I’m not sure how to react to all of these liberals (like Joe Klein at Time) who call their conservative bêtes noires traitors or seditionists. But since they’re going to call us names like that, it’s time for this conservative (?) to come clean and talk about some of the subversive material that he’s come across over the years. In this case, I’m going to discuss a particular book that, read in the context of both sides of the debate in the US, has had a subversive impact on me.
The title speaks of the “second most subersive book.” Subversive Book #1 is sans doute The Bible. The Bible’s whole concept–that there is a higher power than the state who deserves a higher claim on loyalty and life than the state–is very subsersive to modern statist liberalism, which is why they hate it so much. But I discuss that in other places on this blog.
Subversive Book #2 came my way in an odd fashion. It was a happy coincidence that I began learning French around the same time my parents started going to Europe on business trips to visit our Belgian business associates. On one trip my father brought back a series of three history books, published in Switzerland and intended for secondary schools in Francophone countries. All of them proved fascinating, but the last one–Histoire generale de 1789 a nos jours, by Georges-André Chevallaz–was especially interesting.
Textbooks are a very specific genre of book (I am the co-author of one) but few are authored by people who are really participants in their subject. This one is an exception: Chevallaz was a long-term fixture in Swiss politics. As Mayor of Lausanne (where the book was published,) member of the Swiss Federal Council, holder of two different departments, and finally President of the Confederation in 1980, he had a chance to make some history in addition to writing it.
This book is obviously more centred in Europe than what we see over here. It’s also focused (unsurprisingly) on Swiss history, which is interesting in and of itself. Switzerland has a lot in common with the US, namely a federal system and a relatively light hand of the state on the economy, so there are lessons to be learned. But the whole concept of a world where all of the light doesn’t come from these shores will come as a shock to many Americans.
But the biggest eye opener came with all of the forms of government described in the book. Chevallaz took great pains to lay out to the student the various forms of government that nations went through. He backed this up with all of these interesting diagrams of who went where. With the French–the poster children of changing forms of government–this means several of these through the French Revolution and more afterwards. He featured his own country too, complicated as it is by its federal system (pesky things, federal systems, aren’t they?) At the end of the book he features what amounts to an “international civics” lesson, where he reviews several forms of government (including ours) and the various functions of the state in a general way.
The overarching lesson from this is simple: forms of government come, and forms of government go, and they can go either through an electoral process or the hard way.
In an American context, and especially considering how Americans are conditioned to think of themselves and their country, this is not only subsersive, it’s explosive.
For the conservative, the Constitution of 1787 is a sacred document, to be adhered to the letter. This is why it’s passed out by Tea Party people and mentioned so often in their rhetoric. To suggest a change in constitution is unthinkable.
For the liberal, the same constitution is good also, especially if people of their idea dominate the judiciary. In that case the constitution is whatever they say it is, which empowers them and insures their jobs. To suggest a change in constitution is dangerous because it also suggests rearranging the paychecks and grant money.
But it was not always so in these United States. Our Founding Fathers understood this and made this statement part of the Declaration of Independence:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Although we are not as prodigious as the French in changing our governmental form (Chevallaz points out that our revolution was inspiration for theirs,) our current constitution is, in reality, our second. The Articles of Confederation did not work out as planned; they simply weren’t robust enough for a “more perfect Union.” Our current form of government is revered because it works, and has worked for more than two centuries.
That working, however, isn’t only because of the document itself. Our Founding Fathers recognised that it could only be maintained by a people who were disciplined, self-reliant and independent enough to maintain a system that allowed so much freedom to its people. It was on this account that John Jay, the desendant of French Huguenots, pulled a volte-face on the Continental Congress and negotiated the final settlement of independence with Britain:
Nevertheless, between the two great European powers, Jay had already made his choice and committed his country, though it was the opposite of Congress’s choice. America had fought a war with a French ally against a British enemy, but in the peace negotiations and for the rest of his public career, Jay, often on his own initiative and against much resistance from his colleagues and countrymen, led the way in building the foundation of future U.S. foreign policy, the special relationship between the two English-speaking peoples. And why? “Not being of British Descent,” Jay explained years later, “I cannot be influenced by . . . that Partiality . . . , which might otherwise be supposed not to be unnatural.” But in Europe, he came to loathe arbitrary governments, which “debase and corrupt their Subjects,” even subjects as talented and accomplished as the French (as his Huguenot ancestors had found, he well knew). Very different is Britain’s political culture and therefore its national character. “It certainly is chiefly owing to Institutions Laws and Principles of Policy & Government originally derived to us as British colonists, that with the favor of Heaven the People of this Country are what they are.” Hence his “sentiments of esteem” for the British nation.
Jay expressed what he felt, in practical terms, that debasement and corruption did to people in his description of Spain, where he had resided earlier:
No doubt, he wrote, Aranjuez “is a charming Place,” with the king’s parks, meadows, and woods. But “it is not America. A genius of a different Character . . . reigns over these. Soldiers with fixed bayonets present themselves at various Stations in these peaceful Retreats; and tho’ none but inoffensive Citizens are near, yet Horsmen with drawn swords guarding one or other of the royal family . . . , renew and impress Ideas of Subjection. Power unlimited and Distrust misplaced, thus exacting Homage & imposing awe, occasion uneasy Reflections. . . . Were I a Spaniard, these decorated Seats would appear to me like the temporary Enchantments of some despotic magician, who by re-extending his wand, could at pleasure command them to vanish, and be succeeded by Presidios, Galleys and Prisons.” All human relations in Spain catch a tinge of the same spirit. “This is a kind of Prudence which naturally grows out of a jealous and absolute Government, under which the People have, for many Generations been habituated to that kind of Dependence, which constrains every Class to watch and respect the opinions and Inclinations of their superiors in Power.” No European splendor can equal “the free air, the free conversation, the equal Liberty, . . . which God & Nature and Laws of our making, have given and secured to our happier Country.”
At this stage, I think we need to consider a new arrangement in this part of North America for two reasons.
The first is that our capability to sustain a government of free and independent people is waning. I’ve discussed this problem elsewhere but it’s one that Obama and the Democrats are hoping will give them a “permanent majority.” That’s the conservatives’ problem.
The second is that our form of government, with its elaborate system of checks and balances (to say nothing of its federalism) is too cumbersome to become an all-encompassing social service organisation to its people without degenerating into an expensive, unworkable kludge (think of the health care bill we just passed.) That’s the liberals’ problem.
The nice way to do this is to sit down and cut a deal amongst ourselves, even if that deal is to have a parting of the ways. But, as the history of other places reminds us, if we don’t do something the easy way, the hard way is what is left to us. And with our growing fiscal woes (which proved the undoing of our French allies in 1789) the hard way looks like it’s inevitable.
There is no “constitutional” way out of this mess. The best solution is to go back to the principles that animated this place to start with and make some reconstruction. But the preferred alternative of our elitist snobs is for the magician in Washington to wave his magic wand and turn this nation effectively into a statist summer camp. The reaction to that, no matter how it comes out, will put an end to freedom and constitution alike.
But such observations are what happens when you read subsersive books, both the second most subersive one and the first.