Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States in the late spring of 1831. His official business was an investigation of American prison reforms as a potential model for France, but his gaze was considerably broader and deeper. Tocqueville’s nine-month visit resulted in Democracy in America, a towering achievement that looms even larger in a time like ours, when political attention spans seem to last no longer than the latest trending topic.
Who would argue with the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal”?
But one immediately runs into trouble. What about the Declaration limiting it to “men”? Are women equal? They did not have the right to vote at the beginning. Yet, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders certainly believed women were morally equal and were covered under the generic term “men,” for mankind. Was that enough?
American political science has lost a significant contributor with the demise of Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015). We mourn the death of Professor Jaffa, and acknowledge that there will be many celebrations of his life and scholarly achievements to appear, especially from his epigones. Important contributions from Ken Masugi and Peter Lawler have already appeared in this space. As a mentor, Jaffa inspired a large number of graduate students who have assumed posts in the academy and government. We call many of these scholars our friends, and continue to appreciate their interpretative approaches and defense of the American political tradition.
He should also be remembered by those of us who disagreed with him.
Harry V. Jaffa, who died January 10, at 96, may well be American conservatism’s most consequential thinker, for having attempted to re-found conservatism on the basis of its most philosophic principles and most revered figures. He was also one of the most dismissed, berated, and scorned of scholars, earning derision from former friends and those who knew him only from his writing, much of which had become acerbic.
Feminism expresses, teaches, and even thrives on a contradiction. Put simply, feminism does not know whether to say that women are capable or vulnerable. If women are capable, they deserve to be independent—particularly of men. If they are vulnerable, they need to be protected, particularly from men.
Today’s movement to protect college women from sexual assault, led by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education, is riven right through with that contradiction. So far, universities have meekly submitted to being instructed by what the OCR, with a phrase for the books, calls “significant guidance.”
Before delving into the OCR’s mandate, it is best to examine the contradiction within feminism that both characterizes and inspires it.
In the second book of the 16th century novel by Rabelais, the voracious young giant Pantagruel, “large as life and much nosier,” is sent to Paris for his education. There he displays prodigious academic aptitude, mastering every conceivable subject with the greatest ease and besting the most able rhetoricians and philosophers in debate. So great is his reputation that he is summoned to adjudicate a law suit—a “controversy so involved and jurisprudentially abstruse that the highest court in the land found it about as clear as Old High German.”
It was inevitable that some supporter of President Obama’s would come along and compare his executive action on immigration to the most famous executive order of them all, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman has done the honors, and his comparison is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak.
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.
Over the weekend Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts and a former professor at Harvard Law School, outlined eleven propositions, dubbed by the National Journal as “eleven commandments” for progressives. Warren is a very bright leader of today’s progressivism. Her propositions provide a window on the future trajectory of the Democratic party and its approach to law, three aspects of which seem particularly notable:
1.Opposition to crony capitalism. Warren wants government to make sure the banking system and Internet are run for the benefit of the people not big corporations.
2.Use of the regulatory system rather than tax system. Nowhere does Warren expressly call for higher taxes. But she does endorse a slew of regulatory interventions—a higher minimum wage, stronger protections for unions and “equal pay” provisions for women.
3. A relentless focus on equality. In marriage, in pay, and in access to higher education and contraceptives paid for by the government.
If these are the tenets of future progressivism, friends of liberty need to sharpen their critique.
1. They need to co-opt the attack on crony capitalism.
In a previous post, I asked what may strike some readers as an obtuse question. If our society is no longer grounded in Christianity, as it once was, or in the biblical tradition, and if the normative passion of our time– namely, equality– is a not an affirmative ideal or vision so much as a negative and parasitic one, then what sort of society do we live in now? How should we describe the affirmative convictions or commitments (if any) that give meaning and shape to our society?