Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Knock on Wood
I finally finished Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly today, which is about the ways in which governments pursue policies contrary to their self-interest. She starts with the Trojans taking in the horse filled with Greek soldiers, and proceeds to the Renaissance popes, whose blind corruption led to the Protestant Reformation. From there, it's off to the British government's stubborn insistence on asserting its authority to tax the American colonies, which created a revolution in a place where no revolutionary feelings existed. The book concludes with an examination of America's 30-year stand against Communism in Vietnam, which failed in 1975 for many of the same reasons that drove out the French in 1954. I thought about posting her entire last chapter, "A Lantern on the Stern," as a blog entry here, but I lack the will to type it all. Go to your favorite bookstore or library and read the book--it's dense and will take you awhile, but Tuchman is such a good writer (and, I suspect, charming company if one had ever met her in person) that you won't be bored.

In her lengthy section on Vietnam, Tuchman discusses the horrible realization that struck the Johnson Administration in the mid 1960s that a large segment of the American public no longer believed the government's optimistic reports on the war, and, what was worse, the public no longer considered the United States to be the good guys in the war. Tuchman quotes the French philosopher Montesquieu, who wrote, "The deterioration of every government begins with the decay of the principles on which it was founded." In other words, the United States lost sight of what it had historically stood for, and suffered grave consequences as a result.

I made a note of the Montesquieu quote last night, and resolved that it would be a good one with which to head this blog. Tonight I googled it, just to check the wording and the source, and that's when I saw something interesting--the quote appears on more conservative websites than it does on liberal ones. So the Baron has obviously touched a nerve out there on the right, where he serves as a beacon for all those good-hearted red staters fighting the liberal stain. But it seems to me that his words are just as damning for conservatives as they are inspiring. Because what are we opening up to decay when conservatives insist on upsetting the system of checks and balances, imposing a state religion, or quashing dissent, if not the principles on which our government was founded?

Montesquieu wrote those words in 1748, before there was a United States. So the deterioration of government through decay of principle has been around longer than we have--and, as I have observed before, even though we like to think we're exempt from the forces of history, we're not. And if Barbara Tuchman were alive today (she died in 1989), what she would see wouldn't be unfamiliar from her historian's point of view. The way we push our debts off into the future as if none of us will live in the future; the way we ignore global warming and shrinking oil supplies because we lack the will to confront them; the way we seek immediate political advantage on the assumption that we'll never be in the minority again (are you listening, Dr. Frist?)--all involve self-deception, and what Tuchman terms "wooden-headedness." All are cases in which plausible alternatives exist, and are easily visible to those who want to see them. And all of them could provide material enough for new chapters in The March of Folly.

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