How the Founders Dealt with Fake News

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by Jarrett Stepman
Following the [2016] presidential election, numerous stories surfaced about how “fake news” influenced the results. This prompted a reaction from the media and a concerted effort by the social media giant Facebook to crack down on the phenomenon—announcing that it would in part by using fact-checkers to distinguish the “real” from the “fake” news.

Americans have been better at finding the truth than less free societies.The truth is that while the American media landscape has been in a constant state of change over two centuries, the spread of hyperpartisan, scurrilous, and even phony news stories has been more common than uncommon throughout the history of the republic.

Ultimately, despite the increasingly Wild West state of journalism, Americans have been better at finding the truth than less free societies.

The media response frames the fake news issue as nearly the single greatest threat to democracy in our time. But despite the worries that surround an uptick in fraudulent news, the phenomenon is nothing new, nor does it particularly portend dark times in America’s future.

The overreaction in response, potentially damaging both the right to free speech and a culture that supports it, may be more dangerous to a free society.

‘Dupes of Pretended Patriots’

The idea that the press could try to deceive rather than enlighten readers was not lost on the Founders. In the years before and after the American Revolution there was an explosion of printing presses throughout the Western world as improved printing technology was becoming widely available.

Journalists and pamphleteers were certainly vital to spreading the ideas of American rebellion against the English—names like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams were nearly synonymous with the American Revolution, and they certainly weren’t alone. Though propaganda and distortion of the news were common as well.

After America gained independence, there were still huge numbers of scribblers writing about news and politics with varying levels of credibility and accuracy.

When the framers of the Constitution met to discuss the construction of the new government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, freedom of the press and what it would mean for the future of the country was certainly on their minds.

Many Founders fretted about what the proliferation of false or destructive notions would mean for the idea of democracy and a society of mass political participation.

Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry lamented how the people in his home state were being led astray by false stories from malcontents and manipulators.

“The people do not want [lack] virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said. “In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.”

So what did the Founders do to stop this problem? They created a system of government that would allow room for democracy, yet checked its vices: through institutions like Congress, the constitutional amendment process, and division of power between branches of government as well as the states and federal government. Not to mention the Electoral College, which the modern left now decries as unfair and undemocratic.

Unfortunately, some of these checks have been eroded over time and continue to be undermined. For instance, the 17th Amendment forced states to elect senators through a popular vote rather than have the state legislature choose a representative, which has reduced the power of the states in the American system.

And in some states, like California, the requirement to pass a constitutional amendment is simply 50 percent of the vote plus one, yet again increasing the chance that a temporary excitement of the populace can lead to rapid, negative changes in governance.

The weakening of the structural checks on democracy has been the greater threat of fake news’ proliferation than nonsense peddlers themselves.

Tocqueville on the ‘Liberty of the Press’

The years following the founding saw a booming and free-wheeling publishing industry, unimpeded by the licensing and restrictions common in other countries. It was not only the Founders who understood the trade-offs between a free press and misleading news. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French observer of American life, wrote about the freedom of the press in his 1835 book “Democracy in America.”

Tocqueville noted that when he arrived in the U.S., the very first newspaper article he read was an overheated piece accusing then-President Andrew Jackson of being a “heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority” and a “gamester” who ruled by corruption. This type of account was not unusual.

The years following the founding saw a booming and free-wheeling publishing industry, unimpeded by the licensing and restrictions common in other countries. Freedom allowed newspapers to proliferate throughout the United States in a highly decentralized way.

And in early American history, most newspapers were expressly partisan or outright controlled by individual politicians. They often aggressively attacked and made outrageous comments about political opponents.

Yet Tocqueville wrote that despite the general vehemence of the press, America was further from actual violence and political revolution than other societies that tightly controlled information.

While recognizing the occasional problems of an unimpeded fourth estate, Tocqueville wrote that “in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”

An attempt to submit “false” news and opinions through an official fact-checker would likely only elevate and perhaps justify a false opinion in the minds of the people, according to Tocqueville.

He continued to write that expecting to have the good of a free press without the bad has been “one of those illusions which commonly mislead nations in their times of sickness when, tired with faction and exhausted by effort, they attempt to make hostile opinions and contrary principles coexist upon the same soil.”

Americans were so used to being bombarded with opinions and information from a diverse media, Tocqueville wrote, that they were less likely to react to falsehoods and outrageous opinions.

Fake News existed in that time as well as ours, but it did little to outright convince people to change their views. This continues to be the case today.

Tocqueville concluded of a free press:

When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries and to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn. The sovereignty of the people and the liberty of the press may therefore be regarded as correlative, just as the censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things which are irreconcilably opposed and which cannot long be retained among the institutions of the same people.

The visiting Frenchman understood what Americans have almost always believed. Occasional false news stories cannot destroy a society fitted for liberty, but extreme efforts to contain them will.

The Search for Truth

The reality is, barriers to prevent modern Americans from receiving “fake news” are unlikely to succeed in a free society where a mass of information is readily available.

The internet, and a lack of trust in the legacy media, has allowed numerous new media publications to find success. It has again radically decentralized the way Americans get their information.

These legacy media organizations are attempting to reign in the chaos with new gimmicks like fact-checkers, but ultimately their influence and credibility are fading in the minds of Americans as fewer people trust or desire to read those sources.

This isn’t an anomaly in American life—it has been the norm. We must trust and maintain the mediating constitutional system the Founders created along the judgment of the American people.

The freedom of the press, enshrined in the First Amendment and tempered by institutions designed to slow governmental change and thwart temporary excitements of opinion, created a nation incredibly free, yet robust enough to withstand potential large-scale errors in judgment.

The Founders understood that the good would outweigh the bad with a free press, and no court could justly measure the rightness or wrongness of news and public opinion. They realized that without allowing the press to operate freely and leaving the people as its ultimate tribunal, America would never truly be a land of liberty.

Fake or biased news was the willingly paid price of an open society, and the winnowing process of the American system ultimately leads the country toward the truth.

This piece ran on DailySignal 

Jarrett Stepman


Jarrett Stepman

Jarrett Stepman is an editor for The Daily Signal

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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Artemus Ward

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Introduction to Selected Works of Artemus Ward
Albert Jay Nock — 1924

Charles Farrar Browne, known to the world as Artemus Ward, was born ninety years ago1 in Waterford, Maine.  He died at an age when most of us are only beginning to mature—thirty-three.  Little more can be told of him by way of formal biography.  Mr. Don C. Seitz2 lately employed himself upon a labour of love by seeking out and publishing all that is known, probably, of the externalities of Ward’s life.  Mr. Seitz has made the most of what was put before him, and in so doing he has done good service to the history of American letters; yet one closes his fine volume with a keen sense of how little he had to do with, a sense of the slightness and insignificance of his material.  All Ward’s years were Wanderjahre;3 he had no schooling, he left a poor rural home at sixteen to work in neighbouring printing-offices; he tramped West and South as a compositor and reporter; he wrote a little, lectured a little, gathered up odds and ends of his writings and dumped them in a woeful mess upon the desk of Carleton, the publisher, to be brought out in two or three slender volumes; he went to New York, then to London, saw as much of collective human life in those centres as he had energy to contemplate; he wrote a few pages for the old Vanity Fair and for Punch, gave a few lectures in Dodworth Hall on Broadway and Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly; and then he died.  Little enough of the pars magna fui4 is to be found here for the encouragement of a biographer; Mr. Seitz, I repeat, is to be congratulated on his intrepidity.  It is surely a remarkable thing that one whose experience was limited by the span of thirty-three years, whose literary output was correspondingly scanty, and whose predicable hold upon the future was as slight and hazardous as Mr. Seitz shows Ward’s to have been, should have managed to live nearly a century; and it is perhaps more remarkable that he should have done it in a civilization like ours, which is not over-careful with literary reputations and indeed does not concern itself deeply with spiritual achievement or spiritual activity of any kind.

Yet that is what Artemus Ward has somehow managed to do, and Mr. Seitz is on hand with a bibliography of eighteen pages, closely printed in small type, to prove it.  Some measure of proof, too, is probably to be found in the fact that a new issue of Ward’s complete works came out in London two years ago,5 and that an American firm has taken thought to publish this present volume.  How, then, has Ward contrived to live so long?  As a mere fun-maker, it is highly improbable that he could have done it.  Ward is officially listed as the first of the great American humorists; Mr. Albert Payson Terhune even commemorates him as the man “who taught Americans to laugh.”  This is great praise; and one gladly acknowledges that the humorists perform an immense public service and deserve the most handsome public recognition of its value.  In the case of Ward, it is all to Mr. Terhune’s credit that he perceives this.  Yet as one reads Ward’s own writings, one is reminded that time’s processes of sifting and shaking-down are inexorable, and one is led to wonder whether, after all, in the quality of sheer humorist, Artemus Ward can quite account for his own persistent longevity.  In point of the power sheerly to provoke laughter, the power sheerly to amuse, distract and entertain, one doubts that Ward can be said so far to transcend his predecessors, Shillaber and Derby.  In point of wit and homely wisdom, of the insight and shrewdness which give substance and momentum to fun-making, it would seem that Ward’s contemporary, Henry W. Shaw, perfectly stands comparison with him.  The disparity, at all events, is by no means so obvious as to enable one to say surely that the law of the survival of the fittest must take its course in Ward’s favour.  One is therefore led to suspect either that Ward’s longevity is due to some quality which he possessed apart from his quality as humorist, some quality which has not yet, perhaps, been singled out and remarked with sufficient definiteness, or else that it is due to the blind play of chance.

Several considerations tell against the hypothesis of accident.  It might be enough to say flatly that such accidents do not happen, that the passing stream of printed matter is too full and swift to permit any literary flotsam to escape being caught and swept on to oblivion by its searching current.  Two other considerations, however, may be remarked as significant.  First, that Ward very soon passed over — almost immediately passed over, the transition beginning even in the last few months of his life — passed over from being a popular property to become a special property of the intelligent and civilized minority; and he has remained their special property ever since.  In his quality of humorist he could hardly have done this.  Even had he really been the man who taught the Americans to laugh, disinterested gratitude could hardly be carried so far.  Artemus Ward himself declined to weep over the memory of Cotton Mather, saying simply that “he’s bin ded too lengthy”; and such, more or less, are we all, even the intelligent and civilized among us.  Ward was, in his time, a popular property in virtue of his singularly engaging personality, his fine and delicate art as a public speaker and his brilliant dealing with questions and affairs of current interest.  But his presence is no longer among us, and the affairs of profoundest public interest in his day are hardly as much as a memory in ours.  No power of humour in dealing with those affairs could serve to continue him as a cherished property of the intelligent, any more than it could serve to restore him as a popular property now that those affairs, and the interest that they evoked, have disappeared.  His continuance must be accounted for by another quality than those which he shared with his predecessors and contemporaries who have not taken on a like longevity.

The second consideration is that Ward has always been the object of a different and deeper regard in England, where his humour is alien, than in America where it is native.  It has long been difficult to get a copy of his complete works in this country, even at second hand; the last edition was published by Dillingham in 1898.  In London one buys them over the counter, and I think one has always been able to do so.  Since the Dillingham edition, Ward has been kept alive in America chiefly in edited issues like Mr. Clifton Johnson’s, of 1912, and this present volume; and also in anthologies and in essays by many hands.  These have, however, I think invariably, presented him as a humorist, and without taking account of the quality which has given his work the vitality that it seems to possess.  The English writers have done, on the whole, rather better; but even they did not strike straight through to this quality, disengage it from those that made up his strictly professional character, and hold it out in clear view; though there is evidence that they themselves had glimpses of it.  They were for the most part content, like Ward’s own countrymen, to accept him as a humorist and to assume that he kept his place in literature on the strength of his humour; and they were not aware, apparently, that this assumption left them with a considerable problem on their hands.  Mr. Seitz quotes Ward’s own view of the quality that gives power and permanence to his work — I too shall quote it presently, as it is admirably explicit — and oddly enough, without perceiving that it leaves him with a considerable problem on his hands; a problem which, if he had attended to it, might have caused him to change the direction of about three-fourths of his book.

No, clearly it is not by the power of his humour that Ward has earned his way in the world of letters, but by the power of his criticism.  Ward was a first-class critic of society; and he has lived for a century by precisely the same power that gave a more robust longevity to Cervantes and Rabelais.  He is no Rabelais or Cervantes, doubtless; no one would pretend that he is; but he is eminently of their glorious company.  Certainly Keats was no Shakespeare, but as Matthew Arnold excellently said of him, he is with Shakespeare; to his own degree he lives by grace of a classic quality which he shares with Shakespeare; and so also is Ward with Rabelais and Cervantes by grace of his power of criticism.

Let us look into this a little, for the sake of making clear the purpose for which this book is issued.  I have already said that Ward has become a special property, and that he can never again be a popular property, at least until the coming of that millennial time when most of our present dreams of human perfectability are realized.  I have no wish to discourage my publishers, but in fairness I have had to remind them that this delectable day seems still, for one reason or another, to be quite a long way off, and that meanwhile they should not put any very extravagant expectations upon the sale of this volume, but content themselves as best they may with the consciousness that they are serving a vital interest, really the ultimate interest, of the saving Remnant.  Ward is the property of an order of persons — for order is the proper word, rather than class or group, since they are found quite unassociated in any formal way, living singly or nearly so, and more or less as aliens, in all classes of our society — an order which I have characterized by using the term intelligence.  If I may substitute the German word Intelligenz, it will be seen at once that I have no idea of drawing any supercilious discrimination as between, say, the clever and the stupid, or the educated and the uneducated.  Intelligenz is the power invariably, in Plato’s phrase, to see things as they are, to survey them and one’s own relations to them with objective disinterestedness, and to apply one’s consciousness to them simply and directly, letting it take its own way over them uncharted by prepossession, unchanneled by prejudice, and above all uncontrolled by routine and formula.  Those who have this power are everywhere; everywhere they are not so much resisting as quietly eluding and disregarding all social pressure which tends to mechanize their processes of observation and thought.  Rabelais’s first words are words of jovial address, under a ribald figure, to just this order of persons to which he knew he would forever belong, an order characterized by Intelligenz; and it is to just this order that Ward belongs.

The critical function which spirits like Ward perform upon this unorganized and alien order of humanity is twofold; it is not only clearing and illuminating, but it is also strengthening, reassuring, even healing and consoling.  They have not only the ability but the temper which marks the true critic of the first order; for, as we all know, the failure which deforms and weakens so much of the able second-rate critic’s work is a failure in temper.  Take, for example, by way of a comparative study in social criticism, Rabelais’s description of the behaviour of Diogenes at the outbreak of the Corinthian War, and put beside it any piece of anti-militarist literature that you may choose; put beside it the very best that M. Rolland or Mr. Norman Angell or even Count Tolstoy himself can do.  How different the effect upon the spirit!  Or again, consider in the following pages the pictures which Ward draws of the village of Baldwinsville under stress of the Civil War.  Not one item is missing of all that afflicted the person of Intelligenz in every community at some time in the last ten years.  Ward puts his finger as firmly as Mr. Bertrand Russell and Mr. H. L. Mencken have put theirs, upon all the meanness, low-mindedness, greed, viciousness, bloodthirstiness and homicidal mania that were rife among us — and upon their exciting causes as well — but the person of Intelligenz turns to him, and instead of being further depressed, as Mr. Russell and Mr. Mencken depress him, instead of being further overpowered by a sense that the burdens put upon the spirit of man are greater than it can bear, he is lifted out of his temporary despondency and enervation by a sight of the long stretch of victorious humanity that so immeasureably transcends all these matters of the moment.  Such is the calming and persuasive influence of the true critical temper, that one immediately perceives Ward to be regarding all the untowardness of Baldwinsville sub specie aeternitatis,6 and one gratefully submits to his guidance towards a like view of one’s own circumstances.

The essential humanity of Abraham Lincoln may be largely determined in one’s own mind, I think, by the fact that he made just this use of Artemus Ward.  Mr. Seitz tells us how, in the darkest days of the Civil War, Lincoln read the draft of his Emancipation Proclamation at a special meeting of his Cabinet, and, to the immense scandal and disgust of his associates, prefaced it by reading several pages from Ward.  The incident is worth attention for the further establishment of the distinction drawn among men by the quality of Intelligenz.  Seward, Chase, Stanton, Blair, had ability, they had education; but they had not the free, disinterested play of consciousness upon their environment, they did not instinctively tend to see things as they are, they thought largely by routine and formula, they were pedantic, unintelligent — that is precisely the word that Goethe, the greatest of critics, would have applied to them at once. Upon them then, naturally, Lincoln’s performance made the impression of mere impudent levity; and thus one is directly led to see great force in Ward’s sly suggestion that Lincoln should fill up his Cabinet with showmen! Alas! how often the civilized spirit is moved to wish that the direction of public affairs might be taken out of the hands of those who in their modesty are fond of calling themselves “practical” men, and given over to the artists, to those who at least have some theoretical conception of a satisfying technique of living, even though actually they may have gone no great way in the mastery of its practice.

In another place Mr. Seitz tells us how the great and good John Bright, the Moses of British political liberalism, attended one of Ward’s lectures in London, sat gravely through it, and then observed that “its information was meagre, and presented in a desultory, disconnected manner”!  The moment I read that, I laid down the book, saying to myself, Behold the reason for liberalism’s colossal failure!  The primary failure of liberalism is just the failure in Intelligenz that we see so amusingly indicated in the case of Mr. Bright; its secondary failure, as we saw in the case of the late Mr. Wilson, for example, is a failure in the high and sound character that depends so largely upon Intelligenz for its development.  Can one imagine that Ward would be more intelligible to representative British liberals since Bright’s day, or that he would make a more serious and salutary impression upon the energumens who in this country are busily galvanizing some of Mr. Wilson’s political formulas into a ghastly simulacrum of life, and setting them up as the soul and essence of liberalism — upon ex-Justice Clarke, for example, or ex-Secretary Baker or Mr. George Foster Peabody?  One smiles at the thought of it.

Ward said of writers like himself that “they have always done the most toward helping virtue on its pilgrimage, and the truth has found more aid from them than from all the grave polemists and solid writers that have ever spoken or written…  They have helped the truth along without encumbering it with themselves.”  I venture to italicize these remarkable words. How many good causes there are, to be sure, that seem hopelessly condemned and nullified by the personality of those who profess them!  One can think of any number of reforms, both social and political, that one might willingly accept if only one need not accept their advocates too.  Bigotry, arrogance, intolerance, self-assurance, never ran higher over public affairs than in Ward’s day, yet he succeeded in putting upon all public questions the precise critical estimate that one puts upon them now in the perspective of fifty years; its correspondence with the verdict of history is extraordinarily complete.  It would be nothing remarkable if one should arrive now at a correct critical estimate of the Negro question, for example, or of the policy of abolition, or of the character and qualities of public men of the day, or of the stock phrases, the catchwords and claptrap that happened for the time being to be the stock-in-trade of demogoguery; but it is highly remarkable that a contemporary should have had a correct critical estimate of them, and that he should have given to it an expression so strong and so consistent, and yet so little encumbered with himself as to be wholly acceptable.

Really, there are very few of the characteristic and distinctive qualities of American life that Ward’s critical power left untouched.  I read somewhere lately — I think in one of Professor Stuart P. Sherman’s deliverances, though I am not quite sure — that Americans are just now very much in the mood of self-examination, and that their serious reading of novelists like Mr. Sinclair Lewis or Mr. Sherwood Anderson, and of essayists like Mr. Ludwig Lewisohn or Mr. Mencken, is proof that they are in that mood.  I have great doubts of all this; yet if it be true, I can but the more strongly urge them to re-examine the work of a first-rate critic, who fifty years ago drew a picture of our civilization that in all essential aspects is still accurate.  Ward represents the ideal of this civilization as falling in with one only of the several instincts that urge men onward in the quest of perfection, the instinct of expansion.  The claim of expansion is abundantly satisfied by Ward’s America; the civilization about him is cordial to the instinct of expansion, fosters it, and makes little of the obligation to scrupulousness or delicacy in its exercise.  Ward takes due pride in relating himself properly to the predominance of this instinct; he says that by strict attention to business he has “amarsed a handsum Pittance,” and that when he has enough to permit him to be pious in good style, like his wealthy neighbours, he intends to join the Baldwinsville church.  There is an ideal of civilized life for you, a conception of the progressive humanization of man in society!  For the claim of instincts other than the instinct of expansion, Ward’s America does nothing.  It does nothing for the claim of intellect and knowledge (aside from purely instrumental knowledge) nothing for the claim of beauty and poetry, the claim of morals and religion, the claim of social life and manners.

Our modern school of social critics might therefore conceivably get profit out of studying Ward’s view of American life, to see how regularly he represents it, as they do, as manifesting an extremely low type of beauty, a factitious type of morals, a grotesque and repulsive type of religion, a profoundly imperfect type of social life and manners. Baldwinsville is overspread with all the hideousness, the appalling tedium and enervation that afflict the sensitive soul of Mr. Sinclair Lewis.  The young showman’s courtship of Betsy Jane Peasley exhausts its resources of romance and poetry; its beau ideal of domesticity is completely fulfilled in their subsequent life together — a life fruitful indeed in certain wholesome satisfactions, but by no means such as a “well-formed mind would be disposed to relish.”  On the side of intellect and knowledge, Baldwinsville supports the editor of the Bugle as contentedly as New York supports Mr. Ochs and Mr. Munsey, and to quite as good purpose; it listens to the school-master’s views on public questions as uncritically as New York listens to Mr. Nicholas Murray Butler’s, and to quite as good purpose.  Baldwinsville’s dominant type of morals is as straitly legalistic, formal and superficial as our own; its dominant type of religion is easily recognizable as the hard, dogged, unintelligent fanaticism with which Zenith confronted Mr. Sinclair Lewis.  We easily recognize the “dissidence of Dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion,’; which now inspires the Anti-Saloon League, and which informs and animates the gentle ministrations of the Ku Klux Klan.

Thus Ward, in his own excellent phrase, powerfully helps along the truth about civilization in the United States; and all the more powerfully in that, unlike Mr. Lewis and Mr. Mencken, he does not so encumber it with himself, so overload it with the dragging weight of his own propensities, exasperations, repugnances, that his criticism, however accurate and interesting, is repellant and in the long run ineffectual.  Often, indeed, his most searching criticism is made by indirection, by the turn of some phrase that at first strikes one as quite insignificant, or at least as quite irrelevant to any critical purpose; yet when this phrase once enters the mind it becomes pervasive, and one finds presently that it has coloured all one’s cast of thought — and this is an effect which only criticism of the very first order can produce.  For instance, consider the first sentence that he writes in a letter to his wife from the Athens of America:

Dear Betsy: I write you this from Boston, ‘the Modern Atkins’ as it is denomyunated, altho I skurcely know what those air.

Nothing but that.  Yet somehow when that little piece of exquisite raillery sinks in, it at once begins to put one into just the frame of mind and temper to meet properly the gentle, self-contained provincialism at which it was directed.  Let the reader experiment for himself.  Let him first recall the fearfully hard sledding he had on his way through, say, Mr. Barrett Wendell’s History of American Literature, or the recent volume of Mrs. Field’s reminiscences; let him remember the groan of distress that now and then escaped him while reading Mr. Howells’s really excellent novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham.  Then with this sentence in mind, let him try reading any one of the three books again, and see how differently it will impress him.

After the same fashion one may make quite good headway with Mr. Villard’s biography of John Brown if one’s spirit is cleared and steadied by Ward’s inimitable critique of “Ossawatomie Brown, or, the Hero of Harper’s Ferry.”  Amidst the squalor of our popular plays and popular literature, one preserves a decent equanimity by perusing Ward’s reviews of East Side theatricals and of Forrest’s “Othello,” and his parodies of the cheap and lurid romances of his day.  Our popular magazines take on a less repellant aspect when one remembers how, after three drinks of New England rum, Ward “knockt a small boy down, pickt his pocket of a New York Ledger, and wildly commenced readin Sylvanus Kobb’s last Tail.”  No better criticism of our ludicrous and distressing perversion of the religious instinct can be found than in his account of his visit to the Shakers, the Free Lovers and the Spiritualists.  Never was the depth and quality of routine patriotism more accurately measured than by this, from the account of his visit to Richmond after the surrender:

I met a man today — I am not at liberty to tell his name, but he is an old and inflooential citizen of Richmond, and sez he, “Why! weve bin fightin agin the Old Flag!  Lor bless me, how sing’lar!”  He then borrer’d five dollars of me and bust into a flood of tears.

Again, how effective is Ward’s criticism of the mischievous and chlorotic sentimentalism to which Americans seem invariably to give their first allegiance!  During the Civil War the popular regard for motherhood was exploited as viciously as during the last war, or probably in all wars, and Ward’s occasional reflections upon this peculiarly contemptible routine-process of militarism are more effective than any indignant fulminations of outraged common sense; as when he suggests, for instance, that “the song writers air doin’ the Mother bisness rayther too muchly,” or as when in another place he remarks that it seems about time somebody began to be a little sorry for the old man.  He touches another fond topic of sentimentalism in his story, which I must quote, of leaving home as a boy to embark in the show business.  Where can better criticism than this be found?

You know, Betsy, that when I first commenced my career as a moral exhibitor with a six-legged cat and a Bass drum, I was only a simple peasant child — skurce 15 summers had flow’d over my yoothful hed.  But I had sum mind of my own.  My father understood this.  ‘Go,’ he said, ‘Go, my son, and hog the public!’ (he ment ‘knock em, but the old man was allus a little given to slang).  He put his withered han’ tremblingly onto my hed, and went sadly into the house I thought I saw tears tricklin down his venerable chin, but it might hav’ been tobacker juice.  He chaw’d.

But I must end these illustrations, which I have been tempted perhaps unduly to multiply and enlarge upon because their author has never yet, as far as I am aware, been brought to the attention of modern readers in the one capacity wherein he appears to me to maintain an open communication with the future — the capacity of critic.  In conclusion I cannot forbear remarking the spring, the abounding vitality and gusto, that pervades Ward’s work, and pointing out that here too he is with Rabelais and Cervantes.  The true critic is aware, with George Sand, that for life to be fruitful, life must be felt as a joy; that it is by the bond of joy, not of happiness or pleasure, not of duty or responsibility, that the called and chosen spirits are kept together in this world.  There was little enough of joy going in the society that surrounded Ward; the sky over his head was of iron and brass; and there is even perhaps less joy current in American society now.  But the true critic has his resources of joy within himself, and the motion of his joy is self-sprung.  There may be ever so little hope of the human race, but that is the moralist’s affair, not the critic’s.  The true critic takes no account of optimism or pessimism; they are both quite outside his purview, his affair is one only of joyful appraisal, assessment and representation.

Epitaphs are notably exuberant, but the simple line carved upon Ward’s tombstone presents with a most felicitous precision and completeness, I think, the final word upon him.  “His name will live as a sweet and unfading recollection.”  Yes, just that is his fate, and there is none other so desirable.  Mansueti possidebunt terram,7 said the Psalmist, the amiable shall possess the earth; and so, in the long run, they do. Insight and wisdom, shrewdness and penetration — for a critic these are great gifts, indispensable gifts, and the public has regard for their exercise, it gives gratitude for the benefits that they confer; but they are not enough of themselves to invest a critic’s name with the quality of a sweet and unfading recollection.  To do this they must communicate themselves through the medium of a temper, a prepossessing and persuasive amiability.  Wordsworth showed himself a great critic when he said of his own poems that “they will co-operate with the benign tendencies in human nature and society, and will in their degree be efficacious in making men wiser, better and happier”; and it is just because of their unvarying co-operation with the benign tendencies in human nature and society that Ward’s writings have made him in the deepest sense a possession, a cherished and ennobling possession, of those who know him.

Notes:

1 – 1834; 2 – Don Carlos Seitz; 3 – German: years of wandering; 4 – Latin: the great part; 5 – For a collection of works by Artemus Ward, see Project Gutenberg; 6 – Latin: literally, “under the aspect of eternity”, or that which is universally and eternally true; 7 – Latin: The gentle shall inherit the earth.

Dear Trump Nation: Guard Your Heart

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by Joey Clark
I made a promise to myself before the beginning of the 2016 Presidential cycle that I would not support anyone for President, and I am happy to report I have remained true to my promise.  Honestly, this has been easy to do because, in my heart of hearts, I forever hope no one will be President, and I have once again been greatly disappointed.

Dare I say, I would love to see America made great again!  Yet, my heart also prods me to remain part of the Great American conversation.  Consider me akin to those two old men from The Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf, sitting in a theater box watching the American political arena.  I’m not happy with what I see, but I still show up day after day in my usual curmudgeonly way.  I am truly a disinterested party when it comes to supporting one president over another.

However, despite this aloof pose, I do love my fellow Americans and hope to see this dear nation of ours flourishing and prosperous once again.  I do have hope for the future of America — that she will serve as a beacon of liberty for all the world to emulate.

Dare I say, I would love to see America made great again!  

Yet, since I am not a supporter of Mr. Trump, consider me a neutral third party.  Consider me a wise fool here to serve you, “the people,” a fellow traveler ready to provide counsel come what may.  Thus, from this neutral place — with love for you and contempt for presidential ambitions — I feel obliged to advise those of you supporting Donald J. Trump.

Guard Your Heart

Yes, you and Donald may be having fun for now — the wining and dining, the guarantees of big walls and big hands, the appointments, the interviews, the speculation, the promise of a happier future together — but there are red flags galore.

So, please, guard your heart.

I do not expect many of you to follow my advice.  That’s the thing with being in love — it turns us absolutely dense and quick to play fast and loose with the truth and our well-being.  “When one is in love,” writes Oscar Wilde, “one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others,” and this is especially true of the love between the politician and the crowd.

Crowds of all stripes are notoriously more idiotic and immoral than the average person, but a crowd head-over-heels in love with a political leader?  Well, such a throng is usually downright dangerous, deceptive, and dimwitted, despite the intelligence and talents of the individuals who constitute it.  Crowds give us the cover we need to act like total imbeciles, and democracy gives us a pass to act like petty little tyrants.

One by one, the citizens fool themselves each election cycle that a certain politician will be a president representative of their interests, and then they proceed to fool their neighbors just the same.  Their tragedy is usually getting what they want.

Yet, the crowd’s collective responsibility under democracy is really no responsibility at all.  There is too much moral hazard built into the system whereby all claim to take the blame without ever personally doing so.  Therefore, I suspect you will not listen to my advice.  I fear, if you are to learn at all, you will have to learn the hard way.

A Tragic Love Story

So, allow me to provide the moral of your political love story with Mr. Trump before it ends.  I’ll do so by way of example.  It is the story of a young woman who fell in love with Obama in 2008.  The young woman’s name is Carey Wedler, and in March of 2014, she posted a video that went absolutely viral.  As of this writing, her video has been viewed 1,869,263 times.

From the outset, Carey appears on screen wearing an “Obama is my homeboy” t-shirt only to admit she was one of Obama’s most “hysterical supporters.”  She then displays a photo of her on the night Obama was elected, wearing the shirt and “shedding a tear of euphoria” because she thought “history had been made.”  Carey tells us that after a couple years and a little bit of research, she discovered Obama had “become exactly like the George Bush” she “used to so vitriolically hate.”  She then proceeds to indict Obama’s abysmal human rights record along with other failures.

The video then takes a dramatic turn.

After telling us she felt personally betrayed by Obama, Carey proceeds to strip off her Obama t-shirt, takes out a butane torch, and lights the shirt on fire!

 And now, I can’t help but ask: will Make America Great Again go up in flames just like Hope and Change?

How many of you will feel betrayed and heartbroken by Donald Trump a few years into his tenure just as Carey felt betrayed by Obama?  Will it be a few burning candles in the night, or a raging bonfire fueled by millions of hats, shirts, and signs?

“We’ll see,” says the Zen master.

But again, guard your heart.  I’m not asking you to stop supporting Mr. Trump, but to check your expectations.  Take the orange billionaire off the pedestal.

If you choose to not heed my advice, well, that is your liberty. But that brings us to the tragic moral of most political love affairs.

As Carey Wedler says at the end of her video:

Now Barack, I can admit that I probably hated you more than I needed to once I found out what a scam you were.  I hated you more than I hated George Bush because I felt personally betrayed by all the lies that you told.  But really, I should thank you now, because a few years out from realizing what a scam you were, I understand that it’s not just you… it’s the institution of government that is the problem.  It doesn’t matter what political party is in office.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a liberal or conservative or you or George Bush or anyone else who will run for President… it’s the institution of government that is violent and forceful and coercive and kills people and subjects them to will with a force… this government that you are currently at the head of (but really it doesn’t matter who is) is strictly violative… it only restricts the potential of humanity…

The Government Is the Problem

Put simply, the moral of the story is this: government is the problem.  You shouldn’t put your hopes and dreams in the State, else prepare for a broken heart.  It’s not about kicking the establishment bums out, and putting in new people.  No, the problem is the government itself.

The government is not “us.”  Each election season, we tend to stop seeing this truth.  We start seeing personalities.  We start seeing the other side who wants to take power over us, so we fight back, thinking we have found a new champion for our cause.  So, as you get caught up in the promises of power and your worry about the future of your nation, neighbors, and culture, just remember “we” are not the government.  The government is not “us.”

Government is something wholly separate from us, and as much we would like to think we can control this wild elephant by hopping on its back and tugging at its ears, this behemoth is much more prone to trample upon our livelihoods and liberties than ever protect us.

I suppose we must have a president, but I am not convinced this is actually fact.  So as you go forth supporting Donald J. Trump, just remember to guard your heart.

Joey Clark


Joey Clark

Joey Clark is a budding wordsmith and liberty lover.  He blogs under the heading “The Libertarian Fool” at joeyclark.liberty.me. Follow him on Facebook.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

Congress Solves Your Problems

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by David A. Woodbury
Soon after World War II, Congress began trying to solve all your problems for you.  Up until then, if you had a problem, (if you were around then), you understood that you had a responsibility to solve it, and government understood its role to assure that you had the same chance as anyone else at doing so.

Your air was dirty, your rivers were dirty, your roads were narrow and slow, and lots of people were living in poverty, as poverty was defined in 1950 or so.

There were rich people, of course, who had nice homes and nice cars and owned businesses and such.  You envied these people a little, but the very fact that they existed was evidence that you were free to work at creating your own wealth.  You could aspire to be like them, and it was up to you to discover a way to join them.

Then Congress grew serious about solving your problems.  First they had to identify your problems, especially the ones you didn’t know you had.  (Current government philosophy: If it ain’t broke, fix it until it is — from a bumper sticker.)

Now, I have a question. Who is better off after 60-70 years of all this federal problem-solving?  Is the air cleaner, and the water?  (Or did we just shift all manufacturing to countries where the once-clean air and water are now dirtier than before, when they were merely agrarian societies?)  Is there less fraud in finance?  (Or has the switch in 1972 from the gold standard to make-believe money and the credit standard merely created new ways of committing fraud?)  Is the workplace really safer?  (Or has the majority of the risk been transferred to those countries where workplace standards are lower?)  Are our kids better-educated?  (Or have they merely taken control of the culture and set the learning standards themselves?)  Are there fewer people living in poverty?  (That’s a big one.  When a young adult who shows up for a medical appointment, charging it to Medicaid, is thumbing a cell phone with unlimited texting, has a half-finished tattoo collection, drives a brightly-accessorized new car, sports tinted hair, $150 shoes, a pop-icon cigarette lighter, and is sipping from a super-sized plastic cup, while the medical receptionist checking him in at $9 an hour has relinquished her cell phone so she can pay for her own medical insurance, the poverty line is upside down.)

This is problem-solving according to the do-gooders YOU have sent to Washington, or refused to remove from Washington, for four score years or more.  If Congress hasn’t truly been solving problems, then why aren’t YOU doing something about it?

Undergraduates in any college political science programs must eventually take a constitutional law course.  Invariably they learn the adage: The President proposes; Congress disposes.  If Congress wants to solve real problems, it can.  But to do so means behaving in a way that Congress — the current 538 of them — can’t bring themselves to do.

Here is my list of problems they won’t solve.

The only thing that passes for free enterprise in America any more is a yard sale.  Manufacturing within our borders is illegal.  It’s not proscribed in an outright statute, but any enterprise that attempts to manufacture something must submit to such a gauntlet of government permitting, insurance-buying, scrutiny at every step of a process, and such a reporting and record-keeping burden, that the primary effort of a business is not manufacturing but accounting for what it does and proving that it hasn’t done what it hasn’t done such as violating non-discrimination regs or purchasing raw material from an unapproved source.  (I used to be a manager in a hospital.  If we didn’t have any patient complaints during a period of a month, we were required to prove it.)

Our kids can’t read, write, and cipher as well as they could before there was a department of education.

There isn’t enough money.  Even though they have poured dollars into the economy in incomprehensible amounts (trillions, whatever those are*), those dollars are not real and they do not comprise wealth.  There is probably not enough wealth in the country any more to balance the dollars in circulation.

Here is a list of problems that Congress has solved.

1. There wasn’t enough federal control over baseball.  Now Congress convenes hearings to manage baseball.
2. The lawyers in Congress solidified their priesthood in two ways: first by cultivating a massive, invasive, tumorous fourth branch of government (the unelected, unconstitutional regulatory branch) and transferring law-making authority to it, thereby exponentially increasing the body of incomprehensible law; and second by leveraging votes on legislation in exchange for hiding bills in the pages of other bills so that the hidden bills avoid scrutiny on their merits.
3. The accountants in Congress solidified their priesthood in two ways: first by feeding the gargantuan, uncaged monster called the IRS that then dreams up terms such as “constructive receipt”; and second by creating a massive, unfunded federal “reserve” (funded by pretend money).
4. It is too messy and time-consuming for a representative to propose a bill in the House of Representatives and expect the House to debate it on its merits and vote on it.  Congress has solved this problem.  Nothing comes up for a vote on its own.  Committees filter bills, but favored members of Congress can hope that something will emerge from committee that resembles their original proposal, at least in the way a 5-year-old’s scribble of a house resembles an architectural drawing, and hope that a parody of the original proposal will later be rolled into a “comprehensive” and highly-compromised bill.  Funding for their proposal will be overestimated and eventually rolled into a Consolidated Ommibus Budget Reconciliation Act.
5. More specifically, members of Congress no longer write the laws that they vote on, which no one can read, and which no one can understand even if they try, as exposed in the famous Pelosi quote of 2010 that “we have to pass the bill [Obamacare] so that you can find out what is in it.”  Congress mostly engages in the scandalous practice of enacting “enabling legislation”.  Instead of writing the laws to clean up the air, they declare: There shall be clean air!  This enables the executive branch, overseer of the regulatory branch, to actually write regulations, which have the power of law.  But what if part of the regulation is over-reaching (what reg isn’t, but never mind that)?  If part of the regulation needs to be repealed or rewritten, (prove that you had no complaints) that change has to be rolled into some other unrelated bill (requiring that voters present identification in order to vote), and if Congress can’t pull together the votes to pass that, then the bad regulation stands the way the regulatory branch wrote it and Congress can’t fix the law that it is supposedly responsible for.
6. Many times in the past half-century an act of Congress has been called a lawyers’ and accountants’ full-employment act, which is self-explanatory.  All the regulations enabled by Congress, by abrogating that responsibility to the regulatory branch, are promulgated to assure that only a high priesthood of lawyers and accountants can interpret them.  Woe even to the retiree who tries to file her own income tax whose only income is from Social Security.

That Congress has come this far from protecting your freedom should frighten you.  What am I doing about it?  I have written this, so that you may understand what you never before suspected.

*In an early episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, Jed Clampett comes into the house and announces that “Mr. Drysdale says they’re going to pay me in some new kinda dollars.”  Grannie says, “There ain’t no new kinda dollars.”  Jed turns to his nephew and says, “What’d he call them, Jethro?”  “Milli-yun dollars,” Jethro replies.

Opposing Interests

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The State is no proper agency for social welfare, and never will be, for exactly the same reason that an ivory paperknife is nothing to shave with.  The interests of society and of the State do not coincide; and any pretense that they can be made to coincide is sheer nonsense.  Society gets on best when people are most happy and contented, which they are when freest to do as they please and what they please; hence society’s interest is in having as little government as possible.  The State, on the other hand, is administered by jobholders; hence its interest is in having as much government as possible.  It is hard to imagine two sets of interests more directly opposed than these. -AJN, Snoring As A Fine Art and Twelve Other Essays, p. 191

The Three Laws of Organisation

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In response to an urgent social demand, a revolutionary regime was set up in France in 1789.  At the outset it was backed and promoted by men of far-seeing intelligence, including a good part of the aristocracy. . . .

Then at the moment when the revolution became a going concern, Epstean’s law brought in a waiting troop of political adventurers whose interest was not social but institutional.

Their views of the social demand which brought the revolutionary organisation into being were shaped by that interest.  As Benjamin Franklin put it, they were of the sort whose sense of political duty is first, to themselves; second, to their party; and third (if anything be left over) to society. . . .

Then Gresham’s law struck in.  As the numbers of this latter group increased, their interest became the prevailing interest, and their view the prevailing view.  Social interest was rapidly driven out, and as almost always happens in the case of political revolutions, those who represented it were lucky if they escaped with their lives.

Then finally the law of diminishing returns took hold.  As the institution grew in size and strength, as its confiscations of social power increased in frequency and magnitude, as its coercions upon society multiplied, the welfare of society (which the original intention of the revolution was to promote) became correspondingly depleted and attenuated.

These three laws dog the progress of every organisation of mankind’s efforts.  Organised charity, organised labor, organised politics, education, religion — look where you will for proof of it, strike into their history at any time or place.

-AJN, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, p. 165-6 as quoted in Cogitations