Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Balkans: My Attempt At '90s Retro

In preparation for a larger piece on recent developments in the Balkans, please consider the following:
  1. So, what has been happening in the Balkans since those hoary days of the early and mid 1990's when they were all the rage?
  2. Very recently (last week, in fact), Montenegro voted to become independent from Serbia. Read the details here and here.
  3. Look at this map. Using what you know (or what, in my case, you think you remember), what implications for the region spring to mind when considering that Montenegro will be an independent, sovereign state?

Let's take a trip down memory lane, shall we? This trip could, like most important developments, go WAY back. The Battle of Kosovo Polje, which took place in 1389, became a major issue in the conflict. Read about it here, but be aware that the link is to a page maintained by the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizen.

Feel free to post your recollections of the situation and any other considerations as this is a work in progress for publication sooner rather than later.

Political Addicts, I Am Your Enabler

I know I did this recently, but I have found two other sites that could literally take up hours of valuable time.

As for my political addiction, it has waned with my lack of access to cable news (every hard-core addicts "guilty pleasure") but I still read too much for my own good.

I view it like this: some people like to pick Academy Award winners; others like to do fantasy sports (I do this, but not well at all); some place wagers, legal and otherwise, on all manner of contests. This is what I do.

Anyway, your fix:
  1. - This site provides the latest polling data for people, elections and issues as taken by the major poll taking organizations (some of which have great, evil names like Diageo and Opinion Dynamics, along with the more traditional Gallup and the silly Quinniapac). The most recent are concerning people's opinions of John McCain, Hilary Clinton, the state of morals in the U.S. and consumer confidence. Pure gold.
  2. - Another ubersite. The best part, though, is their "power rankings" of members of Congress. The comparison of these rankings can fuel all sorts of speculation, providing hours of enjoyment. For example, Wisconsin (as a state) exerts considerable pull in the House, but not really in the Senate. Wisconsin has two representatives in their "top ten," namely James Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) who is #5 and David Obey (D-Wausau), who is #9. Look up your guys and gals and see where they fit.

Yes, I'm the pusherman. You know you need it. Just one hit won't hurt anyone. It's never just one, though, is it?

A Big, Dull Thud



Ok, ok, I know. Hobbes is not exactly light holiday reading and maybe needs to be mulled over a bit. I also realize that, when transfered to MS Word, the last entry was the equivalent of six double spaced pages.

An interesting exercise would be to relate Hobbes and Nuts-Ripped-Off-Guy. In other words, what would Hobbes have to say about human nature and society considering the aformentioned nut-ripping?

That is the most times I have ever used the word "nuts" in a piece of writing. I promise it won't happen again. The use of the word, I mean.

As for future nut-rippings (there it is again), I can make no guarantees. Could/would Hobbes do the same?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

In Leviathan's Long Shadow

In considering government and all of the maddening things that it does, one may forget the roots of ideas of government and the relation of the people to it. Different systems have different roots, naturally, but I think it would be hard to argue that the "Western tradition" is predominant in most governments (in one degree or another) across the globe. Why this is could be considered at another time, but it is well to note that the political tradition of early modern Europe, in all its complexity, is at the root of our current system in the United States.

The system of state in the U.S. descends in most ways from the political thought and tradition extant in early modern England. Perhaps the most controversial and studied figure of this tradition (with the possible exception of John Locke) is Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). After considering the nature of Hobbes's thought on the nature of man and the state of nature, the origins of government and the nature of sovereignty, some connections will be made to the present day and generally argue that we have not, in many ways, escaped the world that Hobbes described in Leviathan. In many ways, thankfully enough though, we have.

One must start any consideration of Hobbes with an idea of his notion of the state of nature, that is, the state of human society and relations before organization and codification. Hobbes viewed the state of nature as a state of constant war and struggle. People, driven by the desire for self preservation and their personal passions, constantly attacked each other in the attempt to survive. It was in this consideration that Hobbes coined the phrase that life in the state of nature is "nasty, brutish and short." So, the state of nature for Hobbes is a negative state and one in which there is no safety or security beyond that which the individual can provide for himself.

From this state of nature, the people involved come to realize that the constant war and insecurity is untenable and that there must be born a higher authority. In other words, there must be a transfer of sovereignty from the individual (state of nature) to another entity. It is here that Hobbes forwards his conception of the social contract. Hobbes's social contract involves the individuals agreeing with each other to transfer power to a sovereign entity. This differs significantly with the social contract as discussed by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The key occurrence for Hobbes's social contract is the fact that once the sovereignty is transfered from the people to the sovereign, it cannot be taken back. The transfer is final and the sovereign is freed from taking the people's desires and opinions into consideration. This also, for Hobbes, precludes any idea of resistance to the sovereign as it is not in the right of the people to question the power that they decided (mutually, at first) would rule over them.

In doing this, Hobbes argues that the sovereign is an artificial man, an independent entity, not bound by the same constraints as regular people. The sovereign is not bound even to obey its own laws, but it is expected that the sovereign will always have the best interests of the people in mind when making the decisions of state.

As depicted visually on the frontspiece to the original 1651 edition, this artificial man created by the transfer of sovereignty is show as a king. To be sure, Hobbes was quite royalist in his leanings. A pupil-cum-patron of his, Thomas Hardwick, the Second Earl of Devonshire, began Hobbes's long association with Royalist forces and this extended into the English Civil War. Hobbes actually fled England during the Civil War (after the execution of Charles I on January 31, 1649), and part of the Commonwealth and Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. It was during this period when Hobbes was in France that he wrote Leviathan (approx. 1649-1650). He also, at this time, met Rene Descartes and provided commentary on his Discourses.

Back to the ideas, though, Hobbes was a Royalist, but it did not really matter to him what form the government was to take. The important factor for Hobbes was the indivisibility of sovereignty once it is given by the people. This, in other words, precludes ideas such as separation of powers, federalism, checks and balances (another Montesquieu idea) or devolved government. The sovereignty, to be effective, must be vested in one body, quite literally if the analogy of commonwealth as an artificial man is to be believed.

With this framework, it is not hard to imagine what Hobbes thought about free will. He was a thoroughgoing determinist. He did not believe that individuals could be free actors and live in a stable society separated from the violence of the state of nature. This also relates to his materialism, the belief that the human life is nothing but the moving of uncontrollable inner biology (although he would not have used that word) and therefore the artificial man that was Leviathan can have the life force just as any man can. The human person is nothing but its instrumental functions; for Hobbes, the state is no different.

As you can see, these ideas concerning the nature of man, state of nature and the genesis of the state are all related and provide a pretty bleak picture of society and human nature. How can this be explained? As aluded to above, Hobbes was indeed a product of his times. The seventeenth century in England (and in Europe generally) was a bloody one filled with uncertainty, war and death. The absolutist idea ruled in government, most famously displayed (although this can be debated) by King Louis XIV of France. England had its absolutist tradition, too, although inspired and backed by such French theorists as Jean Bodin who, in his Six Books of the Commonwealth laid out the rationalization for the absolutist state. King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland) was a dedicated absolutist, believing in the divine right of kings and seeing his place as the undisputed ruler of the land.

It is out of such times, which combined the horrors of protracted war with the notions of a powerful central government, that can be seen as the backdrop of Hobbes and Leviathan. Hobbes lived in unstable times and one can understand that this would influence the thought of someone concerned not only with government but human nature as well.

The idea of the divine right of kings leads to a consideration of Hobbes and religion. In other words, how important is religion to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes? It was a much debated subject in Hobbes's time and ours, the debate centering on the exact religious disposition of Hobbes himself. There were arguments for everything from Anglican to Protestant Dissenter to (most provocatively) a Deist or even an Atheist. God does not seem to do much in Leviathan, apart from the Creation. People are the sum total of their desires and vices and it is not up to God to stop them or introduce moral sanction. It is the people who erect governments and not God. He does spend a considerable time rubbishing the Catholics, for who he had considerable contempt (although Locke was no big supporter of Rome either).

So, is religion necessary for the commonwealth described to function? As I have hopefully shown, religion can be a part of the state but it does not seem instrumental to state formation or maintenance. If anything, Hobbes believes that religion, while it can pacify people and make the obedient, it can also lead to dissention and challenge to the leadership (here again, he blames the Catholics).

Bearing all of this in mind, what can be said of Hobbes considering the political landscape of today? It is tempting, given the problems and horrors that confront us daily, to agree with Hobbes in saying that people are inherently evil, selfish and will do anything to get their way if left ungoverned. This position is convienent when one throws one's hands up in exaspiration at the world and says "Fine. Maybe people just need a strong-fisted, brutally repressive regime that will rule absolutely and keep everyone in line." Is this reasonable? Incidentally, Hobbes thought that reason was central to the orderly functioning of society but that it was not a priori. That is, people are not born with reason; reason develops from human industry.

I cannot accept Hobbes's idea of the permanent transfer of sovereignty or the indivisibility of power in a government. As has been shown, his times and position may have influenced these ideas, but they are troubling nonetheless. If a government ceases to perform its function (the protection of the human rights of its people), the people should be free to resist it at all harms. For Hobbes (personally and theoretically), the only manner of acceptable resistance was to flee the country.

Why should people be free to resist the government? Because the government exists at their behest and at their service. After all, the reason for setting up the state in the first place was a desire of people for safety, right? Even Hobbes would seemingly agree. Hobbes also sets his framework on shaky ground when he asserts that this transfer of sovereignty may not have to be a real act, but can be a foundational, explanatory myth. The countermanding of this idea comes with Locke and his idea of "tacit consent," whereby individuals rebind themselves to the idea of the state automatically (for lack of a better word). Remember, though, that Locke had a completely different notion of the state of nature, natural law and the relation of the individual to the collectivity than did Hobbes. We will discuss Locke in future.

I also disagree with Hobbes's denial of free will for all people. Why? Well, there is a religious argument that contends that people must be free to choose even if the morality of the choice is already known. In other words, people, to be truly dedicated to the service of God, must be free to choose wrong. They must be ready to accept the consequences, but this is the price humankind must pay for being created in "God's own image."

Is there a non-religious argument for free will? Perhaps the full implications of this question are not germane to the present discussion, but suffice to say that if society is indeed composed of individuals and those individuals want to live together in groups, there must be a balance stricken between individual and group. This can only arise if the individuals are free actors, not coerced to react from outside forces visible or otherwise. It is the opposite of this notion that leads to repression through the abrogation of the very basis of society as a collection of individuals and nothing approaching the artificial man of Leviathan.

Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan have a long shadow indeed. In many ways, we still have not completely escaped from Hobbes's view of humankind, their nature and relations to each other. How is this true? Superficially, people do indeed seem to react how Hobbes describes. People want what they want and will do whatever it takes to get it. On a deeper level, when power is transfered from the individual to the commonwealth, it does seem to take on a mind of its own. Ideas of power get entrenched in institutions that are hard to change and almost impossible to get rid of. We seem trapped in a system where even the access to the organs of organized change (the legislative process, for example) seem ever more resistant to evolution or even closed to active participation by the citizenry.

The transfer of power being original and irrevocable, we seem stuck in a system that cannot be changed easily. I would argue, however, that while this may be the case, it is a rather pessimistic view of humankind to take and one that leads to the perpetuation of a bloated and out-of-control state acting completely in its own interest. It is through rediscovery of our nature as free actors and granters of the reins of power that real change can be fostered. We all must realize that the individual is at the heart of society, not the collectivity or the government it supposedly put into power in the past.

Humans should be free-born, individual actors and the center of a system where the power descends from their consent (tacit or otherwise), all in the knowledge that the system can be changed or scrapped if it ceases to perform its function. Human weakness in the face of such responsibility is what leads to chaos and disorder, and I do believe that human beings are weak but not inherently evil. Hobbes believed that humans were not up to the task.

The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance. Are we willing to stand guard?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Blogging Called. He Accepted The Charges.

I would like to welcome a fellow Madisonian and loyal member of the Opposition here in the P.R.O.M (People's Republic of Madison). Now, we are not scary Republicans nor lackadaisical Democrats...we are much, much better (at least we think so).

So, check out Greg's blog for some great pieces on Madison, the "Midwestern ethos" (something I have considered at length), the sporting life and other worthwhile pieces in future.

Greg is moving to Berlin, Germany for a time so his perspective on Continental affairs will be most welcome.

Oh, and I helped him design and build a five-storey beer bong. I am not (in the words of Dave Barry) making this up.

Here is the link to Greg's blog.

Much in the thinking about your impressions of Thomas Hobbes.

Friday, May 12, 2006

One Down, Seven To Go

As of 8:23 A.M. CDT, I, upon sending an email with an attached .pdf, finished the first year of my doctoral program in the Department of History at UW-Madison.

My feelings? Well, whew! for a start. (I realize that sentence was interestingly punctuated; deal with it."

These past months (although it seems like about three hours ago) have been a challenge, but I think that I have risen to it. Those of you who have gone to graduate school know that it is more of a marathon than a sprint and tenacity is tested almost more than ability. They figure that by now, you know how to play the game. Take it to the next level.

Grad school is like the Super Bowl of Nerdiness...this is the Big Dance. Do you have the stomach to go all the way?

Well, those of you who know me know that my stomach is ready for damned near anything.

Speaking of that, is it wrong that it is about 8:30 AM and I want a beer? Do I have a problem or have I just found the right solution? I guess it is a matter of perspective, but I will say no, that is not at all wrong.

The paper that I finished and sent just now was, to put it mildly, surgery with a baseball bat...or an oil tanker. Yeah, I made the point, but the specifics are just not there. Oh well, what could one indeed say for a historian in the midst of linguists. They, like everyone in the social sciences (history is humanities, folks), just get to make shit up.

What now? Oddly enough, in a strange case of bookending, there is a party at the same place there was one the second night I was here. It is a serious case of veja du.

As for the long term, I will not care for a few weeks, then, back at the reading for fall and prepping for prelims (a.k.a. the test from fucking hell).

Well, that is quite enough of my personal troubles. They are not that interesting, but I felt that this was an adequate time for reflection.

Oh, thanks for the response to the Hitler thing. I guess if attention to detail, cognizance of the worst cases possible and a slight suspicion of people makes me Hitler, well then, I'm Hitler, I guess (more interesting punctuation).

Jenks-I forgot about the Trevor Wilson thing...that is indeed odd. If I recall, Giles accused me of Nazi-ish behaviors once (probably). Also, thanks for the comment on my wild speculations. Read my response.

The Rest Of You- Enjoy Every Sandwich.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Rather Off-Putting

I took one of those personality tests. This one, based on my answers to twenty-seven questions, assesses what world leader you most closely resemble.


Take it for yourself. I honestly am not sure what to make of the results...

American Agriculture, Fuel Technology And National Security

With uncertain oil prices and a dicey international situation concerning oil producing nations (like this has been any different for thirty-five years), there is much talk of developing alternative sources of fuel.

One that is bandied about a lot (especially here in the corncentric Midwest) is ethanol which is made from that very bounty of the American Middle West. I know that there are laws in certain places that mandate a certain percentage of ethanol in fuel and that there are also engines that can run on an increasingly high mixture of ethanol and petroleum-based products.

Sounds good, right? The American farmer can be freed from damaging and outdated subsidies (please hold back the laughter) and sell their crops for a fair and higher price so that their relevance and efficacy is guaranteed. The U.S., broadly, would become a more important producer of an increasingly important source of fuel, right?

[Here begins the wild speculation.]

So, if this is true, and the U.S with its corn resources becomes a globally significant producer of fuel, then the source of this fuel would become more valuable, right?

If this source is indeed corn, then corn is more valuable than ever before, correct? Boon for farmers, producers and speculators, a golden [Bantam] age for American agriculture, right?

Could it be said that, given this situation, corn would have to be more closely guarded than it is now. The fields of it consume, let's be honest, whole states and the bulk of a region of the U.S. If it is indeed valuable as a source of fuel, will it have to be guarded like oil fields?

Does this change the dynamics of national security as far as energy resources. Oil refineries and storage units are, doubltess, guarded fairly closely, as are pipelines, depots and transport vessels both land and sea. I am sure that even before 9/11, a significant portion of expenditure for oil companies was spent on asset security. Does this new development make corn fields and grain elevators across the nation more vulnerable because of their increased worth.

Think of the "what ifs" here...terrorist attacks made as simple as torching fields of passive grain as their owners wonder how to protect their vast and diffuse assets...cities such as, say, Dubuque, Iowa becoming as big of a concern for security as any port city...the potential for chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear attack against a crop with no natural defenses must be vast...this is all ignoring the devastating effects on food production, both crops and livestock...

Is all of this rather far-fetched? Possibly and I certainly hope so.

It cannot be ignored, however, that in a search to protect ourselves through the use of resources and technology, new concerns may arise and with them, new complications.

In other words, is the cure potentially more deadly than the disease?

Could the plowshares of the American farmer become a target for the swords of potential enemies?

Is it possible that the American staff of life could be transformed into a cudgel, wielded by those who would destroy us?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Better Than Sex? Not Even Close.

Sex, that is.

The ever-observant late Dr. Hunter Stockton Thompson observed, in the title to his tale of the 1992 presidential election, that politics is better than sex. Far more addictive, too.

Well, as always, the Good Doctor was right on the head, at least as far as I am concerned.

What goes on inside the Beltline and around it is infinitely more intersting that what goes on below it.

I, between the more esoteric deliberations of the academic realm, have been keeping myself apprised of political developments, large and (seemingly) small. Just a few observations, some cryptic, others not...
  • Tommy Thompson as governor of Wisconsin again? He served in the cabinet, still popular at home and knows what's expected of him (if you catch my drift).
  • Cabinet shake-up? This happens to all presidents, in a thinly veiled attempt (by the administration) to buoy itself as the clock ticks and (by potential successors) to cleanse themselves of the stain of the outgoing regime. Think back to 1985-1989 or 1997-2001. Second-term swoon, welcome back, old chum. Plus, the jobs for former cabinet people (lobbyists, pundits, professors, consultants) won't fill themselves to bursting, now will they? Snouts in the trough, all of them. Well, it's all they know...
  • Jack Straw out? You are seriously out of touch if this one surprised you. Whitehall (especially the FCO) and No. 10 have been at odds for some time. That will pretty much set the stage for the fight to control Labour when Blair steps aside (which he said he will before elections are called next).
  • Illinois governor? Hell if I know...Seems like a toss-up, though the George Ryan card is now again a somewhat potent one.
  • Iran? Jack Straw was right on this one. Completely nuts. Interpret my use of it how you will.

I end with two great website suggestions for political junkies and those who love to waste time in front of a computer:

  1. - Polling data summaries, tracking of midterm and P2008 gossip and other goodies. Like crack, but potentially more damaging to brain tissue in the long run.
  2. Atlas of U.S. Elections - This site is mind-boggling. Data going back to the 1796 presidential election with great statistical breakdowns for all since. Great tools and fun "what if" scenarios. Predictions for 2006 races and other great stuff. Again, highly addictive.

Which is more damaging, sex, drugs or electoral politics? The similarities, if you consider them, are, well, considerable.

Everyone has a drug of choice. This happens to be mine. Well, that and Blatz.