“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” – Winston Churchill
This quote is shrouded in different interpretations, certainly Churchill expressed this idea many times, but that makes this phrase impregnated with irony: did he actually say this as presented?
It is true, by the way, what he may have said: we can only interpret pre-modern history through the dominant narratives and articulations which we receive, whether intact or in portions. We only see a reflection of the truth, passed down from generation to generation as the past is consumed by time. Our modern age with, all its sources and documentation, with its news articles, analysis, commentary, its partisan discord and interpretation, is distorted by every single person living on this planet. This represents a complete break from the distant past and only through finalities do we see, or think we see, the whole arc of stories; and those stories even become replete with portents and foreshadowing. The spotlight of history illuminates while it conceals, and our modern era is particularly susceptible to the revelation of only that information which serves our biases.
Here, now, in America, we again look to the Ancient World for knowledge, and with that knowledge we come, not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. American political consciousness is made radiant by the glow of Ancient Rome. Desire to look to that period as a source of divination for our own political future is therefore natural, but fundamentally flawed, with comparisons to this history degraded by a multitude of factors.
The Roman Republic is seated at an honored position in the table of American history. We took many of our forms and terminology of government from that ancient State, including, of course, the most basic structure of our government. The Senate, the Fasces (the bundle of sticks in the Senatorial seal representing the authority and sovereignty of the Law), the fear of the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the minority — all are derivations of the Roman Republic or the analysis of the Roman Republic. America inherited and debated these ideas from the past because of the quirks of the forking paths which channeled the information from antiquity to the present. The Founding Fathers were well educated, and large servings of that education were obtained from the surviving writings of Roman authors. The Roman senator, author, playwright, philosopher, and lawyer Cicero was one such gentleman. Cicero carved his place in civilizational history through his writing and speeches – and the most important historical event in his life was the suppression of the Catilinian conspiracy.
The detail from the Cesare Maccari’s fresco at the top of this post is a likeness of the Roman villain Catiline, an aristocrat and general killed for his attempt to seize control of the Roman government (the aforementioned Catilinian Conspiracy). I use the word “villain” intentionally, as his name became a byword for evil in Renaissance and Classical literature over a thousand years later.
This detail of a photo (from Flickr user: TheUnseen011101) is of Jake Agneli, the so-called “QAnon Shaman” – a man whose presence at the Jan. 6th incident at the Capitol was rather conspicuous. I doubt his name will be used as byword for villainy a thousand years from now, but he is notorious nonetheless.
Early examination of the online cult from which Agneli received that moniker, QAnon, took a mocking tone, connecting the conspiratorial cult to “Pizzagate,” another conspiracy which prefigured QAnon with its followers’ conviction of the existence of pedophilic conspiracies in the Democratic Party. The apotheosis of Pizzagate occurred when one individual went into the pizza shop at the center of the conspiracy armed with a gun looking for a non-existent sex dungeon. Occasionally dangerous because of its appeal to the deluded, but not a serious threat to the fabric of society – that was the perspective on both Pizzagate and QAnon. Now, with a lengthened perspective, QAnon is seen as something much more alarming.
The Storming of the Capitol on January 6th was an event that changed the narrative arc of QAnon in media. But it also changed perceptions of the Trump Presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and ideas of free expression in the age of social media – from a deplorable curiosity to a present danger.
It is a favored pastime to claim that present events were inevitable, or were obviously going to occur with knowledge derived from the foreshadowing of previous events. This sentiment is a trick of time and storytelling, and we love trying to use the map of the past to predict our path in the present, often through analogies. Present fears of political polarization, wealth inequality, disastrous wars, and rising rival powers have inundated us with comparisons to the collapse of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. This comparison is problematic, moving across time and space for 2100 years to equate with our circumstances in the United States of America.
And although there are logical issues with using those events as one-to-one comparisons with our present day difficulties, that does not mean that examination of the past is void of useful information. There is specific use in knowing the range of outcomes that are often associated with certain classes of events and movements, and useful knowledge in examining the failures and victories of leaders in crisis – but what we really want is to be entertained or have our anxiety soothed.
History is just a story, and the stories of history are full of Dramatic Irony: we, the observer/audience, know the outcomes, but the actors do not. Despite revulsion toward journalists and the elite news media, it’s not that the first draft of history is unreliable, it just hasn’t had its ending written.
Dramatic Irony is a literary device (a type of manipulation of a text or artistic work created to evoke an impact on the reader or audience) which was originally described by Aristotle in his Poetics some 2400 years ago. Tragedy can be wrung from irony, the inevitable downfall of a character preceding from their missteps or bad fortune while the audience is engaged in the artifice of the story: the audience knowing all along that the character will fail.
History is full of almost literary tragedies: Neville Chamberlain, appeasing Hitler to prevent the apocalyptic war that came anyway, Abraham Lincoln dying at the close of the Civil War, Gandhi murdered by a homegrown radical after leading the Indian independence movement, and on and on. And of course, the archetypal tragedy of the Rise and Fall in history is that of Ancient Rome.
The crisis of Roman democracy (if you can call it a democracy) took place over the course of approximately 130 years, and included civil wars, coups, riots, slave revolts, and conflicts with other societies. Here, we come to a fatal flaw in the Roman Republic/USA analogy: only with the telescopic effect of history can this all be included as one coherent crisis. Another serious flaw: many claims made about the history of the Roman Republic are disputed because we are only left with unreliable narrators and the texts that have survived, with almost no objective or empirical knowledge of events. When people compare the situation in the US to the fall of the Roman Republic, they are comparing current events to a version of a story received to us through two mirrored reflections: one of time, and the other of the composers of the narratives which have survived.
There were four major events or incidents that are often tied together in the historical record as successive crises leading to the end of the Roman Republic: The Gracchi reforms and uprisings, the Civil Wars of Sulla, the Catilinian Conspiracy, and the Crises surrounding the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. A theme running through the 130 years of these crises in the Republic is the tension between the aristocracy and the mass of citizenry of Rome. The Gracchi brothers (who were both killed) were especially synonymous with populist reforms, attempting, perhaps, to violate the Roman constitution to impose new land and labor laws. Anyone appearing willing to cede more wealth and power to commoners was viewed as seditious by the entrenched Roman aristocracy. This was (one) of Catiline’s (apparent) sins as well. The Catilinian Conspiracy is a good point of focus because we have so much documentation surrounding it and is useful to examine in the context I’ve raised because it occurred decades before the final collapse of the Roman Republic.
The Founding Father favorite, Cicero, publicly denounced Catiline in the Senate of Rome for his conspiracy to seize control of the Republic. In the beginning of his first speech condemning Catiline, he mentions the Gracchi brothers in a manner that places their “assault” on the Roman Constitution firmly in the past as a successful suppression of crisis, not in the same lineage of crises that led to the potential coup he was railing against:
“You [Catiline] should have suffered the gruesome fate you have all this time been plotting for us all. The noble high priest, Publius Scipio, though he held no magisterial position, slew Tiberius Gracchus for tampering slightly with the constitution. Shall we, consuls, tolerate Catiline, whose aim is to destroy the entire world by fire and sword?”
Highlighting that our perception of these events is woefully skewed even further: this printed speech by Cicero may not be what was actually said in the Senate chamber, and the Conspiracy may not even have actually existed in the manner in which he details (Selected Works of Cicero, Classics Club, 1948 – note: Mary Beard’s “SPQR” also discusses these themes at length).
Cicero’s story ends in tragedy, with his own actions in suppressing the conspiracy (via executions ordered in haste without due process) leading to tensions that resulted in first, his exile, and then, his death. This is the dramatic irony: Cicero saved the Republic (at least, according to Cicero), only for his actions to lead to his own political and physical doom, and to justify future lawlessness with his use of violence outside of due process. In the middle of the conspiracy, Cicero’s actions looked like they were saving the sovereignty of the People in the Republic of Rome. To an observer now, the events of the Conspiracy appears more like another crack in the foundation of Roman Republic. Just as QAnon looks different before and after the attack on the Capitol, Cicero and the Catilinian Conspiracy look different before and after the Fall of the Roman Republic.
It is this bias on the observer’s part which is difficult to weight, how much did Cicero’s actions (if they happened as he alleges) contribute to the downfall of the Republic, and what useful information can we derive from this perceived knowledge?
Stories do provide useful meaning though – they provide frameworks for which we can try to understand and interpret the world. Totalitarianism, poverty, war, all of these terrible extremities are unlikely to occur as a result of a “coup” or a dictatorship in the United States, but that doesn’t mean there is zero chance. Isn’t it best to know how to deal with a worst-case scenario?
Every new political crisis, every new riotous mob, every new cult should be examined with the idea in mind that it can explode well beyond what appears to be its original scope. The new perspective wrought by the rapidly shifting sequences of digital mobs places seminal (and trivial) occurrences in recent history in an orderly procession. Bitcoin, ISIS, QAnon, White Replacement terrorists, the GME short squeeze, Tesla’s relentless stock price-appreciation, Anti-Vaxxers, the Great Meme War of 2016, the Ice Bucket challenge, and every manner of viral video, online cult, online video game, and moral panic now appears to be part of a story of mass movements given explosive power through the internet. Though they may be specific, general, absurd, serious, deluded or incisive, all are part of the new digital populism enabled by the internet generally, and social media specifically.
Natural checks on the spread of ideologies, manias, riots – mass movements – no longer exist. In the Roman Republic, a conspiracy was naturally small in nature, Catiline had a small army camped outside of Rome and supporters within the city, but he did not have millions of people spread across the Republic seething and agitating to see him as dictator.
The Senate and the People of Rome would never have recognized their own tribulations as precursors to the “tragedy” of the fall of the Roman Republic in the moments in which they experienced them. It is easy to be gloomy: “All of these disruptions to power structures will lead to the collapse of American hegemony and American democracy!” But what if it leads to greater equity and shared prosperity? In 20 years, what appears a disaster when the QAnon-crowd stormed the Capitol may appear as the catalyst for a renewal of America. And then in 100 years it may look like an event that legitimized mob violence which led to the dissolution of the government. What sources will historians read and how will they weight their opinions? It is all impossible to say.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or the day after, or a hundred years from now, but I do know the stories of the villains and protagonists are being sketched by figures now, just as Churchill and Cicero wrote their own stories, and will fashion a great tragedy for posterity. We can only understand the constituents of the story after the arc is complete, giving the events of history the appearance of drama.
The Conversion of St. Paul (second version), oil on canvas by Caravaggio, 1601 (Source: SCALA/Art Resource, New York)
Creating the World
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1, KJV
“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8, KJV
Creation myths all spring the universe into existence ex nihilo (even the Big Bang Theory, ultimately, after all, everything must have a beginning). From nothing comes something, thereby producing an orderly certainty in the unknowable and random. These myths present stories which serve as explanations for the existence of all things and mark the basic scope and confines of reality. In the first verse of the Book of John in the New Testament, Christ is associated with the omniscient force in the universe, one which spoke the world into existence. In the Book of Revelation God is associated with the creation and destruction if the Universe, using the beginning and ending letters of the Greek alphabet as a metaphor. These examples display the importance of telling stories to create the intellectual structures which support Belief.
As old myths and religions crumble in the face of ineffectiveness, and of new technologies and modes of communication, the whole world struggles to find new tribes to assuage their existential anxiety. Overwhelmed with complexity, with randomness, and with uncertainty, people need a fixed point around which a narrative of an orderly world can be created. The creation of these new narratives center in non-state-sanctioned social centers of belief: cults. A cult, as I am using the word, means an ideological system which includes moral and spiritual rules considered to be unerringly true, and constituting a minority of members of a general population who ascribe to those tenets. Further, all cults are tribes, but not all tribes are cults (but I will sometimes use the terms interchangeably). A tribal affiliation can grow to any size and may not have an object of veneration, while a cult is outside the mainstream of society and contains objects of Fetish-Worship. A cult can become a “religion” when it begins to imbed itself in society using coercive structures of organized force and attains legitimacy for its version of the Truth and becomes ubiquitous in ordering commerce and association in commonplace society.
The path of Christianity, from a small cult of Jews to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, is an example of the one of the most successful and impactful journeys on which any association of individuals embarked. An important feature of Christianity compared to Roman Paganism was that it offered equality and certainty in the future, even (and especially) beyond the bounds of our mortal lives. Ancient society was dominated by an elite aristocracy, and most people were slaves or otherwise shut-off from paths to self-determination by the social structures which permeated all Classical societies. The Ancient Roman Empire, in the first several centuries AD, may have had up to 15% of the total population as slaves (the numbers are understandably difficult to discern, but it is relatively certain that it was a significant amount of the population). Populist movements, through their nature of championing the prerogatives of average people, tend toward challenging hierarchies of all sorts. Justice and certainty are amply provided to new believers though new avenues – Christianity was once a tiny religion in an obscure part of the world, and it became Archimedes’ lever which moved the Earth. The early Apostles, prophets, saints, and missionaries of Christianity reveal much about its history and appeal in their extensive writings, where they both establish a story, the object of Truth, and codify the laws of the nascent religion.
Another dramatic and history-turning social upheaval is the French Revolution. It is plausible that the French Revolution marked the beginning of mass society (as much as any line of demarcation can be pinned to one event, or series of events). Medieval hierarchies and notions of privilege and fixed caste were directly challenged and overthrown by a revolt of a mass of people. The Catholic Church, as an adjacent feature of the state, was severely damaged by the Revolution, and the cult-turned-religion of Eternal Salvation was replaced by a new cult of Reason and Science.
“Observe, however, that of man’s whole terrestrial possessions and attainments, unspeakably the noblest are his Symbols, divine or divine-seeming; under which he marches and fights, with victorious assurance, in this life-battle: what we can call his Realised Ideals. Of which realised ideals, omitting the rest, consider only these two: his Church, or spiritual Guidance; his Kingship, or temporal one. The Church: what a word was there; richer than Golconda and the treasures of the world! In the heart of the remotest mountains rises the little Kirk; the Dead all slumbering round it, under their white memorial-stones, ‘in hope of a happy resurrection:’—dull wert thou, O Reader, if never in any hour (say of moaning midnight, when such Kirk hung spectral in the sky, and Being was as if swallowed up of Darkness) it spoke to thee—things unspeakable, that went into thy soul’s soul. Strong was he that had a Church, what we can call a Church: he stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew. Such virtue was in Belief; in these words, well spoken: I believe. Well might men prize their Credo, and raise stateliest Temples for it, and reverend Hierarchies, and give it the tithe of their substance; it was worth living for and dying for.” (Chapter 1.1.II, Realised Ideals)
The above quote is from an early chapter in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a history of that seminal event. Carlyle (who lived in the mid-19th century) was a Scottish polymath and writer of beautiful prose-poetry, and translator of German transcendental literature. There are three notable things about this work: first, it is a rigorous history, carefully employing sources to back its recitation of events; second, it is written in an astonishing style, one that borders on poetry; third, it is a narrative told in the present tense, as if we were following the various principle characters as they lived day to day as if they were characters in a novel (for reference, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote comes to mind as a rough analogue – very rough). Carlyle is also well-known for positing “The Great Man Theory” of history, which determines that mythologized, dynamic men influence the outcomes of history by channeling the popular currents of society. Such a view of history places individuals as the inevitable catalysts for movements, providing a sense of certainty and justifying “cults of personality.”
Carlyle’s history is not the most rigorous or up-to-date work on the French Revolution and is generally forgotten except amongst historians of the period or fans of 19th century literature. But Carlyle knows things which many of us do not remember. And in an era of unrest, uneasiness, and uncertainty, what could be more valuable than remembering things forgotten?
Now, amid the Communications and Information Revolution, where we face the proliferation of voices and demands on humanity, expressed largely through digital means of communication, we have a profusion of new cults, not the least of them being Bitcoin, a new form of money (There is much debate about “what” Bitcoin actually is, some may dispute its function as a currency, but that is not my concern here). The pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, left his own thoughts on the technical and social aspects of Bitcoin in blog posts, on forums, and in emails. The impetus for its creation and founding beliefs can be derived directly from those posts and subsequent commentary.
Secular regimes lose credibility when they suffer through economic crises. Periods of economic recession often act as vectors for claims of moral decline and create targets for assaults on the legitimacy of social institutions. Economic decline features a prominent role in the fall of the French Monarchy. Unpayable debts piled-up as taxation and economic innovation lagged. And in Ancient Rome, a period of one hundred years of currency debasement and disruption of commerce coincided with the rise of Christianity. Bitcoin was invented after the GFC. Economics, once largely concerned with issues of starvation, is now associated with issues of access to employment and personal debt. But regardless of the scale, economic failures create doubt in the continuing benefit of maintaining the current social structures. All is relative, of course. The privation faced by the worst-off groups in Ancient Rome was unconscionable compared to those disenfranchised groups in Revolutionary France, and the hardships faced by the worst-off groups in Revolutionary France are appalling compared to those of oppressed communities in present-day Europe and America.
The narratives, the explanations, the causality, all follow from a fixed point which serves as the reference for all belief for those inducted into the mysteries of a cult. Whether your affiliation is Bitcoin, AOC’s Squad, or MAGA – the encompassing theme is present mystery, hope for the future, and rigid certainty. This certainty is fixed, and all other justifications for belief are formalities. There is no replacement of Fiat Currency, there is only King Price. There is no concern over Stolen Elections, there is only The Tribe of the Common Man. There is no Green New Deal, there is only Social Utopia. Those stated causes I just mentioned do exist, but they are mere justifications for membership, rather than the impetus for the formation of those groupings.
What we watch every day on social media is a new society being spoken into existence. QAnon started as posts on 4Chan and now has supporters marching in the streets. Incel terrorists started by being “blackpilled” on message boards, the world watched horrified (and, tellingly, titillated) as well-produced videos of people being murdered were posted by ISIS. Belief and faith will find new outlets if their old passages are blocked. We see it in young men’s shooting rampages who, in their deranged self-styled “manifestos,” proclaim their fears of economic collapse and immigration and “white replacement.” We see it in Bitcoin maximalists who trumpet “the end is nigh!” on their digital street-corners. We see it in Extinction Rebellion, who stop-up commerce to desperately prevent the imminent doom of all human life.
As a principle, the longer the time-period without reform, the more violent the upheaval. Traditionally, conservatism (in the sense of preserving existing social norms and institutions) is the general political condition of the world. It has often taken long periods of stagnation and ignoring problems to make new and disruptive ideas popular. Many of the so-called “Revolutions” are closer to regime change where the underlying social order is not significantly disturbed. A true Revolution overturns the bases of society.
An oft-forgotten idea in the time of the internet-eating-the-world is the effectiveness of violence in ordering behavior. This is still a key factor in political and social life. As much as the internet allows the creation of mobs, the organization of cults of choice, as much as online communities creep into reality, they cannot compete with violence and death in the moment of the imposition of that ultimate power of physical coercion. Risk is what ties us all to reality, regardless of any other beliefs we may hold. Violence and mortal fear are a refiner of perception. No matter how deeply our distortions of the world are held when they are egged-on by online communities, few can pass the test of withstanding violence. Christianity withstood the tests of violence and conquered the world.
Estates-General, by Charles-Emmanuel Patas
(Source: Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris)
Certainty and Corruption
Some cults have changed the world by growing into something massive and all-encompassing. Christianity is one such cult – and Christianity grew into such a formidable social force (and eventually a political and economic one) because of its ability to provide people with certainty and with a new community. What began as, perhaps, a movement against Roman occupation, or with more certainty, one of many Jewish sects in modern-day Israel, spread throughout the whole world and became the dominating social feature of all of Europe. Christianity was an innovation of thought. As an entirely new belief system it was invented and then spread by believers in order to gain adherents. The Conversion of Paul is a good place to begin the secular history of the Christianity. Paul’s conversion was the origin of the first great Christian missionary, and had the impact of reinforcing the divine nature of Christ to potential followers. The emphasis on the Truth of events and the exhortation to have Belief, to hold a non-falsifiable idea as being irrevocably true, was the beginning of the Cult of Christianity and a movement away from the contextual, secular history of the events in the life of the historical Jesus Christ. Christianity’s belief contained the object of eternal bliss at its center, containing the promise of justice, fairness, and equality for the mass of people – something sadly elusive on Earth. In the time it originated, in a deeply oppressive and unequal society and culture, it had broad appeal. A cult creates tomorrow’s history today in adherents by producing the craved certainties they lack and generating hope for justice and happiness in the future.
We derive much knowledge of early Christian theology through the letters of Paul, his epistles to satellite churches across the Mediterranean (some of which he himself founded). In these Epistles, Paul explains the basis of the beliefs of Christianity. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, for instance, he encourages belief in Christ as justified by faith alone and the current wickedness and decay of the moral and institutional world. Starting at Romans 1:18 Paul states that the people of Pagan religions have caused the world to be corrupted as punishment for not acknowledging the one, true God. Moral decline is a theme in these letters, as well as veneration of the Resurrection of Christ as the focus of worship. In another one of his letters, First Corinthians, Paul vigorously defends the Resurrection as the object of worship, the mystical font of certainty which promises justice at the end of life, and treats the spiritual nature of the death and resurrection of Christ as a literal fact (1 Corinthians 15). This creates a miracle, a mysterious myth, out of factual history. Making an event into a myth and then treating that myth as the Truth is a method whereby future hopes and certain outcomes can be attached to the mythologized object or event.
A series of political and economic crises gripped Rome in the 200’s AD. This background of turmoil gave Christianity an impetus to spread – as people lost their ability to believe in their institutions, the cult of Christianity filled the void. The standard recitation of the story is that the Roman Empire stopped expanding and thereby stopped receiving plunder from its conquests and was unable to tax efficiently enough to maintain its armies which fought in endless Civil and Frontier Wars. The Roman Empire therefore resorted to currency debasement. The Roman State went bankrupt, and famines and other evils attended this collapse. Coinciding with this was the rapid spread of Christian faith. After Paul’s seeding of Christian communities himself, it continued to spread in urban centers around the fringes of the Roman Empire.
Presently, almost all the most vital movements in the world are driven by cults and their cultist’s non-malleable beliefs. The implacability of faith and certainty attract potential members and build press and social media coverage. The internet has allowed people to communicate and congregate in any cult (or tribe) they choose, and those online identities are spilling into real life. Much the same thing happened in France on the eve of the Revolution: new ideas, new associations, salons, clubs, and pamphleteers stoked thoughts of change, of a complete rejection of the old world.
France had long had a centralized government that was increasingly oppressive in its laws and which created ever-swelling financial crises. Also observed in this was the perceived destruction of morals, where France was overrun with lying and cheating and fraud, perpetrated by a burgeoning middle class and the aristocracy. New ideas from philosophers and writers like Voltaire and Rousseau promised to create a fair and just world for the people of France. Rousseau wrote about populism and the non-divinity of Kings and about wealth inequality. He wrote about the lack of morality pervading France (in reference to past scientific and cultural advances which brought other societies the collapse of their virtues): “It is thus that the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury, brings with it in its turn the corruption of taste.” Voltaire was particularly incensed by the Catholic Church and what he considered their corruption and argued against treating Christian miracles as reported fact (undoing Paul’s work in his Epistles). He was a fierce opponent of the Eucharist, the object that was to become the focus of Fetish-Worship in the matured Catholic Church:
“They say that as almost all popular opinions are built upon ambiguities and abuse of words, so the system of the Roman Catholics concerning the Eucharist and transubstantiation is founded solely on an ambiguity; that they have interpreted literally what could only have been meant figuratively; and that for the sake of mere verbal contests, for absolute misconceptions, the world has for six hundred years been drenched in blood.”
Taking literally what was meant figuratively was the flaw that undid the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Christian Faith according to Voltaire. He argued that the construction of the tenets of Catholicism was the creation of a story, a fiction which led to repression and violence. Voltaire’s critique was one, along with other Enlightenment philosophers, which engendered hostility to the French Church and undermined belief in the story of Christianity. Decay of belief in Christianity in places which had resisted the spread of Protestantism during the Reformation was an ominous indication that the foundational institutions of the secular State were at risk.
These cultural and philosophical changes were important, and the Revolutionary movement needed leaders, apostles, martyrs, and missionaries to do its work. But truly, the old faith was crushed by the Ancien Régime’s (a term for France’s government before the Revolution) inability to change, its sclerotic body unable (or unwilling) to work on behalf of the will of the people. A succession of ministers tried to reform and fund the State, but found no traction, and argued and schemed amongst themselves to the neglect of their objectives. In the more “mundane” causes of the French Revolution, financial collapse figures prominently. Attempts by a series of ministers to stem State spending and to broaden the tax base were refuted when they attempted to tax the nobility. Attempts by at least four different Finance Ministers to reform taxation in the 1780’s (The French Revolution “began” in 1789 but an acute preceding crisis lasted for about five years before) did not work.
“Alas, yes! a whole world to remake, if she could see it; work for another than she! For all is wrong, and gone out of joint; the inward spiritual, and the outward economical; head or heart, there is no soundness in it. As indeed, evils of all sorts are more or less of kin, and do usually go together: especially it is an old truth, that wherever huge physical evil is, there, as the parent and origin of it, has moral evil to a proportionate extent been. Before those five-and-twenty labouring Millions, for instance, could get that haggardness of face, which old Mirabeau now looks on, in a Nation calling itself Christian, and calling man the brother of man,–what unspeakable, nigh infinite Dishonesty (of seeming and not being) in all manner of Rulers, and appointed Watchers, spiritual and temporal, must there not, through long ages, have gone on accumulating! It will accumulate: moreover, it will reach a head; for the first of all Gospels is this, that a Lie cannot endure for ever.” (Chapter 1.2.III, Questionable)
Carlyle frequently associates debt with corruption – the financial bankruptcy of France is tied directly to the moral bankruptcy of France. Here Carlyle is constructing a story, telling the reader what it is that led to the cataclysm of the French Revolution. Moral decay is an often-observed phenomenon by historians and political essayists, but it seems to be more of a feeling backed by cherry-picked examples. Subjective judgments such as this are easier to construct now with the exponential increase in decontextualized information.
Surrounding us on social media, and other modes of communication, are those constantly spreading their evangel and rooting-out heresy. Just as Paul reinforced specific narratives of Christianity in his letters chastising wayward Christians, we find MAGA-evangelists telling people who a “real” Republican is, or Bitcoiners telling us that “Altcoins” are false prophets, and there is no other way to salvation than through BTC.
At the moment of creation of the first “mined block” of Bitcoin, a message imbedded in it by the inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, noted that the British government was on the verge of a second bank bailout. As the bank failures of the Great Financial Crisis continued, the disappointments which increased to calls for regulation and sanction of the financial system grew. Bitcoin’s rise in popularity was directly connected to the Great Financial Crisis and the Euro crisis (and attending banking crises). The Great Financial Crisis spawned any number of political and social movements in the United States and around the world, as the financial crisis, stock market decline, and economic recession led people to remark and act on inequality, moral decline, and the illegitimacy of governments.
Again linking moral decline and financial decline, the online community of Bitcoiners revolves around a moral and political philosophy, particularly in attacking the banking system. Satoshi Nakamoto once wrote: “It’s very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint if we can explain it properly. I’m better with code than with words though.” The earliest mythology which grew around Bitcoin, promoted using the words of the half-mythic Satoshi, was that it appealed to a much larger group, a political group, than programmers. This is the beginning of creating a story which separates the historical Satoshi from the mythical one. Satoshi disappeared, he stopped posting or responding to emails in 2011. While speculative, he may have left because he was worried about criminal sanction from the government or a general desire for privacy. His reason for the disappearance being relatively unimportant, it allowed a mythology to be built around him without the person himself being there to refute any of it.
In our post-modern world, where spiritual belief is consumed and destroyed by science and replaced with ravenous consumption, the sins of excess are generalized. Grave sins of inequality were in a different context in the past, one where people owned other human beings as property as a matter of routine social convention. It is not the absolute but the relative that matters in most things, as it always has, but especially in the era of mass communications. It is the distance between oppressor and oppressed that is important for social cohesion. From a panoramic view of society, one that is cold and bloodless, it could be said that the object of social reform should be to break down the barriers created by class (or any other prominent social marker) as much as possible to maintain stability. This pinions the wings of the civilizational evils of war and revolution, which harm people as they initiate change.
La Liberté guidant le peuple, painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830
(Source: Louvre Museum, Paris)
The Paper Age
What broke the French social system (Carlyle posits) is the lack of belief in the efficacy and justice of that social system. Inching into the ideologies of France came a creeping nihilism that seems so familiar to us now. It was not really the starvation, the taxation, the uncaring brutality of the regime that radicalized the people of France, it was the destruction of hope for the future and the simultaneous emergence of faith in new forms of hope for the future. This is not as easy to measure as many things, it is something hard to quantify, but the basic cause of the Revolution was the sins of the Ancien Régime, the moral collapse that continued until people lost faith in the leadership of the government. Many may see these same themes now in our lives, pervasive. In any story involving the great movements of the world it is axiomatic that, in an era of uncertainty and hope for the future, frauds and conmen surround the scene, becoming heroes for one forlorn group or another. Repeatedly, the concerns and condition of the great mass of people (25 million dispossessed people in the case of France, as Carlyle reminds us) were utterly ignored. Met with contempt or hangings, protests leading up to the convulsion were not enough to change the foundations of the government.
That author called this “The Paper Age” in France, the era proceeding the Revolution which was full of fraud and perfidy. Corruption of philosophy, of finances, and Christianity pervaded the state:
“For indeed it is of apoplexy, so to speak, and a plethoric lazy habit of body, that Churches, Kingships, Social Institutions, oftenest die. Sad, when such Institution plethorically says to itself, Take thy ease, thou hast goods laid up;–like the fool of the Gospel, to whom it was answered, Fool, this night thy life shall be required of thee!
Is it the healthy peace, or the ominous unhealthy, that rests on France, for these next Ten Years? Over which the Historian can pass lightly, without call to linger: for as yet events are not, much less performances. Time of sunniest stillness;–shall we call it, what all men thought it, the new Age of God? Call it at least, of Paper; which in many ways is the succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities,–beautiful art, not only of revealing Thought, but also of so beautifully hiding from us the want of Thought! Paper is made from the rags of things that did once exist; there are endless excellences in Paper.–What wisest Philosophe, in this halcyon uneventful period, could prophesy that there was approaching, big with darkness and confusion, the event of events? Hope ushers in a Revolution,–as earthquakes are preceded by bright weather. On the Fifth of May, fifteen years hence, old Louis will not be sending for the Sacraments; but a new Louis, his grandson, with the whole pomp of astonished intoxicated France, will be opening the States-General.” (Chapter 1.2.I. The Paper Age)
As discontent increased, the clearly delineated objects of outrage disseminated by the pamphlet-writing evangelists fueled mob violence and the increasingly bold and public displays of antipathy toward the venerable institutions of the past. One of the prefiguring riots of the Revolution was an attack on a local factory-owner instigated by a mob’s misinterpretation of an essay he wrote about wages (Chapter 1.4.III. Grown Electric). A mob does not have an ideology, it cannot provide sustained belief, it burns out after it has expressed its rage, but the use of violence as a communal social act was an act foreshadowing the violence to come. What started as riots ended in Holy War. All of the organs of the state were ripped down one by one as false idols. In their place was founded a committee for the People, and a new national religion founded on science and rationality with the sovereign authority emanating from the “Will of the People” and not from God. An important figure in the early stages of the Revolution, Mirabeau, told a representative of the King at the meeting of the Estates General: “’Go, Monsieur, tell these who sent you that we are here by the will of the People, and that nothing shall send us hence but the force of bayonets!’” (Chapter 1.5.II, Mercury de Brézé).
The Storming of the Bastille (a fort and prison in Paris, a symbol of the oppressive Regime) marks the “official” beginning of the French Revolution on July 14, 1789. Direct, physical attacks would henceforth occur against the State, attacks that were not countered by important military and law enforcement arms of the State. Simultaneously attacked along with the symbols of the Monarchy was the Church in France. A church was attacked a few nights before the assault on the Bastille, the mob accused the Priests of hoarding food and destroyed and burned the building (Chapter 1.5.V, Give us Arms). Many such attacks occurred all over France from citizens inspired with Revolutionary fervor. A year to the day after that first attack on the Church (Saint-Lazare) the French National Assembly (the Revolutionary government that uneasily coexisted with the Monarchy before its destruction) promulgated the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” which stripped members of the Catholic Clergy of all their special and separate rights in France.
After the Fall of the Bastille, pamphleteer Claude Desmoulins (who personally incited mob-violence a few days before) wrote:
“The return of that liberty to the French people was reserved for our days. Yes, she has already been returned to us; she does not yet have a temple for the States General, like that of Delphos in Greece, for the assembly of the Amphictyons; or that of Concord in Rome, for the assembly of the Senate; but she is already adored in tones louder than a whisper, and the worship of her is public. For forty years philosophy has been undermining the foundations of despotism in all its parts; and, as Rome before Caesar was already enslaved by its vices, so France before Necker was already enfranchised by its intelligence.” (La France Libre, https://melkam.livejournal.com/693.html)
In this pamphlet the rot of the old regime and a search for an entirely new object of worship is stated plainly. All old things were dying, their deaths spurred by new ideologies and hopes which existed before the financial crises and calls for reform began under the French Finance Minister, Jacques Necker (his first term, his second term ending was the catalyst for violence of July 12, 1789). There was an attempt to sweep away all the vestigial limbs of past belief. Revolutionary government in France systematically dismantled the secular powers and wealth of the Catholic Church in France. The new French State created a calendar, the French Republican Calendar (with a “rational” ten-day week), to replace the Catholic one. Priests were placed under secular authority, the traditional role of the Church in maintaining records of births, deaths, and marriages was usurped, the wealth of the Church was seized, members of the clergy were executed and massacred, and aspects of public worship were banned. After several years, there were multiple attempts to establish a new state religion. Two of them were created and celebrated as official religions, the Cult of Reason, and Robespierre’s competing Cult of the Supreme Being. In a quite theatrical Revolution, the theatricality of the celebrations for the Revolutionary religious cults stands out. The Cult of Reason was a belief in the philosophical precepts of the Enlightenment, with an embrace of atheism. A Festival celebrating reason was conducted in none other than the Cathedral of Notre Dame, including symbolic representations of Liberty and Reason (Chapter 3.5.IV, Carmagnole complete). The famous Robespierre, leader of the political faction known as the Jacobins and the architect of the Reign of Terror, and for a time, the de facto dictator of Revolutionary France, thought the atheism of the Cult of Reason was destructive, and called for the veneration of a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. Quoting Carlyle (again): “Catholicism being burned out, and Reason-worship guillotined, was there not need of one? Incorruptible Robespierre, not unlike the Ancients, as Legislator of a free people will now also be Priest and Prophet” (Chapter 3.6.IV, Mumbo-Jumbo). In this manner Robespierre tried to combine both secular and spiritual authority, but these new religions failed to take hold, unable to replace Christianity’s monopoly on belief.
The various councils and written works of Christians, starting with the Pauline Epistles and stretching to, say, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, established the “rules” of Christian belief. That process of codification and creation of the distinction between “Truth” and “heresy” allowed the Cult of Christianity to exist with a uniformity of message and institutional cohesion. The firming of a set of rules and the consequent knowledge that others believe the same things you believe potentiates the viability of conversion to non-believers. Irenaeus, a Christian who wrote a refutation of heresies and affirmation of the power and faith of the both the Early Church and the Truth of Paul’s and the Gospel’s interpretation of the life of Christ, was an early example (in the mid-100’s AD) of the firming of rules against direct spiritual revelation (generally known as Gnosticism). The Ecumenical Councils decided the books which would be included in the Bible, and the order in which they would appear and they decreed which beliefs were heretical and which were not, creating a centralized form of governance and belief for the Christian religion. After long and trying wars, famines, and economic strife, Christianity became to be seen by secular powers as a method of instilling social unity in the people of the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, ending almost 300 years of persecution of the cult by the State. Becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire also gave the decisions of the Church’s councils the force of law. This phase of codification and consolidation of Christianity strengthened its path toward the social dominance of a religion.
Bitcoin’s technological innovation of creating a chain of trust, backed by mathematical verification, is a tool and tools are merely instruments of the will of those who wield them. New modes of trust, faith, and belief are being created and tested, the arguments about them now reverberating through to consensus. Some arguments will win, others will lose. There is a burgeoning codification, but there does not exist a uniform belief system yet. The orientation of Bitcoin-believers is toward freedom from the failed financial system of the State and cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin are in the social phase of codification. There is a struggle to define what the meaning and place of these digital innovations are or what they will be; there is a struggle to create a narrative that will place them in society as a new institution. Acknowledgement of Bitcoin’s existence and rudimentary forms of regulation hastened Bitcoin’s adoption. A Federal Judge declared Bitcoin a “form of money” which could be then regulated by the government in 2013 and the period from 2012-2014 saw a host of companies declare that they would accept Bitcoin for payment. Its first great battle, and one it is still fighting, is the war against the idea that Bitcoin is used only by criminals and for criminal activity. The adoption of BTC’s use by corporations and some regulation of exchange provided a counter to this argument. BTC won the narrative battle to become something seen as acceptable to society, but it is still a fractured community, with other prominent crypto-currencies and “forks” in the blockchain serving as opposition.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons from user – Onov3056)
Rise and Fall – from Cult to Religion
“It is thus everywhere that foolish Rumour babbles not of what was done, but of what was misdone or undone; and foolish History (ever, more or less, the written epitomised synopsis of Rumour) knows so little that were not as well unknown. Attila Invasions, Walter-the-Penniless Crusades, Sicilian Vespers, Thirty-Years Wars: mere sin and misery; not work, but hindrance of work! For the Earth, all this while, was yearly green and yellow with her kind harvests; the hand of the craftsman, the mind of the thinker rested not: and so, after all, and in spite of all, we have this so glorious high-domed blossoming World; concerning which, poor History may well ask, with wonder, Whence it came? She knows so little of it, knows so much of what obstructed it, what would have rendered it impossible. Such, nevertheless, by necessity or foolish choice, is her rule and practice; whereby that paradox, ‘Happy the people whose annals are vacant,’ is not without its true side.” (Chapter 1.2.I, Astræa Redux)
Examination of basic cause and effect, or the imposition of a facsimile of cause and effect (for events do not travel in orderly fashion) to give us a sense of order and understanding of events is a basic feature of history. A conclusion which can be safely drawn from approximately 500 years of the process of scientific inquiry is that causality is hard to establish with any degree of certainty. Every major event or turning point in human history follows a path-dependent route with an almost infinite chain of causality.
Creation of a narrative – especially the mirroring of nature with a “rise and fall” narrative – is the goal of Carlyle’s writing. Placing the reader in the middle of a story provides a structure where they can observe what the author thinks is important. This is ironic because we know these narratives are always untrue (if not useful); Carlyle is revealing the nature of faith and belief while advancing his own understanding of the world. Our lives are proscribed at inception, with no appeals accepted and no motions for relief granted. Of course, this is true of all things, every being, institution, and organization flashes into being and then slowly subsides. So when we tell stories about empires, or social movements, or wars, or lives there is an innate structure of rise and fall to which we are attracted and repelled. This narrative is a lie as the only certain things are beginnings and endings. Middles are messes. But, those beginnings and endings can be complex, too, often muffled and hazy – we cannot see them even though we know they exist. Birth and death, the points compassing our linear journey through life, are clouded and ineffable – inconceivable. And, like our lives, so are the beginning and endpoints of leaders and civilizations. One moment they existed and the next they did not, their forms never truly visible, but only existing in the collective minds of their participants. The seat of belief is not a trifling matter, if enough people believe the same thing, they will certainly exact change.
There is a pattern to the adoption of novel ideas. Believers swell their ranks with other believers, and collective action begins to impress an impact on the world outside of the confines of the cultists’ minds. There is no more powerful result of belief than the ascendancy of Bitcoin in terms of its price in United States Dollars.Price increase is a measurable sign of success, it is an idea around which one can build a story, any story – if it involves Bitcoin becoming the Reserve Currency, or a replacement for Gold, or a bet against hyper-inflation. The continuous rise in price recently spurred renewed interest from important financial institutions in Bitcoin – the narrative of price increases creating a direct line to adoption enabled by the secular State. Five reasons for Bitcoin’s surge in price are enumerated in this piece: (1) “For professional investors, there’s no longer career risk in buying bitcoin,” (2) which means “institutional money is starting to pour into bitcoin,” (3) “The U.S. government is flashing a green light [that Bitcoin will not be over-regulated], (4) “Bitcoin has a breakout new evangelist,” and (5) “A lot of people are nervous about the global monetary system — especially the dollar.” All five of those reasons are molded by sentiment based on price action and not by qualities inherent in Bitcoin, it’s part of another story being created at this instant.
As I noted, Carlyle’s history consciously attempts to tell the story of the French Revolution as if he were narrating an action in front us. Descending into the chamber of Louis XV to recite the actions of characters milling about as that King lay on his deathbed, as if the author were an omniscient, unseen observer, for example, brings to the reader an immediacy of emotion and feeling which is lacking in a dry recitation of facts. In this immediacy lies a truth about the French Revolution: the overthrow of the monarchy and Dechristianization were not enough to satisfy the mass of people, who were, first and foremost, hungry. Carlyle’s narration highlights the struggle of regular people (while ironically following the “Great Men” who turn belief into action), who were, for one of the first times in history, and only for a short time, the master of events. With nothing viable given to replace their former beliefs, the people, and therefore the national Revolutionary movement, descended into chaos with hundreds of factions and belief-systems vying for control of the nation (Chapter 3.3.I, Cause and Effect). It is secular power that was vital and disputed as a result of the absence of the unity of Belief, leading to the Reign of Terror and the ultimate collapse of the Revolutionary government in Napoleon’s coup. The horror of so many events in the Revolution given immediacy by Carlyle’s interpretation displays the powers unleashed (or kept in check) by Belief, especially when these Beliefs can harness violence which is used or condoned by the secular State.
Christianity was given a formal place in society by Constantine, but the Catholic Church did not have true secular power – it did not become the monumental edifice of the Middle Ages – until the “Donation of Pepin” in 756 AD. This was a grant of conquered territory by the secular French power to the Church, to control physically and rule over (what became known as the Papal States). After this point, the Catholic Church had the power to defend its own interests, beyond social and cultural impact. France became allied with the Catholic Church, intertwining their powers, though France was not yet what could be called a nation-state at this point. Give or take a hundred years, this time period marked the end of formation of Papal and spiritual authority in the cult of Christianity, and the beginning of the exercise of that authority as the Catholic Church. 700 years of increasing social, cultural, moral, and physical power ended in a catastrophe of corruption and conflict with incipient nation-states and the forces of populism unleashed by increased literacy and communications technology during the Reformation. The ability to impose law by physical force is the last marker of the transition from cult to religion. It was only through a grant of power by another regional force that finally secured the place of Christianity as a world power.
Creation of Adam, Fresco, by Michelangelo (Source: Sistine Chapel)
The Past is not the Future
The relationship between the present world and the examination and construction of history is as a person walking forward and looking backwards. The only thing you can learn from history is what types of obstacles may be in your path after you’ve already passed them, but it does not predict when and how those obstacles will be encountered.
If modern tools can reveal to us the hidden worlds and movements of the past, can their use also conceal obvious truths? The matchless abundance of computational power which defines our modern world is also its most disorienting feature. In gathering enormous amounts of data, we are easily drowned instead of buoyantly uplifted. History was once clouded by lack of information, by an inability to see an entire scene or sequence, by limited records and facts. Now even recent history is clouded by an abundance of these same features. We must make peace with the fact that history is not the Truth, it is a story, as all human institutions and ideas are. They are stories-in-motion or they are dead and hollow. We cannot make sense of the immensity that is “everything” – we must simplify if we are to act and to attempt to understand how we got to where we are standing now. Is it all random? At times, yes, at others, no. Careful examination of data may sometimes find things that are deeper than the incorrect assumptions we often make about the world, but we may also conceal obvious truths.The three stories I just outlined (of the rise of Christianity, the convulsion of the French Revolution, and the rise of Bitcoin) are all narratives, wherein we take events and imbue them with meaning based on what happened following each action.
All cults exist as a refutation of state power, as a well-spring from which discontent flows toward the dominant social institutions. But not all cults succeed in becoming the new social institutions. There is always a tension between our knowledge of events and our knowledge of their causes and the past is not a blueprint which can be used to construct the future. A series of beliefs, held and acted on by enough people, can construct the future, however. The Catholic Church’s dominant grip over Europe eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. Emperor Napoleon outlawed the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being, restoring Catholicism as the official religion of France. Bitcoin may be co-opted by the State, outlawed, fail completely, or become the international reserve currency. The future is not predetermined by the past.
If one wanted to make a rule out of these stories, it could be: (1) cults arise in eras of perceived moral and financial decline, which (2) cause people to lose faith in the primary institutions of the day, (3) the downfall of old orders are mythologized through stories of decay and the founding of the cult is mythologized by modified interpretations of the founder – who often is the object of worship, cults then go through a phase of (4) strengthening their message of salvation and certainty for the future through codification and elimination of heresies and spread as faith in present institutions continues to decline, and finally, (5) successful cults become religions intertwined with, or possessing on their own accord, the secular powers of the State and become part of the ruling institutions.
No two stories are alike, however, but processing the general paths of cults as they are born and then spread can restore clarity to the mass-mobilization of ideas. Ideas become actions and the link between those two points are the forge of social change. Dissemination of ideas becoming ever-more ubiquitous and rapid accelerates and decentralizes this process and causes an eruption of cults, each a possible source of foundational change. Everything told between birth and death, and as obscured as those two encompassing moments might be by myths – they are indisputable, is pure fiction. The fiction of the “rise and fall” has a tight hold on the imagination of people, and ultimately of their opinion. These stories, themselves, create the momentum of change by bending people’s beliefs.
Belief itself is sovereign. Near the end of the Gospel of John, there is a line that sums the purpose of the book and highlights the power of constructed belief, the object of worship, and of certainty and hope in the future:
“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” – John 20:31, KJV
[NOTE] There exist the lesser cults of celebrity worship, a facet of mass media being that anyone in front of a camera enough times will become globally known, regardless of their achievements or merits. Insult Beyonce or Kanye West online and you will feel the wrath of their supporters. Celebrity worship lacks the all-encompassing simplicity of “One Big Idea” which successful cults provide, and therefore does not generate the strength of belief that the other cults do. Celebrity-worship may be intense, but there must be an object of faith and certainty beyond mere admiration and reason to create the types of cults which may yet become religions. Other modern cults that will never become religions include QAnon, belief in which can be falsified by the mere passage of time, and Scientology, which is too exposed by media to become more successful (it’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, supposedly once said “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” h/t @valuestockgeek via Twitter).
One of the axioms of our existence in this universe is as follows: the natural world is random, in the sense that there is no predetermined path or course for any events. Doubly so for our individual lives, which are dominated by chance occurrences, random encounters, and social movements beyond the control of any single person. Humanity’s existence lies in the puzzling place between mastery and control of our environment and thoughts, behaviors, and actions and the overwhelming power of external events and the various lotteries we did not know we were playing.
A necessary consequence of this idea is that almost all the stories we tell ourselves are lies. Any series of events that leads clearly from one set to another is almost always, at least, a sanding-down of reality. History, for example, tends to find a middle ground – but is always a story that attempts to make sense of randomness – where we can look at a broad series of events from a great enough distance to see previously hidden causes and effects. Stories are essential to us for finding actionable information (to find the fleeting spaces between randomness which may be filled with human-intervention) and to develop meaning (as in an understanding of the individual’s purpose in the world – often related to basic survival needs – where risk is foundational for meaning – but that’s a different post). Stories-creating-meaning happens at all levels of social-grouping, and the modern social-grouping of the nation-state is what I’ll confine myself to here.
The Myth of a Nation
The artificial confines of the nation-state, which seek to bind a diverse group of people, from diverse traditions and local or regional natural loyalties, are forged with myths, traditions, ideals, and stories. These are always demolitions of the messy truth and create an unnatural sense of community. Nation-states find their tribal-coherence so tenuous that some of the greatest crimes and tragedies of the recent past are centered around, at least partly, in strengthening the “natural” connections found within the boundaries of a country. Ethnic-cleansing and genocide often find their intellectual well-spring in the seeming necessity to stave-off weakness and disunity inside a particular state. In some countries the tensions of coherence in the nation-state are obvious, as in the colonial states that share no strong bonds of culture, language, or historical narratives. There is no founding myth for these countries, just the brutality and arrogance of drawing lines on a map. In others the process of creating the nation-state is primarily an exercise in refining the common myths of ideals and history and compounding old stories with new ones. The United States is one such country.
And what is a public and overt way to honor the mythic heroes of the past which makes us all stick-together? The erection and veneration of monuments and statues.
It is instructive to view the symbolic importance of statues through some recent events. There is, of course, the famous incident of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Baghdad after the American invasion in 2003. This was a potent symbol of the transfer of power from Iraqi to American hands. Toppling of Soviet statues in Ukraine became symbolic of a resurgence in Ukrainian nationalism. Statues of the Roman Emperors solidified their divinity, marking them as eternal Gods, powerful narrative glue with which to stick an Empire together (and perhaps attempts to make sure future Emperor’s expired by natural means…).
So in the American South, statues of Confederate generals may be seen in the light of the significance of statuary in history. These are public symbols of power, of ideals, and of the links between leaders and the myth of the nation-state.
Monuments and Their Meaning
First, let us dispose of some unfortunate and pesky nuance. Some statues and monuments referencing the Confederacy are, in fact, meant to honor the war dead. They have a value and meaning to those who placed the monuments unrelated to the cause in which they died. Mourning and memory for loved one’s should not be eliminated by future generations. There is no difference between the defacement of graves of fallen South Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War and the erasure of the memory of Confederate soldiers who died. Not their cause, but their memory, is important to descendants. With that being said, this is not the purpose, imputed or historical, for the existence of many of these monuments.
As I’ve written previously, as the distance grows between the present and a certain time in the past, events are both foreshortened and judged with a sense of hindsight. A man deemed a hero in the present may seem a villain in the future. An excellent example is the shifting views on the slave-holding Founding Fathers of America, though still venerated, they are being judged much more harshly for their involvement in slavery. This same reckoning is obviously happening now (and, of course, continuously in some form or another) among “racist” or Confederate figures.
Some Confederate monuments specifically belong to an ideology that sought to erase the purpose and legacy of the Civil War – that it was in defense of the system of slavery. Most of the Confederate statues were placed long after the Civil War, and were a mythological, symbolic reminder of the dominance of white Americans, of the fact that though the Confederacy had lost the Civil War the true goal of embedding White Supremacy was achieved. The statues become bound-up in the notion of Southern identity, a visible reminder of the heroism that shaped the Southern identity, as if it were a separate nation still, inside of the United States.
In the excellent Epsilon Theory note: Always Go to the Funeral, Ben Hunt describes the partisan dust-up over statues in this way:
“You hear all the time about how these Trump tweets and the associated narrative construction are a “dog whistle” that motivates and calls forth the alt-right clowns. Okay. I guess. But what the tweets and the narrative really are — and this is what Steve Bannon understands perfectly — is a dog whistle for the Democrats and an obedience collar for the Republicans. It creates a Competition Game where none existed before, and it forces every elected politician, regardless of party, to play their appointed role, strutting and fretting upon the stage. Even though none of them like the script and none of them want to play the part.”
This is a part of the narrative of the statues as well. Regardless of the role statues mean in a larger sense, to the life of the nation-state in the minds of citizens (as grandiose as that sounds, the chain of myth and story directly connects them) they are being used as a political tool for manipulation. The endless complications that arise from this muddy the waters, for the moment, of historical meaning. As anyone’s opinion of whether a statue should remain or fall becomes part of a public campaign of tribal signaling, having a true opinion on the basis of the modern nation and the confines and constituent parts thereof (and linking it to the manner and type of public monuments in display in our cities) becomes difficult to voice without being drawn into a political argument. Pulling down statues is already a (perhaps surprisingly to some) radical act, and to bind that radical act to the absurd theater of the Red vs. Blue power struggle increases the intensity of the discord. The machinations of political actors will pass away, the argument over statues will not figure prominently in the political histories of America in the 2010’s, but the era peppered with controversies over the removal of the statues will be.
As statues are symbolic – often deeply of the foundation of the nation-state – their removal can be of great consequence as well. Now, as statues across the country, and abroad, are vandalized and torn down, there is a process of meaning-making occurring. As a matter of fact, when critics say things like “the left is tearing down statues because they hate America” they’re at least getting toward the truth. That is to say, pulling down statues of figures who represent, or seem to represent, racism is a way of remaking the mythology and story of the whole country – and rejecting the current one. Pulling down statues is about transferring the rights of power from one group inside the country to another.
But what about a new story? That is much harder to tease-out. America is still bound by the old, nonrenewable narrative of the Post-WWII Era. “America, through purity of ideology, military, and economic strength, stands for and defends liberty around the world.” This story around which our nation is centered, like all the others, is a lie, but it is increasingly out-of-step with reality. Nihilism is bleeding into our social life with not much to replace it. Recent histories of America are pessimistic, realistic pieces, which seek to strip-away the artifice and rose-colored tones of both the recent and distant past. An inclusive, non-racial American story is elusive at best, as we have no great tale to renew our artificial boundaries, and American history is scarred by racism.
The questions we need to be asking are forward-facing, not backwards. Tearing down statues, when accompanied by visible regime change, or a surging movement which recaptures a different story of the past is a necessary part of creative-destruction. When unaccompanied by such a redefinition of the nation, they are a marker of the disintegration of national cohesion.
Should the statues be removed? Yes, they are largely anachronisms, symbols of a past that no longer exists, and reminders of deep inhumanity. But the harder question is: What will replace them?
The classical liberal principle of freedom of speech, of course enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, is supposed to protect the citizenry against state censorship. As with many Enlightenment principles and ideals, “free speech” is complicated by technology. We now live in a society where there are often more restrictions imposed on people from non-state actors than from the state itself. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: A mob silences a despicable person – someone who deserved it – it brings us all closer together in a mutually-shared opinion that the bad person committed a bad act, worthy of punishment.
Even in this circumstance, a fairly common one, many of us evince an unease of mob justice, even if we agree with the principles on which that rough justice was founded.
Example 2: A suspected child pornographer is caught with 5 terabytes of pornography on his computer (an almost unimaginable amount), but the warrant that allowed the search of his computer is flawed, and the case is thrown out after action by the ACLU – and a pedophile goes free.
In this circumstance, we are almost universally on the side of the authorities, because the guilt is obvious, the crime heinous, and the liberation of the suspect is on the basis of a technicality.
Now, a third example: a man expresses an opinion, which may be at the edge of commonly-accepted propriety or public opinion, but which is not heinous and not illegal. A social community, and not a court of law, attempts to get that man in “trouble” with his employer. He is not saved by a technicality, nor totally condemned by a mob.
The third example is the tricky place where many of our modern disputes over freedom of speech and mob justice inhabit. There is no clear legal principle which overrides the general condemnation of an overtly heinous act and there is no universal mob (that is, there are always dissenters and contrarians) which engages in a digital hanging.
Part of the question becomes: quantitatively and qualitatively, how free is our speech currently? And not just in the narrow constitutional sense, in the sense of having cultural and social constraints? How powerful are those cultural constraints, and is there anything “we” should do about it as a society? I don’t propose to have many answers here, certainly not any easy ones.
We may be easily seduced by the dull, Doric opinions stamped by the imprimatur of the enforcing mob of a habituated mass-culture – just as we may be titillated by the exotic contrarianism of a seemingly rebellious agitator, who may wring truth out of over-saturated public narratives.
Independence of thought is once again the difficult vigil of any discerning and intelligent individual. The problem with the mob is that the mob is often right, and the problem with the contrarian is that they are often wrong. Most often, the mob is turned against those on their “own side,” as a way to enforce rigid tribal identities. The liberal artist is the one in danger of being canceled for talking inappropriately about race, not the conservative. The conservative is likely to be publicly emasculated for their opposition to the public’s ownership of AR-15’s, not Taylor Swift.
“If you say the wrong thing these day’s you’ll be canceled!” – says the centimillionaire who has made a living off of being “politically incorrect” and has, at no point, been canceled.
So the battle against censorship is fought in different dimensions now: it is fought against the government in some cases, but more often, it is fought against the mass culture of society, conjured into existence, especially, by social media. And it has also become a thing-in-itself, like so much else. It is a tool used for national politics, to enforce tribal boundaries, it is used as boogie man to frighten one side or the other.
Tribal digital mobs are fluid, and many opinions shift on “cancellation” depending on which tribe one is in. A man decrying the fate of a “conservative” losing his job one day may in fact call for the destruction of another man’s livelihood on another. Examples of this abound, and I do not feel the need to post any particular exchange. If you open up Twitter and scroll for a few minutes, I’m confident you will find an example.
The problem we are faced with now is probably unique in modernity: the social restrictions enforced by the unofficial rules and powers of mass society are as effective as the restrictions imposed by governments. Things have changed, but it may be helpful to look at the wellspring for some of the original arguments against censorship and for freedom of speech in an attempt to inform our current response.
“Areopagitica” is a polemic by the poet John Milton, arguing against government censorship of books and pamphlets. It is cited often as a basis for the First Amendment, and more broadly as a classic defense of the principles of Freedom of Speech. As it has become a “classic” it is broadly defunct and dead – not a living document, but an afterthought and citation. What is forgotten about the polemic is that it is foremost an attempt at persuasion. This is fitting as there are no unassailable truths in this world, there is no scientific principle that was not overturned, and there is no basic argument about human ideals that is not, at its base, an opinion.
For those looking to the sage words of our intellectual forebears on the construction and nature of liberty, there is no succor to be found for a society where social norms are enforced by mobs:
“Nor is it Plato’s licensing of books will do this, which necessarily pulls along with it so many other kinds of licensing, as will make us all both ridiculous and weary, and yet frustrate; but those unwritten, or at least unconstraining, laws of virtuous education, religious and civil nurture, which Plato there mentions as the bonds and ligaments of the commonwealth, the pillars and the sustainers of every written statute; these they be which will bear chief sway in such matters as these, when all licensing will be easily eluded. Impunity and remissness, for certain, are the bane of a commonwealth; but here great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” (pg 18, paragraph 1)*
Aside from this (an argument that leads to the thesis that censorship will be ineffective), the central argument of “Areopagitica” is that exposure of controversial ideas, through a free press, allows society to sift and refine ideas until only the specks of pure truth remain.
“For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance; and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, Rise, Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each man’s discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomach differ little or nothing from unwholesome; and best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evil. Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”(pg. 12, paragraph 1)
In this argument, people are forever infantilized by censorship – our liberty of thought and action is restricted by a government paternalism. If we are to be fully-realized people we must have access to the various contrary arguments and temptations of the world.
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where the immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial by what is contrary.” (pg 13, paragraph 2)
Here is another possible fix to the intractable facts of disagreement, to try our best to channel outrage into productive debate. To use a “bad” opinion to sift our own.
The last thing that we CAN learn from Milton’s piece is the best remedy we have, perhaps the only remedy: to think independently. It is not an easy answer, or a quick social fix. It is not a principle which can be codified in law, and it will not stem the tide of accusations, harassment, unfairness, or rigidity from digital mobs. As in all matters which beset the modern mind, it speaks to personal responsibility, to recognize in one’s self the means whereby we may fix our feet to the ground and not be pulled along by those surging around us. I wish I had a better answer, but it seems the only way to fracture the mob is to not participate. It is doubly-hard because we should be most skeptical where we are most sympathetic and most engaged. Mobs inflame our sense of tribal identity and ignite the most passion where they find dry kindling.
*Areopagitica and Other Prose Works, by John Milton, from the Everyman’s Library, 1941 Edition
Ulysses Grant, Union General and President of the United States, is more popular now than at any time since the 1880’s. After his death, he was long regarded as an inferior general, a poor President, and an unremarkable and flawed man. With a host of biographies and changing views on racism, his formerly withered reputation is blooming.
Grant’s military career and Presidency are an excellent example of the sandy foundations of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The moral clarity of his Presidency will henceforth protect him, inasmuch as there is a public memory of him at all in our relentlessly forward-looking society. But in the focus on the shifting opinions of Grant’s career, the context of his moral-firmness is a revelation of vicious inhumanity and tribalism.
Reconstruction is (probably, though I’m sure there are other contenders) the most shameful period of American history.
After the Civil War ended and slavery abolished it became clear that the true driving force of Southern society’s defense of slavery was not its economics, or based in regional conservatism (in the sense of unchanging institutions), or competing views of Federal power – it was based on social tribalism.
Subjugation, the institutionalized inferiority of black people for no other benefit than maintaining a particular division of social standing, became the primary goal of radical Southern political movements.
And the history of that tribalism and those political movements is shockingly depraved and revolutionary.
Massacres of black people, in some cases hundreds at a time
Literal coups, where state government’s were overthrown by armed force
Widespread Terrorism across the former Confederate states
Massive Federal military intervention, including the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus
By the end of Grant’s second term in office, Reconstruction was abandoned. And why did Reconstruction end without enforcing the rights of full citizenship of freed slaves? It was subsumed by national politics.
In the last three weeks, there were two nationally-known incidents (several others but these received the most attention) which intimately concerned race and policing.
The Destruction of Amy Cooper
A white woman used the police as an implicit threat on the physical health and safety of a black man. The reaction to the video of the incident being made public was animated by a modern mob, a digital one. Without passing judgment on her digital destruction, it is an example of the power of social media to amplify tribal signaling. Much of the backlash became about showing everyone else that “they were on the right side,” dare I call it virtue signaling?
The Murder of a Black Man
The murder of George Floyd was a clear example of the aggression and callousness of modern policing. But these protests, riots, and the reaction to them, have gone far beyond this initial outrage. Looting, arson, and people dissatisfied about other aspects of the social order have joined in, and muddied the focused protests over policing.
A Riot is a Signal
Mob violence is an expression of rage and tribalism. A mob, a riot, is a thing-in-itself, not connected to any particular ideology – in the post-Civil War south, riots were anti-black affairs. They were both political tools and a signal of dissatisfaction with the current social regime. We now judge this harshly, but it was, at its base, a signal to the occupying Federal forces, and enough northerners grew tired of constant intervention that they became effective political tools. And public perceptions of those riots became the currency of national politics, deeply influencing the course of political events.
One thing that people tend to forget when they’re caught-up in idealism or discussions on policy: organized violence is effective. It goes both ways, the violence of the mob can produce real change, the suppression of the mob through violence can stifle it.
These incidents now are also in the process of being subsumed by national politics. The construction of narratives in relation to these protests both destroys nuance and is necessary to try to resolve the deep unease generated by chaos.
If I were to exhort people toward one action it would be to resist, and resist deeply, the temptation to blame all of this on one of our two political tribes. These tribes will use this chaos to advance their fight over the throne, and not for reform.