Notes on America in the Philosophy of World History: Ronald Reagan’s ‘A Time for Choosing’

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You and I
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Ronald Reagan’s “A Time For Choosing,” a speech delivered on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, televised on October 27, 1964, as part of a long-form campaign advertisement, is regularly cited, or presented in video format, wherever Reagan’s anti-Communist call to arms can be re-purposed for a new struggle, or for a new episode in a hypothetical larger struggle.1

On the golden anniversary of the speech last year, National Review writer Lee Edwards recalled the initial, extraordinarily positive reception of Reagan’s performance:

The address was described by political analysts David Broder and Stephen Hess as “the most successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention.” It brought in $1 million in contributions to the Republican National Committee in the first 24 hours. It shifted many votes — the Republican nominee Barry Goldwater gained several percentage points following the telecast. Republican leaders said they would not have approached Reagan to run for governor of California in 1966 if he had not made his TV talk.

Edwards, as one might expect from a partisan conservative, focuses on the more overtly “political” body of the speech, but in the closing lines Reagan speaks directly to a non-partisan comprehension of history in relation to the American state or state concept: Though we may treat the “Democrats for Goldwater” so prominently featured in the speech’s live audience as political-electoral window-dressing, what Reagan had to say in closing may have struck the majority of his listeners as non-controversial, or as nothing a mainstream Democrat like the recently assassinated President Kennedy or his successor could not also have said. If so, then the success of the speech in boosting Reagan himself in public estimation, as a politician capable of speaking to an American consensus, would be easier to understand, even if Reagan remained unable to save Goldwater from an overwhelming electoral defeat.

The explanation for Reagan’s success may be that his words, especially at the end, were in a sense not his words at all, but the comfortably familiar and time-honored words of others. The last lines of “A Time for Choosing” consist of a compressed assemblage of allusions, liftings, and citations – or perhaps of “samples” from a set of political-rhetorical “all-time greatest hits.”

***

Let’s set the record straight. There is no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can have peace–and you can have it in the next second–surrender.

Admittedly there is a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson in history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face–that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight and surrender. If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand–the ultimatum. And what then? When Nikita Khrushchev has told his people he knows what our answer will be? He has told them that we are retreating under the pressure of the Cold War, and someday when the time comes to deliver the ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary because by that time we will have weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically. He believes this because from our side he has heard voices pleading for “peace at any price” or “better Red than dead,” or as one commentator put it, he would rather “live on his knees than die on his feet.” And therein lies the road to war, because those voices don’t speak for the rest of us.

The rhetorical collage of “A Time For Choosing” is held together by an argument whose derivation may be called foreign, but which may count as no less American for being so, considering the extent to which “America” the state concept, Americans themselves, and therefore the state-nation itself are imports. This argument as Reagan expressed it survives as an article of faith in the wing of the conservative movement that is always ready for a re-invigoration of an American martial spirit, and that, for all of the recent attention to neo-isolationists, seems still to control and define Republican foreign and military policy and retains at minimum a claim in any discussion of Americanism or the American Idea. Because, however, another faction or set of factions among American conservative intellectuals view history very differently, Reaganism or this foreshadowing of Reaganism therefore also evokes tensions within the Republican coalition and contradictions in Republican governance between, loosely speaking, small-government libertarianism and national greatness statism.

The argument, as central tenet of Reagan’s theo-political doctrine in waiting, his theologouomenon of American civic religion, may be summarized as follows: The difference between those who enjoy political freedom and those who do not is a difference on the question of life and death, or of the life worth living, so worth sacrifice of life. That this notion is a major premise of “the master-slave dialectic”2 as famously explicated in The Phenomenology of Spirit, does not, of course, in itself make Reagan a follower of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: It might simply make Reagan, for a Hegelian or for anyone else, a competent leader capable of speaking to widely held intuitions of time-tested precepts.3

Before going any further, we should stress that, although the “master”‘s (or “lord”‘s) defining choice – of death over slavery (or “bondage”), equally of “death before dishonor” – is in Hegel’s philosophy of world history at or near the source of the admirable at all as well as at the source of history as meaningful at all, it must in the end remain unsatisfying on the level of the ethos of a narrow class or stratum. It begins as the possession of a few, but is meant to be understood as the birthright of all. For Hegel (as all the more in Marx’s re-interpretation) the development of the master-slave dialectic across historical time tends toward and eventually and necessarily produces the opposite of an order in which a master class or race can rule by absolute right over a mass of inferiors. In other words, Hegel saw and offered his philosophy as a philosophy of liberation, and therefore in a critical sense as a revolutionarily democratic philosophy, if not simply democratist in the way that aspects of the liberal democratic nation-state may be explained or advertised to the liberated or to-be-liberated or not-completely-liberated masses.4

Reagan treats these premises not as “thought through”5, but as “lived through”: intuitively grasped and understood to be true by and for a broad audience of modern Americans, eventually for the American demos or “Popular Sovereign” in its most authentic self-comprehension, or in an authentically representative segment of the populace. The premises would be true for all, including all adversaries domestic and foreign, but are also presumed to be neither well-understood by most nor fully accepted by all, thus producing the central political problem for Reagan, Goldwater, and allies to confront: of the dissenters or internal political adversaries whom Reagan describes as preferring “peace at any price.” The political battle-lines are therefore battle-lines over the question of battle-lines, battle-lines between those ready to give battle and those who, according to Reagan, would surrender or who have already pre-emptively surrendered or who refuse to acknowledge or who are unable to acknowledge the existence of a battle or their participation in it.

Returning to the critical concluding lines of “A Time for Choosing,” we observe the same battle before or over the battle referenced by Hegel’s near-contemporary, the American revolutionary Patrick Henry, from whose speech on “liberty or death”6 Reagan quotes without attribution, just before proceeding to a capsule history of a Judeo-Christian and lineally American civilization in world history:

You and I…7 do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin–just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn’t die in vain.

Thus, by way of three rhetorical questions, under an explicit reference to martyrdom, so in relation to religious or theological precepts, Reagan moves through 3,000 years and aligns the three politico-religious covenants, or simply the three faith covenants, of Judeo-Christian or perhaps Abrahamic or sacrificial Americanism, as renewed and combined in the defeat of Nazism and the subsequent, for Reagan very ongoing, war with Communism.

The next lines re-associate Reagan and his listeners with mastery of the principal challenge to freedom as they are to understand it, then moves without pause or transition to an even more philosophically ambitious, also implicitly theological or theo-philosophical or onto-theological assertion by another, as it were, man of the state:

Where, then, is the road to peace? Well, it’s a simple answer after all. You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, “There is a price we will not pay.” There is a point beyond which they must not advance. This is the meaning in the phrase of Barry Goldwater’s “peace through strength.” Winston Churchill said that “the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits–not animals.” And he said, “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”

We can also identify Churchill’s notion of the spirit realized and elaborated in the “great forces… on the move in the world,” producing a divine obligation in the form of “duty,” as Germanic in Hegel’s sense8, or as both “Romantic” and “Idealist.” Hostile critics might note that Reagan does not precisely spell out how this saying to our enemies on the price we will not pay provides any “road to peace,” or how a love of or even a mere preference for peace can connect with Churchill’s idea as stated here, since it seems to conceive of death in war as necessarily diminishable as an evil, because supremely exaltable. Of course, “peace through strength” is an ancient, not 1960s American Republican idea, and would-be sympathizers might hear a different subtext, but, all the same, warriors so conceived might scorn all preparing for war out of fear of it. The first loyalty of the holy warrior is to the cause that sanctifies violence: Preparing for war to produce peace, or peace as justification for studying war, would fall under the ethos of peace at any price, or reduce the holy cause to merely peace.

In the final lines of this final passage, Reagan returns to “destiny” and repeats the leveling figure “You and I” two more times, allowing him to supply another sample, this one from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech to the 1936 Democratic National Convention “A Rendezvous with Destiny,” which sounded themes similar to Churchill’s – for a different kind of war but still a war for survival, and a war for which Roosevelt described himself as already “enlisted for the duration.”9 Reagan’s conclusion is as follows:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

We will keep in mind and remember that Barry Goldwater has faith in us. He has faith that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny.

Temporarily setting aside additional minor or decorative allusions (or samples), we can observe that the key word here obviously is “destiny,” and in this connection we can also note that the Goldwater campaign had re-used the title of Roosevelt’s speech for the same television show or advertisement of which “A Time for Choosing” was a part. In this second use of the word within the speech and as the last word of the speech (other than the pro forma “thank you very much” to listeners), the word’s meaning has changed: In the end “you and I” are not merely meeting or responding to a destiny set out for us, as in the common meaning and initial implication, but are freely determining our destiny, or taking possession of destiny as our own destiny. A destiny that you and I “determine” is different from a destiny determined for us by others or by a power above us. For Ronald Wilson Reagan, and for the American Idea in his rendering, our destiny is in this sense to become finally free of destinies. Put in the familiar paradoxical format: We have no choice but to become free of compulsions.

More to our main argument, Reagan’s version of a “rendezvous with destiny,” a destiny of freedom and independence in relation to “ability,” “dignity,” and “right,” seems as clear and positive a statement of a teleological view of history, or of a typically Idealist, and Hegelian view, as one will find in American public speech, but in being so it stands within a distinct American tradition. As noted, we have not exhausted all of the allusions embedded in this passage. The most striking one left for an explication of neo-conservative, or of conservative-progressive, Idealist Americanism is to Lincoln’s Message to Congress of 1862, in which Lincoln identified the United States with “the last best hope on Earth”10: If America never was or is no longer “the last best hope on Earth,” then either Reagan and Lincoln both, along with Roosevelt and all the lesser figures who have invoked them on all sides, were wrong, or we have failed, or American history as they understood it is over.

***

In an exchange on Twitter, Bill King (@wk344407), a political science scholar writing on the neo-conservative movement, suggested that the word “neo-conservatism” describes an outlook rather than a comprehensive and coherent theory, but he agreed that a need for the latter could perhaps be satisfied by an induction of “neo-conservative theorists” into the movement avant la lettre.

On this note, the designation of Reagan and Churchill as political forerunners or forefathers is a “neocon” commonplace, but a resort to Hegel for theoretical backing would strike some conservative intellectuals, especially American small government conservatives, as unjustifiable if not blasphemous. Indeed, conservative thinkers and scholars from Eric Voegelin to Ronald Pestritto11, with a public face provided by the likes of George Will, Glenn Beck, and Jonah Goldberg, have identified Germanic statism, and Hegel as its prophet, as directly linked to progressivism12 especially via Woodrow Wilson, as a or the primary enemy of conservatism of the American type, as the source of a “cancer” that needs to be “eradicated.” From this point of view, Neo-Conservatism is just Liberal Internationalism in a Prussian helmet.

Another argument against treating Hegel as philosophical father of the political fathers would be his expressed uncertainty regarding the American future and his derogation of the American Revolution in favor of the French.13 As we have discussed before14, these are not minor difficulties, but neither are they necessarily insuperable ones, either for a Hegelian theory of neo-conservatism or for a Hegelian theory of the American Idea, or for a political praxis that happens to unite them.

Some neo-conservatives, including individuals once prominently identified with the movement but no longer comfortable with the label, may be fully aware of their own intellectual debt to Hegel, and of the manner in which an inarguably Hegelian influence is visible in the thumbnail sketch of the last generation of American global policy: A popularized interpretation of the “end of history in principle” transmuted amidst Cold War triumphalism into the hubris of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the once upon a time Great War on Terror, proceeding to summon an over-correction, or hubris of an opposite type, at length initiating a counter-correction, presumably with benefit of dreadful experience.15 For some critics of the neocons, that leading neo-conservatives of the 1970s were ex-Marxists remains a scandal or at least an embarrassment. For us it is as noteworthy that Marx was a Young Hegelian long before there were any Marxists. In any event attacks on Hegel or on the Hegelian philosophy of world history and on the neo-conservative vision share main features in common, somewhat across the contemporary political spectrum: Both Hegelianism and neo-conservatism are condemned as racist and imperialist or colonialist, and will also be criticized as naively and dangerously presumptuous or far worse – incipiently totalitarian and genocidal – regarding an inevitable movement of history toward a particular order of political things.16

In short, the critique of neo-conservatism and of Reaganism, especially the right-libertarian critique from within conservatism, amounts to a critique of their shared Hegelianism. Yet reinforcements on the other side may sometimes arrive unexpectedly. Eva Brann, writing in her inaugural essay for The Imaginative Conservative, offered a seemingly entirely unbidden tribute to The Phenomenology of Spirit, expressed in a way that mirrors and expands upon the above statements of Churchill’s, Reagan’s use of them, and typically American conservative uses of both figures:

A not so very specific an example [of the “transfiguration” of philosophical “figures”], but perhaps among the grandest: Hegel tells of the Spirit coming into historical time, of God entering the world, through a “gallery of figures,” human incarnations, even identifiable as historical individuals. But, he says, that’s not how we are to understand his Phenomenology of Spirit, meaning his account of the phenomena by which divinity becomes manifest in the world; he is not presenting imagined figures but incarnate truths. It is the most hellishly difficult but most rewarding of image-interpretations, of ascending from visualizable images to purely thinkable originals, that I know of.

These sentences appear rather surprisingly: without obvious prompting or direct connection; within parentheses in the last of 12 numbered sections of a lengthy essay, an essay written by a non-user of computers inaugurating a web site; under the self-contradictory (or one might say dialectical) heading “Eccentric Centrality.” Hellishly or divinely or both, the rewarding difficulty for many neo-conservatives as well as for their opponents, though second nature for their revered warrior-prophets and sometimes for a citizenry called to liberation and wars of liberation, may be in grasping that their own political practice, eventually a practice of demanding life for life, derives and must or could only derive from just such an “account of the phenomena by which divinity becomes manifest in the world,” which is also another way of defining “philosophy of world history.”

Lanced Infinity

This post was originally previewed in November, 2014, via a version of the footnotes as they then existed.

Notes:

  1. See, for example, the use of this video in a speculative blog post on the Islamic State. []
  2. The connection of the master-slave dialectic to historical American slavery and to reactionary conservatism in general is a complex and emotionally and politically fraught topic. Hegel’s rendering of the idea might provide a starting point and framework. []
  3. Whether Reagan ever glanced at a single page of Hegel’s writings is irrelevant to the larger argument. []
  4. So, according to Kojève especially, the emergence of the modern – “thought and the universal” as Hegel defined the modern in Elements of the Philosophy of Right – and the arrival of “the end of history in principle” equate with the discovery of the untenability of class divisions typical of the ancient world, which thus become definitional for the “ancient” in this scheme. The inability of the master to find satisfaction in the position of mastery is twinned to the dissatisfaction of the slave or bondsman, in Kojève’s figure the “working slave.” All of history, or what makes history a progressive history, and a potentially meaningful history, is for Hegel or for Kojève’s Hegel the throwing off of “bonds” by the working slaves, their overcoming of their enslavement both objectively and subjectively, on the way to a mode of life in which an authentic satisfaction becomes possible for the first time. The “end of history” – which is not a point on the calendar, and perhaps never fully achieved while still under discussion, if ever to be actually or fully achieved – would be the general adoption of a political order worthy of free human beings, or a “liberal order” in the fullest sense. This process is taken to be necessary and inexorable, but inherently uncertain: “Thought and the universal” drive humanity in the direction of the just order, but the project remains and must be subject to authentic risk to the whatever extent it is and, to say the same thing, is to be experienced as and known to be an authentic project. []
  5. Perhaps they are to be considered necessarily not thought through. []
  6. Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” []
  7. Reagan stumbles at this point, but forges ahead. Transcripts faithfully or perhaps slavishly tend to repeat his mistaken locution, which reads in full, nonsensically, “You and I know and do not believe…” []
  8. …typical of the “German Realm,” but not a possession even-especially in Hegel’s time of a single German nation or state. []
  9. Roosevelt:

    There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

    In this world of our in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.

    I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.

    I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war.

    []

  10. Lincoln:

    Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

    []

  11. Voegelin’s opposition to Hegel’s “gnosis” as typical modern “gnosticism” and “ersatz religion” is a central characteristic of his intellectual project – see Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays. For Pestritto on the connection between Hegel and Wilson, see Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. []
  12. and historically with capital-“p” Progressivism []
  13. Hegel had notably little to say about America. His most commonly cited statement is his designation of the New World as the “land of the future.” The phrase is taken by some as a compliment, but in context (from Lectures on the Philosophy of History) it suggests primarily a responsible reluctance to indulge in idle speculation.

    A discussion collecting and re-considering speculative commentary at this site on Hegel’s views on America vs. the establishment of an American in the Hegelian sense world-historical power remains a task for another time. In the context of the theory of the nation-state, we can note that Carl Schmitt, considered Hegel’s “constitutional state” dead as of 1933, when the Nazis finally seized complete power, and here received agreement from Leo Strauss. Heidegger differed: “On the contrary, it was only then that [Hegel] began to live.” What none of these three seems to have considered seriously is the possibility, discernible in Kojève and perhaps in Fukuyama, noted briefly by Anne Norton in Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, that the Germanic phase of the Hegelian project may have been absorbed by (or perhaps “sublated” within) the American state-national and global or neo-imperial project. []

  14. …frequently, but see previous note. []
  15. The last may strike some as wishful thinking, but resumption or the prior course now under thoughtful restraint seems to be the project, for example, set forth by “reform conservative” Reihan Salam, Executive Editor of National Review, in his somewhat unexpected re-statement of political faith in 2014: “Why I Am Still a Neocon” (whose URL “slug” translates more explicitly as “neocons and Rand Paul: What libertarians Don’t Understand About American…”). []
  16. A corresponding fracture within Marxism as intellectual and political project has been visible within it from its inception, and appears as conceptual as well as practical problem at every phase of Marxist development. It is something of a tribute to Marxism that it has proven capable of irrelevance. []

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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So, does Mitchell make any money on the work, which has been shared so many times? He uploaded a high-res image of the symbol and granted permission for anyone to use it personally for free. But for those who want to support his work or simply want something readymade, you can also buy T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, and journals emblazoned with the symbol through Threadless.“I really just want to spread the image as much as possible and cement it in history,” Mitchell says. “In all honesty, the amount I’ve made from my Threadless shop so far is still less than my hourly rate, so I don’t really see it as a big deal. If you look at my Twitter, half the replies are people wanting to know where they can buy a shirt. Threadless is happy to help them out with that, and so I’m happy to let that happen.”Now that the symbol has flooded our streets and our timelines, Mitchell just has one request: “Impeach this idiot already,” he says.

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This is a Waterloo moment for Trump, the tea party and their alliance. They have been stopped in their tracks not only by Democratic opposition but because of a mutiny within their own ranks. Although never particularly liked or respected, it is now clear that they are no longer feared. The bankruptcy of their ideas and their incompetence have been exposed. Their momentum has been dissipated. Their rejection of political norms has itself been scorned. Our long national nightmare may finally be coming to an end.

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