Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Book Review: Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples

Only three people have won the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing history. This is quite the disappointment to someone such as myself, for whom history is by far the most interesting branch of literature. (If you find Herodotus more interesting than either Homer or Plato, then you and I just might have something in common).

The first of these three special Nobel Laureates was a now-obscure German named Theodor Mommsen, who won the 1902 prize for his monumental History of Rome. The second is a bit more famous – his name was Sir Winston Churchill.

Few people realize it these days, but Churchill was a writer before he was a politician. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill was already well-known in both Britain and America for his work as a journalist and for his memoirs of his youth as a cavalry officer in the wars in Sudan, India, and South Africa.

Churchill also had a seat in Parliament, but that was mainly because he entered public life at the tail end of the time when the life of the aristocracy included sitting in Parliament pretty-much as a hobby. Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was an important enough fellow to see to it that his boy got elected to represent Oldham a week before his 26th birthday. But until he joined the cabinet during the First World War, the younger Churchill was famous mainly as a writer.

When the war ended, so did Churchill’s first experience in government. During his years as a back-bencher in the 1920s and ‘30s, he found time to start composing his mature works: The World Crisis, a five volume history of World War I, and Marlborough, His Life and Times, a four volume biography of his famous ancestor John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough.

In the late 1930s, Churchill began his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a four volume epic endeavouring to unite the stories of Britain and all her daughter countries, most importantly the United States. But he didn’t get to finish it as soon as he would have liked, since beginning in 1939, he was occupied with other affairs, and then with writing the six volumes of his History of the Second World War, which saw print between 1948 and 1953. It was also in 1953 that he received his Nobel Prize in Literature.

Churchill was 80 years old when he retired from his second premiership in 1955, and over the next three years he finished and published the History of the English-Speaking Peoples. It was to be his final significant work.

There are four volumes; each runs for about 300 pages and is divided into three books, making twelve books in all. Book I tells the story of Britain from prehistoric and Roman times to the Saxon dynasty founded by Alfred the Great. Book XII begins with the rise of Disraeli and Gladstone in the 1860s and ends with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The four volumes are entitled The Birth of Britain (prehistory to 1485), The New World (1485 to 1689), The Age of Revolution (1689 to 1815), and The Great Democracies (1815 to 1901).

Reviews at the time described Churchill’s prose as “scintillating.” I myself would not go so far; Churchill isn’t a boring writer by any means, but his writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, and when one is spanning such a long period one has got to be laconic on most occasions. At the same time, Churchill manages to bring his characters to life in a way that all too many historians don’t.

A word is in order concerning who those characters are. Churchill’s work is primarily a military and political history. If you are a monarch, MP, general, or admiral, you will likely figure prominently in his tale. (If you are John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, then you get to be the hero of Book VII – nobody else in the whole work comes in for even half as much praise).

Otherwise, little will be said about you. Do not go to Churchill if you are trying to educate yourself about the economic, industrial, scientific, literary, or religious goings-on of England and America’s past. Thomas Cranmer, John Milton, Isaac Newton, James Cook, and Thomas Edison, to name just a few, are figures who get only a single sentence, or none at all.

But I am not going to characterize this as a mistake on Churchill’s part. There is only so much you can do when you squeeze two millennia of history into 1200 pages. If Book XI, which covers American history from 1815 to 1865, spends only twelve pages on events before 1850, while devoting nearly 80 to the four years of the Civil War, then that is very much by intent. Battles and parliamentary debates were what interested the author, so battles and parliamentary debates were what he wrote about – and he wrote about them well.

There are three more factors in Churchill’s work which I think deserve mentioning simply because they differ from what many of my readers may be used to seeing in a historical work. The first is Churchill’s lack of excessive moralization. History as he tells it has heroes and villains, as English history has always had; Alfred the Great is a hero, Richard III is a villain, and so forth. But Churchill does not feel the need to flatten out every event into a simple battle of good and evil. In his telling, most of the conflicts – Roundheads vs. Cavaliers, William III vs. the Jacobites, Yankees vs. Confederates, the French Revolutionary Wars, and even the Boer War in which he himself fought – feature fully drawn characters on both sides.

The second factor is the view of the American Revolution from the losing side, which makes up much of Book VIII. We Americans aren’t used to hearing our nation’s founding story presented as less of a heroic struggle for liberty by brave colonists than a tale of blustering incompetence on the part of British generals and statesmen grown overconfident after their successes in the (now-obscure) Seven Years’ War. But to a patriotic Englishman like Churchill, that is what it was.

And the third factor is simply the natural sense of pride in one’s national heritage, a pride which went unnoticed in Churchill’s time, but nowadays is exceptional enough to be noteworthy. Thus a (patriotic) historian in modern Britain will devote much of his work to explaining things like the British Empire’s role in extirpating the slave trade. Churchill doesn’t do this, for the simple reason that, in his days, the superiority of European civilization was sufficiently uncontroversial that nobody felt a conscious desire to push back against the white-man-bad version of history.

On the whole, Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples is worth taking a look at. I would never recommend it as someone’s only source on Anglo-American history – there are simply too many things that get glossed over – but if you are going to add another perspective to your body of historical knowledge, then you could certainly do worse than taking the time to see the history of England and her most famous colony through the eyes of Sir Winston Churchill.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Looking Away From The Present

Last week, the American Conservative published an article by Alberto Bufalino entitled “Calls to End the Filibuster Threaten American Democracy.”

The issue is newsworthy because Democrats are talking about getting rid of the Senate filibuster if they win back Congress and the White House in November. Bufalino’s article repeats all the arguments in favor of the filibuster that have been paraded out by whatever party is out of office (or anticipates that it will soon be out of office) since before I was born.

“The filibuster prevents the tyranny of the majority,” he says, “allowing for the minority party to have a say in policymaking and to defend their interests on a particular policy. Thomas Jefferson once said, “great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority….”

I disagree with the substance of the pro-filibuster arguments; in other words, I don’t think that requiring excessive majorities for the Senate to pass legislation actually defends minority rights. I think that it just makes Congress, as a whole, weaker, so that it’s easy for the federal courts, along with a horde of regulatory agencies, to step into the resulting power vacuum and write policies that would not have commanded even a bare majority in the houses of Congress.

That’s a line of thinking that I plan to work out in a later post. In the current post, rather than a refutation of the arguments that Bufalino deploys in defense of the filibuster, I’m going to outline why I reject his premise.

The premise on which his article is based is an old and well-worn one, and it goes something like this: American democracy, though not perfect, has survived mostly intact from 1776 to the present day. But whatever reform the Democrats are presently agitating for will, if adopted, destroy American democracy.

The irony is that whenever the Democrats win their cause du jour, conservatives immediately reanalyze what just happened as just another step in a chain of real but non-essential defeats, and then the process starts all over again with a new apocalyptic threat hanging over the imperiled republic.

This is really just a variation on one of the flawed thought patterns that afflicts the conservative mindset in general. If you’ve followed debates in politics, economics, religion, or any other field of human experience in which a division between conservatives and liberals is to be found, then you’ve probably seen it again and again. The conservatives always claim to be defending a tradition that has been handed down for a long time and successfully maintained through many generations, but which will be lost in the near future if the liberals get what they are presently demanding.

The problem with this worldview is that it depends, for its acceptance, on a considerable degree of historical illiteracy. In this respect, it is much like all the other worldviews which fail to acknowledge that the past isn’t a simple story of linear progress or the stalwart preservation of an ancient tradition, and that turning points in the past can be just as important as turning points in the present and the future.

Just consider the ongoing alarmism in the conservative media over the fact that so many millennials are now identifying as socialists. The future we are told to fear is one in which the socialists soon become a majority and, in one fell swoop, overturn the capitalist system which has made America a prosperous nation since its founding.

What we are expected to overlook is the fact that America’s economic system has been undergoing incremental changes – with occasional jolts in years like 1873, 1913, and 1933 – for a very long time, and the effects of these past changes are far greater than the effect we would have felt if Bernie Sanders had won this year’s election.

In real life, a declining nation, tradition, or form of government is gradually subverted and weakened over long periods of time. Eventually, a nation undergoing a process of decline will reach a point where the important battles lie in its past. Then, unless the conservative faction acknowledges that something catastrophic has been lost, and takes up the mantle of the reactionaries in an effort to get it back, the decline is just going to continue.

Now let’s turn away from economics and back to democratic government itself – something whose survival depends, according to Bufalino and scads of likeminded media figures, on the preservation of the filibuster.

And yet a level-headed supporter of representative government (as opposed to one stuck in the mental rut I just outlined) is likely to look back at the last century-and-a-half of American politics and conclude that his country’s democratic form of government has already been disfigured beyond recognition.

Look at it this way: in the first half of the twentieth century, major changes to America’s domestic affairs – women’s suffrage, for instance, or the Federal Reserve Act, or Prohibition, or the New Deal – had to be approved by Congress and, if they involved a constitutional amendment, by the state legislatures. Likewise, Congress had the right to vote on whether or not to go to war.

In the second half of the century, the big domestic changes – things like forced bussing, legalized abortion, and a much-reduced role for religion in public life – were largely the work of the courts, and the President could go to war whenever, and against whomever, he wanted. These conditions have persisted to the present day. Ask yourself which of the big issues of the last five years – same sex marriage, DACA, the wars in Syria and Yemen, etc. – are being decided by elected representative bodies, and you’ll come up empty-handed.

Historical illiteracy is a big factor in the acceptance, by so many rightward-leaning Americans, of a worldview in which the past is flattened out into a tale of the successful preservation of the same set of essential liberties which are at stake in the big political controversies of the present. But it isn’t the only factor; simple flattery also has its role.

People like to believe that they’re on the winning team. Tell an American that his country has done a best-in-the-world job of preserving liberty since 1776, and he will feel good about himself. The same goes for telling a Republican that his party has been in the same role since 1854. Then, tell him that all of this is at stake in the next election, and he just might go out and vote for you. Hence the popularity and frequent repetition of the “last best hope” meme in all of its variations.

When your goal is to win elections, this thought-pattern works fairly well. But as a means of understanding history, it comes up short. Being a democratic reactionary, as I discussed in my last post, involves looking away from the present and recognizing the importance of defeats that happened a long time ago. Then it involves the admission that regaining our liberties – if such a thing is to be done at all – has very little to do with the outcomes of the narrow controversies that are presently being debated in the houses of Congress.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Thoughts of a Democratic Reactionary

“Democratic” and “Reactionary” aren’t words that you often hear used to describe the same political thinker, or the same belief system.

There is a reason for this: In the 19th century European politics from which so much of our political vocabulary is drawn, liberal democracy was a rising force, and reactionaries, by definition, wanted to revive discarded elements of their respective countries’ national traditions. In those days, being a reactionary meant wanting to go back to absolute monarchy.

But there isn’t some eternal principle which prevents a reactionary from being a liberal democrat. In fact, if you live in a country which was more democratic in its past than at present, then defending democratic principles just might require you to be a reactionary.

Now, before I go on, I should probably spend a few paragraphs explaining just what kind of reactionary I am. To begin with, I am a thoughtful reactionary. That means that I have a more nuanced view of the past than a lot of people on the conservative side of things, who just pine for a return to whichever era of our country’s history they happen to see through the most intensely rose-colored glasses.

The only thing that can be said in favor of that viewpoint is that it rejects the myth of progress; that is to say, it doesn’t follow the delusional mainstream of American society in believing that the rapid and uncritical adoption of the latest innovations, both social and technological, will liberate us from human nature and set us on track to a glorious future that’s much better than any era in the past.

But the simple-minded reactionaries still fail to see the cyclico-chaotic nature of real history, as opposed to the linear idea of perpetual betterment, on the one hand, or the equally linear idea of mankind falling away from an idealized past, on the other.

Having thus liberated myself from the boneheaded idea that it’s a reactionary’s job to defend every aspect of a particular time in American history which supposedly marked our country’s peak, I am instead free to pick and choose which elements of our collective past are most worthy of admiration.

Thus, I can say that I am enamored of the religious climate in colonial Philadelphia, which I think was demonstrated very well in the philosophy and religious outlook of Benjamin Franklin. It was a time when the belief in a benevolent Creator, and the adherence by men and women of all sects to the same code of Christian ethics, was balanced with religious pluralism and a distrust of any sect which claimed to have too firm of a grasp on God’s infallible truth.

I admire the political organization of the antebellum United States, where the power of the federal government to manage military affairs and regulate trade was balanced by a healthy degree of apprehension that the states – both north and south – might rebel if their rights were violated.

I would love to see a return to the sort of locally autonomous, old-fashioned school systems that we had circa 1910, which were good enough that, even with an eighth grade education – which was all that many Americans got back then – a man of that time was still far more articulate, and knew far more about the world around him, than his present-day counterpart. Frankly, even in the 1950s, which were a ways downhill from 1910s, the schools were still lightyears better than they are today.

I look back fondly at the scientific and technological leadership which America enjoyed during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, when we built scads of nuclear of power plants, put men on the moon, and achieved other feats of engineering that haven’t been repeated in more recent times.

And I sort of like the kind of race relations we had in 2008. I mean, they weren’t perfect by a long shot, but the Democratic party had just elected the nation’s first black president, the conservatives had a black man in the rightward-most seat on the Supreme Court, and solid majorities in both parties were committed to the idea that blacks and whites could live together as equals if they really wanted to. White privilege, and the insistence that if you were born white then you were born a racist, had not yet entered the mainstream.

So that, to me, is what being a thoughtful reactionary means. You can’t just replace blind faith in the bestness of the present/future with blind faith in the bestness of your favourite era in the past.

Now to answer the original question: Why is my being a reactionary inseparable from my faith in liberal democracy?

To which I respond: Because liberal democracy was much stronger in America’s past than in its present.

Congress, which is supposed to be the most powerful branch of government, has very little role in making the laws these days. Nearly all meaningful policy is set by the courts and the civil service. Most Americans follow professions in which everything they do is rigidly shaped by compliance with innumerable regulations made by the SEC, FCC, FAA, OSHA, USDA, and countless other unelected bureaucracies – agencies which get reorganized by Congress every few decades, but otherwise are running on autopilot.

Now, some people will say that this argument to the effect that America is not a democracy is flawed because the civil service (and even the courts) are theoretically subject to a variety of congressional checks. However, in practice the checks are never used. In much the same way, Britain is still officially a monarchy, and the Queen is still theoretically in charge; she has nonetheless chosen, in accordance with longstanding tradition, to always defer to her ministers.

In other words, the people responsible for the replacement of American democracy with technocratic oligarchy are masters of the art of revolution within the form.

If you want to hear the best arguments to the effect that democracy in today’s America is a ceremonial affair in much the same way as monarchy in today’s United Kingdom, then read Mencius Moldbug. Be warned, though: if you start reading his blog from the beginning, it could take days before you get to where he hits his stride. If you don’t have much time, here is a good place to begin.

Now, the big difference between myself and Moldbug is that, to Moldbug, democracy is an unworkable sham through and through, and Anglo-British politics have been going downhill since the days of Charles Stuart. Me? I think that Moldbug’s beliefs about the value of democracy (as opposed to its absence from contemporary America) are dead wrong. Basically, I agree with Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried.”

To me it seems undeniable that America’s national greatness, in our first century-and-a-half or so of independence, was inseparable from our democratic form of government. Likewise, the British enjoyed unprecedented domestic peace, along with military, economic, and scientific dominance in the centuries following 1689, largely because of Britain’s democratic form of government.

And by “democratic form of government”, I don’t just mean that people voted. What I mean is that the political system was dominated by one or two elected Houses – in Britain, the Commons, and in America, the Senate and House of Representatives – which alone had the power to enact major changes in the laws, while other officials played smaller roles and were accountable to the Houses if they abused their power.

Modern America has lost its democratic character, not because the Senate and House no longer exist or because the people no longer get to vote for their Senators and Representatives, but because those Senators and Representatives wield very little power.

And this didn’t happen because the supporters of democracy were on the losing end of any sort of armed struggle. There was no epic battle between those who wanted the Supreme Court to decide whether praying in the public schools should be prohibited and abortion should be legalized, and those who wanted that power to stay with voters or their elected representatives.

In the old days, that's what it would have taken. For example, when Oliver Cromwell decided that the House of Commons - which he led - should govern England alone and leave no power in the hands of the King or the House of Lords, he had to establish parliamentary supremacy by the sword. Establishing judicial supremacy in the United States didn't take that kind of effort; in other words, the 1960s didn't end with Earl Warren giving the order to behead the last Speaker of the House.

No, what happened was that the Warren Court made a number of power grabs which made a lot of conservatives mad, but not mad enough to put sufficient pressure on the elected arm of the government to do anything about it. There were people like George Wallace who, perhaps without intending it, devoted their careers to convincing the American public that the main purpose of states’ rights was to defend segregation. And on the other side there were technocratic liberals who were fine with the destruction of representative government as long as it meant they could have their civil rights reforms a few years earlier than Congress and the state houses would have gotten around to passing them.

Perhaps if the desire to defend “home rule” or whatever you call it had inspired more civil disobedience on the part of the right, things would have turned out differently. Perhaps if the decision to outlaw school prayer in Engel v. Vitale had proven unenforceable except by sending US Marshals to beat noncompliant ten and twelve-year-olds, we would have gotten our country back.

Perhaps if 23 January 1973 had been America’s “Day of the Barricades” in which Congress and the President had no choice but to either impose limits on judicial power, or else order the army to go all Tiananmen Square on millions of civilians blocking the streets of every major city, then radically altering the constitution would still require the consent of Congress and the requisite three-fourths of the state legislatures.

But that isn’t what happened. During the 1960s – and to a lesser extent in the decades before and since – people on the left were far more willing than people on the right to put their own careers, safety, and freedom on the line in order to agitate for the causes they believed in. And because the left played the game harder, the left won all the prizes.

I don’t even begrudge them many of these prizes. I said earlier than I think American race relations reached their best point in 2008; well, that wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of people like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whom I once eulogized as America’s Last Great Statesmen on account of the fact that nobody since King has led a mass-movement that was willing to make similar sacrifices to achieve its purported goals.

But I do regret the downfall of American democracy. And I think that our country – or its successor states, in the event that America breaks into multiple pieces – will be better off in the future if democracy somehow gets revived. And that is why I call myself a democratic reactionary.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Honorius and the Slowness of Decline

“The system collapse of the US society has begun!”

That – along with a bunch of similarly alarmist statements – is what I read in the headlines or comments sections of scads of declinist-minded blogs all throughout June, when the George Floyd Riots were in full swing. Now that it’s been 46 days since the fracas began, I think a lot of people are realizing that, love it or hate it, “the US society” isn’t quite dead yet.

Now, in the second week of July, with the peak of the rioting several weeks in the past, most people are turning their attention to other things, like the election in November, or the challenges of reopening the schools in August.

 This is as it should be. Our country has not fallen off of some sort of precipice; rather, like I have described here and here, it is undergoing a long descent into the coming dark age. Predicting a short descent is more telegenic, and hence more popular, but short descents have a rather irritating habit of not showing up on schedule.

Meanwhile, people who want to know what a ‘long descent’ style of collapse looks like have a ready-made historical analogue in the form of imperial Rome. Rome is far from the only empire to suffer a slow decline and fall – Mogul India makes an equally good case study – but it’s the example that I’m going to use, because I expect that the broad outline of its history is fairly well-known to my audience.

The painting at the top of this post, of a man feeding chickens while seated in a throne, is entitled “The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius.” Honorius inherited the throne at the age of eight in AD 393 and reigned over the western half of the Roman empire until his death 30 years later.

Honorius ruled from his capital in Ravenna in the northeast of Italy. This was the western empire’s third capital; the government had been moved from Rome to Milan way back in AD 286, so that the emperors could more closely supervise the battles on the frontier. Early in Honorius’ reign, he decided that Milan had become too dangerous, and rebased his court in the more remote town of Ravenna.

I will return to Honorius later in my post. For now, it’s enough to say that Rome was obviously in steep decline during both the Milan and Ravenna periods. Nevertheless, it took 190 years – 116 with the capital at Milan, and another 74 in Ravenna – before the western empire was finished off by the barbarians. Keep that in mind as I summarize the current state of affairs in the US.

To understand what is going on, it is best to start by acknowledging the following unpleasant and easily-overlooked fact: All throughout the last six weeks of seeming chaos, the authorities in America never really lost control of the situation.

Oh, it often looked like they did, to the casual observer. When the police in Minneapolis allowed their station to be burned by a mob, it might have seemed like law and order were a distant memory. But the station went up in flames because the police decided that its loss was an acceptable price to pay to avoid having to shoot anyone. They knew that when the storm blew over, they would get to return to work in a new station, paid for by someone else’s money.

Likewise, when the authorities in Seattle tolerated the existence of the CHAZ – a six-block police-free zone, choc full of protesters and separated from the rest of the city by barricades – it wasn’t because they were incapable of dispersing it. In fact, they did disperse it after 22 days, when the CHAZ’s own security force shot a black boy dead while trying to recover a stolen jeep, and the mayor of Seattle decided that enough was enough.

Although most people don’t know it, at about the same time the CHAZ was taking shape in Seattle, protesters in Portland attempted to create a similar autonomous zone. Only instead of doing the sensible thing and choosing a site in a poor neighbourhood, they tried to block off a set of wealthy condominiums in which the mayor lived. The ‘unlawful assembly’ began around midnight, and by 5:00 AM it had been completely cleared.

So what we have, then, isn’t a case of rioters reigning supreme; rather, we’re looking at a case of selective control. If you are wealthy and live among other wealthy people, your home is not in danger. Likewise, if you decide to commit murder in a city where the authorities have only decided to tolerate trespassing and petty theft, then you’re out of luck.

The authorities haven’t gone AWOL. In fact, they are still totally in control of the things they want to be in control of. If you doubt that, just think about what would have happened if last month’s unrest had culminated, not with statue topplings, but with right-wing mobs going about the country and burning Planned Parenthoods. Everyone knows that the case law protecting the latter enjoys a much higher status within our system than the mere anti-vandalism statutes which the BLM protesters can violate with impunity.

Now let’s return to ancient Rome. The Emperor Honorius, as it turned out, was a weak and indecisive ruler, not just during his childhood, but throughout his reign. As he grew up, rather than taking on the responsibilities of leadership and acting decisively against the constant revolts and barbarian invasions that imperiled the empire, Honorius left it to his underlings to cobble together a response to each crisis as it appeared.

During Honorius’ early years, a half-Vandal general named Stilicho did most of the governing. Meanwhile, the Emperor himself devoted most of his time to feeding and doting on his pet chickens, several of which, it seemed, were named after major cities in his empire.

Stilicho died in August of the year 408. In August of 410, a eunuch appeared before the Emperor at Ravenna and announced: “Rome has perished.” Honorius was shocked and deeply troubled, for “Rome” was one of his favorite chickens. When the eunuch explained that what he actually meant was that the city of Rome had fallen to Alaric the Visigoth, Honorius’ mood lightened up a great deal.

This wasn’t the end for the western empire – the Visigoths left Rome after three days of looting and went looking for other places to raid, and while many of Rome’s inhabitants were sold into slavery, the wealthy citizens, for the most part, got ransomed. Over in Ravenna, it would be another 66 years before the last emperor was dethroned.

Even after the sack of Rome, Honorius was still in commanded of a power worth fearing.  And all throughout the crisis, despite his lack of competence in handling the Visigoths, he was still in control of what he really wanted to be in control of: his chickens.

So it is with the decline and fall of the American empire. If most of the terrain in our big cities has been overrun by crime and looting, it’s because the ruling class has retreated to neighborhoods which are still well-protected, like the one that the Portlanders failed to turn into a second CHAZ. This isn’t all that different from wealthy Romans’ retreat to country villas during the evening years of their empire.

Likewise, if statues are falling, it’s because the ruling class doesn’t care much for statues. And if police stations are burning, it’s because the ruling class knows that they can be rebuilt with someone else’s money.

Just like in Honorius’ Rome, this state of affairs can’t last forever. And just like in Honorius’ Rome, things are going to get wretched for the common people a long time before they get wretched for the upper classes.

But if history is a reliable guide, then that “long time” is shaping up to be a lot longer than most people would guess. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Envying Russian Liberties

As I write, two events of the last week have caught the world’s attention.

On 4 July, Americans celebrated their 244th Independence Day (at least, the fraction of Americans who don’t consider that holiday to be racist celebrated it). As has been done for more than two centuries, fireworks were shot off to celebrate our forefathers’ victorious fight for limited government, representative democracy, and freedom from British rule.

A few days earlier, on the other side of the world, voters in Russia approved a long list of constitutional amendments which had been proposed by President Putin and the Duma back in January. It’s impossible to summarize all of them here, as forty-one of the Russian constitution’s articles were rewritten and five new ones were added. In the West, the most talked-about changes were the reset of Putin’s term limits (so that he can remain president until 2036 rather than 2024) and the explicit requirement that marriages be between persons of opposite sex (a restriction which already existed in statutory law).

Honestly, if I were a Russian, I don’t know how I would have voted on the changes. All other things being equal, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the same man to be in charge of a country for 36 years. On the other hand, Russia at present has no strong leader ready to step into Putin’s place, so sending him into retirement too soon might just return the country to Yeltsin-style kleptocracy. Like all political decisions in the real world, there are both pros and cons to each side.

In the end, about 78 percent of Russians voted in favor, and just 22 percent voted against, so the amendments were enacted. Was this a step forward or backward for the cause of democracy in Russia? Most westerners would probably say backward, what with Putin likely to be president-for-life and all. But if you define a democracy as a regime in which major changes to the laws and constitution must be approved by the people, rather than as one in which the people always make the decision which you personally think is best, then the referendum was, if not a step forward, then at least a signal that today's Russia is a functioning democracy.

Now take a look at the situation in the United States. Officially, our constitution has been amended only once since 1971 – that would be with the 27th amendment, proposed alongside the Bill of Rights in 1789 but then forgotten about until its ratification in 1992, which prevents congressional pay raises from taking effect until after the next biennial election.

Now, everybody knows that, in practice, this hasn't been anywhere near the most significant change to the official meaning of the US constitution in the last 49 years. It is quite easily overshadowed by, among other things, the constitutional rights to abortion and same-sex marriage, and by whatever quirk of modern jurisprudence allowed President Obama to enact DACA by executive order in 2014 but prevented President Trump from rescinding it by the same mechanism three years later.

Nor, for that matter, are policies beneath the constitutional level usually approved by America’s elected legislature. Apart from gigantic budgetary appropriations and the occasional watered-down tax reform, Congress has passed perhaps five significant pieces of legislation since the turn of the century – the No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare Part D, the Iraq War Authorization, the Affordable Care Act, and the Dodd-Frank Bill. With few exceptions, the regulatory agencies that determine how millions of Americans must live and work are running on autopilot.

Any real American patriot who looks at this situation ought to be incensed that the liberties which his fathers fought and bled for have declined to the point that, nowadays, Americans have less say in how they are governed than Russians do. Nevertheless, very few Americans feel this way.

Too many of us believe in the unconditional exceptionalism of our own country – a belief which the founding fathers did not share, and which is bound to ruin the politics of any country which adopts it. If, as most right-wingers believe, we are guaranteed to be the freest country no matter what we do, then what reason do we have to fight for our liberties?

Also, too many of us believe in linear history. The Revolutionary War, we are told, was a one-off event. Once it was won, the founders gave us a new and enlightened system of government to make sure that we would never need to have a similar revolution ever again.

I, on the other hand, believe in cyclical history, in which nothing is permanent. What was won by the bravery and wisdom of one generation can be lost by the cowardice, or carelessness, of another. Past greatness is no guarantee of future greatness. And if the freedoms that Washington and Jefferson fought for in 1776 are, in the year 2020, being exercised by Russians but not by Americans, then the proper response, on the part of the American patriot, is not to deny what is going on or understate the gravity of the situation.

No; the response of a true patriot, in our day and age, is to envy Russian liberties.