A continent’s past crimes and present guilt
A piece in The National Review commends an essay by Parisian intellectual Pascal Bruckner that diagnoses a type of European “self-hatred.” Europe apparently views its own history as a series of crimes for which it must repent. Bruckner thinks this guilt is responsible for the continent’s “decline.”
Do Europeans have reason to be remorseful? While denying that guilt can be transmitted from generation to generation — “As there is no hereditary transmission of victim status, so there is no transmission of oppressor status” — Bruckner acknowledges that European history is pockmarked with crimes: slavery, feudal oppression, colonialism, fascism, and Communism.
On one hand, I agree that there is no hereditary transmission of moral guilt – the son is not responsible for the sins of the father. However, there is a certain sense in which a feeling of guilt for a society’s past crimes can be both important and helpful. Read more
Over at CNN, Will Bunch bemoans how Glenn Beck is attempting to rewrite history in order to support his own political agenda.
For thousands of followers […], there is a genuine desire to relearn American history. The only problem is that what they're learning is bunk. It's not history as it happened, but rather a Beck-scripted, Tea Party rewrite of history that demonizes Obama, Democrats and progressive activists.
This problem is a consequence of the harmful reverence for history that I wrote about earlier this week. If we didn’t have such a history-worshiping political cultur
e, then no rewrite of history would have such an effect on our present day politics.
For example, Glenn Beck teaches his viewers that America’s creation was rooted in Christianity. Whether this is historically true or not, it shouldn’t matter. Even if America was rooted in Christianity, it shouldn’t settle the issue about whether today’s America should be a Christian nation.
The solution is a greater reverence – or at least awareness – of philosophy’s place in politics. If we had such a political culture, Glenn Beck and others would have to argue their case with solid theory and sound logic. And if he can do that, then maybe he’s right.
Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
Philosophy, the Constitution, and respect for the Founding Fathers
According to a report by the Associated Press, Republicans have proposed forty-two amendments to the Constitution during the current Congress, compared to twenty-seven such proposals by the Democrats (one third of which are part of a package from a single member).
This is surprising because many Republicans won their seats as strict defenders of the Constitution’s “plain language.” One of these politicians, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, explains away the discrepancy.
He said the Founding Fathers never imagined the size and scope of today's federal government and that he's simply resurrecting their vision by trying to amend it. “It's not picking and choosing,” he said. “We need to do a lot of tweaking to make the Constitution as it was originally intended, instead of some perverse idea of what the Constitution says and does.”
Apparently, politicians like Rep. Broun appeal to the intentions of the Founding Fathers as their political philosophy, not the Constitution itself. Variations of this “Founding Father-ism” exist across the political spectrum, yet there are several problems with this position. Read more
You may not know this, but, earlier this year, President Obama signed into law the most sweeping overhaul of health care since the 1965 creation of Medicare. It's the largest piece of social legislation in at least half a century.
I know, I know, I shouldn't be treating you as if you have your head buried in the sand. Except you do.
According to a recently leaked presentation based on polling and focus groups about the law encourages Democrats to “Let voters know the healthcare [sic] law passed!”
They don't know? Really?
This raises a depressing question: what's the point of governing in the Republic of Ignorance?
Most major theories of government make some basic assumption
s about human rationality. Some say people are perfectly rational beings capable of deciding their own good. Others take a more moderate stance, suggesting that people are often shaped by their environment and circumstances.
But few if any theories account for complete and total inability to notice life-changing events.
My tone may be humorous, but my humors are melancholy (the bodily ones, anyway).
It's time to make a choice. Must we radically improve the capacity of our population to understand the basic knowledge it takes to function as a democracy? Or should we radically rethink democracy itself?
In either case, it may be time to do something radical.
Image of a lemming used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user kgleditsch.
A reply to Han
In his post today, Han disagrees with some big guns–Sandra Day O'Connor and George Nethercutt, Jr.–arguing against the importance of historical knowledge for legal, policy, and political philosophy questions. Alas, I'm with Sandy and Chip on this one.
As to the law, Han writes: “It doesn't seem to me that in order to understand the purpose and function of the Constitution someone also has to study the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.” Constitutional interpretation is not pure philosophical argumentation, even on interpretative theories that incorporate as much moral philosophy as possible into the process. What does the 5th Amendment's “due process” language guarantee? Can we figure this out without historical knowledge, by merely analyzing the words de novo?
First off, the phrase itself is historically contingent, a term of art as it were, with roots in the 14th century Magna Carta, and we need to examine this history, as the Founders understood it, to even begin to discern what protections the words deliver to Americans charged with crimes. Secondly, that many judges before us have grappled with the phrase's meaning is especially relevant for the rule of law, which depends upon the power of precedent, even if to a lesser degree in a Constitutional context. We don't want judges to redefine the entire Constitution every year.
Is knowledge of our country’s history necessary for engaged citizens?
A few days ago, an op-ed in the USA Today by Sandra Day O’Connor and George Nethercutt, Jr. lamented the lack of knowledge among Americans of the history of the nation and its founding documents. In their words:
Parents, educators and leaders at all levels of American society have a role to play in helping our youth develop a working knowledge and understanding of our nation’s founding papers, the American political system, lessons of principled leadership, basic economic principles and significant historic events that have shaped our nation. This basic knowledge of our past is critical to our present and to our future if we are to continue to enjoy the freedoms envisioned by the Framers.
What I find most interesting is the inclusion of both historical and civic education in this prescription for America. No doubt, most people would agree that a basic understanding of politics and economics is a moral imperative for engaged citizens in a democracy, but does historical knowledge have the same moral standing? The assumption here seems to be that without knowledge of American history, one cannot truly understand American institutions. I find this claim suspect.
The day before the Fourth of July, Tara Rowe from The Political Game offered her readers a guest post on relationship between one’s faith and one’s interpretation of political issues and of the US Constitution. In the end, it is a screed against America’s religious right and people like Glenn Beck, full of generalizations and frustration—but it raises some interesting questions despite all of the arguably unfair assumptions it makes.
Leonard Hitchcock, the guest poster, criticizes many conservatives for concluding “that political issues are really religious ones” and focuses on the religious reverence for the Constitution as sacred, God-given, and therefore immutable Scripture. Hitchcock, then, is working under the assumptions that political issues are not (and cannot be) religious issues and that one’s handling of the Constitution should show no sign of faith.
Are these conjectures correct?
America has had a history of idolization and myth-making when it comes to things like the Founders and founding documents ever since Lincoln’s time, so it might be incorrect of Hitchcock to portray the religious right’s behavior as new or unique.
And if we define one’s political view as part of one’s general worldview, and faith is a part of one’s worldview, then surely politics and faith will talk to each other at least on occasion.
But to what extent should one be allowed to claim the high ground on a political question by pointing to faith—something that does not lend itself to debate in the way politics does?
What happens to political discourse when religion is used as a sort of ‘Win’ button in political arguments?
Photo by Flickr user kc7fys used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
When is it appropriate for American courts to reference foreign law?
The other day Jake posted on the Supreme Court ruling that teenagers cannot be sentenced to life in prison for non-homicide crimes. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy referenced the consensus in the international community against such punishments:
There is support for our conclusion in the fact that, in continuing to impose life without parole sentences on juveniles who did not commit homicide, the United States adheres to a sentencing practice rejected the world over.
In other recent decisions outlawing the death penalty for juveniles and overturning laws prohibiting sodomy the court has also referenced international law. These cases raise an interesting question, what role, if any, should the opinions of foreign nations play in our constitutional interpretation? Read more
Thanks for continuing your examination into the origins and current meaning of American conservatism. I look forward to hearing your own perspective in the future. In your last post, you outlined Michael Freeden’s definition of conservatism as 1) commitment to organic progress and 2) belief in the extra-human origins of society. While I know you have not endorsed Freeden’s perspective, I wanted to offer a few critiques to his argument.
Focusing on the second factor, I wonder how “conservative” the natural order of society ends up. Marx’s argument was not necessarily that political institutions should institute a radical change in their social order; rather, Marx argued that the natural order of society pointed inevitably towards the collapse of capitalism and the institution of common ownership over the means of production.
Certainly Freeden would disagree with Marx’ analysis, but that’s exactly my point. There’s strong debate over the proper definition of “natural orders,” and no guarantee that an analysis of that order will suggest traditional conservative policy goals.
Focusing on Freeden’s first factor, the commitment to natural evolution of policy seems questionable when faced with contemporary problems. Climate change, for example, demands radically new methods of market regulation and social organization. While the gradual destruction of the environment would eventually make “organic” change inevitable, climate science reminds us that once the costs of climate change are apparent, it will already be too late to act. Modern science can point to radically new needs and solutions that Burke could not possibly have anticipated. While organic change may generally be good policy, the exceptions that must be made are both urgent and radical. Perhaps this is why the modern American conservative movement has sought to deny climate change science.
Finally, I wanted to discuss the underpinnings of your project as a whole. Are the goals of this project to define a forward direction for American conservatism? If so, is the project bound solely on finding the most beneficial path forward from a normative perspective? Should our definition of conservatism include questions of political expediency? By this, I mean if we establish Oakeshottian conservatism as the normative ideal, who would vote for it? Certainly not the religious right. Would normatively coherent conservatism require a third party?
Chait has an excellent post unpacking the Platonic ideal of a David Brooks column. It might have readers nodding along.
It begins with an interesting little sociological ditty:
When reading this, you were probably wondering to yourself, How is this going to lead to the reluctant conclusion the Democrats are wrong? Don’t worry, Brooks has a bridge:
See where this is headed? No? Here you go:
While I tend to give Brooks more credence than does Chait on substance, one has to admit he has his formulas.