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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Civility, Humility, and the Pursuit of Knowledge

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Libertarianism, Pedagogy, Philosophy on March 25, 2020 at 6:45 am

The following speech was given to the Furman University Conservative Student Society on February 24, 2020. The American Institute for Economic Research published this speech here.

Good evening.  I’ve come from Alabama, but without a banjo on my knee.

It’s always nice to be back at Furman University, my alma mater, where memories of my professors, late evenings in the library, campus strolls around the lake, football games, fraternity shenanigans, ex-girlfriends, meals in the dining hall, rounds of golf, great books and profound discoveries all come rushing back to me with haunting vividness and intensity.

The day I moved into my dorm room, just before orientation began, was sad and exciting and frightening and chaotic. I pulled out of my parents’ driveway in Atlanta that morning to the melodies of James Taylor singing that he was gone to Carolina in his mind. A couple of hours later I was gone to Carolina, too, but not just in my mind.

I parked my blue Ford pickup on the fields beside Blackwell where the SUVs and other pickups were parked or parking. My parents, who had followed me to Greenville in their car, parked in what’s now the Trone Student Center parking lot. Back then it was mostly dirt and gravel except for some paved spaces near the coffee shop, which became a Starbucks Coffee but is now, I’m told, part of the on-campus bookstore. My parents helped me to unload the stuff of my old life and to arrange my dorm room for my new life.

My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. I claimed one side of the room and began filling my dresser, desk, and closet with things. Since I appropriated one section of the room, I wanted my roommate, Bill, to choose the top or bottom bunk for himself. We’d spoken only once before, by phone, a pitiful attempt by two distant, disembodied voices to share in a matter of minutes deep convictions, career ambitions, and preferred hobbies. Bill informed me years later that our initial phone conversation had discouraged him. I was coming to college with my high school girlfriend, so he presumed I would be fully invested in passionate romance and uninterested in secondary friendships.

Were it not for my girlfriend, he would have been correct. She, a socialite and a cheerleader, was the type who always searched for bigger and better things, who elevated revelry to the supreme virtue. To keep up with her, I had to fritter away precious hours at parties and functions and bars. She grew bored of me eventually, and found herself in the arms of many other freshmen boys that year. Or rather, they found themselves in hers; she was the aggressor.

I was talking about Bill’s arrival. He materialized in the dorm room out of nowhere and with an entourage of relatives: his mother and Irish Catholic stepfather (God rest his soul) and his aunts and uncles and cousins and who knows what else besides. They swept into the room, a noisy spectacle, and everyone was introducing themselves and moving furniture and clothes and electronics and sporting equipment that was never used and encyclopedias that were never opened.

What would’ve taken my parents and me several trips to unpack took Bill only one. That’s how many people attended him and serviced his every need. It was impressive, really, as though I were in the presence of royalty. He was rich, in fact, and made a point of displaying his wealth. Only our dorm room seemed bare, too plain and unadorned for this princely graduate of a distinguished private high school in Columbus, Ohio. So the next thing we knew we were at the finest of fine establishments, Walmart, buying decorations. I had the clever idea to acquire signs with which to adorn our door: a stop sign, a men’s and women’s restroom sign, and whatever other signs I cleared from the hardware section. Bill eyed these curious treasures skeptically but assented to their purchase. He’d known me only about an hour. Best not to upset the poor Southerner over these procurements, the magnanimous Yankee must’ve thought.

By mid-afternoon our room was fully furnished. Our new hall mates stopped by to introduce themselves, allured by the bewildering array of signage on our door, which, in the Tate, would have resembled a modernist masterpiece: a condemnatory symbol of the directionless chaos of the consumerist decade we were leaving behind. (It was, after all, 2001.) A crowd developed in our room. We were instantly popular. Bill seemed to appreciate, at length, my unique design tastes.

Bill and I decided to look around after everyone left. Where, we wondered, was the laundry room? We needed to find out, maybe even to experiment with the washer and dryer since we had never used either before. We found the laundry room musty and tucked away in the basement. At least the machines, despite their coin slots, no longer required quarters. I noticed a button on the wall beside a green light. “To test carbon monoxide levels,” read an adjacent sign, “press button when light is green.” I didn’t know much about carbon monoxide, but suddenly had the urge to test its levels.

I pressed the button. The fire alarm erupted; red lights flashed on and off. Bill shot me a glare that conveyed anger, panic, and amusement all at once. Which feeling prevailed, I couldn’t say.

We needed to flee. We knew it was illegal to stay in the building, but also that we weren’t in danger, that there wasn’t a fire, so we repaired to our room. The hallways were empty. No one saw us sneaking up the stairs. Once in our room, we determined to wait out the alarm. Eventually, we knew, everyone would come filing back when no fire was detected.

So we sat. And we sat. And we sat, completely silent. Then came a loud knocking at the door. Wham! Wham! Wham!

I stood, frightened. Bill stared at me, desperately shaking his head as if to say, “Do not open the door!”  I paused out of deference. The knock came again: Wham! Wham! Wham! “I’m sorry,” I said, “I have to open it.”  Bill buried his face in his palm.

I opened the door. There before me, standing six foot six, muscles bulging, stood a firefighter in full gear. From behind his goggles, which were affixed to his helmet, he looked me up and down, head to toe. This is it, I thought. I am going to be arrested on my first day on campus, and I’m taking my innocent roommate with me.

Speechless, I offered my wrists for the cuffing, obsequiously extending my arms. The firefighter lifted his goggles, revealing brown button eyes, and removed his helmet. He looked at me and then behind me, back at me and then behind me again. It struck me that he was examining the door. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought this was the bathroom.”

“The bathroom’s over there,” I said, pointing down the hall.

“Thank you,” he said, and walked away.

I closed the door. Bill sighed with relief and then he and I roared with laughter.

I remember my first day of class. It was early, Introduction to Philosophy with Dr. Sarah Worth. After class I walked back to the dorms. A guy named Jonathan Horn, who lived on what was then the Sigma Chi hall on the ground floor, intercepted me. He was animated and flustered. I had played little league baseball with him back in Marietta, Georgia, when I was seven or eight, but had not seen him again until orientation week. He was now a rising sophomore in college. I don’t recall how we established that we’d been teammates long ago, but we made the connection. He was the first student to show me around campus and to introduce me to the fraternity ecosystem. At this particular moment, he was frazzled and going on about how an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was confused, not really knowing what the World Trade Center was. “You know,” said Jonathan, “that tall building with offices and restaurants and stuff on top.”

I didn’t know, and had assumed that whatever struck the building had been small: a glider or an ultralight. I walked up the stairs to my room and turned on the television. Moments later a second plane—a large commercial airliner—crashed into the Twin Towers, and I saw, or at least seem to recall, people leaping from the monstrous building to their deaths. I was horrified and scared and confused, still so very confused, and tried calling my dad’s cell phone because I knew he was flying to New York that morning.

We had a land line in our dorm room: a phone that plugged into the wall. Only a few students carried cell phones back then. It was the first year I hadn’t worn a pager on my belt. My parents had given me a cell phone the week before, but I didn’t use it—and wouldn’t use it regularly until spring semester, when cell phones suddenly proliferated across campus. My dad didn’t answer his phone. I assumed the worst and tried calling mom. Eventually I got ahold of her. She had, she assured me, spoken to dad. He was okay. Now she was trying to locate her brother, my uncle, who’d also flown to New York that day, or maybe was in New York already for work. In either case, he was eventually accounted for.

The first day of college is disorienting and momentous, one of those rare occasions when you’re acutely aware of the gravity of the moment you’re experiencing. For my classmates, though, that day was disorienting and momentous, not just for us, but for the entire country, perhaps the entire planet. It marked the end of an era. I was a grownup, and so, too, was the United States of America. The ideas and books my classmates and I discussed that semester, and for the next few years, took on a furious intensity. Everyone, it seemed, was debating weighty and difficult questions: What was America? What was terrorism? Who was responsible for this attack? What was just war? What were the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism? What was totalitarianism? What is Western Civilization and Eastern Civilization? Weren’t there other civilizations? What the hell was civilization? What was the difference between a conservative and a liberal? How do you accommodate differences in beliefs, feelings, and opinions within a diverse populace? What were facts, and how could people arrange them differently to produce competing narratives?

My high school sweetheart broke up with me a few weeks into freshmen year. I was devastated and buried myself in books. Bill, to his credit, grew concerned and suggested that I meet with his English professor, Judy Bainbridge, for advice and direction. He watched me reading and writing poetry in the evenings, slowly disengaging from the social scene, spending countless hours in the library with books that weren’t assigned in my classes. He thought I needed an intervention.

He was right. I met with Dr. Bainbridge and showed her some of my poetry, which did not impress her. I don’t remember much about our conversation, but I recall her recommendation that I take certain courses with certain professors, and also that I join both the college Republicans and the college Democrats so that I could be exposed to different viewpoints and learn to avoid ideological complacency. I followed her advice, joined both organizations, and throughout my time at Furman tried to keep an open mind about, well, everything.

I majored in English and quickly adopted convictions that I considered to be leftist—in particular in the field of economics of which I was ignorant—because I wanted to do good, be nice, and help those who were less fortunate. Turns out I still desire those goals, only now I have a more principled and mature approach that in our current intellectual climate would be considered conservative or libertarian. This approach is predicated, not on how much I know, but on how much I don’t know. I have F.A. Hayek to thank for my epistemological commitments.

The development of the legal system demonstrates the importance of maintaining conflict at the level of rhetoric and persuasion, the alternatives to coercion and force

I have spent over a decade studying former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who, to my mind, is one of the most misunderstood figures in our country’s history—a punching bag for commentators of various political persuasions. His book The Common Law tells the story of the evolution of the common-law system from its rude and primitive origins, when violence and personal vendetta characterized the arbitrary rule of kin and clan, to a more mature and sophisticated system involving public fora, courts and tribunals, administrative procedures, impartial juries, and the emergence of general principles out of concrete cases regarding unforeseeable conflicts between antagonistic parties.

This tidy account details how vengeance and passion yielded to reason, rhetoric, and rationality as argumentation and persuasion took the place of blood feuds as the operative form of dispute resolution. I’m reminded of Aeschylus’s great trilogy, The Oresteia, which consists of tragedies that mythologize the founding of a rational Greek legal system that supplanted the carnage and recklessness of the grand age of Homeric gods and heroes who warred without end. You might find a distinctively American version of this myth in the television series Deadwood, which traces the development of government and law in a chaotic Western town.

I bring up Holmes and Aeschylus and Deadwood to suggest to you the immense importance of free and open dialogue, of rational argumentation and civil disagreement. Civilization itself—that is, a state of human society that is organized, peaceful, and prosperous, consisting of science, industry, arts, and literature—is potentially at stake when disagreement is no longer maintained at the level of rhetoric and resolved through persuasion and procedure. In the absence of ongoing conversation and debate, we risk falling into the chaos and violence and internecine strife that destabilize and destroy civil societies.

Before the Civil War, the idealistic young Holmes—then known as Wendell—flirted with transcendentalism. Having fought in the 20th Massachusetts during the Civil War and having experienced firsthand the carnage of battle, he spent his later career as a jurist seeking to accommodate disagreement, diffuse conflict, and moderate uncompromising political forces that threatened to bring about widespread violence. He did not want to witness another Civil War.

When I worked at the Alabama Supreme Court, I handled hundreds if not thousands of cases. Appellate cases provide edifying examples of the centrality of patience, humility, tenacity, and open-mindedness to problem-solving and unfettered inquiry. I would read appellants’ briefs that convinced me of the rightness of their clients’ positions. Then I would turn to the appellees’ briefs that seemed equally persuasive. Had I been tasked with deciding between the appellant and the appellee using my isolated reason and judgment, I would have struggled and despaired and probably arrived at erroneous conclusions. Fortunately, though, I had not only my colleagues to assist me, but innumerable precedents in prior cases and hundreds of years of development in the law to guide me. The appellant and the appellee were just two parties to a larger conversation that had endured in varying forms for centuries. Resolving their particular dispute required an exploration of the reasoning and rationale of several judges faced with similar facts and issues.

We learn by similar processes. Stuck between competing arguments, torn between opposing positions, we suspend judgment, or should, until we have analyzed the relevant facts and issues and mined the past for like situations and instructive examples. We should question our presuppositions and examine complex conflicts from different angles. Aware that knowledge is limited, memory is selective, and perspective is partial, we must avoid the trap of ideology, which causes people to choose what they believe and then to find support for it, or to draw complicated ideas through simplistic formulae to generate favored outcomes.

College should be about discovery, learning, and the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. It should involve inquiry and curiosity, challenge and exploration, forcing us to shape and revise our beliefs, to pursue clarity through rigorous study. The Book of Proverbs submits that fools despise wisdom and instruction.[1] To avoid foolishness, we must be teachable. And we must learn our limitations.

Learning our limitations

Across the hall from me, on the top floor of Manly Hall, during my freshman year at Furman, lived my friend Andre, a kicker on the football team.  He was affable and happy, the kind of person you wanted around when you told jokes because of his contagious laughter. He was much bigger than I was, though not as large, say, as an offensive or defensive lineman, and one day we wrestled on the floor right there in the hallway of the dorm. It was all for fun, but a real contest of manly strength with actual pride and reputation at stake. Several of our hall-mates watched and cheered as Andre wrapped me up like a pretzel and pinned me to the ground in an impressive show of force. At first I tried to maneuver out of his iron grip but, realizing I lacked the strength, I simply submitted, defeated and docile, waiting for him to release me.

I had lost, and was genuinely surprised by the ease with which I had been conquered. I realized that, given my size, I possessed only so much physical power, and that someone of greater size and strength could, quite efficiently, subdue me. You would think that common sense, or a basic understanding of physical reality, would have led me to that conclusion already, but I was young and hubristic. At some point, a short man must acknowledge he’s short. A slow man must acknowledge he’s slow. A clumsy man must acknowledge his inelegance. We’re not all mathematicians, rocket scientists, or geniuses. But to realize our fullest potential, to maximize our ability to know things and accomplish our goals, we must discover our strengths and weaknesses. We can’t be who we’re not, but we can make the best of who we are.

Aesop, a slave in the ancient world whose fables have been told since at least the 6th century B.C., tells of the Proud Frog, the mother of several little froglets. One morning, while she was away, an ox, not seeing the froglets, stepped on one and squashed him to death. When the mother returned, the froglet brothers and sisters croaked and squeaked, warning their mother of the enormous beast that had killed their brother. “Was it this big?” the mother asked, swelling up her belly. “Bigger,” the children said. “This big?” she said, swelling her belly even more. “Much bigger,” the children said. “Was it this big?” she said, swelling her belly and puffing herself up with tremendous force. “No, mother, the beast was much bigger than you.” Offended, the mother strained and strained, swelling and puffing, swelling and puffing until—boom! She popped!

You see, we shouldn’t presume to be more than we are.

I learned years after graduation that, while he was in medical school, Andre entered the great, ever-growing family of the departed, having taken his own life for reasons I don’t know and probably couldn’t understand. Even today it’s hard for me to imagine what could have driven this fun-loving, kind, strong, and generous person to such unbearable, unspeakable despair.

Channeling human emotions through debate and rhetorical fora

Human beings are emotional and passionate. Our feelings, our tendencies towards anger and wrath, are not, however, necessarily bad. If someone were to enter this room and commit some violent atrocity, we would be horrified and enraged. When we hear grievous stories of innocents who have been slaughtered, deprived of their possessions, hurt, mistreated, or oppressed, we fume and demand responsive, retributive action. Anger towards some people suggests that we feel strongly towards other people, that we have the capacity, in other words, to love deeply, bond, and affectionately associate.

But our anger and wrath must be constructively channeled. The legal system provides a mechanism for managing the pain, outrage, hurt, and anger that threaten to disrupt social harmony. Consider The Eumenides, the last play in the trilogy, The Oresteia, which I mentioned earlier. Here is the backstory. Clytemnestra murdered her husband, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, after he returned home to Argos from the Trojan War. She had taken a lover, Aegisthus, just as Agamemnon had taken a lover: the seer, Cassandra, whom Clytemnestra also murdered. At the behest of Apollo, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, avenges his father’s death by killing both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

Now the Furies—three enraged goddesses in the form of beasts who are older than the Olympian gods and goddesses—relentlessly and recklessly pursue Orestes to avenge the murder of Clytemnestra. Apollo has given Orestes temporary refuge in the temple at Delphi, but Clytemnestra’s ghost rouses the passionate, bloodthirsty Furies into uncontrolled passion. They are shocked and angered by unpunished matricide. Athena intervenes to assemble a jury and hold a public trial in which the prosecuting Furies will argue their case and Apollo will serve, in effect, as Orestes’s defense attorney.

The jury splits, leaving Athena to cast the deciding vote. The Furies worry that if Athena opts to acquit Orestes, she’ll usher in an era of lawlessness. They believe that order and the integrity of the ancient law depend on killing Orestes. To them, Orestes’s murder is especially offensive because Clytemnestra is the mother, the fertile figure, the bearer of life from whose womb Orestes emerged into the cosmos. An attack on the mother is an attack on life itself, on the very continuity of human existence.

Athena is faced with a seemingly zero-sum situation: she must either spare Orestes’s life and enrage the Furies, who will unleash their lethal rage on society, or give the Furies what they wish, namely Orestes’s death, and thereby inflame Apollo and the other Olympian gods. Violent revenge appears inevitable. A self-perpetuating cycle of violence seems destined.

The Furies are wild, destructive, and vindictive. Athena in her divine wisdom recognizes, however, that they are indispensable to the law precisely because of those qualities. If someone is murdered, the legal system must bring about justice and mete out coercive punishment. The emotions and passions that animate revenge must be mediated, however, through formal and public processes, procedures, and protocols to ensure that they do not spin out of control, infecting whole populations beyond the immediate parties to a case. The legal system, by bringing conflicts into the field of rhetoric, argumentation, and persuasion in open fora governed by procedural rules, mitigates the intensity of the parties’ passions and emotions, which must be channeled through formal institutions and subjected to public scrutiny.

So what does Athena do? She splits the baby, as it were, by voting to free Orestes and by promising the Furies a high seat on the throne of her city, where they will enjoy everlasting honor and reverence. Of course, she must persuade the Furies of the rightness of this resolution. She does so with such effectiveness that her persuasion is likened to a “spell”; the Furies call her rhetoric “magic.” “Your magic is working,” the leader of the Furies submits. “I can feel the hate, / the fury slip away.”

Like Holmes, Athena despised civil war. “Let our wars / rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy / our powerful lust for fame,” she says. “But as for the bird / that fights at home—my curse on civil war.” She has pacified the hateful Furies and established a system of conflict resolution, not just for this matter but for all future matters.

Dealing with the inevitability of conflict

Imagine, if you will, that you could press a reset button that erased all memory and knowledge of the past but that instilled in each of us one definite principle, namely that every person by virtue of being human deserves to live freely and peaceably until visited by a natural death. This button would provide humanity with a clean slate, as it were. A fresh beginning. But it wouldn’t be long before inevitable conflicts arose. Accidents would happen. People would get hurt. Emotions and passions would be inflamed as a result. We seem to be wired to favor family over strangers, and to desire healthy and prosperous lives for our children. We want to maximize our wellbeing, sometimes at the expense of others’ wellbeing. Given the option to help our children or the children of some faraway stranger, we choose our children, the beings we brought into the world, on whose behalf we labor, weep, and rejoice.

Even if we could start over, struggle, contest, fighting, and feuding would arise. In light of the inevitability of conflict, we must make every effort to restrain it at persuasion and rhetoric. The university as an ideal represents a kind of intellectual forum where the sharpest minds come to debate, not the case of a client, but of an idea. Courtrooms provide spaces for litigants to have it out, so to speak, whereas universities provide spaces for scholars to test and debate facts and theories.

Universities are like courtrooms where competing ideas are given a hearing; the principle of rule of law over arbitrary and tyrannical rule should govern inquiry on campuses

We could think of the university as a legal system in which intellectuals “litigate” differing viewpoints before juries of intellectual peers who are committed to the advancement of knowledge and the clarity of ideas. We evaluate legal systems based on their tendency toward tyranny on the one hand and rule of law on the other. A tyrannical legal system is characterized by arbitrary commands, private vendettas, rapidly changing rules and standards, retroactive application of new rules and standards, lack of procedure and due process, and ambiguity.

By contrast, rule of law consists of general, regular, stable, and public rules regarding fundamental fairness that play out in established processes, procedures, and protocols. The university and the legal system realize the benefits of receiving and transmitting knowledge through open dialogue and debate, of resolving complex disputes through argumentation rather than physical force and intimidation, of settling controlling precedents through the aggregated decisions of innumerable minds, of suspending judgment on controversial matters until discovery procedures and deliberative processes have been exhausted, and of appealing contested judgments to additional, impartial bodies that will analyze the facts, evidence, and operative rules from a more removed vantage point.

Violent protests, no-platforming and de-platforming, dis-invitations, the shouting down of controversial speakers, or of blacklisting, harassing, threatening, or doxing them—these push us in the direction of arbitrary and tyrannical rule rather than the rule of law. They foment anger and outrage and privilege immediate vengeance over rational, procedural argumentation. They inhibit learning and deprive others of the opportunity to understand people and issues with greater clarity. They rouse emotions and passions that are antithetical to civility and humility.

College students should, in my view, think of themselves as judges in training—not in the sense that they will preside in courtrooms or manage and decide cases, but in the sense that they will be constructive participants in their civic and intellectual communities, cultivating the standards, norms, and discernment necessary to improve the lives and institutions of their family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, cities, counties, states, and country. They may not render binding judgments, but they will exercise judgment.

You cannot refine your logic and reasoning, your critical thinking, your ability to formulate cogent arguments, without considering diverse ideas with which you disagree. And when you identify an idea with which you disagree, you should adopt a Socratic approach to it, asking question after question until you grasp at a deeper level why you disagree and how to articulate your disagreement in a manner that persuades others to your position.

Good judges are patient, diligent, competent, credible, independent, and impartial. They avoid not just impropriety, but appearances of impropriety. They eschew favoritism. Confidence in their office and judgment depends upon their integrity, high standards of conduct and method, and prioritizing of truth, evidence, and fact over private interests and biases. They are not influenced by familial, financial, or political factors but courteously committed to fair processes, correct answers, sound research, substantiated arguments, and reasonableness. The best judges and professors I have met over my career are those whose personal political convictions, and whose attitude regarding partisan elections or newsworthy current events, were unknown to me.

The lesson of the Furies is that violence breeds violence, and that coercion breeds coercion. If you stifle speech, rough up speakers, intimidate them, prohibit them from airing their opinions, you generate backlash, maybe not right away, maybe not in a form that you’ll immediately recognize, but forces will work to meet your anger with anger. Intellectual inquiry has difficulty flourishing in a climate of radioactive anger and toxic outrage.

Unleashing fury upon those who express views with which you disagree will only jeopardize your credibility, and might just empower the ideas you’re seeking to discredit. Ideas that appear taboo or transgressive often spread when powerful forces seek to suppress them. The paradox of the martyr, of course, is that his or her power resides in defeat, in death. The voice of the martyr is loudest once he or she has been permanently silenced. There’s a reason why passive resistance and civil disobedience are so effective in the long run.

The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus had told him—perhaps through a vision or a revelatory inner voice—“My power is made perfect in weakness.” Another paradox: strength resides in meekness and mildness. If you are utterly convinced of the rightness of certain views that you sincerely hold, then constructively to advance them, to see them succeed in the long run, you should air them from a position of meekness and mildness. Spreading them with coercion or force will probably fail. Even those who outwardly manifest the signs of a convert might inwardly reject the views they purport to have adopted. Beliefs are dubious that depend for their advancement on the use of coercion and force. A resort to violence in the name of an idea suggests that arguments for that idea are unpersuasive. In the absence of articulated reasoning against certain views, those views gain credence and currency. Attempting to stamp them out through coercion or force is counterproductive.

Civility and humility are therefore indispensable to the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge.

I’ll end with the wisdom of Aesop’s fable “The Cat and the Fox.” The fox, you see, was braggadocios, boasting to the cat about all the things he could and would do if he were attacked by hunting hounds. The modest, sensible cat replied to the haughty fox that she, having only one simple trick to escape dogs, wasn’t so clever. “If my trick doesn’t work,” she sighed, “then I’m done for.”

The fox, laughing, mocked the cat for her lack of cunning. “Too bad you’re not as smart as I am,” he taunted. As soon as these words issued from his snout, a pack of hounds descended upon him. The cat resorted to her one trick and escaped. The fox, however, tried several tricks, each craftily, but they didn’t work. The hounds snatched him up and tore him to shreds, filling their bellies with bloody fox meat.

Friends, my fellow Furman paladins, don’t be the fox. Please, don’t be like him. There are always dogs—and cats for that matter—who are better and smarter than you are. There are always powerful forces beyond your control. Be sensible lest they swallow you up. Be humble and teachable, know your strengths and weaknesses, and suspend judgment on important and controversial matters until you have considered them from different angles and, if possible, examined all relevant data. Unless and until you do these things, you won’t acquire and transmit knowledge with your fullest potential.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Proverbs 1:7.

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.

Dr. Jason Jewell on Justice versus Social Justice

In Conservatism, Economics, Ethics, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Philosophy, Politics on February 5, 2020 at 6:45 am

What do “Change” and “Equality” Mean?

In Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics on November 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

As the elections of 2020 near, the left has weaponized two principles that are now prevailing orthodoxies on college campuses, in the mass media, and among activist blatherskites: change and equality.

Examples of change?

Senator Sanders and Senator Warren advocate differing forms of “free college” at public institutions of higher learning. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed eliminating the Electoral College. Andrew Yang backs a government-funded “universal basic income” program.

These are specific policies. What about large-scale models of government like socialism, openly embraced by Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez?

Which brings us to equality. “Equality,” today, refers to diverse causes: gender equality, marriage equality, income equality, transgender equality, racial equality, housing equality, healthcare equality, environmental equality—in short, you can affix the term “equality” to just about any hot-button political issue or mobilized interest group and find some politician supporting it.

Change and equality sound nice in theory, but what, exactly, do these words mean? The eminent thinker and man of letters Russell Kirk provides key insights into the nature and limitations of change and equality.

THERE ARE MANY KINDS OF “CHANGE”

Is change always for the better? Isn’t there regress, deterioration, degeneration, and decay? Wouldn’t we need a conservative disposition—an understanding of history in its immeasurable complexity—to know the difference between change that’s good and change that’s bad?

“When a society is progressing in some respects,” Kirk warns, “usually it is declining in other respects.” The French Revolution certainly brought changes: widespread violence, corruption, the beheading of innocents, the massacring of clergy, looting, chaos, food shortages, and the destruction of churches. The Russian Revolution promised change and delivered it in the form of war, mass murder, riots, starvation, and dictatorship. The Chinese Communist Revolution successfully instituted changes that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

If you want change for the sake of something different, the object is transformation itself, not a definitive outcome. What do you achieve? The creed of change implies that you can never get things right: the only correct state is that of perpetual flow and flux.

“You’re on the wrong side of history,” we’re told by those who demand change. They value progress as the summum bonum, as though the past were devoid of good people and useful data, as if it were a monolithic evil from which you must flee and hide your eyes. But you should not move forward—you should not change—without the past to guide you.

We must be mindful of the debts we owe our ancestors, without whom, after all, we wouldn’t have the ideas, luxuries, technologies, and freedoms we enjoy. Kirk exemplifies a proper attitude toward change in his Concise Guide to Conservatism: “Change is essential to a good society,” but it must take place “within the framework of tradition.” He adds that “progress is possible only so long as it is undertaken upon the sure footing of permanence.”

I like asking progressives what society would need to look like for them to become conservatives. What is their teleology, their ultimate goal for culture and governing institutions? What achievement would they preserve and defend?

Change can be dangerous. The wisdom of generations—the taking of the long view—acts as a check against those radical changes that lead to loss of life and violations of the dignity and bodily integrity of every human person.

EQUALITY IS AN ILLUSION

Equality raises the questions: Equal to what? Equal in what sense? But this means it is a signifier without a signified. There’s no such thing as equality in the tangible, phenomenal world.

Every lawyer knows on some level that differentiations between people are inevitable.

“Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law,” Kirk writes, “but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things.”

Why? Because justice, in Kirk’s view, demands “sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.” Moreover, “In the name of equality, the collectivist establishes a political and economic order which subjects a great mass of individuals to the will and whim of a new managerial elite.”

The law categorizes us: citizen and noncitizen, parent and child, minor and adult, alive and dead, employer and employee, buyer and seller, debtor and creditor, single and married, majority and minority, donor and donee, plaintiff and defendant, prosecution and defense, innocent and guilty, solvent and insolvent, offeror and offeree, payer and payee, promisor and promisee, landlord and tenant, agent and principal.

Nobody escapes labels under the law: human, mother, father, child, spouse, brother, sister, niece, nephew, cousin, aunt, uncle, descendant, heir, client, guardian, bystander, driver, owner, resident, patient, insured, devisee, witness, litigant, student, taxpayer, guest, signatory, broker, trustee, volunteer, testator, mortgagor, investor, author, licensee, victim, subscriber, decedent—the list goes on.

Everyone fits within more than one of these classifications, which are not necessarily hierarchical. The flesh-and-blood people to whom they refer, however, are not treated equally in all circumstances. They cannot be because no one can occupy an identical position in society, nor hold the exact same provisions in the exact same settings within the exact same jurisdiction.

We have different jobs, careers, ages, obligations, goals, talents, and familial statuses. The law treats people differently because of their different roles and responsibilities in specified contexts. Taxonomical differences are natural and inevitable, flowing from the diversity of human experience.

Laws by definition discriminate: they state who may or may not do something, who possesses or protects rights, who creates or enforces rules, who must or must not act in particular situations, which acts are proper or improper in light of unique circumstances. Discrimination is inevitable. The operative question, then, is on what basis laws discriminate. Some bases are acceptable, whereas others are not.

Aristotle maintained that the telos, or the purpose, of the law is to achieve goodness and virtue. Accordingly, laws discriminating on the grounds of race are presumptively invalid because they have no bearing upon human intent or action, on the pursuit of goodness or virtue. Rather, they involve an immutable characteristic, a trait people cannot help, an unchosen quality of the human body.

Goodness and virtue, by contrast, involve choices. A person acts morally by selecting one course of action over another. The law incentivizes good behavior and punishes crime or mischief. It shouldn’t penalize people for acts they didn’t or couldn’t commit, for properties they are incapable of changing or affecting.

Except in the eyes of God, absolute equality, true equality, doesn’t exist. Attempts to attain it necessitate coercion, perhaps even the annihilation of certain people or the destruction of certain places and things. Yet I wouldn’t expect the government forcibly to remove someone else’s good lung to replace my bad lung to equalize our conditions. Besides, no two lungs are alike.

Equality, as a concept, is the enemy of another concept the left purports to champion: diversity. Every human being is unique. Every person has distinct skills, aptitudes, weaknesses, and temptations. Diversity involves differences. It is real, not an ideal like equality.

“Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization,” Kirk says. “Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence.”

We should celebrate the fact that no two people are alike, that our variety as a species makes us wonderful and marvelous. We’re in awe when musicians produce sounds we cannot produce, when artists render images we cannot render, when athletes leap or jump or run in ways foreign to our bodies, when writers arrange words on a page with a facility we lack.

Diversity is good and beautiful; seeking to eliminate it in the name of equality is cruel and misguided. We rightly fear societies in which one group uses political power and the apparatus of government to deprive individuals of their wealth and property in pursuit of hypotheticals like equality. Kirk reminds, after all, that the “aim of the collectivistic state is to abolish classes, voluntary associations, and private rights, swallowing all these in the formless blur of the ‘general will’ and absolute equality of condition—equality, that is, of everyone except the clique which rules the state.”

FOCUS ON PRINCIPLES, NOT JUST POLICY

Understandably, we focus on policy during election seasons. But maybe we should quiz candidates on their philosophical moorings. If we do, we might find that progressives have embraced quixotic concepts that lead, in practice, to violence and coercion rather than their intended outcomes.

Kirk cautioned against the siren songs of change and equality. We should listen.

St. George Tucker’s Jeffersonian Constitution

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty. 

One could argue that there are two basic visions for America: the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian. The former is nationalist, calling for centralized power and an industrial, mercantilist society characterized by banking, commercialism, and a robust military. Its early leaders had monarchical tendencies. The latter vision involves a slower, more leisurely and agrarian society, political decentralization, popular sovereignty, and local republicanism. Think farmers over factories.

Both have claimed the mantle of liberty. Both have aristocratic elements, despite today’s celebration of America as democratic. On the Hamiltonian side we can include John Adams, John Marshall, Noah Webster, Henry Clay, Joseph Story, and Abraham Lincoln. In the Jeffersonian camp we can place George Mason and Patrick Henry (who, because they were born before Jefferson, could be considered his precursors), the mature (rather than the youthful) James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun, Abel Upshur, and Robert Y. Hayne. The Jeffersonian Republicans won out in the early nineteenth century, but since the Civil War, the centralizing, bellicose paradigm has dominated American politics, foreign and monetary policy, and federal institutions.

St. George Tucker falls into the Jeffersonian category. View of the Constitution of the United States, published by Liberty Fund in 1999, features his disquisitions on various legal subjects, each thematically linked. Most come from essays appended to his edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Born in Bermuda, Tucker became a Virginian through and through, studying law at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe, whose post at the law school he would eventually hold. On Tucker’s résumé we might find his credentials as a poet, essayist, and judge. He was an influential expositor of the limited-government jurisprudence that located sovereignty in the people themselves, as opposed to the monarch or the legislature, which, he believed, was a surrogate for the general will in that it consisted of the people’s chosen representatives.

Tucker furnished Jeffersonians with the “compact theory” of the Constitution:

The constitution of the United States of America . . . is an original, written, federal, and social compact, freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several states of North-America, and ratified by the people thereof, respectively; whereby the several states, and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other, and to the federal government of the United States; and by which the federal government is bound to the several states, and to every citizen of the United States.

Under this model, each sovereign, independent state is contractually and consensually committed to confederacy, and the federal government possesses only limited and delegated powers—e.g., “to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations.”

Employing the term “strict construction,” Tucker decried what today we’d call “activist” federal judges, insisting that “every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.” Strictly construing the language of the Constitution meant fidelity to the binding, basic framework of government, but it didn’t mean that the law was static. Among Tucker’s concerns, for instance, was how the states should incorporate, discard, or adapt the British common law that Blackstone had delineated.

Tucker understood the common law as embedded, situated, and contextual rather than as a fixed body of definite rules or as the magnificent perfection of right reason, a grandiose conception derived from the quixotic portrayals of Sir Edward Coke. “[I]n our inquiries how far the common law and statutes of England were adopted in the British colonies,” Tucker announced, “we must again abandon all hope of satisfaction from any general theory, and resort to their several charters, provincial establishments, legislative codes, and civil histories, for information.”

In other words, if you want to know what the common law is on this side of the pond, look to the operative language of governing texts before you invoke abstract theories. Doing so led Tucker to conclude that parts of English law were “either obsolete, or have been deemed inapplicable to our local circumstances and policy.” In this, he anticipated Justice Holmes’s claim that the law “is forever adopting new principles from life at one end” while retaining “old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off.”

What the several states borrowed from England was, for Tucker, a filtering mechanism that repurposed old rules for new contexts. Tucker used other verbs to describe how states, each in their own way, revised elements of the common law in their native jurisdictions: “modified,” “abridged,” “shaken off,” “rejected,” “repealed,” “expunged,” “altered,” “changed,” “suspended,” “omitted,” “stricken out,” “substituted,” “superseded,” “introduced.” The list could go on.

The English common law, accordingly, wasn’t an exemplification of natural law or abstract rationalism; it was rather the aggregation of workable solutions to actual problems presented in concrete cases involving real people. Sometimes, in its British iterations, it was oppressive, reinforcing the power of the king and his agents and functionaries. Thus it couldn’t fully obtain in the United States. “[E]very rule of the common law, and every statute of England,” Tucker wrote on this score, “founded on the nature of regal government, in derogation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind, were absolutely abrogated, repealed, and annulled, by the establishment of such a form of government in the states.”

Having been clipped from its English roots, the common law in the United States had, in Tucker’s view, an organic opportunity to grow anew in the varying cultural environments of the sovereign states. In this respect, Tucker prefigured Justice Brandeis’s assertion in Erie Railroad Company v. Tompkins (1938) that “[t]here is no federal general common law.” Tucker would have agreed with Brandeis that, “[e]xcept in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the state.”

In fact, summarizing competing contentions about the Sedition Act, Tucker subtly supported the position that “the United States as a federal government have no common law” and that “the common law of one state . . . is not the common law of another.” The common law, in Tucker’s paradigm, is bottom-up and home-grown; it’s not a formula that can be lifted from one jurisdiction and placed down anywhere else with similar results and effects.

By far the most complex essay here is “On the State of Slavery in Virginia,” which advocated the gradual extirpation of slavery. With admirable clarity, Tucker zeroed in on the hypocrisy of his generation:

Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained.

Despite his disdain for the institution of slavery, Tucker expressed ideas that are racist by any measurable standard today—for instance, his notion that slavery proliferated in the South because the climate there was “more congenial to the African constitution.”

On the level of pure writing quality and style, Tucker had a knack for aphorism. “[T]he ignorance of the people,” he said, “is the footstool of despotism.” More examples: “Ignorance is invariably the parent of error.” “A tyranny that governs by the sword, has few friends but men of the sword.”

Reading Tucker reminds us that for most of our country’s formative history the principal jurisprudential debates were not about natural law versus positivism, or originalism versus living constitutionalism, but about state versus federal authority, local versus national jurisdiction, the proper scale and scope of government, checks and balances, and so forth. To the extent these subjects have diminished in importance, Hamilton has prevailed over Jefferson. Reading Tucker today can help us see the costs of that victory.

Jason Jewell on Justice versus Social Justice

In Humanities, Justice, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on October 23, 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.

El Why Liberalism Failed de Deneen ataca una versión falsa del liberalismo

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Modernism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 2, 2019 at 6:45 am

This post originally appeared here at Mises.org. 

Sólo los audaces titulan un libro Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen, el Profesor Asociado de Ciencias Políticas David A. Potenziani Memorial de la Universidad de Notre Dame, ha hecho precisamente eso, proponiendo que tal fracaso ha ocurrido realmente y estableciendo la expectativa irrazonable de que él pueda explicarlo. Su premisa operativa es que el liberalismo creó las condiciones para su inevitable desaparición, que es una ideología autoconsumidora y autodestructiva que sólo tiene unos 500 años. (p. 1) «El liberalismo ha fracasado», declara triunfante, «no porque se quedara corto, sino porque era fiel a sí mismo. Ha fracasado porque ha tenido éxito». (p.3)

Deneen no define el término liberalismo, que no está en su índice a pesar de que se encuentra en todo el libro. Tengo la certeza de que uno de los revisores del manuscrito pre-publicado recomendó su publicación a los editores de Yale University Press, siempre y cuando Deneen definiera el liberalismo de manera convincente y luego limpiara sus descuidadas referencias a él. Deneen ignoró este consejo, dejando el manuscrito como está. Su genealogía del liberalismo es aún más problemática a la luz de esta negativa a aclarar.

Deneen presenta una aparente paradoja, a saber, que el liberalismo, bajo la bandera de la libertad y la emancipación, produjo su opuesto: un vasto, progresista y coercitivo Estado administrativo bajo el cual los individuos se han vuelto alienados, amorales, dependientes, condicionados y serviles. «El proyecto político del liberalismo», afirma, «nos está moldeando en las criaturas de su fantasía prehistórica, que de hecho requería el aparato masivo combinado del Estado moderno, la economía, el sistema educativo y la ciencia y la tecnología para convertirnos en: seres cada vez más separados, autónomos, no relacionales, repletos de derechos y definidos por nuestra libertad, pero inseguros, impotentes, temerosos y solos». (p.16)

En esta línea se oyen ecos de Sartre, y el existencialismo recomienda un cierto individualismo: la libertad del agente racional, que ha sido empujado a la existencia sin elección ni culpa propia, a querer su propio significado en un mundo absurdo y caótico. Pero el existencialismo es una especie de individualismo diferente de la que motivó a Hobbes, Locke y Mill: los principales objetivos de la ira de Deneen. Es cierto que a Mill no le gustaba la conformidad dogmática con la costumbre, pero es una costumbre, incluso se podría decir que es una posición conservadora. Hay que mantener o conservar, después de todo, un modo crítico de abordar cuestiones difíciles sin suponer que ya se han encontrado todas las soluciones adecuadas. Cada época debe revisar sus enfoques de los problemas perennes. Hay muchas cosas que no le gustan desde una perspectiva cristiana, pero sus desagradables conclusiones no necesariamente se derivan de su método de indagación o de su apertura a examinar de nuevo los rompecabezas y los problemas con los que nuestros antepasados lucharon.

El liberalismo clásico o libertarismo al que se adhieren los individualistas cristianos promueve la paz, la cooperación, la coordinación, la colaboración, la comunidad, la administración, el ingenio, la prosperidad, la dignidad, el conocimiento, la comprensión, la humildad, la virtud, la creatividad, la justicia, el ingenio, y más, tomando como punto de partida la dignidad de cada persona humana ante Dios y ante la humanidad. Este individualismo prospera en culturas fundamentalmente conservadoras y no cuadra con la caricatura de Deneen de una caricatura de una caricatura de un individualismo «liberal». Este individualismo conservador, una criatura del liberalismo clásico, aboga por la libertad a fin de liberar a los seres humanos para que alcancen su máximo potencial, cultivar una ética y una moral generalizadas y mejorar sus vidas e instituciones mediante el crecimiento económico y el desarrollo. ¿Y quién puede negar que la economía de mercado con la que está vinculada ha dado lugar, en todo el mundo, a mejores condiciones de vida, avances tecnológicos y médicos, descubrimientos científicos, curiosidad intelectual e innovación industrial?

Deneen desea rebobinar el tiempo, recuperar la virtuosa «autogestión» de los antiguos que, según él, se basaba en el «bien común». (p. 99) Ve en la antigüedad un arraigo social que se alinea con el cristianismo tal como lo ejemplifican en el mundo moderno las comunidades amish (p. 106-107) Su celebración de las artes liberales tradicionales adopta, dice, «una comprensión clásica o cristiana de la libertad» (p. 129) que enfatiza las normas y localidades situadas, las culturas arraigadas y las continuidades institucionales. Esta, sin embargo, es una curiosa visión de la antigüedad, que contradice los rasgos anticristianos del pensamiento clásico y antiguo, ensalzada por Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand y Julius Evola, que valoraban los elementos paganos de «la antigua alabanza de la virtud» (p. 165) y menospreciaban el mundo moderno por ser demasiado cristiano.

A Deneen no le interesan los liberalismos, es decir, la multiplicidad de conceptos que vuelan bajo la bandera del liberalismo. Prefiere casualmente agrupar variedades de enfermedades genéricas (desde la agricultura industrializada hasta el enamoramiento con el STEM, la diversidad, el multiculturalismo, el materialismo y la autonomía sexual) como productos del único enemigo común de todo lo bueno que los períodos clásico y medieval tenían para ofrecer. Luego le da un nombre a ese enemigo: liberalismo. Nos sumergiría, si no en la antigüedad, en el tribalismo medieval, en períodos en los que los acusados eran juzgados por la prueba o el combate, cuando los juramentos de sangre y el parentesco, en lugar de la confianza, la buena voluntad o el intercambio económico, determinaban las lealtades y lealtades de uno.

No es correcto que el liberalismo «requiera la liberación de toda forma de asociación y relación, de la familia a la iglesia, de la escuela a la aldea y a la comunidad». Por el contrario, el liberalismo libera a la gente de la coerción tiránica e institucionalizada que les impide disfrutar de las asociaciones y relaciones locales, incluidas las de las familias, las iglesias, las escuelas y las comunidades. El liberalismo bien entendido empodera a la gente para que se agrupe y defina su experiencia según sus propias costumbres y costumbres. Gracias al liberalismo, el propio Deneen goza de la libertad de criticar al gobierno en rápido crecimiento que cada vez más intenta imponerle normas y reglas contrarias a las suyas.

Extender el individualismo que caracterizó al liberalismo clásico al progresismo del siglo XX y a la política de identidad moderna, como hace Deneen, es un error. La política de identidad moderna trata sobre el colectivismo en nombre de la autodefinición, la autoconciencia y la autoconstitución, sobre la elección de qué comunidades (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, los Socialistas Demócratas de América, los neonazis, etc.) abrazan lo físico (por ejemplo, lo étnico o lo racial), lo ideológico (por ejemplo, lo pannacionalista, marxista, ecosocialista, feminista, anarcosindicalista, supremacista blanco), o características normativas (por ejemplo, justicia social o igualitarismo) en torno a las cuales se forman asociaciones de grupo.

La verdad es que el individualismo prospera en comunidades morales y virtuosas, y que el bien común y las asociaciones de grupos florecen en sociedades que reconocen y comprenden el valor y la dignidad inherentes de cada individuo. De la interdependencia y el fortalecimiento mutuo de la libertad y el orden, del individuo y de la sociedad, Frank Meyer proclamó que «la verdad se marchita cuando la libertad muere, por justa que sea la autoridad que la mata; y el individualismo libre, desinformado por el valor moral, se pudre en su centro y pronto crea las condiciones que preparan el camino para la rendición a la tiranía.1 Para aquellos que insisten en que el individualismo es antitético a la creencia religiosa, que es en sí misma indispensable para el conservadurismo y el bien común, M. Stanton Evans declaró, «la afirmación de un orden trascendente no sólo es compatible con la autonomía individual, sino con la condición de la misma; […] una visión escéptica de la naturaleza del hombre [es decir…] una visión escéptica de la naturaleza del hombre», como intrínsecamente defectuoso y propenso al pecado] no sólo permite la libertad política sino que la exige».2

En una sociedad libre, los empresarios y productores miran a los demás, a las comunidades, para determinar las necesidades básicas que deben satisfacerse. El interés personal racional que motiva la creatividad y la inventiva consiste fundamentalmente en servir a los demás de manera más eficiente y eficaz, en generar recompensas personales, sí, pero recompensas personales por hacer la vida mejor y más fácil para los demás. El Adam Smith de La Riqueza de las Naciones es el mismo Adam Smith de La Teoría de los Sentimientos Morales. Los seres humanos están conectados tanto para cuidar de sí mismos, proteger sus hogares y a sus seres queridos, como para sentir y sentir empatía por los demás. La beneficencia y la generosidad son aspectos principales del individualismo liberal que Deneen calumnia.

La «segunda ola» del liberalismo, en el paradigma de Deneen, es el progresismo. Sin embargo, el progresismo moderno y el Partido Demócrata no tienen casi nada que ver con el liberalismo clásico. Curiosamente y, me atrevo a decir, perezosamente, Deneen desea conectarlos. Sin embargo, no puede trazar una clara línea de conexión entre ellos, porque no la hay. La supuesta conexión es la supuesta ambición de «liberar a los individuos de cualquier relación arbitraria y no elegida y rehacer el mundo en uno en el que prosperen aquellos especialmente dispuestos al individualismo expresivo». (p. 143-44) ¿Debemos interpretar esta afirmación en el sentido de que Deneen preferiría que nuestras relaciones e interacciones fueran arbitrariamente coaccionadas por un poder central en una sociedad cerrada en la que los individuos subordinados siguen habitualmente las órdenes incuestionables de los superiores establecidos?

F. A. Hayek dijo una vez que, «hasta el ascenso del socialismo», lo opuesto al conservadurismo era el liberalismo pero que, en Estados Unidos, «el defensor de la tradición estadounidense era un liberal en el sentido europeo».3 ¿Está Deneen tan inmerso en la cultura estadounidense que no puede reconocer esta distinción básica? Deneen premia el bien común y colectivo que se manifiesta en las comunidades locales, culpando al interés propio racional de la supuesta tendencia universalizadora del liberalismo a erradicar las venerables costumbres y normas culturales. Pero parece confundido por la taxonomía norteamericana en la que ha caído el liberalismo y haría bien en revisar las obras de Ludwig von Mises, quien explicó: «En Estados Unidos, “liberal” significa hoy en día un conjunto de ideas y postulados políticos que en todos los aspectos son lo opuesto de todo lo que el liberalismo significó para las generaciones precedentes. El autodenominado liberal estadounidense apunta a la omnipotencia del gobierno, es un enemigo resuelto de la libre empresa y defiende la planificación integral por parte de las autoridades, es decir, el socialismo».4

Una comparación de la teoría política especulativa de Deneen y su narrativa abstracta de la decadencia con la de Larry Siedentop, profundamente histórica e ideológicamente neutra, Inventing the Individual (Belknap/Harvard, 2014), revela fallas críticas en el argumento de Deneen, comenzando con la proposición de que la clave del individualismo para el liberalismo tiene apenas 500 años. Siedentop menoscaba la imagen común de una Europa medieval asediada por la pobreza y la superstición, la monarquía y la tiranía, la corrupción generalizada y la muerte temprana de la que supuestamente nos rescataron el Renacimiento y, más tarde, la Ilustración. Siedentop ve, en cambio, el ascenso del cristianismo —mucho antes del medievalismo— como la causa del ascenso del individualismo liberal, que, de hecho, tiene sus raíces en las enseñanzas de San Pablo y de Jesucristo. Mientras que Deneen teoriza que el individualismo es reciente y anticristiano, Siedentop traza su historia actual como claramente cristiana, trazando sus características concretas a lo largo del tiempo a medida que proliferaba y sustituía a las antiguas culturas y costumbres paganas que carecían de una comprensión estructural de la dignidad y primacía de la persona humana.

Siedentop atribuye el individualismo liberal al cristianismo; Deneen trata el individualismo liberal como contrario al cristianismo. Ambos hombres no pueden corregir, al menos no completamente.

Caminando hacia atrás en algunas de sus grandes afirmaciones, Deneen reconoce en sus páginas finales que el liberalismo, en ciertas manifestaciones, ha existido por más de 500 años y que tiene mucho en común con el cristianismo:

Mientras que el liberalismo pretendía ser un edificio totalmente nuevo que rechazaba la arquitectura política de todas las épocas anteriores, se basaba naturalmente en largos desarrollos desde la antigüedad hasta la Baja Edad Media. Una parte significativa de su atractivo no era que se tratara de algo totalmente nuevo, sino que se basara en reservas profundas de creencia y compromiso. La antigua filosofía política se dedicaba especialmente a la cuestión de la mejor manera de evitar el surgimiento de la tiranía, y la mejor manera de lograr las condiciones de libertad política y autogobierno. Los términos básicos que informan nuestra tradición política —libertad, igualdad, dignidad, justicia, constitucionalismo— son de origen antiguo. El advenimiento del cristianismo, y su desarrollo en la filosofía política de la Edad Media, ahora muy descuidada, puso de relieve la dignidad del individuo, el concepto de persona, la existencia de derechos y deberes correspondientes, la importancia primordial de la sociedad civil y de una multiplicidad de asociaciones, y el concepto de gobierno limitado como el mejor medio de prevenir la inevitable tentación humana de la tiranía. El atractivo más básico del liberalismo no era su rechazo del pasado, sino su dependencia de conceptos básicos que eran fundamentales para la identidad política occidental. (págs. 184 a 85)

Perdóneme por estar confundido, pero pensé que Deneen se había propuesto criticar el liberalismo y trazar su fracaso, no exaltarlo ni defenderlo, y ciertamente no vincularlo a un antiguo linaje asociado con el cristianismo. Este pasaje representa la desorganización en el corazón del libro de Deneen. El liberalismo no tiene la culpa del estado administrativo masivo y sus redes de agentes y funcionarios que coaccionan a las comunidades locales. Deneen es parte del problema que describe, defendiendo formas de pensar y organizar el comportamiento humano que socavan su esperanza de que se reaviven los valores tradicionales y los lazos familiares o de vecindad a nivel local.

Deneen expresa sus opiniones con una certeza tan enloquecedora que parece altivo y tendencioso, como un manqué celosamente anti-libertario con un hacha que moler. Carece de la delicadeza y la caridad con que los eruditos razonables de buena fe se acercan a sus oponentes ideológicos. No tiene en cuenta la posición de quienes, como yo, creen que el individualismo liberal es una condición necesaria para el florecimiento de las comunidades locales, el cultivo de la virtud y la responsabilidad, la formación de instituciones mediadoras y asociaciones políticas de abajo hacia arriba, y la descentralización y difusión del poder gubernamental. Simplemente no puede entender la posibilidad de que el individualismo liberal cree un vehículo para la preservación de las costumbres y el patrimonio, la unidad familiar y los vínculos sociales a nivel local.

«El estatismo permite el individualismo, el individualismo exige el estatismo» (p. 17), insiste Deneen con pocas pruebas más allá de sus propias teorías ahistóricas especulativas, irónicamente dado su llamado a «formas locales de resistencia más pequeñas: prácticas más que teorías». He aquí una propuesta alternativa: el individualismo liberal y los lazos comunitarios que genera se protegen mejor en una sociedad cristiana que es solemnemente consciente de la falibilidad de la mente humana, de las tendencias pecaminosas de la carne humana y de la imperfección inevitable de las instituciones humanas.

Leyendo Why Liberalism Failed, uno podría salir cuestionando no si Deneen tiene razón, sino si es lo suficientemente culto en la historia del liberalismo como para juzgar esta amplia y centenaria escuela de filosofía que surgió del cristianismo. Qué impresión tan desafortunada para alguien que escribe con tanto estilo sobre tendencias y figuras tan importantes! La realidad, creo, es que Deneen es erudito y culto. Su descripción tendenciosa del liberalismo es, por lo tanto, decepcionante por no poner en evidencia su erudición y su aprendizaje, por promover una visión idiosincrásica del liberalismo que, en última instancia, podría socavar el compromiso clásico y cristiano con la libertad que desea revitalizar.

  • 1.Frank Meyer, «Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism», en What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), pág. 12.
  • 2.M. Stanton Evans, «A Conservative Case for Freedom», en What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), pág. 86.
  • 3.F.A. Hayek, «Why I Am Not a Conservative»The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Editio, Vol 17, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek(Routledge, 2013), p. 519.
  • 4.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (1927) (The Foundation for Economic Education y Cobden Press, 2002) (Ralph Raico, trans.), pgs. xvi-xvii.

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.

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