Thursday, December 15, 2005

Back to Admiral Nelson

The main idea threaded through all of Nicolson's Seize the Fire is that Nelson was a pivotal figure in the transition from the 18th-century culture of sensibility, deference, and acceptance of one's position in society to the first flowerings of Romanticism and its celebration of the individual, the unbridled, and the immediate. It's the difference between Aeneas, a warrior within a system and society, and Achilles, a force of pure rage and individual motivation; at the level of personality, it's Bingley versus Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Nelson, Nicolson argues, though at the head of a disciplined, organized force working as a part of society to protect English commerce, was at the same time a decentralizing bringer of brilliant near-chaos in his tactics, his management of his men, and his own person. The argument is well-supported--one of the best aspects of Seize the Fire is Nicolson's frequent reference to the diaries and letters of individuals great and small--and fairly convincing, though Nelson seems so multi-faceted and complex that he could easily be tricked out in several other, competing theories.

But that's not really what I keep coming back to when I think about Seize the Fire. Rather, it's the press-gangs, and the difference between the officers and the men, between the above- and below-decks life. Nicolson points out several instances which suggest that a change was at the time slowly taking place in how the lower classes were regarded by the upper: not quite imbued by their masters with fully human feelings yet--and certainly not yet worthy of the full, human consideration that fellow officers deserved--but, as the tremendous risks taken by officers and men at Trafalgar to rescue their opposite numbers during an enormous post-battle storm show, their lives weren't entirely, as in past wars, to be thrown away wantonly.

It reminds me of the most interesting moment of ethical thought in The Once and Future King (a book that is full of questions about ethical leadership, friendship, and love), when a young King Arthur decides to bring home the true cost of war to both his men and the opposition. He orders his knights to change tactics: they are not simply to hack at the hapless peasants forced into the front lines, as the knights on the other side will be doing; rather, they are to take the battle directly to the opposing knights, which results, predictably, in much greater casualties among those whom the opposing king considers to be actual people. War, it turns out, is hell. Maybe, just maybe, it shouldn't be waged in such cavalier fashion.

I keep thinking about that, and, in a corollary, about the changes wrought over time in the forces that we, as a society, are willing to allow others to bring to bear on people they have in their power. At the time of Nelson, the press-gang, which would sweep lower-class men off the streets and deposit them on ships bound for the open seas, wherein they would be exposed to mortal danger and sickness, paid poorly and infrequently, and whipped brutally for such offenses as drunkenness and insubordination--was considered an acceptable way to staff His Majesty's fleet. At the time, it was also generally considered acceptable for people to hold certain types of other people as slaves. Women had few rights. And so on--the examples of inhumanity that long ago were considered acceptable are innumerable.

And from a slightly different angle, our attitudes have changed even very recently. More than 50,000 Americans--and at least 1.5 million Vietnamese--died in the Vietnam War before mainstream America began to vigorously argue that we needed to end it. With the Iraq War, we've nearly reached that point as a nation with far, far fewer dead--and all despite the absence of a draft, meaning that the vast majority of Americans are out of any personal danger. Are we, as a nation, getting less cavalier about the lives we're willing to throw away in war? Are we beginning to see the essential humanity--the irreplaceable individuals--behind each KIA?

It's the progressive impulse at work: forever attempt to enlarge the circle of those considered fully eligible to participate in human life, and therefore in the protections we as a society afford, in theory, to all humans--protections from coercion, from danger to life and limb, from oppression. The poor, women, gays, non-WASPs--all these and more are slowly brought into the community of those considered normal, ordinary, acceptable--human. And it's exactly that widening, that growth of inclusion, that conservatism has always fought, and is still fighting, against. Even as recently as the 1970s, Samuel Alito thought the admission of women to Princeton was worth fighting against. It's a principle of inclusion versus a principle of denial, progress against stasis, humanity against inhumanity.

Simultaneously, we aim to tighten the circle of what is acceptable to do to another human, to limit what force can be brought to bear on a person, with the aim of eliminating dehumanizing, brutal treatments that are fundamentally based on arguing that someone is outside that circle of humanity. Practices that would have been considered acceptable mere generations ago--from Jim Crow laws to Japanese-American internment camps to forced sterilization of the developmentally disabled--are considered beyond the pale now.

And it's those two components, the simultaneous widening of one circle and tightening of another, that work together to force actual improvements in human relations in the world. A press-gang is a mind-boggling concept now, slavery even more so. The idea of throwing away lives like Europe did on the Western Front in World War I is sickening. It's important to sometimes remember that, for everything that's clearly going wrong in the world, we have in the past several centuries radically altered our world's conception of who is human and what rights they should be accorded. Tremendous good has been done.

We've obviously still got a long way to go. George Bush can admit, off-hand, that more than 30,000 Iraqis have died because of our war, and most of America responds with a "Ho-hum." Our pundits think the efficacy and acceptability of torture are worthy topics for discussion. African genocide barely gets noticed here.

But that's the idea of progressivism in a nutshell: we don't ever get to give up or decide we're done. Humanity can always be better. It's our job to keep nudging it in the right direction.

1 comment:

  1. This is too good for a blog. You should submit to the, um, New Yorker. Or something.

    Slavery, Jim Crow laws, Japanese-American internment camps, and the forced sterilization of the developmentally disabled were all considered beyond the pale even in their time... by some. Just not by a clear, empowered majority, and certainly not by the people practicing these abuses. This makes me wonder about the press gang and older forms of inhumanity. I bet there was widespread resistence to these things in song and folklore long before the officer class began to catch on. Any thoughta?

    I also am thinking of the Stanford Prison Experiment, not to mention sadistic Gym Teachers and condescending civil servants (librarians), or other situations where prefectly normal, well-socialized people revert to brutality as soon as they're given some power over others. It's still there, in some form, but if it's perhaps less widespread, less systemic, might it not be because the structures of power are more diffuse?

    HA, the biggest difference between Bingley and Darcy was just a couple thousand a year. Bingley was a bit more passive and wooly-headed, Darcy more decisive and willful, but it's Bingley you'd accuse of being more "immediate," since he's apparently able to forget all about Jane as soon as she's out of sight.