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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Flowers for Algernon

Does increasing executive power contribute to imperialism? Or does domestic absolutism undermine a nation's imperial ambitions?

On this question, the Bush administration and its liberal critics have agreed, if to opposite effect. Recall the "senior [Bush] adviser" who told Ron Suskind, writing for the NY Times, that "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Democrats, wary of both the Bush administration's power grabs (torture, wiretapping, military tribunals, etc.) and the excesses of its military adventurism in Iraq, tend intuitively to associate the two evils. Such logic traces at least to the Vietnam era and can be seen in its defining scholarly work, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Imperial Presidency: "By the early 1970s the American President had become on issues of war and peace the most absolute monarch (with the possible exception of Mao Tse-tung of China) among the great powers of the world. The Indochina War placed this problem high on the national consciousness" (1973, ix).

Looking back at the 20th century, it is hard to ignore the coincidence of escalating power in the executive branch and the rising international fortunes of the American republic, particularly under TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and JFK. Going back much farther, to the beginnings of modern thought, Thomas More contended in Utopia that a good man couldn't advise a king, because the king would always want war to increase his power, whereas the adviser should counsel peace to the benefit of the people. But this connection is far from absolute. On the opposite side, we might note that America grew to prominence with a presidency that by most accounts was constitutionally weak and that the "imperial presidencies" of LBJ, Nixon, and Bush (II) have coincided with declining American strength and influence, at least in the short term.

I've been thinking about this issue this week as I've been reading a once-famous book that few living Americans (save, I expect, Emery) have dared: Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1996 [1698]). For the American founders, Sidney was one of the great heroes of English liberty, although his most enduring legacy may be as the forgotten coiner of the phrase, "God helps those who help themselves" (II.23, 210). A contemporary of John Locke, Sidney was elected to parliament, fought for it against the king during the English Civil War, went into hunted exile for two decades after the Restoration, and eventually returned to join with the Whig opposition and fight for political and religious freedom. By 1683 Sidney was fingered for involvement (never proved) in a regicidal plot, put on trial, and executed. The prime evidence against him was a few recovered pages of the unpublished Discourses.

Many of the themes in Sidney echo those of Locke, who at that time was writing his Two Treatises of Government. Contending against Robert Filmer's defense of absolutism, both men argue for the natural freedom and equality of man, the distinction between paternal and political power, the importance of limited executives and balanced governmental powers, and the right of the people to revolt if government betrays its trust. But whereas Locke seems concerned primarily with the natural rights of "life, liberty, and estate," rights primarily affecting man's private existence, Sidney was far more concerned with questions of public virtue and national strength; where Locke attacked tyranny from the standpoint of "liberalism," Sidney assailed it from the standpoint of what we now call "republican" (Pocock) or "neo-Roman" (Skinner) theory. Like James Harrington a generation before, Sidney was a devotee of Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy (not, however, of the Prince), in particular, the notion that Rome's glory could be found in the liberty and rule of law of her republican era.

Sidney is far less innovative a theorist than Locke--i.e., less attuned to the decay of feudal politics--and the Discourses are long (~600 pages), repetitive, and often tedious. Yet there are intriguing pearls buried in his pages. When he argues that "God helps those who help themselves," he's refuting the notion that nations rise and fall by chance or "fortune." Filmer, whom Sidney labelled a "corrupted Christian" (II.10, 134), held that the Bible demanded the quiescence of subjects to our earthly masters, and that their unquestioned power would bring us strength and safety. Instead, Sidney claims that nations become powerful precisely because they are "free," with freedom meaning constitutional self-government, balanced power, and the rule of law. Virtue--which is not to be confused with wealth or material prosperity--finds an earthly reward:

The secret counsels of God are impenetrable; but the ways by which he accomplishes his designs are often evident: When he intends to exalt a people, he fills both them and their leaders with the virtues suitable to the accomplishment of his end; and takes away all wisdom and virtue from those he resolves to destroy. . . . Histories furnish us with innumerable examples of this kind: But I think none can be found of a cowardly, weak, effeminate, foolish, undisciplined people, that have ever subdued such as were eminent in strength, wisdom, valor, and good discipline (II.12, 145-6).

Over and over, Sidney hammers the point that executive absolutism, rather than promoting strength, actually creates national weakness. One reason is that free republics reward merit, while tyrants prefer to surround themselves with incompetents and flatterers. Sound familiar? Plus, the less politically involved the people are, the less capable they become of judging their leaders, and the more prone they become to the decadent and feminizing vices of self-interest. Damned Frenchies, with their flamboyant courtier culture! As Bush told us in the aftermath of 9/11, there's no need for personal sacrifice, just go shopping. Yes, conservatism, at least as understood in the FOX News era--the celebration of material striving and conspicuous luxury, coupled with deference to untrammeled and pampered executive power--will (a) crush your imperial ambitions, and (b) make you gay.

There's a funny post yet to be written about the social and, indeed, political construction of sexuality, for which I hope Sam will offer some insight, this being his bailiwick. But Sidney's equation of executive absolutism with both political and sexual weakness certainly offers an entertaining alternative to the standard GOP narrative, the one concerning Bush manliness, etc., that dominates contemporary discourse. Sidney's more important insight, however, must be that civic equality, engaged citizenship, personal liberty, and vigorous dissent from executive power are the real foundations of national greatness. Indeed, they are the virtues for which God will inevitably reward us with empire. Maybe the Project for a New American Century should offer a fellowship to Cindy Sheehan.


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