America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Donald Trump • Education • Harry Jaffa • political philosophy • Post • statesmanship • the Presidency

Who Knows America Best? Politicians Can Teach Professors

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In January I was invited to address the City Tavern Club on the occasion of the club’s annual Reagan Dinner. This year it was a particular honor because it was the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s last full year in office. We remember Reagan as an inspirational, optimistic figure who oversaw great changes in attitude among Americans and between America and the rest of the world. But that view of Reagan today is not what we might have had back in 1988.

In late January of 1988, the Superbowl Champion Washington Redskins were honored in at a White House ceremony. Some may recall that President Reagan, in honoring them, was also able to hit the Redskins wide receiver, Ricky Sanders with a perfect pass (view at 10:30).  We have yet to see President Trump hitting Press Secretary Sarah Sanders with a golf ball.

Politically, however, January 1988 appeared to mark the beginning of a lame-duck year, with Democratic majorities in Congress. The Iran-Contra investigation (the second attempt to assassinate him) and the defeat of Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court showed the decline of his once-feared powers. A brutal, unhinged thrashing by Senator Ted Kennedy and the general Reagan Administration haplessness had magnified Bork’s own fumbles.

A year later, in January of 1989, the President assessed his eight years of achievements. His Farewell Address first recalled the wild accusations of his critics when he ran for president: that his “views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would … bring about economic collapse…. The fact is, what they called ‘radical’ was really ‘right.’ What they called ‘dangerous’ was just ‘desperately needed.’”

The “Reagan Revolution” was “more like the great rediscovery … of our values and our common sense.” In that rediscovering, America “changed the world.”

In the spirit of both Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Perpetuation Address, Reagan voiced the need for an “informed patriotism” to accompany “the resurgence of national pride that [he] called the new patriotism … grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.”

Reagan emphasized, “Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age [today over 65] grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.” One could learn patriotism from family, neighbors, veterans, or even school. “And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.”

With this let us recall the television shows we saw back in the late 1980s: LA Law, Dallas. Miami Vice. Hill Street Blues’ , “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” We see Reagan’s point even more today.

“But now, he lamented, “we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed.… Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it.” “Reinstitutionalized?” Reagan’s maladroit word choice, so atypical of him, highlights the daunting difficulty of this project.

But harsh criticism of Reagan’s (or any other President’s) inability to “reinstitutionalize” the American spirit or, for that matter, find a better word to describe the project overlooks a contemporaneous and amazing book that shook the intellectual world: Allan D. Bloom’s 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom, a University of Chicago political theorist highly distinguished for his scholarship on ancient and modern political philosophy and on Shakespeare, inspired a generation of brilliant students, who became leading scholars, teachers, and government officials. Might Bloom’s denunciation of the soft nihilism of contemporary intellectual life answer Reagan’s challenge of creating a “new” and “informed patriotism?”

As it turns out, no.

Bloom trenchantly exposed the insipid character of the contemporary university, wrapped up as it was (and still is) in German philosophy: “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates, and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier….” Juxtaposing John Locke and Woody Allen, Bloom asserted the insight of Rousseau over both. Even when combined with democracy, capitalism with all its benefits is not enough. To paraphrase the title of the French edition of the book (L’âme désarmée), the human soul has unfulfilled longings. Bloom showed how the serious study of great literature and philosophy might address these age-old elements of the human soul. That is where what he calls “authentic liberation” can be found.

If “reinstitutionalize” is an awkward construction of what America needed to restore herself, Bloom’s prescription offers temptations but is wanting.

And this is where a political critique of Bloom’s view is called for. Harry V. Jaffa, a co-author with Bloom of Shakespeare’s Politics and a formidable political philosopher points out that “Bloom cannot form or accept an opinion about the United States that has not come to him from a European source.” In contrast to Bloom’s world formed by books, Jaffa presents The American book of books, … the story of America itself, as the story of the secular redemption of mankind.”

Thus, to seriously address Bloom (and Reagan’s) concern, “The solution is not accomplished without books but it is more than books and ideas. It is about strength of soul that brings purpose and will.” For Jaffa, the story of America is one that centers on the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. And those are accessible to all who are open to them, from the common citizen to the scholar, not just those who studied the political philosophy that informed their assertion.

Needless to say, one cannot settle such issues in a brief essay, but the consequences are not merely literary. Having been unjustly rejected for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork wrote books attacking American legal and political culture. In his second book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996), Bork speculates that the Declaration of Independence is the fountainhead of contemporary nihilism, with its talk of equality, rights, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thus, among other astounding speculations, he proposes that “the street predator of the underclass may be the natural outcome of the mistake the founders of liberalism made.” Bork would draw a straight line from the anti-tyrannical Lockean elements of the Declaration (“the pursuit of happiness”) to contemporary moral nihilism. He cannot see the decisive distinction between Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, on the one hand, and the street thug and his academic apologists, on the other. We can see from our brief reflections here that Bork came to this astounding conclusion because he was blinded by Bloom and his students to have this low view of America.

The man alleged by his opponents to be a dunce, Ronald Reagan, saw political and moral education more clearly than most of the intellectuals of his day, even the conservative ones: “Winston Churchill said that ‘the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals.’” Consider the penetrating insight in that about the human condition—learned through observation of lived experience, perhaps even through watching and performing in films, not through dogged study of philosophical treatises.

Would it be too much to hope for that movies such as Darkest Hour  and Dunkirk might signal an openness to a coming conversion of the American consciousness?

Or might we turn for lessons to the author of another best-selling book of 1987, written by no intellectual but instead by a man of action. A shrewd and intellectual observer at the time wrote that its author “believes that excess can be a virtue, [he] is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary.” This observer is none other than George Will, as quoted in Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.  

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5 replies
  1. hamburgertoday2017
    hamburgertoday2017 says:

    To dig deep into time, this essay reminds me of Zeno’s paradox. Zeno argued that, logically, one can never arrive at a given location and then would walk to the location he described, showing that, however much the thought might seem unassailable in its rationale, the problem was merely one of thought and not action.

  2. bill greene
    bill greene says:

    I enjoyed the writer’s glowing references to Reagan as a great leader who, at least temporarily, restored the Pride of most Americans in their nation: “In the spirit of both Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Perpetuation Address, Reagan voiced the need for an “informed patriotism” to accompany “the resurgence of national pride that [he] called the new patriotism … grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.” It is unfortunate that a fanatical minority of Americans have reversed those feelings of unity and optimism, and by continuing their almost treasonous desire to totally transform America, have undone most of the Reagan Revolution.

    However, the obvious comparison of Reagan and Trump suggests that our current embattled president may restore Reagan’s message to America: “The man alleged by his opponents to be a dunce, Ronald Reagan, saw political and moral education more clearly than most of the intellectuals of his day, even the conservative ones: “Winston Churchill said that ‘the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals. Consider the penetrating insight in that about the human condition—learned through observation of lived experience, perhaps even through watching and performing in films, not through dogged study of philosophical treatises.” Today, Trump brings the same real-world experience to the job and opposes the disastrous schemes of the globalist elite, but like Reagan, he is ridiculed by the leaders of both political parties, as a dunce, labelled mentally unfit to lead a great nation. How have we come to this? The establishment of both parties loathe the two outsiders who are our only hope of restoring integrity and pride in our government.

    Thus, the Far Left continues its attack against any traditional conservative who opposes their agenda. These over-educated elites are persistent and they hate patriotism, the deplorables, nationalism, and any belief in American exceptionalism. We have been warned about these fanatics continuously over the last 75 years by such writers as Ludwig Von Mises and James Burnham,. In “Suicide of the West,” Burnham referred to the radical Left as a spiritual worm that will destroy Western civilization and called for a reassertion of “the pre-liberal conviction that Western civilization, thus Western man, is both different from and superior in quality to other civilizations.” Sadly, these warnings have been in vain; it has been a 100 year struggle, but,by gaining control of the schools and colleges, with support from the media and most governmental bureaucracies, the “progressive” elites have been steadily winning. The trend is clear and we can only join professor Ken Masugi in the hope that outsiders, conservative populists like Trump, can regain control and restore American Greatness. Unfortunately, before restoration can begin, president Trump must drain the swamp of opposition that continues to oppose his presidency and the peoples’ desire..

    It was, however, a downer to read the professor’s last paragraph, which quotes George Will’s fawning praise of Trump from many years ago, because the current George Will, true to his intellectual elite background, has of late become a big critic of our president. Apparently, it was one thing to praise a billionaire’s book, but quite distasteful to welcome a didactic businessman to the heralded world of Washington D. C. (For more on that arrogant establishment, read Angelo de Codevilla’s book, “The Ruling Class.”

  3. allangen
    allangen says:

    The left, in its march through our institutions, has come to dominate the culture. This is not the liberalism of Hubert Humphrey or Adlai Stevenson, this is the hard left that despises representative government and the rule of law. Hostility to free speech has been a cardinal aspect of the far left for many decades. Now it is enshrined not only in academia but in the MSM as well. Today’s Democrats call the antifa that rapes, defecates on police cars, and commits acts of violence, “our tea party.”
    They also embrace BLM that combines Marxist hatred of America with racist hostility to white folks. None of this has been lost on the rest of the population. Our struggle is not just in the realm of ideas. Academics and intellectuals stress what they are most comfortable with even if their formulation is off the mark. If institutions continue to show that they are impotent in the face of this monumental change, the struggle will be in the streets.

  4. RAM500
    RAM500 says:

    “…the secular redemption of mankind…” taken literally is an impossibility. The outlook of our Founding Fathers was not nearly as secular on the whole as alleged. If the quoted phrase really means the practical, everyday application of God’s laws on earth through a properly ordered society, we have something to discuss.

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