Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Letter to the Editor at The New York Times, Responding to Atossa Araxia Abrahamian's "There Is No Good Reason You Should Have to Be a Citizen to Vote"

Seth Barrett Tillman, Lecturer

Maynooth University Department of Law

New House (#53)

Maynooth University

County Kildare

Ireland W23 F2H6

July 29, 2021

The New York Times

Letters Editor


RE: Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, There Is No Good Reason You Should Have to Be a Citizen to Vote, The New York Times (July 28, 2021).


Ms Abrahamian tells us that she “lived in New York since 2004, but [she] ha[s]n’t once had a chance to cast a ballot here.” That is not quite true is it? Legal residents can apply for U.S. citizenship after residing in the U.S. for as little as 5 years—after which the federal government will process your application. It is now 2021. So Ms Abrahamian has had roughly 12 years to apply for U.S. citizenship and then, having secured it, to vote in U.S. elections. If she has chosen not to apply for citizenship, or not to apply in a timely manner, then it makes no sense for her to claim that she has not had “a chance” to vote. She has had that chance: a substantial one.


Legal residents are just that. They get to reside in the United States. No one will ask them or make them share the common fate of other Americans. No one in a position of authority in the U.S. government will ask a legal resident to stay in the U.S., and no one in a position of authority will ask a legal resident to leave. Ms Abrahamian is such legal resident, and as such, she can always leave and return to her former Swiss home. Once in Switzerland, the United States government will have no claim to tax her future income, and it cannot prosecute her for crimes she may commit abroad, and it cannot dragoon her to return to the United States to serve in its armed forces. It is altogether different for U.S. citizens, like me, living abroad. As a U.S. citizen, the U.S. government can tax my income earned abroad, prosecute me for crimes committed abroad, and draft me into its armed forces. And, that is why an American citizen, like me, although living abroad, gets to vote in U.S. elections, and that is why Ms Abrahamian does not, notwithstanding her being legally resident in the United States. 

If you want the right to vote, you should have to commit to sharing our polity’s common fate. And if you choose not to take on American citizenship and to share that fate, then you ought not complain that you are excluded from the democratic process that will in large part determine that common fate.

Seth Barrett Tillman, Lecturer

Maynooth University Department of Law

Seth Barrett Tillman, Submitted as a Letter to the Editor at The New York Times, Responding to Atossa Araxia Abrahamians There Is No Good Reason You Should Have to Be a Citizen to Vote, New Reform Club (July 29, 2021, 3:29 PM), <>; 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Wards of Civilization

There is a distinctively Orwellian note in the official slogan, "Build Back Better." This is the slogan that follows on the heels of the state-enforced halting of the economy, the cessation of social interaction, the suspension of schooling. "Building Back Better" is often described laced with racial and sexual tribalism. The slogan also vies for ubiquity with the slogan "Defund the Police," to the extent that one wonders if the two ideas are not part of the same program, so that one wants to know: building back to what?

The White House says it has no intentions "to build back to the way things were." So despite the fact that more Americans than ever are unable to have the American dream of owning a house, restoring that dream would be building back "to the way things were," and thus, seemingly by definition, not "better," but somehow worse.

When one is asked to "reimagine" their world and turn it into something new, one cannot help but to look back, if just for a moment, and reflect on what one is being asked to leave behind. That which is new, after all, is not always better. When the Americans threw off the relatively light yoke of George III, a large number of Americans thought it was rather a step backward. T.H. White had King Arthur grumble to Lancelot in The Once and Future King that "It was no good conquering the Dictator unless you and the others do the civilizing part." 

"What is the use," Arthur went on, "if the whole place is fighting mad?" This, I fear, is an apt question for our time. The fighting spirit is the engine of humanity. But it is usually tuned to the key of destruction, always fighting against something. Do we fight for anything?

One can sense something cyclical, if not rather regressive, in the present mood. For this is not the first time we have been fighting mad. We have gone to war before to vindicate a certain ethos, a way of life for this country. Why did we war: For a political agenda? For economic superiority? For military advantage? No, not for these, but for higher pursuits. John Adams had it that "I must study politics and war that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy ... geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture." 

But even these pursuits are merely instrumental. They are pursuits a government ministry might later be installed to study and regulate – and dominate. Domination can never be the end of civilization. Mere domination is not the end: mastery is the end. For as Adams went on, when his children had attained mastery, then their children, in turn, would gain "a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain." The ends of civilization are not the things we do on weekdays. They are the things we give ourselves to on holidays and, perhaps even more, on holy days.

White's King Arthur sensed this too. His knights of the round table, having no higher pursuits to give themselves to after rooting out all the thieves' dens and spreading peace throughout the land, had turned back to fighting against each other. Just so, one would not be too terribly surprised to learn any day now that a member of Congress had been caned on the House floor. (Weighing most anxious on our minds would be questions of the race and sex of the parties involved.) What was needed, Arthur concluded, was a great spiritual quest. So Lancelot and the other knights of the round table went off on crusades. And so have our modern knights of the board room tables.

I have gotten ahead of myself. What I have overlooked – for it is the privilege of the present to assume its inevitability – is how America got from independence to civilization. That was not inevitable. We look to those who drafted our founding documents, and those who fought in our Revolutionary War and Civil War, as the founders of our country. But more precisely, they are the founders of our government. Our country, our civilization, is something apart from its government. And for our civilization we owe credit to many rough fellows, who subdued the wilderness of this country, and who did many unpleasant things, in order to build a great country. The people who carry out the business of civilizing tend to be uncivilized. I do not volunteer to head any committee to erect statues to these uncivilized individuals (for in the present fighting mood they are liable to be torn down anyway). But those of us who value civilization ought to remember them.

Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove has a fine passage remembering the likes of those rough fellows. McMurtry, who just passed away earlier this year, did not think his book a "towering masterpiece" or anything, but merely a "Gone with the Wind of the West," which may help calibrate our standards to his rather higher ones. In the book, Gus and Call, who fought in the Civil War and then as Texas Rangers, are now driving cattle up to Montana. In a short bit of dialogue where the characters recall an old Indian they had known, McMurtry sets up a poignant observation:

"I remember him," Augustus said. "It was always a puzzle to me how such a short-legged Indian could cover so much ground." 
"He claimed to have been all the way from the Columbia to the Rio Grande," Call said. "That's knowing the country, I'd say." 
"Well, he was an Indian," Augustus said. "He didn't have to go along establishing law and order and making it safe for bankers and Sunday-school teachers, like we done. I guess that's why you're ready to head off to Montany. You want to help establish a few more banks. ... Every bank in Texas ought to pay us a commission for the work we done. If we hadn't done it, all the bankers would still be back in Georgia, living on poke salad and turnip greens."

Today, of course, there aren't any more cowboys or Indians than there are Sunday-school teachers. But there is no end of bankers. Gus and Call are fictional men, but they stand for real ones. And I doubt many people today want to take credit for their adventures. Yet we have the benefit of them, those of us who are able to live simple and peaceful lives today, for which most of us are grateful. The bankers and politicians and big corporate enterprises, on the other hand, have the greatest benefit of all. And for this, they are resentful. This is something worth remembering the next time you hear these sorts of people launch into sermonizing at you. The wine served at celebrations and ceremonies is taken joyfully and reverently. It is the wine drunk at every meal that collects critics. 

In the end, if you remember, Gus succumbs to an Indian arrow to the leg. He lost the leg, but the gangrene had spread to the other leg. A sawbones was nearby to take it off, but Gus refused. He could still get about by horse as a one-legged man, he figured, but not as a legless one. He was among the last of his kind, and would not give up his legs: for it is a high calling to be a steward of civilization, but a low thing to be its ward. 

Are the stewards of our civilization, like Augustus, who made the world safe for bankers and school teachers, having now discharged the duty for which they were called, passing from the earth? We are the heirs of the bankers and school teachers. But we have become bored. Or like Arthur said, though we could not root out our might, and the desire for conquest, yet we also ran out of things to which to direct our might. John Adams was wrong: painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain, did not detain us very long. Adams might have looked to Solomon: Solomon, perhaps because he had seen decay begin to set in even to the great works of Ozymandias, did not ask the Lord for might, but for wisdom. Yet he received might as well, and in the end it defeated his wisdom. Every epoch of human history teaches this: beyond the brief cresting moment upon attaining civilization, when we stand, for a moment, fully upright atop a fleeting domination of the powers of the earth and mastery of its natural forces, in joyful celebration, and having attained stewardship of God's creation, we know naught but the slow but certain bending of our gaze, from up to the heavens, back down to the slime. 

Build back better? I must be permitted to doubt. The builders have nothing but disdain for the stewards of our civilization. They would prefer we settle into the role of their wards, while the new Lords of the earth perfect our souls.

But our new Arthurians are wrong, too: matters of the soul will not detain us either. At least, not in the way we might expect. What finally saved White's Lancelot was neither conquest nor mastery, but ruin, humility, and baptism. Even after he had confessed the sins of his former vainglorious self, Lancelot found he could not return to his old life again. "But if you really were absolved this time!" Guenever cried, to which Lancelot replied: "God was not punishing me by letting the black knight knock me down – he was only withholding the special gift of victory which it had always been within his power to bestow." 

But this is unearthly wisdom: To give up glory? And not get anything back? Lancelot had been victorious as a sinner, so why should he always be beaten when he was heavenly? What then, Guenever wanted to know, did Lancelot do? 

"I knelt down in the water of Mortoise, Jenny, where he had knocked me – and I thanked God for the adventure."

Only God can tame our might, by tipping us over, until we learn: we are not the greatest force in the world – and we kneel in the place where we have been knocked down, and thank God, simply for the adventure. 

And pray that He humble the utopianists.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Banned by the Communist Party of China: A Review of Liu Lianzi’s “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace”

By the way: The Chinese Communist Party sought to ban Ruyis Royal Love in the Palace“The cancelling of ‘Yanxi & ‘Ruyi’ shows that the [Chinese Communist] Party remains unswerving in its vigilance.” Jiayang Fan, “In China, Shows Like ‘Story of Yanxi Palace’ Go Viral, and the [Communist] Party Is Not Amused,” The New Yorker (April 23, 2019), <>. 

Ruyis Royal Love in the Palace is an 87-episode fictional historical drama based on the lives of 18th century Emperor Qianlong, and his consort, and subsequently his empress, Ruyi, of the Ula-Nara clan. Qianlong was the Qing emperor—the Manchu dynasty which succeeded the Ming. Qianlong was the fifth Qing emperor, and the fourth to rule over China. But the plot is not really about Qianlong—it is about Ruyi. The series was shown on Chinese television in 2018. I only came across it a few months ago on Youtube. You can find the first (45-minute long) episode, with English subtitles, here: <>.

If I were pressed to suggest an analogue, only The Tudors or Wolf Hall comes to mind. But the scale of Ruyi is much grander than the two Tudor dramas. That is, in part, because of the vastness of Qianlong’s multi-ethnic Manchurian/Mongolian/Chinese empire: by population and size, in its time, the Qing empire was probably the largest nation in the world. And it was, according to good historical authority, during Qianlong’s reign, 1711-1799, in which that empire reached its zenith—in terms of military security and cultural greatness.

One can only be transfixed by Ruyi’s set design and costumes. The scale of the scenes is reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s films. The musical score was haunting, and the acting—superb, notwithstanding that much is, no doubt, lost through translation and subtitles. Albeit, some of the English subtitles put forward helpful historical explanations or explained references to classic or ancient Chinese literature. There are several points where characters write in Chinese—I am sure that something is lost when their logographs were left unexplained (to those, like me, who cannot read Chinese).

I will make a few quick points about this series. First, I cannot remember the last time that I have been moved to tears by film. I cannot remember the last time I saw a film with so much genuine ambiguity about various characters’ conduct, leaving one contemplative, knowing that there is (and can be) no real closure to come. I do not really know if these moral conundrums emanate from Buddhism, or from Confucian or Daoist philosophy—or from the author’s imagination—or, perhaps, should be best understood as universal problems of the human condition, merely set amidst an eighteenth century Chinese historical plot. I cannot remember the last time I saw a film with multiple unexpected plot twists.

Second, this series portrays women as developing close relationships and loyalties with one another, affecting both the development of their personal character, and the political future of their polity. For example, Ruyi and Hailan (another of Qianlong’s consorts) have a complex and intellectual relationship. The truth is: I cannot think of any analogue in Western film, at least, not any analogue about women.

Third, I will describe one very affecting scene. Ruyi falls victim to a plot. Essentially, she is framed by two other members of Qianlong’s harem for killing two of Qianlong’s children (by other wives). Qianlong, not quite believing the evidence, sends Ruyi to Cold Palace—a palace in the Forbidden City. Although it is a “palace,” it has been allowed to fall into decrepitude, and so is used as an internal open-air prison for abandoned consorts, concubines, and female servants of the imperial family. Many of the prisoners are mentally ill. Ruyi languishes there, with a faithful servant, for three years. By that time, sufficient evidence emerges which casts doubt on Ruyi’s guilt. As a result, Qianlong permits her to leave Cold Palace, and before returning to her new home, Yikun Palace, she walk along the ramparts of the Forbidden City.

Ruyi looks out over the Forbidden City’s many palaces. Her facial expression is difficult to gauge. When I first saw this scene, and when I first heard its musical score, I saw it as uplifting—as one, short happy moment when virtue and right overcome injustice and evil. But having watched this scene now many times, I am not so sure. Could it be that Ruyi, although glad to be out of Cold Palace, and pleased to have her reputation restored, realizes that she has only traded one prison for a more glorified one? The whole of the Forbidden City is a prison. All the people, from the smallest to the greatest, who live there are trapped by the calculations, schemes, and machinations of others seeking advantage, for themselves, their families, and their clans. Or is the point, that this “trap” is the human condition, and all one can do is endure, while doing as much good as we can until we must leave? See Episode 27, <> (at 25:00 to 34:00ff); see especially at 28:02 (where the logographs on the courtyards gate are translated).

Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace gets full marks.


Seth Barrett Tillman, Banned by the Communist Party of China: A Review of Liu Lianzi’s “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace,” New Reform Club (July 9, 2021, 11:17 AM), <>;