A classic exposition of American revolutionary ideas

The Ideological Origins of the American RevolutionThe Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s easy to see why this is a classic. Bailyn thoroughly defends his thesis that the American revolutionary leaders shared a common set of assumptions drawn from the Whig tradition adapted to the American context and reshaped by the tensions with the British government. It was through this tradition that they interpreted the other ideas that they used, such as classical republicanism. In the postscript, Bailyn also shows how both the Federalists and anti-Federalists drew on the same ideas while reaching different conclusions about the best form of government for the United States. Perhaps Bailyn’s most impressive achievement is that he explains it all so clearly in a way that I think would be quite accessible to an interested reader without academic training in history.

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Reviving discussion and community in a fractured society

Susannah Black recently wrote a long essay on the civic dimensions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. She writes that “Dreher advocates for engaging in practices of sociability and debate, to remind ourselves of our natures as political animals with rational souls. He discusses the work of Vaclav Benda, who during the years of Soviet domination of central Europe saw groups that deliberately engaged in such activity as a ‘counter-polis,’ a much-needed forum for exercising the rudiments of political thinking and action, in the midst of a totalitarian state that did not allow for this part of human nature to be exercised: a sort of secret public sphere.” Black expounds on a the role that these kinds of groups can play within American society:

Given the profound breakdown in civil communication and discussion that so many have noted, especially in this most recent election, and given the incoherence, lack of memory, and rejection of solidarity at the heart of both the left and the right branches of the American political community, what these groups can do is precisely what Benda himself called for them to do: to remember how to think and debate, to remember the deep origins of the best of even the liberal political idea, to fight for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word.” As Dreher puts it, “dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94).

When we say that these groups can help us exercise our political natures, this must be understood as politics in the broadest sense: They can teach us once again to be social in a rational way; they can certainly sometimes be fora for considering properly-political questions, but also for organizing beneficial projects of all kinds.

Such groups, which can (at least in theory) include both left and right, both Christians and non-Christians, can be means of blessing to both the local and the national communities. They can be training grounds for civility and reasoned debate. And these groups, too, can be a kind of salt-and-yeast in the body politic– even a kind of apologetic. Because the very process of debate, of discussion, of life in the public sphere in the liberal tradition, is one which rests on assumptions that are not those of materialism.

Those are things like the fact of a common human nature, of might that should be in service to right rather than defining it, of the value of protecting the weak, of politics that goes beyond the definition of a tribal enemy, of the possibility of rational discussion and the need to convince each other rather than to force each other to believe or do things.

All these bits of the liberal tradition were undermined by the Rousseauian/progressivist idea of the general will, which allows people now to shut down debate with those who are “on the wrong side of history.”

They were undermined too by the rejection of the idea of human nature: If we do not have rational souls as those made in God’s image, and if we are not political animals who are prone to friendship, whose telos is to live in peace with each other, then the best of liberalism has no foundation. To those who value freedom of speech, for example, we must say: Think about what that means. Why is it important that we be able to speak freely? What is it about human beings that makes discussion rather than coercion a just way to go about political life?

To those who fear a resurgence of white supremacism under Trump, we must be able to say: That kind of tribalism is only possible if one denies the vision of the world and of human nature which many secular liberals (though not all) also deny. A thoroughgoing white supremacist or neo-fascist (though the two are not identical) worldview rests precisely on a denial of the good, of true human nature and the dignity of each person, and of the possibility of real human political friendship. It’s only with a robust sense of what we share with and owe to every other person made in God’s image that we are able to also love our particular tribe, our nation, or our family, in the right context– otherwise we become pagans, who worship only the gods of the tribe.

There’s more: more ways in which such groups, and the political discussion they entail, can become a kind of evangelism. Political discussion is inevitably the discussion of the common good; we direct each others’ attention to the good that we share, and that directing is a kind of contemplative delight–and the ultimate common good is God.

And these groups can be the source of not just discussion, but of action as well: If it’s true that we do still have responsibility for and to the polity in which we live, we’ve got to see the utter necessity of doing projects for the common good, whether properly speaking the political common good or not– i.e. of making things, from parks to policies, that are not just for you and your family, but which aim at a common benefit, and which cannot properly be enjoyed alone.

These projects call out of us the kind of exercise of practical wisdom that helps form us in virtue, and requires us to act with tact and graciousness; public life together can become a kind of dance, the exchange of gifts and reasons and honor and deference and command according to the good of the one commanded; obedience in recognition of just authority, and criticism where authority is exercised unjustly. If every level of being can, in some way, reflect the divine order of the cosmos, then our job is to reflect that order as best we can—we won’t do it well, really, but we can maybe improve—in the order of each nonprofit we start, each CSA, each theater company, each neighborhood association.

That sounds grandiose, but there’s really no other way to think about how to organize such things: one wants to be gracious and fair and kind and not exploit one’s employees or volunteers, one wants to make things that are worthwhile, to cultivate the eggplants in the CSA according to the nature of eggplants rather than according to the nature of kale, and basically to show up and do well and be decent. And if one is the head of such an organization, then taking a kind of architectonic care to make sure as best one can that all these things are carried out well– delegating as appropriate– well, that’s just being a good manager. This is how we live together and do projects together; it is purely normal, as normal as planning a dinner party.

It is also in sharp contrast to the liberal vision of social life, which is inherently combative: men are not by nature political animals, in liberalism, but are naturally solitary and must be brought into relationship only by the loss of their freedom and by an artificial social contract. This loss might be worth it, but it constrains people; it’s another kind of fall. But that’s not the case: the constraint on us that enables us to live together is the constraint of the natural law, played out in particular and in many cases varied circumstances.

Political life is not possible if men do not share a common rational human nature. If we are non-rational animals, we may be subject to conditioning; if we are machines, we may be programmed; either way, with such things no political discussion and no communal life is possible.The fact that it manifestly is possible– that it happens every day– that we see it in the city around us and in our workplaces and in our friend groups and, yes, in the thick Christian communities that Dreher profiles in the book– is a strong apologetic argument in favor of a traditional Christian (and classical) anthropology. It is not only Christians, after all, who are by nature political animals, and the road to the truth of the Gospel can run through a reflection on and participation in political life of one kind or another, in seeking the good of a polity that in its own way points towards the true complete community that is the New Jerusalem.

There’s a lot to think about in the essay, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. But it was worth reading.

Abortion, violence, and choice

Some compelling passages from Frederica Mathewes-Greene’s essay on Roe v. Wade from earlier this year:

Once I recognized the inherent violence of abortion, none of the feminist arguments made sense. Like the claim that a fetus is not really a person because it is so small. Well, I’m only 5 foot 1. Women, in general, are smaller than men. Do we really want to advance a principle that big people have more value than small people? That if you catch them before they’ve reached a certain size, it’s all right to kill them?

What about the child who is “unwanted”? It was a basic premise of early feminism that women should not base their sense of worth on whether or not a man “wants” them. We are valuable simply because we are members of the human race, regardless of any other person’s approval. Do we really want to say that “unwanted” people might as well be dead? What about a woman who is “wanted” when she’s young and sexy but less so as she gets older? At what point is it all right to terminate her?…

Many years ago I wrote something in an essay about abortion, and I was surprised that the line got picked up and frequently quoted. I’ve seen it in both pro-life and pro-choice contexts, so it appears to be something both sides agree on.

I wrote, “No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

Strange, isn’t it, that both pro-choice and pro-life people agree that is true? Abortion is a horrible and harrowing experience. That women choose it so frequently shows how much worse continuing a pregnancy can be. Essentially, we’ve agreed to surgically alter women so that they can get along in a man’s world. And then expect them to be grateful for it.

Nobody wants to have an abortion. And if nobody wants to have an abortion, why are women doing it, 2,800 times a day? If women doing something 2,800 times daily that they don’t want to do, this is not liberation we’ve won. We are colluding in a strange new form of oppression.

It’s interesting and disturbing (but understandable given the presuppositions operating) that there seems to be pushback from some pro-abortion rights activists against this characterization, that there is nothing to be ashamed of regarding abortion. If I recall correctly, the sign that I’ve seen says, “Abortion on demand and without apology.”

Media fragmentation and a culture of distrust

Not a unique set of ideas, but Alastair Roberts brings some important trends together in his post on the prevalence of distrust and falsehood as a social crisis in American culture and, more specifically, in American evangelicalism:

Some of the factors that have given rise to our current situation are related to the current form of our media. The unrelenting and over-dramatized urgency of the media cycle, especially as that has been accelerated on social media, heightens our anxiety and reactivity. It foregrounds political threats and changes and makes it difficult to keep a cool head. When our lives are dominated by exposure to and reaction to ‘news’ we can easily lose our grip upon those more stable and enduring realities that keep us grounded and level-headed. Both sides of the current American election have been engaging in extreme catastrophization and sensationalism for some time. This has made various sides increasingly less credible to those who do not share their prior political convictions and has made us all more fearful of and antagonistic towards each other. It has also created an appetite for radical, unmeasured, and partisan action.

The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.

Our news online is increasingly disaggregated. A traditional newspaper is a unified and edited body of news, but online we read from a multitude of competing sources, largely sourced by friendship groups. As our news no longer comes as a package, exists within a click-driven economy, and is largely sourced for purposes of social bonding, sensationalism, catastrophization, ideological reinforcement, outrage, and the like are incentivized. In a world of so much easily accessible information, news is a buyer’s market and pandering to the consumer by telling them what they want to hear becomes a greater temptation. Coupled with the growth of non-mainstream media sources that are often much less scrupulous about accuracy, the result is a much less truthful society. Even formerly respectable broadsheets are now not above publishing tabloid-style articles and hot takes and clickbait akin to popular websites.

The traditional mainstream media also seems to be increasingly partisan and left-leaning, serving as the organ of privileged opinion. Even the comedians that one would traditionally expect to criticize those in power seem to spare the progressive left their ridicule.

The Unwinding by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New AmericaThe Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Packer tells the stories of many people trying to navigate the “unwinding” of the robust and regulated post-WWII American political economy as it has become more individualistic, partisan, globalized, and competitive since the 1970s. Many of the stories of average people are compelling, and Packer often shows empathy for their struggles. He also targets many of the most influential people of the period, slowly roasting them in chapter-long profiles or over the course of the book. Packer is a talented writer whose political sympathies clearly lie on the populist left. This allows him to write with genuine concern for ordinary people, but there also seems to be the assumption that progressive populism is the path forward in a very different world than that which gave birth to the New Deal and Great Society.

David Brooks wrote a nice review of the book. He writes:

By “the unwinding,” Packer is really referring to three large transformations, which have each been the subject of an enormous amount of research and analysis. The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.

The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.

The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).

Packer wants us to understand these transformations, but ultimately, narrative and anecdotes are not enough. They need to be complemented with evidence from these long-running debates and embedded in a theoretical framework and worldview.

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The quest for community and the appeal of identity politics

Ross Douthat writes in his most recent New York Times column:

Liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs — meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality — that neither John Stuart Mill nor Karl Marx adequately addressed.

These included family, religious communities, and a common American culture and patriotism. He continues:

Each of these foundations often manifested illiberalism’s evils: religious intolerance, racism and chauvinism, the oppressions of private and domestic power. But they also provided the moral, cultural and metaphysical common ground that political reformers — abolitionists, Social Gospellers, New Dealers, civil rights marchers — relied upon to expand liberalism’s promise.

Much of post-1960s liberal politics, by contrast, has been an experiment in cutting Western societies loose from those foundations, set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven or religion, no countries or borders or parochial loyalties of any kind — these are often the values of the center-left and the far left alike, of neoliberals hoping to manage global capitalism and neo-Marxists hoping to transcend it.

Unfortunately the values of “Imagine” are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.

Like Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community, Douthat ties the weakening of traditional notions of community with the rise of larger-scale, less personal communities.

It’s interesting that Nisbet, writing in the 1950s, was mostly concerned with the decline of smaller-scale, traditional communities in favor of membership in the abstract national communities of modern states, most obviously in the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century. If Douthat is right, then cosmopolitanism on the left is having the effect of eroding nationalism, the previous beneficiary of the erosion of smaller-scale communities.

The politics of the Gettysburg Address 

Robert Tracy Mackenzie recently wrote about Lincoln’s political intentions in the Gettysburg Address as part of his response to Donald Trump’s speech at Gettysburg. He places the famed address in continuity with Lincoln’s arguments that the abolition of slavery was a fulfillment of the purposes of the founders:

When Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid.  The Harrisburg [PA] Patriot and Union concluded that the entire event “was gotten up more for the benefit of [Lincoln’s] party than for the glory of the nation and honor of the dead.  The Chicago Times went further, reminding readers that it was to uphold the Constitution “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.”  What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

Today we don’t read the Gettysburg Address as a partisan speech in part because we read it in a vacuum.  In chiseling it in marble, we’ve also wrenched it from its historical context.  But we also don’t pick up on its partisanship because Lincoln himself did a good job of hiding it from posterity.  There are no explicit cues for later generations.  He never refers to his political opponents.  He takes no cheap shots.  His interpretation of the war was effectively the Republican interpretation of the war, but he hoped that someday all Americans would remember it in the same way and so he avoided gratuitous insults of those who disagreed with him.