For He Observes Himself, Goes Away, And Immediately Forgets What Kind Of Man He Was

In reading a book review of sorts within a larger collection of book’s highly recommended by an author whose judgment and insight I viewed as suspect, I came across the following quote from the book being reviewed in the book that I reviewed that read as follows: “The republic passes over into empire when political activity is no longer directed toward enhancement of a particular people, but has become a mechanism for managing them for the benefit of their rulers. That is to say, an empire’s political behavior reflects management needs, reflects the interests of maintaining government itself, reflects the desires of those who happen to be in control of its machinery of administration, rather than the personality and the will of the nation being governed. The government of an empire is abstract, manipulative, a government of, by, and for the government, not of, by, and for the people. Power flows downward rather than upward [1].” The author of this quote, a man named Clyde Wilson, is the editor of the John C. Calhoun papers at the University of South Carolina, and appears to be entirely unaware that the antebellum South he venerates practiced precisely the behavior that he abhors when it is present in the federal government. In defining empire by a particular way of behaving, rather than in its size, the author shows the antebellum South, and South Carolina in particular, to be the exact sort of empire that the author claims to abhor and detest in the United States of America.

What is to account for this clear hypocrisy and double standard? South Carolina on the eve of the Civil War was an area that was majority black, and yet there was no prospect in December of 1860 of the majority of the people of the state being given the right to express their own opinions and to vote based on their own worldview, or to seek their own best interests or protect the property earned through the sweat of their own brow, or even to marry and seek to protect their wives and sisters and daughters from the unwanted advances of the men of the planter class. There was also no dissenting vote in the South Carolina legislative body that voted to rebel against the Union in defense of its own narrow imperial interests. It is particularly stunning when a man speaks against precisely those qualities that he represents and that that he honors in others he judges like himself. The author appears to believe that all men are created equal, but some are more equal than others, to paraphrase the quote from Animal Farm. One is also reminded of the following passage in James 1:22-25, which reads as follows: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.” If we abhor being treated in the same way that we treat others, and if we refuse to submit to authority that acts as we do when we are in positions and offices of authority over others, we have failed to follow the perfect law of liberty, that golden rule we all pay at least lip service to that tells us to treat others as we would wish to be treated.

Yet this is not an easy thing to do, whether we speak individually or in terms of larger institutions and governments. For one thing, in order to enhance people or serve people, or represent people, one has to behave in a particular way. For example, one must view others as human beings, with all the respect that entails. If one genuinely wishes to serve others, one has to get to know them, to allow them to communicate their preferences and their boundaries and their passions. We must not only seek what people want, if we wish to serve them, but we must make the best case possible for what people need that they may not want at the time. In any case, though, good government requires working for the benefit of others, and not merely for our own benefit. Throughout the melancholy course of human history, leaders have always wanted to be called benefactors. Corrupt emperors and robber barons alike used at least some of their plunder to build museums and serve others, but did so only as a desire to do penance for their sins by paying some portion of it back to those they robbed. Yet the desire to be seen as generous and loving has always remained, whether leaders themselves had merited that reputation or not through their conduct. This was even true of those corrupt slaveowners who Clyde Wilson praises, who often engaged in various pageants of mock submission where they sought to induce their slaves to show appreciation and gratitude for their meager generosity, and both insulted the slaves for being so gullible while simultaneously doubting the truthfulness of the show they had just demanded.

But let us judge not lest we shall be judged. It is easy to judge the hypocrisy of great sinners like slaveowners. It is easy to point to the corrupt leaders of the world’s nations and institutions and to heap scorn upon them. Those whose lives are open to the scrutiny of the public cannot help but draw critics for a wide variety of reasons both just and unjust. We see their errors, which cannot be hidden, and cannot see their heartfelt repentance and their desire to be forgiven and restored, and their desire to be given the blank slate without having lost all that they have worked so hard to gain. Yet if we are to live in a godly way ourselves, we too must see them as human beings, possibly very flawed ones, but humans nonetheless. If we only see the monstrous in those who do great evil and exploit and take advantage of others, we are no better than they, for it was their denial of the humanity of others in any meaningful or practical sense that led them to behave selfishly to gratify their own lust and greed without seeking to serve and build up those who they took advantage of. If we are morally sensitive where they were not, it is not because of our own greatness, but because God has been merciful to us, in part that we might extend that mercy even to those who might not be aware that we must extend a great amount of mercy to them merely to live at peace with them, because they live entirely in denial about the wrongs that they have committed. For knowledge is a gift from God, and we must know what kind of men and women we are before we can repent of it and seek God’s way, and be forgiven. Often in life, unfortunately, it falls upon us to say as did our Lord and Savior or Stephen the deacon to those who sought to kill them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For if they understood what they were truly about, how could people behave as they do?

[1] The quote was found on page 288 of Chilton Williamson, Jr’s book The Conservative Bookshelf, and is a quote from Clyde N. Wilson’s 2003 book From Union To Empire: Essays In The Jeffersonian Tradition.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Christianity, Church of God, History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to For He Observes Himself, Goes Away, And Immediately Forgets What Kind Of Man He Was

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The James Code | Edge Induced Cohesion

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