June 04, 2009

Left-wing America

It is a common author?s complaint that a reviewer has reviewed a book the author not only did not write, but never intended to write. As I read E. Christian Kopff?s ?Is America Unconservative,? I found myself repeatedly drawn to that complaint.  He often was replying to things I simply had not said.

In non-reply to my essay?s thesis?that there is no significant, European-style Right in America?he says, ?Gutzman is wrong ? about the United States and the people who created this nation.?  His first evidence?  That Jared Taylor objects to the recent treatment of the New Haven firefighters on racial grounds.

But even this is very weak evidence. Taylor, as I read him, did not say that because they are white, most of the New Haven firefighters should not be treated as they have been treated. That would be a traditional Rightist argument: that particular people should receive particular privileges because of who they are, whether racially, in terms of religion, or in terms of descent.  No, Taylor?s and others? objection has been that the New Haven firefighters have been disadvantaged for not being black. That is a Lockean, one might say left-wing, argument:  that no one should receive special privileges.  Mirabeau might have said as much, or Philipe ?galit?.

So, too, in regard to the minor brouhaha over Judge Sotomayor?s claim of superior insight for people who fit into the same racial and sexual category as she:  the response has not been, at least so far as I am aware, ?No, she?s wrong, men have more insight than women? or ?No, certainly not, the life experience of people of northern European extraction gives them better preparation for positions on the Supreme Court, so far as life experience goes, than does that of Hispanics.? These would be classic European right-wing arguments. Instead, people who have objected to the judge?s comment have commonly said that she was, as Newt Gingrich put it, a ?racist.?  This is a classic Left argument:  that one should not look to the person?s race or sex in evaluating her qualification.

If I am wrong about these issues, I am ready to admit it.  Where, pray tell, is the senator who is objecting to Sotomayor because she?s female?  Because she?s Hispanic?  Because she?ll be the sixth Catholic on the Court? There isn?t one. Nor, for generations now, has there been any prominent political figure making such arguments.

Kopff next notes that both parties nominated left-wing candidates for president in the latest presidential election campaign. Yes, they did. Is this supposed to explode my argument? When was this not true?  He says that race is a powerful predictor of voting behavior because the major-party presidential candidates rarely have serious philosophical disagreements. Ponder this assertion though I may, I cannot quite see how it disproves my point: blacks are Democrats chiefly because the last serious classically right-wing tradition in America was segregation, the latest iteration of white people?s intentionally keeping them down, and it was the Democratic Party, fairly or unfairly, that came to be associated with the abolition of that practice.

How were people persuaded to abandon that practice?  By appeals to blacks? special worthiness of federal support? No, mainly by the argument that black and white people should be treated as equal. That is, from the point of view of European political classifications, a classic Left argument. Of course, it was chiefly the Democratic Party that established and maintained racial segregation, but this does not alter the fact that it was a classic right-wing policy. Blacks can hardly be criticized for having noticed that Senator Goldwater opposed the federal measures that ended it, and that many prominent old segs became Republicans soon thereafter.

That, for someone with my constitutional views, is a great pity. Yet, there it is. One might offer similar explanations for the voting behavior of American Jews, or feminists, or military families, or recipients of farm subsidies, etc. These explanations don?t disprove my point so far as I can see, either.

Kopff quotes me saying, ?Classically, defenders of American slavery (Rightists par excellence) favored highly limited federal government (a classical Left attitude).?  He then replies with the non sequitur that ?neither the French nor the American Left has consistently favored limited government.? It is nice to see the good professor leaven his condescension with a bit of humor. He goes on to say that, ?There is absolutely no historical reason to disassociate the defense of slavery from support for free trade.?  Apparently, he is a bit confused:  not only did I not disassociate the two, but I had precisely the economic and constitutional positions of slavery?s defenders in mind when I said that defenders of American slavery classically favored highly limited federal government.  This is why I called theirs a ?classical Left attitude.?  I don?t know with whom Prof. Kopff is arguing.

Next, I learn that I am an ?openly professed left-winger.?  I fear that the good professor has misapprehended my argument entirely.  I was not saying that I was a left-winger in the American sense; I was saying that we Americans virtually all are left-wing in the European sense. Unless he wants to say that the New Haven firefighters should be favored instead of disfavored in their competition with favored-minority candidates, that Judge Sotomayor should be disfavored instead of favored for being a female or for being a Hispanic, that she should be disfavored or favored for being a Catholic, etc., then he?s not of the classic Right either.

(Note that Tom Piatak?s reply to the earlier exchange actually continues in the authentically right-wing vein that he first touched when the debate over the Federal Government?s gifts began on this site months ago. Then, he said that when it came right down to it, he would use the Federal Government to transfer money from society at large to his region and his relatives, and by God, if some politician opposed it?if either party opposed it?then Anathema!  I do not detect any such argument in Kopff?s essay.)

Kopff says that the question I?ve raised is, ?Was America founded as a traditionalist society [,] or was it founded on liberal principles derived from the writings of John Locke??  It would be rather odd if I had raised that question, since I have written at great length (including here) that there was no liberal ?founding.?  In fact, as a student of M. E. Bradford (who, by the way, called himself an ?Old Whig?? not a Tory, note, but a man of the Old English Left), I am prone to deny that there was a ?founding? of America at all.

My statements about America?s Lockeanism are in the present tense:

The idea of the Right comes from France, where the word denoted proponents of traditional authority. That meant chiefly crown, church, and aristocracy.  In America, the Revolution got rid of those types of authority, to the extent they had ever existed here, and soon enough, the Revolution?s unanticipated implications played out in a lot of other forms of leveling.  (Much of this leveling made radicals of the Revolution?s early days profoundly unhappy, as I?ve explored at book length.)

Somehow, Kopff derives from this the conclusion that I am wrong about ?the people who made this nation.? But what I said was that the Revolution?s fruits, the extent and type of the resulting leveling, made some of them profoundly unhappy.  (I had in mind Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler, Sr., in particular, about whom I wrote in this connection in Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840, [but I might as easily have been describing others:  John Taylor and Edmund Pendleton come to mind.)  It?s hard for me to see exactly what it is about the men whose thought is my primary area of expertise that Kopff thinks I misunderstand.

Kopff?s invocation of Kendall and Carey really will not do.  He says that they trace antecedents of today?s political culture back to the Mayflower Compact (oh, Bradford would have loved that!) as if I had denied that something came before today?s consensus, and he invokes Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and others who have developed the influence of multiple lines of thinking on the men who made the Revolution.  One wonders, however, how well Kopff understands their work.

If he had been among the graduate students in my American Revolution course this spring, Kopff would have seen those two great eminences of recent American Revolution historiography develop the argument that four main lines of thinking, at least, played roles in provoking the Thirteen Colonies to revolution:  New England covenant theology, classical history, common law thinking, and natural rights thinking.  Kopff seems to believe that by invoking these authors, he is disproving my claim about contemporary America.  It is up to him, then, to demonstrate that New England covenant theology has significant exponents today, that classical history shapes Americans? understanding of contemporary issues, that the English common law tradition has broad influence, or that ? well, no, that last one is the one I see as dominant.  Best leave that out.

Bailyn described the Revolution as ?radically libertarian.?  Given the spin he showed his subjects putting on the four traditions he saw as informing their appraisal of British policy, that is unsurprising. In their own days, it must be said, each of those four traditions was radically, profoundly left-wing. New England covenant theology, for example, was an alternative to traditional Christian ideas about how a church community and a political community were formed and where authority lay in the Church.  It was a profoundly subversive alternative, one ultimately hostile to both throne and altar.  Why else did the Puritans have to relocate to North America in the first place?  As King James I told the Puritans who asked him whether he would abolish episcopacy in England, ?No bishops, no king.? The Puritans? bent seemed clear enough to James. He understood them perfectly.

So, too, the common law tradition as the Revolutionaries knew it was cobbled together in the first instance by Lord Coke in opposition to ? royal prerogative.  It was a Whig concern through and through.  And what of classical history?  The version of classical history current among the Revolutionaries was that of the Oppositionists of the eighteenth century ? of the British Left.  If I had been saying what Kopff takes me to have been saying, I would have been mistaken.  But I was not saying that the Revolutionaries? only guiding influences were Lockean.  I was making a claim about today?s America, in which the other three guiding Left-wing influences of the Revolution have only vestigial effects.

As I noted before, John Adams made a notable right-wing constitutional proposal in his lengthy book on American state constitutions:  he wanted to have an aristocratic house in each American legislature. Wood?s chapter on this topic is entitled ?The Irrelevance of John Adams.? Adams, too, was unhappy that the Revolution had yielded such wide-spread leveling. When the marquis de Lafayette visited America during the Monroe administration, he was shocked that deference had so thoroughly disappeared from American life.  The egalitarian ethos spread very quickly.  What was traditionalist about this?

Prof. Kopff has himself written about what he takes to be the necessity of instructing people in the Latin language if we are to preserve Western culture.  How, then, can he want to say that I am wrong to fail to note some widespread influence of classical historiography on contemporary Americans?  As one who has studied ancient, patristic, and modern Greek, and who bedevils undergraduate students of historiography with a heaping helping of ancient historians, I sympathize with his complaint about the disappearance of his field from most curricula.  I recall that disappearance to Dr. Kopff?s attention.

Kopff closes by referring to my ?libertarian, neocon, and liberal peers.?  I am a libertarian in the mode of Thomas Jefferson, I suppose, or of John Taylor ? that is, of M.E. Bradford and Barry Goldwater.  I won?t apologize for thinking that the Fed caused the meltdown, or that gigantic transfers of money from society at large to New York financiers and Midwestern auto workers are glorified theft.  As far as the American political spectrum is concerned, those appraisals put me on the Right.

And Kopff says that my assertion that Americans are overwhelmingly Lockean amounts to an insistence that traditionalists do not exist. Here, again, he misapprehends. My point is that the traditionalists? tradition is basically Lockean, it is anti-ascriptive and egalitarian, it is hostile to throne and altar. He has given readers little reason to doubt me.  From a European perspective, it is left-wing.

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