Three Years Together

December 29th is the anniversary of this website, and I try never to let it go unremarked-upon. Many thanks, then, to all of you who make up my readership. It goes without saying that what I do here would be pointless without you. You all have my deepest appreciation – and most especially those of you whose donations helped me through the financial crisis that I faced this past summer. Be assured that there’s much more to come – I have not yet begun to fight!

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Email: antidemblog at gmail dot com

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The Canterbury Tales And The Virtues Of Pauvreté

(Note: This piece may be a bit heavy on the lit-major nerdishness for those who haven’t read Chaucer and/or who aren’t so good with Middle English. Then again – what’s your excuse for these oversights? We’re talking about your cultural heritage here.)

Namedropping Geoffrey Chaucer in my last piece put me in mind to rework something I wrote years ago about the Canterbury Tales, and how it illustrates the attitude that the medievals held when it came to the subject of poverty. Their concept of virtuous poverty seems worth bringing up in an age in which it becomes increasingly obvious that the West’s excessive wealth has been a primary factor in making our society degenerate, decadent, and soft – neither strong enough to survive nor very much deserving of survival. Our ancestors, who were far wiser than we in every area except the technological, had attitudes toward this topic that were very different from ours, and this is reflected in the stories they have left us. Among these attitudes, the one perhaps most prominently displayed in the Canterbury Tales is the belief that poverty is the seedbed of virtue. Poverty was defined, in this context, not as wretched, ragged, starvation-level poverty, but rather as possession of a sufficiency of the necessities of life, without excess or luxury. In our own era, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn clarified the differences between these two sorts of poverty when he remarked that:

“[T]he notion of misery is different from that of poverty. Péguy has already drawn the distinction between ‘pauvreté’ and ‘misère’. To live in misery means to suffer genuine physical privation: to know cold and hunger, to have no proper dwelling, to be dressed in rags, to be unable to secure medical attention. The poor, by contrast, have the necessities of life, but scarcely any more. They can borrow books, no doubt, but cannot buy them; they can hear music on the radio, but cannot afford a ticket to a concert; they cannot indulge in little extras of food and drink, but should, by self-discipline, be able to save a little. The poor have, therefore, the normal material preconditions for happiness — unless plagued by acquisitiveness or even envy, which has become a political force in the same measure as people have lost their faith.”

A hardcore monastic order here or there aside, misère was really never seen as being conducive to virtue, as medieval moralists of Chaucer’s bent believed that it would simply cause the sort of desperation that would lead to crime. However, pauvreté (and this is what the reader should assume I mean by the term “poverty” going forward), which could even be achieved by members of the gentle classes by the exercise of self-denial, was believed to engender virtue by lessening attachments to worldly possessions and pleasures. Thus, while poverty did not necessarily always produce virtue, nor was it necessary to live in poverty in order to be virtuous, poverty did, according to this worldview, create conditions that predisposed people towards leading virtuous lives. It is in order to illustrate this point that Chaucer created characters, most notably among the warrior and priestly classes, whose stories directly tie poverty to virtue.

The most explicit example of virtue tied to a poverty caused by self-denial is that of the Knight. Though he is a nobleman, and thus a member of the upper classes, his possessions are described as being exceedingly modest. Chaucer describes the Knight’s goods thus:

“But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were gode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gipoun
Al bismotered with his habergeoun”

The Knight’s horse and clothing are of the good and rugged quality that his position requires, but without a hint of opulence to them; he has not so much as a bauble that might be called a luxury. This self-enforced austerity befits a man who: “loved chivalrye/Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye”, but is conspicuously not described as loving money, ease, or comfort.

The Knight is not the only one whose poverty is voluntary. Included in the party are a number of churchmen who are bound by the three vows of monastic life: poverty, chastity, and obedience. But while there are some among them who live up to those vows (the Parson and the Clerk primary among them), there are others who plainly do not. The first among these is a nun, who Chaucer refers to as the Prioress. While Chaucer’s characterization of her is unquestionably of one who falls very short of his ideal for monastic life, it is also a portrait of a perfectly decent woman of perfectly good intentions who has been consigned to a life for which she is simply constitutionally unsuited (people became monks or nuns in those days for all sorts of reasons; some good, some bad). Her trespasses are the stuff not of wickedness, but of worldliness. Her violations of her vows of chastity, for example, are not ones that involve the narrow definition of that term which imply sexual misconduct, but the larger sense in which that word is (and was, by the medievals) understood – of an immodest attachment to worldly pleasures. These include an undue attachment to appearances, as illustrated in Chaucer’s long description of her impeccable table manners. In addition, a hint of violation both of the Prioress’s vows of chastity and of poverty is illustrated by her concern with the wellbeing of her dogs (which bring joy to her heart), while so many of her fellow men go needy. This suggests a misplaced charity, a selfishness and concern with that which provides her pleasure, and a self-indulgence which call into question both her understanding of and her commitment to her vows of chastity and poverty. Further evidence is provided by the description of her “broche of gold ful shene/On which ther was first write a crowned A/And after, ‘Amor vincit omnia’”. This sentiment could be read in two very different ways, and Chaucer leaves it unclear whether the love in question corresponds more closely to the concept of agapé, or to that of eros. Beyond the issue of chastity however, a gold brooch is most definitely a luxury, one that may border on unseemly when worn by a woman sworn to a life of poverty.

We move father down the scale of unsuitable churchmen when we meet the Friar. While the Prioress was a bit too concerned with her own personal pleasures, it is obvious that the Friar is a man who is entirely out for his own interests. He has found a cushy and lucrative sinecure, and will allow no concerns such as ecclesiastical vows, love of Christ, or concern for his fellow man interfere in his enjoyment of it. He spends his time with carefully-selected members of his community, for as we see: “Ful wel beloved and famulier was he/With frankeleyns (prosperous freeholders) over al in his contree”. And he is just as particular in his selection of those he does not spend time with:

“For unto swich a worthy man as he
Acorded nat, as by his facultee
To have with seke lazars aqueyntaunce:
It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce
For to delen with no swich poraille
But al with riche and selleres of vitaille”

In this, we see both infractions against his vows of poverty (for his preference for the company of the rich certainly had much to do with the amenities available while in their company), and his vows of chastity (in his attachment to the worldly pleasures those amenities represented). In addition, his policy of going easy on those who accompanied their confessions with “a good pitaunce”, smacks of disobedience of, if not the letter, then at least the spirit of the church’s policies on penance. Indeed, it may be fairly said of him that, while he is not a man of malicious intent, his life is lived not one bit in accordance with the spirit of a dedicated clergyman.

Representing a complete contrast to this is the Parson, a poor preacher who is the embodiment of Christian virtue. We learn nearly immediately of his poverty, as he is described as: “a povre Persoun of a toun”. Chaucer describes him in terms that neatly describe his own ideal of poverty, telling us that the Parson “coude in litel thing han suffisaunce”. And though he could secure a more lucrative sinecure in London, it does not interest him. Instead, he “dwelte at hoom, and kepte wel his folde”. And well-kept they were, for as Chaucer relates: “A better preest I trowe that nowhere noon is”.

Accompanying the Parson is the Clerk, Chaucer’s ideal of scholarly virtue (In Chaucer’s time, a “Clerk” meant a full-time scholar. As all institutions of higher learning were, in those days, affiliated with the church, and there was no distinction drawn between secular and religious learning, Clerks were considered to be living a sort of religious lifestyle, although they did not take the vows by which nuns and monks were bound). He is a thin man on a thin horse, covered by a thin cloak that is “ful thredbar”. We learn that there is a reason for his privation, as: “Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre/But al that he mighte of his freendes hente/On bokes and lerninge he it spente”. As befits a true scholar, he eschews extravagance, loves knowledge above all else, and devotes every penny he can scrape together to the furtherance of learning.

It is fitting, then, that in the tale told by the poor and humble Clerk we meet the character that perhaps most explicitly embodies Chaucer’s philosophy on the power of poverty to engender virtue. As soon as the Clerk begins his tale of the fair Grisilde, we are told: “For povreliche y-fostred up was she/No likerous lust was thurgh hire herte y-ronne/She knew wel labour, but non ydel ese”. It is the hardship, labor, and poverty she has faced that has produced in her a countenance described as “rype and sad corage”, and it is this countenance that attracts the attention of the Marquis Walter. Once her marriage to him is complete, it also allows her to bear his cruelties. And bear them she does, for: “Disposed was, this humble creature/Th’adversitee of Fortune al t’endure”. Having never allowed herself to become attached to the worldly delights of wealth or status, Grisilde, when faced with the prospect of returning to poverty, stoically responds by paraphrasing Job: “Naked out of my fadres hous, quod she/I cam, and naked moot I turne agayn”. This is, by even the Clerk’s admission, positively superhuman fortitude in the face of more suffering than anyone should be expected to abide graciously. By repeatedly making a point of her humble upbringing, the poet transparently ties this fortitude to her poverty. Thus, when Walter reveals that all of his cruelties were mere tests designed to make sure that she was a worthy wife, and that from now on she could count on him to be a loving and generous (not to mention rich and noble) husband, she is shown to be a woman who, through a display of exceptional virtue, has earned exceptional privilege.

Though she is often presented as a near-opposite of Grisilde, and though it may seem bit incongruous for a character who herself seems to find little merit in the idea that poverty engenders virtue, the Wife of Bath’s Tale contains a philosophical digression on both the nature of virtuous poverty and on the topic of what truly makes a person noble. In her tale, a knight gets a well-deserved moral lecture from an old crone to whom he has found himself married. She reminds him that: “Heer may ye see wel how that genterye/Is nat annexed to possessioun”. She divorces true nobility from the idea of highborn status, declaring that “Thy gentillesse cometh fro God allone”. Having done this, she addresses poverty, reminding her husband (and thus, the reader) of examples of poverty tied to virtue in sources both religious and secular. She turns to the authority of the Gospels to attest that: “The hye God, on whom that we bileve/In wilful povert chees to live his lyf”. She follows this by an appeal to the learning of philosophers: “Glad povert is an honest thing, certeyn/This wol Senek and othere clerkes seyn”. And indeed she seems to sum up Chaucer’s position on poverty, previously illustrated in the General Prologue descriptions of the Parson and the Plowman, when she says: “But he that noght hath, ne coveyteth have/Is riche, although ye holde him but a knave”.

(In a fine parallel to the Clerk’s Tale, the Wife’s Tale ends happily, as once his old, ugly, and mysterious wife tests him and determines that he has learned his lesson, she obligingly uses magic to transform herself into a beautiful young woman.)

It can be seen, then, that Chaucer takes every opportunity to extol the virtues that he associates with poverty. The characters that are richest in the qualities most admired by the poet are consistently the poorest and humblest among them. Poverty is, in his judgment, an ideal breeding ground for moral virtue, health, wisdom, long life, and cleanliness of mind, body, and spirit. Though these beliefs go utterly against the grain of the Whig/Modernist worldview, we should ourselves be wise enough to reevaluate the wisdom of our ancestors; in it, there is a great deal of lost truth.

Sponsored Post: Whaddaya Know?

The news is not good for The Daily Show, the ratings for which are down sharply from a few years ago. One might attribute this to its not-very-funny new host, but similar bad news is in for ratings of the Late Show with the widely-lauded Stephen Colbert. One gets the feeling that Jon “Stewart” managed to be the rat who left a sinking ship at just the right moment. The “Stewart”/Colbert brand of comedy was at the height of its relevance during the years of the Bush Administration, during which it was genuinely edgy and anti-establishment. The endless kissing up to power during the Obama Administration, however, took a huge chunk of the wind out of its sails. It isn’t too edgy to incessantly kiss the butt of the most powerful man in the world, and continuing to kvetch about a Republican administration that’s long out of power gets to be less interesting as the years of a Democratic administration roll by.

Not that this ever stops leftists. For heavens’s sake, they’re still complaining about the Nixon Administration! Christopher Hitchens wrote a book putting Henry Kissinger on “trial” for various alleged war crimes a full quarter-century after he’d left office as Secretary of State, and Futurama was still cracking jokes about Nixon and Agnew forty years after they were out of the White House (not to mention thirteen years after The Simpsons had remarked upon how out-of-date jokes about them were). Other than the fact – for which we can all surely be grateful – that they seem to have long ago realized that getting people to dislike Ronald Reagan is a battle they’re never going to win, the left seems incapable of ever letting old hatreds drop. Whether TV comedy shows will still be making George W. Bush jokes in the year 2048 is unclear, but what is very clear is that the left has an exceptional loathing of Bush and everyone who was in his administration.

(I’ve heard it suggested that this is for no other reason that leftists, who value slick sophistry above all else, simply hate the fact that they were beaten in elections – twice! – by someone as notoriously ill-spoken as Bush. All of their clever casuistry availed them naught against him, and it absolutely ate them up inside. He made verbal gaffe after verbal gaffe – and they still can’t believe that nobody cared! This, of course, is a much more plausible explanation than the idea that they genuinely objected to Bush starting unwise wars in the Middle East or establishing a horrifying surveillance state. The fact that mainstream leftist opposition to the government doing either of those things essentially vaporized the minute that Barack Obama was sworn in tells you everything you need to know about the sincerity of those sentiments.)

One way or the other, then, the left isn’t letting go of the Bush Administration anytime soon. This brings us to Errol Morris’s documentary The Unknown Known, which consists more or less entirely of snippets from an interview with Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Secretary of Defense for all but the last two years of his administration. I think it’s safe to say that the interview didn’t go as planned. If smarm were smarts, the left would have colonies on Jupiter, but the truth is that they simply aren’t as clever as they believe themselves to be. The obvious aim of the interview was to catch Rumsfeld in a “gotcha” moment of the sort for which The Daily Show is (or was, I suppose) famous, and which forms nearly the entire basis of their arguing style. This was to come of Rumsfeld obligingly being as inarticulate as his former boss. No such luck for them, however. A good example of this can be seen in an examination of the film’s title, which derives from a quote by Rumsfeld:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Far from being nonsensical, this quote represents a solid management concept taught in any good business school. Yet in trying to be too clever by half, the filmmakers implicitly place this quote in the category of Bushisms, thereby to tar Rumsfeld with the same label of incoherent oafdom that they (not without some justification, to be fair) applied to Bush himself. But this is because they don’t understand what a Bushism is, and isn’t. Here, I propose three categories of (apparent) incoherence. Let’s call them 1) Derridaisms, 2) Yogiisms, and 3) Bushisms. Now, let’s define them:

A Derridaism is a statement that seems sensible, erudite, or even brilliant when one first hears it. However, when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one finds that it is, in fact, utter nonsense. (For a good example of this, listen to Stefan Molyneux’s explanation of why the argument that language is meaningless – a favorite of both Wittgenstein and Derrida – is not just wrong, but inherently self-contradictory).

A Yogiism (named, of course, for the famous baseball player Yogi Berra) is the inverse of a Derridaism. It is a statement that seems like utter nonsense when one first hears it. However, when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one will find that, slyly hidden under the surface, there is a nugget of wisdom that is sensible, erudite, or even brilliant.

A Bushism, however, is a statement that seems like utter nonsense when one first hears it; then when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one will find that it really is utter nonsense after all.

Morris is so keen to catch Rumsfeld committing a Bushism that he doesn’t realize that what Rumsfeld said was actually a Yogiism. Not only that, but he doesn’t know that Rumsfeld is in on the gag – that he understands perfectly well what the difference is, and that people who don’t like him are (intentionally or not) misunderstanding it completely.

You see, that’s the joke – the infamous “unknown known” quote is, in itself, the unknown known. Pretty meta, isn’t it?

And that’s not the only problem that Morris ended up creating for himself. Just as big an issue for this documentary is a phenomenon that (as long as I’m coining terms) I’ll call the “Wife of Bath Problem”. The core of it is that if an author lets the villain of their piece talk long enough – especially if that villain spends that time delivering eloquent justifications for their actions – there’s a significant risk of the audience starting to identify with them. The trope namer here is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the Wife of Bath, who was almost certainly meant by Chaucer to seem lecherous and disreputable, comes across for the most part as strong and likable (which explains why many modern literary scholars have turned her into a proto-feminist hero). Arguably, Shakespeare ended up doing the same with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, which ended up with the character transcending the stereotype of a greedy Jew and becoming an at least somewhat sympathetic character, justifiably angry at a long history of mistreatment. But the greatest example is that of Milton’s vision of Satan in Paradise Lost, which unintentionally turned the Father of Lies into an individualist hero who has inspired a wide spectrum of freethinkers, from William Blake to Anton LaVey.

So there’s real danger in letting your villain run his mouth too much, and that’s with a skilled author writing a fictional character. The situation becomes even worse when that villain has a mind of his own and is wily enough to stay out of whatever traps you’ve set for him. We see this unfold on the screen, as Morris’s (over)confidence in his ability to give Rumsfeld enough rope to hang himself ends up backfiring into a Wife of Bath Problem. Rumsfeld spent decades in politics developing a reputation as a shrewd survivor, and the interview makes it clear that, despite how things turned out for him in the second Bush Administration, that reputation was generally well-deserved. Far from seeming like a war criminal or a gun for hire in the service of greedy oil companies, Rumsfeld comes across at worst as a man who was simply in over his head, like the befuddled grandpa who calls you every few days for help because he can’t quite figure out how to use the iPad you gave him last Christmas. Is his grandfatherly smile just a bit to quick and practiced to be completely sincere? Perhaps. But if Morris is subtle enough to pick up on that, he’s never able to capitalize on it.

All of which brings us back to The Daily Show.

One thing you must understand about the left is that they have no principles, only ideology. Sultan Knish did a good job of explaining this in a recent column, when he wrote the following:

”You can’t find common ground with the left because it is an activist machine dedicated to destroying common ground, not only with the right, but even with its own allies on the left. Progress turns what was once progressive into what is reactionary. And what was reactionary into what is progressive.

These changes have the mad logic of a byzantine ideology behind them, but to the ordinary person their definition of progress seems entirely random.

A Socialist a century ago considered factories progressive instruments of the future and men in dresses a decadent reactionary behavior. Now factories are reactionary pollution machines of globalization and men in dresses are an oppressed victim group who have transcended biology with the power of their minds.”

Thus if you’re old enough, you’ll be able to remember when the left believed the exact opposite of what it claims to believe today. For example: I remember back in the 80s when the left used to complain about the trivialization of news and political commentary. I even remember the snide insult (of course – the left has a snide insult for everything) that they used describe it; they called it “infotainment”. It was apparently a bad thing, at least back then. But now in the age of “Stewart” and Colbert, when allegedly-powerful political leaders cower in fear of a professional comedian’s raised eyebrow, infotainment is where it’s at as far as the left is concerned. This is how we’ve ended up with the bizarre phenomenon of conservatives getting lectured about what a bunch of ignoramuses they are for getting their news and political commentary from Fox News (which, while I carry no brief for it, is at least a full-time professional news organization) by leftists who get their news and political commentary from Comedy Central.

The point of all this is that The Unknown Known is a piece of leftist infotainment that has signs of the trivializing influence of the Daily Show-ization of political discourse on the left all over it. This is evident in many aspects of the documentary. There’s the faux-symbolic, yet actually pointless cuts to scenes of the rolling ocean. There’s the inappropriately overdramatic score by Danny Elfman. But mostly there’s the laziness of it; staking his entire film on Rumsfeld making a disastrous gaffe meant that Morris skimped on both research and imagination. As a result, the questions he asked were predictable and obvious; I have no doubt that Rumsfeld saw them coming a mile away, and had answers memorized in advance for every last one of them. Thus, the interview is ultimately anticlimactic – the great “gotcha” moment never really happens, and Rumsfeld never does end up hanging himself with all the rope that Morris gives him.

Which is a shame. The moment at which my own journey away from mainstream conservatism and toward the alt-right started came sometime in early 2005, when it finally became undeniable that there wasn’t and never had been any WMDs in Iraq; and not only that, but that plenty of evidence had existed showing that there wasn’t. I had supported that lousy, useless war because I believed what the Bush Administration had told me, and in a single blinding flash I came to the awful realization that those fuckers had lied to me. I still believed in all the same moral and philosophical ideas that I always had, but from that point on, I could never again trust the party and establishment that had allowed this to happen. Thus began a journey that ended, well… here.

But there still remains the fact that the fuckers who lied to me back then ultimately got away with it. Others – American soldiers, countless Iraqis and Syrians, the Republican Party, the United States as a whole – ended up paying the price for what they’d done, but as for the decision-makers of the Bush Administration themselves, they all got away scot-free. Ultimately, Morris’s documentary has done nothing to change that.

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This post was sponsored by Murph and the MagicTones, who took a bit of time away from touring to send a few dollars my way. Many thanks, and keep playing that sweet, sweet soul music!