Skincential Sciences is a small company and something of a curiosity: a significant portion of its capital comes from In-Q-Tel, the investment fund of the Central Intelligence Agency.
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.
The thoughtful and meticulous analysis by our friend Joseph Knippenberg got me thinking about civic engagement. Well, that’s not quite true. I was already thinking about it while trying get a book done on the technocratic threat to higher education (which is greater than the politically correct threat to higher education, although the two are not unrelated).
There is an expert-driven trend in higher education–facilitated by foundations, the American Political Science Association, professors of political science and professors of education–to transform the teaching of political science through civic engagement. The literature on this is full of jargon and otherwise depressingly low in its cognitive pay grade. The consensus seems to be the need for a third way of studying politics. One approach, allegedly rigorously scientific, is the nonpartisan detachment of the behaviorist. Another is the textual approach of political philosophers, who talk about what Plato said Socrates said while hanging out in the marketplace but never actually take students to such a public forum. The third way is for students to learn through actually participating in political life.
A plausible interpretation of America and the world at the moment is that the imperatives of the 21st century global marketplace are so powerful they trump anything religious and political leaders say or do.
Techno-economic change does not, to be sure, trump anything and everything that nature might do. We recently had the near-miss of the stormy sun disrupting our electric grid and plunging us into the 18th century, and experts think there’s a 12 percent that could still actually happen over the next decade. That’s a lot more scary, if you think about it, than the possible long-term effects on the climate of anthropogenic global warming, although I’ll admit there’s an inconvenient truth or two there, too.
There’s also, of course, the disturbingly successful indifference of Putin and ISIS to the market, and the maybe more disturbing agility by which the Chinese manage to be both authoritarian nationalists and techno-cagey capitalists.
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.
This November, political scientists will have an invaluable opportunity to undertake a case study in the effect of liberal education and liberal arts colleges on the rationality, integrity, and tone of our political discourse. I have in mind, of course, the Virginia 7th District contest between David Brat, Professor of Economics at Randolph-Macon College (link no longer available), and his colleague, Jack Trammell, who teaches sociology and directs the Honors Program at the same institution (link no longer available). If liberal education indeed has a salutary civic impact, shouldn’t it be on display over the next few months in Eric Cantor’s (soon to be) old district?
I’m often asked whether it’s challenging to be a Jewish professor at a Catholic college that takes its religious identity seriously, to which my answer is, first, no, and, second, I certainly prefer it to being a Jewish professor at a Catholic college that takes its religious identity casually. In any event, my contributions to the institution’s Catholicity through participating in its intellectual life are warmly welcomed, and to the extent I am involved in ritual events, I treat them like I would treat being a guest in someone else’s home. Still, my colleagues have been accommodating nearly to a fault. In more than one setting, prayers have been ecumenically tailored to my presence—wholly unnecessarily, but considerately nonetheless.
In reflecting further on the issues raised by Ted McAllister’s emphasis on the American historical experience of liberty in this month’s Liberty Law Forum, I find myself returning again to consider the meaning of a particular phrase of the Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness.” I have written about this before in other places, but McAllister’s highlighting of historically lived experience, brings out the significance of this passage even further.