Sick of Parties

Parties are artificial to me. Alignments are justified on issues but don’t come easy and should not last long. Though alliances are unquestionably useful, group identity gives me the willies. Groups are pernicious and demean individual integrity and openness. They also spawn presumptions that border on lunacy and ultimately undermine the effectiveness of concerted effort.

American politics are like hamburger – or, more likely, pink slime – we don’t know what is in it and it takes numerous and diverse condiments to make it palatable. Politics will always be inherently necessary and distasteful.

In American national elections there are usually two candidates to choose from and one is clearly the better person for the position. Considering past Presidential elections, with the exception of 1992 and 2000, featuring the spoiler Perot and the attention-seeking Nader respectively, the clear best won. In our country of late, due to fringe voters and backers with big wallets, the losing party has not forwarded good candidates for President. It has not been just a question of party.

I will not lie to you, the opposition candidate would have to stink like a three-days-dead yeller dog before I would vote for a Republican. Only occasionally do I consider doing so in my own state, where there are usually two or three dead dogs on the ballot and the established Republican has proven himself more or less reasonable and honorable.

But we liberals and moderates do get it: conservative whites will never forgive Carter for being a good man, Clinton for being a better conservative than those in the other party (and a philanderer, for which Democrats will not forgive him either), or Obama for being an intelligent, calm black man, for being elected twice by a majority for President, and for not embarrassing himself, his family, his core objectives, or the nation before the world.

I get it personally: I can read the latest review of Henry Kissinger’s writing and agree with almost all of it. But I cannot easily forgive him for squandering the lives of thousands of young men in pursuit of an ideal of honorable peace that was impracticable based on the principles of world order in his own late-life pronouncements.

* * *

The world is a dangerous place – any moron knows that – but just how dangerous and to what degree in what quarters is up for reasonable disagreement. Anger, theatrics, and lies have little constructive role in deliberations about military action or policy in general. For that reason I never watch Fox News or MSNBC, except for lampoons of both by Colbert.

Today is not 1964 or 1968 – the mirror tells us that. Those who know too much about history (and too little of human psychology) and focus ever backwards are doomed to fear reliving history over and over again. Obama’s administration had no need to fabricate the severed heads of American citizens, or the agony of Syrian and Iraqi minorities, for the nations of the world to see and judge reality for themselves. His military actions in the Middle East might indeed veer into worse involvements for American soldiers, but they could also prevent worse as well. So-called conservatives McCain and Graham squeaked and screamed for deeper involvement and obviously crave more still. Those on the right who think and act as if they possess better military intelligence and foresight than regular folks can whisper their superior notions to one another and tut-tut the bipartisan will of Congress, but if they do not enter the public forum and prove it, they are no more than Walter Mittys of political debate and citizenship. Most do not want war, but most also want to help improve dangerous international situations. It is not just a question of party or mass stupidity.

I say to 2014, I knew 1964 intimately and you are not 1964. You, 2014, are also not 2003. You are something new from something old. That is what both liberalism and conservatism stand for. Defeat, revolution, totalitarianism, and nihilism are the polar opposites.

End of the Middle

Although we all think we know what differentiates dark from light, there are gradations across the middle that confound easy dismissal and categorization. Such questions hardly matter to most people nowadays, but they are the most fascinating questions to me. They are rich and complex, without definitive answers.

The more I studied, the more the questions. I thought that I studied for answers, but answers aren’t the half of it.

I can gaze out of my study window at a steep hill of green trees, or at the backs of my eyelids into black in the very early morning, and I see another version of our world, another time. It is just as alive as the day by day one in town or country.

Such experiences are not things of common social status and honorifics. They are not the source of livelihood and wealth. They are an internal eternity that can only be separated or ended by neglect, illness, injury, or death.

I have linked a number of manuscripts that I assembled while doing my most intensive study of history. I offer them not as examples of outstanding scholarship or creativity or party conversation, but as a record of the pageant that has been gifted to me by my life of observing, being taught, and questioning.

The complexity of the Middles Ages, and economic necessity, brought me back to studies in 1988 and riveted the focus of my mind. The Middle Ages are our alternate reality. The essence of the age is what we get if we are very very foolish or very imaginative. They are the default that hangs in air; they are the ways embedded in our DNA. They wait for awakening.

No more need be said. This is the end of the middle.

Delineating the Middle Ages

Evolution of English Law

Mediaeval Knights

Gothic Architecture

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post to view these essays. Pick any paragraph to start with and see where it takes you.)

Return To Dooms

It was 1988. I was entering my late thirties. And I returned to college as an undergraduate. I did not want to – I had to.

After dropping out of college at the end of 1971, I needed recurrent jolts of fresh ideas and new perspectives. The public library history section supplied both. It was history learned from self-directed reading. Sometimes the titles came from lists of recommended readings acquired from my earlier four years as an undergraduate.

Having discovered him in the 1970s in the musty history section of the main library on Peabody Avenue in Memphis, I claimed Frederic Maitland as mine. The subject and style of Maitland’s two-volume History of English Law before the Time of Edward I were magnetic. (I searched for over a decade for copies for myself and found them.) My pursuit of academic learning was occasionally rekindled by his likes, masters hidden in obscure out-of-print books.

I still hold Maitland in the highest regard. He did what I might have dreamed of doing in another life.

* * *

The rediscovery of the manuscript linked herein (below), for which these words are an introduction, has convinced me that if one is under forty and has a passion, one should go for it – personal responsibilities permitting. I can recall the mind that wrote this manuscript and I can even understand most of it now. But I am still thoroughly amazed … by the steep decline of my mental faculties over twenty-five years.

I am obliged to – I am overjoyed to – thank my wife (and to a much lesser extent our, at the time, young son) for letting me indulge my passion before it was too late; for letting me immerse myself in a world that had beckoned me for seventeen years; for letting me reconnect with an old professor and the Middle Ages and lose myself in imagination, pondering a world thought long dead. Only as I jogged a country road, early one gray morning in 1988, did I realize that the world of the Middle Ages was not dead at all but rather lived on in life in the present just beyond the deceptive veil of modernity. It was a life I had relentlessly sought out and found through reading with persistence, intensity, and seriousness. But it was not the reading alone that revealed the past to me, it was the thinking about the reading so as to capture it in a few pages of epistolary summary and commentary for my professor. I was blessed with the rarest tutorial-style learning experience, as if a student at Oxford or Cambridge in the sepia-tone years of intellectual ferment and high pretension. It was to be the last time my esteemed professor taught either of his two signature courses on old Europe. I was just in time to light my torch to guide my way down my evolutionary path.

I will not let my acknowledgement of my wife’s contribution to this effort rest condensed in one passing sentence. She worked full time as an elementary-school teacher. She traveled many miles to work every day and worked at night, on weekends, and during the summer for her charges and for her family. We had a young child in a private Catholic school; my work for the company that I owned was shriveling in an economic downturn that badly affected construction in Middle Tennessee. Never once did she express doubt or frown upon my enterprise and effort, even though the level of study in history in which I was engaged was hardly fit for any practical application – except maybe for a life of method and observation and thought and understanding and tolerance in a complex world – and maybe a new job. She believed in the power of education. She had faith that it was the thing to do for us. So once the decision was made, we plowed on despite the low income and the many, many hours of separation that comes when one is allowed to dive deep and swim slowly in the darkest underwater caves of history.

The countless individual monastic scribes of the Middle Ages are not known to us by name. They were not altogether practically necessary – except that they preserved and spread learning for centuries without benefit of the printing press or the Internet. But I have no doubt at all that they relished the work even when barely innovative and hardly noticed.

So my marvel now at this manuscript is not due to its style, its correctness, or its originality. Rather, I marvel that is was ever able to exist at all.

Click here to read it. [1] [NOTE: The key to this box, and all like it, is JerryMurley. Whether you do or don’t get this clue, welcome to the mystical study of the Middle Ages.]


1. Notes and commentary on Frederic Maitland’s Domesday Book and Beyond by Jerry Murley in spring 1988.

The Two-Thirds Party

A couple of easy-going Princeton grads put forward the idea that a new political coalition is in order. Seeing as two-thirds of Americans agree on solutions to several key political problems in the United States, they wonder if there ought to be a third party with a platform that concentrates on accomplishing only those agreed-upon goals. At least then something significant gets done. And the two main parties can be left to their perpetual food fight in the media about everything else.

I have often ridiculed (without regret) the dumb and dumber business of the radical right. However, occasionally I am reminded that there is a tincture of wacky libertarianism, a sniff of lazy rot, in both the left and right among us – and in all their most pernicious political posturings. A recent article in The New Yorker is one such reminder. The writer begins with a recitation of a long list of accolades bestowed on a particular ecology activist; then he presents her positions and tactics in a raw and condensed manner. The longest part of his essay is spent ripping her positions to shreds, exposing the dangers behind radical speech, and examining the distorted thinking such illiberal obsessions too breezily propagate.

In my mind, that wacky other fraction of this country is a faction whose adherents are de facto members of the paranoia and conspiracy party. It is the educated among them who are chiefly to blame for the failings of the two main parties. Were they to seek balance and reason, there would be little need for the two-thirds party.

But please do not take my word for it. Perhaps I am sometimes in error. Please read it and judge for yourself.

Click here to read the story for yourself. [1]


1. Michael Specter’s article “Seeds of Doubt” in The New Yorker on August 25, 2014.