018 Conservative Critiques


To balance the fashionably leftist tilt of academia, one needs to read things written with a rightist slant. A history professor at the University of Rochester, Christopher Lasch, once himself a Marxist-oriented, progressive, socialist intellectual, testifies to both his personal convictions and his historical judgments in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c. 1991).

His own confidence in the reigning liberalism of the intelligentsia slipped in the 1970s, when his family studies “led me to question the left’s program of sexual liberation, careers for women, and professional child care” (p. 25). Surveying the scene, all forms of “authority, including parental authority, seemed in serious decline” (p. 31), a process which inevitably undermine “the capacity for independent judgment, initiative, and self-discipline, on which democracy had always been understood to depend” (p. 31). Lasch now sees things, not as a young radical, but as a responsible adult–and, more importantly, as a parent.

“To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light. This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness . . . of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of ‘making it’; our addictive dependence on drugs, ‘entertainment,’ and the evening news; our impatience with any thing that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and familial ties; our preference for ‘nonbinding commitments’; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we ‘impose’ our morality on others and thus invite others to ‘impose’ their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude to the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all” (pp. 33-34). Like lots of scholars’ works, this one’s deeply personal!

The book’s title comes from a prescient passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” which says: “Many passengers stop to take their pleasure or make their profit in [vanity] fair, instead of going onward to the celestial city. Indeed, such are the charms of the place that people often affirm it to be the true and only heaven; stoutly contending that there is no other, that those who seek further are mere dreamers, and that, if the fabled brightness of the celestial city lay but a bare mile beyond the gates of vanity, they would not be fools enough to go thither.”

In this book Lasch pursues “a deceptively simple question. How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?” (p. 13). Following a century notable for its genocidal wars and ecocidal woes, why do so many political thinkers and politicians so blithely aver, in chorus with did Eleanor Roosevelt, that the “world’s getting better, and better, and better”?

The reason for their optimism, Lasch thinks, is a deeply emotional, if not overtly religious, attachment to the doctrine of historical progress. Tracing the permutations of that doctrine over the course of two centuries is his quest.

To do so, he first seeks to accurately define the idea of progress. With their cyclical philosophy of history, the Greeks had no notion of “progress.” To Christians like St Augustine, history is linear, but it’s hardly on an upward trajectory! Only in the “modern” era did the notion of historical progress clearly emerge, particularly in the economic thought of Adam Smith with its insistence that we have infinite desires for infinite goods and progress means acquiring ever-more of the world’s goods.

Leading intellectuals of the Enlightenment envisioned better living through commerce and industry. In David Hume’s opinion, merchants are the “most useful race of men in the whole society.” Tom Paine declared: “If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivil state of governments.”

Romantics reacted nostalgically against it, Marxists envisioned a distant utopia emerging out of its shambles, agrarian “populists” railed against it, but the modern world still embraces deeply-inscribed Enlightenment aspirations. Whatever adds to our collection of houses or stocks or household appliances is necessarily good.

The most insightful critics of progress, Lasch found, stood rooted in “the tradition of Christian prophecy, as reformulated by Calvin and his followers and, in the nineteenth century, by moral philosophers and social critics–notably Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson–in whom Calvinism remained a powerful background presence” (p. 227). They saw the human and environmental costs which never appeared in accountants’ ledgers. Since WWII, “the politics of the civilized minority” (an elite liberal corps which has generally secured its ends by circumventing the will of common people), has dominated America, using the courts, rather than the legislatures, to gain permissive abortion policies, for example. Yet strong protests, voices of “right-wing populism,” have also cried out against it, speaking for working class Americans.

This is a long, meandering treatise on the history of ideas which at times follows a chronological pattern, then at times seems to slip and slide in accord with Lasch’s prejudices and preoccupations. It contains interesting information, quotations and insights into obscure as well as noted intellectuals of the past. It helps one understand the grip “progress” has exerted during the past 200 years. And, if not persuasively demolishing “the true and only heaven,” it certainly casts considerable doubt on the veracity its “progressive” preachers.

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I didn’t seriously study the U.S. Senate’s refusal to approve Robert H. Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, since I tended to take at face value the media’s portrayal of him as a reactionary ill-suited for the court. But when my friend Allen Brown (an attorney) suggested I read Bork’s book, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (NY: The Free Press, c. 1990), I picked up a copy and found it illuminating. Finishing it shortly before the Clarence Thomas hearings last year, I found myself wondering (deja vue) at the scene. And I think I better understand some of the deep philosophical issues behind some of today’s legal controversies.

The book addresses three distinct issues. First, Bork provides a 200 year overview, describing how the Supreme Court has become increasingly politicized, abandoning the more limited role assigned it by the Constitution. Second, he discusses some of the great legal theorists who have influenced American jurisprudence. Third, he tells his side of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings which denied him a seat on the Supreme Court.

The historical-theoretical sections present Bork’s strict constructionist stance. There’s a story about Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, two great judges, which illustrates a great divide in jurisprudence. After lunch together, Holmes got into his carriage; Hand, suddenly inspired, ran after him, saying, “Do justice, sir, do justice.” Stopping the carriage, Holmes reproved his friend, saying: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.” Holmes’ commitment to apply the law, not to dispense “justice,” is the strict constructionism Bork endorses.

Apart from the Dred Scott decision, where Justice Taney first enunciated the now popular “substantive due process” notion which enabled him to impose his own opinions onto the Constitution, making a notoriously bad decision, the Supreme Court and leading theorists upheld the strict constructionist viewpoint for more than 100 years.

At the beginning of this century, however, the tides of change flowed over the legal seashore. Notable, if isolated, judicial decisions, especially during the New Deal era, launched the currents of a tidal wave of revisionist judicial activism which surged with the Warren Court in the 1950s.

Roe v. Wade illustrates revisionism at its worst, in Bork’s opinion. From the beginning of this nation’s history, the states had handled, through legislation, the abortion issue. When the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1973, issued its edict, it did so without “an argument that even remotely begins to justify” (p. 115) it along constitutional lines.

Such court decisions illustrate what’s widely taught in the nation’s law schools. No doubt selecting the most egregious example, Bork says: “Sanford Levinson, of the University Texas law school, advances an extremely skeptical, indeed nihilistic, theory of ‘constitutional’ interpretation. Levinson says that ‘The “death of constitutionalism” may be the central even of our time, just as the “death of God” was that of the past century.’ In a major law review article, Levinson explains that ‘for a Nietzschean reader of constitutions, there is no point in searching for a code that will produce “truthful” or “correct” interpretations; instead, the interpreter, in [philosopher] Richard Rorty’s words, “simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose”‘” (p. 217).

Given his opposition to such revisionism, Bork encountered a steamroller of hostility when he appeared for his confirmation hearings. (Readers wearied by his theorizing in the book’s first two sections could hardly fail to be aroused by his personal story.)

Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. No sooner was he nominated (45 minutes to be precise) than Senator Ted Kennedy launched an attack against him, claiming that “‘Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters . . . and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy'” (p. 268).

Speaking through senators such as Kennedy and Joe Biden, a chorus of special interest groups, the ACLU, NOW, Planned Parenthood, et al., mounted an anti-Bork crusade. If Bork fairly presents the facts in this book, and his documentation seems reasonably detailed and persuasive, the charges made against him were virtually all false, deliberate lies employed to orchestrate the emotions of the masses.

For example, Gregory Peck, in an advertisement funded by People of the American Way, asserted Bork favored poll taxes and literacy tests, long used to bar blacks from voting in the South. In fact, Bork had never favored such. Ohio’s Senator Metzenbaum loudly decried that the nation’s women feared Bork, wresting out of context some decisions he had made as a federal judge. The Biden Report assailed Bork for his judicial errors–but without citing a single case as evidence!

In Bork’s opinion, this campaign against him resulted from the fact that he had dared to criticize the revisionist ideology which underlies significant decisions of the Warren and Berger courts. The fact that he finds Roe v. Wade judicially flawed ignited the flames of opposition to his appointment. No doubt some of this is self-serving special pleading. No doubt Bork, even in his demeanor during the hearings, looked like some kind of reactionary dinosaur. Still, I think he makes an important point: today’s obsession with political correctness makes Supreme Court justice hearings an overly-politicized arena where senators and special interest groups secure a national pulpit for at least a passing moment.

Though George Will may overstate a bit, I think his assessment rings true: “This is Robert Bork’s brilliant report from the front lines in an ongoing cultural war. At stake is nothing less than constitutional government. It is a sobering account of the extent to which judicial willfulness has degraded the elegant constitutional system we were given.”

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Now and then I read a book which is so quirky I don’t know exactly what to make of it. On one page you find yourself discovering something you’d never imagined existed or making connections you’d never envisioned. Then on the next page you’re wondering what kind of a writer would dare make such outlandish conclusions or allow his prejudices to dictate his presentation. The positions espoused, or the data cited, drives one to actually read the endnotes–and there are 150 pages in the work under review! Such a book is Leftism Revisited: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, c. 1990) by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a regular columnist for National Review.

In the author’s opinion, the past 200 years vividly illustrate the folly of the French Revolution and its call for “liberty, equality, fraternity.” As Goethe declared, “‘Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks'” (p. 9).

You just can’t enact both liberty and equality, so by and large revolutionaries promise liberty and then strangle it in order to implement the economic equality demanded by the masses. Much of this book is an endeavor to lay bare “the roots of a heinous iniquity, the French Revolution, historically the mother of most of the ideological evils besetting civilization, not only of the West but of the entire world” (p. 57).

In Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s view, we humans by nature need liberty. Created in the image of God, who alone is truly free, we need the freedom to be the spiritual beings we’re created to be. “Right, then, is what is truly right for man, above all his freedom. Because man has a personality, because he is a riddle, a piece of a puzzle that never completely fits into any preestablished social or political picture, he needs room, space” (p. 25). Every man wants to be . . . and needs to be . . . free! Leftists, however, consider human beings basically physical creatures with purely material needs. “Leftism is basically materialistic” (p. 28). Thus equality, dividing up the economic pie fairly, becomes the goal. If it’s necessary to sacrifice individual liberty to attain economic equality, the die is cast in favor of equality.

Equalitarian regimes, communist dictatorships, have, of course flourished and fallen in this century. The connections drawn between the French Revolution’s Marquis de Sade and Hitler’s Nazi nihilism and the Bolshevik brutality of Joseph Stalin may be tenuous, but K-L (to shorten the author’s hyphenated cognomen) ties together common political themes which make them at least distant bedfellows!

At times I was maddened by K-L’s aristocratic, anti-democratic Austrian arrogance! Often I considered his historical and political judgments wildly skewed! Like most Americans, I’m rather environmentally conditioned to favor “democracy,” which K-L pronounces only in disgust. (Of the American thinkers, he favors the likes of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who admittedly took an equally dim view of full-fledged democracy and its tendency to pander to the lowest appetites of the majority.) Yet I found myself, more frequently than I’d have imagined, agreeing with the penetrating analysis thrust upon me.

Because it stimulates thought, because it forces one to examine what we Americans often so easily assume to be true (e.g. that “equality” is a social good to be sought), I think the book worth reading and reflecting on. One thing’s for sure: if you care about the history of political thought, if you care to understand the political world, you’ll not be bored by K-L’s assertions!

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Yet another contentious, controversial conservative, John Silber, the President of Boston University, bound together a collection of his articles and speeches and published Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It (SF: Harper & Row, Publishers, c. 1989). In part one he focuses on “first principles,” then deals with “lessons in school” in part two, “lessons out of school” in part three.

America, Silber believes, has begun a precipitous decline. Only a resirrectopm pf some old-fashioned values, some rigid self-discipline, can save us as a nation. “We are beset by barbarians who have emerged within the walls of our own society, the “vertical” barbarians described more than sixty years ago by Ortega y Gasset” (p. 305). We courageously “face reality” and deal with the fact “that the degenerate society consumed in pleasure-seeking will not survive . . . that the society that will not defend its freedom will lose it . . . that a society that consumes more than it produces will go bankrupt . . . ” (p. 10).

On the front line in this struggle are America’s school teachers. Theirs is the task to recover some firm foundations for our culture. Unfortunately, they have very little possibility of succeeding. They have little philosophical or theological grounding, so, generally speaking, “What is being taught” in this nation’s schools “is nihilism sweetened with hedonism” (p. 69). And the odds against them truly instilling lasting values are awesome, for TV basically educates America’s young, and the tube’s message hardly challenges them to strive for excellence or forego immediate pleasures for long-term achievement!

Like so many conservative laments–jeremiads with the prophet Jeremiah’s implicit faith, hope, and charity–Silber’s slashing bombasts have a certain shock value. He’s a brilliant man, and he has the courage to state and live by his convictions. But about the only recipe for reorienting the nation is to return most everything to the private sector: private education instead of public schools, private charities instead of state-funded bureaucracies. In a sense, I suspect he’s right. But in another sense, he’s blowing bubbles in the wind. Which, rather succintly, suggests my evaluation of this book!

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