5 Things Every American Should Have Before Discussing Politics

I hate lists of this sort: the numeration is arbitrary, and the idea of a “top 5” list has a particular notoriety. I enjoyed High Fidelity, but still, I felt like a girl for watching it, and the only scene I really enjoyed is when Tim Robbins gets beat up mercilessly.

But I want to get listed in Problogger, which is sponsoring this list thingy, so without further ado:

1. Knowledge of Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s thought concerning equality. We are more than familiar with the phrase “all men are created equal.” It’s not unimportant – I think it more central to American history than any particulars in the Constitution or the relation between the states and the federal government (the latter is used to say “states’ rights” are central and thus deny the idea that equality has any import concerning the American enterprise). But for a more extensive introduction to this, see this commentary on the Gettysburg Address.

2. Knowledge that the Bill of Rights is distinct from the Constitution proper. I don’t think I can emphasize this enough – the Constitution itself is about ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances:’ it seems to be a mechanism whereby ambitious people are constrained and given incentives or forced to work for a “public good” (I put that phrase in scare quotes because our notion of a “public good” is very different from the one of ages prior). For more on this, there’s always this overlong commentary on Federalist 51 & Harvey Mansfield’s recent discussion of the Executive’s power (the latter being challenged here). The “Bill of Rights” is contingent on the Constitution working; our “right of free speech” is not prior to the mechanism, i.e. the “rule of law” and the preservation of such rule properly speaking.

3. Knowledge about other types of regimes. The Parliamentary systems the rest of the world is so fond of come from Rousseau, and Rousseau is a notoriously difficult read. The other ideas animating those regimes can be gleaned from Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto,” which is a short, lively read that everyone should at least have a basic familiarity with. Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” is a notoriously hard read, but recommended because a lot of theory about securing peace, right or wrong, stems from it. Essays on particular aspects of Perpetual Peace that I’ve written can be found down on this page. Prior to all these modern regimes, of course, were the feudal regimes, a critique of which can be found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

4. A basic knowledge of American history. Schools spend way too much time on this. You want the whole story fast? Read this very short history of the United States.

5. And the most important thing: The ability to admit one is wrong.
If you don’t have this, you can’t be human, let alone political. The sharp Left/Right divergence we see today – and I really blame the Left for this, because the conspiracy theory I see spouted everywhere favors their positions usually in place of the more earnest efforts to know, the foundations of which are above – to be more balanced, though, the divergence may define “politics” today, but strictly speaking, this isn’t politics anymore. This is just people shouting at each other.

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  1. I am glad that everything worked out well. At least that is a huge weight off of everybody’s mind. I hope that proper repercussions were dolled out! The Mansfield lecture was very good, and a write up by you would be excellent.

  2. Interesting points- can I ammend slightly- the Parliamentary system in the UK is not a product of Rousseau- rather looking at Hobbes or Harrington helps you more to understand why the system was set up the way it was in the seventeenth century- and looking at characters like Dicey, Maitland, J.S. Mill explains more about it. The French stuff is fascinating too and a bit more complicated- Sudhir Hazareesingh has done some of the best work on it. Furthermore Rousseau obviously has an American influence- noble savages and the idea of cutting onesself from civilisation are an American as well as a European phenomena.

    But its a good list- I’d add that in order to understand the American state like most Western states you also need a fair understanding of the ways that the Bible has been understood- in the end in my opinion its the Bible which is the key book in understanding most political constructions between the end of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution- and even later.

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