Literary history extended

A common parable about leadership goes as follows:

Halfway through the construction of the cathedral, the architect died. The bishop, not knowing what to do, went out to walk through the stoneyard, and found a man hammering on a chisel. “Bless you, my son. What are you making?”

“About twelve centimes a day, your excellency.”

The bishop moved on, and found another mason doing the same thing. “Bless you, my son, what are you making?”

“Your excellency, I’m making the third voussoir for the second arch on the right up there,” pointing up toward the vaulting.

“Bless you, my son, ” said the bishop, feeling a little better, and walked on to another mason hammering on his chisel. “And what are you making?”

“As any fool can see, your excellency, meaning no disrespect, a cathedral.”

“Bless you, my son. Put down your chisel and come with me, I have a job for you.”

New archaeological research in the middle east has unearthed a probable antecedent of this classic. Gene Bardach helped me translate some of the archaic text.

During the building of the Second Temple, the architect suddenly died. With no idea how to proceed, the High Priest went for a walk through the work area, and found Moishe, chiseling a stone. “Sholem aleichem,” said the priest, “what are you making?”

The mason said, “About time someone asked! I’m making a stone to go up on the second arcade there, but the whole concept of that arch is wrong, it doesn’t go with the rest of the facade and it’s not structurally sound. I explained this to the foreman, but he’s such a potzer, deaf and blind. It’s about time this project got some competent leadership, that’s all I can say. “

“You should live till a hundred and twenty,” said the High Priest aloud, muttered something inaudible, and went on his way.

He asked another mason, “What are you making?”

The mason said, “So, what should I be making? I get a couple of hours to get some work done in between trying to teach that idiot Moishe how to chisel, and now I’m on a quiz show? Better I should ask you: if I don’t get a decent hammer, how do you think we’re going to get any kind of temple before the Messiah comes?”

The high priest came to a third mason, sitting on an untouched stone with his hammer and chisel on the ground, nose buried in a scroll, and just stared at him. The mason eventually looked up. “What?” he said, and after a pause, “Do you not preach to us that study of The Law is preeminent among all things?”

Further along, and near despair, he came upon Itzik’s mother Rachel, bringing him his lunch. “How many children do you have?”

“Eight, including of course my son the lawyer and my other son the doctor and my daughter the rebbetzin. Do you know her husband Isaac? Such a wise man….” At this point they arrived at Itzik’s work area. “Here, bubbele, your lunch,” she said lovingly.

Itzik put down his tools, opened the sandwich, and said “Oy, Mom, you forgot the pickle again! And it has mayonnaise and you know I hate mayonnaise! I told you last week…” At this point Rachel fixed him with the look that distinctively empowers Jewish mothers, and Itzik fell instantly silent and began to eat his sandwich.

“Come with me, woman. I have a job for you,” said the High Priest, smiling broadly.

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”

Harvey Mansfield, in good Straussian style, unmasks the Bushite project of tyranny under cover of ironic praise.

The left blogosphere is in an uproar about Harvey Mansfield’s suggestion in today’s WSJ Online that the President has, by Constitutional design, “executive power” unfettered by, and indeed opposed to, “the rule of law” as represented by Congress and the courts. (Full Mansfield text below the fold.)

Hilzoy is duly horrified:

Harvey Mansfield has written one of those articles in which the writer’s elegance, erudition and stylistic flair make an abhorrent position sound halfway reasonable. One lovely sentence follows another, and if you aren’t careful, they lull you into overlooking the fact that he is arguing against the rule of law.

No doubt, some in the White House and the wingnutosphere will take comfort in such an argument, made by a scholar so eminent.

But both sides are missing the point. Those of us who have been his students know that Mansfield is far more a philosopher than he is a partisan. Moreover, he is a philosopher of a particular bent: a Straussian.

It is a core Straussian belief that in times of maximum political danger philosophers dare not, for their own sakes and for the sake of the community, tell the truth in plain language. Instead, they must conceal the truth under elaborate cover, and especially under cover of its opposite. By writing apparently in defense of a given position, in a way that leads those who hold that position to agree but makes obvious to those who do not hold it how vicious or trivial it truly is, philosophers can safely unmask obnoxious ideas and potential tyrants.

In The Prince, for example, Machiavelli warns Florentines about the emerging Medici tyranny by frankly stating the horrible tactics required to help a new tyrant consolidate power: “Whoever becomes master of a free city and does not destroy it, must expect to be destroyed by it.”

Similarly, Mansfield lays out the principles of Banana Republicanism for all to see. In the midst of a seeming panegyric on “energy in the executive,” Mansfield, in an apparently unguarded moment, lets the cat out of the bag:

We are talking about Machiavelli’s prince, the man whom in apparently unguarded moments he called a tyrant.

Mansfield fearlessly unmasks the claim that Presidential violations of law derive from, and are therefore limited by, the demands of temporary emergencies:

The case for a strong executive begins from urgent necessity and extends to necessity in the sense of efficacy and even greatness. It is necessary not merely to respond to circumstances but also in a comprehensive way to seek to anticipate and form them. “Necessary to” the survival of a society expands to become “necessary for” the good life there, and indeed we look for signs in the way a government acts in emergencies for what it thinks to be good after the emergency has passed.

Moreover, with a broad wink, Mansfield signals that arguments of the very type he purports to make are necessarily partisan and insincere. But he does so in a way that demands the “close reading” Straussians teach. Early in the essay, he writes:

In other circumstances I could see myself defending the rule of law.

Hmmm … just what might those “other circumstances” be? A hint is given in the middle (where Straussians argue that the truth is most cunningly hidden):

The American Founders heeded both criticisms of the rule of law when they created the presidency. The president would be the source of energy in government, that is, in the administration of government, energy being a neutral term that might include Aristotle’s discretionary virtue and Machiavelli’s tyranny, in which only partisans could discern the difference. (Emphasis added.)

And, just in case the reader is especially dense, Mansfield frankly provides the answer to the riddle near the end of the essay:

Democrats today would be friendlier to executive power if they held the presidency, and Republicans would discover virtue in the rule of law if they held Congress.

So, Mansfield, in his adopted character of an apologist for Bushism, reveals the Bushite project of ruling in defiance of the law as fundamentally tyrannical, fundamentally unlimited, and defensible only from a position of partisan bad faith.

And of course, if challenged, Mansfield would deny all this, and dismiss the above interpretation as fanciful, which is the normal reaction of the uninitiated to Straussian interpretations of classical texts.

Continue reading ““He that hath ears to hear, let him hear””

Corzine and the seat belt

After a respectful moment of sympathy for Gov. Corzine’s pain, and his family’s:

and another to wish him a full recovery:

what the hell is the matter with him? How could the chief executive of a state routinely put the chief executive of his state, elected by and responsible to the voters to discharge his duties for a full term, at risk of death or injury for something so self-indulgent as not wearing a seatbelt? Not to mention that a governor has some duty to model responsible and rational behavior. If the motor pool were found to have neglected maintenance of the brakes or tires of a governor’s vehicle, heads would roll, and rightly so. Apparently he routinely doesn’t wear a belt: Corzine is not just being stupid, he’s acted recklessly and put the welfare of his state at pointless risk, just as surely as if he decided to take up bungee jumping or Russian roulette while in office. This is really, really, bad behavior.

[UPDATE: Andy Sabl points out that bungee jumping is not as dangerous as it looks. The facts matter here (and per-hour-of-participation sports risks are actually not that easy to find). Plug in your own genuinely dangerous behavior – BASE jumping? free rock climbing? ]

Eugene Volokh on assassination and academic freedom

Eugene Volokh argues:

1. War is sometimes justified.

2. Assassination is sometimes more humane than war.

3. Therefore assassination is sometimes justified.

4. If assassination is sometimes justified, then advocating assassination is sometimes justified.

5. Even if the assassinations argued for would be criminal under current domestic or international law, those laws could be changed.

6. Thus advocacy of assassination is not a crime.

7. Since academic freedom includes, within wide limits, the right to advocate for unpopular or wrong positions, academic institutions should not sanction faculty members for such advocacy.

It would be possible to quarrel with some of the logical steps here:

Continue reading “Eugene Volokh on assassination and academic freedom”

I can’t vouch for this …

… but I’m told that Bush is head-faking his threats against Iran in order to keep the Israelis from striking on their own.

… but someone in some position to know, and no particular reason to lie, tells me that the Bushoid saber-rattling about Iran is mostly designed to keep the Israelis from striking out on their own. Apparently the current Israeli government is strongly tempted to try to do to Iran what it did to Iraq over the Osirak reactor in 1981, and we’re trying to convince them that it isn’t necessary.

Going to do another war to prove we won the first one?

This is sounding uncomfortably familiar. The Bush team is motivating a war with Iran with the kind of hard-headed intelligence and open-eyed analysis it perfected for the Iraq disaster, but not planning for the war, with the same insouciance with which it made no particular plans for the Iraq war.

Not planning for a war is not at all the same as planning not to have a war, as the arrival of another carrier group in the Persian Gulf makes clear. Anyway, the Iranians are almost all Shi’a, so what could go wrong?


Argillaceous pedal extremities

John Shalikashvili seems unashamed to report that his version of leadership is to follow his troops wherever they want to go, pandering to bigotry and ignorance along the way. Back in 1993, he didn’t want gays in the military because he thought the other soldiers wouldn’t like them, but now that polling indicates it’s not a problem, he’s on board; wow! Give the man a white horse and a sword to wave around!

It’s wrong to whale on someone who has thought about an issue and changed his mind; it’s called learning and it’s admirable. When [what you now recognize as] an earlier error has made others pay a lot of dues, it’s nice to apologize. But learning isn’t what the general is displaying; he says he was right then and he’s right now, nor is there any apology, not to the gays denied careers for which they were well qualified, not to the soldiers who died for want of backup from the best possible team of buddies, not to the taxpayers who paid extra for the comfort of higher management.

Harry Truman, in contrast, ordered the integration of the armed forces when the white soldiers weren’t at all in favor of it, because he was the chief and it was the right thing to do. The military learned to fight as a racially mixed institution pretty quickly and any residual racism didn’t ruin our combat capacity. Shalikashvili should be ashamed of himself both as a general and as a person.

Feeling Safer Yet?–Part I

With the Democrats’ acquisition of subpoena power, we will start learning in nauseating detail just how badly the Bush Administration has undermined American national security (thus, the new category). Already, we’ve been getting dribs and drabs, including this overlooked nugget from an excellent piece in TAP by Lawrence Korb and Max Bergmann, pointing out that there are no troops left to “surge”:

Currently there are no active or reserve Army combat units outside of Iraq and Afghanistan that are rated as “combat ready.” To ensure that troops fighting in Iraq have the equipment they need, units rotating out of Iraq have been leaving behind their equipment for units taking their place. The units that return home are so depleted that the Marines have been referring to this phase as the “post-deployment death spiral.” The additional units sent to Iraq would not have enough body armor, radios, and armored vehicles or training (since without equipment, non-deployed units cannot train properly).

In an effort to equip these additional units, equipment would have to be taken from troops stationed in places like Korea and National Guard units in the United States. This would leave the country dangerously exposed, without sufficient force strength to deter potential adversaries from possible aggressive action.

NO active or reserve Army units outside Iraq and Afghanistan that are combat ready? None? Recall that candidate Bush attacked Clinton in 2000 for inadequate readiness, a charge that (like virtually all public statements he has made) was a lie.

We can place too much emphasis on the readiness measurement, but this does appear to be evidence that Bush has violated his oath to “defend” the Constitution. His best excuse here is that the oath does say that he will do so “to the best of my ability.” Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Stern report 1: why has Sir Humphrey turned green?

Stern report on the economics of climate change: first part of a multi-post comment

  • Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.


  • There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change if strong collective action starts now.



  • It is already very clear that the economic risks of inaction in the face of climate change are very severe.


These messages give the radical flavour of the Stern report, a large study on the economics of climate change published, surprisingly, a fortnight ago by the stuffy British Treasury. It bears the name of the Whitehall mandarin and LSE professor Sir Nicholas Stern, the former head of the British Government’s economics service and Chief Economist at the World Bank.

So this is a political as well as an academic document. Why is Gordon Brown sponsoring it?

Continue reading “Stern report 1: why has Sir Humphrey turned green?”

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