Character and Republican Government: Some Polemical Suggestions

by  George Anastaplo

(Remarks made at a Conference on Niccolo Machiaveli, Basic Program Weekend, The University of Chicago, May 1, 2010)

A concern for republican principles, I presume to suggest, can be associated with Niccolo Machiavelli.  What, we can usefully ask, are the modes and orders that Machiavelli would have us notice as essential to our regime?  That is, what would he have us not only notice but also think about?

Consider my unpublished letter to the Editor of the New York Times in response to its front page article of April 16, 2010 (“At MoMA Show, Some Forget You Should Not Touch the Art”):

Why has there not been any serious public criticism of the determined impropriety of having completely nude women and men (standing a yard apart), shamelessly facing each other in a doorway, between whom visitors must squeeze in order to enter a popular exhibition these days in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City?  Is not gross impropriety evident both on the part of those who mount such a display and on the part of those who attend this two-month-long exhibit in large numbers?  Do not such ugly indulgences testify to an ominous decadence among our most privileged fellow-citizens, a deterioration that corrupts everyone involved, recklessly undermining thereby the moral foundations of our republican institutions?

I read this letter last week to my seminar students at the Loyola School of Law.  It elicited considerable discussion.  But not a single student spoke in support of my position.  Rather, one after another expressed concern about the repressiveness that my approach permitted, if it did not even encourage.  Besides, they tried to let me know, as kindly as they could, that I was hopelessly out of touch.

The determined permissiveness that my students exhibited, an Old Fogey could assure himself, is perhaps to be expected these days from the young–the “young” either in years or in spirit.  But consider what one encounters even here, at so respectable a middle-class establishment as this Wisconsin resort.  I tried last night (in our room) to tune in to a serious television show on television.  I was surprised to notice (I confess that I am not much of a television viewer at home)—I was surprised to notice that the broadcast channels were dominated by accounts of sports.  Such sports can even seem at times to be systematic substitutes for both political encounters and religious services.

These distractions, often harmless enough perhaps, were not the only things visible on our television set.  Rather, we were offered advertisements, sometimes with “provocative” pictures, for one “adult” movie after another (at a price, of course).  But even if one does not venture to purchase an offering, one is treated (free of charge) to racy descriptions of one perversion after another that seems to be available on film (previews, so to speak, of the fatal allurements of Sodom and Gomorrah).

All this, I presume to suggest, does not bode well for a sturdy republicanism.  After all, the no-doubt-respectable management of this Resort evidently has not learned that it loses customers by making it so obvious what is offered to its patrons even here in rural Wisconsin.  (These patrons, it is indicated by the Resort calendar, evidently include religious organizations.)  That there are recognized to be questionable features to all this may be noticed in the provision made for shielding youngsters from such enlightening exposures.  (The same was done in the Museum of Modern Art exhibit I have written about: underage visitors had to enter the exhibit by another doorway.)

Be all this as it may, we can see again and again among us that substantial corruption, somethings dressed up (or, one might say, undressed) as enlightenment, is systematically exploited for gain.  All this, I again suggest, does not bode well for a republican regime necessarily grounded in the moral soundness of its people.

On the other hand—and we can be thankful when there is in such matters a different side to be noticed and encouraged—there is still another letter for the Editor relevant here, one that was published (“No Excuse,” New Yorker, May 3, 2010, p. 3):

Jane Mayer, in her review of Marc Thiesen’s “Courting Disaster,” offers a fine dissection of that book’s flaws (Books, March 29th).  Torture is wrong under any circumstances.  As General David H. Petraeus recently remarked (specifically referring to Abu Ghraib and to Guantánamo), such abusive techniques are “nonbiodegradable…The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.”  He’s right—the pictures from Abu Ghraib and the publicity surrounding Guantánamo, waterboarding, and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” have created far more terrorists than most people understand.  For a country that professes to stand for the rule of law and individual rights, we look like the worst kind of hypocrites. Consider a war we fought in the past against a brutal enemy that tortured and killed prisoners, executed civilians, and engaged in a number of atrocities.  Several American leaders argued that the only way to prevail was to engage in the same kind of tactics, because that was the only thing the enemy understood or respected (sound familiar?).  But other leaders believed that it was not enough to win; they also had to do it in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause.  That conflict was the Revolutionary War, and the leaders included George Washington and John Adams.  If we mean what we say—if we really believe that we’re the good guys, and I hope we do—then this is the time to stand by those principles which our Founding Fathers professed and lived by.  That’s what, I hope, makes us the leaders of the free world.

What is particularly heartening about this letter is not only its reliance upon a prominent American general in support of what are identified as the “values of [our] society.”  Perhaps even more encouraging, I suggest, is that the author of this letter is himself identified as a Brigadier General who is the Dean of the Academic Board at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  How are we to understand the unapologetic dedication to the first principles of our republican regime (including the moral principles) that our professional soldiers are not ashamed to express?  And how can the thoughtful Machiavellian be recruited, in our time, once again, to make intellectually respectable the modes and orders essential for an enduring republicanism?

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