Fat Steve's Blatherings

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Another Reply to a Comment That Turned Into a Post


        Jerry Pournelle's "Republic vs. Empire" distinction is flawed because it fails to note the differences between the past and the present; because it is based on fear of the world; and because it is based on a false attitude that foreigners are inferior.

At length:

        Towering Barbarian left a comment on this post, and my reply to him was long enough to make into a separate post.

At Length:

Towering Barbarian:

        Some thoughts on Dr. Pournelle's position.

        One of the most important facts about Jerry is that he's a southerner, and was born around 1933.  Now, he's frequently mentioned his being for racial equality since he was boy, and I believe him.  But he's also spouted the old Confederate-apologist line from time to time that the Late Unpleasantness wasn't about slavery.

        That isn't true.  The Civil War Between the States was about slavery, as the seceding states said more than once in their official capacities.  Several southern states went so far as to send ambassadors (called "commissioners" at the time) to slave states that hadn't yet seceded, telling them why the should leave the Union too.  The reason invariably given was that the election of a Republican President meant that slavery in the Union was doomed, and the end of slavery would also mean the end of white supremacy.  Universal equality would be a nightmare.  Secession was the only thing that would stop it.

        Why is this relevant? Jerry's political ideas are rooted in his studies of history (he does have a Ph.D. in political science, after all), but sometimes he overlooks aspects of that history.  Jerry worships the "Old Republic," but that Republic was a place where some people were bought and sold as domestic animals, and where free blacks were barred from voting by reason of race.  All the Republics of classic ages allowed slavery, serfdom, and other forms of stratified citizenship too.  The Greeks had democracies of a sort, but cities like Athens didn't allow naturalization of foreigners, except under extra-ordinary circumstances.  And as Fletcher Pratt noted in The Battles That Changed History, when the Athenians formed the League of Delos to resist future Persian threats, they turned it into an Empire where they pushed around the the other city-states.  I believe that a Republic which keeps slaves, bars people from voting because of their race or nation of origin, and otherwise acts as most Republics have through history is a state which will see foreign conquest as natural.  It is almost inevitable that it will become an Empire when it gets the chance, as Rome did.

        But a Democratic Republic, which doesn't recognize classes of citizens, or hereditary privileges and disabilities, is an altogether different animal, something new in the world.  And it is something that's likely to behave differently.

        At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a real danger we'd go the traditional imperial route, but we didn't.  We made Hawaii a state, let the Philippines go, and Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and other colonial possessions could have their independence for the asking.  Empires tell their subjects 'the ruler is in charge, and you have to obey, like it or not.' The U.S. does not treat any country that way, and never has, except for those occupied as a result of WWII, and long since restored to independence.

        Jerry's definition of a "Republic" is also odd, in that it assumes features of federalist decentralization.  Leave aside the fact that most people hate the thought of repealing the New Deal.  It's enough to notice that we've seen foreign interveners who wanted to centralize power in Washington, D.C.; foreign interveners who wanted to take power from Washington; isolationists who wanted to take power from Washington; and isolationists want to give more power to Washington.  Those are all the possibilities that there are.  So I can't see any reason to believe that withdrawing from overseas would change any of the other things he dislikes about the modern U.S.

        Towering, you brought up Shogunate Japan.  I think that's an excellent example, for other reasons.  Nippon closed itself off from the outside world, and stagnated.  When forced to deal with modern societies, it launched its regime of conquest.  After defeat in WWII, it set up a policy to import nothing it could produce at home, while exporting like mad — policies that have now wrecked its economy.  The one underlying constant in all this was fear of foreigners.  Until Nippon gets over that, I don't think they'll ever deal well with the world.

        Islam did much the same thing.  Around the end of the 16th century at the latest, Islamic society decided to stop science.  Apparently, they were afraid they'd be undermined by anything new.

        My gut feeling is that any time a nation tries to run from the world, because it's scared of the future, it's doomed.

        Finally, there's also a certain attitude in these things best described as religious/cultural/racial bigotry, possibly unconscious. The Puritan migration, the first mass settlement wave to the New World, was done by people who believed in predestination. They, the good Calvinists, would be saved, most of the rest of the world would be damned. There's always this attitude in Jerry's writings on the Republic that the foreigners deserve eternal misery, for being not American, not Christian, and not white. They're just inherently inferior.

        To which I'd answer with Jesus's exhortation to convert the whole world.  There is wisdom indeed in not trying to tell everyone what to do.  But we're past the time when we can delude ourselves that the rest of the world can be ignored.

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