Thursday, January 25, 2007

For Good or Ill, Jackson lives on

My previous posts dealt with reasons why that rarest of American birds, a southern liberal, might want to seek political asylum in the UK. The first was (mostly) light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek; the second just a bit more serious. Since I have been away from the blogosphere for too long, I have decided to sound a more serious note in this post.

There are facets of the American outlook that are just plain out of step with the rest of the industrialized western world. The peculiarly American outlook derives from many sources, but an important one is the legacy of Jacksonian democracy, which resulted in part from what I will call "The Walpole Diagnosis" - the significant role of 18th century Scots-Irish (labeled, I think, Ulster-Scots in the UK and R of I), and their low church theology and attitudes, in shaping the American vision.

The exact historical details are a matter of continued scholarly debate, but I think there is wide agreement within the Academy that, between 1710 and 1770, nearly 250,000 Ulster-Scots settled in what would become the United States, that they formed distinct communities and a distinct sub-culture, and that they played an important (perhaps even pivotal, or critical) role in the creation and ultimate success of the American Revolution. Obviously, Walpole thought so too.

If one were to overlay a contemporary political map of the United States with a map of where Ulster-Scots and their descendants were the predominant force of white settlement, any number of things would "stand out" immediately. First, these are the parts of the country which went most solidly for George Bush in 1990 and 1994, and which Bill Clinton did NOT carry in either of his elections. Second, they are where the "Christian Right" is most politically influential. Third, their public schools systems are weaker than those of the rest of the US on a statewide basis, and by a wide margin. Fourth, they have some of the lowest per capita incomes in the US. Fifth, a larger percentage of the population elects military service than in the rest of the US.

If one studies the political career of President Andrew Jackson, and glances over at the "Ulster-Scot" map a second time, it seems pretty clear that "Ulster-Scot" America is what put him in office and kept him there. President Jackson is, of course, credited with the crafting of "Jacksonian Democracy." For my UK readers not familiar with this term I would (somewhat contentiously, I guess) define Jacksonian Democracy, then and now, as adherence to the following doctrines (among others):
  • Universal suffrage - in the sense of voting rights being in no way linked to wealth, social position or property ownership (factors such as race, gender and religious affiliation DID count, until the 1960's. Can't have those Catholics voting - they would just be following orders from the Pope).
  • Explicit limits on government power, whether local, state or federal. This deeply seated suspicion of government generally played out in the early days of Jacksonian democracy in a multitude of ways, resulting in a number of doctrines and practices, many of which still have contemporary "legs." One related Jacksonian notion that is still at least given lip service is the doctrine of a "strict construction" of the written constitution (unless we are talking about the "rights" of "terror suspects," or "enemy combatants," or persons of Japanese ancestry living on the Pacific coast after Pearl Harbor- then the construction is anything BUT strict). Another is a general acceptance of laissez-faire economics. A third is an elected judiciary that is "of the people" (in many "Jacksonian" states, the judiciary did not even wear robes until the 1960's, and there were no qualifications required to hold judicial office) - no "activist" judges allowed. A fourth is the notion, unique to American conservatives, that there is such a thing as government which is "too large," no matter what benefits it might provide or how efficient and benevolent it is. Unless, of course, there's a war on. THEN the government can go half a trillion dollars in debt overnight and no one bats an eye.
  • A belief in the "Manifest Destiny" of the United Sates - at first, expressed as a right to occupy all of North America after murdering anyone who was already there; later, as a belief that the United States is uniquely favored by God, and is in some sense an "ideal" society with a right to lead the rest of the world around by the nose. This is perhaps the most "Ulster-Scot" leg of the Jacksonian outlook - containing, as it does, a dose of Calvin/Knox determinism along with a vision of a Deity who favors some people at the expense of others, and has countenanced, and indeed approved of, the virtual extermination of entire peoples, and the reckless use of natural resources for the benefit of a tiny fraction of the world's people. Why should the US, with 5% of the world's population, enjoy 25% of the world's wealth and resources? The Jacksonian answer is "because God wills it so. If God didn't want us to have it, we wouldn't." Convenient.
  • The subordination of knowledge to belief. In the early days of Jacksonian thinking, this was expressed simply as a "belief in the wisdom of the common man" - which meant in practice that the opinion of some ignorant Florida cracker, for example, was every bit as valuable as that of an Adams or a Jefferson. Today, it lives on in the form of a suspicion of, and hostility towards, education generally. Examples are numerous: elected Boards of Education made up of people who haven't read a serious book in years; attempts to smuggle "intelligent design" into the Biology curriculum; insistence that liberal arts courses have "linked employability skills;" a steady weakening of broad humanities requirements in college curricula. It is thanks to Jacksonian democracy that, in America, television discussions of "ethical issues" involve clergymen only - no philosophers present. Even the "liberal media" in America is blissfully unaware of a 2,500 year old tradition of inquiry in to the nature of the right and the good which leaves religion out of it - further proof (as if any more were needed) that in America even the press is dumber than a box of rocks, and proud of it.
There is more to the Jacksonian outlook than that, of course, but just this partial list illustrates the degree to which that outlook is still a part of the American character and experience. As a group the Ulster-Scots arrived here deeply suspicious of, and resentful towards, any government official;  accustomed to using violence to get their way (and proud of it); resentful of any clergyman who was called a "priest," whether Anglican or Catholic (Canterbury is over halfway to Rome, you know); resentful of any class distinction; and absolutely convinced, in their profound ignorance, of their own superiority to everyone else in terms of divine favor.

Needless to say, these principles have often looked even worse in practice than they do in print. To take just two examples, Universal suffrage didn't even extend to WHITE women (much less anybody else, like blacks) until less than 100 years ago. And, anti-clericalism doesn't extend to low church hacks - the rest of us are expected to listen respectfully to their dreary, ignorant, ungrammatical ravings in all manner of public places (schools, sessions of Congress, football games, etc) whether or not we want to hear it. And when politicians of a Jacksonian bent piously spout their "family values" nonsense, the temptation to paraphrase Churchill and ask "which one - adultery, wife beating or child molestation?" is hard to resist.

The American south is, of course, quintessentially Jacksonian. Jackson was born in North Carolina and lived most of his adult life in Tennessee. And, much of the current "dark side" of American politics and foreign policy finds a home here in the south. It is the only region of the United States where the Iraq war still enjoys anything like support. Most of the Senate, including many Republicans, are raising hell over the war and its conduct - but not North Carolina's Senators. Or Georgia's. Or Mississippi's. Or Alabama's. Or... You get the picture. The schools are horrible. Many of my US students arrive at college unable to construct a simple thesis-style essay. In terms of geography and world history, they are galactically ignorant, even about matters of urgent concern. My students from the UK, Bermuda, Ghana, Nigeria and the rest of the English speaking world are, in contrast, uniformly at least minimally competent writers, and are better read and generally better informed about every subject from art to zoology than their American classmates. The foreign students even know their bible better than the pious American knuckleheads they sit next to (query: if you really did believe the bible to be inerrant, wouldn't you urgently seek to familiarize yourself with the contents?).

That is the dark side. But there has been a bit of a bright side, believe it or not. Jacksonian democracy has produced a few individuals who found in it the inspiration for a vision of absolute, uncompromising adherence to constitutional principles of due process and equal protection under the law. The late Senator Sam Ervin, of Watergate fame, comes to mind immediately. The trouble is, visions of the rule of law like "Senator Sam" had are easy for the American body politic to quickly loose sight of in the heat of the moment. This has been noticed on both sides of the Atlantic. In a recent address, Lord Bingham quoted, with approval, the following words of America's Justice William Brennan:

"There is considerably less to be proud about, and a good deal to be embarrassed about, when one reflects on the shabby treatment civil liberties have received in the United States during times of war and perceived threats to national security … After each perceived security crisis ended, the United States has remorsefully realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary. But it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along."

In that vein, I can't help but wonder what "Senator Sam" would think about what goes on these days. What WOULD he think, for example, of an Attorney General who even dares to ARGUE that American citizens can be arrested and held without trial for indefinite periods of time, without right of Habeas Corpus, while all Courts are open and sitting for the regular dispatch of business? What WOULD he think of a Vice President so Orwellian that he can say, with a straight face, that America doesn't torture prisoners because a) waterboarding isn't torture and/or b) it isn't our fault if we just happen to leave a prisoner in the hands of some OTHER jurisdiction that DOES torture people? I am pretty sure Senator Sam would nod with approval at the following recent observation by Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead in A (FC) and others (FC) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department (conjoined with another appeal):

82. That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride and the admiration of enlightened foreign writers such as Voltaire and Beccaria. In our own century, many people in the United States, heirs to that common law tradition, have felt their country dishonoured by its use of torture outside the jurisdiction and its practice of extra-legal "rendition" of suspects to countries where they would be tortured...

Of course, Lord Nicholls wouldn't be delivering this opinion in a case before The House of Lords if the Blair government wasn't also taking a pretty expansive view of the Government's right to abridge liberty in the name of security. So, how about Canada? No legacy of Andrew Jackson, no locking people up without trial by a supposedly liberal government. They even let you go deer hunting up there. Canada might work out, if I could learn to put "eh" at the end of each sentence.


Friday, January 12, 2007

More considerations in favor of seeking Asylum

Yesterday's post was essentially a list of the things I loved about the "British Isles" (apologies to the Irish). Since tonight's post will be the last one for a couple of days (I work 16 hours on Saturday and 16 hours on Sunday as a nurse, so no time or energy for blogging on the weekend), I thought I would continue to curry favor with the audience abroad, and continue with the "why I want political asylum over there" theme.

One good thing about my schedule is that it allows me to pursue my teaching, writing and research during the week without having to suffer serious financial hardship. Nursing in the US now pays well enough to permit nurses to live a decent life (as it damn well should). Obviously, intellectual life matters to me, and in certain respects the quality of intellectual life in Ireland and the UK is preferable to that in the US. The contrast is not in the quality of scholarship, or scholars. It is, rather, a matter of attitude and atmosphere.

In Philosophy, for example, the USA pretty clearly leads the world in terms of the sheer NUMBER of brilliant philosophers doing serious philosophy today. For example, for every Onora O'Neill doing serious Kant scholarship in the UK, the US has a Barbara Herman, Kris Kosgaard, Tom Woods, Jay Rosenberg and David Velleman. And so it should, given the relative population of the two countries and the funds available. For the same reason, the rewards for US philosophers are probably, on average, greater in purely financial terms. If you are lucky enough to be one of the "rock stars" in the field, and there is genuine competition among institutions to hire you, the USA is (mostly) the place to be.

Nor is it the case that the UK has, necessarily, the VERY best individual in many fields, as was the case a century ago. To return to the Kant example, Baroness O'neill is a formidable Kant scholar, but not clearly BETTER than Kris Kosgaard at Harvard, or Barbara Herman at UCLA. So, what's so great across the pond?

Consider the case of Baroness O'Neill. She is "Baroness," I gather, because her accomplishments are recognized by a broader segment of society than would be the case for a comparable scholar in the US. And while a cross-bench peerage in the House of Lords is not exactly the pinnacle of political power and public recognition, no intellectual in the US holds a post of similar public regard, nor can so readily be publicly heard. So, it at least seems to this American observer that there is a bit more interchange between the academic world and the wider public on the other side of the pond. Query: is this an unwelcome relic of Jacksonian democracy? More on this idea in later posts.

Exchange within the academic world seems a bit more fertile as well. Here, I think Nursing serves as a useful example. Nursing has been an ACADEMIC discipline in the US, with schools attached to major universities, for a longer period of time than has been the case abroad. Yet, there is far more collegiality between nursing scholars and other scholars in the UK, Ireland and Europe than seems to be the case in the US. Again, it is not a matter of money or the quality of the individuals, but rather one of atmosphere and attitude. That a nurse might have something to offer a seminar on, say, justice and the allocation of heathcare resources, just wouldn't even enter the minds of the philosophers, political scientists, economists and public health types who typically organize such things at US universities. It would occur to their counterparts in Europe right off.

Here is a thought, to be revisited later. Could some of this, at least, be the result of some sort of odd class consciousness? Americans like to think of themselves as a classless society, much to the amusement of the rest of the western world. Perhaps this is some evidence that such a consciousness exists at many levels. Perhaps the image of nurse as the bed-pan emptying, body washing, working class woman of good heart but limited intellect still informs attitudes and judgements, as does the image of "philosopher" as an ivory tower intellectual who has nothing useful to say about the world of practical affairs. And, perhaps, this is all the more pernicious in America because Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that there is, in America, any such conception as that of "Class" to inform collective judgement.  Another unfortunate relic of Jacksonian democracy?


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Why Start This Blog?

All sorts of events and experiences over the last six months have led me to start this blog, even though I am sadly neglecting my other blog (linked below), and I have PLENTY of other things to do. I can think of no better way to "kick off" a new blog than with the first installment on a meditation on what has started it.

I attend an annual conference on the philosophy of nursing in the Fall. It usually takes place at a university in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, although it will take place in Boston in 2008. It is the high point of my year - I go to the conference instead of going on vacation. One of the things I enjoy most about it is my sense, upon landing in Midlands, Glasgow, Dublin or Heathrow, of being in what philosophers label a "near-by possible world;" a world much like my own but different in interesting (and possibly better) ways. I become so enchanted while there that I HATE to leave. The list of "enchantments" could fill a book, but here are some that come immediately to mind.
  • True public transportation exists.
  • Fish and chips shops.
  • There are (almost) no fundamentalist preachers on television predicting damnation for most of humanity, asking for money, and claiming that the world is 10,000 years old. Exception noted for the occasional Church of Scotland broadcast.
  • Pubs.
  • You can walk (almost) anywhere with out being murdered.
  • Fish and chips shops.
  • Buildings and seminar rooms named after people who HAVEN'T paid a fortune to some institution.
  • Beer that DOESN'T taste like water, even though it doesn't come from a "micro-brewery" and cost twice as much as a beer should cost.
  • Fish and chips shops.
  • A countryside as yet un-raped by "real estate developers."
  • Pubs.
  • People living a reasonable quality of life while consuming about 1/3 of the world's natural resources that Americans do.
  • Fish and chips shops.
  • A collective social conscience which provides universal healthcare ( I know the NIH sucks sometimes, but at least there IS one. But don't forget: George Bush assures us that America is the greatest nation in the world! Never mind the children whose eardrums burst because their parents have no money for antibiotics. Yes, it does happen in the land of the free and the home of the brave.)
  • Pubs.
  • Afternoon Tea.
  • Hotels where a "proper breakfast" is included in the rate.
  • Fish and chips shops.
  • People who, upon learning I am in their country to give a philosophy paper, ask "Are you a Don, then?" God, I LOVE that!
  • Pubs.
  • More interesting idioms. Compare and contrast: "cherry-picking the evidence for going to war (American)," versus "Sexing up the evidence for going to war (British)." No contest!
  • Better sex scandals. Compare and contrast: learning that some TV preacher is visiting a homosexual prostitute (American) versus learning that John Major (of all people!) is a total stud horse (British). No contest!
  • Pubs - where a visiting American can hear interesting idioms and learn about GREAT sex scandals.
Did I mention my fondness for Fish and Chips and Pubs?

My fellow Americans are asking: if you love it so much over there, why not just MOVE? Good question. The answers will be the subject of subsequent posts.


About Me

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Greensboro, North Carolina, United States
Writer, Adjunct Philosophy Professor, and Nurse. Formerly an Attorney. Political and Religious liberal (with a capital "L"). Gun lover (I AM American, after all is said and done). Dog lover.