the common misfortune. The stock epithet the French Revolution gave to the financiers who were blamed for disaster was “rich egoists”. Our own plutocrats may not be headed for the tumbrils but the fact that financial catastrophe, with its effect on the “real” economy, came about through obscure transactions designed to do nothing except produce short-term profit aggravates a sense of social betrayal. At this point, damage-control means pillorying the perpetrators: bringing them to book and extracting statements of contrition. This is why the psychological impact of financial regulation is almost as critical as its institutional prophylactics. Those who lobby against it risk jeopardising their own long-term interests. Should governments fail to reassert the integrity of public stewardship, suspicions will emerge that, for all the talk of new beginnings, the perps and new regime are cut from common cloth. Both risk being shredded by popular ire or outbid by more dangerous tribunes of indignation.

At the very least, the survival of a crisis demands ensuring that the fiscal pain is equitably distributed. In the France of 1789, the erstwhile nobility became regular citizens, ended their exemption from the land tax, made a show of abolishing their own privileges, turned in jewellery for the public treasury; while the clergy’s immense estates were auctioned for La Nation. It is too much to expect a bonfire of the bling but in 2010 a pragmatic steward of the nation’s economy needs to beware relying unduly on regressive indirect taxes, especially if levied to impress a bond market with which regular folk feel little connection. At the very least, any emergency budget needs to take stock of this raw sense of popular victimisation and deliver a convincing story about the sharing of burdens. To do otherwise is to guarantee that a bad situation gets very ugly, very fast.

So we face a tinderbox moment:, a test of the strength of democratic institutions in a time of extreme fiscal stress. On the one hand, we should be glad that the mobilisation of public energy in elections can channel mass unhappiness into change. That is what we must believe could yet happen in Britain. Elsewhere the outlook is more forbidding. In the sinkhole that is the eurozone, animus is directed at unelected bodies – the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – and is bound to build on itself. Those on the receiving end of punitive corrections – in public sector wages or retrenched social institutions – will lash out at their remote masters. Those in the richer north, obliged to subsidise what they take to be the fecklessness of the Latins, will come to see not just the single currency but the European project as an historic error and will pine for the mark or franc. Chauvinist movements will be reborn, directed at immigrants and Brussels diktats, with more destructive fury than we have seen since the war.

The same kind of pre-lapsarian romanticism targeted at an elitist federal authority is raging through the US like a fever. The best way to understand the Tea Party, which has just scored its first victory with the libertarian Rand Paul defeating the choice of the official Republican party, is to see it as akin to the Great Awakenings and the Populist furies of the end of the 19th century. There are calls to abolish the Federal Reserve or in some cases Social Security, fuelled by the conspiratorial belief that it was an excess, not a deficit, of government regulation that brought on the financial meltdown. Claims that Washington has been captured for socialism are preached on rightwing talk radio as gospel truth. As they did in the 1930s with Father Coughlin, the radio demonisers are pitch-perfect orchestrators of hatred for listeners in bewildered economic distress.

Against this tide, facts are feeble. When Senate Republicans succeed in briefly blocking financial regulation by representing it as an infringement on liberty rather than as a measure minimally needed for the security of the commonwealth, you know the truth needs help from the Presidential Communicator-in-Chief. He is back on the stump, but as with the case for healthcare reform, his efforts are belated and cramped by misplaced obligations of civility. But if his government is to survive the November elections with a shred of authority, it will need Barack Obama to be more than a head tutor. It will need him to be a warrior of the word every bit as combative as the army of the righteous that believes it has the constitution on its side, and in its inchoate thrashings can yet bring down the governance of the American Republic. Ω

[Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor and a professor of history at Columbia University. Schama received a bachelor's degree at Christ's College, Cambridge, reading history under J. H. Plumb and graduating with a Starred First. He moved from Cambridge to Havard as a specialist in the French Revolution. In 1995, Schama moved to Columbia University. He is the author of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) and his Rough Crossings (2005) won the National Book Critics Circle Award (Non-fiction) in 2006.]

Copyright © 2010 The Financial Times
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Two Theories Of Change
By David Brooks

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When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment. In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment — thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet.

These were philosophers who confronted a world of superstition and feudalism and sought to expose it to the clarifying light of reason. Inspired by the scientific revolution, they had great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth.

Their great model was Descartes. He aimed to begin human understanding anew. He’d discard the accumulated prejudices of the past and build from the ground up, erecting one logical certainty upon another.

What Descartes was doing for knowledge, others would do for politics: sweep away the old precedents and write new constitutions based on reason. This was the aim of the French Revolution.

But there wasn’t just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. As Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her 2004 book, The Roads to Modernity, if the members of the French Enlightenment focused on the power of reason, members of the British Enlightenment emphasized its limits.

They put more emphasis on our sentiments. People are born with natural desires to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. They are born with moral emotions, a sense of fair play and benevolence. They are also born with darker passions, like self-love and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises. We are emotional creatures first and foremost, and politics should not forget that.

These two views of human nature produced different attitudes toward political change, articulated most brilliantly by Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Their views are the subject of a superb dissertation by Yuval Levin at the University of Chicago called “The Great Law of Change.”

As Levin shows, Paine believed that societies exist in an “eternal now.” That something has existed for ages tells us nothing about its value. The past is dead and the living should use their powers of analysis to sweep away existing arrangements when necessary, and begin the world anew. He even suggested that laws should expire after 30 years so each new generation could begin again.

Paine saw the American and French Revolutions as models for his sort of radical change. In each country, he felt, the revolutionaries deduced certain universal truths about the rights of man and then designed a new society to fit them.

Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.

Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.

If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.

Burke also supported the American Revolution, but saw it in a different light than Paine. He believed the British Parliament had recklessly trampled upon the ancient liberties the colonists had come to enjoy. The Americans were seeking to preserve what they had.

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.

The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance. Ω

[David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and has become a prominent voice of politics in the United States. Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983 with a degree in history. He served as a reporter and later op-ed editor for The Wall Street Journal, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard from its inception, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly, and a commentator on NPR and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Brooks has written a book of cultural commentary titled Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). Brooks also writes articles and makes television appearances as a commentator on various trends in pop culture, such as internet dating. He has been largely responsible for coining the terms "bobo," "red state," and "blue state." His newest book is entitled On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (2004).]

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company

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