The Nation, 20 Oct 2008

This issue features three items I think I might someday want to look up. 

China scholar Orville Schell writes that the Confucian and Legalist traditions of classical Chinese thought may offer guidance to coming generations of Chinese leaders.  About 16 years ago I read a translation of selected works by Han Fei, the leading light of the Legalist tradition; all my knowledge of that tradition comes from that one book.  So I was astounded by Schell’s characterization of the Legalist thought as “an amoral conception of statecraft.”  That certainly wasn’t the impression Burton Watson wanted me to have.   It’s lucky for me I never had a chance at that time to show off my one scrap of knowledge about Chinese political thought by casually describing myself as an adherent of the school of Han Fei Tzu.  Anyway, Schell’s idea that classical Chinese thought might help China find its way forward in the century to come reminds me of Wu Mi and Liang Shiqiu, Chinese students of Irving Babbitt whose work is discussed here.  Having studied under Babbitt at Harvard, they returned to China in the 1930s and there defended Babbitt’s view that a healthy society must be informed by a dialogue between the dead and the living, between the wisdom of the past as preserved in revered texts and the critical spirit of the present as cultivated by literary education.  In the upheavals of those years, not too many people seemed interested in such an urbane and polite doctrine.  Maybe Schell is onto something, though, and Wu Mi, Liang Shiqiu, and other Chinese Babbitt-ites (like the famous Lin Yutang) will be respected figures in China’s future national memory. 

Daniel Lazare reviews Laurence Tribe’s The Invisible Constitution.  Tribe defines “the invisible constitution” as “a vast and deep—and, crucially, invisible—ocean of ideas, propositions, recovered memories, and imagined experiences.”  What jumped out at me was Lazare’s summary of Tribe’s view on the question of whether states have the right to secede.  Even though the text of the constitution is silent on this issue, the invisible constitution makes it clear that they do not, because “hundreds of thousands of Union slodiers gave their lives in the cause of national unity.”  From this it sounds like all those “ideas, propositions, recovered memories, and imagined experiences” can float off into another ocean- the whole thing can be trumped by soldiers giving their lives, and more to the point, taking the lives of those who disagree with their commanders’ constitutional theories. 

Robert V. Daniels reviews five new books about Russia.  Of these, only one, Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia, by Marshall I. Goldman, sounds like it focuses on what to me seems like the single most important factor defining Russia’s role in world affairs: the price of oil.  Russia exports oil, natural gas, and precious metals.  These things rise and fall in price together.  When the price of oil is high, Russia is rich, when the price of oil is low, Russia is poor.  When Russia is rich, it is assertive in its relations with its neighbors.  When Russia is poor, it is meek in its relations with its neighbors.  To me, anti-Russian militarism of the neoconservative variety seems pointless- if we want to pacify Russia, the last things to do would be to build more oil-burning weapons systems and destabilize oil-producing regions.  Another book Daniels reviews was written by the former chief Russia correspondent of The Economist.  I can’t resist linking to this thing, posted early last year, arguing that The Economist‘s Russia coverage qualifies it as the world’s worst magazine.


  1. cymast

     /  October 14, 2008

    The assertation that “hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers gave their lives . . ” trumps moral ideals cheapens those lives.

  2. acilius

     /  October 14, 2008

    I want to be clear that I took that quote from the reviewer, not from Tribe himself. And the reviewer clearly doesn’t buy Tribe’s arguments. So it may not be the fairest summary of Tribe’s view. Although virtually the same phrase does appear on the website Harvard put up for Tribe’s book…

    It is pretty dubious to say that hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers died for the idea of national unity. I’m sure that a big percentage of those soldiers died because they were afraid of what the other guys would say about them if they didn’t go into the battle. And what about the hundreds of thousands who died on the other side?

    I’ve always wondered about the idea of martyrdom. How does a person’s decision to die for an idea give that idea greater weight than another person’s decision to live for an idea? That seems to cheapen, not only the life of the martyr, but life as such.

  3. cymast

     /  October 14, 2008

    Yes, I believe one always has more influence alive than dead. Those influencing are the alive remembering the dead, not the dead themselves. Why not just leave dead people out of the equation?

  4. acilius

     /  October 14, 2008

    You’ve found a connection between the articles that I wasn’t aware of when I chose them. The classical Chinese thinkers Orville Schell praises and Irving Babbitt of whom Schell reminds me were always mindful of traditional ideas about a dialogue between the living and the dead, an implicit contract binding the generations together. Tribe, at least as Lazare interprets him, discusses something similar.

    I don’t consciously base my ideas on the notion of such a contract, when I defend an opinion I always try to find something to say about the present and the future, not the past. Still, I don’t think it’s unhealthy to believe in a continuity of spirits.

    Besides, approximately 94% of all humans are now dead, so it would seem awfully undemocratic to exclude the dead from decision-making entirely.

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