Along with the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a few other redoubts, my suburban neighborhood near the Maryland border represents the heart of what some pundits call the “blue church.” It is increasingly a dream world. I drop in periodically at Politics and Prose, a prominent bookstore in Northwest D.C., to browse and shop….
Along with the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a few other redoubts, my suburban neighborhood near the Maryland border represents the heart of what some pundits call the “blue church.” It is increasingly a dream world.
I drop in periodically at Politics and Prose, a prominent bookstore in Northwest D.C., to browse and shop. Lately I find it more and more difficult to avoid eavesdropping on the conversations of the elderly white women (lifelong Democrats, of course) who make up 80% of the regular clientele.
Not that I try especially hard to tune out, because it is fascinating to hear what they say in their unguarded chit-chat.
No Japanese soldier on a remote Philippine island in 1947, oblivious to the emperor’s surrender, was more disconnected from the real world than these educated, well-spoken women. They read the Washington Post and listen to NPR every day, and therefore have no idea that they are imprisoned on a kind of island of the mind.
The bookstore’s regular customers, mostly retired professionals, are the kind of well-to-do urbanites that used to be called limousine liberals. But my bibliophile neighbors, with their casual shoes and canvas tote bags, generally prefer a Prius to a limo. Even so, they enjoy lives of comfortable physical ease, security, and culturally enriched leisure. One might think this would make them nice. And on many topics (grandchildren, for instance) they are.
But their conversations turn easily and often to politics—in particular, the illegitimacy of our odious president and the racist underclass that elected him—and then their tone becomes suddenly and shockingly nasty. That nastiness arises in part, no doubt, from an aversion to an uncomfortable truth: that the cozy world of these coastal urban elites is far from natural or normal. It is the product of an artificial, often dishonest patchwork of legal, political, and cultural practices that have been distinctly unfair to millions of disenfranchised Americans.
It was said of the ancien régime—the nobility that reigned prior to the French Revolution—that “they learned nothing and forgot nothing.” In his monumental book on Lincoln and the principles of self-government, A New Birth of Freedom(2000), the late Claremont professor Harry Jaffa expounds on this observation: “They could forget nothing, namely their undeserved and socially useless privileges; and they could learn nothing, namely that their fellow countrymen would no longer tolerate the continuance of their privileges.”
One might think that this world of artificial nobility is dead and gone. But in deep-blue sanctuaries like my local bookstore—that bubble of bubbles, the summa bubblica of America’s leftist oligarchy—a version of this same decayed aristocracy is still holding on.
These liberal ladies (and a few distinctly milky gentlemen) are harmless enough in one sense. They aren’t abusing the working class in any direct or obvious way—certainly not in their own minds! Unlike the French gentry, they do not dwell in ostentatious luxury while serfs labor in hunger. Even less are they complicit in anything like the gruesome brutality of chattel slavery in the Old South.
Still, they do partake in their own shallow way of an intellectual and moral presumption that is not at all harmless. Like every privileged class in history, they are convinced that they deserve what they have, however slight their own efforts may have been in the smooth glidepath of their lives.
The recognition of unearned privilege can sometimes turn psychologically sideways, with sublimated guilt erupting into destructive revolutionary fervor. Rarely, alas, does it flower into genuine humility and charity. But the complacent retirees with whom I rub elbows are not directing their unconscious guilt (if they have any) into overthrowing the system.
To the contrary, the oligarchy they represent frantically wants to preserve, or bring back, the pre-2016 uniparty establishment in which they flourished. Because they cannot comprehend that their fellow countrymen will no longer tolerate their socially useless sinecures, they retreat ever further into monasteries of self-deception.
But this cannot continue; something must give, and it seems ever likelier that the way forward will be rough.
In New Birth and other writings over the course of his long career teaching political philosophy, Jaffa explained that the American Founders solved the crisis of religious warfare (which had plagued Europe for centuries) through the separation of church and state. The power of government would no longer be used by believers who were in authority to persecute different believers who were out of authority.
Yet the danger of religious warfare can return in secular form when people no longer agree on the basic principles of republican government and regard each other as political heretics rather than fellow citizens. “Elections,” Jaffa wrote, “may properly decide only between those whose differences of opinion are not differences of principle.”
For example, in 1861 the Confederacy endorsed the idea of slavery as a “positive good.” This doctrine of “you work, I eat” replaced the equal natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence as the South’s new faith. Driven by this alternate conception of politics based on inequality, many of the slave states rejected the results of Lincoln’s election in 1860, and the nation was plunged into war.
Today, we face a parallel problem.
The true believers (who, not coincidentally, were also the true beneficiaries) of the blue church administrative state have also become alienated from the idea of republican government and shared citizenship. This can be seen most clearly in their unwillingness to accept the results of the 2016 presidential election, and the demonization of Trump voters. Like most privileged elites, their faith is immune to facts or persuasion. It is simply too hard to give up the notion of natural or divine sanction for the socio-economic superiority they have enjoyed.
With each passing day, this crumbling oligarchy seems to become more fanatical, more fixated on its own righteousness, and more impatient with the supposed iniquity of its political opponents. But the rejection of dialogue and compromise undermines the very possibility of a common citizenship. Without a shared dedication to republican principles, self-government cannot continue.
The peaceful transfer of power that accompanies a free election is only possible on the basis of civic friendship and trust; each side must believe that, win or lose, the rights of the minority will be protected by those who take power. On both sides today, that trust seems to be slipping.
While most Americans acknowledge the fact that America is deeply divided, many of our leaders remain in denial about the potential result of this growing, fundamental distrust. We are confronting again the dire situation New Birth describes prior to the Civil War: “both parties [see] the contest as a zero-sum enterprise in which the advantages of one side [are] losses to the other. From this viewpoint, ballots can never really substitute for bullets.”
Not for the first time in our nation’s history, if this state of affairs continues force may be embraced as the only alternative when reason fails. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
We must fervently hope that things will change before they become violent. But if the clueless attitudes of our sclerotic elite remain unaltered, it is not hard to see what’s on the horizon.
The dominant culture cannot dam up indefinitely the natural force of manly spiritedness. Lord knows we are trying: for years now we have witnessed the alienation of an entire generation of young men endlessly harangued about toxic masculinity. If, in the ostensible name of egalitarianism and democracy, we remain intent on denying males any permissible outlet…
The dominant culture cannot dam up indefinitely the natural force of manly spiritedness. Lord knows we are trying: for years now we have witnessed the alienation of an entire generation of young men endlesslyharangued about toxic masculinity. If, in the ostensible name of egalitarianism and democracy, we remain intent on denying males any permissible outlet for their natural boisterousness, then eventually that boisterousness is bound to burst forth in anti-democratic resentment or indifference, and Nietzschean obsession with the power of the uninhibited self. Alternately, some of it might—with luck—be channeled toward a more thoughtful and constructive end. Much depends on this outcome.
The first path has been that chosen by many on the so-called “dissident Right,” and its rationale was articulated recently by someone under the pseudonym “Uncompliant.” His essay argues that the American experiment is failing, and so
there is no need to explore philosophies and deeper issues…. There is no need for long-winded and many-worded debates about the nature of rights or the validity of political structures….
One option says: let us lift weights, become the best specimens of masculinity that we can become; let us encourage health, normality, and nobility; let us laugh and meme and have what fun we can have and speak realism at least among ourselves. If the West is going to burn and we cannot vote our way out of it, let us at least find a band of brothers and watch the spectacle together. The fires will keep us warm at least. That is not nihilism; that is realism.
I might be willing to join this bystander gym crowd, if I thought their plan could work. The problem is that your lifting partner can’t spot you if he is being hit in the head with a bicycle lock. Also, it will be hard to get protein powder when the chaos comes. Even if you live on supplements, or raw meat, you might still like books, and music…and antibiotics. The point is that even swole, bad-ass warriors need civilization. That’s why the noblest men caught the fire and tamed it and built something with it. Letting the barbarians win is easy. And on that point, are we going to let everyone who is weak suffer and die? Including the women and children and old people? That’s pretty…unmanly.
You can’t aspire to “become the best specimen of masculinity” and then declare that—in the fight of the century, over the very future of civilization—you would prefer to just sit this one out. At the risk of hurting someone’s feelings, I am tempted to say: Man up or shut up.
A Man for Our Season
But that isn’t helpful, or right.
What would be helpful is an inspirational writer who recognizes the same failures and absurdities that BAPsters find contemptible, but offers an account of manly virtue that is worthy of men with brains as well as hearts. Well, there is such a person: Harry V. Jaffa, who died in 2015, was more pugnacious, less politically correct, and more contemptuous of the conservative establishment than anyone you will meet; and he was kicking ass before most of us were born. His heroes, among others, were Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.
[The] scale of life in the modern world is too large for human virtue to control…. [T]he coincidence even of virtue and good fortune does not produce well-being; or perhaps one should say that it is one in which fortune, instead of being fickle, is constant in its hostility to virtue. It is a world in which human agency is so swallowed up by “mass effects” that courage and genius appear impotent and irrelevant. It is a world in which it seems senseless to do other than to march with the strongest legions, and in which vulgar success seems better than noble failure.
Does this not sound very much like clown world? But neither Churchill nor Jaffa believed that the “realistic” response was complacency and despair.
For Churchill, and Jaffa, it is precisely the difficulty of the challenge and the possibility of failure that “enforces upon human life the quest for its purpose.” And “without this quest for purpose…and the consciousness of such a purpose, life would be meaningless and unbearable.” In 1930, long before Hitler invaded Poland and Sir Winston returned to power, Churchill believed that his political career had ended, and he was done with the “toilsome” path. But, notes Jaffa, “What lay ahead of Churchill when he wrote those words would make a long lifetime, not for a lesser, but for another very great man. The mistakes he was to make, and the toilsomeness and dangerousness of the path he was to tread, would exceed by far anything that had gone before.”
Despair—Jaffa taught—is not only a sin, it is a philosophical error, because we can never know what chance holds in store. The examples of Lincoln and Churchill remind us that our predicament today is hardly unprecedented in scope, although it differs in kind. As I have argued elsewhere:
The brainwashing by the hard left is exasperatingly resilient. Yet to suggest that it is permanent or irrevocable would seem to deny human nature. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union scrambled to develop allies and client states, dividing the world into opposing camps. The Soviets—believing that communism was historically inevitable—operated on the maxim “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable.” Ronald Reagan flatly rejected this…and so should we. The West in general, and America in particular, has faced apparently insurmountable odds before. If we can recite from memory the patriotic story of Washington at Valley Forge, should we despair so easily at the power of CNN and Berkeley?
Jaffa was himself an exercise fanatic—a boxer at Yale and a lifelong competitive cyclist. But he thought a healthy body served its best purpose in support of a well-ordered soul. Part of that order includes spiritedness and righteous anger. When properly directed by reason, this can be a force of terrible power. Churchill’s monumental ambition and energy, Jaffa reminds us, “[were] harnessed to righteous anger: anger at Tory narrowness, or at the mean-spiritedness of Socialism; anger at Germany’s challenge to British naval power, and at the invasion of Belgium; above all, anger at the inhuman cruelty and tyranny of Bolshevism and Nazism. Churchill was always a man to take arms against the tides of trouble, never one to float passively upon them.”
If Jaffa were still alive today, he would surely urge us to take inspiration from Churchill’s bulldog stubbornness, and to follow his courageous, uncompromising example of true manliness: “Never, never, never give in.”
James Poulos is very fair-minded in his treatment of Paul Gottfried’s “mixed” review of John Marini’s new book. Gottfried wrote: According to Marini, “contemporary ideology and politics become intelligible only with reference to a philosophy of history, which originated in the political thought of Kant and Hegel.” As someone who has written on both German…
James Poulos is very fair-minded in his treatment of Paul Gottfried’s “mixed” review of John Marini’s new book. Gottfried wrote:
According to Marini, “contemporary ideology and politics become intelligible only with reference to a philosophy of history, which originated in the political thought of Kant and Hegel.” As someone who has written on both German philosophy and the administrative state, I am truly puzzled by this statement. Am I supposed to think that German philosophers, who failed to adopt Marini’s view of natural rights, brought about our runaway public administration? Some Progressives like John Dewey read Hegel (and also Kant) but did so selectively in order to confirm what they already believed about “democratic administration.”
Gottfried may have written about the administrative state, but what has he read? Can he really be unaware of the work and influence of leading Progressive thinkers like John Burgess, Richard Ely, Frank Goodnow, or Woodrow Wilson? These are the figures who laid the foundation for administrative government in the United States, and each was explicit about his debts to Hegel. Burgess and Goodnow helped to create the American Political Science Association, establishing the formal discipline of political science in the U.S. on German historicist principles. Each of them had enrolled at universities in Germany specifically to study with Hegelian scholars.
All this is explained in detail by Jaffa students like Charles Kesler and R.J. Pestritto. Perhaps Dr. Gottfried would be less puzzled if he paid more attention to the Claremont Institute “talking points” on this topic.