Hume on perfidy

David Hume on Wat Tyler’s rebellion.

Inspired by Andy’s book, I’ve been re-reading Hume’s history, and I’ve just read the section on Wat Tyler’s rebellion, in which the teenaged Richard II defused a very dangerous (for the ruling class) situation by promising the rebels to support their demands – already granted by royal charter – and then, after they had dispersed, stood aside as the nobility crushed them and revoked the promises he had made.

Hume acknowledges that the rebels’ demands – including the abolition of personal slavery – were “extremely reasonable in themselves” but says they were “such as the nation was not sufficiently prepared to receive” (“the nation” presumably meaning the landowners) and that it was “dangerous” for such demands “to be extorted by violence.”

Hume then goes on to report on the deal and the double-cross, concluding with a sad reflection that Richard, having shown such “courage, presence of mind, and address” in his youth, proved an unsuccessful king.

What strikes me about the passage is that Hume does not at all consider the long-term costs of such perfidy: the sort of question he never neglects in considering interactions among the nobility and gentry. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Richard might have even considered keeping his pledged word, since he hadn’t pledged it to gentlemen.

[Full text after the jump.]
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Dad’s Army for Freedom!

The strange belief that militias are necessary for liberty.

Barack Obama took a nice dig at Second Amendment absolutists in his second inaugural speech:

For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

The question: what did the authors of that little sentence, the Second Amendment, mean by it? is subject to the historical analogy to Goodhart’s Law : when an indicator is used for policy, it gets distorted (see: monetary targets, Soviet central planning). To get an unbiased evaluation of the original intention, you’d have to hire a historian from Mars and deprive them of all data after 1800.

Fortunately there’s a slightly easier question. Where did they get the idea of :

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state …

How does this stand up as a claim of fact?
In 1792 it looked pretty good:

    • List of free states: Great Britain (*), France, Netherlands, Switzerland, United States.
    • List of free states with militias or citizen armies: Great Britain, France (chaotically), Switzerland, United States.

* when not considered as a tyranny under the iron gaiters of George III.

Today the proposition doesn’t look quite so good: Continue reading “Dad’s Army for Freedom!”

Crookback Dick

Shakespeare was lying about Richard III’s arm, but not about his back.

Update See comment for the distinction between scoliosis and kyphosis. Maybe the written record had it right in the first place.

So the body of Richard III has been found, buried under a parking lot. (Jimmy Hoffa is still missing.) There’s no evidence of the withered arm portrayed by Shakespeare.

Oddly, though, there is evidence of severe scoliosis. Tudor literature portrayed him as hunchbacked, but contemporary documents make no mention of it, and the portraits show him as entirely upright. Score one for oral tradition over the written record.

Footnote Josephine Tey wrote wonderful mystery novels, and The Daughter of Time is a marvelously convincing presentation of the case for Richard’s innocence, but his nephews disappeared from public sight under his control and never reappeared. Guilty, on mine honor.

Eric Cantor: The Last Honest Man

I agree completely with Mark about the grotesque refusal of the House GOP to renew the Violence Against Women Act, and about future Democratic strategy concerning it.  But I think that Cantor was being completely honest here.

Southern conservative hostility toward tribal courts goes back aways.  Consider the example of Sam Ervin, who nowadays is thought of as a folksy country lawyer doing battle with Richard Nixon, but in his time was a leader of southern segregationism.  At the very same time that Ervin was leading a filibuster against the Fair Housing Act, he also sponsored something called the Indian Civil Rights Act, which substantially limited the autonomy of tribal courts (and was itself later significantly watered down by the Supreme Court).  In other words, the imposition of federal law on white segregationist state courts was a violation of sovereignty, but the same measure against tribal courts was simply a matter of civil rights.

For Cantor, this is the same thing.  White people with jurisdiction over reddish-brown people: good.  Reddish-brown people with jurisdiction over white people: bad. 

It’s the closest thing that a modern southern conservative can get to reimposing the Black Codes.  What else is new?


Boehner v. Barebone

No, John Boehner is NOT running The. Dumbest. Legislative. Body. Ever.

As the clown-show formerly known as the United States House of Representatives, having abdicated its Constitutional role of originating all revenue legislation, prepares to think about meeting to ratify or reject the deal reached between the President and the Senate, the question on everyone’s mind is: is John Boehner presiding over the most contemptible legislative body in the history of the English-speaking world?

I am pleased to report that the answer is “no.”
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“Lincoln” and parliamentary procedure

The film has many virtues, but it makes hash of the rules of the House, sacrificing both realism and drama to – what, prescisely?

The story is about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field are astoundingly good as Abraham and Mary Lincoln. The supporting cast is superb. The writing is pitch-perfect, especially in the way it catches Lincoln’s use of Shakespeare and story-telling.

The questions at stake, and the positions and actions of the key players, are presented both compellingly and (so far as my knowledge of the period extends, which is not very far) with reasonable accuracy. The moment when Thaddeus Stevens has to choose between maintaining his dearest political principle and passing the damned bill is unforgettable. What’s not to like?

In my case, what wasn’t to like was the utter unrealism of the legislative scenes. Continue reading ““Lincoln” and parliamentary procedure”

Obama’s “Legitimacy” and a Popular-Electoral Vote Split

Lots of chatter throughout Blogistan if President Obama is re-elected with more than 270 Electoral votes but with fewer popular votes than Mittdrake the Magician.  Much of it is silly.

First silly meme: Democrats were outraged when Bush lots the popular vote in 2000.  How can they defend swearing in a non-popular vote winner now?

Let’s get this one straight.  Democrats were not outraged that Bush lost the popular vote and won the electoral college.  Democrats were outraged that Bush lost the popular vote and stole the electoral college.

If Bush had won Florida by 5,000 votes, then Democrats would have grumbled and protested the unfairness of the system, but would not have questioned Bush’s legal right to assume the presidency.

Republicans might want the rest of us to forget the Brooks Brothers riot, the shutting down of vote-counting, the hackery of Katherine Harris, and the lawless grotesquery of Bush v. Gore, but those of us with an interest in facts will not.  Republicans stole this election by getting their hand-picked judges to violate the basic norm in a democracy, viz. count the votes.

If Obama wins an electoral vote majority, he will do so not because of these tactics but in spite of them, as Republicans have worked hard to once again suppress voting and voter registration, especially in key states like Ohio and Florida.  (Credit where it is due: the Supremes, for once, decided to allow for some democratic decision-making here).  If Obama triumphs only in the electoral college, there will simply be no cause for comparison.

Second silly meme: if Obama does not win a majority, this will undermine his legitimacy, especially because he will get fewer votes than he did in 2008.

This has recently been advanced by Michael Barone, who many decades ago was a good political writer and then decided to descend into the Seventh Circle of Hacktackularity.  To see its absurdity, consider Margaret Thatcher, who seems to have some street cred on the Right.

Mrs. Thatcher never won more than 44% of the popular vote, and the Conservative Party’s percentages declined in every subsequent election with her at the helm.

That’s right.  In 1979, the Tories got 43.9% of the vote.  In 1983, supposedly the year of her greatest triumph, she led the Conservatives to a smashing 42.4% share.  Four years later, she continued her downward spiral with a 42.2% share.

Obama’s answer to reporters at press conferences is simple: if it’s good enough for Margaret Thatcher, it’s good enough for me.

Enough with this.  Republicans will fume about Obama’s supposed lack of legitimacy if he wins a huge plurality and gets more than 300 electoral votes — which of course is what happened.  They are desperate and will say almost anything if their months long campaign of lies and class warfare fails to get them what their billionaire masters want.

Stop wringing your hands and pick up the damn phone.  Everything else is nonsense.

The Influence of a Glorious Bastard

That would be William of course, who was re-dubbed William the Conqueror after his victory at Hastings 946 years ago today. Alan Massie reflects on how the Norman Conquest changed the law and history of England, as well as its language:

So, if you were to begin by asking, in Monty Python style, “what have the Normans ever done for us?” you might first reply that the most enduring consequence of the Conquest is the richness of the English language, with its Anglo-Saxon base and Franco-Latin superstructure. This mixture gives us a huge vocabulary, and many words with essentially the same meaning, yet a different shade of emphasis: fatherly and paternal, for example.

American “Justice”: Far Behind the Salem Witch Trials

The Obama Administration’s decision — released the Friday afternoon before Labor Day — that no one will be held accountable for the systematic policy and use of torture would be more nauseating if it were not so predictable.  I cannot add to Lemieux, Serwer, Drum, Sullivan, and Greenwald, and you should read them.

American political culture is at a particularly childish moment.  Our leaders cannot prosecute what they did in our name, and they cannot even acknowledge it.  Oh yes, President Obama did stop the policy, and he deserves credit for that, but it was all part of sweeping things under the rug: let us look to the future, not the past.  After all, looking to the past means looking at something unpalatable, and that is not allowed.  As Richard Hofstadter noted, “American use their history as an excuse for an orgy of self-congratulation.”  If anything, the Republicans are far, far worse: to the extent that they don’t want to sweep this under the rug, it is because they are proud of their crimes.

But it was not always this way.  Edmund Morgan, the world’s greatest living historian, recently published a book of essays entitled American Heroes, a work whose title appears to be the only flawed thing about it.  One (previous unpublished) essay is entitled “The Courage of Gils Cory and Mary Easty.”  Cory and Easty were residents of Salem in the 1690’s, wrongfully accused of witchcraft, and instead of turning states’ evidence and accepting a lesser punishment, they vigorously maintained their innocence, knowing that death would result.  They particularly condemned the use of “spectral evidence,” in which a person could be convicted of witchcraft simply by another person saying that he or she “was being tormented by a specter in the shape of the accused.”  Usually, courts refused to accept this evidence, knowing how unreliable it was.  But so terrorized was Salem by the prospect of witchcraft that the rule book was thrown out.  Cory and Easty, Morgan argues, were two of the most courageous people in American history.

Here is where modern times have truly become shameful.   Morgan relates that “there was another kind of courage displayed in connection with witchcraft trials that would be hard to find a parallel today”:

Five years after the trials, in 1697, the General Court of Massachusetts decided that the trials had sent innocent people to their deaths.  January 15, 1697, was appointed as a day of public fasting in which the people of the colony should ask forgiveness of God for what they had done.  And on that day Samuel Sewall, one of the judges, stood up before the congregation of the church to which he belonged, with bowed head, while the minister read a statement that Sewall had written, begging forgiveness of God and man for the part that he had played in the witchcraft trials, asking that ‘the blame and shame of it’ be placed on him.  On the same day the jury that had sat in the trials published a wirtten expression of their “deep sense of sorrow” for their decisions, “whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, though ignorantly and unwillingly, to bring upon ourselves the guilt of innocent blood.”

What a moving and noble reaction from a people that was imperfect and knew it.  They could not bring back the dead, but they could restore the victims’ property, they could hold themselves accountable, and they could admit that they were wrong.  And from contemporary America: nothing.  We have instituted Regress in History. 

Morgan writes: “Can any modern people point to a similar willingness to remedy injustice, even after the event?”  In today’s United States, at least, we know the answer.

Obama Flunks History

Or at least he did in his speech in Iowa today, when he commented on the Republican convention:

“What they offered over those three days was more often than  not an agenda that was better-suited for the last century,”  Obama said. “We might as well have watched it on a  black-and-white TV.”

Wrong.  The last century was the 20th, when every Western democracy except ours instituted universal health coverage, and recognized that completely unregulated markets produce economic chaos and misery.  The 20th century also saw the flowering of civil rights and womens rights.

No — what the Republicans want on economics is the century before last, the 19th, when Social Darwinism flourished.  And what they want on social issues is the 17th, when theocracy was the order of the day.

As Mark has noted, the current GOP is a coalition between those who want to repeal the New Deal and those who want to repeal the Enlightenment.  Both impulses seek to send this country back a long, long way.