At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

American Exceptionalism: Setting the Record Straight

posted by Jack Kerwick

Dean Malik has been busy fending off critics of his “Identity Politics: the denial of American Exceptionalism,” which American Thinker published a few weeks ago.  I am among those critics. I will focus on what Malik had to say about my remarks in his,“An American First, Always, and Last: a Response to Critics.”

My rebuttal is divided into three sections.  In the first I respond to the specific charges that Malik made against my arguments.  In the second, I correct his mischaracterization of Burke.  In the third, I draw the reader’s attention to three of our nation’s Founders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—in order to show that when it comes to the issues of race, ethnicity, and religion, they shared the sensibilities of their contemporaries, not the politically correct sympathies of ours.  

I select these three Founders for two reasons.  First, time and space constraints prevent me from extending the list indefinitely—as I effortlessly could have done.  Second, given Malik’s enthusiasm over what he calls “American Exceptionalism” (AE, from now on), who better to refute his view than “the Father of our country” (Washington), the author of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson)—that document upon which all champions of AE root their doctrine—and he who remains famous for his liberality, philanthropy, and opposition to slavery, Franklin.

Bogus Criticisms

Malik begins his response to me by claiming that my argument rapidly “devolves into a somewhat obtuse discussion of the origins of classical liberalism (today known as conservatism) in the philosophy of Edmund Burke, peppered with a few ad hominem attacks, strained analogies, oddly out-of-place references, and a few factual errors.” 

Let us begin with the last charge first.

There is one “factual error” to which I admit: I wrongly identified Charles Murray, author of the controversial, The Bell Curve, as Jewish.  Murray, several readers were quick to inform me, is Scots-Irish.  This error on my part is easy to explain.  You see, Murray co-authored this study of IQ with Richard Herrnstein.  I had simply (but, admittedly, sloppily) thought of the latter while I mentioned the former.  Yet not only was this mistake honest enough, it is also negligible, both in itself and relative to the blunders that pervade Malik’s work.

Other than this, there isn’t a single other “factual error” for which I am responsible.  At the very least, there are none that Malik identified.  And his failure to substantiate this charge is just as complete as his failure to substantiate every other charge that he levels against me.

Next, let us turn to Malik’s accusation that my essay was “peppered with” ad hominem assaults. 

It is indeed strange that someone as determined as Malik is to cast aspersions against Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow, men who, to his own admission, possess both “erudition and civility,” and Steve Sailer, who he concedes has both a stellar “wit” and a “good nature” to match, should be so ready to accuse me of resorting to ad hominem attacks against him.  There is nothing in my reply to his original article that so much as remotely approximates the potentially devastating conviction of “white supremacy” that he unreservedly renders against, not just these writers, but, in his latest article, me.

In my last article I said of Malik that inasmuch as his account of America’s origins appears to be rooted in the same rationalistic abstractions to which Burke’s enemies—the Jacobins—subscribed, and inasmuch as this species of rationalism sets itself over and above the wisdom of the ages—“prejudice,” “prescription,” and “prejudice”—it is hubris run wild.  Thus, in endorsing it, Malik succumbs to hubris.  I also called Malik out on his uncharitable treatment of Jared Taylor and Samuel Francis.  Malik referred to them as “white nationalists” and, worse, “white supremacists” (again, while refraining from the labor of defining such emotionally-charged terms) even though his targets have explicitly rejected both labels while articulating reasons for doing so.

But these are hardly ad hominem insults.  In any event, unlike “white supremacy,” they are utterly devoid of the demagogic efficacy that Malik exploits when he attempts to stack the deck against his opponents from the outset by reducing them to a bunch of disreputable and dreaded “white supremacists.”  This is a truly disgusting tactic, the weapon of choice of intellectual bullies.  We needn’t dwell on it, though, for there are still so many weaknesses to expose in Malik’s argument but so little time to do it.  

Third on the list of spurious charges to combat are “the out-of-place references” that I reportedly made.  I admit, I don’t really know what Malik is talking about here.  I suspect that he may be speaking to my appeals to the black thinkers Thomas Sowell and Carol Swain.  However, contrary to his characterization of this move in my argument, by invoking Sowell and Swain I was not attempting to “construct a fig leaf to cover” my “naked white nationalist apologetics.” 

The problem with Malik’s take is that I have no such apologetics, a fact that my discussion of “white nationalism” should have definitively established for Malik and everyone else (in fact, I doubt very much that AT would have published any of my work had its editor suspected that I was associated with anything as nefarious as Malik evidently thinks something called “white nationalism” is).  Moreover, I mentioned the race of Sowell and Swain only to show that the empirical facts concerning race, IQ, and minority identity politics that engages the attention of the Jared Taylors (and Peter Brimelows and Steve Sailers) of the world are equally acknowledged by non-whites like Sowell and Swain.  Thus, if there is something disreputable aboutTaylorand his ilk for relying upon it, there must be something equally disreputable about Sowell’s and Swain’s doing the same.  To put it another way, ifTayloris a “white nationalist” or “white supremacist” because of the considerations that he accepts as facts, then insofar as Sowell and Swain accept these very same facts, they too must be “white nationalists” and/or “white supremacists.”  Does the reader see how very ridiculous this is becoming?

Fourth, in my interrogation of Malik’s uncritical presupposition thatAmericais “exceptional” by reason of its allegedly unique “promise of escape from tribal loyalties and hatreds” I engaged in some analogical reasoning.  If partiality toward the fellow members of one’s race and/or ethnicity is “tribal” and, thus, impermissible, then why isn’t partiality toward one’s family, spouse, friends, and nation not similarly “tribal” and, then, impermissible?  Malik dismisses these analogies as “strained.”  In reality, though, it is evidently his ability to follow an analogy that is strained, for consider his response to them. 

“Kerwick then attempts to justify tribal politics by making an analogy that leads me to believe that he actually thinks that all white Americans may be related to each other in some form of a geometrically expanded polygamous marriage, which frankly leaves me at a loss for words.”

That an applicant to law school should fail as profoundly as Malik has in following a few simple analogies is bad enough; that a practicing lawyer should do so is scandalous.  Hopefully, Malik really does grasp the crux of my point here but pretends not to in order to kill two birds with one stone: he spares himself the hard work of lifting from his shoulders the burden of actually arguing for what he assumes while making me look silly in the process.  But whether his impervious to elementary logic is born through advertence or inadvertence, he invites a most unflattering reading of himself.

Most people would have recognized that the purpose of my analogies was to put into question the unabashed and purportedly “self-evident” moral universalism that Malik supposes is the moral point of view.  For quite some time, ethicists or moral philosophers have noted and explored the tensions between, on the one hand, the idea that morality demands an impartial and universal perspective and, on the other, the fact that the stuff of which the moral life consists, that which invests our lives with meaning and makes us who we are, is the particularity of the relationships within which we find ourselves and the partiality that we experience—and believe we ought to experience—toward those with whom we have those relationships. 

In short, it is not Thomas Paine’s and the French Revolutionaries’ “the Rights of Man” that motivate most of us to aspire toward virtue.  It is, rather, our friends, spouses, parents, children, churches, and local communities—“the little platoons,” as Burke referred to these institutions that stand in between the government and the naked individual—that hold this distinction.

Burke

My “somewhat obtuse discussion of the origins of classical liberalism (today known as conservatism) in the philosophy of Edmund Burke” occupies exactly two paragraphs out of a total of 23.  Furthermore, while Burke was indeed both a liberal and a conservative in the classical senses of these terms—he was a conservative-liberal, if you will—my point in supplying all two references to him was not to supply an account of the origins of either philosophy; it was simply and solely to illustrate that this widely recognized “patron saint” of conservatism and ally of the American colonists resolutely eschewed the very same abstract metaphysical fictions upon which Malik presumably relies in order to vindicate his conception of “American Exceptionalism.”  Unfortunately, I have no option but to presume that Malik endorses this dubious vision of morality because he still refuses to define the doctrine for which he insists on being a polemicist.

Malik thinks that my “heavy reliance” on Burke (again, I make but two references to him) places me on “shaky ground.”  Why?  Malik explains: “Burke defended the concept of prejudice as a valuable social commodity and as a ready tool for decision-making, obviating the need for introspection and judgment.” As if this weren’t terrible enough, “Burke was also skeptical, if not overtly disdainful of Democracy, and argued that governing power should be vested within society’s hereditary elite, rather than within regularly elected officials from the common population.” 

First of all, Burke never contrasted “prejudice” with reason, as Malik suggests.  Rather, he contrasts the tradition-centered conception of reason that he favors with the robust, trans-historical, trans-cultural conception of “omnicompetent” Reason championed by the likes of Robespierre, Thomas Paine, and those of his opponents who typified the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism.  Burke’s more humble account of reason has elicited the endorsement of many an illustrious figure, including, in our own day, Thomas Sowell, F.A. Hayek, and the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. 

Secondly, while Burke was “skeptical, if not overtly disdainful of Democracy,” our Founding Fathers were no less distrustful and contemptuous toward it.  As Malik should well know, they were of a single mind on this issue: it was a Republic that they were determined to bequeath to their posterity, emphatically not a democracy.  And as for “the common population” that composed the electorate of the newly createdUnited States, the authors of “American Exceptionalism” made sure that it consisted exclusively of citizens who were: white; men; and property-holders.

Malik couldn’t be wider of the mark insofar as his reading of Burke is concerned.  He writes that “Burke is known chiefly for opposing the concept of natural law [.]”  But Burke no more opposed natural law than he opposed reason.  Not only is neither of these concepts self-interpreting, both admit of a staggering multiplicity of definitions.  Burke opposed the Enlightenment rationalist’s doctrine of Natural Rights.  Insofar as this doctrine relies upon a version of natural law, it goes without saying that he rejected this version of it.  He did not reject natural law as such. 

Interestingly, while Washington, “the Father of America,” and Jefferson, the father of the Declaration of Independence—the document that, embodying, as it does, “the purest expression of natural law ever formulated in a political document,” in Malik’s words, is the basis for belief in “American Exceptionalism”—continued to accumulate more black slaves, Burke, the enemy of both “the Rights of Man” and the institution of slavery was busy designing a plan for the gradual abolition of the latter. 

This observation is not intended to criticize the Founders.  It is intended to put the lie to Malik’s suggestion that it wasn’t until the establishment of Americathat “tribal loyalties and hatreds” dissipated.      

Founders

Malik’s “American Exceptionalism” centers around, not the Declaration of Independence as such, but the first line of this document.  This is important to note, for as we read just a bit beyond this line that has become ensconced in the American consciousness, we can’t help to notice that the grievances listed therein forces the abstract universalism of its most famous assertion to give way to a historically and culturally concrete morality. The Declaration, that is, reveals an internecine conflict between the English in Englandand the English in America.  Yet considering that it wasn’t their “human rights” for the sake of which it was written but, rather, their “rights as Englishmen,” this is what we should expect.   

Still, it is worth considering what Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration and, according to Malik, a co-author of “American Exceptionalism,” really thought about, say, the relationship between blacks and whites. 

Jefferson believed that blacks were by nature intellectually inferior to whites and couldn’t have been clearer as to his estimation of the prospects of their inhabiting the same country as equal citizens.  “Nothing is more certain,” he declared, than “that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.  Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

Was Jefferson a “tribalist,” we must ask Malik?  That Jefferson, not unlike virtually every one of his contemporaries, was more partial to his state (in his case,Virginia) than to the country as a whole may constitute further evidence, in Malik’s estimation, that he was.

Neither was Jefferson particularly fond of Indians (“Native Americans”), to whom he referred as “savages” within just that document that Malik thinks supplies us with “the purest expression of natural law” to which the world has ever born witness.  

What about the Father of our country, George Washington?  Surely,Washingtonheld that the members of all races, ethnicities, and religions could co-exist inAmerica, correct?  Well, during the Revolutionary War,Washingtonissued an order imposing a ban on recruiting blacks into the Continental Army.  He states: “The rights of mankind and the freedom ofAmericawill have numbers sufficient to support them without resorting to such wretched assistance”—i.e. black recruits.  At the same time, the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation inviting blacks to the British side.

It is also worth noting that by the time of his death,Washingtonowned about 312 black slaves.

Benjamin Franklin, though eventually a sworn opponent of slavery, nevertheless owned slaves himself, and his newspaper regularly ran ads for slaves that were on the market.  Moreover,Franklinwas anything but timid when expressing his partiality for anAmericathe vast majority of the population of which wasn’t just European, but specifically English or “Anglo.”  Of the German immigrants flocking into his home colony,Franklinwrote:

“Why shouldPennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” 

Germans, “not being used toLiberty…know not how to make a modest use of it [.]”

Franklin lamented that the “the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably [sic] very small.”  Africa is “black or tawny,” and “Asia” is “chiefly tawny.”  The peoples of Europe—“the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes,” as well as “the Germans also,” are of “a swarthy Complexion.”  In his estimation, it is only “the Saxons,” along with “the English,” that “make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”  Of these “White People,”Franklin asserts, “I could wish their number increased.”

The reader should be mindful that it is in no way my objective here to further the leftist’s cartoonish caricature of the Founders as a bunch of villainous “racists.”  It is my objective, rather, to undermine the cartoonish caricature of the Founders that fuels the imagination of a certain segment of the right.  This caricature is a one-dimensional portrait according to which the Founders were gods—or, what amounts to the same thing, as far as this sort of rightist is concerned, 21st century-like democrats whose thought, owing nothing to contingencies of culture or time, was oblivious to racial, ethnic, and religious differences.  Upon a single abstract principle of which no one until that juncture had the slightest inkling, these bulwarks of universal Reason itself, so this story runs, erected a new Heaven on Earth. 

Thomas Sowell once quipped that ideology is just fairy tales for adults.  If so, we know what Malik’s favorite fairy tale is.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Forgotten Black Conservative: Another Look at George S. Schuyler

posted by Jack Kerwick

In my previous article, I wrote about George S. Schuyler, a great conservative who also happened to have been black. Since his death in 1977, he has, unfortunately, been forgotten.  It is with an eye toward rectifying this situation that I write about him.

That Schuyler could lay legitimate claim to the conservative tradition is born out by a few things, namely, his belief in the tradition or culturally-constituted character of human life; his rejection of rapid and revolutionary change; and his anti-utopianism.  Though each of these ideas is conceptually distinct, in conservative thought they tend to be intertwined.

Schuyler witnessed the proliferation of a number of “Back toAfrica” movements.  The adherents of such movements wished to see American blacks take up residence in the continent from whence their ancestors were taken.  As far as Schuyler was concerned, this was a utopian dream of the worst sort.   The reason for this was simple: American blacks, by virtue of inheriting the same cultural traditions as their white counterparts, share substantially more in common with the latter than they share with non-American blacks. 

Schuyler explains that while “their training and education would undoubtedly be helpful to the backward and newly-emergent states” throughout the non-Western world, “barriers of language and culture” guarantee that black Americans “would not be accepted today anywhere on earth[.]”  With respect to the black American’s relationship vis-à-vis Africa specifically, he writes:

“Soil depletion, desiccation and the most general impoverishment and ignorance of quarreling ethnic groups indigenous to theDark Continentmake it most unappealing to people whose standard of living is in general superior to that of Europeans, to say nothing of Africans.” 

Simply put, “American Negroes” have “nothing whatever in common with even the most advanced Africans [.]”

It will doubtless surprise many a contemporary reader, black and white, to learn that Schuyler also opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This legislation he viewed as another species of utopia, for like all utopian schemes, its designs could be implemented only at the cost of depriving us of much that we already enjoyed—in this case, our liberties as Americans.     

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Schuyler believed, would be but the latest effort “to speed social change by law [.]”  This, in turn, implies that “it is possible to make people better by force,” an idea that has “been the cause of much misery and injustice throughout the ages.”  A relatively young country likeAmerica, overcome as it is by delusions of grandeur regarding its own character and always tempted to succumb to the “passion for novelty,” is particularly disposed to suppose that rapid change can be induced through the creation of law.  But, as Schuyler accentuates, this is nothing more or less than a sign of “political immaturity.” 

“It is axiomatic,” Schuyler confidently asserts, “that it takes lots of time to change social mores, especially with regard to such hardy perennials as religion, race and nationality, to say nothing of social classes.”  In order for legislation to be effective, it needs to be buttressed by custom.  Unless legislation accommodates the community’s sensibilities—unless it seems to be a reflection or function of its customs—its enforcement will be that much “more difficult and expensive” and the government will be that much “less popular.”     

Schuyler was under no illusions concerning the treatment to which black Americans had historically been subjected by the white majority.  This treatment has been “morally wrong, nonsensical, unfair, un-Christian and cruelly unjust [.]”  Still, there a few considerations that he insisted we bear in mind.

First, Americawas “dealing better” in its quest for racial equality than any other multi-racial society on the face of the planet.  Schuyler wrote that while “it was all well and good to expect more ofAmerica than any other country,” we mustn’t ever lose sight of the fact that what “was an American problem was also a global one from which no country was free.” 

Second, since blacks’ emancipation in 1865, there have been changes inAmerica that, however slow the rate at which they’ve transpired, have nevertheless “been marked.”  Yet “civil rights laws, state or federal, have had little to do with it.”  What civil rights laws were passed throughout the decades “have been enforced and accepted only when the dominant majority acquiesced, and have generally lain dormant in the law books.”  To state it succinctly, it has been “custom,” not law, that “has dictated the pace of compliance” with the law. 

The final and most important consideration that Schuyler invoked when attending to the Civil Rights bill of 1964, his “principal case” against it, pertains to the constitutional liberty that it imperils.  As he said, this bill promised to be “another encroachment by the central government on the federalized structure of our society….”  Schuyler continued:

“Under such a law, the individual everywhere is told what he must do and what he cannot do, regardless of the laws and ordinances his state or community.”  As should be obvious, this legal arrangement is “a blow at the very basis of American society which is founded on state sovereignty and individual liberty and preference.” 

That Schuyler possessed an abiding understanding of and appreciation for tradition, recognized destructive utopian fantasies when he saw them, and detected—and valued—the secret (“the federalized structure of our society”) of our American liberties prove that he was a great conservative. 

These characteristics also prove that he was a great American.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

 

Rethinking the Relationship Between Art and Morality

posted by Jack Kerwick

To the voluminous body of evidence that the television and film industries are comprised of doctrinaire leftists determined to promote their political program via these media, we can now add Ben Shapiro’s recently released Prime Time Propaganda.  This work is at once too long and too predictable, it is true.  But in spite of its vices, it would be unfair to begrudge Shapiro the commendation for the service that he supplies, namely, a much needed reminder of the variety of typically subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which Hollywood routinely attempts to invite sympathy from consumers for causes that they would otherwise reject.

My intention here, however, is not to review Shapiro’s book.  Rather, I wish to say a couple of things about the relationship between art and politics that he, among legions of others, addresses. 

The first thing of which to take note is that while those on the right incessantly (and understandably) bemoan the injection of leftist “politics” into the arts, it is really leftist morality that is the object of their disdain.  “Politics” is a term loaded with negative connotations.  This explains why politicians charge their rivals with “playing politics,” or why we complain that this situation or that is “all political.”  “Politics” has gotten a bad rap, I believe, but that is grist for another mill.  The point here is that while it is a much easier sell to accuse one’s opponents of politicizing matters than to accuse them of moralizing them, political causes are moral causes.

Second, since it is leftist morality of which those on the right want to divest the arts, it is unclear exactly what it is they are saying.  To put it another way, they appear to be simultaneously advocating two mutually contradictory positions: the arts should and should not promote morality.  Nationally syndicated radio talk show host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham is about as perfect an illustration of this tendency as any of which I am aware.  The title of her book, Shut Up and Sing, readily reveals her call for a morally-neutral art world.  At the same time, though, Ingraham also urgesHollywood to provide consumers with products that embody “family-friendly” messaging—i.e. “traditional” or “conservative” morality.

The relationship between art and morality has always been a subject of interest for philosophers.   That the arts contribute powerfully to the formation of character is a proposition that few could coherently deny.  It is precisely our recognition of this fact that motivates parents to regulate the images that their children ingest, and both parents and non-parents alike to repudiate those parents who fail in this regard.  Similarly doubtless is that for as long as they have existed, artists have sought to advance their conceptions of morality through their work.  At no time has this been truer than today.

Yet to concede all of this should not be confused with conceding that art and morality are one and the same.  It seems to me that if “art” is a concept with any intelligibility whatsoever—and we all appear to be in agreement that is—then we have no choice but to acknowledge the illegitimacy of reducing art to morality.  Art and morality are indeed distinct activities; neither should be measured in terms of the other.   

The moral philosopher or the ethicist and the philosopher of art or the aesthetician center attention upon fundamentally different kinds of objects.  The moral philosopher examines the concepts that constitute morality: “ought,” “right,” “wrong,” “duty,” “obligation,” “virtue,” “vice,” “happiness,” “pleasure,” “pain,” etc..  The philosopher of art, in contrast, focuses on such concepts as “beauty,” “mimesis,” “emotion,” “representation,” “symmetry,” and “expression.” 

Of moral agents and their actions it is proper—it is expected—that we should express approval or disapproval.  More specifically, agents and their actions are to be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished.  Artworks, on the other hand, considered solely as artworks, elicit no such responses.  Artworks are neither “right” nor “wrong,” and the artist is neither “virtuous” nor “vicious.”  Far from inviting endorsement or reproach, an artwork provokes what we may call contemplative enjoyment. 

The response to an artwork is enjoyment because, like all other forms of enjoyment, an observer’s relationship to an artwork is an activity, not a momentary emotion.  Enjoyment is not synonymous with pleasure. Enjoyment can be and not infrequently is derived from activities that are productive of pleasure and pain alike.  “No pain, no gain,” an expression with which weightlifters have long been familiar, is a standing testament to this truth, for in spite of the cost in pain that the activity of weightlifting incurs, the weightlifter persists because he enjoys it.  And what is true of weightlifting is no less true of all manner of activity, from sports to music, writing to teaching, parenting to marriage. 

Yet the enjoyment that an artwork produces, unlike that to be had from the pursuit of these other objects, is also contemplative, for an artwork is uniquely situated to arrest our daily activity just long enough for us to reflect upon something that is beyond the world of wanting and getting, truth and falsity, right and wrong.  A fine artwork accepts nothing less than the observer’s undivided attention.  It is not, however, ungrateful, for in exchange for the abandonment of all other considerations—considerations of right and wrong, say, or scientific or historical accuracy—it promises its own unique enjoyment.

Anyone calling into question this (admittedly sketchy) theory of art would do himself a good turn to consider our reaction to, say, The Godfather.  Although this story has, with all of the justice in the world, been criticized for its romantic depiction of organized crime, that it is a stellar artwork is all but beyond dispute.  That Mafioso aren’t “really” as educated, articulate, or successful at eluding capture as Michael Corleone is neither here nor there as far the merits of The Godfather as an artwork are concerned.  What makes The Godfather an artwork is its potential to provoke contemplative enjoyment in those who behold it.  And what makes it a masterpiece is that it has succeeded in not only actualizing this potentiality, but in doing so excellently. 

There is much more that can and should be said on this subject.  Since “the politicization of art” has been and remains an issue for those on both sides of the political divide, my objective here was simply to encourage more thought on the nature of art and its relationship to morality.  It was toward this end that I offered this preliminary analysis of art.            

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

Rethinking the Relationship between History and Morality

posted by Jack Kerwick

Those on the conventional right incessantly lament the ignorance of history from which younger generations of Americans suffer.  While it is true that Americans appear to know frighteningly little about their country’s past, perhaps this has something to do with the abuse to which the concept of history has been subjected.    

The very concept of “history” is in an abysmal condition of neglect.  For this, partisans from across the political spectrum are to blame. Much more frequently than not, when those on both the right and the left advocate the teaching of “history,” it isn’t a distinct, autonomous line of inquiry or discipline to which they want people exposed; rather, what they champion is the promotion of their respective political-moral visions under the guise of “history.”  That this is so is readily born out by the titles of some of the more popular contemporary “history” books: A People’s History of America; The Last Best Hope; The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History; A Patriot’s History of The United States, etc.

In other words, “history” has been reduced to morality.  Those on the left exploit the name of “history” in order to impress upon audiences their notion of an Americaconceived in corruption.  Thus, “history” texts authored by leftists invariably accentuate those passages of our national life that fit most readily into the template of “racism” and “sexism” that they seek to impose upon them.  In contrast, those authored by rightists, while not devoid of all references to some of America’s more oppressive chapters, tend to romanticize our country.  Among the most salient ways in which they seek to obtain this end is by stressing what is commonly called “American Exceptionalism,” the concept that the United States stands alone among the nations of the world in being the only country that has ever been founded upon, not “the accidents of history,” but a universal, self-evident moral truth: the truth that all human beings are possessed of God-given “unalienable rights.” 

But if history is a distinct discipline, then it is as illegitimate to import moral judgments into it as it is illegitimate to import aesthetic judgments into, say, the study of biology.  Just as the marine biologist looks upon the ocean, not as God’s creation or an artwork, but as the environment that nurtures the organisms on which he sets his sights, so the genuine historian is concerned with informing us of what happened in the past—not what should have happened.  For example, it is proper for the moralist to characterize slavery as “reprehensible” or “evil”; the mode of the historian, on the other hand, is devoid of all such normative terms.

Biographies of, say, Abraham Lincoln, that heap either praise or scorn upon our sixteenth president, although they may be truthful, are not historical.  Lincoln may very well have been among the wisest of men as Harry Jaffa and legions of others insist, or he may have been a deceitful tyrant, as Thomas DiLorenzo and a not insignificant minority of scholars contend.  What we must grasp is that this is a debate that lies outside the province of the historian.  

If we are in the right in regarding history as a distinct field of inquiry, then it is improper for us at the same time to enlist it in the service of either present or future moral ends.  Most “historians” today actually exploit the past for the sake of advancing a moral or political agenda of one sort or another.  Now, there is nothing illicit about the activity of drawing upon the past in order to illuminate present circumstances; indeed, it is both necessary and desirable that we do as much.  The point, however, is that whatever else we may say of this engagement of mining the past for present reward, we must not say that it is historical. 

Because a person’s very identity is constituted by the events that he’s experienced, it is inevitable that we shall be forever recalling episodes from our pasts.  Yet only if we are determined to divest the concept of history of all meaning will we then conclude from this that each of us is a historian.  If everyone is a historian, then no one is.  Similarly, the examples of virtuous characters from our civilization’s past promise to impart much in the way of moral instruction.  Unless, though, we want to regard “history” texts along exactly the same lines as we tend to regard children’s stories—as sources of moral education and entertainment—we must grant that searching the past for even noble present purposes like the inculcation of excellence is most definitely not an historical enterprise. 

No, as Michael Oakeshott observed, it isn’t the historian’s interest in the past that distinguishes him as the figure that he is; it is his interest in the past for its own sake that makes him a historian. 

The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that objectivity was a fiction.  Every living organism, he argued, was fundamentally motivated by what he called “the will to power,” the impulse to satiate its needs and desires by dominating its surroundings.  The human being differs from all other living things only insofar as his intelligence is concerned, for humans seek to exploit and subjugate one another not just through brute force, but through what we may call rational coercion. No person will come right out and tell others that he needs for them to believe as he does; this simply would go no distance toward attaining the sought after objective.  Rather, he will do what, according to Nietzsche, philosophers have been doing for as long as they have been around: he will avoid all self-references and appeal only to such “objective” criteria as Reason, Truth, Natural Law, God, and so forth.

Now, there is much over which to quarrel with Nietzsche.  But his thought is not without its share of insights.  There can be no denying that far too frequently the beliefs that we profess are informed by motives that haven’t anything to do with the search for truth.  Neither can we deny that just as frequently we attempt to hide these motives, from both ourselves and others, by cloaking them with the language of objectivity. 

The appeal to “history,” I hope the reader now recognizes, is but another way that ideologues of one sort or another have done this.       

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 

 

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