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Friday, July 22, 2016

The Curious Incident of the Doge at the Right Time

I am reflecting on the birth of US democracy. This is not because I fear I witnessed the onset of it's fatal illness in Cleveland. I am optimistic -- really -- not worried at all that the second act of world Fascism will be farce (absurd enough almost even to overshadow the ridiculousness of Mussolini himself).

I am thinking about George Washington. First I assume that both God and Marx are dead and I don't think the (relative) success of continent scale democracy in the USA was willed by God or historical law. I think the normal expectable outcome of the US war of independence was lord protector George Washington who wasn't as blood thirsty as Cromwell, or, maybe emperor Washington who didn't cause a huge war, because conquering native Americans required only a large war.

I think, and will assume, that two key events in world history include General George Washington surrendering his commission to Congress and President George Washington deciding not to run for re-election in 1996 to make sure he wasn't President for life. I assume that in these two cases (and I suppose others during the long sad comedy of human history) history was made by a single person. A question (of purely academic interest) is why he didn't seize monarchic power. The joke title refers to the elected Doges of Venice who, once elected, had royal power.

I think that Washington was motivated by genuinely heroic vanity -- that he cared more about what people said about him than anything else. I think he made history, because it was necessary to his self esteem to have a glorious place in history. Washington surrendering his commission was portrayed a heroic painting totally unlike any previously painted. I think he did it partly with the possibility of that painting in mind.

This was the re-crossing of the Rubicon -- the effort to undo what Caesar had done and to surpass him in the history books. He is not known to have muttered under his breath "alea iacta est" but I bet he thought it. The odds weren't good, but we haven't crapped out yet.

I think actual historians have assembled overwhelmingly strong evidence that Washington was motivated by an extraordinary obsession with his place in history . There is a letter to Washington advising him to break the promise he made to Congress to retire to private life and to preside over the Constitutional Convention (sorry no link). It argues that it would be dishonorable for him if it were thought that he valued his personal honor above the interests of the nation. Here the magic history making word "honor" clearly refers to reputation at least as much as virtue.

This reminds me of Mount Vernon. From a distance, the mansion is spectacularly impressive as it looks over the Patomac. The river is visible from an impressive portico which is equally visible from the river (which is no longer used for commerce). The impressive pillars are made of painted wood, but sand was mixed in the paint to make ersatz granite. Show not substance was key.

This reminds me of something Alex de Tocqueville wrote without any explicit reference to Washington

When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the Narrows, I was surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a considerable number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were built after the models of ancient architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely the building which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices which I had admired the night before were of the same kind.

So it's a coincidence Alexis? Suuuuure.

Update: note that I did not, did not write that the Republicans contempt for the founding prinnciples of the Republic placed it in danger, but it shall be saved by Donald Trump because of the characteristic he so conspicuously shares with George Washington. I did not write that his colossal vanity shall save Democracy in America from its terrible enemies in the Republican party. Since 2004, I have carefully refrained from making any predictions about the outcomes of US presidential elections. Alea acta est all over again. I will only note that and that the odds of snake eyes are 35 to 1 (this doesn't mean I question Nate Silver).

update 2: minds think alike. Michael Gerson (my favorite Republican) wrote "The Caesarian option — rolling the dice with a populist authoritarian, using democratic majorities to undermine democratic structures — is common in history." Alia indeed. Interestingly he also noted US problems other than Trump. I would say the other problems are that there are other Republicans. He noted wage stagnation (that is increased inequality) Congress (Republican and bocked by GOP filibusters before) and the politicized Supreme Court (as in Bush V Gore which affected his personal employment).

His argument is that Trump broke with the Republican tradition, but, in passing he conceded that the rest of them are part of the problem not part of the solution

[my comments in brackets]


nd our institutional challenges are not imaginary: A long-term, wage-earner recession (to which Republicans have offered little practical response). Educational mediocrity concentrated in high-poverty communities [Republicans fight state or Federal spending on such schools]. Congressional dysfunction [due entirely to Republicans]. A Supreme Court that seems overly political and outcome driven [that is the Republican appointees (other than Sauter and Stevens) who change legal doctrine from case to case but always serve the GOP, large corporations and the rich].

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"..President George Washington deciding not to run for re-election in 1996."

Well, God and Marx might be dead, but apparently GW isn't. 1996???