Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Have we still got the right stuff?

Ben Domenech, the editor of this very fine journal, quotes Peter Lawler on his way to asking whether we’re up to the challenges we currently face. He doesn’t appear very hopeful:

We are Americans. We measure and self-evaluate ourselves in a world we construct actively and incessantly, one filled with followers, requests, and online polls instead of the human relationships of the past. We worship at the altars of the convenient distraction. We believe ourselves audacious to invest our hope in a man who has no ideology that is rightly understood as audacious or hopeful. We place our trust in the mastery of unchecked government, that one example of eternal life on earth, because we have no children to care for us as we get old.

We have accepted a very great lie. Call it the Persistence of the Founders — the idea that Americans are by their nature exceptional, and are always making their nation so, the myth that this exceptionalism is not something that can be lost. We were wrong: American greatness is no birthright, but constantly forged in adversity, in conflict, in fearfulness and flame.

The part of his argument where he discusses our reproductivity has elicited some no altogether friendly responses from conservatives, to which he replies here. Here’s the core of the critique:

I’d also like to push back against Mr. Domenech’s culturally driven arguments, which seem to assume that delaying marriage and family imply devaluing those things. Maybe that’s happening, but I’d argue that the opposite is going on too. Young people in the middle and upper classes in America delay marriage partly out of a desire to avoid the rampant divorces that plagued their parents’ generation. The conventional wisdom that some folks "just married to [sic] young" leads to years long relationships wherein the participants are cautiously "making sure" that they are "ready to get married." They may be right to do so!

Reproducing is even more fraught. Young people raised by relatively prosperous Baby Boomers know that if they reproduce in their early twenties, it is possible -- even likely -- that they’ll be unable to afford their children all the same advantages they remember. Even among my Catholic high school friends who married young and desire children, there is a widespread practice of waiting many years to do so, a period that is one of financial and emotional preparation. The middle class notion of what it means to be a good parent is simply much higher today than it was in the past.

Conor Friedersdorf, the author of the critique, thinks that delaying marriage is a "responsible" reaction to the prevalence of divorce and to economic uncertainty. It’s certainly not a bold reaction, and I’m tempted to regard it--at least in some of the instances I’ve watched from afar--as evidence of an immature fear of commitment, especially on the part of men. All of which is to say that I’m leaning in Domenech’s direction on this one.

Discussions - 32 Comments

Who's Conor Friedersdorf?

evidence of an immature fear of commitment, especially on the part of men.

It is a rational response to incentives and punishments. The left favors these because they understand that having lots of single people is in the lefts best interest.

The right ought to oppose those incentives and punishments, but they don't because the party is run by people with zero grasp of political science or sociology - brainless and corrupt businessmen for the most part.

BTW, what is this "New Ledger"? It seems to be the exact same people who posted at Red State saying exactly the samre things they used to say there, sans any commenters.

John M, Friedersdorf is one of the conservatives I most often disagree with - and one of the first that I read when surfing the web. He blogs for The American Scene and has the IDEAS SPECIAL REPORT blog for The You might want to check him out, but given how you react to some of Peter Lawler's posts (Lawler is a much more orthodox conservative than Friedersdorf), you might want to double up on the blood pressure meds.

John M:

brainless and corrupt businessmen for the most part.

You mean, like Geithner, Rangel, Daschle, Frank, Raines, Richardson, Blago, etc, etc?

I am curious whether you think the delay in marriage and child-bearing (especially among the mid to upper middle class people discussed by Friedersdorf) is a phenomenon driven by those "commitment phobic" men you discuss, Joe. I am not so sure that it is--except, perhaps, insofar as those men have now "matured" into fathers of grown daughters that they wish to see excel in some career. I guess what I am trying to say is that a fear of commitment among young men (or, if not a "fear" then a disinclination toward it) is nothing new under the sun. What I mean is, I don't think that the delay in marriage among young women is caused by a new aversion to it by young men. And I am not so sure that, for very many men anyway, wishing to delay marriage and child-rearing isn't a certain kind of wisdom. That may not be what Friedersdorf was driving at in his article, but he seems at least to sense it among his male friends. Is that something new? I don't think it is.

For women, I think it is a different matter. Their "choosing" to delay marriage and child-birth is a relatively new thing--and, therefore, something to arouse some intellectual suspicion (especially as it seems to have been a culturally driven phenomenon rather than a natural one). Again, I would never suggest that such a delay is a bad idea for any particular human being. But as a cultural phenomenon, it merits questioning (at the very least).

As for Mr. Domenech's thoughtful article . . . I am less impressed than you. There is much that is good in it but the tone (especially of the paragraphs you quote) seems all wrong to me. If the "myth of American exceptionalism," as he is pleased to call it, is a lie because it is not a birthright but something toward which we must labor (true, as far as it goes) . . . it still seems to be a goal after which he pines and something, also, that he considers worthy. If that be the case, then I question the wisdom of calling it a lie. There is something very uninspiring about what he says.

but given how you react to some of Peter Lawler's posts (Lawler is a much more orthodox conservative than Friedersdorf)

I think it is pretty clear that you use the word "conservative" in a much more catholic sense than most people. I don't regard Lawler as any sort of conservative, for the simple reason that he is not. The same thing apples to Claremomt in general. Conservative does not mean "supports the Republican Party", or even"support for the principles of the Enlightenment, or of some cherrypicked words from the Declaration.

I see that Friedersdorf writes for The Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. Steve Sailer, he ain't.


But it isn’t any longer accurate to use “the liberal elite” as shorthand for America’s ruling class. The present decade witnessed the ascendance of Ivy League alumnus George W. Bush to the White House, GOP majorities in Congress, and John Roberts heading a Supreme Court with a 5 to 4 right-of-center advantage. Rupert Murdoch emerged as America’s most influential media mogul. A small group of hawkish foreign-policy intellectuals laid the groundwork for a foreign war of choice.

Not exactly a rocket scientist, is he? His conception of the right is a liberals one. His very language (that favorite liberal trope "war of choice") is distinctly non-conservative.

You mean, like Geithner, Rangel, Daschle, Frank, Raines, Richardson, Blago, etc, etc?

No, those are the brainless and corrupt businessmen who run the other party. What, you think the brainless and corrupt don't have their internal disagreements?

John M: Haha, fair enough.

I do have a question for you though, because I find that the work coming out of Claremont is very good. What exactly is conservatism, as you think it? Or, how can an American be exactly Burkean?

John M, yes I do. I use it to include you and Friedersdor, and Jaffa and me among others.

Also, if being influenced by "Claremont" (to the extent that means the ideas of Harry Jaffa) disqualified one from being a conservative, then Clarence Thomas would not be a conservative. They might not be your kinds of conservatives, but a definition that leaves out Thomas and Lawler is a problem to the extent that it does not mean "my kind of conservative" or "the true conservatism as I see it".

Pete: Exactly what kind of conservatism does he mean? I'm being honest, I have not a friggin' clue! Doesn't American conservatism have to be different from other brands by its nature?

T-Hag, I dunno. I suspect that John M and I have significantly overlapping policy preferences. I don't worry about coming up with a definition that includes all "real" conservatives at all times. I'm in favor of a constitutionalist, free-market oriented, limited government politics that rejects moral relativism whatever that label. There is also alot of room for different policy choices and philosophical disagreements within that kind of politics - and there is more to the Right than what I outlined. I think that American conservatism can have multiple strands within it. Harry Jaffa and Jaffa and Frank Meyer (who had a humdinger of a feud) can, in my mind both be American conservatives, as can John M and Conor Friedersdorf.

Oh! I agree. When first reading National Review , some thirty years ago, when just finding out that I was a conservative, I read all of those "strands", arguing away, even feuding, and thought it was wonderful that conservatives could have endless conversations about being constitutionalists (though arguing over what that meant), mostly in favor of free-market oriented economics and limited government, rejecting moral relativism, and basically having all sorts of wonderful philosophical disagreements while arguing over policy. That's why I like reading and writing here. Carry on!

Pete: I think you would be interested to see the other thread currently going on here where Matt, Kate & I have been going back and forth about whether the Declaration can have an objectivist meaning; for all the pontificating he's done, I have to admit I have lots of trouble even imagining how Matt argues for a subjective reading of the Declaration -- do you have any insight into that? Maybe it is just that from my background I have always assumed the former, but...

One thing that I feel severely detracts from the left's argument is how they question the value of the Declaration by citing American hypocrisy because hahahahaha we stupid Americans couldn't get civil rights done, and didn't realize the Vietnamese were nice people...When I asked if it'd be better that we were forthright tyrants than hypocrites I got a "that doesn't matter" response. In other words, if you aren't perfect you are abjectly bad? Does that attitude have its origins in moral relativism, or is that just opportunism or what?

Matt seems to reject the natural rights theory of the Declaration as it seems to have been understood by Jefferson. I think he is pretty up front about his historicism. Jaffa's New Birth of Freedom is pretty good on this subject - espcially the parts having to do with Carl Becker

I think there are people on both the left and the right who are able to take a nuanced view of the complicated relationship between American ideals (however differently they might define them)and American history. The events of the 1960s pushed alot of people on the Left to become radically alienated from the US. The kinds of anti-American leftists you describe would be easy political prey for conservatives. One thing that makes Obama so effective is his ability to craft an authentic-sounding rhetoric of liberal patriotism.

I find it interesting that you say that about Obama given the criticism of his recent "apology" tours, and all that jazz. I'm not saying you're wrong; he does have some appealing & strong rhetoric (however much one may disagree with it), such as the whole "false choice between ideals and security" thing, the invocation of MLK and Lincoln, etc.

As far as historicism, I have to admit as I mentioned on the other thread that I never understood those 'anachronistic' arguments (ie, the meaning of this text is just lost!) because they would seem to entail a knowledge of the meaning.

Speaking of Jaffa, he does seem at some points to try and create a weird civic religion in the pains he takes to empirically show how man is created equal; at one point does the Declaration just need to be taken on its own terms? It is sort of like the wacky Creationists who need the comfort of Christian science more than they need to understand the meaning of Biblical authority itself. I do understand this tendency though; because I've gotten in discussions with people about the relationship between equality & consent and never really understood how they could be separated...I hope that didn't just seem like a bunch of rambling..

**had discussions about the relationship between equality & consent and feel that the latter requires the former. And I guess vice versa.

I don't think that there is any inherent contradiction in believeing that the US has generally been a force for good, and truly loveable on the one hand, and that the US is responsible for some bad things too. It can be a tough balance to strike, but Obama is really good at it. His 2004 convention speech is a good example of how he has mastered patriotic rhetoric.

As for historicism. I generally think that most historicists believe that beliefs are not true in themselves, but merely creations of time, place and interest. They often try to soften the blow by arguing several things. One is that more recent beliefs are better than older beliefs because they identify progress with time rather than truth. The second is to deny that there is anything intelligible in what they reject. Maybe the Founders intended to protect an unlimited right to abortion but not to protect a right to own firearms? Don't point at the text, its all so confusing.

A Forbes article about Jaffa. (Thank you, Julie!)

Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. All believed that morality--that goodness and justice--were not merely human constructs but real.

Harry Jaffa said that and I like him for it. Pete, what you say about the belief about belief carries so many internal contradictions as to be laughable. Once, I kept a room full of approximately 18 year-olds happily chirping arguments over whether it was absolutely true that there were no absolutes. If modern thought would have me not believe that anything is absolute, I cannot be modern.

Pete in #15 and Kate in #16 mention their belief in free-market economics and their opposition to moral relativism. Does the lesson of history ever show those to have been compatible pursuits? Start with slavery, which for centuries showed itself perfectly compatible with capitalist production. Kate in #22: little games of logical 'gotcha' keeps 18 year olds chirping, and keeps pundits like Krauthammer (not to mention NLT pseudo-thinkers) in business, but have been largely discredited as 'refutations' of relativism. Even Nozick said they were childish.

ren, you can do better than that. The 1930s USSR had genocide and state-run healthcare. I guess they must be "compatible". There are many arguments against state-run healthcare, but that it would cause commie genocide isn't one of them. There are also arguments against free market economics, but that having privately owned companies and propery will lead to chattel slavery is not one that sensible people worry much about.

Applying a logical framework to thinking that attempts to discredit that framework is like making an "uncategorized" category or calling a kind humanist "more Christian" than a mean Christian. Your problem of absolutes is a variation on this theme. In an effort to refute relativism, you are applying the very ideological structure relativism attempts to discredit.

Matt, I don't dismiss the argument that relativism might be the truth of our situation, but many arguments for relativism have a self-undermining quality. One can argue that all points of view are products of time place and interest, and therefore not "true" because truth is not accesible by reason. But unless the person making that argument can somehow excempt themselves from the limits of human reason (by being close to the end of history for instance), then by its own premises, the relativist is no more to be trusted than anyone else.

ren seems to come in here, soil the place, and then leave without cleaning up his mess. Not very sporting behavior from a man of the people, if you ask me.

I don't think he was saying one led to another. He was saying how do you talk about freedom and then go and promote slavery by shopping at walmart. Do you not care about slavery if you can't see it? I don't agree all that much with the maligned ren but I think he really brings up a great point here. Can you have a "free" market when you don't have freedom in all the nations competing? It would seem that freedom simply becomes the least competititve, or they would have us believe (I think most of the reason companies left was environmental, government restrictions about safety and healthcare, plus outright cash handed out to them if they left). Mabye what it really suggests is mixed states are the worst states, total freedom or total serfdom's inherent advantages will always win out in economic war with some mishmash have your cake and eat it too kind of state.

I don't think the sheeple of today have the right stuff, but the few will once again give their lives to the benifit of the many. Right now we really are getting the government we deserve. The techno yuppie sports fans probably deserve an opressive big brother state.

Sports fans?

Not surprised that Brutus and ren meet on some common ground here. Not saying that Brutus doesn't make some sensible and intelligent observations or that he draws the wrong conclusions given his own premises from ren's statement. Clearly, there's a mind at work in all of his postings. But the problem is that Brutus's assertion is, in the end, only good if you live in a vacuum sealed test tube where there is perfect freedom or perfect serfdom and all events can be controlled (by what/Whom ?) . . . but very little in THIS life that we live can ever be perfect. Some people never learn to get over that fact and--whatever their initial political inclinations or preferences (for that is all that they really are)--they generally end up finding a comfortable place at the far end of their extreme where they can round out the political spectrum and sit around complimenting each other on their anger and disappointment.

Julie: That was some very good insight. ren I know too loves the U.N., even with all the European dalliance with, er, less-than-liberal figures. Easy to say things from an armchair; much more difficult to be a statesman. I guess in this Fallen world that is why they are valued so much -- we can gather this lesson even from a superhero movie flick where one dark knight is willing to sacrifice honor and life to be both the scapegoat and hero, for that is what we often make of the very best.

I just included spots fans in there as a sort of joke about the priorities of the modern American male, things that in the past I have been guilty of as well. Just the mentality of some people where they are like well the economy is bad and I don't much like what Washington is doing, but we have bigger problems: The Cowboys lost two in row and Romo's hurt.

If you are a coach or an NFL player that plays against or for the Cowboys that is certainly usefull information...In some sense if you are a fan and you are pained by what you see developing for your Cowboys then, you are in a similar relation to the fan(follower) of politics in terms of what you can do about it. My guess is that if you are most worried about the Cowboys or the college football picture in my case then things are pretty good.

A lot of supposed jabs on the priorities of men and women are over done in my opinion. An attitude that disposes your focus by and large upon the things you can control is best.

"promoting slavery by shopping at Wal-Mart"???

Give me a break, actually I will plug Aldi's(and it isn't a publicly traded company) because Aldi's delivers better prices...but Wal-Mart is essentially a decent bargain store for the middle class(people that worry mainly about things they can control(in this case cost).

Great store in my opinion and with little dispute perhaps the 2nd greatest thing to come out of Arkansas if you are biased towards politics and want to put Bill Clinton first.

Now Bill Clinton there is a guy that also took a lot of flack on the marriage front...but he seems to have been fairly sucessful, his wife is fairly powerfull, his daughter is beautiful and classy. If I was Bill I might be pretty worried about the fate of them razorbacks, albeit here again it would be awefully unreasonable if this was Bill Clinton's primary concern, because he is still situated so as to have a bit more power than all of us multiplied from Dr. Knippenburg on down.

Bill's probably concerned about health care...but here again if we were all more like Bill Clinton...At least Bill never said anything bad about Wal-Mart.

@ ren & Matt: These arguments would seem fine, except those who advocate them are almost necessarily hypocritical. Any rational person who pushes forth arguments for historicism or relativism is nearly always forced to do so on the grounds of 'self-determination,' 'liberty,' or some other principle rooted in the Western tradition. At what point does the 'subjective' reading of the Declaration become invalid? If it never does, we are not able to judge one reading of the Declaration above another, and the Declaration is sadly (and wrongly) transmogrified into nothing more than the will of the stronger party.

But it is said on this thread that similar prosperity and human achievement could be attained through any number of paradigms and cultures - some waxing antithetical to the values of the United States. If this is true, I would love to see it. I don't know where this tendency for Rousseau's noble savage comes from -- and I will say that there are detestable things about the United States -- but they seem to result only in a dissatisfaction with the West being unable to live up to its own standard, and don't truly reflect a rejection of those standards.

What we DO see in these cute arguments is nothing more than the old court jester who stuck out his neck and had some rotten vegetables thrown at him only to be whisked away: the same person would never say "God is dead" in the House of Saud, wear Western swimsuits and lay out in the East, or prefer an Air Nigeria flight to a British airliner. There is something about the West that is just undeniable, and human behavior reveals it to be good. So go ahead, continue to trash your culture in word - you'll stick to it in deed. I'll take the narrow-minded conservative over the tolerant liberal any day -- and so would have the Iranians.

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