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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 3) Saturdays with Scheler

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

If my hunches are correct, then we will have to understand what Max Scheler meant by the difference between formal and value ethics if we are to have any hope of grounding conservative/libertarian thought on something deeper than its present eclectic ideology.  I hope to examine that ideology in a future post, but for now simply allow the compound “conservative/libertarian” vouch for its eclectic nature.  Now, in order to get a precise understanding of the difference between value ethics and formal ethics, we would have to delve into the dense jungle of philosophical and phenomenological investigation, the very prospect of which would cause any sane person to cry out for Divine deliverance!

Fortunately, Godly help has long since arrived, in the form of a Jewish teacher who walked our planet some two millennia ago, one Yeshua ben Yosef, better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Fortunately (from the perspective of our own autonomy as persons) He was not a systematic philosopher or theologian, but a wonderful poet and parable maker, a man stamped with the legacy of David, His ancestor, both king and composer.  The sayings of Yeshua are frequently enigmatic nuggets, intended for careful unpacking over time.   There is always considerable danger when we try to interpret such dense teachings, especially what Peter Leithardt has called the danger of “eisegesis” i.e., imputing our own ideas to a text, rather than the “exegesis” of carefully unpacking the text to find its true meaning.  I happen to think that the royal road into value ethics runs though the teachings of Yeshua, but you would be justifiably suspicious that I am engaging in eisegesis unless we can locate an issue where His sayings are pointing us directly towards the contrast between value and form.

In fact, it is the teachings of the Messiah on the Sabbath which provide (for non-philosophers at least) the most accessible portal into the form/value distinction.  The church has tended to treat this issue as either secondary (in the sense that ethics is secondary to the doctrine of salvation) or to use the sayings of Yeshua as proof-texts licensing either a change in, or abolition of, the Sabbath.   I must make clear that my purpose in this essay is neither to advocate for or against Sabbath observance.  However it is in the context of this seemingly arcane and irrelevant issue that we can both elucidate the way the Messiah would have us think of forms and values, and apply them to contemporary social and political conditions.

The Test Case

In Matthew chapter 12 vv. 1-14 a sequence of events occur involving questions by 1st century (i.e.,Tannaic age) Jewish teachers and responses by Yeshua.  These responses highlight the circumstances under which the Messiah feels that it is permissible to perform actions which would normally be prohibited between sundown of Friday night and sundown of Saturday night.  It is doubtful that his auditors were open minded enough to profit from his teaching.  However we in the 21st century may profit in an unexpected way if these teachings point us towards the distinction between formal ethics and value ethics.  It is almost as if the Fourth Word (i.e., fourth commandment) together with the Messiah’s response, were inserted into scripture by the Almighty to start us thinking in new ways about the foundations of ethics.

Indeed, the fourth of the Ten Words (i.e., Decalogue), which mentions the Sabbath, is uniquely suited as a test case for critiquing the concept of a formal ethics.  The fifth through tenth words comport only too well with our common understanding of morality, to such an extent that Divine authorship seems almost superfluous.  Conversely, the first through third flatter us during our pious moods, and fill us with numinous terror at other times.   All of the Words, including the fourth, are conveyed as imperatives.  However only the Forth Word arouses our suspicion that it is an arbitrary and extra-moral formalism.  Readers of Matthew 12:1-14, unless they happen to be Talmudists, will instinctively side with the response of the Messiah as a mere reiteration of common sense.  However this facile assent preempts a deeper appreciation of both the Fourth Word and the Messiah’s emendations.

The thinking behind this near-automatic assent goes as follows.  Sabbath keeping is framed in the imperative, and to the extent that it applies (of course, this is a matter of dispute) must be complied with.   However, this rule of the Sabbath is subordinate to a higher rule, that which mandates the preservation of human life.  This subordination of the Sabbath is illustrated by the actions and sayings of the Messiah in two or three categories, 1) staving off hunger by gleaning from fields, 2) healing the sick, and possibly 3) animal rescue (actually a limiting case dealing with property).

We are now liable to jump to the conclusion that we have adequately understood the difference between formal and value ethics.   It is all too easy to make the Fourth Word a stereotype of any possible formal ethics.  After all, it is an imperative and sharply delimits the kind of behavior ( or absence of behavior) permissible within certain boundaries of time and space.   Superficially, the Fourth Word is not about a good, or any kind of pleasure, but about a duty to be performed.  It would  seem to follow that whatever is antithetical to the Fourth Word automatically counts as a value ethics.  Hence, violations of the Sabbath in the cause of preserving life clearly promote a good, arguably the highest good of all, the ultimate value of human life.  Thus we might see in the tension between the Fourth Word and the attitude of the Messiah, a contrast between formal ethics and value ethics.

However this understanding is premature.  If we sifted them through the sieve of Scheler’s analysis, we would find both alternatives fall entirely within the world of formal ethics.  First we are presented with the formal ethics of Divine imperatives, which we feel authorized to forsake in favor of an alternative formal ethics which invokes the sanctity of life.  In effect, we have replaced the God of the Bible with another god, “Life” on the basis of which we can construct an allegedly superior system of formal ethics.  This way of thinking (life-ethics) has considerable appeal (and in the political context, both among liberals and conservatives) because it seems to rest on a solid axiom out of which moral imperatives can be generated.   However there is a difficulty here for anyone who wishes to invoke the sayings of Yeshua ben Yosef in support of this second system of formal ethics, a system which rests on the imperatives of life.  As it happens, this is not what the Master is really teaching in Matthew 12.

How would Jesus think?

Yeshua ha Moshiach (a.k.a. Jesus) actually gives two complementary justifications for “working” on the Sabbath, justifications which seem, according to the modern mind, congenial to life-ethics, but which in fact are based on radically different premises.  The first justification returns us to the original theme of these essays, the primacy of the person, and in this case the primacy of a Person.  If we resort to the insights of Scheler and certain other philosophers, we will note that they draw an important distinction between the concept of an “individual” and a “person.”  Granted in American usage we tend to talk about individuals in a robust way that conflates this analysis, as in “she is a colorful individual.”  However Scheler restricts the meaning of individual to the legal individual who stands as one unit within a democratic society.  In contrast to individuals, persons are not only unique, but morally asymmetrical in their relations among themselves.  Drawing on the test-case of the Sabbath for his illustrations. Yeshua, who as Messiah is authorized to speak on his own behalf, becomes the expositor of the Biblical system of ethics where a supreme Person is sovereign over all formal ethics.  From this initial, and supremely asymmetrical relation, we are ushered into a world where persons at large possess sovereignty over forms.  This because, while qua God, Yeshua is unique, qua human, he is the first born among the benei Elohim (sons of God).  It is this sovereignty over forms which was subsequently epitomized (by Paul and countless others) in the slogan “Christian freedom” a notion which should never be confused with the supposed abrogation of the Torah, which is at most an illustration or a test-case of a much broader issue.

The above, personalist, justification of Sabbath “work” can (in my opinion) be unpacked from verse 8, “The Son of Man is Lord of Shabbat.”  However Matthew 12 contains an important, correlative justification of Sabbath “work.”  This correlative justification is actually more interesting and foundational, even though it dwells on a level further down on the hierarchy of persons.  The Messiah gives the illustrative case in vv. 11-12.

He said to them, “What man among you will not grab his sheep and lift it out, if it falls into a pit on Shabbat?  How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  Therefore it is permitted to do good on Shabbat.”

Again, the modern temptation is to assimilate this illustration to an ethics of life.  Parenthetically, it is not entirely clear (as per modern animal advocates) if the merely organic life of an individual sheep is of any less worth than that of individual of the homo sapiens species.  Never the less, I feel it best to depart from this line of thought in order to concentrate on the way the passage as a whole discloses the foundations of value-ethics, and in particular the way in which an objective value-ethics can be distinguished from the subjective valuation of objects.  I am grateful that the TLV passage actually uses “valuable” for the word which is translated “worth” in the Authorized version (KJV).

Now it should be obvious that “value” here does not refer to the subjective exchange cost of the man and the sheep.  Not that one couldn’t find some scholars who might be willing to follow that particular rabbit hole to its logical, and dreary, conclusion.  Thus, supposing we could find out what the average rent value of a laborer’s time or the purchase value of a slave was in the Levant during the 1st century of the Common Era, and then express such values as ratios against the price of a single head of sheep during the same period, we could no doubt test whether the assertion “the man was more valuable than the sheep” was true historically.  We could attempt such a historical investigation because “the man was more valuable than the sheep” is a meaningful assertion which is susceptible to testing.

However this is not the meaning which the Messiah gives the the assertion about “value.”  The word here is a conjugation of diapheroo which can mean any number of things, including “value” or “worth.”   However from the context alone it is clear that Yeshua is not speaking of subjective exchange value, but of what might be called an ordo amoris (i.e., an “order of the heart”) a phrase coined by Blaise Pascal but given closer treatment by Scheler.  The man is loved and the sheep is loved, but the loves are not equal in value.  If there is an underlying ordo amoris then the human being would stand higher in valuation even if the market price for a slave were lower than that of a sheep.  This is because, according to the kind of personalism which Pascal and Scheler advocate, there is an objective order of values which is independent of era, place, or economic calculation.  In the illustration provided by the Messiah, it is implied that there are sacred and intellectual values which bode forth through the thoughts and actions of the human being which are inaccessible to the sheep.  It is urgent to save the sheep, but it is even more urgent to save the man.  Both the necessity of saving the sheep and the man supersede compliance with formal ethics, as here represented by observance of (rabbinical) Sabbath regulations.

No right thinking person (even among the Talmudists!) actually disputes the response given by Yeshua to the Sabbath dilemma.  None the less, sloppy and casual treatment of the case has often led to either generalized and trivial conclusions or hair-splitting and divisive historicism.  For example, one might say, religious customs should not stand in the way of protecting life.  That is certainly true, but if we condemn formal ethics in the name of an ad hoc and indiscriminate category called “life” we are taking the first step towards materialism and utilitarianism.  Eventually we will have to sacrifice not only formal ethics but mind and the spirit as well.  Embracing value ethics saves both life and the Sabbath, in so far as it gives consideration both to the creatures and the ultimate Person, God Himself. It is the universal asymmetry of objective values which give them substance, in comparison with which both rules regulating time and protecting life stand as abstract generalizations.

It is only to be expected that historicists, relativists, materialists, positivists, modernists and post-modernists would all reject the idea of an objective order of values.  It is more tragic that those who oppose these main stream schools, i.e., paleoconservatives, paleolibertarians, traditionalists et al, are not in one accord with regard to the trans-historical objectivity of values.   This is a matter for further discussion, but hopefully Matthew 12 has epitomized the issues in question .  My contention has been that viewing the Sabbath controversy within the framework of formal vs. value ethics, brings out a broader meaning than that of either life-ethics or the Torah/anti-Torah diatribes, and (hopefully and prayerfully) is closer to the meaning intended by the Messiah Himself.  If that is so, then the dilemma of the Sabbath can be transformed into a two way street, with ethics illuminating religious practice and Scripture illuminating what we mean by value ethics.

 

 

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The Problematic Primacy of the Person: (Part 2) What’s love got to do with it?

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 5, 2019

Knowledge and Emotions

Behind the bravado, it is tacitly understood by most conservatives that civilization is going down the tubes at an accelerating rate.  The sundry ideologists (libertarians, traditionalists, natural rights theorists) charged with guarding the city of morals and manners are scrambling for exits and excuses.  The most popular line goes somewhat as follows:  Ideas, contrary to what we had been taught, really don’t count for much at all.  Why not?  Because we live in a world dominated by increasingly sophisticated conspiracies, technologies and propaganda.  That is a bleak outlook, but it is more popular, and less embarrassing, than the alternative explanation.

The alternative explanation would be that our (conservative/libertarian) ideas are no match for left wing ideology.  Please note that this is not the same as saying that right ideas are wrong and the left ideas are right.  No, it is rather that the persuasive power of left wing ideology and rhetoric (even if false) is apt to overwhelm its right-thinking but fragile opposition.  Increasingly we hear that the left bases its claims on emotions, that they are nothing more than a besotted band of snowflakes, unicorns, and cry-babies.   Conversely, the right bases its case on reason, dispassionate claims, and principle.  So what sways the court of public opinion, principle or pathos?  With disturbing regularity, the left emerges triumphant.

For many, the notion that conservative/libertarian thought isn’t up to the challenge is too disconcerting to take seriously, and those who do take it seriously are liable to react in a counterproductive manner.   Among these “reactionaries” the more emotional and irrational the left becomes, the more desirable it seems to appear cool and logical.  This reflects the perennial urge to counter adversity by doing more and more of what you had tried even though it hadn’t worked before.  If Ayn Rand were alive today, she would be egging us on towards more logical thinking and less emotion.  Reason for Rand was an unlimited good, like wine for Polythemis.  More!

Contrary to the claims of her followers, I doubt that Ayn Rand was the greatest philosopher of 20th century.  In my present state of knowledge I would be inclined to give that palm to Max Scheler.  Of course  I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a little dose of Schelerian phenomenology, like chicken soup, can’t do any harm, and might even be salutary in a seemingly hopeless historical situation.   Yet in significant ways Scheler was far less orthodox in relation to the Western tradition than Rand.  Indeed, for all her hatred of Immanuel Kant, Rand was able to offer little more than a simplified Kantian ethics.  As such she stood in the center of the tradition, albeit as a handmaiden, not the prodigy that her followers claim.

Conversely, Scheler was a heretic in almost every sense of the word, both philosophical and religious.  On the overt level, his wayward thoughts and actions cost him both academic tenure and church membership.   Yet his deepest heresy was a total reversal of Western thought, in which the emotions were made foundational and knowledge secondary.  To rationalists, and many who just profess to be rational, this reversal will sound wrongheaded, if not toxic.  To others, especially psychologists, it will seem to belabor the obvious.  The rationalists are more accurate in their (ab-) reaction, in so far as Scheler was not trying to be a psychologist, in which case his insights about the mind and its emotions would have been trivial.  Rather, as a phenomenologist, Scheler was relating the action of the mind to the objective structure of the world.  He wasn’t just saying that individual people’s minds are emotional (trivial), he meant that in some sense the world itself, as we understand it, is based on emotions (heresy).

To any sensible and conservative thinker this reversal of knowledge and the emotions will sound suspiciously like “bad news for modern man” and without a doubt the initial impact and misappropriation of Scheler’s thought was pernicious.  From the 1930s onward in Europe, Scheler, if remembered at all, was considered to be little more than the precursor of succeeding, irrationalist, philosophies of existence.  These succeeding varieties of  existence-philosophy, manifesting in the popularity of Heidegger (fascism) and Sartre (communism) might be seen as either co-opting Scheler into the lineage of nihilism or making him a byword for intellectual and moral default.     My own view of Scheler is predicated on the conviction that European thought as a whole reached its peak prior to the First World War, and in the shattering aftermath of that conflict entered a period of steep decline.  Unfortunately this “peak Europe” was also “peak Scheler” as well, as characterized by his later (1920s) attempt to disengage his ethics from his (new) metaphysics.  This move is a source of continued controversy, and one way or the other makes Scheler look like a transitional figure.  However, I prefer to see his value theory as the culmination of previous thinking, from Augustine to Eucken, rather than as a prophetic interlude prior to a titanic onslaught on civilization which he would have deplored.  This framing of Scheler as a conservative, someone who encapsulated previous ethics prior to his attempts to improve on them, should give contemporary defenders of morality and freedom access to a method of thought which they might otherwise neglect.

Even if conservatives and libertarians manage not to be put off by a line of thought which attained its terminal expression in Weimar Germany, they may understandably balk at regrounding their political theory in a phenomenology of the emotions.  On the face of it, taking the emotions as primary not only smacks of the left’s methods, it just sounds plain wrong.  Hence, to make the most plausible case, before venturing into a contrast of formal vs. value ethics, I’ll take up the case of the emotion par excellance: Love.

Gnostic Love vs. Christian Love

We will have to make a wide arc from religion to politics and back to religion.  By insinuating that conservatives don’t have their ducks lined up correctly, I don’t mean that we need a new idea.  Perhaps we need to return to an old idea, which will turn out to be nothing but Christianity expressed in thought.  Not that the experience of Christianity has ever been lost, but the conceptual articulation of that experience is fraught with extraordinary difficulties.   As Paul said, we must work it out “in fear and trembling.” So much is this so, that the history of the West might be summed up as a succession of varied misinterpretations of Christianity.  Erick Voeglin has chronicled the stumbling misapplication of the Gospel from the time of the ancient gnostics to the rise of modern politics and the (pseudo-) messianic totalitarian state.  While there may not be a direct teaching lineage stretching from the ancient to the modern gnostics, they are both typified by the notion of salvation by self-effort, either collective or individual.  The great irony of this movement can be seen from the contrast between its origin and its final outcome.  Gnosticism began as an attempt to ground Christian doctrine in Greek philosophy, while today, in its final stages, it is manifesting as an effort by the left to shut down “the conversation of the West” and replace it with something that looks frighteningly like a hive-mind.

Escaping from this ironic history requires getting beyond the simple equation Left=emotions, Right=reason.  Rather, it requires a reexamination of the metaphysical filters by which we decide what we mean alternatively by reason or emotion, and within emotion, the valuations we assign to various states of mind, for better or for worse.  As the lyrics of a popular song went, “Love is a battleground”…and there is no more important battleground in either politics or the war of ideas than the definition and understanding of what we mean by love.  Contemporary political rhetoric is dominated by the struggle over who is compassionate and who is insensitive.  Surely, only an all knowing God could objectively determine the extent to which one particular individual really cared about other individuals, short of such omniscience even depth psychology or a phenomenology of the emotions would be helpless.  Yet as historians we can critically examine the doctrines which have been offered up to epitomize love, doctrines which have shaped the convictions and behavior of humanity.  Strange as it may seem, our capacity to love is affected by our metaphysics, our view of the world.  Notoriously, someone who believes human beings to be mere lumps of flesh will have a different attitude towards others than another person who believes all humans have a soul.  Yet not everyone who shouts “Lord! Lord!” or even “soul, soul” is speaking the same language.  If, as per Eric Voeglin, the history of the West is a history of heresy, we can expect that both life and love have been variously defined according to sundry ideologies, all of which have at one time or another sought to portray themselves as the true “Christianity.”

Following Voeglin, if we understand the modern movement in politics, with all its chaotic tendencies, as the extension of an ancient spiritual impulse, it becomes clear the West has long carried the seed of its own destruction deep within.    This insight is gladly embraced by those who follow Nietzsche in identifying the destructive agent as Christianity itself.  However Voeglin makes a distinction between genuine Christianity and the power-drive of its heretical imitators.  Indeed, we could construct a jerrybuilt argument against modern politics by simply by identifying Christianity with love and calling out modernity as  an extension of ancient preoccupations with power and knowledge.  However this is not satisfactory for a number of reasons, among them, that it hands both knowledge and power over to the enemy.  Even more importantly, an exclusively anti-gnostic argument abandons the battleground of love, a commanding height which the enemy believes he has already captured.

It is the singular quality of modern tyranny, that it finds its ultimate justification in neither law nor reason, but a peculiar doctrine of love.  Behind the cruel edicts of Robespierre were the musings of J. J. Rousseau, a “man of feeling” and philosopher of love.  In more recent times, who was Che Guevara except a romeo of revolution?  Whatever revisions critical scholarship might make to his biography, which might show his character to be quite different from that supposed by his idolators, it is unlikely to tarnish the archetype.  Examples of the type could be multiplied without limit.  This is not, of course, “romantic love” in the vulgar sense of the word.  Nobody cares that Leon Trotsky was the lover of Frieda Kahlo, only that he was the lover of humanity as a whole.  Indeed, he loved humanity so much that he could wish it nothing better than perpetual war in pursuit of a perfection doomed to recede into an infinite future.  Where does this peculiar love come from, this love which is spiritual while professing doctrinaire materialism?  Indeed, how do we explain a form of love which is at once universal, and in its concrete manifestation indistinguishable from hate?

In his essay on “Love and Knowledge” Scheler delves somewhat deeper into this enigma than Voeglin was able to do even in his very detailed and historically subsequent work.  Granted, Scheler’s Greek-Indian type is a bit broader than what Voeglin identifies as gnosticism.  If modern political movements had only a doctrine of hate, and were explicit in their call for class war, then we could be satisfied with labeling them gnostic, with the dualism that implies.  However, (and here I think it is Scheler who is to be commended for perspicuity even though he doesn’t draw the modern political implications as clearly as I am doing), the dualism is actually driven by a deeper monism.  It is not that the incendiary movements are simply appealing to “love” as a deceitful propaganda ploy, but rather that they are sincere in both their emotions and metaphysics.  Scheler notes that the predominant characteristic of Greek-Indian (a.k.a., gnostic) thought is monism.  From this he points out that we can expect a pantheistic doctrine of love to be grounded on the attraction of similarity.  The movement of love will be in the direction of grounding solidarity in sameness, and its end result will be the homogenization of the lover and the loved.  Hence this kind of love is both the expression and actualization of pantheism.

If we are willing to entertain the idea that love is connected to metaphysics, then it should be apparent that the Greek-Indian, or gnostic, love contrasts broadly with Christian, or Judeo-Christian love.  The Judeo-Christian God is not a god like that of Aristotle, who can only recognize universal ideas.  Rather, He is the God of particulars, not just the God of the universe, but the God of Abraham, of Issac, and of Jacob.   This God (of Abraham etc.) is even further from pantheism than He is from being the god of Aristotle.  The salient point here is that love in such a God’s creation will not negate particularity as it would do in a pantheistic universe.  Indeed the whole point of love in such a creation will not be the overcoming but the cherishing of difference.

Returning to the doctrines of the modern political left, we see with increasing clarity a growing intolerance for any distinctions of either heredity or merit within the human species.  In spite of lip service paid to “multiculturalism” in the interests of equalizing the fortunes of sundry demographics, it is clear that any substantive differences in life practices are scheduled for progressive elimination.  The overall thrust of modern politics in a managerial state is towards the leveling and homogenization of society.  This is promoted under the oxymoron term “democratization” but an enthusiasm for democracy is unaccountable if we stop to consider that it is no more than a method of political administration.  Behind the bloodless terminology of politics lurk the emotions love and hate, and since the latter is only the shadow side of the former we have been concentrating here on love.  Yet even behind love lurks religion.  Which religion determines which love.  Choose wisely.

 

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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 1) Do we need to go back to school with Max Scheler?

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2019

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

A man who could not decide whether he wanted to be a playboy or a philosopher is probably not the best advertisement for a new ethics of love.   Yet out of charity it should at least be noted that Max Scheler was considered by his contemporaries (and I concur) the most brilliant thinker of his country and generation.  This was no mean accomplishment since the “time and place” was a still vibrant and relatively free Germany at the outset of the twentieth century.  Even if you havn’t heard of Scheler, and there are many reasons why you probably havn’t, none the less there are serious grounds for reexamining the kind of problems Scheler grappled with.    Notably this included the question: “What do we mean by ‘a person’?”  Furthermore, according to our understanding of “what a person is” what impact does that have on the relationship between rights and obligations, between law and love?

I’m not saying that Scheler resolved these problems in a completely satisfactory way.  Indeed, his philosophy resembles a ruined cathedral, at one time complete from foundation to tower, where the builder suddenly changed his mind and tore everything down to the second story.  That foundation, which Scheler insisted was serviceable no matter what religion (or none) one professed, was what he called a “non-formal ethics of values. ” Admittedly, this “non-formal ethics of values”, is just the sort of jawbreaker that you might expect to emerge from the cerebral jungles of German scholarship.  Yet, rightly understood a non-formal ethics of values gives us a key to deal with many thorny problems where the post-modern world has come up against a conceptual dead end.

For example, whom should we consider the rightful inheritor of Christ’s spiritual mantle, the modern political left or the modern political right?  Weighty and irreconcilable claims to a moral, if not apostolic, succession are made on both sides of the aisle.   To oversimplify, which should we acknowledge as the true gospel of political ethics: the left’s advocacy of indiscriminate and unconditional love or the right’s advocacy of absolute rights and righteousness?  The catch phrase here is “to oversimplify” since without further analysis of these bald claims, they both seem to rest on valid premises.   Agreed, we need to be both righteous and loving, and until we come up against a crisis where decisive action is required one way or the other, it would seem that we can eat our cake and have it too.  But then what?  In order to resolve this issue, and many like it, we need greater sensitivity.  Not greater emotional sensitivity (although that might be a desirable consequence) but a greater intellectual sensitivity.  Through phenomenological investigation Max Scheler developed his understanding of the difference between formal ethics and a non-formal ethics of values.  We need not endorse his conclusions, but we can utilize some of his discoveries as tools for resolving the dilemmas of modernity post-modernity.  It all starts by reexamining what we mean by “the person” and “persons.”  Indeed, are persons important at all, or just illusory sparkles on the surface of a vast ocean of existence?

Donald Trump vs. Existentialism

Let’s begin with the person of the hour.  Love him or hate him, everyone agrees that Mr. Trump has shaken things up on a grand scale.  Even his supporters are divided over the extent to which he has succeeded in fulfilling his promises.  But nobody doubts that his presidency has been educational.  For good or for ill, many things have been brought to light which were hidden prior to the last few years.  Most of these revelations have been social and political, and concern the influence of elites and/or the frustration of the popular will.  Yet hiding in plain sight is possibly the most important revelation of all, a metaphysical revelation in the truest sense.  Trump, of all people, has reminded everyone on the planet about the primacy of personal.

Central to the modernist movement has been an insinuation that all history, human as well as cosmic, reflects the movement of vast impersonal forces, within which individuals have little significance except to appear on the stage of life as pathetic victims.  Negatively, this expresses itself through seemingly self-evident critiques of “great man” theories, to which the adjective “discredited” is always applied.  Positively, it manifested through much of the 20th century as existentialism, the idea that the most heroic thing a human being could do was to accept the futility of life and derive meaning through suffering.  Both these moments in the self-depreciation of human life have a certain plausibility.  After all, heaven forbid that we return to the kind of hero-worship depicted by Thomas Carlyle, which reflected the Victorian world’s trauma in the aftermath of the Napoleonic episode.  Likewise, the ubiquity of human suffering certainly justifies highlighting the limitations and frustrations of existence.

Yet, viewing the 20th century in hindsight, it appears that the devaluation of the person was as much a product of propaganda as intrinsic plausibility.  Indeed, it was the high-tide of that movement against theism and personalism which was birthed in the so-called Enlightenment and then picked up momentum among the ideologues of the 19th century.  Through it all, personalist world-views never lacked exponents, of whom Max Scheler was but one voice, yet the general atmosphere of thought weighed heavily in favor of the subordination spiritual life to inexorable forces: mechanical, biological, social and (here is where it gets dicey) psychological.  If we drift spiritually, we are apt to forget that we, both self and others, are persons.  That is precisely what “they” i.e. the adversaries of personalism, who are arguably not forces but persons-in-hiding themselves, want us to forget.

In that context, consider how an individual like Donald Trump might be threatening to adherents of the impersonalist world-view.  After all, he seems to be an atavism, a sport of nature, an exception to the uniformity of history.  Naturally he is hated by those who detest his policies, but he is even disparaged by those who would normally be considered fellow travelers.  The common line is that policies are supposed to be planned and enacted by teamwork, not by rogue agents.  Yet there he is, right or wrong, reminding us that an individual can divert the course of history, if not to order, at least to some extent.  This might be the furthest thing in the world from ethical individualism, yet it demonstrates, as nothing else could, the plausibility of a personalist world-view.

Apart from being playboys, Scheler and Trump would seem worlds apart.  The reflective thinker on the one hand, the impulsive actor on the other.  Yet the present moment in history is one of flux, one which gives lie to the myth of material forces proceeding on to a determined end.  The individual has returned with a vengeance, and this should lead us to renewed reflection on personalism in both ethics and metaphysics.

 

 

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Beyond the social compact: Origins, vows, and the foundation of America

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 23, 2018

In search of an origin

There are certain schools of anthropology which seek out the origins of society in a “social compact” i.e., a primitive getting together of all humanity where the individuals comprising the species said something like, “We are tired of living in fear of one another, let’s invent an institution called civilization.  We will have laws, courts, good manners, and some method of dispute resolution superior to bludgeoning one another into compliance.”  Of course such a “primal scene” (as they call it) is a myth.

At least, it is a myth if we lump together the human species and try to assign an origin to “society” in general.  However it may not be a myth if we are willing to limit the concept of the “social compact” to the origins of nations.  Do we not have have a singular example of this in the foundation of America, on or about July 4th, in the year of our Lord 1776?  Well, yes and no.  Originalism, whatever its merits as framed by American judicial conservatives, cannot be expanded into a total outlook on society.

As much as I love the Constitution and the bill of rights, I was humbled by Tom Woods observation that “If you are going to be an idolator, one of the silliest forms of idolatry is the worship of a political compact.”  It struck me that Woods, though a great American, saw through many of the shibboleths of the conservative movement.  To be sure, if there can be such a critter as a “contractual nation” then America fits the bill.  Whether or not America is unique, it certainly had a time of inception, and a time prior to inception when it was not.  However wonderful the thought of Dr. Freidrich Hayek might be, the United States did not come about through the workings of what he calls the “spontaineous order”…rather, it came about through deliberation and prayer of a people being transformed from subjects of the British crown into patriots.  The nation, or at least this nation, is a creation, not an “evolute.”

Hence I will side with originalists over progressives every time.  If we are at the mercy of social evolution, every change in the editorial stance of the New York Times necessitates a trans-valuation of our fundamental morality.  This is worse than absurd, it is spiritually exhausting.  We need a baseline, not a “project.”  What and where is the baseline of American moral consensus?  Was it set at some privileged moment in the 18th century, or perchance earlier or later?  In search of it, we  must become intellectual archeologists, digging down into history until we find bedrock.

Origins, compacts, and peoples

The self-understanding of a “contractual nation” must be made expicit, since a contract is always signed on a particular date, and indeed without a recorded date no contract is valid.  America has not just one, but several candidates for its inception.  The constitutional convention of 1786 and the foundational documents which flowed from it are frequently made to bear excessive historical weight by theorists affiliated with the right wing of our political spectrum.  Yes, these documents formed a government, but did they actually found a nation?  One center-right line of thought (associated with Jaffre and Clairmont College) attempts to remedy this by expanding the contractual origins of the nation to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and even the Gettysburg Address (1863).  These are construed as supplying the missing philosophy, and even theology,  which is only implied in the text of the Constitution.  On this basis, what in anthropological jargon would be called the “ethnogenisis of the American nation” is thought to be secured.

Conservatives and libertarians are the only ones who continue to care about this line of inquiry.   Progressives no longer think there is any such thing as an American nation, only hoards of hyphenated tribes squabbling over the riches of a largish continent.  This train of thought has been gaining traction on the left since the publication of Nathan and Glassier’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in the sixties, however it only became the undisputed progressive line in the past few years.    Here I’m not addressing progressives or the merit of their theses.  Rather, I’m wondering whether conservatives have put their understanding of American origins in the wrong basket.  They have become social contract theorists.  In other words, they have become Rousseuvians.  Now if you understand that J. J. Rousseau is the ideological fountain of leftward modernity then perhaps you will recognize that conservatives are resting their case on a treacherous foundation.  If you really want a social contract with teeth, then you should go past American statecraft and cross the Atlantic to view the tennis court oath of 1789 with its ensuing (First) French Republic.  That’s the one that came straight from Rousseau’s brain, bent on righteousness and vengeance.  The laws with teeth soon became more than a metaphor, as indeed the incisor of the guillotine began to chomp down indiscriminately on errant necks.

Even today the French are still working righteousness, and perhaps a new (would this be the sixth?) French Republic is in the offing.  We can only wish them luck.  Given the inability of social contracts to arrest the slide of the West towards bureaucratic domination and leftist lunacy, it is understandable that some conservative thinkers advocate placing the foundation of nations on some non-contractual basis.  That neglected luminary, Dr. Paul Gottfried, suggests that lip service to formal political contracts have become simply an item in the neoconservative toolbox to be put in the service of managerial globalism.   Against this background, he hints that it might be wise to reinstate, at least partially, a candid recognition that Western civilization did not arise in a vacuum but out of the historical experience of particular peoples.  This would constitute a strategic retreat from the sacred (at least in America) principle of lex soli, but none the less an inevitable counterfoil to the corroding influence of multiculturalism.  After all, if it works in Hungary, why shouldn’t it work in the United States?

For a variety of reasons, I hope this is not the path followed by conservative thought in the near future.  The most obvious, but ideally least important, reason being that this is precisely the avenue which has been mapped out for conservative ideology by the cultural Marxists.  For Marxists in general, Operation Barbarossa is the gift that keeps on giving.  Get their Hitler to attack your Stalin and, voala!, there you have your moral equivalence, if not moral superiority.  The same principle applies on the cultural level.  Even the smallest embrace of identity politics on the right would be seen as racism, not as a measured equivalent to the wholesale adoption of identity politics on the left.

I only mention the left because the their strategy is so easy to see.  It is never good to adopt a policy out of either consideration or antagonism to one’s enemies.  The real reason to make land, not blood, the basis of American citizenship is spiritual.  When I mention “spiritual” I am using the term in its broadest sense.  You don’t need to stop reading at this point just because you don’t meditate or speak in tongues…although if you do either I wouldn’t be one to object.  I would call the social contract theory spiritual.  Conversely, I would call the theory that nationality should be based on ties of blood non-spiritual.  I don’t want to see membership in the political community based on their DNA.  Some people do, they are called eugenicists.   On the other hand, I don’t want membership in the political community to be open to everyone.  Membership should be limited to those who are spiritually in agreement with the foundational principles of the political community.  If you aren’t in spiritual agreement with the foundations of the community, then you are either a traitor or a spy…or at the most charitable, very ignorant.  Those types of people are not good for the community.

Vows, Contracts, and Prayers

In spite of its fundamentally spiritual quality, I have been casting doubt on the efficacy of social contract theory as the foundation of American nationality.  Is there any other spiritual bond which might have formed the basis of the American union?  Again, I am using “spiritual” in the technical sense of an act of deliberation and will.  For example, what about the common possession of the English language?  No, because being born into a language community is not an act of will, although choosing to use that language might be.  Interestingly, during the 17th and 18th centuries there were English speaking expatriate communities in the Carabbean Sea and the Indian Ocean who formed independent, “buckaneer” republics, based on social contracts.  In spite of similarities in race and language, they were not the same nation as that formed by the thirteen English colonies on the eastern coast of North America.  They had their own separate “spiritual” foundations, based on values quite different from their linguistic cousins.  Out of deference to fans of Johnny Dep I won’t go into further description of their values.  Not to say that the American colonists were angels.  This is not an apology for their morals, it is just an attempt to identify the essence of their political identity.

That political identity was never grounded specifically on the French enlightenment theory of social contract.  Prior to independence, the British colonists were not citizens but subjects.  Directly, they were citizens of the British crown, but through that king, as head of the Anglican church, they were subject to the God of all Christians.  When  the ties with the crown were dissolved, the middle man, as it were, was cut out, and the American states came directly under the sovereignty of God.  Since the early days of the republic, there have been strong forces which have sought to obscure this point, and to conflate the origins of the American nation with social contract theory.  No doubt some thinkers, Thomas Jefferson comes to mind, were explicit in their allegiance to what might be called the Franco-American theory of American origins.  However Jefferson was an eccentric.  If there was any “general will” among the American people at the moment of separation from the British crown, it was a “general will” which was in direct contradiction to “general will” in the sense given to that term by J.J.Rousseau.    The general will of the American people was a collective surrender to the will of Divine Providence, a transcendental covenant, in stark contrast to the mutual compact of the French people among themselves during the same revolutionary epoch.

One reason why so few people recognize this covenantal basis of American nationhood is the benevolent, but mistaken, myth of constitutional origins.  I say “constitutional origins” advisedly, since I don’t want to dissuade anyone from constitutional advocacy.   None the less, the American nation was not founded by any one sheet of parchment, however right-thinking and venerable.  It was founded by the inner vows and aspirations of countless patriots at the time of political separation, vows which more often than not took the form of formal, public, prayer.  Furthermore these vows transferring direct political sovereignty from the British crown to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are not just rumors from oral history but were the subject of ample and official documentation.   One major reason contributing to contemporary ignorance of these facts is the prestige of the constitution and the bill of rights in contrast to the obscurity of  many documents where the proclamations and enabling legislation pertaining to the divine sovereignty are recorded.  I urge readers to investigate this subject on their own, and to see what the public documents the era (not private political pamphlets, whether by Paine, Jefferson or whomever) have to say on the subject of sovereignty, and whether it is based, ultimately, on the will of God or of the people.  Then, I think, you will have a solution to the enigma of American nationality, that it was forged in common through allegiance to a common God.

As a significant example of a public declaration of divine sovereignty during the transition from colonial to independent America, consider the following document proclaiming a collective desire “to seek God in time of war” issued by the Continental Congress on November 1, 1777.  This states,

“That with one Heart and one Voice the good People may express the grateful feeling of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor; and…they may join the penitent Confession of their Manifold Sins…and their humble supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive them and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him Graciously to afford his blessings on the government of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole…to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.”

This is not a document of political federation.  None the less it is evidence that at some point a spiritual bond of unity had been forged, through a common allegiance to God.  It is not a mutual and direct unity, such as described in social contract theory.  Rather, the political community is brought about through a mediated and transcendental unity, with God replacing the British crown as the common fountain of sovereignty among the states.  Here a word of caution is in order, this theocentric unity did not establish a theonomic regime.  The “good People” recognized the sovereignty of God working through Providence, but they did not in any way replace secular law with a system of ecclesiastical courts.  On the contrary, such ecclesiastical courts as were already in existence were speedily abolished, at least in the paradigmatic state of Virginia.  In that regard the “good People” of 1777 were acting more like common sense products of the Enlightenment age than Puritans, albeit their “common sense” was more pious than that attributed to Thomas Paine.   But common sense and the fear of God were enough.  Enough to accomplish what the modern mind would deem an impossibility, forming a nation on a basis which is neither biological nor contractual, but spiritual.

 

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Dr. Savage and the case against Mass Madness

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 2, 2018

Lashing out against the latest lunacy

From its style and content one might suppose that Dr. Michael Savage wants rank-and-file left wingers to read his latest work Stop Mass Hysteria (Center Street, 2018) as a first step towards the restoration of their mental balance .  Of course they won’t.  You know that, and so do I, and the good doctor knows it as well as anyone.  Yet this is a timely book, and one which fully deserves to be bought, read to taters, passed on to a friend…or better yet, presented as a fresh copy to a “frenemy”.  Indeed, if it were a psychiatric prescription and not a broadside, the title would have shouted Stop Being Hysterical…At Least When You Are Out In Public!  The default title is a sad admission that we, the conservatives and right-leaning libertarians who must suffer the antics of the Left, will be the book’s likely readership.  Alas, what a waste if so, since the testimonies of numerous ex-Communists during the 20th century demonstrated that most of them were drawn into leftism for the most noble of reasons.  They were not “insane” at the onset, though driven so in the outcome. Thus rare are those who, now as then, can “walk away” from the hypnotic trance of ideological deception.  Savage knows the odds he is up against and it drives him to heroic frenzies, frenzies which on the surface might be described as…well…hysterical.    That being said, if self-disclosure is a good measure for separating moral indignation from madness, then Savage is notable in his willingness to bear his wounds in public.

“They [the left] cannot see or feel because their entire worldview is a hysterical tantrum…My own personal rage has been building since the first American flag was burned in protest during the Vietnam War.” (SMH p. 175)

Hence, laying aside the question of the good doctor’s sanity, we ought to at least hear him out, if only to see if he has found a panacea for the infantile disease of leftism.

As even Jesus said, “We danced with you and you would not dance, we cried with you and you would not cry.”  Likewise, the legendary Michael Savage who has battled the progressive mob for decades on air, occasionally resorts to reasoned book-length prose in hopes of getting a better hearing.  The books are not written in a vacuum, but are presented as an alternative answer to critics who won’t abide civil discourse while streaming on-line.  As Savage mentions,

“I believe in many [i.e., variously left to right] positions but I am not a strict ideologue.  If people have rational ideas, I want to hear them.  It’s what I do every weekday on the radio.  But it is almost universal that liberals who phone my radio show are hysterics who place the call to shout memes, spit bile, and depart–convincing no one and hearing nothing.”

Indeed, Savage isn’t some smug conservative intellectual dredged up from the not-so-golden Age of Buckley.  He is the son of an immigrant, and himself a refugee from the frying pan of progressive New York into the mad hippy heat of San Francisco.  Far from being the kind of purse-lipped traditionalist who would disavow knowledge of Beatlemania or Haight-Ashbury, Savage can rattle off a virtual people’s encylopeadia of factoids that have conveniently been dropped down the memory hole in recent decades.  For example, who was the editor of MAD magazine?  When did Americans start smoking marijuana, and why? Arcane digressions of this sort constitute both the marrow and the charm of Stop Mass Hysteria, which takes the form of an inventory of America’s flirtations with collective insanity.  These include, but are by no means limited to: The Salem With Trials, the Tea Party (original version), Reconstruction and Anti-Reconstruction riots, the Red Scare, Marijuana Madness, and the radical ’60.  Moderates will be glad to know, and conservatives forced to remember, that until recently hysteria was a solidly bi-partisan tradition.  Then something happened and it would seem as if the left acquired a coveted monopoly on mental derangement.  With some degree of success, Dr. Savage seeks to highlight this transformation, together with the clear and present danger it poses to the values he espouses, neatly summarized as national “borders, language, and culture.”  His conclusion, which is hard to avoid, is that the transvaluation of those three values, gets us nothing but the supreme anti-value: Chaos.  We probably don’t need Dr. Savage to inform us of that, but his entertaining narratives connect many obscure dots which, filling out the historical picture, should supply conservatives with a fresh magazine of  intellectual ammunition.

Is there a doctor in the house?

According to the standard narrative, American mass hysteria has typically been a knee-jerk response by outraged apostles of normality.  To a certain extent Dr. Savage is willing to go along with this legacy of center-left cultural criticism.   Yet, on at least one hysteria-invoking issue, Marijuana Madness, he sacrifices his San Francisco “old hippy” card by committing the gross heresy of condemning the  sacred weed itself.   According to Savage this is not willful deviation, but only a decent respect for facts.

“I have a doctorate in ethnobotany and I can tell you that crops have dramatically shaped civilization, whether through ensuring an adequate supply of food that allows people to settle in an area, or the cultivation of cash crops that open up commercial possibilities, or in the introduction of invasive speices of plants that can destroy an ecosystem.  In fact, there is evidence that past societies have used this idea as an early form of ‘special ops’ warfare.”(SMH p. 95)

On this basis he documents the increasing acceptance of marijuana as integral to the dumbing down of American minds. Here we have an instance where Savage’s understanding of science (pharmacology) trumps his libertarian impulses.  On this issue and others throughout the book he (correctly) attempts to transcend the deceptive left/right dualism by embedding his critique of political correctness and hysteria within the larger history of scapegoating and persecuting movements in America.

Scapegoats aren’t just people, but any hysterical object which can be focused on to limit empirical investigation into the actual causes of America’s social ills, ills in which the left is often complicit.  One compelling problem is the rise in school shootings, where the left is frantic to limit all discussion to the physical instruments of violence.  Any informed citizen might conjecture that the availability of guns are not necessarily the salient cause of increased school violence.  However Dr. Savage has additional credibility to state,

“If we examine the school shootings in America, in almost every case the deranged child was on antidepressant medications but inevitably it is swept away by the drug companies before we can recognize the perils.” (SMH p. 108)

Yet, for better or worse, the narrative format of Stop Mass Hysteria brings the good doctor up against a dilemma which is never resolved to complete satisfaction, at least in the eyes of this reader.  On the one hand Savage wants to highlight the exceptional badness of the new madness.  Yet on the other he wants to use his street cred as a tree-hugging, cetacean-loving, left-coaster to distinguish himself from the middle-brow National Review set.  So what are we to think?  Are today’s leftoid temper-tantrums  a harbinger of the apocalypse or just another iteration in the left/right dance of persecutor vs. persecuted?

This ambiguity isn’t what we would expect of a philosopher or a social scientist, but Dr. Savage, though writing in book-length format, remains a journalist at heart.  Even when he drops his journalistic persona to reveal some scholarly insight, it is only for technical corroboration of historical facts.  The reader will have to go elsewhere for a systematic treatment of “mass hysteria” or even a definition.  The closest we get to definitions are rhetorical statements intended to highlight the very insanity of the insanity itself.  For example, Savage notes how corporate self-censorship has increasingly come into line with the agenda of social justice warfare.

“If there is a chance that some consumer or some viewer may not like something, it gets jettisoned…fast.  No hearing, No due process.  Just a professional execution.  That is the very definition of hysteria.”  (SMH p. 270)

Of course, that is not a definition.  None the less it is a provocative statement, one which points to a larger problem than the phenomenon of “mass hysteria” considered in isolation.  Hysteria in itself is only the point of the spear, behind which lurks a coldly calculated agenda formulated by the minds behind the agitators.  Not to say that the phenomena labeled “hysteria” are without interest.  As a discredited medical diagnosis and as a synonym for the irrationality of crowds, hysteria has a checkered but fascinating history.  However Savage uses mass hysteria as a kind of portmanteau word for any current of social indignation, currents originating in such factories of half-baked ideas as illuminated salons and modern campuses, whose mental secretions only mutate into street violence during the final scene of the social tragedy.

Painting with such a broad brush, it is hard to see how the good doctor can execute his initial objective, which is to demonstrate the unique monstrosity of the contemporary left’s campaign to delegitimate the Trump administration.  Savage begins his volume with a thumbnail description of the Muller investigation as an official “witch hunt”  but, seized by the metaphor, quickly delves into the history of (alleged) real witches, Puritan divines, Cristobal Colon and other fascinations, signaling his resolution to be solidly historical rather than hysterical.    As a fisher of men, or rather a fisher of persons, and left-wing persons in particular, Savage ingratiates by casting his net as widely as possible.  However the exercise is in vain unless he has some way of closing the net, and can show that the dangerous deviation of the modern left is qualitatively distinct from the “normal” mass hysteria which, according to Savage, characterizes virtually all of American (a.k.a., USA) history.  Presumably, Dr. Savage intended Stop Mass Hysteria to be a definitive case against progressive praxis, and not just entertaining folklore.

Further, we can safely presume that the good doctor did not intend to bait the left into its favorite line of defense, which is ever to set up a false moral equivalence which voids the accusation.  Yet this peculiar combination of author and subject makes such a counterattack all but inevitable.  “After all,” the argument goes,” isn’t Michael Savage himself a notorious hysteric projecting his syndrome onto all those good people who are struggling to make this Earth a better world?”  Actually, there is a huge gap between an indignant talk show host and the sentiments of the mob, but knowing that isn’t a conclusive argument, it just makes you a fan.  What we need is an air-tight demonstration of that quality (whatever it might be) which separates the anger and frustration felt by conservatives from its hysterical counterpart on the left.  Indeed, we need that distinction fast, since the “progressive” in progressive hysteria is both a both an ideology and a prognosis.

Dr. Savage seems to understand that there is a need to divide the genera of mass hysteria into various species, but his taxonomy is somewhat opaque.  A significant fork in the road occurs when the narrative moves from Salem to Boston Harbor.  With the exception of a small number of conspiracy analysts such as James Perloff, most American historians have striven to explain how the Tea Party of 1773 was a riot-within-reason, and Dr. Savage pretty much falls into step with the consensus view.  Indeed, it becomes a singular type within his general paradigm of the good, or at least better, sort of hysteria.  As he explains this subtle distinction,

“There is significant difference between mass hysteria to achieve an outcome and and mass hysteria to change an outcome.  The witch burnings were the former.  Fueled by fear and prejudice, the fervor of the populace was renewed every time a new victim was arrested and brought to trial.” (SMH p. 111)

Presumably the persecution for the sake of persecution in Salem is being contrasted with the Boston riot, which was intended to deflect the imposition of the British tax.  Going berserk to deflect an undesired outcome seems to be a viable strategy in some cases.  After all, Prince Vlad (a.k.a. “Dracula”) managed to deflect a Mongol invasion by decimating his Wallachian subjects, thus convincing the invaders that he was dangerous, i.e., dangerously insane.  Effective, yes, and of course morally problematic.  Indeed, going insane for a good cause, perhaps better than anything else, shows the pitfalls of what philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe called “consequentialist” ethics, the notion that we can do anything we want as long as it makes the future a better place.  With that in mind, it might have been more lucid, or at least in line with libertarian nomenclature, if Dr. Savage had coined fresh terms like “aggressive hysteria” and “defensive hysteria” in place of struggling with the difference between that hysteria which achieves outcomes vs. that which changes outcomes.  But the good doctor may well have had his own motives for obscurity, realizing that, in the context of our victim-centered politics, any notion of “defensive hysteria” would surely uncap a Pandora’s box of bad theory and worse practice.

However Savage is writing historically, not topically, and thus can be excused from the making of air-tight definitions.  In accord with his anthropological background, he prefers the comparative method to deduction.  Following his bent, our author delights in giving his chapters double titles (“From Plymouth Rock to City Hall”, “From Treason to Tomorrow” etc.), which gives the book a kind of Plutarch’s Lives feeling, except with hysterical Americans standing in for heroic Greeks and Romans.   In this way, Savage attempts to illustrate how assorted ravings during different decades are nothing but outbreaks of the same virulent hysteria  which has seldom lain dormant for long in the American body politic.  The comparisons in themselves are instructive and entertaining, but they don’t produce any smoking gun to convict the contemporary left of unparalleled insanity.

None the less, it soon becomes clear that Savage is in a tacit agreement with his readers to show that, yes, the modern left is just as apocalyptic as your worst fears imagine.  This tacit agreement, though concealed by the the pairings of the chapter titles, is revealed by the ark of the narrative considered as a whole.  We are presumed to think that that there was a false turn in history when the left attained dominance within public institutions and has been rubbing our noses in it ever since.  Dr. Savage doesn’t isolate this precise turning point, but he chronicles the events which accompanied it in general.

Indeed this presumption of an axial period in modern American history rests on solid ground.  Whatever their differences, both mainstream historians and conspiracy analysts note that there was some sort of paradigm shift in the American governance system between the end of the Second World War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.  Here again Savage provides his characteristic interpretation of events, stretching the term “hysteria” to include the peculiar state of collective amnesia and scapegoating which accompanies and legitimates a change in regime.  French Postmodernist philosophers, with their penchant for jargon, call this an “epistemic rupture”, and the late Rene Girard, who was head and shoulders above that crowd, called it the “mimetic crisis.”  Our good doctor with his universal diagnosis of “mass hysteria” provides a rough and ready handle with which the uninitiated can grasp the enormity of events.  It all amounts to the same thing:  At some point in history, truth was inverted, the bodies were buried, and the trail was covered up.

Fortunately Savage has access to the actual events on which the false, but consensus, narrative is based.  Notably, with regard to the crucial battles between Senator Joe McCarthy and his opponents, he draws attention to the canonization of McCarthy as the archetype of a “Red Scare” hysteric in American political memory.  However, Savage goes on to put the matter within a broader context where the facts of history have been uncovered, but the effects of the initial lies have continued to radiate out and corrupt society.

“But there is one stubborn little fact that the Establishment glosses over and that the public, in the grip of this mass hysteria, isn’t curious about–McCarthy’s allegations were true.” (SMH p.220)  “Thus the official story was written, McCarthy was a vindictive bully who exaggerated communist influence and ruthlessly destroyed many innocent people.  Sixty-four years later, a generation of Americans who accept this mass hysteria about McCarthy as reality now believe socialism is superior to capitalism.” (ibid, p.221)

Here at last we have the makings of a distinction between fictional and actual hysteria.  Fear of actual dangers (falsely impugned as “hysteria”), in contrast to the hysterical twisting and denial of truth.

The flipping of McCarthy from hero to villain was an important milestone in the transit of “normal” America from center-right to center-left and points beyond, or rather, a change in those protean terms “left” and “right.”  The marginalized left of the early and mid-twentieth century, had some genuine empathy for victims.  Those were the lost times of the “bleeding heart liberals.”  Indeed, it was a time when calling a progressive a “liberal” was not a complete oxymoron, since there was still some ideological commonality between the left and its roots in classical liberalism, or libertarianism.  After the capture of the institutions, the left became normal, and like all who attain to power, the progressives turned from defending victims to victimizing their enemies.

The paradigm institution in this transition was the education system, and especially higher education.  Savage summarizes this as follows.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s that modern political madness gained its toehold in the United States, thanks to academia.  Professors who had been students in the Marxist-embracing 1960s now had tenure, and they wanted to use their status for power.  The question was how to do it without a Russian-style revolution–which indeed, many of them advocated.  What grew, like mushrooms in this intellectual darkness, was modern political madness.” (SMH p. 260)

Thus from the stigmatizing of conservatism after McCarthy, to the sixties, and on to the dissemination of radicalism as embodied in gender feminism, minority identity movements, and transgenderism, each wave retreating for a while but leaving “sleeper cells” of graduate students and younger faculty waiting for tenure, the Cultural Marxist flood came not as a deluge but as a rising tide which lifted its own ships as it submerged the old landmarks of Western civilization.

Play it again, Maimonides

With society-wide victory, and all the major institutions under its control, one would expect the left to be magnanimous, or at least sane.  That didn’t happen, and the fact that it didn’t happen is why Dr. Savage can sell us a title which rests on a tacit premise, i.e.,  Stop Mass Hysteriaand you know exactly who we mean!  In spite of the theory that Trump Derangement Syndrome was triggered by a uniquely bad man with orange hair, it should be clear to any reader of Dr. Savage’s work, or any number of similar works on recent political history, that hysteria is the left’s default response to any barricade erected against its agenda, regardless of who is manning that barricade.

My own pet theory is that the left hates Trump, not because he is a “right-winger” (whatever that might consist of) but precisely because Trump is a centrist.  If there had been a authentic conservative in the oval office, say, a President Cruz, then the left would have had its defensive positions validated, on, for example, abortion, LBGT rights, and so forth.  In lieu of a conservative the left was forced to depart, not only from its script, but from reality itself.  The “Donald Trump” of the left’s imagination is a bogeyman, constructed, if not quite out of whole cloth, then out of disconnected gossip and character flaws, which, though numerous and egregious are politically irrelevant.  Cognitive dissonance seems to be a price that the left is willing to pay for the optics of battling against the Great Orange Dragon.

Savage is not alone in referencing this latest stage of progressive mania, although he is unusual in framing it around the context of America’s hysterical past.   Other pundits have published similar hardbacks alerting American citizens to the dementia of the globalists and the progressives.   What sustains this cottage industry is not the prospect of “red pilling” their readership.  These readers are more like a constituency of those who have already been brought to enlightenment through other media, and are now looking for a lawyer’s brief to back up their opinions.  The hardbacks have become the fanzines of those willing to boost the reputation of their favorite journalists and talk show hosts.

In the context of this overcrowded cottage industry, is there any compelling reason to pick up Stop Mass Hysteria in preference to some other muckraking account of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, etc.?  Actually, yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the methodology Dr. Savage employs in his work.  Savage tries to do justice to both the psychology and history of American politics , but both of these approaches are flawed if taken up in isolation.  The real distinction of the Michael Savage books is that, in spite of their irascible author, they edify.   One comes away, not just hating (for example) Hillary Clinton, but loving America, with all of its flaws, all the more.  One becomes more of a mench.

This heart-warming experience is rather mysterious.  I ascribe it to the following, 1) Michael Savage believes in God, 2) the God of Michael Savage is a God who pushes his children into the shallow water before they get in too deep.  The real danger that libertarians and conservatives face today is that they will go “too deep” in their strategies for the defense of natural rights and the constitution.  We can win the battle against the globalists and their useful leftist idiots.  We can’t necessarily win the battle against UFOs or aliens, even if, or especially if, they turn out to be non-existent.

It might be best to take our clue from another good Jewish doctor, Moses Maimonides.  Maimonides would probably have been willing to eat a ham sandwich with Aristotle (anachronistically speaking) if that would have gotten the whole of humanity on board with the logical principles of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle.  Those three principles authored by a God otherwise unknown would have been enough for the two philosophers to converse in peace.  In the forum of public opinion we need just enough of God to guarantee public sanity, the rule of law, and the sanctity of contract.  Insisting on more than that is the beginning of trouble.  Interestingly, Michael Savage doesn’t talk much about God in Stop Mass Hysteria, but when he does it is in the unflattering context of fanaticism and hysteria, the bane of our adoptive puritan ancestors who steered the body politic too deep into the divisive waters of theology and occult speculation.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that supernatural phenomena which the puritan divines took for granted are unreal.  However the fact that such phenomena are not susceptible to experimental demonstration implies that they are also not suitable as judicial evidence.  In today’s counter-currents of independent social media journalism, a vast array of esoteric phenomena are constantly brought up for uncritical discussion.  This is the epistemological (not moral) equivalent of establishment-left hysteria on the part of the alternative media.  The basic error here is an increasingly popular assumption that simply being able to imagine an entity proves its existence.   Contrary to what the David Ikes of our world may think, what we need is not a richer demonology with which to unmask our enemies, but a stronger faith in the God who is on our side.  To take the former course is to wander endlessly in a Meinongian jungle, while the latter holds out the prospect of restoring a moral community, or at least a minimalist meta-community along Maimonidean lines.

Normally authors tout their most recent book as their best.  Not so Michael Savage, who refers us back to his previous work  God, Faith, and Reason as his personal favorite. There he shows us a God who is less minimal and more intimate, a God of the heart who instills good character.  This God can build up individuals even while communities are breaking down.  According to Savage there is a kind of transitive order which starts from God, moves on to the individual, and then finds fruition in the community.  In God, Faith, and Reason he notes,

“As I said in the beginning of this book, God does not do the heavy lifting for us.  It is up to us to find our connection to God and to do his will here.  I truly believe that my lifelong fight for our borders, language and culture is part of my mission.  As I’ve said many times, it is indisputable that I helped Trump get elected.  It’s equally indisputable that, as imperfect as he is, he represented the only chance to restore a free, just, and godly nation given the crossroads we were at last November [2016]”(p. 147)

While screaming agitators are the most obvious manifestation of the irrationality of progressive politics, the deeper madness lies in the cool headed theory that our world is nothing but solid bodies wandering through the icy vacuum of space.   Whatever one may think of either Michael Savage or his God, his is reason and purpose with a vengeance.  Or rather, reason with a higher purpose than mere vengeance.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Anthropology, Conspriacy Theory, Constitutionalism, culture, Culture & Politics, Law, Libertarianism, Media, Movies, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

A Song of Ascents: Some curmudgeonly criticism of the Southeast Students for Liberty Conference

Posted by nouspraktikon on October 5, 2018

Why is freedom good?

The regional Students for Liberty southwest regional conference was held on October 29th.  Being a fellow-traveler of all things libertarian I was pleased when a friend of mine told me he was scheduled to speak at the conference and I was invited to attend.  There are many things that might be said about SFL, both pro and con, but the salient issue on today’s campuses is the issue of freedom of speech and how to make an informational end-run around what has been dubbed “the Left University.”  SFL is one of a handful of organizations seeking to give college students a perspective which differs from that of the compulsory Left Classroom, and hence I deem it worthy of everyone’s support.

The alleged topic of the conference/seminar was “The problem of Authoritarianism.”  I have no idea why SFL picked that theme, but it was largely honored through avoidance.  Instead, another theme seemed to emerge spontaneously as the talks progressed.  It was briefly articulated by the philosopher who spoke mid-way through the conference: “Why is freedom good?”  Indeed, that is the nub of everything, is it not?

I suspect that I was the oldest person at the conference, and probably the only one who had the privilege of meeting such bygone freedom advocates as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio.   As such,  I was well positioned to play the role of the old curmudgeon bringing to bare all sorts of technicalities and arcane lore.  However, my better self realized that was unsporting, so I decided to join in the applause and stuff my carping criticism into these notes.  After all, the conference did what it did quite well, since, to put it in Biblical terms, there is “milk for babes” and there is “meat for the apostles.”  Now is the time to raise up children for the freedom movement, the business of ideological fine-tuning can be left to the apostles of the future…if there is to be a future.

Yet, to my surprise and delight, the talks seemed to mount a stairway of increasing significance and application.  Indeed, I felt myself riding on an intellectual escalator, at the top of which was the supreme answer to our question: “Why is freedom good?”  Of course this was just my personal perception, and each person’s mental escalation may be the moral deflation of someone else.  So let me give you a brief critical treatment of five speakers from the conference, and you may decide if you agree that the order of presentation was also an order of ascending significance.

The five presenters, each of whom represented a significant rung on the stairway to freedom, were in sequence: 1) an Advocate for Entreprenuership, 2) a Philosopher, 3) a Movement Leader, 4) a Libertarian Muslim, and finally 5) a Rogue Scholar.

 

The Advocate for Entrepreneurship

This presentation was the real milk for babes, and it was well done indeed.  Is there anyone who doesn’t realize that freedom, economic efficiency, and technological progress go together?  Unfortunately, yes, today’s youths, living within a cornucopia of technological wonders, are blocked from seeing the obvious connections between information and the free market through the interference of the Left Academy.  That’s why we need informal presentations to help people see the forest of capitalism from the trees of technical devices.  As the speaker noted, technological progress gets a spurt every time there is deregulation of an industry.  Today’s smart phone applications are an outcome of the unregulated environment of the 90s.  The Advocate did an excellent job of illustrating this with copious examples.  He was by far the most trend conscious and personable of the presenters, only occasionally slipping up with a reference to Taylor Swift, who apparently is now passe.

Nuf said!  After all, we all need to recognize that freedom promotes technology, the spread of information, and economic efficiency.  Well, except that, being the curmudgeon that I am,  I can’t help but peer around the corner of this tried-and-true thesis.  Is there no dark shadow behind the cheery gospel of technological optimism?  Are not command economies more efficient at generating instruments of destruction?  Not all technologies are benevolent.  What kind of technologies would we have today if the First and Second World Wars had never occurred?  In the absence of those cataclysms perhaps our technology today would resemble developments along the lines laid out by Tessla (the man, not the company)?  Instead we have a wide spectrum of technologies, some of them benevolent, but others highly problematic.  Just a thought…which I am tossing out like a monkey wrench into the wonderful but fragile works of the Randians and kindred humanistic utopians.

 

The Philosopher

The first job of a philosopher is to find the salient question in any venue and then pose it with clarity.  The fine representative of that profession who appeared at the SFL conference was able to articulate its basic theme: “Why is freedom good?”  He then proceeded to give what seemed like an exhaustive survey of all possible answers to the question.  He attempted to accomplish through analysis what I am trying to recap here synthetically.  Is there not a hierarchy of motives which impel us toward freedom, some of which are closer to wanting freedom for its own sake and some of which are only using freedom as an instrumentality for some other value which is considered the supreme end of life and action?  In short, the visiting philosopher seemed to be treating us to a “Critique of Pure Freedom.”  Fortunately his presentation was not quite as long or as frustrating as any of Kant’s critiques.

Again, the curmudgeon must make a confession.  I don’t particularly care for this kind of approach.  I’m sure that the visiting philosopher would have been miffed if I had labeled him as an “analytic philosopher”…since that moniker rightly belongs to the linguistic philosophers of the last century.  Rather, his philosophy, or rather his presentation was analytical in the sense that it came down to decision trees and processes of elimination.  If you are reading this and you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, that is understandable, since such a method is better shown graphically than discursively.   I consider that a weakness.   Its not that analysis doesn’t have its place.  The image of correct demonstration I have in mind is that of Kierkegaard using the ladder of reason to mount up to faith (or some primary axiom) and then throwing it down after having reached the summit.  To my mind, the visiting philosopher seemed overly attached to the ladder.

 

The Movement Leader

I am keeping people in this essay anonymous,  ostensibly to protect them from persecution.  To tell the truth, that’s mostly bullshit…I just have a bad memory and seem to have lost my notes.  None the less, there is some justification for the ostensible reason.  As they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.  Here I will outdo myself in subtlety and keep not only the speaker but his country of origin anonymous.  Actually, if you have a computer and the intelligence of a six year old child you should be able to find out the names of all the presenters in under three minutes, maximum.

Having said that, the next speaker was no mere scholar, but a front lines political activist from one of the most important nations of Latin America.  In the 1970s and 1980s this nation was the freest and most prosperous in the region.  Then something happened, and today it has become a brutal, impoverished, Marxist dictatorship.  Certainly this defies all logic, at least the utilitarian logic which states that people, having once tasted freedom, will never go back to slavery.  How is this possible?  Fortunately this speaker opened the floor to Q&A so that the attendees of the conference could probe him on this enigma.

According to the speaker, the key institution implicated in the downfall of his country was the military.  Although a “showcase of democracy” his country’s military retained the same privileged position which the armed forces of lesser developed Latin American nations occupied in their respective societies.  As the economy of the nation contracted after the oil boom of the 70s, the military contracted an unholy alliance with left wing politicians to retain its wealth and influence at the expense of other sectors of society.  I was not surprised at this analysis, but somewhat disappointed.  What, I wondered, about the influence of other sectors, notably the universities.  He said, yes, the universities were leftist, but the military factor outweighed all other sectors of the society.

He ended with an appeal for support, and an admonition that people in the United States maintain vigilance over their own freedoms.  He remained rather more sanguine about the prospects for freedom here than in Latin America, which is understandable given his perspective.  My own take away was that the notion of an irreversible evolution of freedom is part of the Hegelian, not the Classical Liberal, tradition.  For better or worse institutions need to be under constant repair and renewal in the face of the entropic forces of power lust and opportunism.

And again: “Is freedom good?”  This speaker did not directly address the question, taking it as a given.  However the context of his talk indicated a striving for societal good, a populist or democratic freedom rather than a libertarian ideology.  Freedom is good because it advances the well being of the nation.  It is well known that, until recently, libertarians had nothing but scorn for populism and nationalism.  However presented in the context of a Latin American country struggling against tyranny, one can more easily see that patriotism (in spite of its collectivist overtones) can be a potent adversary against the kind of left-wing nationalism which (paradoxically) is often in secret or not-so-secret alliance with the forces of globalism.  Perhaps for most people, freedom under an independent and limited national government is the most realistic goal on the historical horizon.  None the less, being a utilitarian construct, it falls short of the Holy Grail of libertarian theory…freedom for its own sake.

 

The Libertarian Muslim

Our penultimate speaker was that rarest of animals in the libertarian menagerie, a libertarian muslim.  Opening with a prayer, which I couldn’t follow well because of my extremely limited Arabic, he launched into his forceful and very articulate presentation.  Unfortunately it was pitched far above the heads of the audience, who were thinking of little other than “How in heck can you be a muslim and a libertarian?”  They had trouble getting beyond the messenger and into his message, a message which in itself was quite sophisticated.  I didn’t agree completely with his thesis, and it could have been challenged on its own premises, but so far as I could tell nobody else was in the mood or equipped for that kind of conversation.  This isn’t a dig at young people or college students, who I think gave the libertarian muslim a more courteous reception than he would have gotten among almost any other audience.  Of course I am discounting the two-faced reception of politically correct crowds, who would have smiled at the muslim in hopes of political alliance while secretly despising him for his belief in God.

However I relished the libertarian muslim’s talk as a survival, or perhaps revival, of a line in libertarian thinking which has long been dinned out by the clash of rival civilizations.  It is the same thread of reasoning which Rose Wilder Lane took up, only to be dropped by subsequent publicists.  This notion indicates that freedom is good because it advances the cause of civilization.  In this view, civilization is understood as a vast tapestry stretching, without significant breach, over the course of roughly the past five thousand years.  The term civilization therefore is twofold, having both a general and a specific meaning.  One the one hand there are specific civilizations, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, European etc., and on the other hand there is the cumulative civilization of humanity.  At critical points of juncture, the cumulative knowledge of the human species “jumps” from one regional civilization to another.

In tried and true Rose Wilder Lane fashion, the libertarian muslim was at pains to illustrate that the pedigree of rationalism, a key component of the freedom philosophy, was not indigenous to Europe, but rather jumped into Western Scholasticism from the “filosofia” of the muslim sages.  In truth, and in very truth, and not in lies, say I, this is pretty much correct.  The tradition of rationalism did indeed pass through a muslim (or at least Arabic) parenthesis from about the ninth to the twelfth centuries of the Western era.  I could quibble about a meta-civilization which absorbs all previous civilizations, but I won’t at this juncture.

Rather, the foremost question regarding the Lane thesis should be the relationship between reason and freedom.  Many philosophers who have claimed that their systems were the acme of rationalism have also claimed to be champions of freedom.  The prime example of such a philosopher, who’s claims are generally acknowledged by the Left but rejected by Classical Liberals is G. W. F. Hegel.  According to the Lane thesis, ibn-Rushd, (latinized as “Averroes”) is a kind of Hegel for Classical Liberals (a.k.a., contemporary conservatives and libertarians).  He was the bridge who transmitted reason from the Middle East to the Western World, thus becoming the middle term between Aristotle and Modernity.   This broader view of history eliminates any “dark ages” or rather localizes it in Europe.  Hence the light of reason never goes out, indeed, it never even flickers.  This view is comforting to those who seek to identify the progress of freedom with a putative uninterrupted progress of civilization.  Naturally, it is also very congenial to those who are either religiously or ethnically connected to the Middle East.  For the most part, the libertarian muslim’s presentation involved a restatement and elaboration of the Lane thesis, but this seems to have generally gone over the heads of those in attendance.

Although many other Middle Eastern luminaries can be thrown into this kind of discourse, ibn Rushd/Averroes (properly speaking an Andelusian, not a Middle Easterner) is the man to beat.  Unsurprisingly, nobody at the conference jumped into a technical discussion of Averroism…not even the philosopher, who I believe still remained in attendance.  If such an engagement had occurred, someone would have eventually broached the question of whether the rationalism of Averroes is indeed a philosophy of freedom.  Actually the metaphysical views of Averroes in relation to the human individual and freedom are highly problematic, and in many ways he is less a predecessor of John Locke (as per the Lane thesis) than the metaphysical collectivism of Teillard de Jarden.  Few people think of Teillard as a libertarian, in fact few think about him at all, they just hear about his system and say “gee wizz!”

In lieu of meaningful philosophical engagement, by the end of his talk the libertarian muslim was reduced to abandoning the philosophy of history entirely and switching to an impassioned cry for libertarian activism on the part of people from all faiths and factions.  Actually he didn’t advocate abandoning theory, only an obsession with redundant arguments over shopworn libertarian issues.  This is certainly a sensible admonition.  However there is also the troubling prospect of people forgetting or altering their fundamental principles in the heat of political conflict.  Certainly in today’s political hothouse, with its clash of civilizations and so-called “cultures” it is more difficult than ever to keep a rational head.  Meanwhile one must remember that rationality is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for “freedom” in the sense that libertarians use that term.

This is because “freedom” as it has come down through the Classical Liberal/Old Right/Libertarian tradition, e.g., through thinkers such as von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, means individual freedom.  In the system of Averroes, perhaps even more so than in the system of Hegel, “freedom” is an attribute of a collective organism which we would feign call by the reassuring name “civilization.”  While a sophisticated civilization may nurture individual freedom, excessive veneration of civilization and especially “a” civilization can be dangerous for liberty.  Furthermore, from any religious point of view (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc.)”civilization” construed as the supreme value of human life can be considered a form of idolatry, or at least an attempt to reduce the transcendence of God to immanence.

Bearing this in mind, it should be clear that Averroism and Islam have little in common, other than coexisting in the head of an individual philosopher who lived nine centuries ago.  How Ibn-Rushd reconcilled his “filosofia” and his faith, I don’t know and it is not my place to know.  Similarly, there is something paradoxical about a libertarian muslim, but the speaker at our conference acquitted himself with courage and clarity.  If he failed to impart a deeper understanding of “civilization” to his audience, at the very least he inspired them with a clarion call for libertarian activism and engagement.   Similar to being a movement leader in militarized Latin America, being a libertarian muslim is a tough row to hoe.  The speaker has obviously experienced persecution, and expects further challenges in the future.

 

The Rogue Scholar

There are Rhodes scholars and there are rogue scholars, and which kind you are inclined to trust says a lot about you.  The legendary Justin Raimondo, writing from his sick bed, is presently lamenting the fact that his organization never received any awards.  True.  The information and research organizations which got the awards, never spoke up and changed the consciousness, or afflicted the conscience of America like the Randolph Bourn Institute and its web presence, the antiwar.com.  As for the decorated and the endowed, it is written “They have their reward already.”

Likewise, the late Rene Girard, though amply recognized in the twilight of his life by a seat in the French Academy, never fit comfortably into the departmental cubbyholes of academia.  Expatriated from his native land and with no proper profession, he was seen variously as an itinerant literary critic, a sociologist, a psychologist, a philosopher, or an anthropologist.  If he had lived a hundred years earlier he probably could have founded his own discipline, but he lived in an era when Western thought had ossified into exclusive, jealous compartments.  He brought a form of wisdom to the study of human behavior which was at once new and yet discoverable in both the Bible and the corrupted witness of mythology.  It showed how the bond of society was forged through force of imitation, and yet how, at a critical point in each society’s foundation the bond turned into the blood of sacrifice.  He called this mimetic theory (MT for short) and it has become a growing undercurrent in the social sciences for the last few decades.

In Girard’s understanding, increasing convergence on a model for imitation creates the primary tension within societies, as they reach the point where individuals lose their individuality in the frantic search for identity with the model.  The tension is only relieved when the model is expelled (through exile or death) and demonized, relieving the jealousy in society and replacing the dynamic of imitation with the bonds of collective guilt in the aftermath of mutual conspiracy.  This is what Girard called the scapegoat mechanism, and he saw in it the basis of all societal transformation.

The Rogue Scholar stumbled, unfashionably late, into the conference.  It was not a promising beginning.  I asked him if he had a power point presentation prepared.

“No.”

I wondered how he would explain the subtle nuances of the Mimetic Triangle without graphic support.  It didn’t seem to bother him.  He strode up to the front of the hall with confidence and pulled out his sole prop, his cell phone.  Then he dialed a federal prison in the state of Illinois.

“Hello, can I speak to Craig Cesal?”

“Hi, it’s me!”

As it turned out, Craig Cesal was serving a life sentence without parole for a victimless crime.  According to the Rogue Scholar, Craig had been a garage mechanic occasionally repairing trucks destined for shipping marijuana across the US/Mexican border.  Apparently many of the big guys in the smuggling conspiracy had gotten off making pleas for lighter time, but Craig had neither clout nor information to bargain with.   When asked what the most bitter aspect of his existence was, Craig mentioned the fact that perpetrators of violent crime, up to and including murderers, routinely rotated through the system with five, ten, or fifteen year sentences, while he was stuck there for the rest of his life.

Craig was a scapegoat.

Instead of explaining what a scapegoat was, the Rogue Scholar gave us a heart rending example of how human societies, whether those societies are criminal or civil, routinely scapegoat individuals.  The session ended with a heartfelt appeal to support Craig and his family.  In the end, nobody felt that they had been deprived of a thorough explanation of Rene Girard’s theory.  The theory had actually become incarnate, through the witness of an incarcerated man.

 

Conclusion:  Why is freedom good?

Freedom is good for any number of reasons.  It grows technology and expands the economy.  It gives us more choices and let’s us choose our own ideologies, even if they happen to be inimical to freedom.  Free minds and free markets strengthen every nation which embrace them.  Finally, liberty gives meaning to the story of human civilization, which is, or at least ought to be, a record of freedom’s victories.

Yet ultimately, for the libertarian there is no such thing as civilization, or even the human species, apart from the individuals who comprise it.  Just as the cosmos has no existence apart from the brilliant stars of which it is composed, society has no meaning apart from the individual person.  The dignity and autonomy of the person, although subsisting in relation to other persons, should be the building block from which all social realities are constructed.  Yet historically we see that societies are built not through trade and coexistence, but through sacrifice.

It was Satan speaking through a human mouth who said, “It is expedient that one man’s life be taken lest the people perish.”   Yet the measure of meaning is the sanctity of the individual.  Freedom is good because it is an inalienable aspect of the person.  On the other hand, it makes good political sense to isolate a small group and use animus to increase the degree of social cohesion among the majority. By logical extension, the most efficient and economical way of attaining world unity would be to turn the universal hatred of the human race against one man.  Yet such a unity would be a toxic unity, based on bloody sacrifice.

In the end it is a choice between human sacrifice and the Tenth Commandment, the word against envy.  We must learn to live and let live.  And more than just coexist, we must tolerate the fact that some people will be happier than ourselves.  We must resist the urge to destroy them, in full knowledge that as long as they live, our own happiness will be inferior to theirs.  That is the bare minimum requirement for calling oneself a “libertarian.”  The opposite of a libertarian would be an egalitarian.  All egalitarianism ends in human sacrifice, i.e., in death.   As long as there is even one sacrifice, even one individual to whom the great rights (great because negative, not their positive counterfeits) of life, liberty, and property  are not granted, then that is not a free society.

Or as they say these days, “Where we go one, we go all!”

 

 

 

 

 

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American dark age: How did the Cold War Era change from history to politically correct mythology

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 18, 2018

Rightly dividing historical periods

Schopenhauer said that the world exists as our representation.  No where is this more true than in the field of history. Yet God has not shared with humanity His prerogative of creation-from-nothing rather, even in the world of fiction we are but sub-creators, building our worlds up from the elements of thought and language with which our Creator has endowed us.  Moving beyond fiction we come to history and journalism, where we may bring our narrative style to the table of fact, but we are forbidden to create fables.  None the less, the falsification of history by a sinful humanity is ubiquitous to the point that even the best  chronicles contain a great deal of myth.   Contrary to the expectations of the Enlightenment, this promiscuous myth-building has not been dispelled by the dawn of scientific historiography or the rise of quantitative methods in the social sciences.  Rather, increased sophistication of technique has led only to larger and more comprehensive myths.

As Jaques Elul would no doubt reminds us, we have long since passed through the ominous portals of the Propaganda Age and are now deep into its final, most degenerate stage. And was it not another Frenchman, Malbranch, who assured us,

Fear not that I will lead you into a strange country

Perchance I will teach you that you are a stranger in your own country

Alas, and passing strange would it be if this very America that we claim to know and love is little more than a tissue of myths held up for our mental adoration.   Yet that is the very claim of those who are generously denominated “the left”…those who have reduced the early history of Anglo-America to little more than caracature, a semi-comic tableau of Delaware crossings, cherry tree choppings, of log cabins and caps made from the fur of raccoons.  Against this bathos they juxtapose the high seriousness of critical history, with terse chronicles of minorities and women struggling for various quanta of equality along a variety of indicators.  In all this struggle between the comic and the tragic side of American history, the left fails to tell us that it is they, not conservatives, who are really teaching us only the expurgated and trite Classics, and that we are not supposed to raise any embarrassing questions about the origins of our actual social order, not quite the ominous “New World Order” but the socialized American order, one settling into a cantankerous middle age.

This is quite marvelous, since we are forever hearing that the left is the sworn enemy of Classicism, and champions of the raw, the real, and the contemporary.  Yet the truth is almost the exact opposite.  The left is loath to depart from the most ancient and shop worn narratives of early America.   It avoids talking about recent times, at least anything which is genuinely novel, except where it can find some narrative continuity with the corrupted remains of the ancients.  I know that this sounds paradoxical to the point of incredulity, but you will find that it is true if you can see history, and historiography, with new eyes.  The key to this paradox is simple.  The left only wants to talk about those periods of American history prior to the left’s complicity in establishing the present regime.  Everything after this establishment is taboo, while everything before the present regime is seen through a standard narrative, a new Classicism where America plays the same part that Rome did in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Finding a starting point

Dredging up facts is the herculean task of journalism, not history.  For history the great work is establishing the correct boundaries between eras which differ in their essential characteristics.  The standard narrative of American history has not been mythologized through the inclusion of false facts, plentiful as such errors might be.  Primarily, history has been mythologized because the boundary markers between different regimes have either been moved, or were never clearly demarcated to begin with.  It is the very chronological framework which has been tampered with, and false facts have only been introduced where they have been required to shore up a fictional framework.

The idea that there have been fundamentally different regimes operating underneath the legal and symbolic superstructure of American history, while hardly the staple of public school history, is a reality tacitly acknowledged by historians of various political ilks, all of whom can hardly be brushed away as eccentric or biased.  A good synoptic vision of America’s saga through tacit regime change can be found on the website (  http://www.friesian.com/presiden.htm#new ) of neo-Kantian philosopher Kelley Ross, where he refers to the First (1789-1860) Second (1861-1933) and Third (1934-present) Republics, which to any historically educated mind recalls the similar sounding, but standard, divisions of French political chronology.  Of course the reason this kind of division is non-standard for American history, reflects a situation where each of the “republics” in question did not, as in the case of France, originate through the public proclamation of a new constitution.

Admittedly,  the idea of constitutional emendation crops up during and immediately after the Civil War of 1861-1865, endowing the “Second Republic”with three amendments pertaining to slavery, citizenship, and civil rights.  Conversely, the onset of the third regime, dating from 1934, exhibits no explicit change whatsoever in the organic foundation of the American state.  The legal framework remains fundamentally the same as that promulgated in the Constitution of 1787, but the  interpretation and application of that framework is fitted to an entirely new understanding of governance and policy.  Therefore, this third change in regime was not so much a change in the laws as a transition from legal to post-legal norms of social governance.

Garet Garrett, journalist and political commentator, coined the phrase “revolution within the form” to describe the political transition beginning in 1934.  As per the above, the constitutional form was retained, giving all subsequent political life in America a duplicitous flavor, since there was, even at the level of ideas, a double standard of constitutional standards and policy goals, a duplicity qualitatively different from the corruption of moral and legal norms which characterize all political systems to one degree or another.  Unlike “corruption”, i.e., evasion of public morality, there were now two established but competing systems of public morality.

To Garet Garrett’s mind this “revolution within the form” was a veritable coup d’etat against the constitution.  However he was singularly unsuccessful in convincing his compatriots and contemporaries that a genuine regime change had been effected.  Hindsight has vindicated Garrett, but at the time there were a number of factors which rendered this regime change opaque.  I refer to factors other than the popularity of the New Deal, and that many felt it to be both a boon to the American people and in their own advantage.  Rather, those who opposed the New Deal rarely saw its revolutionary character.

There were a number of reasons for this, beginning with the relative ease with which the  New Deal revolution was commenced.  It seemed to be a revolution accomplished almost entirely without violence, commendable at first blush, but serving to desensitize the public to the magnitude of the changes which were being worked on the body politic.   Furthermore, the ways in which the new managerial state differed from a constitutional republic were obscure to the public.  It was not immediately apparent that the combination of legislative/judicial/executive functions within the “alphabet agencies” were at fundamental variance to the principles of classical liberalism and the separation of powers.

Change in parties vs. regime change

However the most important reason why the public was not alarmed at the occurrence of regime change in 20th century America was due to the conflation of two qualitatively different processes, change in parties within a parliamentary republic, and regime change.  The latter was made to look like an instance of the first, and more over, was dragged out  over such a long period of time that the process looked legitimate and moderate.

When we take a slice out of time and see party X (supposedly committed to ideology A) and party Y (supposedly committed to ideology B) iterate between themselves, it is electoral politics, in all its glory and/or shame.  However when we take two slices of time and see that, at time T1 party X was espousing ideology A and party Y advocating ideology A’, and at time T2 party X is now espousing ideology B and party Y is advocating ideology B’ we know that sometime between T1 and T2 regime change has occurred.   The problem is that it may be hard to locate the precise moment when this happened, since the process is likely to have been both covert and insidious.  Certainly this is what we see in the extra-constitutional evolution of the body politic in the United States.

Not for Americans the Gallic clarity of having a “Second Empire” or a “Third Republic”, or a historical deluge marked by barricades and clarion voices chanting the Marseilles.  Rather, it is as if we wanted to be tricked into our future, without either violence (commendable) or deliberation (lamentable).    Perhaps two theories, both inherited from perfidious Albion, explain this susceptibility to “revolution within the form”: Whig history and Darwinism, which are just the natural and political sides of one potent thought, both internally coherent and morally ambiguous, if not catastrophic.  For those convinced that change is both incremental and beneficial, there seems no compelling reason to set boundaries or limits to anything.  This is particularly obvious with regard to legislation, since continuously sitting legislatures guarantee that there will always be more statutes, not fewer, until the very notion of laws becomes too complex for the human mind and everything defaults to judicial fiat.  Hence there can be no such thing as regime change, even if moral day turns to immoral night, since all variations are points along a continuum.

The War Against Clarity

None the less, a good case can be made that the era of regime change, that is,change into the political system that we know and love (or love to loath) happened sometime early in what we call “the cold war.”  We might even accept the nomenclature of Dr. Ross and call ours a Third Republic, and yet dispute his identification of 1934 and the start of the New Deal with the start of a new regime.   During the 30s and 40s there was still an opposition to the New Deal, which maintained its status as a partisan ideology.  Only in the 1950s did the New Deal (as substance, not slogan) become the actual regime.  This is because the old Right, largely the Republican party, maintained its stance of opposition.  Granted the opposition was sporadic and not particularly effective.  However there was still some unknown quanta of potential energy stored up in the opposition, and the hopes and fears of those alive at the time were limited by the thought that the hammer would drop and the normality which had existed before the depression and the war would be restored.  After the election of Eisenhower the kinetic energy of this dream had been expended, and it quickly became apparent that bureaucratic centralism was the new normal.

The “Cold War” is in some sense a misnomer.  First if all, it contained within its ambit a number of very large-scale hot wars.  However it was also a kind of dark age, in the sense that it was a time of multiple contradictory narratives which entwined in such a way as to mutually invalidate one another.  Following upon WWII, the American people had gotten used to conditions of censorship in the media and the public square.  The half-light of a cold war prolonged the obscurity, and lowered public, and even Congressional, expectations of executive transparency.  Those elements of the left which remained embedded in the government continued their duplicity, which may be taken as a constant.  More salient was the failure of the conservatives at the time to understand the situation with any degree of clarity.  On the whole they seem to have been incensed by the threat of foreign operatives, and unwilling to see that there were flaws in the  body politic which automatically generated leftward drift.

It all depends on what you mean by “was” was

As Garet Garrett famously noted in the 50s that “the revolution was” and the republic of Lincoln had long since been supplanted by the social democracy of Roosevelt by the cold war.  Furthermore the social democracy and the national security state were essentially the same organism, continuing the apparatus used to fight the depression and WWII into the Truman years, and then normalized by Eisenhower.

The Old Right of the time was powerless to do much more than react with righteous indignation at the post-Constitutional character of the new order.  Part of this was due to a lack of developed economic and historical doctrines on a par with the seemingly sophisticated Marxist system.  Granted, a renaissance in conservative thinking was well underway, first popularized by the publication of F. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944.  However these findings, notably those of Austrian economics, were still ill-digested among conservative politicians and poorly propagated within society.  As a result conservatives gazed outward at the Soviet threat, and their program was easily confused with that of the national security bureaucracy.  Initially, these were two distinct tendencies, and only later would a political ideology arise (neoconservatism) where they merged.  Moral consistency and concern for the rule of law were largely restricted to anti-communist investigations, and even this was dampened down after the demise of McCarthy.

Hence Social Democracy had crept in over the objections of the Old Right, and even over the will of the American people to replace a Democratic administration with a Republican one.  However, if we can epitomize those Old Right objections according to the understanding of Garet Garrett, that “the revolution was” we are left with an enigmatic doctrine of history, one that is conspiratorial in the pejorative sense of the word.  This would be the notion that, through a ruse, the government had been cunningly usurped by social democrats in 1934.  That was the best historiography that most conservatives could muster in the 1950s.

Now that was certainly a true thesis as far as it went, it is just that it didn’t go back far enough, either in terms of chronology or causation.  In fact the Great Depression, long presumed to be the socio-economic Big Bang which necessitated the New Deal, in fact had antecedent causes in the policies followed by central bankers.  American central bankers were, in turn, creatures of the Federal Reserve Act (1913) which was in turn the outcome of a confluence of interests between the Trusts and the legislators of the Populist era.  Contrary to Garrett, this was an era in which both the constitutional form and the social substance changed.

So how many revolutions does that leave us with?  Well, following on the Civil War we have the Progressive era as our Third Republic.  Thus we must revise the scheme of Dr. Ross and rename the New Deal, and all subsequent to 1934, the “Fourth Republic.”  Nothing has really changed since then in terms of the extra-constitutional organization of the state.  The significance of the 1950s is that this was period in which reorganizations of America’s system of governance (not necessarily something sinister in itself) was surreptitiously and, as it were, retroactively codified into regime changes.

Propaganda, then and ever since

This metamorphosis of America’s history, from the story of constitutional development to the story of extra-constitutional evolution, is an artifact of the Propaganda Age, whose unstated goal is to remove from the population its capacity to rationally articulate the basis of the commonwealth in an objective social contract.  This inability has, as one of its major consequences, an incapacity to distinguish between licit behavior and criminality.  What then, is this “propaganda” this potent elixir which is deemed capable of thrusting civilizations back into a state of nature?

Ellul informs us that this vaunted “propaganda” is nothing more than “technique.”  Not all technique is propaganda, but all propaganda is technique.  Specifically, the technique of persuading populations to concerted opinion and action.  The replacement of contract with propaganda as the major bond of society is correlated with the replacement of principles by psychology.  We see the effects of this in the postmodern world with the increased emphasis on feelings at the expense of facts, particularly in educational contexts.

However this is only the consequence, of which propaganda is the cause.  The early 21st century is no more propaganda-driven than were the 1950s, at which time the process had already attained full-throttle.  The cold warriors found themselves in the middle of this syndrome, and not just on account of the bitter American-Soviet rivalry.  Due to the perceived necessity of bureaucracies to protect themselves and the ongoing alarms of perpetual war, information restriction and manipulation became normalized, with consequences too far ranging to be mentioned in a short essay.

Here I only note that the most important consequence of this fostered ignorance was the retrospective understanding of America’s history itself, which ceased to be the clear outline of a constitutional republic, but the narrative of a democracy in which the popular will was constantly engaged in social metamorphosis.  From a progressive point of view this is a good thing, and of course we are not arguing about that here, since there can be no dispute over first principles.  However what can be stated without argument is that the normalization of this “progressive” viewpoint was attained through propaganda, or the substitution of objective cognition by emotional manipulation.  Clarity was the first casualty.

Political Mythos or Political Logos: The Ultimate Significance

If the principle of the rule of law is to have any meaning then the operations of government must be deduced, if not to philosophical premises, then at least to an original law-establishing covenant.  There must be an unbreached historical and legislative continuity from the moment of the covenant to the present moment of application.  If we focus on the moment of the covenant, through promulgation or revelation, the regime in question has a revolutionary legitimacy.  If we focus on the transmission, through time and legal deduction, then the regime has a traditional legitimacy.  Actually, revolutionary and traditional legitimacy are two sides of the same coin.  One might even venture that it doesn’t matter so much if the American regime was established in 1776, or 1787, or 1865, or 1913, or 1934, provided we can all agree on a starting point and then deduce the proper moral, judicial, and legislative applications for the present.

However this rational model of statecraft has ceased to be salient ever since we have entered into the Age of Propaganda.  Propaganda is not concerned with truth but with the power of information, be it true or false information, to control the commanding heights of society.  Hence in order to establish a propaganda regime it is necessary to obstruct any logical regression of current policy back to first principles.  Is it not fairly clear that something like this has been going on in America ever since the middle of the twentieth century?  Moreover this was not the predetermined outcome of technological development, but a consequence of the government’s vastly increased responsibility over welfare and warfare, responsibilities which required control over both the dissemination and restriction of information.

This is why even people who enjoy the study of American history are inclined to skip over the cold war.  It is, by very definition, a period of collective “black out” after which the body politic wakes up in a strange bed, forced to reorient and go on as well as possible.  The way back to any possible Age of Reason is blocked by multiple taboos, “McCarthyism” and whatnot, guarding the  historical rupture with all the assiduity of cherubs policing the portals of Eden.

Of course there are those, including Ellul himself, who suppose the  political Age of Reason, to be itself a myth.  Ellul bases his view on an argument that both reason and propaganda are the morally indifferent contraries of grace.  However this is theological meat too gristly for the children’s table, and since here we are dealing with simpletons, politicians and policies, I will leave the topic for future discussion.  Rather, let us suppose that it is better to persuade people with reason than to manipulate their desires.  Let us suppose that while Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx were equally sinners there was a significant difference in their policies.  Let us suppose that there is a logos, a fundamental sense of justice, or what C.S.Lewis called a “tao” innate in natural humanity which, while but the shadow of grace, still merits consideration and preservation.

On the basis of such principles, however endangered, conservatives and libertarians may go back and declare that the “revolutions” of 1913 and 1934 were deviations from correct constitutional practice, and anticipate a future restoration.  To that end it is imperative for historical investigators to penetrate the dense ideological, policy, and social fog of the cold war era, in the prospect of finding a genuine logos behind the standard mythos.

 

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“The greatest book since the Bible”: M. Stanton Evans and the vindication of Joe McCarthy

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 13, 2018

The best book since the Bible, kinda…

Alright, there are some serious competitors for that title, even if we limit ourselves to books on the cold war era.  Notably, Witness by Whittaker Chambers is a more literary, though less learned, revelation.   Yet beyond the hyperbole (courtesy of Miss Coulter) there lies a kernel of truth, or at least an application of the marginal utility theorem.   Unless you have, Blacklisted by History: The untold story of Joe McCarthy is the most important book that you have not yet read on American politics.  Indeed, it bears some faint likeness to the Bible, in that it centers around a resurrection, albeit in this case the resurrected reputation of a man who has been damned repeatedly by the Pharisaic court of American establishment history.  Like a Biblical epic, this damnation of Joe McCarthy transcends the fate of any particular man, however laden with interesting vices or admirable virtues.  Rather, this verdict has shaped the moral and legal precedents which have become the rotting core of modern America’s extra-constitutional political framework.  McCarthy and so-called “McCarthyism” (a term which is taken as synonymous with “witch-hunting”) have become the bywords and shibboleths of partisan conflict within our body politic, entailing the suppression of ideological meaning and accountability.

Indeed, the very contours of American history since WWII have been distorted through the astigmatic lens of Anti-McCarthyism, a standard narrative by which we presume to distinguish not just right from wrong, but left from right.  Yet, what if the standard narrative were itself wrong?  What if, instead of an ogre, Senator Joe McCarthy were a mid-20th century Paul Revere, cruelly shot off his horse while attempting to warn his fellow citizens of a stealth attack on their freedom and fortunes?   What if the opprobrium of  “McCarthyism” were a better characterization of the malicious and deceitful tactics of those who sought to thwart McCarthy’s investigation and subsequently endeavored, with near total success, to destroy his reputation?  If we are to believe M. Stanford Evans (1934-2015) the answer to all these questions is in the affirmative.  Moreover this is not just an impassioned cry by the late Evans, who as a libertarian and anti-communist might be expected to favor “tail gunner Joe”, but a measured verdict drawn from the vast amount of relevant empirical evidence which had become available by the time he started doing research for Blacklisted by History (2007).  This work stands at the apex of Evans’ long labors in the field of American political history, during which he was able to sift and reassess much of standard cold war narrative.

The currently available evidence, together with Evans’ skillful unraveling of the historical incidents which impacted McCarthy’s investigations, has newly empowered the pro-McCarthy narrative.  Yet even today, or rather especially today, truth telling is not a safe occupation.  Perhaps some future Oswald Spengler will pronounce the first half of the 1950s and the last half of the 2010s as the upper and lower harmonics of the same historical chord, or discord.  Evans termed the McCarthy story “the third rail” of cold war history, containing dangerous truths which, once grasped, might prove fatal to apprentice historians who long to stay respectable, employable, and keep up relations with polite society.   Fortunately Evans had the courage to grab the story and explore it with solid documentation and readable prose.  Hence today in the Trump era, as we labor under corresponding tales of deceit and betrayal, we can at last draw on the analogous events of a highly relevant historical period for our intellectual ammunition.  In the long run, Americans and all humanity have a vested interest in the vindication of truth, however distasteful such revelations may prove to be.  Where such revelation is rendered impossible, factions will be reduced to those modes of conflict resolution where the ammunition has ceased to be intellectual.

Context not pretext

Much of the value, and readability, of Blacklisted by History stems from the late Evans’ patient work as a re-educator, explaining the forgotten historical context of the cold war era, without which we can hardly form an intelligent judgement on its politics and policies.  The fact is, regardless of political opinion, that era, though within living memory, has become a persistent blind spot for the American public.  There are two reasons for this historical amnesia, the first being the conspiratorial motives of those who want the whole period either distorted or dropped down the proverbial memory hole.  However the public’s understandable distaste for an ugly era is perhaps an even greater factor.  American history nerds who can rattle off the precise number of musket balls embedded in the soil of Gettysburg are likely to profess astonishment on learning there were Soviet moles embedded  in Washington just sixty years ago…not to mention before or since.    As Evans notes, the fruit of this ignorance (whether willful or on account of deception) often leads to ridiculous error, like the popular image of Senator McCarthy chairing the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).   After all, you may not like the Electoral College, but you can hardly abolish bicameralism, at least not retroactively.

Evans begins by recounting the historical background which gave both meaning and impetus to McCarthy’s political mission.  Prior to some indefinable tipping point, possibly as early as the German defeat at Stalingrad, the synergy of the Soviet-American military alliance was nudging the two societies in the direction of an insidious moral convergence.  One concrete manifestation of this was the participation (at the time not considered infiltration) of Communists in the intelligence and foreign services of the United States.  Evans notes that it would have been miraculous if there had been no Communist personnel in key governmental positions, given the political dynamics of the period.  However all this changed with the onset of the cold war, after which Communist staffers were considered, quite rightly, to be a security risk.  During the immediate post-war period two broad developments occurred which were to have significant impact on the subsequent “McCarthy era” of 1950-1954.  First there were a series of preliminary investigations which identified, and presumably routed out, known Communists working for the American government.  Second, there was a changing of the old guard in the diplomatic and intelligence services, with stodgy conservatives being replaced by younger, more progressive, officials.  The new guard included such rising luminaries as Dean Achenson.  These two developments (the termination of the early investigations, and the rise of the new guard) would prove to be somewhat more than coincidental.

Two years after these preliminary investigations had been concluded, Senator Joe McCarthy raised the question of whether Communists were still being employed in sensitive government positions, issuing his challenge at first in a speech given in on February 9, 1950 in Wheeling West Virginia.  Clearly, the salient assumption in McCarthy’s mind was that the preliminary investigations had somehow been stalled, and the work which had commenced with great earnestness had at some point been broken off and left incomplete.  It is equally clear that, for whatever reason, certain people in the State Department and other agencies of the government didn’t want the issue of Communists working in the government reopened in public fora and, from the moment that McCarthy began speaking out, launched efforts to discredit his claims.  For the next several years a titanic battle waged over security and espionage in the Congress, the courts, and the media.  During these conflicts “tail gunner Joe” won some and lost some, but in the end was forced to retire from the field of battle in disgrace.  For several subsequent decades the moral credibility of Joseph McCarthy was generally ranked on a par with the divines of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the aftermath of the Salem witch trials.

However during these same decades, new archives and records have been made available to researchers such as Evans, frequently containing evidence which have compromised the exculpatory claims of McCarthy’s opponents.  Foremost among these are the Venona documents.  These are deciphered messages from the correspondence between Soviet intelligence headquarters (predecessor agencies of the KGB) and its operatives.  Actually cracked early in the cold war, this data could not be released during the “McCarthy era” for the same reason that the Enigma machine decodes could not be revealed until the Axis powers were defeated.  The personae mentioned in Venona bear a damning resemblance, not just to such celebrated Soviet assets as Alger Hiss and Robert Oppenheimer, but to many lesser targets of McCarthy’s investigations.  Apart from, and corroborating Venona, were piles of documents made available after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Last but not least were the dribs and drabs of documentary evidence released by the FBI and other alphabet agencies of the American government after their various statutory periods of sequestration had expired.   From these sources and others (i.e., retrospective witnesses and confessions) a very different image of the “McCarthy era” has emerged, and it is from these that Evans has assembled the most through vindication to date of the much maligned senator.

Manufacturing “McCarthyism”

At the beginning of the 1950s the Democratic party was still in control of Congress, and in response to the allegations which McCarthy had been making since the Wheeling speech, a select sub-committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was empaneled  to examine the possibility of security risks lurking in government employ.  The chair of this sub-committee was Millard Tydings (Dem-Maryland) who from the outset of the proceedings assumed an adversarial stance towards McCarthy and his claims.  Rather than pursuing the question of whether there were in fact Communists and Soviet infiltrators embedded within the State Department and related agencies, Tydings focused on McCarthy himself, faulting him for reopening cases which had already been disposed of by previous committees.

Tyding’s overall strategy was to portray McCarthy as a hothead and a dissembling researcher who had failed to turn up any new evidence since the previous investigation of security risks at  State.  That previous investigation, conducted  in the late 40s, had managed to generate a list of persons considered security risks, called the “Lee list” after the clerk responsible for assembling eighty or so cases.  This was a masked compilation of data in which the persons described were designated by numbers rather than names, preserving their privacy.  Tyding’s initial strategy was to trivialize McCarthy’s claims by insinuating no new research had actually been added to the Lee list by McCarthy and his staff.  Since names were not mentioned at the outset, identifying how many security risks McCarthy had uncovered, rather than who they are, became the focus of inquiry.  This derailed the hearing into a ludicrous debate on the number of people under investigation, with Tydings and his allies focusing exclusively on the number (was it 57 or 81 or 108, or did it keep changing?) rather than the substance, of the charges.  All of this, of course, for the purpose of making McCarthy look like a fool who couldn’t even keep the accurate number of cases straight in his head.  The possibility that there were still active Communist cells operating in government employ took a back seat to debates over McCarthy’s competence and character.

As bad as such misdirection might be, as Mr. Evans reveals, there was worse to come.  Today our politically correct language virtually equates “McCarthyism” with slander.  Yet Senator McCarthy’s initial intention was to preserve the anonymity of his cases to avoid any stigma being attached to possibly (though unlikely) innocent individuals.  However, with  the validity of McCarthy’s research in question, Senator Tydings pressed him to reveal the identities behind the cases, presumably in order find out if new and ongoing security risks had been uncovered, or if McCarthy was just trying to ride to glory on the back of the now stale Lee list.  Evans, with the benefit of historical retrospect, informs us that McCarthy had indeed uncovered a significant number of new cases and data, and furthermore that many persons initially placed on the Lee list were still in government service.  However, at that time, McCarty was under tremendous pressure from Tydings, and consented to release the names at the outset of the investigation, proving that there were indeed real persons connected with the suspicious, but hitherto anonymous, case histories.  Thus McCarthy evaded the ridicule of conducting a snark hunt only by putting his investigation in danger of being called a witch hunt.

Hence, as Evans painfully demonstrates, the cruel Inspector-Javert-like persecution which we wrongly denominate “McCarthyism” was initiated by this unmaking of identities upon the insistence of Tydings and his allies on the sub-committee.   Indeed, if our language accurately memorialized historical realities, we would be calling this kind of hounding “Tydings-ism”!  The procedure adopted by Tydings was that of slandering the innocent (McCarthy himself) or one might say “McCarthying” (here the term is apt!) his opponent.  However in terms of outcomes, this Tydings-ism, rather than convicting the innocent, protected the guilty.  Even unmasked, the targets of McCarthy’s accusations were generally able to deny the charges, either through skillful evasion or invoking the Fifth amendment clause prohibiting self-incrimination.  In the meanwhile many of them continued to work in their government positions.  In hindsight, the Venona transcripts and  other corroborating evidence indicates that many, if not most, of these were Soviet agents.   To maintain that no innocents were convicted at the time is not to say that, as a result of the miscarried proceedings, great and incalculable harm was not done to many innocents, however indirectly.

Truman or Truth?

Hence Tydings and his allies nearly succeeded in obscuring the actual security issues involved, deflecting the investigation with procedural, technical, and ad hominim  material which resulted in a committee report which largely exculpated the targets of McCarthy’s investigations.  Evans notes that this report (and others of a similar nature) was written by a then-anonymous staffer at the behest of Tydings, and its unequivocal findings did not accurately reflect the give-and-take of the bipartisan sub-committee.  So ended the first “round” in the McCarthy era battles.  Tydings was soon to get his comeuppance  when he lost a bid for reelection to his Maryland seat.  Yet during the process of the Senate investigation a broad range of institutional actors had been brought into play, ostensibly to cooperate with, but more often to hinder, McCarthy’s investigations.   These included Truman’s White House and the State Department.  The FBI, then under J. Edgar Hoover, was savvy to the truth of McCarthy’s claim that espionage within the government had managed to survive the investigations which had generated the Lee list a few years earlier.  However the FBI was largely sidelined due to its subordination within the executive branch teamed with an often adversarial legislative branch.

Indeed, with so many (and such opaque!) agencies, actors, cases and claims involved, the McCarthy era is difficult to resolve into a simple narrative.  Thus the unbiased but superficial observer of the era is likely to turn away, citing the tangle as an excuse for moral indecision.  However Evans copes with the complexity by taking up each cluster of actions, organizations, individuals and outcomes separately, weaving each thread into a loose chronological order.  It is the task of the reader to keep this overall chronology in mind, as each strand of narrative weaves into and reinforces the other.  The end result is a unity and a vindication.  Not necessarily a vindication of McCarthy the man so much as of the essential rightness of his cause.

Many of the narrative strands which Evans picks up for the edification of today’s reader concern well recognized institutions and personalities of the WWII and cold war eras which have since dropped below the horizon of public recollection.  Outstanding in this regard was the notorious Institute for Pacific Relations (IPR) and its associated journal Amerasia. both of which operated as poorly disguised Communist fronts.  This is one of the major strands woven back and forth within the chronological framework of Blacklisted by History, in such a way as to illustrate the intimate connection between blatant Communist propaganda and the manipulation of American foreign policy during the 1940s.  The often cited (by Evans) Amerasia case is a good example of the kind of evidence which should have been common knowledge among McCarthy’s contemporaries, as opposed to the kind of evidence (like Venona) which we are only privy to in historical retrospect.  Thus, while we are on firmer grounds today than ever before in validating McCarthy’s claims, those claims ought not to have initially outraged his contemporaries since they were made against the background of, and links to, cases of betrayal and infiltration which had already received public censure.  Rather, any skeptical reception of McCarthy’s claims about ongoing espionage and sedition within the government had less to do with the plausibility of the cases, than with obstruction by gate-keepers who both withheld information from the investigations and harbored their targets from any severe sanctions.

This obstruction took a number of forms during the period of the Tydings investigation.  First of all, under Truman, a doctrine of executive privilege had been promulgated, which placed severe restrictions on the ability of Congress to subpoena documents from executive departments without the authorization of the President.  For those of us who interpret the Constitution as a document establishing the supremacy of the Congress, this seems like an odd practice.  None the less, under ongoing conditions of war (both cold and hot) the American people and Congress itself have long acquiesced to executive prerogatives which seem contrary to constitutional principles.  In this instance, as detailed by Evans, background dossiers on the subjects of  McCarthy’s investigations were either embargoed or delayed by the State Department, which pleaded the necessity of authorization by the Truman White House, a Democratic administration which was in no rush to grant any such authorization.

Another way in which the Truman administration ran interference to McCarthy, albeit in place prior to the Tydings hearings, was through the institution of an in-house loyalty system which seemed to obviate the necessity of any outside audit of executive personnel.  As Evans documents, both the Congressional interviews with suspect officials and, presumably, the in-house loyalty system, were based on the honor system.   A denial that one were a subversive or the agent of a foreign power was always taken at face value by Tydings, the majority report, and the Truman administration itself.

McCarthy agonistes

None the less, in spite of vigorous opposition on the part of a Democratic establishment, McCarthy was able to raise public awareness of the espionage threat.  One by one, the more egregious cases on McCarthy’s list were exposed and turned out of the government.  Of course, the anti-communist momentum in Congress and the country wasn’t an exclusive result of McCarthy’s efforts.  Alger Hiss, the biggest fish in the barrel, had been brought down by the testimony of Whittaker Chambers with the support of a young Senator from California, Richard Nixon.  In those days Nixon was still a hero, and his time of demonization was still far in the future, but McCarthy’s nemesis was much closer at hand.  Initially McCarthy benefited from the common front among Republicans, then operating as a minority.  Thus even future enemies such as liberal Republican senator H. Cabot Lodge were in momentary alliance with McCarthy during the Tydings period.

This was all to change when the Democrats were swept out of power in 1953.  With the 83rd Congress, the Republicans were in the (what would seem) enviable position of having captured the Presidency as well as both branches of Congress.  Yet with hindsight the historically informed know that this will be McCarthy’s apogee, and his doom is near, irrespective of our sympathies and whether we focus on the hubris of the man or the nemesis of his enemies.  Yet, while Evans prepares us for this fall from grace by titling one of his chapters “The Perils of Power” it would seem that McCarthy handled the temptations of power about as well as anyone could.  It was during this time that the junior Senator from Wisconsin, still a relative rookie, got his chance to chair the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI).  Obviously this was a prize bully pulpit, apart from any implication that the man who filled it was a bully.  Again, Evans informs us that our current state of illumination has benefited from the unsealing of the Senate’s own records, which for fifty years had shielded confidential and security-related testimony.  Out of this mass of data Evans has extracted a picture of McCarthy completely at variance with the prejudicial stereotype.  Unchained and in charge of his own subcommittee, McCarthy was, if not quite a perfect gentleman, “politic” in the mannered sense of the word.   More fundamentally, due process and confidentiality seem to have been upheld in the PSI hearings. As Evans explains it,

Another salient rule of the McCarthy hearings was the rule that no one should be named as a Communist or a pro-Communist or subversive unless the person named was given notice and opportunity to respond directly–though there were exceptions when another witness would do such naming on an impromptu basis.  McCarthy repeatedly admonished people testifying not to use the names of those they were accusing until these conditions could be met with.  One result of this procedure was a series of face-to-face encounters in which accusers and accused were brought together in dramatic fashion.  Blacklisted by History p. 457

Apart from the success or otherwise of the PSI at the start Eisenhower era, at this juncture the bitter divisions between ideological and establishment Republicans were starting to manifest themselves publicly.   In part this was a reaction to McCarthy’s activities, and would soon would lead to dire complications for the crusading senator.  Furthermore, a dedicated anti-McCarthy cabal was growing in numbers and sophistication, with the senatorial cudgel taken up by the newly elected  Benton of New York after the defeat of Tydings.  With the Democratic recapture of the 84th Congress, Benton was able to launch his own counter-investigation of McCarthy.  This counter-investigation did not restrict itself to the refutation of anti-communist claims, but began to burrow deeply into McCarthy’s private affairs and character.  Brick by defaming brick, the towering mythology of “McCarthyism” was being patiently constructed by the enemies of McCarthy.

Diverging legends of demonization and sanctification

A surprising plus for McCarthy, albeit one which failed to save him in the long run, was his capacity for genuine bipartisanship.  As an anti-Communist first and a Republican second, he welcomed allies wherever they could be found, and find them he did.  There is nothing more shocking to modern political sensibilities than to discover that the Kennedys, Democrats to the core, were ardent supporters of tail gunner Joe in his heyday.  Undoubtedly, today’s identity-obsessed left would dismiss this as no more than Irishmen scratching each others backs.  Yet, in those days  there were plenty of Irishmen in politics, but not so many political philosophers, let alone potential martyrs.  There appears to have been some zealous affinity at work here, especially between McCarthy and the solidly anti-Communist Robert F. Kennedy.

To Evans’ credit, the Kennedy connection isn’t used as a magical vindication of McCarthy.  Tail gunner Joe’s reputation must stand or fall on the basis of whether his investigations were honest and beneficial to the republic, not on the borrowed glamor of charismatic associations.  Regrettably, any excursion into Kennedy lore entails a certain amount of tabloid voyeurism, but Evans keeps this to the minimum, focusing on the unavoidable intra-staff jealousies which played a subsidiary role in derailing McCarthy’s career.   More importantly, the point in history when McCarthy-saffer RFK was striving (unsuccessfully) to be McCarthy’s right-hand man, was still an age of aspiring ideologists.  Later, as America ripened into an age of propaganda, principles would become less important than personalities, and a steamy mysticism would envelop chosen political bloodlines.  Evans draws our attention the disturbing power of this myth-making, which took as its substance two zealous co-workers in the garden of justice, Robert Kennedy and Joe McCarthy, molding them into opposing icons of good and evil.

To schematize a story which Evans tells in satisfying detail, the political chessboard as it was arrayed at the onset of the Eisenhower era was roughly as follows,

Pro-McCarthy: old right Republicans (Taft etc.), the Kennedys and a few other anti-communist Democrats, some regional press, Hoover’s FBI, conservative groups

Anti-McCarthy: liberal Republicans (H. Cabot Lodge etc.), most Democrats, most Ike staffers, State Department, other bureaus of the federal government, national press (New York Times, etc.), left wing press and organizations

As the battle lines were drawn with increasing precision, the tendency was for individuals and groups to defect from the pro-McCarthy camp, and for previously uncommitted groups to opt in favor of the anti-McCarthy front.  Notably, certain persons connected to the armed services, which at the beginning were not affected by McCarthy’s crusade, became increasingly critical of him as his investigation broadened into areas the military considered its own.

McCarthy’s “Waterloo”

Regarding his taking on of the Army, there might be some, however sympathetic, who would claim McCarthy’s crusade went a bridge too far.  Yet as Evans points out “Army-McCarthy” taken as terms of opposition, is a misnomer.  In the wake of security concerns being brought to the attention of McCarthy’s committee, he authorized an investigation of the huge Signal Corps facility at Monmouth NJ.  Initially things went smoothly in cooperation with on-site Army personnel, who were generally enthusiastic about the senator’s support of their own internal security investigations.  However  McCarthy quickly  ran afoul of a supervening bureaucratic apparatus charged with monitoring loyalty within Monmouth and other facilities.   As soon as the commandant of the Monmouth facility was blackballed for cooperating with McCarthy, the commander of the next base under investigation suddenly became uncommunicative.  Apparently some network operating within the Eisenhower administration was running interference.   The next obvious step would have been to ferret out and identify the higher ups who were shielding the Monmouth moles.  This was never done.  Not, to be sure, for want of trying on McCarthy’s part.

A number of factors contributed to this inability.  Foremost among these was the penchant of his  enemies for countering investigations by McCarthy with investigations of McCarthy and/or his staff.  Evans enumerates a minimum of five separate instances where hostile inquiries were instituted against McCarthy 1) the Ad hominum attacks which diverted the Tydings probe,  2) hearings by Benton (pinch-hitting as chief nemesis post-Tydings) on allegations that McCarthy’s allies had influenced Tydings’ electoral defeat, esp. concerning one particular libelous image (what we would today call a “meme”) , 3) a spin-off of the same hearing which made a lengthy foray into McCarthy’s personal finances, 4) the Army-McCarthy hearings, 5) hearings by Sen. Watson (R. Utah) on McCarthy’s misconduct on 47 counts which resulted in censure on 2 counts.

Of these, the most formidable sounding are the Army-McCarthy hearings.  However as Evans tells the tale, it smacks of harassment (by unknown somebodies) of McCarthy’s staff.  G. David Schine, a youthful staffer, was suddenly called up for military service.  This sounds cruel by the sensibilities of any era post-Vietnam,  but even by the compulsory standards of that time it was a fishy move.   People working in sensitive positions (like congressional security investigations) were frequently granted draft deferments.  Furthermore, as the skeptical Evans is quick to point out, nefarious bigwigs such as the youthful Alger Hiss had been exempted from conscription during WWII, enabling them to do their country (dis-) service in other fields.  Thus the staffer’s drafting smacked of a gambit in which a McCarthy pawn was being put in jeopardy in order to exert pressure on the senator and his investigation.  Unfortunately another staffer (Roy Cohn) took the bait and began pestering the Army on behalf of his erstwhile colleague, whether for deferral or promotion or either.  This was portrayed as political interference with on-duty military personnel.    It was this petty and misdirecting affair which formed the basis of the Army-McCarthy hearings, and which managed to distract and irritate a senator in mid-investigation, a veteran himself, who had initially tried to enter into an alliance with the security hawks of the armed forces.   Of necessity, Evans goes into the matter in great detail, but this becomes less a history of the cold war than a history of the degeneration of policy debate into tabloid journalism.

The fifth column and the fourth estate

Although inconclusive, the Army investigation served McCarthy’s foes well, forcing him on the defensive and evoking his ire, consequently viewed as intemperance.  The same distortion and sensationalism which hounded McCarthy and his staff were also impeding his own attempts at rooting out Communist agents in the military and the government.  Evans covers all the highlights of the various investigations, not just those of the PSI but those in which McCarthy himself was the target.  More importantly, he explores the context within which famous testimonies were made, context without which excerpted highlights serve only to confuse and malign.

The highlights (which frequently became misleading headlines) analyzed in Evans’ volume are too numerous to mention within the space of a short review, but a single instance should suffice.  If any one phrase from the “McCarthy era” has survived in the fading American mind,  it would surely be Army prosecutor Joseph Welch’s famous j’accuse  “…sir, have you no decency!”  This was uttered in reference to the supposed victimization of the Army counselor’s understudy, Frederick G. Fisher Jr..  The indecency in question was McCarthy’s alleged outing of Fisher’s association with a Communist front organization, on the grounds of which the assistant counselor was removed from the prosecuting team.  Whether or not this was a career-ender for the young attorney, it was Joe Welch, not Joe McCarthy, who first brought Fisher’s fellow-traveling to the attention of the public.  Evans, always scrupulous in documenting the relevant paper-trails, in this case provides a photocopy from an actual paper.  The skeptical reader can find the clipping from the New York Times story of April 16, 1954 reproduced on page 568 of Evans’ amply referenced tome.  The relevant passage reads,

Mr. [Joseph N.] Welch today confirmed reports that he had relieved from duty his original second assistant, Frederick G. Fisher Jr. of his own Boston law office, because of admittted previous membership in the National Lawyers Guild, which has been listed by Herbert Brownell Jr. the Attorney-General, as a Communist-font organization. (ibid. p. 568)

By the date of the article it would seem that the actual outing of Fisher took place six weeks prior to the famously “indecent” remarks of McCarthy at the Army hearings.  None the less, it is the latter exchange which lingers in public memory.  As Evans remarks elsewhere, “…in political Washington, then as now, reality often ran second to perception.”

In similar fashion Evans proceeds to deconstruct the entire litany of incidents used to build the edifice of the anti-McCarthy legend.  Case by painstaking case he is able to apply new or neglected evidence in support of McCarthy’s exoneration.  Retrospectively, McCarthy can be saved, because Evans, and we who read his and similar works have what McCarthy’s contemporaries lacked, time and perspective.  However in the rapid flow of simultaneous events it was indeed perception, not reality, which won the race, with the Senate’s motion to censure McCarthy being his final lap around the political track.  The censure proceedings were themselves characterized by a hysterical zeal similar to that which had been used in false characterizations of McCarthy himself.  Thus the Republican dominated Senate, filled with enemies and fickle friends on both sides of the aisle, allowed itself to be buffaloed into voting two counts of censure.  That was one out of 46 ad-hock charges submitted by an anti-McCarthy interest group, plus one for good measure on account of nasty remarks by McCarthy during the proceedings.  After all, the Senate had to look like it was doing something about the McCarthy “problem.”

Scapegoat and Savior

After the censure McCarthy was shunned, his effective career ended.  He died, as they say, a “broken man” at the ripe age of 48, disheartened but still in harness.  After a mid-term election William Proxmire (Dem-Wisc.) a veritable photographic negative of everything Joe McCarthy ever thought or did, gained his seat in the senate.  It might be said that if ever someone had lived in vain, it was old “tail gunner Joe.”  Of course, that is precisely what the authors of the mainstream narrative want you to think.  However the reality is far more complex, and it is gradually being articulated by dissenting voices, among whom M. Stanford Evans is thus far the most readable and convincing.

Perhaps you, having read my summary article, find yourself intrigued with this fallen hero of anti-Communism, or conversely, it may be that you cannot shake the impression that Joseph McCarthy was a moral monster.  In either case, I urge you to fortify your knowledge by obtaining and reading Blacklisted by History: the untold story of Senator Joe McCarthy.  I think you will find the late Evans a safe and trustworthy guide into the underworld of cold war history and the McCarthy era, and not only because the book is voluminous and packed with footnotes and hints for further research.  I trust this book because it is the fruit of a lifetime of investigation into the invisible war between freedom and its cruelest enemies.  M. Stanford Evans ran the gauntlet of 20th century scholarship and journalism, scion of the heartland (Texas) yet Ivy league grad (Yale), conservative activist and journalist, he knew his sources and their backgrounds with the immediacy of an insider who was a political outsider.  Most importantly, the theme of his work is not trivial.

It is not trivial because, as literary anthropologist Rene Girard has taught us, all regimes are built on the bones of scapegoats.  In many ways, the nuances and taboos of American politics are dependent on a negative evaluation of the McCarthy era.  Now that, for better or worse, the Trump administration shows signs of violating certain of those taboos, it is important that we reexamine the origin of those taboos in the past.  This is not a matter of whether one approves or despises the present administration, it is simply that the course of events are forcing us to ask questions which were long left dormant.

One very non-trivial issue concerns how the doctrine of separation of powers should affect the transmission of information within the government.  A study of the McCarthy era reveals that the present virtually hermetic seal between the executive and legislative branches is neither an artifact of the constitution, nor a holdover from wartime secrecy, nor even a promulgation of the security state and its notorious “three letter agencies.”  Surprisingly, it turns out to have much more to do with “gag orders” instituted by the New Deal administrations to obstruct prying by the Dies and McCarthy investigations into security matters.  Even more surprisingly, this informational firewall between the branches was continued and reinforced by the Eisenhower administration, and for much of the same reasons.  You don’t believe me?  Read Evans.

Which leads us to the final consideration, did McCarthy actually live in vain?  Of course not, and Evans devotes the postscript of Black Listed by History to an enumeration of our ingrate  inheritance from tail gunner Joe, that alleged ogre.  Without belittling the  long list of secret and not-so secret agents who were turned out of their top-secret clearances, it seems to me that the salvation of much of Asia is the most relevant legacy which we can celebrate today.  Imagine a world without a Taiwan or a South Korea.  True, it may come about in the near future, but it was scheduled to come about in the 1950s.  I don’t refer to the very understandable cupidity of a Mao or a Stalin, but of the ideologues embedded in the IPR and Amerasia who had the power, at a perilous moment in history, to turn off the spigot of American support.  Admittedly, McCarthy was not alone in preventing this, but he was part of the essential follow up.  You don’t believe me?  Again, read Evans.

In conclusion, I must apologize for comparing a profane (although gentlemanly) work to Holy Writ.  Allow me to explain that there is an extenuating circumstance, apart from merely seconding the redoubtable Miss Coulter’s opinion.  Evans concludes with the Biblical analogy of Samson bringing down the temple of the Philistines on his own head, and likewise the untamed McCarthy, whatever his subsequent reputation, was effective in causing a great deal of collateral damage among the enemies of freedom.  It is an analogy drawn, appropriately, from the Book of Judges.  At last in Evans’ book we may have a valid judgement of McCarthy’s work, and of blood which cries out from the ground, not just for vindication but for succession and continuation.

 

 

 

Posted in Conspriacy Theory, Constitution, culture, Culture & Politics, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Human Action as a treatise on Philosophical Anthropology

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 4, 2017

Human Action;  It’s not your college “Economics”…but what is it?

Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the works of Ludwig von Mises knows that, while his works deal with economics, his thought is distinguished by what might be called,  misleadingly, a “multidisciplinary” approach.  I say misleading because Mises doesn’t just wander into various fields of history and policy at random.  Rather, at least in his magnum opus, Human Action, von Mises bases his exposition of economics and other social phenomena on a level of abstraction far too general to be circumscribed within one particular field of the social, or better said, the human sciences.  Even the term “science” here is somewhat suspect as importing all sorts of positivist notions regarding predictability, measurability, and so forth.  Perhaps “human studies” is the broadest description of areas which Mises was wont to involve himself in.  If we were to find a single word equivalent to “human studies” then certainly Anthropology would be the most apt substitute.  Yet nobody calls Human Action a work of Anthropology.  Why?

Superficially, this is because Mises takes an implicit understanding of Classical Christian anthropology and develops it in the direction of what we call “economics.”  More fundamentally, it is because few people today would even recognize Classical Christian anthropology, especially when it manifests itself in the work of an author who neither professed Christianity nor was writing explicitly on anthropology.  After all, von Mises embraced all sorts of moral and intellectual tenants which comport poorly with the classical Christian world-view, such as evolution and (fortunately, non-quantifiable!) utilitarianism.  None the less, because von Mises was part of the broader Judeo-Christian tradition, the bedrock of Christian Anthropology frequently breaks through the surface exposition of his putative “economic” treatise.  However, you won’t see it if you don’t know what to look for, and it doesn’t help that this classical, or Christian, anthropology goes against the very grain of Modernist and Post-Modernist “common sense.”

While in most Modernist views the human race is little more than the end result of myriad material causes, in classical Christian anthropology, “Man” in the sense of a singular “Anthropos” is the principle behind the universe, from which, as “Word” or “Logos” all other realities proceed.  The entire framework of this classical anthropology can be summarized as a movement through four terms, as follows:  From the Anthropos proceeds the individual, from the individual proceeds the species, from the species proceed groups.  Elsewhere I will try to explicate the framework in more detail, here I want to show how it is manifested in such an unlikely place as von Mises’ treatise, Human Action.

Again, I don’t want to make von Mises into some sort of Christianizing Platonist, or deny that much of the content of Human Action is based on Neo-Kantian or utilitarian principles which are alien to the basic framework.  None the less, the classical framework manifests itself in the very organization of the work, as can be seen from the arrangement of the contents.  The organization of the work in seven parts actually can be reduced to four themes.  I have highlighted the ontological/anthropological categories which Mises seems to have in mind at the right hand column.

I. The ideal

  1. Action as human essence         pt. 1            Anthropos–>Individual
  2.  Society                                         pt.2            Species–> Groups
  3. Individual exchange                 pt. 3             Anthropos–> Individual
  4. Market                                        pt. 4           Species–> Groups
  • The pathology, collectivism pt. 5              Groups–>Individual
  • attempts to compromise the ideal and pathology  pt. 6
    • History                              pt. 7

Structure of Human Action itself points the reader in the direction of methodological individualism.  You should be able to see the topical movement from essence, to individual, to species to group, repeated twice.

It may be that this organizational structure is not to be taken literally as von Mises’ last word on the ontological place of humanity within the universe.  It may even be that this organization was just the way von Mises thought a primary treatise on human action should be properly structured, somewhat like the scholars of the middle ages who felt that all treatises should be arranged according to the framework of Peter the Lombard, whether or not they agreed with Peter’s content or not.  None the less the framework bears the imprint of the classical Anthropological model, and testifies to  that model’s ubiquity and importance.  Certainly it differs from standard modernist and positivist expositions, which are based on the framework “from matter proceeds things.” This latter being what your man or woman on the street thinks of as “economics.”

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christian Education, Culture & Politics, Economics, History, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

An Epistle at the apex: Paul and the the Biblical basis of Libertarianism

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 15, 2017

From Turtles to Principles

You have probably heard the story of that old woman who insisted the Earth rested on the back of an enormous turtle.  If queried what the turtle rested on, she would respond, logically enough, “Another turtle.”  However if a persistent questioner asked what, in turn, the second turtle rested upon, she would laugh derisively, “Sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!”

This infinite regress of turtles is akin to the view that many Christian libertarians and constitutionalists share with regard to “the charter of our liberties.”  Now rest assured that I consider this to be the enlightened view with regard to the origin of human rights, that “We are endowed by our creator….” and that the contents of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.  I applaud my fellow freedom lovers who have embraced the theory that the natural rights made explicit in  human covenants is founded on the will and ways of God.

None the less, it seems to me that there is a gap in the understanding of most libertarians, even among those who profess Christianity in one form or another.  On the one hand, freedom is said to be founded on the basis of a “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  On the other hand, the content of this ethos is held to have been been specified by such major documents as the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791).  These are sometimes called “founding documents” but in fact they represent the fruits of a tradition, not an origin.  Now what was the immediate inspiration of these documents?   This is well understood and well researched, and we can trace what F.A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty” back step by step through the Whig Revolution, the English Civil War, the conflict between King John, the great barons and the church, and even into the misty years subsequent to the Norman Conquest.  Each of these epochs left a deposit of law in the form of written covenants, of which the Magna Carta (1215)is only the most famous.

However if we ask, “What is the ultimate (not immediate) origin of the Bill of Rights, etc.” we come up against a situation similar to that infinite regress of turtles which are needed to support the Earth.  All we get is a string of documents which leads back from the Magna Carta to the Norman Conquest and then, for a combination of linguistic and documentary reasons, stops.  Beyond that where do the precedents come from?  On the one hand, there are those who hypothesize a kind of Anglo-Saxon democracy as the matrix from which both political liberty and common law sprang.  On the other, there are those, such as Hayek himself, who wish to tie the British tradition of liberty back to the classical political philosophy of Cicero, Stoicism etc..  Keep in mind that Hayek was an evolutionist, albeit more of concerned with cultural than a biological evolution.

On the other hand there are Christians who state that the series of freedom covenants published in the course of British and American history have their ultimate root in the “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  However the “Judeo-Christian ethos” does not constitute the first item in a series of written documents.  It is indeed a case of “turtles all the way down” where “down” is not the true bottom or rather a quasi-bottom begging for further explanation.  Of course, Christians are in possession of a document which provides them with written warrant for thought and action, and it happens to be called the Bible. Note the irony of the ambiguous “Judeo-Christian ethic” being promoted as a basis of politics and rights theory by the same Christians who would insist on a scriptural warrant for any issues outside of politics.  It would seem that there is a special fear of becoming excessively scriptural when it comes to the Biblical foundations of politics.

And as a matter of fact, this fear is well founded.  For there are at least two deviations into scriptural politics which are likely to have catastrophic results, if indeed they are not outright heretical.  I will give a capsule critique of these theological tendencies before moving on to what I consider the true scriptural basis of politics.

Bad Axioms: The Violent Bear It Away

In our search for the axiomatic we don’t want to endorse the catastrophic!   Humanity is always looking for a principle to predicate its violence upon, a “causus belli” as it were.  Marxism is the best contemporary example, though there be others.  Those sects within the church which have been unknowingly or knowingly coaxed by Marxism into a united front frequently march under the banner of “New Testament Christianity.”  In this context, “New Testament” means up to and excluding the cross.  It is the moral teaching to, and subsequently of, the twelve disciples, led by Peter. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on this teaching to characterize it as perfectionism and communism.  It was a teaching appropriate to those who were striving after moral purity to separate themselves from an apostate Judaism, along lines similar to John the Baptist, or the Essene community at Qumran.   After the cross these teachings were replaced by the gospel.  Though they remain edifying and historically important narratives, they are not Christianity, at least, they are not the heart of Christianity.

However these teachings, perfectionism and communism, are useful for those who seek to sow confusion among Christians.  The virtue of these principles, for Marxists and other enemies of the cross, is that they don’t work, thus their adoption gives people the impression that Christians are not a church but as a camp of confused idealists. This vast camp of deluded Christians, who are not just those at the fringe of “liberation” theology so-called, but the majority of those within the mainstream denominations, are no doubt earnest in their desire to put their politics on a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately they have wrongly divided scripture, not realizing that, in truth, much of the so-called “New Testament” is in fact a continuation of the Old Testament, that the four evangelical witnesses which we call “gospels” are historical and biographical narratives which are only a preface to the Gospel of Grace proclaimed in the letters of Paul, this latter being the only operative gospel for our age.

At the other extreme from “Liberation theology”, there are genuine Christians who fuse together New and Old Testaments into a single covenant theology.  When this is applied with great rigor, the result is a rigidly legalistic system, such as was classically illustrated by Calvin’s Geneva, or the early Massachusetts Bay colony.  Unlike Marxist-inspired theology this covenant view is not a deception, but an honest error.  None the less, it is an error which has burdened and oppressed people in the past, and is likely to do so in the future, if there is any chance of its adoption.  No, we cannot go back to Moses.  Not that Moses is to be despised, for we are edified by the history of Israel.  But to treat Moses as a living letter of law is a misapplication of scripture, and inimical to the true gospel, just as Paul explained to the church in Galatia.   It is to Paul whom we must now turn.

The Pauline Basis of Christian Libertarianism

The way to make progress in ethics is through more geometrico, the much abused and needlessly feared geometrical method.  That is, in morals we ought to start with an axiom and end up with a body of legislation.  What we are offered today is, by and large, the reverse, since we begin with one or another collection of precepts in bad need of simplification and adaptation.  The precepts might alternatively be “the Judeo-Christian ethic” or New Testament theology, or the Mosaic code.  In all such systems the starting point is vague, complicated, and casuistic.  Now, reasoning out cases (casuistry) is a good and very necessary thing, but it should come at the end of a process of deduction, not at the beginning.

Fortunately, scripture is true to its word and provides us with the axioms necessary, not just for our salvation, but for organizing our societies.  The tendency towards axiomatic thinking is evident even in the pre-resurrection teachings of the Savior.  Christ’s willingness to group the precepts of the law into a hierarchy, with the law of love at the apex, contrasts sharply with the predominant rabbinical teachings on the law.  According to the rabbis each of the precepts stood on its own merit, without need of justification by any higher principle.  Conversely, a constant theme of Christ’s teaching was to point out how these independent precepts, if taken literally, would lead to rote behavior drained of empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  This early teaching to the disciples, as noted above, was not Christ’s authoritative message  to the church, which would commence on the road to Emmaus  and climax on the road to Damascus.  However the former teaching was prophetic in the broadest sense, not as prognostication but as propaedieutic, i.e., a kind of introduction.  It was hinting that Christian ethics, unlike rabbinical tradition, would be fundamentally axiomatic rather than casuistic.

The Apostle Paul is the primary revelator and redactor of church truth.  If we search his letters we are sure to find, among many other treasures, the key axiom upon which the organization of a godly society depends.  This axiom is found in a few verses within the most controversial and difficult chapters in the entire Bible, the 13th chapter of the book of Romans.  Now I realize that the very mention of Romans 13 is enough to cause alarm among Christian libertarians, and it is true that this is a portion of scripture which has been notoriously wrested into a shape cut to the specifications of tyrants.  However this reading, which we may designate as the authoritarian reading of Romans 13, I believe to be profoundly in error.

On the contrary, it is Romans Chapter 13 which, read aright, contains the authoritative formulation of the non-aggression axiom.  I am not aware that this has been previously noted, even by commentators who are generally considered sympathetic to libertarianism.  Generally, commentators are mainly interested in soterological issues, therefore those portions of scripture dealing with civil society, like Romans Chapter 13, are passed over without extended comment, except to note that obedience to legitimate governance is enjoined.  Few have done entire commentaries where the primary focus is on politics, economics, or civil society.  One exception is Dr. Gary North, who has written an Economic Commentary on Romans.  Yet even Dr. North who’s  quasi-libertarian views are well known, veers off from the fundamental moral issues discussed in Romans 13, in order to pursue some rather technical observations on the morality of debt, to the exclusion of other considerations.  His commentary on the heart of Romans 13, which are found in verses 8 through 10, is worth reading, if only to note its extremely narrow approach to the content of the epistle.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” John Murray does not think that love is an obligation. Rather, the sense of the passage is this: “Owe no man any thing, only love one another.” “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that dealing with others justly is the way that we should demonstrate our love toward them? Or does it mean that loving them fulfills the law? Which law? Moses’ law? Christ’s law?

Paul says which law: the Mosaic. “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The summary follows the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 5:17-21.The final clause is based on Leviticus: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Here is the same theme as the one Paul introduced in the previous chapter: no personal vengeance. Christ used a similar approach in his summary of the Mosaic law. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:16-19).

Love is mandatory, Murray writes. “If love is the fulfillment of the law this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love. . . . It is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice.”Murray places the decalogue, and through it, the Mosaic law, at the heart of Paul’s injunction. “This appeal to the decalogue demonstrates the following propositions: (1) the decalogue is of permanent and abiding relevance. (2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love. (3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility. (4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.”

The closest that North (here following, rather surprisingly, Murray) gets to the non-aggression axiom is his observation on the prohibition of vengeance.  Murray, North, et al, are wrong to think that Paul is endorsing the Mosaic law, although as covenant theologians we ought not to be surprised that they follow this line.  Rather, Paul is using elements of the decalogue the same way that an artist would use pigments of primary colors to paint an entirely new composition.  Romans 13 vv. 8-10 is not just a rehashing of Moses, rather, it is an entirely new revelation establishing human relations on the firm foundation of the non-aggression axiom.

In order to come to an understanding that Romans 13 is nothing less than the divine promulgation of the non-aggression axiom, it is helpful to divide the chapter into three portions.  I. 13:1-7 on civil governance, II. 13:8-10, the non-aggression axiom, III.13:11-14 provision for the coming of the Lord.  Although most readers of the scriptures read sequentially, which in the case of Romans 13 leads to highlighting the section on civil governance, as if it were the topic paragraph of an essay, an alternative method sometimes used by discerning Bible students is to structure the passage according to its “chiastic” pattern.  According to this method, the key elements in a Bible passage are liable to be found in the center of the reading, with the former and latter verses forming mirror images around a core concept.  Thus in the case of Romans 13, we would have the pattern,

I. 13:1-7 human governance ( duties towards civil magistrates)

               II. 13:8-10 the non-aggression axiom

III. 13:11-14 divine governance (duties in preparation for the return of the Lord)

Note how the non-aggression axiom seems encased like a jewel between present and future worlds, humanity and divinity.  This draws us into the center and substance of the relationship between sovereignty and justice.  Thus the student of scripture is compelled to take a closer look at the key text vv. 8-10, which appears following (in E.W. Bullinger’s translation).

8
Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
9
For this,“Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not
kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,Thou shalt not covet;”
and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely,
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
10
Love worketh no evil to his  neighbour: therefore love
is…fulfillment of…law.
Although Paul is doing something more than simply reiterating the Mosaic revelation, the selection of Mosaic elements through which the new message is expressed is very precise and gives us the key to the new law.  Note that only those elements of the decalogue which prohibit aggression are listed.  To be sure, the decalogue also requires positive obligations such as honoring parents, but the empahsis here is on prohibitions not obligations.  Specifically, these are commandments which prohibit the violation of the rights of others.  One might quibble at the inclusion of the tenth commandment against envy, in so far as this is a psychological state and not an active violation of someone’s rights.  However this list is not a bill of particulars, but the anatomy of aggression in general, and psychological realism informs us that envy is the primary motive force for the violation of personal and property rights. What we have in vv. 8-10 is in reality a type of equation, and a very exact equation at that, such that…
Decalogue 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10=the Law of Love
Everybody who knows even the first thing about Christianity has heard about the “law of love”…in the formula “love thy neighbor etc.” the problem is to define what love really means in this context.  This is what the central passages of Romans 13 reveals to us.  Again, substituting one side of the equation,
Do not (6,7,8,9) violate your neighbor’s rights, in fact (10) don’t even think about it!=the Law of Love
or if we phrase it in terms of political theory
The Non-Aggression Axiom=the Law of Love
This formulation will startle many people on the grounds that “love” in this context seems to be divorced from passion, and typically we think of love as a passion.  However, when we are trying to approach revelation on its own terms we are not obligated to define its words according to our own preconceptions and feelings, rather we have to let context determine exegesis.
From Paul to Locke
Skeptics will claim that I am reading the Lockean theory of natural rights back into Paul.  On the contrary, I suggest that John Locke, writing at the turn of the 17th and 18th century may have got his inspiration, not just from Christianity in a general way, but from a study of Paul’s first century epistles.  We know that Locke was a close student of scripture, and of Paul in particular.  To be sure,  Locke has always been problematic for Christian orthodoxy, which is why he was received into the cannon of the West as a philosopher, not a theologian.  However here we are speaking of the divine promulgation of rights theory, and its meaning for our own times, not the question of what  John Locke as a believer thought of the Trinity, or the non-Jurors, or the Book of Common prayer.
From John Locke the tradition of natural rights flowed on to the Whig radicals, on to the writers of the American founding documents, on to the abolitionists and other social movements of the 19th century, on to the populists of the American guilded age, on to the Old Right and non-interventionism, on to those movements which today call themselves libertarian.  However this Whig/Classical Liberal/Libertarian thinking has manifested as more than bare ideas, it has been written into covenants which have rendered rights explicit and binding.  To be sure, the non-aggression axiom has passed through non-Christian, even anti-Christian minds, notably Herbert Spencer, who is always mentioned in that regard.  But this does nothing to mitigate against the possibility, to my mind the virtual certainty, that the non-aggression axiom is ultimately a thing of divine institution.  Need we, like overzealous Donatists, fear that the sacrament of liberty has been defiled because it has passed through unclean hands?  Certainly not!  None the less, at the level of documentary tradition, what  a wonderful thing it would be if we could be sure that there was an unbroken chain of binding covenants, beginning with Paul’s writings and continuing down to the Bill of Rights and beyond.  Indeed, how enlightening it ought to be, for anyone to grasp that the non-aggression principle and the law of love were two but aspects of the same divine axiom.

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