Jason Schlude on “The Art of Liberation: Life in the Liberal Arts”

Every year at colleges and universities across the United States, the spring is a time to induct new students into Phi Beta Kappa, the longest standing academic honor society in our country. Phi Beta Kappa celebrates talented students who have chosen to pursue a liberal arts education, rich in its study of the humanities, languages, natural science, mathematics, social science, and fine arts. The idea is that there is something special about a liberal arts education that makes for deep understanding, incisive thinking, clear and compelling communication, and ultimately personal growth, leadership, and success, broadly defined. At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, we, too, celebrate these students, and in doing so celebrate the liberal arts mission that drives our community. Given the opportunity to address these students and our community at such an unusual time, I asked myself an important question: why does a liberal arts education matter, especially at such an imperfect moment?

One can hear my answer in this recorded address. It was originally posted on CSB/SJU’s Phi Beta Kappa Facebook page on May 4, 2020 (https://www.facebook.com/CSBSJUPhiBetaKappa/). The full text follows below.

 

Greetings to you, students, faculty, staff, and family of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. And congratulations to the new members of Phi Beta Kappa. My name is Jason Schlude, a professor of Classics and chair and of the Department of Languages and Cultures, and I have the honor of addressing you today. Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest and most widely known and respected academic honor society in the United States—and we are proud to welcome you to it. It is a society whose mission is to promote the study of the liberal arts and sciences and to highlight their vitality in our world. In this way, the occasion at hand is also a celebration for our whole campus community—a campus community that in this present moment is flung far and wide, but a community that remains united in its vision for the world. Whatever drew each of us to St. Ben’s and St. John’s, we have all come to appreciate how important it is to become whole scholars and whole people. By growing in every direction at once, we know we offer the world the best of ourselves.

To begin, I wish to acknowledge our present circumstances. I know this is not the address you were expecting. This is anything but a perfect moment. We are not together in person, in a hallowed hall, surrounded by friends and faculty, literally feeling the warmth of so many jolly bodies sitting together on a warm spring afternoon. I am not standing before you in my doctoral gown from the University of California, Berkeley, a gown trimmed in gold, striking in its deep blue, a color so distinctive it is called, in fact, “California blue.” There is a serious public health crisis at hand, with students seemingly cast to the winds too early, each of them—each of you—living in so-called isolation, likely lonely, wondering what the future will hold. This was a decision made out of concern for your safety and for your community’s safety. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we made it out of our love for this community. Before I say anything further, I can assure you the professors, coaches, and staff of St. Ben’s and St. John’s prize your welfare above all else and remain steadfast in their commitment to helping you envision and realize your future, step by step, wherever you may be at this time. Even so, that fact cannot erase the disruption, disorientation, and distress you are feeling.

It is hard to know what to say in these circumstances. And I certainly don’t feel like the perfect person to address you in them. Who am I to speak to you? We are all complex in our own ways—impossible to neatly sum up. I’m a father, a husband, a friend, a teacher—more, too, I suppose. These are important roles—ones I would not give up for the world; they are my world—but they don’t distinguish me as particularly unusual. Most important for this occasion is my identity as a teacher. I am a professor of Classics, the field that studies the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, especially Greece and Rome. It is the original interdisciplinary field of study, the original liberal arts major, involving study of language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, art, architecture, archaeology, and geology. In this way, my daily life is the pursuit of liberal arts education. To that, I can speak. So let me speak with you today as a teacher in the liberal arts who would like to offer a few humble reflections on this tradition, however imperfect these reflections may be.

To fully appreciate the power of a liberal arts education and how it can be an anchor for us in the turbulent waters of this historical moment, we need to begin with the roots of the  “liberal arts” and the freedom to which they point. These English terms arise from the Latin language. “Arts” come from the noun ars, artis, meaning “art” or “skill.” These arts then involve practical skills, a detail sometimes lost in translation. But they certainly also are bound up with the idea of an art, a finely tuned craft with creative power, with aesthetic beauty.

The “liberal” element has been politicized in modern society. Whether that is accurate is not for me to judge today. But the root of the word signifies something else. In Latin, the verb liberare means “to free.” This is a crucial concept for the liberal arts. Students who pursue them develop their arts and skills to “free” themselves. This freedom may look a bit different for each of us—but there is surely a freedom to be found in the liberal arts, and we hope you have found it in your time at St. Ben’s and St. John’s and will continue to enjoy it throughout your lives. On the one hand, this is a freedom from a narrow perspective. Whatever your primary academic and professional interest, you have embraced a broad course of study, including the humanities, sciences, mathematics, multiples languages, fine arts, in addition to courses in religion and ethics, where multiple fields are brought to bear on questions of meaning and morality. In this work, you have been freed from seeing the world from a single point of view, freed from ignorance, freed from a poverty of ideas, we might say. And for many, there is an additional liberation. A liberal arts education gives you the ability to improve the physical circumstances of your life as well. Anyone, no matter what one’s socio-economic background, can find a salvation in the liberal arts: the ability to use their arts and skills to move beyond an upbringing limited in its tangible resources and pursue a life with greater financial opportunity and security. In other words, the liberal arts offers a liberation from a poverty of ideas and a material poverty. We were all poorer, in one way or another, before we pursued a liberal arts education.

The liberal arts world is one I have a personal history with, as we all do. I was one of those students with a more modest background. I grew up in St. Louis, MO. My father was a stone mason, my mother a secretary and then nurse’s aide. They had four children, among whom I was last. While they were preparing for my arrival, they had to find a new home under unexpected circumstances. They had to buy fast and cheap. And the result was a house over 100 years old with plaster disintegrating before our eyes. We had to take the walls down ourselves, the plaster and wooden slats dragged out bucket by bucket and dumped in the backyard. Then we tried to put them back up. That took money and energy, and my parents were short of both at the end of long work hours. Practically as long as I can remember, at least one, if not multiple, rooms of the house had no walls. Often you looked upon rough boards into which old asbestos siding was tacked. The walls were only closed up following my undergraduate years. It was a home I loved—and sometimes hated. It was all I knew, and yet I rarely brought any friend there, out of sheer embarrassment. The best man in my wedding went to high school with me (I was his best man, too). He still drives past my old home every day on his way to work. But in our friendship of nearly 25 years, I bet he entered my house fewer than five times. I was too good at listening for his car so I could meet him on the street—or porch, if necessary.

My parents, however, also knew the importance of education—a broad education. They had an absolute faith in it that seems increasingly hard to find today. In fact, since we lived in areas where public education was underfunded, and the only affordable private option was Catholic education, years before I was born my family converted to Catholicism just so we could attend a Catholic grade school (a requirement apparently). Even so, it was a sacrifice for my parents—but they made it. And I knew what a gift it was. Already at 10 years of age I knew that education was my ticket out, my ticket to more. This proved the beginning of my path to a liberal arts education. I went on to attend a Jesuit high school, where I learned just how much I loved learning anything and everything, and how growth was to be found in pursuing the unknown and strange, rather the familiar and comfortable. So I next went to Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where I pursued my liberal arts education. When selecting my majors, knowing I wanted to study everything, and that would make me a versatile thinker and citizen, I picked the most interdisciplinary fields I could find: Classics, religious studies, and geology. And then, knowing the power that teachers had in my life, I wanted to be one. And so four years later, I found myself driving my dad’s old Ford F-150 pick-up truck to California, to pursue graduate study in ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology at Berkeley. It was a place I never thought I would live. California was an alien world to me.

Why I went there is a story that suggests a liberal arts education can offer another, third form of liberation to its students as well. When I was thinking of what graduate school to attend, a dear college professor who had attended Berkeley gave me an important piece of advice. She said, “Yes, you want an excellent university. But make sure to look at what their doctoral gowns look like, because you’ll be wearing that gown for a long time. There is nothing like California blue.” I laughed. But I did know what her gown looked like. Beth wore it to every convocation at Macalester—and it was gorgeous. So I went to Berkeley.

I started this address today mentioning that Berkeley gown, which I now share with Beth. I absolutely love it. I love it because of all that is wrapped up in it. Even if you were seeing me today in that California blue, you likely couldn’t guess at most of it. You might not know that every year of graduate school—for the first four years—felt like my last. I didn’t know all the languages that were needed, whether those were additional foreign languages I had yet to learn or the polished and specialized English vocabulary that seemed required for graduate seminars. I didn’t come from a major research university where scholars lectured to you at length, giving you a grand vista of antiquity, connecting all the people, places, and dates so that you were left with an interconnected mental map. I mostly knew islands on the map and the ocean that separated them was unknown and formidable. I had my liberal arts education—and I applied it like a scrapper using every last survival skill, deliberately crisscrossing the new geography and creating my own map. Still, I felt hopelessly behind, year after year, wondering if I could keep up, if I had another year in me.

As these anxieties filled my mind, routinely when the academic year was drawing to a close, I would walk across campus, through Sproul Plaza, for those who know it. Most of you have seen pictures of it, from the 1960s, filled with the students who launched the free speech movement—another freedom that sprung from liberal education. This was a unique place in the world that played its part in liberating us from the past. It was an imperfect achievement, to be sure. Not all have freedom of speech yet—not fully. And yet the freedom was real. While I only attended Berkeley in the 2000s, the various products of free speech were still to be found in the plazas, some serious, others far less so. A political comedian set up shop to heckle the educated, reminding professors and students alike that we did not have all the answers. We didn’t even have all the questions. A man showed up most days around noon to blast John Lennon from him boombox and broadcast a conspiracy that led to his death. Student groups ran all manner of stunts, the most memorable being a pine-wood derby race. But this was unlike any pine-wood derby race I had seen. The vehicles had been purchased from adult specialty stores and were unusually aerodynamic, every color of the rainbow, and did not roll down the track, but rather vibrated at adjustable rates. Another man stood on a stool atop a bucket, denouncing the brutality and injustice in the world, while shouting, “Happy, happy, happy.” At times, instructors and staff put up picket lines to win living wages and better health benefits, strikes temporarily preventing undergraduate education and key student services. In another standoff, students hoisted themselves into giant oak trees and set up tents in the canopies to prevent their removal for a new construction project. This led to a lengthy standoff that ran up security costs and produced violent exchanges with police officers tasked with safe removal of the “treesitters.” Sometimes it was hard to know when justice crossed the line.

As I would stroll through this bizarre world, I made a point to stop by the bookstore. There, year after year, I would pause to look at the Berkeley doctoral gown, draped upon a confident mannequin. And I wondered whether I would ever wear that gown. I wondered if I would abandon graduate school and disappoint my professors. Of course, I knew that was rubbish. I knew those teachers would be proud of any choice I made, as long as I gave every task my all, determined what was my next and best step, and then took it. What was most important for me in those moments and what stayed with me, before I passed by the gown again to return home, cook dinner, and then crack the books once again, was that my past professors believed in me. They helped me to grow and make it to Berkeley. They had the confidence that I could do it. Beth, Andy, Nanette, and Calvin were always with me—and still are.

Several years later I did finish. And graduation came, providing another illustration that life was not perfect. I found out that the official Berkeley doctoral gown was nearly $1000. At that point, I was still a graduate student, and my wife and I had our first baby boy. The gown was certainly not an essential need—and the expense could not be justified. This was the cost of food that would feed our family for two months. In addition, I learned my parents could not attend the graduation, which was hard to bear; ill-health and anxiety springing from it prevented that. And yet it remained a day I will never forget. My father-in-law and his wife did not attend the ceremony, but they generously purchased the gown for me as a surprise—a very sweet surprise. And while my own parents could not come, my amazing mother-in-law made a point to be there. She and my wife stood behind me, and I held in my arms my new son who played with the gold tassel on my cap. It was imperfect, but it was beautiful—a charmed day in my life, if ever there was one. The gown still represents the many imperfections of my life.

So here we sit—or perhaps you are standing. I’m in one room of my house, my two kids are in another room, sometimes playing happily, sometimes arguing and trying to pry the prize of the moment from one another’s hands. Maybe they will break through the door at any moment. My eleven-year-old son is writing a song with a friend called “What a weary little world,” my five-year old is sad since he can’t see his friends anymore. He longs for the day that he can drive on the highway in sight of our house. I’m tired and my patience is short—and there is still so much isolation, frustration, and pain in the weeks and months ahead. You are where you are, most of you far from campus, not with those friends and faculty I talked about earlier. Maybe you are alone right now—in one way or another. I hope you and your family are secure in your food, shelter, and health. Or maybe you are experiencing uncertainty in your life in one or all these ways. That thought pains me. But I know this is true for many of you.

Yet I would suggest your liberal arts education has prepared you for this, too. It offers you not only liberation from ignorance and liberation to achieve a better life, but a third liberation: freedom from the perfect. Despite what some may say, the liberal arts have prepared you for the imperfect, for the real world. The real world is a place of poverty and abundance, pain and pleasure, anxiety and anger but also hope and gratitude, loneliness and love. It is a world disorienting in the complexity of its problems and experiences. In preparation for that world, have you taken a course of study that has offered you only oversimplified problems with perfect, uncontested answers? The questions you have faced at St. Ben’s and St. John’s have been far more difficult to understand and articulate, with answers even harder formulate. What is the right balance between individual freedom and national security? What about individual freedom and public health? How can we balance national and international interests? How do we find and understand God in a world of so much pain—and yet wonder and joy? How should we approach economic development while protecting the environment? How can we push the frontiers of science and technology and be ethically responsible? What is the proper balance between freedom of speech and protecting the dignity of every human being? How do we cherish our own familiar traditions and embrace different, unfamiliar traditions of new community members? How can we correct the grave injustices of racial and gender discrimination in a world where one person’s gain is perceived as another person’s loss? How important is the relationship between history (however ancient or difficult) and our increasingly modernist world? And how can we as poets, potters, painters, pianists, photographers, how can we as artists best engage, represent, challenge, and shape this world? This is your liberal arts education—an education that eschews the perfect, and values the hard, the intractable, and the imperfect.

Each of us at this moment, seemingly on his, her, or their own island, lives with an imperfect world. We accept that—and yet we must cling to the beauty that it still offers. This beauty includes your many accomplishments to date, academic, athletic, and otherwise. I hope, too, that for many of you your family is at hand—maybe a mother or father, if they are in your lives, maybe a grandparent, aunt or uncle, brother or sister. I bet if they are with you, and you pause a moment to look in their eyes, you will see a pride and love born of a lifetime—your lifetime—spent feeding you, bathing you, dressing you, listening to you, supporting you in every way possible, watching you take step after step, proud at every one, now seeing you fully as adults, ready to go out and change the world that needs you. I wager you will see gratitude in their eyes because you have let them be part of your life. And remember, too, you are in the hearts of so many who are stretched across the American landscape and world—and those hearts can be a shelter as well. The group I know best are teachers. My teachers’ hearts held me—and still hold me, adult that I am. And our hearts at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University hold you at this imperfect moment. We spend our days wondering if you are okay, wondering what you are feeling. We are frustrated at how unfair this is for you. We try to do our best to give you what you deserve, as imperfect as it is at this time. But as we do this, know that we do hold you in our hearts every day. I can guarantee the pride, love, and gratitude that we all feel when we reflect on your time at St. Ben’s and St. John’s. We cherish that you have spent this part of your life with us. In it, we have come to know you. We have learned your fears and seen your momentary failures. But we also have witnessed your talent, tenacity, accomplishments, contributions, and hope. And we love you for all of this complexity.

A perfect world would be welcome perhaps, but a life blind to all else would be very small. I prefer freedom from the perfect, because the imperfect is a central part of life, because struggle is our companion. But we must never forget the beauty that is in the world. Today the beauty that it offers is you, wherever you are, however you may be. You are beautiful. And the art of liberation, offered by the liberal arts, only helps us to see it more clearly, no matter what the circumstances facing us. Congratulations and thank you.

Nick Hayes on “Lara, Pasternak, and the Mystique of Doctor Zhivago”

THE SECRETS WE KEPT

By Lara Prescott
Knopf. 368  pp. $26.95

 She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call things by their real name.

                                                Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak in Peredelkino

I belong to a generation of men now of a certain age for whom hearing the slightest mention of  “Doctor Zhivago turns on an old LP in our heads and automatically we start to hum the opening  tune of “Lara’s Theme” while our imagination transports us across Siberia to join Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Varykino. We feel for Boris Pasternak’s novel a sense of ownership, not unlike what my neighbors in St. Paul feel toward F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

 

We argue over the translation of every word. Controversies over new translations of the novel have broken up friendships. English readers of my generation know the story from the 1958 translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Hayward and Harari would admit that theirs was a loose translation. They had staked out a higher ground– success in rendering into English the melodic beauty and lyricism of Pasternak’s text as if he had written Doctor Zhivago with a balalaika. I would agree. In 2010, a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky appeared. Pevear is a Professor Emeritus of the American University of Paris; Volokhonsky is from St. Petersburg (or Leningrad as the city was known in her day).  Together they have collaborated on new translations of Russian classics and have taken the liberty of trashing the translations of Constance Garnett and, of course, Max Hayward.

It’s an old quarrel among translators that pits the advocates of the literal against the advocates of the liberal interpretation. The vast majority of Pasternak’s readers on the English side with Hayward and Harari and their gift for capturing the lyricism of Pasternak’s writing. Pevear and Volokhonsky give us a literal translation that has about as much of the romantic beauty of Pasternak as does a Russian-English dictionary.

You can imagine that I took with skepticism the news of the publication of Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, her novel that depicts Pasternak’s life in the years when he struggled to publish Doctor Zhivago. Warily, I picked up Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept at Minneapolis’ Magers & Quinn bookstore. Writers whose agents do not return my phone calls can be intimidating. I, nevertheless, judged her book by its cover. It presents a clever variation of Nathan Alman’s iconic 1914 portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova. There was a time when virtually every student in the U.S. who studied Russian language, literature, or history had a print of Alman’s portrait of Akhmatova on their wall. I flipped through the front pages to Chapter 1, read the first three paragraphs and immediately signed up for the ride through the full 300 plus pages.

Prescott places her novel in the defining years of the Cold War, 1949 to 1961, and shifts the setting back and forth, between Washington, D.C. (“West”) and Moscow (“East”). Her eye for the details of the time and place tricks the reader into forgetting that The Secrets We Kept is fiction, not history. Numerous other authors of spy fiction, detective novels, and diplomat’s memoirs previously worked over this territory and theme. You would have thought that there was no room left on your favorite bookstore’s shelf marked “Cold War.” What sets Prescott’s novel apart from the rest is that The Secrets We Kept is unmistakably a women’s story exclusively told by women. Consider who and what is not in the novel. In Prescott’s account of the early years of the CIA, Allen Dulles has only a small part and no lines in the story. Just one more suit with a corner office and a womanizer with immunity, Dulles exists in the story only as a piece of gossip within the conversation of the “girls” in the CIA’s typist pool.

Pasternak called her his “Muse.” Olga  Ivinskaya met Pasternak in 1946 and remained his inspiration and lover until his death in 1958. She was the other woman in the Pasternak story who conveniently lived in a small “dacha,” or the “Little House,” near Pasternak’s house in Peredelkino where he lived with his wife, Zinaida, and son. Ivinskaya was an editor, poet, translator, literary agent, and in later year’s Pasternak’s secretary. In The Secrets We Kept, her character  tells the Pasternak story in sections labeled “East.”  Ivinskaya’s voice takes the reader into the brutal world of Russian literary politics. She describes Pasternak’s struggle with the Kremlin from its attempts to suppress  Doctor Zhivago to Pasternak’s triumph as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The award only intensified the Kremlin’s attacks on Pasternak. The Kremlin coerced him into refusing the award, broke his health through a relentless barrage of threats, and precipitated the writer’s fatal heart attack in 1958.

Ivinskaya paid a price for her loyalty to Pasternak. In 1949, the NKVD (a predecessor to the KGB) charged her as “an accomplice to a spy” and in 1950 sentenced her to the Gulag. She was released in 1953 after Stalin’s death. Her crime was her refusal to provide or fake evidence of anti-Soviet material in Pasternak’s writing. Ivinskaya unfolds the story of the brutalized life of a woman in the Gulag. After Pasternak’s death, the Soviet authorities in 1960 sentenced her a second time. This time, her children Mitya and Ira were sentenced with her. They were released in 1964.  Despite a few glitches in the relationship, Ivinskaya always spoke with deep affection and pride for her “Borya.” Yet, Pasternak emerges in The Secrets We Kept as a rather weak and vacillating character.  Prescott’s Pasternak was no Yury Zhivago. The opposite is true for Prescott’s Ivinskaya. As she declares in her last statement at the end of the novel, I have become Lara.

The sections of Prescott’s novel labeled “West” center on what the CIA calls “The Pasternak Affair.” In the mid-1950s, the CIA launched a plot to publish Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The CIA recognized that the Cold War was above all else an ideological battle of freedom versus totalitarianism. The circulation of Pasternak’s novel in Russia and Eastern Europe would bring the ideological struggle to the doorsteps of the Soviet Empire. Toward this goal, the CIA assembled an unusual cast of characters including Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an affluent Italian publisher and  Lamborghini communist, and the onetime American communist and CIA friendly publisher, Felix Morrow.  Both Feltrinelli and Morrow had a habit of going rogue.

The plot was simple: In Moscow, Feltrinelli obtained a copy of  Pasternak’s manuscript, translated it into Italian, and published it. After Feltrinelli’s publication, translations of Doctor Zhivago appeared in virtually every European language which made the novel an international bestseller. The Vatican allowed the CIA to place copies of the Russian version of Doctor Zhivago inside the Vatican’s Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair for Russian visitors to pick up. The copies moved quickly from Brussels to Moscow. Copies in English, Russian, and East European languages soon turned Doctor Zhivago into an international bestseller.

Since the publication of Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s The Pasternak Affair (Pantheon, 2016), the story of the CIA’s hand in the publishing of Doctor Zhivago is old news. Prescott appropriates the story as a stage to tell another, lesser-known tale. Her protagonist Sally Forrester unfolds the secrets the “girls” of the CIA’s typist pool kept. They had been heroes. In the Cold War, they were. . . 

Leftovers from the OSS. Where they’d been legends during the war, they’d become relics relegated to the typing pool or the records department or some desk in some corner with nothing to do.

Don’t take seriously Forrester’s official job as a part-time receptionist.  In the jargon of the CIA, she is a “swallow,” a seductive femme fatale. She takes pride in her ability to manipulate and draw information from men. “These men thought they were using me,” she tells us, “but it was always the reverse, my power was making them think it wasn’t.”  She plays a crucial role in “The Pasternak Affair.” The “swallow” exposes a double agent who would have preempted and upended the operation. Forrester’s co-worker in the typist pool, Irina Drozdova, a Russian immigrant, also plays a role in the Pasternak story. Dressed as a nun in the traditional habit, Irina piously welcomes Russian visitors into the Vatican Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair and graciously passes out over three hundred copies of the Russian version of Doctor Zhivago. Drozdova and Forrester comprise a love story within the story. The “Agency” banned homosexuals from its ranks. A mole exposed Drozdova and Forrester, triggering their abrupt termination at the CIA.  

 Not every CIA operation in the Cold War warrants our condemnation. “The Pasternak Affair” did some good. What is more, the story has a moral. Both the CIA and the KGB understood something that eludes today’s partisans of cultural wars – the power of literature. Our universities might reflect on this as they threaten to ax English Departments. What gave the poetry and prose of an aging Russian poet with a heart condition such power?  Pasternak put the answer in his portrait of Lara: She had the courage, he writes, “to call things by their real names.” Russians take poetry seriously. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” Pasternak’s contemporary, the poet Osip Mandelstam had said, “here it gets people killed.” The KGB took Pasternak’s poetry so seriously that it drove him to the grave.

Pasternak’s House in Peredelkino “Dommuzejpasternak”; Photo credit to the Pasternak Museum.

P.S. Here’s a sample of Pasternak’s poetry at its best. Pasternak’s “Zhivago” is ultimately a voice  of nostalgia for the end of what Russians call “byt’,” or a “way of life.”  Listen for this voice in one of Pasternak’s poems – “The Earth” from the “Poems of Yury Zhivago” at the end of the novel. The poem speaks to that moment between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. . .

 

Зачем же плачет дал и тумане,

Игорько пакнет перегной?

На то вед и моё приэванье,

Чтоб не скучали расстояния.

Чтобы за городскою гранью

Земле не тосковать одной.

Для этого весною ранней

Со мною сходятся друзья

И наши вечера-прощанье

Пирушки наши – завещания

Чтоб тайная струя страданья

Согрела холод бытия.

That is why the horizon weeps in the fog

And bitter is the scent of the land,

And I am called to see

that the distances do not feel lonely,

and beyond the edge of the towns,

the land does not mourn alone.

That is why in the early spring,

My friends and I gather,

and our evenings are farewells,

and our parties are testimonies

So that the secret stream of suffering

Warms the cold of life.

                        The translation is mine

Nick Hayes is a professor of history and holds the University Chair in Critical Thinking at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

Jason Schlude on “Infectious Nationalism: Pericles and Public Health Crises”

A powerful state sits on the verge of a public health crisis. An infectious disease threatens to ravage its population. Meanwhile, its principal leader addresses the public. Some hints are dropped suggesting its international outlook, but the main theme is something different: our state is the greatest in the world, the teacher of the world, immune to failure.

This was the circumstance 2,450 years ago in Classical Athens. Pericles, Athens’ most powerful general and politician, the famed promoter of democracy, principal driver behind the Parthenon, addressed the Athenian people in his eulogy over their recently deceased fellow citizens. They did not die from disease but from battle in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, the lengthy war fought between Athens (and its Delian League) and Sparta (and its Peloponnesian League) in 431-404 BCE.

The speech comes to us through the historian Thucydides, an Athenian participant in that conflict, who produced a history of the war that we still recognize as a masterpiece of historical analysis. The speech, often called “Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” remains one of the most famous political speeches of all time. In Thucydides’ version (2.34-46), Pericles does not call out particular individuals among the dead for praise, as one might expect. Instead, the lion’s share of the speech is an ode to Athenian life—as compared to that of other Greeks—and a justification for the sacrifice made by the brave men of Athens. In this form, it is a sweet swig nationalism. As Pericles outlines, the Athenians were lovers of freedom, dedicated defenders of their city and empire, a people who respect law and active democratic citizenship, the “school of Greece.” For Pericles, Athens was no imitator; it was the model.

As political descendants of the Athenians, we cannot help but pause over certain descriptions in the speech that many of us, as participants in our own democratic experiment, would happily apply to ourselves. But there are unpleasantries here, too—as Thucydides readily recognizes, and these apply to us as well.

The same Athenian men who cherished freedom, law, and democracy would rob their allies of their independence of action, even to the point of devastating rebellious (read: neutral) lesser states such as Melos; faced with the Melians refusal to abandon neutrality in the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians killed their men and then enslaved their women and children (Thucydides 5.84-116). This was a brutal consequence of blind nationalism.

The damning verdict of Thucydides can be seen in other ways, too. Immediately after Pericles’ celebration of Athens, Thucydides recounts an infectious disease that began its onslaught on the city of Athens only months later (2.47-54). It arrived around the same time a Spartan army returned in the spring of 430 BCE to besiege Athens for a second season. Holding out in its walled city, the Athenians found death from the plague everywhere. Their society initially tried to cope, its members caring for one another, until order and solidarity eventually broke down, with many Athenian citizens avoiding one another and selfishly indulging in life while it still lasted.

The disease’s cruel symptoms worked from the head down to one’s intestines, assaulting the body till it eventually gave out, according to the historian, who carefully documented it for future recognition by his readers. Thucydides knew what he was talking about; he himself suffered but survived it. Pericles, on the other hand, perished from the plague. Constructing his narrative in this way, Thucydides wished for his reader to see Athenian folly. Its single-minded nationalism led it into conflicts that isolated it, leaving it to suffer on its own.

The craftsmanship and insight of Thucydides is arresting. The precise circumstances of our present moment are of course different from 2,450 years ago. The U.S. is not engaged in a conflict on the scale of the Peloponnesian War. This is not to say that we are without conflicts driven by national interests. We are nearly 20 years into our war in Afghanistan. The better comparison is our tension with emergent China, but this has not yet burst into armed conflict. Furthermore, the corona virus is not the plague—though in facing what may be the greatest public health crisis in a generation, it would be judicious to reserve final judgments. Nor is there a speech from the present U.S. administration like the oration.

Still, President Trump expressed sentiments in his press conference on February 26 that find parallels in Thucydides. One wonders if, coming off the nationalistic high of the public funeral, Athenians initially faced the plague with similar confidence. Were they convinced of their intellectual superiority? Were they certain they could handle it unilaterally? Did they receive calls for assistance, similar to those acknowledged by President Trump, only to primarily focus on Athenian interests, trying to limit who could enter the city? American interests are absolutely vital, but if the president’s initial assessment is accurate, and his tendency is to eschew robust international aid and to pursue reactive wall-building as the main remedy instead, one wonders whether this is another instance in which extreme nationalistic interest is self-harming.

The evidence so far available is less than heartening. Not long ago the Trump administration proposed more than $3 billion in cuts to U.S. contributions to global health programs, including shrinking by half its contributions to the World Health Organization. There have been simultaneous, ad-hoc boosts in funding to organizations like USAID, but nothing yet on a scale as to offset this dramatic overall reduction. The recent House bill passing $8.3 billion will help, allocating $1.3 billion for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Still, the crisis widens and deepens.

Our world is a global system, and we need to see beyond ourselves more than the President is inclined. Stronger international collaborations would pay off. So also would a good dose of humility in face of the corona virus.

What can we as citizens do in this situation? This is, of course, a moment to pull together—but to pull together at all levels of community: neighborhood, city, state, nation, and world. We must not fall prey to extreme forms of nationalism that encourage international antagonism and division. We will find greater success in the common cause that binds us all at the present moment, wherever we call home on our globe: helping one another to limit the spread of disease, develop medical solutions, and support all community members in these hard times. Fear and suffering are without borders—hope and goodwill should be, too.

Jim Read on “Peaceful Ballots” or “Bloody Bullets”: Democracy, Elections, and Violence

Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously asserted that war was the continuation of politics by other means. He was undoubtedly correct. But it makes an enormous difference which methods one employs to pursue a political goal.

What principally distinguishes stable democracies from unstable democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, kleptocracies, and other undemocratic and anti-democratic regimes, is the institution of procedurally fair, rule-governed elections whose results are respected as legitimate even by the candidate or party who lost.

This does not mean that unsuccessful candidates and parties must change their minds and renounce their aims. It means instead that unsuccessful candidates and parties do not resort to violence to reverse their political fortunes, but instead limit themselves to peaceful methods aimed at persuading voters to change their minds and perhaps win future elections. The winners of an election must also respect the rules. A regime that jails its opponents, suppresses voting rights, and uses or threatens violence against the opposition, cannot reasonably expect the opposition to continue respecting those rules.

In this sense, an election is a substitute for civil war, precisely because the methods one uses to pursue political aims in electoral competition are systematically different than warfare. We often assume that societies fall into civil war when their social and political divisions become too deep to resolve peacefully – the divide over slavery in the United States, for example. But many societies have descended into murderous civil war over differences much less marked than slavery – Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for instance, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims had lived and worked side by side in relative peace for decades.

All societies, including the contemporary United States, are marked by social and political conflicts that could produce civil war under the right (or wrong) conditions. What distinguishes a stable democracy is not that its political divisions are small, but that political elites as well as ordinary citizens are committed to peaceful, rule-governed elections as the principal means by which those differences are resolved, or at least contained.

When citizens with deeply-opposed aims can agree to play by the same set of electoral rules, they tacitly recognize that they share at least some common interests with their political opponents, and therefore are not at war.

Lincoln Portrait February 1861

I am currently writing a book on Abraham Lincoln’s defense of majority rule, and his hope that slavery could be gradually and democratically abolished in the United States through “peaceful ballots” rather than “bloody bullets,” as he phrased it in an 1858 speech. American history did not take that path. Slavery was ultimately abolished in the United States in the course of a horrific civil war. The Civil War began five weeks after Lincoln became president, and ended a week before his assassination.

But the tragic irony is that Lincoln above all believed in elections. He did not want a war. He was convinced that even so divisive a question as the future of slavery could be addressed through “time, discussion, and the ballot box,” as he phrased it in his July 4, 1861 Message to Congress in Special Session. What triggered the Civil War was not the sudden eruption of sharp differences over slavery, for those had existed since the earliest years of the American republic. The immediate cause of the Civil War was a powerful faction’s unwillingness to accept the results of a fair, constitutional election.

I have discovered that, though most Americans know, or think they know, a fair amount about the Civil War, many are surprised when I tell them that the seven states of the Lower South (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded from the Union before Lincoln had even taken office. Secessionists’ larger purpose was to defend and perpetuate the institution of slavery. But their immediate purpose in seceding before Lincoln took office, rather than waiting to see what he would do once in office, was to deny the legitimacy of his election. They did not dispute that Lincoln had won the 1860 election according to the constitutional rules. Nevertheless, they argued that Lincoln was an illegitimate president because he had been elected almost entirely by Northern votes, and because they believed Lincoln’s aim of stopping the further spread of slavery was unconstitutional.

Most of all, I would argue, the slave states of the Lower South seceded because their leaders recognized that Lincoln’s aim of abolishing slavery peacefully, democratically, and constitutionally stood a good chance of succeeding in the long run. They wanted to prevent his taking even the first step. By seceding from the Union, they signaled their refusal to accept the legitimacy of Lincoln’s election, even at the risk of civil war. Of course, if the slaveholders’ preferred candidate, John Breckinridge, had won the 1860 election, slaveholders would have stayed in the Union and demanded that Northerners respect the election results.

Yet the states that seceded before Lincoln took office (on March 4, 1861) soon discovered that the secession movement had stalled. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, all of which later joined the Confederacy, had chosen not to secede in response to Lincoln’s election. They decided instead to wait and see what Lincoln would actually do. Lincoln plan was to wait out the crisis peacefully, refusing to recognize secession, but avoiding any military assault upon the states that had declared themselves out of the Union. He made clear that the first shot of the war, if it came, would not come from the Union side.

Fort Sumter

A Confederate States of America consisting only of the seven pre-emptively seceding states would have been weak and vulnerable. “Peaceful ballots,” in short, had not delivered the powerful and confident new proslavery nation the secessionists envisioned. Only “bloody bullets” could do it. The principal reason for the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, was political: to put an end to “time, discussion, and the ballot box” in the slave states of the Upper South. In effect, the Fort Sumter assault sent a message to Virginia, North Carolina, and other fence-sitting slave states: Now that Lincoln will march an army against us, whose side are you on? Will you support the abolitionists marching against us, or will you join us, your fellow slaveholders?

The secessionists calculated correctly that initiating war would bring other slave states to their side. They were radically incorrect, however, in believing that the war would be a short one because Yankees were cowards. Both sides, in fact, tragically underestimated the other side’s willingness to fight. And in the end, the war destroyed the very institution – slavery – that secessionists sought to perpetuate.

Political scientists agree that the United States is more politically polarized today than at any time since 1860. But there is less agreement on what is causing our pathologically deep divisions. It is not difficult to see how disagreements over slavery could trigger civil war in 1860, even if (as Lincoln believed) civil war might have been avoided. In the contemporary United States, our most contentious divisions – over abortion, immigration, health care policy, race, to name a few– have existed for a long time. Objectively considered, none of these would seem as difficult to manage as divisions over slavery. And yet our current politics is characterized by levels of animosity, distrust, and outright fanaticism that, to me, disturbingly mirror American politics of the late 1850s.

I don’t pretend to know the causes. But I can point to the most characteristic symptom: loss of faith in elections as a fair set of rules by which all parties play and whose results all parties respect as legitimate. Instead, we are heading into the 2020 presidential election at a moment when increasing numbers of Americans, on both sides, act and speak as though they cannot and will not tolerate the other side’s victory – even if the opponents’ victory occurs through regular constitutional processes.

First and most obviously, there is the recent upsurge of civil war talk, especially among some of Donald Trump’s most committed supporters, who vow that any attempt to remove Trump from office – either through impeachment, or in the 2020 election (which they claim Trump can lose only if the election is rigged) – will mean civil war. Trump himself has encouraged this violent talk, repeatedly claimed without evidence that tens of millions of illegal aliens have been voting in U.S. elections, retweeted followers who advocate postponing the 2020 elections, and teased about remaining in office for a third term despite the 22nd Amendment’s clear prohibition.

On the domestic front, Trump has successfully persuaded several Republican-governed states to cancel Republican primaries and caucuses in 2020, even though – indeed, precisely because – he now has challengers within the party. Minnesota’s Republican Party just announced that Donald Trump’s name will be the only candidate on Minnesota’s Republican presidential primary ballot, even though three Republican challengers have announced their candidacy. In 2016 Trump announced to cheering supporters that he would respect the results of the 2016 election – “IF I WIN!” His public commitment to respecting election results is likely to be similarly one-sided in 2020, this time expressed from a position of enormous power.

 

Faith in and commitment to elections has also been eroded on the other end of the political spectrum.  After the 2016 elections, one internet meme among people horrified by Trump’s victory was to demand that members of the Electoral College pledged to Trump cast their vote for Clinton instead. Though this would not have literally violated the Constitution (Electoral College members do occasionally vote contrary to their pledges), in substance it meant calling for a massive rule change in the middle of the game – and moreover, a rule change that its advocates would denounce as corrupt and illegitimate if the tables were turned. This proposal had zero chance of success. It is worth noting, however, because it indicates weakened commitment to shared election rules.

More frequent, and still continuing, is the claim among many of Bernie Sanders’ strong supporters that he lost the 2016 nomination only because the Democratic primaries were rigged, and can only lose the nomination in 2020 if the primaries are rigged again.

This eroding faith in elections occurs against a backdrop of real attempts by Russia, and possibly other foreign governments, to interfere in U.S. elections. These efforts are not limited to opinion-manipulation in the sphere of social media. There have also been efforts to hack into state voting databases. One would expect that the two major parties, whatever else they disagree upon, would readily cooperate on measures to combat this threat. But so far they have been incapable of doing so.

One of the things I find inspiring about Lincoln was that he preserved his faith in elections under circumstances much more difficult than ours – not only in 1860, but also in 1864, when despite a raging civil war, he never considered postponing the 1864 elections. He accepted that he could be voted out of office if the American people lost faith in his leadership.

Our circumstances are very different from Lincoln’s. I don’t regard him as a font of wisdom on every political question we face today. But I do hope we can recommit to the principle of “peaceful ballots” as the legitimate means of resolving deep disagreements. For if we believe only relatively minor disagreements can be resolved democratically, then we really don’t believe in democracy at all.

Tony Cunningham on Walking Away, Heads Bowed

Tony-CunninghamBy all accounts, American Special Forces troops have worked well with the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), forging deep bonds of trust, respect, and loyalty in their fight against ISIS over the last four years in northern Syria.  Turkey’s military foray into Syria against Kurdish Y.P.G. forces, who together with their Arab allies comprise the S.D.F., presented the Trump administration with a hard moment of truth in recent days.  Would America abandon the Kurds?  Yes, and nobody knows the grave import of this decision better than the American Special Forces left feeling ashamed for abandoning their brothers-in-arms under orders.  Then again, the Kurds know it just as well, for they will pay the price in blood of what they can only experience as betrayal.

By nature, war and diplomacy are chaotic and complex.  Allies desperately need to believe that they always have each other’s backs, but sober-minded realists understand that circumstances can force difficult choices on leaders, sometimes leaving them with little choice but to let down friends.  I’ve never been to war, and I’ve never brokered deals between warring nations and factions, but I fully understand the idea of not being able to attend adequately to people you care about.  All it takes in everyday life is one of those all-too-human situations where you cannot be all things to all people.  Thus, someone needs you badly, but so does someone else, and there just isn’t enough of you to go around to give both people what they need.  Or perhaps you must take sides between people who mean something to you, thereby alienating somebody you care about in the process.  In such cases, decent people cannot escape the dispiriting sense that they have let loved ones down, even if they couldn’t help it.  Surely the American soldiers who have fought alongside their Kurdish counterparts suffer badly for abandoning them, just as the Kurds suffer so badly for being abandoned.  Soldiers who ordinarily refuse to leave their wounded comrades behind as a point of honor can only feel thoroughly dishonored by what is happening in northern Syria.

War can foist excruciating choices on leaders.  Abraham Lincoln felt the acute burden of sending brother against brother in the Civil War.  One has only to look at photos of Lincoln to see how those years aged him.  The men and boys dying at places like Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, Antietam, and The Wilderness were not just numbers to Lincoln, pieces in some game of war with the wayward Confederate states.  They were flesh-and-blood Americans—on both sides—and he experienced the immense responsibility of having the ultimate say in prosecuting the war.  I dare say that the American Special Forces standing aside and leaving Syria likewise feel an immense weight of involuntary complicity in the undeserved fate of the Kurds.  Never mind that the choice didn’t belong to them since their job is to follow orders, not give them.  From their point of view, they are turned their backs on the very men they fought beside.  How could they possibly avoid feeling like they have betrayed their friends?

My guess is that all this means less than nothing to someone like Trump and his minions.  Dishonorable people can do dishonorable things shamelessly.  Should his actions come back to haunt him politically—a virtual inevitability as Assad, Putin, and Iran profit from America’s withdrawal in the region—Trump will feel the sting of criticism.  When military figures, statesmen, politicians, the press, and the public revile his rash moves on Syria, he will fume.  But the basic thought that he played a pivotal part in American forces letting the Kurds down will carry no weight at all with him because at heart, Trump is a shameless man, and such men can do shameful things and sleep soundly at night.  Hopefully, his days of falsely honoring himself will soon be at an end.  In the meantime, may the Kurds endure a fate they do not deserve.

Louis Johnston on Three-Minute Masterpieces

banner-of-staff

I always enjoy April 29. Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, and I try to celebrate by listening to his music and reflecting on his legacy. Back in 1989 I got to see Joe Pass and his trio celebrate Duke’s birthday. I was in San Diego for a conference and the great historian Morton Rothstein, with whom I shared a love of jazz, asked if I’d like to join him for the concert. Of course!

April 29 this year found me thinking about Duke Ellington, Jimmie Blanton, Alexander Gerschenkron, and three-minute masterpieces.  You probably know the first name but not the second or third, so allow me to elaborate…

Jimmie Blanton joined Ellington’s orchestra in 1939.  According to Terry Teachout in Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, “Blanton left St. Louis with [Ellington] on November 3, and Ellington started featuring him at once… Less than three years later, he was dead (p. 202).”

jimmie blanton

Jimmie Blanton

In January 1940, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster joined the band and the result was the ensemble many consider the high point of the Ellington orchestras: the so-called Blanton-Webster Band of 1940 to 1942.

The first Blanton-Webster recording took place on March 6, 1940.  Two classic pieces came from that session: “Jack the Bear” and “Ko-Ko.”  According to Teachout,

Jack the Bear was a previously unrecorded Ellington instrumental that Billy Strayhorn had rewritten to feature Jimmie Blanton.  As if to proclaim to the world that all bets were off, Blanton launched “Jack the Bear” by stepping out in front of the band and tossing off a lighter-than-air eight-bar solo.  Because his style long ago became the lingua franca of jazz bass playing, the impact that this solo had on those who first heard it seven decades ago is no longer possible for contemporary listeners to fully appreciate (p. 207-208).

As for “Ko-Ko,”

From the curt trombone riff that sets the piece in motion to the spiraling bitonal crescendo that brings it to a charging close, “Ko-Ko” is the greatest of Ellington’s three-minute masterpieces, an exercise in motivic development as taut as Reminiscing in Tempo is shapeless (p. 208).

Soon the three-minute masterpieces were pouring out of Ellington:

“Jack the Bear” and Ko-Ko… ushered in a flood tide of new work that continued without crest for week after week. Nine days later came “Concerto for Cootie… In May the band cut “Bojangles,” “Cotton Tail,” “Dusk,” “Never No Lament,” and “A Portrait of Bert Williams,” followed by “Harlem Air-Shaft,” “All Too Soon,” “Rumpus in Richmond,” and Sepia Panorama” in July, “In A Mellowtone” in September, and “Across the Track Blues and “Warm Valley” in October (p. 209).

Teachout nicely sums up this period: Duke Ellington

The records [Ellington and the orchestra] cut in 1940 were setting a new standard, not just for him but for jazz in general, and today the recordings of what has come to be known as the “Blanton-Webster band” are generally thought to mark the summit of his compositional achievement.  Long before his death, that view was enough of a commonplace for Ellington to find it oppressive. “I find I have all these other lifetimes to compete with,” he said.

Ellington spent most of his life convinced that he needed to compose “serious” music (rhapsodies, concertos, operas) to be accepted as a great composer.  Three-minute masterpieces wouldn’t do the trick.

Alexander Gerschenkron felt the same way Ellington did.  Despite his Harvard professorship, despite writing one of the great articles in economics and economic history (“Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective”), despite adding the “Gerschenkron effect” to the literature, and despite writing an insightful book on democracy in Germany before World War I, he thought of himself as a failure.

Gerschenkron

Alexander Gerschenkron

Nicholas Dawidoff, Gernschenkron’s grandson, wrote a wonderful biography and put the matter well:

Editors from national magazines frequently tried to assign Shura [the name by which Dawidoff knew his grandfather] essays and articles and he waved them all away. Among the many publications he turned down were Esquire, the New Republic, and the New York Times Magazine. When Francis Brown, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, asked Shura to do some work for him, Shura astounded Brown by telling him, with some annoyance, that he had no time for an “extra-curricular” activity.

What did Gerschenkron think he should have been doing?

Therein lay the rub that vexed Shura’s professional life. The Big Book – “Za Beeg Buke,” as it came out in the Gerschenkron elocution – was Shura’s El Dorado, his holy grail, the pot of coins at the end of the scholarly rainbow. He goaded his students to complete “a large literary work,” making them feel that they were nothing until they did. Meanwhile, he never published one himself.

Why do so many people feel like Ellington and Gerschenkron? It’s so terribly destructive to a person’s psyche, not to mention it ignores how important is short, clear work.  (See Deirdre McCloskey’s interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education for a different point of view. McCloskey was a Gerschenkron student.)

I used to think that way. I thought that to be a true scholar I needed to write academic journal articles, work on deep statistical estimates, and go to conferences. I realized, over the past ten years, that this is a path for a scholar to take but not the path.  It’s important that dense, technical tomes that only specialists can understand be written. But not all of us must do this!

It’s just as important that some of us take what we know in the academy and connect it to what is going on in the world. This role goes by several names: public intellectual is one, thought leader is another. I like the way Nick Hayes once put the matter to me: “Be a journalist among professors and a professor among journalists.”

In other words, we need to write three-minute masterpieces.  Let’s get to it.

Jim Read on The Power of the Purse

          jim-read  The political debate about Donald Trump’s proposed border wall has been going on since before the 2016 presidential election. My theme here is how fundamentally the situation changed with Trump’s February 15 Declaration of Emergency, where he declared illegal border crossings to be a national emergency, and asserted the right to spend more than 8 billion dollars on the wall that Congress had specifically refused to authorize for that purpose.

The actual costs of building a wall across the entire length of the U.S. – Mexico border are much higher than 8 billion dollars. Some estimates run as high as 70 billion dollars.

Whatever one thinks of a border wall, there is no question that Congress has the unquestioned authority to spend money on that purpose if it so chooses. Instead, Congress has repeatedly chosen not to do so. This has been the case not only recently, with the Democrats winning a majority in the U.S. House in the 2018 elections. From 2017-2018, even when there were Republican majorities in both U.S. House and U.S. Senate, Congress voted funds for border security, but never for Trump’s proposed wall.

So what changed on February 15, 2019 was that President Trump asserted that he had the power, by declaring an emergency, to spend funds that Congress had not appropriated for that purpose, indeed that Congress had specifically refused. Trump issued his emergency declaration at the very moment in time that Congress was voting on a budget that did not include funds for the wall. The message was clear: he was exercising what he claimed was his independent power, as president, to spend public funds, regardless of whether they have been authorized by Congress, when he considers it necessary.

So this is no longer just about a wall. It is about presidential power. If Trump’s act of spending public funds, on his own authority, that Congress has specifically refused to authorize goes unchallenged, then any president, of any party, can do the same to push through any item of their political agenda. So I want to say this again: the issue here is not whether or not one favors a border wall. The issue is what restraints on the power of the president, if any, will remain if this act goes unchallenged.

The U.S. Constitution is very clear on the point at issue here. Article I, section 9 says that “No money should be drawn from the treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” Article I, section 8 makes clear that Congress – and Congress alone – has power to tax and spend. No such power is granted to the executive branch or to the judiciary. This is not some obscure detail of the Constitution. It is absolutely central to the power, indeed to the very existence of Congress as an institution of government. Without what is called “the power of the purse,” Congress’s other powers would be null.

The power of the purse is the oldest and most important check against executive tyranny in the Anglo-American constitutional tradition. It dates from medieval England, at least as far back as the Magna Carta in 1215. During the many centuries when English magna-carta-1215-salisbury-cathedral.jpgkings claimed to be divinely appointed by God to rule the kingdom, kings still had to ask parliament to grant the money. Some kings, such as Charles I, did claim the right to spend funds regardless of parliament. This was one of the causes of the English Civil War (1642-1651). Indeed, King Charles I so to speak “lost his head” over the issue. Protecting parliament’s power of the purse was once again a central issue in England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when parliament, acting in the name of the English people, bloodlessly pushed out James II, who had claimed absolutist powers over the purse (and in many other domains as well) and replaced him with William III, who acknowledged that his power was limited by parliament. These events formed the background for John Locke’s classic work of political philosophy, Second Treatise of Civil Government, which made an extended case for government by consent – including the people’s consent, through their representatives, to taxes and public expenditures.

The American Revolutionaries took up and radicalized this idea in setting up a fully republican form of government. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that governments derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Whatever else “consent of the governed” meant to the American revolutionaries, it included the right of the people, through their elected representatives, to consent to all taxes and public expenditures.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 disagreed with one another on a wide range of matters. But on this point there was no disagreement whatsoever: Congress alone could tax and spend. The President had no power to do so, except by signing bills passed by Congress. Article I of the Constitution begins: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Notice that all legislative powers are vested in Congress. If a president had his own pool of funds, and could spend it on whatever he chose, that would be exercising legislative power, contrary to the Constitution’s exclusive grant of those powers to Congress.

James Madison, arguably the most influential framer of the U.S. Constitution, in defending and explaining the proposed Constitution wrote in the Federalist Papers, Number 58 (1788) that: “This power of the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon, with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

There is no question, then, that constitutionally, only Congress can appropriate money. And it does not appropriate that money in one lump sum, but for specified purposes. A president cannot constitutionally transfer funds from the Medicare budget to the military budget, for example. Or from the U.S. military budget to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement budget, which is what Donald Trump is doing.

The big, new question that we have faced since February 15 then is: do illegal border crossings (which have been steadily dropping in numbers since their peak in 1972) constitute a public emergency great enough to justify suspending the regular workings of the U.S. Constitution? I would argue that they do not – indeed, they do not come close to the level of emergency that would justify such as step.

For purposes of historical perspective, I want to describe an unquestioned emergency in U.S. history: the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861. When the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Congress was not in session, and was not scheduled to meet for a long time. Indeed, early in the war, it would have been difficult and dangerous for Congress to meet at all. Washington, D.C. bordered on Virginia, the largest of the slave states, and some major battles were fought very close to the nation’s capital. Moreover, for several months before and after Abraham Lincoln took office as president, it was not clear who the members of Congress were, since several slave states had already seceded from the union, and more followed immediately after the war began.

This was an undisputed emergency – whether the United States would continue to exist as a nation. Under the circumstances, Lincoln exercised a number of powers in the early months of the war that ordinarily would have required congressional pre-approval. He suspended the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus, i.e., the right of a person, under ordinary circumstances, not to be detained for more than 24 hours without being charged with a specific crime. The Constitution itself indicates that there are circumstances when suspension may be justified. Article I, section 9 of theus-constitution Constitution holds that “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” The phrase indicates with some specificity the conditions under which it may appropriate to suspend it: “rebellion” and “invasion.” The slave state secession and the seizure and firing on federal forts would clearly qualify as a massive act of rebellion. However, because this clause occurs in Article I, which covers the legislative branch of government, it implies that whether and when to suspect habeus corpus is a matter subject to congressional authority. Lincoln himself agreed that it was ordinarily a congressional power, but argued that under the circumstances of the early months of the war, when Congress was not in a position to meet, the president was justified in exercising it temporarily. Lincoln called Congress into special session on July 4, 1861, described what he had done, and asked Congress retroactively to approve his action – which Congress did.

Lincoln also made several military expenditures immediately after the outbreak of the war that had not been specifically authorized in the peacetime military budget. Here too Lincoln acknowledged that this was a power belonging to Congress, and asked the body to retroactively authorize the expenditures he had made, which Congress did.

It is not my purpose here to justify every one of Lincoln’s exercises of emergency power during the Civil War. I believe some were justified, and some went too far. But there was no question that the emergency was a real one. Lincoln also made clear that he respected the authority of Congress, and acted to restore the regular balance of constitutional power as soon as it was practically possible.

In both cases, his exercise of emergency powers differed significantly from that of Donald Trump. No one has made a serious case that illegal border crossings constitute an emergency great enough to suspend the ordinary operations of the Constitution. It is simply something that President Trump wanted to do. He was irritated that Congress did not fund it. (Nor did Mexico choose to pay for the wall, as Trump promised repeatedly during the campaign.) Declaring an emergency was simply a way of getting hold of money that Congress had repeatedly declined to appropriate.

We cannot know at this point whether or how the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on Trump’s emergency power declaration. Historically, the judiciary has been reluctant to get involved in disputes involving what it calls “political questions” – i.e., disputes between branches of government. In effect, the Court’s “political question” doctrine says to Congress: “Stand up for your own power.” And it is true that the framers of the Constitution did assume that office holders in each branch of the federal government would stand up for and protect the powers that the Constitution has granted them.

In the case at hand, however, there are two fundamental problems with the Supreme Court telling the Congress, in effect, to stand up for their own power. First: any argument of this kind presumes that Congress does continue exclusively to hold the power of the purse. If presidents can declare an emergency, and spend potentially unlimited funds anytime Congress chooses not to vote the funds a president wants, then Congress is deprived of the only foundation from which they can possibly stand up for their own power. The president would then hold the lion’s share of legislative as well as executive power, and Congress would be overnight reduced to the level of a not-very-well-behaved debating society.

The second reason why the U.S. Supreme Court cannot in good conscience dodge its responsibility to defend the powers of Congress, is that the Court itself – unintentionally but nevertheless monumentally – undermined the capacity of Congress to stand up for its own power in the case of a presidential emergency declaration. To understand this peculiar part of the story, we need look at the National Emergency Act of 1976, the piece of legislation President Trump relies on as legal justification for his defiance of Congress.

The National Emergency Act was ironically an attempt by Congress to check potential presidential abuse of emergency power declarations, while at the same time recognizing that emergency declarations are sometimes appropriate. In an attempt to fulfill both of these contrary objectives, Congress designed the National Emergency Act to function as a so-called “legislative veto,” whereby Congress authorizes the president to take discretionary action, but at the same time reserves the right to say “No” if it believes the president has used that discretion wrongly. Thus under the National Emergency Act as originally passed by Congress, if Congress judged that a president was wrongly using emergency powers, it could negate those powers – “veto” them, so to speak. The National Emergency Act required that the president report at regular intervals to Congress about what emergency powers have been exercised and why, so that Congress could decide whether to continue to authorize, or to terminate, the presidentially-declared emergency.

In short, under the National Emergency Act as designed and passed by Congress, the act of an out-of-control president declaring a bogus emergency could be overturned by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. This act of disapproval was framed as a congressional resolution, not as a new and separate act of legislation, so that it was not subject to presidential veto. Congress stands up for its own powers: constitutional crisis resolved. And in fact, that is what Congress did in the case of Trump’s emergency power declaration. By a wide margin that included a significant number of Republicans as well as nearly every Democrat, both the House and the Senate voted to terminate president Trump’s state of emergency and to nullify his inappropriate appropriation of unappropriated funds.

But this is where the Supreme Court enters the story, and not exactly as the hero of the drama. In a 1983 court decision, INS v. Chadha (which had nothing to do with border walls), the Court ruled that the so-called legislative veto, whereby Congress provisionally authorizes the president to do something but then reserves the right to reverse it after the fact, was unconstitutional. Congress, the court held, could not exercise executive power, which it arguably did in presuming to “veto” the actions of a president in administering a law. The court’s ruling in effect transformed legislative veto mechanisms, which required only a simple majority of both houses and were not subject to presidential veto, into regular pieces of legislation, which are subject to presidential veto, which in turn requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to overturn it – a nearly impossible bar under our current state of partisanship.

At this point a wise Congress would have thoroughly revised, or if necessary repealed, every single law it passed that relied on a legislative veto mechanism, because in many such cases – and certainly in the case of the National Emergency Act – Congress would not have granted the president so much power in the first place if they did not believe it could be revoked when necessary. But we have not had an especially wise Congress for a long time. One can very well argue that a wise Congress would not have passed the National Emergency Act in the first place.

The upshot of the story, as anyone knows who has been following current events, is that President Trump vetoed Congress’s majority vote to end Trump’s emergency declaration and his claim to spend funds not authorized by Congress. The effort to overturn Trump’s veto failed to get the required two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress.

There is much blame to go around here. One can blame the Supreme Court for unwittingly expanding presidential power in the Chadha ruling. One can blame Congress for passing an unwise law in 1976, and not fixing it after 1983. One can blame Donald Trump for putting the Constitution through a shredding machine without a second thought.

But ultimately the U.S. Constitution belongs to us, the People of the United States. Even if Congress wanted to hand over its constitutional power of the purse to the president, it cannot legitimately do so, because the Constitution belongs to us, not to Congress or the president. Nor can we rely on the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve fundamental constitutional questions like this one. Courts act very slowly, and often rule on narrow, technical grounds – as they are likely to do in this instance, if they take up the case at all.

To me, as a citizen of the United States, the fundamental constitutional question is this: if a president can spend 8 billion dollars, not only that Congress has not specifically authorized, but that Congress has specifically declined to authorize, then why not 80 billion? 800 billion? What possible checks are there on the power of a president to do anything he or she wants, once that president is given a blank check on the power of the purse?

When I was in college studying political philosophy, I read many philosophers who warned about the danger of a people “losing their love of liberty” and willingly subjecting themselves, whether out of fear or greed or some other motive, to the chains of a despot. I remember being puzzled about this notion of a people losing its love of liberty. Why would people do that? I wondered. I had great difficulty forming any mental picture of what a people renouncing its own freedom looked like.

Today I have a much clearer picture, both of what this means and how it is possible. I just hope it doesn’t happen here.