Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Good Old Days?

A bit over a week ago, John Kindley self-proclaimed anarchist who believes that "anarchy is order" (and though I've read his explanation and others to which he links, I remain perplexed about how the terms can be synonymous) indulged in a bit of foolishness.
I mean, so what if the homicide rate in the Old West was seven times what it is today? That doesn’t answer the question of whether life in the Wild West wasn’t better and grander than it is today, or whether life today wouldn’t be better and grander if the State suddenly collapsed . . . even if the homicide rate reverted to Wild West levels.
In a comment, Kindley acknowledged that he was being both "cavalier and simple-minded" which is something.  But he was also, at some level, channelling part of the myth of The West where men were men and men did what men had to do.
From James Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales to Owen Wister's The Virginian to Louis L'Amour's Sacketts, from Tom Mix to John Wayne to Clint Eastwood  (not so much Jeff Bridges, but him too), and from Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett to Ronald Reagan with stops for Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph, Geronimo and Techumseh, The West and our images of it (thank you Frederick Remington and John Ford) have mixed the good with the bad (and the ugly, too, but I don't want to go there now).
The grass was greener, the corn taller, the mountains higher.  The violence was a necessary corollary of the freedom given by the great open spaces and the fact that the only law was the Peacemaker.  And of course, there was opportunity.  Fortunes to be made.  And glorious risks to run.
Ah, the Good Old Days.
Which is, of course, bullshit.  But it's part of our national myth.
Just as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is part of Britain's.
Do I hear mention of Pericles?
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
And of course, in the beginning there was Eden. 
Or maybe the founding fathers.
And, like Kindley's cavalier and simple-minded musing about The Old West, it's all bullshit.  Don't misunderstand me, please.  I'm not saying this is the Golden Age.  It's not.
In many ways, and for most people in the world (and for tens, if not hundreds of millions here in the US of A), life pretty much sucks.  As it did. Although sometimes in new and different ways.
Yet the myth has staying power.
Rick Horowitz, one of the most thoughtful and articulate of the criminal defense bloggers, regularly refers to the days when Fourth Amendment rights were honored and enforced because the framers insisted.  Just yesterday, he wrote
that Tennessee has decided to go after one of the two remaining Amendments in the Bill of Rights that the United States Supreme Court has not yet seen fit to officially obliterate.
He was talking about the First Amendment.  You know, the one that protects freedom of speech.  And while it's true that a majority of the Court (not a unanimous Court, but a majority) has issued several important speech friendly decisions recently, it's also true that they've issued speech hostile decisions.  The Court never declared the Smith Act (which makes it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government) unconstitutional.  And let's not forget that the speech-friendly framers, the ones who adopted the Bill of Rights in 1791, enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
No Golden Age there.
Norm Pattis finds a disconnect between the prosecution of British soldiers for the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the enormity inflicted by the Court on John Thompson.The framers wouldn't have stood for it, he says.  Look what they did, he says.  They actually hauled those soldiers into court to hold them accountable, he says.
Yeah, but John Adams got them off.  That's the story of the trial and it's a true moment of Founding Father Glory.  A future president stood up against the mob and defended in an American court in Boston British soldiers who killed Americans in Boston.  And did it well.
But it's hardly an example of American courts holding American officials responsible for anything.  Frankly, it's closer to the California prosecution (to not guilty verdicts) of the cops who beat the shit out of Rodney King.
You want to know where we came from?  Try this.
On October 29, 1698 Cotton Mather wrote in his diary about a woman condemned for killing her child.
Moreover, a miserable young Woman, being this day condemned to dy, for murdering her base-born child, I pray'd unto the Lord, that her Condition might bee so ordered in His providence, as to give mee a special Opportunity of glorifying my Lord Jesus Christ, on that Occasion.
But damn, she was to be hanged during a week when Mather wasn't going to be giving the sermons.  And then a miracle.  Mather wrote about it on November 13.
The Execution of the miserable Malefactor, was ordered for to have been the last Week, upon the Lecture of another.  I wondred then what would become of my Particular Faith, of her condition being so orered in the Providence of God, that it should furnish mee, with a special Opportunity to glorify Him. While I was entirely resigning to the wisdome of Heaven, all such Matters, the Judges wholly without my seeking, altered and allow'd her Execution to fall on the Day of my Lecture.  The General Court then sitting, ordered the Lecture to bee held in a larger and a stronger House, than that old one, where tis usually kept.  For my own part, I was weak, and faint, and spent; but I humbly gave myself up to the Spirit of my Heavenly Lord and Hee assured mee, that Hee would send His good Angel to strengthen mee.  The greatest Assembly, ever in this Countrey preach'd unto, was now come together; It may bee four or five thousand Souls.  I could not gett unto the Pulpit, but by climing over Pues and Heads: and there the Spirit of my dearest Lord came upon mee.  I preached with a more than ordinary Assistence, and enlarged, and uttered the most awakening Things, for near two Hours together.  My Strength and Voice failed not; but when it was near failing, a silent Look to Heaven strangely renew'd it.  In the whole I found Prayer answered, and Hope exceeded and Faith encouraged, and the Lord using mee, the vilest in all that great Assembly, to glorify Him.
So at least a Golden Day for Mather.  Though we might ask more of an age than a chance to preach a sermon on the day of an execution - especially one glorying in the killing.
Maybe I'm just too damned cynical. But I don't see that golden past.  That "demi-paradise" as Coleridge described Xanadu.
From Eden to Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, from the Round Table to Wounded Knee, from Troy to Attila the Hun, and yes, from the Declaration to the Constitution, paradise carries its own destruction with it.
There is no golden age.  It was never better except for the odd blip, like a cool summer breeze or a January thaw.  The promise is never honored more than fleetingly.
Good came of the French Revolution.  So did the Terror.
It was bullshit then.  It's bullshit now.
Nostalgia, as they say, isn't what it used to be.


  1. I suspect this post is a reaction to my "contrast" yesterday of Norm's July 4th post about the Boston Massacre trial with your July 4th post. Ironically, in light of your post above, part of what I found objectionable in your July 4th post was your implicit uncritical acceptance of the notion that the American Revolution was in fact "necessary" and that the Founding Fathers were "justified" in their "treason" -- especially in light of your specific allusion to the conditions facing them relative to the conditions prevailing today. I, on the other hand, am inclined to a more cynical interpretation of the Founders' motivations and interests, and am more inclined to view the Declaration of Independence as in no small part an after-the-fact rationalization for what they wanted to do. So, between you and I, who is the more nostalgic for the Good Old Days? And Norm in his post explicitly disavowed such nostalgia.

    The Declaration complained that the King of Great Britain had "quarter[ed] large bodies of armed troops among us" and had "protect[ed] them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States." But the trial for murder of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre appears to be a conspicuous counter-point to that.

    Your post above notes that you've read some explanations to which I've linked. Albert Jay Nock's "Our Enemy, the State" probably reflects my political views better than any other single work. I refer you to his take on the history and motivations of the American Revolution and the establishment of the Constitution.

    My post about the Wild West didn't reflect a nostalgia for days gone by, as my comments made clear. Rather, it expressed a natural and important question: Does the government, our government, do more harm than good? It was a natural question to ask regarding Mubarek's government. It was a natural question to ask regarding Stalin's government. And it's a natural question to ask regarding our government.

    I am in no position to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. What I advocate is "dissolving political bands" by the ever more explicit and conscious withdrawal of consent.

  2. Actually, the post grew out of my stumbling across the Cotton Mather quotes.

    Norm's all over the place on his nostalgia. Me? I don't ascribe noble motives to the signers of the Declaration. But what they did took balls. And the way they laid it out is rhetorically powerful. What interests me about them, consistently, is both the vision they laid out and their claim (one I don't think most of them, and maybe not any of them really believed) that violent overthrow of the government wasn't just a one shot thing.

    They really were, in the Declaration, laying out a case for a remarkably weak government. That's not what they all wanted, and its certainly not what they ended up creating, but it's what they set out.

    Really, your comments on the old West may have been meant merely to raise a question. But as you acknowledged, your comments did reflect its cinematic romanticism.

  3. Jefferson, although a deeply flawed human being, was in my opinion and Nock's himself indeed a great political philosopher, and was probably as sincere in his love for liberty and mistrust of government as a slave-owner and politician could be. Hannah Arendt in "On Revolution" posits that Jefferson's advocacy late in life of "ward-republics" was intended to preserve the spirit of the Revolution without refreshing the "tree of liberty . . . from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."