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Citizen Rahe
Lukas Halim • An Interview with University of Tulsa’s Jay P. Walker Professor of History, Paul Rahe • January 2002

YFP: The American government was created, in large part, to protect the right to “life, liberty and property.”  The Greek polis, on the other hand, was ill suited to the protection of personal liberties, because it allowed such great political liberty.  Why were the Greeks willing to sacrifice private liberty for political liberty?

Prof. Rahe: One part of the answer, I suspect, is the following: private liberty is more significant in modern times in part because of the modern emphasis on religious faith, and the interest, therefore, that modern human beings have in religious freedom.  The second reason would be that in modern times, in contrast with ancient times, the economy is dynamic, which means that the pleasures of private life are always on the increase.  We do not customarily think of our well-being as being derivative from the action of our government.  At most we hope that our government will protect us in our private pursuits.  In antiquity, however, when technology, and therefore the economy, were undynamic, the only way in which a people could improve their well-being was by conquest.  And war is the quintessential public function, as recent circumstances have reminded us.  That’s one aspect of it.  The other aspect is that in modern times largely for economic reasons and technological reasons, men live in countries with large territories, and this rules out direct participatory politics, it dictates that political freedom rests on representative institutions, and it renders it impossible for us to enjoy the pleasures of political life in the way that people in classical Greece and Rome did.  For them, politics was the center of life, for us it is something we occasionally pay attention to.  Only in time of war are we reminded how significant political life really is.  They had reminders every day, in part because they were constantly at war, in part because they had frequent occasion to attend the public assembly and participate in person in debates concerning the advantageous, the just, and the good.

YFP:  Do the differences between America and ancient Greece demonstrate the superiority of one to the other?   Should the American founders have taken a more favorable view of ancient republicanism?

Prof. Rahe: No.  In modern circumstances the attempt to achieve what the ancients took for granted, the centrality of political life, is a catastrophe.  One need only look at the French Revolution in the time of the Jacobins to recognize the consequences.  Ancient virtue was built on the force of shame in a small community.  The attempt to replicate ancient virtue in a polity with a large territory required terror.  And the horrors of the French Revolution were duplicated by the Nazis and by the Communists in our own century, who also attempted a restoration of classical political virtue through terror.
The other aspect of this is that modernity was chosen, but it wasn’t chosen by the American Founding Fathers.  It was chosen in the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon, by Thomas Hobbes and by John Locke.  And it formed the basis for English policy in the wake of the Glorious Revolution.  In the War of the Spanish Succession, which began in 1702 and was over in 1713, the Duke of Marlborough, ancestor to Winston Churchill, demonstrated that the modern state based on economic and technological dynamism, was superior on the field of the sword to the traditional state such as Louis XIV’s France that found its raison d’etre in piety.  From that moment onward one had two choices: embrace tradition and be weak, or embrace modernity and be strong.  Needless to say, the American Founding Fathers were persuaded that independence required strength.  And so whatever their other reasons may have been—and they had other reasons as well—they embraced modernity.

YFP: Do you believe that the problems with modern American government are generally a result of the structure of our government, or instead are a result of the mistaken beliefs of politicians and citizens?

Prof. Rahe: Some of our difficulties are due to our institutions.  In particular the seventeenth amendment, which provides for direct election of United States senators, denies the states that which as states they once had – a check on federal encroachment.  That is to say, in the original Constitution the states as corporate bodies constituted by the state legislatures selected the United States senators.  In consequence, the interests of the states as states were represented in Washington.  The long-term consequence of directly electing senators has been to remove the only effective check that ever existed on the propensity of the central government to reduce the states to instruments of the central government’s policy.  This has had some good effects, especially in the arena of civil rights.  But the goods that we have gained we have paid for with the sacrifice of local self-government.  This means in practice that Americans feel and are increasingly powerless to determine their own destinies.  And that is dangerous.  

The other difficulties that we face arise less from particular public policies than from defects inherent in bourgeoisie society.  The virtues attendant on modern economic and technological progress are obvious.  They mean that for the first time in human history there are nations in which the vast majority of human beings are by all previous standards filthy rich.  With these virtues come attendant vices.  We tend to be neglectful of public needs, and to a ridiculous extent focused on private concerns.  The therapeutic culture, so prominent in American life, is something which should embarrass us.  We should also be deeply embarrassed that we have been at war for nearly 10 years without admitting as much to ourselves.  From the time of George Bush’s visit to Kuwait when Iraqi intelligence made an attempt to assassinate him, until the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, there have been numerous incidents, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombing of the Kohbart towers in Saudi Arabia in 1995, the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the assault on the USS Cole in Yemen more recently that have testified to the fact that war is being waged against us.  We resolutely look the other way, Democrats and Republicans alike, because it was just too awful to contemplate.  During this entire period we cut our military by 60%, and we pared our intelligence budget to the bone.  When the history of our times is written, the 1990s will look a lot like the 1930s.  But Stanley Baldwin at least had the excuse that there was a depression under way.  We resolutely ignored the political realities in a time of unprecedented prosperity.  And now we are paying the price for our weakness, our shallowness, and the general shabbiness of bourgeois culture.  In our eagerness to be compassionate we have forgotten justice.  Our opinion leaders and our academic pundits, like the opinion leaders and the academic pundits of the 1930s, ask us to understand the other side at a time when what is required of us is resoluteness and self-defense against aggression.  That we tolerate this and even applaud it is a sign of our weakness, the very weakness that inspires the contempt which has lead our enemies to think that they can do this to us without suffering annihilation. It could be that the success of modernity in enriching us has turned us into something less than men.

YFP: How should civics be taught—if they should be taught—in the American regime?

Prof. Rahe: I believe that there should be universal military service.  Not because it would produce military efficiency, but because it would embody the ideal of public service.  It would bring home to every American the fact that he owes something to his country.  It would do no harm to anyone and it would rescue a great many young people from lassitude.  It should be a prerequisite for going to college.  After two years of military service, young Americans would be eager to learn and would have a better sense of what it is appropriate that they learn.  This would cost a great deal.  But not nearly as much as it costs to have Americans thinking that defending their country is somebody else’s job.  

YFP: In your article, “Don Corleone, multiculturalist,” you ask whether or not an American can have true friends.  In that essay, you seemed to claim that the American ideal of friendship is something like that proposed by Ayn Rand - a relationship in which each gives to the other only in so far as they gain.  Should we reject this ideal, and if so, why?

Prof. Rahe: One reason to reject this ideal is it rules out successful marriage.  Marriage is not friendship but if it is not based on friendship it is what Americans very revealingly call partnership.  A partnership is an arrangement for a temporary exchange of services. When someone introduces his or her partner to you, what you know is that it will not last.  That may be well and good or not, but it does not provide a set of circumstances favorable to rearing a family.  True friendship is grounded in virtue according to Aristotle.  By this he means that the foundation for the friendship is a common project to which both parties give themselves.  For most of us most of the time that common project is children.  In the absence of children, or of some project that in some fashion is a substitute for rearing children, the only friendship possible is what Aristotle calls a friendship of pleasure or a friendship of utility.  Friendships based upon pleasure cease when the pleasure ceases.  Friendships based upon utility cease when they are no longer useful.  In these sorts of friendship we are essentially alone.  It is only in the friendship based on virtue that we escape solitude.  One of the defects of American life is that the average American moves once in every five years.  Even if one stays put, one’s associates will move.  The consequence is that in the lives of most of us the only lasting relationship in which we are likely to see one another regularly is marriage.  In the absence of a successful marriage we tend to live alone.  

YFP: Should students be encouraged to enlist?  Should universities give special encouragement to study Arabic and the Middle East?

Prof. Rahe: Absolutely.  Yale’s motto is: “For God, for Country and for Yale.”  It is a public scandal that universities such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia have no ROTC programs.  It is a public scandal that Yale seems to have forgotten its motto.  At a time when the United States desperately needs well educated and thoughtful military officers, how can Yale justify making it so difficult for Yale students to prepare to serve their country? Students at Yale should be encouraged to learn Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Urdu, not to mention other foreign languages.  And students at Yale should be encouraged to study political, diplomatic, and military history.  What happened on September 11th is not the end.  It is barely the beginning.  There will never be a time in which the world is not troubled.  And as long as the United States is as prosperous as it has been since 1900 it will find itself caught up in these troubles.  For Yale to turn its back on its country as it has is in reality for Yale to turn its back on the world.

YFP: Thank you.

Lukas Halim is a senior in Trumbull College

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