Thomas Jefferson on Bonaparte

I was complaining on Fboo about how my students won’t read a page and a half of Thomas Jefferson, which is a shame, because he wrote like so:

Instead of the parricide treason of Bonaparte, in perverting the means confided to him as a republican magistrate, to the subversion of that republic and erection of a military despotism for himself and his family, had he used it honestly for the establishment and support of a free government in his own country, France would now have been in freedom and rest; and her example operating in a contrary direction, every nation in Europe would have had a government over which the will of the people would have had some control. His atrocious egotism has checked the salutary progress of principle, and deluged it with rivers of blood which are not yet run out. To the vast sum of devastation and of human misery, of which he has been the guilty cause, much is still to be added. But the object is fixed in the eye of nations, and they will press on to its accomplishment and to the general amelioration of the condition of man. What a germ have we planted, and how faithfully should we cherish the parent tree at home!

Bam a lam.

Why would this writing appeal to me right at this political moment, I wonder. Atrocious egotism. Hmm. I wonder.

Hitler, Mussolini analogies are more important than Godwin’s Law leads one to think

I took a long time to respond to a FBoo post this morning and I decided to turn it into a blog post.

So the new round of “let’s incessantly discuss a certain celebrity candidate” seems to involve people dismissing analogies to Mussolini and Hitler because of Godwin’s Law.

Now, I really do like Mike Godwin’s writing, and he did us a solid by giving us a shorthand term to something one of my mentors credited to Michael Walzer: you can prove anything you want using Hitler. Walzer’s point was that Hitler was so extreme, and so terrifies us, that any moral argument you want to make either dominates or falls apart around analogies to Hitler. Why? Because most moral arguments concern about general conditions, about behavior in every life, society, or politics, and they are not about the extremes (unless one is Kant, and unless one has never read Wittgenstein or Rorty.) Now, I like to use extremes to bound arguments and use them as thought experiments, but they are often much less useful than we want them to be.

That said, I really do not want Godwin’s law to shame people away from thinking about or even invoking Hitler.

First of all, most people are not sufficiently versed in either a) politics or b) European History to make claims about what is or isn’t fascism in detail. Of course Donald Trump is not Hitler or Mussolini—those guys already lived, and every politician is a product of their time, place, etc. But people are afraid of Hitler, Mussolini, and fascism for damn good reasons including 1) their ascent to power was incremental, opportunistically drew on both sides of the political spectrum, and easier than I suspect anybody would have predicted it to be; and 2) the consequences should be unimaginable, but unfortunately are not. So in general, I am happy enough letting people dwell on Hitler, trying to figure out where the lines are between individualism and collectivism, patriotism and nationalism, etc etc.

I think it’s very, very dangerous to get into a comfortable model of thinking that “It can’t happen here.” The fact that people are worried about it happening…it’s good that people worry, that they use Hitler as a chastening idea. No, I don’t think you should let people get away with just throwing out the label and moving on–FoxNews looooooves to label people Nazis, and they of course associate Nazis wth lefties. This neither accurate or fair; I think they would have more grounds to do so with Mussolini and the Italian fascists who did start from the left, but both men exploited the fears of the right and the utopian desires of progressives simultaneously, so I have trouble sorting who is to blame. (Hint: lots of people; that’s one of the problems that should make our hearts stop with fear when we look at it closely. )

So all that said, I see definite fascistic tendencies in Trump’s style and rhetoric, and those deserve scrutiny, if only as a means to learn more about fascism as a political phenomenon.

Things I see in Trump that reflect elements of historical fascism, based on my read of the various histories I’ve read over the years:

  • Trump’s “enemy within” narrative based on derogative ethnic stereotypes;
  • his prelapsarian narratives about about how a once-great nation has now just turned into a giant mess who needs a strong man to fix it;
  • He emphasizes metaphors and emotions over practical arguments or reason. Every effective leader mixes these forms of rhetoric to varying degrees, and that is not a problem in my mind (Remember: “Hope”) but fascistic leaders emphasized emotions to the extreme, even becoming violent or belligerent if somebody questions their impressionistic claims about the world based on other ways of knowing or communicating;
  • Trump, like fascist leaders before him, exploits and inflames fears about foreigners;
  • He’s absolutely in his element in front of a large crowd; he’s masterful in front of his rallies, and he makes damn sure that anybody who might heckle, shame, disrupt or best him in front of that crowd is disciplined, either by encouraging his followers to be violent or using security to shut them down.
  • He openly brags about the extra-legal things he wants to do as president (like torture) and revels in the cheers that ensue, thereby creating opportunities to legitimate lawlessness.

Some of these are really scary and people are not being weenies with their concerns. If he convinced enough generals to go along with him…he could lead us to some damn dark places. Any leader can if we don’t critically examine what we are doing.

THAT’S WHY POLITICS IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE, and not some dirty word you think yourself somehow “above” because you’d rather focus on your family, your job, and your friends. If good people eschew politics, the people who step into the vacuum left are often not the people we want there.

I see Robert Paxton is getting quite a bit of press on this. He has somewhat overlapping, somewhat different views on Trump as a fascist you can see here.


Paxton, R. The Anatomy of Fascism.

Payne, Stanley G. Fascism: Comparison and Definition.

Noble lies and transit

Attention Conservation Notice: I may have just come up with a rationale for overly optimistic ridership and cost forecasts, and having sprouted horns and a tail, may need to go bathe in holy water or visit an exorcist. Crimony.

In the how-on-earth-did-the-argument-wind-up-here department, I am beavering away on Chapter 3 on public transit. It’s a tricky chapter because it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book. The major thrust of the book concerns the virtues that urbanists should embrace in order to foster Jane Jacobs’ style urbanism. The transit chapter digresses a bit from that theme, as most of the chapter develops an argument for why cities as a political community have the duty to supply transit (I am then going on to write about whether people have a duty to take transit.) Through many twists and turns, I have come to the topic of bad transit forecasting and whether these might be covered under the rubric of the ‘noble lie’ in politics.

Plato, in Book III of the Republic, has Socrates verbally sparring with Glaucon, Plato’s brother. Glaucon, as we discover, is no slouch when it comes to debate. He also has the will to power, and Socrates often toys with Glaucon, talking about what extremes a society would have to go in order to achieve social harmony. The noble lie is no exception. There are two parts of the lie: the first lie concerns the idea that a society can be, somehow, autochthonous, without politics, or history, or established systems of relationships. That is the pseudoi. The second part is described as a myth, one that would need to be believed by all classes of workers in a utopian political community. Socrates’ myth consists of convincing the members of the polis that each is born with different metals at his core: the rulers infused with gold, their experts and helpers have silver, and the common men made of brass or iron. Leo Strauss noted that Socrates’ description of the ‘noble lie’ captures the idea that leadership is selective, and that society requires these types of myths about social order in order to achieve social cohesion.

Political theorist Kateri Carmola made a somewhat different argument I favor, largely because it ties into its interpretation the positions that Glaucon has taken in favor of seizing power and imposing justice, the context, and the dramatic gestures Socrates makes. It also ties in all those long digressions about genealogy that many take as simple eugenics, though they don’t hold together as simple eugenics because of the way Socrates keeps pointing out that fine breeding only leads to exceptional specimens every so often, and in some cases, leads to some real duds. Carmola’s approach also explains Plato’s focus on cosmogony: the focus on making and breeding is a metaphor for making society, from one generation to the next. Carmola also links the idea of the noble lie to Socrates’ reference to Cadmus and the House of Thebes, one of the most violent intergenerational myths available to him. In the case of the cosmogony, the tales of the origins contained in Hesiod contain a great deal of intergenerational violence and familial abuse. The preconditions of political and social life are bloody and unjust.

Carmola suggests that Plato uses the noble lie to smooth over, and yet highlight, the “incompatibility between historical reality and absolute justice.” (p. 51). The lie is a children’s story, in Socrates’ manner of educating children, that helps them transition to the necessity of a politically established conception of justice, and away from an individual, idealized right order of justice. It concerns the political act of founding, or transforming, a political community. The dialogue in Book III is a means for helping Glaucon, and those like him, to see the problems inherent in believing that justice may be imposed, even as one stretches out and seeks to influence the course of human affairs. Carmola’s paper is delightful, and I highly recommend it.

Applied to transit politics, the idea that public agencies like transit companies might engage in myth making in their future visioning comes out most strongly in Jonathan Richmond’s Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles . Richmond traces the development of Los Angeles’s new rail construction, highlighting the manner of myth making that occurred between the region’s transit providers and the public it serves. Richmond is critical, not unlike Glaucon when he tells Socrates that he should be ashamed of such lies within a political community, deluding people with promises of something that isn’t simply because of the outcomes the vision offers. Plans and visions are in many ways, lies; leaders and the forecasters they employ can not guarantee all the outcomes. They can offer visions and paths, through a glass darkly as Paul warned us. What rail advocates throughout the 1980s, 1990s,2000s and today offered to Los Angeles is a vision of what isn’t–yet. Actualities may or may not follow; shouldn’t adult citizens be capable of understanding that in the dialogic, deliberative venue that is contemporary democracy? As Socrates helps Glaucon see in Book III to Book VII, there are no bright lines and transparent, easy-to-read boundaries in leading for justice. Is it really so wrong for mission-oriented public agencies, founded because somebody had a vision for what they might do, describe their visions in dream states on the one hand, and nightmare states on the other? The rest of us are not bound to subscribe unless we see ourselves as enthralled by ‘what the experts say’ about what cities should build and how–hardly true in planning now, if it ever was true (which I doubt; I think it was more to do with lack of constitutional protections for individuals vis-a-vis state decisions). If most of us know forecasts are diddled, and I think it’s fair to say that secret is out, and yet voters continue to vote for projects, anyway, it is probably fair to say that voters are voter for the grand vision and not the details.

Even if the lines are not bright, there is still a line, as Socrates’ use of the word “lie” indicates, between the poetic license of agencies and advocates seeking to lead through rainbows-and-sunshine visions and the propaganda and overreach of despots, not to mention the political penalties that ensue from such such disastrous-if-one-gets-caught misinformation as Obama’s reassurances about keeping your plan (no matter how crappy), reading lips about “no new taxes, and California’s High Speed Rail Agency strategic distortions of their cost estimates early on.

Carmola, Kateri. “Noble Lying: Justice and Intergenerational Tension in Plato’s “Republic”.” Political Theory 31, no. 1 (2003): doi:10.2307/3595658.

Richmond, Jonathan. Transport of Delight : The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2005