Archive | November, 2007

Isabel Paterson and Talbot Mundy?

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Against all fear; against the weight of what,
For lack of worse name, men miscall the law;
Against the tyranny of Creed, against the hot,
Foul creed of priest, and Superstition’s maw;
Against all men-made shackles, and a man-made Hell –
Alone – at last – unaided – I REBEL!

– Talbot Mundy

I’m pleased to see that Talbot Mundy’s excellent historical fantasy novel Tros of Samothrace, about 1st-century BCE Celtic tribes defending themselves against Roman invasion, is available online (though only in ASCII text – and, for copyright reasons I suspect, only on an Australian site). The book’s savage portrait of Julius Caesar is especially memorable. Robert E. Howard is known to have been influenced by Tros, but Mundy’s protagonist is considerably more complex, and his moral code more severe, than is generally the case with Howard’s heroes. (Mundy himself was an interesting character; check out his Wikipedia bio.)

The Dying Gaul Another writer about whose possible dependence on Mundy I wonder about is Isabel Paterson. In 1930 she released The Road of the Gods, the final entry (though first in fictional chronology) in the trilogy of historical romances that began with The Singing Season (1924) and The Fourth Queen (1926). The trilogy traces the adventures of a pair of lovers as they are reincarnated in different guises, names, and contexts across the centuries, from medieval Spain to Elizabethan England (though in fact it’s not clear whether Paterson planned all along for these to be the same characters reborn or whether this theme developed only with the third book). The Road of the Gods, like Tros of Samothrace, deals with the struggles of Northern tribes (Germanic rather than Celtic this time) against Roman expansion in the first century BCE. Although Tros wasn’t published as a book until 1938, it appeared in serialised form in 1925, so influence is possible – and Paterson would certainly have appreciated the novel’s anti-imperialist message and even its opening epigram, a spurious quotation from Taliesin:

These then are your liberties that ye inherit. If ye inherit sheep and oxen, ye protect those from the wolves. Ye know there are wolves, aye, and thieves also. Ye do not make yourselves ridiculous by saying neither wolf nor thief would rob you, but each to his own. Nevertheless, ye resent my warning. But I tell you, Liberty is alertness; those are one; they are the same thing. Your liberties are an offense to the slave, and to the enslaver also. Look ye to your liberties! Be watchful, and be ready to defend them. Envy, greed, conceit and ignorance, believing they are Virtue, see in undefended Liberty their opportunity to prove that violence is the grace of manhood.

Of course Paterson didn’t necessarily need to have been inspired by anyone else; still, the subject matter was unusual enough in that era (Stephen Cox, Paterson’s biographer, calls the choice of topic “unlikely” and “extraordinary”), Mundy was sufficiently widely known, and Paterson was sufficiently widely read, that a connection does not seem improbable.

Admittedly Paterson might instead have been influenced by William Morris’s much earlier treatment of these matters in his 1880s novels The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, but stylistically Paterson seems much closer to Mundy than to Morris. (The real influence of the Morris books was on Tolkien, but that’s another story.)

Hold-fast Is the Only Dodd

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

In tonight’s Democratic debate, when asked which should take priority, national security or human rights, Chris Dodd said something like the following: “National security, of course. When the President takes the oath of office, he swears to do two things: to protect the Constitution, and to protect our national security. So clearly national security is number one.” Later on in the debate he repeated the first half of this odd claim, saying something like: “The President doesn’t swear to protect the country or protect the Constitution, he swears to do both.”

Chris Dodd Now even if it were true that the President swears to do both those things, it’s hard to see what would entitle Dodd to conclude that the second one must take precedence over the first. But in fact there’s nothing about national security in the presidential oath of office:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Now perhaps someone might argue that protecting national security is involved in “faithfully execut[ing] the Office of President of the United States.” But in the Constitution’s listing of presidential duties, the only presidential function that has anything to do with national security is serving as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States.” And who determines when or whether the army, navy, and/or militia are to be “called into the actual service of the United States”? The Congress. The President is not supposed to be proactive in military policy; he’s supposed to lead the troops against enemies of Congress’s choosing, at a time of Congress’s choosing, for a duration of Congress’s choosing. There’s no way of construing this modest assignment into some sort of sweeping license to suspend constitutional rights in the interest of national security.

So either a) Dodd is lying, or b) he doesn’t know what’s in the oath he’s so desperate to take or the Constitution he’s so eager, or c) he thinks protecting the Constitution just means protecting “it” from foreign invasion and not, say, protecting the rights enumerated in its text.

Now I, obviously, don’t think that protecting the Constitution and protecting human rights amount to the same thing, and I don’t much care about presidential oaths one way or another. Still, it’s clear enough that the function of Dodd’s surreptitiously slipping the presidential oath’s actual requirement (protecting the Constitution) into second place behind its invented requirement (protecting national security) was to downplay the importance of rights, and to lend colour of law – or colour of presidential oath, anyway – to such downplaying. So, for the record: the presidential oath clearly places constitutional rights above national security. If you don’t like those priorities, then for God’s sake stop running for the job that requires you to swear to uphold them.

Reviews Resurrected

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

The Mises Institute has posted a PDF of a 1945 issue of American Affairs featuring articles by, inter alia, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Garet Garrett, and Isabel Paterson. I’ve posted an HTML version of the Paterson piece, a book review, on the Molinari Institute site (not because it’s an especially interesting piece, but because hey, it’s Paterson). I’ve also posted a 1900 review of a book about French semi-anarchist Charles Dunoyer. (Check out the delightful put-down in the last paragraph.)

Playing With Fire

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Because Ron Paul sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, some critics have inferred (not unreasonably) that he supports bans on flag-burning. In fact he doesn’t; he was simply trying to make the point that such bans would presently be unconstitutional, and so that those who do favour making flag-burning illegal are obligated to amend the Constitution.

It was for similar reasons that Paul introduced a declaration of war against Iraq – not because he supports such a war (nobody who’s followed his campaign even slightly could suppose that), but because he wanted to make the point that a war is unconstitutional unless Congress declares it – so that if his colleagues take the Constitution seriously they should show it by, um, doing their wrong deeds the right way.

Okay, I get it; but I don’t much care for the strategy.

burning flag What’s my objection? Well, I’m not making the criticism that his introducing these proposals is risky because Congress might actually vote for them; if the mood of the Congress were such that they had a chance of passing, someone else would already have introduced them, so I don’t think it was especially risky (though it is disconcerting to see a loaded gun being tossed around to make a political point, even if the safety is on).

No, my complaint is that this strategy focuses unduly on the unconstitutionality of Congress’s misdeeds rather than their wrongness. Paul clearly doesn’t think that aggressive wars and flag-burning bans would be unobjectionable if only they were constitutional; but his strategy could encourage that belief.

Of course as an anarchist I don’t regard the Constitution as having any authority; but I don’t think my criticism depends on that point. Assume the truth of minarchism; or assume the correctness of Barnett’s case for the anarcho-compatibility of the Constitution; or even just assume (and this much is definitely true) that a federal government that kept itself within constitutional bounds would be enormously, staggeringly preferable to the one we have now – and I still think my criticism holds. However objectionable a law’s unconstitutionality is (and I do think, as things stand, that a law’s being unconstitutional is a serious ceteris paribus objection to it), such a law’s being inherently unjust is surely a more serious objection to it. As a political strategy, introducing resolutions encouraging Congress to pass unjust constitutional amendments in order to render other unjust actions constitutional (thus making the Constitution more unjust – as though whatever legitimacy the Constitution possesses could be independent of its content!) can only foster the misleading impression that unconstitutionality is a more serious problem than injustice. I’m not saying that Paul believes that; I don’t think he does. But I do think he has been trying to serve two masters – constitutionality and natural justice – and this particular strategy I fear serves the lesser master at the expense of the greater.

Incidentally, on a tangentially related subject, can anyone tell me precisely what Ron Paul’s views on abortion are? Because I know he recently supported legislation declaring human life protected from the point of conception; but I seem to remember that back in the 90s he was supporting RU 486 (the “morning-after pill”) as a desirable alternative to abortion, which would imply that he thinks protected status begins at some point later than conception. (Didn’t he have an article in Liberty in this subject? Unfortunately my back issues are packed away.) So has he changed his mind, or is there some nuance I’m missing? Does anyone out there know more?

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