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If you bop over to SLATE.COM you find this.  Grim, but one of the better letters to the editor you’ll come across. 

Subject: Qui sola sedet civitas. 
From: Fritz Gerlich
Date: May 14 2004 12:57 AM

Huh?  I don’t know Latin.  Think of Dante writing about Florence?  (A source here.)


In quoting Jeremiah: "Quomodo sedet sola civitas" [How doth the city sit solitary], he is drawing an analogy between Florence and Jerusalem; the one city for the loss of Beatrice mirroring that other city for the death of Christ, in the manner of Christ's seeing prophecies concerning himself in the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New.  Dante is thus drawing Florence into the Emmaus paradigm twice over, the first time obscurely, the second time with clarity.


Or maybe he isn’t.  Doesn’t matter.  Gerlich here is saying we’re all alone now, and things look bleak. 


The United States is losing in Iraq, just as it lost in Vietnam, and for the same reason: we long ago put our faith in technology (and its administrative cousins, management and public relations) rather than in spirit.  "Spirit" not as in metaphysics or religion, but in the sense of elan moral, moral force or thrust, the temporary fusion of individual and group wills that lifts people to do great (and often terrible) things.


Yeah, well, what to do about it is the question. 

Perhaps it’s a matter of leadership, and, if you click on the link you can read the details of that.  Gerlich doesn’t much care for our current leadership, and explains that in detail. 

But do we put John Kerry in the White House?  No. 


… Mere substitution of a president cannot in itself supply the missing ingredients: a viable objective, a plan based on knowledge and critical thinking, and the inspiration of citizens to adopt that plan as their own and be willing to discipline themselves for the sake of it.  With those, indeed, a new leadership might be able to accomplish something.  But the president is just the most colorful clown on the stage.  Yanking the old one and putting a new in is not going to change the fact that it is still a clown show. 

Meanwhile, we are still the same rapacious, impatient, self-righteous nation we always were.  These characteristics express themselves irrespective of political party.  And the probability is that they are going to keep getting us into trouble, as they always have.  Either they will entice us to further rash military entanglements which then begin to disintegrate along now-familiar lines (since they will have no more moral force behind them than the present one does), or they will drive us into abrupt changes of course not in the interest of regional or world stability, or in our own best interests. 


Oh man, this guy is getting me down! 

Are we sort of, kind of, making things better in the world spite of ourselves? 



… Actually, the United States is one of the greatest causes of instability at present, because of its abiding Cold War conviction that it has both the right and the ability to meddle anywhere around the globe.  During the Cold War, this was somewhat constrained by our recognition that we could not "contain communism" without building lasting alliances, which required us to behave in predictable ways and with the consent of others.  But now that we choose weak targets of opportunity, like the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and North Korea (not to speak of anybody anywhere whom we label a "terrorist"), we dispense not only with meaningful or lasting alliances, not only with international institutions, but even with international law.  How a freelance global hegemon like that could be anything but destabilizing is hard to see.  The end point of such a trajectory, if it is not cut short by internal decisions, is the formation of an international alliance against us.  Niall Ferguson said in Slate just a week or two ago "that is now just a matter of time."

Our reckless international trajectory will not be stopped by internal political developments.  Our civic culture has decayed to the point of incoherence.  Our political culture is a matter of bribery under other names (and it is very likely only a step or two away from street warfare, especially if Mr.  Bush is re-appointed president).  In such soil authentic leadership does not thrive and spirit, therefore, remains subterranean.  This leaves the way open for opportunists who crave the presidency like Romans of old schemed and murdered for the emperorship.  After all, the American president now rules with the prerogative of private war — covert, overt, or both, as he chooses.  (The present war retired any lingering illusions about an opposition party making him actually prove a case for war.) Few other modern leaders have that .  .  .  except in the countries we now choose as adversaries.


And that all leads to what? 


The future is bleak for the United States.  The reason is not so much any external trend or adversary, as who, and what, we have become.  September 11 called upon us to exact due vengeance, to protect ourselves, and above all to conduct a great national inquiry into who we are and who we should try to be.  It gave us a priceless opportunity to question whether the habits and instincts built up over the preceding half-century were the best to serve us in the next half-century.  It was a moment of our history that cried out for greatness.  And we were found wanting. 

Our walls still stand, pennons still fly from the battlements.  But where the spirit has fled, vultures gather. 


Whoa man, bummer. 

Well, if that got you down try this. 

Dawn of the Daddy State
Paul Starobin, The Atlantic Monthly - June 2004

This fellow is arguing that terrorism has made a global trend toward greater state power inevitable – and that the leadership we actually WANT right now in the United States is a dictatorship that keeps us safe.  He thinks it is important to get authoritarianism right, of course, but we want a strong, stern Daddy now - thus the title. 

His argument is long and full of historical and contemporary international examples, but the key points are clear. 


Leaving aside the question of military power, the necessary response to terrorism is not to limit the power of the state but, rather, to bolster it, so as to preserve the basic order without which the defenseless citizen has no prospect of enjoying the splendors of liberty.  In the wake of Madrid, in the wake of 9/11, in the wake of suicide bombings in Moscow subway stations and Jerusalem cafés, the state is impelled to become even more intrusive and muscular than it already is.  How well today's leaders meet this obligation to construct more-vigilant states is very likely to stand as one of history's most important criteria for assessing their stewardship. 

An authoritarian push is often seen as coming from above, forced on an unsuspecting public by would-be autocrats.  But today's global trend toward what might be called the Daddy State is propelled by the anxious demands of majority blocs of citizens. 


I see – we WANT George Bush and John Ashcroft on Donald Rumsfeld to be just who they are, doing what they now do.  John Kerry doesn’t have a chance. 

In fact -


… we are at the dawn of a popularly sanctioned movement toward greater authoritarianism in the domain of what is now fashionably called "homeland security." As Thomas Hobbes explained in his mid-seventeenth-century treatise Leviathan (a work that can be read as a primer on homeland security), there is no real contradiction in the idea of authoritarianism as a choice.  In a proverbial state of nature, man willingly gives up some portion of his liberty to a sovereign as the only conceivable protector of his life and property.  During times of relative quiet and prosperity it is easy to forget that this sort of bargain exists—but in times of danger, woe to the sovereign that neglects its duty to protect. 


Yep, we’re scared and Daddy George, even if imperfect, will keep us all warm and safe. 

His only caveat is that there is a bit of a challenge in getting authoritarianism right, and it's important to identify what could go wrong as we try to meet the demands of this new era.  And yes, one danger is fascism - and Starobin discusses that and how Putin is turning that direction in Russia these days – as Starobin puts it, not respecting the prudent boundaries of a Daddy State. 

Starobin thinks you need a moderately free press, and a loyal opposition of some kind.  Such an opposition cannot, however, cripple our efforts to protect the nation.  And after a discussion of our hapless houses of congress Starobin says homeland security in the United States probably isn't going to improve “unless those responsible for formulating and administering protection policies are insulated from the legislature.” 

Give the executive branch free range.  Here, and in the UK, and in France.  Everywhere.  The people of the world WANT this.  They long for this.



Life in a Daddy State global order promises to be a somewhat mixed affair.  Life will be best for majority groups in well-fortified but not overly heavy-handed Daddy States.  As ever, life will be rough for anyone under the boot-heel of an unconstrained autocrat.  But perhaps the most terrible fate awaits those trapped in the primeval chaos, without any sort of state protection.  That condition of extreme vulnerability is borne by, for instance, Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.  And should state-building fail in Afghanistan and Iraq, their peoples, too, will inhabit this sort of limbo, in which, as Hobbes memorably wrote, "there is no place for Industry ...  no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."


To summarize, the state’s primary duty is to keep its citizens safe.  All else if fluff and nonsense – stuff that’s nice to have, but now both irrelevant and dangerous.  

The conflict between authoritarian safety and democratic uncertainty is what divides the nation right now – or so it would seem.  The argument here is that people would rather, actually, be alive than that something more abstract – free and be what they are or want to be.  The latter is all nice stuff, no doubt – but a something we can no longer afford.  The argument is that given the choice, since you cannot have both safety and full freedoms, no one willingly chooses suicide.  All rational parties strongly prefer a sort of benign if imperfect police state.  A few are losers.  Most are not.  Almost all rational parties vote for safety.  Folks aren’t dumb.  That’s just the way it is. 

Is this so?  Things are not looking too cheery.  But I’m a classic WASP so what does it matter to me?  I got mine.



Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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