Thursday, December 1, 2011

Winston Churchill on the Meaning of Civilization

by Michael Kaplan

Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh, December 30, 1941

Nineteen Thirty-eight was a dark year for Western civilization. Germany, once a bastion of that civilization, the land of poets, musicians, philosophers, and scientists, had become under Adolf Hitler the very heart of evil. Having sent his Wehrmacht into Austria to effect its annexation to Germany (the Anschluss) without firing a shot, Hitler now set out to seize the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. After a diplomatic crisis that stretched through the spring and summer, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the now infamous Munich Agreement with Hitler. Returning home to Britain with the agreement (which Hitler later dismissed as a “scrap of paper”) in hand, Chamberlain proclaimed “I believe it is peace for our time.” The scrap of paper Chamberlain so proudly waved to the crowds at Heston Airport on September 30, 1938, was the most notorious example of the policy of appeasement; that is of sacrificing weaker people to a tyrant in the hope that he will leave you alone. It never works. Chamberlain threw Czechoslovakia, “a faraway country of which we know nothing,” under the bus in the hope that Hitler would honor his pledge that he would make no further territorial demands. The mass slaughter of World War I had destroyed the moral capacity of Britain and France to act as great powers and stand up for liberty and civilization. Chamberlain himself had been so traumatized by his memories of the Great War that he was willing to do anything to avoid going to war again. These were dark days indeed.

Yet there was one man in Britain who understood that a tyrant like Hitler could not be appeased. That there were times that war was a tragic necessity; that free men and women had to take a stand if liberty and civilization were to be saved from the dark night of barbarism and evil. That man of course was Winston Churchill. Much like Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill was a man of both words and action, pursuing a multifaceted career as a soldier, statesman, writer, and historian. His political career had begun in 1900 with his election to Parliament following his triumphant escape from captivity in South Africa in the Boer War. Between 1905 and 1929 Churchill held a number of key posts in both Conservative and Liberal governments, among them Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. But as a proud British imperialist Churchill had fallen afoul of the politically correct thinking of the 1930s, and was now relegated to the back benches in Parliament. From the political wilderness Churchill continued to warn of the mortal danger posed by Hitler to the freedom of Britain and of Europe. Years later Churchill would famously say “It is ‘better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.’” Yet Churchill was very much a leader in the Jacksonian mode who knew when the time had come to call an end to jaw-jaw and vigorously prosecute war-war. As prime minister in 1940, Churchill, with his unmatched oratory, would rally the British people to the grim task ahead.

On July 2, 1938, at the height of the Sudetenland crisis, Churchill delivered the Chancellor’s Address at the University of Bristol. In a short but powerful speech Churchill, a master of the English language, gave as eloquent a statement of the Anglo-American tradition of liberty and civilization—freedom to enjoy one’s life and property in peace, guaranteed by the rule of law and constitutional government—as has ever been uttered. Churchill’s definition of civilization brought together a liberal or Whig idea of progress with Edmund Burke’s conservative understanding that ordered liberty was grounded in custom, history and tradition. This concept of liberty and civilization is central to American exceptionalism and distinguishes the West from other civilizations; civilizations where the individual is a subject dependent upon and exploited by an autocratic state and oligarchic elites. The West alone among the world’s great civilizations, and its Anglo-American branch in particular, was committed to promoting and protecting the human rights and dignity of all individuals. The liberty that Churchill spoke of was precious and fragile, and had to be renewed and safeguarded by each generation. Civilization, Churchill warned, was always in danger of being overwhelmed and devoured by the barbarians at the gate. A “manly courage” grounded in civic virtue and ready to take up arms when liberty was threatened was the ultimate guarantee that liberty and civilization would survive.

Churchill’s words are as relevant in 2011 as they were in 1938. We now face new threats to liberty in the form of Islamic Jihadism and authoritarian statism. We have an elite intellectual class in parts of the media and academia, mired in post-colonial guilt and postmodern nihilism, which despises the Western civilization that Churchill stood for and despises the nation that has become the bulwark of that civilization and guarantees their own freedom of thought: the United States of America. They yearn instead for a quasi-Marxist utopia, see the hope of the future in the brutal statism of China, and espouse sympathy for the jihadis as victims of the West’s and America’s malevolence. What we need today are leaders who share Churchill’s clear understanding of the meaning of liberty and civilization, and of the need to defend them against the barbarian and the tyrant. Leaders like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln in our nation’s early days; like Churchill’s friend and ally Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940s; and like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It has always been the great strength of American democracy that such leaders have emerged when they were needed. Let us hope that this holds true in 2012.

On November 9, five months after Churchill’s speech and little more than a month after Chamberlain waved his scrap of paper at Heston Airport, the events of 1938 would climax in the horrors of Kristallnacht. This “Night of Broken Glass” marked the end of what remained of Jewish life in Germany and the beginning of the Holocaust. Darkness was descending on Europe and soon Churchill would lead his people into “Their Finest Hour.” A beleaguered Britain would hold off Hitler’s storm troopers long enough for the United States to enter the war and save Western liberty and civilization for future generations.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

* * * * * * * * * *

There are few words which are used more loosely than the word “Civilization.” What does it mean? It means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is Civilization—and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort and culture. When Civilization reigns, in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.

The central principle of Civilization is the subordination of the ruling authority to the settled customs of the people and to their will as expressed through the Constitution. In this Island we have today achieved in a high degree the blessings of Civilization. There is freedom: there is law; there is love of country; there is a great measure of good will between classes: there is a widening prosperity. There are unmeasured opportunities of correcting abuses and making further progress.

In this very week we have seen a Prime Minister at the head of a large and loyal majority bow with good grace to the customs of Parliament, and we have heard Socialist Members speaking with pride of the precedents of the early seventeenth century, and the principles of the Petition of Right. (Editor’s Note: A reference to the Report of the Committee of Privileges which inquired into the dispute between Mr. Hore-Belisha and Mr. Duncan Sandys.) In this respect for law and sense of continuity lies one of the glories of England. And more than that, there also lies in it an important part of her strength and safety. Such episodes are astonishing, but also educative, to countries where dictatorships prevail, and where no one dares to raise his hand against arbitrary power. They stir and cheer the minds of men in many lands.

We have, however, to face the problem of the turbulent, formidable world outside our shores. Why should not the same principles which have shaped the free, ordered, tolerant Civilization of the British Isles and British Empire be found serviceable in the organization of this anxious world? Why should not nations link themselves together in a larger system and establish a rule of law for the benefit of all? That surely is the supreme hope by which we should be inspired and the goal towards which we should march with resolute step.

But it is vain to imagine that the mere perception or declaration of right principles, whether in one country or in many countries, will be of any value unless they are supported by those qualities of civic virtue and manly courage—aye, and by those instruments and agencies of force and science which in the last resort must be the defense of right and reason.

Civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.

Here, then, we see the task which should command the exertions of the rising generation which tills this spacious hall, and which may bring to the life of Britain the surge of a new impulse towards the organization of world peace, and across the gulf of these eventful years prepare and bring nearer the Brotherhood of Man.

Source: Winston S. Churchill, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Randolph S. Churchill, ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941), pp. 45-46.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Mighty Putin

by Michael Kaplan

Dolls depicting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, created by Vladimir Rychkal, are exhibited during an international puppet exhibition in Moscow. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP. 

The United States is not the only nation holding its presidential election in 2012. Russia too will choose a new chief executive next year. But while the American electorate will engage in a momentous clash of personalities, ideologies, and public policy alternatives whose outcome is by no means certain, our comrades in the Motherland already know who their next president will be: former president and current prime minister Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Since the days of the tsars Russians have sought out leaders who project an image of strength and wield power with an iron hand. So there was little doubt that Putin would take back the presidency from his sock puppet successor Dmitry Medvedev. Putin has often been photographed and filmed engaged in all sorts of exterme sporting and macho physical pursuits, from riding shirtless on horseback, shooting whales with a harpoon, riding motorcyles, and diving for treasure in the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria beneath the Black Sea. (For a montage of Putin action pictures, click here.) In the above picture and the video below from Fareed Zakaria GPS, the Kremlin’s spin doctors play up the image of Putin as a superhero—the doll resembles Patrick Stewart in medieval warrior mode—while Medvedev comes off as, well . . . a wimp.

Putin, the man of vigor and action, presents a sharp contrast to his decrepit and too often inebriated predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, as well as to earlier Soviet-era leaders like Leonid Brezhnev. Putin’s handlers have also sought to bolster his image as a man of irresistible sex appeal. In the next video a group of faux Amazon babes who call themselves “Putin’s Army” pledge to “Tear it up for Putin.” The video, which originated on YouTube, went viral after it was posted on Live Journal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform, by a Moscow city councilman affiliated with Putin’s United Russia party.

As the video starts Diana, a sexy, stylish, and sophisticated Moscow “college student” (yeah, right), walks down a thoroughfare in six-inch spiked heels, talking on her iPhone, her very visible cleavage cradling a Russian Orthodox cross. Diana joins together for her viewers the sacred imagery of traditional Holy Mother Russia with the eroticized consumerism of modern post-Communist crony capitalist Russia. Julia Ioffe, a Moscow-based Russian-American journalist who blogs at The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, and Forbes, writes that Putin has mastered the art of mobilizing the sex saturated pop culture of contemporary Russia as a prop for his authoritarian regime. “Expressions of sex in the public domain have been a hallmark of the Putin era. Western visitors are often shocked—many of the men pleasantly so—by how Russian women parade their highest heels and deepest decolletage, even on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.” As she teeters in her high heels, Diana proclaims her devotion to the great leader:
I am crazy about a man who has changed the life of our country. He’s a worthy politician and a great man. He is Vladimir Putin.

He is adored by millions of people. They believe in him. However there is a small bunch of people who smear him. Perhaps they are afraid of him. They’re weak and can’t be in his position.
Young, smart and beautiful girls have formed an Army of Putin. An army that will rip up anyone for him. 
Diana then announces a contest for those young ladies who wish to join Putin’s Army: “You shoot a video where you rip up something or someone for Putin.” The lucky winner who shoots the most original video will receive an iPad2 (Steve Jobs’s legacy is alive and well in the Motherland). Ripping off her own shirt Diana proclaims “What are YOU ready to do for your president?” And she does not mean Medvedev.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Another Victory for the Good Guys

by Michael Kaplan

But America thought that it could threaten the lives of others, kill and invade, occupy and plunder, and conspire without bearing the consequences of its actions. 9/11 was the answer of the millions of people who suffer from American aggression, and since then, America has not been safe.

Americans need to stop looking at themselves from their own lens, but look at themselves from the lens of the world. They will then see the ugly face of America. America is not despised only by Muslims, but by many millions of people around the world, and in America itself.

This is a day to celebrate. Anwar al-Awlaki, the most dangerous Al Qaeda leader after Osama bin Laden (even more dangerous according to my congressman, Peter King), is now a martyr in paradise surrounded by 72 virgins courtesy of a CIA predator drone. I do hope the good imam is suitably grateful to the nation he so despised and whose citizenship he tarnished, for enabling him to finally achieve, and none too soon, the martyrdom he so desired.

All credit to President Obama and his national security team: Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director Leon Panetta; current CIA Director and former commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus; Admiral Michael Mullen, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; and all of the men and women of the military and intelligence services. Whatever his mishandling of the economy and his humiliating diplomacy of apology for American greatness, President Obama has successfully built on the Bush administration’s strategy and methods in fighting the war on radical Islamic jihadism, the war against “Those Who Must Not Be Named.” The president who came into office pledging to reverse and repudiate George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, shut down the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, put an end to enhanced interrogation and prosecute those CIA officers who used it, and try terrorist masterminds like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian courts, has done none of this much to the chagrin of the left. Instead the Obama administration has prosecuted the war in Afghanistan and expanded the use of predator drones and Special Forces for the targeted killing of our jihadist enemies. The result has been the elimination of bin Laden and Awlaki, Al Qaeda’s two most dangerous leaders, truly important victories in the war against the Jihad.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born son of Yemeni parents, a man with feet in both worlds, was the ideal propagandist for the Jihad. From his base in Yemen as a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Awlaki used his intimate understanding of America, its culture and technology, to reach out to vulnerable American and British Muslim young men and turn them into jihadis. With the modern technology of the Internet, Awlaki recorded sermons in both English and Arabic which he posted to YouTube, spreading his hateful interpretation of Islam far and wide. Modern technology is indeed a two-edged sword. Like other demagogues Awlaki was a charismatic orator who, whether in person or through his recordings, held his listeners spellbound. This was his true power. Awlaki was not an organizer or a warrior in the field like Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was a storyteller and a mythmaker. Journalist J. M. Berger, publisher of, has studied Awlaki and other American jihadis in depth. Berger writes that “Awlaki took traditional Islamic sources and breathed life into them, transforming religious texts into gripping and emotional stories, often with substantial embellishment. He tailored his idiom and analogy to Western language and culture, but his most important skill was the ability to transform often skeletal sources into gripping tales.” Among those who fell under Awlaki’s spell was U. S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan who killed thirteen people at Fort Hood, Texas, Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, and the Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab. Awlaki also had some involvement, as yet unclear, with several of the 9/11 hijackers. There’s no question that this imam was a bad actor who for years played a major role in advancing the Jihad.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sarah Palin’s Declaration of War on Crony Capitalism

by Michael Kaplan

Sarah Palin speaking at the Tea Party of America Rally, Indianola, Iowa, September 3, 2011

On September 3, 2011, at Indianola, Iowa, former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska issued a declaration of war on crony capitalism. At this point it’s unlikely that Palin will throw her hat into the 2012 Republican presidential race. Dan Riehl and Robert Stacy McCain (“The Other McCain”), however, have suggested that Palin might still jump in if she decides that Rick Perry isn’t up to carrying the Jacksonian conservative banner. Palin, like Michele Bachmann, may actually believe that Perry is part of the problem of crony capitalism. I happen to like Perry, who is a strong Jacksonian in his own right with a solid record of achievement as governor of Texas. But whatever the fate of her presidential ambitions, Palin has shown once again that she is the most powerful and charismatic champion for Jacksonian America and its traditional conservative values of liberty and opportunity on the stump today.

Elite liberal progressives love to dismiss Palin as an ignorant hick who lacks the intellectual firepower of a true leader like . . . Barack Obama. Yet it is Palin who has articulated more forcefully and effectively than any other public figure the danger that most threatens American liberty today: crony capitalism. This is the unholy collusion between the elites of big government, big business, and big finance, who enrich and empower themselves at the expense of America’s broad middle class. Crony capitalism can also be a step on the road to socialism. Palin delivered this message in a true firebrand of a speech at the “Restoring America” Tea Party of America Rally. Here is the video. (Also here and here and here.)

Jacksonian America has long seen crony capitalism, also called corporatism, as a grave threat to both economic and political liberty. As Lexington Green (Michael J. Lotus) at Chicago Boyz points out, the acts of King George III and the British Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s were essentially an attempt to impose a London-based crony capitalist economic monopoly on the American colonies. Both left and right are wrong in seeing big government and big business as enemies rather than natural collaborators. The blue model progressive regulatory state, Green argues, was captured long ago by the industries it was supposed to regulate. “The government has turned into an amalgamation of iron triangles—regulators, legislators (or actually their staffs) and industries that are regulated. These work in tandem to their mutual advantage at the expense of the taxpayer and of truly entrepreneurial and innovative businesses.” Andrew Jackson himself offered the classic statement on the dangers of crony capitalism in his Bank Veto Message of July 1832:
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles.
Old Hickory was not a demagogue out to confiscate the property of the Bank’s wealthy shareholders and redistribute it. Like the Founding Fathers, Jackson accepted that natural inequality—that people had differing talents and abilities and would achieve different outcomes in life—was part of human nature. Jacksonian populism, unlike its European counterparts, was never about despoiling the haves and giving to the have nots. But Jackson was absolutely opposed to artificial inequality; or as we would say today, to the government using its power to pick winners and losers in the economy and in life. Jackson understood that American democracy rested on an independent, prosperous middle class. Government’s proper role was to provide the framework of law and security necessary for ordered liberty, enabling American families of modest means the opportunity to pursue happiness.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How Obama’s “Gentry Presidency” Undermines American Exceptionalism

by Michael Kaplan

The always insightful Joel Kotkin has written a piece on the crisis of Barack Obama’s “gentry presidency.” This is Kotkin’s term for the progressive blue model of politics and society and the technocratic elite at its head. Obama, Kotkin argues, has governed largely as the creature of the progressive leaning financial elites of Wall Street and their allies in high technology, real estate, the media, and academia. The whole thrust of the Obama administration has been to promote policies that benefit these blue model elites in both the private and public sector at the expense of the Jacksonian middle class. This is why Obama has not focused on job creation for his first two years in office. His policies, especially the focus on green technology, health care reform, and bailing out Wall Street, have not promoted and have often hindered middle-class entrepreneurship and small business development. But the Jacksonian middle class was never this president’s base. After all, these were the people he denounced as bitter clingers when he thought he was off the record at that San Francisco fund raiser in 2008. President Obama’s base lies instead “with the rising power of the post-industrial castes,” the new upper class that David Brooks called the bobos, “who have largely continued to flourish even through the current economic maelstrom.” Indeed
the major winners of the Obama years have been the big nonprofits, venture capitalists and, most obviously, the financial aristocracy. These have all benefited from the Ben Bernanke-Timothy Geithner—previously the Bernanke-Henry Paulson—policy of cheap money and near zero-interest rates, which have depressed the savings of the middle classes but served as a major boon to Wall Street. This has benefited mostly the wealthiest 1 percent, which owns some 40 percent of equities and 60 percent of financial securities.
This may come as news to many conservatives who insist that Obama is engaged in a campaign of demonization of Wall Street, business, and upper-income earners in his quest to transform America into a European-style social democracy. Progressive commentators, on the other hand, have become downright hysterical in accusing “their” president of betraying the hope that they placed in him, throwing the middle class under the bus in service to Wall Street’s plutocrats. Kotkin goes on:
These developments, as Marxists might put it, reflect the fundamental contradictions of gentry liberalism. Essentially, gentry liberalism reflects the coalescing interests among the financial, technological and academic upper strata. For these people, the Great Recession was brief and ended long ago. All depend heavily on high stock prices to maintain their wealth. Their interest in the overall U.S. economy—particularly the Main Street grass roots—has become ever more tenuous with their increasing ability to shift assets to East Asia and other developing country hot spots.
These prerogatives have been neatly protected under Obama. In the past, administrations let corporate scofflaws, like the savings and loan companies, collapse. Some were sent to jail.
But this time, the Wall Street elites have been allowed to skate through their own self-created crisis with astounding agility. Not only have they stayed out of the slammer, but they have been enjoying the best of times.
Chrystia Freeland has written of how this new elite of plutocrats and technocrats feels an ever lessening sense of common destiny with the Jacksonian middle-class majority of Americans. The plutocrats in particular—the hedge fund managers, high tech entrepreneurs, and media celebrities—feel a closer kinship with their counterparts in Europe and Asia than they do with their less successful countrymen. Freeland characterizes these new elites as “hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.” As for the middle class, the view from on high was best expressed by the Taiwanese-born CFO of an American Internet company who told Freeland that Americans simply did not produce enough value to justify the standard of living they had come to expect. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”

Such attitudes, should they become more widely disseminated in the public discourse, would certainly shift some of the Tea Party’s anger at big government toward big business. Indeed Kotkin has written that the rise of the new global elite is generating a new global class war of which the August riots in London may be the harbinger. The Tea Party and similar right-wing populist movements in Europe, Kotkin argues, grew “in large part out of the conviction that the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class. Left-wing militancy also has a class twist, with progressives increasingly alienated by the gentry politics of the Obama Administration.” Jacksonians have historically feared crony capitalism, collusion between big government, big business, and big finance. This is true of Andrew Jackson’s Bank War in the 1830s and of the Tea Party’s condemnation of Wall Street bailouts today. Sarah Palin, in tones reminiscent of Jackson’s 1832 Bank Veto Message, on September 3 in Iowa issued a powerful warning of the threat posed by crony capitalism to the health and survival of the middle class and of American democracy. Kotkin, likewise, offers this warning of the continuing power of class conflict in human affairs that conservatives ignore at their peril:
Many conservatives here, as well as abroad, reject the huge role of class. To them, wealth and poverty still reflect levels of virtue—and societal barriers to upward mobility,  just a mild inhibitor. But modern society cannot run according to the individualist credo of Ayn Rand; economic systems, to be credible and socially sustainable, must deliver results to the vast majority of citizens. If capitalism cannot do that expect more outbreaks of violence and greater levels of political alienation—not only in Britain but across most of the world’s leading countries, including the U.S.
In reality there is no contradiction between Obama’s gentry politics and his larger goal of transforming America into a European-style social democracy. Europe’s social democracies are controlled by the same elite of technocrats and plutocrats that Obama champions. Just think of Dominique Strauss-Kahn: financier, socialist, and womanizer. Obama’s policies are promoting a form of crony capitalism or coporatism where the government picks winners and losers in the private sector, which is a stepping stone to some form of, if not socialism, then a much larger role for government domination in the economy and civil society than Americans are historically accustomed to. From this perspective then Obama’s rhetorical assault on millionaires, billionaires, and corporate jet owners, calling on them to pay their fair share of taxes, is just smoke and mirrors meant to disguise his real policy agenda from progressive true believers and the American public.

Barack Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism. So it should not be a surprise that the gentry policies of his presidency have undermined the basis of American exceptionalism: independent small property ownership. “Overall,” Kotkin concludes in what I find his most disturbing passage,
gentry rule has fostered a sense throughout the American public of national decline and diminishing personal expectations. Small property ownership, the key to a democratic capitalist society, is fraying. Wall Street’s Morgan Stanley, for example, having helped create the housing crisis, now talks boldly of a “rentership” society.
This would extend the dominion of Wall Street and large landowners, like feudal lords, over the last redoubts of small property owners.
It would also mark a disastrous reversal of four hundred years of American history. American exceptionalism began in seventeenth-century Virginia and New England with the dream of independent small property ownership—of patriarchal landed power—by families of modest means. The richness of the land in the New World allowed such modest households to produce surplus harvests for their own material profit and benefit. This in turn gave them the economic resources for a degree of social assertion and political power unimaginable in hierarchical England. These families of modest means with their freehold farms created British North America’s society of independent households, bound together in strong self-governing communities, which became the basis of American democracy and the American middle class. The nature of small property ownership changed over the course of American history—the Jacksonian homesteader on his farm became the Jacksonian home owner in his suburb—but the dream of independence through property ownership remained. Small property ownership is the bedrock of liberty and the heart of American exceptionalism. It would be a historical tragedy should the independent property-owning American be reduced by twenty-first-century globalization and “gentry liberalism” to the bondage from which his ancestors came to the New World to escape.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bill Maher: Comic High Priest of Liberal Progressive Contempt for Jacksonian America

by Michael Kaplan

Bill Maher, the acid-tongued comic and political commentator, has emerged as the downscale H. L. Mencken of the Baby Boom generation: the high priest of the liberal progressive obsessive paranoia and contempt for all things Jacksonian. In this video from the July 15 episode of HBO Real Time with Bill Maher, the eponymous host launches yet another vicious tirade against Jacksonian America, cheered on by his panel of progressive worthies, including, sadly, financial journalist Chrystia Freeland whose work I respect. Maher focuses his comic ire—surprise!—on the two women who best embody Jacksonian America, its populist culture, politics, and values: Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. You can also find the video herehere, and here.

I must admit that I used to watch Maher in his ABC Politically Incorrect incarnation from 1997 to 2002. He seemed funnier and more engaging back then. Perhaps he was embittered after ABC fired him for a lack of patriotism; after 9/11 he opined that Mohammed Atta and Al-Qaeda’s suicide jihadists showed more courage than Jacksonian America’s fighting men and women in Afghanistan. Since then on his HBO show his act has degenerated into mean-spirtied obnoxiousness, and snide elite contempt.

Like Mencken in the 1920s, Maher since 1993 has built his career on satirizing Jacksonians, the people he too calls “boobus americanus,” and denigrating everything they hold dear.
Like most elite liberal progressives, Maher goes ballistic when he beholds the rise to positions of power and leadership of two women he dismisses as white trash religious fanatics who are as dumb as doornails. As Maher put it with his usual comic eloquence:
Now I’m not saying that sexism doesn’t exist and isn’t real, but we can’t throw around the word “sexist” just to stop people like me from pointing out that Michele Bachmann, now running second for the Republican presidential nomination, isn’t [sic] a dangerous nincompoop. And when I point out that Sarah Palin is a vainglorious braggart, a liar, a whiner, a professional victim, a scold, a know-it-all, a chiseler, a bully who sells patriotism like a pimp, and the leader of a strange family of inbred weirdos straight out of The Hills Have Eyes, that’s not sexist. I’m saying it because it’s true, not because it’s true of a woman.
Maher then takes on his favorite hobby horse, the Christian faith, calling it the font of bigotry and all things rotten and evil in America. “In America, you’re allowed to justify almost any kind of bigotry, sexism or intolerance if you source it to God’s big book of bad ideas.” Maher cuts to the heart of why elite liberal progressives have such venomous hostility toward Jacksonian America. Jacksonian leaders like Palin and Bachmann, and the people who support them, are evil, crazy, and stupid. Jacksonian patriotism and Jacksonian evangelical faith are just covers for hustling, wackiness, and bigotry. No bien-pensant (right thinking, lockstep) avant-garde progressive takes things like patriotism and faith seriously. So they can only be a con game, a conspiracy, or a species of insanity. And people who do take them seriously are either dupes, knaves, or wackos. Even worse, they breed dysfunctional white trash families with more than a hint of illicit sexuality: Casey Anthony anyone? Maher, like most liberal progressives, believes that the roughly 60% to 70% of Americans who are Jacksonian in their culture, traditional conservative values, and way of life, simply lack the brain power and capacity for self-government. They need progressive mandarins to tell them how to live their lives, to avoid being caught in the snares of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. etc. Is it any wonder then that Jacksonians of the heartland, who do take faith, family, and patriotism very seriously, have nothing but contempt of their own for Maher and his ilk.

To say that Bill Maher does not connect with conservative populist Jacksonian America is an understatement. Nor does he understand the Jacksonian style of leadership as embodied by Palin and Bachmann. Such elite contempt for and underestimation of Jacksonian leaders is nothing new. In 1828 Andrew Jackson was denounced as an ignorant, dumbass ruffian by his political opponents. They even called him “Andrew Jackass,” which is why the donkey became the symbol of the Democratic Party.

Andrew Jackass

Jacksonians believe that intelligence and leadership derive from character, instinct, intuition, decisiveness, and common sense, rather than from academic Ivy League credentials or technocratic analytical abilities. A president needs intellectuals among his advisors, but he (or she) needs above all to be a decision maker who can assimilate conflicting strands of advice and information and make a policy decision based on his or her larger vision of where America should be going. (Jennifer Rubin wrote a perceptive article on “Why Jews Hate Palin,” which looks at this issue.) Just as Barack Obama is the model of the liberal progressive technocratic style of leadership, so Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are models of the conservative populist Jacksonian style of leadership.

Maher’s tirade has earned him the applause of liberal pundits. Jason Easley, writing on the PoliticusUSA blog, exclaimed that Maher got it just right. Palin and Bachmann are nothing more than empty vessels with sexually attractive packaging who spew a never ending stream conservative Christian talking points on family values and trickle-down economics, all meant to fool women into returning to a condition of barefoot pregnancy and submission to men. Here, in Easley’s words, is the true evil of Palin, Bachmann, and all the Mama Grizzlies:
Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are disliked because they sell bad ideas. They are reviled because they are arrogant and ignorant. They are deemed repulsive because they are undoing the progress that their own gender has made. These two are walking talking commercials for the religious right’s belief in the subjugation of women. They are sending a horrible message to girls and women that your looks will always count more than your ideas, and that you can only be what a man tells you to be.
Easley’s tirade, like Maher’s, betrays an astounding depth of ignorance of Jacksonian America and its commitment to liberty, honor, faith, family, and patriotism. And they fail to comprehend the extent to which Palin and Bachmann have become symbols of empowerment for conservative women. Both women are redefining feminism in the image of the Jacksonian frontierswoman, updated for modern America, whose strength of character and heroic endurance built the nation. Conservative Christian women see Palin and Bachmann as leaders who eloquently articulate and confirm their traditional values in opposition to liberal elite feminists. Governor Palin and Congresswoman Bachmann have also become role models for living one’s life in a way that joins those conservative traditional values with active engagement and success in the modern world. Their message to women is certainly not “that you can only be what a man tells you to be.” When you put it all together Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are the face of modern Jacksonian populist nationalism, following in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan. Both women bring together potent symbols of feminine sexual power, motherhood, professional achievement, and legislative and executive authority. Which is why they drive progressive critics like Bill Maher into paroxysms of rage.

For Maher, Easley, and the whole progressive elite, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann embody all their stereotypes of white trash America, its boorishness and tackiness, wrapped up in one package. Both women ooze trailer trash sexuality and fundamentalist brimstone. They are the leaders of the White Trash Nation rising up in rebellion against the bonds of a politically correct nanny state, aiming their moose hunting rifles at everything liberal progressives hold dear. Palin, even more than Bachmann, is a mere cliché in the progressive mind: a badly dressed hillbilly with a screeching voice, a roughneck husband, and a slutty teen mom daughter, and no knowledge of the complex world outside of Wasilla, Alaska. For an avant-garde sophisticate like Bill Maher to have to live in a country filled with such ignorant hicks, who also have the right to vote and choose leaders who support their values and interests, is an outrage to the cynically hip. The very popularity of Bill Maher and his show and his caricatures of Palin, Bachmann, and their supporters in elite liberal circles reveals again the true extent of the cultural divide that separates these elites from populist Jacksonian America.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day 2011: Life, Liberty, and the Meaning of American Exceptionalism

by Michael Kaplan

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull, 1818.  Architect of the Capitol, Wikimedia Commons.

Today we celebrate the two hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of the birth of our nation, the United States of America, the most exceptional nation mankind has ever created. This year the great anniversary festival (as John Adams called it[1]) comes tinged with sadness for me, as it is the first time I will commemorate it without my beloved mother, whose earthly journey came to an end in May. Mother departed this life full of years, honor, wisdom, and love. She made me who I am and I will love her always. But life does go on and so does the work of studying, teaching, and writing America’s history and securing America’s future.

Americans today tend to take America for granted. We have forgotten the tremendous effort, the blood and sacrifice of lives and property, that was needed to secure American liberty and create an independent republic. We have forgotten what a miracle America is. George Washington, for one, saw the hand of God at work in the course of the American Revolution. He declared in his farewell orders to the Continental Army in 1783, that it was “little short of a standing miracle” that the United States had won the War of Independence against the mighty British empire.[2] Now, on July 4, 2011, the Marist Poll tells us that 42% of their respondents were unsure in what year independence was declared, and 26% were unsure which nation the United States declared its independence from! To say this is very disturbing is an understatement. Were the sacrifices and heroism of the Revolutionary generation and those that followed, whose lives were dedicated to building an exceptional nation committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all for nought?

So this Independence Day is a good time to reflect on the origins and meanings of American exceptionalism and the American Dream, and the struggles of those who fought to make the dream a reality. American exceptionalism refers to America’s unique culture of democratic self-government and liberty, rugged individualism, and stubborn, feisty independence. Its motto is “Don’t tread on me.” The late sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset defined the American Creed in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism—which in America means equality of opportunity and respect, but not equality of outcomes—individualism (rugged of course), populism, and laissez-faire economics. To this list should be added the rule of law and justice for all. “The revolutionary ideology” Lipset wrote, “which became the American Creed is liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings, as distinct from conservative Toryism, statist communitarianism, mercantilism, and noblesse oblige dominant in monarchical, state-church-formed cultures.” This American Creed, in synthesis and creative tension with the nation’s strong religious sensibility and the Jacksonian code of honor, military pride, and nationalism (with its distinct blood-and-soil element), forms the core of American exceptionalism.[3]

Jim Cullen, who teaches history at New York’s Ethical Culture Fieldston School, points out that a distinctive Anglo-American culture with a unique American Dream was born long before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Its first seeds were planted at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and Plymouth and Boston, Massachusetts in 1620 and 1630. “What happened in the 1770s and 1780s” Samuel Huntington writes, “was rooted in and a product of the Anglo-American Protestant society and culture that had developed over the intervening one and a half centuries.” Colonial America, as it developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a society of independent householders bound together in strong communities, which developed habits and institutions of self-government. Religious pluralism, a voluntaristic self-help ethic, a relatively high standard of living, and a belief in individual aspiration to upward mobility, what Alexis de Tocqueville would later call “the charm of anticipated success,” also defined the society of British North America, making it the freest and most prosperous on earth.[4] Jefferson may have invented the term “pursuit of happiness,” but he was merely giving a name to what had long been the driving force in British North America’s society of independent, self-governing householders.


It’s no doubt ironic to point out on Independence Day what should be self-evident: that American exceptionalism has its roots in British exceptionalism. American culture began as British Protestant culture stripped of the restraints hierarchy and aristocracy. America derived its ideas and institutions of liberty, representative self-government and the rule of law, the right to be secure in one’s property, and freedom of religion and conscience from the mother country, a tradition going back to the Magna Carta. More specifically it was the culture of British Dissenting Protestantism—Puritans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and many others—that shaped American exceptionalism. British Dissenting Protestantism encouraged habits of independent and critical thinking. It challenged both religious and secular authority—the authority of bishops and kings. Dissenters, most famously the Puritans of New England, developed autonomous self-governing religious congregations, which prepared them to develop habits and institutions of self-government. “Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit.” Edmund Burke clearly understood the revolutionary nature of dissenting Protestantism when he spoke these words. Dissenting Protestantism, Burke insisted, was a creed built on liberty. In his famous speech to Parliament on March 22, 1775 calling for reconciliation between Britain and the colonies, Burke proclaimed that “the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces.” Dissenting Protestantism, with its spirit of liberty, encouraged ideas of natural rights and human dignity. The mass of common men came to be seen as more than beasts of burden. Instead they could become free men and women with the right to aspire to a better life. British Protestant dissenters had the right traditions for a people who would create societies centered on liberty. They were fully convinced that they could determine what the Bible meant and how to apply its message in the conduct of their lives.[5]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Margaret Thatcher on the Failure of Socialism, November 22, 1990

by Michael Kaplan

This is a brief video excerpt from Margaret Thatcher’s last speech in Parliament as Britain’s prime minister. Thatcher, who served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, was known as The Iron Lady for her unflinching resolve to defend liberty and defeat communism abroad and socialism at home. Together with her friend and ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher restored free market capitalism and dismantled a large chunk of Britain’s social democracy—its blue model. This set the stage for Britain’s economic revival, transforming the old Mother Country from the shabby, worn out, post-imperial basket case of the 1970s, to the dynamic, wealth creating, though perhaps too multicultural, “Cool Britannia” of Tony Blair and his successors.

Here is a transcript of the of the speech, parts of which are included on the video. And here is a link to a video of the full speech at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, and at YouTube.

In the excerpt shown in the video, Thatcher takes on two Labour MPs who charge her with transferring resources from the poor to the rich, thus making the poor poorer. She responded, in classic Thatcher fashion, by accusing her opposition of wanting to keep the poor poorer so long as the rich didn’t get richer—the essence of socialism:
People on all levels of income are better off than they were in 1979. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy. . . .
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have the same contempt for his socialist policies as the people of east Europe, who have experienced them, have for theirs. I think that I must have hit the right nail on the head when I pointed out that the logic of those policies is that they would rather the poor were poorer. Once they start to talk about the gap, they would rather that the gap were that—[indicating]—down here, not this—[indicating]—but—[indicating.] So long as the gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer. One does not create wealth and opportunity that way. One does not create a property-owning democracy that way.
Debates in Britain’s House of Commons have always been much more in your face, substantive, and colorful than the sound bite dribble that’s been the common fare of the U. S. Congress in recent years. Mrs. Thatcher was the undisputed mistress of the parliamentary style. In this The Iron Lady was quite worthy of her great Tory predecessors, Disraeli and Churchill. Indeed, she qualifies as a leader in the Jacksonian mold. As the daughter of a small businessman (a grocer) Thatcher had a clear understanding of the importance of entrepreneurialism in creating wealth and promoting liberty. And she knew that socialism was a dead end. Thatcher conveyed this message to the soon-to-be Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when she first met him in December 1984. The interchange, pieced together from various sources by Claire Berlinski in her biography of Thatcher, went something like this:
Gorbachev told Thatcher it was time to end the Cold War.
Thatcher told Gorbachev it was time to end communism.
Gorbachev told Thatcher that communism was superior to capitalism.
“Don’t be silly Mr. Gorbachev. You can barely feed your own citizens.”
“To the contrary, Mrs. Thatcher! Our people live joyfully.”
“Oh do they? Then why do so many of them want to leave? And why do you prevent them from leaving?”
After the meeting, Thatcher famously said of Gorbachev, “We can do business together.” But while they could do business together, Thatcher had let Gorbachev know that there could be no moral equivalence between democracy and communism, which was still an evil empire. And this, Berlinski argues in her biography, gets to the heart of Thatcher’s greatness as a leader: her moral imagination, a quality she shared with Reagan. While Thatcher certainly wanted to promote the economic well-being of her people, what really mattered were the moral values—individual liberty, responsibility, the rule of law, and self-reliance—that made economic prosperity possible.

Thatcher’s determination to bring down the British welfare state and her unflinching moral commitment to advance liberty, strengthen traditional moral values, and unleash the entrepreneurial energy of the British people to allow them to create prosperity and pursue happiness, put her at odds with the upper-class elite types who dominated the Tory Party leadership. Thatcher was in fact the only American-style conservative leader that contemporary Britain or Europe has produced, and she was repudiated by her party for it. Thatcher’s principled and charismatic style of leadership, like Reagan’s, is sorely needed today. Tony Blair, though he was from the Labour Party, was a principled champion of liberty and capitalism in Thatcher’s mold. From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think David Cameron, the new Tory prime minister, with his aristocratic background and upbringing (he’s a fifth cousin of Queen Elizabeth), is about to launch a revival of Thatcherism in his party.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan