Category Archives: nationalism

Robert Nisbet: Conservatism: Dream and Reality

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Since the election of Donald Trump, conservatism is increasingly being conflated with fascism, Nazism, racial supremacy and xenophobia. For some, it’s a direct equivalence. Unfortunately, the incessant usage of these smears has not only undermined the true meaning of conservatism, but the entire suite of words used as epithets against conservatives. Given progressivism’s rampant vandalism of language, it’s especially useful to peel back the layers of autistic screeching that have besmirched the mantle of conservatism and take stock of its ideological roots. For anyone seeking a good primer on the classical conception of conservatism, Robert Nisbet’s Conservatism: Dream and Reality is a good place to begin. Both a worthwhile companion and more succinct synthesis of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, Nisbet’s Conservatism is a tour through the anatomy of conservative thought. Conservatism, in both cultural and political terms, is fundamentally about the conservation of values, institutions and traditions, and Nisbet’s overview also shares Kirk’s affinity for the thought of the movement’s inspirational forefather, Edmund Burke. Using Burke as his intellectual lodestar, Nisbet’s survey brings to bear the entire lineage of conservatism including Burkean contemporaries like Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald, and Alexis de Tocqueville. The contributions of modern exponents such as Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Irving Babbitt and TS Eliot are also acknowledged. What all of these men had in common was a shared conviction in the sanctity of traditionalism and a determination to ward off the steady encroachment of conservatism’s two adversaries: liberalism and socialism.

Sparked by Burke’s seminal rebuke to the French Revolution, modern conservatism arose as a response to both the Jacobin fervor for equality and the broader Enlightenment consensus which now forms the bedrock of Western modernity itself. Conservatives viewed the liberal fixation on radical individualism and rational empiricism as an assault on traditional life, and by extension, the hard won fruits of stability, order and civil society. Underneath the conservative conception of the entire social order was a natural epistemological framework for discerning cultural knowledge which forms the basis of the conservative relationship to all institutions of authority. Or to use Burkean terminology, the primacy of prejudice and prescription. Burke and his contemporaries argued that prescription and prejudice was a prerational wisdom borne from popular consciousness and intergenerational knowledge which arose organically from a stable social order. Family, church, and community all formed independent spheres of authority which simultaneously served to constrain behavior, build stable institutions, and mitigate the influence of the State. Burkeans maintained that the very notion of liberty itself hinged on the conservation of this social order. Subsequently, the liberal pursuit of abstract principles and the clinical application of the scientific method in an attempt to distill universal laws by which to govern human affairs was capricious, dehumanizing and detrimental to the very cornerstones of society they sought to conserve.

Liberalism’s tendency to consolidate its thought in an aristocracy of academic elites is one of the perennial gripes that binds every generation of conservatives. In contrast to the feudal conception of dispersed spheres of authority espoused by conservatives, liberalism relies very heavily on a system of education lead by a vanguard of intellectual gnostics in order to reproduce the effect normally cultivated within the institutions of traditional society. Stated in contemporary terms, the progressives need propagandists. Beginning with Burke’s savage attacks on Rousseau to the seething contempt poured on the clinical abstractions of Jeremy Bentham, academic elites have long been reviled by conservatives as the engineers of social dissolution.

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Yeah, well Edmund Burke didn’t know queer theory, did he? Checkmate, conservatards.

Where the conservative mind accepts humanity as it is, the liberal zeal for reform seeks to eradicate all vestiges of the traditional order so that the era of emancipated brotherhood can be fully realized. This religious pursuit of a reformed consciousness is the singular hallmark of all leftist revolutionaries from Rousseau to Lenin to its current manifestation in the postmodern, social justice Left. Both Tocqueville and Burke saw the French Revolution as a pursuit of radical egalitarianism engineered by academics. Within these criticisms was a recognition that the “French revolution inaugurated a kind of revolution of the Word, something previously found in only evangelical, proselytizing religions.” It’s a pattern that repeated itself during the Bolshevik Revolution in the 20th century and appears to be resurfacing now within the postmodern Left.

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Conservatives from Bonald to Hegel argued that the transference of the locus of moral authority away from the spheres of family and church and into the hands of the State is the mental carcinogen at the core of the revolutionary mindset. Rousseau himself was very explicit in the Social Contract that the goal was to institute a “civil religion.”  In contrast to the conservative conception of independent spheres of authority of which both family and church play an essential role, the progressive appropriates the divine sanction the church confers upon the State and bends it towards a revolutionary end. For the progressive, the moral is political. Subsequently, all areas of life must be subordinated to the “civil religion” of #SocialJustice.

Lead by the feminist vanguard, the assault on family life is now out in full display. Conservatives opposed feminism on the grounds that it undermined the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. While relatively few openly embrace the mantle of feminism, the fruits of the feminist crusade for taxpayer subsidized abortion, no fault divorce and gynocentric child custody law are more than evident in declining birth rates, rising divorce rates, unfavorable outcomes for boys and a perverse obsession with gender neutrality.  Add in the progressive obsession with importing immigrants and the conservative argument only gathers strength.

 

Where family pride ceases to act, individual selfishness comes into play. When the idea of family becomes vague, indeterminate, and uncertain, a man thinks of his present convenience; he provides for the establishment of his next succeeding generation and no more. Either a man gives up the idea of perpetuating his family, or at any rate he seeks to accomplish it by other means than by a landed estate. – Alexis de Tocqueville

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One of the more surprising revelations of Nisbet’s research is the conservative opposition to industrialization and laissez faire and its attendant effect on the relationship to property. Contrary to the modern perception of conservatives as heartless and calculating champions of dog eat dog capitalism, a theme that echoed throughout the writings of early conservatives is an outright hostility to free markets that even surpasses those of the Marxists. Disraeli, Coleridge and Bonald along with many others rejected the atomizing effect capitalism had on society. In laissez faire, they saw the erosion of social bonds and destruction wrought on rural life.

Closely related to the conservative critique of free markets is an equally fervent critique of property rights under capitalism. As the laws of entail and primogeniture were whisked away under the modern capitalist order, so too would it undermine the belief in private property itself and eventually pave the path for full scale socialism.

One of Nisbet’s most provocative claims is that the longstanding conservative opposition to liberalism is that it’s a Trojan Horse for totalitarianism. He contends that the veneer of liberation only severs the cultural bonds of family and community that simultaneously form the basis of a stable social order and serve as a bulwark against an oppressive State. In light of the current state of the Left throughout the West, it’s hard to say they were wrong. In fact, the entire multicultural, social justice project seems like a perverse and artificial inversion of the organic forms of social organization championed by conservatives. In place of the network of religious, cultural and familial constraints on behavior, progressives are attempting to fill every crevice of society with overzealous reinventions and policing of language coupled with weaponized identity politics.

One notable figure to whom Nisbet makes repeated reference throughout the book is Joseph de Maistre. Isaiah Berlin sees him as the architect of modern fascism whereas Nisbet places him alongside classical European conservatives like Burke, Bonald, Disraeli and Tocqueville. Though Maistre may not have been an easygoing guy, I am inclined to think that Berlin’s reading of Maistre’s work is uncharitable and his overall appraisal incorrect. Admittedly, Maistre doesn’t engender the warmest feelings when discussing the importance of the role of the executioner in society, but among other things, his opposition to the rationalist consensus of the Enlightenment and the secular tyranny of the French Revolution was entirely well founded.

I further propose that Berlin’s attempt to pin fascism to Maistre or classical conservatism not only contravenes conservatives’ steadfast opposition to state engineered collectivism and feudal conception of dispersed authority, it represents an early attempt by a liberal to attribute the phenomenon of fascism as the exclusive province of the political Right. Christopher Dawson correctly asserted that fascism should be viewed as a product of liberalism since it ultimately seeks to collectivize the individual with the State. The fact that fascist regimes appropriated elements of conservative dogma only changes the particular flavor of its collectivist and leftist ethos. Though Berlin was a thoughtful scholar, this tendency among liberals to assign blame to conservatives for the fundamentally socialist character of fascism has continued unabated. As Paul Gottfried has repeatedly argued, it is not only a feature of contemporary social justice orthodoxy, but it has congealed into a dementia that has consumed the progressive Left.

Nisbet rightly points out that throughout the past few centuries of Western democracy, there has always been a delta between conservatism as pure ideology and as a set of prescriptive cultural norms versus political conservatism. Quoting Benjamin Disraeli, Nisbet emphasizes the fact that political conservatives are creatures of their age, and subsequently, are subject to all of the vagaries that accompany the acquisition of political power.

The truth is, gentlemen, a statesman is the creature of his age, the child of circumstance, the creation of his times. A statesman is essentially a practical character ; and when he is called upon to take office, he is not to inquire what his opinions might or might not have been upon this or that subject he is only to ascertain the needful and the beneficial, and the most feasible manner in which affairs are to be carried on. – Benjamin Disraeli

While this accounts for conservatives’ numerous concessions to progressives, political scandals, ideological purity tests and plagues of corruption, it also creates a bit of a conundrum for conservatism itself. If conservatism is about upholding fixed principles, cultural tradition, intergenerational knowledge and a restraint on state power, what has American, or European, political conservatism actually conserved?  Nisbet concedes its failures, but is sanguine about its future.

Quite apart from symbolic value and even genuine, concrete reference, family, kindred, neighborhood and locality, even region and race, have a universal historical meaning that is not likely to be entirely eroded away by the acids of modernity. – Robert Nisbet

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Nisbet may have been a little too optimistic. The Trump era has ushered in what is probably the most fervent and concerted attack on conservatism. Through Trump can hardly be considered a doctrinaire conservative on any given issue, the issues on which he has taken firm public positions that are genuinely conservative are deeply consequential for the future of the republic. The progressive Left is fully possessed by a revolutionary nihilism which only seeks to eradicate all vestiges of the past and has shown nothing but contempt for any form of historical American tradition. We are living in an time in American history in which the Left’s thirst for power is so unrestrained, they are willing to foment both racial antipathy and open hostility to family life. The Left has abandoned the idea of a country with borders and a set of dominant cultural norms in favor of a radical cultural egalitarianism and a globalist utopianism. While the Left revels in its smug certainty that conservative insistence on immigration restriction is inherently bigoted and a design flaw in the conservative mindset, it is more rightly viewed as the time honored recognition of a pluralism of values and the necessity for the preservation of national values. The Left has made it clear that there is nothing to defend, nothing to uphold and nothing to conserve in the American tradition. When we’ve reached a point when even “The Star Spangled Banner” is a bone of contention between progressives and conservatives, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the conservative is the real radical of the 21st century.

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Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Since the Hollywood reboot of the 1995 classic is likely to disappoint, I revisited the original to see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii more than earns its spot in the pantheon of SF classics with its highly plausible technological speculations, dazzling visuals as well as its political and philosophical commentary.

GITS was an early cinematic entry into the what was, at the time, a new subgenre of SF dubbed cyberpunk.  With the advent of the home computer connected to a vast global information superhighway, SF writers turned their attention to previously unimagined futurescapes of mass surveillance, cybercriminal underworlds, technocratic corporatism, information trafficking, and cybernetic engineering. By weaving all these elements together, GITS established itself as an influential example of the genre. Add in some government deep state machinations, immigration terrorism and globalism, and the themes only accumulate strength and relevance. 

Despite the absence of alien civilizations and interstellar travel, one of the main ideas in cyberpunk which connects it to the broader legacy of SF is the exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. This is the central idea in GITS, and Major Motoko Kusanagi’s quest to uncover the identity of Puppet Master is simultaneously a quest to attain that which defines humanity in the end. 

Like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, GITS is a high tech crime/espionage thriller which delves into some meaty questions pertaining to race, biological diversity, genetic memories and the nature of consciousness itself. The film opens by delineating the broad conflict between the globalist elites building a vast, decentralized network of technocratic control versus the proles who still claim selfhood through nationalism and racial identity. 

In the near future – corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.

The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi; a cyborg who works in Section 9 and is pursuing a cyber-hacker called the Puppet Master. She possesses a human consciousness, a “ghost”, but her body (i.e. “shell”) is fully cybernetic. The Puppet Master has the ability to hack human brains and overwrite their memories and identity. She and her supercyborg partner, Batoh, are charged with finding the Puppet Master.

The opening scene sets up the intrigue. Major Kusanagi is monitoring a set of diplomats in a hotel room discussing Project 2501 with a programmer.  The Section 6 police force moves into place to storm the room. One of the diplomats claims immunity as the cops enter the room and the bullets start flying. The head of Section 6 announces that it’s illegal to take programmers out of the country just as an invisible attacker from outside the hotel room takes out the foreign diplomat in a rather gruesome manner. The programmer is denied asylum and the diplomat is taken out by the Major without a trail. Two different police agencies working from different ends of the legal spectrum to quash corporate espionage and thwart emigration.  

It’s handled very subtly, but Japan’s tight control of immigration and sense of national identity is very clearly spelled out. After the Major dispatched the diplomat, the Japanese Prime Minister expresses his gratitude to Section 9 leader, Aramaki, that the programmer’s attempt at defection was handled without going through standard bureaucratic channels. He goes on to explain that the he’d love to deport the recently deposed leader of the Gavel Republic if he had a good political excuse. In addition to the references to Section 9’s ongoing crackdowns on immigration terrorists, these pieces of the story strongly suggest that this future Japan is still maintaining a relatively homogeneous population and national identity. Based on what I’ve read about the reboot, this theme has been inverted to serve the globalist mantras around multiculturalism. 

The real philosophical meat of the movie revolves around the true identity of the Puppet Master and Major Kusanagi’s existential ruminations over her own fate. What defines the essence of selfhood? Identitarians tend to claim immutable characteristics like skin pigmentation, racial heritage, genitalia and sexual preferences. Not far behind are religious tradition and national or regional identity. Peel away those labels and then you’re left with ideals and abstractions like belief, pride, and morality.

Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form! 

Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?

More specifically, it addresses the extent to which intergenerational memory defines selfhood and ensures the propagation of genetics.

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

GITS is posing questions pertaining to the nature of man found throughout the SF canon since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are humans just a bag of chemicals and organic tissue guided by laws of determinism? Or is the human capacity for thought a unique phenomenon? Are we caretakers and guardians of generations of genetic memory which are passed through procreation and family tradition? Can man become God by replicating life itself through technology?  

Speciation is defined as the evolutionary process by which new genetic lines are created. Since the Puppet Master can only replicate its own code, the only way it can truly live on is by reproducing with another being. After a climactic battle scene, the Major and the Puppet Master conjoin their consciousness to produce a new post-human species merging human and digital being.  

The features which distinguish SF as a genre are the usage of far reaching technological and imaginative speculation to ask the deepest philosophical questions pertaining to the individual and the State. It is a genre that has appealed to our highest ideals and given us some of the most dire warnings.  The fact that GITS has been given the Hollywood reboot treatment is an indication of the strength of the original vision.  

Major Motoko Kusanagi: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.

The Founder (2016)

A cynic might view John Lee Hooker’s portrait of Ray Kroc, The Founder, as an indictment of the American Dream itself. McDonald’s has come to signify everything illusory, toxic and and inhuman about American capitalism and idealism. Whether it’s Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, or any of the various #FightFor15 campaigns, the progressive Left has the fast food industry squarely in the crosshairs. Depending on the outrage du jour, the fast food industry is underpaying workers, poisoning the population with toxic food, contributing to the obesity epidemic, hastening the global warming crisis and propping up oversized agribusiness conglomerates. No other restaurant chain embodies all of this amoral rapacity, soulless industrialism, and ruthless expansionism more than McDonald’s. Of course, there is some truth to the charges leveled at McDonald’s and the fast food industry. However, as this film brilliantly illustrates, these qualities were features of Ray Kroc’s personality flaws and what he injected into the McDonald’s brand rather than design flaws in the fabric of American values or even the fast food industry.  

The Founder is a fairly straightforward historical biopic which, like its subject matter, succeeds on economical storytelling and tasty performances. It’s a fascinating story because it reveals how McDonald’s and fast food became synonymous with American values. More importantly, it shows how Ray Kroc deformed those values through his own ruthless ambition. 

Hollywood films often present their subjects through an ideological lens of progressive politics, and I suspect the filmmakers of The Founder had a similar aim. As long as you recognize that, the film presents some fairly decent lessons in market economics, industrial engineering of food production, contract law ethics, and brand building. The title of the film is very loaded because it draws up an assumption in your mind about its meaning. What Ray Kroc “founded” is not exactly what you might think.

Before McDonald’s, Ray Kroc was a mediocre traveling salesman trying to hock milkshake multimixers to the burgeoning fast food industry.  The drive in was the dominant model and it included features of the fast food experience that have been long consigned to the historical memory bin. Hamburgers and fries were served on washable dinnerware and delivered to your car by waitresses on roller skates. Ray Kroc had a mass market mentality, but no one in the middle American fast food business seemed to share it. His attempts to appeal to American ingenuity and Say’s Law fell on deaf ears.

Ray Kroc: But if ya had the Prince Castle, 5-spindle, multimixer… with patented direct-drive electric motor we’d greatly increase your ability to produce… delicious, frosty milkshakes, FAST. Mark my words. Dollars to donuts, you’ll be sellin’ more of those sons of bitches… then you can shake a stick at. You increase the supply, and the demand will follow… Increase supply, demand follows. Chicken, egg. Do you follow my logic? I know you do because you’re a bright, forward thinking guy who… knows a good idea when he hears one. So… What do you say? 

When Kroc receives an order for eight multimixers from a burger joint in San Bernardino, his hopes and curiosity intensify. Kroc arrives at McDonald’s and he is thunderstruck. He receives his order instantaneously, the wrappings are completely disposable, there’s no wait staff, and there’s a line of customers as far as the eye can see. However, all of this innovation came from the minds, sacrifices and work of Dick and Mac McDonald. Through a combination of ambition, courage, and Dick McDonald’s ruthless pursuit of cost savings and production efficiency, McDonald’s changed the fast food game for all time. Kroc is captivated and ingratiates himself with the McDonald brothers. 

Kroc pitches the McDonalds a national vision for the restaurant. The Golden Arches are more than just a visual brand; they are the symbolic glue between the Christian cross and the American flag. The McDonalds aren’t sold because they tried franchising the restaurant but couldn’t maintain quality control. Dick McDonald was a master of industrial food production and a capitalist through and through, but he didn’t want to lose control over the quality of the product. Being the more sentimental of the brothers, Mac sees a possibility for the kind of national success that eluded them and persuades his hard headed brother to sign a deal with Kroc.

Kroc returns to the Midwest with his sights set on complete domination. He makes appearances at Rotary clubs, churches and synagogues and begins recruiting families into the McDonald’s franchise with the fervor of an evangelist. Kroc may not have invented the food production system, but he did succeed in grafting the idea of McDonald’s to the psychological infrastructure of American ideals: family, opportunity, optimism. 

Despite his early success, his is unable to repay his business loans due to the small percentage allotted in his contract. He grows increasingly impatient with Dick McDonald’s insistence on quality control. Kroc really turns an ethical corner when he forms a real estate holding company at the advice of Harry Sonneborn.  By owning the land on which the franchises are built, he is guaranteed a larger revenue stream and capital base. Most importantly, it offers him leverage over the McDonalds. When he sees a possibility to cut costs with milkshake mix instead of real ice cream, Kroc sets himself on a collision course with the McDonalds. Kroc amasses enough power to buy his way out of his contract. Through the process, he kicks his wife of 39 years, Ethel Kroc, to the curb and courts the wife of franchisee, Rollie Smith. 

The film tips its partisan hand in a final scene which shows Kroc rehearsing a speech he’s preparing for an event in which Governor Ronald Reagan is scheduled to attend. Kroc is rehearsing all of the catch phrases and appeals to American ideals he perfected during McDonald’s ascent. When he finally approaches the part of the speech involving the first restaurant, he stammers and stumbles. Yes, we get it, folks. Republicans are shallow hypocrites who don’t uphold the ideals they espouse. But that’s a little too simplistic. Kroc won the McDonald’s enterprise, but he sacrificed its soul in the process. He took Dick McDonald’s industrial food production innovation and replaced it with a ruthless Benthamism. The McDonalds were the Jeffersonian capitalists who wanted to keep their idea regional and decentralized, but Kroc was the Hamiltonian who wanted a strong national identity for McDonald’s.

If you walk away from The Founder with the impression that American capitalism and idealism are false and hollow, you bought the cynicism that Hollywood is always selling. Fortunately, it’s a film that I believe has more meat on its bones than the average agitprop shit sandwich. Corruption, soulless industrialism, megalomaniacal ambition and hollow appeals to nationalism aren’t inextricably linked to capitalism. If that’s what the business is projecting into the world, that says more about the values of the individuals behind it. In the case of McDonald’s in its contemporary incarnation, the blame for these phenomena lies squarely at the feet of Ray Kroc. The McDonald brothers embodied American idealism without any grandiose speeches or national ambitions. Capitalism takes on the characteristics of the individuals behind it, and McDonald’s was ultimately hijacked by a particularly ruthless individual.  If there’s any overriding message of The Founder, that is surely it.  

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America

In our present Age of Social Justice, study of America’s founders, if it’s being conducted at all, can be summed up in hashtags. The centuries of hard won wisdom which the founders sought to institutionalize through the creation of a constitutionally limited democratic republic are reduced down to a collection of puerile slogans.  The central propositions of individual liberty, property rights, limited government and equality under the law are routinely denigrated as a system of white supremacist, patriarchal colonialism by the academic intelligentsia. Of all our nation’s founders, the one whose entire legacy is increasingly subject to reductionist caricature is Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to a steady drumbeat of smug, ahistorical SJW revisionism from artists and academics alike, Jefferson is likely to be perceived merely as the guy who had sex with his slave to the average American. 

The prevalence of these leftist cartoons is exactly what makes Kevin Gutzman’s new book about Jefferson such an essential read. Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary is a tour through Jefferson’s thought. Specifically, it highlights what distinguishes him from other national founders and why he lives up to the designation “revolutionary”.  These core ideas include federalism, freedom of conscience, colonization, racial assimilation, and the establishment of the University of Virginia. Gutzman’s exhaustively researched book gives us a portrait of a true Renaissance Man; a man whose depth of genius extended beyond his corpus of political thought and spanned every discipline from architecture to anthropology and archeology. As wonderful as Gutzman’s reading of the Jeffersonian record is, it also illustrates the myriad ways his legacy has been overrun, hijacked and discounted. 

The first section of the book focuses on the Jeffersonian idea of federalism, and the various ways he fought for it throughout his political career. Federalism is more commonly known as “state’s rights”, but Jefferson’s concept was even more radical than the narrow construction to which we’re presently confined. For Jefferson, it meant that the federal government was strictly constrained by the powers enumerated in the Constitution and that anything that was not expressly within federal purview would redound to the states. He stood by this principle throughout his political career, and it put him at odds, often acrimoniously, with Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. From his stinging rebuttal to the Hamiltonian Bank Bill to his opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, what emerges is an unbroken line of thought which distinguishes Jeffersonian federalism. Time and again, Jefferson appealed to a strict construction of the Constitution. Specifically, he emphasized the power reserved by the States enshrined in the 10th Amendment, whether to enforce federal law. It might be easy for the modern academic to take Jefferson’s stance towards the Missouri Crisis as an endorsement of slavery, but it should be viewed as evidence of his steadfast adherence to this principle.

Though Jefferson formed what are technically the ideological roots of the modern Democratic Party, I am doubtful you’ll find a single modern progressive who subscribes to the belief that the Constitution is to be strictly constructed or that federal power should be constrained in any way.  One need look no further than the treatment Neil Gorsuch received in his confirmation hearing to see how the Left views a strict reading of the Constitution. 

His defense of federalism during the Missouri Crisis dovetails into the subsequent section which explores his equally fervent belief in freedom of conscience. Just as he believed the federal government had no jurisdiction over an individual State’s sanction of slavery, he fought just as hard to ensure that the State held no power to compel thought of any nature. Especially in matters of faith.  

Any modern progressive who’s championed the separation of Church and State owes a debt of gratitude to Jefferson. Gutzman chronicles the numerous pieces of legislation penned by Jefferson which actively severed the State’s ability to compel any form of Christian teaching or ritual. Jefferson’s ultimate legislative triumph which culminated his thought and enshrined the church-state separation was The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Jefferson’s insistence on severing Church and State didn’t go down so well with some of the more devout Americans.  Like the hysterical tantrums of the contemporary progressive Left, New England Congregationalists voiced their opposition to Jefferson’s candidacy in 1800 in the most hyperbolic terms. If you took Timothy Dwight’s paranoid rantings and replaced the Biblical references with the Left’s infantile memes bemoaning the demise of Democracy, the net result would be the same. Opposition to liberty never changes, apparently. Only the slogans. 

The purge of all things Jeffersonian from the historical record is easily understood. The current Social Justice Cultural Revolution is pathologically fixated on slavery, racism, and all forms of oppression real and perceived. Many prominent historians have revised their positions on Jefferson downward as PC sentiment rises. Besides being a slave owner, Jefferson held some views which were rather controversial. His advocacy for human liberty was seemingly completely at odds with being a slave owner. It’s easy to look through a contemporary lens and condemn him for holding these views. Gutzman doesn’t sugar coat Jefferson’s thought, but he takes a more even handed approach than his contemporaries.

Jefferson’s written record indicates that he held views that were, in fact, supremacist in nature. With respect to the emancipation of blacks, Jefferson viewed colonization as the preferable alternative to integration fearing that America might see a Haitian-style slave rebellion of its own. He contended that blacks stood a better chance of achieving the type of self-government for which he fought within the context of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous society rather than a mixed one. In this respect, Jefferson was a sort of proto-Richard Spencer.  

Gutzman takes the view that Jefferson’s thinking on this topic was unenlightened and that blacks, by and large, view American ideals with respect and forbearance. I believe he is largely correct, but I am also inclined to believe that the Ta-Nehisi Coates’ of the world will continue to exploit Jefferson and his legacy to fuel their own grievance industries. 

Another popular lamentation actively cultivated by the progressive grievance machine is the treatment of the Native American population at the hands of the Founders. Jefferson’s views towards the Native Americans were oddly contrary to those he held towards the black population since he believed them to be equal in mind and body to the white man. Though it will doubtless do little to assuage the merchants of American antipathy, his policy was hardly the agenda of genocide that you’re likely to hear from the more hysterical voices. Jefferson held that Native Americans had a “right of preemption” against other nations which entitled them to acquire or dispose of property rights through contract or, if necessary, war. Native Americans eventually assimilated American values which were due in no small part to economic and agricultural policies enacted by Jefferson. However, the eventual dispossession of the Native American land is also directly attributed to Jeffersonian doctrine. Just as with the black population, one wonders whether the lamentations of cultural destruction which emanate from Native American activist circles will ever be put to rest.

Thomas Jefferson’s quest to expand primary and higher education through the creation of the nation’s first university was largely geared towards the preservation of republicanism, creating civic cohesion and building what he described as a “natural aristocracy”.  Reading what he wrote about the importance of public education, his rhetoric bears at least a superficial resemblance to progressives like Horace Mann or even Bernie Sanders. Jefferson believed that true populist republicanism could only be preserved through a general elevation of public knowledge.  Needless to say, public education is now an unchallenged article of faith amongst the electorate, but Jefferson didn’t share the progressive belief in the institutions as the engines of human perfection.

Jefferson’s views towards the education of young girls will not endear him to the feminist intelligentsia.  Nor would his insistence that the UVA ethics professor teach the proof for the existence of God curry favor with the atheist crowd. What mattered to Jefferson is that education serve the greater goal of building a civic minded youth culture. 

Is Yvette Felarca the type of public educator Jefferson envisioned best equipped to instill an appreciation for republicanism? Is the Black Femininities and Masculinities in the US Media course offering at UVA building the type of “natural aristocracy” for which Jefferson hoped? Or is it building a different kind of aristocracy?

Dr. Gutzman’s reading of the Jefferson legacy is the antidote to the hegemony of the Ron Chernows and Doris Kearns Goodwins of the world. As much the elite might want to consign the Jefferson legacy to the #SocialJustice Memory Hole, Gutzman’s book reminds us that Jefferson’s thought is hardwired into America’s genetic code. Jefferson was not a saint nor are his ideas beyond criticism or reproach. But that shouldn’t preclude a vigorous reexamination of his record and a reappraisal of his ideas in an age of ever expanding state power and the overwhelming dominance of PC multiculturalism. If anything, the Jefferson legacy leaves us with questions. Can a genuine republican nationalism be created in a multicultural society?  Is it even possible to forge a multicultural, Jeffersonian style republicanism when the progressive intelligentsia have an ongoing incentive to foment antipathy towards American thought? I, for one, am hopeful that this book is the catalyst for that discussion. 

  

Isaiah Berlin: The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made. – Immanuel Kant

If you’re interested in a contemporary philosopher who is able to put thousands of years into clear perspective, I would certainly place Sir Isaiah Berlin at or near the top of the list. Mr. Berlin’s vaunted reputation as an advocate for classical liberal principles and a first rate thought historian is entirely well deserved as The Crooked Timber of Humanity amply demonstrates.  As the title suggests, Berlin focuses on the origins of the movements that have led towards self-destruction and contrasts them against those which have animated modern liberal society. Specifically, he traces the origins of utopianism and demarcates the distinction between cultural relativism versus pluralism. He expounds upon his theory on the origins of fascism and concludes with a timely commentary on its ideological bedfellow, nationalism.

Mr. Berlin treats the ideas and subjects with great respect. True to the spirit of his other works, his central goal in this collection is to issue a warning against the encroachment of tyrannical ideas as well to provide as an intellectual antidote to illiberalism. Berlin’s analysis of these thinkers is incisive. When evaluated in light of current political movements, Berlin remains relevant and is often downright prescient.  One wonders if, with respect to universalism and managerial scientism, he has underestimated the allure and endurance of this doctrine.

Berlin opens with a broadside against the Platonic ideal and the accompanying pursuit of the utopian society.  The Platonic ideal is comprised of three components.

  1. All genuine questions have one true answer and all other answers are errors.
  2. There must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths.
  3. These universal truths are compatible with one another.

Human needs and the means by which to attain them could be discovered through same methods by which natural scientific law could be discovered. Once discovered, these principles could be codified and implemented through policy.  Berlin argues that this impulse is on the decline in the West, but if the arguments of the contemporary social scientists serve as an indicator, the hunger for pseudo-scientific micromanagement of human affairs remains undiminished.

Berlin contends that Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725) and his doctrine of the “common nature of nations” as well as a later generation of German Romantics, including Johann Gottfried von Herder, pointed towards a “cultural pluralism” which provided a counterpoint and possible antidote to the empirical absolutism of the Enlightenment.  The cultural pluralism Vico and Herder espoused rested on the contention that there were, in fact, incompatible values between cultures which could not be reconciled to universal principles. Both Vico and Herder’s thought contravened the Enlightenment consensus that man was ultimately governed by universal laws.

In this current age of globalization where the watchword is multiculturalism, Vico and Herder’s conclusions certainly warrant further examination and pose very important questions. What constitutes culture in a multicultural society?  If culture is the product of the transmission of practices and traditions which were generated within a genetically homogenous society over the course of centuries, to what extent are these practices meaningful in a multicultural society to those who didn’t belong to the original culture?  Are individuals from different cultures being held to universal standards of conduct in a multicultural society?  Is it possible to have a multiculturalism which isn’t manufactured by social engineers or a Trojan Horse for hollow identity politics and globalist socialism?  Perhaps most importantly, if individuals from other cultures immigrate to a new culture in search of a better life, do they have any obligation to honor the culture into which they’ve inserted themselves whether voluntarily or by necessity?

Since this doctrine ran contrary to the cultural objectivist consensus of the day, Berlin contends that Vico and Herder’s pluralism should not be confused with relativism.  In other words, neither Vico nor Herder espoused a relativism of fact, but a relativism of values.  His emphasis on this difference is not insignificant in light of the current multicultural zeitgeist. In defense of Vico and Herder, he invokes a poignant quote from John Stuart Mill:

It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact. Commercial adventurers from more advanced countries have generally been the first civilizers of barbarians. And commerce is the purpose of the far greater part of the communication which takes place between civilized nations. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.

Mill’s quote refers specifically to commerce as the cultural bridge, but his underlying point about the difficulty of understanding a pluralism of values in the absence of commerce is what warrants deeper consideration. The multiculturalists, social engineers and globalists have attempted to manufacture such a consensus artificially by advancing an aggressive agenda of Tolerance™ with an ever diminishing set of results to show for it. It’s ironic that the champions of this doctrine have shown such remarkable contempt for the opponents of their agenda and remain unwilling to appreciate the relativism of values which run contrary to their megalomaniacal ambitions.  Once again, it begs the question of whether if it is possible to create a multicultural consensus which doesn’t devolve into a clinical and bureaucratic utilitarianism papered over by empty platitudes of Unity©.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the individual Mr. Berlin believes to be the architect of modern fascism, Joseph de Maistre. In light of the rising tide of nationalism which has engulfed America and much of Europe, Berlin’s discussion of Maistre’s thought is especially poignant given that this phenomenon is largely a backlash to the social engineering of the multiculturalists and globalists. While Greece’s Golden Dawn party certainly represents a rising tide of genuine fascism which contains the twin hallmarks of the movement in its various historical manifestations, racial purity and nationalism. Maistre’s thought reminds us that there is more than a little paranoia and manufactured hysteria in the bleating of the progressive Left when it comes to Trump, Brexit and the various nationalist movements on the rise throughout Europe.

Maistre was a true reactionary to every aspect of the Enlightenment project. While the egalitarians espoused a view of man in which universal truth could be attained through scientific inquiry, Maistre rejected this doctrine with absolute impunity. On every aspect of the Enlightenment consensus, from rationalism to individualism to liberal egalitarianism, Maistre regarded these ideas with pure contempt.  By Berlin’s reckoning, Maistre’s vision of social order demanded absolute subordination to the Cross and the Crown.

While it is not unreasonable to conclude that Maistre provided the ideological template for the fascism of modern times, it certainly prompts questions over the appropriateness of seemingly indiscriminate and ubiquitous usage of the term today.  Especially with respect to the Left and their positively pathological and cartoonish hysteria over Trump. The Trump agenda remains an open question, but there is little doubt that the Left is in the business of conjuring ideological boogeymen out of thin air and painting any opposition to their globalist designs as “fascism”.  If the perpetuation of the multicultural agenda hinges on denigrating the foundations of Western thought which allows the very pluralism they allegedly value, they assure a recursive loop of nationalist backlash which validates their own prejudices.

Berlin concludes with a meditation on nationalism which is prophetic yet cautionary in tone, but raises fresh questions all the same.  While there is little doubt that nationalism in its extreme manifestation when married to the machinery of the State has proven itself a destructive force, Berlin reminds us that there is a deep seated humanity struggling to assert itself from under the dehumanizing designs of the sophisters, calculators and acolytes of scientism. The pursuit of universalism animated the West, but also created a unfortunate desire to manufacture a stultifying and artificial uniformity.  There is little doubt that the primal urge of nationalism has been and can be exploited by demagogues and populists, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that some measure of nationalist pride has, in fact, paved a path for the multiculturalism and genuine pluralism so idolized by the Left.  While much of the Islamic world, Asia and Africa remain ethnic and ideological monocultures, the burden of multiculturalism has been placed disproportionately on Western societies. As this policy unravels by the day, is it any wonder that there is a nationalist backlash towards individuals who apparently have no desire to adopt the cultural values of their adopted countries?  Berlin was keenly attuned to this aspect of nationalism and his words presaged the collective rage of the Brexiters and Trumpians to a t.

There is a growing number among the youth of our day who see their future as a process of being fitted into some scientifically well-constructed programme, after the data of their life-expectancy and capacities and utilisability have been classified, computerized, and analyzed for conduciveness to the purpose, at the very best, of producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This will determine the organisation of life on a national or regional or world scale, and this without undue attention to, or interest in (since this is not needed for the completion of the task), their individual characters, ways of life, wishes, quirks, ideals. This moves them to gloom and fury or despair. They wish to be and do something, and not merely be acted upon, or for, or on behalf of.  They demand recognition of their dignity as human beings. They do not wish to be reduced to human material, to being counters in a game played by others, even when it is played, at least in part, for the benefits of these counters themselves. A revolt breaks out at all levels.

While some philosophers and academics seemingly revel in their ability to obfuscate and mistakenly believe that verbosity equals profundity, Mr. Berlin’s prose sings with clarity and actually serves the purpose that philosophical inquiry was meant to serve: to illuminate. Mr. Berlin has written a collection of thought provoking essays which prove that we are well served by understanding how the ideas of the past shape the present, and most importantly, that the contrarians of bygone eras have something of value to offer. Even if it runs contrary to everything we hold sacred. And through this understanding, we may ask the right questions and formulate the answers to the issues of the present and future.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

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Yes, the final trip to Middle Earth is turgid and predictable, but it’s impossible for me to hate on this movie and series too much.

Blockbuster war films are great because they attempt to extract moral lessons when humanity is at its worst. While I commend the considerable effort, the film falls short in more ways than it succeeds.

Unfortunately, TBOFA indulges in some of the dumbest fallacies and clichés which contribute to the perpetuation of war (deference to authority and appeals to nationalism first and foremost), but there are redeeming moments as well as some elements which can be viewed through a libertarian lens even if it wasn’t Jackson’s intent.

On the downside, there is an all too common veneration of authority and leaders paired with an absence of individual agency. Though individual acts of defiance occur, it happens very selectively and the reasons behind these acts of sedition are made for flimsy reasons.

Whether it’s dwarves, elves, orcs, or wizards, all action hinges on the commands of the leaders.  The dwarves pay a cultish obeisance to Thorin, and the elves exhibit a frightening militaristic discipline and paternalistic authoritarianism. Even Gandalf’s has some pretty bossy tendencies. The various races of Middle Earth certainly insist on obedience to leaders. It undoubtedly made them successful cultures, but one has to draw the line somewhere. 

The most refreshingly libertarian moment comes from Bilbo in the film’s climactic battle. Bilbo insists on warning Thorin of an imminent attack and Gandalf demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of faith in Bilbo.

Gandalf: It’s out of the question! I won’t allow it!

Bilbo Baggins: I’m not asking you to allow it, Gandalf.

Jeez.  Fuck off, Gandalf.

The most alarming elements are exhibited by the dwarves. Besides the troubling appeals to nationalism, the film attributes Thorin’s alleged moral lapse to a kind of “greed”. Erebor’s existing treasure as well as his weird obsession over the Arkenstone drove him over the edge. The film uses the “Dragon’s curse” as a proxy in order to administer a form of quasi-Marxist, crypto-religious preaching over this transgression.

Thorin’s tightassery with Erebor’s wealth is indeed weird and irrational. Granted, he’s a stubborn fuck who is pissed about the indignities he and his homeboys suffered in their period of exile. The film is unfortunately trying to chalk it up to an obsession with wealth itself. It’s shoveling the old “money is the root of all evil” fallacy rather than looking at unprovoked violence as the ultimate evil.

The most poisonous stuff comes when it’s time to go to war. Fantasy gets off easy when it comes to rationalizing violence because the bad guys are so obviously bad. The underlying motivations deserve scrutiny because they map to current events. When the chips are down, what does Thorin do to stoke the bloodlust? He invokes the blood connection to Durin and loyalty to the homeland! Erebor über alles, my dudes!

The titular battle is actually waged over a contract dispute. Why Thorin didn’t just help the survivors from Laketown after Smaug had decimated the place boggles the imagination. Conversely, Thranduil’s quest for some ancient necklace seems wildly arbitrary yet strangely characteristic for a head of State.

Ironically, the destruction of Laketown makes a very powerful case for anarchy. Though the argument for liberty certainly does not rest on disaster, the citizens of Laketown were helping one another in the absence of government authority and coordination. The moral reprobate was the Master of Laketown! He was the greedy fuck who absconded with the town treasury and was solely concerned with saving his own sorry ass.

The interracial love story between Tauriel and Kili felt forced and overwrought. It was ultimately an unnecessary tragedy. Instead of trusting their own individual instincts, they chose nationalism and deference to authority and each suffered.

It’s flawed, but entertaining enough. It suffers by not really having much more to say above and beyond what the LOTR series already said really well. So Jackson feels like he’s just coasting.

That said, Jackson clearly loves this material and it’s hard to gripe too much about such a towering achievement. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have brought this to life with as much vigor and passion.