Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Synthesizing a Running Debate: White House Reaction (Plus a few more)

Jeffrey Hart's column on modern conservatism has gotten plenty of reaction. Now it's coming from high places, indeed. Kathryn Jean Lopez at NRO has posted a link (Word Doc) to a response from an unknown, White House "muckety-muck." (Also see here, here and here, respectively, for my synthesis of this debate. To keep it in context with the aforementioned, I'd categorize this as part of the [WILSONIANISM] discussion thread). Here is the response (with a few minor formatting edits):

Responding to Professor Jeffrey Hart

1. It is an odd time for Professor Hart and other skeptics of democracy to make their case, particularly in the context of the most recent report by Freedom House, which shows that freedom has made greater advances in more culturally diverse nations and regions than ever before. One of the marks of serious conservatism is a regard for the concreteness of human experience and an openness to the evidence around us. After all it was Rousseau, not Burke, who wrote, “Let us begin by laying the facts aside, as they do not affect the question.” It is important for us to place facts at the center of the debate about democracy.

In that spirit, consider the words of the American Enterprise Institute scholar Joshua Muravchik: "Since the fall of Portugal's military dictatorship in 1974, a tide of freedom and democracy has washed over the globe. Every region has recorded strong gains, including even such a poor and troubled area as sub-Saharan Africa and the socially mutilated lands of the former Soviet empire." Until now, Muravchik writes, the Muslim world has remained a stubborn exception – but that is no longer the case. Most of the countries that have moved closer to freedom in the last year were Muslim countries. Mr. Muravchik has hope that we are “at the start of a tectonic shift toward liberty across the Muslim world.”

According to Freedom House's director of research, Arch Puddington, "The global picture thus suggests that 2005 was one of the most successful years for freedom since Freedom House began measuring world freedom in 1972.... The Freedom in the World 2006 ratings for the Middle East represent the region's best performance in the history of the survey..."

It appears as if cultures are not as intractable as Professor Hart asserts, at least when it comes to their capacity to make room for democracy. And of course if cultures really were as “intractable” as Professor Hart seems to suggest, then virtually no reforms – including the “reformation of manners” – would be possible.

2. Professor Hart neglects to mention a key fact: we did not go to war with Iraq simply to impose a democracy there. We also acted in large measure because in the judgment of the President and a strong majority of members of Congress, Iraq was a threat to American national security and a destabilizing force in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein was an international outlaw, a malevolent figure who over the years demonstrated an insatiable appetite for violence, war, and weapons of mass destruction.

It is true that the United States has insisted on staying in Iraq until democracy takes root in that land rather than, say, imposing a military dictatorship. Our course of action is right and wise, humane, and very much in our national interest.

3. Professor Hart asserts, "The Republican Party now presents itself as the party of Hard Wilsonianism, which is no more plausible than the original Soft Wilsonianism..."

The Republican Party and above all, President Bush, are advocates of spreading democracy. But to believe in the power and appeal of democracy does not make one a "hard Wilsonian" – and it certainly does not place one outside the mainstream of conservatism. In the words of conservatism's greatest and most influential figure in modern times, Ronald Reagan:

"We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections. The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means. This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.” (June 8, 1982 Westminster Address, emphasis added)

President Bush’s views are wholly consistent with those of President Reagan – and contrary to those expressed by Jeffrey Hart.

4. Professor Hart writes, "George W. Bush has firmly situated himself in this tradition [Wilsonianism], as in his 2003 pronouncement, 'The human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth.' Welcome to Iraq."

President Bush’s statement had to do with human aspirations; it was not a blueprint for American foreign policy. And as a statement of human aspiration, it happens to be true. Perhaps Professor Hart could tell us which race, ethnicity, or nationality prefers subjugation to freedom. Which people relishes life in the gulag, or the lash of the whip, or the midnight knock of the secret police? Who among us wants (in the vivid words of Orwell) a jackboot forever stomping on their face?

5. The chief concern conservatives have with Woodrow Wilson was not his belief in the power and appeal of democracy – which after all was shared by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan, among others; rather, it is the means by which Wilson chose to pursue the end (as well as his fundamentally unrealistic understanding of power). Woodrow Wilson had far too much faith in the League of Nations and far too little faith in the capacity of liberal nation states to be engines of change and progress. University of Virginia Professor James Ceasar put it this way:

“It is thus completely false to claim, as so many do, that American internationalism began with Woodrow Wilson and that its only form has been ‘idealistic.’ American internationalism existed long before Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, its spirit can arguably be traced right back to the Founders and their frequent assertion that the American Revolution and founding were of interest not just to the United States but to ‘the whole human race,’ although they understood full well the nation’s limitations of strength at the time. What distinguishes Wilsonian or liberal internationalism from some of the more conservative variants is not its commitment to promoting universal principles – almost all American internationalists have shared this objective – but its insistence on changing the nature of international affairs and somehow overcoming a reliance on the unit of the nation-state. Conservatives never imagined dispensing with the primacy of the nation in the conduct of foreign affairs. Theirs has always been an internationalism with a realist face, based on national power and national resolve. It has been the kind of internationalism that might look forward, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, to a time when America would be ‘able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.’”

6. The notion that President Bush’s advocacy for democracy is rooted in a utopian belief in “the fundamental goodness of mankind” is simply wrong. The President believes democracy can prevail in other countries and other cultures because he believes it is most consistent with deep human realities.

It’s probably worth pointing out in this context that America's Founding Fathers were among the most eloquent exponents of self-government in history – and they were eminently practical people. They did not believe men were angels; rather, they believed we needed to build a system of government that took into account human imperfections. Madison wanted to make republican government possible “even in the absence of political virtue.” Ambition needed to counteract ambition, he said. To favor self-government, then, is a prudent course of action intent on constructing a system of government based on human nature, in all its strengths and all its weaknesses. Reinhold Niebuhr put it well: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

7. The President’s policies are anchored in part in an empirical fact: we are witnessing the swiftest advance of freedom in history. But they are also grounded in a particular view of human nature – and in the truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence. In the “enlightened belief” of the Founders, Lincoln said, “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”

President Bush’s policies are consistent with America’s “ancient faith;” he believes “liberty is the design of nature,” which explains why it leads to human flourishing. In an essay that appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of The Public Interest, James Ceasar and Daniel DiSalvo wrote on the foundational principles of the Bush foreign policy and concluded this: “Not since Lincoln has the putative head of the Republican party so actively sought to ground the party in a politics of natural right.”

8. The President understands that for liberty to take root in a society more than an election is required. Elections are vital – but they do not by themselves constitute a vibrant democratic culture. This requires certain civic habits, which take time to develop – and which elections themselves can help develop. And elections can also help delegitimize a brutal and bitter insurgency, as we saw in El Salvador in the 1980s and as we are now seeing in Iraq. Elections by themselves cannot defeat an insurgency; but they can certainly contribute to its demise.

9. Professor Hart writes, "The fighting in Iraq has gone on for more than two years, and the ultimate result of 'democratization' in that fractured nation remains very much in doubt…"

Surely Professor Hart knows that the fighting in Iraq is being driven by a relatively small (though certainly lethal) number of terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists who want to strangle Iraqi democracy in its crib. Yet the last year has proven to us all that the people of Iraq desperately want freedom. They have shown admirable courage in three extraordinary elections – elections in which they turned out in greater numbers to vote (percentage-wise) than do Americans. It is wrong to argue that democracy is unwanted simply because (a) violence exists in Iraq less than three years after its liberation – and after more than three decades of almost unimaginable cruelty and terror; and (b) Iraq is not Denmark.

Our own democratic development – which was gradual and halting and involved us in a “fiery trial” that cost more than 600,000 American lives – is a reminder that we must be patient with others. Working democracies need time to develop – and as they develop, they will reflect their own cultures. In the United States we've taken a two-century-long journey toward equality and social justice – and this should make us patient with other nations at different stages of this journey.

10. Professor Hart makes the point that “the long-range influence of the Iraq invasion on conditions in the Middle East as a whole" remains “very much in doubt.”

It's true enough that we cannot know with certainty what the long-range influence of the war to liberate Iraq will be – so let's examine what we do know right now.

We know that we are seeing more movement toward democracy in the broader Middle East than ever before in human history. In an astonishingly short period of time (historically speaking), we are seeing democracy make progress in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf States, among the Palestinians, and elsewhere. Does that mean that democracy will take root everywhere, all at once? No. Does it mean that there won't be setbacks along the way? Of course not. But the ice is breaking in a region of the world that has never really known freedom – and that ought to be grounds for encouragement.

We also know what people in the region are saying. According to the Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt (who in the past has been a bitter critic of American foreign policy):

"It's strange for me to say it, but this process of [democratic] change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting [in January 2005], 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.'"

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democratic activist in Egypt, put it this way: "it is a Middle East in which those who believe in democracy and civil society are finally actors, even though we still face big obstacles." Mr. Ibrahim originally opposed the invasion of Iraq. But it "has unfrozen the Middle East, just as Napoleon's 1798 expedition did. Elections in Iraq force the theocrats and autocrats to put democracy on the agenda, even if only to fight against us. Look, neither Napoleon nor President Bush could impregnate the region with political change. But they were able to be the midwives,” Ibrahim has said.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim's judgment is consistent with that of Bernard Lewis, one of our era's greatest Middle East historians. In an essay written last year for Foreign Affairs magazine, Professor Lewis wrote this: "… the Iraqi election may prove a turning point in Middle Eastern history no less important than the arrival of General Bonaparte and the French Revolution in Egypt more than two centuries ago."

And the distinguished Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, in an essay titled "The Autumn of the Autocrats" (May/June 2005 Foreign Affairs), wrote this:

"The entrenched systems of control in the Arab world are beginning to give way. It is a terrible storm, but the perfect antidote to a foul sky. The old Arab edifice of power, it is true, has had a way of surviving many storms. It has outwitted and outlived many predictions of its imminent demise.

"But suddenly it seems like the autumn of the dictators. Something different has been injected into this fight. The United States – a great foreign power that once upheld the Arab autocrats, fearing what mass politics would bring – now braves the storm. It has signaled its willingness to gamble on the young, the new, and the unknown. Autocracy was once deemed tolerable, but terrorists, nurtured in the shadow of such rule, attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Now the Arabs, grasping for a new world, and the Americans, who have helped usher in this unprecedented moment, together ride this storm wave of freedom."

On matters Middle East, I will cast my confidence with Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami even above Jeffrey Hart.

11. It’s not at all clear what the alternative is for those who nay-say democracy in the Middle East. It is a region of the world that has generated anger, resentments, and toxic anti-Americanism. In the past, Western nations were willing to make a bargain – to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. But this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe; it merely bought time while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold. And on a clear morning in September 2001, in the heart of New York City, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and in a rural field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, that ideology of violence struck the United Sates with deadly fury.

We have learned we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny and advance freedom where we can. That is something with which conservatives, for prudential reasons, should agree.

Meanwhile, there has been some additional reaction to Hart's characterization of the abortion issue over at the First Things blog. Specifically, Richard John Neuhaus, who first wrote:
Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth, assuming the mantle of Edmund Burke, had an essay in the Wall Street Journal opining on the meaning of conservatism today. Along the way, he declared that the unlimited abortion license established by Roe accords with the social “actuality” of modern life and that it is therefore a form of very un-Burkean radicalism to try to overturn the abortion regime in the name of what he describes as the abstract principle of “right to life.”

Father Gerry Murray of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Manhattan wrote what I think is a very effective response to Hart, his friend and former teacher. In the course of his further response to Fr. Murray, Hart says this:
“Some years ago, as I recall, Father Richard Neuhaus asserted in his magazine First Things that because of legal abortion the United States ‘regime’ is illegitimate. That’s right, ‘illegitimate.’ Of course this easy chair insurrectionary, this Jacobinical priest, did not become a genuine insurrectionary such as John Brown. Neuhaus knew only too well that the real insurrectionary John Brown received justice at the end of a rope. Neuhaus did not even go to prison, for, say, refusing to pay taxes. Thoreau had gone to prison over the Mexican war.

“For Neuhaus to call the United States government, or ‘regime,’ illegitimate in his journal was a waste of trees, though it probably appealed to dreamers.”
Oh dear. “Easy chair insurrectionary,” “Jacobinical priest.” And here I always thought of Jeffrey as a friend. At least he has always been very cordial when we met in the company of friends.

As for my Jacobinical ways, he is referring, of course, to the famous–I suppose he would say notorious–symposium in FIRST THINGS of November, 1996, in which Robert Bork, Charles Colson, Robert P. George, Russell Hittinger, and others reflected on the “judicial usurpation of politics,” of which the Roe decision was several times cited as a prime example. I wrote the introduction and the symposium was titled “The End of Democracy?” Many excitable critics at the time tended to ignore the question mark.

The FIRST THINGS symposium generated considerable controversy at the time. Commentary published a counter-symposium, but then a year or so later did a graceful about-face and ran another symposium on judicial activism that substantively agreed with the original FIRST THINGS argument. It is an argument that has become a commonplace in the pages of National Review, with which Jeffrey Hart is closely associated, and in many other venues.

What was thought to be a radical idea at the time–and what Jeffrey Hart apparently still thinks is an impermissibly radical idea–is that we could reach a point, if the judicial usurpation of politics continued unabated, at which the American political order would be morally illegitimate and democratic government effectively ended.

To deny the possibility that the American polity could descend into a form of tyranny, in this case judicial tyranny, is, I believe, a form of national hubris, and precludes the possibility of any rational consideration of what is meant by the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate government. . .

If I may be permitted to gently tweak Jeffrey Hart, whom I persist in thinking of as a friend, I note that he began this discussion by invoking Burke and ends it by invoking Lenin. A curious conservatism indeed.
And then added:
In a December 30 posting in this space, I commented on some intemperate and inaccurate remarks by Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth. Referring to the FIRST THINGS symposium, “The End of Democracy?”, he described me as a “Jacobinical priest” and “easy chair revolutionary.” He has now added that the symposium reflects “the spirit of Che Guevara.” My friend Jeff, be it noted, is a great proponent of civility in public discourse. . .

Jeff’s attack on FIRST THINGS and on me personally came in the course of his response to Father Gerry Murray’s very persuasive critique of what he had written about the “radicalism” of trying to overturn Roe. Now Roger Kimball, co-editor of New Criterion, has weighed in with a civil but devastating examination of Hart’s misreading of Edmund Burke on political prudence. The unlimited abortion license, Hart claimed, is an entrenched social fact and, in addition to invoking Burke, he invoked Lenin to the effect that facts are stubborn things.

Now Jeff has returned with further comment. He writes, “Richard Neuhaus understates what actually happened in his magazine First Things in 1999.” (At the risk of appearing to quibble, the symposium was in November, 1996.) The symposium was titled “The End of Democracy?” and Jeff writes, “[Neuhaus] now says that some people thought the question mark unjustified–that is, they thought democracy in fact had ended with Roe vs. Wade!” No, Jeff, that is not what I said. Check out the December 30 posting here and you will see that I said this: “Many excitable critics at the time tended to ignore the question mark. ” It would seem that Jeff Hart is among the excitable critics of the symposium who are determined to ignore the question mark.

Jeff writes: “Robert Bork objected to Neuhaus’s observation that we ‘have reached the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.’” Stubborn fact: I never said that, and I rather doubt that Robert Bork ever said that I said that. I said that, if the judicial usurpation of politics, as exemplified by Roe, continued unabated, we could reach a point at which the American polity would become an illegitimate regime. The manifest purpose of the symposium was to contribute to abating the judicial usurpation of politics. Those with a greater respect for facts than Jeffrey Hart has exhibited in these exchanges are invited to press the “Search” button above and read the entire symposium in order to find out who said what.

In support of his claim that Roe is socially, legally, and politically entrenched, Jeff concludes his latest volley with this: “A CNN/USA Today poll has shown that 65 percent of the American people now oppose repeal of Roe while only 29 percent support repeal, more than 2-1.” This, too, is deeply misleading. Those who have been following the pertinent survey research over the years have frequently pointed out that polling questions which depict Roe as permitting abortion in “some cases” or in “the first three months of pregnancy” typically result in a majority opposed to overturning Roe. Most people still do not understand the reach of the abortion regime imposed by Roe. When asked, if they favor limitations on the abortion license–e.g. waiting periods, parental notification, only in the first three months or in instances of rape, incest, or direct threat to the life of the mother, etc.–it typically turns out that approximately 75 percent of the people think abortion should not be legal for the reasons that 95 percent of abortions are procured. The defenders of women’s “reproductive rights” (a phrase adopted by Jeff Hart) are rightly anxious about the future of the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe.

I am afraid that Jeffrey Hart has not distinguished himself in his WSJ essay or in his responses to critics. The rejoinders by Father Murray and Roger Kimball, however, are very much worth reading.
Ron Nelson also offered his general impressions:
Hart's article is essentially a quick, shotgun look at the ideas being bounced around conservatism today, and I'd say he does a pretty good job in summary form. though I think he misses the boat on a couple of issues. Below, I'll make an attempt at walking through the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good
  • Hard utopianism, soft utopianism, Wilsonianism, and the Republican party. For me these all seemed to fall together with the Wisonianism described essentially being a facet of soft utopianism and the Republican party being the ones who are promoting it. If the Wilsonianism in question really is a form of utopianism, the flaw in both is the failure to recognize the twistedness of human nature. Sure, we want to believe that "the human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth", but I tend to lean more towards the idea that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" How does that connect to the Republican party? Well, Republicans are currently the ones who are on the utopian soap-boxes with the belief that the world can be made a better, if not a perfect, place through the free-market and exported democracy, a la Iraq. The Republican party is hardly the bastian of conservatism that so many seem to think. Just look at the budget under this administration and you should be able to tell that in a heartbeat. President Bush misplaced the magical veto pen back in 2001 and no one has been able to find it since.
  • Religion. I'm just going to quote and leave it at that. I think Hart says it very well:
What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy. The representation of this metaphysics through language and ritual took 10 centuries to perfect. The dome of the sacred, however, has been shattered. The act of reconstruction will require a large effort of intellect, which is never populist and certainly not grounded on emotion, an unreliable guide. Religion not based on a structure of thought always exhibits wild inspired swings and fades in a generation or two.
  • Free-market Economics. This is one of the pieces that seems to have gotten the folks over at The Corner all in a tizzy, but I happen to think is dead on. The biggest argument they seem to have is with the use of the word "utopian" but I don't really see the problem. Looking at the 3rd definition in the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary shows a utopia as "an impractical scheme for social improvement". Like it or not, the free-market is often invoked as an end all scheme for social improvement. "Just let the free-market work and everything will be better" seems to be the mantra that is often used. Unfortunately, this sometimes seems to result in a base pragmatism that doesn't take into account basic human longing for some seemingly impractical things - like beauty and a protected environment. Sometimes, just because there is a market for something, doesn't mean it should be pursued.
The Bad and the Ugly
You get both in one fell swoop here because, for now at least, there is only one glaring problem in the article.
  • Abortion. This is probably not too much of a surprise. It seems to me that Hart swings well into the pragmatic here and wants to say that we abortion should not be such a big deal simply because it isn't going to change. Just because a thing isn't going to change, doesn't mean it shouldn't be fought for. It seems to me that you could just as easily point to his wonderful call for a "recovery of the great structure of metaphysics" as tilting at windmills as well, but that doesn't make any less an admirable goal and desire. If it is true (and I believe it is) that abortion is an atrocity, then to dismiss the desire to end it as being impractical is simply wrong. Whether or not it is achievable is beside the point.
What's missing? I suppose to some degree it is attached to free-market economics, but I would like to see some discussion from conservatives at the level of Professor Hart discuss economies of scale and localism as opposed to the multi-national conglomerates that control the current economic climate.

Edit: Peter Robinson has posted an email response from Jeff Hart regarding the abortion part of his article. I don't think it holds up very well and still have the same question: If the abortion question should be dropped because it is impractical, or as he states, the result of social and political change, then why is it not just as impractical to wish for a return to the Resurrection as the fulcrum of a great metaphysic?
Finally, I think that this is about it. The debate has reached critical mass and, well, I've got work to do, too. Like I mentioned earlier, I may get a chance to consolidate and better synthesize the debate for posterity. We'll see.

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

According to Technorati, yours is the only meta-analysis of any note on this matter. Nice job, and linked.