In response to: How to Get through the “Nationalism” Minefield
The Industrial Revolution resulted from a repudiation of the ancients—but not just the ancients. The “Great Enrichment” of the late 18th and 19th centuries was a fully “modern” rejection of the cultural inheritance of the Renaissance, to say nothing of the medieval synthesis. The product of cultural innovations in Western Europe, and particularly England and Scotland, a new and paradigmatic culture took form that would produce a global revolution. Human history had witnessed nothing like this cultural rupture that, in an epochal blink of an eye, rendered so much of the past irrelevant. This is the story told by Joel Mokyr…
“Never forget!” So goes one of the easiest moral imperatives of 20th century liberalism. For the Western world the Holocaust is proof of the undeniable morality of deliberate remembrance and a reason to believe that cultivating memory is a duty. We’ve come to believe that forgetting Hitler’s victims is another species of denial and this amnesia victimizes the six million slaughtered again—the great crime pardoned for lack of an interested jury. “Never forget” is also a claim about the future. Forgetting human evil on this scale, along with the factors the allowed it to happen, denies future generations a species of…
For decades, defenders of liberty and self-rule have been fighting what seems like a continuous battle about the power, reach, and accountability of the federal government. Thoughtful critics of the federal invasion of our liberties draw from rich intellectual, political, and constitutional arguments. But few think as deeply about the cultural conditions of a free and self-reliant people.
A recent radio interview with Zach Carter, senior political economy reporter for The Huffington Post, reveals a characteristic problem with democratic journalism. The host, Hugh Hewitt, began the interview by asking about what Carter had read and how he had prepared to become a journalist. Part of the inquiry concerned historical knowledge that seems relevant to the kind of reporting done by the journalist. Showing amazing good humor, the struggling Carter confronted one of Hewitt’s stock questions: “Do you know who Alger Hiss was?” Hewitt typically asks this because he assumes the answer is yes and this allows him to proceed…
Moral outrage, when it is not fatuous, is politically potent. Vivid examples of politicians and commentators in full-throated, red-faced attacks against malignant motives and vicious political acts come easily to mind for all but the most apolitical. In some cases these outbursts are reactions against assaults on how things are or have been—on the decent order of things as inherited. But any honest observer must acknowledge that the more successful production of moral outrage has issued from those seeking fundamental transformation.
King Arthur: I am your king!
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!
King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well how’d you become king then?
— Monty Python and the Holy Grail
In his enviably readable book Inventing Freedom, Daniel Hannan refers to King John of England as “providentially bad.” Most importantly for the cause of English liberty (and by extension American liberty), the “obnoxious” and overbearing behavior of King John resulted in the Magna Carta. Had John been more artful and politically deft he might have aggrandized more power to himself and imposed a number of political innovations on a disgruntled people. But John, being bad, inspired reaction.
A century and a half after the Norman invasion brought to England a new ruling class and an imposed Continental feudal political arrangement, the nobility—who were themselves the offspring of the “bastard” Normans—drew deeply from the older Anglo-Saxon traditions still encoded in the sinews of English order to check the king and produce a crystalized defense of old liberties. In the Magna Carta they drew from the past but also altered the future. Often in reaction we make progress.
Books reviewed in this essay:
The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, by Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath, ed., George H. Nash (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
New power emerges out of confusion—and ours is a confused age. No dominant historical narrative supplies us with a common story, and without a common story we belong neither to each other nor to shared ideals. When a people are unscripted by history, the past becomes raw material, to be processed via key moral and political vocabulary by those who would willfully impose “new modes and orders,” to quote Machiavelli.
Disordered times produce the search for order and the desire to impose order. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport are in the former category. Their book The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism seeks to revise our historical understanding of the rise and development of American conservatism by tracing it to Herbert Hoover.