Federalist Project 14

“The Mirror of Representation” and Federalist 65 – 67

In this section, Rakove pursues further the peculiar difficulties the Founders faced in clarifying the notion of representation on which the republic would rely going forward. As noted elsewhere, the core of this concern was the degree of accountability that could be expected from a new class of legislators, endowed as they were with expanded powers by the Constitution, but also ensuring the proper balance of accountability and independence: “The problem of representation was not to make legislators more accountable than they already were, but to find ways to dissipate the populist pressures of the people and improve the quality of lawmaking by reforming the character of the lawmakers” (218). Madison, we know, was very suspicious of the quality of leadership drawn from the state assemblies. Bound up in this suspicion was a worry that parochial local interests and prejudiced shortsightedness would creep into national debate, distorting policymaking and hindering the progress of effective government: “However much homage Americans paid to the ideal of the citizen who virtuously subordinated private interest to public good, few of them learned to prefer the duties of public life to the contentments of private life” (220) To this day, one of the plagues on our political happiness is our rising anguish that politicians are chiefly concerned with their own survival and in some cases are even profiting directly from their public service in inappropriate and profligate ways, if not during office, then certainly after.

    One of the features of our political culture, which only seemed to exacerbate the fear that self-interest would trump public interest, was and is the inherent tension between excellence in leadership and the perceived elitism of leaders. Americans, it seems, want to be led by capable, superlative characters, but also want to see in their leaders their own image. Excellence must be concealed, if only hinted at, and never flaunted. Federalist worries about the quality of legislators only confirm this paradox. In sketching out the recruitment parameters for members of the legislative branch, Madison knew the bar had been set deliberately low: “The Constitution required nothing more of legislators than relatively low requirements of age and citizenship—not even a religious test of the most innocuous kind” (227). The feat of electing a Congress—let alone a President—that matched the elegance and integrity of the written Constitution was a daunting one: “Federalist expectations could be realized only if the enlarged sphere of the extended republic worked to filter talent upward while the prestige and power of national office drew qualified candidates away from their law offices, plantations, and countinghouses” (227). One takes little comfort in the recognition that our present anxieties about the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington are not historical anomalies.

    On the subject of prosecuting breaches in accountability, Hamilton writes passionately on the Senate as the designated court for impeachment cases in Federalist 66: “So far as might concern the misbehavior of the executive in perverting the instructions or contravening the views of the Senate, we need not be apprehensive of the want of a disposition in that body to punish the abuse of their confidence or to vindicate their own authority. We may thus far count upon their pride, if not upon their virtue” (407). Hamilton is certainly on point in his trust that a politician’s pride will ensure his motivation to nitpick on issues of balance of powers. We need only witness the outcry in the Congress over President Obama’s minimal consultations in the decision to commit U.S. forces to enforcing an international no-fly zone in Libya. From both left and right, the objection was that the President had not paid due diligence, leaving Congressional egos bruised. Lucky for the lawyerly Commander in Chief, there is little ground for impeachable offense here, and yet, Hamilton’s point has never found a truer expression.

    In one of the most entertaining rebukes to the weak reading of his critics, Federalist 67 shows Hamilton at his grumpiest. The tone is that of a schoolmaster taking his students to task for a cursory reading of a clause in the Constitution interpreted by critics to give nominating power to the President for Senate vacancies, which is the province of state authorities, either governors or legislators depending on the state. A misinformed reader had conflated two separate and conditional clauses and ignored the exclusivity of the authority provided to the President, which limits appointments to “ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not in the Constitution otherwise provided for” (409). In annoyed response, Hamilton undertakes a detailed explication of the section and offers some choice words of scorn for ungrammatical readings of this sort, concluding with a condescending apology on behalf of more attentive readers: “I hesitate not to submit it to the decision of any candid and honest adversary of the proposed government whether language can furnish epithets of too much asperity for so shameless and so prostitute an attempt to impose on the citizens of America” (411).

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Federalist Project 13

“The Mirror of Representation” and Federalist 62 – 64

In this crucial chapter of Original Meanings, Rakove looks at the complex relationship between American self-perception as an independent republican state, a fresh experiment in democratic government, and its ancestral respect for English models, Parliament in particular. “Yet even after independence,” he notes, “Americans still regarded Parliament as a paradigmatic model of a representative assembly” (209). This observation reminds us that the revolutionary spirit engendered among the Founders did not preclude an educated and relatively detached appreciation for the lessons of history and the laboratory of European society from which the American hypothesis was launched. Too often today, the pieties of “American exceptionalism,” however unfounded and fantastical, dominate political discourse and, in one way or another, require policymakers to “reinvent the wheel” in the fields of health care, energy, immigration, and education. Looking to other countries and societies for answers – especially those of Europe, God forbid – is seen as anti-American and cast as downright blasphemy in some circles. This is gross hubris of the most unintelligent form, of course. It’s refreshing to learn that it wasn’t always thus among policymakers.

    Specifically, early American political thinkers looked to Parliament as a prototype mechanism for providing a healthy check on executive power: “In the traditional Whiggish theory to which the American revolutionaries subscribed, the great purpose of representation was to prevent the Crown and its subordinates from acting arbitrarily, without securing the consent of the people’s representatives” (209). The Constitution’s aim, therefore, was largely to get Congress functioning in the same way with respect to the Presidency, with the third branch, the judiciary putting both of the latter under constant legal scrutiny. To some extent, our system still functions in this regard, despite the gradual and seemingly inexorable creep of what some observers call “the imperial presidency” and a staggering growth in executive power in the post-World War II period through the present. The Founders’ admiration for Parliament was not unqualified, however: “Perhaps the [House of] Commons could still respond to ‘the feelings of the nation,’ but in its unreformed state, it was more likely to pursue the interests of the propertied elite” (209).

    Here, our contemporary system differs dramatically, the Senate functioning more like the “unreformed” House of Commons of 18th-century England. Because the Constitution was set up to give state legislatures elective power in populating the Senate, Madison and Hamilton placed more faith in the quality and accountability of the upper house. Today, we find the opposite scenario has obtained. The House of Representatives is commonly thought to be more responsive and accountable to public sentiment (and thus, more volatile), if only because its members are nearly constantly campaigning for reelection; the Senate, on the other hand, with its formidable six-year terms, is more entrenched in the vested interests of powerful (and long-lasting) elites.

    Madison expressed his confidence in Federalist 63 that “the Federal Senate will never be able to transform itself, by gradual usurpations, into an independent and aristocratic body” (389). Because a Senator’s professional fate was tied to his ability to maintain a salutary reporting relationship with the home state legislature, the Founders saw little risk in collusion with propertied interests, industry concerns, or moneyed elites that may attempt to purchase that Senator’s affection (as they are readily able to do today, thanks to the 17th amendment, adopted in 1813, which guarantees direct election by voters). Even as they looked to the English Parliament, the Founders were also contemplating the superior example they saw in the colonial assemblies, which “possessed a measure of both independence and accountability that sharply departed from English practice” (212).

    That our deliberative bodies still strive (however imperfectly) to fulfill the noble precedent set by their colonial counterparts gives a flavor of the troubling contradictions inherent in American political thought. It’s very difficult in the highly partisan environment of contemporary politics to maintain both independence and accountability, in the sense that independence is often held to account by way of removal from office as long as powerful forces can array to punish the trait. A truly honest lawmaker such as former Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin losing reelection to a rich nobody called Ron Johnson is a perfect example of this expectation run amok.

    In Federalist 62, Madison makes an interesting comment on the desired length and readability of laws: “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow” (381). Even brief examination of early legislation reveals that Madison’s hope was well founded. Laws were succinct and expressed in a very concrete, direct idiom. What he would have to say of the giant laws of recent memory – not just the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or the Dodd-Frank financial reform law (both at 800-plus pages), but also the 1000-page USA Patriot Act that in 2001 was rushed through floor debate and brought to a vote before members had a chance to read it – we can only imagine, but I doubt that he’d be favorably impressed.

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Federalist Project 12

“Federalism” and Federalist 59 – 61

Writing on the eve of the midterm elections, it’s difficult not to read in this installment of Original Meanings and Federalist essays the foretaste of our present discontent. Rakove notes that even as they embraced the intellectual labors of defending and explicating the merits of the still-unratified Constitution, both Madison and Hamilton harbored doubts “that the Convention had in fact solved the dilemma of divided sovereignty in a way that would give the Union the decided advantage over the states” (189). With a handful of congressional districts and senate elections likely to determine the political course of the next two years in Washington, we can see that the founders were not cynical in their concerns. Still, they hoped that “the outbreaks of factious behavior would be safely quarantined within the boundaries of individual states” (190). In the age of aggressive gerrymandering and the Senate’s filibuster, however, we know that’s just not the case.

    The “boundaries of individual states,” much like the boundaries of individual countries in the age of transnational threats and global profits, seem to matter little. And we humbly remember that even a half-million-vote strong plurality did not ensure Al Gore’s victory in 2000 against a statistically insignificant loss in Florida; four years later, a small margin in Ohio resulted in an Electoral College defeat for John Kerry. Individual states can and do matter in shifting the national political climate. The so-called Tea Party movement derives much of its popular enthusiasm and rhetorical arrogance from that very notion.

    Rakove underscores another important conflict in this discussion of “divided sovereignty”: “How would the states be protected in those areas where their authority and that of the Union overlapped, or where these two levels of government competed directly for the loyalties of the people” (193)? We needn’t look far for examples. Some governors have provoked admiration and ire by refusing to accept federal stimulus dollars attached to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It remains to be seen how these decisions will be rewarded at the ballot box. Other states have filed lawsuits against the federal government for onerous new obligations associated with health care reform. Fed up with congressional gridlock on comprehensive immigration reform and the border patrol’s imperfect record, Arizona launched the most aggressive illegal immigration enforcement policy on record, prompting a lawsuit from the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, undocumented residents fled to Colorado – where the next-most aggressive policy reigns – by the thousands. And as always, California’s debates about gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana, by virtue of the state’s enormous population and status as the world’s seventh largest economy, find influence well beyond state lines. Not much of a “quarantine” indeed.

    One final note about taxation commands our attention. In a political climate where mainstream politicians debate the minutiae of fair taxes, flat taxes, progressive taxes, hidden taxes, and which ones should be cut and for whom, it’s useful to recall a particular worry shared by the Federalist writers: “[assuring] readers that the national government would rarely invoke its powers of direct taxation but rely instead on customs duties, which were commonly regarded as the most productive and least painful sources of revenue” (194). The current imbroglio concerning whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans or just 98 percent of Americans speaks to the historical narrowness of our political consciousness and ignores the basic inefficiency of income-based taxation, a scheme the founders could scarcely imagine occupying our political obsessions. Neither were they totally innocent of the possibilities inherent in the republican model to devolve toward plutocracy. In Federalist 60, Hamilton asks a poignant question regarding federal authority: “Will it lean in favor of the landed interest, or the moneyed interest, or the mercantile interest, or the manufacturing interest? Or, to speak in the fashionable language of the adversaries to the Constitution, will it court the elevation of the ‘wealthy and the well-born,’ to the exclusion and debasement of the rest of the society” (368)? Given the huge – and thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, of undisclosed origin – sums of money being channeled into this year’s political campaigns, Hamilton’s anxiety remains as relevant as ever.

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“Washington Rules” by Andrew J. Bacevich

by Joshua H. Liberatore

If you missed Andrew Bacevich’s compelling Limits of Power, which published in the fall of 2008 and headed off the presidential transition with stern warnings to both major parties about the fate of our imperial ambitions, his new book, Washington Rules, extends the lesson with fresh insight about continued American militarism during the two intervening years, charting specific disappointments faced by anyone who believed the ascension of Barack Obama would signal major framework shifts in U.S. foreign policy. To an even greater extent than his previous analyses – beginning with the much denser The New American Militarism in 2006 – Washington Rules examines the historical and bipartisan underpinnings of what Bacevich terms “the Washington consensus” – the unspoken but widely recognized “rules” of American statecraft abroad that have led us down the grim path of constant warfare. In Bacevich’s estimation, our behavior overseas is neither profitable nor honest and the sooner we make a fulsome accounting of the costs the better.

    In brief, the Washington consensus resembles a secular, nationalist faith. It begins with a “credo,” the conviction that Americans are duty-bound to remake the world in the image of purportedly “universal” values. In fact, these values are as simplistic as they are parochial: representative democracy; freedom of speech, religion, press; free-market capitalism; racial, gender, socioeconomic equality; rule of law. Growing out of the basic credo that mandates that the U.S. act as global policeman is the “sacred trinity”: global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism.

    Together, the credo and the trinity represent the unvarying sales pitch offered by politicians, think tank analysts, policy intellectuals, and members of the mainstream media as to why we must send troops and treasure to the far corners of the world and maintain over 700 military facilities globally. Political slogans and specific vocabulary change, Bacevich argues, but the consensus never does. Whether it’s prosecuting the “global war on terror”, “making the world safe for democracy,” or “protecting American interests,” what’s at stake is a very narrow set of policy options benefitting a small but powerful elite of industrial and political profiteers. Deviation from the consensus is not only not tolerated, it is scarcely countenanced; neither have elections promising “change” properly delivered it.

    The Washington rules have promised little actual reward for American society as a whole and most Americans individually, unless the twin fantasies of cheap oil and foreign manufactures count as existential boons. Even though it’s possible to view the consensus as having been founded in idealism and goodwill, only a self-deception of heroic dimensions would allow us to see it as winning program. Indeed, the most cynical assessment of the consensus that only focuses on American lives and American dollars – leaving international credibility and moral strength aside – would find nothing but colossal waste and mismanagement. Meanwhile, Americans have failed to apply those same “universal” values on the homefront, as Bacevich puts it, “cultivating our own garden.” Burdened by crushing debt and limited by badly overstretched volunteer armed forces, the consensus promises both fiscal disaster and social upheaval in the long run. Signs of the former are already evident on the horizon. Upholding universal values in the world at large, it turns out, is not only functionally impossible but prohibitively expensive.

Bacevich’s approach in Washington Rules is three-fold. A powerfully moving introduction recounts his personal experience of enlightenment, when a visit to the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin signaled the end of his 20-year military career and the beginning of his new education in international affairs. Then, Bacevich sketches the theoretical underpinnings of the Washington consensus, with trenchant commentary on how the consensus is applied, how it has failed, and why it matters for our nation’s future. Finally, his investigation profiles some of the leading personalities – early progenitors such as Allen Dulles and Curtis LeMay and more recent acolytes like David Petraeus – responsible for crafting, refining, and maintaining the consensus, as well as treating the few – such as William Fulbright – who have courageously opposed it. Then, in a concluding chapter that would hold up well as a standalone essay, Bacevich charts an alternate course, in which the consensus is reined in and Americans look to their own affairs in earnest, fixing “Cleveland and Detroit rather than Baghdad and Kabul.”

Although Bacevich begins the book with an anecdote about the shedding of his former naïveté regarding the U.S. role as guarantor of global security, the crisp argument that follows brooks neither idealism nor cynicism, but good old-fashioned American pragmatism. Even if we wanted to continue down the path we have taken since World War II, we can no longer afford it or ignore its tremendous human and moral costs. On top of hard learning and cogent analysis, Bacevich’s prose is crystal clear and vigorous, and Washington Rules shows him at the top of his game. The lessons he offers are not to be ignored.

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POTUS is Christian, by Golly!

by Joshua H. Liberatore

According to some polls, nearly 20 percent of Americans believe POTUS is a Muslim. What to say? Of course, it could be the same section of the population confident that all Muslims are Arab and all Arabs are Muslims. POTUS is neither, of course, though his first and middle names are indeed shared by many in both camps (the religious one encompassing a full fifth of humanity, the linguistic, roughly 200 million). Beyond that tonal similarity, however, there’s no analysis to offer. When questioned by a woman in Albuquerque on the self-described “hot topic” of why POTUS is a Christian, he – patiently and systematically – set the record straight:

You know, I’m a Christian by choice. My family didn’t—frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week. I mean, my mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew, but she didn’t raise me in the church. (September 28, 2010)

Not only is POTUS’s Christianity a matter of choice, rather than an accident of childhood routine, it is also the product of mature reflection:

So I came to my Christian faith later in life, and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead: being my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me.

Wait. But a lot of people – even kindly agnostics – claim to be inspired by Jesus’ example. This is the province of mere philosophy, right? Being a man given to multilayered and often verbose answers to even the simplest questions, however, POTUS didn’t stop with the Golden Rule:

And I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes, and that we achieve salvation through the grace of God. But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people and do our best to help them find their own grace.

Pretty meaty stuff that, not just the casual rhetoric of a practiced politician in a country that still doesn’t elect many non-Christians to high office and none to the highest (except maybe POTUS #3, who was by all accounts an atheist). Still, POTUS could not leave things there. His is a big-tent spirituality, after all, one that apparently sees in Jesus’ example a tolerant embrace of other faiths:

And so that’s what I strive to do. That’s what I pray to do every day. I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith. And it’s—but the one thing I want to emphasize, having spoken about something that obviously relates to me very personally, as President of the United States, I’m also somebody who deeply believes that the—part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith, that this is a country that is still predominantly Christian, but we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and that their own path to grace is one that we have to revere and respect as much as our own. And that’s part of what makes this country what it is.

POTUS took a brief but virulent media-led beating for his stubborn insistence that U.S. law makes no distinction among religious traditions concerning the right to build a house of worship on private land. And I guess many have viewed his gentler rhetoric – however stiff the fist – regarding Middle East affairs as being soft on Islam (whatever that means) in the same inexplicable way – wholly divorced from reality – that John F. Kennedy was soft on communism. Sure, POTUS has made the stylistic choice not to wear his religiosity on his sleeve, but when we look closely at his words, we find no evidence that he’s wobbly on faith.

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“The Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In The Long Emergency, James Howard Kuntsler presents his dark, near-apocalyptic vision of life in the United States after peak oil, the point at which production has reached its half life, after which no more oil wells will be discovered and the oil that remains becomes increasingly more difficult and expensive to extract. The U.S. economy saw a mini-shock version of this in 1973 and again in 1979, by which time domestic oil production had long passed peak, but these temporary crises in supply pale in comparison to the scenario expected to unfold between 2010 and 2015 by many informed observers. Resource competition becomes markedly fiercer, as demand routinely outstrips available supply and countries go to great lengths to secure their piece of the remaining pie.

    I’d heard technical explanations of peak oil production before, but after reading Kuntsler’s more panoramic description, I realized a fundamental, naiveté in what I assumed would be the effects. In a quintessentially individual-obsessed culture like ours, it’s easy to think of oil supplies and prices as merely a factor in gasoline rates. And indeed, a goodly proportion of our national oil consumption is devoted to personal transportation. Succumbing to this bias in my first exposure, my initial thought was that peak production would shoot gas prices into the five- to-six-dollar per gallon range that would finally make small, fuel-efficient or electric cars the norm, encourage the wide development and use of public transportation, and generate the political will to pursue in earnest the renewable energy investment that many countries in Europe and Asia have been emphasizing for more than a generation.

    But that is far too simplistic and limited a consequence. In fact, the peak oil threshold will teach us just how integrally oil and other fossil fuels are embedded in nearly every aspect of our society, from agriculture to retail to any service or product that relies on “economies of scale,” i.e. elaborate and often globe-trotting supply chains that allow us to get our goods cheap and fast in all the big-box stores that dot our suburban and exurban landscapes. After peak oil, prices will skyrocket in all of those sectors as well, and in turn, eliminate many of the industries that rest on the heretofore dependable platform of cheap fuel. Large cities will be in big trouble, of course, but nowhere will the suffering be more acute than in the distant suburbs whose very existence depends on the automobile. These far-flung “communities” – however artificial and recent their provenance, however established their seeming affluence – will become the slums of the future in Kuntsler’s view.

    Rapid depopulation and contraction will be the major demographic trends in the decades to come. People will jut have to live closer to one another, and the goods and services they consume will necessarily be locally produced. Many more people will have to learn how to grow food, pick up a trade, do something useful in an actual community of interdependent enterprises. We will travel less and get to know our neighbors better. Regardless of our individual role as this intense localization of economic and social life fully manifests, all of us will have to content ourselves with tools and products that last, and we will have to learn how to fix them when they break down. In a culture where choice, mobility, convenience (i.e. disposability), and “freedom” have become the watchwords of the good life, these economic realities will be painful for some Americans to assimilate.

    One particularly disappointing aspect of Kuntsler’s findings is the limited role played by what we now blithely call renewable and alternative energy sources. One by one, solar, wind, biodiesel, and other alternative options are debunked based on their manufacturing dependence on the fossil fuel platform and conventional industrial infrastructure. Large wind turbine towers are not easily manufactured on the juice from hydrogen fuel cells. How will solar panels be distributed across the continental United States when the cost of trucking and freight becomes prohibitively high? If we expect these energy sources functionally to replace oil and natural gas, we need to start the conversion process in earnest, while we still enjoy the unique and historically unprecedented benefits of the fossil fuel industrial platform. An unfortunate mythology in the renewable fuel dream suggests that we can still do all of the things we do now, we just have to get creative and invest in adequate substitutes. That mythology breaks down at peak production, when the cost of fossil fuel renders those alternatives mere technological fantasies, the panacea imagined by wealthy urban liberals. Only nuclear power ranks a future in Kuntsler’s dark vision, as a viable replacement of some grid-level electricity and some industrial production. But again, since nuclear plants take enormous resources and energy inputs to produce, we’d better get cracking on the overhaul, as France and Japan have done since the 1970s, when glimpses of the oil apocalypse first appeared on the radars of the civilized world.

    I caught myself asking this question over again as I read Kuntsler’s book: How would I fare at this or that stage of the post-peak world? Can I walk to the grocery store? Yes, definitely. Could I bike to work? Yes, but with considerable effort. Do I have access to public transportation? Yes. Do I know how to grow food? Well, some. But as the narrative advances in detail, one sees, once again, how naïve the premises of these questions become in the uncharted territory of post-peak America. Sure, I can walk to the local Safeway and Giant, but both are huge corporate entities intimately dependent on industrial agriculture, long supply chains, and distant growers, each of which owes its continued existence to cheap fossil fuel. Sure, I can bike to work, but will I have a job when the federal government goes bankrupt fighting overseas wars to secure the last remnants of Middle Eastern and Central Asian fossil fuels?

    My modest suburban district located just outside a sizable East Coast city is certainly not one of the sprawling McMansion developments skewered by Kuntsler’s bleakest predictions. In this place, most have cars, but we could live without them. The more sinister question is what we would do when everything else dependent on cheap fuel collapses around us. In short, Kuntsler’s book teaches us to think beyond price per gallon and embrace a world in which there just aren’t that many gas stations, and those that remain have long lines and angry customers on an order we’ve never witnessed in this country.

    The Long Emergency is a compelling and provocative guidebook for one likely future, and I appreciated it as a sort of table-top exercise, a war game in the chaotic scenario of post-peak nation building. My only criticism is that Kuntsler seems to take a sort masochistic pleasure in revealing his stunning predictions of strife, violence, and widespread hardship. There’s very little optimism to hold on to. Maybe that’s the inevitable outcome of clear-eyed research and a cold look at the available data. Still, it’s hard to dispel the doomsday tonalities of Kunstler’s storytelling, and my only fear is that these stylistic indulgences will turn too many readers away from material that is not only depressing but also fundamentally contemptuous of nearly every aspect of modern American life. Still, there’s excellent content in there, crucial food for thought; only many won’t have the stomach to get to the last chapter, let alone the real meat and potatoes at the book’s argumentative core. To let oneself be distracted away from the serious message Kunstler has packaged up with such unironic candor would be a shame, and I wonder if a less merciless approach would be more effective in getting people on board.

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Unnatural Medicine for an Unnatural Malady

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In the “sleepwalking scene” of Macbeth (V.1), Shakespeare reveals through vivid dramatic flourish the decaying mental condition of Lady Macbeth, who by now recognizes that washing away her murderous sins is not as simple as she once (rather naively) believed (“Go get some water, and wash this filthy witness from your hands,” [II.ii.46]). Now she mutters hauntingly in her sleep, “What, will these hands never be clean,” as the doctor and the gentlewoman piece together the probable cause of her somnolent hysteria (V.i.46). Lady Macbeth, so calm and calculating, even coldly rational throughout the unfolding of the violent conspiracy to which she is party, and who upbraids her husband for his womanly trepidation, is now plagued by nightmarish delusions and unrest. In this critical scene, the reader gets the satisfaction of witnessing Lady Macbeth’s deserved suffering, but it is the secondary characters who connect her madness thematically with the rest of the play.

    One of the first things Lady Macbeth’s observers comment on is her unusual state, framed in the familiar terms of opposition established throughout the drama: “You see, her eyes are open . . . Ay, but their sense are shut” (V.i.27–28). This whispered exchange between the doctor and the gentlewoman, links Lady Macbeth’s psychosis with a series of contradictory pairings: fair vs. foul, daylight vs. nighttime, tenderness vs. savagery, contemplation vs. action, manly decisiveness vs. womanly hesitation. Lady Macbeth has presented the image of sinister strength up to this point in the action of the play; now her moral weakness is suddenly revealed, her internal torment laid bare. Macbeth, who has “supped full with horrors,” has also seen fits of madness, but as the plot unfolds, becomes increasingly inured to the pricks of regret and confusion: he must live with his sins, and endure the “slaughterous thoughts [that] cannot once start me” (V.v.14–15). In its inherent paradox, the act of sleepwalking completes the cycle of oppositions that appear throughout the play and reveal the deeper pathos of its themes: in the perverted moral universe created by the Macbeths, equivocation and duplicity become the only constants. Mere appearances, such as the flight of Malcolm and Donalbain or Lady Macbeth’s hostess cheer, cannot be trusted: “fair is foul and foul is fair.”

    The doctor’s “diagnosis” also links this scene to a critical theme in the drama: the violation of nature’s laws. As a tyrant usurper, Macbeth has perpetrated against a handful of conventional codes governing human action. He has violated nature, and hence, pays the consequences of an unnatural and humiliating death at the hands of his self-created enemies. Likewise, Lady Macbeth’s “unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles,” her condition reaching beyond the usual parameters of medical science (V.i.75–76). The doctor, indeed, admits that in such cases, “more needs she the divine than the physician” (V.i.78). Again, the opposition between natural and unnatural, mortal and divine, is ripe with implications throughout the drama. For example, Macbeth boldly claims that he fears no mortal adversary (“What man dare, I dare,” [III.iv.100]), but is entirely unmanned by the sight of Banquo’s ghost, a hint of the divine forces conspired against him.

    The weird sisters’ prophecies convince the besieged Macbeth that he lives a charmed life, but by the final confrontation with Macduff, he despairs that “these juggling fiends [be] no more believed, [they] palter us with a double sense” putting a final word on the theme of equivocation. By the end of the play, we see that each of the witches’ tidings had an underbelly of deception to it, a double significance, the greater truth of which boded the certain demise of Macbeth. In the “sleepwalking scene,” the doctor recognizes—like the old man in an earlier episode who noted that “this sore night hath trifled former knowings” in its aberrance from nature—that he is powerless against the irrational forces of madness (II.iv.3). The doctor intones Lady Macbeth’s dismal fate as a self-contained malady, with no possible remedy: “Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets” (V.i.76–77). Even their confession is a futile act. Later, as Macbeth wonders aloud whether or not the doctor can “minister to a mind diseased,” the response is one that Macbeth himself must reckon with: “therein the patient must minister to himself” (V.iii.45). In the “unnatural deeds” of his design, Macbeth must salve his suffering with his own unnatural medicine: a hastened destruction at the hands of a man “not of woman born,” thus fulfilling the doctor’s timely prescription.

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