Salvo 10.02.2023 30 minutes

Is Custom King?

Washington statue in Virginia State Capitol

On tradition, rights, and what justifies them.

For those who want or need a refresher, Paul Gottfried and I have been debating the existence and utility of natural right generally, and of rights specifically, for some time now on various websites. His latest, to which is this is mostly a response, is here.

Neither of us has changed the other’s mind and it’s a near certainty that neither ever will. Yet we keep going because the topic is important and we enjoy the dialogue (I’m not putting words into his mouth; he’s said that). Plus, in my case, people have told me that the continued exchanges are useful, I am interested in finding the truth for its own sake, and, more practically, I don’t expect present ruling arrangements to last forever. They may end soon or hang on for a while. But they will end, and when they do, humanity, Western man, and Americans specifically will have to find a “new” basis on which to reconstitute political authority and legitimacy.

I put “new” in quotes because that basis might in fact be old, in the sense of discovered or enumerated long ago. But it will be new in the more prosaic sense that our whole situation will be new and so its public rationale must perforce seem new, and be new, relative to what it replaces, even if in the decisive sense it is a revival of something old.

To all those who constantly bitch that I (a) repeat myself, (b) go on too long, or (c) am just generally annoying, I ask: why do you torture yourselves? Is hate-reading me the only meagre joy in your meagre lives? Why not turn off the computer and take a walk instead? Read a book. Cook a meal. Visit a loved one.

The Search for Standards

First of all, contra Professor Gottfried’s insinuation, I have never demanded that he (or anyone else) embrace natural right(s). Anyone who can live a productive, moral life as a good citizen without recourse to some philosophic standard, more power to him. More important, I am more or less an absolutist on freedom of thought; hence I would never demand that anyone believe anything. I only restate my view that the existence of natural right(s) is logically more plausible than the alternative, and that the assertion of such rights is, at least in the present circumstances, useful and salutary.

Professor Gottfried calls this view of mine a “deep, passionate belief.” I can’t tell if that’s meant to be denigrating, but those words suggest unreason, whereas I maintain that my position is reasonable, even plausible. It may be wrong, but it’s at least intended to reflect reality as closely as my own reason can discern.

Besides, isn’t the status of reason precisely what’s at issue here—with Gottfried taking the side of, if not unreason, at least of something allegedly “better than reason” and attributing to me a dogmatic hyperrationality? If his point is that my preference for reason is itself unreasonable, or unreasonably intense, that hardly overcomes the problem, because it is possible to make such a claim, at least consistently, only on the basis of a reason that Gottfried at least partially rejects. I.e., the claim that my reliance on reason is unreasonable must rest on a presupposition that skepticism of reason is more reasonable than confidence in reason. But once one falls back on “more reasonable,” one is oneself relying on reason.

Gottfried’s title points to the problem. He claims that “inherited traditions are more credible than natural rights.” “Credible” according to what? Is it possible to speak of “credibility” without invoking some outside, logical, rational standard that judges credibility versus incredibility? I don’t see how.

I would go further and say that once one starts arguing about anything—tradition included—an implicit judgement has already been rendered in favor of reason. For on what other basis can one deliberate and judge? It is one thing to say “God decreed this; it isn’t questionable; my duty is to obey.” It is quite another to make a reasoned argument against reason—to reject reason on the basis of reason. That, it seems to me, is inherently paradoxical.

Which in turn points to my basic problem, persisting throughout this exchange, with the whole anti-natural right position. For that position to make any sense, some alternative to natural right—in Gottfried’s case, tradition—must be held to be “better” than natural right. But better according to what standard? To judge tradition or natural right implies—demands—a standard above or independent of them both. It seems to me that such a standard could only be divine law or reason. And if it’s the latter, that would seem to give natural right the decisive advantage: in effect, reason judging itself.

Otherwise, on what basis can we say “tradition is good”? If we reject both revelation and reason as the standard, we are left only with man’s preference or will. I do not see a third alternative.

Tradition by the Bootstraps

Gottfried claims that “tradition” is that alternative. But, again, to choose tradition is to assert, if only implicitly—but either way, unmistakably—that tradition is good or at least better than the alternatives. But if tradition is good simply or better comparatively, that logically requires a standard above tradition. Whether that standard is revelation or reason hardly matters to the point at hand: once one appeals to either, tradition has become subsidiary.

The faithful judge tradition according to its conformity to revealed law—an approach that revealed law itself encourages and even demands. The rational judge tradition according to its conformity with the results of reasoned investigation. Both affirm the idea that the standard for judging exists independent of man’s will and is higher than the thing being judged.

Gottfried neither rejects revelation nor bases his intellectual position on revelation. In this, as in much else, we are aligned. But he wishes to find a firm foundation for tradition without recourse to revelation—i.e., accepting revelation as part of tradition but not as law obligatory on all—while rejecting reason as unreliable.

Here is where we differ. This position, it seems to me, amounts to saying “I know tradition isn’t true, or at any rate I have no firm basis for believing it is true, yet I embrace it anyway.” This strikes me as, if not exactly paradoxical, then at least illogical. No adherent to a tradition consciously says to himself “I know this has no basis in reality, yet I choose to embrace it anyway.” He rather says “My tradition comes from God [or, in the pagan world, my gods], and I follow it for that reason.”

The very word “tradition,” while not a modern invention, certainly takes on a significance in modernity that it never had in prior times. No man in the ancient, medieval, or even early modern world self-consciously thought of himself as adhering to a “tradition.” He thought of himself as obeying the law. Simonides’ famous epitaph to the fallen at Thermopylae does not, after all, read, “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, observant of their traditions, we lie.” It says “obedient to their laws.”

Adherents of tradition can speak up if they think this understanding is wrong (and I have no doubt that many will). But then let’s be clear on what the assertion to the contrary entails. It requires, first, the denial that tradition—or at least your tradition—has a basis in revelation; for if it did, why not just appeal to the divine law rather than to tradition? But that would change the terms of the debate entirely, to ground that traditionalists apparently don’t want to occupy.

More important for the purposes of this discussion, the counter assertion also entails the denial that tradition has any rational basis whatsoever. For if it did, why the insistence on reading reason out of the conversation?

To be clear, I do not ascribe these positions to Gottfried. The second, especially, strikes me as a Very Online take not actually held by any actual traditionalists but only by anons who are just smart enough to realize the inconsistency of their position but instead of rethinking it, stick to their guns and absolutize it. If tradition is the highest good and the highest standard, then not only must it be higher than revelation and reason, it must obviate both. Curiously, those who hold this position never make this point explicitly about revelation, only about reason. They somehow intuit (correctly) that to exalt tradition while dismissing revelation is not merely an oxymoron but an absurdity. But they also intuit (also correctly) that the logic of their position requires that tradition brook no competition. So they pretend that reason is its only adversary and concentrate all their fire in that direction while ignoring the challenge from revelation.

Be all that as it may, some attempt to dispense with this difficulty by redefining the proposition as something along the lines of “My tradition, handed down from me by my ancestors, has served me and mine well and stood the test of time, therefore I follow it because it is true and beneficial.” But what makes it “beneficial,” and according to what standard? Furthermore, the assertion that “My tradition is right for me [or us]” is, however implicitly, still an appeal to natural right. To say that something is true for me—the decisive word there is true. Even if it’s only true for you, why is it, or what makes it, true?

Presumably a combination of circumstances, habituation, and nature—a claim that no believer in natural right, from Socrates to the American founders, would have disputed. But “nature” is here just as decisive as “truth” in the earlier formulation. Something about you and yours makes you fit for this particular set of habits, including your form of government. The American founders, for instance, were quite clear that not all peoples in their time were capable of republican self-government. Whether the cause was, in the final analysis, nature or nurture—that is to say, whether the condition is permanent or surmountable—they admitted they didn’t know.

This, incidentally, is one answer to all those who insist that any appeal to universal principle inevitably leads to universal homogenization. The founders didn’t think so, nor did any of the philosophers who inspired them.

What Better Guide than Reason?

All right, well, if we reject both revelation and reason as the foundation of tradition, what does that leave? As noted, it would appear to leave only will. Or one could assert that tradition needs no foundation because it is its own foundation, but on reflection that amounts to the same claim: tradition is good because we created and chose it.

To be more precise, there are two grounds for defending tradition. The first is to declare this or that tradition to be good. One can do that on this basis that this tradition is “ours” or else one can try to show that it’s good simply. But either appeal leads to a dead end logically (if not, to repeat for the ten thousandth time, in practice). To say that tradition is good simply is of course an appeal to natural right, and therefore presumptively out of bounds. To say that this tradition is good because it’s ours means that any tradition at all can be—indeed, is—good, or at least good for a particular people, simply because it’s theirs. At the extreme, this would make suttee or child sacrifice good. Of course I know that Gottfried argues for no such thing(s). My point is that this is where the logic that tradition-is-good-because-it’s-ours must end—unless one appeals to some higher standard to condemn bad traditions. But once one does that, one has, if not exactly left tradition behind, at least acceded that tradition is subordinate to something higher: tradition must justify itself before the tribunal either of divine law or reasoned investigation.

The second alternative is to declare that tradition qua tradition—tradition simply or in itself—is intrinsically good, regardless of its substance. But this assertion is subject to the same problems sketched above, only more so. If tradition qua tradition is good, simply by virtue of being tradition, then we must accept all traditions: we must accept even the most gruesome practices so long as they “belong” to those who practice them. No appeal to any outside or higher standard is possible: if it’s traditional, it’s good, full stop. Beyond that, the mere assertion that tradition-qua-tradition-is-good similarly begs the question: good according to what standard? Once a man says “this is good and this is bad,” he has presupposed either a divine or a natural standard (or both) for saying so.

Many will retort that this is all irrelevant because the traditions that the dissident or old Right defends don’t countenance any of these terrible practices. Granted; but that hardly resolves the issue. What if they did? “But they don’t” is not a sufficient answer. If they did, then what? Either their adherents would have to abandon that tradition or condone those practices to save tradition.

Still, the fact that our tradition rejects child sacrifice and the like is fortunate for those who wish to deny natural right, because that spares them the uncomfortable position of having to defend practices that shock the conscience. Though one may note that within recorded history, our European tradition embraced witch-burning, the Inquisition, indentured servitude, capital punishment for non-capital offenses, religious tests for office, and much else. Would those who reject natural right support all that on the basis of tradition? The men who fought to abolish those practices didn’t—and one may say that these men, too, and their legacies are part of our tradition. Today’s defenders of tradition don’t want to defend barbarity, but on some level they know that the unqualified defense of tradition can demand that, so they dodge the issue. There are, after all and as noted, barbaric traditions.

This has been my problem with the phrase “a better guide than reason” since I first read Bradford 30 years ago. Better according to what—or whom? The essence of reason, at least in the human realm, is the debate over better and worse. The very invocation of the terms “better” and “worse” demands a standard above tradition. I see no way to escape this logic and never have.

I note here that the other great paleoconservative thinker, Willmoore Kendall, came toward the end of his life to greatly admire (hold on to your seats)…Leo Strauss. Anyone who doubts that should check out, for instance, Kendall’s rave review of Thoughts on Machiavelli published eight years after that book’s appearance and two years before Kendall’s death. As my colleague Glenn Ellmers also points out, Kendall’s biographer Christopher Owen argues that Kendall had come around to accepting the natural right argument before he passed.

At any rate, the most that the phrase “better guide than reason” asserts is that tradition is superior because it provides a surer guide to understanding permanent truth than fallible human reason. But this interpretation also implicitly admits tradition’s subordinate status: the standard is still set by God or nature (or Nature’s God); the only question is man’s best means of accessing the truth he cannot create.

The trial-and-error argument for tradition, so familiar in Burke and Hume, rests on the same foundation: a fundamental agreement with the classics and early moderns on the substance of morality and its basis, combined with a disagreement on how best that substance is communicated to and understood by the multitude. That substance is still beyond the reach of man’s will and not changeable by his wishes; neither length of time nor widespread acceptance can by themselves make the bad good. The most time and acceptance can do—and this is not inconsiderable—is cement for a while, perhaps a very long while, in the public mind an account of the whole and code of behavior that allows civilization to flourish. But the meaning of “civilization,” like any such word that presupposes better and worse, higher and lower, is not infinitely elastic and amenable to any tradition. Cannibals, too, have traditions—but they don’t have civilization.

Dealing with Doxa

As this debate has progressed, Gottfried has become more and more dismissive of the possibility that Americans ever had any notion that they’re endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, or that the American regime was explicitly founded to secure those rights. He has now gone so far as to attribute, rather glibly (it seems to me), this idea to talking heads on Fox News, as if it had never occurred to anyone before, much less to the founders or to nine-odd generations of Americans.

Gottfried writes that the “moral foundations of the American nation were in reality shaped by religion and custom, not by an Enlightenment contrivance.” This is the crux of a debate that has been going on for decades, if not more than a century. As I’ve repeatedly tried to show—by quoting documents, from the various colonial declarations to the original state constitutions on down, as well as pointing to the vast scholarship that catalogues all this—“rights talk” (as the saying goes) suffused the founding era and subsequent republic. I get that Professor Gottfried vehemently disagrees. I do believe, however, that he has not so much refuted my argument as dismissed and/or ridiculed it (for surely the invocation of Fox News counts as ridicule).

I will however point out that we profess different disciplines: his is history, mine is political science. As a political scientist, I am open to the possibility that my account of natural rights might be wrong. But I don’t see how he, as a historian, can deny that the founders and subsequent generations actually believed in natural rights. At the very least, they demonstrably said they did. All this is, again, provable by simply looking at the historical record. But that just takes us back around the same circle: the premise is denied; the quotes are cited; the quotes are attributed to a few fringe figures; it’s demonstrated that all the most prominent founders said the same things; the quotes are downplayed or interpreted to mean not what they say; and so on in this tail-chasing way forever, like Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

It is also worth noting, for the umpteenth time, that neither I nor my any of my friends and colleagues deny the traditional and religious bases for the American Founding. We just insist, based on the millions of plain words in the historical record, that Americans have from the beginning also appealed to their God-given natural rights and continue to do so—which the traditionalists, in contrast to our inclusiveness, insist on reading entirely out of the American story. I don’t know why. If I were to be uncharitable, I might speculate that they wish to rule out of bounds the most serious challenge to their position. Of course it’s much more plausible that they simply believe what they’re saying. But that only further forces the question of how something so obviously ahistorical can be believed. When people say openly “I justify this revolution, and subsequent form of government, on the basis of God-given natural rights,” how reasonable is it to deny that they said or meant it?

Gottfried writes that he doubts that my “metaphysic of natural right is more compelling to the American public than my invocation of history and tradition.” I am, to the contrary, quite sure that Americans see no difference. They believe that they have God-given unalienable rights, and they believe that those rights are part of their history and tradition. It is true that I believe that at the philosophical root (or peak), history and tradition on one hand, and nature on the other, are fundamentally different things, perhaps even irreconcilable on the plane of thought. But ordinary people are not philosophers. They are perfectly capable of thinking that the same thing can be a permanent truth and part of their history and tradition. (For the record, I don’t disagree with them, though I may prefer to refine their beliefs in ways they find hairsplitting and uninteresting.)

This points to what I regard as a serious gap in Gottfried’s argument that I have pointed out many times, but that he has not addressed. If we Americans are to fall back on tradition (a stance which, properly qualified, I would welcome), there is no escaping the fact that natural rights are our tradition—they are at the core of the American tradition. Many on the old Right try to deny this, but in doing so must, again, deny the plain meaning of plain words—such as, above all, the natural rights language of the Declaration of Independence—or else dismiss those words as either not intended seriously or somehow unimportant. Again, this is ground I’ve covered amply in our prior exchanges. I don’t expect Professor Gottfried to change his views. But to others who might be reading: to accept this argument, you have to believe that the American people either do not believe they have rights, or that their belief in their rights is not integral to the American tradition. How plausible do either of those claims sound to you?

Beyond this, there is another enormous problem that Gottfried never mentions: how are we supposed to unite the 330 (350? more? who knows?) million people living within the present borders of the United States around a tradition that at least 100 million of them did not grow up in and do not share? Even in the founding era, tradition alone was deemed insufficient for uniting the new country. Our disparities then—various Protestant sects, a few Catholics, even fewer Jews, negligible ethnic differences—pale in comparison to today’s vaunted “diversity.” I know Gottfried insists that the founders did not resort to any airy abstractions in order to unite English, Scot, Welsh, Irish, German, Catholic, mainline and dissenting Protestant, and Jew—I disagree, but that too is old ground by now. But even—especially—if Gottfried is right that tradition is not merely the sufficient but the greatest possible basis for public unity, how does he plan to amalgamate the, so to speak, infinite traditions that, since the 1965 immigration act, now reside in the United States?

Retreat of the Gods

I can hear Gottfried’s trad-Right defenders leaping at my throat with the charge “Propositionist!” I am less naïve than they charge about the prospect of uniting our present Star Wars cantina of a “nation” around some creed, even the correct one. But Gottfried’s notion that we can unite bazaar-America around an Anglo tradition that half the country rejects (including many Anglos by blood) seems downright fanciful by comparison.

Gottfried calls my preference for natural right a “leap of faith.” That is not the way I or the American founders or the philosophers whom they followed see (or saw) things. I don’t know what Gottfried means by “leap of faith” beyond “can’t be proved in a scientific or mathematical way.” I certainly concede the latter, but not merely the founders but all philosophers until very recently (less than two hundred years ago) believed that human or moral or political truth could be known on a non-scientific basis—indeed, could only be known on a non-scientific basis. For instance, it is true that murder is wrong, even though this cannot be proved with numbers or confirmed by controlled experiment. It is rather known through reasoned investigation of human nature.

This is a fundamentally epistemological question and so a bit abstruse. But not merely the American founders but the classical up through the early modern philosophers believed that they could discern truths about the “ought” for man by dialectically examining the “is” of man. Gottfried may accuse me straw-manning him here, but again, I am only pointing out what appears to me to be the inescapable logic of this position. If human truths cannot be known scientifically (which I agree with), but also cannot be known rationally, then that leaves only God or tradition. We’ve already discussed some of the problems with tradition. Gottfried’s position, it seems to me, rejects the possibility that tradition can be true, or at least knowably true. For if it can be, then tradition blurs into natural right.

The founders believed that tradition could be evaluated and judged. They cherished English common law, the British Constitution born over centuries of change, and the traditional “rights of Englishmen.” But they also realized their appeals to these were getting them nowhere in their struggle with the crown. More to the point, in forming their own new government, they subjected critical parts of their inheritance to the tribunal of reason and blazed their own trail. I’m not going to belabor this with a bunch of quotes that I know from experience won’t convince, but for those interested, just see Federalist #9 on the founders’ self-professed claim to world-historical innovation. Among other points I could cite to illustrate the founders’ willingness to break with tradition, nothing could be more traditional than the English aristocracy, yet the founders vehemently and explicitly rejected titles of nobility in their new nation. That antitraditional rejection of a particular tradition is also part of “our tradition.”

Returning to the epistemological point, neither the founders nor any philosopher prior to them (as well as many subsequent) believed that natural right is “provable” in the modern scientific sense. Speaking now only for myself (but I believe following in their footsteps), I maintain only that natural right is logically more consistent, more in accord with observable nature, and therefore more plausible, than the alternatives. I also think that in most circumstances, it delivers superior practical outcomes to those alternatives. As human beings with limited minds, that’s about all we can do: investigate and settle on the most plausible as closest to the truth and the best guide for action.

Yet at the risk of further belaboring the issue, I fear I must repeat the following. Just because natural right philosophy claims to go to the truth of justice and political legitimacy, that does not mean that natural right is “natural” to man in the sense that it is mankind’s default state. To the contrary, as I have tried to explain in prior articles, man’s default state is to believe in God (or gods) from whom the law is simply handed down and demands unquestioning obedience. Philosophic investigation of natural right is potentially corrosive, even shattering, to man’s adherence to divine law, which is why the Athenians executed Socrates and chased Aristotle out of Athens, why Cato the Elder decreed that no philosopher should be received in Rome, and one reason why Plato and others wrote so carefully (though apparently not quite carefully enough). In this context, we may also note that Biblical Hebrew has no word for “nature.”

I agree with Nietzsche, however, that the philosophic cat having long ago escaped the bag, there is no easy or obvious way to put it back in. Some calamity might do it, but only something really, really big—i.e., the kind of thing that comes along twice or thrice every five or six thousand years. Beyond that, given philosophy’s manifest success, plus Christianity’s assertion of the equality of souls, plus modern natural science’s demystification of any non-materialist understanding of the world, the notion of going back to a situation of unquestioning acceptance of tradition strikes me as, to say the least, unlikely—and altogether impossible until and unless said calamity occurs. (This, by the way, is precisely why the pre-scientific understanding of politics and the human soul was and is so precious: once one insists that the only knowledge is scientific knowledge, and once it is determined that scientific knowledge cannot establish the good, or even the existence, of the soul, it is a very short—I would say inevitable—step to denying the soul and the good altogether.)

The Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns

Be all that as it may, Gottfried misstates my mention of integralism as a conflation of integralism and paleoconservatism. I meant no such thing. My point was that insofar as both reject natural right(s)—on different grounds, I am well aware—they have in common the wish to get beyond modernity. Gottfried seems to dismiss the idea that there is something real called “modernity” as just another invention of West Coast Straussians, the same way he charges us with inventing the idea that America’s origin is steeped in natural right(s). I don’t know what to say to that. If Gottfried denies the existence of modernity, a concept that long predated Leo Strauss and that is widely accepted by non- and anti-Straussians, then it’s no wonder that we continue to talk past one another.

I laid out all the ways in which I think modernity differs from premodernity. Repeating them would be tiresome. So let it be said that here is another fundamental disagreement. I think something fundamentally changed from the ancient, to the medieval, to the premodern world. I think that natural rights, plural, represented a philosophic and practical attempt to adapt the ancient concept of natural right, singular, to fundamentally new circumstances and to establish a ground for political legitimacy and decency in circumstances in which appeals to divine law were impossible as a basis for public authority (though not, of course, for individual beliefs or behavior). Again, I may be wrong about all that, but “modernity” is not something I or my teachers made up in order to hoodwink the unsuspecting into wholesale adoption of Enlightenment hyper-rationalism so as to crush tradition.

As for Hobbes, the statement that “Mr. Anton and other Claremonters have their own Hobbes; I am entitled to mine” sounds a little…postmodern, does it not? Did Hobbes see himself as writing for multitudes to interpret him any way each reader wishes? Hobbes claims to have discovered, for the first time in the history of political philosophy, the universal truth about political things and the solid, truth-based foundation for political order. Still, it’s possible that while an author may believe himself to have an intention, his work may nonetheless transcend that intention and be amenable to many interpretations. If that is Professor Gottfried’s view, he is indeed entitled to it, but I am also entitled to point out that this is the precise approach pioneered by the hyper-leftwing and antitraditional deconstructionists, and so seems an odd position for a traditionalist to take.

Still and all, Hobbes is quite explicitly the first political philosopher to assert the existence of natural rights, plural, and so I repeat the point that to cite Hobbes as one’s authority for the nonexistence of natural rights is extraordinary.

Professor Gottfried writes:

Accepting the notion that humans share a “fundamental impulse to defend themselves and their lives from physical attack” does not require me to accept the idea that individuals are born with personal rights independently of their social and historical circumstances.

Logically, this then would mean—would have to mean—that there are some “social and historical circumstances” in which there is no right to self-defense. Or, leaving aside the controversial question of “right,” it would have to mean that there are some “social and historical circumstances” in which it is not unjust to kill not in self-defense, and in which it is unjust to defend oneself against such attacks.

Gottfried continues:

It is to acknowledge a minimal requirement that the state must meet to elicit my obedience. No government anywhere deserves our loyalty that lacks the interest or capability of defending us.

Why? Or why not? Gottfried’s answer:

This condition is implicit in all feudal relations, and there are numerous premodern references to this fundamental political obligation summarized in the Hobbesian formula: obedience in return for protection.

I shall forgo the obvious cheap shot, which others would surely take, in attributing to Gottfried an endorsement of feudalism; serfdom, anyone? But the question remains: why is “obedience in return for protection” good or just?

I admit that my knowledge of the medieval mind is limited, but it’s not quite zero. And from what I have read, no one—lord or vassal, baron or serf—in the Middle Ages told himself that feudalism was justified by mere tradition. They believed that it was part of a divinely-ordained order.

Which brings us back to where we started. There are only three fundamental alternatives. God and nature are two of them. Tradition is either yoked to one of them, or it isn’t. If it is, it’s a source of strength. If it’s not, it’s at best unmoored, at worst drifting out toward the storm.

Foreign Interference

The remainder of my remarks are addressed not to Gottfried but to others who believe they are reinforcing his points but who know only a fraction of what he knows.

Some of those who attack the American natural rights doctrine are immigrants to the United States; others are foreigners; and still others are Americans who follow them.

To the first I would say: your life contradicts your argument. By your own logic, you should be obedient to the tradition of whatever country you came from; it is your moral obligation to follow the tradition into which you were was born. By rejecting that and making a choice to come to the United States and adopting a different tradition, your very actions—your whole life—stand as a rebuke to your stated beliefs.

Also contradicting your argument is the fact that you found refuge here, of all places, a country with a centuries-long track-record (dare I say tradition) of accepting and assimilating foreigners as equal citizens. (Before anyone jumps on this latter point, yes, yes, I am well aware of and have written extensively on the limits of assimilation; is your counterpoint that assimilation is always and everywhere impossible? Leaving aside the manifest evidence against that position, what are you even doing here?) That you chose to come to, of all places, the first country in the world, and still one of only very few, to offer full naturalization and equal citizenship to foreigners, rather than to someplace with a stronger attachment to tradition as traditionally understood, seems a little…inconsistent, if not downright hypocritical.

Beyond this, who the hell are you, born to an alien tradition, to tell me, born here in this country, what my tradition is or should be? Actually, as a free speech absolutist, I say: knock yourselves out. But, again, by the terms of your own argument, you have no standing to judge what is to you an alien tradition.

Beyond this, it’s especially rich to be lectured on what it means to be an American by people from countries with a thousand-year tradition of despotism that have never known a single day of political liberty. Interesting that you chose the United States, of all places, as your destination. There are plenty of other despotisms still up and running in the world. Why didn’t you choose one of those? Wouldn’t they have been more amenable to you, being closer in letter and spirit to your native tradition?

Similarly, foreigners who attack the American natural rights doctrine should also butt out. What business of yours is my tradition? Again: by your own argument, you should have nothing to say about my country, my laws, my tradition. Unless you want to have a philosophical conversation about their goodness or badness. But you’ve ruled reason out of bounds, so that’s not possible. Instead you just want to declaim—to what end? To convince me and other Americans to abandon our tradition? Were we to do that, wouldn’t we be contemptible—again, according to the terms of your own argument? Or is that your purpose? This whole debate is a psyop to de-Americanize the American people?

And to those Americans who allow these foreigners to talk you into rejecting your American tradition: what kind of traditionalist are you? What traditionalist slavishly follows alien heretics from another culture? How can any American who complains about the infringement of his “traditional liberties” by the present woke regime seek guidance not just from a foreigner, but from a refugee from a despotism? Does the insipid irony of your position ever give you pause, or even occur to you?

If I’ve been a little hard on you (you Americans; I care much less about the foreigners) it’s because we’re in the fight of our lives, and the way to survive—to say nothing of winning—is not to ditch everything that makes us distinctive as Americans. It’s certainly not to take the “advice” of foreigners who may or may not be well-meaning, but who in any case don’t know what they’re talking about.

Nor is it, in one breath, to eschew abstract theoretical speculations in favor of prudence, practical judgement, and good sense—and then get lost in ever-spiraling tests of doctrinal purity. You reject reason—and then engage in endless argument (aka, reasoned discourse) about your supposedly “better than reason” doctrines. The West, which you claim to cherish, is being destroyed. Yet it’s plain that many of you hate those of us who differ, however marginally, from your doctrines infinitely more than you hate the destroyers of our common civilization. As the hoards wreak havoc inside the gates, you concentrate all your fire on those you despise as one millimeter to your left.

You wrack Hellenic cities, bloody Hellas
With deaths of her own sons, while yonder clangs
The gathering menace of barbarians.

I know that many of you will immediately counter that I and those who think like me are the true enemy—that it is our doctrines which have brought the West to this, and so we must be destroyed first and above all. Does it occur to none of you how much hating and attacking those closest to you over what amounts to intra-familial disagreements—natural right conservatives are the real leftists!—sounds all but identical to DR3?

Eating Ourselves Alive

In any event, it is the rare soul who can be talked out of hatred. And no sensible person wants to live with—be common citizens with—people who hate them. That’s perhaps my chief objection to the present regime.

But anyone who thinks I wish or seek to impose my views on anyone else is laughably delusional. To the contrary, I suggested long ago that when this is all over, we separate. If you can take and hold a patch of land and convince a sufficient number of people to follow your understanding of tradition, have at it. I don’t think it will work, but why should you care about that? As long as, from your new state, you leave me and mine alone, I promise to do the same.

Finally, to those youth who retain some semblance of an open mind: I understand that the present sucks; really, I do. I get that I am old enough to have seen a better America whereas you have only seen the present monstrosity and so this makes me seem out of touch. I understand that my argument about natural right(s) sounds to you a lot like “vote harder.”

But it is a mistake to discard—to disdain—your birthright out of anger at the miserable present. For that is what I believe you are doing. The other day, I saw a tweet from a prominent anon rejecting not just Lincoln (par for the course), not just natural rights (becoming sadly all too common), but the revolution and George Washington himself. I couldn’t tell if this was performative trolling or not, but even if it is, a lot of kids aren’t going to get the joke.

In what sense is it “traditional” to reject the founding of one’s own country—and the father of that country? Will this soon be the price of being accepted on the dissident Right: openly claiming that George Washington, one of history’s greatest men, was an Enlightenment stooge, and rejecting the very existence of one’s own country? To prove that we aren’t cucks, we must negate everything that is our own?

This is purity spiraling taken to absurd levels, but also to its logical end. Western man has been here before: disgusted with the present and therefore eager to destroy that which supposedly led to it. It didn’t end well then and it won’t now if we remain on this path.

What led to the present is the past, including the glorious parts of our past. If you’ve really thought it through and have concluded that our entire history is garbage, well, I reiterate what I said above about freedom of thought. But know well what your position demands: the complete upheaval—uprooting—of all tradition and its replacement, by force, with something wholly new. There is no other way. Do you want to go through that? And are you really sure that the replacement will be better?

However, I suspect you haven’t thought it through. You’re angry, justifiably, and in your anger wish to see what afflicts you destroyed. It’s a natural human reaction—but one that needs to be checked, or at least channeled.

I freely admit that I have no easy solution to our shared problem. But I do know, or at least am reasonably confident, that salvation is to be found within the horizon of our shared history and principles, not in destroying them.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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