Born Free?

Have you seen the Amistad? I can think of few more heart rending movies. It tells the story of a group of Africans captured and sold into slavery who break free on board ship and kill almost all of the crew. They are captured and taken to Massachusetts, where they stand trial for murdering the crew.

Their case makes it all the way to the supreme court, where John Quincy Adams helps defend them with a stirring speech. In it, he raises the point that we think about too little.

He argues that the case hinges on the fundamental question, What is man? More specifically, he asks, are men by nature free or are they by nature slaves?

This story is deeply disturbing but among the very few important movies. Watch it.

Magic, Science, and Man

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.

CS Lewis
The Abolition of Man

Job Review

I’ve always made a point of knowing what my boss wants me to do when he hires me. This video shows a boss reminding his “employee” of the terms of his job description.

I regret the ending because the point was so effectively made and was weakened by the speakers failure to sit down once it was made. But the point is so incredibly important.

There is a document that constitutes the parameters of the job of some of the most powerful people on earth. This video underscores it:

Treating Cancer With Sugar, Or Mortification Without Representation

I have been avoiding commenting too much on the so-called health care plan for two reasons: first, I don’t want this blog to be seen as political, and second, I haven’t felt confident that I know well enough what is involved in the law. Besides, I have no doubt that what follows is a paranoid overreaction.

I was emoldened to write when I read President Obama acknowledging that he doesn’t know what is in it either.

I fear that there can be no good outcome from today’s vote to pass health care. If the health care plan continues and is passed, our nation will be fundamentally altered.

  1. It represents the establishment of federal bureaucracies that will oversee how health insurance is paid for.
  2. It has removed decision making power still further from the people who have the knowledge and the interest to make sound decisions. If you have read any of my political ravings on this blog earlier, you know that this is my bugaboo, my hobby-horse, even my hobgoblin. Our country has utterly and completely lost its way by seeking abstract solutions to concrete, particular, personal problems. Where does this law direct the energy of the decision makers? To whom does it give the power to make decisions? If these questions are not answered soundly, then nearly all of us will suffer because we will find our own energies misdirected and our own decisions made something like anemic and mostly irrelevent.
  3. It puts still more power in the hands of people who have no direct interest in the well-being of the people affected by their decisions.
  4. It compels decision makers to make their decisions on ever increasingly irrelevent information to the specific decision being made. As a result we are entering even further into this dark cave we have been lost in, one in which unelected authorities make executive decisions that affect the well-being of thousands who are not even represented in the decision. Because we elected our congress, we have lost the right to complain about this point. We cannot speak of mortification without representation. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that our congress has betrayed us into the hands of those before whom we will have no representation. We have freely chosen to become a slave state.
  5. Nobody knows what is in the law. How can we hand something that so fundamentally affects everything we do, from eating, to playing, to reading, to thinking, without demanding to know what is involved? Do congress and the President believe that we owe our government that level of trust? What will the Democrats and democrats do when another party or vision takes authority over this Leviathon and directs it in ways they don’t like? What will any of us do when Leviathon breaks its chains? You cannot give power to a government and take it back again.
  6. This law represents only the planting of a seed. Here is what you will hear over the coming months, especially leading to the elections:
    1. Raving by the Progressives about how disappointing this law was. They will genuinely and sincerely wonder how classical liberals could be so upset by such an anoemic law.
    2. Celebration of the practical benefits to be derived from this law.
    3. Glorification of the “president-who-could,” and because he could, he did.
    4. Extreme disappointment at how little this law does.
  7. And here is what you will see over the next decade:
    1. Removal of the cute little joke called an executive order (as permanent as water on the road) that prevents the plan from paying for abortions
    2. Preceded by clever workarounds and moving money from one part of the budget to another by abortion providers (I’ve often wondered how people can take this sort of thing seriously)
    3. Extreme growth of interest groups pressuring congress and the White House to send benefits from the plan their way.
    4. Gradual establishment of more agencies and regulations, some to prevent the massive abuse the system invites and even begs for, and most as favors and payments. When the Republicans make those payments and curry those favors, they will simply serve as the sort of parasite this dog hosts.
    5. Fantastically subtle and less subtle controls over everything we do, because remember, now the federal government has a formal interest in everything that affects the cost of health care. Can you think of anything that doesn’t?
    6. Loss of moral energy and innovation in the American entrpreneur. Already people who want to build a business are crippled by the regulations. Nobody can see what isn’t there; nobody can measure what doesn’t happen. Therefore, the lethargy and discouragement of American business will never be recognized by the government or the “mainstream media.” But we will all live under its weight.
    7. Unimaginable government corruption, some of which we might even hear about.
    8. Kafkaesque arbitrariness.

It cannot be undone. The Republicans will probably win many seats in the congress this fall, but that won’t matter for three reasons.

  1. The Republicans have proven beyond any doubt that it is for those seats that they pretend to support defined, constitutional government
  2. Once the plan is in place, it will root into too many parts of the national life. Nobody will be able to figure out how to remove it.
  3. It might well lead to riots.

After a century of failed central planning I can hardly believe what we have freely chosen to do as a people. A part of me feels like a great light has gone out in the world.

It hasn’t.

I know that.

Nevertheless, here is the single, decisive, fundamental reality: A seed of death was planted today. No matter how well-intentioned this law, it has put in the hands of unelected, unrepresentative powers, powers that are uninterested in, because unaffected by, the well-being of those who are affected by their decisions, powers that cannot know what is needed in given situations and will make decisions based, at first, on strict economics, and next, on what is best for them, and third, on political favors and debts (which, after all, is what this law is made up of), it has put into the hands of those powers a degree of authority that borders on madness.

This law may well perfectly encapsulate the values and philosophy of the American people. It is practical. It is efficient. It centralizes. It makes some people feel really, really good. It is based on political gamesmanship. It makes us feel secure while taking away our freedoms – in this case, the most fundamental freedoms a human being can have. It is rooted in fear. It is an illusion.

After eight years of the betrayal of all things conservative through George Bush’s novitiate, I conclude that no power exists in the United States of America that is able to restore our freedoms. After all, we elected, freely, our masters.

From Teddy and Woodrow, to FDR, to LBJ, to Bush Major and Lesser, and now to the current congress and President, we have consistently demonstrated that FDR was right: “We have [had] nothing to fear but fear itself,” and it has owned us for over a century.

Freedom frightens us. We seek a paternal state to take care of us. We don’t trust our neighbors. We have not accepted that we are all going to die, and many of us are going to die because of stupid things we or somebody else does. Now we have made sure even more of those stupid things will happen. Only these will take place where we are less likely to see them.

The other day I was helping a young friend work on his senior thesis. His issue is the eternally fundamental question of whether the colonies should have rebelled against Great Britain. He had a fairly reflective position, which was encouraging, but when the discussion of taxation without representation arose, he didn’t seem eager to show it much respect.

After all, the British were taxing us for a war they fought on our behalf, and even more shockingly, they hardly taxed us at all. We are taxed far more than they ever were.

Yes, I explained, but the issue is not taxation. It is taxation without representation. If a government that we never elected determined to tax us would we be willing to pay that tax? Well, based on post World War II actions, the answer is an obvious yes.

When the parliament taxed without giving the colonies a voice in the discussion, they showed that they would tax without listening to the colonists. When they sent troops over and demanded that the colonists quarter them at their own expense, they showed that they regarded their subjects as mere objects – slaves.

The colonists did the most impractical thing imaginable. They said no. And they paid for it with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Unlike us, however, they had their children in mind. And also unlike us, the freedom of an English citizen was something they were not willing to give up, not even for health care, not even for life itself.

So very many of them died. Over a stamp tax.

No, over self-respect and love for freedom.

The American idea bore the cancer of slavery at its birth. Its attempt at radical surgery helped, but left traces through the whole system. The 20th century revealed a compulsion to ingest everything that spread the disease, usually under the delusions of well-meaning prescriptions. Denying the disease, we redefined the cure into the disease itself. 

The dream simply cannot cure itself of that cancer. It is not dead yet, but I’m not convinced the prognosis has any hope left. You can’t cure cancer with a massive infusion of sugar.

I congratulate you, Ms. Pelosi. You have fulfilled your wish and will be in the history books. Look around: I hope you like the company.

Learning to Eat with Addison

When CiRCE attains that state in which we can patronize young and up-and-coming or old-with-unwrit-wisdom writers, I will commision somebody to write a book on the following theme: Addison To Waugh: Manners Aristocratic and Bourgeois from the Spectator to the Death of Brideshead.

In my research into freedom and the ideas that sustain it, I came across an article by Peter Gay on Joseph Addison, that master stylist of the 17th century. Gay argues convincingly that Addison was teaching an unruly age how to behave and think in the new world they were growing into.

 One idea that impressed me was Addison’s “romantic” view of the stock market and how it brings people of every stripe together in one peaceful setting. I thought, “Well, that idea has been around the block  a few times since then, but it’s still an impressive thing.”

Voltaire came to England in 1720 and read Addison’s Spectator and used the same imagery about the stock market in his philosophical letters, which were widely read and influential texts in the France of the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin, who I have no doubt read Voltaire and was contemporary with Samuel Johnson, turned to Addison and Steele when he determined to learn how to write. Franklin seems to have appreciated the outlook of Addison and Steele as much as their style, and it is likely that both outlook and style helped him when it came time to defend and negotiate terms for American Independence.

His aforementioned contemporary, Samuel Johnson, either encouraged Franklin’s action or followed it himself. In his Life of Addison, Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

But he isn’t much read today and isn’t much liked by many who read him. CS Lewis said that “Everything the moderns detest, all that they call smugness, complacency, and bourgeios ideology is brought together in his work and given its most perfect expression.

And yet, says Gay, Johnson admired Addison without embarrassment and without reservations, admired him for his delicacy, his authentic elegance, his wit, admired him above all for his willingness to use his abundant talent in a cause as important as it was just. ” He includes an extensive quotation from Johnson about Addison:

He not only made the proper use of wit himself, but taught it to others; and from his time it has been generally subservient to the cause of reason and of truth. He has dissipated the prejudice that had long connected gaiety with vice, and easiness of manners with laxity of principles. He has restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed. This is an elevation of literary charcer above all Greek, above all Roman fame. No greater felicity can genius attain than that of having purified intellectual pleasure, separated mirth from indecency, and wit from licentiousness; of having taught a succession of writers to bring elegance and gaiety to the aid of goodness; and if I may use expressions yet more awful, of having turned many to righteousness.

Lives of the English Poet

If we could have an Addison today! We are all convinced that the stakes have grown so great in our politics and social life that we cannot afford to be civilized and gracious. But if we are not civilized and gracious, why would we want to live in the world we would create by fighting for our policies?

How different Addison’s genteel grace sounds to the brutish duty-mongering of Kantian philosophy and its spawn (a sentence, I would add, that Addison would never have written). Was it Addison that saved Coleridge from the Prussian excesses?

There is a line from Addison through Franklin to our Declaration of Independence and even our Constitution. Another lines runs from Addison through Johnson to a century of British literary theory.

I want to find the ends of those threads, to rebind them, and to strive to write with civility of manner, graciousness of tone, and humility of expression, all while laughing at the ridiculous and never failing to perceive that the image of God can never be, though it can express, the ridiculous.

I have the feeling our liberties are bound to our civilities. The thing is, we all learn to speak by listening to what people say to us and how they say it. Reading the really great stylists can help us rise above ourselves and the limits of our surroundings. We ought not dismiss such a fact with reckless (think: reck, less) alacrity.

Junkers, Hitler, Efficiency, and Leisure

In my research into Hitler’s rise to power, I came across this in Shirer’s locus classicus on the matter, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

For centuries [Prussia] had lain outside the main stream of German historical development and culture. It seemed almost as if it were a freak of history….

By [1701] Prussia had pulled itself up by its own bootstraps to be one of the ranking military powers of Europe. It had none of the resources of the others…. Even the nobility was poor, and the landless peasants lived like cattle. Yet by a supreme act of will and a genius for organizaton the Hohenzollerns managed to create a Spartan military state whose well-drilled Army won one victory after another and whose Machiavellian diplomacy of temporary alliances with whatever power seemed the strongest brought constant additions to its territory.

There thus arose quite artifically a state born of no popular force nor even of an idea except that of conquest, and held together by the absolute power of the ruler, by a narrow-minded bureaucracy which did his bidding and by a ruthlessly disciplined army…. “Prussia,” remarked Mirabeau, “is not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” And the state, which was run with the efficiency and soullessness of a factory, became all; the people were little more than cogs in the machinery. Individuals were tuaght not only by the kings and the drill sergeants but by the philosophers that their role in life was one of obedience, work, sacrifice and duty. Even Kant preached that duty demands the suppression of human feeling, and the Prussian poet Willibald Alexis gloried in the enslavement of the people under the Hohnzollerns. To Lessing, who did not like it, “Prussia was the most slavish country of Europe.”

All of that is pregnant with signficance, but allow me to draw your attention especially to this next paragraph sequence, which compares the agrarian system of Prussia with that of Western Germany. Something vital is hiding on the surface:

The Junkers, who were to play such a vital role in modern Germany, were also a unique product of Prussia. They were, as they said, a master race. It was they who occupied the land conquered by the Slavs and who farmed it on large estates worked by these Slavs, who became landless serfs quite different from those in the West. There was an essential difference between the agrarian system in Prussia and that of Western Germany and Western Europe. In the latter, the nobles, who owned most of the land, received rents or feudal dues from the peasants, who though often kept in a state of serfdom had certain rights and privileges and could, and did, gradually acquire their own land and civic freedom. In the West, the peasants formed a solid part of the community; the landlords for all their drawbacks, developed in their leisure a cultivation which led to, among other things, a civilized quality of life that could be seen in the refinement of manners, of thought and of the arts.

The Prussian Junker was not a man of leisure. He worked hard at managing his large estate, much as a factory manager does today. His landless laborers were treated as virtual slaves. On his large properties, he was the absolute lord. There were no large towns nor any substantial middle class, as there were in the West, whose civilizing influence might rub against him. In contrast to the cultivated grand seigneur in the West, the Junker developed into a rude, domineering, arrogant type of man, without cultivation or culture, aggressive, conceited, ruthless, narrow-minded and given to a petty profit-seeking that some German historians noted in the private life of Otto von Bismarck, the most successful of the Junkers.

William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 137, 138 (emphasis mine)

The United States are certainly not Spartan and we do not seem much inclined toward that vice, but two or three other disturbing trends can be found here that will enslave us if we are not vigilant. Here let me simply highlight the necessity for leisure for a people who wishes to remain free. The civilizing influence of leisure leads to the spread of civilization (please not that civlization is not a matter of power but of form – it is not technology that makes us civilized but, at least, a love of beauty).

The efficiency of the Prussian Junkers stood as a barrier between them and civilization. As a result, they worshipped power and thought of themselves as a “master race.”

The slavs were their opposites. They seem to have had a passivity and an emotionalism that better reflects American society. Even that, however, raises a too simplistic question: do we run the risk of finding a vast portion of our population seduced by the promise of security and pleasure into a state of serfdom to those who are diligent and arrogant?

I have no idea. I cannot see the future. The past only gives clues, not knowledge.

  

Susan Wise Bauer on Medieval History

Every class at school is dominated by either a skill set (the arts, liberal and fine) or ideas (history, theology, etc.). In either case, the content learned will serve the idea or the skill. To avoid confusion, ideas classses also develop skills and skills classes also think about ideas. They cannot be laid into air tight chambers.

The classes that are dominated by ideas were called sciences under the classical curriculum. The classes dominated by skills were called arts.

The arts were seen as foundational to the sciences because before you could contemplate ideas you had to learn how to think.

This changed in the nineteenth century when German philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel and others (following the French revolutionaries) determined that either there were no ideas (classically understood) to know or that any ideas there were to know had no connection to the actual world around us.

Ideas set free from reality were what gave us the revolutions and radicalisms of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century.

They are also what unhinged the classical tradition and the focus on the seven liberal arts as  prerequisites to an educated mind.

In that context, knowing what to teach in a history class, for example, becomes problematic. The conventional school is lost, being dominated by text book publishers who take their cues from arguments at school board meetings in Texas. They don’t have a philosophy of history and if they did they would be shot down by the establishment for imposing it on their students.

Susan Wise Bauer has been writing history books into that context for the last decade or so, and on February 22 she will be releasing a new volume: A History of the Medieval World.

Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting comments on this work from a number of different angles. For example, I’ll point out that I appreciate that she at least occasionally uses complex sentences, without which a child can never learn to read and think complex thoughts. I’ll also reflect on the question of what one ought to include in such a study; whether it is fitting, give what she includes, to call it medieval history; how to make use of the text in your school or home; and a few other things.

I’ll begin by giving the book a qualified thumbs up, while acknowledging that Susan Wise Bauer has produced a very useful artifact. If you are a teacher or parent seeking knowledge of the medieval era as a source of wisdom, you’ll want this book nearby.

For reasons we’ll explore later, I’m not sure if I would make it my primary text to teach the middle ages in a classical school. However, I would absolutely want my students to have it nearby as a resource.  

Over the next few days I’ll be with the apprentices close to 24/7 so I’m not likely to post much – maybe a great quotation here or there. But I’ll be back at it on Monday, reflecting on medieval history, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and whether there is a necessary relationship between education and freedom.

Let me remind you again that our conference on Liberty will be held in Dallas on July 14-17 and the early bird registration fee is available, though the conference is filling at a surprisingly rapid pace. You can register for 245 (225 in groups of three or more) and I’d love to see you there. We need to think hard about liberty if we expect to keep it.

Preparing the way for Hitler (part III of a series)

In my previous post in this series, I said I would discuss why Germany was so ready for Hitler and why they supported him so enthusiastically.

To understand this, you must understand that Hitler came to power in a Germany that had been preparing for him for a long time. An evil on the scale of Nazism, or Communism for that matter, does not come about without a long gestation. It requires enormous technological power, ideas about reality and human nature, a certain national spirit, political systems and assumptions, and probably a good dose of demonic involvement.

The same is true of a good on the scale of our constitution and liberties.

Life is the interchange of ideas and applications. It is not possible to determine which comes first for the simple reason that neither exists apart from the other. An idea  not embodied is an idea not thought.

Practically, therefore, our lives are a dialectic between our ideas and our circumstances. We dream big and try to make it happen. We find that we can’t perfect it, so we have to make a choice.

We can love the dream enough to accomplish as muc of it as possible. Or we can replace the dream with a fantasy and chase the hobgoblin of our dream. Or we can abandon the dream altogether.

We do this with our schools. A private school comes to be when a person or a few people share a vision for what education can accomplish. Then it gets hard. What will the leadership do?

Whatever they decide at this point will determine the actual life of the school.

We do it with our marriages and love affairs too. In this hyper-Romantic age people put the weight of the cosmos on their love-affairs. When you listen to the love songs of the 50’s and 60’s, it’s cute how they commit themselves to dying for each other to sappy music, how they look to their partners to be their soul-satisfying gods and goddesses. In the late 70’s, that childish impulse remains in the uber-pop music that people find so embarrassing after they turn 20 (or at least should), but disco, heavy metal, and punk inject a cynicism into popular music that has pretty much taken over.

It might seem quite a reach to write about popular love songs in the context of the rise of the Nazi’s, but I think you’ll see the point as we go on.

Music embodies ideas, sometimes in lyrics, sometimes in melodies, harmonies, and rhythms – and in the relation of these elements. Music is the metrical and sonic imitation of the movements of the soul.

Everything we do, think, and feel, is the embodiment of an idea.

Therefore, if we are going to understand how Germany was prepared for Hitler (and Russia for Lenin and China for Mao etc.), we have to understand the ideas that Hitler embodied in his rule of Germany.

We can study that question directly by asking, “What were the ideas that dominated German thought?” And we can study it indirectly by asking, “What forms did those ideas take?” In other words, what changes took place leading up to Hitler? What remained the same but was used by Hitler for his purposes?

Examples of the less direct approach would include, for example, the rise of Bismarck and his establishment of a “United Germany.” Bismarck had prepared the political/industrial soil.

No study of Nazism would be complete that did not take a close look at Bismarck’s effect on the German character, social structure, political activities, etc.

But as much as I love history, I find it easier to look at the world through the eyes of philosophy. A study of philosophy reveals a few things to us. For one, philosophy never arises in a vacuum. So what Randall called “the career of philosophy” will reveal something of the character of the people among whom a philosophy develops.

Second, philosophers (I use the term loosely here to include everybody who claims to be a philosopher and is studied in some philsophy class somewhere  – even though most contempory philsophers are sophists and anti-philosophers) have, historically, been the Dutch Uncles or the Uncle Tom’s of a culture.

What I mean by that is that philosophers come up with complicated rationalizations for all sorts of behaviors.  The reason for this is that ethics are rooted in a view of reality and philsophers at least pretend to try to explain reality. We’ll see shortly that they have, by and large, given up on that quest, but the point remains important.

College professors and government officials tend to look to philosophers to tell them what is right and wrong.  Then they tell their students. Then their students go home and inflict their new morality on their families. And if their students are studying in the teacher’s college, then they go into the classroom and teach it to the nation’s children.

This has happened over and over again over the past 800 years, so by now it should not need much defense. It is happening again in our country, and it happened in Hitler’s Germany.

So the study of philosophy as a human activity (as opposed to the study of Philosophy itself – i.e. the quest for wisdom) embodied in philosophical writings and societies can tell us a great deal about the society in which it grows and it will show us why a people thinks they ought to do some things and not do others.

In my next post, I will describe as simply as I possibly can the primary philosopher who prepared Germany for Hitler (and whose influence in 20th century American education has been infernally profound).

Let me end with a somewhat lengthy quotation from Owen Barfield’s unbearably brilliant book Poetic Diction that will highlight the war I am describing and underscore at least one of the main battlegrounds of that war. Everything that follows in this discussion, everything that happens in your life, is influenced in some way by what Barfield says:

The conflicting theories of knowledge of which the following pages take cognizance show every sign of diverging more and more widely, leaving a deeper and deeper gulf of incomprehension between them. Between those for whom ‘knowledge’ means ignorant but effective power [ed. note: please remember this phrase], and those for whom the individual imagination is the medium of all knowledge from perception upward, a truce will not readily be struck. Nor can we safely assume that the conflict will be confined to the intellectual arena. In the nineteenth century, belief in imagination proved itself to be clearly allied with belief in individual freedom; necessarily so, because the act of imagination is the indivdual mind exercising its sovereign unity. [ed. note, please remember that phrase as well]  In the twentieth century we are gradually learning that the converse is equally true. There is a curiously aggressive note, often degenerating into a sneer, in the style of those who expound the principles of linguistic analysis. Before he even begins to write, the Logical Positivist has taken the step from ‘I prefer not to interest myself  in propositions which cannot be empirically verified’ to ‘all propositions which cannot be empirically verified are meaningless’. The next step to ‘I shall legislate to prevent anyone else wasting his time on meaningless propositions’ is unlikely to appear either illogical or negative to his successor in title. Those who mistake efficiency for meaning inevitably end by loving compulsion, even if it takes them, like Bernard Shaw, the best part of a lifetime to get there.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, 1973, Page 22 (emphasis added)

If that quotation or any of the foregoing is incomprehensible to you, don’t worry. It was to me too at first. I’ve had to read it a few times, reflect on it, now write it, and read other things that helped me grasp it. There is no shame in not understanding a difficult passage. I will try to explain why I included it in the following posts.

By the way, these posts have arisen from my reflections for the summer conference on liberty. I hope you’ll be able to come as we are, as our government told us over 25 years ago, a nation at risk, and they rightly located that risk in our school system. I do not know how much longer we will be a free country. I do know that we cannot remain free without educated citizens.

Germany, Austria, and the Beginnings of Hitler (Part II of a series)

I mentioned in my previous post that my great-grandfather came from southeastern Austria (actually, as my brother Nate reminded me, the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1910, 100 years ago this year, and that my mother came from Germany a couple generations later.

Austria and Germany are both Germanic people’s, but their history and their characters are very different indeed. I was born in Germany in 1963 and we lived in a very small town in the foothills of Austria until 1966 or 67. I remember nothing of it except perhaps a sound from an air conditioning unit over some nearby building, but I’ve never been clear on that.

In the summer of 2005 I finally went back to that little town, called Hague am Ausruck. It was the epitome of quaint. One street runs up the hill on which the town is located, and on that street are all the shops that fed the town and, I suspect, the hill dwellers nearby. Each was painted a clean pastel, giving the street the characteristically Austrian cleanliness and harmony. Everything about the country seemed musical to me.

Running to and from that main street are three or four tributaries that take you to the houses, none of which were particularly large, but as I recall they were all affectionately tended.

This was 2006. In 1964 it was not so. In 1964 Austria was still recovering from the dual catastrophes of WWI and the ensuing Anschluss and WWII. The once great Empire of Charlemagne had ended in 1918. The rump endured the primal insult of Nazi aggression in the 1930’s.

This National Socialist Germany was the cradle of my mother’s childhood. She lived in Pottsdam, near Berlin, almost an epicenter for the Nazi juggernaut.

For all these reasons, I can’t help but take the story of Hitler’s rise to power personally. I confess that I still love the movie A Sound of Music, if only for the scene in which Max says to Captain Von Trapp that they should be grateful that the Anschluss happened peacefully. Von Trapp jumps at Max with a searing  accusation: “Grateful! Max, I don’t believe I know you.”

Clearly it gave him no sense of gratitude at all that his people made no effort to defend themselves against the invasion. He would rather have died himself.

When Max tells Maria that she should talk to the Captain, Maria’s answer is priceless: “I can’t ask him to be less than he is.”

How Von Trapp would have scoffed at the empty sentiment of a “global citizen!” What do we do, he would have asked, when the Globe determines to oppress us? What do we do when it won’t let us worship at our family altar and won’t let us sing Edelweiss?

The great question of the 20th century has to be, “How did regimes as cruel as the Nazi’s in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the Communists in Russia and China, find acceptance among the people’s they ruled?”

To be honest, though, the Nazi question is more important for two reasons. First, the Chinese and Russians came to power through a ruthless cruelty that involved a great deal less acceptance by the people they dominated. Second, we are much closer to the mindset of pre-Nazi Germany than we are to the mindset of pre-Bolshevik Russia or pre-Maoist China.

The disturbing thing about Nazi Germany is that Hitler was not only elected democractically (in a parliamentary system), but that he was elected under circumstances that allowed plenty of time for reflection.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how it came about that Hitler was able to lead the German people with so little opposition.

Coming to a Republic, But Can You Keep It?

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw a dramatic acceleration of immigration into the United States from Europe. In 1910, my great-grandfather came from what was then Austria and settled in Milwaukee, WI.

He was one of a multitude.

I don’t know if I possess the creative capacity to exagerrate the signficance of what that wave of immigration meant to American society and politics.

At one level, that is an obvious point. Of course, it will lead to changes if Italians, Germans, French, Spanish, Scandinavian, and other diverse European peoples are all thrown together into a single pot.

So you could say that this is an exercise in stating the obvious. But I’m OK with that. I really like obvious things.

Here’s a particular obvious fact. Not one single immigrant from any country I listed above came to America from an established republic.

Try to absorb that fact.

Remember when Benjamin Franklin left the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, and someone asked him, “What have you given us?” His answer: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

What a very interesting statement. Why would he put it like that? Nobody would say, “A monarchy, if you can keep it.” But Franklin knew, and his confederates knew, that a Republic is a precarious form of government, for human nature always tends toward some sort of collectivism.

Either people turn toward populism, which always leans on the monarch or the Fuhrer or the Messiah or the dictator to protect it from the ravages of the plutocrats.

Or they turn straight to the One to be protected from the uncertainty of life and the market.

But few people want to be free for the simple reason that freedom requires hard work, wisdom, and risk.

So Franklin knew that the republic bequeathed to the American people led a tenuous life that would require hard work, wisdom, and risk. Fortunately, most Americans accepted those terms and determind to preserve the republic as long as they could.

As a result, when my great-grandfather, Jan Polak, joined this Republic in 1910 he came at the tail end of a vast attempt to ensure that the immigrants would understand what it meant to live in a Republic.

Think about this. When he came from Austria, he was leaving the formerly Holy Roman Empire ruled by an Emperor and gathering within its boundaries a whole series of smaller kingdoms and dukedoms. I doubt very much that the idea of voting for any ruler beyond, perhaps, his local church, ever entered his mind.

Now he was called upon every four years to elect his own president, every two years to elect representatives, and constantly to elect aldermen, mayors, governors, etc. etc.

It must have made him dizzy, and while not everybody was an almdudler from the mountains of Slovenia, far from society and culture, many, many immigrants needed these new responsibilities explained to them.

This was the impulse behind the growth of the public schools in the late 19th century. The American people had a Republic and they wanted to keep it.

It didn’t require racism or white supremacism or ethnicism or even political snobbery to realize that unless these people were taught about our system of government they wouldn’t know how to function within it. They simply weren’t accustomed to it.

The locals strove to teach my ancestors the contents of the constitution as well resources allowed. They were taught how to vote. They were taught what a republic is and how it differs from a monarchy or empire. They were taught the basic story behind our revolution. They were taught the constitution.

Having left old, decaying systems behind, mostly tyrannical, you can imagine what a breath of life this was to so many of them. It’s no wonder to me that my grandfather and my father regarded this country with awe.

Back in those days, when they spoke of the American way of life, they didn’t mean a conspicuously consumptive and wasteful desperation, they meant a place where the people chose their servants and they had a job description that described their servants’ roles. That job description was called the Constitution of the United States of America. And each state had one of their own as well.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandfather came from Austria. Three generations later, my mother fled Russian controlled Germany and landed in Milwaukee too, having married my father.

People still came to America seeking freedom in those days, but things had already changed a great deal.

I’m going to explore some of those changes in my next post.