The Old Right’s New World

This Labor Day weekend, I made an attempt to catch up on the magazines that have been accumulating around here for the last couple of years. I did come upon some things I wanted to note.

For example, in both a column about his personal evolution on questions of immigration policy the July 2016 issue of Chronicles and an article about the electoral prospects of the Libertarian Party in the July/ August 2016 issue of The American Conservative writer Justin Raimondo presents the same quote from Murray Rothbard’s speech to the 1992 meeting of the John Randolph Club:

The proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.

I don’t fault Mr Raimondo for presenting this excerpt twice, not only because the pieces are quite different from each other, but also because it is so uncannily like what he and other admirers of Mr Don-John Trump seem to see in their presidential candidate. I am an undisguised social democrat, and do not see much evidence that a tacit commitment to social democracy characterizes the policy-making of either the Democratic or Republican Parties in the USA.

Nor do I think that Mr Trump’s campaign represents a particularly strong challenge to the elites where they are in consensus; on immigration, the one issue where Mr Trump’s position has been fairly consistent and sharply at odds with the leadership of the Republican Party, I tend to agree with those observers, ranging from Slate magazine on the ultra-relaxationist left to John Derbyshire on the ultra-restrictionist right who say that the likeliest outcome of a Trump campaign is an electoral defeat that will push restrictionism to the margins for years to come. I grant it is possible, indeed rather likely, that Hillary Clinton will be such a shockingly bad president, leading the USA into pointless wars and so on, that the Republicans will win a huge landslide in 2020. That would give the Trumpians just enough time to establish themselves as a major part of the Republican Party, and not enough time for the entrenched elites to push them back out.  In that case, the president who follows the Clinton Restoration may have little choice but to throw a sop to the restrictionists every now and then. However, that’s a long way from the kind of epochal change Rothbard prophesied and for which Mr Raimondo hopes.

There are some other interesting bits in recent issues of my favorite “Old Right” reads. In the May 2016 issue of ChroniclesSrdja Trifkovic reviews Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of The Andulusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016,) which along with Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint Michel (2008) and Raphael Israeli’s Islamic Challenge in Europe (2008) represents a powerful scholarly riposte to happy-talk about Islam. Professor Trifkovic himself is rather fonder of unhappy-talk about Islam than may seem strictly necessary, but even at his angriest he is less obnoxious than are aggressively ignorant Washington figures such as Madeleine Albright and George W. Bush who have spent the last couple of decades setting themselves up as the authorities on what constitutes “true Islam.” No matter how hostile he may be to Islam, at least Professor Trifkovic doesn’t purport to speak as the arbiter of its orthodoxies.

In the June issue of Chronicles, Gerald Russello reviews Barry Alan Shain’s The Declaration of Independence in Historical Contextwhich builds on the thesis of Professor Shain’s 1996 book The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. Professor Shain argued in that book that the principal influence on American political thinking in the late eighteenth century was Calvinism, and in his new work collects documents that illustrate the extent to which the Declaration of Independence is a Calvinist tract. That thesis may sound familiar to readers of this blog, though I have so far been only vaguely aware of Professor Shain’s work. That looks like a gap in my erudition that I will need to fill post haste!

The August issue of Chronicles included a remarkably charming bit of light literary writing by Derek Turner, of all people. Mr Turner discusses Samuel Johnson and James Boswell’s famous tour of the islands and Highlands of Scotland, comparing their experiences with some recent observations of his own as he visited the same areas.

The September issue of Chronicles features Aaron D. Wolf’s discussion of Don-John of Astoria. Mr Wolf theme is that the word “conservatism,” as used by Republican luminaries who attack Mr Trump for his lack of ideological formation, is an empty one; Mr Wolf appeals to the late M. E. Bradford’s critique of all ideologies, branding every attempt to discover a totalizing set of political values as a reversal of history, an imposition of the present on the past in order to justify whatever one’s favorite political movement happens to be doing at the moment. Like Bradford, Mr Wolf values an attitude of respect for the particular, for particular places, particular times, particular customs, particular people, as an antidote to the brutality that so regularly finds a cloak for itself in the abstract and general language of ideology. Bradford could describe himself as “conservative” because that attitude of respect led him to want to conserve things, not because the word named a program that he was committed to carrying out though the heavens fall.

Don-John of Astoria is no more a conservative in the Bradfordian sense than he is in any of the ideological senses that the recent leaders of the Republican Party have tried to attach to the term, and Mr Wolf does not try to claim that he is. But he does close his column by finding a redeeming quality in the rise of Mr Trump:

Trump’s statement [that “if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country”] resonated with a great many of the American people, whose impulse is conservative (regardless of party and ideological affiliation,) and who had to be convinced by ideologues of both political parties that their impulse is immoral and contrary to “conservative” values.

Given that milieu, it’s no wonder that the only candidate who could break through with an argument for immigration sanity was a man of Trump’s character, whose narcissism makes him immune to their ideological attacks.

So it is precisely in the characteristic that would most have horrified Don John of Austria that Don-John of Astoria makes his contribution to the latter-day Battle of Lepanto to which the anti-Islamic writers of Chronicles imagine the West to be heading, rallying the forces of Christendom by throwing a series of self-aggrandizing tantrums.

The July/ August issue of The American Conservative includes not only the Justin Raimondo piece mentioned above,  but also an essay by David Cowan about economist Frank Knight, a pioneer in the study of uncertainty as the precondition for innovation and growth. Along with that is an excerpt from Knight’s work.

The September/ October issue of The American Conservative features Samuel Goldman’s review of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatismby George Hawley. Professor Goldman’s review is full of gems; I’ll quote these four short paragraphs from the middle of the piece, since they seem to form the heart of his case:

Hawley begins with the observation that the historic pillars of the American conservative movement—limited government, an assertively anti-communist foreign policy, and quasi-Christian moralism—have no necessary connection. Beginning in the early ’50s, these elements were packaged together by a group of intellectuals and activists led by William F. Buckley. The story is often told as a process of addition, in which disparate constituencies were brought into a grand coalition. Hawley emphasizes that it was also a process of exclusion, as unsuitable ideas and characters were driven out.

All students of the conservative movement know about the marginalization of Robert Welch and other leaders of the John Birch Society. Hawley reminds readers that the purges did not begin there. National Review was established partly to distance conservatism from the anti-Semitism that bedeviled the Old Right. Its founding manifesto was also a statement of protest against so-called New Conservatives of the 1950s who accepted the New Deal. Secular-minded anticommunists like Max Eastman were theoretically welcome in conservative circles but found their ostentatiously pious tone intolerable. In its first decade, the conservative movement was defined as much by who was out as who was in.

This process of self-definition did not end with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the first movement conservative to seek the presidency. Since then, Southern nostalgists, critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance, opponents of the Iraq War, and offenders against the movement’s code of racial etiquette have all been treated to quasi-official denunciations. Skeptics of supply-side economics have also been encouraged to make their homes elsewhere. This magazine has its origin in some of those disputes.

One result of this boundary-policing is a “true” conservatism of striking narrowness and rigidity. Its less recognized corollary is the development of a diverse ecology of ideas outside the movement’s ever shrinking tent. Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.

“Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.” Indeed, many of those the bitter and even poisonous growths flourish in and around Chronicles magazine, and the attention I’ve paid to that magazine so far in this post should suffice to show that I believe that healing tonics may sometimes be distilled from bitter and even poisonous growths.

In the May/June issue of The American ConservativeAlan Mendenhall reviews Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Conceptin which Professor Gottfried neither neglects fascism’s connections to the political left nor denies that it was, after all, a creature of the far right.  That may not sound like much, but lesser writers do often resort to sleight of hand to disassociate labels they accept (and Professor Gottfried does accept the label “rightist”) from odious labels (and no label is more odious than “fascism.”)

The March/April issue of The American Conservative includes Richard Gamble’s review of John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.  Evidently Professor Wilsey argues that the USA should let go of religious ideas that incline it to militaristic enterprises around the globe, but adopt religious ideas that will incline it to humanitarian enterprises around the globe. As a student of the thought of Irving Babbitt, Professor Gamble recognizes in this proposal an exchange of one indulgence of the expansive temperament for another, and sees in the apparently benevolent expansive humanitarianism the barely-concealed potential for warfare. He calls instead for what Babbitt endorsed, a truly humble policy that is founded in self-restraint and self-denial.


Chronicles, May 2015

The latest issue of this Old Right journal bears Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ (circa 1465-circa 1495) lovely painting “The Holy Kinship” on its cover.

Last month’s issue featured an article in which Claude Polin traced the intellectual influence of Calvinism in the early USA.  A letter in this month’s issue objects that some of the Calvinist ideas Professor Polin discussed there were not representative of John Calvin’s own thinking.  Professor Polin’s response to this is a succinct and admirable statement of one of the basic tenets of intellectual history:  “Either there never was any true Calvinist besides Calvin, or Calvin generated an attitude that was not his, but was logically derived from his writings.”

Steve Sailer (known to some who read this blog simply as “the hated SAILER”) writes about Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the system of land ownership and property registration in the early USA, a system which Mr Sailer argues has given the USA a crucial advantage in economic development.  Mr Sailer’s argument that the abstract nature of the grid plan along which Jefferson led the USA’s lands to be surveyed made for a far more efficient structure than the more concrete metes-and-bounds system it replaced makes a odd counterpoint to Chronicles‘ editor Thomas Fleming’s column, in which he declares Jefferson’s similarly abstract, anti-historical views on inheritance to be of a piece with the exaltation of the nuclear family that has enabled the destruction of traditional kinship bonds and therefore of traditional community structures and traditional gender roles in today’s world.  Both Mr Sailer and Dr Fleming agree that Jefferson’s ideas have led to the rise of capitalism, but while Mr Sailer’s chief concern is extolling the prosperity that capitalism has brought, Dr Fleming’s emphasis is on capitalism’s destruction of those bonds and identities that have traditionally ennobled human life.

Clyde Wilson, editor of The John Calhoun Papers and an unreconstructed defender of the Old South, may be the last person you would expect to speak up in favor of the view that agents of the US government killed Martin Luther King, Junior, yet that is precisely what he does in his review of John Emison’s The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up.  Professor Wilson seems to believe that the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated the assassination, pointing out that the agency had a file on small-time criminal James Earl Ray, the supposed gunman, and that the two federal judges who were, “years apart,” poised to reopen the case died of sudden heart attacks, which are “a standard tool of the CIA.”  Professor Wilson also refers to two other notorious 1960’s-era activities of the American national security state, Operation Northwoods, a Joint Chiefs of Staff plan to carry out terrorist acts in the USA and blame them on Fidel Castro, and Cointelpro, a Federal Bureau of Investigation project overseen by W. Mark Felt, who was among other things the FBI’s liaison with the Joint Chiefs.  For my part, if there was a high-level conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King, I suspect Mark Felt was its mastermind and the offices of the Joint Chiefs were its nursery.  Professor Wilson closes his review with a lament about all the crimes whose true provenance we will never know because high US officials saw to the destruction of evidence, the intimidation of witnesses, and the railroading of convenient suspects; his first example is the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Many documents connected with the assassination of Martin Luther King are sealed until 2029; until they have been opened and examined, I think it is premature to put the King assassination into the same baleful category.

Scott Richert writes about Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which, unlike the federal law and the many state laws of the same name, does not apply only to civil suits to which the government is itself a party, but to a wide variety of lawsuits between private citizens.  Mr Richert, responding to the widespread fear that the law would enable unjust discrimination against sexual minority groups in Indiana and the consensus in favor of legal protection for such groups against discrimination which this fear revealed,* argues that the growth of civil rights protection for sexual minorities is the result of a strategy on the part of big businesses in the USA.  These businesses want the benefits of a reputation for friendliness to sexual minorities, but don’t want competitors to carve out a niche in which they could exploit any costs that such a reputation might entail.  So, big businesses want to advertise their own “gay-friendly” programs, while outlawing or stigmatizing any “unfriendly” programs competitors might come up with.

*I commented on the Indiana law here when it was first passed.

Chronicles, February 2014

The latest issue of paleoconservative Chronicles magazine features several pieces (by Thomas L. Fleming, Claude Polin, and Chilton Williamson) reflecting on James Burnham’s 1964 book, The Suicide of the West.

Burnham’s work always struck me as highly derivative of Lawrence Dennis, especially Dennis’ 194o The Dynamics of War and Revolution.  Dennis made the mistake of accepting the label “fascist” as a self-description in the 1930s.  Dennis was not an enthusiast for fascism; he thought a fascist regime was inevitable, and that elites ought to face up to that inevitability and try to make the best of what he freely acknowledged was in many ways a bad situation.  He criticized US elites harshly, so that when the United States entered the Second World War, he found himself a friendless man, exposed to attack on all sides.   Prosecuted for sedition in 1944, it was only because the judge died during his trial that Dennis was lucky enough to stay out of prison.  I had hoped that the issue would include at least one reference to Dennis, but it does not.  Justin Raimondo is a regular columnist for Chronicles, and a defender of Dennis; Mr Raimondo’s column this month is about a lady who fixes up old houses.

A couple of pieces in the issue, Dr Fleming’s column linked above and a note by Aaron D. Wolf, bring up homosexuality.  Dr Fleming takes issue with the term “homophobia,” writing: “express the Christian point of view on homosexuality, as Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson did, and you are a homophobic bigot—though the idea of Mr. Robertson being afraid of gay men is truly amusing.”  I am not familiar with Mr Robertson, so I cannot share Dr Fleming’s amusement.  I can only congratulate him on it.

However, I think Mr Wolf’s piece does vindicate the term “homophobia.”  Mr Wolf, also thinking of Mr Robertson, writes:

Robertson believes homosexuality is sinful because God says so in His infallible Word.  He, like Saint Paul, doesn’t make a sophisticated distinction between inclination and activity.  And Robertson follows Paul’s thought process as spelled out in Romans 1—that a society given over to sexual perversion is a society that has followed a long path of degradation.  In addition Robertson, convinced as he is by a higher authority which demands submission and not explaining away, also recognizes that such perversion is not even rational behavior.  Thus, the Duck Commander, in the field, armed, and with his girly-man interviewer in tow, said with vulgar rhetorical flourish what most men, Christian and non-Christian alike, have said in locker rooms or at bars or by the water cooler or wherever: that the very idea of what gay men do, or want to do, is repulsive.

As I understand it, when psychologists talk about phobias, they are talking about anxiety disorders.  So someone who suffers from acrophobia, for example, is not simply “afraid of heights,” but is likely to be seized by anxiety when exposed to heights.   Further, it is my understanding that the two main causes of anxiety attacks are, initially, the fear that one is being forced to meet  impossible demands, and, subsequently, the  fear that one is about to have an anxiety attack.

With those points in mind, I would say that anyone who “doesn’t make a… distinction between inclination and activity” before declaring that God has judged particular people to exemplify “perversion” and “degradation” and to be “repulsive” probably has an anxiety disorder.  Mr Wolf can, by acts of will, prevent himself from engaging in any particular activity at any particular moment.  If he regards same-sex sex as perverse, degrading, and repulsive, he can therefore choose to abstain from it throughout his whole life.  However, inclinations do not respond to acts of the will in that way.  This is not a “sophisticated distinction.”  It is the very crudest sort of magical thinking to imagine that a desire or an inclination will go away simply because we tell it to.  Indeed, it is in the strictest sense unchristian to believe that this can be done, since it denies the reality of temptation.

So, if anxiety is the result of the fear of being forced to meet impossible demands, the belief that one’s inclinations must respond to acts of will in the same way that one’s activities do is a recipe for anxiety.  If that belief is reinforced by the threat that “most men, Christian and non-Christian alike” will regard one as perverse, degraded, and repulsive if one does not succeed in this impossible task, then of course the result will be an anxiety disorder.

And not only in those who have experienced a desire for same-sex sex.  All of us know perfectly well that we cannot shape our inclinations by acts of will, since all of us have at least some inclinations of which we would like to be rid.  Mr Robertson, as a recovering drug addict, knows that better than most.  So, if one believes that merely experiencing a homosexual inclination is enough to mark one as unacceptable for the company of men, one would surely be haunted by the fear that such an inclination might someday, somehow, pop into one’s feelings.

Perhaps this belief, miserable as it makes so many people, is also behind much of the rapid growth of support for the rights of sexual minorities in the West in recent decades.  If we do not distinguish between the inclination and the activity, then denouncing the activity means reviling the people who are inclined to it.  The more same-sexers one gets to know, the harder it is to believe oneself to be a nice person while using phrases like (to quote Mr Wolf’s note) “designed for the toilet” with application to matters that are essential to their social identity and most intimate relationships.  So, perhaps the Mr Wolfs of the world are the true vanguard of the gay rights struggle.

The Nice Creed

In the June issue of Chronicles magazine, Philip Jenkins wrote a very interesting piece about the Revised Common Lectionary.  A lectionary is a table of holy writings that are prescribed to be read in church or temple on particular days; the Revised Common Lectionary is the product of a collaboration among many of the largest Christian denominations in the United States and Canada. Throughout the English-speaking world, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants hear the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary in their services.

Jenkins asks us to imagine a new Christian denomination, one founded with a close eye to market research.  This denomination might find a stumbling block in the Bible.  How might they clear such a hurdle?  “Our focus groups tell us that many modern people do not like or do not understand large portions of the Bible, about half the book in fact, and we want to serve their needs.  The God we preach is, above all, Nice, and the scripture must focus on that paramount reality.  So our church has produced a new version of the Bible, carefully selected for Niceness, and edited to remove the half of the material that modern readers find difficult, unpleasant, or thorny.  That is our belief- or as we call it, our Nice Creed.”

While this imaginary Nice Creed might be very different from the series of statements known in various times and places as the Nicene Creed, it would have a distinguished historical lineage.  Marcion of Pontus, a major figure in the early development of Christian thought, was so troubled by the many passages of the Jewish scriptures that depict a vengeful God Who takes a particular interest in one chosen people that he decided those scriptures were describing a different God from the world-redeeming, grace-giving God of Jesus and Paul.  Marcion did not deny the truth of Judaism, but claimed that while the Jewish God created the universe and the Messiah would come and establish a millennial kingdom for the Jews, the God of Jesus was quite another fellow, and Jesus Himself, though He were Savior of all humanity, was no Messiah.  No church today claims Marcion as an inspiration; all that express an opinion about him call him a heretic.  But the Revised Common Lectionary elides, in Jenkins’ words, “exactly those Old Testament elements that most repelled that ancient heretic.  What remains in the text is an acceptable Bible Lite.”

For example, 94% of the Book of Esther is missing from the Revised Common Lectionary.  While the lectionary leaves in the story of the hanging of the wicked Haman, it leaves out the revenge the Jews took on his people, a revenge that left 75,000 dead.  This is the foundation story of the feast of Purim, and is important enough to Jews today that worshipers ritually make noise in temple when Haman’s name is mentioned.  But it certainly isn’t Nice.  So out it goes.

Jenkins puts it thus: “In terms of the ordinary experience of Christian Church life, the Book of Esther has ceased to exist.  So has the Book of Ezra (not quoted at all in the lectionary); so have Judges, Leviticus, Nehemiah (each represented by one meager passage.)”  Even worse is the selective editing within passages.  “A passage will be cited as (for instance) ‘Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18’ without any explanation of what has vanished from that chapter.  Just what was in verses three through eight?”  Jenkins gives some examples of passages which are seriously misrepresented by selective editing of this sort.  For example, this lesson gives us the first verse and a half of chapter 24 of Joshua, then jumps to verses 14-18.  What’s wrong with verses 3-13?  Jenkins explains that “these omitted verses recount the conquest and destruction of the Amorite and Moabite peoples, the annihilation of Jericho, and the ethnic cleansing of the seven peoples of Canaan.  Leaving out that section, we imagine the rival peoples listed in this chapter as armed enemies in battle, not as civilian targets for genocide.”  Definitely not Nice!

Jenkins two closing paragraphs make his point very forcefully, I think, so I’ll quote them in full:

Why should we worry about this radical purging of the biblical text? After all, Christians are not forbidden to read the troubling texts on their own, either in a private context or in a common study group.  Yet having said this, many such groups like to use the lectionary as a guide for such activity, either using the texts for the coming Sunday, r else linking the study to a sermon.  Ordinary readers are free to pursue Joshua, Ezra, and Deuteronomy, but how many do?  If you are a faithful church attendee- a Catholic or Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian, Lutheran or Mennonite- the odds are that you will simply never encounter some of the Bible’s most challenging passages, texts that must be understood if we are to see that work holistically.  Jesus, after all, was really Yeshua, and He shared His name with the ancient warlord we call Joshua, the book of whose deeds has virtually disappeared from church usage.

The worst feature of this far-reaching excision of troubling texts is what it suggests about the churches’ attitude toward their ordinary believers, who must be protected from anything that might call them to question the orthodoxies of the day.  God forbid they might hear these texts: They might be induced to think.

I am one of those who would be glad if there were nothing in the Bible encouraging war, or genocide, or slavery; if it spoke out consistently and clearly in favor of equality between men and women, of a mindful relationship with the natural world, of the rights and dignity of sexual minorities; if it fit easily into a scientific worldview and a liberal democratic political system.  These are some of the values Jenkins would classify among the “orthodoxies of the day,” and of course they are that.  I don’t mind being called orthodox.  But it is simply false to pretend that the Bible really is that way, and Jenkins deserves commendation for speaking out against the infantilization of “ordinary believers” implied in the Nice version of the scriptures presented in the Revised Common Lectionary.

In the same issue, Aaron D. Wolf marks the 400th anniversary of the “King James Bible.”  Wolf has fond memories of his fundamentalist boyhood and of the 1611 Bible as a presence in that boyhood, but now that he has left fundamentalism behind and become a more traditional sort of Christian he is constrained to point out some of the limitations in that translation.  I hadn’t known just how dependent the 1611 translation was on William Tyndale’s earlier translation.  Evidently 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament in the 1611 translation comes verbatim from Tyndale, and the rest was shaped by the influence of Tyndale’s approach.  As a Lutheran in an England whose established church was still subordinate to Rome, Tyndale was put to death for heresy in 1536, but it would seem he managed to get the last word.

Thomas Fleming isn’t a particularly humorous author, at least not intentionally, but his column did make me chuckle this time around with this story.  He meets a man.  “‘Been to church’?  he asked.  Dressed in a suit at 10:30 on Sunday morning, I was forced to admt the fact.”

Chilton Williamson writes about industrialization.  He grants that the industrial revolution was in a sense inevitable, so that “the question of whether men should have created industrialism is a meaningless one, the kind of modern question-putting Chesterton deplored.”  Still, t’s clear that he wishes he could answer the question in the negative.  “Industrialism has two ultimate tendencies.  One is to subdue nature and to exhaust it, while ruining it as a home for man, as well as for the thousands upon thousands of other species that industrial activity has driven to extinction, not least through the explosive growth of the human species that industrialization has made possible.  The other is to subdue and exploit man, while progressively marginalizing him in the workplace and in society as a whole by mechanization, and finally replacing him altogether with robotic labor.” Williamson doesn’t mention Eric Gill, but Gill’s critique of industrialization seems to be behind this remark and his suspicion that “industrialism, in both human and natural terms, is patently unsustainable, and that its eventual collapse is therefore guaranteed.”

Chronicles, December 2010

Lawrence Dennis and his foster mother circa 1908, when he toured England as "the boy evangelist"

I never quite finished my notes on the December 2010 issue of far-right Chronicles magazine, but it includes several notable pieces.  So I’ll mention them now, months late though I may be.

Justin Raimondo brings up one of his favorite writers, Lawrence Dennis.  Dennis is also one of my favorites, though I think it is rather stretching matters for Raimondo to call Dennis an “African-American intellectual.”  Certainly Dennis’ background was African-American; when the 12 year old Dennis toured England as “the boy evangelist” in 1908, his ethnicity gave him an exotic appeal.  And he was undoubtedly an intellectual.  When he was on trial for sedition in 1944, government witness Hermann Rauschning startled the prosecutor by testifying that Dennis was not a tool of the Nazis, but was a thinker fit to be compared with Oswald Spengler.  Dennis was conducting his own defense; when time came for him to cross-examine Rauschning, he rose and thanked him.   Yet Dennis was hardly the spokesman for the African American experience that we’ve come to expect when we hear the phrase “African American intellectual.”  He said little about the African American experience, and never presented himself as a representative of African Americans.  Indeed, the only book-length study of Dennis is titled The Color of Fascism: Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing, and the Rise of Right Wing Extremism in the United States, and interprets Dennis’ writings and political behavior as symptoms of a life spent passing for white.  As Robert Nedelkoff put it in a sympathetic piece about Dennis that he contributed to issue #13 of The Baffler (published in October 1999,) “when he spoke of race relations he made no reference to his being of a particular race” (page 99.)  Nedelkoff’s piece, covering pages 93-100 in that issue of The Baffler, was the second place I’d read of Dennis; the first was the chapter on Dennis in Ronald Radosh’s 1975 book Prophets on the Right.  Between them, these pieces convinced me that Dennis was more interesting than his onetime embrace of the label “fascist” would indicate.  In a series of books published between 1933 and 1941, Dennis predicted that the USA would eventually adopt an economic system similar to those prevailing in Italy and Germany at that time; that this new system would be promoted as a triumph of America’s traditional system; and that he himself would be prosecuted for sedition for saying that free speech was obsolete.  Looking back in his final book, Operational Thinking for Survival (1969,) Dennis concluded that all of his predictions had been vindicated.

Chilton Williamson shares fond memories of the time when he and the late Joseph Sobran worked together at National Review.   I always looked forward to Sobran’s columns because of the witty remarks that so often appeared there, though I can’t say I ever found a well-constructed argument in any of them.  I must mention a grievance I have against Sobran.  One of the statements he made that got him fired from National Review and driven to the fringes of society was praise for the magazine Instauration.  Because I found much to admire in Sobran’s work, I looked for Instauration.  When the magazine became available online, I read several issues.  I’d expected an intellectual magazine marked by a hard-headed conservatism, with some pieces that crossed the line into racial prejudice.  In other words, I was braced for something rather like Chronicles, only more extreme.  Imagine my disappointment when instead I found a racist tract containing article after article dismissing the Holocaust as a hoax (in the first issue the editors express great satisfaction in putting the word “Holohoax” into print.)

George McCartney reviews the movie The Social Network, by Aaron Sorkin.  Sorkin’s grand project seems to be showing groups of aggressive, self-indulgent people clashing with each other in the course of work that creates a benign product.  The difficulty with such works as The Social Network and The West Wing is that the real-life counterparts of Sorkin’s characters seem to be far more quietly efficient and their products far more problematic than he allows.  So Mark Zuckerberg is rumored to be rather a pleasant sort of chap; Facebook has unnerving features that lead me to call its administrators “the Zuckforce.”  Actual staffers in the White House probably spend less time dashing about the corridors and snarling at each other than they do showing friendliness and good manners; but the US presidency, as they help to constitute it, may well be the single most destructive institution in the world today.  Someone like Lawrence Dennis, were he to see a society with a surveillance network like Facebook and a political leader who starts a war every year or two, would likely show little interest in whether the people administering that network and staffing that leader observed the social graces.  In the popularity of Facebook, he might see a people who had become so thoroughly inured to surveillance that they can enjoy themselves only in an environment structured to record their every move; in The West Wing, a people so inured to war that they expect to enjoy a cozy relationship with the chief warlord.

The Old Right in the New Year

The current issues of The American Conservative and Chronicles appeared in our mailbox yesterday; here are my notes on them.

J. David Hoeveler, who in 1977 published the indispensable book The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940, contributes to this issue of The American Conservative an article about one of the main subjects of that book, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and the other critics in the New Humanist group were identified as political and social conservatives in their own day, and it has been conservative intellectuals who have kept their names alive.  Hoeveler argues that Babbitt would have been deeply uncomfortable with much that characterizes the right wing of today’s Republican Party.  Hoeveler identifies four major strands in this movement, which he labels “imperialist conservatism,” “”populist conservatism,” “libertarian conservatism,” and “religious conservatism.”  Since Babbitt was an outspoken opponent of all forms of military intervention the US undertook throughout his life, Hoeveler has an easy time showing that he would have been unlikely to support America’s ongoing current wars and level of military spending.    Nor would the Babbitt whose main political concern was saving democracy by reconciling it to the “aristocratic principle” have found much to attract him in the populist right’s denunciation of “liberal elites.”

Hoeveler says surprisingly little about Babbitt’s likely attitude toward the libertarian right.   To the extent that libertarians set up the unfettered operation of the market as an ideal, it should be clear that Babbitt would have opposed them.  In the opening of Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt’s 1924 political magnum opus, he mentions that one hears that the future will be taken up with “the economic problem.”  If so, Babbitt declares, “the future will be very superficial.”  Though his political attitudes were certainly conservative, in some ways even reactionary, Babbitt was leery of capitalism.  In social arrangements that separate economic activity from family relationships and community bonds, he saw a world grown cold and senseless.  Babbitt would not have denied that the market was competent to allocate resources for efficient production, but would have argued that outside the limits of that sphere its judgments were meaningless.  Seeing successful businessmen consulted as experts on education and public policy, Babbitt told an old French story about a butcher who suddenly found himself needing an attorney.  When several lawyers offered their services, he evaluated them by the standards of his own profession and chose the fattest one.

Discussing the religious right, Hoeveler points out that Babbitt was very leery of their theological and political predecessors.  Himself irreligious, Babbitt thought that religion was necessary for social control and the development of a high culture.  However, he did not believe that all religious movements were equally capable of having these effects.  Babbitt admired contemporary Confucianism, early Indian Buddhism, and later Massachusetts Puritanism, as traditions that inculcated self-discipline and rewarded intellectualism.  The enthusiasms and eccentricities of Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups horrified him.

The American Conservative reprints President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, still famous for its warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”  In his commentary on the address, Michael Desch argues that Eisenhower was wrong to imply that economic interests drive America’s interventionism.  In view of the amount of money that defense contractors annually collect from the US taxpayer and the number of people whose livelihood derives directly or indirectly from those contractors, Desch’s claim seems preposterous on its face.  However, an article by Eamonn Fingleton elsewhere in the issue lends it a degree of plausibility.  Fingleton’s article, “Empire is Bad Business,” documents the ways in which US militarists have actively lobbied foreign governments to give preferential treatment to Japanese exporters over American exporters as part of deals to keep US bases in Japan.  Fingleton quotes trade economist Pat Choate:  “Essentially we gave away our electronics industry in return for Japanese support in Vietnam.  In any other country there would have been riots in the streets.”  Fingleton makes a strong case that the masters of the permanent war economy have played a leading role in the hollowing out of American manufacturing.  Thus, “military-industrial complex” is a misnomer.  However, Eisenhower’s broader point might stand.  American capitalists now pin their hopes of future profit on globalization, not on the development of any one country.  In that sense, they have become a revolutionary class, alienated from national loyalties.  The US military establishment is their militant wing, enforcing globalization.

Brian Doherty’s “Dignity Doesn’t Fly” has the subtitle “Peepshow scanners may not catch terrorists, but who says they’re supposed to?”  Laying out the shortcomings of the Transportation Safety Administration’s plan to probe air passengers in intimate ways, Doherty says that “The TSA has created the perfect enemy for any bureaucracy: one that can never be defeated, that could be anyone, and that creates excuses to funnel money to favored interests until the end of time.”  The worst aspect of the whole affair, for Doherty, is the apparent popularity of the TSA’s depredations.  Among those who support the scans, “the TSA seems to have succeeded in constructing a new morality,” one in which personal dignity is of no value and the agents of the state are above judgment.

Chronicles, too, includes a piece about the TSA.  While Doherty spends much of his piece demonstrating that the TSA’s scanners would not detect even the bombs that gave them the pretext to start using them, Chronicles‘ Douglas Wilson would oppose the scans even if everything the TSA and its apologists say were true.  Wilson brings up the Third Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the US from quartering soldiers in private homes.  When that Amendment was passed in 1789, it represented a real limitation on the federal government’s ability to defend its citizens from invading armies.  As such, it “was designed to interfere with national security.”  It proves that the framers believed that the rights and dignity of citizens were more important than national security.

Also in Chronicles, Thomas Fleming offers “The Five Good Reasons” not to be an atheist.  “Atheists have no god to worship” is number one; this is a good reason not to be an atheist, Fleming argues, because humans are generally inclined to worship something, and without gods they’ll only start worshipping other, worse things.  Reason two: “They have no religion to practice.”  That allegedly makes life dull, or did make it dull for Fleming when he was an atheist.  Number three: “Atheists have no religious calendars.”  This robs life of rhythm.  Time is then just one thing after another.  Fourth: “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots, no churches or shrines.”  Atheist space is as featureless as atheist time.  With no store of special stories to differentiate one place from another, atheists not only cannot value places as holy, but lose a means of bonding to each other as people who share relationships with those places.  Fifth, atheists have no sacred texts.  “Scriptures and even canonical literature, because they are sources of authority that lie beyond our own individual whims, discipline our minds and tastes and compel us to have a share in the common sense of our people.”  Fleming and others in the Chronicles crowd often cite Irving Babbitt; this sentence of his could have come directly from any of Babbitt’s books.

All five of Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons” are summed up by Steve Martin:

The last page of each of these magazines is devoted to a column by Taki Theodoracopulos.  They are not the same column.  The difference between them shows the difference between the publications.  For The American Conservative, Taki praises Kate Middleton, who is supposed to marry an English prince.  Taki praises her for being lower-middle class, and therefore likely to have enough common sense to behave properly in her new role, unlike the feather-headed daughters of the aristocracy.  Readers of The American Conservative might find this unvarnished class-stereotyping provocative, and Taki’s stories of his social life among the royals exciting.

When it comes to crossing the boundaries of political correctness,  Chronicles readers are used to headier stuff.  So his column in that magazine does not praise future princesses.  Instead, he opens by mentioning that a man from Somalia was arrested in Oregon on terrorism charges, and goes on to ask “Why are Somalis, in particular, and Muslims, in general, allowed to immigrate over here?”  That question in itself is fairly standard fare for the pages of Chronicles; most contributors to the magazine, however, would not have included some of Taki’s rhetorical flourishes, such as his reference to the man arrested in Oregon as “the subhuman- his surname is Mohamud, what else?”  Talking with other readers of these two magazines, I sometimes complain about Taki and his obviously deliberate attempts to offend; uniformly, these readers say that they usually skip his page.

What James K. Polk Knew

President James Knox Polk

I’ve long tended to look at American history and see in the presidency of James Knox Polk (1845-1849) the origin of a great curse.  President Polk led the United States into war with Mexico.  In consequence of that war, the United States forced Mexico to cede its claims on all territory north of its present boundaries.  The US victory was quick and easy; for a loss of about 13,000 soldiers, the USA gained an internationally undisputed claim to almost a million square miles of territory, stretching from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.  Americans would flood into this territory, displacing and slaughtering the native peoples on whom the Mexicans had made so little impression during their years of nominal rule.  Northern and Southern states vied with each other for influence over this newly secured territory, a contest that laid the political groundwork for the Civil War twelve years later.  As the USA’s first successful attack on a sovereign nation, the invasion of Mexico crossed a psychological boundary which previous attacks on native peoples and British possessions had left in place.  Moreover, the relatively low cost and fantastically rich rewards of the US victory fed in Americans the cannibal appetites of militarism.  So the curse that I have seen as the legacy of the Polk administration includes nearly all of America’s subsequent wars.    

President Polk represented the Democratic Party; his chief opposition was the Whig Party.  I’m a bit of a Whig myself, which is one reason why I chose a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore as my WordPress avatar.*  Leading Whigs like Fillmore spoke out against the invasion of Mexico.  The Whig-dominated Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution during the war denouncing the US effort as the result of a criminal conspiracy to extend slavery into the West.  When Polk claimed that Mexico’s hostile greeting to a US cavalry column he had dispatched into Mexican territory between the Rio del Norte and the Nueces somehow constituted an act by which “American blood was shed on American soil,” Illinois’ Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln introduced a resolution into the US House of Representatives demanding that the president show the Congress the spot on which this had occurred.  The so-called “Spot Resolution” had the support of the congressional Whig party, and made Lincoln a national figure.  Among future President Lincoln’s colleagues in the House was former President John Quincy Adams.  Technically an independent, Adams was a hero to the Whigs, a friend to Whig Party mastermind Henry Clay, and a reliable supporter of the Whigs’ core policies.  Adams would collapse on the House floor and die in the Capitol; virtually his last earthly act was to vote against a resolution commending US veterans of the war against Mexico.  Many young Whigs who fought in the war would afterward match their elders in the fervor with which they denounced it; Ulysses S. Grant, for example, would write in his memoirs that as a young captain he had won his medals as a perpetrator of “the most unjust war ever waged.”     

The Whigs championed industrialization.  They saw economic centralization as indispensible to industrialization.  Therefore, they were allies of big business and generally sympathetic to established elites.  As such, they would have to be called a conservative party, and their opposition to the war against Mexico would qualify them, if only for the duration of the Polk  administration, as specimens of the antiwar Right.  Chronicles magazine is a voice of today’s antiwar Right, but not of renewed Whiggery.  Their July issue included a review of Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent which praises Merry for making a case that Polk was right.  Since I’m so far out of sympathy with Polk and his war, I will quote at length from this review:

Here is the geopolitical reality that Polk grasped.  In the 1840’s, the western third of the North American continent was in play.  The players were the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Mexico.  Each claimed some portion of that vast territory.  Polk understood that the question was not which of those claims was most legitimate (who, after all, would decide that?),  but which of the four powers had the means and will to enforce their own claims.  Mexico did not.  She “was a dysfunctional, unstable, weak nation whose population wasn’t sufficient to control all the lands within its domain.”  Bernard deVoto made the same point two generations ago:

[I]t is a fundamental mistake to think of Mexico in this period, or for many years before, as a republic, or even as a government.  It must be understood as a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire. 

There was no stability or institutional legitimacy in Mexico.  Revolution followed revolution, coup succeeded coup.  Mexican governments could neither govern, protect, nor populate the country’s far northern provinces.  That incapacity was most obvious in New Mexico, where the people were oppressed by taxes and terrorized by Indian raids, and consequently not inclined to fight in its defense.  Thus did Gen. Manuel Armijo’s army of conscripts flee at the approach of the Americans.  Col. Stephen Watts Kearney’s army of frontier dragoons and Missouri volunteer cavalry took Santa Fe without a fight.   

There are some good points in this.  What Mexico ceded to the USA in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was not land that was populated by people loyal to Mexico and protected by its government, but was instead a claim on territory chiefly inhabited by native people who were barely aware of the existence of Mexico.  It is not too harsh to say that by 1846 Mexico had failed to make good on this claim.  And it is also true that in the mid-1840s Russia and Britain were both very active in the nortwestern parts of North America.  So if Polk had lost 1844 election to Whig nominee Henry Clay, and Clay had as president refused to make war on Mexico, then there would have been a considerable likelihood that instead of confronting each other in a the Crimea in 1854-1856 Britain and Russia would have had their showdown in San Francisco Bay.  But I’m still not for the Mexican War.        

*Here’s the cartoon Fillmore, for those of you who’d like a look:

Designed to fail

Jeffrey Reiman

The June 2010 issue of the ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine contains this paragraph, in a column by Philip Jenkins:

The concept of “designed to fail” was formulated back in 1979 in an influential study by leftist scholar Jeffrey Reiman entitled The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.  Following Marxist theory, Reiman argued that the goal of the criminal-justice system was not to suppress crime but to promote and sustain acceptable levels of social misbehavior, with the aim of enhancing the power and resources of official agencies.  Crime, in short, is useful, even essential, for the preservation of state power.  Reiman was not postulating a conspiracy theory but exploring the dynamics of agencies charged with tasks that were literally impossible.  Yet rather than being discredited or disheartened by their failures, agencies stood to benefit mightily from them and actively sought out still more absurdly quioxotic challenges.  They were in a no-lose situation. 

This description reminds me of an idea I’ve sometimes tried to express.  In a representative democracy, political power is in the hands of the electorate, yet the electorate consists almost entirely of people who are in no position to know what the state is doing.  If the government undertakes a program meant to discourage certain crimes, the most the majority will now about this program is that it represents a campaign to fight crime.  Even if this program is an absolute success in rational terms, and entirely eliminates the crimes it was aimed at discouraging, the public will observe that other crimes still go unchecked.  The electorate, therefore, will count the program as a failure.  

Because of these disparate perceptions, advocates of increased state power find themselves in a position to appeal simultaneously to political insiders and to the public at large.  Insiders may respond to the fact that the program succeeded in its actual goals, and support future programs to pursue other goals.  The public at large will focus on the program’s imagined failures, and demand a more aggressive program to make good on promises that they suppose the first program to have made.  As a result, the degree of police authority and other sorts of bureaucratic domination tends to ratchet ever upward as a representative democracy develops.  When this idea first popped into my head a while back, I thought of labeling it “the authoritarian spiral.”  I was disappointed to find that political scientist Ian Loader had already coined the phrase “authoritarian spiral,” with another meaning, a few years before.  So I started calling it “the authoritarian ratchet effect,” which is admit not at all catchy.   

To prevent this ratchet effect from transforming a representative democracy into a despotism, I call for a revival of direct democracy.  People who are actively involved in drafting, approving, and carrying out particular laws are likelier to have an idea what can reasonably be expected of those laws than are people whose only involvement in that process is the right to cast one vote out of 100,000,000.

Chronicles, May 2010

Lots of fragments of interest in the latest issue of this ultra-conservative publication

Editor Thomas Fleming writes a monthly column named “Perspective.”  This name strikes me as hilarious, since of all the virtues Dr. Fleming* might claim, perspective is most definitely not one.  This month’s entry is a temper tantrum stretching across two pages, most of it reading like something an angry 15 year old would write while threatening to drop out of high school.  For example, he denounces as “worthless drones” a class of people including professionals “in counseling and sociology.”  He also attacks “the madman Rousseau,” “the bilge written by these people” (“these people” being “child-savers” and “WASP do-gooders” like Horatio Alger and Jane Addams,) and pop star Shakira, “who has some strange aversion to being fully clad.”  Moreover, he informs us that today, “the only possible justification for public education is that it is guaranteed to stunt the mental growth of children and corrupt their character.”  Nor does he fail to include a remark, as cryptic as it is unpleasant, about “the degraded morality of urban African-Americans.”  However, the last three paragraphs are worth quoting in extenso:

Human happiness is not a one-size-fits-all garment, and it is xenophobic to suppose that it is.  This is what liberal philosophers are so fond of gabbling about- that the purpose of a liberal state is to make it possible for individuals to pursue their own life plans.  Why does it always turn out that it has to be the life plan drawn up by a liberal philosopher, whether a leftist like Professor Rawls or a quondam libertarian like Professor Nozick?  Why can’t they just mind their own business and leave other people to mind theirs?

If we can once realize that it is best to leave Haiti and Somalia alone, then we might begin to understand that we should also leave other people’s families alone.  What is the alternative?  If government officials and social workers have to tell parents when and where and how their children go to school, what sort of food they eat and TV they watch, what sort of sex education they receive, then not only those lawmakers and social workers but also the voters who give them power have to assume full responsibility for the outcomes. 

We have to quit letting them- and ourselves- off the hook with the comforting language of unintended consequences.  If I were to fire off a few rounds into a daycare center,  I might have had no intention of killing any particular child, but when a child is dead, I am held responsible.  But when government programs ruin the lives of millions of children, no on, it seems, is to be held accountable.  It is American governments and their employees, the voters who put the legislators in office and the taxpayers who pay the bills- it is we, in other words, who are responsible. 

The angry would-be dropout is detectable here as well, most obviously in the quality of imagination that reaches for a hypothetical and finds a massacre at a daycare center.  Still, there’s much in it that’s worth pondering, as well. 

The name of Dr Fleming’s column might be unintentionally funny.   It isn’t the only department of Chronicles with a name that raises a smile.  Chilton Williamson’s column is named “What’s Wrong with the World.”   That sounds like a bit of a self-deprecating joke, as though Williamson were acknowledging that he might sound like a crank.  This month’s installment begins with a remark Michael Foot made in 1983, the year the British Labour Party went into a general election under Foot’s leadership:

We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress.  No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves.  That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth…

This quote headed the obituary of Foot in the New York Times.  Williamson remarks that “One can- almost- hear the voice of Christ speaking those words, but He did not speak them, and they are not true, either in the political or the theological context.”  In his theological mode, Williamson declares that charity, “even bureaucratic charity, is both a human obligation and a divine injunction, but man has many other things to be about in his Father’s house, some of them having value and validity equal to those on the agenda of the British Labour Party.”  A literal application of Foot’s words would represent “the end of civilization, and civilization is a moral duty of mankind.” 

I would like to add two objections of my own to Foot’s remarks.  In the first place, there is not always another person available who is “weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves.”  Each of us is likely to be, at least occasionally, the weakest, hungriest, most battered, most disabled person whom we can reach.  What good and great purpose can we have then?  Does our life then become valuable only as a stage on which others can play the role of benefactor?  The great-hearted Mr Foot can hardly have welcomed that conclusion, but what other implication could his remarks have, if we took them seriously?  

Moreover, we are not at any time guaranteed to be in a position to provide for anyone else.  If providing for “those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves” is indeed “our only certain good and great purpose on earth,”  then I suppose we would have to reform society so that each of us would be guaranteed the opportunity to do this on a regular basis.   What keeps us from having these opportunities?  Well, many things, many of them bad.  People are cut off from each other, isolated, by inequality, fear, and other evils which we would of course hope  to eliminate.  But some of the people who are “weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves” do not want our help.  Some want to make their own way, and would heartily second Dr Fleming’s imprecations against counselors and social workers.  Others are  being supported by their families, or by particular friends and neighbors.  Perhaps that support might strike us as meager, we might see an opportunity to improve on it.  If we offered that improvement, we might meet with a firm refusal.  The relationship the person has with his or her caregivers might be more important than the extra resources some charitable person, group, or institution could offer.  If we were to take Foot’s words at face value and press their logical implications as far as they go, on what basis could we defend a needy person’s decision to refuse help from a stranger or a bureaucracy?  If the “only certain good and great purpose” we have on earth is to provide for the needy, then what purpose could the needy have that would outweigh our intention to provide for them? 

Again, I’m sure Michael Foot would not have rejoiced in forcing help on people who did not want it, or have thought for a moment that the most vulnerable person in a group was less capable of “good and great purpose” than the most privileged person.  I’m not like Peter Hitchens’ more embarrassing brother, who was capable of writing a book arguing that because Mother Theresa had devoted herself to helping the poor, she was the “Ghoul of Calcutta” who would have lost her purpose in life if poverty were to vanish.  What I’m saying , and what I take Williamson to be saying, is that Foot uttered a half-truth that could only get in his way as he tried to develop policy for a truly humane and compassionate society.       

George McCartney liked the movie Hurt Locker; lots of people wrote him letters to explain why they didn’t.  He responds to them with great great affability and some point.  McCartney mentions that one character in the movie is named William James.  McCartney claims that this name “playfully invokes America’s father of pragmatism, the psychologist who claimed that we should believe whatever is useful to believe.”  This characterization of James’ view is unfair in much the same way that calling Mother Theresa the “Ghoul of Calcutta” is unfair.  James did develop a concept of “prudential justification,” which he illustrated by saying that it is reasonable for a person who has to jump over a chasm to believe that s/he will succeed in making the jump, since any other belief would doom him or her.  And of course he argued that we should evaluate ideas by their relevance to practical life.  Taken together, these ideas raise the question of why we should not “believe whatever it is useful to believe”; James may have failed to answer this question.  If so, he might have implied that we should believe whatever it is useful to believe, but he would no more have claimed this than Michael Foot would have claimed that we should disregard the wishes of weak, hungry, battered, disabled people whom it would gratify us to help. 

*In 1973, Fleming earned a Ph. D. in Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A great artificial man

In the introduction to Leviathan, English thinker Thomas Hobbes famously compared the state to a “great artificial man, or monster, composed of other men, with a life that might be traced from its generation under the pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions.”  The nerves and sinews of this artificial man, as he is constituted in modern society, are the laws and regulations of a rationalized bureaucracy.  He can function because he acts in accord with these laws and regulations as predictably as automata made of metal follow the algorithms of their programming.  As a being made of rules, the state interacts most smoothly with other beings made of rules.  Whenever possible, the state will tend to reduce everything it touches to a body like itself, a body defined by rules.  

Where the modern state has been established longest, bureaucratization respects the fewest boundaries.   The March 2010 issue of Chronicles carries a piece by a man from Hobbes’ own homeland, Thomas McMahon.  McMahon writes of the policies which the New Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have adopted in the name of protecting children from sex offenders.  After the 2002 killing of 10 year old girls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, the government introduced plans to require everyone in the United Kingdom who comes “into regular contact with children in any semioffical capacity to register with a national database.”  As McMahon points out, “‘Regular’ could mean mean as little as a few times per year, and ‘semiofficial’ covers everyone from cleaners at sports facilities to a parent who gives lifts to a group of kids in the morning.  Anyone wishing to help out with after-school activities would be required to register.”  How is this registry to be compiled?  McMahon explains:

Upon application for membership on the list, opinions would be sought on the suitability of the candidate.  Acquaintances and workmates may be asked for their comments, internet forums and networking sites may be trawled, “lifestyles” would be examined.  Even the most baseless accusation would be recorded in perpetuity on a central state database.  There would be no investigation to determine whether the accusation was malicious.  There would be no requirement that the accusations be proven in court. 

How closely were these provisions designed to address the case of Misses Chapman and Wells?  Not at all, as it turns out; the man convicted of their murder was not an employee of their school, nor did he fill any other “semiofficial capacity” that might have brought him into contact with them.  He was, rather, the boyfriend of one of their teachers.  He happened to be alone at her house when the girls dropped in to see her.  The law does not require teachers to date only people from the approved list, and so would have done nothing to protect Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells had it been in effect in 2002.