Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Published in Pop Culture

Pop Culture

Tocqueville on Julia

By now everyone has met Julia, the lucky woman in the unusual Obama campaign commercial who is looked after from cradle to grave by a compassionate federal government.  With the help of the government, Julia is educated, gets free health care, free birth control, and subsidized student loans.  When she decides to have a child (with no significant other, of course), government is there to help with health care and school programs (but no daycare?).  When Julia retires, Medicare and Social Security look after her needs.  And so on.

This happy story made me wonder what the difference is between Julia and the people Alexis de Tocqueville calls "place-hunters" (see Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part 2, chapter 20).  The place-hunter is someone whose ambition finds its primary outlet in seeking a government job, a type that Tocqueville fears will arise in modern democracies.  True, Julia seems to be on her own when it comes to choosing a job (she's a web-designer), though she does get government subsidized small business loans and tax credits to get started.  But when so many of the major problems in life are solved by government, don't you become something like a place-hunter?  At the least, you rely on government almost as much as someone who does have a government job.

So what's the problem with that? Here's our French observer, writing in the 1830's, long before the full-blown welfare state had developed:

"I shall not say that this universal and immoderate desire for public offices is a great social evil; that it destroys the spirit of independence in each citizen and spreads a venal and servile humor in the whole body of the nation; that it suffocates the virile virtues; nor shall I have it observed that an industry of this kind creates only an unproductive activity and agitates the country without making it fruitful: all that is easily understood."

No, the real problem Tocqueville sees is more political.  In a "people of place-hunters" (think about that awful idea!), there can never be enough government jobs to satisfy the ever growing number of people who want such a job.  And this creates a permanent class of discontented people who demand change "solely out of the need to make some places vacant", or, we may add, solely to acquire more benefits.  And can there ever be enough money to satisfy the ever growing demand for more government assistance? Whether out of compassion or the desire to win political support, governments try to attract partisans by giving people jobs (or healthcare, retirement and vacation benefits, etc.); but instead, Tocqueville thinks governments end up endangering themselves, as we perhaps see in places like Greece. 

Tocqueville concludes that it would be "more honest and more sure" for governments to teach each citizen "the art of being self-sufficient."  Wouldn't that be better than a "people of place-hunters"?

Categories > Pop Culture

Men and Women

Defending Julia

Defending these other Julias--and not the woman in Orwell's 1984. From Robert Herrick:

WHENAS in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

... Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me !

You really wanna get rough with Julia, try John Donne's "Julia," Elegy 14:

Her hands, I know not how, used more to spill
The food of others than herself to fill ;
But O ! her mind, that Orcus, which includes
Legions of mischiefs, countless multitudes
Of formless curses, projects unmade up,
Abuses yet unfashion'd, thoughts corrupt,
Misshapen cavils, palpable untroths,
Inevitable errors, self-accusing loaths.
These, like those atoms swarming in the sun,
Throng in her bosom for creation.
I blush to give her halfe her due ; yet say,
No poison's half so bad as Julia.

Finally, try Julia Shaw, who unfavorably compares Obama's Julia to Tocqueville's American woman, whose superiority was responsible for American greatness.

Categories > Men and Women

Political Philosophy

Leon Kass on the Real War on Poverty

At the AEI annual dinner Dr. Leon Kass explains life--work, love, service, and truth. He concludes with the need for hope:

In this most fundamental sense, hope is not a hope for change, but an affirmation of permanence, of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a hospitable world. Hope in this sense is not only a Judeo-Christian virtue. It is not only the most essential--and abundant--American virtue. It is the condition of the possibility of all human endeavor and all human fulfillment. Yes, there is still much spiritual poverty in America. But we go forward with confidence that our spiritual hungers can yet be nurtured in this almost promised land, provided that we have the courage to insist that the well-being of the spirit is central to our notion of national success and personal flourishing. This war on poverty--on our spiritual poverty--will not add a cent to the deficit. It can enrich our lives beyond measure.

Today, poverty, like pollution, needs a deeper understanding.


What's Right about Kansas

Tim reposts a thumbnail portrait showing what's right about Kansas (other than some silly regulation), on the day of the Kansas primary-caucuses. This reminds me of my quick visit to Russell, KS in 1996, home at various points of both Bob Dole and Arlen Specter. Be sure to hit the A&W Root Beer when driving through Russell!
Categories > Politics

Health Care

In re Rush

We misheard Rush on the 30 year-old law student demanding free contraception, via Obamacare mandate.

UPDATE: Now he apologizes.

Categories > Health Care


Stormy Weather

Fred Astaire called this dance routine the greatest to ever be caught on film. The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, were tap dancing stars of Vaudeville and the Harlem Renaissance, their careers continuing well into the 1990s. While the 1943 film "Stormy Weather" was primarily about its star, Bojangles Robinson, the "Jumping Five" sequence by the Nicholas Brothers really steals the show.
Categories > Leisure



NY Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin exhibits American virtues, not Chinese ones. One could conclude this from simple observation as well from this book on Chinese (PRC) professional baseketball. "Why are there no Jeremy Lins [point guards] coming out of China?" The answer lies in politics--the sports of a free society and those of a totalitarian one.

Speaking of Lincoln, note this 1860 cartoon of the presidential candidates, featuring baseball metaphors. Lincoln installed a baseball diamond on the White House grounds, as Diana Schaub relates in her classic essay on the All-American sport.

Categories > Sports

Pop Culture

Nostalgia Playing in Hollywood

Two of the top contenders for film awards this year are focused on the early years of cinema-- Martin Scorsese's Hugo and The Artist, by French director Michel Hazanavicius. The former leads the pack with the most Oscar nominations, while the latter is sweeping awards for direction, writing, and acting--and picking up a few Best Picture trophies, including one from the British equivalent of the Academy Awards. Both films have been described as "love letters to cinema" by their creators, and both are charming in that regard.

Hugo is focused on the birth of film and the crossroads of science and storytelling that gave the movies their magic, and it is unlike anything else I've seen by the normally-gritty Scorsese. The film pays homage to Georges Méliés, the great French illusionist who pioneered special effects at the turn of the last century and is regarded as the father of the science fiction and horror genres of cinema. Méliés and his work had a tremendous influence on other wizards like Thomas Edison and Walt Disney, who would help America to become the leader of filmmaking. Most of the Méliés films were lost during the Great War, and the man spent much of his later life in obscurity, selling toys and magic tricks in a Paris train station--where Hugo picks up his tale. Eventually, interest into the innovations of Méliés and his surviving films began to pick up, and in 1931 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor (presented by none other than Louis Lumiere), and Méliés spent the rest of his life teaching the next generation of filmmakers. As he sat in a hospital bed losing a battle to cancer, he invited some friends to his bedside to show them the final picture he would draw--a champagne bottle with the cork popping off. "Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams." This sentiment was shared well in the film.

The Artist is a fantastic example of filmmaking. The movie is about the death of silent films and the rise of the talkies, and it is itself both black-and-white and silent. The silence of the film forces the actors to use their abilities to tell a story through actions and expressions alone, and they are magnificent at it, especially lead actor Jean Dujardin. The Frenchman plays George Valentin, king of the silent silver screen, who resists the rise of sound in film, initially shrugging it off as a passing fad and then falling into despair as a new generation of actors with voices steals his limelight. While I was originally skeptical that a full-length silent movie could completely keep my attention in this day and age, I found myself loving every minute of it--the movie was great fun. Though I have yet to see The Help and The Descendants, I expect this film to win the Oscar for Best Picture (though some people tell me The Help and The Descendants are as good if not better than The Artist).

Both movies capture pivotal moments in the history of cinema, and in the process allow the artists to express their own thoughts on their craft. It is no surprise that Hollywood is in love with these love letters, and I think this could be a good thing; they capture the essence of what makes movies fascinating, fun, and sometimes even important. Films can make us laugh or cry, get us to think about things we normally would not, and allow us to escape the world for a few brief moments and let our imaginations play in the fantasies that these wizards conjure up. It is no coincidence that many of the earliest pioneers of cinema were also great scientists and magicians. Hugo plays with a well-reported scene from one of the first movies: the Lumiere brothers had taken a brief shot of a train coming down a track, and were showing it on the carnival circuit. When people watched it and saw that train come towards them on the screen, legend says they all panicked and began ducking for cover, fearing that the train was actually coming at them and would leap off of the screen to crush them. It was magic that it did not. From the pioneers like Méliés, Lumiere, and Edison to the titans like Disney, Hitchcock, and Welles to the plethora of great storytellers and technical wizards over the last century, they continue to entice us. It is good for Hollywood to explore its roots now and then, to remember where it came from and why it went that way, and to continue looking to the future for new ways to divert us and new magic to conjure up.
Categories > Pop Culture

Pop Culture

Iowahawk Revisits "Halftime"

It made my day. "Halftime in America"--"Goddammit, somebody get me a throat lozenge."

Update: This one is my favorite (obscenity alert)--Obama does Henry V.

Categories > Pop Culture


$15,000 Food Fight?

Plastic cutlery at the Ayers-Dohrns?  This is a sign of cultural rot.  Why is bankrupt Illinois still funding this outfit?

Or maybe plastique?

UPDATE:  State Humanities Councils receive support from the NEH.  The House should put the NEH Chairman before an oversight Committee.

Categories > Politics