September 22, 2017
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
American Exceptionalism and the Great Brain Robbery of Conservatism
I return today to a fundamental consideration that underlies much, if not all, of the commentary I’ve written over the past few years. It concerns the very creation, history, and essential characteristics of the American republic—and the implicit attempt to offer a clearer and more genuine and accurate understanding of who we are as a people and who we have been, not just since the American Founding and the Framing of our Constitution, but dating back to the first settlers on these shores (and most of those since then), and, indeed, to an understanding of the traditions and inheritance, and the hopes and dreams, that they brought with them.
Throughout this series I have been extremely critical of those supposed “conservatives” who are denominated “Neoconservatives,” and over time, I have attempted to offer bits and pieces of a definition or definitions that could be applied to them, in contradistinction to those of an older tradition with deeper roots in this country historically whom I have labeled (true) “traditional conservatives.”
In this I have not been that original, but rather I have used a long list of writers and historians, including the late Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk and Mel Bradford, and more recently, Dr. Paul Gottfried and Gary Dorrien—plus my own up close experience in witnessing what I term “the great brain robbery of the American conservative movement.” That is, what can only be described as an infiltration, subversion, and, ultimately, perversion of an older American “conservatism” and pattern of thinking by what, again for lack of better words, must be called “leftist refugees” from a globalist Trotskyite form of Marxism, largely but by no means completely Jewish in origin.
Shocked and horrified by the recrudescence of Stalinist anti-semitism in the post-World War II period and disillusioned by the abject economic failures of Stalinism and Communism during the 1960s and 1970s, these “pilgrims from the Communist Left” moved to the Right and a forthright anti-Communism. Notable among their number were such personages as Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, both of whom had sons who figure prominently amongst the current Neocon intellectual establishment.
At first welcomed by an older generation of conservatives, and invited to write for conservative publications and participate in a panoply of conservative activities, they soon began to occupy positions of leadership and importance—and most significantly, to transform and modify historic views associated with conservatism to mirror their own vision. For, in fact, even though shell-shocked by the effects of Soviet Communism, yet they brought with them in their pilgrimage an overarching framework and an essential world view that owed much to their previous militancy on the extreme left. And they brought, also, their relentless zeal.
Often well-connected financially, with deep pockets and the “correct” friends in high places, within a few years the “Neocons” had pretty much captured and taken control of most of the major “conservative” organs of opinion, journals, think tanks, and, significantly, exercised tremendous influence politically in the Republican Party (and to some degree within the Democratic Party, at least during the presidency of Bill Clinton).
This transformation—this infiltration and subversion—within conservative ranks, so to speak, did not go unopposed. Indeed, no less than the “father” of the conservative intellectual movement of the 1950s, Russell Kirk, denounced publicly the Neocons in the early 1980s, as essentially “unpatriotic,” that is, placing their zealously globalist “values” of equality and liberal democracy ahead of their allegiance to their country, or, rather, converting their allegiance to their country into a kind of “world faith” which trumpeted disconnected “ideas” and airy “propositions” over the concrete history of the American experience, itself.
The late Mel Bradford, arguably the finest historian and philosopher produced by the South since Richard Weaver, also warned, very presciently in the pages of the Modern Age quarterly (in the Winter issue, 1976) of the incompatibility of the Neocon vision with the inherited traditions and republican constitutionalism of the Framers. In his long essay, “The Heresy of Equality,” [https://www.unz.com/print/ModernAge-1976q1-00062] which was just one installment in a longstanding debate he had with Dr. Harry Jaffa of the Claremont Institute, Bradford laid bare the abundant intentions of those who came together to form an American nation, while giving the lie to the Neocon narrative that the republic was founded on universalized notions—those “ideas”—of equality and liberal democracy. Those notions, he pointed out perceptively, were a hangover from their days and immersion in the globalist universalism that owed its origin to Marx and Trotsky, and to the Rationalist “philosophes” of the 18th century, rather than to the legacy of kinship and blood, an attachment to community and to the land, and a central religious core that annealed this tradition and continued to make it viable.
What Bradford revealed in his researches (ultimately distilled in his superb study, Original Intentions) and later confirmed overwhelmingly in the massive work of Colgate University historian Barry Alan Shain [The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context: American State Papers, Petitions, Proclamations, and Letters of the Delegates to the First National Congresses, 2014] was that our old republic was not founded on abstractions about “equality” or “democracy,” or some fanatical zeal to “impose [our] democracy and equality” on the rest of the world, or that we were “the model for the rest of the world,” to paraphrase the Neocon writer, Allan Bloom. America in 1776 and in 1787, and long before those dates, was a patch work quilt of communities of families, most of whom had made the voyage to the “new world” to find land and new opportunities to succeed, but had done so communally, bringing with them their customs, traditions, and religious faith in tact to these shores. Farthest from their minds were abstract ideas about “making the world safe for democracy.” Indeed, although certainly defensive about their own familial liberties, most of them would have scorned and did scorn the modern conceptions of “democracy” and “freedom” so often peddled by far too many modern “conservative” pundits and authors.
Richard Weaver aptly described the civilization that came to be created in America, even a century before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as one based on a “communal individualism.” By that he meant that those transferred communities from Europe brought with them a communal conformity which offered certain enumerated liberties to each of its members, or at least to the heads of households of families within those communities. There was a degree of autarky that existed; but in many respects those little communities brought with them inherited mores and beliefs that they had held in the old country, and those beliefs were based essentially in ties of blood and attachments to the soil, to the land.
Let me give a personal, and I think representative example: my father’s family is of Scottish origin. Actually, after leaving ancestral homes Counties Argyll and Ayrshire, then passing about forty years in County Antrim in Ulster, they made the voyage to Philadelphia, arriving in 1716-1717, and settled initially in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (as deeds show). Their object was cheap and good land on which to raise their families; they were already able to practice their faith in County Antrim, just as they were able to do in Lancaster. And the same “liberties” they had in the old country they also had in Pennsylvania.
Seeking newer and fresh lands, whole families picked up in the later 1730s and made the trip southward along the Great Wagon Road to Augusta County, Virginia, and then, by the 1740s to Rowan County, North Carolina. And what is truly fascinating is that from Scotland (in the early 1600s) to Ulster, to Pennsylvania, to Rowan County, North Carolina, it is the very same families in community, the very same surnames and forenames that one finds in the deed and estate records. Robert W. Ramsey, in his path breaking study, Carolina Cradle: Settlement of the Northwest Carolina Frontier, 1747-1762, platted the land grants of those pioneers in Rowan County, and over 90% of the family names are the same as those we find in Ulster a century and a half earlier and in the parish registry books of Scotland before that.
And perhaps more striking is that this pattern continued on for another century and more; collateral members of my father’s family made the trek to California in 1848-1849, enticed by promises of gold and new, unploughed lands. There in a community still known as “Catheys Valley” (near Yosemite Park) where they settled, and as late as the 1950s, the same old names in the telephone directory still predominated.
But not only do we find the geographical movement of entire families and communities, in the existent correspondence that we do have there is, almost without exception, no word about traveling west or crossng the ocean to seek “freedom” or “equality” or to “create a new nation founded on [globalist and egalitarian] principles.” Our ancestors were not seeking to “create a new people,” but rather to preserve and enhance the old. When those settlers wrote about their experiences, if at all, it was about their respective families and communities having a better life, about cheaper and virgin farm lands, and about conserving the inheritance and traditions they took with them. In other words, the 18th century philosophy of Rationalism, and the ideas of “equality” and “democracy” that we are too inclined to attribute to them, don’t really appear on nearly any level.
And this, at base, practical and communal individualism is reflected in the deliberations preceding the Declaration and then, even more so, by the Framers in 1787—as both Bradford and Shain have convincingly shown. The documentary evidence in every form confirms that. The “right to equality” enshrined in the Declaration is an “equality” viewed from the Colonies across the Atlantic to the English Parliament, to the “rights of Englishmen,” not to social or economic revolution in the former colonies.
Those deliberations in Philadelphia were the product of a community of states, each with their own peculiarities, their own communities of families, with traditions inherited from Christian Europe (largely from the British Isles), and the desire to both preserve that inheritance while co-existing and collaborating with other communities and states in the creation of the American republic, where those traditions and that inheritance would be protected and respected, and could prosper as its families and communities prospered.
Thus, given this history and this context, both the War Between the States and subsequent American history after that conflict, and with the modern displacement by the Neocons of the traditional conservatives and their opposition to the growth in government and to the destruction of those bonds and traditions that characterized the country for centuries, the results we observe around us do not augur well for the future. While the hard core cultural and political Marxist Left continues its rampage through our remaining inherited institutions, those self-erected Neocon defenders accept at least implicitly, many of the same philosophical premises, the intellectual framework of argument, and the long range objectives of their supposed opponents.
Ironically, although they may appear at times in major disagreement, both the hard core and multicultural Left and the Neocon “Right” share a commitment to a globalist belief in an American “exceptionalism.” In explaining this “exceptionalism,” they use the same language—about “equality” and “democracy” and “human rights” and “freedom,” its uniqueness to the United States, and the desirability to export its benefits. But, then, the proponents of the dominant Left and of the establishment Neocon Right will appear variously on Fox or on MSNBC, or in the pages of National Review or of The New Republic, to furiously deny the meaning given by their opponents…but all the time using the same linguistic template and positing goals—in civil rights, foreign policy, etc.—which seem remarkably similar, but over which they argue incessantly about the “means.”
Thus, for instance, in their zealous defense of the “civil rights” legislation of the 1960s and their advocacy of what they term “moderate feminism” and “equal rights for women” (now extended to same sex marriage), the Neocons mirror the ongoing revolution from the Left and accept generally its overarching premises, even while declaring to anyone foolish enough to listen, their fealty to historic American traditions and historic Western Christianity.
It is a defense—if we can call it that—that leads to continuous surrender, if not betrayal, to the Revolution and the subsequent acceptance by those defenders of the latest conquest and advance by the Left, and their subsequent attempt to justify and rationalize to the rest of us why the most recent aberration—same sex marriage, or “gender fluidity”—is actually conservative. Or, that it is critically necessary to send American boys to die in the jungles of Lower Slobovia to “establish democracy,” that is, prevent one group of bloodthirsty fanatical Muslims from killing off another group of bloodthirsty fanatical Muslims—this latter group, of course, willing to do our bidding economically and politically. And all in the name of spreading—mostly we should say imposing—global “equality” and “freedom” and the “fruits of American exceptionalism.”
Neither the leftist Marxist multiculturalists nor the Neoconservatives reflect the genuine beliefs or inheritance left to us by the Framers and those who came to these shores centuries ago. They offer the spectacle of factions fighting over the increasingly putrid spoils of a once great nation which becomes increasingly weaker and more infected as they assume the roles similar to that of gaming Centurions at the Crucifixion.
The election of Trump threw them off stride, both the cultural Left but also the establishment (neo) conservatives, and the history of the past ten months has been a continuous sequence of their efforts to either displace the new administration (by the hard Left and some Never Trumpers) or surround the president and convert him, or at least neuter his “blood and soil,” America First inclinations (by many of the establishment Neocon and their GOP minions).
Who wins this battle, who wins this war, will determine the future of this nation and whether the dominant Deep State narrative, shared by both the establishment Left AND the establishment conservatives, will complete its triumph.
Today, then, an essays by Dr. Jack Kerwick in which he analyzes and picks apart logically the widely used template of “American exceptionalism” as used by the Neocon Right, but also, in some ways, by the Left.
By Jack Kerwick September 20, 2017
Since the crushing, truly humiliating defeat that it suffered with the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, neoconservatism, at least temporarily, experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes.
It isn’t, of course, that neoconservatives have gone away; and it certainly isn’t the case that they have lost power and influence in any substantive—as opposed to symbolic—respect. Still, the sort of standard GOP/neocon agitprop that prevailed during the George W. Bush days, and even into the Obama era, has been less audible in the Age of Trump.
We should not, however, be misled by this into thinking that some of the distinguishing ideas of neoconservatism don’t continue to inform American domestic and, especially, foreign policy. In fact, there is a real sense in which some of these ideas inform the contemporary cultural consciousness.
Within the ideological solar system that is the neoconservative view, there is one idea specifically that is arguably the sun around which all of the others revolve. This is the idea that America itself is —or what is otherwise known as the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” (AE).
What can it mean to say that America (or anything) is an idea or concept or “proposition?” An idea is an intangible or incorporeal sort of thing. Ideas, in other words, are without bodies, nonphysical. They are . In principle, then, any given idea can be discovered and, hence, endorsed by anyone, irrespectively of culture or history. One may become aware of an idea at a specific juncture and courtesy of culturally and historically-specific circumstances; but the idea itself, considered as an idea, needn’t owe anything to the contingencies of space and time.
An idea, inasmuch as it is thought to transcend all civilizational differences, is universal.
That the proponents of AE think of America the Idea in just this way is borne out by their insistence that can become an American. We receive confirmation of this as well whenever the members of Respectable Society, both “liberal” and “conservative,” talk about immigration, whether legal or illegal: Although it is only ever recognizable leftists who use the term “undocumented” to describe illegal immigrants, those on the official right implicitly endorse the idea behind this term when they too speak as if the meaningful difference between immigrants and American citizens is that the former haven’t yet satisfied the formal or legal criteria for American citizenship.
To put it another way, as long as a person affirms America as Idea, then regardless of where that person resides, that person is an American.
When George W. Bush says that “family values” don’t end at the Rio Grande, or Barack H. Obama tells us that foreign immigrants and refugees differ from Americans only inasmuch as they were born elsewhere, they are telling us that America is, ultimately, borderless, for it is an Idea or Creed that, as such, can be embraced by anyone anywhere. Borders are arbitrary lines on a map, symbolic and capricious walls, and the requirements for official or legal citizenship are so many bureaucratic hurdles.
America the Idea is, essentially, the ideal of what neoconservatives and those further to their left call “Liberal Democracy.” It is the idea of a Universal Regime of Equality, a Democracy under which the “human rights” of all find protection. The champions of AE maintain that the territorial expanse that the world recognizes as the United States of America is Liberal Democracy in the flesh.
To put it another way, just as Plato believed that the particular, temporal instances of imperfect justice, truth, beauty, and goodness that we find in our world are but shadows or reflections of eternal, universal archetypes—Justice, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—so too do the proponents of AE regard the geographical and historical entity of America as but a shadowy imitation of the America, the Idea of a Universal Nation.
First, AE is as ahistorical a fiction as any of which Western political philosophy is littered. This being said, we must resist the temptation to place it alongside such other political-moral fictions as the State of Nature, the Classless Society, the Original Position, and Plato’s perfect Republic, for unlike the merchants of these imaginary devices, the peddlers of AE indicate not the slightest awareness that their doctrine of choice is an ideal, a thought experiment, a theoretical construct.
AE’s handlers are true believers—or at least they sound as if they are.
Second, AE is ahistorical, but it is a fiction the political and ideological benefits of which seem to be bottomless.
To put it bluntly, if one is in search of an intellectual rationalization for the , one needn’t look any further than AE. Being an abstraction, America as Idea is utterly devoid of every vestige of historical contingency. Emptied of all of those racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural particularities, the individual and collective experiences of the generations of human beings who made America what it is, AE is bloodless, lifeless, an eternal, timeless category that is designed to accommodate a virtually infinite number of pieces of machinery (human beings)—as long, of course, as those pieces are either indistinguishable from one another or at least treated as if they are such.
Thus, we find American Exceptionalists enthusiastically supporting relentless and potentially limitless immigration from practically anywhere and everywhere in the world, but mostly from countries and cultures whose mores, histories, and traditions are often not only distinct from, but antagonistic toward, those of Americans.
Yet at one and the same moment, American Exceptionalists swear to us that America, being Liberal Democracy must make war, or threats of war, so as to make the rest of the planet safe for Liberal Democracy, for Equality, for Human Rights.
So, since Americans are constantly in danger of being destroyed by non-Americans who despise “our values” (Liberal Democracy), we must make sure that the threat of American force is omnipresent. However, in the meantime, we need to continue to allow into the United States millions of non-Americans, often from these very same lands that American Exceptionalists assure us pose an existential threat to it.
AE squares this circle.
Learned scholars, like my friend and esteemed scholar, Paul Gottfried, have long argued that contemporary America (along with other Western societies) are presided over by regimes that are best characterized as “administrative/managerial” States. This characterization is true as far as it goes. However, in light of the centrality with which AE figures in our political universe, it is most apt, I believe, to see the first role of the American government as that of . More specifically, it has assumed the persona of a
As the philosopher Michael Oakeshott was quick to note, between a genuine education and a training there is all of the difference. An educator seeks to teach his students to think—regardless of what it is they to think about. A trainer, a seminar instructor, in dramatic contrast, is essentially concerned with teaching his students to think. And because he wants to make it stick, because training requires far less time than an education, the content of the training must consist of statements that are and that, therefore, can be seared into memory.
The doctrine of AE, the doctrine that America is an Idea, a Proposition of Equality or Human Rights that anyone can affirm, delivers in spades:
Those foreigners who want to destroy us, who “hate us for our freedoms,” differ from those foreigners who continue to pour into our country insofar as the latter have endorsed AE while the former have repudiated it. Immigrants, even illegal immigrants, are enlightened and, thus, good Americans. Those non-Americans who detest us haven’t yet been instructed in the Truth. Like Socrates, the supporters of AE think that evil (or evil as they understand it) must be a function of ignorance.
According to the logic of AE, America is the Great Teacher. Actually, given that it is only content that can be learned by rote that she is interested in imparting to her students, America here is the Great Correspondence School: After she has scrubbed the minds of her subjects clean, making of them blank slates, America seeks to drill a small handful of propositions into the minds of the Uninitiated.
Third, the champions of AE have been remarkably successful in convincing Americans, particularly self-described “conservatives,” that the affirmation of AE is nothing more or less than the expression of patriotism. Yet not only is a commitment to the ideology of AE and a commitment to America two different sorts of commitments; they are mutually incompatible.
Alasdair MacIntyre, a Catholic philosopher of the Aristotelian-Thomist persuasion and a proponent of patriotism makes the point. He observes that insofar as the patriot has “a peculiar regard…for the particular characteristics and merits and achievements of” his nation because they are nation, “the particularity” of the patriot’s relationship to his country is “essential and ineliminable.” The patriot’s morality is “a morality of particularist ties and solidarities,” of “a class of loyalty-exhibiting virtues” like “marital fidelity, the love of one’s own family and kin, friendship, and loyalty to such institutions as schools and cricket or baseball clubs.” The morality of patriotism demands of the patriot “a peculiar devotion” to his country. It demands that he “regard such contingent social facts as where I was born and what government ruled over that place at that time, who my parents were, who my great-great-grandparents were, and so on, as deciding for me the question of what virtuous action is [.]”
AE, in glaring contradistinction, is a species of what MacIntyre calls “liberal morality,” an outlook that demands of moral agents that they abstract “from all social particularity and partiality” in rendering “impersonal” judgments. Yet “liberal morality” is not only “systematically incompatible” with viewing patriotism as a virtue, it actually “requires that patriotism—at least in any substantial version—be treated as a vice.”
AE is a species of “liberal morality:” America the Idea has no history, no particular culture, religion, ethnicity, or nationality in which to ground it. AE, comprised as it is of abstract propositions, is a universal creed. Affirmation of its principles requires an attitude of, not partiality, but partiality.
As eminent neoconservative Allan Bloom expressly acknowledged, given the neocon’s vision of America as Idea, “patriotism” be reconfigured accordingly. Whereas traditional societies instilled in its members “an instinctive, unqualified, even fanatic patriotism,” education in the United States has been geared toward inspiring in its citizens a “reflected, rational, calm, even self-interested loyalty [.]” Yet this loyalty is not to the country as such, but to its “form of government and its rational principles [.]”
From this moral perspective, “Class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when bathed in the light of natural rights, which give men common interests and make them truly brothers.”
Notice, from this vantage point, it is abstract principles and “ of…“liberal democracy.” “There is practically no contemporary regime that is not somehow a result of Enlightenment, and the best of modern regimes—liberal democracy—is entirely its product.”” of government that exists in America that become proper objects of the patriot’s devotion. This form of government is the “Enlightenment”
Liberal democracy is “the regime of equality and liberty, of the rights of man,” and “the regime of reason,” and America is its epitome in that it is the first country in all of human history to have been founded upon “rational principles”
Irving Kristol, “the godfather” of neoconservatism, identifies “the equality of natural rights” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as “the principles of” America’s “establishment,” the principles of “the universal creed” upon which the nation is “based.” The United States, then, is “a creedal nation” with a “‘civilizing mission’” to promote “American values” throughout the world, to see to it “that other governments respect our conception of individual rights as the foundation of a just regime and a good society.”
Kristol is unambiguous in his profession of the American faith: the United States, given its status as a “great power” and its “ideological” nature, does indeed have a responsibility “in those places and at those times where conditions permit” it “to flourish” to “‘make the world safe for democracy.”
However, from the standpoint of “liberal morality,” patriotism has been decried as a vice.
Take, for example, David McCabe, a contemporary philosopher and champion of “liberal morality.” McCabe unabashedly declares that “liberal morality” is “fundamentally at odds” with patriotism, for the latter “may help tempt people away from the appropriate claims of equal moral treatment and towards something resembling group egoism.”
Paul Gomberg is another philosopher and proponent of “liberal morality.” He is even more to the point in remarking that “on the most plausible assumptions about our world, patriotism is no better than .” After all, Gomberg explains, “moral universalism implies that actions are to be governed by principles that give equal consideration to all people who might be affected by an action.” But patriotism is “a preference for one’s fellow nationals or for one’s own traditions and institutions over those of others,” and this in turn sounds dangerously like “ethnic and national chauvinism.”
The American patriot, whatever else he may be, most definitely cannot be an American Exceptionalist.
Finally, as we have seen, AE is every bit as much an expression of dogma as is the Nicene Creed. This consideration alone should suffice to deter the traditionally religious from embracing it. Traditional Christians especially should scorn it.
AE is, in a very real sense, blasphemous. It is unthinkable that the doctrine of AE could have emerged in any cultural context other than that in which it in fact did emerge, the context of a civilization that was once known as Christendom and that, even if largely unbeknownst to itself, continues to depend upon its Christian inheritance for much of its self-understanding.
AE presupposes the framework of the Incarnation. This framework has its roots in Judaism, but it assumed center stage with the advent of Christianity. The Jews maintained that God became embodied or “incarnate” in the Temple.
Christians, though, believe that God did indeed become incarnate in the Temple, yet they think that this Temple, a Temple not made by human hands, is the Person of Christ. God became a human person in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
American Exceptionalists preserve this Christian doctrine—but with the . They divest the Incarnation of the God-Man while substituting for the latter the country of America, which is now the incarnation of the ideal of Liberal Democracy. Or, to put it another way, America-as-Idea (Liberal Democracy) assumes flesh or becomes embodied, or most fully embodied, in the admittedly imperfect and finite concrete, historical country that the world knows as America.
Being pseudo-Christianity, this drivel must be rejected by all Christians—and, hopefully, by everyone else as well.
As I shown here, it is exactly it is an ahistorical fantasy that the doctrine of American Exceptionalism serves as the perfect justification for the Universal Empire that its peddlers want for the United States to be. In addition, its packaging easily lulls the unsuspecting into thinking that it is compatible with America’s traditional Christian faith and demanded by love for America. In reality, though, AE is at odds with true patriotism and a perversion of Christian orthodoxy.