Statecraft As Soulcraft
by George Will

George Will writes a lot of excellent newspaper columns. He has published a few books that are basically collections of his columns and a book or two on his favorite sport, baseball. Last week I acquired one of his books that is different. It is an essay on political philosophy titled, Statecraft As Soulcraft. In it he attempts to explain his particular brand of conservativism. George should stick to writing newspaper columns.

Statecraft contains long passages in which I have no idea what he is trying to say. At the beginning of it he says that in this book he will try to explain the consistency behind the apparently inconsistent and unpredictable positions he takes in his columns. Having read it to the end, I can say that the reason he takes apparently inconsistent positions is that his underlying political philosophy is incoherent and his mind is muddled. It isn't a political philosophy so much as it is the attitude of a prig who resents that his irrational prejudices are not in fashion.

George can write excellent sentences and he can often string enough of them together in an orderly way to fill out a newspaper column. But when he tries to sustain this for the length of a book about something more complicated than baseball, he gets lost, and he loses his audience. George should not attempt to "commit political philosophy."

Some of the things he says in this book are ridiculous. He agrees with Edmund Burke that the State should be looked upon with reverence; that it is partner in all science, all art, every virtue, and all perfection; that it is a partnership, "not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." He is critical of modern political economies, especially the American one, for being based on individualism and self-interest. He prefers the more ennobling, collectivistic approach of Aristotle. He imagines politics was at one time motivated by such noble goals as the ancient Greek philosophers espoused. As if the theories of the aristocratic philosophers were more than pipe dreams or rationalizations for class oppression. He longs to go back to the imaginary time when the state consciously practiced the art of soulcraft.

He has scowered the writings of America's Founding Fathers looking for vestiges of ancient Greek aristocratic philosophy and he exhibits these discordant anachronisms as the precious heritage of Western civilization that true conservatives ought to safeguard. His mind embraces the range of great political ideas from A to B--from Aristotle to Burke. He treats the other traditions in Western political thought as subversive. The only thing holding our Republic together is "a dwindling legacy of cultural capital which was accumulated in sterner, more thoughtful eras."

While most nitwits regard preservation of justice as the primary function of the State, George makes excellence the goal of political philosophy, which expands its scope to include all morality, ethics, and values. He equates virtue and good citizenship, and by good citizenship he means willingness to sacrifice private desires for public ends. He practically makes a religion out of it. So his political philosophy becomes mystical and idiotic. He quotes Santayana to make the point that he wants us to regard the State with, "a sentiment of gratitude and duty which we may call piety." No wonder he wants prayer in school!

Will is a hero-worshiper. He idolizes great leaders, especially eloquent ones such as Abraham Lincoln. Like a silly teenage girl with a crush on a punk who she thinks is cute, Will gets excited by nicely phrased speeches by men with political power, and he fails to notice that the speeches are nonsense. Will is too gullible and sentimental to see through the claptrap of something like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It takes a clear-headed realist like H. L. Mencken to notice that the Gettysburg Address

"was poetry, not prose, and so criticism must stand silent before its astounding declaration that the Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg were fighting for self-determination. That, in fact, is precisely what they were fighting against. Poetry is not to be judged by the laws of evidence. It is always, at bottom, a sonorous statement of the obviously not true."
George Will thinks it is beautiful and inspiring to commemorate
"young men who had given their last full measure of devotion to something more than themselves."
Never mind what they were actually fighting for or why, as long as they weren't fighting for themselves. Poetry may have its place, but it is foolish to make political decisions based on untruths, no matter how sonorous.

Will wants the State to make us feel that we belong, that we have a common purpose, which will inspire us to defend it, and to make sacrifices in its behalf, and not be selfish. He wants the State to scold us when we do wrong and coerce us into doing what is good for us. He is saddened by the trends toward indulging pornographers, abortionists, and desecrators of our national battle flag. He wants the State to more forcefully indoctrinate our children by teaching patriotic values. He regards education as one of the basic functions of the State. And the most important things citizens need to learn are the values needed to perpetuate the life and health of the State. Citizens need to learn their duties toward the State so that these duties cannot be questioned or neglected.

Some of his statements are misleading. For example,

"public schools always will and should have by far the greater number of students."
This is false if he means to imply that public schools always did have the greater number of students. This didn't become the case in the USA until well into the 19th century. It certainly was not an idea popular among the Founding Fathers.

Will persistently confuses the State with customs, mores, conventions, culture, tradition, and society. In so far as he is inclined to favor the free-market, he claims it is the creation of the State, which is its opposite. He gets things backwards when he says

"Government produces the infrastructure of society--legal, physical, educational, from highways through skills--that is a precondition for the production of wealth."
Wealth depends of free trade not on its enemy the State. Free trade and free speech depend on traditions of civility, education, language, money, and other products of society. These had to exist first before a State could arise to expropriate and control them. Wealth must be created before it can be stolen.

How about this gem?

"The notion of moral neighborliness is central to an understanding of the idea of a polity, and hence of politics."
Maybe so, but only be way of contrast.

Here is another.

"... government, although of human manufacture, is "natural." It is as natural to man as clothes and shelter because it serves needs that are natural to man."
By the same logic, rape is as natural as apple pie.

Will believes that

"men and women are biological facts, but that ladies and gentlemen fit for self-government are social artifacts, creations of the law."
He thinks Socrates did the only moral thing he could have done when he chose not to escape the death penalty that Athens imposed, because Athens was his creator--through Athens his father and mother were legally wed and brought him into the world.

He also uses a lot of collectivistic terminology to help confuse issues. Some examples are: national purpose, polity, public product, public interests, national strength. Sometimes these collectivistic concepts take on a life of their own. A nation can "announce" things and the State can "embody" national traditions and values. He advocates the welfare state because it is probably necessary for social cohesion and "national strength."

Although this book fails to present a coherent political philosophy and fails to make Will's positions predictable, it did give me a clue to one incongruous aspect of his personality. George Will is an avid baseball fan. This seems incongruous because he looks like a sissy with his little bow ties and his prissy expression. Having read his political philosophy, I think I know why he likes baseball so much. It's because they start each game with the National Anthem and everybody stands up. This gives him a warm fuzzy feeling and a sense of belonging that he can't get anywhere else because he is a nerd.

At the end of this book, on the last page, I was inspired by the great social theorist, Wayne of Wayne's World, to write,

"Not!"

Year Read: 1993


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