Since seeing the movie Julie and Julia the other year, I do a double-take whenever I see an old photograph of Julia Child on a cookbook: Is that the actual chef, I wonder, or Meryl Streep, who played her so realistically? So I found myself doing a double-take when I saw the photograph today of my too-soon departed friend Peter Lawler, for his image looked so like the famous picture of Walker Percy, the novelist and essayist he most admired. Both were Southern and Catholic and, to borrow the title of one of Percy’s novels, both adopted the conceit of the “Last Gentleman,” an ideal whose lasting charm insures it will never quite be true.
I have returned to the mothership after a great trip to Worcester, Massachusetts earlier this week to speak at Assumption College for its Constitution Day event, albeit a few days after September 17th. The students and faculty at the event were excellent. I thought it worth mentioning that the students in attendance were fundamentally sound in mind and not overwhelmed with ideological convictions, which proved excellent for the talk I delivered. In short, there’s a solid liberal arts tradition at Assumption. And that’s all to the credit of the faculty. If you’re looking for an education in the Humanities for yourself or for a son or daughter, then I would urge considering Assumption. They also permitted me to indulge in a bit of an off-road lecture on Orestes Brownson’s case for political loyalty as the crucial underpinning of our constitutional order. Many thanks to Prof. Bernard Dobski, Chairman of the Political Science Department, for the invitation and to Brother Greg for a wonderful introduction. My talk is below:
You may have noticed that not much is said in this space about what goes on in other countries. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; it’s just I don’t imagine mine are worth much. I conspicuously didn’t take a stand on Brexit. It seemed to me there was a good case to be made for Britain’s leaving the European Union and a good case to be made for its staying in. I thought I’d leave it up to them. If I were British, I would have been more psyched up about the whole thing.
The outcome surprised me, because the past history of secessionist movements—such as Quebec and Scotland—has been of a petering out at the end. Just enough people get all prudent and make a safe choice. Not only that, all the factions of the respectably British cognitive elite—top politicians, public intellectuals, the business leaders, celebrities, the unions, and so forth—advocated making the Progressive choice. “Progressive” here means stay the course when it comes to evolving beyond the nation-state in the direction of larger and more cosmopolitan unions. We aspire to be citizens of the world, politics being that pathology that we shed as we move, as Tyler Cowen puts it, from being brutish to being nice.
Writing in the Journal of American Greatness, Plautus, who is more intent on making Trump to be the candidate he wants, as opposed to the vulgar brute that he is, calls for a conservative nationalism with tremendous purpose (link no longer available) whose chief goal will be the elimination of the “managerial class.”
The President’s use of executive power outside and above the bounds of the Constitution is well known at this point. In policies ranging from the railroading of creditors in the auto bailouts, to Obamacare by waiver, eliminating key work provisions in the 1996 welfare reform legislation, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and to the informed suspicion that he will unilaterally legalize 5 to 6 million illegal immigrants, this President has entered a new realm of abuse of power. Resulting from the stress he’s placing on our constitutional order have arisen significant interventions that attempt to underline how and why we have arrived at this new dimension of executive power, even in the case of Congress there is an attempt to reclaim its authority, if only in a pusillanimous manner.
The journal Anamnesis has just published my essay on the 19th century political thinker Orestes Brownson. I am attempting in this essay to apply Brownson’s insights on America’s 19th century constitutional dysfunction that produced the Civil War to the problems posed to our constitutional order by progressivism. I do this by focusing on Brownson’s identification of the misunderstanding of American constitutionalism posed by the personalist democracy of the Southerners and the humanitarian centralized democracy of the Northerners. The latter found its clearest expression in the consolidationist approach of the abolitionists. Brownson’s warnings here of the proto-progressives of his day can clearly provide us with resources to addressing the progressives of present day.
Michael Greve’s April 2012 post “Constitutionalism, Hegel, and Us” had several significant points in his short essay masquerading as a blog post. Greve notes that liberal constitutionalism per Hegel’s argument in Philosophy of Right has a problem, a big one.
[P]olitical liberalism (Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and, with some qualifications, Rousseau) confuses civil society with the State. Again, that makes us nervous; but the distinction has a very large kernel of good sense. The principle of liberal constitutionalism, Hegel says, is “endless subjectivity,” or what we call “individualism.” A liberal constitution is a contract among individuals, who consent to limits on their autonomy insofar, and only insofar, as they are consistent with individualist principles. (Think Locke’s Second Treatise.) To state Hegel’s central objection at phenomenological level: you can’t run a free country on that basis.
So we need more than individuals. We need a society of persons constituted by familial, local, religious, and political attachments, recognizing that personhood contains aspirations and purposes that place it beyond the scope of state power. Society “possesses primacy over the state.” The state must serve the ends of the human person. On this basis we can relativize the state’s value.