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Saturday, May 24, 2003

 
PUBLIC SERVANT OR CEO? (part 3)

Gov. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland narrowly won election with his promise to reduce -- or was it eliminate? -- taxes by lining the Chesapeake with slot machines. The magical, limitless revenue thereby provided would, he vowed, solve all of the state's fiscal worries.

This is the ultimate example of a governor behaving as a CEO rather than as a public servant. Ehrlich has such a stunted view of civic responsibility that he seems to believe it is illegitimate to ask citizens to pay taxes. He doesn't think anything should be asked of citizens at all.

Since citizenship entails rights without responsibilities, Ehrlich sought to fund the state's budget by tapping consumers -- in this case, gamblers -- rather than taxing citizens. Maryland's legislature didn't buy it. His magic jackpot solution was shot down by a bipartisan coalition of legislators including religious conservatives and liberals concerned about the effect of all this gambling on Maryland's poorest residents (as well as by many legislators who were simply better at math than Ehrlich and who noted that his overly optimistic numbers just didn't add up).

Poor Gov. Ehrlich has been in a bit of a tailspin ever since. How else to explain this story?

A 4th-grader, Will Smith of Silver Spring, took on as a class project one of those quaint, symbolic efforts that give state politics a kind of small-town charm. Will wanted to make walking the official state exercise for Maryland. The nine-year-old and his classmates worked hard to get the bill passed by the state's legislature.

The idea behind the bill is that it will bring attention to walking and encourage people to exercise, which can prevent heart disease and other health problems.

Harmless enough, yes?

Gov. Ehrlich vetoed it.

Yes, that's right, he vetoed a harmless, meaningless bill introduced by a class of fourth-graders.


posted by Fred Clark 6:24 PM

 
PUBLIC SERVANT OR CEO? (cont'd)

To get a sense of what can happen when public servants are treated like and behave as CEOs, instead of as democratically elected representatives of the people, see this story about another Delaware obsession -- license plates.

The quote from Antonio Goicuria III nicely captures the public response to the state's recent change in design for it's simple gold-digits-on-blue-background tags:

It was like the University of Delaware saying, 'You know what, we don't like the Blue Hen. We're going to use those little brown, puffy birds.'

Also this:

"I still don't think they're the quality they used to be," said William D. "Butch" Emmert of Rehoboth Beach, who collects low-digit Delaware tags and auctions off others. "It's definitely an improvement, but it's not the answer."

(The collecting of low-digit tags is a bizarre craze of sorts in Delaware, with one-digit plates fetching thousands of dollars at auction. It's a car-crazed culture's version of tulipomania -- except that tulips were at least a thing of real beauty, while low-digit tags are, well, the silliest form of vanity.)

The story would have been richer with an additional comment from a myopic traffic cop, but the most glaring absence is any comment from someone who used to work at Demco, the now-shuttered Delaware-based plant that once employed people in Milford, Del., by manufacturing plates that the public actually liked.

This is the kind of a decision a CEO would make, but that a governor never should. The decision -- to cripple a local company in favor of a lower bid from a Nova Scotia-based firm -- shows the governor behaving exactly as the Journal's editorial board argued that she should, ignoring the public's interests in favor of "private businessmen who make money by buying and selling things."

The decision "saved" the state of Delaware less than $200,000. The result of this savings was a series of ugly, low-bid tags; disgruntled car owners; and -- most importantly -- Delaware households without a livelihood.

Here's the crux of the matter:

Nova Scotia-based Waldale took over production of the state's tags in July, after submitting a lower bid than Milford-based Demco. That company had hand-produced Delaware's tags for decades. Waldale won the two-year contract with a $334,250 bid, almost $200,000 less than Demco.

Demco since has gone out of business.

The two companies differed in their production techniques, which led to contrasting tags. Demco used silk-screen printing, while Waldale uses an electronic and heat transfer process, said Niki Lewis, marketing manager for Waldale.


Waldale's higher-tech process allowed them to underbid the local Demco, which was still using the older-style silk-screen printing. If the state had been led by a public servant, rather than by a CEO, she would have invested state funds in loans to the Milford company, allowing Demco to acquire the newer technologies. The long-term result could have been much different -- cheaper, but higher-quality tags more in keeping with the state's finicky aesthetic, and a vibrant local company still employing workers in Delaware (where, by the way, the jobless rate is climbing).



posted by Fred Clark 6:09 PM

 
PUBLIC SERVANT OR CEO?

The public has no business meddling in the public's business.

The editorial board of The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal is to be commended for presenting with clarity and precision the most stunted, impoverished notion of democracy and civic responsibility in recent memory. Turn with me, if you will, to the following unsigned editorial:

Gov. Minner has seen fit to immerse herself in the controversy over the proposed sale of Garrisons Lake Golf Club near Cheswold. One has to wonder why.

The governor of Delaware is neither a real estate czar nor an arbitrator for free enterprise. She is the chief executive officer of a government that employs more than 15,000 people. Whether or not owners of a private golf club should be allowed to sell their property for a profit to a housing developer is not the business of state government.

Garrisons is a 40-year-old course popular both for its beauty and reasonable greens fees. It has served its clientele well. But former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski and his investment group, which own the course, are private businessmen who make money buying and selling. If they want to sell their properly zoned property to a developer, elected politicians have no business interfering -- no matter the cries from disgruntled golfers.

Gov. Minner has said state legislators who represent the area urged her to intervene. They were wrong to ask her and she was wrong to oblige.



Bracket, for the sake of this gloriously awful lesson, the specific matter at hand. I have no opinion about the particular matter at hand (the Garrisons Lake Golf Club). Bracket also the disagreeably Vijay-Singh-ish undertone that a female governor is less qualified to deal with a golf course than the manly Ron Jaworski.

But the principle underlying the editorial's argument directly concerns me, and you, and any other American who thinks that "of the people, by the people and for the people" business is more than just a pretty piece of oratory or who would like to see a vibrant civil society and a healthy democracy, rather than a Hobbesian war of all against all managed by a professional class of corporate-style leaders.

The governor of Delaware is a democratically elected official -- the people's representative, accountable to and for the public she serves. If Gov. Minner were to belittle that responsibility by characterizing herself as merely "the chief executive officer of a government that employs more than 15,000 people" then she ought to be impeached.

"Chief executive officer?" No one in the Diamond State ever elected anyone to such an office. To appreciate how utterly anti-democratic this bastardized understanding of public service is, we need only re-read that editorial -- substituting "the public" for every mention of the governor, its representative:

The public has seen fit to immerse itself in the controversy over the proposed sale of Garrisons Lake Golf Club near Cheswold. One has to wonder why.

The people of Delaware are neither real estate czars nor arbitrators for free enterprise. ...Whether or not owners of a private golf club should be allowed to sell their property for a profit to a housing developer is not the business of the public.

Garrisons is a 40-year-old course popular both for its beauty and reasonable greens fees. It has served its clientele well. But former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski and his investment group, which own the course, are private businessmen who make money buying and selling. If they want to sell their properly zoned property to a developer, the public has no business interfering -- no matter the cries from disgruntled golfers.

The public has said residents in the area urged it to intervene. Those people were wrong to think they have a say in their community, and the public was wrong to encourage such thoughts.


Now it may be that the "private businessmen who make money buying and selling" in this particular case have the law on their side and that at this point, in this case, it is too late for the public to cry foul and it would be unfair to change the rules after the fact. That is not, however, what the editorial is arguing.

It argues, rather, that the people are not sovereign -- that no democratically elected official can ever challenge the divine right and eminent domain of "private businessmen who make money buying and selling." The role of public officials is strictly limited to managing the corporate offices of state employees -- a trivial occupation that forecloses any possibility of the public's representatives immersing themselves in public controversies. (Note that even the local representatives of the local community in question are "wrong" to intervene on behalf of their constituents.)

If this is the kind of "democratic" vision that America has planned for the people of Iraq, then it's little wonder they seem less than enthusiastic to embrace it.



posted by Fred Clark 5:42 PM


Thursday, May 22, 2003

 
WARREN BUFFET ROCKS

In a devastating, knock-out punch of an op-ed piece in Tuesday's Washington Post, the second-richest man in America dissected the foolishness of President Bush's proposed abolition of the tax on stock dividends.

Buffet doesn't bother engaging the bizarre dishonesty of Bush's claims about "double taxation" (any economic transaction is taxed doubly or triply by the twisted logic of that doublespeak nonsense). But the Sage of Omaha pithily dismisses the idea that Bush's proposal as unfair, unnecessary, fiscally prodigal and useless as a source of economic "stimulus."

Late last night, Congress reached an agreement (see here) on the latest round of high-end-heavy income tax cuts. That agreement omitted the president's sought-after abolition of dividend taxes -- even the tortured, Enronian "sunset" provision crafted by GOP senators to make a permanent tax-cut appear temporary on the balance sheet.

Congress did, however, lower the top tax rate on dividends -- a windfall for those few, those happy few, who earn more stock income than 99 percent of the country. And one would have to be extremely naive to think that the president's entire effort was ever about anything other than a windfall for the very rich.

When the president is questioned about his unswerving record of favoring the wealthy, he tends to lash out angrily, accusing those who notice of "class warfare." (Well, yes, it is a kind of warfare -- but he is the aggressor. His protestation is a bit like Germany complaining of Polish aggression.)

President Bush also likes to accuse those who challenge his bias toward the rich as practicing the "politics of envy."

That's where Warren Buffet comes in. Even Dick Cheney -- with his six-figure income from Halliburton kickbacks -- is not wealthy enough to inspire the envy of billionaire Buffet.

Write down this date: May 21, 2003. That's the day Buffet's "Dividend Voodoo" column was published and, therefore, the very first time in his life that George W. Bush ignored the opinion of someone wealthier than his family.

Here's a sample:

The taxes I pay to the federal government, including the payroll tax that is paid for me by my employer, Berkshire Hathaway, are roughly the same proportion of my income -- about 30 percent -- as that paid by the receptionist in our office. My case is not atypical -- my earnings, like those of many rich people, are a mix of capital gains and ordinary income -- nor is it affected by tax shelters (I've never used any). As it works out, I pay a somewhat higher rate for my combination of salary, investment and capital gain income than our receptionist does. But she pays a far higher portion of her income in payroll taxes than I do.

She's not complaining: Both of us know we were lucky to be born in America. ...

Now the Senate says that dividends should be tax-free to recipients. Suppose this measure goes through and the directors of Berkshire Hathaway (which does not now pay a dividend) therefore decide to pay $1 billion in dividends next year. Owning 31 percent of Berkshire, I would receive $310 million in additional income, owe not another dime in federal tax, and see my tax rate plunge to 3 percent.

And our receptionist? She'd still be paying about 30 percent, which means she would be contributing about 10 times the proportion of her income that I would to such government pursuits as fighting terrorism, waging wars and supporting the elderly. Let me repeat the point: Her overall federal tax rate would be 10 times what my rate would be.

Administration officials say that the $310 million suddenly added to my wallet would stimulate the economy because I would invest it and thereby create jobs. But they conveniently forget that if Berkshire kept the money, it would invest that same amount, creating jobs as well. ...

Give reductions to those who both need and will spend the money gained. Enact a Social Security tax "holiday" or give a flat-sum rebate to people with low incomes. Putting $1,000 in the pockets of 310,000 families with urgent needs is going to provide far more stimulus to the economy than putting the same $310 million in my pockets. ...




posted by Fred Clark 5:25 PM

 
FOUND POETRY FROM DONALD RUMSFELD

Harper's absolutely needs to beef up its online content.

The following is from the June 2003 Harper's. If they had a credible online edition, I would link to it. Since they don't, I'm hoping they won't mind some fair use in exchange for the free publicity.

The following poems were composed by Hart Seely from statements by Donald Rumsfeld. The poems appear in Pieces of Intelligence, published this month by the Free Press.

THE UNKNOWN
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.
-- February 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

CLARITY
I think what you'll find,
I think what you'll find is,
Whatever it is we do substantively,
There will be near-perfect clarity
As to what it is.

And it will be known,
And it will be known to the Congress,
And it will be known to you,
Probably before we decide it,
But it will be known.
--February 28, 2003, Department of Defense news briefing

They're almost zen. (Harper's includes two more -- see especially the sweetly melancholic "Glass Box" on page 26.)





posted by Fred Clark 4:32 PM


Tuesday, May 20, 2003

 
"POOR PEOPLE AREN'T NECESSARILY KILLERS"

Via TBogg, President Bush reaffirms that he does not want to kill all poor people:

Q: And the poverty problem?

PRESIDENT BUSH: And the poverty problem -- listen, this nation is committed to dealing with poverty. First, let me make it very clear, poor people aren't necessarily killers. Just because you happen to be not rich doesn't mean you're willing to kill. And so it's important to understand -- people are susceptible to the requirement by these extremists, but I refuse to put a -- put killers into a demographic category based upon income. After all, a lot of the top al-Qaida people were comfortable middle-class citizens. And so one of the things you've got to do is to make sure we distinguish between hate and poverty.


Nearly 300 million people in this country, and this guy is president?




posted by Fred Clark 11:41 AM

 
THE MOST CRITICAL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

Americans search for meaning by torturing the cat.

What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course. Except war. If a man lives in the sphere of the possible and waits for something to happen, what he is waiting for is war -- or the end of the world.

-- Walker Percy, in The Last Gentleman

Jeanne d'Arc at Body and Soul lately has been fruitfully drawing on Chris Hedges' book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. (The book is nicely reviewed at Daily Kos.)

The truth expressed in Hedges' title is true both forward and backward. Just as war can provide a sense of meaning, so too a lack of meaning -- or the desire to fill that absence -- can provide the cause for war.

A while back, Josh Marshall posted a nasty little piece of hate mail he received (see here) that illustrated this point.

It's the typical supercilious undergrad tone -- the kind of thing written by people who want to be Ben Shapiro when they grow small. But one sentence in particular (and yes, this is all one sentence, if not quite one thought) stood out:

This may be the most critical time in the history of the modern world much less of our country; and it is my fervent hope that the American People will remember and appropriately reward those, like you, who have chosen to use this opportunity to forward a political cause, and not incidentally their own careers, by attempting to sabotage an honorable effort to make the world a safer, better place.

You have to love the uppercase "American People" -- and I'm guessing this guy never expresses a hope without it being "fervent." But the important part here is the section in bold -- that ours is "the most critical time in ... history."

Like many people who blindly support[ed] this war -- including perhaps many in the White House and the Pentagon -- the writer is desperate for his life to have some greater meaning or purpose than it apparently does. He hasn't quite managed to stare into the abyss, but he's taken a quick glance in its direction and seen something deep and dark and frightening that he doesn't quite know how to deal with.

"All flesh is grass," the prophet Isaiah said, and "the grass withereth." This guy, understandably, doth not want to wither. He wants his life to matter, to mean something. He wants to be remembered after he is gone.

He has given this war a metaphysical, religious significance. For him, the war isn't about oil, or "liberating" Iraq, or overthrowing an evil dictator. It's grander than that -- grander even than the dreams of empire that seem to be motivating Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz. This war is an attempt to give his life meaning by turning our times into "the most critical time in the history of the modern world." If our times are meaningful, he hopes (fervently), then our lives must also be meaningful.

The writer gives his life meaning by taking a part in this great, epochal, transcendent struggle.

And note how easy, how undemanding of sacrifice, it is for him to play a role in this epochal, historic event. All he has to do is watch Fox News and fire-off the occasional sophomoric e-mail -- maybe even wave a flag, attend a corporate-radio rally, or rename some snack food.

This letter-bomber is not the only one narcotizing his existential crisis with an enthusiasm for "shock and awe." This is widespread -- it's one of the reasons it is nearly impossible to have a civil conversation with our fellow Americans who believe -- or want to believe, or need to believe -- Bush's baseless arguments for capricious war.

In terms of pure shock and awe, however, nothing in the Iraqi adventure compares to the gut-wrenching, paradigm-shattering, constitution-shredding shock and awe Americans experienced on September 11, 2001. As we watched the towers fall and the Pentagon burn we experienced shock and awe, and a powerful, inseparable admixture of fear, anger, sorrow, pride and love. But there was also something else, unseemly and almost unmentionable -- the perversely giddy rush of vicarious significance.

On September 10, 2001, as in Thoreau's day, the mass of Americans were living lives of quiet desperation but then -- as nearly every observer proclaimed -- everything changed.

A few writers took advantage of the anonymous forum provided by Salon's "forbidden thoughts about 9/11" feature to express

When the towers started collapsing and all chaos broke loose, I felt actual excitement. Here was an event that broke banality. Finally, here was something meaningful. I had grown so tired of the meaningless fluff our continent had become so enamored with. Here was an issue of raw emotions. I was glad that this was happening to snap people back into reality, to snap them back to mortality. My last sinful thought was that of genocide -- lets just send nuclear missiles to all of the Middle East and let it be done once and for all.

-- Name Withheld


Such feelings were of course taboo, but they were hardly unique to "Name Withheld." Josh Marshall's letter-writer, like many supporting the war on Iraq across the blogosphere, expresses the very same perverse thrill:

I felt actual excitement ... here was something meaningful ...

This may be the most critical time in the history of the modern world ...

The daring of Normandy, the fierce courage of Iwo Jima ... is fully present in this generation. ... In the images of falling statues, we have witnessed the arrival of a new era.

The voices are different, the sentiments the same. All are driven by a similar need to break through banality and ennui with the vicarious thrills afforded by war.

A whiff of something similar can be detected in the strangely envious plaudits baby boomers heaped upon the "greatest generation." Look a little closer and there's a hint there of something like "They're lucky. I wish we had a Hitler we could go fight." Little surprise, then, that mingled in with the horror of our own Day of Infamy was that taboo thrill and something like an unspoken, "At last."

We Americans are the wealthiest, most educated people the world has ever seen. We are a people and a nation to whom all things seem possible and every course of action is open.

What happens to a people to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course. Except war. If a nation lives in the sphere of the possible and waits for something to happen, what it is waiting for is war -- or the end of the world.

The great struggle being waged by President Bush and his supporters is not really about making "the world a safer, better place." It's not even really about an imperial "Pax Americana." It's about the search for meaning by a people so bored, complacent, comfortable and desperate for significance that for them war gives birth not only to terrible beauty but to terrible joy.

This is why even dispassionate, prudential questions about foreign policy provoke outraged invective. Such questions are not merely seen as a threat to a policy position, but as a threat to a metaphysical, religious belief system.

"There comes a time in the late afternoon, when the children tire of their games," G.K. Chesterton wrote. "It is then that they turn to torturing the cat."

It is late afternoon in America, and tired at last of our meaningless games, we're looking for a new source of excitement.








posted by Fred Clark 11:02 AM


Monday, May 19, 2003

 
"OPERATION DESERT SNIPE"

Ron K. fingers through a steaming pile

Remember that scene in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern come across an ailing triceratops? Next to the sickly dinosaur is a gigantic pile of dino dung. Goldblum's character is understandably repulsed, but Dern -- thinking like a scientist -- is looking for answers, and sometimes finding the truth means having to stick your arms in up to the elbows in a Jurassic Park-sized pile of manure.

The triceratops' scat was the biggest pile of dung captured on film since the misadventures of Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future series -- but these piles seem tiny in comparison to the vast output of pure excrement the Bush administration has been offering in defense of it's policy of "preventive war." In spewing forth this avalanche of lies, damn lies and propaganda, the administration has turned the American public into Biff Tannen.

Fortunately, Ron K. of the meticulous Cogent Provocateur has, like Laura Dern, taken on the heroic task of sifting through the administration's pile of crap to find the truth.

This invaluable, required reading post fully deserves the icon-link awarded it over at Cursor. The Cogent P. calls America's desperate after-the-fact search for a pretext for war "Operation Desert Snipe":

From August's "what's all this frenzy about a war?" to September's "you don't introduce new products in August," through November's election victory over an opposition "soft" on Saddam, through the winter games of spinning Blix on ice, through Powell's PowerPoint prestidigitation in February, to a no-time-to-vote forced March, we plied the crowd with predictable fare. We loosened them up with liberation cocktails. We circulated tray after tray of Saddam-as-Hitler appetizers. We dutifully jotted down orders for commercial or strategic side-dishes. But the main course was always a grand sterling-covered platter of sizzling Snipe a la Bush.

No WMD, no War Powers Resolution. No WMD, no U.N. Res. 1441. No WMD, no Coalition of the Willing. No WMD, no Azores ultimatum. Everything hinged on Iraq's possession of WMD, and her intransigent refusal to give them up.


This kind of truth-telling is often shouted down by a sputtering Donald Rumsfeld: "Goodness gracious! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!" (Which, of course, works equally well as an argument for extraterrestrial life or leprechauns or paranormal phenomena. What Rumsfeld is really saying is that because the existence of these weapons has not been absolutely disproved, he is justified in behaving as though their existence is absolutely proven. You can't get there from here.)

Critics of the administration have been timid to point out the wretched failure of its search for the alleged Iraqi weapons, partly for fear of bullying by a vindictive and powerful president and partly for fear that some evidence of such weapons may eventually be found. The administration would then soak up the "I told you so."

But, as C.P. points out, the standard for such triumphalism would be extremely high. The administration's original claim was not merely that Iraq possessed a handful of canisters of WWI-era mustard gas, but that:

Saddam Hussein had extensive, active, advanced, clandestine chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. U.N. inspectors couldn't find WMDs because they were inept, or corrupt, or because Saddam played the shell game so masterfully. U.S. intelligence pinpointed dozens of high-value target sites, hundreds of intermediate-value sites and thousands of low-value sites. Chemical and perhaps biological weapons were deployed to commanders in the field, who had orders to use them against invading coalition forces.

This claim is thoroughly discredited. Next question: What if U.S. "exploitation teams" eventually stumble across a giant stash of chemical and biological weapons stacked and ready-for-use in some hidden cellar of one of Saddam's palaces?

The Coalition is almost as fully discredited. We wagered blood, treasure and sacred honor on the proposition that we knew what Saddam had, where he kept it, and how to prove it. We swore the stuff was field-deployed. We swore it all with a straight face ... the same face that now croaks "it is not like a treasure hunt."

Go read the entire post. Print it out, make copies and leaflet the neighborhood.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Incidentally, the (unfortunate and probably overextended) scatological metaphor for this post was suggested by a member of the U.N. weapons inspections team. Asked about the intelligence the U.S. provided regarding Iraq's alleged field-deployed "weapons of mass destruction" the inspector described that intelligence as "Shit, shit and more shit." And that, it turns out, was the three-point pretext that served as the Bush administration's casus belli.

A single lie is a black mark on anyone's character. A trio of lies would indicate that someone's character is deeply flawed. A massive outpouring of lies, lies and more lies should prove to any reasonable observer that the liars in question are utterly lacking in character and cannot be trusted with the responsibility of leadership. Their only defense is more lies, and yet again more lies. Lies piled on lies until the White House stinks with the reek of the Augean stables.

It will take a mighty flood -- and a Herculean effort -- to wash that office clean.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Think "lies piled on lies" is too strong? Check out this chart from Uggabugga.

In utter seriousness: What possible defense can be made for the trustworthiness of this administration?



posted by Fred Clark 4:10 AM


Sunday, May 18, 2003

 
W-O-R-D UP

President Bush borrows Larry Blackmon's wardrobe.

Yo, pretty ladies around the world
Got a weird thing to show you so tell all the boys and girls
Tell your brother, your sister and your mama too
'Cause we're about to go down and you know just what to do
Wave your hands in the air like you don't care
Glide by the people as they start to look and stare
Do your dance, do your dance, do your dance quick, mama
Come on baby, tell me what's the word

Now all you sucker DJ's who think you're fly
There's got to be a reason and we know the reason why
You try to put on those airs and act real cool
But you got to realize that you're acting like fools


This funk-tastic '80s flashback has been brought to you by Juilliard-trained Cameo frontman Larry Blackmon, who recently served his country by letting President George W. Bush borrow the codpiece he made famous in his "Word Up" video.

Everybody's got to know the word ...

posted by Fred Clark 6:29 PM

 
THE ARROGANCE OF FATHER BROWN

Why Chesterton's detective stories aren't really "mysteries."

The insomnia reading pile these days includes The Complete Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton's short mysteries involving his unbearably humble cleric-sleuth.

Chesterton wrote these stories as occasional pieces, many for magazines, so they really weren't intended to be read en masse like this. The Father Brown stories are cozies, puzzle pieces -- and the puzzles have a pattern. Read a bunch in a row and the pattern loses its subtlety, the stories lose their charm.

Chesterton is a rewarding, insightful and entertaining writer. He is also an appalling religious chauvinist. The solution to every Father Brown story is the same: Suspect the heretic (a category that for Chesterton includes nominal and modernist Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, Greek Orthodox, etc.).

While they work, separately, as entertainments, the Father Brown stories are also religious tracts -- stringent condemnations of error. Even so, Gilbert Keith Chesterton pontificating against error makes for livelier reading than you'll find from most writers more inclined toward "free thinking" (a term Chesterton sneers at). And while Chesterton is sternly intolerant of what he considers "error," he is expansively patient and tolerant of other forms of human fallibility and vice, so while he may be a chauvinist, he is a hospitable one.

As a Baptist -- what Chesterton would call a "nonconformist" -- I would be a prime suspect in any of the Father Brown stories ("that Clark fellow rejects papal infallibility -- such thoughts always lead to murder"). The Anabaptist and Baptist traditions arose in opposition to the lingering medieval synthesis of church and state. The idea of the "priesthood of all believers" was revolutionary (even, in the sense of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, anarchical). It was almost a postmodern idea -- contributing to a crisis of authority that gave Chesterton fits. (He would have been even more disapproving of the way this idea has, in America, devolved into the papacy of all believers.)

Chesterton's contention with this crisis of authority is summarized in the following passage, from the story "The Sign of the Broken Sword" ("sword" here an allusion to Hebrews 4:12), in which the diminutive Father Brown, as always, speaks on behalf of the stout Chesterton:

Sir Arthur St. Clare, as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else's Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his Bible and finds we have no arms and legs. St. Clare was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier. Now, just think what that might mean; and, for Heaven's sake, don't cant about it. It might mean a man physically formidable living under a tropic sun in an Oriental society, and soaking himself without sense or guidance in an Oriental book. Of course, he reads the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted -- lust, tyranny, treason. ...

In each of the hot and secret countries to which that man went he kept a harem, he tortured witnesses, he amassed shameful gold; but certainly he would have said with steady eyes that he did it to the glory of the Lord. My own theology is sufficiently expressed by asking which Lord?


Chesterton -- precisely because of his deep concern for the faith -- would not have been at all pleased to learn that President George W. Bush, leader of the world's only superpower, "reads his Bible" as part of his "daily devotions." He would, rather, have been frightened to hear Bush's frequent invocations of "the Lord." Chesterton's question would be that of Father Brown -- "which Lord?" The president's idiosyncratic, Americanized piety is exactly the kind of religion -- "without sense or guidance" -- that Chesterton ascribes to the killers and thieves in the Father Brown stories as the root and cause of their deadly villainy.

But for all the forcefulness of Chesterton's argument on behalf of capital-C Catholicism, I remain unpersuaded.

My theology too can be expressed in Father Brown's pithy question -- which Lord? But while I am sometimes envious of the clarity provided by Chesterton's arrogant epistemology, I do not share his overweening confidence that certainty is attainable for uncertain creatures like us humans. Mindful of St. Paul's warning that "we see through a glass darkly," I think Father Brown's question is more appropriately posed with the sorrowful humility that Abraham Lincoln employed in asking that same question in his Second Inaugural:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

It is not so much Father Brown's theology that I find problematic as his anthropology -- his epistemology. The detective-priest accepts humanity's moral fallibility, but he cannot accept that our capacity for thinking and, especially, for knowing is similarly fallible and finite. (In this respect, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe may be a worse detective, but a better theologian and priest, than Father Brown.)

Despite his purported insight into human nature, Father Brown speaks with the inhuman certainty of the angels. He forgets that, as Pascal wrote in the Pensees, "We are something, and we are not everything."

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.

Let us, therefore, not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.


The problem with the Father Brown mysteries, ultimately, is that they allow so little room for mystery and mystification.

If certainty were really so available, after all, we would have no need for detectives. Or for priests.


posted by Fred Clark 4:44 AM


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