See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

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?

Advertisements

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Abraham Lincoln

In Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Politics, Southern History, The South on July 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War

In America, American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on April 24, 2019 at 6:45 am

Make America Mobile Again

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Politics on August 10, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The American Spectator.  Note that some of the references to the presidential election are now dated but were timely when this review was originally published.

This election season has proven that, regardless of who becomes the Democratic or Republic nominee for president, the American political landscape has been reshaped. Candidates expected to have a smooth path to their party’s nomination have met, instead, a bumpy road. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as viable candidates reflects the growing feeling among ordinary Americans that the system is rigged, that they’re stuck in conditions enabled and controlled by an amorphous cadre of elites from Washington and Wall Street.

Income inequality is higher today than it’s been in nearly a century. Middle and lower class citizens of other First World countries enjoy more economic mobility than do middle and lower class Americans. The United States has fallen behind managerial and quasi-socialist governments in Europe in empirical rankings of economic freedom. The gap between the so-called 1% and the rest of America is growing, and recent college graduates, saddled with student loan debt and poor job prospects, are financially behind where their parents were at the same age.

Things don’t look promising. But one law professor, F. H. Buckley of the freshly named Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, outlines ways to repair structural, systemic burdens on the American economy. His new book, The Way Back, published today by Encounter Books, provocatively advocates for socialist ends by capitalist means.

Although the word socialism recalls revolution, stifled competition, attacks on private ownership, abolition of the price-system and sound economic calculation, hunger, mass-murder, off-brand goods and low-quality services, among other demonstrable horribles, Buckley has something less vicious in mind. By socialism, he does not mean a centralized government that replaces the market system with economic planning and state control of the means of production. His “socialism” is not socialism at all.

Leaving socialism undefined, he suggests that free-market economics (a term he avoids but implies) and the dismantling of the regulatory state will do more than actual socialism and its variants to lift people out of poverty and maximize their quality of life. The Left, in short, has asked the right questions about income inequality and economic mobility but supplied the wrong answers or solutions. “Sadly,” Buckley complains, “those who loudly decry income disparities often support policies which make things worse.”

It’s the aristocratic elites, in Buckley’s view, who benefit from mass bureaucracy, the welfare state, a broken immigration and public-school system, trade barriers, a flawed tax code, and a general decline in the rule of law. These unjust institutions, policies, and conditions, with their built-in advantages for a select few, cause and sustain economic immobility. They solidify the place of aristocrats — what Buckley also calls the New Class — at the top of the social stratum. Those with high levels of wealth game the system through special favors, government grants, shell companies, complicated tax schemes, offshore banking, and other loopholes designed to ensure that the 1% are excluded from the regulatory barriers imposed and administered by government at the expense of the 99%.

The aristocracy that Buckley targets is not the natural aristocracy celebrated by certain American Founders for its virtue and political disinterestedness. It’s an artificial aristocracy that has little to do with merit or talent. The Founders — probably all of them — would have been appalled by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton: figures who became multi-millionaires through partisan politics. The Clintons embody the new artificial aristocracy. They amassed their wealth by championing programs that have slowed economic mobility while purporting to do the opposite. The Founders, by contrast, believed that benevolent aristocrats would be free from economic pressure and thus would not succumb to the temptations to use government positions or privileges for personal gain.

The Founders would have cringed to learn that public service has become a vehicle to riches. For all his many faults, Donald Trump appeals to disenfranchised Americans because he declares he’s financed his own campaign and admits that a rigged system — exemplified by our federal bankruptcy laws — has worked in his favor. He knows the government system is unfair and claims he wants to change it.

“America was a mobile society for most of the twentieth century,” Buckley says, citing statistics and substantiating his claim with charts and graphs. Trump’s supporters no doubt long for those days of economic mobility that Buckley locates in the exuberant 1950s.

When Trump announces that he wants to make America great again, people stuck at the bottom of the rigid class divide respond with enthusiasm. On a subterranean level, they seem to be hoping that America can once again become a mobile society, a place where a lowly pioneering frontiersman like Abraham Lincoln (Buckley’s favored symbol of social and economic mobility) can rise from humble beginnings to become the President of the United States. Buckley believes that “the central idea of America, as expressed in the Declaration [of Independence], became through Lincoln the promise of income mobility and a faith in the ability of people to rise to a higher station in life.”

Class structure is more settled in America than in much of Europe. Yet America has always defined itself against the European traditions of monarchy, aristocracy, dynasty, and inherited privilege. Buckley states that “America and Europe have traded places.” The trope of the American Dream is about rising out of your received station in life to accomplish great things for yourself and your posterity. What would it mean if U.S. citizens were to envy, instead, the European Dream? What if America is now the country of privilege, not promise? If the American financial and economic situation remains static, we’ll learn the answers to these questions the hard way.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique feature of Buckley’s book is his embrace of Darwinian theory — including the genetic study of phenotypes and kin selection — to explain why American aristocrats combine to preserve their power and restrain the middle and lower classes. In short, people are hard-wired to ensure the survival of their kind, so they pass on competitive advantages to their children. “American aristocrats,” Buckley submits, “are able to identify each other through settled patterns of cooperation called reciprocal altruism.” People organize themselves into social groups that maximize the genetic fitness of their biological descendants. If certain advantages are biologically heritable, then “a country would have to adopt punitive measures to handicap the gifted and talented in order to erase all genetic earnings advantages.”

Eugenics measures were popular during the Progressive Era, before we learned about the horrors of Nazi genocide and eugenics, but surely the Left does not want to return to such inhumane and homicidal practices to realize their beloved ideal of equality. Yet Buckley reveals — more subtly than my summary suggests — that biological tampering is the only way for egalitarians to transform their utopian fantasies into a concrete reality.

To those who might point out that Buckley, a tenured law professor living in the handsome outskirts of D.C., is himself a member of this self-serving aristocracy, Buckley declares that he’s a traitor to his class. Without bravado or boast, he presents himself as the rare altruist who recognizes the net gains realized through reasonable cooperation among disparate groups.

Trump and Ted Cruz ought to have Buckley’s book on hand as they make their final case to the electorate before this summer’s convention. Buckley explains why conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans alike should care about economic mobility and inequality. By ignoring the problem of economic disparity, he warns, “the Republican establishment has handed the Democrats a hammer with which to pound it.” Buckley identifies the types of cronyism and economic barriers to entry that have caused social immobility and inequality. To resolve our troubles, he advocates “easy pieces of useful and efficient legislation” that he dubs his “wish list.”

The final section of his book describes this “wish list” and sketches what Americans can do to reinvigorate their economy and make their country mobile again. By facilitating educational choice and charter schools, streamlining the immigration system, curtailing prosecutorial overreach and the criminalization of entrepreneurship, and cutting back on the financial regulations, tax loopholes, and corporate laws that are calculated to benefit rather than police those at the top, Americans can bring back the conditions necessary for the proliferation of individual liberty and prosperity — or, in Buckley’s words, restore the promise of America.

The Conservative Mindset

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following review first appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Some of the references, such as those to the presidential primary season, may be dated now, but they were timely on the date of original publication.

The presidential primaries are at last upon us. The leading Republican candidates, including frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have resorted to showmanship and grandstanding to make their case for the party nomination. Their harsh, uncouth rhetoric stands in marked contrast to the writings of Russell Amos Kirk, a founding father of modern American conservatism.

Books on Kirk exist, but they’re few. Fellow conservatives, many of them friends or colleagues of Kirk’s — like T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, F. A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss — have received more attention. In this regard, Kirk is the victim of his virtues: he was less polarizing, celebrated by followers and detractors alike for his measured temperament and learned judgments. He did earn numerous adversaries, including Hayek and Frank Meyer, who in retrospect appear more like ambivalent friends, but the staying power of Kirk’s congeniality seems to have softened objections to his most resolute opinions.

Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College who holds a chair named for Kirk, fills a need with his lucid and ambitious biography. Birzer is the first researcher to have been granted full access to Kirk’s letters, diaries, and draft manuscripts. He has avoided — as others haven’t — defining Kirk by his list of accomplishments and has pieced together a comprehensive, complex account of Kirk’s personality, motivations, and influences.

Birzer offers five themes in Kirk’s work, and less so his private life, which Birzer only touches on: his intellectual heritage, his ideas of the transcendent, his Christian humanism, his fiction, and the reach and implications of his conservatism. Kirk isn’t a dull subject. One need not identify as a conservative to appreciate his polished charm and idiosyncrasies. A plump, bespectacled gentleman who feigned disdain for technology, Kirk was something of a spiritualist with a penchant for the weird. He considered himself a Stoic before he had converted to Catholicism, a regeneration that makes sense in light of the relation of Stoic to Pauline thought.

As a young man Kirk spent four years in the military. His feelings about this experience were conflicted. He suffered from a blend of ennui and disenchantment but occupied his free time with reading, writing, and studying. He was horrified by the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States had decimated the most flourishing Western cultural and religious centers in the Japanese Empire, just as he was by the internment of Japanese Americans.

The tremendous violence of the 20th century, occasioned by the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism, impressed upon Kirk a sense of tragedy and fatalism. He came to despise totalitarianism, bureaucracy, radicalism, and “ideology” as leveling systems that stamped out the dignity and individuality of the human person. Hard to place along the left-right spectrum, he was as critical of big corporations and the military as he was of big government and labor.

When Kirk inserted himself into political debates he supported Republican politicians, becoming temporarily more interventionist in his foreign policy before returning to a form of Taftian isolationism, but he always remained more worried about reawakening the moral imagination than in having the right candidates elected to office. His was a long view of society, one without a fixed teleology or secular eschatology, and skeptical of utopian thought. Kirk advocated a “republic of letters,” a community of high-minded and profoundly sensitive thinkers devoted to rearticulating perennial truths (such as the need to pacify human violence, temper human urges for power, and cultivate human longing for the transcendent or divine) and preserving humanist institutions.

Kirk’s politics were shaped by imaginative literature and characterized by a rich poetic vision and vast cultural literacy. Fascinated by such disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, George Santayana, and most of the American Founders, Kirk was also versed in the libertarianism of Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, whose ideas he admired as a young man but vehemently rejected throughout his mature years. Burke and Babbitt, more than any other men, shaped his political philosophy. And his irreducible imagination made room for mysticism and a curious interest in ghosts.

Kirk’s debt to Burke cannot be overstated. “Like the nineteenth-century liberals,” Birzer says, “Kirk focused on the older Burke, but he countered their dismissal of Burke’s ideas as reactionary and exaggerated.” Kirk also downplayed Burke the Whig, who championed the cause of the American Revolution, which Kirk considered to be not a revolution but a conservative restoration of ancient English liberties. Kirk was wary about the Enlightenment, as was Burke, because the scientism of that period tended to oversimplify inherently complex human nature and behavior. Kirk also thought the Enlightenment philosophes had broken too readily from the tested traditions of the past that shaped human experience.

Kirk appealed to American patriotism — which he distinguished from reckless nationalism — in The American Cause (1957) (which he later renounced as a “child’s book”), The Roots of American Order (1974), and Americas British Culture (1993), drawing attention to what he saw as the enduring customs and mores that guard against utopian conjecture. Yet American patriotism was, in Kirk’s mind, heir to the patrimony of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. From the mistakes and successes of these symbolic cities Americans could learn to avoid “foreign aid” and “military violence,” as well as grandiose attempts to “struggle for the Americanization of the world.”

Disillusioned with academia after his graduate work at Duke, Kirk was offered a position, which he turned down, at the University of Chicago. Kirk fell in love with the University of St. Andrews, however, where he took his doctorate and wrote a lengthy dissertation on Edmund Burke that would later become his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. Kirk revised The Conservative Mind throughout his life, adding new permutations and nuances in an attempt to ensure the continued resonance of his cultural mapping.

The almost instant success of The Conservative Mind made Kirk an unlikely celebrity. The book featured sharply etched portraits of men Kirk considered to be representatives of the conservative tradition. Regrettably, and perhaps tellingly, Kirk tended to ignore the contributions of women, passing over such apposite figures as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, with whom he, as a mystic Catholic anglophile, had much in common. Kirk shared more with these women, in fact, than he did with Coleridge or Thomas Babington Macaulay, who appear in The Conservative Mind.

Kirk was also woefully uneducated about American pragmatism. He overlooked Burke’s influence on, and compatibility with, pragmatism. (As Seth Vannatta ably demonstrates in Conservatism and Pragmatism (2014), Burke “is a model precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions.”) Kirk failed to see the pragmatic elements of Santayana, whom he adored, and he seemed generally unaware of the work of C.S. Peirce. Kirk’s breezy dismissal of William James, Santayana’s teacher and later colleague, suggests he hadn’t read much of James’s oeuvre, for Kirk lumped the very different James and Dewey together in a manner that proved that Kirk himself was susceptible to the simplification and reduction he decried in others.

Conservatism, for Kirk, consisted of an attitude or mindset, not an explicit or detailed political program. Enumerating vague “canons” of conservatism that Kirk tweaked from edition to edition, The Conservative Mind was a “hagiographic litany,” a genealogy of the high-minded heroes of ordered liberty and convention. Kirk didn’t intend the book to be model scholarship. It was something more — an aestheticized bricolage cannibalized from Burke and Eliot and others, with inspirational and ritualistic value. It has never gone out of print.

Kirk is sometimes accused of being contradictory, holding simultaneously incompatible positions, in part because he lauded apparent antagonists such as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. “Kirk found something to like in each man,” Birzer says of Calhoun and Lincoln, “for each, from [Kirk’s] perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate.” Tension between rivaling conservative visions is reconciled in Kirk’s desire never “to create an ideology out of conservatism, a theology at the quick and the ready with which one could easily beat one’s opponents into submission.” Ideology, Kirk believed, was a symptom of totalitarianism, and as such was the common denominator of fascism and communism. Kirk believed his own philosophy was not an ideology, because he, like Burke, preferred “a principled defense of justice and prudence” to any specific faction or agenda. He recognized that change was necessary, but thought it should be guided by prudence and historical sensitivity.

For a history buff, Kirk could be positively ahistorical and uncritical, ignoring the nuances and particularities of events that shaped the lives of his heroes. He ignored Calhoun’s commitment to the peculiar institution, and with a quick wave of the hand erased slavery from Calhoun’s political calculus, adding without qualification that “Calhoun defended the rights of minorities.” Kirk made clumsy caricatures out of his assumed enemies, calling men like Emerson “the most influential of all American radicals.” Emerson had met Coleridge, whose Romanticism partially inspired Emerson’s transcendentalism. Yet Kirk loathed Emerson and praised Coleridge and saw no inconsistency in doing so.

Kirk was not alone during the 1950s. The decade witnessed a renaissance of conservatism, exemplified by the publication of not only Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but also Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Gabriel Marcel’s Man against Mass Society, Christopher Dawkins’s Understanding Europe, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. It was The Conservative Mind, however, that “gave one voice to a number of isolated and atomized voices.” It also lent intellectual substance and credibility to the activist groundswell surrounding such politicians as Goldwater a decade later.

When Kirk joined Buckley’s National Review, the manner of his writing changed. Previously he had contributed to literary and scholarly journals, but, as Birzer points out, his “contributions to the National Review slowly but surely crowded out his output to other periodicals.” Working for National Review also drew Kirk into personality conflicts that passed as theoretical disagreements. Kirk sided with Buckley, for instance, in banishing from the pages of National Review any writers associated with the John Birch Society. Kirk despised the egoism of Ayn Rand, scorned the label neoconservative, and did not take kindly to the doctrines of Irving Kristol. Yet Kirk held Leo Strauss in high regard, in no small part because of Strauss’s scholarship on Burke and natural rights.

Strauss is sometimes treated as the fount of neoconservativism, given that his students include, among others, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Paul Wolfowitz. But Kirk never would have considered the esoteric and conscientious Strauss to be in a league with neoconservative provocateurs like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, who indicted Kirk for anti-Semitism after Kirk, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, stated that some neoconservatives had mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States — a tactless comment that was blown out of proportion.

“Kirk never sought conformity with those around him,” Birzer argues, “because he never wanted to create a sect or a religion or a cult of personality.” Kirk labored for the sake of posterity, not self-promotion. “The idea of creating ‘Kirkians,’” as there are Straussians, Misesians, Randians, and Rothbardians, “would have horrified [Kirk] at every level of his being”; Birzer insists that Kirk “desired only to inspire and to leaven with the gifts given him,” adding that “[h]e did well.” “I hope,” Birzer concludes, “I have done at least half as well” in writing Kirk’s biography.

Bringing Kirk into renewed focus during a contentious election season, as the term conservatism is bandied about, contested, and abused by commentators as varied as David Brooks and Phyllis Schlafly, Megyn Kelly and Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and Michael Savage, Birzer reminds us that conservatism, properly understood, is a “means, a mood, an attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular political philosophy, party, or agenda.”

One wonders, watching the campaign stops and debate spectacles, the ominous political advertisements and alarmist fundraising operations, what’s left of this humane tradition in our current political discourse. When our politicians lack a responsible and meaningful awareness of the residual wisdom of the ages, we get the leadership and politics we deserve. Would that we had more Russell Kirks around to remind us of the enduring things that, in times like these, are hard to find and difficult to believe in.

Attuned to the Daimon

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 27, 2016 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the Library of Law & Liberty.

Richard Bishirjian wears many hats. He’s a businessman, speaker, educator, regular contributor to Modern Age, founder and president of Yorktown University, and champion of online education. He has been a visible presence at conservative conferences and colloquia and an active member of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Philadelphia Society, and the National Association of Scholars. As a young man he studied under Gerhart Niemeyer, Ralph McInerny, Eric Voegelin, and Michael Oakeshott, whose philosophical influences are on display in The Conservative Rebellion, Bishirjian’s latest book, which seeks to reclaim that evocative and oft-abused signifier, “rebel.”

The author disavows the term “conservative movement” even as he uses it out of convenience. Movements as he describes them are “anti-traditional and ideologically motivated revolutionary currents” such as communism or National Socialism that have nothing to do with conservatism, which, he maintains, is constitutionally anti-ideological and anti-utopian. The conservative rebellion, then, is not a movement but a state of mind shared by enough individuals to comprise a community of purpose.

Bishirjian assures us that “this is a work of political theory by which its author affirms a reality that ‘is’ at the same time that he and his fellow Conservative Rebels are its representatives.” He thus locates himself and others like him—the conservative rebels—in a moment of American history that he calls the period of recovery.

This recovery follows four paradigmatic, transitional stages of the American body politic: 1) the revolutionary “spirit” that galvanized the Declaration of Independence; 2) the circumspect limited-government ethos that found expression in the U.S. Constitution; 3) the quasi-religious new nationalism of Abraham Lincoln, which was spiritual and democratic in substance; and 4) the civic religion of modern millennialism in which Progressive idealism, characterized by Woodrow Wilson’s crusading reforms, actualized Lincoln’s mystical vision by replacing limited government with nationalized and centralized power.

Just as each paradigm supplanted its predecessor, so the conservative rebellion of today—a fifth paradigmatic stage—is working to undermine the normative principles bequeathed to us by Lincoln and magnified by Wilson. Bishirjian believes we are struggling with the tensions between the fourth and fifth stages, even within conservative circles, insofar as neoconservatism recalls Lincoln’s and Wilson’s “consciousness of order.” He’s used a Voegelinian term there. It’s the Voegelin in Bishirjian that elicits his overall critique of neoconservatives, whose vision for global democracy and human rights, in his mind, resembles the Gnostic conception of a heaven on earth within history.

The Conservative Rebellion is part memoir, part prescription. It recalls Bishirjian’s formative university years and might be described, in part, as the story of his intellectual awakening. The prose is anything but pedantic, its muscular quality seen, for example, when he writes that “from 1961 to 1964 I read any and every book I could get my hands on to try to figure out what in the hell was going on.” Political incorrectness abounds, as when he describes where he studied:

Take a backwater graduate institution along the St. Joseph River like Notre Dame, have it focus on a backwater region like Latin America, and you seal Notre Dame’s fate as just another graduate program in government.

Bishirjian here refers to the chairman of the Department of Government deciding, in the late 1960s, to reorient the curriculum toward Latin American studies rather than capitalizing on the talent and specialties already existing among a faculty that included Voegelin, Niemeyer, and Stanley Parry. This reconfiguration followed the alleged purging of Notre Dame’s conservative faculty under Father Theodore Hesburgh, its president from 1952 to 1987. The criticisms of the university’s administration during his graduate studies reveal the intensity with which Bishirjian approaches ideas. So does his recalling the fact that he wept the first time he read Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics (1952).

He primarily considers the conservative rebellion he participated in from the time of the Kennedy presidency through that of Jimmy Carter. With the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bishirjian and his cohorts saw the fruits of their labor and rejoiced, but only for a time. Eventually infighting and enforced ideological standards slowed their momentum and sent well-meaning friends along differing paths. Bishirjian relates that traditional conservatives in the Reagan administration were gradually displaced by neoconservatives after the resignation of Richard V. Allen as National Security Adviser. From that moment on, he suggests, Republican presidential administrations were increasingly peopled by neoconservatives, a word that goes undefined.

The object of Bishirjian’s animus is Progressivism, or Woodrow Wilson’s “political religion.”  That he also calls communism a “political religion” suggests how destructively ideological he believes Wilson’s programs and legacy to have been. He submits that political religion is “ersatz religion” in that it’s a “false construction that intervenes between us and the experience of reality,” a bold and curious claim that makes sense only in light of Voegelin’s teachings.

At times, though, the author denominates Progressivism as liberalism. Not to be mistaken for the classical variety, his targeted liberalism is “intolerant, illiberal, devoid of magnanimity and devoted to the expansion of state power.” So defined, liberalism stands in contradistinction to conservatism, which, he says, is a “political theory linked to an attitude of spirit and mind, not a political philosophy by which the greater universe becomes visible.”

The Wilsonian worldview is most obviously manifest in foreign policy. Bishirjian articulates his longstanding discontent with the Vietnam War and believes “it is not a moral obligation of the American people to die so that others may realize their nationhood.” At the same time, he condemns the coordinated ostracizing of faculty who spoke out in favor of that war. He lambasts both Bush presidencies for their grandiose foreign policy and cautions that

Nothing grows more quickly during war than the powers of the state with the result that by the end of the twentieth century the American administrative state had become the enemy of all Americans, but only social, political and economic conservatives seemed concerned.

Although bitter, Bishirjian is something of an optimist. He sees the potential for cultural restoration, hoping our decline will be followed by prophetic renewal. He notes that Plato and Augustine, respectively, arose from the collapse of the Greek city-state and the Roman Empire. Anxiously alive to the intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream conservatism of the prepackaged, mass-market television variety, he laments “the decline in conservative scholarship and influence in academe,” where institutions of knowledge and learning ought to breed contemplative figureheads.

St. Augustine’s Press has put out a handsome hardback edition of this book. (One would have liked to see more careful copy-editing, though. The typographical errors are distracting.) Its normative assessments and presiding themes should provoke readers on the Left and the Right. Its main thrust is that, to recover the lost tradition of conservatism, what is required is the leadership of men and women attentive to the redemptive and visionary powers of the daimon.

The Conservative Rebellion reaches print just three months after the publication of Harold Bloom’s The Daemon Knows, in which the notion of the daimon (Greek), or the daemon (Latin), figures prominently as a sublime, aboriginal force of human imagination. The daimon prophesies a cosmology, not a short-term political platform or “get-out-the-vote” campaign. He consults Boethius, not Karl Rove. He counsels a consciousness of time and order, not a debate strategy or partisan wager. The luminosity of consciousness isn’t a purely pragmatic strategy capable of yielding quick results, but it does fulfill the mundane task of disclosing a way forward. It’s a prudent plan, in other words, not just a numinous agency, and it has the potential to instantiate once again the fusionism of Frank Meyer.

If Bishirjian is correct, then those attuned to the dynamism of the daimon might be found among “philosophers, knowledgeable political leaders, non-ideological publications, wealthy benefactors and supportive institutions.” It’s telling that he doesn’t name living examples. One wonders if there are any.

Rugged Individualism in Slave Narratives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on August 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The transcendental idealism of Emerson and Thoreau found its most illuminating expression and drew its most ardent followers before the Civil War would temper the spirits of many Americans.  Emerson and Thoreau both advocated for removing oneself from the constraints of society and for realizing an inner drive and power for epistemological, spiritual, and political purposes.  This individualism had more credence in New England than it did in the Southern states, and it is therefore not surprising that 19th century slave narratives would seek to appropriate that discourse of individualism in order to explain and condemn the realities of slavery.  Slavery could be cast as a symptom of the collective mindset, an evil that clearly could be seen as such if only individuals would separate themselves from conformity with the social unit and prevailing ideology.

Frederick Douglass, in both Narrative of the Life and his later work My Bondage and My Freedom, reveals that his childhood in slavery was relatively relaxed compared to that of other slaves, yet as he moved from master to master and was denied education—that is, as he grew into a man—the regulation of his body became harsher and more violent.  Douglass, who, as a lecturer, impressed upon his listeners a sense of rugged masculinity, uses his narratives to show how an individual can stand up to an entire institution.  In both narratives he vividly depicts his battle with Mr. Covey, a vicious overseer who was determined to train Douglass into docile submission by means of overwhelming violence.  It is an inner will as much as brute strength that brings about Douglass’s triumph over Covey, and it is Douglass’s determination to read and to learn that allows him to circumvent white law to achieve the literacy that made both of these works possible.

As an anti-slavery advocate in the North, having attained his freedom, Douglass expressed his individualism in a variety of ways, not least of which in his insistence to remain independent of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists with whom Douglass had, as it were, a falling out.  Douglass also articulated a desire for blacks to embrace the ideal of personal responsibility and to look to their own personhood as a means for pulling themselves out of their unfortunate condition.  His enabling rhetoric was intended to be inspirational and to imitate the rhetoric and values of New England whites, without whose support neither he nor other slaves could mobilize political action.  Other authors of slave narratives such as William Wells Brown (who, it should be mentioned, had a falling out with Douglass) employ similar tactics and strategies regarding the appeal to individualism.  Brown also promoted himself as a masculine figure who realized his autonomy and drew strength from his own will to deliver himself from bondage.

Harriet Jacobs’s narrative couches individualism in more ambiguous terms.  She gives herself the name Linda Brent in the narrative, which is addressed explicitly to the “women of the North.”  Her narrative is replete with apostrophes to these women readers and, therefore, with signals and coded references meant to gain sympathy and provoke anger at the institution of slavery.  When Linda’s master attempts to take her in as his sex slave, she goes so far as to have an affair with a white man, Mr. Sands, as a form of resistance.  Knowing the decorum of her audience and the precariousness of her status as a freed slave, Linda repeatedly acknowledges the sinfulness of her act but stresses, too, that she cannot be held to the same standards as white women, who enjoy the freedom to make moral choices.  In a system of slavery, Linda suggests, there are no moral choices because one is reduced to selecting between one bad act or another.  Like Douglass, Linda finds freedom in the North, and, like Douglass, she spends time in England, where, she indicates, freedom flourishes, at least in relation to the United States.  Jacobs’s narrative can be taken as an urgent statement on the agency of slaves in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the image of the strong woman that she cultivates (not just in herself but in the person of her grandmother) resonates as a powerful trope that others would pick up on. Read the rest of this entry »

A Few More Words on Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Politics on October 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Many American politicians call themselves “conservative” despite never having read Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Robert Taft, Donald Davidson, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk.  Television pundits recycle the term “neoconservative” without even a passing reference to Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, or Norman Podhoretz.  A welcome respite from the ignorance of the talking heads, Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (Yale University Press, 2009) is an engaging and informative book, even if it is more of an introduction to American conservatism than a critical study.  I recently reviewed the book here at the journal 49th Parallel, but I have more to say about it.

American conservatism is rich and complex but too often simplified or ignored by academics who think they know what conservatism means.  I applaud Allitt for taking conservatism seriously and for marshaling a wealth of evidence to support his thesis.  Those who cannot identify what generally distinguishes a paleoconservative from a neoconservative, or who’re confused by the apparent hypocrisy of conservatives who call for big-government spending on military and surveillance while griping about big-government, need to read this book.  Allitt provides clarity and direction for the uninitiated.  He deserves not just our attention, but our admiration.

Allitt attends to several figures in this book, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett, John Marshall, John Randolph of Roanoke, George Fitzhugh, Rufus Choate, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, John Crow Ransom, Andrew Lytle, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Adams Cram, George Santayana, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, George Will, Ronald Reagan, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, M. E. Bradford, Thomas Fleming, Clyde Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and others.  One book cannot address every major figure that influenced American conservatism, and Allit’s failure to mention some names (Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Wendell Berry, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, or any of the Bob Joneses) is understandable.  Paul Gottfried appears just once in the book, and passingly.  But a case could be made that Gottfried’s paleoconservatism is more European in origin and thus worthy of analysis.  And surely Eric Voegelin warrants more than a casual reference in a single paragraph.

For some, Allitt’s most objectionable suggestion will be that the Civil War was a conflict of two conservatisms: Calhoun’s versus Webster’s.  This interpretation illuminates and simultaneously complicates such recent debates as the one held between Thomas DiLorenzo and Harry V. Jaffa over the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

Allitt also suggests that the Federalists represent an early manifestation of conservatism.  This classification would mean that Jefferson and his ilk were not conservatives, which would in turn imply that current Jeffersonians are not in keeping with a purely conservative tradition.  Allitt offers this helpful and accurate note about Jefferson: “He might not have been the Jacobin his Federalist foes alleged, but neither can he easily be thought of as a conservative.”  Many scholars and enthusiasts consider Jefferson to be a “classical liberal,” but the signification of that word relative to “libertarian” or “conservative” merely confounds definitional precision:  All three words have been used interchangeably and negligently in recent decades.  It may not matter if Jefferson is called “conservative” or “liberal,” especially if those terms cause people to short-circuit reflection or affix a contemporary label to a complicated man living in a complex, radically different era.

Allitt’s book is a fine contribution to and about conservative letters.  I recommend it to anyone who thinks he can explain conservatism.

%d bloggers like this: