Last night I watched a Canadian skier receive a gold medal at the Olympics in Vancouver. I’m a sucker for these medal ceremonies; always have been. Nor am I the kind of patriot who begrudges another country the devotion of her sons and daughters, as a more modern and imperial sort of nationalism is wont to.
Canada no less than America is a land which has justly earned the affection and piety of her citizens. Indeed, that she has been among my country’s truest allies only fortifies my neighborly fondness. I shall not forget, for instance, that Canadians had one of the toughest beaches to storm on D-Day.
God bless Canada, and congratulations! One of her sons has won gold on her home soil. O Canada, home and native land to a hardy race of men: may many of her sons be crowned again for gallantry in her name.
That tribute made, I am emboldened to take a shot at justifying the varied assemblage of themes indicated in the reckless and even irresponsible title to this post.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s reference to Poland last week, as a prop for his partisan polemics, provoked me to revisit Jean-Jacques Rousseau's short but inspired work of political philosophy that took the form of recommendations for reforming the government of Poland.
Poland, according to the crude abbreviations of the columnist, had an exaggerated version of the US Senate filibuster; this foolish device, in the hands of unscrupulous minority factions, led to Poland’s ruin; therefore America will be led to the ruin by the GOP’s power of filibuster. Thus Krugman. And I have no comment on that beyond the obvious one that he has grasped a fragment from history for use in current polemics. In this sort of thing he is hardly alone among columnists.
That Poland had an exaggerated version of the filibuster actually rather understates the matter. Poland’s liberum veto was a piece of wanton empowerment of the minority like the world has never seen. It gave a single member of the Diet the power, not merely to stop a piece of legislation, but in effect to dissolve the Diet all by his lonesome. Moreover, these members of the Diet were under a principle of imperative mandate from local dietines; in essence the institution of their republic made them agents in the strictest sense of their local community. The local assemblies would instruct them as to how they should vote in the federal legislature; the compass of their personal judgment on legislative matters was severely constrained; their mandate was imperative.
Well, the story goes that Rousseau, being reckoned an eminent political reformer, was propositioned by some liberal-minded Polish noble to give his view of how Poland’s constitution might be remodeled or refashioned. Several other theorists were contracted to do the same. The Poles would entreat the world to educate them in modern forms of government.
Not being the sort of man who could pass up the chance to fill the office of Lawgiver (as Willmoore Kendall puts it in his excellent Introduction, “no one familiar with his life and personality could conceive of his actually saying ‘No’ to the invitation to wrap himself, even momentarily, in the mantle of Solon”), but with an eye toward the wider world beyond Poland, Rousseau took the opportunity to produce a small classic of political philosophy; his The Government of Poland may be seen as a brief lecture series in which the reader sits under the instruction of the mature mind of this engrossing Swiss master and half-madman.
It is shocking enough to say that, in view of the contents of this book, Rousseau in his old age had become almost a Burkean conservative. He implores the Poles: “Never forget as you dream of what you wish to gain, what you might lose.” And, “I cannot possibly repeat it too often: think well before laying hands upon your laws, especially those that have made you what you are.” Is this the same man who wrote, “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”?
This remarkable shift probably explains why liberal political philosophy has largely ignored Rousseau’s Poland. He certainly speaks very highly of the ancient character and soul of the Polish people; and he does not, in fact, take what would be the obvious route of the liberal reformer, instructing the Poles to abandon their outlandish vetoes and their novel mandates, and be rid of all the encumbrances of their traditions. On the contrary he recommends strengthening them in decisive ways. Rousseau’s concern in this book is above all patriotism; and whatever he may think sub specie aeternitatis of national traditions, when it comes to the formation of patriotic devotion, he could hardly be clearer in praising them.
But the specifics of his full argument are neither here nor there. The point for my purposes is much narrower. In praising the true faith and courage of Canada in her history, and noticing her athlete’s achievement, and the sound of her anthem played on Canadian soil for her own native son, I am reminded of a particular passage from this Rousseau text, one of his various and arresting expressions of sympathy for Polish patriotism. More on that passage anon.
Rousseau begins the book with an apology for his diminishing faculties, but it is clear immediately that the old Swiss theorist’s shrewdness is still fully intact.
To make true patriots of her sons, Poland should remember a particular alliance of local lords whose daring saved the country from Russian domination, and provided that window of wild federal freedom, during which Poland sought outside help to reform her constitution. Rousseau refers repeatedly to this confederation of local lords, which must have been like a scene out of Braveheart for observers in that day: Poland, as a rule rendered feeble by the anarchic aspects of her constitution, was given a brief but glorious respite from foreign depredation by this confederation of nobles. Of course, in due time Poland would be invaded, dismembered, subjugated by German and Russian alike, and massacred by Nazis and Communists, over the succeeding two centuries. The respite won by the confederation was, alas, short-lived; though what man possessed of any familiarity with Poles in these last centuries of revolt and war, can doubt that their patriotism endured? As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn once enthused, “Poles and freedom! Not only in their own country did they practice it; Polish freedom fighters were active in many parts of the world … Three times they saved Western civilization. Does the world realize it? Of course not!” (He might have added a fourth rescue of civilization, in which a Polish Pope played a decisive role in breaking the chains of Communist slavery.)
So the confederation of nobles that won a brief respite for Poland had become a cause célèbre in the late 18th century, and provides the backdrop in our story as Rousseau puts pen to paper. That this confederation’s purpose failed, even before Rousseau completed his work, only enhances the power of his subtle argument; for Rousseau’s purpose is to speak more broadly than the particulars of his age in Poland. His purpose concerns how a people might forge their patriotic devotion even bereft of a secure territory or state. As Kendall summarizes, “let the Poles build their republic in their own hearts, beyond the reach of foreign sword.” How this feat — which, as I say, more recent history confirms the Polish people, like few peoples on earth, have been more than equal to — might be accomplished: that is the theme of Rousseau’s Poland.
Well here I have drawn out to some length a post that was only to be a brief introduction to a piece of quoted Rousseau text. Ah, well, what is blogging for if not this sort of thing? Here is the passage, after which I will close with two final adumbrations or suggestions:
It is certain that the Confederation of Bar has saved the dying fatherland. This great epoch must be engraved in sacred letters on every Polish heart. I should like you to erect, to the Confederation’s memory, a monument inscribed with the name of every one of its members, including, since so great a deed should wipe out the transgressions of an entire lifetime, even those who may subsequently have betrayed the common sense. I should also like you to establish the custom of celebrating the confederates’ deeds every ten years in solemn ceremonies — with a pomp not brilliant and frivolous, but simple, proud and republican; there let eulogy be given, worthily but without exaggeration, to those virtuous citizens who have had the honor to suffer for the fatherland in the chains of the enemy; let their families even be granted some honorific privilege which will constantly recall this great memory before the eyes of the public. I should not wish, however, that any invectives against the Russians, or even any mention of them, be permitted at these solemnities; it would be doing them too much honor. This silence, the memory of their barbarity, and the eulogy of those who resisted them, will say all that needs to be said about them: you must despise them too much to hate them.
Rousseau’s The Government of Poland is a profound and subtle treatment of, among other things, the subject of patriotism. You will learn from it even if you reject much of its specific arguments. We could, for instance, learn something valuable from that quoted passage in thinking about our memorials to the heroes of September 11th. Let us despise the Jihad too much to hate it.
We could, more poignantly, also learn something of value from this intriguing idea of building a “republic in the heart,” beyond the reach of any tyranny. Today various tyrannies threaten America; the peril of that soft tyranny of the Tocquevillean nightmare, that “tutelary despotism” — which “compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd” — is greater, perhaps, than in any other age. From Wall Street it appears as a plutocracy; from Washington as socialism. Together they may issue in a postmodern Servile State, not unlike what Belloc augured; and storing up a republic in our hearts, against the day of that’s tyranny’s consummation, is a project worthy of the attentions of all Americans of good will.