CK MacLeod's

Forgetting Wilson (Reply to Jonah Goldberg)

Much as I might enjoy debating the comparative progressivism of President Warren “Racial Amalgamation There Cannot Be” Harding; much as, armed by biography, I’m ready to stand up for Professor President Thomas Woodrow Wilson against the dextrosphere’s leading anti-intellectual intellectuals, I’m happy to accept Jonah Goldberg’s suggestion that we look instead to larger and more pressing issues:

The reason why it is both important and necessary for conservatives to tackle the progressive era is that that’s where the assumptions of 20th century liberalism begin… If Wilson isn’t the best poster boy for Progressivism, tactically or substantively,  I’m open to alternative nominations. But the notion that conservatives are wasting energy in assaulting the progressive era strikes me as exactly wrong. We’ve wasted time in not attacking until all too recently.

In the process of quite correctly characterizing my prior defense of Wilson as not “all that powerful” (I was seeking balance, not apotheosis), Mr. Goldberg also gives his own view on relevant context (emphasis in the original):

A big chunk of [MacLeod’s] critique boils down to an argument I’ve heard many times: Wilson (or this or that progressive) merely reflected the prevailing ideas at the time. Well, that’s sort of my argument, you know? That these were the prevailing ideas at the time: Collectivism, eugenics, militarism (both as a mobilizing metaphor as well as the real thing), nationalism, statolatry, technocracy and – in America – a desire to “Europeanize,” often on Bismarckian lines,  political institutions and arrangements. And while these ideas were popular in all sorts of places, their champions were the Progressives.

As volunteer conservative left deviationist progressive apologist, I have previously composed my own lists of to me less obviously bad progressivisms, seeking to highlight those Progressive Era reforms that I judge as integrated with American life, but, even if we stick with Goldberg’s version, we’re still left with perhaps the largest question:  Why were the Progressives able not just to champion these things, but in championing them gain control of American politics, and set the country and the world on a course they’ve been on ever since?

Some might want to attribute the Progressives’ vast political success to the diabolical genius of charismatics, conspirators, and tricksters, but much more persuasive explanations are readily available.  They often start with statistics on American life from the middle of the 19th Century to the first decades of the 20th (Wilson’s lifespan, one point for posterization) regarding employment, urbanization, production, immigration, communication, transportation, fertility, income, and on and on.  For example:  Population:  More than quadrupled, 50% of the increase through immigration.  Proportion receiving wages and living in urban settings:  From small minority to vast majority.  Communication:  speed of horse to speed of light.

It was in relation to such changes that Goldberg’s favorite scholar, Ronald Pestritto, was questioned by his colleague Jean M. Yarbrough, in the conclusion of her review of Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism and Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings:

[O]ne wishes that Pestritto had extended his analysis to the presidential years to see how Wilson’s academic theories fared when confronted with political reality. Although [Roots…] touches briefly on the 1912 election and beyond in a concluding chapter, this question goes largely unexplored. Finally, one wishes that Pestritto had given his political imagination a bit more scope and had tried to envision what solutions to the novel problems of industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration, as well as the old problems of racial injustice and growing economic inequality, the founders might have devised.

Yes, indeed, one surely might so finally wish – for these are exactly the problems that Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, numerous lesser politicians, sundry intellectuals publishing relatively late in the Populist-Progressive Era, and, more important, millions upon millions of Americans not only set themselves to solving intellectually, but were confronting everywhere, everyday, without a century to ponder possible over-dependence on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and regardless of how much they might have preferred to live in a Jeffersonian agrarian republic, a Bellamyite super-commune, or, equally unreachable, the largely pre-industrial America of Wilson’s early childhood.

Once we accept that, for better or worse, the Progressives were responding to Something Real, then it’s clear that the task for conservatives isn’t to find good reasons to “condemn” Wilson or anyone else, but to develop alternative, additional, or ameliorative responses, if any, to that manifold Something Real – still with us, 100 years more real and manifold, and greater in extent by circumferences of the planet, at least, in multiple dimensions.  If, like a commenter at HotAir, you’re happy to dismiss the Federal Reserve System, Anti-Trust legislation, and the Federal Trade Commission as “junk, junk, junk,” then just how do you propose to distribute capital equitably and productively in a complex modern economy, and to preserve competitive and entrepreneurial opportunities for small and medium business? Before you answer:  Remember to achieve the same thing in relation to the globalization of raw economic and political power that Americans of the Progressive Era accomplished on the national level.  The same burden must be lifted or off-loaded for every other aspect of Progressivism and post-Progressivism that you, radical-constitutional anti-statist anti-prog to your toes, must be ready to dispose of instantly, as so much junk, junk, junk.

As the scope of our inquiry thus widens to encompass the present day, it naturally circumscribes the further past as well, but Goldberg demurs:  Responding to his friend US News writer Scott Galupo, Goldberg rejected the idea in a manner that resembles his rejection of that un-powerful mitigation defense of mine discussed above:

If you want to claim everything stemming from the Western Enlightenment tradition as “progressive” you’re free to do so. But analytically, where does that get you? By this logic we’re all progressives—and by all, I mean conservatives, libertarians, Bolsheviks, liberals, anarchists, and Maoists—because we’re not Medievalists.

Maybe it gets us this far: The Progressives were not an aberration.  They represent continuity, under radically transformed circumstances, in the same direction as the Founders’ historic statement to the ages, which has been succinctly translated into modern vernacular by historian Gordon Wood:

The illimitable progress of mankind promised by the Enlightenment could at last be made coincident with the history of a single nation.  For the Americans at least, and for others if they followed, the endless cycle of history could finally be broken.

It was much the same promise that Tommy W. Wilson, 24 years old, could embrace in 1881, when he associated himself with a “younger generation of Southern men… full of the progressive spirit.” It’s the same promise all Americans still have available to them more than a century later – among other things:  to progress beyond Progressivism, and to expose today’s nominal progressives as the regressive, reactionary anachronisms they too often are.

For the space of an extended epoch, men and women of the progressive spirit re-defined America because Americans increasingly voted for them to do so.  Compared to the socialists, communists, anarchists, and, later, the fascists, all representing varieties of panic in the face of industrialism and its discontents, the Progressives qualify as relatively and meaningfully conservative.  Whatever they perceived, thought, and did wrong, they conserved enough of the American possibility for us still to be arguing about it today – in their day no certain prospect.

No one sane has a way forward that won’t still leave us in their shadow for the foreseeable/imaginable future.  Their mere negation may have seemed a tenable political position at the dawn of the Age or Episode of Obama, but is less so under approaching responsibility, in perilous times.  I differ with Robert Laird/Instapunk on particulars, but I like how he frames the needed discussion in his own post on Wilson – away from “him” or “them,” toward “us” (original emphasis):

The potential destruction of America and its constitution is not a predestined outcome of a plot hatched by Woodrow Wilson and his racist, anti-semitic Princeton football cronies. It’s a possible outcome of our inattentiveness, our indifference, our poor decision making, our short-sighted thinking and convenient memories. It’s nice to know where dangerous and contemporarily destructive ideas originated. But it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibilities. Which are located in the here and now, with absolutely no room for evasion or delusion.

In other words: Forget Wilson. He doesn’t really matter.

Of much more concern: The deep improbability that the bromides of yesteryear – sung over a chorus of “NO!” – can do more than motivate a fickle segment of the electorate for a short while, or to any great purpose.  This assessment seems to haunt the hated, hunted pundits and office-holders who decline the path of least immediate resistance to the Tea Party and its hosts. Meanwhile, the hard right’s anger with the “traitors,” with the progressives, and with the Wilsonian Progressives – not the disagreement, the annihilating anger – derives first from their self-imposed isolation from the American project, but also from fearful uncertainty, no clear idea what the dog will do with the rambling wreck if he catches it; and from fearful certainty, of the compromises and betrayals to come, forced on imaginary purisms by consensual mass democracy.

Conservatives will, by definition, look to the past for inspiration and instruction.  The 18th Century British politician and essayist Edmund Burke, a man whom Jonah Goldberg likes to call the founding father of modern conservatism, had much sage advice, but his idioms will strike many Americans as obscure.  Fortunately, the United States produced at least one major interpreter of Burke’s conservatism for un-conservative times (my emphasis):

Questions of government are moral questions, and … questions of morals cannot always be squared with rules of logic, but run through as many ranges of variety as the circumstances of life itself. … The politics of the English-speaking peoples has never been speculative; it has always been profoundly practical and utilitarian. Speculative politics treats man and situations as they are supposed to be; practical politics treats them (upon no general plan, but in detail) as they are found to be at the moment of actual contact.

As for that Burkean – his name, what else he had to say – I think we just agreed to forget him, though I’m willing to re-consider.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions

Posted in Uncategorized

First Term New Jersey Governor Presidential Prospect For a Mere Two Years After Taking Office? – Nyah, Never… Not in a Hundred Years!

Posted in US History Tagged with: , ,

Forgetting Wilson (Reply to Jonah Goldberg)

Much as I might enjoy debating the comparative progressivism of President Warren “Racial Amalgamation There Cannot Be” Harding; much as, armed by biography, I’m ready to stand up for Professor President Thomas Woodrow Wilson against the dextrosphere’s leading anti-intellectual intellectuals, I’m happy to accept Jonah Goldberg’s suggestion that we look instead to larger and more pressing issues:

The reason why it is both important and necessary for conservatives to tackle the progressive era is that that’s where the assumptions of 20th century liberalism begin… If Wilson isn’t the best poster boy for Progressivism, tactically or substantively,  I’m open to alternative nominations. But the notion that conservatives are wasting energy in assaulting the progressive era strikes me as exactly wrong. We’ve wasted time in not attacking until all too recently.

In the process of quite correctly characterizing my prior defense of Wilson as not “all that powerful” (I was seeking balance, not apotheosis), Mr. Goldberg also gives his own view on relevant context (emphasis in the original):

A big chunk of [MacLeod’s] critique boils down to an argument I’ve heard many times: Wilson (or this or that progressive) merely reflected the prevailing ideas at the time. Well, that’s sort of my argument, you know? That these were the prevailing ideas at the time: Collectivism, eugenics, militarism (both as a mobilizing metaphor as well as the real thing), nationalism, statolatry, technocracy and – in America – a desire to “Europeanize,” often on Bismarckian lines,  political institutions and arrangements. And while these ideas were popular in all sorts of places, their champions were the Progressives.

As volunteer conservative left deviationist progressive apologist, I have previously composed my own lists of to me less obviously bad progressivisms, seeking to highlight those Progressive Era reforms that I judge as integrated with American life, but, even if we stick with Goldberg’s version, we’re still left with perhaps the largest question:  Why were the Progressives able not just to champion these things, but in championing them gain control of American politics, and set the country and the world on a course they’ve been on ever since?

Read more ›

Posted in Books, US History Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CONTENTION OF THE DAY – America abscondita

Those resentful of American power — including the liberal academic environment that shaped President Obama’s worldview during his formative years — should take notice of what a retreat of American power means. Not a kinder, gentler world, where the oppressed of the earth, finally free from imperialist chains, are able to realize their full potential. It means that authoritarian regimes assert themselves. The oppressed will remain so — more so. As for all those considerations that tame Western powers’ pursuit of their national interests (ethical concerns, respect for local cultures, protection of the environment, rule of law, and the like), forget about it. Power will be raw, at its most ruthless, heads will roll, and blood will flow, while the regional order is reshaped by the new powers that be.

Emanuele Ottolenghi The Middle East Vacuum | Contentions.

Posted in International Relations Tagged with: ,

raving cluelessly about eugenics…

…makes conservatives look backwards and unscientific, two brandings that conservatism should avoid because that turns off the youth, college-educated, and scientists and academe, all demographics the right is losing badly in.

strangelet @ One Cancer Under God: On Defending Woodrow Wilson.

Posted in Books, Politics

Here’s a quote from the German documentary The Architecture of Doom

“Defining Nazism in traditional political terms is difficult, mainly because its dynamic was fueled by something quite different from what we usually call politics. This driving force was, to a great degree, esthetic; its ambition was to beautify the world through violence.”

MovieMan0283 @ On re-reading Liberal Fascism: Defining Evil Down.

Posted in Books, Politics

the wolf isn’t just guarding the sheep

they gave him a pair of steak knives

narciso @ The Pot Calling the Kettle Mob.

Posted in Economics

…few are connecting the Dots with logic.

As far as [it being] a Marxist publication, I don’t care,does the article add to our understanding of the topic, yes it does, end of story.

Rex Caruthers @ The Pot Calling the Kettle Mob.

Posted in Economics

Conservatives and Woodrow Wilson

A full-fledged review of John Milton Cooper Jr.’s biography of Woodrow Wilson will have to be attempted somewhere else.  Anyone in conservative circles hoping to get a word in edgewise on the nation’s 28th President first has to contend with sentiments along the following lines:

Does anyone really think Wilson wouldn’t have been pretty sympathetic toward the Nazis? I think he would have considered Hitler’s dedication to eugenics an admirable goal.

[A]ny fair minded person of good moral standing would clearly see [Wilson] as an evil individual.

Woodrow Wilson was a slimy, racist, conspiratorial, arrogant rat bastard every day he drew breath….

I hate him. He was the biggest racist. He set this country back decades in race relations.

If you’re bound and determined to defend the most tyrannical fascistic president in history, go f**k yourself.

The above selection comes from threads at HotAir and Zombie Contentions, and also at a Baltimore Sun on-line column covering Glenn Beck at CPAC this year.  Beck has played a central role in popularizing such views, as his anti-progressive campaign frequently centers on Wilson, for whom Beck proudly declares his hatred – “with all [his] heart.”  In this cause Jonah Goldberg remains a stalwart ally, if a somewhat more restrained one – he merely calls Wilson a fascist.  Other well-known anti-Wilson conservatives include George Will and the American Conservative Union’s David Keene, the latter having revealed during his introduction of Beck’s CPAC speech that his own Wilson animus goes back decades – to a college essay describing Wilson as “one of the three most dangerous people of the 20th century,” the other two being Lenin and Hitler.

Main elements of this conservative attack on Wilson actually are familiar from the works of his leftwing critics, but that’s not the only reason I mistrust it.  Some of the anger, especially from the commenters, is probably by proxy: It’s more acceptable to declare one’s passionate hatred for long dead enemies than for living opponents (though the former often leads to the latter).  Yet even if I didn’t find the emotionalism of some of this stuff, 100 years after the facts, a little odd (though Will’s critique is odd in a different way), I would still find it difficult to reject Wilson or any other important American president so completely.  It’s the kind of stance that I would associate with revolutionaries and other pitiless radicals:  The full-throated rejection of a critical moment in American history as an excuse to reject America itself.

Not that the Wilson haters don’t have any point at all.  They simply lack any sense of balance or historical perspective. In contrast to the ideologues, Cooper can fault Wilson for his negligence on racial matters, for example, but is also able to conclude that “Wilson essentially resembled the great majority of white northerners of this time in ignoring racial problems and wishing they would go away.” Wilson didn’t impose uniquely noxious ideas on an American racial idyll.  He presided during the era of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) – separate but equal.  As the historian Samuel P. Hays explains in his standard work on Wilson’s era, the times were typified by a “general notion that Americans, as part of the Anglo-Saxon peoples of northern Europe, were racially superior.”  Belief in the “Manifest Destiny of the White Race” informed attitudes across the cultural mainstream, and affected policy across a range of issues.

It should therefore be unsurprising to Wilson critics, on all sides, that the Wilson Administration’s widely condemned segregation of the federal workplace was initiated under prior presidents, and was expanded under Wilson’s successors.  Conservatives in particular should bear in mind that the search for a greatly different early 20th Century American racial sensibility won’t often lead them to Wilson’s right.

If some conservatives have adopted a familiarly leftwing attack on Wilson, many more seem to be depending on Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, the 2008 conservative bestseller that I have written on previously, focusing on the author’s provocative claim that Wilson’s wartime government was the world’s “first fascist regime.”  As I stated in the linked piece, I find it rather obscene for Goldberg to associate Wilson, a deeply reluctant warrior who quite literally nearly killed himself campaigning for a peace organization, with modern history’s worst warmongers.

But Goldberg’s case for the historical prosecution focuses less on the war as fought than on the war at home – domestic security policies that, as Cooper acknowledges, entailed “egregious violations” of civil liberties.  Goldberg’s charge of fascism is much stronger than Cooper’s charge of mere “violations,” however, and demands stronger support.  To that end Goldberg produces an impressive, frequently quoted figure of 175,000 Americans arrested “for insufficient patriotism.”  Yet this vague definition appears to be Goldberg’s alone, and he doesn’t reveal where his number comes from.  Other sources tally around 2,000 arrested, 1,000 convicted under the federal Espionage and Sedition Acts, so Goldberg’s figure, assuming it has a firm basis, must include offenses prosecuted under other laws, perhaps at the local level or even overseas within the military.

In sorting this all out, it might be helpful to work from some numbers that unlike Goldberg’s are very hard and very precise:  48-26 and 293-1 – the votes by which the Senate and the House passed the Sedition Act in 1918.  Vote totals on the earlier Espionage Act are unavailable – because it passed by acclamation, reflecting overwhelming support two months after the Declaration of War with Germany, which had passed 82-6, and 373-50.  In other words, Wilson rode – and in some respects was overcome by – a wave of patriotism and war fever.  Cooper and other historians also note that Wilson supported the acts to compromise with those demanding more aggressive measures, and to prevent and pre-empt much harsher “extra-judicial” treatment of dissenters and German-Americans.

As with racial matters, harshly judging Wilson and his contemporaries (i.e., our forefathers) for such actions requires us to impose present-day sensitivities on the past.  It’s also worth recalling that revolution really was in the air in those years.  One great nation had fully succumbed to revolution, and others were undergoing revolutionary turmoil.  In America, the assassination of President McKinley, by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, was well within living memory.  In the period of 1917-1920, radical agitation led to wildcat and general strikes as well as acts of outright sabotage, especially in the western U.S.  Mail bombs were sent to various officials, including Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, known for the subsequent Palmer Raids and Red Scare.  On the narrow question of personal culpability, it should be noted that Wilson was the bedridden victim of a debilitating stroke and other serious illness at the time:  Cooper concludes that Wilson “knew nothing about the central role [Palmer] was playing in those events.”

One quick word on Eugenics, another feature of the age that some wish to lay at Wilson’s door: Cooper never notes much interest in the subject on Wilson’s part.  The case for hatred seems to rest on guilt by sympathetic association with certain Progressives; de-contextualized statements on race (see above) ominously linked to Hitlerism; and a bill that Wilson signed into law as governor of New Jersey, with provisions on the sterilization of the profoundly mentally ill – similar to laws in 30 other states at the time.

Against such weakly founded or heavily mitigated indictments, Wilson’s accomplishments stand among the most consequential of any American figure:  His books and essays, especially Congressional Government, were important in their own right, and are still read with profit today.  His “New Freedom” legislation established the Federal Reserve System, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission.  He was central to the negotiations that ended World War I, and, though the nation rejected his League of Nations proposal, he led the United States onto the world stage as a major power, with a unique mission – not to construct an empire, but to foster trade, development, and popular freedom and self-determination among nations.

From income taxes to Mother’s Day, from child labor restrictions to saving football (Wilson was a lifelong fan, and a defender of the new sport against attempts to ban it), we could expand our view of Wilson’s influence virtually at will – especially if, as the Wilsonhitlerists seem to prefer, we credit him with or blame him for the entirety of what Hays calls the Populist-Progressive Era.  At some point in this process, modern America would begin to look like an inheritance directly from Woodrow Wilson, passed down to us by those who followed in his footsteps – with the men who founded the country looking like distant ancestors on the family tree, necessary to our existence, but not very relevant to it.

Regardless of where that argument might lead, I wouldn’t want to be the one to make it:  I don’t see how it can ever be a conservative project to tear the nation or its history – the two ought to be inseparable – to pieces.  Isn’t that what radical constitutionalists accuse Wilson of attempting?

How, when, and where to reverse or re-conceive  elements of Wilson’s legacy, what he got wrong or what the rest of us helped make wrong, would be something very different – as would any attempt simply to assess Wilson fairly.  Those are tasks for people willing to grasp the whole story, and to proceed with care.

cross-adapted from Zombie Contentions

Posted in Uncategorized

One Cancer Under God: On Defending Woodrow Wilson

A full-fledged review of John Milton Cooper Jr.’s biography of Woodrow Wilson will have to be attempted somewhere else.  Anyone in conservative circles hoping to get a word in edgewise on the nation’s 28th President first has to contend with sentiments along the following lines:

Does anyone really think Wilson wouldn’t have been pretty sympathetic toward the Nazis? I think he would have considered Hitler’s dedication to eugenics an admirable goal.

[A]ny fair minded person of good moral standing would clearly see [Wilson] as an evil individual.

Woodrow Wilson was a slimy, racist, conspiratorial, arrogant rat bastard every day he drew breath….

I hate him. He was the biggest racist. He set this country back decades in race relations.

If you’re bound and determined to defend the most tyrannical fascistic president in history, go f**k yourself.

The above is a sampling from threads at HotAir and Zombie Contentions, and also at a Baltimore Sun on-line column covering Glenn Beck at CPAC this year.  Beck has played a central role in popularizing such views, as his anti-progressive campaign frequently centers on Wilson, for whom Beck proudly and openly declares his hatred – “with all [his] heart.”  In this cause Jonah Goldberg remains a stalwart ally, if a somewhat more restrained one – he merely calls Wilson a fascist.  Other well-known anti-Wilson conservatives include George Will and the American Conservative Union’s David Keene, the latter having revealed during his introduction of Beck’s CPAC speech that his own Wilson animus goes back decades – to a college essay describing Wilson as “one of the three most dangerous people of the 20th century,” the other two being Lenin and Hitler.

Leading elements of this conservative attack on Wilson actually are familiar from the works of his leftwing critics, but that’s not the main reason I mistrust it.  In addition to finding the emotionalism and excess of some of this stuff, 100 years after the facts, a little odd (though Will’s critique is odd in a different way), I find it difficult to reject Wilson or any consequential American president so completely.  It’s the kind of stance that I would associate with revolutionaries and other pitiless radicals:  The full-throated rejection of a critical moment in American history as an excuse to reject America itself.

Not that the Wilson haters don’t have any point at all.  They simply lack any sense of balance or historical perspective. Read more ›

Posted in Books, Featured, US History Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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