Privilege, Passion, and Politics

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal Constitution via AP

Thousands hold candles in the air after a bell tolled for each of the victims, during a vigil Monday, June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, the day after an attack on a gay nightclub left dozens dead.  

I spent the weekend on Block Island, a pear-shaped residue of the Wisconsonian Laurentide glacier, which left these 10 square miles of terminal moraine behind when it retreated some 22,000 years ago. The Nature Conservancy counts the island among its “Last Great Places,” of which there are only 12 in the western hemisphere. Ulysses S. Grant stayed here, and he would probably still recognize the place, because 40 percent of the island is now set aside as conservation land, and affluent New Englanders have bought up and manicured much of the remainder in order to savor the tranquil rhythms of rural life without having to endure the inconveniences.

Because my parents-in-law had the foresight to acquire an abandoned farm for a few thousand dollars more than 60 years ago, I enjoy the privilege of being able to sojourn in a Thomas Hardy landscape merely by driving south 90 miles and taking a ferry. But it’s no longer possible, if it ever was, to “get away from it all.” Successive waves of technology—newspapers, radio, television, internet—ensure that we are all too connected, always and everywhere.

And so it was that on Sunday morning, shortly after awakening to the chirping of birds at the feeder and the familiar sight of the Block Island Sound beyond the declivity defined as in an Impressionist painting by subtle variations on the theme of green, I learned from my tablet that the worst shooting massacre in the history of the United States had taken place in the wee hours of the morning at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Over the course of the day it emerged that the shooter, killed by police at the scene, was American-born but of Afghan descent and allegedly “angry” at having witnessed two men kissing in public some time earlier.

For relief from the carnage, I turned to the website of the French newspaper Le Monde, expecting to read about the European soccer championship matches currently under way in France. But Le Monde, as it turned out, was filled with images of street violence in Marseille, the scene of gladiatorial clashes between Russian and British soccer hooligans, who availed themselves of the occasion to stage a championship match of their own. According to Sébastien Louis, an expert on soccer hooliganism (the world nowadays seems to have experts on everything), “the Russian hooligans want to be ranked among the top 3 of European hooliganism.” Since the English are currently ranked first in this loutish league, the Russians, organized like commandos into squads wearing distinctive T-shirts and bandanas marked with a skull and crossbones, came looking for the British incumbents. But the men from the East, typifying what Louis calls “a new generation of hooligans,” had trained for battle with daily exercise in the martial arts. Unlike their British counterparts, known for waddling into combat with beer bellies acquired by imbibing prodigious quantities of stout, the Russians are muscular, fit, and disciplined. After many hours of clashes, the center of Marseille was carpeted with broken bottles and broken bodies. One man, whose skull was fractured, may die. But the Russians have presumably improved their standing in the league tables of this insane sport.

Orlando and Marseille were not the only intrusions upon my bucolic retreat, however. Donald Trump, I read, had tweeted to followers in the wake of the Orlando slaughter that he “appreciated[d] the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” What he had been right about was far from clear. The killer, being American-born, would not have been excluded by Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country. The candidate called for “toughness & vigilance,” which would presumably call for hiring additional security personnel, but the shooter was himself a vetted and licensed security guard whom the FBI had cleared in its exercise of “vigilance.” No matter: Trump’s tweet was intended not to suggest any new policy in regard to terror but merely to stir the xenophobic passions of his supporters, who were presumably also aroused by his subsequent suggestion that the president was somehow complicit with the killing. When The Washington Post had the audacity to translate Trump’s innuendo into plain English, the candidate vented his wrath on the paper by revoking the credentials of its reporters.

Passions. The common theme linking these three disparate incidents of one Sunday’s news—the Orlando massacre, hooliganism in Marseille, and Trump’s unstanchable tweets and inane twaddle—is the destructiveness of the passions. Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, was motivated, his father says, by the passions of anger and homophobia—and perhaps, we are beginning to learn, by self-hatred as well. The Russian nationalists in Marseille were motivated by a passion to dominate not vitiated by the absurdity of the realm in which they hoped to prevail. And Trump, in his passion to win the presidency, has proved eminently resourceful at one thing: finding words to incite the hateful passions of his followers.

The disruptive effects of the unruly passions in the political sphere have been recognized since Antiquity. While “nothing great is accomplished without passion” (Hegel), the Ancients knew that passion can cause people to act contrary to reason. The authors of the American Constitution were particularly fearful of the adverse political consequences of passion. They feared the possibility of tyranny inherent in the passion to dominate. They feared the possibility of faction inherent in the passion to reward one’s friends and punish one’s enemies. Hence they created a system of checks and balances to act as a dike against the floodtide of dangerous political passions.

What they did not foresee was the possibility that the checks and balances themselves would become a goad to destructive passions. Our Constitution is so full of veto points that it often seems impossible to get anything done, and the ensuing gridlock has itself become the cause of an irrational animus against the very possibility of democratic self-governance. The Founders were rational men, sons of the Enlightenment, who believed that reason ought to outweigh passion in charting the nation’s political course.

In fact, as the historian Michael Kammen has argued, they hoped that the government they were building would be as predictable as “a machine that would go of itself” and therefore impervious to the unruly passions that diverted other political systems from establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty. Yet the system they created has paradoxically spawned in a part of the electorate the passionate conviction that “government is the problem,” as Ronald Reagan put it, rather than the solution.

Of course, the idea of a governing machine that would “go of itself” and remain impervious to the passions roiling the society it ruled was always a utopian fantasy, as inhumane as it was inhuman. But irruptions of the dark passions that humankind continues to harbor in its bosom—irruptions of the sort we witnessed this weekend in Orlando and Marseille and in the campaign of Donald Trump—should not be allowed to divert us from the commonsensical core of the Founders’ belief in the possibility of a more rational government. “To govern is to choose,” as the French premier Pierre Mendès France once said, and wise choice requires the exercise of reason, which the passions all too often obscure or subvert.

But “right reason,” to use the subtle Greek distinction between the merely logical and the wisely expansive use of the rational faculty, knows that man is a political animal, meaning an animal endowed with both reason and passions. To ignore the latter in the pursuit of rational government is an error, the cardinal sin of technocracy, which tries to reduce all governance to the calculation of costs and benefits, profits and losses. Technocracy provokes a passionate reaction all its own, a reaction we see embodied in populist movements around the world today.

These were my thoughts as I absorbed this weekend’s shocking news in my placid island retreat. Block Island is probably as close as one can come in today’s America to what the land looked like to the Founding Fathers. In such a place the mind reverts naturally to a pre-industrial lexicon. Reason and the passions once again become antagonists in the theater of Nature, and one thinks in constitutional terms of how they might be reconciled in our post-industrial age. If our present Constitution has become inadequate to the task, perhaps it is time to think of revising it. In the meantime, however, the imperative of the hour is to defend it against the manifest threats of a Trump presidency, exhaustively detailed in this perceptive article by Robert Kuttner.

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