McClay & Sheaffer on American History

It’s been a history-packed week for yours portly.  Tuesday morning my History of Conservative Thought students and I continued our examination of Edmund Burke, the great Member of Parliament and godfather of Anglosphere conservatism.  Burke foresaw the radical nature of the French Revolution well before the guillotining began.

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to substitute a colleague’s summer course, Terror and Terrorism, a popular course he’s run for several summers now.  Students in that course read excerpts from John Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (PDF, the same one the students read, in part), a political philosophy perhaps the polar opposite of Burkean traditionalism.

Rousseau’s theory of the “general will” is, I would argue, responsible for the radicalism of the French Revolution—which wrought the Bolshevik (Russian) Revolution, the Maoist revolutions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and on and on.  There’s a reason one of my Conservative Thought students claims that “the French Revolution was the first Communist revolution,” by which he means it contained within it the collectivist ideals of Rousseau’s general will.

But I digress.  In the spirit of all that historical musing, I thought I’d recommend two pieces I’ve read recently about the historian’s craft, and the dangers of applying a progressive lens to our understand of the past.

The most recent piece is a post from Practically Historical, entitled “Expunging Our Past.”  Gordon Sheaffer‘s pithy historical posts are enlightening and engaging, and fits with an argument he makes in this post:

“History should be popular.  Our past must be understood by the citizenry- historical studies targeted only at academics cannot be how we measure the discipline.  There is a way to make history insightful and enjoyable.”

Amen!  One of my great frustrations while in graduate school was the ponderous relativism inherent in the jargon-laden, hyper-focused monographs we were forced to read.  I certainly acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of thoroughly researching a small corner of our historical experience, but what happened to the grand, sweeping histories of the eloquent generalist?

When I was a younger man, I relished reading accessible (but, nevertheless challenging) works of history, especially broad overviews of a time period or nation.  It’s fascinating to learn about the minutiae, to be sure, but a good historian should be able to give the broad strokes and the colorful details.

But the real point of Sheaffer’s piece is that the progressive revisionists are attempting to reduce American history to a Marxist (and Manichean) story of class struggle.  That trend dates back to Progressive Era historian Charles Beard, who famously argued that the Constitution was merely an economic arrangement that benefited the wealthy Framers, protecting their wealth and privilege at the expense of the common man.

Archfiend (and political scientist, not historian) Howard Zinn continued that theme in the popular-but-inaccurate A People’s History of the United States, which has sadly been adopted in many school districts across the country as an American history textbook.  Zinn presented American history as a procession of plutocrats exploiting the working people and racial minorities for personal aggrandizement, rather than the rich tapestry of hard-working yeoman and laborers who really built the country under the protective auspices of the Constitution.

Just as Burke was the antidote to Rousseau, so historian Wilfred McClay serves as a corrective to the partisan excesses of Zinn.  He’s written a new textbook, Land of Hope, which strives to be a “well-written and appealing history of the United States that, while being informed by the best scholarship, does not lose sight of the big picture about our nation’s admirable and exceptional history.”

McClay argues that without a proper foundation in our own nation’s history, we are unable to govern ourselves.  Quite true:  I would argue that a large part of our current national discontent and brutal culture war is that we have two very different visions of America.  The one is an America that is strong, liberty-loving, fair-minded, and great; the other is of an America that is exploitative, prejudiced, greedy, and callous.

That’s why I’ve long argued that simply requiring students to take an American history course to graduate from high school and/or college isn’t enough to move the needle.  It does no good if the course is a collection of progressivist pabulum or a crash-course in victim studies.  There’s no guarantee your high school history teacher—likely certified from a progressive education program—will actually teach American history fairly or accurately, much less your community college adjunct.

There are a ton of choice tidbits in this interview McClay gave to Encounter Books, the publisher of Land of Hope, but here’s a good excerpt on Zinn:

Encounter: Howard Zinn said that his goal in writing A People’s History of the United States was to create a “quiet revolution” in our understanding of American history. Did he succeed in that endeavor?

McClay: Yes and no. He succeeded in unsettling many aspects of the consensus in which American historical writing was embedded. He did this to an astonishing degree, particularly since he was not himself a historian. But he did not succeed in providing a substitute account of American history that goes beyond simplistic melodrama. Most honest historians will acknowledge that, even if they are sympathetic to Zinn’s leftist politics.

Encounter: Why was Zinn’s account so popular?

McClay: It is engagingly written, and gives a simple-minded, moralistic, account of the past as the struggle between the white hats and the black hats, the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. For some people, including many Americans who have felt disillusioned by our national flaws, this has been irresistible.

He also rails against the AP US History exam, which used to the “gold standard,” as he puts it, but which has suffered due to constant “tinkering with the exam, and interjection of themselves into what teachers actually teach in AP courses.”  I teach APUSH, and what McClay writes is absolutely true.  It’s bad enough teaching to a test every year—you don’t have the opportunity to luxuriate in the warm waters of historical detail—and it’s worse when the College Board tries to alter the exam every five minutes.

To close, one more powerful quotation from McClay:

Students should learn that history is not merely an inert account of self-explanatory details, but is a task of reflection that calls to our deepest sense of our humanity. And learning our history, the history of our own country, is part and parcel of learning who we are, and learning about the society of which we are already a part.

Again, I say, amen!

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Civilization is Worth It

The New Criterion, which I have touted before on this site, is an excellent, conservative publication dedicated to the arts and culture in all their forms.  I picked up a subscription (since lapsed, sadly) a couple of years ago at a deep discount, and enjoyed its strong, engaging writing immensely.  I don’t know anything about—nor have I ever seen—an opera, but the critics at New Criterion make me want to attend one.

One great resource at New Criterion is their “Media” page, which includes all of their audio articles.  These are articles read aloud by professional readers, and they make for wonderful listening while you’re going about your day, from painting walls to picking through the soggy remnants of your life.

Monday evening, New Criterion posted an audio article written by the publication’s editors.  It’s title:  “Is Civilization Overrated“?  Their conclusion, by way of reductio ad absurdum, is that, no, it isn’t, but I highly recommend you give it a listen; there’s a lot of John-Jacques Rousseau bashing, as the piece explores the destructive philosopher’s impish assertion that we were all better off foraging for berries and getting killed by saber-toothed tigers.

That question, though—is civiliation “overrated” or “worth it”—is an interesting one nonetheless.  I suspect that most everyone would say, “Well, sure,” and not give it much more thought.  But the contra argument is, at least fleetingly, interesting.  It’s also highly instructive of the thought-process of the modern Left.

I occasionally adjunct teach at a local technical college, and some years ago I had the opportunity to teach the first portion of Western Civilization survey course.  That course, naturally, started with a quick overview of prehistoric times and people in the Near East, and what pre-agricultural societies were probably like.  We then looked at the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of settled or semi-nomadic agriculture.

It was at this point that I caught a subtle but distinctive bit of the “civilization-isn’t-worth-it” mindset.  The textbook—which, sadly, I cannot quote from directly because flooding displaced me from my humble, scholarly bungalow—featured a section that went something like this:  with the advent of agriculture and settled societies came social hierarchies (true); that increase inequality (true enough, but the book makes it seem like an inherently negative development), including inequality between genders (that probably existed before agriculture); and settled agriculture began environmental degradation (again, probably true, but it also meant more human lives entering the world).

The whole passage—which I will have to quote at length when I have the book back in my possession—heavily insinuates that civilization was a raw deal; that the whole thing was a sham to bamboozle the weak into following the strong; and that men and women somehow existed in a mythical state of equality that would make the most strident radical feminist cry tears of pure Subaru Outback engine oil.

This mindset, I suspect, pervades a chunk of the modern Left, who un-ironically decry global warming (or is it cooling, or climate change?) while jetting around in gas-guzzling private jets to climate conferences.  There’s a certain naturalistic fallacy at play that is highly seductive, but ultimately facile.

I remember a conversation with my father when I was maybe seventeen, an age full of angsty brooding and doughy fatness.  I basically said, “Dad, I feel like I shouldn’t have to worry about trigonometric functions, and instead should let those motivated to solve them do it while I live in a state of naturalistic ecstasy” (okay, that wasn’t verbatim what I said, but you get the gist of it).  At seventeen, such an idea is seductive, and largely reality—someone else is bringing in the money while you play Civilization II instead of doing your math homework—but you grow out of it.

Except, apparently, for academics, the only folks educated enough to believe in fifty-three different genders and that “democratic” socialism works.  I (thankfully) grew out of my whining, which was really just an elaborate scheme to avoid doing any actual work myself—which might be the motivating factor behind Leftism after all.

Regardless, civilization seems imminently worth it.  Just ask anyone who has ever had a loved one saved through the miraculous technology of modern medicine.  Consider, too, that you’re probably reading this piece while streaming music from your phone, checking the weather, and eating a breakfast you didn’t have to kill with your bare hands after running it down for eight hours.

Are you wearing glasses right now?  At one point, you probably would have been left in the cold to die—your weakness was too costly for the rest of the tribe.  Do you have weird, probably made-up gluten allergies?  Well… maybe you would have been okay in a pre-agricultural age, but they still should have shunned you.

Ultimately, I’d much rather live in a world that produced J.S. Bach than a Stone Age pit full of atonal grunting.  It says something about the state of our civilization that the atonal grunts are back in vogue.

Hyper-dependence on technology is not without its pitfalls, and we should work to improve civilization to work more efficiently and to put humanity first (only after God), but a base reversion to an anarchic, Rousseauian “state of nature” is a fool’s dream.  It would only result in more death and heartache.

So get out there and compose some sonatas.  Civilization is worth it!

TBT: There is No General Will

Yesterday’s post about the Electoral College—and why the American constitutional system generally eschews raw majoritarianism at the national level—reminded me of an essay I wrote in 2016 about Rousseau’s idea of the “general will.”  It was probably the least popular post of the summer, but it highlights the dangers of succumbing to “mob rule,” a system of radical egalitarian democracy that inevitably results in tyranny and violence.

It was Rousseau’s notion of the general will—and the idea that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains“; therefore, men must be forced to be free—that unleashed the horrors of the French Revolution and, by extension, the destructive, totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

The essential idea behind Rousseau’s political philosophy is that, in the absence of social constraints, man would be inherently noble—the “noble savage” idea.  As such, society exists as a way to keep the elites ensconced in power.  Whereas Lockean empiricists (that’s pretty much all Americans in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition) argue that property rights are necessary to protect the weak from the strong, and that human nature is inclined toward sinfulness (especially in the absence of law and order), Rousseauean idealists argued that property rights oppress the weak for the benefit of the strong.

Therefore, society needs to be tweaked—legally, socially, culturally, economically, etc.—until the desired outcomes are achieved.  Naturally, the “desired outcomes” shift constantly, as they would inevitably have to under a regime purportedly based on the fickle whims of the people.  Regardless, the Rousseauean view is that man, at bottom, is perfectible, and that changes to external factors will make him truly free.

Thus, we see the never-ending arguments on the Left for adopting this new policy or that new right.  Sometimes, of course, policies need changing, adopting, or repealing, but the Left doesn’t seem to have any end-goal in mind; rather, it marches on a perpetual track of “progress” that, we’re told, will one day immanentize the eschaton and bring paradise on Earth.

The conservative is naturally skeptical of these claims.  Evangelical and traditional Christians understand well man’s “sin nature,” and hard experience has taught us that, in the absence of social and legal order, life would become an orgiastic free-for-all in which the strong oppressed the weak and took what they could.  Believers also understand that paradise on this world is impossible (although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve our world; it just means that, ultimately, we’re fallen, and only Christ can make us whole—what civilization we do enjoy, and the tolerant form Western civilization has traditionally taken, is a product of Christianity).

(For a related illustration of this phenomenon, consider how much dating and marriage have changed since the advent of the Sexual Revolution, which “freed” men and women of traditional social boundaries regarding sexuality, courtship, and marriage.  Sixty years ago, a relatively meek “beta male” could more or less be assured marriage, as promiscuity was frowned upon and women were encouraged to take one partner; now, an “alpha male”—the “strong” of the Sexual Revolution—cultivates multiple partners, while bookish “betas”—the “weak”—struggle to find mates.)

I always come back to G.K. Chesterton’s fence:  before you tear it down, you need to know why the fence is there.  It may very well serve a useful purpose that, to your eye, might not be immediately apparent (an endorsement for studying history!).  Or it could be useless and in need of discarding.  Either way, do your research first, and be wary of swift, radical changes.

With that, I give you 3 August 2016’s “There is No General Will“:

I’ve been watching the television series Wayward Pines (don’t worry; no spoilers), which raises tons of great questions about how a society–particularly a closed one under duress–should function.  What’s the proper balance between freedom and security?  How much should governing elites reveal to the folks, and what should be concealed?  Should people fulfill specific roles in a society to benefit the greater goals of that society, or should they be free to choose their professions (and, for that matter, their mates, homes, schools, etc.)?

These are interesting and complicated questions.  Indeed, the question of the proper balance between freedom and security has puzzled republics since Periclean Athens.  The question itself is misleading, I would argue—and likely will in a future post—that the two are not mutually exclusive.

“[T]here is no such thing as the general will.”

But I digress.  All of these questions seem to pose a larger one:  what is the “general will” or “greater good” of a society, and how should a society go about pursuing it?  My answer is that there is no such thing as the general will.

Now, to be clear, this statement does not mean that I think there’s no merit in a society pursuing some common goals, or that I deny that sometimes in a majoritarian system there will be policies that some people don’t like, but that are beneficial for society as a whole.  Our whole constitutional system in the United States is carefully balanced to make sure that the “will of the people” is well-represented at the local, State, and national levels, while still guaranteeing and protecting the basic rights of individuals—even when those rights aren’t particularly popular.

But here’s the rub—while our constitutional order protects against the tyranny of the majority, the broad notion—from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau—of the “general will” acknowledges no such limiting principle against the power of the majorityIt is against this sense that the “will of the people” is the be-all, end-all of social good that I stand.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Philosophical Super Villain.
(Image Sourcehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait).jpg, portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour)

The people, as a whole, are fickle.  It’s very difficult to get ten people to agree about what to eat for dinner; note how difficult it is for 330 million to agree on even the most basic of issues (in South Carolina, we still haven’t reached any kind of consensus about how to pay for and fix our roads, something virtually everyone wants done).

Even if you can get ten reasonable people to agree to, say, a long-term weekly dining schedule, at some point one or two will start to say, “Well, maybe we could have spaghetti on Wednesday nights instead of tacos.”  Imagine that conversation happening loudly and angrily across fifty States.  It’s a recipe—pardon the pun—for disaster.

Raw majoritarianism—what Rousseau appears to be calling for when he argues that society should be based on the “general will” of the people—is an unworkable scheme on anything but the smallest levels of society.  Rousseau’s chilling dictum that men are “forced to be free” reveals the inevitable consequence of unbridled democracy:  ultimately, the inexpressible “general will” becomes expressed through a demagogic tyrant, or through a legislator uninhibited by any restraints on its law-making authority beyond what the people want.

“[T]he ‘general will’ acknowledges no… limiting principle against the power of the majority.”

I’ve long viewed Rousseau as one of the great villains of modern philosophy, and I would argue that one can draw a more-or-less straight line from Rousseau and the French Revolution through fascism, communism, and totalitarianism, all the way to modern illiberal progressivism.  Rousseau—like modern progressives—believes in the mutability of human will, arguing that laws, not human nature, make people bad or good.  Get the laws right–or tweak the system enough–and you can spit out completely virtuous people.

Thus we see the conceit of the modern Left that no one commits crime out of greed or evil; instead, they’re “victims of circumstance” or subject to “systems of oppression” that cause them to do evil.  If only we created more programs or redistributed more wealth—or, if taken to the logical extreme, if only we did away with private property altogether, since the state and its laws exist to protect it—then, finally, man would be perfect.

Such notions are not only absurd; they are hugely injurious to both individual freedom and the health of society at large.  A virtuous society is one that cultivates a virtuous culture, which is only sustainable if it educates its people to live virtuously, recognizing that there will always be failures because, after all, to err is human.

(Note:  I do acknowledge that sometimes people are driven to commit typically immoral deeds out of necessity; however, I believe our society hugely exaggerates the extent to which such motives drive criminality and wickedness; just ask any wealthy person who’s ever been convicted of shoplifting or embezzlement why they stole, and you’ll quickly realize that even people with plenty of material safety are tempted to sin.)

“Raw majoritarianism… is an unworkable scheme….”

Expecting pure perfection is dangerous and unrealistic.  Mistakes are the inevitable price of freedom.  You can ignore reality for a time and get by with it, but eventually it will catch up.

Rather than idealistically seek after a non-existent “general will,” we should instead govern ourselves—and resist tyranny in the process.  To do so requires decentralization of power (and more local decision-making), a shared understanding of American values, and an education rich in morality, virtue, and philosophy.

(To read more about Rousseau’s thought–and, perhaps, to correct my errors and oversimplifications, read more at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/.)