A Factious People

“They are a very factious people, and hard to rule.”  

Lord George Lyttelton, “Letter to William Lyttleton (1759)

We have a new resident on our street.  I have yet to meet her, but am told she is a young professor recently decamped from New York City.  I had no reason to doubt this information, but my conviction was the other day deepened by the two political placards she promptly staked in her front lawn.  One sign announced her intention to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, the other her sympathy with the aims of Black Lives Matter.

I am not a yard-sign man myself, but I do not dislike the custom or the sight of signs with which I disagree.  I think the political yard-sign is a testament to political civility, particularly when it announces an unpopular opinion and yet stands unmolested for weeks on end.

Down our street in the other direction, another neighbor recently hung a Trump 2020 flag on his fence.  The morning after the young woman from New York staked out her signs, I noticed that the flag and fence had been sloshed with a bucket-load of paint.  I am not suggesting that the young woman sloshed the paint, but do note that her signs have not been defaced or disturbed.

Although decidedly partisan in my own opinions, my civic sensibility is scandalized when political yard-signs are stolen or destroyed.  I would shout and give credible chase if I saw miscreants stealing or setting fire to my neighbors BLM sign, notwithstanding that I loathe BLM and all of its loathsome aims.  It is her sign, her yard, and her opinion, and America’s national comity has long depended on all of us maintaining a civil respect for these things.

But all of that seems to be changing.  As you know, I am now being hounded by what I presume are BLM sympathizers who have, we might say, sloshed a bucket of paint in my direction.  I am of the opinion that I have a right to express my views in my posts on my website.  My persecutors take the opposite view and assert a right to edit what I write.  This scandalizes my civic sensibility just as much as the paint that was sloshed on my neighbor’s flag and fence, and for the same reason.  Both incidents tell me that we Americans are becoming a factious people.

The epigram to this post was written when the brother of its author was appointed governor of Jamaica, and its author, an experienced politician, says that a factious people is difficult to rule.  They are difficult to rule because they are constantly at each other’s throats, and because every attempt at concerted action breaks down in a storm of quarrels, squabbles, and internecine stratagems for partisan advantage.  

And as if this were not enough, a people that becomes factious also becomes shifty liars who live in a fog of suspicion and fear, and their politics disappears into an underground world of plots, slanders and conspiracies.

Would you put out a yard-sign if there was a fair chance you would wake up the next morning to find a bucket-load of paint sloshed over your car?  Would you speak honestly with a man who might try to have you fired for something you said?  And if your car were sloshed and you were fired, would you retain the civic virtue to show a decent respect for the property and opinions of your factious neighbors?

* * * * *

This morning’s mail brought another ominous straw in the wind.  The university has long permitted students to “chalk” announcements and messages on campus walkways.  My impression was that most walkway messages were chalked by Christian students who wished to draw the attention of other students to some of the more uplifting passages in the New Testament; but students also chalked announcements of fund-raisers, blood drives, and events connected with the Greek organizations.  

Such walkway chalkings are henceforth forbitten.

The ostensible reason is the increasing use of “railroad chalk,” and even spray paint, to mark the sidewalks.  I gather that “railroad chalk” is not removed by rain and remains on walkways until groundskeepers remove it with a pressure-washer.  My guess is that the real cause of the ban may be that walkway messages are nowadays less likely to remind students that Jesus loves them, and more likely to remind them that their political enemies wish that they were dead.

* * * * *

Here is something from a post I wrote in this place a little over two years ago, when the storm cloud that now grumbles overhead was a mere cotton-puff on the far horizon.

“Political civility exists between men who differ in political opinion and yet respect each other as political equals.  They honor each other as men in secure and equal possession of the political rights of a common citizenship, and they do this even when they do not honor each other as men in secure and equal possession of the the political virtues of good sense, prudence and common decency.

By political rights, I mean the right to voice political opinions and the right to cast votes and otherwise participate in the political process.  Political civility therefore consists in letting even fools have their say, and letting even scoundrels cast their votes, simply because these fools and scoundrels are entitled to do so as citizens. Political civility does not require me to praise the wisdom of the fool or the probity of the scoundrel. It does not place me under an obligation to clap when he has spoken, say fine things when he is mentioned, or consent to leave him unsupervised in the company of my daughter.

Political civility obliges me to grant that his political rights are indefeasibly his, and to resolve, therefore, to keep my hands off of them.

There is, for instance, a large and luxurious house that I pass on one of my evening walks, and in the front yard of this house there has for some time been a sign announcing the owner’s fulsome welcome to all immigrants and refugees.  The sentiment strikes me as foolish, and also fatuous in a neighborhood that is (unlike mine) so stoutly fortified by high property values. If you were present as I walked past that sign, you might hear a snort of disgust or a sniff of distain, but you would not see me tear the sign from that spacious lawn or scatter its fragments on that pleasant street. 

That would be political incivility.

Political incivility is conniving to disenfranchise a fellow citizen by preventing him from enjoying some privilege of citizenship.  Among those privileges is the privilege of placing a dumb and virtue-signaling sign before one’s house without fearing that the sign (or the house) will be destroyed.”

4 thoughts on “A Factious People

  1. Pingback: A Factious People | Reaction Times

  2. Political civility therefore consists in letting even fools have their say, and letting even scoundrels cast their votes, simply because these fools and scoundrels are entitled to do so as citizens.

    You might have heard the faint but distinctive sounds of a snort of disgust and a sniff of disdain coming from this direction when I ambled past that sentence from this distance. Not because I’m necessarily opposed to letting even fools and scoundrels have their (political) say by way of yard signs or bumper stickers pasted on the backs of their vehicles and that sort of thing, but specifically because I don’t believe *anyone*, including yours truly, is “entitled” to cast votes simply by virtue of his or her citizenship, nor that (s)he should be so-entitled.

    I was in the parts store a month or so prior to the 2016 presidential election when, in walked a young woman just graduated from H.S. in the month of May preceding. I knew who she was because I have known her parents all their lives. One of the several gentlemen behind the counter was helping her with her parts needs when he struck up a conversation with her asking, ‘so, who are you going to vote for in the presidential election?’ She was visibly a bit taken aback by his question, but nevertheless answered that she wasn’t sure; that there were things about Hillary she liked and disliked, as well as things about Trump she liked and disliked, so she hadn’t come to a firm decision between the two at that time. To which her (much older) interlocutor insisted she must vote for Mr. Trump, and began to give his reasons why. While he was speaking a couple of the others, including the man helping me with my parts order, chimed in on the side of their compatriot. All of which was making this girl very uncomfortable and nervous. At this point I had heard enough and decided it was time I interject, emulating the same level and spirit of courtesy they had shown her. Here is what I said, calling her by name thus drawing her undivided attention away from them and to me:

    “Don’t vote!; you’re only 18 years-old and freshly graduated from high school; obviously you’re torn between the two candidates because you have been receiving mixed messages about them and you don’t know what to believe either way. One reason you don’t know what to believe is because you are so young and have always lived under the protection of your father’s roof, and still do. Yet here you are, accosted by these older men behind the counter insisting you must vote and vote rightly. But I am here to tell you that the opposite is closer to the truth; that you mustn’t vote, and you mustn’t vote because you’re obviously not qualified to vote in spite of what the Constitution says or doesn’t say. Don’t pay any mind to what these men have told you about your “civic duty”; they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves for putting that kind of pressure on you.”

    That’s a true story. And while I could have been mistaken, I believe to this day that I saw a burden lifted from that young girl’s shoulders as I interjected and took her side in that exchange. Meanwhile, the men on the other side of the counter went completely silent during my little speech and afterward. While I’m sure my little speech was the subject of much discussion not very favorable to my person or my opinions between them after I left, none of them dared challenge me on any point while I was there, nor during any of my visits afterward. I of course also took the girl’s side in that exchange because I have my own daughters and would not much appreciate their ganging up on and bullying one of them in that way. But here I’ve gone off on a tangent, for which I humbly apologize.

    • I agree with your advice to the young woman and favor narrower legal restriction of the franchise. I can see no objection to the old poll taxes and early registration requirements, since they applied equally to all citizens and had the good effect of discouraging the selling of votes for swigs of whiskey, and the casting of votes by people whose time horizon didn’t stretch past their next meal. Allowing stupid people to vote is cruel to stupid people, since they are the first to suffer from stupid policies. I also appreciate the evil that is done in the name of civil rights. With that said, I oppose private conspiracies to deprive any citizen of the civil rights that he or she actually has by law.

      It seems perfectly reasonable for a private person to attempt to persuade clumsy people not to exercise their right to own a gun, or nervous people not to exercise their right to drive on public highways. I think I would only dissuade a person from putting up a yard-sign if I agreed with the yard-sign but had a genuine fear for the safety of the person and his property.


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