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Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Professor Harvey C. Mansfield of Harvard University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution is famous for his scholarship on classical political philosophy (I often recommend his edition on Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy) as well as his provocative commentary on social and political issues.  While I liked his take on Machiavelli, I warmed to him further when, after his book on manliness came out and some reporter asked Mansfield if it was “manly” to carry a gun? He answered to the effect, “Yes, but not as manly as carrying a sword”.

Mansfield has a new article out in Defining Ideas  on the nature of elections and democracy worth reading:

Are You Smarter Than a Freshman? 

….Machiavelli believes that human beings are divided into the few who want to rule and the many who do not care to rule themselves but do not want to be ruled by others either. Then those who want to rule must conceal their rule from the many they rule if they wish to succeed. How can they do this? Machiavelli went about conceiving a “new mode of ruling,” a hidden government that puts the people “under a dominion they do not see.” Government is hidden when it appears not to be imposed on you from above but when it comes from you, when it is self-imposed.

Machiavelli recounts a psychological truth about humans: “wounds and other evils that a man does upon himself spontaneously and by choice hurt much less than those that are done to you by someone else.” It sounds crazy to claim that it hurts less when you break your leg yourself than when someone or something else does it. But when you do it yourself, the hurt is less because it doesn’t include resentment against whoever or whatever did it to you.

A further step in the argument: The many, the common people, resent government because of the necessary hurts it imposes—as people say, death and taxes. Government demands sacrifices in return for the peace, comfort, and justice it provides. But government hurts less, and is even hidden from you, when it comes from you—when it comes from an election.

An election is not so much a positive choice, as you might suppose from Aristotle, as the purging of resentment against government and the humbling of the few who run for office. As we see in the contest between Obama and Romney, an election forces the rulers to seek our approval, our vote. It enables us to choose one, and perhaps more important, to deny the other. Partisanship often shows itself less in having your side win than in defeating the other side.

In this way, an election allows people to think that their government comes from them, when in fact it remains pretty much the same whether it’s Obama or Romney. The particular candidate may win or lose, but the class of “politicians” that we decry, the few who desire to rule, always wins. For their part, the people indulge in the luxury of throwing out the losing candidate, expressing their resentment against being governed, while (almost) incidentally electing the winner, who then governs in their name with their consent. 

A while back, I had an interesting discussion in the comment section with “SZR” , Duncan Kinder and LC Rees over Donald Kagan’s interpretation of the Athenian statesman and general Nicias.  Kagan’s version of Nicias was a man who feared “the resentment of being governed” of the Mob and who therefore flattered the people with his own modest pretense and that this apprehension led to the disasters that befell Athens in Sicily.  Pericles, too, comes in for criticism by Kagan who is unsympathetic to the advocacy that Thucydides showed toward the former’s defensive strategy.

I think as a rule, Machiavelli’s view of politics proves to win out wherever the system of government is not actively coercing politicians toward’s Aristotle’s ideals of governance. The gravity of the lowest moral common denominator exerts a strong pull in politics in the absence of a countervailing power.

At a distance of three caliphs

Friday, August 31st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — caliphal succession as a marker in Egyptian-Iranian diplomacy at NAM ]


Describing Egyptian President Morsi‘s speech in Iran at the Non-Aligned Movement conference, Rodger Shanahan of Australia’s Lowy Institute wrote, tellingly:

Invoking the names of the first four caliphs (which never goes down well in uber-Shi’a Iran), his condemnation of the Syrian regime (an Iranian ally) caused the walkout of the Damascene delegation and stole much of the positive messaging that Iran would have been hoping for from this meeting.

Sunni Islam recognizes four “rightly guided” Caliphs as the successors to the Prophet: first among them was Muhammad‘s friend Abu Bakr, who was succeeded by Umar — who when he conquered Jerusalem, is said to have entered it on foot, and guaranteed the protection of the Christians and their churches – third, Uthman, remembered for establishing the definitive text of the Quran, and finally the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Of these, Ali alone is recognized by the Shia, who consider him the Prophet’s rightful heir and their own first Imam.

As the photo above suggests, Morsi, a Sunni, and Ahmadinejad, a Shia, are precisely three caliphs apart.

Mahdism in Iraq, redux

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — news bulletin on Mahdist messianism, with a muddling mixing of metpahors ]

prominent ISCI leader Jalal al-din Ali al-Sagheer, via Rudaw

Dated yesterday, Hevidar Ahmed‘s piece on the Kurdish news site Rudaw, Shia Leader: The Awaited Imam Mahdi Will Fight the Kurds, confirms that Iraq’s Mahdist undercurrent has at least one well-placed adherent while also denying the specific applicability of one particular sermon — except in case of earthquake:

Jalal al-din Ali al-Sagheer, a prominent leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), denies saying that the awaited Imam al-Mahdi will fight the Kurds when he emerges.

Sagheer also sent a letter to the president of Iraq Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani explaining his intentions behind a lecture he delivered on Aug. 10.

The lecture, delivered in Baghdad’s Buratha Mosque, was about recent political activities of Kurds in Iraq and Syria and the relation of these activities to the appearance of the awaited Shia imam.

Sagheer cited some texts about the subject and concluded that “these could be some of the signs of the appearance of the awaited imam, but in order for these expectations to come true, a strong earthquake needs to hit Syria and Turkish soldiers must land in Cizre region.”

A tip of the hat to Timothy Furnish, whose MahdiWatch blog has a longer and more detailed version of story. Among Dr. Furnish’s points:

Modern Iraqi Mahdism has, heretofore, been largely a phenemenon manifesting among outre groups there: Ahmad al-Hasan’s Ansar al-Mahdi, the late Abd al-Zahra al-Qar`awi’s Jund al-Sama’, or Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi’s Jaysh Husayn, as well as (albeit probably more politically and less seriously) Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi. Now, however, a mainstream Iraqi politician is espousing Mahdist views–and not just pious ones reflecting some far-off, future hope but beliefs working eschatology into the modern political scene in the Middle East.

Ali A Allawi said Iraqi Mahdism was flying “under the radar” of western analysts when he spoke at the Jamestown Foundation on October 9, 2007. The video of that meeting is no longer publicly available, and as far as I know, no transcription exists online.

Are we paying attention to Mahdism as a significant current in the Middle East yet? If not — and switching my metaphors in midstream — it’s probably “up periscope” time again.

Pussy Riot VIII – Kasparov II – Of Games V

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Kasparov’s summation, Russia, chess ]

Kasparov‘s comment is succinct, insightful, elegant — and a perfect fit with McIntyre‘s theoretical formulation.


Thursday, August 30th, 2012

On behalf of Charles, Scott and myself, I would like to extend congratulations to our esteemed friend Lexington Green,  for the honor he has received.

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