Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: The death of a nation

In the introduction to his magisterial work, “Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes invites his readers to imagine the civil state as an animal, an artificial life created by human art in imitation of the divine. To justify this analogy, he likens the powers and functions of civil society to those of a human being: sovereignty is its soul; public officials, its joints; reward and punishment, its motive force; public welfare, its business; law and justice, its reason and will. The rest of Leviathan is an elaboration of this metaphor. The civil state, i.e., Leviathan, is just a colossal artificial rationalanimal, whose maker is the People.
Hobbes also makes plain that, like its creator, the civil state is mortal, therefore subject to sickness and death; he likens civic harmony and concord to health, anarchy and sedition with illness; and civil war with death. It is a sobering thought; and Hobbes makes sure to remind his readers that “nothing can be immortal, which mortals make.”
Daily reports in the news about the dysfunctions in our federal government cause me to wonder whether this nation might be seriously ill and whether its illness might be terminal; the national condition seems grave.
Hobbes’ grim reminder of the mortality of things made by mortals notwithstanding, he believed that the founders of nations meant them to last as long as human life itself, for the people, who created the nation, intended it not only for themselves but for their posterity; and as long as law and justicepersist, for they are the sources of a nation’s nourishment and health and, along with truth, they are the best things in life we know and most deserving of immortality.
He supposed that the diseases which cause premature death are internal, and he proposed that there should be something comparable to the science of internal medicine to identify, diagnose, and treat national diseases. Chapter xxix of

Leviathan, provides a catalogue of deficiencies or malformations in a state that predispose them to illness and death. I should forewarn readers that not all that follows will please them.
Hobbes believed that the general symptom of national disease is sedition; the condition of a nation divided by factions, partisan discord and conflict, resulting in conflict and disorder, rioting, protest, and rebellion, whose outcome might be civil war, which is the death of a nation. The preconditionsor birth defects that prevent a government from treating these disorders are several. First is the lack of power in a government to keep the peace and overcome disorder. Another is lawlessness or contempt for law and order, disrespect for the rule of law.
In one instance Hobbes was clearly wrong: he believed that the power of government should be unitary, located in one will, whether it be that of a monarch or ruling council; and that the separation of powers was suicidal. And he went so far to insist that if it the government be a monarchy, which he preferred, that the monarch should be above the civil law, not subject to it. And Yet the American experience has proven him wrong. And what has made American system so durable is precisely the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances it puts in place to prevent the concentration of power in one place: whether it be a megalomaniacal individual, a junta, or a partisan mob. Recall that the framers of the Constitution gave power to the people, but in the preamble, the People of the United States subject themselves to a fundamental law, which is spelled out in the Constitution itself. Hobbes failed to foresee the genius of a constitutional democracy. Why he failed to see this is an interesting question, but it would be a digression to pursue it here.
To return to the point, ever since January 20, 2016, a megalomaniacal malignancy, apparently a man, has settled into the White House. A compulsive liar, a self promoter and promoter of sedition has seated itself behind the executive desk, and it has become the duty of the people, who established the Constitution, because he is unfit, to remove him from office, not by violence but according to the rule of law: by impeachment or defeat at the polls.

The personification of this malignancy is Donald J. Trump. Ever since his election, he has degraded the high office of President of the United States, has shown a contempt for law and truth and the Constitution, imagines himself immune to its constraints; sees himself established at the center of the world, as though he were the reason why the world turns. Every day he shows contempt for the institutions of government, its public servants, even those who have given their lives for the good of the nation. Those troubled by Trump’s characterization of heroes who died on the beaches of Normandy as “losers” should recall his ridicule of the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, killed in Iraq, whose father carried a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, mindful of his duty as a citizen and the rule of law.
Contempt for the rule of law will make a nation sick, and when it is supported by a private use of public wealth, it becomes a sickness unto death. And yet this is just what we have in this government that caters to fat-cats, chief among whom is President of the United States. Thus Hobbes warns, “When the treasure of the commonwealth … is gathered together in too much abundance, in one, or a few private men, by monopolies”, the result is a pleurisy, the lungs become inflamed, fever follows, then disorder, disability, and death. It can happen here.
Postscript: But this is only part of the story. Over 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith produced a film entitled “The Birth of a Nation”, which vilified Black Americans, glorified the old South, and celebrated the notorious Ku Klux Klan. It was a sentimental paean for racial prejudice. Racial prejudice is a mortal affliction; and it is still with us, and its effect is the death of a nation.

 

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