Once upon a time, in the English village of Ockham, a lad named William began an adventure in philosophy that left impressions on the wider world. Best remembered is a rule for problem-solving that’s come down to us as, “Ockham’s Razor.” It goes like this: when confronted with a puzzle, the simplest explanation, if not the solution itself, is the surest place to start.
The United States is scratching a big, bushy beard of a puzzle. It’s been gathering wool on Uncle Sam’s face for a while, but has grown so nasty, it practically cries out for the relief of William’s blade. Since beards behave better after a slap of lather, maybe some context will do the trick here.
From the get-go, the organizing principal of American civic religion has been freedom – enumerated rights guaranteed by the Constitution, which follow upon the foundational, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, framed by the Declaration of Independence.
These are remarkable documents, not least in acknowledging the universal impulse to tyranny, identifying structures vulnerable to it, and a tripartite system of checks and balances calibrated to thwart it. Contrary to rumor, when you hear the term, American exceptionalism, this is what it means.
God knows it hasn’t prevented, at times, egregious behaviour. It is, however, an order for pluralism geared to noble outcomes few others even approximate. Indeed, those that do, manage in no small part because the American experiment has proved durable. So far.
The role of the Declaration in this is indispensable. Lincoln, for one, regarded it as the key for interpreting the Constitution. For him, it could hardly be otherwise. Moreover, the key to the key is a claim that ranks among the most radical in history, and is defining for the United States:
“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
More than rich compliments, these terms arise integrally as the circulatory system through which the lifeblood of freedom flows. If this seems a humanism worth preserving, well and good. If its self-evidence seems, well, self-evident, beware. There have long been those who find it problematic.
Whiskers softened, our Razor can begin baring the itch.
Influenced by 19th century European views of history, the Founders’ claim of the timeless, universal, nature of human rights was challenged by Americans plucking ivy from the walls of universities increasingly in its sway.
The Declaration was outmoded they said, the product of a mechanical, Newtonian, view of the universe, unfit as a model for political arrangements. Turning instead to Darwin’s epiphany, they inferred from it a view of government as a dynamic, ever-adapting, organism.
In one illustration of the claim, the Founders’ system of checks and balances was compared to the fate of three vital organs placed in similar “competition.” Inevitable failure in the body, it was argued, would be replicated in the body politic.
The deficiency of the analogy is eclipsed by the fact that the cause of displacing the founding vision not only gained traction, but is at the center of today’s distress.
What I’ve called, American exceptionalism, is in a mortal contest with this post-American claim. Heard more often than defined, the latter has had, in nearly every iteration, the goal of establishing a supervening, transnational order — from Wilson’s League of Nations, to the UN, to the most recent European Union.
Make of this what you will, but the Caliphate of daily headline, is also a transnational project. What’s more, the seeming odd couple of radical sectarian and secular trans-nationalisms have in common precisely what the Founders took such extraordinary pains to spare us: subordination of the individual to a Greater Cause.
With Lincoln’s key tossed, the individual is at risk for the shock of sudden nakedness in the public square, stared down by the only evident thing left — that rights are confections of the State, granted, regulated, withdrawn, even proliferated, by the same.
To reject the transcendent nature of rights, is to create a vacuum. Nature abhors them, ideologies do too, and in the race to fill them, imperil the remarkable harmony struck by the Founders.
In his 1932 nomination speech, FDR promised Americans a “new deal,” and in terms of the founding structure, worked quickly to deliver on the first half of that pledge. It was an ambitious plan for dire times, and admirable — if in the way roads paved with good intentions often are. The gambit of expanding the Supreme Court, for example, was an attempt to make the Court a functionary of the Executive branch, and signalled FDR’s readiness to sacrifice separation of powers upon the altar of a greater “good.”
Good intention is the compass used by those for whom social engineering is government’s reason to exist. The irony ought to be troubling, for a philosophy that will deny the transcendent provenance of rights is just as likely to deny the possibility of objective truth. This is the most imperious of all truth-claims, and in its elongating shadow, the State assumes for itself power to redefine such very fundamentals as good, or in the case of the compass, replace North with South.
The rub comes down to something simple: created…endowed by…Creator. In the debased civics of our day, the mere mention of such terms can conjure every manner of mitred, fanatical, flat-earth straw man, heaving with the hot breath of hate.
It would abuse the Founders’ own testimony to pretend they were shaped by anything less or more than the convergent springs of Athens and Jerusalem. Locating rights in the one realm beyond the reach of tampering was wise, but in no wise a matter of confessional theology, and it needn’t be for us.
The attempt to build a political order whose foundation is rejection of the transcendent is known in certain circles as, utopian. In the sense for which Thomas More invented the term, utopian projects often begin in a fury of what looks a lot like biblical righteousness — except for the God part, who in choosing prophets, seeks those with a depth of humility and capacity for reminding the people of its essential importance. Joseph Ratzinger offers insight here as keen as it is chilling,
“…Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic.”
If that sounds melodramatic, it would be well to remember, among many examples, the function of eugenics as an instrument of social engineering. This was not an isolated, Nazi aberration. For a grim eye-opener, simply Google the case of, Carrie Buck, a young woman who, like others, was forcibly sterilized by the State before Hitler had a moustache. Of particular note is the rationale supplied by Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a progressive giant of the day. At a time when euthanasia laws are being written hastily, and with broad strokes, the implications of Holmes’ reasoning is sobering to say the least.
We could also recall that Roe v Wade was the culmination of a political movement that began, in part, as a eugenics project for culling future herds of American Blacks. Current data suggests slow, but steady, progress in that regard.
Given the adaptive, living organism model of the State, eugenics makes perfect, if brutal, sense. Just don’t waste your breath trying to explain this to grandma, or your autistic niece. They won’t get it — until they do.
This would be a proper place to say something about a trio of terms that were useful once, but lately generate more heat than light.
Progressive is how most of us would like to be thought of by others. Yet, as mentioned, Justice Holmes was a progressive, as was the cause that justified the treatment of Carrie Buck. Progressive is, in fact, the brand name of virtually every post-American impulse, as well as the last thing you want the doctor to say about an illness.
Progressives are rightly keen to protect the environment from harm. Clean water, clean air, a calm climate, are self-evidently precious resources, and conservationists strive to conserve them.
Real political conservatives see themselves as striving to do the same within the civic environment, and wish those who perceive them as monsters could too.
It needn’t land like the results of a TV paternity test to learn that conservatism and progressivism are siblings. They are the children of Western liberalism, and the blood they share is thicker than the water of unexamined labels.
After this many paragraphs, William, from Ockham, might find I violated the very principle I invoked. In the end though, the trouble beneath the beard is rather simple. That doesn’t mean it will be at all easy to sort out. In the momentous, and bizarre election of 2016 that could hardly be more obvious. And yet, to have any chance of it, public will must be exercised in a clear decision to stand with Lincoln in preserving that key, which for 240 years has meant the difference between Liberty, and its alternatives.