Flotsam: Snobbery, Revolutions, and the Fourth of July

1. Still in the ‘awkward transition’ phase regarding my new job, where I haven’t even begun to do the actual job I’ve been hired for (which itself is a trainee position), and I’m still getting used to the new schedule and what is and is not an option now. I’m at least keeping regular writing times, though, so that’s making me feel grounded, though I haven’t figured out how to fit blogging in.

2. At work the subject of arbitrary enforcement came up: the thing where people will create completely meaningless standards – e.g. “you take cream in your coffee? What kind of man are you?” – and enforce them for the group. I said (and the conversation moved on) that this is an authority thing: people assuming a position of authority in the social hierarchy. Status means that you are the one who sets the standard (giving nicknames is another way of assuming authority), so when you have an otherwise ‘equal’ group, those of an aggressive temperament will naturally try to seize the highest position they can.

Again, allowing for human wickedness and stupidity, this tends to only occur between ostensible equals as a means of setting the social hierarchy. It occurs between privates in a platoon, not between privates and officers. It occurs between priests in a parish, not between priests and bishops. It occurs among the gentry, not between the gentry and the artisans. Not to say you won’t find a stupid aristocrat who sneers at his tenants for not liking the right music or something, but generally vices directed at inferiors are of a different kind than snobbery: more of officiousness or arbitrary rule or selfishness.

3. Reading a piece at The Orthosphere I had one of those ‘oh, of course,’ moments, where you’re told something and realize that you should have known that all along from the nature of the case.

“highly egalitarian societies… have high homicide rates.”

Well, of course they do. When no one is any better or higher than anyone else, officially, then when there’s a dispute, the principles have to settle the matter themselves. But the only final, ‘authoritative’ way that two equal individuals have of settling matters is violence. The ‘talk it out’ solution advocated in schools only works when both sides are prepared to be reasonable and look at the matter objectively, which will be so in only a tiny minority of cases. How many times do kids on a playground actually ‘talk things out’ to the satisfaction of both? Not saying it never happens, but it would require exceptional kids on both sides.

What actually happens probably ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is that one kid, the one with the more extroverted and aggressive temperament, talks down the other and gets the rest of the group to gang up on him to force him to concede.

Because there’s another factor at play which the Orthosphere author doesn’t bring up: the fact that in the absence of an official hierarchy (or even in the presence of one, but wherever it doesn’t operate), people will create their own, even in something as petty as ‘what kind of shirt do you wear?’ or ‘what kind of car do you drive’? And people will be much more aggressive and quick to enforce these kinds of ‘unofficial’ hierarchies because they don’t rest on anything but the vigilance of the individual. A king doesn’t have to keep pushing arbitrary rules to remind people he is the king, but a ‘free and equal citizen’ does, because it’s the only way he can keep his place.

The more egalitarian you try to make a society, the more socially repressive, mistrustful, and violent it will become as people try to claw out and maintain their position.

Because the fact is that all human societies are hierarchical: that is just part of the form of society as such. If you don’t have a structure, a hierarchy, then you don’t actually have a society, just a collection of individuals, who will operate as individuals (like how if you get the parts of your computer ‘out of form’, you no longer have a computer as such, just a lot of metal and plastic operating as metal and plastic).

And one thing individuals naturally try to do is to form societies and establish social status. So that even if you could create a perfectly egalitarian state, the people living within it would quickly set up their own competing tribes and hierarchies. It would be like trying to keep the sea perfectly flat: that is just not how the thing works.

4. The evil of snobbery lies in the fact that it is someone laying claim to a status that he doesn’t actually deserve and that he misuses in any case. Mrs. Elton in Emma is a snob because she assumes a position she doesn’t actually merit, defends it aggressively by cutting down people who aren’t actually a threat to it, and uses her position bluntly and officiously once she’s in it. Emma herself is also a bit of a snob, but much less so because A). she has a right to her position, and B). she mostly uses it responsibly, except in trying to encourage Harriet to lay claim to a higher position than she’s actually entitled to (so, sort of a snobbery by proxy).

But I don’t think most people really mind class distinctions. The structure would hardly have persisted so long and so universally if they did. The people who object to hierarchies are those who want to move from one level to another and find it more difficult than they think it ought to be (trouble is that these are often the very same kind of ne’er-do-wells who like to write books). The common farmer generally doesn’t mind living under a duke: it is the nouveau-riche industrialist who chafes at aristocratic privilege.

5. And it’s the latter who leads revolutions. We like to think of rebellions as the poor, downtrodden masses rising up against their aristocratic overlords. Actually, from all I can tell, it’s the rich classes who are the revolutionaries: the ones who are powerful, but feel they aren’t as powerful as they deserve to be. That is, the ones who have more practical power than official power.

(There’s another element of the ones who feel ashamed for being rich, but don’t know what to do about it. Those who lack either the training or the stomach to be Saints become Revolutionaries as an easier alternative. And part of me wants to make a ‘Navy – Coast Guard’ joke here).

The impoverished masses tend to be conservative, at least until the propaganda gets to them. Because, of course, it really makes very little difference to the average tenant farmer or artisan or factory hand whether he lives under a republic or a monarchy, except that his sense of cultural identity (and thus tribal belonging) is bound up in whichever one he happens to have been born in. Thus the very same populations who were Loyalist in 1776 tended to be Union in 1861.

So, in summary, Revolutions tend to be rich men convincing poor men that they are being oppressed so that the poor men will go risk death to gain a higher status for the rich men.

6. On that note, happy Fourth of July everyone!

Perhaps it’ll help if I say that however the nation came to be, now that it’s established I would have it continue and improve. I would see it restored to the days of its glory, and I would be thankful even for the optimism of the early-mid twentieth century. Basically, I’d hold my tongue about this whole subject if it meant we could have a functional society again.

This, by the way, is why I’m still a Union proponent in the Late Unpleasantness, even though in many ways I sympathize more with the Confederacy. Revolution is a genie that is very hard to get back into the bottle once it gets out, and I think that if the Confederacy had been established, both it and the Union would only have experienced an endless string of bloody, petty uprisings as one state or another decided it was being oppressed and took up arms against another (heck, it nearly happened between Michigan and Ohio in 1835, and again between Arizona and California in 1934). The real necessity of the war was to firmly establish that we were done with in this country, and the result is that, after the ‘simmering down’ period, we had a more-or-less unified national identity all the way up to a couple decades ago.

7. Just so there’s no misunderstanding (yeah, right), I don’t think slavery would have outlived the 19th century, whatever happened. World opinion (i.e. the British Empire) was too set against it, and I don’t think the Confederacy, or whatever Balkanized collection of states resulted from it could have survived as the lone Western slave-holding nation. Probably would have been better overall if it slavery hadn’t been settled in the war and had simply been allowed to die a natural death, but that’s another issue entirely.

8. Let’s try to end on a high note here (wish the image quality was better, but it was the only one I could find). This is the kind of thing I’d like to see come back, my own disillusionment notwithstanding:

Friday Flotsam: Collective Authority

1. The modern world feels like being walled up in an asylum that’s been taken over by the inmates. Except the inmates are not just insane, but smug, sanctimonious, and completely disconnected from reality.

2. Collective ownership cannot work as a system for multiple reasons, but chiefly because someone has to enforce the collective ownership, to arbitrate between competing claims. If Brother John and Brother Francis both want to use a certain part of the abbey’s garden, then it falls to Abbott Tuck to decide who has the better claim. But this means that it is Abbott Tuck who, in practical terms, owns the garden, since he is the one who exercises decision making authority over it, which is what ownership means.

Ownership by all only every means – only ever can mean – that one owns in the name of all.

3. Ownership means authority – the ability to make decisions relative to a particular object which others are morally obliged to respect. If I own a computer, that means I have the right to decide what software I’ll put on it and what use I’ll put it to. If I use a computer owned by someone else – say, my employer – then I not have the right to exercise decisions of what software will and will not be installed on it or what use it will be put to, except by permission of the rightful owner.

‘Ownership’ only means a form of transferable authority. I can sell or give away my computer. But if I exercise other forms of authority, as, say, a father, I can’t sell or give away my children (I haven’t worked it out completely, but as of right now I think that is the chief distinguishing feature of ‘ownership’ as opposed to other forms of authority).

Equal authority means no authority: if two parties exercise equal decision making powers over any one thing, that means that each can make decisions regarding that thing which the other is obligated to respect. Which means that each can cancel out the other’s decisions at any time. Meaning, effectively, neither has any rights relative to the other with regards to this particular thing. If it becomes necessary to make an actual decision, then either one or the other’s authority must be recognized as higher or one with a higher authority than either must settle it.

4. I think most us recognize this regarding ownership of property. The question is, why do we think ownership of the government is any different?

One of the liberal mantras is “the government doesn’t own the people, the people own the government.” Okay, but at the same time we know collective ownership does not work. So, the government is actually owned by whoever is in charge of arbitrating the people’s decisions. Which is to say…the government. But a government that still claims to represent ‘the people’ (which is even more ridiculous when you remember that, by its nature, a representational government can only represent a portion of the people, since if it’s elected, that means a significant portion of the people voted against it) and so to be acting in their name.

This pretext of a state being the expression of the people’s will means that anyone who opposes it opposes ‘the people.’ A government with pretensions of being ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ will hold that anyone who opposes that is against the people (and how does this square with the fact that, when this was said, a large chunk of the people were actively fighting to escape the said government? Do they simply not count as being among ‘the people’? I’m actually a Union partisan, but I bring it up to illustrate how ridiculous the whole ‘rule by the people’ idea really is).

Again, collective ownership means that some own as if there were all. And “power to the people” only ever means “Power to some people as if they were all the people.”

Or in other words:

CM Piece: Authority in Marriage

Well, this one’s probably going to make some people angry:

The standard practice when faced with this passage is to emphasize the duty it and the following verses place on husbands: to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and to lay down their lives for them.

This is all perfectly right and proper, however it is easy to skim over an important point.

And I am fully aware how little what I am about to say will be to the liking of most who read this, but it has to be said.

To say a husband stands to his wife as Christ stands to the Church is to say that he is very definitely in authority over her. Whatever obligations this may impose upon him, her duty to be obedient to him is in no way mitigated.

Now, as I began this post by suggesting our idea of authority may be erroneous, you may (I foolishly dare hope) suspect that this doesn’t quite mean what we would tend to think it means.

So what exactly does “authority” mean in a Christian marriage?

Authority means the right to be obeyed with regards to the subject of one’s authority. It is the power to create a moral obligation in a subject. If I own a book, then I have authority over that book, and so if you borrow it, I can demand it back and so create in you the obligation to give it back to me, not because I can force you to give it back, but because it is mine and if you refuse to give it back you will be committing a sin.

To say a husband has authority over his wife means that when he asks her to do something, it creates in her the moral obligation to do it, to the extent that he is invoking his husbandly authority. Obviously she can suggest something else, or make her own wishes known, and no man of sense would press his authority too often or arbitrarily, but at the end of the day, the husband is the one who holds the family policy.

Read the rest here

Keystone Truths: The Transcendent Manifests in the Concrete

One of the keystones for understanding the world, as I see it, is this: men desire the transcendent, but only experience the concrete.

I say we desire the transcendent. Freedom, love, justice, happiness, and so on. There are indeed people who seem to desire nothing but pleasure or material things, but in the first place these are the people who are, frankly, the least human, in the second, their general misery and the disgust with which they are held by the rest of the world shows that even they don’t really want these things in themselves. If all we wanted were safety, security, pleasure, and so on, then we would be happy and content once we got them. But we find (thanks to the experience of the past few generations) that the people who have these things in abundance are precisely the ones who are most likely to blow their own brains out.  

Yet we only experience the concrete. When we say we want ‘love,’ for instance, what do we mean? Well, we want a particular kind of relationship with another person, but what does that relationship look like on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis? It’s hugs and kisses and making breakfast and affectionate nicknames and jokes and touches and backrubs and so on and so forth. No one would say these things are love, but they are the way we experience it. A husband who cut them all out (and all other expressions) would have a hard time credibly convincing his wife, or anyone else, that he still loved her. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t very long, nor she him.

The transcendent must be embodied in the concrete for us to experience it at all. We see this even in the fundamental experience of language, in which ideas are embodied in combinations of sounds or symbols. And on the other hand, when we try to examine pure thought or pure belief or pure emotion, absent anything concrete, we find only a mass of uncertainty, assumption, and question-begging. Our interior life, the farthest removed from the concrete of our experience, is also our most uncertain. That is where our self-deception, our confirmation biases, the fleeting influences of the moment are strongest.

In short, we do not encounter ‘pure spiritual experiences’ in this life. As St. James put it, “shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.” (James 2: 18).  

This, as I say, is a keystone concept: man desires the transcendent and only experiences the concrete, therefore the transcendent must be incarnated in the concrete for us to experience it. That is, in fact, the particularly human experience. Once get this straight, and many other things follow.

Obviously, the supreme example of this is God manifesting Himself to men in the person of Jesus, and Christ offering Grace to mankind through the Sacraments. But other things follow as well.

One I want to point out especially is this; authority is a transcendent concept. As I’ve pointed out, authority is the power to create moral obligation in those subject to us (and I’m still working this out, so bear with me here). Now, this is incarnated in the power to enforce one’s authority (“For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” Romans 13:4). Authority is not dependent upon that power, but that power is how authority is normally manifested. This is due to the nature of our being; no one, not even God Himself, can compel a person to do good, we can only punish them for doing evil (which is a curious thing when you think about it; it is absolutely impossible for us to force someone to do good. We can inflict punishment on someone regardless of his will, but we cannot never ‘inflict’ goodness). Therefore, authority, which is directed to a certain good of the subject, manifests itself most clearly in chastisement.

It is, of course, right and indeed best if the commands of legitimate authority are obeyed regardless and chastisement never has to be inflicted. We ought to obey out of love and respect rather than fear. But if we will not obey, then the best thing the authority can do, what he is, in fact, obligated to do, is to establish his authority through chastisement. The father’s duty to his children requires that he punish them when they do wrong. The ruler’s duty to his subjects requires the same.

Nor is this contrary to mercy. Remember, mercy is a function of authority. Therefore, before anyone can show mercy, he must first establish his authority through chastisement (or at least the subject must be brought to understand that such chastisement is both possible and just). “Thou art great, O Lord, for ever, and thy kingdom is unto all ages: For thou scourgest, and thou savest: thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again: and there is none that can escape thy hand”  (Tobit 13:1-2).

Violence, you see, is not contrary to mercy. In fact, it is often an essential part of what we could call the ‘merciful system.’ In order to show mercy, authority must be established, which often means chastisements must be inflicted and the rebellious subject made to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the authority of the one over him. Even if it gets no farther than “you acknowledge that I could grind you under my heel like a bug right now, correct?” that still creates sufficient authority to show mercy. It is only then that mercy becomes even possible.

Because as long as the other side refuses to acknowledge your authority, and as long as he thinks he doesn’t have to, then refusal to enforce it is not mercy but abdication: the refusal to act according to one’s responsibilities.

The historian Victor Davis Hansen put it very well (though I can’t now find where he said it) that “mercy means beating your enemy to the ground, putting your foot on his neck, and then saying ‘I am not going to destroy you this time.’” The code of chivalry was that vanquished enemies were to be spared: after the knights had done their best to kill one another, and one was finally beaten down to the point where he knows he will either ask for quarter or die, the victor was morally obligated to spare his enemy if he asked for it. Even if, as is the case most of the time, violent chastisement is not necessary, the very idea of mercy requires that it is a moral possibility.

You see what I mean by the idea of the transcendent manifesting in the concrete is a keystone idea? At once we see how things like war, the death penalty, soldiery, and so on are compatible with Christianity, even to the point of being necessary elements, at least in potential. “Blessed are the merciful,” requires that it be possible to show mercy, which means it must be permissible to establish authority.

This also pretty much defangs every clever deconstruction that we moderns employ to try to escape from inconvenient realities. To say something like “marriage is just a piece of paper,” for instance, is simply flat out wrong; it isn’t, but the ‘piece of paper’ (or at least the vows it records) is what the fact of getting married and bound to one another for life looks like in this world. You are not being clever when you point that out; I may as well say that your witty essay arguing the point is nothing but a lot of black marks on paper. Deconstructions, fixing your gaze on the material manifestation of something, is nothing but an irrelevant smokescreen.