How Tradition Renews Civilization and Challenges Conservatives

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In our post-Enlightenment world, the word “tradition” often carries negative connotations. When coupled with adjectives like “regressive” and portrayed as that which impedes whatever has acquired the label of progress, the idea of tradition conveys a sense of being antithetical to humans’ wellbeing. Hence we encounter phrases like, “She’s rigid and traditional.” A rather different and more creative understanding of tradition is found in the writings of the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997). Perhaps most famous for his book Leisure as the Basis of Culture (1948), Pieper spent his life engaged not only in lecturing at the University of Münster, but…

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The Price of Ireland’s Independence

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Last year saw the centenary of the Easter Rising, a quixotic rebellion led by poets and playwrights which sparked a revolutionary struggle against British rule in Ireland leading, eventually, to independence. The most striking feature of the centenary was its pluralism, with the commemoration of previously overlooked participants such as women rebels, and even members of the Crown Forces who suppressed the rebellion. The largest section of fatalities in 1916—the Dublin civilians unwittingly sacrificed in the cause of Irish freedom—were also prominently remembered, demonstrating a new  willingness to embrace the complexities of a much-mythologized event. The dissimilarity with the Rising’s 50th commemoration in…

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Going Nowhere: Utopian Constitutionalism in the 21st Century

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James E. Fleming, an orthodox confessor in the moral-philosophic church of Ronald Dworkin, has a problem. He declares himself an avowed enemy of constitutional originalism in any form on account of the debilitating effect it has on the American public conscience. Yet Fleming contradicts himself when he defines “the originalist premise” as the “assumption that originalism, rightly conceived, has to be the best—or indeed the only—conception of constitutional interpretation.” Why does it have to be? “Because,” writes Fleming, “originalism, rightly conceived, just has to be. By definition. In the nature of things—in the nature of the Constitution, in the nature of…

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Turn On, Tune In, Recycle

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Anyone familiar with environmentalist literature of the past decades will immediately recognize the form of Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu’s argument in Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. The structure of such books, going at least as far back as Rachel Carson, goes like this: We face the following existential threats to life on earth . . . (extended discussion). After this comes a tour of the ways in which current modes of thinking and/or current institutions are inadequate to address those threats, if not outright contributing causes. The conclusion: we therefore need some radical revision of our present normal…

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Jeffersonian Public Relations

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American politics operates through building narratives to create certain impressions that spur people to action. Stories about our history, particularly “the Founding,” have long shaped our self-understanding and influenced government. Was the American Revolution radical or conservative? Was the U.S. Constitution a counter-revolution to the Declaration of Independence? Was the Union formed in 1776, in 1781, or in 1789? Controversy over each of these questions has a history dating back to the early years of the Republic. Partisans of each position crafted an account that supported their answers and used it to explain the way that U.S. politics and institutions developed,…

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Anatomy of an Ideological Weapon

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Charles Clover has written a definitive book about the core elements of Vladimir Putin’s new imperialist ideology. Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism is a comprehensive account of the historical and philosophical roots of Eurasianism. What is Eurasianism? This theory, whose major promulgators include the Russian authors Lev Gumilev and Alexander Dugin, is essentially a weapon in the hands of the Russian president to justify his military conquests and political irredentism. Some decades ago, Putin saw an opportunity to promote a new ideological colossus to counter the North Atlantic military and civilizational alliance. This ideology, a Russian…

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The Decentralized yet Durable Empire

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Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire, the magnum opus of Oxford’s Peter H. Wilson, is almost a thousand pages explaining a thousand-year empire that few contemporary readers know or care about. Yet the long-ago, expired heart of Europe still has a vital message for the United States today. All any Brit or American can recall about this empire, which lasted longer than Rome’s, is perhaps Voltaire’s leitmotif that it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. Probably true—but that would be to list its strengths rather than weaknesses, notwithstanding the French cynic’s intention. It was not holy since…

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A People of the Law

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Commenting upon the associative life of Americans in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite,”[1] associating in pursuit of large and small common aims. The robust associative life that so struck Tocqueville was, in his view, a direct consequence of the democratic social state: Because each democratic citizen feels weak and powerless as one among many disconnected equals, joining together links atomized people together and produces in them the sense of being powerful enough to achieve their own shared ends. Composed of many who only feel their strength collectively,…

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Powerful Sympathies Powerfully Restrained

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Watching the NCAA Final Four with my teenage boys some years ago, I began to lament the vanity of human wishes. “Just think, boys, this game is the high point of life for many of the athletes on the floor.” “That’s right, Dad,” replied the older. “They’re never going to give a lecture on Edmund Burke or write an article on Edmund Burke. All they’re going to do is lead their team to a national championship in front of 50 million people.” Well! Even if there are fewer than 50 million of you, I feel immensely privileged to write about David…

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A Modest Proposal to Create a New Humanity

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Henry T. Greely’s The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction defends the idea that “Easy PGD” (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis) will soon replace sexual reproduction as the primary way human beings enter the world. “Easy PGD” is a logical scientific development beyond in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF involves fertilizing an egg harvested from a woman with a sperm and then placing the embryo into a uterus. “Difficult” PGD combines IVF with a genetic screen of the prospective embryos for attributes that parents would find desirable in their children and implanting the chosen embryo into the uterus. The “Easy” version…

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