First Principles

Tolerance Is Not Enough

While it is important for us to come together and work to address shared concerns and strive to reach shared goals, it is important to remember that cultures and religions have fundamental and occasionally contradictory principles.

Last week, the Hudson Institute and the European Leadership Network hosted a panel discussion on anti-Semitism featuring many high profile religious and interfaith engagement leaders, including Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, a renowned moderate French Muslim who maintains close relations with Jewish organizations in France.

The discussion, which took place in the Hudson Institute’s beautiful Pennsylvania Avenue offices and featured an open bar, predictably featured what some may call platitudes about building bridges between communities and fostering dialogue to fight hate. But while such “platitudes” can seem tired and cliché, it is important to remember that they became clichés, that is, repeated ad nauseam, for a reason—precisely because they contain valuable advice.

Of course, it is easy to talk about building bridges and fostering dialogue. But actually doing it requires hard and dangerous work. It often requires putting yourself in uncomfortable and foreign situations where your audience, at best, is skeptical and at worst, hostile.

Remarkably, most of the panelists at this event had put in the work to convert platitudes into action and actually have built bridges and fostered dialogue.

Most panelists agreed that it was important to focus interfaith conversations on the concrete issues that each community faces and to address particular instances of religious intolerance case by case, while attempting to put them in their broader contexts. It is far easier to work together and find compromise when an issue is narrowly defined and there is a well-defined goal in sight. Most of these panelists spoke from experience.

The imam later showed me pictures he had taken with a wide variety of religious and political leaders from both the Jewish and the Muslim communities. He told me about events he had organized to bring the two communities together to have conversations and to foster friendships. He spoke glowingly of his dream to export love and good relationships through his example and to create strong friendships that would last through difficult times.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Washington director for international relations for highlighted the Bearing Witness program as a particularly successful example of cooperation between prominent Jewish and Catholic organizations to address the history of anti-Semitism, the role of the Church during the Holocaust, recent changes in Catholic teachings, and practical strategies for teaching students about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

The other panelists spoke with passion about how they engaged faith leaders in various communities to help reduce sexual exploitation of children, bolster national security, and increase the civic engagement and assimilation of Muslim-American voters—all admirable causes that most, if not all, Americans would and should support.

The event was worthwhile for the exchange of good news about improvements in various areas that most people support. It is good for various community leaders to come together to develop working relationships to address issues where there is already common agreement. But such meetings, however useful, should not be considered successful “interfaith exchanges. These engagements rarely address, let alone resolve, fundamental irreconcilable differences between religions and cultures. They are palliative—not permanent.

Irreconcilable differences are—as the name suggests—irreconcilable. And while tolerance may help various cultures and religions to co-exist, it is naïve to believe that tolerance will be or even can be a cure-all.

France’s ban on full-face veils in public areas (a ban that Imam Chalghoumi said he supports) is a perfect example of an irreconcilable difference that cannot be alleviated by tolerance. The very existence of a law prohibiting any action is a societal claim that the action is intolerable. And the pervasive contentiousness in politics about such actions is ample evidence that people may disagree vehemently about what should and should not be tolerated.

Kumbaya moments arise from shared assumptions and beliefs. One such shared assumption could be that tolerance should be an overarching principle in our civics. But even the most tolerant-minded among us can quickly find themselves advocating South Parkesque death camps of tolerance. Those who preach tolerance are typically intolerant of ideologies that they view as intolerant. And so it becomes a circular argument. We find ourselves unable to be completely agnostic.

Another shared assumption could be that we should mitigate violence at any cost.

Depending on how we decide to implement this principle, however, it is possible we may find ourselves held hostage by whichever group is willing to be the most violent—forced to bend to their will, lest innocent people die. Or we may find ourselves in an increasingly totalitarian state that excuses its threats of violence as necessary to stop violence, as speech and action are increasingly restricted.

Once again, we cannot be agnostic.

In our attempts to be tolerant and to avoid violence, we must remember the things that we value enough to fight and possibly, die for. We must not forget that we viewed Great Britain’s Coercive Acts as intolerable enough to start a revolutionary war and that we viewed the dissolution of the Union as intolerable enough to endure a prolonged and bloody civil war. We cannot be, nor should we be, perfectly tolerant. We should not delude ourselves that every disagreement can be resolved through dialogue.

While it is important for us to come together and work to address shared concerns and strive to reach shared goals, it is important to remember that cultures and religions have fundamental and occasionally contradictory principles. To pretend that they are all compatible and ultimately interchangeable—just with different veneers on the same feel-good message—in addition to being a dangerous self-deception, would be to disrespect the rich intellectual, historical, and spiritual traditions that lie behind them.

First Principles

Socialism Extinguishes the American and Biblical Ideal

The call for socialism, even so-called “democratic socialism,” is an attack on America itself.

Those today pitching democratic socialism as a safe and benign form of socialism are hiding the truth about it. By nature, socialism disregards any aspect of democratic will when it is in conflict with its fixed social agenda and goal of economic leveling. Thus, democratic socialism is an oxymoron, a seductive syntax and play on words.

Socialist candidates running for office do not do so to offer greater liberty, income, opportunity, or greater speech rights, but to institute heavy social engineering aimed toward conformity and sameness. History shows how in the name of “fairness” socialist rulers and bureaucrats disregarded democracy, as well as citizens who do not accept the deprivations needed to bring about the “ideal state.”

Too many among our young assume that socialism will provide the same level of prosperity and easy consumption they currently enjoy, with an added feel-good patina. They see no downside. But current and past real examples prove that prosperity, abundance, and ease of purchase and opportunity, including free speech, dramatically decline with the advent of any form of socialism. Political and religious freedom is inexorably tied to economic freedom. There is no “right” type of socialism or a right time for it or even a right person to oversee it.

Today’s fashionable cultural Marxism puts in jeopardy even more freedoms than that of the economic Marxism of years ago. It attacks and severely diminishes freedom of speech, assembly, and religious freedoms. The intent of indicting “America as racist from top to bottom,” as do many on the Left, is to provide political license to tear down and rebuild America according to socialism’s leveling and confiscatory blueprint.

The Lie of American Socialists

Proponents of socialism, such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Representative Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), employ a clever formula from the old playbook to disparage free markets while pointing to socialism as the only solution. Spotlighting a person who, for example, didn’t have enough money for insulin or food, they proclaim that capitalism is heartless and inequitable and must immediately be replaced. Instead of exploring remedies already available within our existing capitalist structure, they demand its nullification with a socialist system controlled by them.

We know, however, that between government programs already in existence as well as America’s generous and historic ethic of volunteerism, no one here seeking basic necessities of life would be denied if brought to the attention of authorities or the public. While socialists spotlight and exploit the occasional neglected person, it is only because of capitalism that hundreds of thousands have insulin to begin with and millions have a full array of high-quality medicines, healthcare, goods and services that would not exist for anyone on this earth absent the creativity and ease of production borne of capitalism. Even with robust full employment and more jobs available than those seeking work, socialist candidates dishonestly agitate about a lack of opportunities for employment.

Caring and sensible people do not deny the miracles proffered to millions of people by capitalism because a few people momentarily fall under the radar. Only those seeking power or envious of the wealth and success of others would succumb to such irrationality and seek to destroy that which has been the best source of invention, production, and distribution of goods and services for virtually everyone.

Too many Americans intentionally are being taught in schools that capitalism is something filled with warts and prejudice, while socialism is judged only by its theoretical fantasy. It’s given a pass for its historical failures because it promises something equal and fair because all are said to share equally in what is available, even though that which is available is most often nondescript, erratic, and far from the best.

Beyond the economic dearth and loss of freedom redolent in socialism, once America crosses the Rubicon into socialism, we will negatively change forever—both in national character and in regards to the aspirations and potential of individuals. Those who love what this country is and what it has offered should be alarmed and fight against such a transformation.

Socialism nullifies the individual on the altar of the masses, creating the opposite of the American spirit and essence. America has sparked the embers of individual initiative and eagerness and has summoned us to find and burst forward with the God-given potential within each of us: to become the best we can. This is because, not in spite of, free market capitalism and the Judeo-Christian ethic that supports it. But, those individual sparks are readily snuffed out when people are forced to submit to mass conformity and the artificial equalizing endemic to the Marxist utopia.

The Dreary Future Socialism Promises

America’s national personality has always been optimistic and cheerful, with a philosophy of fair play, and one which generally eschewed envy and bitterness. These positive characteristics are a consequence of liberty and free markets that suffuse society with an aroma of unlimited potential for all, where one’s achievements and place among the stars is not stymied by the success of others. The pie in capitalism is not finite but open for unlimited growth.

All of this, that which makes America exceptional and a magnet for achievers around the world searching for a platform, is in jeopardy with the deployment of socialism that feels irked and threatened by the outstanding success of others, frowns upon unbridled confidence, promotes fear, and speaks ill of the idea of meritocracy that is capitalism’s and America’s foundation.

Meritocracy allows people to feel upbeat and happy, to expect that things will be fair. This comes from knowing their accomplishments and upward mobility depend not on cronyism, but on their own individual hard work, investment and risk, and perseverance. In contrast, socialism is tied to cronyism and depends on connections to the right people in government bureaucracies and, in today’s world of intersectional preference, one’s race or religious views.

Three of the most important American characteristics depend on free markets and the condition of meritocracy: self-reliance, personal responsibility, and independence, all three being attributes favored by the Bible. The Bible equally enshrines liberty: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land, to all the inhabitants therein.”

The call for socialism, even so-called “democratic socialism,” is an attack on America itself. No doubt this is intentional, to malign what and who we are so as to upend what has been handed down to us.

Inequality Imposed from Above

The push for socialism cannot be considered a moral endeavor. Capitalism is not incidental to America, but rather the engine and springboard behind Americanism itself. Without it America is not America, nor will its people adhere to that which we proudly call Americanism.

No one in America has become poorer because of capitalism’s opportunities. In contrast, socialism makes people poorer. Capitalism allows people to become wealthier and better off. No one in America became poorer because Bill Gates became very wealthy. On the contrary, because of what he did (as with Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie before) society benefited greatly and vast numbers of people found jobs lifting up their standard of living.

The much-heralded “income equality” is not possible unless imposed from above. It is accomplished by dragging entrepreneurs, talented and hardworking people down to unfair levels. Income equality is not a sign of good societal health, for it reflects a society bereft of overachievers and wealth creators, where no industrial breakthroughs are happening. It is not greedy to wish to keep that which we earn, though it is greedy and immoral to demand for yourself as an entitlement, things for which others worked and sacrificed.

Much of the income equality jargon is rooted in envy, envy that has become approved when done in the name of politics and equality. But, envy in any form it takes shape is a cardinal sin, marqueed in the Ten Commandments itself. Furthermore, when the Bible speaks of equality it does not aspire to sameness or wages disassociated from what we produce; it means we are all entitled to equal justice under the law.

Free this and free that is not a noble paradigm. “Six days shall you work” replaced the care-free Garden of Eden. Nor is the culture of entitlement and envy the seed that sprouts inner strength, rather the virus that induces frailty and feebleness, lowers the horizons, and atrophies the heroic struggle.

Thus, socialism is especially detrimental to younger people beginning life’s journey into adulthood and responsibility. Free markets and the life of personal responsibility are demanding, but they provide what the Bible precisely envisioned: liberty and ingenuity for a humanity created in the image of God.

First Principles

A Resource for Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty is the latest in the Ashbrook Center’s series of document collections covering major periods, themes, and institutions in American history and government. 

For anyone interested in the fate of religious freedom in America Religious Liberty: Core Court Cases may be the most important guide to contemporary controversies over religion in the public square a nonspecialist can own. At least the price is right; the text of the 244-page book is also available free on the internet, in keeping with the civic education mission of the publisher, the Ashbrook Center. Nonetheless, many readers will prefer the inexpensive paperback, as they may prefer to spare themselves the cost of replacing a destroyed computer or cell phone, which is likely to come after reading some of the court’s opinions.

By selecting a diverse array of opinions on religion and the law, we at the Ashbrook Center produced a book that encourages non-specialist readers to examine the legal strife surrounding issues such as the constitutionality of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance or a prayer recited before a football game at a public school, whether a law may violate the conscience of a religious business owner, or whether a cross may be erected on public land. 

The need for this collection was striking even before the Supreme Court accepted for argument a case involving a Philadelphia law requiring the inclusion of same-sex couples as adoptive parents and faith-based adoption agencies who have rejected them. Is the law discriminatory against religious institutions or are the religious adoption agencies violating a general law against discrimination?  

How has America come to such a situation, one might ask, where the fate of children is dependent on the constitutionality of laws restricting charitable religious institutions? After all, churches have always been involved in children’s welfare, including adoptions.

Moreover, one might ask, how is that such a law does not restrict the “free exercise” of religion, as the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress [or any government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The texts in our book permit the reader to explore how the courts as interpreters of laws and our fundamental law, the Constitution, have come to such conclusions, which seem so contrary to common sense. 

As the principal editor, I did not seek to produce a book of advocacy leading to one conclusion or another but rather to offer the strongest arguments for the various sides of the controversies under scrutiny. Throughout Religious Liberty the modest study guide raises questions that encourage skepticism of all the justices’ arguments. These questions and the selection of opinions pit Supreme Court justice against justice not only within each case but over the decades. 

Contrary to most case books, we recommend that beginning readers start their inquiry from the most recent cases we include, where the controversies are clear and most striking, and then move on to the earlier precedents. To illustrate our approach, we deploy Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017), where the court decided, 7-2, that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by failing to permit a religious school, Trinity Lutheran, to compete for a state recycling grant to pave its playground. 

Our abridged version contained only excerpts from Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurrence and Justice Sandra Sotomayor’s vociferous dissent. Gorsuch argued that Missouri discriminated against the school’s constitutional right to freely exercise its religion and compete for state funds. 

Sotomayor defended Missouri’s power to prevent an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The state, in her view, was trying to prevent “an unlawful fostering of religion.” Because the church school has a religious mission, its “playground surface cannot be confined to secular use….”  

Sotomayor’s puzzling attitude reflects one conclusion of almost 70 years of cases that would confine religious liberty to mere “freedom of worship,” which exists pretty much within the walls of a religious institution. Reflecting the thrust of the most recent cases, Gorsuch was arguing for a far more robust conception of religious free exercise, a pillar of a free society.   

Clashing interpretations of free exercise and establishment have led to this odd confrontation between parts of the First Amendment. Instead of taking prohibition on the establishment of religion to mean no official or established church, and all the implied political, legal, and financial advantages that go along with that, it has come to mean permitting no advantage to religion generally. Religions may not be discriminated against, but they may not, even in general, be given any advantage by government, either. The late Justice Stevens argued that the “religious neutrality” demanded by the establishment clause means neutrality between religion and non-religion. (But has any president failed to say “God bless America”?)

Furthermore, the free exercise clause has come to mean a free exercise preference for minority sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Amish, and the animal sacrificing religion of Santeria—all victors in free exercise cases. Might “free exercise” justify these religions’ seeming defiance of general laws involving flag salutes at school, compulsory school attendance, and sanitation? 

In a pivotal case involving a state law against drug use, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990), Justice Antonin Scalia denied that religious freedom created “a private right to ignore generally applicable laws” and permit drug use for religious observers. Dissenters insisted that his opinion undermined religious liberty, and Congress passed a law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, limiting the court’s decision. 

So how should we apply these cases from our book to the Philadelphia adoption agency? Oddly, the late Justice Scalia, hero of conservatives, seems to have supplied ammunition to both sides, with his limitation on religious liberty claimants against general laws, on the one hand, and with his emphasis on “history and tradition” in understanding the meaning of religious establishment, on the other, from his powerful dissents in school prayer and religious monuments cases. 

We can see how Sotomayor would adopt Scalia’s Oregon v. Smith argument against religious exemptions from valid general laws and emphasize Supreme Court opinions such as Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that made same-sex marriage a constitutional right. Her argument that allowed Missouri to prevent religious schools from receiving state funds would also prevent adoption agencies (or bakeries or other businesses, such as Hobby Lobby) from restricting their services based on their religious beliefs. She would use Scalia against the court’s most recent decisions, which have expanded free exercise and restricted the meaning of establishment, as Gorsuch advocates. This is just one element of the arguments that the court is likely to use in deciding the adoption agency case.

Religious Liberty is the latest in the Ashbrook Center’s series of document collections covering major periods, themes, and institutions in American history and government. When complete, the series (45 volumes in all) will be comprehensive, and also authoritative, presenting America’s story in the words of those who wrote it. These primary document works will be invaluable resources for undergraduate and secondary school instructors, as well as for engaged citizens.

First Principles

The 1619 Project and its Critics

Nikole Hannah-Jones ought to step up, be courageous, and debate the historians with whom she disagrees. They’re waiting. All historical claims, particularly those with as wide-reaching and radical ramifications as these, must be discussed and scrutinized by trained scholars.

The 1619 Projectthe New York Times campaign launched in August 2019 to transform American history into a tale of racial oppression and nothing but for the last 400 years—has attracted a great deal of critical attention. Much of this attention has come from professional historians who are nonplussed by the numerous misstatements of fact, the disappearance of key historical events, and the forced march of polemical interpretation that the Times attempted to hang on American history.

The dissenting historians themselves have found various outlets to express their views. Among the most intriguing of these platforms has been the World Socialist Website, which has featured interviews with such luminaries as Gordon Wood, university professor at Brown University, and James McPherson, professor emeritus of U.S. history at Princeton University.

The socialists, upset with the Times for preferring racial grievance to class grievance, rounded up other prominent historians, including Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, Dolores Janiewski, Richard Carwardine, and Clayborne Carson, to express their critiques of the Times’ fanciful attempt to rewrite history.

The socialists’ foray is welcome as it demonstrates that scholars who by no means can be classified as conservatives are eager to point out where the Times went wrong. But the field of Times critics isn’t limited to those who have sat for interviews with the World Socialist Website. Others include Sean Wilentz of Princeton, who took to the pages of The Atlantic to explain how the 1619 Project “has been undermined by some of its claims;” and Lucas Morel, who explains that “America Wasn’t Founded on White Supremacy,” on The American Mind.

In fact, a small industry has grown up consisting of historians and historically minded social scientists who are, one by one, refuting all of the serious claims of the 1619 Project.

I’ve been printing these out and my stack is several inches thick. The reader who wishes to wade in deeper to these waters will get an assist from Philip Magness’s bibliography on “The 1619 Project Debate,” at least as it stood on January 3. Still more assistance can be found on John Fea’s website, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” which has been tracking “The 1619 Project: Debate Continues.” And one shouldn’t miss the efforts of Robert Woodson and the Woodson Center to counter the 1619 Project with its own “1776 Project.”

For my part, I am working with my colleagues at the National Association of Scholars on what we call the “1620 Project,” which suggests that if we are going to look for the founding of America in early years of the 17th century, the 1620 Mayflower Compact may have a better claim to our attention than the arrival of a pirate ship in Jamestown, Virginia with a handful of African captives in August 1619. I am working on a book about that right now—which has taken me deeper into the details of the Times’ roll-out of its project than I expected to go.

The following adds nothing of substance to the scholarly critique of The 1619 Project, but it illuminates the attitudes of the Times towards its critics. Those attitudes were prominently displayed in late December when five prominent historians—Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon S. Wood—wrote a letter to the Times to “express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project.” The Times printed the letter and added a snarky rebuttal by editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, who explained that the Times would be making no corrections, because—well, because it is all a matter of interpretation.

“Historical understanding is not fixed,” and the Times was succeeding in what it really wants to do, which is to “expand the reader’s sense of the American past.” Expanding that sense in the direction of fictions and fabrications is, apparently, a worthwhile undertaking.

The Times has continued to promote The 1619 Project in this spirit, with full-page self-glorifying advertisements that explain that the project “sparks important dialogue.”

Well, I am all for dialogue, though there hasn’t been much visible response from the project’s progenitors to those who have found fault with its methods and its conclusions. But I didn’t want to rest on a mere impression. The key figure in The 1619 Project is Nikole Hannah-Jones, who leads it and who penned its lead manifesto, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True.” In this essay, Hannah-Jones contends that the Founding Fathers did not actually believe that “All men are created equal,” because they wrote these words as slave owners.

Since the launch of The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones has booked at least 40 speaking engagements at colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations. At these events, she presents the “1619 Project-view” of history on her own or as part of a panel, often followed by a Q&A with the audience. Dialogue? Yes, but not with critics.

According to Hannah-Jones’ personal website, at the scheduled 40 speaking engagements since The 1619 Project’s launch, 18 of these featured her speaking solo. The other 22 events featured other speakers and were often marketed as a “dialogue” or a “conversation.” These 22 events included a total of 49 interlocutors.

Exactly three of her interlocutors have been trained historians who hold a doctoral degree in the field. None of those three are known critics of the project. Speakers have received advanced, post-bachelor academic training in nonhistorical fields, including journalism, English, comparative literature, law, the arts, and public policy. If you squint hard, you can see the small slice labeled “history” representing a mere 6.1 percent of the total.

The interlocutors described above only appeared in a fraction of Hannah-Jones’ speaking engagements. In the remaining 18 events, constituting nearly half of her talks, she speaks on her own. Figure 2 shows that over 90 percent of Hannah-Jones’ events lack a single historian. The result is a series of overwhelmingly nonhistorical monologues and dialogues designed to achieve an overtly historical end.

This is not to imply that nonhistorians cannot contribute to the historical discourse, but rather that an unambiguously historical project ought prominently to feature historians. Hannah-Jones, trained as a journalist, founded a project designed to reframe all of American history. She then goes on to engage with fewer historians than I can count on one hand. This is a mockery of authentic historical scholarship and exposes Hannah-Jones’ ulterior motives.

To clarify, while the National Association of Scholars maintains that The 1619 Project’s depiction of history is blatantly incorrect, we do not oppose Hannah-Jones’ speaking engagements on these grounds. She and the New York Times have a right to propagate the views they choose to support, however wrong we believe they are.

Rather, our problem with Hannah-Jones’ 1619 events is the combination of a nonhistorian founding a campaign with the explicit aim of “recasting all of American history;” and her demonstrated refusal to engage substantively with any of the myriad historians who criticize this recasting.

Nikole Hannah-Jones clearly has no interest in engaging with historians or having her historical arguments challenged. The 1619 Project’s claims are unorthodox and controversial but are presented as unquestionable truths. A bevy of accomplished historians have come out against these ideas and have been all but entirely ignored by Hannah-Jones and the New York Times. Why are they so afraid?

If the writers of The 1619 Project are concerned with earnestly presenting a new historical theory, then they should gladly accept scrutiny and critique from credible sources. This is how history works, to separate truth from falsehood. Instead, Hannah-Jones leapfrogs straight from historical theory to established fact. The 1619 Project is not concerned with uncovering historical truths, but instead uses pseudo-history as a means to undermine rational, non-partisan historical inquiry.

After all, what is the ultimate implication of the “1619 view” of history? All of America was built upon a lie. Freedom, liberty, and natural rights are swept away with a broad brush. The real founding principles of America are oppression, inequality, and suffering. The country, therefore, needs to be torn down and rebuilt. By whom? The New York Times, their sympathizers, and the future generation indoctrinated with these ideas during their schooling. Only then can the true America be realized.

This is the endgame of The 1619 Project, a radical, political campaign thinly veiled behind a façade of dubious pseudo-scholarship.

Nikole Hannah-Jones should step up, be courageous, and debate the historians with whom she disagrees. They’re waiting. All historical claims, particularly those with as wide-reaching and radical ramifications as these, must be discussed and scrutinized by trained scholars. The failure to  engage in this way will result in the widespread proliferation of lies that have disastrous consequences for the future of our country.

First Principles

Socialism’s Inequalities

In full-blooded socialist systems, access to government power is the paramount avenue to success.

Few statements are more revealing of ignorance than the standard conservative indictment of socialism for “equally spreading poverty.” According to this critique, poverty happens when socialism’s insistence on equality of conditions deprives people of the incentive to work. Such statements so offend reality as to lead one to ask whether those who make them have ever opened their eyes in a socialist country.

No. Socialism makes for the most radical of inequalities among human beings, and enforces them through the state’s absolute power.

Note: Places like Denmark and Sweden, and even Germany, France, Italy, or Argentina, though their governments spend about half the national income, or more, are not socialist. Instead, they have a greater or lesser degree of corporate capitalism, a system first introduced by Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s, in the United States in the 1930s, and that thereafter was copied throughout much of the world.

Under this system, as government power mixes with, counterbalances, and often overrides private enterprise, people often find government favor to be an adjunct to success—or even the main avenue to it. Everywhere in the modern world, having the government on your side makes up for much lack of talent, enterprise, decency, etc. But you can still do all right on your own, so long as you don’t get the corporate state down on you.

But in full-blooded socialist systems—the Soviet Union was prototypical—like Cuba, China, and Venezuela access to government power is the paramount avenue to success. So much so, that all assets pale in importance by comparison.

Talent and enterprise seldom hurt. But if you see someone prosper, you can be sure that he is well connected with the powers that be. Under real socialism, prosperity and power are two sides of the same coin. Always. Invariably.

Food is the most fundamental feature of prosperity or lack thereof.

Having grown up amidst the widespread hunger of immediate postwar Italy, I was all too familiar with the difference that food makes in how people look. The faces of people who are short of any and all calories are gray, sallow, as well as thin and haggard. Eyes are sunk. Those who get enough starchy food but little if any meat or fish, or maybe even fat, tend to be white and a bit puffy. Their skin does not shine. Those who get the fat and protein they want but lack fresh vegetables and fruit tend to be heavy, shiny. Only those who eat well-balanced diets look the way people are supposed to look.

My first visit to the Soviet Union in January 1979 brought back these visceral memories. Along with the senators whom I served as an expert on weaponry, I dined at Brezhnev’s table in the Kremlin. Good food. The high-ranking Soviets with whom we were surrounded would not have looked out of place in California.

But theirs was a thin social stratum. As we left, some of them pocketed some of the oranges from the table’s centerpiece. The people who attended them and who drove us around looked like they had little if any access to such things as oranges. The attendants at the elite hotel where we were staying were fat but pasty. As we walked the streets, I was struck by how many looked haggard.

When we conferred with the generals, I noticed that food-dependent physiognomy matched rank. The generals looked like us. The colonels obviously did not eat as well.

We managed to get to see the great Andrei Sakharov, in his humble two-room flat in a fifth-floor walk-up at the Academy of Sciences. His wife brought out a tiny apple cake that must have been a rare treasure for these out-of-favor folks.

In 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, there was a brief and quickly forgotten spate of stories in the media about the lavish lifestyle that East Germany’s Communist elite lived within a compound walled off from the surrounding poverty. How could such things happen in a country dedicated to equality?

The answer is not just that the people who run socialist systems are as selfish as anybody else on the planet. It is that the power of redistribution that is inherent in socialism further corrupts those who dispense favors, and much incentivizes the ordinary people over whom that power is wielded to corrupt themselves into becoming favor seekers.

Yet another human reality contributes to making socialism the degrading horror that it is. The power to control who gets what, especially who gets to eat what and who does not get to eat at all, is the most powerful lever of control over the general population. Because of that, Lenin figured out right away that poverty, especially hunger, are to be sought for their own sake. Keeping the people worried where their next meal is coming from, and reminding them that their bread is literally buttered only on the regime side is socialism’s indispensable element.

Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua made redistribution of poverty into their regimes’ very foundation.

In 1985, just after I got to Stanford, I was asked to meet with a group of undergraduates who were on their way to “learn” about Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime, and to “help out” the Campesinos in the fields.

The most expressively progressive attitude belonged to a very fashionable girl, who sat cross-legged on the floor, her perfectly groomed blond hair washing over decidedly un-muscular thighs. Looking at her, I asked how many hours of field labor they planned to contribute, what they thought the Campesinos were paid for that many hours, and what they thought might be the relationship between the worth of the labor they provided and the price of the food they would eat.

They had not thought of that. Since they would be eating with their Sandinista guides, I asked whether they would be eating like the guides eat or like the Campesinos eat. They had not imagined there would be a difference. I assured them that the Campesinos knew the difference too well. What would they be thinking of you, who worked less than they and ate better than they?

I suggested that, if they paid attention to the difference between what the party eats and what the people eat, as well as to the difference between what their un-muscular pseudo-labor was worth and the value of their food, they might be able to figure out why the Sandinista regime wanted their presence. And if they figured that out, they might want to ask themselves how honest of an enterprise socialism is, especially its claim to be equality’s champion.

First Principles

The Enduring Counsel of George Washington

Charity is warranted respecting political divisions when the objects of the parties are in accord. Washington’s advice for healing our divisions then and now involves remembering what ought to be our common object. But do we?

The ratification of the Constitution in 1788 ushered in a new era in the United States. The times were not without discord—domestic, foreign, and within the government itself—as the nation implemented a new structure that inevitably brought forth many opinions on how best to govern the nation.

Among the most dramatic changes in the new Constitution was the presidency, first held by George Washington. Noted for many accomplishments, Washington is the only president to have swept the Electoral College as he was elevated to the office. Despite his stature and popularity, he was beset by conflict within his Cabinet and in the nation.

In letters to members of his Cabinet (Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph) in 1792, Washington described the trials and the dangers that the new nation faced and proposed remedies. The similarity to modern times is striking, but more importantly, we would do well to remind ourselves of his counsel on this 288th anniversary of his birth.

The president expressed to Jefferson his regret “that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals.” To Hamilton he observed that “differences in political opinions are as unavoidable as, to a certain point, they may perhaps be necessary; but it is exceedingly to be regretted that subjects cannot be discussed with temper on the one hand, or decisions submitted to without having the motives which led to them improperly implicated on the other.”

To Randolph, he lamented “the Seeds of discontent, distrust, and irritations which are so plentifully sown, can scarcely fail to produce this effect.” He continued with a comment on the ensuing result of such conduct: “to Mar that prospect of happiness which perhaps never beamed with more effulgence upon any people under the Sun; and this too at a time when all Europe are gazing with admiration at the brightness of our prospects. And for what is all this?”

Washington not only attributed to political figures the conditions that filled him with “painful sensations,” he recognized that gazettes and newspapers exacerbated the tensions. He wrote to Randolph, “I shall be happy in the mean time to see a cessation of the abuses of public Officers, and of those attacks upon almost every measure of government with which some of the Gazettes are so strongly impregnated.” He added that “the constant theme for News-paper abuse” is carried out “without condescending to investigate the motives or the facts.” The charge recurs in the letter to Hamilton. “I would fain hope that liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another; and instead of those wounding suspicions, and irritating charges with which some of our Gazettes are so strongly impregnated, & cannot fail if persevered in, of pushing matters to extremity, & thereby tare the Machine asunder . . . ”

The dangers of the internal dissension and the external attacks were real to Washington. Should they not heed his call for “mutual forbearances and temporizing yieldings on all sides,” he wrote to Hamilton, he feared for the governance of the country: “Without these I do not see how the Reins of Government are to be managed, or how the Union of the States can be much longer preserved.”

Washington offered counsel on the posture that he wished all should adopt in response to the “wounding suspicions and irritating charges” as the gazettes risked “pushing matters to extremity.” To Hamilton he expressed his earnest wish “that balsam may be poured into all the wounds which have been given, to prevent them from gangrening.”

Washington also invoked the theme of charity to the recipients of his letters. He lamented on the one hand “that men of abilities, zealous patriots, having the same general objects in view, and the same upright intentions to prosecute them, will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions and actions of one another” and on the other hand that their ideas risk being forejudged “without more charity for the opinions & acts of one another in Governmental matters . . . before they have undergone the test of experience.”

A call for charity toward the opinions and actions of one another may seem wanting in a politically charged climate, but instead of exacerbating tensions, Washington aimed to encourage the deliberation that must be present in the representative democracy that America embraced only years before.

The French phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose (“the more things change the more they stay the same”) may well be applicable to Washington’s times and ours, but his counsel points us to a necessary correction for the good of the country:

How unfortunate would it be, if a fabric so goodly, erected under so many Providential circumstances, and in its first stages, having acquired such respectability, should, from diversity of sentiments or internal obstructions to some of the acts of Government . . .  should be harrowing our vitals in such a manner as to have brought us to the verge of dissolution. Melancholy thought! But one, at the same time that it shows the consequences of diversified opinions, when pushed with too much tenacity; it exhibits evidence also of the necessity of accommodation; and of the propriety of adopting such healing measures as may restore harmony to the discordant members of the Union, and the Governing powers of it.

First Principles

States’ Right to Recall

The right to recall can be enacted and states should take the lead to regain power over the swamp.

One side called him, “One of those ambitious politicians!” “A Party Scavenger,” a “popularity seeker,” and urged him to “Return to thy Country! Assist not in its destruction! Consider the consequences!” The other side called him “a fair and honorable man,” an “independent” man, “the greatest ornament and the ablest member of the American Senate, who if he but persists in his dignified course must one day attain to the highest station in our republic.” Of course, I’m referring to John Quincy Adams, the senator from Massachusetts in 1808, who effectively was recalled from office for voting against his political party, the Federalists.

As Congress grows increasingly out of touch with the people who elect them, states need to assert the right to recall all of their elected officials, including United States senators.

“We, the People” established this country and delegated limited powers to the federal government. It is time for states to exercise their 10th Amendment rights and limit the power of the federal government. One important way to do that is through recalling U.S. senators who vote against their constituents during their lengthy terms. While no member of Congress has ever been recalled from office, that doesn’t mean reforms aren’t necessary—especially when it comes to the Senate.

Thirty-nine states have provisions allowing for the recall of some elected officials. The traditional view of federal recalls has been that the Constitution mentions “Expulsion of a Member of Congress” in Article I, section 5, clause 2 and the courts have deferred to the congressional practice of letting Congress decide how expulsion works.

There is a case to be made, however, for the removal of senators via recall (which is different from an expulsion). The Constitution is silent on the question of recall. Under the Articles of Confederation of 1777, states had the right to recall delegates. At the Constitutional Convention a decade later, the Virginia Plan included a recall provision. Ultimately, the Framers chose not to include one. Importantly, they allowed for states’ to exert some control over Congress through the selection of U.S. senators and reserved powers to the states in the 10th Amendment.

In 1808, the Massachusetts state legislature began a process to recall John Quincy Adams (electing his successor sixth months earlier than they would usually elect someone). Rather than submit to this tempest, however, Adams ultimately resigned from his seat. As described in John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy, “[i]n effect the legislature of Massachusetts had ‘recalled him.’”

When the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, state legislatures lost their power to select senators, something the Founders did not envision. The amendment took away states’ rights and the power of the people to alter the terms for Members of Congress in a way that previously had been possible.

Several states have recall provisions in their state constitutions, with some of them being broad enough to include U.S. senators. Article XIII, section 12 of Wisconsin’s constitution, for example, says the people “of any congressional, judicial, or legislative district may petition for the recall of any incumbent elective officer” (emphasis added). Article II, section 8 of Michigan’s constitution states: “[l]aws shall be enacted to provide for the recall of all elective officers” (emphasis added).

Nevertheless, the courts have been reluctant to let states recall elected federal officials, pointing to the Constitution’s expulsion clause. For instance, a Michigan county circuit court, in 2007 ruled that the recall of a member of Congress proceed for that reason. This decision was not appealed.

While several state courts and administrative proceedings have ruled against congressional recalls, a Wisconsin attorney general’s opinion in 1979 advised the state elections board that it should not prohibit a congressional recall from proceeding. The attorney general concluded “removal by recall does not on its face conflict with Congress’ power of expulsion.”

The American Civil Rights Union made powerful arguments for a congressional recall in an amicus curiae brief in a case involving the prospective recall of Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). In it, the ACRU’s former general counsel, Peter Ferrara noted that:

If a state wants to adopt a recall election process effectively providing the right and opportunity for citizens to make a political statement regarding their elected federal representatives, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents it from doing so. A state is not limited to holding elections only on subjects approved by the federal government.

States wishing to assert their right to recall U.S. senators could amend their state constitutions to create a recall process. With the U.S. Constitution silent on the matter, a state constitution would not be in conflict with it, but it would create a major constitutional fight in the courts. Special interest groups and lobbyists with too much sway in D.C. would spend millions trying to halt recall efforts through litigation and other measures.

Yet “We the people” should prevail over the powerful. The right to recall can be enacted and states should take the lead to regain power over the swamp.

First Principles

Subverting the Irrational Narrative of America

Christopher Flannery’s podcast “The American Story” works to dispel the irrational leftist narrative about America, one true and beautiful story at a time.

In an age when few people under the age of 40 can recall—either from personal memory or from some retelling in a book, a movie, or a classroom presentation—a single story about their country that moves them to unalloyed admiration, what can it even mean to exhort them to “Make America Great Again”?

Older generations probably remember a time when most Americans considered their country a genuinely great country. But the doubts and questions our inevitable imperfections once inspired have metastasized and now are weaponized by the Left in ways that few normal people in that older generation seem to grasp. They hear the stories of campus outrage and they witness the ever more shrill invective that seems to poison our politics. They forget that their own love of country, which steadies them in these storms, comes from something deeper than their experience of politics in our time—that it was inspired by something other than the ongoing back and forth debate over policy prescriptions.

Fortunately, Christopher Flannery of the Claremont Institute has not forgotten what inspired his own feeling for America and he isn’t shy about sharing his love letters to America inspired by this informed sentiment.

Flannery’s podcast, “The American Story,” offers short, well-produced, and cogent stories that hark back to an older way of talking about our country and to the people who made it great. Quite deliberately, it steps over rather than engages with what has become the authoritative, if blinkered, narrative of America. The assumption is that these stories can be understood by any reasonable person who has not already been anesthetized by progressive doctrines insisting America’s past is nothing but shameful and in need of hair-shirt repentance.

Flannery explains that the “identity politics behind this narrative [of the Left] is irrational. You can point out this irrationality and its bad consequences and show rational alternatives to it, as American Greatness, the Claremont Institute, and other good places do on a daily basis. But to tell America’s story in its true dimensions, you have to go around this irrational narrative.”

So these stories do not address the premises of the Left. They just present a way of thinking that is both true and reasonable. The hope is that they will also present something refreshing to souls left parched by the incessant drumbeat of America hating academia.

A theme central to Flannery’s work, inevitably, is love.

“There is an inevitable connection between love and our rational nature as human beings,” he explains, “If people understand America, it is inseparable from the idea that animated our Revolution as long as America is America. And that idea is intrinsically lovable because it contains in it a notion of human goodness that is inherently lovable.”

America, in other words, is a country that not only needs to be loved—as all countries do—but it deserves to be loved.

But this deserving is not to be taken for granted, either. These stories are designed to remind Americans that every generation needs to do what it can to keep the country worthy of that love. It has to be worthy of what Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion.”

America’s creed, Flannery says, recognizes that the human mind by nature is free and that this freedom, when cultivated and respected, makes men capable of recognizing things that are worthy of love. But if Americans are not asked to love their country, if they are not given reasons to do so, they are bound not only to be poor citizens but also to be unhappy. Being a good citizen through recognizing the virtue of one’s country and in keeping her worthy of affection is a big part of the “pursuit of happiness” and the fulfillment of human nature.

“The American Story” is an effort to provide those reasons for a new generation of Americans that, through no fault of its own, is deprived of them because of the poverty of our education and popular culture establishment. This is less about saving American education than it is about restoring an oral tradition and conversation between citizens about who they are.

To that end, there is a certain cadence to the stories Flannery recalls. As all good writing has a certain rhythm or poetry inherent in it, this is all the more vital in any oral presentation. The podcasts are certainly engaging on that level and draw the listener in, not only to a story but also into a mood.

When asked whether video might become a part of some future presentation of these stories, Flannery demurred. Possibly. But its absence, for now, is intentional.

“There is something about the spoken word on its own that grips the mind with more focus and satisfaction than when you add video to it,” he told me. “I love movies, but these stories, at least so far, are not meant to be like that—in the conviction that there is some kind of attention that the mind pays to the spoken word that is different from when it is accompanied by visual effects. This medium has a certain power of its own. A listener can enter the world of that story for five or six minutes and be fully engaged without distractions.”

This also explains the way the stories are set to music. “My sense is that when they work, the music somehow enhances the effect of the words,” Flannery explains. “There is a sense in which these essays are like country songs. The music is chosen in a way to evoke a fuller sense of the time and the point. The sound combination is meant to have an effect and appeal both to the mind and the heart of the listener. That is, in other words, the whole point of political speech.”

And that gets to the central point of “The American Story” in more ways than one. The stories are meant to be the highest kind of political speech rather than mere anecdotes or lofty, but difficult to translate, scholarship. They are the kind of speech that is meant to reach citizens both in the heart and in the mind but, more importantly, it is meant to produce an effect in them—one of love, gratitude, and of striving to be worthy in our politics today of the greatness that has preceded us.

You can listen and subscribe to “The American Story” at www.theamericanstorypodcast.org or with your favorite podcast application.

Listen to all of them, but here are some of my favorites:

And, of course:

Totus Porcus

First Principles

This essay is adapted from an address to the annual Lincoln Day Dinner of the Boulder County, Colorado Republicans, February 8, 2020.

What It Means for America To Be the ‘Last Best Hope of Earth’

The fundamental task is not so much to imitate the actions of Abraham Lincoln, as it to imitate his acceptance of the weighty responsibility to preserve the last best hope of earth. Unless we stand up, America cannot stand out.

Once a great people roamed through the forests and open plains of North America. Those great people were the various tribes of what appropriately can be called the American Indians, the indigenous peoples of what was mistakenly thought to be the Indies. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, those peoples were described as noble savages. They were thought noble because of their hardihood and fierce independence. They were a people infused with an animist confidence in the brute forces of nature. They were not, however, buttressed by confidence in reason and faith in the Providence that ordained reason as the basis for the governance of mankind. As a result, they receded in the face of the arrival of a people from Europe who possessed a combined faith in reason and God.

Over the course of the last two centuries, the indigenous peoples have undergone severe inflictions at the hands of the nation that grew out of the European settlements and at their own hands. During this long travail of alternating gestures of peace and blood-stained conflicts, that new nation has relentlessly moved to incorporate the indigenous peoples in a unified nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That process of incorporation has not yet been completed. The wars ended, but the growth of a political community has been impeded by hesitations and misconstructions. 

Those misconstructions included the early missteps by too many tribes of allying themselves militarily with the adversaries to the historical force of liberty and self-government. In the Seven Years War, they chose the losing side, suffering, as a result, the loss of independence and a considerable degree of territory.

Then, scarcely a decade later they repeated the same mistake in the American Revolution, attaching themselves to the British military and, in the resulting defeat, losing again territory and independence (eventually being essentially abandoned by their ally in the peace settlement). The result was to leave them powerless in the hands of a new empire rising under the flag of the United States of America.

I remind you of this story in this hour of commemoration of Abraham Lincoln for a specific reason. For, when in December 1862 Lincoln enrolled the United States in the providential mission of preserving the “last best hope of earth” he did so with a vision to cease internecine conflicts in North America for all its peoples. We typically think only of slavery when we reflect on Lincoln’s vision. But it should not be forgotten that his annual message to Congress included necessarily references to continuing Indian wars, and particularly a bloody season in Minnesota that depopulated a substantial region. The preservation of the Union meant not only preventing the extension of slavery but also establishing the prevalence of national authority in a manner that could secure the continent as a unified community. That included resolving conflicts with the Indians in a manner that would at last resolve policies and practices inconsistent with the idea of a unified community.

Freedom as Moral Asylum for Personal Salvation

Lincoln spoke notably not of the last best hope of the United States when he painted an optimistic picture of a growing population (expected to reach 200 million by 1930 from the 31 million present in 1860). He spoke of the “last best hope of earth.” Here is how he concluded that message:

As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it . . . We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.

Those words have since fallen trippingly from the lips of other statesmen who imagined, too easily, that Lincoln was describing the people then, and by inference us, as the last best hope. He meant, however, something far more profound than the boasting eloquence of ill-lettered declaimers. He meant to invoke the relationship between man and God, a relationship that has been in play since the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

The new covenant that arrived in the form of Christ was directed toward reclaiming man for the Kingdom. But there could be no reclaiming without reclamation, and the possibility of reclamation lay squarely in the human acceptance of responsibility to redeem the hope held out to them for the last time. The last, best hope, accordingly, recognized the reality that not only our earthly hopes but our heavenly hopes reposed in bearing that responsibility in a credible manner—a manner worthy of the praises of a heavenly choir.

The work that has fallen to our hands is not the ephemeral work of a by-election or new policy innovation. Those things are important. They constitute the ongoing work of citizenship. Yet there is the greater work of redemption that is in play. That is not a work of preaching and conversion, or retail evangelism. Those are valuable and necessary works and all praise to the angels who undertake them. But a larger work surpasses these, and that is the work to preserve, protect and defend the existence of a nation within which the promise of salvation can be made real for all—from the first to the last inhabitant.

The freedom of conscience is the bulwark of self-government. Only a nation that honors the duty to obey God before man can preserve self-government. The last best hope of earth is the nation that realizes that possibility so powerfully that all humankind will benefit from its example. It is not our interventions in the affairs of others that can save them. The realities of international relations and national security impose seasons of prudential judgment concerning interventions, assistance, and even propaganda. But it is the creation of a moral asylum for humanity that offers the greatest benefit to mankind. That has been and remains the providential mission of the United States.

Perhaps no president in our history has faced so grave a crisis as the one that confronted Lincoln.

And what does a moral asylum offer? It rejects mammon as master. It sustains a clear understanding of human nature and the human relations that flow from it. Thus, it affirms that it is not we who have made ourselves—or can make ourselves anything we choose. Rather, we bear the imprint of Divine creation and ordination.

The moral asylum reinforces the claims of those who choose to walk in the light of Divine purpose. A moral asylum makes it possible for men to grow from birth to death secure in the understanding that our paths have been directed and are not open-ended. We cannot invent genders, disfigure ourselves, rearrange prescribed relationships or mandate beliefs of our own manufacture without violence to the fundamental order of soul that enables man to yield to the will of God.

Our ability and right to consent to mutual political and social relations among ourselves derives from our duty to obey God and not the reverse. God’s sovereign authority makes us free from man’s tyrannical pretensions.

Tyrannical Pretensions Threaten Freedom

Freedom from tyrannical pretensions underlies nearly all the political stresses of our day, from the still lingering and inadequate resolution of the status of American Indians to the issue of the sanctity of life to issues of religious and personal liberty. In each of these areas, there is work to be done to secure American citizens from overweening government. 

For the American Indian, we have yet to communicate with clarity that the last best hope of earth is also their last best hope. Although most persons of Indian descent have thoroughly integrated into U.S. society (following the explicit grant of citizenship in 1924), we still maintain specific racial exceptions that foster false notions of independent sovereignty and create the impression that Indians are not included in the promise of the unified community. Arbitrary tribal and reservation decisions about individual status are inconsistent with full participation. And the continuing racializing of children of even remote Indian descent deprives them of the opportunities that ought freely to be available to them.

Similarly, the fracturing of our society through identity politics threatens not only the fundamental unity of society (there are some who reject altogether the concept of unity, stigmatizing as “white privilege” any notion of an American national character), but it also threatens fundamental liberties such as religious freedom. 

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case in Colorado is but one example. There are others bubbling just beneath the surface throughout the country. One that I am aware of has led the owner of a wedding venue, who declines to provide sacralizing ceremonies for same-sex weddings, to liken the situation to that of a Kosher deli being sued for refusing to provide ham sandwiches. While these examples will seem to some understandings not to rise to the level of significance of the Civil War, the War for the Union, I hasten to urge a reconsideration. Whatever undermines both the vision of a unified community and, at the same time, claims of personal conscience are no less significant than the antebellum efforts to force acceptance of slavery upon regions of the country opposed to slavery. As such, they pose just as much of a threat to the true vision of the “last best hope of earth.” 

“The Peacemakers” by George P.A. Healy, from the White House Collection/GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Moreover, the efforts of secession following the election of 1860 are not altogether remote from the efforts of “resistance” following the election of 2016. If anything, the former were more honest, as more open and not abusing offices of trust to overthrow the elected government, as has been done by agents in the intelligence community and co-conspirators throughout the government. In that sense, the threat today is more grave because it is more insidious.

Where secession threatened to dissever the unified community geographically, morally, and politically, #TheResistance threatens to fracture it into conflicting identity groups of infinite variety which it can then dominate politically throughout a unified geography without a unified community. That is a greater danger than the danger of 1860, for it would disable the entire nation for the work of preserving the last best hope, the moral asylum for mankind. 

Lincoln confronted the first threat with a two-fold initiative to defeat the threat militarily while preserving the fundamental purpose eventually to restore the disaffected portion of the nation to full membership in the unified community in friendship with all other members. The latter work remains incomplete 150 years later, which is what has provided the latter-day disaffected (who disdain the idea of America as a providential blessing) with the opening to try once again to break apart the Union. As a consequence, we have inherited the task of defeating the new secessionists—not militarily but politically—and to do so in a manner so compelling as to revive the commitment to the beloved community, the unified community, in which all (including the disaffected) participate alike in freedom from the secular coercions of illegitimate political authority. 

We undertake that work with due humility, recognizing, for example, that it is more important to preserve a Union that can protect unborn life than it is merely to proclaim our recognition of the sanctity of that life. That is what heightens the value of the political undertakings we must now engage in, omitting no exertion to prevail in the political struggle.

Humility in the Face of Our Duty

What Lincoln provides, therefore, is a lesson in avoiding tyrannical pretensions and preparing every resource to resist them. Lincoln has sometimes been thought to have been political in his frequent expressions of humility regarding the performance of his duties as president. When he insisted that he did only what he had to do preserve the Union—and always abstained from doing what, upon his abstract judgment, seemed right—he was not evading responsibility to free or not to free the slaves. He was rather enunciating the fundamental truth that his overriding responsibility was to assure that such a nation as could end slavery would endure rather than merely to perform a ceremonial act of condemning slavery.  

We see the full force of this in the series of decisions he made that led to the Emancipation Proclamation. He arrived at the judgment of the necessity several months before publicly announcing it, and even then, in September 1862, he only announced that he would do it in the future. Moreover, he explained that he had to do it as a matter of military necessity—that is, to ensure winning the war and saving the Union. He crafted it carefully enough to convey that he doubted that he had any authority under the Constitution to emancipate slaves apart from military necessity. At the same time, he realized that the decision (a mere executive order at the end of the day) would not be secure on its own. Thus, he worked relentlessly to secure a constitutional amendment to end slavery in a legitimate and binding manner.

He expressed his reasoning as follows:

I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation, of which that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law, life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. 

Perhaps no president in our history has faced so grave a crisis as the one that confronted Lincoln. Nevertheless, every president has carried out the duties under the same moral necessity that Lincoln faced.

Some have done it well; others have done it very poorly. Some have imagined that they had no power to effectuate substantial change; others have imagined that they had all power to govern in accord with their own abstract vision of what would be good for society. In these distinctions, we observe the challenge of evaluating presidential performance. And to that end, we can have no better guide than to demand the humility of Lincoln coupled with Lincoln’s secure understanding and articulation of the true foundations of our political life.

He concluded the letter to Hodge with a profession of that humility:

I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years’ struggle, the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man, devised or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North, as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

The political party that Lincoln led has always borne the special burden of trying to live up to his example. It has sometimes wavered in the face of the pressure of public opinion or the temptation of political opportunity. It is a safeguard against such distractions to recall that the fundamental task is not so much to imitate the actions of the party’s founder, as to imitate his acceptance of the weighty responsibility to preserve the last best hope of earth. Unless we stand up, America cannot stand out.

 

First Principles

You Can’t Have Representation Without First Having a People to Represent

If we have no sense of this land, this history, this language, these songs, these heroes, and no love for them, what “America” is there at all? And perhaps that is the progressive aim, at last: that there should be no America.

In the senior section of our Humanities curriculum at Magdalen College, we are now reading Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics. That is a fine coincidence, because this week is the New Hampshire primary, and we fight on the field of a great war for the hearts and minds of all Americans, who will go to the polls in November to determine which of two directions the nation will take.

Will it turn toward a massive welfare state which gives a little more than residual respect to the family, the church, private business, and local schools? Or will it go further toward a massive welfare state that offers less than residual respect to those things, and perhaps treats them with suspicion or contempt?

Please forgive me for my trace of irony. I do not mean to suggest that the latter choice would be anything but a disaster. It would surely prove calamitous for many a school like Magdalen College. In nearby Massachusetts, that state wherein Puritanism hardened into secular intolerance once it shed its Christianity, a new outpost of Thomas Aquinas College was permitted (permitted!) to open its doors as a Catholic school respecting a Thomistic and therefore rational view of sexual being and sexual relations, only on the severe condition that they enroll and hire no one who is not Catholic. That is to concede freedom of speech, so long as you stay in your straitjacket. Or maybe it is the other way around. You can move about so long as you keep your mouth taped shut.

So I am grateful that the Trump Administration is not getting out the straitjackets and the duct tape. I will vote accordingly in November.

But I have something else in mind here. It’s our misplaced trust in the machinery of democratic representation. Think of the purple-inked fingers that new voters happily raised up during the early days of what was supposed to have been a democratic Iraq. “Our own foreign policy,” says Voegelin, thinking of Woodrow Wilson and his casus belli, to make the world safe for democracy, “was a factor in aggravating international disorder through its sincere but naïve endeavor of curing the evils of the world by spreading representative institutions in the elemental sense to areas where the existential conditions for their functioning were not given.” (Emphasis mine.)

That is, you can have the structure of representation without the thing itself—without the being-represented. And you can have the latter only when the social conditions allow it.

Voegelin does not mean that elected representatives often fail. He means that representation “is by far not an appurtenance of the nature of man.” It does not exist outside of certain historical and cultural traditions. There must be a people to represent, a people animated and ordered by ideas and values; not just a gathering of rival clans, or, what we have now, a great mass of men and women who are one in not much more than the television commercials they watch.

Our problem is not just muddy thinking. It is also clear thinking from wrong premises.

Suppose you define science not as a body of knowledge about a subject, but as a certain method of investigation, such as the method of value-free empirical analysis imported by Auguste Comte from physics and applied to sociology. That, says Voegelin, “perverts the meaning of science on principle,” because the method you use must be determined by the character of the thing you are studying and not the other way around.

“Even Aristotle,” he says, “had to remind certain pests of his time that an ‘educated man’ will not expect exactness of the mathematical type in a treatise on politics.” We may say something similar about democratic processes or electoral methods of representation. The process, the method, is not the thing itself. As “different objects require different methods,” so different cultures, or different occurrences of a culture over time, will admit of different kinds of “representation,” if they admit of any at all. There is no magic in either the method or the machinery.

Allow me to illustrate. The soul of Western democratic man, it seems to me, is implied in the Odyssey, when Homer describes the ways of the Cyclops and his fellows. The barbarity of the one-eyed monster is revealed not simply by his bad table manners and his anthropophagic diet, but by what is missing from his existence. The Cyclopes have no large-scale agriculture or viticulture; they have no trade; they do not meet in assemblies to promote the common good.

The men of Ithaca during Odysseus’ long absence have slid back into barbarism in this sense. When the boy Telemachus calls them to assembly to beg their assistance, because their sons have descended upon his father’s estate to court his mother and devour his substance, we learn that it is the first time the Ithacans have met since Odysseus was dragooned into embarking for Troy, 20 years before. Homer takes for granted that it is one of the proper activities of man to hold such a meeting, where people are given leave to speak by turns, to reach some agreement about what to do. Here, the presence of the king had brought people together in what is essentially a democratic action, while his absence has allowed the people to keep apart, each man minding his own business and caring little for anything or anyone else. The king, far from being an impediment to democracy, was the symbolic representation of authority in Ithaca, which gave to those who happened to dwell in that area the sense that they were Ithacans, a people; and as a people they might come together.

Americans may not need a king, but they do need something, lest the term “American” come to imply no more than an area of longitudes and latitudes. If every man and woman in America went to the polls, but if ordinary people were not assumed to be capable to unite in their natural and local groups to pursue the ordinary common goods of human life, then of what use would an election be?

It is a confidence scheme. And if we share no sense of what a good human life looks like, then how can we be represented, either as to ends or as to the means to secure them?

To be more specific still: if we have no sense of this land, this history, this language, these songs, these heroes, and no love for them, what “America” is there at all? And perhaps that is the progressive aim, at last; that there should be no America.

Whether it is their aim or not, they and we are well on our way to attaining it.

First Principles

What Americans Can Learn from F. W. de Klerk’s Great Betrayal of South Africa

Universal suffrage is not to be conflated with freedom. As Iraqis learned after their “liberation,” ink-stained fingers don’t inoculate against bloodstains—or rivers of blood.

In what should serve as a lesson for Americans today, recall that 30 years ago on February 2, 1990, F. W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, turned the screws on his constituents, betraying the confidence we had placed in him.

I say “we,” because, prior to becoming president in 1989, De Klerk was my representative, in the greater Vereeniging region of Southern Transvaal, where I lived. (Our family subsequently moved to Cape Town.)

A constellation of circumstances had aligned to catapult De Klerk to a position of great power. A severe stroke forced the “The Crocodile,” President P. W. Botha, from power in 1989. Nothing in the background of his successor, De Klerk, indicated the revolutionary policies he would pursue.

In response to a 1992 referendum asking white voters if they favored De Klerk’s proposed reforms, we returned a resounding “yes.” Sixty-eight percent of respondents said “yes” to the proposed reforms of a man who sold his constituents out for a chance to frolic on the world stage with Nelson Mandela.

For it was in surrendering South Africa to the African National Congress that De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.

Why was De Klerk trusted to negotiate on behalf of a vulnerable racial minority? For good reason: he had made his views abundantly clear to constituents. “Negotiations would only be about power-sharing,” he promised. At the time, referendum respondents generally trusted De Klerk, who had specifically condemned crude majority rule. Such elections, in Africa, traditionally have amounted to “one man, one vote, one time.” Typically, such elections across Africa have followed a familiar pattern: Radical black nationalist movements take power everywhere, then elections cease. Or, if they take place, they’re rigged.

Among much else, De Klerk’s loyal constituents agreed to his scrapping of the ban on the Communist-sympathizing ANC. Freeing Nelson Mandela from incarceration was also viewed as long overdue as was acceding to Namibia’s independence, and junking nuclear weapons. Botha, before de Klerk, had by and large already dismantled the most egregious aspects of apartheid.

What De Klerk’s constituents were not prepared for was to be legislated into a permanent position of political subordination. President de Klerk, the man entrusted to stand up for crucial structural liberties, went along with the great centralizers. He caved to ANC demands, forgoing all checks and balances for South Africa’s Boer, British, and Zulu minorities.

By the time the average “yes” voter discerned the fact that De Klerk had no intention of maintaining this opposition when push came to shove, it was too late.

Thus, with De Klerk’s collaboration, and under the wing of the American eagle—in particular, U.S. negotiators like Herman Cohen, undersecretary of state for Africa—the Afrikaner, Anglo, and Zulu minorities were ordered to forgo minority veto power, meaningful power-sharing, and checks on power in the form of a second chamber in the legislature. Substantive devolution of authority to the regions of South Africa was also denied.

Yet somehow, a new generation of South Africans, Afrikaner and English, reveres F. W. de Klerk, even crediting the former South African president as a “reformer” who led “the country out of the political dead-end [in which] it found itself.”

“Today,” declares De Klerk adulator Pieter du Toit, “South Africa is a democracy, with rights-based guarantees.” The writer, editor of a large internet news site, is perfectly serious when he touts South Africa as a country that affords its citizens “rights-based guarantees.” For this reason, Du Toit should not be taken seriously.

Universal suffrage is not to be conflated with freedom. As Iraqis learned after their “liberation,” ink-stained fingers don’t inoculate against bloodstains, or, rather, rivers of blood.

As the democratic South Africa amply demonstrates, political rights and a paper constitution don’t secure the natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. 

A civilized society, ultimately, is one in which the individual can go about the business of life unmolested. If he can’t do that simple thing, of what value is the vote or a constitution? Extant societal structures that safeguard life and property can always be improved upon. But once these bulwarks against mob rule and mayhem disintegrate, as they have in South Africa, they’re seldom restored.

Far and away the most perplexing paragraph in Du Toit’s ode to De Klerk is his historical justification for De Klerk’s giving the shop to the ANC.

“When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989,” writes Du Toit, “along with a series of governments in the Eastern Bloc, [De Klerk] knew it was a matter of time before the Soviet Union fell, and with that the ANC’s biggest support base. De Klerk recognized the moment to move forward.”

Let me see if I grasp the logic of surrender without defeat.

The ANC’s biggest backer, the USSR, was on the verge of collapse. Therefore, goes the author’s logic, the time was ripe to surrender South Africa to the Soviet Union’s satellite, the ANC? This is worse than a non sequitur. It’s nonsense.

At the time De Klerk, pushed by American negotiators, gave away the store, the ANC heroes were a ragtag bunch of exiled has-been Communists, scattered all over Africa and Europe, whose main admirers were their Swedish groupies.

By contrast, someone who did have real power was Constand Viljoen, a military hero and former chief of the South African Defense Force. General Viljoen represented the hardliner Afrikaners and the security forces. Viljoen believed, correctly, that De Klerk had shirked his responsibilities to the electorate. He planned on leading a coalition that would have deposed the freelancing De Klerk and negotiated for an Afrikaner ethnic state.

Ditto Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland and leader of the Zulu people and their Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). His championship of self-determination had been denied.

Buthelezi was fed up to the back teeth with being sidelined. He and his Zulu impis (warriors) were every bit as fractious as Viljoen; every bit as willing to fight for their rightful corner of the African Eden.

For setting his sights on decentralized sovereignty in Zululand, the Zulu royal and his following (close on 20 percent of the South African population) were condemned as reactionaries by the West, whose interests De Klerk was, by now, championing.

Alas, the African gentleman Buthelezi and the Afrikaner general Viljoen were no match for the conniving Communists in the ANC and their knavish collaborator, F. W. de Klerk.

First Principles

The System Worked

Even all the powers of a concentrated, entrenched establishment, corrupted political institutions, and monopolized media and education systems could not defeat the Madisonian constitutional system.

As irritating as the last three years of political turmoil have been (especially the bizarre and idiotic impeachment fiasco), Americans can rejoice that the Madisonian constitutional system of “checks and balances” has proven its wisdom once again.

This system of divided and overlapping powers in branches and levels of government (unitary executive, bicameral legislature, and a judicial branch; along with national-state federalism) is the wonder and envy of the world: other countries right now cannot believe how the United States managed this crucial political battle without a bloody revolution or merciless dictatorship, but relatively peaceably and rationally.

This American system of “separation of powers” provides that if one branch of government, representing some major interest or “faction” tries to force its will over all the rest of society, there will be push-back, as “ambition checks ambition” and balance is restored.

Such Madisonian pluralism comes from a long history of political philosophy and theology that informed the Founders about the “reality” of human nature, society, and politics. Aristotle’s “mixed regime” of the one, the few, and the many—creating in England the monarchy, House of Lords, and Commons, and in the United States the presidency, Congress, and the courts, which also drew from Roman law and Biblical truth. Our tradition of the rule of law, reason over passion, due process, rules of procedure and evidence, all contributed to this happy situation.

But for Madison and several other Founders, it was a Christian appreciation of human evil, sin (especially when tempted by money and power), and the “reality” of admitting that you couldn’t rely on the “virtue” of anyone, even the best, when temptations of domination and abuse of power threaten. Ironically, this perspective holds that you have to accept a certain amount of constant tension and conflict (within bounds) to avoid total warfare and tyranny. We have to accept the reality of human weakness and evil in order to maintain overall strength and goodness.

For James Madison, often called “Father of the Constitution,” this realization came from his education in Christianity from devout Anglican tutors at the “New Light” Presbyterian College of New Jersey (Princeton). As I show in my book, The Political Philosophy of James Madison, Madison imbibed an Augustinian/Calvinistic appreciation for the human sin and frailty that historically caused social turmoil, political tyranny, unrest, and economic and military disaster. The solution was to recognize the truth of flawed human nature and harness it for good.

Madison noted in Federalist 10 that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man . . . self-love . . . different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power . . . more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Such “depravity in mankind,” he observed in Federalist 55, commends a “distrust” of everything he does, especially in politics, where his “imperfections and weaknesses” cause “quarrels, jealousies and envy” prompted solely by “love of preeminence” and “wounded pride.”

Accepting this reality requires us to structure a system that pits “ambition against ambition” acknowledging and allowing many conflicts to avoid total oppression and tyranny of one person or group.  “The only remedy” Madison wrote to the Constitutional Convention “is to enlarge the sphere . . . divide the community into so great a number and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole . . . and in the second place, . . . they may not be apt to unite in pursuit of it.” So “divide the [public] trust between different bodies of men, who might watch and check each other.”

What we have seen over the past week is that our constitutional system worked. Even all the powers of a concentrated, entrenched establishment; corrupted political institutions (even federal law-enforcement); almost monopolized media and education systems; enormous economic and criminal influences, did not defeat the Madisonian constitutional system.

And another benefit of these trying times, which a faith believing that Good can be brought out of Evil helps to mitigate, is that the American people (and the world) got a practical civics lesson in these principles. The eloquent and learned Republican lawyers during the impeachment trial reminded us of our precious heritage in reason, the rule of law, due process, and justice.

The system worked.

First Principles

The March for Life Proves that Cowering on ‘Social Issues’ Is Politically Stupid

Conservatives need to stop letting progressives define the limits of acceptable viewpoints and start “fighting for those who have no voice.”

This past weekend, along with an 800-person contingent from the University of Notre Dame, I marched in the 47th annual March for Life. It was my second time at the event and truly an historic occasion. I say this not simply because the march is the largest, regular demonstration in America (and probably the world) but because, for the first time, the president of the United States addressed the crowd in person—a crowd that was several hundred thousand strong.

President Trump spoke powerfully and to great applause about how “every human soul is divine, and every human life—born and unborn—is made in the holy image of Almighty God.” He declared his explicit support for the central claim of the pro-life movement, one rooted in our founding—in the Declaration of Independence, specifically—that every single person has the inalienable, God-given right to life.

Given the massive political debt the Republican Party owes to ordinary pro-life Americans—in the form of their precious votes, campaign contributions, myriad volunteer hours, grassroots mobilization and organization, and day-to-day rhetorical advocacy for nearly 50 years—one would think that, by now, we would have seen significant movement on the question of abortion. Public opinion is largely pro-life. But abortion remains legal and is becoming ever more monstrous in its reach and application. Why?

Because, by all appearances, the swamp of “conservative” politicians, strategists, and think tanks—i.e., “Conservatism, Inc.”—would prefer to milk the issue in perpetuity so as not to lose support.

Think about it: If the issue disappears completely—if the Supreme Court, say, were to overturn its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade—so-called pro-life conservatives might actually have to work for their daily bread (quelle horreur!). Then how would these sort of Republicans—unable to offer their opportunistic, polished, but hollow pro-life rhetoric—fund their campaigns and win elections?

They wouldn’t—and a GOP populated primarily by these kinds of hucksters would probably collapse.

Why doesn’t Conservatism, Inc. have the stomach or the spine to push hard on this issue, an issue central to the justice of the American project and hearts of the people they claim to represent? Why do they only dust off pro-life talking points and gin up faux outrage come election season, never translating much of it into concrete political victories? Why have we only just now, in 2019, graduated from legislating mandatory (hours-long) waiting periods to heartbeat bills and outright bans?

Because movement conservatism is trapped in an elite ecosystem that is rabidly pro-abortion, and this has blunted their sense not only of what’s possible but of what’s right. Their friends, neighbors, and colleagues in all the wealthiest zip codes view access to abortion as the summum bonum of liberty and (economic) life. The prestigious universities they attended all teach bodily autonomy as a sacred doctrine. And their fellow attendees at fancy D.C. cocktail parties are sure that abortion on demand and without apology is the moral, enlightened position.

This environment has neutered their ability to understand that the average American recoils in disgust at the horrendous procedure, one in which an innocent human being is always sacrificed for some lesser end. They fail to recognize the vast majority of the rest of the country instinctively intuits that a monstrous injustice is wrought each time an abortion is committed—the horror of which is compounded by the mind-boggling reality that since 1973, our nation has been the site of a consistent slaughter of the most innocent among us on a scale several orders of magnitude greater than the Holocaust.

Truly, what good is a roaring economy erected atop a mound of babies’ corpses?

Conservatism, Inc. has been so browbeaten by the constant, inane refrain of “my body, my choice” that the best its members can do is act like they really want abortion gone. Sadly, I submit that they don’t really, deep down in their gut, want that world to arrive. But they’ll say whatever they need to say to fill their campaign bank accounts and cash their checks.

The most basic right is the right to life; the very concept of “rights” is rendered nonsensical without it. Life is the prerequisite for the exercise of any other rights—be they natural, political, or civil.

President Trump understands this, which is why he spoke at the March. In his telling, the Democratic Party “ha[s] embraced the most radical and extreme positions taken and seen in this country for years, and decades—and you can even say ‘for centuries.’” Awkward phrasing aside, he is indisputably correct on this point, and he offered a series of examples to illustrate the claim:

“Nearly every top Democrat in Congress now supports taxpayer-funded abortion, all the way up until the moment of birth.”

“Last year, lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb right up until delivery.”

“The Governor [of Virginia] stated that he would execute a baby after birth.”

Finally, “Senate Democrats even blocked legislation that would give medical care to babies who survive attempted abortions.”

The crowd vocalized its displeasure at being reminded of these ghoulish events with loud boos.

Conservatives need to stop letting progressives and the “professionals” gaslighted by them define what are and are not acceptable positions for them to take and start “fighting for those who have no voice.” They need to get over their squeamishness about boldly tackling “controversial” social issues; after all, the Left will oppose them tooth and nail no matter how hard they fight, so they may as well go all in. They need to recognize their political duty to “protect, cherish, and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life” and then stand with the “strong women, amazing faith leaders, and brave students who carry on the legacy of pioneers before us who fought to raise the conscience of our nation and uphold the rights of our citizens.”

If that isn’t a winning message, what is?

First Principles

The Intersection Between Civilization and Barbarism

The forces of savagery are closer than you think.

Last week, I was in Santiago, Chile, delivering eight lectures at the Universidad de los Andes on “The Moral Foundations of a Free Society.” I was speaking to a group of 50 students, most of whom were from Latin American countries from Mexico to Patagonia.

Observant Americans know that Chile has been hit in recent months with violent street protests and demonstrations that have led to serious loss of life (28 people), physical injury (2,500 people, including 2,000 police officers), and high levels of property destruction and looting ($2 billion in losses and damages). At one point, the government declared a temporary state of emergency and briefly put the military in control.

As a result of these coordinated protests, 300,000 Chileans (primarily low-skilled workers) are now unemployed. As usual, these kinds of protests that are said to be in the name of the poor almost always hurt the poor exclusively.

At the end of my week, I got into an Uber and headed for the airport. My driver, for reasons I don’t understand, did not take the fastest and safest route.

Instead, he decided to drive through the heart of the city and through the area known to host the most violent street protests. Traffic was backed up and moving at a snail’s pace. I was growing increasingly concerned that I would be late for my flight. Off in the distance, we could see smoke billowing up in the sky. We both assumed it was some kind of fire.

After about 45 minutes and only having moved a couple of miles, we got closer to a major intersection, where a bottleneck had formed. Off in the distance, I could see little plumes of smoke, people standing on cars waving their arms, and I could hear loud “pops.” As we inched closer to the intersection it became obvious that some kind of serious disturbance was taking place, but we had a truck in front of us, so we couldn’t really see what was happening.

And then we finally got within about 25 yards of the intersection and realized that we were driving into a violent street protest and had nowhere to go but forward into the breach.

As we approached the intersection, it was clear that we were now at Ground Zero of a violent anarcho-Communist street riot with no way to escape. (Their ideology was clear from their placards and the graffiti in the immediate area.) My driver was visibly and audibly worried.

At the intersection, about 20 masked and armed vandals had put spiked chains and barbed wire down on the road, thereby preventing cars from either moving forward through the intersection or turning left.

Five masked thugs wielding bats and large rocks then surrounded our car and started pounding and rocking it. They also had big red fire extinguishers that they were spraying cars with and threatening to throw through car windows. They screamed at us in a way reminiscent of a scene from the film “The Killing Fields” as the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. The driver pleaded with them to let us through, which only made them angrier.

Even though these thugs were wearing bandanas over their faces, you could clearly see their eyes—and the eyes are the entry point to the soul.

At the crucial moment, as they were banging the car and car windows, one of them pressed his face up on my passenger side window. His face was no more than a few inches from mine. In that single moment, I saw the deranged eyes of a rabid jackal setting on its prey. I have never in my life seen this kind of ideological non compos mentis. It was sheer savagery.

The rioters forced us to turn down a small side street, which was unnerving given that we didn’t know where it would take us or to whom. As we turned onto the side street about 15 police in full riot gear with tear gas rifles made a charge. The vandals then responded by hurling large rocks. Panicked civilians were running in every direction. It was total chaos. This was a full-on riot and my driver and I were in the absolute middle of it.

My greatest concern was that the anarcho-communist thugs would see that I was wearing a U.S. Army t-shirt (in honor of one of my sons), which almost certainly would have meant, at the very least, a good beating.

I can tell you that what I saw at that moment was terrorism. In the car directly beside us, there was a young family with small children. The parents were absolutely terrified and trying to show the vandals that they had small children in the vehicle. The terrorists had zero concern.

We eventually got through and I got to the airport with no time to spare. My driver was very shaken by the whole thing, and I was relieved to get on a plane back to the United States.

For just a few minutes and in the light of day, I was in the heart of darkness. Civilization is a fragile thing. It must be nurtured and protected. The forces of savagery are closer than you think.

First Principles

The Battle Between Something and Nothing

There need be no cultural war when one of the contenders fails to show up, supposing that he still exists.

I’m no prognosticator, but in any conflict between Something and Nothing, my money is on Something, every time.

I have recently read of one of the wiser uses of money squeezed from American taxpayers. A feminist professor was sent to Afghanistan to reveal to the natives the glories of battling the patriarchy, or something. I can imagine her bringing along boxes of bumper stickers, “Question Authority,” to be pasted on the posteriors of mules as they pick their way along the mountain precipices.

Or perhaps it would be Velcro tags reading “Coexist,” to be applied to prayer carpets, as new and improved Muslims would prostrate themselves not to Allah, the one, the only, but to the great ectoplasm, diffuse through all faiths indiscriminately, like fog, or to the Great Eggplant, looking only for “sincerity.”

“Why, O ye devotees of the goddess Kali, did you murder that man upon the highway and steal his goods?”

“It is how we practice thugee.”

“I see. But are you sincere about it?”

“We never let a day pass without worship.”

Anyway, the feminist did not bring to the Afghans the glories of Western paeans to freedom and brotherhood, from Goethe and Schiller. She did not bring to them Western art, immersed in the goodness and beauty of the natural world, from John Constable or Winslow Homer. She did not bring to them Western devotion, made manifest in Christian hymnody—I wonder, for example, what Muslims would think of a Palestrina Sanctus. 

No, instead, she brought them a piece of junk from that confidence man supreme, Marcel Duchamp: his notorious and stupid “Fountain,” a urinal. Apparently the women in the audience stared at the thing in incomprehension.

Had a 30-pound urinal been made of pure platinum, it might have paid for a day of American operations in Afghanistan—though I rather think not. Perhaps we should simply have dropped from our airplanes thousands of platinum urinals, and waited for the Afghans to surrender in sheer confusion, or to die of helpless laughter.

We may not care for the specifics of it, but the Afghan people do have a culture. Whether we Americans have one still, I am not sure.

I have just read the Quran in its entirety, in one day. It is fierce, like fire, and single in its aim, like a sword. People who do evil, and that means especially people to whom the Quran is revealed and who reject it, can look forward to a variety of experiences in Hell, which are recounted with a relentless frequency, a delight in their retributive cruelty, and all the gusto of the physical: iron collars hung ’round their necks, scalding water poured down their throats, thorns and thistles to eat, and fire, always fire, hundreds of references to torment and fire.

Coexist? Do it in Hell.

I am not a Muslim. I am a Christian—a Roman Catholic. But I live in a land whose people have forgotten what it means to be a people: to be united in a common heritage that goes beyond the minimal strictures of law and the exigencies of labor; a heritage of story, art, song, and worship.

In its broadest terms, it is the heritage of the ancient Greek and Roman world, infused by Jerusalem and baptized by the Christian faith, and then incorporating into itself the energy and the cultural characteristics of German and Celt and Slav and many a nation besides. It is a heritage that is regularly traduced, when it is not simply disregarded, by such professors as the woman with the urinal, and by the politicians who put her up to it.

Suppose I were to say that we should be careful about immigration from Muslim countries. I would be reviled as an “Islamophobe,” and perhaps as a racist, though I do not see what “race” unites Berbers in North Africa, Indo-Aryans in Iran, Southeast Asians in Indonesia, and so forth. Given the Quran, the onus probandi rests upon those who would have us believe that they who accept it as not simply a sacred text but as the sacred text—and a text, moreover, that is self-referential at every pass, admitting, like the sun beating upon desert sands, very little shade of interpretation—can gratefully become full citizens in a civilization based instead upon the Bible; and, in a variety of ways, upon Socrates and Cicero and that great ancient world of rational investigation and insight into the divine. The heretic Averroes could become such a citizen, perhaps, and Avicenna too, but those rationalists have become more important to Western medievalists than to contemporary Muslims.

But there is a way in which Muslims, or anyone for that matter, might easily make themselves comfortable in the West, and that is as clear-eyed conquerors staking their claims among self-defeated people. There need be no cultural war when one of the contenders fails to show up, supposing he still exists. The Quran is no book for jaded sophisticates, or for silly saleswomen peddling a urinal and political slogans they picked up in a college seminar.

Every year, we graduate from our colleges millions of young people who have never heard of the Prodigal Son, who can’t puzzle out a poem by Tennyson, and whose general notion of the history of the West was that it was all the same everywhere and very bad. They would like to assure Muslims that they would have fought on the side of the Turk and not Godfrey of Bouillon—well, they would not put it in those words, because they have no idea who Godfrey was and where the Turks came from and why they fought and when.

Were I a Muslim, I would nod and smile. Victory, without firing a shot.

First Principles

Distinguishing Between American Tragedy and Farce

The self-abasement that now characterizes the American Left’s approach to understanding America is rooted in a failure to distinguish between tragedy and farce.

Seeing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) solemnly intone the Constitution reminds one of Shakespeare’s depiction of the murderous Richard III reading the Holy Bible before awed countrymen (some of whom would be his victims). Is it any wonder President Trump’s comedic talents at his rallies seem refreshing to cynical observers? Was it ever really plausible for his 2016 call for Russia to help investigate the missing Hillary Clinton emails to be taken seriously—literally instead of comically?

True, America is divided, but is it nonetheless impossible to distinguish between tragedy and farce? Comedians choose who will laugh at them. The politically correct—be they at colleges or, now, in our corporations, boardrooms, and politics—find nothing funny.

But what would the schools, comedians, or politicians say about the greatest joke of all—the founding American idea that all men—that is, all humans—are created equal. Yet that joke has become the basis of a powerful nation, admired and feared.

Our Civil War, the bloodiest in our history, was a ferocious struggle over this “joke.” Why didn’t we get the joke and expose it, thus saving the nation much death and misery? Do we practical Yankees and dreamy Southerners lack a sense of humor and are we therefore doomed to laugh in the wrong places? Trump has no problem laughing at the inherently ridiculous.

The Spirit of Equality vs. Monarchy

Equality can’t be literal. At best, we’re human and see people of different ages and sexes, athletes, geniuses, criminals, fools, the whole lot of humanity. We can’t really see like God. Our self-interest and vanity blind us. Without necessarily any religious belief, however, Democrats assume they have God’s perspective. But like their French revolutionary forefathers, they have banished God and replaced him with a new calendar, allegedly based on “science” (but is in fact a euphemism for atheism).

In the spirit of equality, Americans have always rejected an established state religion, with at least the same vehemence with which they have rejected monarchy. But despite religious differences they understood the political and social need for belief in a common God. The Left has used this entirely reasonable, religious standard to renounce any religion or preference for private, religious approaches to political and social issues. Freedom of religion has been reduced to freedom of worship, within the confines of a church or other structure. Thus, the Left will always use common American language and understanding against its underlying reasonableness.

As Americans disdained kings, equality has reflected our democratic tastes and belief in “republican” virtue—that is, citizen character—as a replacement for dominating government. And in turn, hasn’t the Left adopted monarchy in practice with its re-election of FDR for four terms?

Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, where he compared his election to a divine choice and his legitimacy to that of a commander of armies, has remained the presidential standard for most presidents from both parties. (A contrast between it and President Reagan’s first inaugural is highly instructive.) The habit of monarchy, which has gone on now for over four score years, is hard to break—even, as Harry and Meghan are discovering, for a ceremonial monarchy.

The Left has used American common sense as a weapon against itself, resulting in a new state religion of political correctness to go along with its longer-standing project of re-adopting monarchy.

In this way, the Left can claim the loyalty to the Constitution, religion, and democracy that ordinary folks respect when, in fact, they have eviscerated it in the name of “science” and its peculiar version of democratic centralism.

Love and Power

Equality of the passions, in particular, private passions once reserved for the family, and rule of the intellectually respectable cognoscenti or elites, becomes not only compatible but even necessary. Science and persons of science purify politics and rejigger messy democracy on behalf of evermore powerful, efficient statecraft.

Thus, the passion of love can attach itself to any number or kinds of objects. Greed, of course, remains unacceptable as an anti-social passion. Conversely, acquiring political power is not only acceptable but mandated, if on behalf of social improvement or reform. Obstructing such power is a danger to the people.

Moreover, the passion of love, the most powerful of all passions, can transform itself into that most dangerous passion, the passion of demanding to be loved. What an absurdity!

Yet the ancient political philosophers insisted that a citizen’s love of fellow citizens form the capstone of political life: friendship is the completion of justice. Self-sacrifice is celebrated and a glorious consummation of the love of fellow citizens, past and present.

This is not mere political theory but a reflection of American political practice, in the Revolution, Civil War, and the last century’s world wars. It mirrors as well the political practice of England, as class barriers were replaced by patriotism, enshrined in memory by Shakespeare’s Henry V in his Agincourt speech.

Crises may show human greatness. The greatest political crisis, the Civil War, with the abolition of slavery, resulted in the reconciliation of the Constitution with the intentions of the Declaration of Independence. Are our imaginations so poor that from this lesson we can’t draw other inferences from the underlying principle of human equality besides the need to abolish slavery? What of the return to self-government, government by consent, and therefore limited government as our first priority as equal citizens?

The inability to own slaves and therefore maintain plantations and the way of life they fostered represented a dramatic change in the entire national economy. Moreover, it signaled a legal change toward work, property ownership, and ultimate citizenship for freedmen. It spanned the distance between Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses and pointed the way ahead.

“You Work, I Eat”

Not only in times of political strife do Americans decry partisanship and praise unity. There is a constant refrain to, “Rise above politics, compromise and choose the common good, as reason and self-interest prefer.” Outside of crises, isn’t there the more subdued mood of ordinary life that shows Americans in possession of charitable hearts, Lincoln’s “better angels” of our nature? Americans demonstrate this all the time, in their generosity, their giving, their volunteering whenever there is an acute need.

The most practical way to the next step away from equality as merely anti-slavery in the historical sense is to ask, “What is the essence of slavery, whose abolition the war was ultimately fought to end?” And we note Lincoln’s answer: “You work, I eat.”

He also added,

This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.

I am most happy to believe that the plain people understand and appreciate this.

The “plain people” rejected both tyrannical and slavish attitudes in those around them. Freedom was not just their right, a license for what they want for themselves, but also a cheerful duty.

Supposedly tougher-minded philosophers, most prominently Karl Marx, dismissed such bourgeois banter. But they found that their dismissals of equality, the equality of natural rights, forced them to find substitutes for Plato and Aristotle’s praise of civic friendship: in Marx’s case socialized humanity, socialism. Lincoln’s “you work, I eat” definition of slavery reigns in Marx’s utopia.

Yet, many would make the abolition of slavery a harbinger for supposed equal rights for women, alleged alleviation of racial and immigrant discrimination, and much later, in our day, gay rights. Not only the Left views each of these cases as derivative of the correction of the inequality of slavery, thus further confusing our understanding of our history, institutions, and human nature.

Lincoln’s call for national unity based on recognition of national failure becomes the font of the new American consciousness. All the other alleged failures weigh down the American soul and demand continuous self-abasement.

These causes fired the Progressive Revolution that still governs us through the intellectual and institutional elites that opine and govern in its name—universities, bureaucrats, think tanks, and journalists. Freedom is not their main concern: coerced love is. That takes “you work, I eat” to an even higher level.

First Principles

The Frightening Road To Leftist Utopia

The utopian Left believes human nature can be conquered; that they can annihilate the old Tao—and create a new one, based on their emotions.

Here’s a question to which I never hear a coherent answer: “What will the world look like when the Social Justice Left has won?”

I know what kind of world I want: a world of communities and individuals. Communities with different values. Individuals with different values, some of whom I can avoid because I don’t like their values—or whom I might befriend even though I don’t like their values. I want maximum personal liberty. Our respective values and beliefs make us different, and I want a world of difference. Otherwise, we have a world of eternal oppression.

What kind of world does the Left want, and how might that play out, in reality, when the Left has vanquished people like me?

Many leftists, “progressives,” and “modern liberals” are utopians—almost millenarianists. They believe society can be transformed, and mankind perfected, that human nature can be demolished and rebuilt—once people like them have sufficient power.

Utopianism always means more government, more top-down solutions, less individuality, less community. You’re told what you may say and think, what words you may not use, what behaviors you must approve, what scientific facts you must deny.

The road to Utopia never gets there. It’s an infinite road, full of marching prisoners—patrolled by snitches who report, and enforcers who punish any deviation.

Utopians talk of “loving acceptance of all people.” That’s the most intolerant concept imaginable. It means forcing people to suppress whatever private values they might have and adopt the “non-judgmental” values of their betters. Implicitly, it means letting others dictate what’s right or good—or letting them decree that such concepts are mere constructs.

The banner of inclusiveness and diversity bears the slogan, “Shut up.”

You might know that two and two make four, but an all-powerful government (call it The Party) could force you to say two and two make five, or whatever other number The Party dictates for the moment. You might continue to think that two and two make four, but you’ll not be allowed to say it—and you’ll eventually be buffaloed into defending a lie.

That will make you angry, of course. Ever notice how so many people on the Left seem perpetually angry? Maybe I would be angry, too, if I were constantly repeating lies that I knew were lies, but that I felt I had to repeat because I wanted to look good to my leftist friends.

The Left wants power over you.

That is all.

The utopian Left doesn’t really care about people of color, women, gays, etc. It doesn’t matter how black you are, how gay you are, how Hispanic you are, whatever: If you belong to a protected group, and you betray the Left, you are outcast. You and your family will be shunned and defamed by the “woke,” maybe even physically terrorized and economically destroyed.

If you are not allowed your values—if you must shut up if you disagree with The Party—you are not a person. You are an artifact. A thing. The leftist agenda, in a sense, denies your very humanity, by denying your human nature.

I believe—perhaps naïvely—in a natural order. A Tao, if you like. I can’t tell you where it originates, but it exists. Maybe the Tao comes from a creator; maybe from a “Life Force”; maybe it’s evolution; maybe it comes from nothing. Whatever its source, man has a nature, and a natural way—just as a frog, a bird, or a yak has. Part of man’s nature is reason, whence comes independence of thought, diversity of values and preferences.

The utopian Left believes human nature can be conquered; that they can annihilate the old Tao—and create a new one, based on their emotions. Sure, some of us might behave wrongly, they think, but human beings are potentially good. They can be made good, they can be corrected of their errors, the Left believes—but the only means to that end is force, force to the utmost. To “perfect” society, we must grant our betters the power to make us what they please.

Get this straight: these people hate you. Former President Obama wasn’t kidding when he said he proposed to “fundamentally transform America.” That is what he and his kind want.

What would you think of a man who said, “I intend to fundamentally transform my wife”? Not, “I’m going to encourage her to change a certain bad habit she has,” but “I intend to fundamentally transform her.” You would conclude that he hated his wife, had no respect for her. Would he “fundamentally transform” a person he respected?

The Left wants power over you. That is all.

Utopians will never perfect society because they stand on nothing. Right now, they’re pumping their legs like Wile E. Coyote when he has run off the edge of the cliff—and hoping they can keep moving forward into thin air. Inevitably, though, they will plunge into the abyss. That would be funny—except that they are determined to drag decent people down with them.

First Principles

Remembering the Farming Way

We need to pause sometimes and remember who these dinosaurs were and what they have contributed. For a while longer, a few are still with us, a sort of collective keyhole through which we can look back into a now unremembered American past, whose codes and mores we simply abandoned—and to our great and present loss.

Almost all the pragmatic agricultural wisdom that my grandparents taught me has long ago been superseded by technology. I don’t anymore calibrate, as I once did when farming in the 1980s, the trajectory of an incoming late summer storm by watching the patterns of nesting birds, or the shifting directions and feel of the wind, or the calendar date or the phases of the moon. Instead, I go online and consult radar photos of storms far out at sea. Meteorology is mostly an exact science now.

Even the agrarian’s socio-scientific arts of observation that I learned from my family are seldom employed in my farming anymore. Back in the day, when a local farmer’s wife died, I was told things like, “Elmer will go pretty soon, too. His color isn’t good and he’s not used to living without her”—and tragically the neighbor usually died within months. Now I guess I would ask Elmer whether his blood tests came back OK, and the sort of blood pressure medicine he takes. I don’t think we believe that superficial facial color supersedes lab work. Farmers did because in an age of limited technology they saw people as plants, and knew that the look and color of a tree or vine—in comparison to others in the orchard or vineyard—was a sign of their viability.

I grew up with an entire local network of clubs and get-togethers, and ferried my grandparents to periodic meetings of the Walnut Improvement Club, Eastern Star, the Odd Fellows, Masons, the Grange, and Sun-Maid growers. They exchanged gossip, of course, but also vital folk and empirical information on irrigation, fertilizers, and machines.

The point was to remind us that “we” (i.e., the vanishing rural classes) needed to stick together—especially given glimpses of what the country would be like in the 21st century. When one of us died or got sick, people showed up with flowers, food, and offered help—whether the use of a tractor, or truck or hired man to “get you through this.”

Now? Zilch.

I don’t know any of my neighbors. Most are recent immigrants from south of the border, many here illegally. The land is almost all leased out to or has been purchased by large corporations. The old farmhouses are also rented and often poorly maintained: a sort of rural skeleton, with the flesh gone and the bones flaking apart. I hear from our coastal elites all about diversity, community, and caring. But out here, no one believes there is much diversity. Community does not exist. And as for caring, it is about making sure you get home at night without a drunk driver forcing you off the road—or worse.

So Much for Diversity or Community

I don’t know where exactly all my Armenian, Greek, Japanese, Mexican, Portuguese, Scandinavian agrarian friends of my childhood went, but they and their offspring are all long gone. And it is mostly rich versus poor left now, with little in between in California. I’m not sure massive illegal immigration is going to lead to the sort of communities that legal immigration and family farming once built. I once remember locals saying things like, “We can’t find the damn key to our house. Never had a need for it,” and, “Say, did you see that stranger two weeks ago prowling around the ditch bank?”—as if such a rare occurrence demanded neighborhood consultation.

Now? Rural houses have walls, fences, barbed wire, cameras, and fierce pit bulls. I feel like it is North Africa circa AD 430, and the world is retreating into rural makeshift fortifications. And the occupants—few of them farmers—are armed to the teeth. The local sheriffs by needs appear in raids against the Norteños and Sureños gangs, equipped like the 82nd Airborne.

[Hiatus: I was just interrupted writing this by a loud noise outside the front door at 6 a.m. A drunk driver swerved off the road—as is an almost a monthly occurrence—tore out an almond tree in our orchard, and tried to keep driving for a bit before his car conked and law enforcement appeared. A kind and professional highway patrolman, speaking Spanish, is now booking him in the front of the house. The driver seems quite drunk (in the early morning no less), doesn’t speak English, and, along with his passengers, gave me a nice frown when I walked out, in apparent recognition that he destroyed my property and has not a bit of contrition, much less any intention of paying me anything.]

The science and culture of family farming are about gone. I used to worry when my grandfather got the flu: who will run the farm? And how without him, given his stored wisdom that was never written down? He himself used to lecture about the bankruptcy of a neighbor, “He was a good enough farmer, but no one counted on his son getting killed in that accident and a cancer in his lung.” I learned that often just health and constitution meant success while fragility and illness failure. Continuance was always in the balance.

The Solid Constitution of the Farmer

To extend the farming logic, one ingredient in Donald Trump’s success appears to be his underappreciated constitution that somehow defies the logic of septuagenarian preventive medicine.

I had a Swedish grandfather like that whose lungs and esophagus were scarred and shriveled from gassing in World War I, who made a hardscrabble living by raising what he ate and breaking horses, and yet his constitution made it to 80—before the ancient scar tissues and cysts in his gassed mouth finally went malignant. We pried him off his 40-acre pasture and took him to an oncologist in 1968, the first doctor he had visited in 30 years.

Agribusiness wisely does not depend on the health of a paterfamilias, much less the regimens it once took to keep him going. Protocol is on the internet and managers are university trained in the sciences of hydrology, genetics, and plant chemistry. I can often spot a rare vestigial family-owned and operated 100-acre almond orchard by its less impressive, less tidy look, in comparison to the garden-like corporate-operated tesserae of the same size as part of huge 10,000-acre mosaics.

So the health of a single middle-aged male farmer used to determine whether the farm thrived or failed. The males I grew up with used all sorts of creams, balms, ointments, folk remedies, and embraced strange regimens about eating, when to go to bed, and when to get up. These habits were felt essential to ensuring trees were pruned or grapes picked. I never could figure out why locals wore either railroad engineer overalls, or matching khaki pants and shirt, or blue shirts and jeans that variously reflected their own idiosyncratic theories about how to endure the scorching summer heat, or frosty winter mornings, or to protect from wasp stings or sand burrs.

I don’t particularly miss the endemic grouchiness of agrarians, reflective I suppose of the tragic nature of family farmers. Even when a neighbor produced three tons of raisins per acre and in a rare year of good prices no less, he would sigh when complimented, “Well, I did alright, at least good enough.” And when the rain took his crop and the market prices dropped even in the midst of shortages, you would hear, “I’m done for and about had it with this farming business.”

In other words, much of the natural and human knowledge I picked up on a five-generation small farm in Central California is no longer applicable to the 21st century in the age of social media, the internet, huge wealth, globalization, open borders, and the transformations of the arts of farming into the sciences of agribusiness.

Or is that assessment entirely true? Aren’t there occasional vestigial insights?

Vestigial Insights of a 20th-Century Farmer

Call them philosophical reflections or perhaps reminders of the tragic view of human existence of the last 2,500 years in the agrarian West since Hesiod that still remain invaluable in our rich and faceless society.

One is the idea of hubris incurring nemesis. Farmers taught me to save in good times, because they would not, could not last. If religious—and most were—they assumed an omniscient God watches over us and tempers the good with the bad. A healthy son, a banner plum year, a new shed meant “watch out!” Such good luck could not last, especially if one took such good times as a referendum on one’s own talent or brilliance—which, human nature being what it is, one usually and catastrophically did.

Nemesis then followed haughtiness. The wise instead sought balance (to hide from the jealous roaming pagan goddess Nemesis): to remain cautious and humble when things were good, and defiant and resolute when they turned awful.

I still remember their wisdom of unintended consequences, irony, and paradox. Sometimes farmers who never smoked, drank, or ate too much dropped dead of strange cancers or wasting diseases. Model peach orchards of hardy stock on occasion were sickened by bacterial gummosis. Beautiful two-story Victorian farmhouses of the 19th century burned down right after expensive restorations. That edged legacy still haunts me. I’m as afraid of good times as of bad, as if the two faced off on some baleful teeter totter, each having a commensurate turn, raising us higher and then taking us down.

I still cannot shake agrarian wisdom even in our suburbanized world. Watch out for fast-talkers and know-it-alls whose speech substitutes for real accomplishment, a lore that I guess evolved from the solitary nature of farming when people worked days alone, had few with whom to talk, and failed or succeeded by how much they got done—all and only visible to the naked eye. Not talking to a single person for an entire day while pruning or tractor driving or irrigating is no longer a normal experience.

Sometimes agrarian genes are outright curses. Why cannot a person lodge a legitimate excuse? Aren’t there extenuating circumstances?

Excess of Independence as Corrective to Today’s Acedia 

Most of my near own disasters over the last 60 years were needless and self-inflicted and came from foolishly “pressing on” in order that I didn’t “let someone down”—as if one always had to finish pruning the entire vine row with the flu, or disc the entire 20 acres with pink eye.

I would hear in my farming brain “You gave your word.” “You said you’d do it.” “What if everyone did that?” Or rather I heard what had been instilled by others.

And so when I had a dull ache in my groin, I went to fulfill a speaking engagement for an educational consortium touring in Muammar Gadaffi’s nightmare of a country and ended up in shock with a ruptured appendix in Libya, in a desperate search for a surgeon. (I found one 26 hrs. later).

A reluctance long ago in Greece to tell the archaeological director of an excavation that my urine was turning pink soon led to a staghorn calculus, a severed ureter, and an iffy flight back to the United States for an emergency operation.

Getting Middle East malaria or dysentery was usually because I didn’t want to seem to “house up” as they said on the farm. Farmers believe, apparently, that there is some natural force in the universe that rewards continuance when in fact they often make their own plight worse by not taking simple precautions. I remember a 70-year-old farmer showing me a “small” bruise on his back from falling out of his cab: his entire back from neck to belt was bright purple.

I once begged my 66-year old father not to patch old telephone wire (the remnants of a shared rural country line) on a 25-foot high, 70-year-old shoddy extension ladder. He badly broke his foot. When one does that in his sixties, and is a bit too heavy, it can devolve into all sorts of other imbalances. But he did fix the wire and the phone.

By the early 5th-century AD, “Rome”—already a crumbling Mediterranean hegemony—was a world away from the Italian agrarian state of the 3rd-century BC, in customs, values, and outlook: richer and more cosmopolitan, but unsustainable in its excesses, disunity, and rootlessness.

In our own late imperial days, honor the independent truck driver, the farmer, the guy who runs the 24-hour 7-Eleven store, and the owner-welder in a fabrication shop. We need to pause sometimes and remember who these dinosaurs were and what they have contributed. For a while longer, a few are still with us, a sort of collective keyhole through which we can look back into a now unremembered American past, whose codes and mores we simply abandoned—and to our great and present loss.

First Principles

The Punishing Agenda of the Anti-Punishment Movement

Punishment is a public declaration of moral standards. It is an extension of natural law. Descend into the anti-incarceration activists’ amoral abyss, and you abolish the very fabric of our ethical tradition.

On November 29, 2019, a man now called the London Bridge terrorist slaughtered British student Jack Merritt. While the killer has been named for a famous London landmark; his victim has been all but forgotten.

The killer’s family was quick to condemn the London Bridge terrorist’s actions. The family of his victim—not so much.

David Merritt, the late lad’s dad, got busy condemning those who wish to condemn that killer and his ilk to life in a cell. By December 2, Merritt the elder was already penning op-eds about clemency and leniency for criminals like the man who murdered his son.

Such minute-made forgiveness would have been Jack’s wish, asserted Merritt rather presumptuously—for how can the living speak for the dead?

David Merritt, then, proceeded to minimize what was murder with malice aforethought by dismissing what his son’s killer did as a mere “tragic incident.”

Just how obscene is the progressive mindset can be gleaned from what Mr. Merritt wrote:

If Jack could comment on his death—and the tragic incident on Friday 29 November—he would be livid. We would see him ticking it over in his mind before a word was uttered between us. Jack would understand the political timing with visceral clarity.

He would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against . . . What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.

That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences … Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. [Emphasis added.]

Anti-punishment ideologues like Merritt, incorrectly and condescendingly conflate punishment with “hate” and vengeance, and restitution and “rehabilitation” with justice.

They typically treat us to facile flimflam such as that “the desire for vengeance cannot become the foundation of jurisprudence.” By this verbal manipulation, these ideologues disingenuously advance a definition of justice that precludes incarceration and instead equates that object with restitution and rehabilitation alone.

Compared to David Merritt’s woke sentiments, the family of the London Bridge terrorist was mundane in its proper and civilized expiation.

“We are saddened and shocked by what [the killer] has done,” said the family. “We totally condemn his actions and we wish to express our condolences to the families of the victims that have died and wish a speedy recovery to all of the injured.”

But there was apparently no need to apologize. Speaking for his dead son, David Merritt appears already to have made peace with Jack’s ripper.

In their extreme versions, anti-punishment ideologues like David Merritt often plump for complete penal abolition.

Driven by parental and pedagogic progressivism, Jack, of blessed memory, had “devoted his energy to the purpose of a “pioneering program” called “Learning Together,” which aims “to bring students from university and prisons together to share their unique perspectives on justice.”

The imperative to offer up young lives to this or the other manifestation of Moloch is a progressive impulse—an obscene one, at that.

If young Merritt’s murder proves anything it is that Cambridge University’s social-justice outreach, “Learning Together,” is a costly indulgence, as Jack was murdered on the job.

More generally, the movement for restorative justice holds that problems plaguing the criminal justice system are reason enough to abolish it. Oddly, the movement’s position is starkly utilitarian, and bereft of principle.

Incarceration, assert proponents of “no-fault” forgiveness, doesn’t reduce rates of re-offense and doesn’t bring back the dead. Ergo, abolish it we must and heal the criminal in the community. After all, responsibility for individual evil actions lies really with “society.” Justice, say the activists, is therefore best sought by a redistribution of wealth and resources.

But, contrary to such pinko propaganda, our prisons aren’t loaded with choir boys.

The London Bridge killer was no victim of the system (although he claimed to have been fat-shamed or bullied for nurturing a prison paunch. Boo hoo). Rather, it was Jack Merritt who was the victim of a system that had automatically released a man with murder on his mind on a kind of meritless-reprieve scheme, and despite the man’s vow to do violence.

When just a teen, this killer plotted to attack the London Stock Exchange. He then fooled those around him by feigning remorse and a desire to reintegrate into British society.

From the dizzying heights of Platonic theorizing, libertarian anti-incarceration theorists typically point out, quite correctly, that crimes are committed against individuals and not against the amorphous entity called “society.” Solutions, they say, should, therefore, focus on making criminals pay restitution to their victims.

Here on terra firma, however, the prosaic fact is that when more dangerous offenders are incarcerated, fewer innocent individuals suffer.

When fewer violent criminals are apprehended, more innocent individuals are harmed.

If innocent individuals are incarcerated—a horrible thing against which jurist William Blackstone railed in 1769, saying “the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer”—they are harmed.

Although I would not argue against compelling criminals to do penance shaped by their victims, some libertarian anarchists want to see punishment replaced by a system of financial restitution.

But in cases (and there are many) where criminals can’t remotely repay victims for the harm done (especially in violent crimes), this means the consequences to the criminal won’t be remotely proportionate. In effect, by rejecting proportionate punishment for what is usually disproportionately paltry “restitution,” libertarian abolitionists are endorsing systematic injustice.

The object of so-called libertarians should not be a simplistic move to reduce the involvement of the state at any cost, not if it means freeing guilty offenders. Rather, it should be to reduce prison population by freeing innocent people whose activities, lawful by natural-law standards, the state has criminalized. Whether punishment makes people feel good, whether it reforms the criminal or safeguards the public is immaterial, although I would argue that a society with a moral code is safer in the long run than one without it.

Punishment is a public declaration of moral standards. It is an extension of natural law. Descend into the anti-incarceration activist’s amoral abyss, and you abolish the very fabric of our ethical tradition.

Fortunately, David Merritt’s meritless advocacy for a man who swore to murder again is moot. That killer was dispatched at the scene of his crime, his descent into hell hastened by the city of London’s police force.

First Principles

The Inertial States of America

Nothing unites us now, not religious faith, not cultural memory, not a common understanding of virtue, not the natural goodness of manhood and womanhood, not children, not the elderly, nothing. We do not seek “the naked bedrock of character and capacity,” because they are judgments against us.

I often file things that I read in my growing collection of 100-year-old magazines—in bound volumes, six months apiece, 1,000 large pages in small font—under the category, “Different World.” Such is an article from The Century Magazine, January 1900, called “Fellow-Feeling as a Political Factor.”

Its author knew a lot about political warfare, having long fought the machines in his native New York. Those who worked the levers of the machines were about to try to ruin him by promotion, pushing in that summer’s Republican convention for his nomination as candidate for vice-president. But things did not work out as they had planned. President McKinley was shot to death in 1901, and their worst nightmare, Theodore Roosevelt, rose to the highest office in the land, and he was determined, with his boundless energy, to put its powers to use.

“Neither our national nor our local civic life,” he says, “can be what it should be unless it is marked by the fellow-feeling, the mutual kindliness, the mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when men take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object.”

The objects he had in mind were not abstract. They were things like building the New Croton Dam to bring potable water to the largest city in the world, or storming San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, or mapping glaciers with John Muir in Alaska, or driving herds of cattle from the prairies to the stockyards in Chicago. In other words, they were the kinds of things men in large numbers no longer do.

Roosevelt had that bluff manliness that sat well with men who worked hard, spoke their minds frankly, kept themselves clean, and sought out the zest of difficulty or danger. Such men formed an aristocracy without distinctions of income, creed, race, or class. When he explains what he means by fellow-feeling, he turns to his own varied experiences as a young man fresh from Harvard, traveling west:

Outside of college boys and politicians my first intimate associates were ranchmen, cow-punchers, and game-hunters, and I speedily became convinced that there were no other men in the country who were their equals. Then I was thrown much with farmers, and I made up my mind that it was the farmer upon whom the foundations of the commonwealth really rested . . . Then I saw a good deal of railroad men . . . I grew to feel that, especially in their higher ranks, they typified the very qualities of courage, self-reliance, self-command, hardihood, capacity for work, power of initiative, and power of obedience, which we like most to associate with the American name.

So it goes on. His point is well taken. It is good for a cow-puncher’s son to go to Harvard. It may be better for the Harvard scion to go out west among cow-punchers, and not just for the rich boy, but for the nation, that we might be one in truth rather than just on paper; and the rich boy will learn a great deal in the bargain.

“There is no patent device,” Roosevelt says, “for bringing about good government.” No jiggering of the electorate will do it. No legislative machinery will do it. Wise laws will help, and foolish laws will hurt, but “the betterment must come through the slow workings of the same forces which have always tended for righteousness, and always will.”

That is the Progressive Roosevelt you are hearing, who today sounds as if he were a member of the John Birch Society. If we are not righteous—and Roosevelt implies that the moral law is what it has always been—then any unity we boast will be fragile or factitious.

Where is now our righteousness? Hollywood was always part in the shade; it is now pitch dark. Our schools make up in soul-smothering routine and inhumanity what they lack in knowledge, and the morals are worse still. We have reversed the wisdom of Solomon and now saw children in half, to satisfy the feelings of their irresponsible parents.

What happens, though, when men come together as Roosevelt suggests? Here the boy is father to the man, as Teddy always would believe. So he praises the public school not mainly for the uniformity of instruction, but for what happens in the schoolyard outside:

When in their earliest and most impressionable years Protestants, Catholics, and Jews go to the same schools, learn the same lessons, play the same games, and are forced, in the rough-and-ready democracy of boy life, to take each at his true worth, it is impossible later to make the disciples of one creed persecute those of another.

The rough-and-ready democracy of boy life: that is gone. There is no boy life. We make sure of that, and our polity suffers for it.

Athenian democracy depended upon the gymnasium, which functioned as school and athletic arena and military training ground. When you are stripped for the arena, you can’t tell rich man from poor, but you can tell the strong from the weak, and the brave from the timid. The boy who stands up for his rights or, better still, for the rights of a smaller boy against a bully, wins the esteem of his fellows, and if he had in Teddy’s time to win it with his fists, so much the better. Nowadays, a boy of no special intelligence or athletic prowess will hardly ever be in the company of a large group of boys doing something interesting or risky. He will not be noticed at all, unless perchance he begins to put on lipstick and a skirt. Then we throw him a party.

But this boyish democracy is or should be a foreshadowing of the grown man’s democracy to come. A man, says Roosevelt, who has the good luck to be compelled to work alongside masses of men in a condition where caste or class does not apply will see true democracy in action. “Every mining-camp,” he says, “every volunteer regiment proves it.”

The goal assumes pride of place, and the men subordinate all other considerations to its attainment. They choose as leaders those who will get the job done. They associate with other men of like mind. The intensity of their interest in the work—Roosevelt uses the word with its powerful sense of having a mighty and personal stake in something—causes them “to disregard, and, indeed, to forget, the creed or race origin or antecedent social standing or class occupation” of the man beside them, friend or foe. “They get down to the naked bedrock of character and capacity.”

As I said, it was a different world. Nothing unites us now, not religious faith, not cultural memory, not a common understanding of virtue, not the natural goodness of manhood and womanhood, not children, not the elderly, nothing. We do not seek “the naked bedrock of character and capacity,” because they are judgments against us.

We are the Inertial States of America. I wish it were not so.