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The News Makes You Dumb

In America, Arts & Letters, Books, Communication, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, Writing on August 19, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Public Discourse.

A pernicious notion seems to have settled into the minds of my generation (I’m 37) when we were little boys and girls. It’s now an unquestioned “fact” that “staying informed,” “staying engaged,” and “following the news” are the obligatory duties of sensible, responsible people.

They’re not.

Reading and watching the news isn’t just unhelpful or uninstructive; it inhibits real learning, true education, and the rigorous cultivation of serious intellectual curiosity.

Simply Gathering Information Is Not Educational

When I was a child, my parents, quite rightly, restricted my television viewing. I could not, for instance, watch television after 5:00 p.m. or for more than an hour on weekdays. (Saturday morning cartoons ran for a permissible two hours, before my parents arose from bed.)

The glaring exception to these rules was “the news.” Watching the evening news was for my family a ritual in information gathering, the necessary means of understanding “current events.” Whatever else people said of it, the news was, by all accounts, educational.

Was it, though? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously refused to read newspapers. In The Theory of Education in the United States, Albert Jay Nock bemoaned “the colossal, the unconscionable, volume of garbage annually shot upon the public from the presses of the country, largely in the form of newspapers and periodicals.” His point was that a societal emphasis on literacy was by and large ineffectual if the material that most people read was stupid and unserious. Does one actually learn by reading the cant and carping insolence of the noisy commentariat?

“Surely everything depends on what he reads,” Nock said of the average person, “and upon the purpose that guides him in reading it.” What matters is not that one reads but what and how one reads. “You can read merely to pass the time,” the great Harold Bloom remarked, “or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock.”

The heart beats only so many beats; in one life, a person can read only so much. Why squander away precious minutes reading mediocre scribbling or watching rude, crude talking heads debate transitory political matters of ultimately insignificant import, when instead, in perfect solitude, you could expand your imagination, nurture your judgment and discernment, refine your logic and reasoning, and purge yourself of ignorance, by pursuing wisdom and objective knowledge, through the canon of great literature, with a magnanimous spirit of openness and humility?

Why let obsequious, unlettered journalists on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC shape your conscience, determine your beliefs, or develop your dependency on allegedly expert opinion, as if you were a docile creature lacking the courage to formulate your own ideas, when you could, instead, empower yourself through laborious study, exert your own understanding, and free yourself from the cramped cage of contemporary culture by analyzing past cultures, foreign places, difficult texts, and profound ideas?

The Demise of Journalism

When I was in college, not so long ago, you could still find semicolons in The New York Times. I’m told they surface there every now and then, but journalistic writing, as a whole, across the industry, is not what it once was. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, and am not so pedantic as to link semicolon usage with across-the-board journalistic standards. Besides, the Kurt Vonneguts of the world would have been pleased to be rid of semicolons. All I’m saying is that popular media should be more challenging if it’s to have far-reaching, salubrious effects. Newspaper writing, print or online, seems to have dumbed down to the point of harming rather than helping society writ large, and the opinions aired on television and radio seem to have attached themselves to one political party or another rather than liberating themselves from groupthink and stodgy consensus.

Reading as an activity should lift of us up, not drag us down. It should inspire and require us to improve our cognitive habits and performance. The same goes for listening: how we listen and what we listen to affects our basic competency and awareness.

Not only have the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax displayed in “the news” diminished in sophistication, both in print and on television and radio, but also more generally the principal subject matter has moved from the complex and the challenging to the easy and simplistic. Media coverage focuses predominantly on contemporary partisan politics that occasion minimal cognitive energy.

There’s a reason why so many people pay attention to politics: it just isn’t that difficult to think about or discuss. It doesn’t demand rational labor or arduous engagement. It can be passively absorbed. Ratings of television news would not be so high if its content weren’t so simplistic and easy to process. People watch the news to take a break or relax, or to get a rise out of eye-catching scandals and circumstances. The distinction between journalism and tabloid journalism has blurred beyond recognition. In short, journalism is a dying art.

Dangers of a Digital Age

Smart phones and social media are part of the problem. Every age has anxieties about technology. We shouldn’t blame smart phones and social media for human sins. The discourse, not the medium through which it circulates, ultimately is the problem. Yet it’s a problem that smart phones and social media have enabled in a way that past technologies could not. To air an opinion, anyone anywhere can simply tweet or post on Facebook without channeling the message through editors or other mediators.

Digital and smart devices have accelerated editorial processes. The never-ending race to publish “breaking” news results in slipshod work. Online reporting is full of typos and errors. A few clever reporters employ terms like Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, or Dickensian to give the impression of literacy, but the truly literate aren’t fooled.

Have journalistic practices and standards declined as literacy rates have risen? Does an increase in readership necessitate a reduction in quality? Do editors and publishers compete for the lowest common denominator, forgoing excellence and difficulty in order to achieve broad appeal?

Demanding stories and accounts that enrich reading habits and exercise mental faculties aren’t merely salacious or sensationalized clickbait. So they’re difficult, these days, to find, unless you already know where to look.

In the 1980s, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. could write with confidence that newspapers assumed a common reader, i.e., “a person who knows the things known by other literate persons in the culture.” Neither journalists nor their readers today, however, seem literate in the traditional sense of that term. The culture of literacy—true literacy, again in the traditional sense of that term—has come under attack by the very scholars and professors who should be its eager champions.

Our popular pundits, mostly hired guns, supply unqualified, cookie-cutter answers to often manufactured problems; their job is not to inform but to entertain a daft and credulous public. “The liberally educated person,” by contrast, is, according to Allan Bloom, “one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”

Seek Wisdom and Discernment over Politics and Personal Preference

If we wish to consume the news, we should treat it as junk food. The human body cannot healthily sustain itself on candy bars alone. It requires a balanced diet, nutrition, and exercise. So it is with the mind. Fed only junk, it’s malnourished.

Every now and then we may indulge the vice of chocolate or soda without impairing our overall, long-term health. Likewise we may watch without permanent or severe detriment the screeching cacophonies of semiliterate blatherskites like Sean Hannity, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Wallace, Anderson Cooper, Tucker Carlson, Jake Tapper, or, heaven help us, the worst of the worst, Chris Cuomo.

Just know that during the hour spent watching these prattling performers present tendentious interpretations of fresh facts, militantly employing tedious details to service ideological narratives, you could have read an informative book that placed the applicable subject matter into illuminating historical and philosophical context. The facts may be simple and quick, but interpreting them requires knowledge of the past, including the complexities and contingencies of the relevant religious movements, geographies, anthropologies, governments, literatures, and cultures. Devouring ephemeral media segments and sound bites in rapid succession is not learning. It is gluttonous distraction.

Do not misunderstand me: I do not advocate a Luddite lifestyle or a withdrawal from society and the workaday world. I just mean that too many of us, too much of the time, are enthralled by fleeting media trifles and trivialities, and ensnared in the trap of mindless entertainment disguised as vigorous edification.

Let’s stop telling little children what my generation heard when we were kids. They should stay away from the news lest they fall prey to its mania, foolishness, and stupidity. They should read books—difficult books—and be challenged to improve themselves and refine their techniques. Rather than settling on easy, preferred answers, they should accept tensions and contingencies, suspending judgment until all angles have been pursued and all perspectives have been considered. Let’s teach them to become, not activists or engaged citizens necessarily, but intelligent human beings who love knowledge and learning, and who pursue wisdom and discernment before mundane politics.

Review of Marcus Witcher’s “Getting Right with Reagan”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities on July 29, 2020 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here at the Alabama Political Reporter. 

I am, as they say, a “Reagan Baby.” This fact used to stun people. “How can someone born in 1983 be a full grown adult?” they would ask. “Where has the time gone?” they wondered.  

Things have changed; years have passed. These days my undergraduate students have no memory of 9/11, let alone any realistic notion about what quotidian life was like in the 1980s, which, for them, is that strange and distant era of big hair, synthesizers, neon clothing, and bad films.

Marcus M. Witcher’s cleverly titled Getting Right with Reagan, recently released by the University Press of Kansas, sheds light on this transformative period, in particular on its leading political figure, the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Having written much of this book as part of his doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Alabama, Witcher (himself a Reagan Baby who’s now a Reagan scholar) argues that Reagan was not the stalwart conservative that Republican iconography and mythology have made him out to be. Rather, this telegenic, charismatic movie-star-cum-president was also conciliatory and pragmatic, appeasing Democratic politicians to transform aspirational public policy into operative legislation.

Republicans under 40 might be surprised to learn that Reagan’s conservative contemporariesjournalists especially, didn’t believe a Reagan Revolution had ever occurred, or that if it had, then it hadn’t accomplished what its proponents desired in terms of large-scale, long-term effects.

So why do conservatives today celebrate the coalition-building Reagan as their purist standard-bearer? Why are Republican presidential primary debates held, symbolically, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library? Why are Republicans obligated to pay lip-service to Reagan to demonstrate their conservative bona fides and party loyalty?

Witcher supplies five principal reasons. The first is that future Republican presidents, namely the Bush father and son, were not sufficiently conservative. They expanded the federal government in domestic areas such as education while adopting the foreign policy of a Woodrow Wilson rather than a Robert A. Taft. The second is that, in Witcher’s words, “fortuitous historical events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, … made [Reagan’s] policies appear prescient.”

The third reason is that the recession following the 2008 financial crisis resulted in conservative nostalgia for the more prosperous 1980s. The fourth is less about remembering and more about overlooking: “Social conservatives have forgotten how frustrated they were with Reagan during the 1980s for his inability to pass a right-to-life amendment and a school-prayer amendment.”

Finally, Reagan’s withdrawal from politics after he left the White House repaired his reputation. He was no longer a partisan target. The same might be said of George W. Bush, whose popularity has risen, even among Democrats, during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

Witcher traces evolving perceptions of Reagan over the last 40 years. Readers looking for hero worship or biographical accounts of Reagan’s everyday experiences in the Oval Office should consult a different book. Those who are curious about Reagan’s role in the historical development of the conservative movement and its practical adjunct, the Republican Party, will find here the definitive study, one that implicitly raises grave questions about the future of conservatism during its present state of fracture and division.

Witcher’s claims are not without critics. For example, Paul Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College, referring to Witcher’s rendering of Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, writes, Witcher sticks to an old argument about Reagan that appears to have staying power among liberal Reagan scholars who will not let go despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.”

My astute friend Don Devine, who served in the Reagan Administration as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, has, in a convivial context, quarreled with Witcher. I was fortunate to witness firsthand a constructive, unplanned, and unexpected debate between doctors Devine and Witcher over cocktails in the hallway of a reception during a recent Philadelphia Society meeting. Both men are, shall we say, vocal in their opinions. And both stood their ground regarding their differing interpretations of the Great Communicator.

Getting Right with Reagan is admirably researched, with well over a hundred pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. But it reads, mercifully, like popular, highbrow entertainment, free of the pedantic jargon and convoluted syntax that so often mire scholarship published by university presses.

Witcher will become a faculty member in the history department at Huntingdon College this August. He is at work on future projects about American conservatism and will, I suspect, contribute to Montgomery’s intellectual scene, and maybe even improve its mediocre political discourse.

We all, critics and adherents alike, have much to learn about conservatism: what it is, why it is, and where it’s headed. If we can make sense of how Reagan became a figurehead of the mainstream Republican establishment, perhaps we can understand, if only a little better, our current political moment, with all its rancor and tumult.

Russell Kirk on Higher Education

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, higher education, History, Humanities, Imagination, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 12, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

Russell Kirk isn’t known as a policy wonk. The Great Books, not the mathematical or statistical models of economic technicians, were his organon of choice. He devoted essays to broad, perennial themes like “the moral imagination,” “liberal learning,” and “the permanent things.”

Read his numerous columns about higher education, however, and you might come away with a different impression, one of Kirk as a political strategist with a strong grasp of educational policy.

Kirk wrote on a wide variety of issues involving higher education: accreditation, academic freedom, tenure, curriculum, vocational training, community colleges, adult education, college presidents, textbooks, fraternities and Greek life, enrollment, seminaries, tuition, teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, student activism, British universities, urban versus rural schools, boards of trustees, university governance, the hard sciences, grade inflation, lowering academic standards, libraries, private versus public schooling, civics education, sex education, school vouchers, university presses, and more.

One of his go-to subjects implicates several of those issues: federal subsidies. He believed that federal money threatened the mission and integrity of universities in numerous areas.

For starters, he believed that federal subsidies—and, it must be added, foundation grants—created perverse incentives for researchers, who might conform to the benefactor’s “preferences” and “value judgments.”[1] Recalling the proverb that “[t]he man who pays the piper calls the tune,”[2] he cautioned against financial dependency on outside influences, which, he worried, could impose ideological conditions on grants to advance or purge particular viewpoints.

Moreover, the grantors, whether they were foundations or the government, would, he believed, quantify the value of their funded work according to measurable outcome assessments that were “easily tabulated and defensible.”[3] The intrinsic value of reading Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, or Euripides, however, is not easily assessed in instrumental terms.

More fundamentally, Kirk viewed federal involvement in higher education as a step toward the centralization and consolidation of power at the expense of local variety. He foresaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education long before it occurred.[4] Fearing the growth of an “educationist hierarchy” or an “empire of educationism” corrupted by “sinecures” and “patronage,”[5] he favored small, private, liberal-arts colleges, which, he believed, flourished when they committed to mission and tradition.[6]

“The American college—the small liberal arts college—is worth preserving,” Kirk wrote, “but it can be preserved, in our time of flux, only if it is reformed.”[7] Kirk’s reform was reactionary, not progressive.[8] It rejected the popular focus on vocation and specialization and sought to train “men and women who know what it is to be truly human, who have some taste for contemplation, who take long views, and who have a sense of moral responsibility and intellectual order.”[9] Even if they can’t be calculated precisely, these vague-yet-discernable qualities of literate people are beneficial to society writ large, in Kirk’s view. In other words, there’s an appreciable difference between literate and illiterate societies.

Kirk decried the alarming escalation of tuition prices. In 1979, he wrote, “Attendance at colleges and universities is becoming hopelessly expensive.”[10] Forty years later, the costs of attending college have risen exponentially. Kirk opposed federal aid or scholarships to students,[11] but not, from what I can tell, for the economic reason that the ready availability of federal funding would enable universities to hike tuition rates to artificially high levels. Perhaps, even in his skepticism, he couldn’t conceive of university leadership as so systematically exploitative.

We continue to hear echoes of Kirk’s observation that the typical college student “oughtn’t to be in college at all: he has simply come along for the fun and a snob-degree, and his bored presence reduces standards at most American universities.”[12] Elsewhere, he claimed that “[w]e have been trying to confer the higher learning upon far too many young people, and the cost per capita has become inordinate.”[13] The question of why students attend college is closely related to that of the fundamental purpose of college.

Uncertainty regarding the point of higher education—whether it’s to develop the inquisitive mind, expand the frontiers of knowledge, equip students with jobs skills, or something else entirely—seems more pronounced today in light of technological, economic, and population changes. Moreover, it remains true that “most of the universities and colleges are forced to do the work that ordinary schools did only a generation ago.”[14] Shouldn’t higher education accomplish more than remedial education? Doesn’t it have a greater end?

Kirk certainly thought so—at least if higher education were properly liberal. “By ‘liberal education,’” he explained, “we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’”[15]

Kirk’s surprising wonkishness, and his facility in policy debates, always submitted to this overarching goal: Defending order against disorder, in both the soul and the larger polity.[16] “The primary purpose of a liberal education,” he said, “is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.”[17]

The aspiration of policy wasn’t policymaking. Kirk’s short-term strategies serviced a paramount objective: Namely, to seek wisdom, virtue, truth, clarity, and understanding. You can’t simply quantify the value of that.

[1] Russell Kirk, “Massive Subsidies and Academic Freedom,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1963), 608.

[2] Ibid. at 607.

[3] Ibid. at 611.

[4] Russell Kirk, “Federal Aid to Educational Bureaucracy,” National Review, Vol. 10 (February 25, 1961), 116.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Federal Educational Boondoggle,” National Review, Vol. 5 (March 15, 1958), 257.

[6] See generally Russell Kirk, “The American College: A Proposal for Reform,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1957), 177-186.

[7] Ibid. at 177.

[8] Ibid. (“our age seems to require a reform that is reactionary, rather than innovating”).

[9] Ibid. at 182-83.

[10] Russell Kirk, “More Freedom Per Dollar,” National Review, Vol 31 (April 13, 1979), 488.

[11] Russell Kirk, “Federal Scholarships,” National Review, Vol. 2 (November 24, 1956), 18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russell Kirk, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” Vol. 23 (May 18, 1971), 534.

[14] Russell Kirk, “Federal Education,” National Review, Vol. 4 (December 28, 1957), 592.

[15] Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 398.

[16] Ibid. at 400.

[17] Ibid.

On Nationalism and National Conservatism

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Humanities, Politics on October 16, 2019 at 6:45 am

Estados Unidos no es una nación: el problema del «conservadurismo nacional»

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Essays, Historicism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics on October 9, 2019 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here at Mises.org in July 2019.

A principios de este mes, nombres prominentes del movimiento conservador se reunieron en Washington, DC, para una conferencia sobre el «Conservadurismo Nacional». Entre los oradores se encontraban personalidades como Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, J.D. Vance, John Bolton, Michael Anton, Rich Lowry, Yuval Levin y Josh Hawley. En representación de la academia estuvieron F.H. Buckley, Charles Kesler, Amy Wax y Patrick Deneen. Otros escritores y pensadores conservadores participaron en los paneles. Las dos figuras más asociadas con el conservadurismo nacional — Yoram Hazony y R.R. Reno — hablaron durante el plenario de apertura.

¿De qué se trata este conservadurismo nacional?

La respuesta sucinta es el matrimonio del nacionalismo con el conservadurismo. Los organizadores de la conferencia definieron el nacionalismo como «un compromiso con un mundo de naciones independientes». Presentaron al conservadurismo nacional como «una alternativa intelectualmente seria a los excesos del libertarismo purista, y en fuerte oposición a las teorías basadas en la raza». Su objetivo declarado era «solidificar y dinamizar a los conservadores nacionales, ofreciéndoles una base institucional muy necesaria, ideas sustanciales en las áreas de política pública, teoría política y economía, y una extensa red de apoyo en todo el país».

Suena interesante. Sin embargo, ni el conservadurismo nacional ni el nacionalismo —independientemente de las distinciones entre ellos— pueden arraigar en los Estados Unidos.

La diferencia entre un país y una nación

¿Por qué? Porque Estados Unidos no es, y nunca ha sido, una nación. La generación de los fundadores se refirió a Estados Unidos como un sustantivo plural (es decir, «estos Estados Unidos») porque varios soberanos estaban bajo esa designación. George Tucker llamó a Estados Unidos un «pacto federal» que consiste en «varios Estados soberanos e independientes». Si su punto de vista parece irreconocible hoy en día, es porque el nacionalismodentro de los Estados Unidos está muriendo o está muerto, y los Estados Unidos lo mataron.

Los Estados Unidos de América en singular es un país, no una nación. Contiene naciones dentro de ella, pero no constituye en sí misma una nación. Las naciones implican solidaridad entre personas que comparten una cultura, idioma, costumbres, costumbres, etnicidad e historia comunes. Un país, por el contrario, implica acuerdos políticos y territorios y fronteras gubernamentales.

Desde sus inicios, Estados Unidos se ha caracterizado por el fraccionalismo y el seccionalismo, los choques culturales y las narrativas en competencia – entre tribus indígenas de lo que hoy es Florida y California, Wyoming y Maine, Georgia y Michigan; entre británicos y franceses y españoles y holandeses; entre protestantes y católicos y disidentes ingleses y disidentes e inconformes y denominaciones disidentes; entre el calvinismo de Cotton Mather y el racionalismo de la Ilustración que influenció a Franklin y Jefferson. Los Estados Unidos también han experimentado numerosos movimientos separatistas, entre los que cabe destacar la secesión de los Estados que formaban los Estados Confederados de América.

Estados Unidos no es una nación.

Una nación consiste en una cultura homogénea de la que sus habitantes son muy conscientes. Por el contrario, los Estados Unidos de América son, y siempre han sido, culturalmente heterogéneos, y consisten en una variedad de culturas y tradiciones.

Mientras los puritanos de Nueva Inglaterra desarrollaban ansiedades de brujas, una nobleza plantadora se estableció en Virginia. Mientras la esclavitud se extendía por el sur, los cuáqueros americanos —desterrados de la Colonia de la Bahía de Massachusetts— predicaban la abolición y el pacifismo en Rhode Island y Pennsylvania. Mientras tanto, la industria surgió en Filadelfia y Boston. Alrededor de 60.000 leales abandonaron los Estados Unidos al final de la Revolución Americana.1 En muchos aspectos, la Revolución Americana fue la guerra civil antes de la Guerra Civil.

Mientras que William Gilmore Simms escribió novelas y disquisiciones sobre temas y escenarios del Sur, lidiando con el significado de la frontera emergente en Occidente, Nueva Inglaterra se caracterizó por el Romanticismo y el trascendentalismo, por autores como Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Melville y Hawthorne. Mientras Walt Whitman cantaba America en todas sus multiplicidades, María Ruiz de Burton escribía ficción que reflejaba su trasfondo y perspectiva mexicana. Décadas más tarde, Langston Hughes escribiría que él también cantaba en América.

¿Qué hay de los samoanos en Hawaii, los refugiados cubanos en Florida, los descendientes de esclavos negros de África y el Caribe, los isseis y los nesi sanseis, los criollos en Nueva Orleans, las comunidades judías ortodoxas, los gullah en las llanuras costeras y el país bajo de Carolina, los athabaskans de Alaska, los amish, los puertorriqueños, los inmigrantes de Colombia y Perú y Guatemala y Honduras y Panamá y Nicaragua? ¿Tienen un patrimonio común?

Estadounidenses unidos por la ideología, no por la nación

La noción de los nacionalistas conservadores de que el libertarianismo ha dominado al Partido Republicano es extraña a la luz de la marginación de Ron Paul por parte de ese partido, las guerras extranjeras orquestadas por los republicanos y el crecimiento constante del gobierno federal bajo el liderazgo republicano. Los nacionalistas conservadores proyectan una caricatura de los libertarios que, en 1979, Murray Rothbard refutó a fondo (audio aquí, texto aquí). El libertarismo de Rothbard es compatible con el nacionalismo, e incluso podría ser una condición necesaria para el nacionalismo. Los nacionalistas conservadores, además, buscan vincular su programa con Russell Kirk, quien, de hecho, advirtió contra «los excesos del nacionalismo fanático».

El nacionalismo conservador está equivocado, basado en una falacia, a saber, que los Estados Unidos son una nación.

Pero Estados Unidos no es una nación.

Si el pueblo de Estados Unidos está unido, es por un sistema de gobierno, la Constitución, el republicanismo y los conceptos de libertad, control y equilibrio, separación de poderes y estado de derecho. En otras palabras, Estados Unidos es un país cuyo pueblo está conectado, si es que lo está, por el liberalismo. La historia de los Estados Unidos ha sido la destrucción del nacionalismo, no el abrazo de éste.

Los conservadores nacionales celebran la grandeza y la homogeneidad en lugar de la verdadera nación.

Dado el énfasis en la soberanía, el autogobierno y la autodeterminación que caracterizan a los movimientos nacionalistas y la retórica, es de esperar que entre los conservadores nacionales se presenten ardientes argumentos a favor de la secesión, tal vez para una nación independiente del Sur, la desintegración de California o la independencia de Texas o Vermont. En cambio, los conservadores nacionales celebran la grandeza y la grandeza, socavando así las asociaciones de grupos y las identidades nativas basadas en culturas, costumbres, prácticas, idiomas, creencias religiosas e historia compartidas, fenómenos que existen en distintas comunidades locales en todo Estados Unidos.

Los Estados Unidos de América —el país en singular— es demasiado grande, el alcance y la escala de su gobierno demasiado grande para ser objeto de un verdadero nacionalismo. El pueblo de los Estados Unidos no está unido por una ascendencia común, solidaridad étnica o valores uniformes. Estados Unidos no es una «nación de inmigrantes», «una nación bajo Dios», «la primera nación nueva», o una «nación excepcional». Ni siquiera es una nación. Los conservadores nacionales pasan por alto o ignoran esa realidad por su cuenta y riesgo. El conservadurismo nacional que prevén para Estados Unidos sólo puede conducir a la supresión del nacionalismo real.

Estados Unidos no es una nación. Tratar de hacerlo así acabará con cualquier nacionalismo que quede en los Estados Unidos.

  • 1.Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles (Random House, 2011), p. 6.

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.”

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Do we need another biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served nearly 30 years as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nearly 20 years before that on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? He has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death in 1935. We have not discovered new details about him since Harvard made his papers available to researchers in 1985, so why has Stephen Budiansky chosen to tell his story?

The answer may have to do with something Holmes said in The Common Law, his only book: “If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.”

Indeed, they are — both in the law and in the transmission of history. Holmes has been so singularly misunderstood by jurists and scholars that his life and thought require scrutiny and revision. Because his story is bound up with judicial methods and tenets — his opinions still cited regularly, by no less than the US Supreme Court as recently as this past term — we need to get him right, or at least “righter,” lest we fall into error, sending the path of the law in the wrong direction.

A veritable cottage industry of anti-Holmes invective has arisen on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. No one, it seems, of any political persuasion, wants to adopt Holmes. He’s a giant of the law with no champions or defenders.

For some critics, Holmes is the paragon of states’ rights and judicial restraint who upheld local laws authorizing the disenfranchisement of blacks (Giles v. Harris, 1903) and the compulsory sterilization of individuals whom the state deemed unfit (Buck v. Bell, 1927). This latter decision he announced with horrifying enthusiasm: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For other critics, he’s the prototypical progressive, decrying natural law, deferring to legislation that regulated economic activity, embracing an evolutionary view of law akin to living constitutionalism, and bequeathing most of his estate to the federal government.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than tendentious caricatures. Budiansky follows Frederic R. Kellogg — whose Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Legal Logic appeared last year — in reconsidering this irreducible man who came to be known as the Yankee from Olympus.

Not since Mark DeWolfe Howe’s two-volume (but unfinished) biography, The Proving Years and The Shaping Years, has any author so ably rendered Holmes’s wartime service. Budiansky devotes considerable attention to this period perhaps because it fundamentally changed Holmes. Before the war, Holmes, an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gravitated toward abolitionism and volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips. He was appalled by a minstrel show he witnessed as a student. During the war, however, he “grew disdainful of the high-minded talk of people at home who did not grasp that any good the war might still accomplish was being threatened by the evil it had itself become.”

Holmes had “daddy issues” — who wouldn’t with a father like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the diminutive, gregarious, vainglorious, and sometimes obnoxious celebrity, physician, and author of the popular “Breakfast Table” series in The Atlantic Monthly? — that were exacerbated by the elder Holmes’s sanctimonious grandstanding about his noble, valiant son. For the aloof father, the son’s military service was a status marker. For the son, war was gruesome, fearsome, and real. The son despised the father’s flighty ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of bloody conflict.

Holmes fought alongside Copperheads as well, a fact that might have contributed to his skepticism about the motives of the war and the patriotic fervor in Boston. His friend and courageous comrade Henry Abbott — no fan of Lincoln — died at the Battle of the Wilderness in a manner that Budianksy calls “suicidal” rather than bold. The war and its carnage raised Holmes’s doubts regarding “the morally superior certainty that often went hand in hand with belief: he grew to distrust, and to detest, zealotry and causes of all kinds.”

This distrust — this cynicism about the human ability to know anything with absolute certainty — led Holmes as a judge to favor decentralization. He did not presume to understand from afar which rules and practices optimally regulated distant communities. Whatever legislation they enacted was for him presumptively valid, and he would not impose his preferences on their government. His disdain for his father’s moralizing, moreover, may have contributed to his formulation of the “bad man” theory of the law. “If you want to know the law and nothing else,” he wrote, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Budiansky’s treatment of Holmes’s experience as a trial judge — the Justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in those days presided over trials of first instance — is distinctive among the biographies. Budisansky avers,

[I]n his role as a trial justice, Holmes was on the sharp edge of the law, seeing and hearing firsthand all of the tangled dramas of the courtroom, sizing up the honesty of often conflicting witnesses, rendering decisions that had immediate and dramatic consequences — the breakup of families, financial ruin, even death — to the people standing right before him.

Holmes’s opinions as a US Supreme Court Justice have received much attention, but more interesting — perhaps because less known — are the salacious divorce cases and shocking murder trials he handled with acute sensitivity to evidence and testimony.

Budiansky skillfully summarizes Holmes’s almost 30-year tenure on the US Supreme Court, the era for which he is best known. He highlights Holmes’s dissenting opinions and his friendship with Justice Louis Brandeis, who was also willing to dissent from majority opinions — and with flair. For those looking for more detailed narratives about opinions Holmes authored as a Supreme Court Justice, other resources are available. Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent, for example, dives more deeply into Holmes’s shifting positions on freedom of speech. Healy spends a whole book describing this jurisprudential development that Budiansky clears in one chapter.

Contemptuous of academics, Budiansky irrelevantly claims that “humorless moralizing is the predominant mode of thought in much of academia today.” He adds, “A more enduring fact about academic life is that taking on the great is the most reliable way for those who will never attain greatness themselves to gain attention for themselves.” Harsh words! Budianksy accuses the French historian Jules Michelet of rambling “on for pages, as only a French intellectual can.” Is this playful wit or spiteful animus? Is it even necessary?

Budiansky might have avoided occasional lapses had he consulted the academics he seems to despise. For instance, he asserts that the “common law in America traces its origins to the Middle Ages in England […] following the Norman invasion in 1066,” and that the “Normans brought with them a body of customary law that, under Henry II, was extended across England by judges of the King’s Bench who traveled on circuit to hold court.” This isn’t so. Writing in The Genius of the Common Law, Sir Frederick Pollock — “an English jurist,” in Budiansky’s words, “whose friendship with Holmes spanned sixty years” — mapped the roots of the common law “as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic.” In other words, Budiansky is approximately one thousand years off. Rather than supplanting British customs, the Normans instituted new practices that complemented, absorbed, and blended with British customs.

The fact that Budiansky never mentions some of the most interesting researchers working on Holmes — Susan Haack, Seth Vannatta, and Catharine Wells come to mind — suggests willful ignorance, the deliberate avoidance of the latest scholarship. But to what end? For what reason?

It takes years of study to truly understand Holmes. The epigraph to Vannatta’s new edition, The Pragmatism and Prejudice of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., aptly encapsulates the complexity of Holmes’s thought with lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Budiansky recognizes, as others haven’t, that Holmes was large and contained multitudes. Holmes’s contradictions, if they are contradictions, might be explained by the famous dictum of his childhood hero, Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Holmes was consistently inconsistent. His mind was expansive, his reading habits extraordinary. How to categorize such a wide-ranging man? What were the defining features of his belief? Or did he, as Louis Menand has alleged, “lose his belief in beliefs”? Budiansky condenses Holmes’s philosophy into this helpful principle: “[T]hat none of us has all the answers; that perfection will never be found in the law as it is not to be found in life; but that its pursuit is still worth the effort, if only for the sake of giving our lives meaning.”

Holmes was intellectually humble, warning us against the complacency that attends certainty. Driving his methods was the sober awareness that he, or anyone for that matter, might be incorrect about some deep-seated conviction. During this time of polarized politics, self-righteous indignation, widespread incivility, and rancorous public discourse, we could learn from Holmes. How civil and respectful we could be if we all recognized that our cherished ideas and working paradigms might, at some level, be erroneous, if we were constantly mindful of our inevitable limitations, if we were searchers and seekers who refuse to accept, with utter finality, that we’ve figured it all out?

The United States is Not a Nation

In America, American History, American Literature, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, The South on September 11, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here in Mises Wire

In July, prominent names in the conservative movement gathered in Washington, DC, for a conference on “National Conservatism.” Speakers included such luminaries as Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, J.D. Vance, John Bolton, Michael Anton, Rich Lowry, Yuval Levin, and Josh Hawley. Representing the academy were F.H. Buckley, Charles Kesler, Amy Wax, and Patrick Deneen. Other conservative writers and thinkers participated in panels. The two figures most associated with national conservatism — Yoram Hazony and R.R. Reno — spoke during the opening plenary.

What is this national conservatism all about?

The succinct answer is the marriage of nationalism to conservatism. The conference organizers definednationalism as “a commitment to a world of independent nations.” They presented national conservatism as “an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to theories grounded in race.” Their stated aim was “to solidify and energize national conservatives, offering them a much-needed institutional base, substantial ideas in the areas of public policy, political theory, and economics, and an extensive support network across the country.”

Sounds interesting. However, neither national conservatism nor nationalism — whatever the distinctions between them — can take hold in the United States.

The Difference Between a Country and a Nation

Why? Because the United States is not, and has never been, a nation. The founding generation referred to the United States as a plural noun (i.e., “these United States”) because several sovereigns fell under that designation. St. George Tucker called the United States a “federal compact” consisting of “several sovereign and independent states.” If his view seems unrecognizable today, it is because nationalism within the United States is dying or dead—and the United States killed it.

The United States of America in the singular is a country, not a nation. It contains nations within it, but does not itself constitute a nation. Nations involve solidarity among people who share a common culture, language, customs, mores, ethnicity, and history. A country, by contrast, involves political arrangements and governmental territories and boundaries.

From its inception, the United States has been characterized by faction and sectionalism, cultural clashes, and competing narratives — between Indian tribes in what is now Florida and California, Wyoming and Maine, Georgia and Michigan; between the British and French and Spanish and Dutch; between Protestants and Catholics and English Dissenters and nonconformists and splintering denominations; between the Calvinism of Cotton Mather and the Enlightenment rationalism that influenced Franklin and Jefferson. The United States has experienced, as well, numerous separatist movements, including, most notably, the secession of the states that made up the Confederate States of America.

The United States is not a nation.

A nation consists of a homogeneous culture of which its like-minded inhabitants are acutely aware. By contrast, the United States of America is, and has always been, culturally heterogeneous, consisting of a variety of cultures and traditions.

While the Puritans of New England developed witch anxieties, a planter gentry established itself in Virginia. While slavery spread through the South, American Quakers — banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony — preached abolition and pacifism in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, industry sprung up in Philadelphia and Boston. Around 60,000 loyalists left the United States at the close of the American Revolution.1 In many respects, the American Revolution was the civil war before the Civil War.

While William Gilmore Simms authored novels and disquisitions regarding Southern themes and settings, grappling with the meaning of the emergent frontier in the West, New England was characterized by Romanticism and transcendentalism, by authors like Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Melville, and Hawthorne. While Walt Whitman was singing America in all its multiplicities, María Ruiz de Burton was penning fiction that reflected her Mexican background and perspective. Decades later, Langston Hughes would write that he, too, sang America.

What of the Samoans in Hawaii, the Cuban refugees in Florida, the descendants of black slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, the Issei and Nesi and Sansei, the Creole in New Orleans, the Orthodox Jewish communities, the Gullah in the coastal plains and Carolina Low country, the Athabaskans of Alaska, the Amish, the Puerto Ricans, the immigrants from Columbia and Peru and Guatemala and Honduras and Panama and Nicaragua? Do they have a common heritage?

Americans United by Ideology, Not Nationhood

The notion of conservative nationalists that libertarianism has dominated the Republican Party is odd in light of that party’s marginalization of Ron Paul, the foreign wars orchestrated by Republicans, and the steady growth of the federal government under Republican leadership. Conservative nationalists project a caricature of libertarians that, back in 1979, Murray Rothbard thoroughly refuted (audio here, text here ). The libertarianism of Rothbard is compatible with nationalism, and might even be a necessary condition for nationalism. Conservative nationalists, moreover, seek to tie their program to Russell Kirk, who, in fact, warned against “the excesses of fanatical nationalism.”

Conservative nationalism is misguided, predicated on a fallacy, namely that the United States is a nation.

But the United States is not a nation.

If the people of the United States are united at all, it is by a system of government, the Constitution, republicanism, and the concepts of liberty, checks and balances, separation of powers, and rule of law. In other words, the United States is a country whose people are connected, if at all, by liberalism. The history of the United States has been the obliteration of nationalism, not the embrace of it.

National Conservatives Are Celebrating Bigness and Homogeneity Rather than True Nationhood

Given the emphasis on sovereignty, self-governance, and self-determination that characterize nationalist movements and rhetoric, you would expect among national conservatives searing arguments for secession, perhaps for an independent Southern nation, the breaking up of California, or the independence of Texas or Vermont. Instead, the national conservatives celebrate bigness and greatness, thereby undercutting group associations and native identities based on shared cultures, customs, practices, languages, religious beliefs, and history — phenomena which exist in distinct local communities throughout the United States.

The United States of America — the country in the singular — is too big, the scope and scale of its government too large, to be the object of true nationalism. The people of the United States are not united by a common descent, ethnic solidarity, or uniform values. The United States is not a “nation of immigrants,” “one nation under God,” “the first new nation,” or an “exceptional nation.” It’s not even a nation. National conservatives overlook or ignore that reality to their peril. The national conservatism they envision for the United States can lead only to the suppression of actual nationalism.

The United States is not a nation. Trying to make it so will stamp out any remaining nationalism in the United States.

Teaching Humbly and Without Malice

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Politics, Western Philosophy on September 4, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here at Law & Liberty.

Russell Kirk has been dead now for over a quarter of a century, yet he remains the subject of student conferences across the United States and of the recent bestselling biography by Bradley J. Birzer. And, wonder of wonders, he’s out with a new book.

Actually, it’s a new edition of a 1957 book. Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism in fact was originally called The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatisma swipe at George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928). This invigorating primer on the history and characteristics of American conservatism is of course suitable for female and male audiences alike, hence Regnery’s revision of its title.

In 12 brisk chapters, Kirk addresses the following themes: the essence of conservatism, religious faith, conscience, individuality, family, community, just government, private property, power, education, permanence, and change. He concludes with the question: “What is the Republic?” His answer: “a commonwealth in which as many things as possible are left to private and local management; and in which the state, far from obliterating classes and voluntary associations and private rights, shelters and respects all these.”

Anyone familiar with Kirk will recognize in the opening chapter the “chief principles” of conservatism that in The Portable Conservative Reader (1982) and The Conservative Mind (1953) he condenses into six “canons.” These involve a recognition of moral laws derived from God, a celebration of variety and diversity over coerced uniformity, the pursuit of justice, the protection of private property, a skepticism of power and centralization, a reverence for custom and tradition, and the rejection of utopianism or political programs predicated on a belief in the perfectibility of man.

Combining a Disposition to Preserve with the Ability to Reform

At a time when conservatism stands in need of definition and direction, this book remains strikingly relevant. “We need to undertake,” Kirk admonishes his readers, “the conservative task of restoring in our generation an understanding of that freedom and that order which have expressed and encouraged our national genius.” Decades have passed since he penned these lines, yet the task remains.

Freedom and order aren’t the only seemingly incompatible concepts that Kirk reconciles. He balances liberty with duty and charity, and clarifies how conservatives can be both individualistic and communitarian at once. He explains why conservatives may embrace permanence and change without contradiction: Progress—“genuine progress”—develops “within the framework of tradition.” Moreover, “grand principles endure” while “their application . . . alters.” A conservative thus “combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform.”

Kirk targets, as well, the canard that conservatism is the greedy defense of capitalism, that the man or woman espousing conservative views is “a monster of selfishness” who is “morally impure, ruthless, and avaricious.” This caricature is still with us, though few thinking people would accept it as true anymore. After all, the Left dominates corporate America, Silicon Valley, Big Tech, Hollywood, higher education, and the mass media—with certain obvious exceptions. Commonsense conservatism, by contrast, flourishes in rural, agrarian America, in the heartland, in Southern states, in flyover territory, among blue-collar workers—not among the wealthy elites or rich CEOs. The idea that a small group of Randian, egomaniac “fat cats” controls American society is simply ridiculous. Were he alive today, Kirk wouldn’t have needed to refute such silly stereotypes.

He warns that “very powerful forces are at work to diminish the influence of the family among us, and even to destroy the family for all purposes except mere generation.” If he only knew. His treatment of the family seems dated by current standards—not because he embraced old-fashioned views but because the threats to the family that he predicted turned out to be greater than he could have imagined. He could not, for instance, foresee the redefinition of marriage that occurred through judicial opinions.

What, according to Kirk, is the purpose of formal education? Is it to equip students with the skills they need to excel in the workforce? To ensure that a democratic citizenry is sufficiently informed to refine and improve governing institutions? To bring about opportunities for historically marginalized or disenfranchised peoples? No. “The purpose of education,” he says, “is to develop the mental and moral faculties of the individual person, for the person’s own sake.” One doesn’t need to attend a university or earn a degree to fulfill this goal.

He Teaches Humbly and Without Malice

In our era of shouting pundits and social media sniping, Kirk’s mild manner, Victorian prose, and relaxed tone are charming reminders that, even when the stakes are high, we can be civil and reasonable toward detractors. He eviscerates sacred cows—for example, the notion of equality that, if instantiated, would lead to a “boring” world “in which everyone was the same”—cleverly yet with goodwill. The most egalitarian among us would entertain his controversial argument about equality because he does not provoke, incite, or inflame the passions. He teaches humbly and without malice.

Equality and diversity—ideals commonly associated with the Left—are, Kirk reminds us, incompatible to the extent that equality requires an eradication of the beautiful and remarkable distinctions that make each human being unique. The conservative is the true advocate of diversity, he points out, for it is the conservative who “desires to see the rich, invigorating, interesting variety of a society,” not to “pull everyone down to a dead level of equality.” Our equality before God and the law admits of natural and inevitable inequalities between people. Any other form of equality is the enemy of diversity.

If you believe the chief end of inquiry is to cultivate “human dignity, human personality, and human happiness,” and to understand and appreciate “the relationship between God and man,” then you’re a Kirkian conservative. All the weight of history, the entire strength of civilized society, depends on these for the preservation of freedom and order, which complement rather than oppose each other. In them, with God’s grace and providence, we put our hope for the future.

Presidential Appointments to the United States Supreme Court

In America, American History, History, Humanities, Law, The Supreme Court on August 7, 2019 at 6:45 am

Michael Anton vs. Samuel Gregg

In America, Civics, Conservatism, Economics, History, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 17, 2019 at 6:45 am
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