This week’s post appears early due to special circumstances. I’ve just received this letter from the Seasteading Institute:
Dear Mr. Moldbug,
The Seasteading Institute appreciates controversial ideas, including many of yours. We also value rigorous debate. But we do not wish to be associated with personal denunciations against people of good will. Your recent post, “From Cromer to Romer and back again,” crossed that line.
In the spirit of a constructive exchange of ideas, we encourage you to post a retraction and apology to Professor Romer. Until you do so, we are disappointed to inform you that your invitation to speak at our conference is withdrawn. We apologize for the late notice.
Patri Friedman, Executive Director, The Seasteading Institute.
p.s. We would like to clarify that this action is being taken by TSI on its own initiative, not at the request of any other party. Professor Romer has unilaterally and irreversibly withdrawn from speaking at our conference, and this triggered a re-examination of our policies and your invitation. He made no requests, express or implied, about this decision.
I.e.: one of the 25 most influential people in the world decided to take his ball and go home.
I confess that when I wrote “Romer to Cromer,” I had no evidence that Professor Romer was a maggot, a seducer of young women, or an asshole. I still have no evidence that he is a maggot, or a seducer of young women. Indeed, both these propositions strike me as quite unlikely; their conjunction is of course incredible. Moreover, the resolution on his TED video is wholly insufficient for me to appraise his eyeglasses, a task for which I am anyway untrained. They may well have set him back only a few benjamins. Accordingly, I apologize to Professor Romer, and to anyone else who took these baseless, unfounded accusations seriously.
My conviction of Professor Romer’s intellectual dishonesty—for condemning colonialism in one breath, and trying to take credit for reinventing it in the next—was sincere, and remains intact. Let me clarify this charge for a moment. It is personal in one sense, impersonal in another.
Having devastated the Old World with fire and the sword, not to mention condemning its former colonies to anarchy and ruin, the 21st-century American professor feels no ethical obligation to acknowledge that a distinct European civilization once existed, let alone that it contained “people of good will”—such as Lord Cromer. Briefly, I will acknowledge Professor Romer’s good will when he acknowledges Lord Cromer’s. Hell will grow glaciers first.
This ethos is not Professor Romer’s personal invention. Similarly, National Socialism was not Adolf Eichmann’s personal invention. One of the admirable features of the post-Nazi Western ethos is its insistence that ethical responsibility is personal, absolute and universal. Office, especially high office, in an unethical institution can never excuse unethical behavior.
Moreover, Professor Romer has a more serious ethical burden than your average anticolonialist professor—because he is effectively proposing the restoration of colonialism. Under the rules of Western scholarship, which the American academy claims to respect and of which it is (sadly) the only living heir, this obliges him to study, understand, and cite previous work in the field. Instead, he not only fails to study his predecessors—he condemns them.
Suppose, for example, institutional geology in the 1960s had continued to reject the plate tectonics of Wegener—the last major Kuhnian revolution of which I am aware. Wegener was dismissed for his entire life as a crackpot. This dismissal might easily have remained permanent, had not the professors of this field and era retained some scrap of regard for their own intellectual honesty. Judging by the treatment its modern successor has delivered to Steve McIntyre, the field is capable of no such revolution today.
Plate tectonics nonetheless remain the truth, and the truth remains accessible to all. In an alternate 2009 in which professional geologists universally denied continental drift, and continued to mock Wegener and any common fool who noticed that Brazil fits into West Africa, any renegade geologist who realized the truth would have three options. He could say: Wegener was right. Or he could say: Wegener was a crackpot and a Nazi, as everyone knows, but he still got the right answers for the wrong reasons. Or he could simply ignore Wegener, and claim to have discovered continental drift himself.
The first option is intellectually honest. The second option is weaselly, but perhaps defensible. The third option is a crime against scholarship and history. To me, it seems that Professor Romer’s choice falls somewhere between the second and third options. Thus, I am ethically comfortable in condemning him—and would be uncomfortable in condoning him. Lord Cromer does not exactly have a surplus of 21st-century defenders.
I do not expect that this non-retraction will satisfy TSI. Thus, I do not expect to be presenting at the Seasteading Conference. My apologies to anyone who chose to attend on this basis. If you email Patri, he will give you your money back.
I also offer a (much warmer) apology to Patri and TSI. Our conflict can best be summed up under the Hollywood chestnut of “creative differences.” UR is simply not a good match for TSI. Our goals and ideas are similar in some ways; our tactics are very different. Despite my reclusiveness and anonymity, I am actually (like Hitler) a compelling public speaker, and it would have been fun to practice my pitch on an unsuspecting audience. Alas, it will have to happen some other time.
(Note that Professor Hanson, displaying his Buck Harkness nature once again, has a different reaction: he has offered to debate me in any mutually convenient forum. In fact, he thinks we could sell tickets—and he’s probably right. This probably would have already happened, if not for the East Coast—West Coast thing. Anyone with the means to facilitate such a Tupac-Biggie throwdown should contact us, so I can cap this neighbor once and for all.)
In case anyone is disappointed or confused, I want to explain the incompatibility of our approaches, and in particular the reason that TSI is so intent on wooing professors, while UR is so intent on reviling them. Had I understood the former (and had I not discovered that Professor Romer was scheduled to present at the same conference, before I posted “Cromer to Romer,” but after I’d already written most of it; in general, UR posts are drafted entirely on Wednesday nights, with minimal revision) I would have refrained from calling him a maggot. For Patri’s sake, not his.
While TSI is pursuing its goals in many ways at once, so far as I can tell the thrust of its PR effort is to convince at least the educated minority that seasteading is not the harebrained crackpot idea it may seem at first glance, but in fact a sensible and intelligent project which sensible, intelligent people can support or at least understand.
This goal can be summarized in the word legitimacy. Thus, by attracting Professor Romer—one of the 25 most influential people in the world—as a TSI speaker, TSI demonstrates to the educated minority that it is a legitimate endeavor, not a bunch of dangerous nutcases. The content of Professor Romer’s speech, almost surely a replay of his unctuous TED talk, and its relationship to seasteading, almost surely tangential, are almost irrelevant. The half-endorsement of his presence is all that TSI requires.
(Compare this to the reason that Patri invited me in the first place, which is solely that my presentation would have been thrilling and provocative. It certainly would not have brought any institutional prestige to TSI—quite the converse, of course. Thus what we are seeing here is the tension between two incompatible goals.)
By attracting dignitaries of this caliber, TSI might well hope to attract a correspondent for the New York Times or some other reputable institution of journalism—who might well produce a report not containing the word “whackjob.” Millions of people will of course read this story, and some percentage of them may decide to support or participate in TSI’s endeavors. Or at least not oppose them. Therefore, by causing Professor Romer to take his ball and go home, I have materially hampered these endeavors. Dignitaries, after all, must have their dignity.
Or so, anyway, is the theory. I have some problems with this theory—but let me first explain my own. The important thing to remember is that this theory is reasonable, it may well be correct, and in any case it was not my prerogative as a guest to discount it. This is why I owe an apology to Patri, which I hope he will accept.
UR does not seek the approval of professors. It reviles them. Moreover, the more influential my target is, the more hostile I feel free to be. For example, Professor Romer is one of the 25 most influential people in the world, which makes him a maggot. Of course, he last cracked this ranking in 1997, which means he may have slipped down to the top 200 or so. Thus some milder metaphor of perversion may have been more appropriate—compulsive masturbation, perhaps. But he still includes this claim in his bio, so I feel he deserves the consequences. He can always have his flacks edit Wikipedia and take it out.
To me, the word “professor” is a historical misnomer. It implies that the individual is a sage, a teacher, and a man of learning. If you double the manly half of Professor Hanson, for instance, you will observe these qualities—and their rarity. They were also often seen in those who carried that title in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and they survive in some fields especially divorced from political purpose. Pure mathematics, for instance, or the classics.
One clue to the fact that something fundamental has changed is the almost complete absence of true intellectual debate in the modern university. Nor does this mean congeniality pervades throughout. It means that when you see the appearance of an argument over ideas, the substance beneath that argument is not that of men trying to convince each other and/or an audience. The substance is that of bureaucratic warfare. When someone criticizes your work in the modern university, he is probably trying to kill you and take your funding. His criticism is not the opening for dialogue; it is the ritual pretext for an attack.
Thus, any fool who starts such an argument, with no better reason than that he (a) disagrees with someone else, and (b) grew up reading about the age of Darwin, Huxley and Wilberforce, will be surprised to find himself on the other end of an administrative mafia war. You might as well call your opponent a maggot. It will not exacerbate his ferocity in the slightest. He is right to assume that you are probably out to kill him, and right to respond in kind. When in Rome, etc.
I attribute this change to the revolution of 1933, when progressivism captured USG—finally and for good. Without quite putting it in these two words, it was acknowledged (by paladins of the new system, such as Dewey and Lippmann—each of whom had more influence in his pinky finger than anyone living today) that democracy had failed, and effective authority over the State should depart from the politicians and come to a new set of hands: the professors.
Who, in the New Deal state, exercise triple sovereignty: they formulate public policy, direct (through their permanent friends, the journalists) public opinion, and assign (through their academic credentials) social and professional rank. Subsequent military events exported this 20th-century American caesaropapism to the entire planet—or at least, its civilized remnants.
Democratic politics, at least in the US, remains capable of resisting and interfering with public policy. But the sceptre has most definitely passed. If you gave the reins of government, the full reins, the imperium maius, to Sarah Palin, she would have no idea what to do with them. Resisting rule by professor is the beginning and end of her political philosophy, and that of her supporters. (And remember that the professors are not always wrong.)
Thus an influential professor of economics, like Professor Romer, is not best seen as a sage, a teacher, and a man of learning. He is best seen as a high-ranking official of the permanent government. Who wears the Ring accepts its consequences.
Which is both why TSI feels blessed by Professor Romer’s presence, and why I feel free—compelled, indeed—to revile him. Deference to authority is a natural human quality. Chimpanzees display it. No doubt even I, in the presence of Professor Romer, would feel a mild, easily-suppressed urge to fellate the man.
Thus if we afford these Ringwraiths normal human courtesy, we afford them too much. We will shortly find ourselves on our knees. The normal human reaction to hearing a Professor Romer express ideas similar to mine, albeit in highly diluted form, is to fawn and curtsy and beg for his approval. By condemning and reviling him instead, I counter this tendency and enforce my own independence. I burn my boats, like Cortez.
UR’s objective is to do for the New Deal state what Voltaire did for the Catholic Church. Sufficient exposure to UR renders, or at least should render, it impossible for the reader to take these fsckers seriously. No church can endure mockery.
A Professor Romer is your modern version of a Catholic cardinal—with powers both spiritual and temporal. But caesaropapism, once established, is a single cathedral. Its power over the mind cannot survive the loss of its power over the body. Its power over the body cannot survive the loss of its power over the mind. Both buttresses, built and joined, quickly become essential.
The New Deal state is unassailable in its temporal authority. It is not unassailable in its spiritual authority. Once enough of the right people realize that the man under the red silk hat is not a sage and a teacher and a man of learning, but—the reader may substitute her own insult—the combination cannot survive.
So there is a theory behind both tactics: UR’s boat-burning, and TSI’s bridge-building. It remains to compare these theories.
The choice is a matter of opinion, of course. For me, it comes down to the question: has progressivism failed? Is the New Deal state, in any way, shape or form, redeemable? Can it be repaired? Or is it totaled?
If you believe (like me) that it is totaled, reason compels you to believe that bridge-building is at best a terrible waste of time, and at worst something far worse. By accepting the legitimacy, authority and permanence of the New Deal state, you are not only putting your money on a doomed horse—you are both accepting and contributing to that legitimacy, authority and permanence. Of course, if the State is not totaled and can be repaired, this is exactly the right thing to do.
What puzzles me about the TSI approach is that its entire premise seems to assume that USG is totaled. Seasteading says: instead of devoting your good efforts to repairing USG, devote them to escaping it. Build new cities at sea, where USG cannot rule you. Making this work is a tall order for many reasons, but none too tall if the New Deal state is both irreparable and invincible (Although if it is invincible, its navy probably is too.)
Whereas to seek legitimacy from USG is to acknowledge its own legitimacy. If you woo the professors and the journalists, they will either say no or yes. If they say no, your bridge-building is wasted effort. If they say yes, the kingdoms of the earth are offered indeed. The Times can make anyone famous, important and successful. If they endorse seasteading, lo, seasteading gets a big Barry Bonds injection of Ring juice. But the ring it receives is not the One—its powers can be revoked. (No one can revoke the powers of the Times.)
So if TSI succeeds in becoming a legitimate institution, it thus subjects itself to the authority of these powers. Should it displease them for a second, its ring melts on its finger. Thus it begins by trying to escape USG, and finishes as its toy.
I find this scenario quite improbable. Ringwraiths are evil, not stupid. It is very easy to see what TSI is and is trying to do. Such a venture will never, ever be politically correct. If there was any chance of disguising it, which there probably was not, it disappeared with Peter Thiel’s essay against democracy. Once a right-wing extremist, always a right-wing extremist. Your Nazgul has an impeccable sense of smell.
Curiously, there is a parallel to Professor Romer’s own program. Charter cities will never, ever happen—if they do, I will fellate either the good professor, or a homeless person of his choice. (There is one place in the world where international trusteeship exists: Bosnia. Exercise for the reader: in what way is Bosnia different from the former colonial world? Hint: what three-letter word starts with “W” and ends with “G”?)
Again, the Ringwraiths are not stupid. They know colonialism when they see it. They don’t like it at all. Any effort invested in diluting and disguising it is wasted. If Professor Romer’s goal is to make something happen, he might as well just propose that NATO restore the Raj in Afghanistan. His chances would be the same: zero.
But making something happen is not his goal. His goal is to get good PR and climb back into that top 25, by proposing a clever idea which no one else has thought of. Hence the irresistible metaphor of nonreproductive sex. If TSI is thinking along the same lines, consciously or unconsciously, it should probably inform its supporters of the matter.
At present, the tone of TSI’s coverage is this, which reflects the journalist’s perception that seasteading is (a) new, (b) kind of funny, and (c) extremely unlikely to succeed. As (a) changes, the coverage will disappear. If (c) changes, it will reappear with a vengeance. Or so is my prediction.
As Hunter Thompson so memorably put it, you can’t wallow with the eagles at night and soar with the pigs in the morning. UR will always be found wallowing with the eagles. TSI, while it might like to do both, would clearly rather soar with the pigs. I feel that the less luck it has in this endeavor, the greater its chance of success in the long run.
If I were running TSI, as of course I am not, I would discard the entire strategy of PR, outreach and legitimacy. What seasteading needs is not a million people who think it’s a cool idea, but a thousand fanatics completely dedicated to making it happen. TSI does not need the New York Times to find these people. In fact, outreach makes it harder to identify them, because it makes it hard to separate the fanatical supporters from the casual ones.
TSI’s approach reminds me of that of many software startups I’ve seen, and more than one I’ve worked for. One of the classic startup errors is going too wide, too soon. Rather than focusing on the niche market it can own and hitting it with maximum force, a startup which makes this mistake (typically egged on by low-grade VCs) tries to sell its product to the entire world, which quickly rejects it. Seasteading is a niche market if I’ve ever seen one.
Yes, going wide helps you raise money. But money is never free. If your strategy depends on raising money from people who found you in the New York Times, your strategy is beholden to the New York Times. If you raise money through spin, you are a prisoner of that spin. Getting in the habit of telling it straight and telling it whole may raise less money—or not—but the money you raise will be better money. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as bad money.
Compare the strategy of seasteading to that of another notable exercise in artificial community: Burning Man. Today, Burning Man is both legitimate and successful. But it is legitimate because it was first successful, not successful because it was first legitimate. The burners did not start by founding a Burning Man Institute to promote their concept. They started by burning the Man.
My message to the seasteaders is: get out there. If you want to prove that seasteading isn’t a joke, buy a boat and find a bunch of crazy people who are willing to live on it. Stop promoting; put everything into doing. Any number of eloquent essays, rigorous engineering studies, lovely websites, academic endorsements, or glowing writeups in the Times, do not add up to one genuine maritime community. Worse, they subtract energy and focus from the incredibly difficult task of creating one.
One way to think of this is to consider the long, distinguished history of prison ships. Every ship at sea past sight of land is a prison—more secure than Alcatraz. A ship without a destination is a prison ship by definition.
So the question is: who wants to go to prison? A hard problem. But not an unsolvable one. Suppose you could go to prison with forty or fifty of the coolest people in the world? Living and working together, perhaps—half Internet startup, half commune, half correctional facility. A hard problem. But not an unsolvable one—if you focus on it.
Once you have one such ship and it succeeds, you can have another. Once you have two, you can have three. Once you have three, they can tie up to each other and have a big party. Once you have twenty, it may start looking like a floating city, and someone may think of adding an immobile platform. And so on. Frankly, it would still surprise me if any such thing happened—but I would very much like to be surprised.
Will Professor Romer help you with this? Will he come live with you on your pimped-out container ship? (There’s never been a better time to buy a container ship.) If he disapproves, will it keep you in port? The answers are no, and no, and no.
Enough with seasteading. Again, the essential point of disagreement is: can the New Deal state be saved, rescued, repaired, or restored? Since this is UR, my answer is the same as Carlyle’s: no. And since this is UR, the week would not be complete without a lengthy excerpt. From the first Latter-Day Pamphlet, The Present Time:
Not long ago, the world saw, with thoughtless joy which might have been very thoughtful joy, a real miracle not heretofore considered possible or conceivable in the world,–a Reforming Pope. A simple pious creature, a good country-priest, invested unexpectedly with the tiara, takes up the New Testament, declares that this henceforth shall be his rule of governing. No more finesse, chicanery, hypocrisy, or false or foul dealing of any kind: God’s truth shall be spoken, God’s justice shall be done, on the throne called of St. Peter: an honest Pope, Papa, or Father of Christendom, shall preside there. And such a throne of St. Peter; and such a Christendom, for an honest Papa to preside in! The European populations everywhere hailed the omen; with shouting and rejoicing leading articles and tar-barrels; thinking people listened with astonishment,–not with sorrow if they were faithful or wise; with awe rather as at the heralding of death, and with a joy as of victory beyond death! Something pious, grand and as if awful in that joy, revealing once more the Presence of a Divine Justice in this world.
For, to such men, it was very clear how this poor devoted Pope would prosper, with his New Testament in his band. An alarming business, that of governing in the throne of St. Peter by the rule of veracity! By the rule of veracity, the so-called throne of St. Peter was openly declared, above three hundred years, ago, to be a falsity, a huge mistake, a pestilent dead carcass, which this Sun was weary of. More than three hundred years ago, the throne of St. Peter received peremptory judicial notice to quit; authentic order, registered in Heaven’s chancery and since legible in the hearts of all brave men, to take itself away,–to begone, and let us have no more to do with it and its delusions and impious deliriums;–and it has been sitting every day since, it may depend upon it, at its own peril withal, and will have to pay exact damages yet for every day it has so sat. Law of veracity? What this Popedom had to do by the law of veracity, was to give up its own foul galvanic life, an offence to gods and men; honestly to die, and get itself buried.
Far from this was the thing the poor Pope undertook in regard to it;–and yet, on the whole, it was essentially this too. “Reforming Pope?” said one of our acquaintance, often in those weeks, “Was there ever such a miracle? About to break up that huge imposthume too, by ‘curing’ it? Turgot and Necker were nothing to this. God is great; and when a scandal is to end, brings some devoted man to take charge of it in hope, not in despair!”–But cannot he reform? asked many simple persons;–to whom our friend in grim banter would reply: “Reform a Popedom,–hardly. A wretched old kettle, ruined from top to bottom, and consisting mainly now of foul grime and rust: stop the holes of it, as your antecessors have been doing, with temporary putty, it may hang together yet a while; begin to hammer at it, solder at it, to what you call mend and rectify it,–it will fall to sherds, as sure as rust is rust; go all into nameless dissolution,–and the fat in the fire will be a thing worth looking at, poor Pope!”–So accordingly it has proved. The poor Pope, amid felicitations and tar-barrels of various kinds, went on joyfully for a season: but he had awakened, he as no other man could do, the sleeping elements; mothers of the whirlwinds, conflagrations, earthquakes. Questions not very soluble at present, were even sages and heroes set to solve them, began everywhere with new emphasis to be asked. Questions which all official men wished, and almost hoped, to postpone till Doomsday. Doomsday itself had come; that was the terrible truth!
For, sure enough, if once the law of veracity be acknowledged as the rule for human things, there will not anywhere be want of work for the reformer; in very few places do human things adhere quite closely to that law! Here was the Papa of Christendom proclaiming that such was actually the case;–whereupon all over Christendom such results as we have seen. The Sicilians, I think, were the first notable body that set about applying this new strange rule sanctioned by the general Father; they said to themselves, We do not by the law of veracity belong to Naples and these Neapolitan Officials; we will, by favor of Heaven and the Pope, be free of these. Fighting ensued; insurrection, fiercely maintained in the Sicilian Cities; with much bloodshed, much tumult and loud noise, vociferation extending through all newspapers and countries. The effect of this, carried abroad by newspapers and rumor, was great in all places; greatest perhaps in Paris, which for sixty years past has been the City of Insurrections. The French People had plumed themselves on being, whatever else they were not, at least the chosen “soldiers of liberty,” who took the lead of all creatures in that pursuit, at least; and had become, as their orators, editors and litterateurs diligently taught them, a People whose bayonets were sacred, a kind of Messiah People, saving a blind world in its own despite, and earning for themselves a terrestrial and even celestial glory very considerable indeed. And here were the wretched down-trodden populations of Sicily risen to rival them, and threatening to take the trade out of their hand.
No doubt of it, this hearing continually of the very Pope’s glory as a Reformer, of the very Sicilians fighting divinely for liberty behind barricades,–must have bitterly aggravated the feeling of every Frenchman, as he looked around him, at home, on a Louis-Philippism which had become the scorn of all the world. “Ichabod; is the glory departing from us? Under the sun is nothing baser, by all accounts and evidences, than the system of repression and corruption, of shameless dishonesty and unbelief in anything but human baseness, that we now live under. The Italians, the very Pope, have become apostles of liberty, and France is–what is France!”–We know what France suddenly became in the end of February next; and by a clear enough genealogy, we can trace a considerable share in that event to the good simple Pope with the New Testament in his hand. An outbreak, or at least a radical change and even inversion of affairs hardly to be achieved without an outbreak, everybody felt was inevitable in France: but it had been universally expected that France would as usual take the initiative in that matter; and had there been no reforming Pope, no insurrectionary Sicily, France had certainly not broken out then and so, but only afterwards and otherwise. The French explosion, not anticipated by the cunningest men there on the spot scrutinizing it, burst up unlimited, complete, defying computation or control.
Close following which, as if by sympathetic subterranean electricities, all Europe exploded, boundless, uncontrollable; and we had the year 1848, one of the most singular, disastrous, amazing, and, on the whole, humiliating years the European world ever saw. Not since the irruption of the Northern Barbarians has there been the like. Everywhere immeasurable Democracy rose monstrous, loud, blatant, inarticulate as the voice of Chaos. Everywhere the Official holy-of-holies was scandalously laid bare to dogs and the profane:–Enter, all the world, see what kind of Official holy it is. Kings everywhere, and reigning persons, stared in sudden horror, the voice of the whole world bellowing in their ear, “Begone, ye imbecile hypocrites, histrios not heroes! Off with you, off!” and, what was peculiar and notable in this year for the first time, the Kings all made haste to go, as if exclaiming, “We are poor histrios, we sure enough;–did you want heroes? Don’t kill us; we couldn’t help it!” Not one of them turned round, and stood upon his Kingship, as upon a right he could afford to die for, or to risk his skin upon; by no manner of means.
That, I say, is the alarming peculiarity at present. Democracy, on this new occasion, finds all Kings conscious that they are but Play-actors. The miserable mortals, enacting their High Life Below Stairs, with faith only that this Universe may perhaps be all a phantasm and hypocrisis,–the truculent Constable of the Destinies suddenly enters: “Scandalous Phantasms, what do you here? Are ‘solemnly constituted Impostors’ the proper Kings of men? Did you think the Life of Man was a grimacing dance of apes? To be led always by the squeak of your paltry fiddle? Ye miserable, this Universe is not an upholstery Puppet-play, but a terrible God’s Fact; and you, I think,–had not you better be gone!” They fled precipitately, some of them with what we may call an exquisite ignominy,–in terror of the treadmill or worse.
And everywhere the people, or the populace, take their own government upon themselves; and open “kinglessness,” what we call anarchy, –how happy if it be anarchy plus a street-constable!–is everywhere the order of the day. Such was the history, from Baltic to Mediterranean, in Italy, France, Prussia, Austria, from end to end of Europe, in those March days of 1848. Since the destruction of the old Roman Empire by inroad of the Northern Barbarians, I have known nothing similar.
And so, then, there remained no King in Europe; no King except the Public Haranguer, haranguing on barrel-head, in leading article; or getting himself aggregated into a National Parliament to harangue. And for about four months all France, and to a great degree all Europe, rough-ridden by every species of delirium, except happily the murderous for most part, was a weltering mob, presided over by M. de Lamartine, at the Hotel-de-Ville; a most eloquent fair-spoken literary gentleman, whom thoughtless persons took for a prophet, priest and heaven-sent evangelist, and whom a wise Yankee friend of mine discerned to be properly “the first stump-orator in the world, standing too on the highest stump,–for the time.” A sorrowful spectacle to men of reflection, during the time he lasted, that poor M. de Lamartine; with nothing in him but melodious wind and soft sowder, which he and others took for something divine and not diabolic!
Sad enough; the eloquent latest impersonation of Chaos-come-again; able to talk for itself, and declare persuasively that it is Cosmos! However, you have but to wait a little, in such cases; all balloons do and must give up their gas in the pressure of things, and are collapsed in a sufficiently wretched manner before long.
And so in City after City, street-barricades are piled, and truculent, more or less murderous insurrection begins; populace after populace rises, King after King capitulates or absconds; and from end to end of Europe Democracy has blazed up explosive, much higher, more irresistible and less resisted than ever before; testifying too sadly on what a bottomless volcano, or universal powder-mine of most inflammable mutinous chaotic elements, separated from us by a thin earth-rind, Society with all its arrangements and acquirements everywhere, in the present epoch, rests!
The kind of persons who excite or give signal to such revolutions–students, young men of letters, advocates, editors, hot inexperienced enthusiasts, or fierce and justly bankrupt desperadoes, acting everywhere on the discontent of the millions and blowing it into flame,–might give rise to reflections as to the character of our epoch. Never till now did young men, and almost children, take such a command in human affairs. A changed time since the word Senior (Seigneur, or Elder) was first devised to signify “lord,” or superior;–as in all languages of men we find it to have been! Not an honorable document this either, as to the spiritual condition of our epoch. In times when men love wisdom, the old man will ever be venerable, and be venerated, and reckoned noble: in times that love something else than wisdom, and indeed have little or no wisdom, and see little or none to love, the old man will cease to be venerated; and looking more closely, also, you will find that in fact he has ceased to be venerable, and has begun to be contemptible; a foolish boy still, a boy without the graces, generosities and opulent strength of young boys. In these days, what of lordship or leadership is still to be done, the youth must do it, not the mature or aged man; the mature man, hardened into sceptical egoism, knows no monition but that of his own frigid cautious, avarices, mean timidities; and can lead no-whither towards an object that even seems noble. But to return.
This mad state of matters will of course before long allay itself, as it has everywhere begun to do; the ordinary necessities of men’s daily existence cannot comport with it, and these, whatever else is cast aside, will have their way. Some remounting–very temporary remounting–of the old machine, under new colors and altered forms, will probably ensue soon in most countries: the old histrionic Kings will be admitted back under conditions, under “Constitutions,” with national Parliaments, or the like fashionable adjuncts; and everywhere the old daily life will try to begin again. But there is now no hope that such arrangements can be permanent; that they can be other than poor temporary makeshifts, which, if they try to fancy and make themselves permanent, will be displaced by new explosions recurring more speedily than last time. In such baleful oscillation, afloat as amid raging bottomless eddies and conflicting sea-currents, not steadfast as on fixed foundations, must European Society continue swaying, now disastrously tumbling, then painfully readjusting itself, at ever shorter intervals,–till once the new rock-basis does come to light, and the weltering deluges of mutiny, and of need to mutiny, abate again!
For universal Democracy, whatever we may think of it, has declared itself as an inevitable fact of the days in which we live; and he who has any chance to instruct, or lead, in his days, must begin by admitting that: new street-barricades, and new anarchies, still more scandalous if still less sanguinary, must return and again return, till governing persons everywhere know and admit that. Democracy, it may be said everywhere, is here:–for sixty years now, ever since the grand or First French Revolution, that fact has been terribly announced to all the world; in message after message, some of them very terrible indeed; and now at last all the world ought really to believe it. That the world does believe it; that even Kings now as good as believe it, and know, or with just terror surmise, that they are but temporary phantasm Play-actors, and that Democracy is the grand, alarming, imminent and indisputable Reality: this, among the scandalous phases we witnessed in the last two years, is a phasis full of hope: a sign that we are advancing closer and closer to the very Problem itself, which it will behoove us to solve or die; that all fighting and campaigning and coalitioning in regard to the existence of the Problem, is hopeless and superfluous henceforth. The gods have appointed it so; no Pitt, nor body of Pitts or mortal creatures can appoint it otherwise.
Democracy, sure enough, is here; one knows not how long it will keep hidden underground even in Russia;–and here in England, though we object to it resolutely in the form of street-barricades and insurrectionary pikes, and decidedly will not open doors to it on those terms, the tramp of its million feet is on all streets and thoroughfares, the sound of its bewildered thousand-fold voice is in all writings and speakings, in all thinkings and modes and activities of men: the soul that does not now, with hope or terror, discern it, is not the one we address on this occasion.
What is Democracy; this huge inevitable Product of the Destinies, which is everywhere the portion of our Europe in these latter days? There lies the question for us. Whence comes it, this universal big black Democracy; whither tends it; what is the meaning of it? A meaning it must have, or it would not be here. If we can find the right meaning of it, we may, wisely submitting or wisely resisting and controlling, still hope to live in the midst of it; if we cannot find the right meaning, if we find only the wrong or no meaning in it, to live will not be possible!–The whole social wisdom of the Present Time is summoned, in the name of the Giver of Wisdom, to make clear to itself, and lay deeply to heart with an eye to strenuous valiant practice and effort, what the meaning of this universal revolt of the European Populations, which calls itself Democracy, and decides to continue permanent, may be.
Certainly it is a drama full of action, event fast following event; in which curiosity finds endless scope, and there are interests at stake, enough to rivet the attention of all men, simple and wise. Whereat the idle multitude lift up their voices, gratulating, celebrating sky-high; in rhyme and prose announcement, more than plentiful, that now the New Era, and long-expected Year One of Perfect Human Felicity has come. Glorious and immortal people, sublime French citizens, heroic barricades; triumph of civil and religious liberty–O Heaven! one of the inevitablest private miseries, to an earnest man in such circumstances, is this multitudinous efflux of oratory and psalmody, from the universal foolish human throat; drowning for the moment all reflection whatsoever, except the sorrowful one that you are fallen in an evil, heavy-laden, long-eared age, and must resignedly bear your part in the same.
The front wall of your wretched old crazy dwelling, long denounced by you to no purpose, having at last fairly folded itself over, and fallen prostrate into the street, the floors, as may happen, will still hang on by the mere beam-ends, and coherency of old carpentry, though in a sloping direction, and depend there till certain poor rusty nails and worm-eaten dovetailings give way:–but is it cheering, in such circumstances, that the whole household burst forth into celebrating the new joys of light and ventilation, liberty and picturesqueness of position, and thank God that now they have got a house to their mind? My dear household, cease singing and psalmodying; lay aside your fiddles, take out your work-implements, if you have any; for I can say with confidence the laws of gravitation are still active, and rusty nails, worm-eaten dovetailings, and secret coherency of old carpentry, are not the best basis for a household!–In the lanes of Irish cities, I have heard say, the wretched people are sometimes found living, and perilously boiling their potatoes, on such swing-floors and inclined planes hanging on by the joist-ends; but I did not hear that they sang very much in celebration of such lodging. No, they slid gently about, sat near the back wall, and perilously boiled their potatoes, in silence for most part!–
High shouts of exultation, in every dialect, by every vehicle of speech and writing, rise from far and near over this last avatar of Democracy in 1848: and yet, to wise minds, the first aspect it presents seems rather to be one of boundless misery and sorrow. What can be more miserable than this universal hunting out of the high dignitaries, solemn functionaries, and potent, grave and reverend seigniors of the world; this stormful rising-up of the inarticulate dumb masses everywhere, against those who pretended to be speaking for them and guiding them? These guides, then, were mere blind men only pretending to see? These rulers were not ruling at all; they had merely got on the attributes and clothes of rulers, and were surreptitiously drawing the wages, while the work remained undone? The Kings were Sham-Kings, play-acting as at Drury Lane;–and what were the people withal that took them for real?
It is probably the hugest disclosure of falsity in human things that was ever at one time made. These reverend Dignitaries that sat amid their far-shining symbols and long-sounding long-admitted professions, were mere Impostors, then? Not a true thing they were doing, but a false thing. The story they told men was a cunningly devised fable; the gospels they preached to them were not an account of man’s real position in this world, but an incoherent fabrication, of dead ghosts and unborn shadows, of traditions, cants, indolences, cowardices,–a falsity of falsities, which at last ceases to stick together. Wilfully and against their will, these high units of mankind were cheats, then; and the low millions who believed in them were dupes,–a kind of inverse cheats, too, or they would not have believed in them so long.
A universal Bankruptcy of Imposture; that may be the brief definition of it. Imposture everywhere declared once more to be contrary to Nature; nobody will change its word into an act any farther:–fallen insolvent; unable to keep its head up by these false pretences, or make its pot boil any more for the present! A more scandalous phenomenon, wide as Europe, never afflicted the face of the sun. Bankruptcy everywhere; foul ignominy, and the abomination of desolation, in all high places: odious to look upon, as the carnage of a battle-field on the morrow morning;–a massacre not of the innocents; we cannot call it a massacre of the innocents; but a universal tumbling of Impostors and of Impostures into the street!–
Such a spectacle, can we call it joyful? There is a joy in it, to the wise man too; yes, but a joy full of awe, and as it were sadder than any sorrow,–like the vision of immortality, unattainable except through death and the grave! And yet who would not, in his heart of hearts, feel piously thankful that Imposture has fallen bankrupt? By all means let it fall bankrupt; in the name of God let it do so, with whatever misery to itself and to all of us. Imposture, be it known then,–known it must and shall be,–is hateful, unendurable to God and man. Let it understand this everywhere; and swiftly make ready for departure, wherever it yet lingers; and let it learn never to return, if possible! The eternal voices, very audibly again, are speaking to proclaim this message, from side to side of the world. Not a very cheering message, but a very indispensable one.
Alas, it is sad enough that Anarchy is here; that we are not permitted to regret its being here,–for who that had, for this divine Universe, an eye which was human at all, could wish that Shams of any kind, especially that Sham-Kings should continue? No: at all costs, it is to be prayed by all men that Shams may cease. Good Heavens, to what depths have we got, when this to many a man seems strange! Yet strange to many a man it does seem; and to many a solid Englishman, wholesomely digesting his pudding among what are called the cultivated classes, it seems strange exceedingly; a mad ignorant notion, quite heterodox, and big with mere ruin. He has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial,–what you in your iconoclast humor call shams, all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting on without them. Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams? Kings reigned, what they were pleased to call reigning; lawyers pleaded, bishops preached, and honorable members perorated; and to crown the whole, as if it were all real and no sham there, did not scrip continue salable, and the banker pay in bullion, or paper with a metallic basis? “The greatest sham, I have always thought, is he that would destroy shams.”
Even so. To such depth have I, the poor knowing person of this epoch, got;–almost below the level of lowest humanity, and down towards the state of apehood and oxhood! For never till in quite recent generations was such a scandalous blasphemy quietly set forth among the sons of Adam; never before did the creature called man believe generally in his heart that lies were the rule in this Earth; that in deliberate long-established lying could there be help or salvation for him, could there be at length other than hindrance and destruction for him. O Heavyside, my solid friend, this is the sorrow of sorrows: what on earth can become of us till this accursed enchantment, the general summary and consecration of delusions, be cast forth from the heart and life of one and all! Cast forth it will be; it must, or we are tending, at all moments, whitherward I do not like to name. Alas, and the casting of it out, to what heights and what depths will it lead us, in the sad universe mostly of lies and shams and hollow phantasms (grown very ghastly now), in which, as in a safe home, we have lived this century or two! To heights and depths of social and individual divorce from delusions,–of “reform” in right sacred earnest, of indispensable amendment, and stern sorrowful abrogation and order to depart,–such as cannot well be spoken at present; as dare scarcely be thought at present; which nevertheless are very inevitable, and perhaps rather imminent several of them! Truly we have a heavy task of work before us; and there is a pressing call that we should seriously begin upon it, before it tumble into an inextricable mass, in which there will be no working, but only suffering and hopelessly perishing! –
Or perhaps Democracy, which we announce as now come, will itself manage it? Democracy, once modelled into suffrages, furnished with ballot-boxes and such like, will itself accomplish the salutary universal change from Delusive to Real, and make a new blessed world of us by and by?–To the great mass of men, I am aware, the matter presents itself quite on this hopeful side. Democracy they consider to be a kind of “Government.” The old model, formed long since, and brought to perfection in England now two hundred years ago, has proclaimed itself to all Nations as the new healing for every woe: “Set up a Parliament,” the Nations everywhere say, when the old King is detected to be a Sham-King, and hunted out or not; “set up a Parliament; let us have suffrages, universal suffrages; and all either at once or by due degrees will be right, and a real Millennium come!” Such is their way of construing the matter.
Such is, alas, by no means my way of construing the matter…
Continue here, if you’re hooked. As, alas, I am. A heavy task of work, indeed! But by no means to be shirked.