Tuesday, February 19, 2013 182 Comments

The greatness of Lawrence Auster

In case you haven't heard, Larry is dying.  Say a prayer for him, or something.

Greatness?  I don't know that anyone can really get away with the word in 2013.  What can greatness mean in a fourth-rate world?  In a fourth-rate world, the second-rate look great.  Worse, they feel great.  After all, they stand head and shoulders above their own age.   So why grow further?  Can we say that a Lawrence Auster saw farther, because he stood on the toes of dwarves?

Surely there's a bit of that.  I think Auster's work is best summarized by his statement, not a boast but merely the truth, that where the ordinary machine conservative takes a second look at our political narrative we live in, View from the Right took the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth looks.  Very well.  I think our differences are best summarized by my feeling that six looks are entirely insufficient for our exquisitely sterquiline age, thirty or forty being perhaps more like it.  Six looks are certainly not enough to understand why Henry VII is worth taking seriously.  If indeed he is.

But we did not visit VFR for a history of the past - but rather, a history of the present.  Are you by some strange chance reading this in the 22nd century?  Stranger things have happened.  Do you want to read the true story of the early 21st, wie est eigentlich gewesen?  Find the VFR archive.  It must be somewhere.  Make sure you have a lot of time on your hands - or some kind of full-search FPGA in your medulla.

One of the characteristic mental disorders of our period is an easy contempt for the past.  It's not just that we are taught to hate the past, for one can respect and still detest an enemy.  It's that we despise it.  We observe it with an easy, swaggering and thoroughly unquestioned contempt.  We are presentists with all the arrogance of the cartoon plantation racist.

Which leads us into many faults of the intellect, some of them comic.  But our worst fault is the belief that history, somehow, is easy.  Of course it's easy to know what happened in the Civil War!  Every fifth-grader knows the story.  Heck, my four-year-old daughter knows the story.  She read about it in her Magic Treehouse books (which, by the way, are racist).  "Oh, I know about the Civil War," she said.  Indeed she does - she knows about it the way everyone in 2013 does.  If a little less.

Imagine the poor bastards who actually had to live in the past, being understood by a four-year-old.  Of course, it is no more possible for Sibyl to understand the Civil War than to fly to the moon.  She's a bright girl, but still.  She can only understand the period because it has been converted into a flat piece of paper with large print and a few pictures.  Imagine 2013, converted into a flat piece of paper with large print and a few pictures. 

Unfortunately, this (with slightly smaller print than Magic Treehouse) is how most of us read not only the past, but the present.  Go to Upworthy!  It's fresh, it's hip, it's socially relevant.  You will not have to think about anything for more than five seconds.  And, just like Magic Treehouse, it has pictures.

I do not mean to suggest that complex realities are impossible to simplify accurately.  If it were impossible to present a complex reality as a simple narrative, it would be impossible to write history.  Possible?  Of course it's possible.  But it's not easy.  Not at least if you want it to be true.

Perhaps some historian of a future century, reading UR for a laugh, will find this link and pop over to VFR.  I was reading Carlyle one day when I saw, in a statistical footnote, a link to George Lunt.  What sort of American would Carlyle cite on the Civil War?  All I know about George Lunt is that he published his book in 1866 in Boston.  Imagine the stones.  All I know about George Lunt is that he published his book in 1866 in Boston, and he had to have his pants cut specially.  Needless to say, his Civil War is not the Magic Treehouse Civil War.  (Nor is it the VFR Civil War, but let that pass.)

But it has become my Civil War - taken not just from Lunt, of course, but many others like him.  I trust George Lunt not because I know anything about him, aside from the pants, but because I can tell that he writes like a man whose only concern is telling the truth as he knows it.  How can I tell?  That's like asking a wine snob how he tells good wine from bad. 

And it would be a mistake to praise Auster simply for being a prophet.  "Without honor in his own country" - it's a cliche.  And true enough, like most cliches.  And it is true that in our age false prophets (so far as I can tell, the original Hebrew means no more than "pundit") abound, and honest ones are hen's teeth. 

But this is really only the beginning of the tragedy.  There is something else - something perhaps best illustrated by one of my favorite Edwardian sources:
Sometimes in our haste we may permit ourselves to speak disparagingly of debate, and if the result of debate were merely the prevalence of eloquence over silence, of good arguments over bad ones, it might justly be condemned as a means of selecting men to govern the country. But debate is something a great deal more respectable. 
The glory of the British Parliament is that men subdue it by their characters to a far greater extent than by their arguments. It is required of a leader that he must be prepared at any moment to stand up to his enemies, to give blows and to take them. This test can never be escaped. Occasional brilliant appearances will never put any man in power, or keep him in power if he has happened to arrive there by some accident. Private influence or intrigue, literary gifts of the highest order, are all in vain. The system is sound, although of necessity it excludes many aspirants of shining talents. The rule is absolute that before a man may be permitted to govern the nation, he must have proved himself capable of prevailing over his rivals in single combat and face to face.
This passage seems like a memorandum from an alternate reality that never existed.  Was it really the case that Britain, for a couple of centuries in which it was the strongest nation on earth, was governed by... the Briton most capable of argument, whoever that might be?  Yes, in fact, it was.  (I forget the source, but it was a Victorian cliche that "not everyone in Parliament deserves to be in Parliament, but everyone who deserves to be in Parliament is in Parliament."  Carlyle certainly could have been, had he cared to.)

Indeed, what's so striking in this passage is the author's casual assumption that whoever in Britain is most capable of humiliating his enemies in an argument, both is in Parliament and leads it, and in fact governs the country. 

Just as casually, we assume that the best quarterback in America today is (a) in the NFL, (b) plays quarterback in the NFL, and (c) is the first-string quarterback on his team.  Indeed this is true.  But consider the remarkable complexity of the machinery that makes it true.  Can we imagine a world without this machinery?  Or with what pretends to be this machinery, but is not, and does not actually work?  It is almost more plausible than the world that actually exists.

The world of 2013 contains no genuine parliamentary institutions.  It contains the dried, bureaucratic husks of many - just as it contains the dried, bureaucratic husks of many old monarchies.  Before nations were ruled by a man "capable of prevailing over his rivals in single combat and face to face" with the sword of his tongue, they were ruled by the actual sword.  The king was a military leader. 

Now we have no leaders of any kind.  At least, not in our political system.  Can you imagine a Barack Obama, stripped of his army of handlers, "in single combat and face to face," in the old House of Commons or something like it, against... a Lawrence Auster?  Or even a Rush Limbaugh?  You might as well imagine Rush Limbaugh in a swordfight with Henry VII.

This is what I see when I look at Auster's oeuvre - not just a prophet, but a leader.  A king, if you will.  A king out of water, in a dry and kingless age.  He was still born a king, or made himself one, and if you type in the right URL you can see it plain as day.

Does this have anything to do with Larry's faith?  Of course it does.  It is impossible to imagine a king who does not serve the King of Kings.  Or rather, if we imagine one, we find ourselves looking for other words, pejorative ones - like "dictator."  What were Hitler and Stalin, but godless kings?

Since I've already violated my daughter's privacy, I'll tell another story.  The other day we were driving down 14th Street and Sibyl was looking out the window.  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, I hear: "It says, 'Christ is the answer.'  What is Christ?"  She made it rhyme with "fist."

No Christian UR reader will ever forgive me for my answer.  After correcting her pronunciation, I said: "Christ is the same thing as God, Sibyl.  It's... it's... it's like Santa Claus for grownups."

Actually, there are few things that would please me more than seeing my daughter become a Christian.  If only because it would mean she was not a worshiper of Beyonce, or something worse.  I know all too well, however, that it is not in my power to raise her as one.

The entire question of "whether God exists" seems to me entirely superfluous and sterile.  Anyone in the age of science who believes he has a mechanism for physically confirming the "existence" of the spirit world is not religious, but rather superstitious. 

It's certainly true that historical Christianity contains many superstitious and/or miraculous conceits, but it does not depend on them either for its practical efficacy as a social institution, or even for its logical coherence.  Every scientific period is a small bubble of the known in an infinite unknown space.  It is always possible to plausibly postulate an undisprovable entity.  When mankind was young and knew little, we could postulate a God who was a giant snake that lived in the river and made it rain.  Now, we can postulate a God who is an alien system administrator who runs the servers that make quantum mechanics work.  We can easily disprove the giant snake, but not the four-headed IT jock.  Ergo, we are left with the choice of two fundamentally aesthetic arguments - Occam's razor versus Paley's watchmaker.

In the end, who cares?  Let's go with Occam's razor, which I'll always prefer because that's how I was raised.  Thus, as far as material reality goes, God, Christ and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are all the same thing.  Fine.  I'm quite comfortable with this interpretation.

If you share it, let me ask you a question.  Does Hamlet exist?

Obviously, Hamlet does not exist and nor did he ever.  Thus, when we consider only material reality, he fits perfectly in the same set with God, Christ, the FSM, and "Santa Claus for grownups."

But if we change the question to: "is Hamlet a useful concept?" we find that again everyone agrees.  Hamlet is a literary character, and perfectly real in that sense.  It is completely sensible to say, for instance, that someone is acting like Hamlet, or should be more like Hamlet, or should be less like Hamlet.  These statements are well-defined and cogent.

It is also a well-defined and cogent statement to say that Lawrence Auster is a servant of God.  One can serve without orders.  Larry doesn't need God's cell-phone number to serve God, and nor for that matter does the Pope.  When we say "God," we know what we mean - it is a shorthand for the superhuman and perfect, for infinite wisdom and intelligence, just as the character of Hamlet is a shorthand for a mercurial and hesitating character.  What, pray tell me, is the Flying Spaghetti Monster a shorthand for?

At the level of evolutionary psychology, man is both a social animal and a hierarchical one.  Not only is he extremely good at defining and relating to characters, he is born with "modules" both for ruling and for serving.  Anyone living is the descendant of many kings and many, many servants.  Those kings, too, were born knowing how to serve.  Whom did they serve?  We know the answer.

Whether a man is a king, a peasant or anything in between, to ask him to be an atheist and an egalitarian is to ask him not to use the machines in his brain that he was born with.  It is to diminish him as a human being.  The capacity to personalize the superhuman, and to use this fictional anthropomorphism as a mechanism by which we may approach the superhuman, is characteristically human.  I suppose I will never be anything but a "secular humanist," but I have learned in this way to respect, admire, and sometimes even envy my Christian friends.

For instance, characteristic of the enormous, and certainly regal, dignity of the man, is the strength and honor with which Auster approaches death.  Socrates was not a Christian, nor was Cato, nor were the 47 Ronin.  So atheists need not despair of these qualities.  On the other hand, neither Socrates nor Cato had to live in the same world as Beyonce.  It strikes me as quite implausible that when our dark age ends and the kings return, if ever, it will be under any banner but the Cross. 

Or as Maistre put it:
Frenchmen, it was to the noise of hellish songs, the blasphemy of atheism, the cries of death, and the prolonged moans of slaughtered innocence, it was by the light of flames, on the debris of throne and altar, watered by the blood of the best of kings and an innumerable host of other victims, it was by the contempt of morality and the established faith, it was in the midst of every crime that your seducers and your tyrants founded what they call your liberty.

But when man works to restore order he associates himself with the author of order; he is favored by nature, that is to say, by ensemble of secondary forces that are the agents of the Divinity.  His action partakes of the divine; it becomes both gentle and imperious, forcing nothing yet not resisted by anything.  His arrangements restore health.  As he acts, he calms disquiet and the painful agitation that is the effect and symptom of disorder.  In the same way, the hands of a skilful surgeon bring the cessation of pain that proves the dislocated joint has been put right.
When I look at VFR, especially when I look at the thanks and well wishes of Larry's readers, this is what I see - a small area of order, in the hands of a skilful surgeon.  Who will not be with us much longer.  But humanity abides, and other surgeons will come.  They will need not a scalpel, but a sword.  Let us pray they are no less skilful.

Friday, February 8, 2013 60 Comments

Charles Stross discovers the Cathedral

Poor Charles Stross.  Not that he's the first revolutionary to discover that the revolution bus doesn't stop where the sign said it was supposed to stop.  And not that he'll be the last.  But still - can't we be a little sad?  Just a little?

(At least if 20th-century Britain is your milieu, the masterpiece of revolutionary disenchantment is Malcolm Muggeridge's autobiography.  Suffice it to say that Muggeridge's wife was the niece of Sidney and Beatrice Webb - suffice it also to say that he was a Guardian correspondent in Moscow in the '30s.  A lovely paper, the old Grauniad, I read it every day.  No, really.)

Reader, I knew Charlie, once.  A long, long time ago in a galaxy long since destroyed, he was an promising young SF writer and I was a promising young CS grad student, and we were both regulars on the same Usenet newsgroup, alt.peeves.  I met him once when he visited Berkeley.  I even read his unpublished novel - which I thought was good, but not great.

Indeed this age has quite the glut of good writers.  Great ones?  Greatness is not a quality of our time. A great writer, having read his Orwell, would never let himself get away with abusing the English word dictatorship to mean "government I don't like."  Do we live in a beige dictatorship?  Really?  Who, then, is our beige dictator?  Valerie Jarrett?

Of course the word Charlie's looking for is oligarchy, and he even finds it further down the page.  He quotes Robert Michels, for God's sake!  Comrade!  I have to hope you're just dropping Wiki links, comrade.  You can't have actually read this book.  It's on the restricted list - dangerous even for a loyal Party man in good standing.   Weren't you assigned Hardt and Negri?  Have you finished?

I mean, if you're reading Michels, what will you get into next?  OstrogorskiMosca and ParetoMaineFroude and Carlyle?  Marijuana leads to heroin, you know.  A couple more clicks and suddenly, you discover that you've spent the whole day marinating your delicate cortex in R.L. Dabney.  Definitely no way to crank out the next cyberpunk space-opera blockbuster.

And Comrade Stross, I'd endeavour not to bring the Party into disrespect with palpable absurdities.  To wit:
Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It's obviously subtle — we haven't been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches.
If you want to point out that progressive democracies in the West have developed some of the same bureaucratic pathologies as the Eastern peoples' democracies, that's one thing.  But don't you think it's a little difficult to pretend that Western progressive democracy is equidistant from Hitler and Stalin?  From Comrade Stalin - leader of progressive mankind?  Really?

Your reader may not know much about 20th-century history - hardly anyone does, really.  But you can't keep him from knowing that his government didn't collaborate with Hitler to smash Stalin.  (I have no joke - I just like saying, "Stalin was feeling extremely gay.")

No, comrade.  It's much better to come right out and lead the audience in a rousing rendition of that great New Laborite anthem, The Red Flag.  Don't try to pretend the revolution didn't happen.  That only distracts us from the critical task of figuring out who betrayed it.  Was it Ralph Miliband's kids?  But they seemed so promising!

This is how all great magicians work.  They keep you looking for something "obviously subtle," while they saw the lady in half right in front of your face.  What happened?  Um, the revolution happened.  Slowly, it's true.

A big favorite of the early 20C Laborites, English Dissenters to the marrow, was Blake's great hymn (doesn't Billy Bragg do a version?):
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land.
How's that New Jerusalem workin' out for ya?  Actually, pretty well:
Meanwhile, it may with little fear of contradiction be asserted that there never was, in any nation of which we have a history, a time in which life and property were so secure as they are at present in England. The sense of security is almost everywhere diffused, in town and country alike, and it is in marked contrast to the sense of insecurity which prevailed even at the beginning of the present century.

There are, of course, in most great cities, some quarters of evil repute in which assault and robbery are now and again committed. There is perhaps to be found a lingering and flickering tradition of the old sanctuaries and similar resorts. But any man of average stature and strength may wander about on foot and alone, at any hour of the day or the night, through the greatest of all cities and its suburbs, along the high roads, and through unfrequented country lanes, and never have so much as the thought of danger thrust upon him, unless he goes out of his way to court it.
Oh, wait.  My mistake.  That's not the New Jerusalem, it's the old one - London in 1876.  Victorians!  Anglicans!  Morons!  What did they know from Mental Fight?  Exterminate the brutes!  Whereas, after a century and a half of Progress:
A teenager who pleaded for his life as a gang armed with knives and swords chased and fatally stabbed him in the street was named yesterday as Hani Hicham Abou El-Kheir.

Witnesses described how the 16-year-old tripped while he was being pursued by a group of up to 15 youths close to home on a housing estate in well-heeled Pimlico and shouted “don’t do it” as he was surrounded. His mother rushed to the scene and had to be held back from a police cordon as medics battled in vain to save his life.

Police said last night they were keeping an open mind about the motive for the attack. A youth worker said there had been a concerted attempt by drug dealers to move into the area in recent months but although Hani’s name had been mentioned “on the periphery” of a gang, he had not been considered a significant or known member.

The attack shortly before 7pm on Sunday night took place close to Pimlico Tube station on a street flanked by multi-million pound houses and an estate of local authority tower blocks where Hani is believed to have lived with his mother.

One onlooker said that his killers ran away “as if nothing had happened” after having “jumped on him like a pack of dogs”. He was heard to plead “don’t do it” as the gang, many of whom witnesses said were wearing hoodies and bandanas across their faces, repeatedly stabbed him.
I guess someone's sword isn't sleeping in his hand.  Swords!  I love swords.  Always and everywhere, science fiction needs more swords.  Meanwhile, the great SF writer himself recently spent a weekend in our own vibrant metropolis of "warm, sunny Detroit," where I'm sure he took the time to "wander about on foot and alone."  Nah.  Just kidding.  I'm sure he took an armored vehicle straight from the airport to the hotel.  And back again.  Ah, the 21st century.

Am I digressing?  No, I'm not digressing.  Crime and government are the same thing - power imposed by force.  Always and everywhere, crime is nano-tyranny.  In the last minute of Hani Hicham Abou El-Kheir's life, there was only one government that mattered - a tiny circle of sovereignty, containing  oppressed (Mr. El-Kheir) and oppressor (15 "youths" wielding swords).  This government, smaller than the Queen's but no less real, condemned Mr. El-Kheir to death, no doubt for some real or imagined offence, enforced the penalty, and then dispersed.  Hopefully the Queen's grim stormtroopers will at some point capture the rebel regime, perhaps issuing the leader a stern Asbo.

One great Englishman, King Ine of Wessex, wrote eloquently of this phenomenon, nano-government.  By the laws of King Ine, if there are up to 7 sword-wielding "youths," they are thieves; from 7 to 35, bandits; and if over 35, an army.  This is objective social science at its finest.

If the young Englishmen of Pimlico care to be taken seriously, then, they'd best recruit at least 20 more good English youths.  With swords.  But how hard is that?  Can't you print a sword, or 20, with a Makerbot?  Moreover, though there are only 20 million Englishmen and thus potential swordsmen, it's the 21st century.  Change has come.  And anyone with two legs who isn't a bird is an Englishman.  At least, if Ralph Miliband's kids have issued him the proper documents.  And paper, you'll note, is even easier to print than a sword.

This sort of thing doesn't bother a good Party man, of course.  Democracy, as we know, is messy.  (Look at the Arab Spring!  Glorious!  But messy!)  And kids are always up to some kind of shenanigans.  No, England's real tragedy is that government services are being outsourced.

Indeed, it's quite possible that whoever had to clean Mr. Al-Kheir's four gallons off the Pimlico pavement was, in fact, a private contractor.  (Probably an Englishman of, well, Polish descent.  Why work, when you can import slaves?)  How low can England sink?  What would Lord Passfield say?

Okay.  Now I am digressing.  This is just ridicule.  Indeed, England's real tragedy is that England has become, for possibly the first time since Gildas was a little boy, ridiculous.  This precious stone, set in the silver sea... sceptered it remains; but the scepter is, unmistakably, Nerf; and the hand that once so bravely wielded it, now, appears to be, well, stroking....

But I do have a serious answer to Charlie's question.  Because, after all, we agree.  A "beige oligarchy" - definitely not a "brown paper bag" reference - is exactly what we have.  It's exactly what we'll always have, until some other Aristotelian form replaces it.  (A good comrade can read Aristotle, but not apply him.)  Per Aristotle, there are three forms of government - by the many, by the few, by the one; democracy, oligarchy, monarchy.  In England and elsewhere, how do we escape the beige oligarchy and get back to democracy?

Ha!  How does a cow fly to the moon?  It doesn't.  We can't.

I realize that this is very difficult to accept for people brought up to see democracy not only as what ought to be, but also as what is.  Here at UR, we believe that not only shouldn't it be, but it isn't.  Moreover, it can't be.

Always and everywhere, the strong rule the weak.  15 youths with swords rule 1 youth with no sword.  If Mr. Al-Kheir had wanted to "wander, on foot and alone," through the wilds of central London, he had a simple way to do so.  He should have brought his sword and 14 friends.  He felt that he had a natural right to "wander, on foot and alone," and the Queen's law supported him in this opinion.  But it was not the Queen who ruled this patch of Pimlico.  Had Mr. Al-Kheir been more attentive to what is, not what ought to be, he might be sitting at home reading a Charles Stross novel.

The constitution of a country is a mockery and a sham unless it reflects the real structure and possession of power in the country.  Suppose "Martian invaders" invade America and take over Washington.  All power is held by the Martian invaders, with their death-rays.  But they don't bother to cancel the Constitution - why should they?  We therefore see a divergence of power between the real authorities, the Martian invaders, and the nominal authorities, the American people.  In this case, is America still a democracy?  Nominally, yes.  Really, no.

While there are no Martian invaders, it is relatively straightforward for us to distinguish between two kinds of democracy: one kind, in which power genuinely flows upward from what people want, and another kind, in which power flows downward from the beige oligarchy / Martian invaders, is converted into what they're supposed to think, and regurgitated dutifully at the polls.

Charlie, do you really want a political system in which power genuinely flows upward from what most people want?  I have two words for you.  The first is the name of a Biblical prophet.  The second is "Powell."

In postwar Europe, there is a codeword for a political persuasion in which power flows upward.  The codeword is "populist."  Needless to say, no more vile slur can pass the lips of a good Party man.  A "beige dictatorship?"  Please, man.  Don't complain about the dish you ordered.

But I don't care to frighten you with bugbears.  The reality of the 20th century is that populists lose.  Populists lose because populism is democracy, and democracy is weak.  For instance, democracy as a form of government originated in mob violence.  It was a mob that chased Charles I out of London.  Then, democracy was strong and monarchy was weak, and as always the strong ruled the weak.

There is still mob violence in London, of course, but it is not organized and therefore cannot exercise power - and in any case, it is underclass violence, and therefore aligned with the Party.  There is certainly no populist violence in London, and there hasn't been any for 50 years.  The beige oligarchy has zero tolerance for that.   And even the idiotic "race riots" of the '50s were a pathetic shadow of the Elizabethan mob, which had no trouble at all in ripping the throats out of every Flemish merchant in the City if they thought they were being gouged on the wool price.

So we have an interesting situation, in which a political force, once physically powerful, became represented in formal authority as a way to recognize and regularize its capacity for violence.  But it no longer has that capacity for violence.  Nor does it have any capacity to govern - not that it ever had any, really.  And without the capacity to govern, it also lacks the capacity to retain its position of genuine authority, either by political craft or brute force.

Therefore, we can expect exactly the result that we observe - retention of symbolic authority, loss of actual authority.  Of course, for any such loss, there must be a gainer.  Hence the beige oligarchy.

Democracy is a historically rare and transient phenomenon, of course, but retention of symbolic power when real power has been lost is a very common trope.  It's just a trope that usually happens not to democracies, but to monarchs - who are pwned usually by bureaucratic oligarchies, though sometimes by other monarchs (consider the Merovingian kings).

When I think of the Western democratic electorate, as a force which claims the capacity and reality of ruling, yet has been utterly used by the utterly anti-democratic beige oligarchy, I find it very easy to translate it into the language of monarchy.  We all hate monarchy, of course - the Party has taught us well!  But somehow, we still know its language.

Imagine you're the King of France.  You have the hereditary right to rule France, just as Englishmen have the hereditary right to rule England.  Why?  Because.  It's the constitution.  So, sovereignty is yours, unlimited and absolute sovereignty, and everyone has to do what you say.

Except - there's just one problem.  The problem is: you're seven years old.

There's simply no way that France will be ruled by a seven-year-old.  But sovereignty is conserved.  Always and everywhere, France is ruled by someone.  At best, it might be ruled by someone who claims he's taking orders from a seven-year-old.  It might even be the case that the seven-year-old, if bright, actually writes down the order, which the wise minister has suggested to him.  But there is no possible way in which, in reality, France is ruled by a seven-year-old.

There's a great passage in Ray Huang's classic, 1587: A Year of No Significance:
When Wan-li was in his early teens, he merely followed Big Companion Feng's instructions, affixing his own rescripts in vermilion ink on certain papers to make official the drafts in black submitted by Tutor Chang's office.  The documents that he personally worked on involved simple replies such as Approved and Acknowledged.  When the rescripts involved complicated phraseology, the work was, as a rule, delegated to Feng Pao's staff of assistants.  These proceedings were completely in agreement with the dynasty's established practice.  An instruction written in red in the emperor's presence carried the authority of the throne.  On the other hand, any unauthorized use of the vermilion brush constituted falsification of imperial orders, a crime subject to the mandatory death penalty.

It must have been some time before the young emperor grasped the mechanics of the institutional process, of which he himself was the central figure.  There is no evidence, for instance, that, when in those early days he carried out his official duty in a way not fundamentally different from calligraphy lessons, he fully understood the import of his own rescript Acknowledged, which really meant that the suggestion or request embodied in the paper had been politely rejected, and that, considering the noncontroversial nature of the proposal, no action would be taken against the writer of the paper or others mentioned therein.

One duty Wan-li could not delegate had to do with his power of appointment.  The problem was solved in this way: whenever there was a vacancy in a high office, Tutor Chang and the ministers always submitted more than one candidate for the emperor's selection.  When he circled one person's name with his vermilion brush, that person was appointed, and the emperor had ostensibly made a decision of his own.  However, he had early been indoctrinated to believe that the person whose name topped the list was best qualified.
Could any more penetrating portrait of an American election be penned?  "Not fundamentally different from calligraphy lessons."

There is one difference between democratic electorates and child monarchs.  Child monarchs grow up.  Unless they are Henry VI, they become men.  They acquire virtue, capacity, and strength.  And at that point, the day of "Big Companion Feng" is over.  Here's (per Hume) how one of the greatest of English kings dealt with his own "Big Companion Feng":
It was impossible that these abuses could long escape the observation of a prince endowed with so much spirit and judgment as young Edward, who, being now in his eighteenth year, and feeling himself capable of governing, repined at being held in fetters by this insolent minister. But so much was he surrounded by the emissaries of Mortimer, that it behooved him to conduct the project for subverting him with the same secrecy and precaution as if he had been forming a conspiracy against his sovereign. 
He communicated his intentions to Lord Mountacute, who engaged the Lords Molins and Clifford, Sir John Nevil of Hornby, Sir Edward Bohun, Ufford, and others, to enter into their views; and the Castle of Nottingham was chosen for the scene of the enterprise. The queen dowager and Mortimer lodged in that fortress: the king also was admitted, though with a few only of his attendants: and as the castle was strictly guarded, the gates locked every evening, and the keys carried to the queen, it became necessary to communicate the design to Sir William Eland, the governor, who zealously took part in it.

By his direction, the king's associates were admitted through a subterraneous passage, which had formerly been contrived for a secret outlet from the castle, but was now buried in rubbish; and Mortimer, without having it in his power to make resistance, was suddenly seized in an apartment adjoining to the queen's. A parliament was immediately summoned for his condemnation.
He was accused before that assembly of having usurped regal power from the council of regency appointed by parliament; of having procured the death of the late king; of having deceived the earl of Kent into a conspiracy to restore that prince; of having solicited and obtained exorbitant grants of the royal demesnes; of having dissipated the public treasure; of secreting twenty thousand marks of the money paid by the king of Scotland; and of other crimes and misdemeanors. The parliament condemned him from the supposed notoriety of the facts, without trial, or hearing his answer, or examining a witness; and he was hanged on a gibbet at the Elmes, in the neighborhood of London. 
Simple, dramatic, final, and effective.  Of course, the Earl of March had only one neck.  How do you hang a beige oligarchy?  There's an easy answer, which is "more gibbets."

But this is the wrong answer, really.  There are two right answers.  One is that English democracy is no more capable of hanging, deposing, or even slightly troubling its beige oligarchy, than a cow of flying to the moon.  That's the bad news.  The good news is: Aristotle didn't say there were only two forms of government.  He said there were three.

There is only one thing that can replace a "beige dictatorship" - a non-beige dictatorship.  That is, monarchy in the dictionary sense of the word - concentration of official authority in one man, or at least one office.  This man, or office, can hang anyone (or someone has authority to overrule him, which means the monarchy is no monarchy at all); and doesn't need to hang anyone.

Why not?  Because the former bureaucratic oligarchs will crawl up to his feet and lick them, begging to retain their jobs.   Most will be disappointed, but so what?

Not only is none of them the Earl of March, but none of these Party men are desperate, bomb-throwing revolutionaries, however much they like to believe it.  They are silky-soft bureaucrats.  It's 2013, not 1913, and all a Party man knows how to do is cozen for power.  If he can no longer find appropriate bureaucratic employment, he can always drive a cab.  Maybe someone will find some testicles and throw a bomb, and in this case he does unfortunately need to be hanged - pour encourager les autres.  I assume the ol' sceptered isle still has a gallows or two in some back room.

What is England's problem?  What is the West's problem?  In my jaundiced, reactionary mind, the entire problem can be summed up in two words - chronic kinglessness.  The old machine is missing a part.  In fact, it's a testament to the machine's quality that it functioned so long, and so well, without that part.

I don't even need a reactionary to be king.  Let's just find someone talented with a lot more fans than me - such as, I don't know, Charlie Stross.  Is he enlightened?  Of course he's not enlightened, though this Michels thing is quite promising.  It doesn't matter.  The job will enlighten him - or anybody with the capacity to do it.