George Scialabba’s Latest Collection of Essays

slouchingSome of you may recall our 2105 post on the writer and cultural critic George Scialabba.  Here is a taste of that post:

I haven’t read much of George Scialabba‘s writing. Back in 2012 I did a post on a Scialabba piece on intellectuals, academia, and Christopher Lasch.  But after I read Craig Lambert’s article on Scialabba’s retirement at The Chronicle of Higher Education I realized that I need to read more of him.

What fascinates me the most about Scialabba is the fact that he has spent the last thirty-five years working a clerical job at Harvard University.  Since it is difficult for one to make a living as an essayist and book reviewer, Scialabba worked arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard, operating out of a basement office with no windows. Over the years he has written over 400 reviews and essays in the Washington PostVillage Voice, The NationThe American ConservativeCommonwealDissent, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Booksto name a few.  He has published four books.

Over at The American Conservative, Gerald Russello reviews a recent collection of Scialabba essays: Slouching Toward Utopia: Essays & Reviews.

Here is a taste:

This collection covers what may broadly be called questions of political culture. Like the best philosophical critics, Scialabba wants to know how we can live our common life with dignity and justice. He considers writers like Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Lasch, Yuval Levin, Michael Sandel, and others to probe how best to achieve public goods. The goods Scialabba advocates, it should be obvious, are not aligned with mainstream conservative goals. And one can argue with Scialabba’s romance with a non-market economy in which redistributive justice has pride of place. The “utopia” toward which we are slouching is remote indeed.

But perhaps not that remote. In an interview republished here, “America Pro and Con,” Scialabba praises the “vigorous self-assertion of working classes and small proprietors, which I think as close to mass democracy as the world has come, was transformed, largely by the advent of mass production, into a mass society of passive, apathetic, ignorant, deskilled consumers.” That vision would attract not a few Benedict Optioners, and not only them.

Read the rest here.

Has Liberalism Failed?

Liberalism FailedThis is the title of a Commonweal forum on Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen‘s book Why Liberalism Failed.  Here is an intro to the forum from the Commonweal editors:

Although there’s always more than one good way to write about any book worth reviewing, Commonweal does not usually review a book more than once. Sometimes, however, a book takes on an importance beyond itself—by provoking a new discussion or marking a cultural shift—and then we may make an exception. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, $30, 248 pp.) has turned out to be just such a book. Alan Wolfe reviewed it for us (rather dismissively, it must be said) in the February 12 issue of the magazine, but the editors agreed that there was more to say about some of the questions Deneen raises. First, has liberalism failed, as he claims? And if so, why? Is the liberal tradition equipped to correct its own shortcomings, or must it be abandoned altogether? In that case, what are the alternatives? In the age of Trump, when liberal democracy appears to be on the ropes in much of the world, such questions suddenly seem less speculative. We asked three people—Samuel Moyn and Bryan Garsten of Yale University and Commonweal’s own Matthew Sitman—to respond to Deneen’s arguments. Deneen himself kindly agreed to answer their criticisms and, somewhat less kindly, offers Commonweal a few criticisms of his own. The magazine, he informs us, is about as moribund as liberalism. Hospitality requires that we give him the last word, at least for now.

Read Garsten’s response here.

Read Moym’s response here.

Can Evangelicals and Secular Liberals Find Common Ground?

HandsAccording to J.J. Gould, the editor of The New Republic, the future of our democracy depends on it.  Here is a taste of his editorial, “Belief in Democracy“:

…Which means that as committed secular liberals and serious evangelicals, of the kind Bryan Mealer writes about for us this month, come to identify with each other politically, that’s a political identification between kinds of people who live in ways that are in some respects powerfully alien to one another. Mutual super-revulsion with Trump and elements of his base can only obscure this reality so much.

Which in turn represents a great hope for the still-tenuous future of liberal democracy in the United States: If you can sustain a common political identity despite such profoundly different beliefs about the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it, you can sustain the promise of American life.

Read the entire piece here.

John Locke and Slavery

Locke

Holly Brewer, the Burke Chair of American History at the University of Maryland, argues that Locke and Western liberalism had little to do with slavery.  Here is a taste of her essay at Aeon:

Neither slavery nor colonisation had their origins in Locke’s Two Treatises. His ideas about how people could claim rights to property did justify a certain kind of colonisation. He argued that, by making objects, by farming the land, one could derive ownership, goods and ground. However, his was a more egalitarian ideal of ownership than that offered by King James I’s right of discovery by Christian princes who could then grant dominion – the right of ownership and governance. Locke’s was founded on individual action, the Stuart kings’ on divine status.

Such attention to historical context matters. These complex debates over justice shaped the early modern world, and continue to shape ours. If we pretend that Locke and the Stuart kings were the same, and that their policy struggles did not matter, we ignore the impact of our own policies. If we dismiss Locke’s ideas as paradoxical, we forget that in these fires were forged not only slavery but also crucial principles of human rights. It is not only that the big questions were fiercely contended, but that small policies often had huge impacts. Reversing Charles II’s reward of land for buying slaves was a major move against inequality and injustice, and against the idea that kings could grant dominion over others. So too was his suggestion that all people be naturalised and have equal protections under the law.

The effort to compress such fierce disputes into a flat narrative of hypocrisy belies not only the past but the present. The effort to condemn liberalism (and Locke) as a theory of slavery and oppression, and to see within liberalism the origin of slavery, misrepresents the very essence of his theory, which was about human rights. It silences intense political debates over such rights that had dramatic practical repercussions. Slavery was justified by theories that all people were born to a divinely ordained status, ideas that were harmonious with racism, but not defined by that racism. Slavery’s origins were in absolutism, not liberalism.

Liberalism arose in reaction to slavery. It sought inclusion, and defined rights with broad promises, albeit ones that could be opened to exclusions. Indeed, one could argue that the breadth of such promises made racism (and other forms of prejudice) necessary in order to once again justify hereditary hierarchies. But for many others, it opened wide promises of inclusion. The theory itself was one that strained for relative equality under the law for all those who could give meaningful consent. The similarity of these disputes to ones we conduct today becomes more apparent with such context. For example: do rights inhere in all human beings or only in citizens? Abstract philosophical debates emerged from real dilemmas but also helped to shape policies that affected millions of people’s lives. They still do.

Read the rest here.

Original Sin Liberalism

Reinhold_niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr might be described as an “original sin liberal”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes about it in relation to gun control at Commonweal:

Here is a taste:

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature is prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Read the entire piece here.  And yes, Dionne mentions Reinhold Niebuhr.

Are Pro-Life Christians Really Liberals?

Lewis abortionOver at Religion Dispatches, Eric C. Miller interviews Andrew R. Lewis, author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars.  According to Miller, “Lewis argues that anti-abortion activism has been instrumental in conditioning the Christian Right for participation in liberal discourse. Though launched in the stern language of moral condemnation, the Christian Right has followed its anti-abortion vanguard into a twenty-first century rhetoric based in the liberal language of rights.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Your book argues that anti-abortion activism has prompted the Christian Right to embrace liberal discourse. How so?

The primary argument is that the politics of abortion have taught conservative Christians about the value of public arguments grounded in the language of rights, as rights are one of the most accessible forms of American political discourse. This is particularly true as American culture has become more secular and less apt to embrace calls for public morality.

Going back to the early days of the pro-life movement in the 1960s, there was a strong liberal, human rights element to anti-abortion activists, seeking to defend the right-to-life of the unborn. Much of this came from Catholics. As evangelicals and the Christian Right joined the cause in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was often more rhetorical focus on the immorality of abortion than the rights of the unborn. This reflected the politics of the “Moral Majority.”

A rights-based stream within the pro-life movement persisted, however, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the right-to-life rhetoric triumphed for both the elite activists and the rank-and-file. Importantly, this right-to-life-based framework has allowed for opposition to abortion to compete with the liberal right-to-privacy based argument, serving as a quality public counter-argument. Even more, as conservative Christians have increasingly become a cultural minority in the past two decades, they have begun embracing rights-based rhetoric first learned and used in the pro-life movement in a whole host of other areas of public life, specifically free speech and religious liberty politics. 

Read the rest here.

 

Alan Wolfe on Patrick Deneen

LiberalismPatrick Deneen‘s book Why Liberalism Failed has been getting a lot of attention.  Check out public intellectual Alan Wolfe’s review at Commonweal: “Loving the Amish.”

A taste:

Patrick Deneen is a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who is an adherent to a form of conservatism at war with modernity in all its forms. Just to be clear what this means, Deneen’s conservatism has little in common with versions adopted by today’s Republican Party, including, or so I surmise, the Trumpian one. To Deneen, much of today’s conservatism—not only Paul Ryan’s crush on Ayn Rand, but also the “American greatness” yearnings of William Kristol and David Brooks—is one or another form of liberalism. Unfortunately Deneen never tells us what genuine conservatism means, although there are hints ranging from twelfth-century conceptions of natural right to the agrarian writings of the contemporary neo-Rousseauian Wendell Berry. It would have helped this reader if Deneen had talked more explicitly about the conservatism against which liberalism was a reaction. 

In spite of this conceptual neglect, I found myself surprised by the number of points on which Deneen and I agree. He claims, against both libertarians and welfare-state defenders, that the “classical liberalism” of free markets lies along the same path as the “modern” liberalism of active government involvement. That accords with my own position that Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes belong in the same political camp. We both consider John Stuart Mill a liberal par excellence. Deneen argues, again I believe quite correctly, that the liberal arts in most colleges and universities have run their course and that few contemporary students ever receive full exposure to the glories of the humanities. Liberalism, in his view, prioritizes culture over nature; I agree.  Liberalism’s goal is to free human beings from artificial constraints that prevent them from realizing their full potential; I also agree with that. 

In pursuing his argument, Deneen should have one advantage: unrestrained by any hint of academic caution, he writes in the style of an eighteenth-century pamphleteer, making dramatic claims and hoping that his eloquent prose will carry the case. Even with respect to this rhetorical approach, we are not that different. I also try to write in a style suitable not just to academics and I have been known to be a bit polemical. Reading Deneen, I found myself thoroughly engaged and I wish more books like this would come from the editorial offices of university presses.

The only major difference between us, alas a rather significant one, is that for Deneen liberalism is one of the great horrors of world history; its failure is so complete that it will soon (if it has not already) lose all its adherents while creating one disaster after another. I believe that liberalism, in spite of the rightwing nativism currently fashionable in one liberal democracy after another, still has a great deal to achieve before it runs its course, and that there is no existing alternative political philosophy that can rival its staying power.

Read the rest here.

Cornel West Takes a Shot at Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates and West

In The Guardian.  A taste:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?

Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Gordon Wood

41-mB7iaBXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgGordon Wood is Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University. This interview is based on his new book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Penguin Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Friends Divided?

GW: I had just edited three volumes of writings of John Adams for the Library of America and planned to write a book on Adams. My editor at Penguin-Random House, Scott Moyers, asked, why not write on both Adams and Jefferson?  The suggestion was intriguing and that’s how the book began.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Friends Divided?

GW: The two patriots, Adams and Jefferson, could not be more different. They represent the strains of conservatism and liberalism in American life, and yet they became friends, divided friends who reconciled late in life.

JF: Why do we need to read Friends Divided?

GW: I think reading the book will give a reader a heightened idea of the difference between conservatism and liberalism in our culture. It will also show why we Americans ultimately have come to honor Jefferson and not Adams.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

GW: I originally intended to join the foreign service, but three bizarre years of  experience in the USAF convinced me that I would not enjoy working for the government; so instead I applied to graduate school to study history, which I had always been interested in.

JF: What is your next project?

GW: I am not sure what my next project might be. I first have to go on a book tour to promote this book.

JF: Thanks, Gordon!

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas

 

StThomas(MN)_Header

I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.

 

Two Excellent Responses to My Glenn Beck/David Barton Post

  1. barton-and-beck

Earlier tonight I wrote a post about a David Barton and Glenn Beck plan to bring their pseudohistory to American schools.  You can read it here.

Since I published the post I received two excellent comments.  I am re-posting them below.

The first comment comes from Yale history graduate student Michael Hattem:

Without money, we have to fight on platforms that don’t require large amounts of money. When you search for Barton on YouTube, it comes up with dozens (if not hundreds) of videos of him talking his nonsense. Why is there no series of videos by actual historians entitled, “Why David Barton is Wrong about the Founding?” That’s something that could be done relatively cheaply, if the inclination and will existed. In addition, we should petition the organizations in our field that have resources to put a small amount of them toward directly counteracting this initiative. Why can’t the AHA or OAH or similar organizations help provide the organizational impetus for actual historians willing to volunteer time to visit local public schools in their own areas. No distinguished speaker fees, no travel, just historians getting into schools FOR FREE through the imprimatur of our professional organizations. We don’t have the money that they have but it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways we can’t collectively counteract the willful miseducation of our nation’s youth about the fundamentals of American history.

After reading Michael’s post I began to rethink my Spring 2017 season of the Virtual Office Hours.  I was going to do something about history in the #ageoftrump, but now I am might do something on Barton.   We start filming this week.

The second comment comes from a regular reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who goes by the name “SpaceHistorian.”

I recently read Rick Perlstein’s excellent book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. He documented how a few wealthy Libertarian families, the Coors, the DeVos, the Mellon Scaifes, the Olins, the Bradleys, etc., poured money into right-wing think tanks (Heritage Foundation, Eagle Forum, American Enterprise Institute, CATO Institute, Hoover Institute, etc.) in order to take over the Republican Party with the goal of promoting the unholy mixture of Ayn Randian economic policies with alleged Judeo-Christian moral principles. The Koch Brothers came on the scene later but with many of the same Libertarian goals. All of this money funded AstroTurf groups that infiltrated the GOP at the local level, the state level and through Ronald Reagan, the federal government. These conservative think tanks have provided the so-called “experts” that regularly appear in newspapers, magazines, online and on TV network news shows and cable news shows all parroting the same bought and paid for Libertarian narrative. So this is a “revolution” that has been decades in the making and largely pulled off outside public view disguised as a average American citizen’s movement.

So how do we overcome decades of indoctrination, subversion, the takeover of all levels of government, the takeover of corporate media, and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to build and defend this Libertarian/bastardized Christian worldview? Money equals power and influence in America. The more money, the more power, the more influence people and groups have in America. The people dedicated to the Libertarian/Christian alliance do not play by any rules or respect for the facts. All they care about are results which justifies their actions. So how do those of us with a sense of human decency, ethics and conscience battle the forces arrayed against us? We now live in a world where “alternative facts” are the new “truth” and evidence to the contrary is dismissed as fake news by those who traffic in producing and promoting fake news.

So solve these challenges and our Constitutional Republic just may survive to be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren. Fail and the United States ends the great experiment in democracy started in 1787. So no pressure Dr. Fea, no pressure at all sir.

“Though conservative think tanks get a lot of money, their money does not come from the wealthiest foundations by any means. There are plenty of liberals with enough money to match the conservatives. Wealthy liberals, however, want their money to go as directly as possible to the downtrodden and oppressed, with nothing significant designated for infrastructure, career development, or their intellectuals. From a position external to the liberal moral system this seems irrational and self-defeating. But from inside the moral system it seems natural.” (George Lakoff, “Moral Politics,” pp. 417-418).

The Lakoff quote resonates with me a great deal.  Part of it reminds me of some of the things I wrote about in this post.

The Origin of Christian Human Rights

MoynCheck out Lilian Calles Barger interview with Samuel Moyn, history professor at Harvard and author of Christian Human Rights.

Here is Barger’s summary of Moyn’s book:

Samuel Moyn is Professor of Law and History at Harvard University. InChristian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), Moyn provides a historical intervention in our understanding of how the idea of human rights in the mid-twentieth century came to be. He argues that contrary to current thought, that sees it as part of the long-legacy of Christianity, or the triumph of liberal democracy, it has a more complicated history. The notion of human rights was inspired by a defense of the dignity of the human person. It first arose just prior to WW II as part of the reformulation of the liberal idea of human rights, deemed morally bankrupt, taken up by conservative religious thinkers. Moyn argues that the long-held Christian concept of moral equality of human beings did not translate into political rights. Rather the reformulation of human rights in the 1940s was a Catholic communitarian defense against totalitarian, capitalism and political secularism. The language of rights was extricated from the legacy of the French Revolution “rights of man” to become a religious value checking the political power of the state with religious freedom as a key concept. The philosophy of “personalism” articulated by Jacques Maritain recast democracy and human rights in a Catholic vein becoming enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the ascendancy of Christian democratic parties at mid-century. Secularized after the 1960s, human rights became an increasingly uninspiring concept unable to do the work it promised. Moyn suggests transcending this mid-twentieth Christian legacy and notes the need to find a new effective transformative creed.

Listen to the interview here.

 

GOP Presidential Candidates: Quit Complaining About the Questions

Every Republican in the country tonight is complaining about the liberal bias of the questions posed by Becky Quick, John Harwood, and Carlos Quintinilla, the moderators of last night’s GOP debate on CNBC.

Were they tough questions?  Yes. Were the moderators liberal?  I don’t know their personal political views. Did the questions have a liberal bias?  Probably, but I don’t think anything they asked was out of bounds as far as politics go–past or present.
I have not heard Donald Trump criticize the questions yet.  Sean Hannity interviewed him after the debate and Trump skirted Hannity’ question about the liberal-bias of the moderators.  Of course Trump also had serious problems with Megyn Kelly’s question in the first Fox debate.  He could be an bipartisan whiner.
Many conservative pundits on Fox, including Hannity, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill O’Reilly, all thought that Marco Rubio won the day when he said that the CNBC questions had a liberal bias.   Others praised Cruz for attacking the supposed liberal nature of the questions.  
What struck me was that neither Cruz nor Rubio answered the question that they were asked. Instead they used their time to criticize the moderators.  The moderators asked Rubio a good question.  Why aren’t you showing up to represent the people of Florida in the Senate?  He did not answer this question, claiming that it played into the liberal bias of the media. Such an answer may have fired up his base, but it was not very satisfying.  And then he followed-up by saying that if John Kerry, John McCain, and others skipped votes when they were running for president, then why not me?  Jeb Bush was right to attack him on this point.
Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the questions at last night’s debate were biased.  I don’t know about you, but I want my presidential candidates to be able to give an honest answer to any legitimate question that is asked of them.  The President of the United States is the leader of all Americans–liberal and conservative.  When asked a hard question from someone of a different political or ideological perspective–a question that might make him or her uncomfortable–I don’t want my president to default with an appeal to the political bias of the question.
Fiorina needs to answer questions about her time at Hewlett-Packard.  I think GOP and independent voters would like to know more about this.   Marco Rubio needs to explain why he is not showing up for votes in the Senate.  GOP voters in Florida might be interested in this.  Ben Carson needs to defend his “tithing” approach to taxation when people like Becky Quick hit him with the numbers. These are all fair questions. And even if the media is liberal, its members are Americans who have every right to ask these kinds of questions of their candidates. 
And by the way, I would say the same thing about the candidates on the Democratic side.  Why not have Fox News host a debate with Hillary, Bernie, and the gang. Let them address tough “conservative” questions on abortion and gay marriage and socialism and the role of government in society.  I would love to see that. 
OK, enough of this rant.
I came away from the debate impressed with Kasich and Christie.  

Does the Left Need Religion?

During the 1980s American historians began paying a lot of attention to religion and politics. This interest has not waned over the last thirty or so years.

Most of the studies of religion and politics, however, have focused on the roots and origins of the Christian Right.  Only until recently have historians made connections between Christianity and the political left in the 20th century. Books by David Swartz, Molly Worthen, Heath Carter, and Brantley Gasaway come immediately to mind, but I am sure there are others I am missing.

In the Fall 2015 issue of Dissent, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a staff writer for The New Republic, joins the chorus of writers calling attention to the historic links between Christianity and progressivism. Here is a taste of her essay, “Why the Left Needs Religion.”

Viewing the relationship between Christianity and leftism as inherently antagonistic is firstly a disservice to history. Despite the efforts of the busi-ness leaders who conquered Christian thought during the Great Depression, American Christians have never supported capitalist domination of governance or of society. Consider, for instance, a recent study by historian Heath Carter of the Christian roots of labor union organizing in Chicago during the Gilded Age. In Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, Carter recovers what has been lost to the rhetoric of the Christian right, namely that Christianity (even its evangelical iterations) aligns very well with the goals of organizers fighting for justice and dignity in their work. Indeed, America’s labor movement has long enjoyed support from Christianity of all stripes, from the Catholicism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, to the peace-oriented Protestantism of A.J. Muste and the Society of Friends.

Outside of labor organizing, Christian theology has also influenced other leftist social movements, such as black power in the United States and liberation theology in Latin America. American civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked this theology of liberation to agitate not only for racial justice, but for equality everywhere and for everyone, including in the sphere of economics. today, the same line of reasoning is evident in the words and writings of Pope Francis, who has added environmental concerns to the issues we must address so that all can flourish equally.

Christianity, in other words, is no more destined for a cozy relationship with neoliberal, free-market politics than any other ideology, and perhaps less so, given its longstanding interest in the poor. the fact that Christian-ity is reflexively associated with conservatism in the United States is not so much an accident of history as it is a concerted effort on the part of vested, moneyed interests. Still, making a bad match for American conservatism.

Pope Francis Is Not Political

Francis could care less about American political parties or ideologies.  He is not liberal or conservative.  He is not  Democrat or Republican.  He is a Catholic. Whatever he says about politics, culture, or the economy stems from this identity.

Francis’s visit has called attention to the tired, unimaginative, and intellectually stale way that Americans think about public life. Americans are captive to ideological categories like “Left: and “Right.” They are captive to political parties that allow little original thought that does not conform to rigid and limited platforms. 

It should thus not surprise us that so many Americans cannot make sense of Francis and his message. As a CNN priest-commentator said last night, when people like what the Pope is saying they describe him as a “spiritual leader,” but when they disagree with his views they say he is “getting too political.”  

I can’t wait until he gets to Congress on Thursday.

Pope Francis is pro-life and believes marriage is between and a man and a woman.  He has called abortion a “sin,” but he has also said that those who have committed this “sin” deserve forgiveness. He believes in climate change.  He is a critic of capitalism.  He sides with the poor over the rich. 

When he talks about these things, he is not being “political.”  He is being Catholic.  Catholicism is not just a religion–it is an all-encompassing way of making sense of the world that is informed by the teachings of the Bible and the traditional teachings of the church over the centuries.  

Francis is not changing church teaching, he is merely emphasizing things about it that previous Popes have not.

I could go on and on, but I will let Emma Green continue.  Here is a taste of her recent Atlantic.com article, “Pope Francis is Not Progressive–He is a Priest“: 

Specifically: Francis does not fit neatly into American categories. To understand him and his agenda, it’s more helpful to look at America through his eyes than to look at him through an American’s eyes, for even the most familiar U.S. issue may seem very different to this Argentinian Jesuit. As the pope makes his way from Cuba through Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, the American political spectrum is truly idiosyncratic. This is a country where a Democratic congressman can loudly oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, but can’t risk really opposing abortion; a Republican might care a lot about the poor, but woe unto her campaign coffers if she suggests raising taxes on the rich. “Francis, like all the other popes, like the Catholic Church, simply doesn’t land comfortably on either side of the political divide in the U.S.,” said Vincent Miller, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton. “But it’s not simply that on questions of sexuality and human life he agrees with Republicans and on questions of economics he agrees with Democrats. The whole system is so skewed.”

There is no doubt Francis is a reformer: He has cleaned up Church finances and reorganized the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy. In October, bishops will also gather in Rome for the second of two synods on the topic of family, which may yield changes in how the Church deals with married priests and divorcées. But as with anything in the Church, it’s reform in increments, always in continuity with what has come before. Francis’s style may be different from that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the two popes who preceded him. But this pope has made painstaking efforts to show how his work is a continuation of theirs, rather than something totally new.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Schultz

Kevin Schultz is Associate Professor of History, Catholic Studies, and Religious Studies and Associate Chair of the Department of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  This interview is based on his latest book Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the 1960s (W.W. Norton, 2015). 
 
JF: What led you to write Buckley and Mailer?
 
KS: The 1960s have become this almost-mythologized time in American history, when American culture moved to the left, American politics to the right, and new roles were envisioned for men, women, African Americans, and, well, nearly everyone.  But there is so little out that that helps us understand it all.  Why did so much happen so quickly, and so violently?  With that question in mind, a few years ago I stumbled across some letters of the left-wing novelist Norman Mailer.  One was a beautiful back-and-forth between Mailer and the right-wing firebrand William F. Buckley, Jr.  The letters showed obvious intimacy, but also rivaling visions for how America should move forward in order to allow maximum freedom for the individual.  A light bulb went on in my head.  Through the friendship of Buckley the conservative and Mailer the radical, I could tell an important story about the 1960s, about how the right and the left both attacked the liberal center with their varying demands for increased freedom, and how that battle led to what Mailer called the violent “birthing pangs of a new order.”  This book was my attempt to explain why the 1960s happened in the way that they did.
 
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Buckley and Mailer?
 
KS: That the best way to understand the 1960s is by seeing it as a period when one set of assumptions that most American shared was replaced by another, and that this happened because both the left and the right were unhappy with the culture that developed in the aftermath of World War II, thinking it denied Americans too many freedoms.  With such colorful characters like Buckley and his demands for laissez faire economics and respect for Christian tradition, and Mailer with his demands for a less repressive culture, I get to tell the story of this profound change through dozens of raucous stories, which include boxing matches, public debates, antiwar rallies, and Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.
 
JF: Why do we need to read Buckley and Mailer?
 
KS: Not only to better understand why the 1960s unfolded the way they did, but also to learn how two guys with nearly opposite political outlooks became friends and enduring debating partners, something sorely missing today.  The secret was that they both emphasized their love of America and understood the other as doing the same (just, to their mind, completely incorrectly).  Finally, it’s useful to recognize how today’s politics have developed from the ashes of the 1960s, with Buckley’s quest to honor “the great Western tradition” still a powerful demand of Republicans, and Mailer’s yearnings for increased individual freedoms a calling of the left.
 
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
 
KS: Some time in my middle teens I realized that the context in which we’re raised and in which we live determines so much about how we look at the world.  I wanted to understand the ideas that dominated our thinking but which we barely knew were there, the water we swim in. The answer always led me to history.  The ideas that dominate our lives emerged out of older debates about which ideas should dominate our lives.  And this became the way I understood the world–in order to feel I understand something, I needed to know the context in which it became that way.  I think this kind of historical thinking is true for lots of people, I’m just lucky I get to make my living at it!
 
JF: What is your next project?
 
KS: Good question.  I have two books in mind, one that keeps me in the 1960s and one that moves me to the 1970s.  The 1960s book will likely be about another major figure, one who is a minor but important player in Buckley and Mailer but whose ideas captivated me the more I learned about them.  The 1970s book will be about the intellectual requirements of economic inequality, although I’m not sure how that book will develop.  Either way, they will be narratives, as I learned that I absolutely love to tell stories.
 
JF: Thanks, Kevin.  Look forward to reading it!

The Author’s Corner with Carla Mulford

Carla J. Mulford is Associate Professor of English at Penn State University (University Park) and the Founding President of the Society of Early Americanists. This interview is based on her new book, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  My book originated from an interest in Franklin’s writings on the Haudenosaunees (called the Iroquois or Six Nations, by the settlers). In thinking about Franklin’s ideas about Indians, I was led to ask myself the question: If Franklin’s views about Native peoples shifted across time and became more humanitarian, did a similar shift occur with regard to people of African descent? Contemplating the answer to this question led to an even larger question about Franklin’s views about the British Empire, its expansion into North America, India, and Ireland, and its fostering of a slave trade intended to benefit people back in Britain but leave British Americans unable to pursue “handicraft” (artisan) labor, improve their living standards, and develop their own systems of internal trade in the colonies of North America. To learn more, I studied early modern and early American economy, the histories of the peopling of North America, European imperial political economies, and the history of international legal views on sovereignty. This work dovetailed with my work as a Penn State professor. I began offering courses in literature related to early American environmental and social history and in historical and contemporary writings by Native peoples. The result, nearly twenty years later, is Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire, a book based in twenty years of reading and a decade of writing. Several pieces that didn’t make it into the book have been published as stand-alone arguments.

Franklin began his professional life working to shore up the British Empire in North America by supporting economic measures that would help colonists thrive financially and physically while also supporting the greater British Empire in the Atlantic world. Beginning in the 1750s, Franklin wrote a series of briefs – written in the form of letters to William Shirley, then governor of Massachusetts – articulating a platform of alliance with Britain but allowing for the colonies’ political and financial self-determination, because imperial policies were hampering the colonists’ abilities to build self-supporting enterprises and develop networks for mutual defense against the other European imperial efforts in North America. In the 1760s, as Franklin attempted to negotiate with British ministers about American matters, he was forced to deal with the clear indifference of Britons in England to the life situation of Britons in North America. He developed a legal argument supporting the original sovereignty of colonial Americans, and he finally relinquished any effort to retain an alliance with the Empire. He argued from the 1750s onward that the ends of any empire ought to be in supporting the wellbeing of all its peoples, wherever they happened to be living.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  Franklin believed in the ideals of freedom embodied in the early modern liberalism he imbibed as a tireless and voracious young reader aspiring to learn more about the British Empire. His experiences as printer, writer, politician, and diplomat taught him that if he really wanted to see the liberal values he admired – values said to have descended as the freedoms articulated in England’s Magna Carta – at work in North America, then the American colonies needed to break from Britain and form their own political, financial, commercial, and labor goals.
JF: Why do we need to read Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  My book attends to materials that many who study Franklin have given little comprehensive attention to: his readings as a youth (and what he might have learned from them and held onto as ideals); his theories of fiscal, social, and political economy; his concerns about the British Empire in India and Ireland; his changing concerns about Native American and African peoples; and his views on land title and sovereignty. Contrary to many historians who place Franklin’s turn against the British Empire in the mid-1770s, when he was denounced in the Cockpit by Alexander Wedderburn, my book shows that Franklin’s turn against Britain’s imperial system began in the middle 1750s and were articulated in a number of documents from that era onward.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CJM:  I believe I have always been fascinated about the impact of past events on present times. I can’t imagine living a life devoid of historical knowledge. How would we know why and how we got to the complicated place where we are, without a roadmap – roadmaps, really – of our past? And how would we understand how fully constructed historical stories have been, without a recognition of “spin culture” in our lives today?

As a student of early American literature, I studied the writings of people whose works were not very well known to the current generation of students, however well known they were in the era in which they were written. I helped to reform the established canon of literature by seeing that students of early materials would have available to them writings by women, Native peoples, Africans and African Americans, and laboring people – those who were not typically written about in the literary histories of the twentieth century.

My work on Franklin extends this trajectory of my interests by exploring understudied writings by a major American author. Among literary scholars, Franklin’s autobiography is often considered his sole piece of important writing. In Franklin studies, I wanted to show that the qualities of writing associated with his autobiography, a late-in-life writing, were available from the very beginning, not just in “literary” materials but in his writings on economics, politics, and society.
         
JF: What is your next project?

CJM:  My next monograph, titled Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy, takes up a line of argument tangential to Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire. Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy shows how Franklin attempted to use his scientific fame to influence political policy. Planned as a much shorter and complementary book, this new work embraces several fields, including the history of the circulation of books and manuscripts, the history of science, and the history of eighteenth-century British and French imperial decision-making. 

JF: Thanks, Carla!

What David Barton Really Said About Women and Voting

Everyone seems to be ripping on David Barton today.  They are claiming that he said that women’s suffrage is somehow bad for the country.  Here are some of the headlines:

“David Barton: Allowing women to vote “hurts the entire culture and society.”

“Barton: Denying Women’s Suffrage Protects the Family”

“David Barton: Women Weren’t Allowed to Vote in Order to Preserve the Family.”

Most people who read this blog know that I have been very critical of Barton.  In fact, I could probably write something critical about David Barton every day on this blog and see my readership double.

Here is the clip that is circulating on left-wing websites:

I just listened to the entire episode of the May 1, 2014 “Wallbuilders Live.” This is the episode in which Barton apparently said that women’s suffrage was a bad thing.  There is a lot that is familiar in this episode.  As usual, Barton and his co-host Rick Green take their shots at the way history is taught in “government schools” (a slap in the face to all history teachers in public schools who are doing a wonderful job). They also continue to use the story of the American past to promote their political agenda in the present.  I have warned against this approach to history in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Barton, of course, represents the Christian Right, but as this most recent incident shows, the Left is not immune from this kind of cherry picking and manipulation of evidence to promote their own political agenda.

Perhaps all of those historians (yes, some legitimate historians have jumped on the bandwagon) and pundits should listen to the entire Wallbuilders Live episode before hitting social media to skewer Barton for saying that women’s suffrage was a bad thing.  If you listen to the entire context of this discussion of women’s suffrage, you will notice several things:

1.  Nowhere in this episode does Barton say the 19th amendment was a bad thing or that women voting is a bad thing.  Listen for yourself.  Some might say he is implying this.  If someone wants to make this argument, it is a stretch.

2.  The clip I posted above has been edited.  The part of the discussion in which Barton and Green seem to suggest that women’s suffrage is a positive development in American life has been cut out.

3.  Barton’s culture war rhetoric often gets in the way of his historical assertions, but he is right about the way New Englanders understood the family.  It was patriarchal in nature and, as Edmund Morgan has argued, it was at the heart of New England Puritan life.  Barton believes that this kind of patriarchy should characterize families today.  But I am not sure his belief on this front is as newsworthy as the Right Wing watchdog websites make it out to be.  Millions of evangelicals embrace what is often called a “complementarian” position on marriage and support the right of women to vote.  In fact, if I remember my women’s history correctly, many 19th-century women’s suffragists held what today might be described as a “complementarian” position on marriage.  (Historians of American women–please correct me if I am wrong here).  While some might find this a reprehensible position, and I am not endorsing it here, the fact that Barton is calling for a kind of soft-complementarianism (he distinguishes it from the “tyranny” of the 17th-century Puritan father) is not really news.

4.  Barton is correct when he suggests that divorce was difficult in early America, although I do not know if one had to appeal to the legislature in order to get one.  (Can someone help me with this one?). On more contemporary matters, he is also correct that no-fault divorce has led to a rise in American divorces and divided families.  I think many conservatives and liberals think this is a problem in our culture.  Moreover, Barton’s concern about the traditional family unit is not some kind of anti-intellectual rant.  Christopher Lasch, writing from a neo-Marxist perspective, defended the traditional family (although not necessary a patriarchal family) against that rise of individualism and consumer capitalism in 1977 with the publication of Haven in the Heartless World; The Family Besieged.  

4.  Barton is correct to suggest that voting in early America was often directly related to the ownership of property.  This, as he mentions several times, is why a few women could vote in some colonies and in early national New Jersey.  Barton’s never said that this was a good thing or a bad thing.

5. Barton says that some property-owning women could vote in 17th-century New England.  This is true, but these were exceptions to the rule and very rare.

6.  The idea that single property-owning women somehow represented a “family unit,” as Barton suggests, is overstated.  If some of the single property-owning women at Salem were considered a true Puritan “family” they probably would not have been accused of witchcraft.  At least this is what I learned in graduate school from reading Carol Karlsen.

7.  The original question asked of Barton (by a caller named Britton) was whether or not the founding fathers were “sexist” for not letting women vote.  While “sexist” is not an eighteenth-century term, the members of nearly all early state legislatures believed that women should not have the right to vote. Were there some exceptions?  Yes.  But to say that the founders and early framers of state constitutions made deliberate attempts to grant suffrage to women is not accurate.

In the end, Barton is trying to defend the Founders against charges that they were sexist.  (And he is once again very wrong on this front).  He is not trying to say that the 19th amendment was a bad thing. Of course we never heard the question that was asked because the edited clip making its way around the Internet is taken out of context.

Barton’s words have been twisted here. Does Barton believe that the 19th amendment was a bad thing? I have no idea.  Did he make this claim in the May 1, 2014 episode of Wallbuilders Live?  I didn’t hear it.

Indeed, those on the Left can also play fast and lose with the record.

I am guessing I am going to get hit hard from some of you.  Please fire away…  The comment section is open.