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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Saturday, 27 March 2004

Topic: Political Theory

The uses of history... George Bush as Oliver Cromwell? That is a stretch.

From a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University, just up the coast from where I'm sitting. What's his take on the state of American politics today? What we're facing is really Charles I and his Cavaliers versus Oliver Cromwell his Roundheads. Say what?

See Red, Blue and... So 17th Century?
Joel Kotkin, The Washington Post, Sunday, March 28, 2004; Page B01

Here's the opening:

Ideological and theological divisions running deep. Opposing factions so far apart they no longer seem to respect one another. A breakdown in communication. The elites of each side, neither able to appeal to the other, poised like opposing armies ready to do battle.

America 2004? Actually, no. This was the lamentable state of affairs in mid-17th century England, as it teetered on the brink of civil war. But there certainly is something disturbingly familiar about this description of a body politic dividing into two unbreachable camps.

Like England under Charles I, when the Cavaliers -- the royalist supporters of the king -- and the Roundheads -- Puritan upstarts led by Oliver Cromwell -- went at it for seven years of war, the United States today is becoming two nations. This is not merely the age-old split between income groups, as Sen. John Edwards kept suggesting in his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, but something even more fundamental -- a struggle between contrasting and utterly incompatible worldviews.
Is this a fair comparison?

Well, Kotkin says it's not exact but close enough.

Some describe the conflict as one between the "red" and the "blue" states, the right and the left, conservatives and liberals. But even though no one is about to behead our ruler and overthrow the government, as Cromwell's forces did when they captured Parliament in 1649, I find the parallel of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads to be the most apt. They grew to hate each other so much that they could no longer accommodate a common national vision. "I have heard foul language and desperate quarrelings even between old and entire friends," wrote one Englishman on the eve of conflict. Much the same could be said of us today.
Ah, that's his argument. We are so split on fundamental issues, or moral views, that we cannot, ever, reconcile them.

And then this fellow runs his metaphor. He says America's Roundheads (the puritans) cluster in the South, the Plains and various parts of the West, while the Cavaliers inhabit the coasts, particularly the large metropolitan centers of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. And "each side has its own views, confirmed by its favored media. Fox TV, most of talk radio, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Sean Hannity speak for the Roundheads, supporting President Bush and America's global mission. The mainstream media, the universities and the cultural establishment, including most of Hollywood, are the voices of the Cavaliers, whose elites, like many of England's Cavaliers and Charles I's French wife before them, are most concerned with winning over continental opinion and mimicking the European way of life."

Funny guy, isn't he?

But then he really takes off -

As in 17th-century England, where the Roundheads disdained the Cavaliers' embrace of what John Milton called "new-vomited Paganisme," the most obvious divisions between the two groups are contrasting views of moral and religious issues. Our Cavaliers are the secular nation, whose spiritual home is in those places that yearn to join San Francisco at the same-sex-marriage altar. Contemporary Roundheads, like Cromwell's Shakespeare-hating Puritans, possess a fundamentalist sensibility; they seek to stop gay marriage and abortion, and bemoan other manifestations of our secular culture.
And I have to admit, that works out nicely.

He then rings the changes on economic issues and views of the military.

If you click on the link you can read through his detailed analysis. It's clever, but such things have been said before without resorting to belaboring the civil war of the early 1640's in England, the Interregnum that followed, and the Restoration that then followed. Most folks don't care about such things. And Charles the Second returning didn't really fix things. James the Second after him was a flaming queen (in today's parlance) and only when the Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie got smashed down at Culloden were matters settled. As you recall, in 1745, James's grandson, known as the "Young Pretender" or "Bonnie Prince Charlie", landed in the Hebrides and gathered supporters from all over the Scottish highlands. They entered Edinburgh and began to threaten England. The Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, led an English army against Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden, near Inverness, in April 1746. This was the last battle concerning this business to be fought on British soil. Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to escape, even though a reward of ?30,000 was placed on his head. He went into exile in France and finally died forty years later, sorting of drinking himself to death.

Surely we are not going to repeat all this?

Yes, it seems true that we do not get along well. And this Pepperdine fellow actually does suggest we really don't have to go through all the rigmarole that the British went through.

What should we do to not repeat such history? He suggests "the best thing would be for the political, university and media classes to begin reestablishing a civil dialogue and the kind of politics where debate and tolerance for opposing views are respected. America's strength has been an ability to adapt to changing conditions as a result of such open discussion."

Oh, that sounds so nice. If only it were possible. I think we're past that now.

And anyway, he has his history wrong. He says "gradually, civility and a rational balance were restored to the political system, with results that turned England into the world's most important country and mother to this one. Back in 1688, the English called this return to common sense their Glorious Revolution. May we look forward to our own."

Wait. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, sometimes called the "bloodless revolution" (as all the fighting was done in Ireland, which doesn't count I guess) - brought in William and Mary from Orange in the Netherlands to rule England. Well, good enough - at least they we're Catholics. And the main battle of this Glorious Revolution, at the Boyne River near Belfast, with the Catholics against the Protestants, is still being fought this weekend. That never really ended, did it? As what of the rulers who followed? There was the dull and rather stupid Queen Anne, then the imported German kings who followed her, the first of whom didn't even speak English. One odd George followed the next until the last quite mad George, who is said to have quite often stopped his carriage to step out and chat with a tree he'd noticed, and he lost the colonies over here. Careless fellow.

History can be seen lots of ways. Joel here is clever. But this is silly stuff.

Posted by Alan at 14:54 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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