“But I don’t see why everyone seems to have forgotten that he was a communist,” Mr. Bates was saying. “Sorry if I can’t join the party.”
“I think it’s a little foolish of us to assume that a man was exactly the same when he was young and angry as when he was old and presumably wiser,” Mr Magundi replied. “But no matter; I agree that the tributes of the past couple of days have mostly missed the point. The single thing that made Mandela a great hero, the George Washington of his country, was the fact that, when he died, he was not president. It would have been terribly easy for him to say to himself, ‘At this time of transition and crisis, the country needs strong and stable leadership. It is necessary for the good of the people that I should remain as their leader.’ Like George Washington, he must have seen with absolute clarity that, if he stepped aside, he would be succeeded by a pack of the usual political idiots. How could George Washington look ahead to a Jefferson administration with anything but dread? How could Mandela sit still for Mbeki?
“Yet, when the decision came, he was wise enough to see that the democratic principle was more important in the long run than the question of which idiots would be elected in the short run. He could have been Fidel Castro or Robert Mugabe, but instead he decided to be Cincinnatus.
“Our own Washington had plenty of less-than-admirable qualities. He was a greedy real-estate speculator; he could be imperious and aloof; his administration was full of bickering. Even as a general he was perhaps more lucky than clever. But he proved that he loved his country more than he loved power. Nelson Mandela did the same, and he will be remembered the way Washington is remembered. And his faults deserve the same sympathetic oblivion we grant to Washington’s.”
“He says that the Roman system of tax farming was one of the main reasons the empire collapsed,” I explained. “Taxes in the provinces were collected by private contractors, so the whole business of collecting taxes turned into a giant profit-making industry.”
Mr. Magundi looked thoughtful for a second. Then he said, “Did you know that, within an easy walk of this very streetcar stop, there’s an office of Liberty Tax Service, an office of Jackson Hewitt, and two offices of H & R Block? Just a fun fact to remember. Now we can get back to what was wrong with ancient Rome.”
“She says that people used to live in peaceful villages,” I was explaining, “as long as society was matriarchal.”
“We love to imagine that there was a peaceful golden age at some point in history,” Mr. Magundi said, “but our illusion always evaporates when we actually know the history. We used to say that the Maya were a civilization of peaceful astronomers; then we learned to read their writing, and discovered that they loved to boast about how many other Maya they’d killed. Whenever we read that some ancient society was ideally peaceful, that wars and aggression were unknown in their time, we may be sure that we simply haven’t dug up their killing fields yet. So I think we have to give up on the golden age as a fact of human history, and recognize it instead as a fact of human psychology—or, if you prefer, as a fact of theology. Our minds tell us that there is a perfection from which we have fallen. Whether you regard that as an original sinless state, or as a sort of dimly perceived Platonic ideal, we have a mental certainty that we live in a fallen world.”
“That’s because the French completely botched their revolution,” Mr. Bates said rather smugly.
“The thing that sets our American Revolution apart from most other revolutions,” Mr. Magundi replied, “is that it was a conservative revolution: conservative in the root sense of the word, meaning seeking to preserve the established order. The French Revolution had as its object to sweep away all the ancient institutions and replace them with something entirely new to France. But the Americans had seen their ancient liberal institutions swept away and wanted them back. Here in Pittsburgh in 1775, a people’s committee resolved to support the New England rebels, saying that the committee did ‘most cordially approve of their opposing the invaders of American rights and privileges to the utmost extreme.’ And similar statements came from all over the country. The Americans were not mainly theorists; they saw a despotic government invading their ancient rights and privileges, and they defended what belonged to them. Before the despotic invasion, they had lived in states governed by popular assemblies with a governor as the executive; after a successful revolution, they lived in states governed by popular assemblies with a governor as the executive. It was the interval of despotism that was the innovation, and we rejected it.”
“He says the war was never about slavery,” I explained. “It was about states’ rights.”
“It was about one right only,” Mr. Magundi replied: “the right to allow slavery. The southern states worried about states’ rights only because they thought their right to slavery was endangered. South Carolina led the secession, and her leaders produced a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes” in which there is not a single complaint that is not related to slavery. The North knew that there was no other dispute; the South claimed no other dispute; it was slavery, and nothing else. Now, you can produce a good, coherent constitutional argument that the states ought to have had the right to determine for themselves whether to allow slavery. And you can produce a good argument from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or of the Christian religion, that no one ought to be allowed to hold another human being as a slave. In the incompatibility those two arguments you have the cause of the Civil War, and it is not necessary to go looking anywhere else for it.”
“I don’t even know what we’re fighting about,” Mrs. Bowman said with a sigh.
“Neither does anyone else,” said Mr. Magundi. “For the first year or so, a war is usually about something—a disputed territory, or a principle, or some other thing that people feel strongly enough about to fight over. But after it’s been going on for a while, the war is about the war. The original cause, in fact, may be entirely forgotten: we just keep fighting because there’s a fight. A few years into the American Revolution, the British offered peace on terms that acceded to every demand the colonists had gone to war for; they were refused, because the war wasn’t about those demands anymore. By the end of the Civil War, the Confederacy was offering liberty to any slave who would fight, and most prominent Southern politicians had acknowledged that slavery—the original occasion of the war—was dead as an institution. Most of the Arab world has been in a declared state of war against Israel for long enough that every single politician who was active when the war was declared is dead. The United States has been at war through a complete change of governments, and if you ask the current administration why we are in this war, you will receive the candid and infuriating answer that we’re in it because we can’t get out. So we fight because there is a fight. The war is about the war.”
“Yeah, I remember that from high school,” Brielle said. “But the thing I never understood was how a little group of Spanish soldiers could conquer the whole Aztec Empire.”
“I don’t think there’s one single reason,” Mr. Magundi replied. “It may be that the Spanish, with their horses and their gunpowder, were superior to the Americans, in the same way that a boulder is superior to the man it crushes. It’s also true that the Spanish had as their allies huge numbers of Americans who hated their bloodthirsty and tyrannical Aztec overlords and were itching for a chance to shake them off.
“But the biggest problem for the Americans may have been a certain fatal open-mindedness. The Spaniard who murdered his captives and butchered women and children as if they were cattle was absolutely certain that he was the morally superior being. He deserved to rule. It was not that he compared himself with the Americans and judged himself superior: it never occurred to him that the question could be raised. The Americans, however, did ask the question. In the story of the conquest we see a fatal period of indecision while Montezuma and his court conscientiously debated the question of whether the Spanish were in fact divine, while the Spanish gathered their allies and made themselves invincible. By the time the Americans had figured out that Cortes and his gang were just horrible little men with an insatiable lust for gold, it was too late to get rid of them.
“I don’t really know what the moral of this observation is; or perhaps I do, but I don’t want to think about it.”