Bagehot’s namesake

Since this fan site is dedicated to Bagehot, I thought I’d better explain why I named my beagle after a Victorian economist I know chiefly as the author of a rhetoric on the progress of civilizations, which he felt culminated in the selection of the fittest, his own, the British Empire. Why not a Victorian poet, a less bigoted student of natural science, or a progressive political idealist? What made Bagehot’s name a heroic one for me was the boldness of his rhetorical defense of empiricism as the basis of political idealism. Already in Victorian England, on the heels of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, Bagehot’s positivism was on the defensive as a paradigm in which beliefs can be tested against evidence, knowledge is perfectible and decisions can be rational. Instead of abandoning its flag, he strove to carry it forward into the field of political science. Can this be done without his solipsism? In Systems of Survival, a rhetoric on human morality that points toward organizing principles that transcend history and culture, I see reason to believe there is a way. An alternative to the dizzying array of signs without definite referents proposed by postmodern theories of governance.

“Every way of man is right in his own eyes, Byron; the lord ponders the heart. Proverbs: 21.”

If it can be found in the Bible, there is nothing new in postmodernism, and in its earlier incarnations it was trumped by demand for a justice system that serves the community, expressed as a religious doctrine meant to trump diversity in statecraft when the chosen people could not be ruled by one of their own. What is new is the idea that subject communities have rights of self-determination within polities that could overwhelm them but could not rule them humanely. It accommodates social differences that are economically alienating and prevent subject groups from thriving in the political economy of the state. It approaches language barriers in the information economy as having cultural integrity and holds that if these languages were dissolved to facilitate information exchange, identity would be lost and the consequences would be profound for individuals and society. It privileges voice over status, allowing individuals from affected populations to contradict experts who designed public policies and point out that they have created perverse incentives. But these reforms are meaningless without the state’s commitment to protecting the subject groups from the depredations of its own political economy. And for the state’s purposes empiricism is paramount. Postmodern thought in the hands of a criminal defense attorney is as wicked as Ben Wade. And this is only a tantalizing hint at its potential to act as a double-edged sword.

In my experience, relativism is commonly cited as a justification for condoning corrupt practices in health services in developing countries. Perverse incentives are dressed up as cultural imperatives and disinformation is reinforced in the name of protecting access to uninformed patients, even where it threatens public health. In Systems of Survival I have found a theory of corruption that recognizes the importance of identity, diversity and minority rights. Too late to name my beagle after the author, Jane Jacobs, but time to apply her ideas to my own work. Bagehot, by the way, means badger in Old English.

What led me into this apologia for my beagle’s namesake was the centrality of indigenous rights to Q’Orianka Kilcher’s activism in Peru. I’ve been blogging about The New World a lot because it’s my favorite subject for love poetry, and she is one of my favorite actors. So I try to follow her work as an activist as well, mobilizing youth and engaging documentary film makers to empower the defenders of the Amazon who live and die on the front lines. The logging equivalent of poachers murder and terrorize those who live in the rainforest when they threaten new roads across their territories, sometimes with the collusion of a government determined to extract export revenues from the hinterland to finance development in the cities where voters are concentrated. It is a genocidal low-intensity conflict across all the borders of the Amazon, but it is rarely in the news.

Genocide used to give us greater anxiety about our international obligations as members of a global society than it does today. The vitality of video evidence of human rights abuses competes with its viability as a hook for selling newspapers, commercials and emergency relief largesse that can be pilfered by local bandits or kleptocrats for our sense of conscientiousness. Our President had to act almost unilaterally to respond to the threat of genocide in Libya, and only the innovation of drone warfare made doing so politically viable. If the war in Iraq taught us anything, it is that a civilian population cannot be protected from irregular fighters without foot patrols and heavy military casualties. These are sacrifices we are increasingly reluctant to make, particularly when the perpetrators of human rights abuses are not our military adversaries.

Postmodern political science has given us the notion that genocide arises out of human nature under conditions of class conflict along ethnic fault lines. Some ask, why would we sacrifice to fight the law of the jungle? Couldn’t genocides arise in ever increasing numbers around the post-colonial world and render our efforts futile? But a worked example of this theory amounts to rationalizing in the defense of the perpetrators. One war correspondent I’ve read can do better.

In The Warrior’s Honor, Michael Ignatieff links atrocities like genocide to two predictors, use of irregular fighters like militias and the availability of media monopolies to bombard the population with racist propaganda. The formula for racist propaganda is class conscious in the irrational sense of fomenting paranoia about the distribution of wealth, but rather than using evidence of unexplained wealth to target aggression, a ‘predatory’ or ‘parasitic’ class is invented on ethnic distinctions that the militias can ferret out in their neighbors on the basis of their vanity over slight differences in appearance and custom that are considered important to their identities. Indeed he senses from his interviews with fighters in ethnic wars around the world that the slighter the difference, the more preening the distinction and the more pronounced the paranoia and violence, as though tenuous motives corrupt the soul more completely.

These insights are rare even in someone who has seen the face of genocide first hand in many incarnations. The narrative of a career photographing small wars in Africa in The Zanzibar Chest is bewildered, alienated, ironic and traumatized instead. The author lost a friend to the events depicted in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and I only recommend the book for a different point of view on those events. A more sensitive portrait of the experience of witnessing violence as a civilian is the movie Triage. This poem about it could be read as a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen it you might not read this until you do.

A loss of innocence is inward, pure
in its compass of privacy fulfilled
by the annihilation of a ghost
that crept inside the circle of defense,
the magic outline of the protected
and self-consulting few, body and mind
and fellows whose bodies and minds matter.
The loss is truly invisibly yours,
its witness will not survive left outside.
A ghost is only visible to friends.
The peopled world outside does not look in,
the boundary is as solid as your skin
and as tactile, recoiling from danger
even to a place within your body
if your body comes to harm. Sentient,
the world within has artifacts, culture,
the tools you use to bring to life the sights
that your imagination calls its voice.
When you stand near a wildflower it stands
within the circle and is yours, alive
with meaning and identity and charm.
You move away and see instead a field,
a swath of color, a bright impression.
To leave behind a friend is not the same.
He left an artifact with you, a gift,
a way of answering you, too, you hear
the same inside your head when questions come.
He knows your voice, accompanies you toward
your inspiration, distracts you telling
his own story of your lives, resists you
without resentment, follows after all.
You are unfair to one another, kind
and selfish by turns, you owe each other.
To walk away is never just, alive
or dead, and in the unwhole world between
men hold a great deal over all, a right
to be salvaged from darkness and made well.
Only when death is certain do they fail
to compel every effort from us, then
the struggle is for dignity, not life.
And yet this is a fiction, dignity
is comfort and resilience and defense
from every insult, death can be gentle
only with the greatest of care (or luck).
Perhaps no ghost competes with self-defense,
but when the circle just recoils, like that,
and leaves a friend outside to die, it hurts.
To turn aside a ghost before his time
for fear of being drawn out of the world
he once inhabited with you is hard,
but deep inside the brainstem works a drive
to breathe, to bleed, to work against the dead,
and the reflecting mind is adamant
that life will be preserved. You will endure
and leave behind the defenseless at last.
The question is what you will have to say,
when loved ones crowd the safety of your home,
intruding on the circle, asking why
you find yourself alone, why you don’t fill
the conversation for your friend with shared
memories and the anticipation
of seeing him again as soon as planned.

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Filed under Poetry, Postmodernism, Puppy love

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