American Republic – A Theory and Defense of Politics

(“Flag” by Isabelle de Borchgrave. Photo by the author)

Following years working or covering politics at one level or another I began to read political theory and political philosophy to try to build a theoretical foundation for my practical experience. I had long been frustrated by the expanding gulf between my subjective understanding of politics and the popular (and elite) narrative of what politics is and what at its base drives political dynamics. Unfortunately as I went back further — The Politics, The Republic — I came to understand that the gulf began with the beginning of the Canon. The architects of Western political philosophy did not respect, and therefore did not care to understand, politics for itself.

I am not the first to assert this. Pascal’s blythe Pensées dismiss the ancients, but Hannah Arendt deliberately sequences the intellectual DNA from Plato to Marx to the apolitics imposed by Communist regimes.  She then attempted in her lecture Was ist Politik? (translated and published recently as “An Introduction Into Politics” in The Promise of Politics) to fill the vacuum of understanding about the fundamental nature of politics. But this will likely remain tangential to her larger corpus of work. And it was only a small piece of work against a gigantic, established body that needed debunking.

Taking inspiration from her, from J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors, In Defense of Politics by Bernard Crick (not incidentally a George Orwell biographer), I wrote my own treatise to define (and confine) politics and the political experience. American Republic is the result. It is short in length, terse in language, but even after additional years working at the international level (I completed the manuscript in 2007) continues to reflect my understanding and experience.

I have added to this very modest theory of politics because, in part, the corpus is so small, so little populated by those with the real-world subjective experiences of men and women in politics, and continues to be dominated by the pessimistic, the cynical, and the small. Even other works — such as Max Weber’s Vocation lecture that gave us the inimitable analogy of politics as the “strong and slow boring of hard boards” — remain ultimately cynical and detached from the real work of politics.

For politics is (as I noted in an earlier post), in the words of Vaclav Havel, “the art of the impossible.”  Arendt eerily presaged these words a generation before him, using the words “miracle” and “improbable” to describe what politics could achieve.  Politics allows for collective moral action and only through politics can the great progress of the ages be accomplished. Without politics human beings inhabit a great moral waste. Civilization as we comprehend it could not exist without politics.  I hope this small work advances this understanding.


Faith, Politics and “The West Wing”

Capitol Dome under construction, 1861 (Library of Congress)

I always felt that for all its other traits “The West Wing” was in secret an extended essay on the political experience.  I know who work in the arena must have shared this notion, if only psychically, with one another. (I often wondered if other shows that took evident pride in their verisimilitude connected similarly with cops, doctors or lawyers.) So thinking about politics and trying to find something in the culture to attach it to, I used the release of the first three seasons for a discursive essay on politics, the political experience, and faith in public life.  Some of the arguments I made earlier on this site about taste and aesthetics were first developed here.If the essay seems dated (it references the death of Ronald Reagan and the Kerry campaign in 2004), it was finished in 2005-2006.  But the basic arguments to my mind remain valid.

The essay also allowed me to place “The West Wing” into the subgenre of political fiction — a limited pantheon that includes Allen Drury, Joe Klein, Robert Penn Warren and (most neglected of all), Ward Just. Just continues to write some of the most thoughtful and elegant books about human beings in politics than any other writer in American letters. I don’t know if “The West Wing” owes a direct debt to him, but the very often tragic arc of the show’s characters and the “dangerous friends” they encounter can trace their lineage back to Just’s fiction.

I argue that “The West Wing” — and all political fiction — only really “works” well when what we see or read carries a whiff of reality.  What made “All the President’s Men” and “Primary Colors” so compelling was the sense that we had a privileged glimpse of men we thought we knew while pulling back the curtain a bit. The same was for “The West Wing”. The series only went off the rails when it wasn’t following closely political events in Washington and showing us how the Wizard manipulated or reacted to events. But when in the later seasons the show hit the road with the national campaign that eerily mirrored the Obama-McCain dynamic, we got that much more out of a tightly wound narrative.


Nowa Huta and the Political Aesthetic

John Paul II, Archbishop of Krakow

Monument to Pope John Paul II, also Archibishop of Krakow, Wawel Castle (photo by the author)

In the fall of 2009 I visited Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland, with a NATO delegation.  This allowed me to visit an extraordinary experiment mounted by the Communist government in the late 1940s. On the outskirts of Krakow, in perhaps the worst place in Europe to build one, the proponents of a workers paradise located what would become the largest iron works west of the Urals. There they located Nowa Huta (New Forge), a gigantesque housing complex expressly realized as a social realist community in pure form from design to execution.  Only Magnitogorsk in the Soviet Union attempted social and industrial engineering with such ambition and on such a scale. Nowa Huta, the forge and the community, remain today as a reminder of how the Center (in Czeslaw Milosz’ word) would have remade the world.

I visited Nowa Huta because I was interested in the way totalitarian and repressive regimes dominated the aesthetic realm and Nowa Huta was one of the few places where the full flowering of Social Realism was allowed to take root. (It didn’t, really, for reasons inherent to Communism’s inadequacies, and therein Nowa Huta stands as a comprehensive symbol of applied Marxism.)  But at the time I didn’t understand why regimes that utterly controlled the state, communications, the army and security apparatus should then bother with something so trivial as the arts.

Virtually all regimes that expand their control of the state beyond the press, army, and secret service eventually expand their vision to aesthetics. Albert Speer’s bizarre visions of Germania, Social Realism stamped across the Eurasian landscape from Krakow to Kabul, Saddam Hussein’s vulgar Arabian kitsch — all represented the supreme authority’s desire to dominate and regulate every aspect of their subjects’ lives. By so doing, they created a political aesthetic, asserting what was beautiful according to its right.

Dominating aesthetics is another aspect of political control in totalitarian regimes, not to be confused with real political power. As I’ve noted in a prior post, anything can be considered political when it comes to the normative considerations we choose for others. When those choices are made solely by the state, it is incumbent on the regime to make those choices to close the political space or the choices will be made by the people who will open up the political space between themselves and the state, challenging the political legitimacy of the regime. Under oppressive regimes, the arts are political, and politics become aesthetic.

But visiting Nowa Huta also revealed a brilliant story that isn’t well-known in the West. The Solidarity movement’s southern flank was founded in Nowa Huta, which challenged the regime primarily by demanding to build a church in the purposefully godless preplanned community, an affront to the famously Catholic Poles. The primary champion for the new church was  Karol Wojtyła, the archbishop of Krakow, who would later be elevated as Pope John Paul II.

By the late 1970s the workers in Nowa Huta had built by hand the Arka Pana Church, modeled after de Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, outside the community’s limits.  It stands today, too, as a monument to everything Nowa Huta is not — a political aesthetic as it should be.


Your Inalienable Right to Rock

The Plastic People of the Universe (Czech Radio)

The recent death of the dissident playwright and Czech President Vaclav Havel reminded me again how badly misunderstood politics and power are in the waning age of totalitarian regimes.  I wrote about Havel’s attempts to galvanize the opposition in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and ’80s through the experience of the least-known famous rock band of all time, the Plastic People of the Universe. The Plastics, as they are still known, were critical to the formation of a coherent Opposition at a key moment during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. As a result, they have a lot to teach us about the nature of politics and the concept of the political.

I spent quite some time trying to publish what was, in its final form, an awkward, over-long hybrid essay combining the history of the Velvet Revolution with a theoretical treatise. But I still think it’s important because it demonstrates how political judgments can overwhelm what should be strictly left alone to the culture, and that in closed authoritarian or totalitarian states those political judgments are controlled exclusively by the state power what is left to the public in open, democratic countries.

At the core of the Plastics’ predicament in the 1970s was this: do you have an inalienable right to rock?  This is really a question of aesthetics, not politics, and in open, free states the dividing line between aesthetics and politics is broad and rarely crossed.  But under the old communist regime, nothing passed without official political judgment — including aesthetics, which served the state.  After the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, the authorities reached the point where they believed the Plastics threatened civic order and arrested the band and their fans. In effect, the state determined there was no space in the entire country free from its political judgment and control.

The galvanizing moment came when Havel and his fellow literati dissidents joined with the Catholic opposition, the labor unions and others who had until that point been organizing separately against the regime. The Plastics’ arrest was a step too far for all of them, who realized that if pure art could be under threat then there was at last no safe space free from government control. This common threat brought them all together under the aegis of Charter 77, which threw down the gauntlet under the Helsinki Accords which Czechoslovakia (along with the rest of the Warsaw Pact) had signed pledging their countries to uphold human rights.

At least as importantly, despite a decade of persecution, Charter 77 united the Opposition as an effective shadow government to challenge and negotiate the regime out of power when street protests crescendoed in 1989. None of this could have happened without the Plastic People of the Universe.

Which makes the Plastics’ avowed lack of interest in any political agenda so much more intriguing. While we in the West almost expect our cultural figures to take sides in the political debate, the Plastics wanted no part of it. Their innocence of politics makes their arrest so much more significant: because the authorities came down on them just for playing rock’n’roll, the violation had a more acute, if not necessarily higher profile than the arrest of a rabble-rousing pamphleteer like Havel.

The story of the Plastics, Havel, Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution helped me answer one deceptively simple question: what do we mean when we talk about the political?  This had already been answered definitively, it seemed, by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who defined the political as state interests against external enemies. Leo Strauss, in commentary on Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political,” lightened this harsh assessment by arguing Schmitt’s dialectic implied the political equates with the moral. But if that were true, then the two words would be interchangeable, and they are not.

I go one step further by referring to the political as the normative. When we talk about the political, we are talking about normative values we are choosing collectively or for others.  To put it more simply, any time we say “we should,” we are implicating the political. There is a certain moral hazard about the political, in which we are applying to or for others the values we hold for ourselves. This is best done in democratic systems but horrifying when applied without recourse in repressive, totalitarian or authoritarian systems.

The story of the Plastics, while sobering — many members of the band, but also including Havel, spent years in prison — is one of faith in politics and political change over many years, and we can take heart in their example. Indeed, their innocence is most heartening of all. Hundreds of thousands of people across Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and now the Mahgreb and the Persian Gulf are following their faith.


History as a Presence

While living and working in Memphis, Tennessee, I moonlighted as a book reviewer for the local broadsheet, the Commercial Appeal. In retrospect I’m amazed I was able to do it, now in a time when The Washington Post no longer has a separate book review section. There was no money (as I recall), but I got to keep the books and see my name in print on occasion. And I certainly expanded my horizons, not just to unseen lands but to realms of politics at their absolute extreme.

For reasons I can’t imagine, the books I was assigned to review focused on the horrors of savage regimes: Rwanda, Nazi-occupied Poland, Stalin’s Russia. They were pretty obscure titles, too, not even one-off from the mainstream bestsellers that The Post and The Times flog every week.  But they roused ghosts, disinterred secrets, and illuminated passed-over crevices of history that still chill my memory more than 15 years later.

Fergal Keane’s Season of Blood was one of the first book-length narratives about Rwanda before Samantha Power’s and Philip  Gourevitch’s searching works.  I still recall Keane’s opening passage of the Kagera river which carried thousands of bodies into Lake Victoria. For many downriver and for those living on the lake, the first indication that anything was happening in Rwanda was the congestion of bloated corpses on the waterways.

For those who keep a diary — or, for that matter, those who blog — Intimacy and Terror should strike them where they live.  Laboriously curated from hundreds of personal diaries held in the former Soviet archives, this book focuses on only a very few representative diaries from the height of Stalin’s Terror. Some are brilliant and exceptional, including a diurnal-nocturnal diary kept by an artist who recorded his daily doings as well as the dreams that reflected his waking life. But as Winston Smith’s treachery in 1984 taught us, keeping a diary condemns oneself in such a regime. The editors found one of these diaries underlined in red by the NKVD officer who had seized it. It had been submitted as evidence in the trial of its author, who was executed as a counterrevolutionary. Thought crime was a fact in Stalin’s Russia.

Theo Richmond’s Konin resurrects an ancient center of Jewish learning in Poland which was completely obliterated by the Nazis. The few survivors scattered around the world — Britain, Israel, Brooklyn, Australia — and attempted to preserve this razed city as best they could. Richmond, the son of Koniners, collected their memories for this book. They are often too horrible to relate, but one story stayed with me and I hoped against hope it might show up in the recent film Defiance (it wasn’t). It was the story of one Koniner who escaped the liquidation of her ghetto, survived five days with her child in the Belarussian winter, and stumbled across a group of Jewish partisans sabotaging Nazi columns who saved her from certain death. She married the group leader and after the war settled anonymously in the American Midwest.

It is always comforting to cling to individual stories of heroism or conscience against the backdrop of moral calamity. But Hannah Arendt argues convincingly (see my previous post) that under these circumstances there is very little space for moral agency as we understand it.  I would argue that Arendt’s implications suggest heroism and conscience have much more to do with chance and luck under terrifying conditions than personal moral action. The real heroes, I think, recognize this.  Which may explain why those partisans lived so quietly in the Midwest until Theo Richmond found them.

I’ve posted these reviews here (a fourth is of Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth) because they have disappeared from The Commercial Appeal’s site. I’m sure someone could find them in a library or on a Nexis search, but the latter is by paid subscription only, the former very likely limited to microfilm collections in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.


Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics

Hannah Arendt: “The meaning of politics is freedom.” (Library of Congress via the World Bank)

I have worked in politics at virtually every level — local, state, federal and international — for nearly my entire career. For much of my adult life I have been unable to shake the intuition that the common conception of politics and political life is basically and fundamentally flawed and that we have been ill-served by this understanding for too long.  For the past ten years or so I have tried to build a better theoretical understanding of politics and the political while writing about what I have thought about, learned and discovered.

Unfortunately I haven’t published much beyond this review of two books published during the last decade anthologizing some of the previously unpublished, uncollected and untranslated works by Hannah Arendt.  I found her to be among the very few to have taken politics at all seriously (Reinhold Niebuhr, Max Weber and Carl Schmitt are some of her unexpected companions), although these explorations rank among her peripheral works. Nonetheless, they were, for me, the beginning of an understanding of my own experience — and the foundation for a more faithful theory of politics that Western political philosophy and political theory, too my reading, got wrong from the start.

I was thrilled to find Arendt shared by view and alarmed to see where she took it: by simple steps from Plato to Marx to the Gulag. Communism was not an aberration of Marx’s political theories but the very apotheosis of it.  He envisioned a society without politics — only an “administration of things” — which of course is very nice to think about until you confront its horrible, practical realities. An apolitical society meant no petitions, no elections, no parliaments, no assembly, no speech, no press — no protections and no rights.

This article is all the more important to me because, as with some of my other essays and reporting, it has since disappeared from the original host.  First published in the English-language edition of the German Internationale Politik, I can no longer find it online. (Correction Mar. 24: The article has since reappeared here.)

Arendt also wrote compellingly about justice in extremis, drawing on her experience in Germany and the controversy over the Eichmann trial. This is especially important reading for the purposes of transitional justice. Modern concepts of justice in democratic societies, she argues persuasively, simply do not exist in repressive and totalitarian societies. So how does international law apply to those countries? There is no simple answer, but she seems to be the only one asking the cutting questions.


War, Truth and Justice in the Balkans

As a law student studying in an appalling banlieue satellite campus of the University of Paris in 2000, I quite by accident stumbled across a book by Pierre Hazan on the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.  Published that year as La Justice Face à la Guerre, I instantly recognized it as the first significant history of the international court established to try war criminals from the conflict that tore apart the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Since I was then studying international criminal law, I knew no such book existed in English. Filled with visions of glory — or at least knowing I had nothing to lose — I wrote Pierre in my middling French asking him if he would allow me to pitch a translation to American publishers.  To my astonishment and eternal gratitude he accepted.  During the next four years I worked feverishly on the translation, adding notations and photographs.  It was published in 2004 by Texas A&M University Press as Justice in a Time of War.  Pierre graciously and enterprisingly added an additional chapter about the trial of Slobodan Milosevic — his arrest and extradition to The Hague occurred after the French edition appeared — and eerily predicted Milosevic’s death in detention.  (For myself I saw Milosevic during his trial in The Hague while on a trip to The Netherlands in 2003, but witnessed nothing of his infamous histrionics.)

You can purchase Justice in a Time of War at (including Kindle format), where it remains a top seller on military justice and the former Yugoslavia.

Pierre is an accomplished war correspondent for Libèration in Paris and Le Temps in Geneva and has since expanded his reportage into scholarship on transitional justice and other issues at Harvard University, the U.S. Institute for Peace, and l’Institut d’etudes politique (Sciences Po) in Paris.  You can read more about him here.  He has since published additional works in French and in English, including his most recent, Judging War, Judging History.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has lasted longer than all of the wars in that benighted former federation combined. Fortunately the two worst war criminals are now in the dock — Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic — and with the last wanted suspects in custody the long mandate of the court will at last have an end date.  It also means that the independent nations of the Balkans will be able to reconcile and move towards prosperity and protection within the European Union and NATO.


The Secret History of Watergate

John Ehrlichman, UCLA 1948 co-valedictorian (UCLA Archives via California Historian)

As a reporter for UCLA’s Daily Bruin I wrote about a New York Times op-ed published after the 1993 death of H.R. “Bob” Haldeman by fellow UCLA alumnus Clancy Sigal. In the article, Sigal revealed a campus controversy that embroiled Haldeman in the late 1940s, involving a dead dog discovered at his fraternity and the fight he had with the campus newspaper. In his op-ed, Sigal set up a generational rivalry that played out decades later through the Watergate affair that eventually sent Haldeman to prison.

It sounded a little ridiculous until Sigal reminded the reader who his fellow alumni were: John Ehrlichman, Frank Mankiewicz, Alexander Butterfield and Gil Harrison.  Ehrlichman and Butterfield pledged the same fraternity; Mankiewicz and Harrison wrote for the Daily Bruin.  For those who don’t remember their history: Ehrlichman and Haldeman ran the campaigns and White House of Richard Nixon. Mankiewicz ran the campaign of George McGovern against Nixon in 1972 and Harrison the left-liberal New Republic.  Maybe this little dog was no historical pup after all.

I was fascinated. Raised in a politically attuned family with a Watergate obsession – my mother watched the entire hearings when I was barely two years old — during the next few months I elaborated Sigal’s op-ed into a feverish two-part series for the Daily Bruin that won the California Intercollegiate Press Association’s award for best series the following year. I filled out an untold story mostly taken up, in All the President’s Men, by the “dirty tricks” perpetrated by University of Southern California alumni. Nobody had told the UCLA story in such detail.

I talked to Mankiewicz and Haldeman’s widow.  I interviewed (and taped – taped!)  Ehrlichman. I talked to Gil Harrison and his wife.  I talked to Clancy Sigal.  It was a cub reporters’ dream, to uncover the secret history of Watergate.

Filled with an undergraduate’s limitless sense of the possible and one’s own abilities, I then took the series and expanded it.  Behind the uncanny campus connections among the Nixon-McGovern operatives I discovered a common thread.  They had all been cultivated by a woman named Adaline Guenther, known universally as “Grandma,” who ran an interfaith center at UCLA in the 1940s and 1950s and had an extraordinary eye for budding talent. In those days she cultivated Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Harrison, Mankiewicz, and later Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles – an entire generation of Southern California leaders and intellectuals.

This gave the story both a spine and a tragic thread. Grandma was pure of heart and soul, an absolute idealist, and in her dotage – she had retired by the 1970s – she watched the finest she had cultivated destroy themselves in the most public way imaginable.  I read her oral history and some of her journals and felt her horror as she witnessed, in anonymous privacy, her brightest stars burn out in a blaze of obscenity and paranoia.  It led her, in her last years, to question everything she had ever done with her life.

I was so moved by the example of this selfless, perceptive but forgotten woman – you will find only ephemera about her in a Google search – that I just recently parted with her oral history.  I post my article here (you’ll forgive the editors’ remarks at the end which I did not consent to) in part to preserve her life as well as to add an additional chapter to our understanding of Watergate. Most of these personalities are now dead (Sigal excepted) which makes this story all the more poignant.

The article I wrote didn’t find the outlet I was hoping for – the fairly obscure magazine of the Conference of California Historians – but I post it here because it is not available in any other format other than the few libraries that might have a copy on their shelves.

Westwood to Watergate – California Historian Winter 1999


The Only Game in Town

Fifteen years ago as a cub reporter for the Daily News in Memphis, Tennessee, I noticed something nobody else seemed to care much about.  Just south of the city, in Tunica County, Mississippi, the largest expansion of the casino gambling industry in America was taking place.  Forget Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or even the scattered casinos on Indian reservations — in just a few years, Tunica became the third largest gaming market in the United States in what had been, in the late 1980s, probably the poorest county in the country.  Jesse Jackson had traveled there then and pronounced it “America’s Ethiopia.”

I was amazed, then, that nobody — bar a few business reporters from the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the occasional parachute scribe with preconceived notions — was really looking at what happens when you take a zero-base economy, add a new industry, and shake vigorously. Tunica, in the wake of the state’s legalization, had explicitly opened up business to the casinos to jump-start a local economy moribund since the collapse of King Cotton.

With the encouragement of my editors and my reliable ’89 Dodge Raider I spent a few months driving around the byways of Tunica, interviewing locals, making FOIA requests from suspicious state officials and compiling data.  I published a nine-part series in the Daily News that eventually won me the prestigious fifth-place prize for small-circulation newspapers by the Tennessee Press Association.

The only similarity between my experience and a John Grisham novel is the Daily News‘ pseudonymous appearance in The Rainmaker as “The Daily Report”.

At the height of the 1996 Congressional debate over a federal commission on gambling I published a naive op-ed in The New York Times. Even more naively I attempted a longer work (a “book”) which devolved into this more academic paper which remains, even after more than a decade, the only substantial study of the socio-economic impacts of gaming on Tunica County I know.

Effects of Casino Gaming – Social Science Research Center

I post it here because it has vanished from its original home, Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center.  It lives on in a few other places, notably local government white papers studying the feasibility of allowing gambling in other municipalities.  My op-ed showed up in Where America Stands 1997 and the paper was cited in Ken Wells’ Travels with Barley, an exhaustive tour of America viewed through the bottom of a beer mug.