Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rachel Weil's "A Plague of Informers"

Rachel Weil is professor of history at Cornell University. She lives in Seneca Falls, NY.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England, and reported the following:
You know people like William Carter. They say they are working for the public interest, but they define the public interest so that it is indistinguishable from their own.

William Carter was a freelance hunter of wool smugglers in the late 1600s. Exporting raw wool to France was popular way for folks on the South coast of England to make money, so Carter was often beaten up and reviled for his pains. Yet he kept at it, hoping to be rewarded for his anti-smuggling activity by grateful tradesmen or indeed the Parliament. I call Carter a "patriotic entrepreneur." Page 99 describes Carter's elaborate efforts to represent activities through which he hopes to profit as being in the public interest:
Through his frenzied round of pamphleteering, grassroots organizing, and parliamentary appearances, Carter created the “public” on whose behalf he could be seen to act. His pamphlets simultaneously identified a common interest among clothiers and merchants, and made their interests identical to the interests of the nation. Having defined that interest, Carter visibly lobbied for it. Moreover, he initiated letter writing campaigns and petitions drives that helped members of the trade see themselves as having a corporate interest. The campaigns then allowed Carter to appear to reflect sentiments that he in fact had helped to create.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And for a reason. Carter's patriotic entrepreneurship was enabled by the Revolution of 1688, the revolution (to which we in the US are ideological heirs) which established a liberal, constitutional polity justified precisely by its identification with the will and good of the public. Patriotic entrepreneurs and their close cousins, political informers, tied their own interests to that of the public. As such they brought into being the bonds between a state and its citizens upon which liberal regimes depend. And yet of course they were also aggressive persecutors of their neighbors and masters of spin. My book, which looks at the immediate aftermath 1688, and at how the new government was both dependent upon and potentially undermined by a raft of patriotic entrepreneurs and informers, brings out the darker side of liberal revolution, in ways that I hope the book will help us think about the present as well as the past.
Learn more about A Plague of Informers at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue