Playing the Victim

I enjoyed David Azerrad’s review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, Primal Screams (“Who’s Your Daddy?,” Winter 2019/20). I have read the book, as well as Dr. Azerrad’s writings on identity politics, with great interest. I appreciated his affirmation of Eberstadt’s analysis that identity politics originates from the dissolution of the family. That seems to be a true and insightful observation.

Where I part ways with Azerrad is when he brings the issue back to a theme about which he has written widely: the idea that identity politics is really about victimhood. In his review, he reasserts that “[a]lthough Eberstadt’s analysis can help us understand identity politics as the quest for identity, it is less clear how it explains identity politics as the obsession with victimhood and inherited guilt.”

Despite Azerrad’s many compelling arguments to uphold this view of identity politics, I cannot help but feel that he overstates the role of victimhood, which seems to be accidental to identity politics—it does not define identity politics, even if it does attend it closely.

Following Aristotle, victimhood is part of identity politics in the way that risibility (the ability to laugh) is part of humanity. It follows from its essence, and is always present, but it is not a defining characteristic. All men can laugh, and they do so because they are rational animals, but laughter does not express the very essence of what it is to be human.

One sign that victimhood follows identity politics but does not define it is that groups that seek recognition for their race, sexual preference, etc., often do so with a demonstrated pride. It would be masochistic for groups to take pride in victimhood itself. There may be examples of this, but I believe they are outliers. What’s more, the goal of identity politics—at least ostensibly—is to bring an end to victimhood. If victimhood were essential to identity politics, it would be inherently self-defeating.

Evelyn H. Gardett
Washington, D.C.


David Azerrad replies:

Evelyn Gardett’s letter illustrates the confusion surrounding identity politics I highlighted in my review. She takes the term at face value and argues that identity is not reducible to victimhood. If applied to traditional national and religious identities, her point is well-taken. The Jews, the Irish, and the Poles, for example, have all suffered as a people and their collective identity, though decisively shaped by these experiences, is not defined by them. It is also anchored in a shared past, blood ties, a common language, an ancient culture, and attachment to a land. In certain places, as in my native Canada, the memory of past oppression plays no part in defining national identity.

The contemporary phenomenon of identity politics, by contrast, is not about asserting traditional identities. It is about obtaining justice for oppressed groups whose identity is, as I noted, “a mere afterthought reducible to oppression.” In the words of the black lesbians who coined the term “identity politics” in their 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement: “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics.” A few years before, the transvestite and transsexual liberationists had already proclaimed: “We unite around our oppression, as all oppressed groups unite around their particular oppression.”

Indeed, what else but purported claims of shared oppression at the hands of the white American heteropatriarchy can explain the artificial nature of these identities? Native black Americans and immigrants from the blood-soaked African continent have very little in common and do not get along particularly well, but they are all forced into the rubric “African American.” Lesbians clash with transgender women and yet both belong to an LGBTQ “community” (that has segregated bars for gays and lesbians). And what affinity does a white Argentinian studying at Harvard feel for the mestizo Honduran-American mowing his lawn?

The focus on oppression also explains the most striking feature of identity politics, namely, the sharp distinction it draws between the oppressed, whose identities are affirmed, celebrated, and honored, and their oppressors who are not afforded this privilege. Their collective identity is only invoked to be excoriated. If a Congressional Caucasian Caucus were ever to be formed, you can be sure it would be devoted to eradicating white racism and deconstructing whiteness.

Gardett is naïve to think that the woke clerisy wants to go beyond victimhood. That would mean giving up all the privileges that America bestows on designated victim groups: from affirmative action to set-asides in government contracting, without forgetting, of course, the most important one—public sympathy. It would mean competing against everyone else on a level playing field. In truth, many prefer the comforts of honored and subsidized victimhood to civic equality and the competition of meritocratic capitalism.

The goal of identity politics is not to overcome victimhood but to leverage it in perpetuity to punish one’s enemies and secure political and economic privileges for one’s tribe.

A Christian Revolution?

The Claremont Review of Books has done a disservice to its readers by assigning its review of America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It to someone self-evidently unqualified to review it—a fact made clear by his non-review “review” (“The Lockean-American Mind,” Winter 2019/20). I’m sure that Brian A. Smith did the very best he could, but he was clearly out of his depth in reviewing a book that leading scholars of the American Revolution have publicly described as the best book on the American Revolution of the last 50 years. CRB readers should be doubly disappointed given that the CRB has a deep bench of first-rate scholars of the American Revolution to whom it could have assigned the review.

It is nearly impossible to write a serious response to Smith’s review of America’s Revolutionary Mind because it’s not a serious review, nor does it meet any meaningful scholarly standard for a book review. A professional book review must demonstrate that the reviewer has actually read the book, and then it must review what the book is about. Smith’s review does neither. It fails entirely to describe the book’s principal themes and purposes, scope and structure, evidence and arguments, and its originality and contribution to the scholarly literature. Instead, Smith situates my book in the context of the present-day debates on the Right between David French liberals and Sohrab Ahmari post-liberals.

As a result, Smith distorts completely the substance and meaning of America’s Revolutionary Mind by focusing almost exclusively on one of its corollary themes, namely, the influence of John Locke’s ideas on the American Revolution. He does this in order to offer a counter-narrative about not only the Revolution but all early American history. Smith’s sectarian agenda is to downgrade classical-liberal ideas in the Revolution and to elevate the influence of Christian communalism on the American mind. Presumably he wants an America that is based on intense religious belief and Christian sacrifice and love.

Locke’s contribution to the Revolution, according to Smith, was merely to have “made an impression on America’s revolutionaries” (emphasis added). The principal sin therefore of America’s Revolutionary Mind is to have demonstrated that Locke was the primary philosophic influence on the Revolutionary generation and then to have proven this fact with 400 pages of primary source evidence and hundreds of footnotes. There is nothing new or controversial about this claim. It has been the dominant interpretation of the Revolution’s intellectual sources since the time of the Revolution itself. (See my recently published essay “John Locke and the American Mind” in American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture, Fall 2019.)

Smith’s Sunday-school version of American history suggests that America’s true founding moment was not in 1776 but in 1629 when non-separating English Puritans settled in Massachusetts with the ultimate goal of reforming the Church of England. Smith’s history of early America draws an unbroken line from 1629 to 1776, from John Winthrop’s A Modell of Christian Charity to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The problem with this narrative is that it has nothing to do with the subject of my book, namely, the causes and meaning of the American Revolution. Smith apparently wants the colonists’ arguments against British imperial officials to have been more inclusive of the ideas of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or John Winthrop. To support this exercise in wish fulfillment, Smith’s big claim is that a lot of 18th-century Americans went to church! That fact has little to no relevance to the Revolution’s causes or meaning.

Smith’s reading of America’s Revolutionary Mind is also shallow and highly selective, verging on distortion and caricature. He claims, for instance, that my book “remains closed to the possibility that those who embarked on the American experiment held deeper or more diverse convictions than those espoused in Locke’s writings.” This charge is both false and ridiculous.

It would be absurd to claim that colonial Americans did not hold “deeper or more diverse convictions” on a wide range of subjects than those advanced by Locke. They held views on endless topics that were more influenced by Scripture and their pastors than by Locke (e.g., crime and punishment, witches, courtship, marriage, child rearing, commerce, friendship, death, the immortality of the soul, etc.). That’s not the point, though. America’s Revolutionary Mind addresses how and why American revolutionaries responded to the laws and arguments of British imperial officials and how this led to a revolution in the moral thinking of the American people during the decade-and-a-half before 1776. To deny this moral revolution is to deny what American revolutionaries said and thought about their Revolution.

In his attempt to caricature my argument, Smith performs a rhetorical bait-and-switch with my words in order to distort their meaning. He takes selective quotations from different chapters in order to construct a false portrait of my argument. For example, he claims that I argue that American revolutionaries spurned “faith, revelation, mystic insight, innate ideas, and a priori speculation.” I never wrote that about American revolutionaries; I wrote it about various Enlightenment philosophers.

Smith also claims that I argue that the “self-evident truths of the Declaration cannot be those of natural law, nor do they bear much relation to the long natural law tradition.” On this point, Smith is not misquoting me; he just misunderstands my argument. He does not seem to understand the difference between the Christian (Thomistic) natural law tradition and the Enlightenment “law of nature” tradition. Smith conflates and confuses these different concepts, but these are distinctions with a difference.

A “law of nature” and “natural law” mean different things, and they were not simply synonymous in the minds of America’s Revolutionary generation. The founders rarely ever used the term “natural law” during the Revolutionary period, but they used the term “law of nature” repeatedly. In fact, this is true of most 17th- and 18th-century political philosophers, who abandoned traditional natural law language for a new way of viewing the world and man’s place in it that was derived from modern natural science. Take Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, in which the term “natural law” is used once, while the term “law of nature” is used 52 times. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were, broadly speaking, students and purveyors of the new, modern “law of nature” theory, not the medieval natural law theory of Aquinas and his followers.

The absurdity of Smith’s position can be reduced to two related conclusions: either there was no American Revolution (at least as I and most other scholars have explained it) or it was a Christian revolution. If what Smith claims is true, then colonial American history from 1629 to 1776 was one continuous whole, which means that the ideas and institutions promoted by John Winthrop and Cotton Mather can be found buried deep in the language of the Declaration of Independence. And if the American Revolution really were a Christian revolution, then it was a religious civil war, because the British were no less Christian than the Americans. In the end, both interpretations are ludicrous and are held by no legitimate scholars of the American Revolution.

Bradley Thompson
Clemson University
Clemson, SC


Brian A. Smith replies:

Bradley Thompson’s response offers a short course in logical fallacies, from ad hominem to ad populum to straw man. If I can ask CRB’s readers to set aside my supposed mendacity and unseriousness, I think there remain a few points worth discussing.

Although many scholars question how decisive it was in forming public opinion, it is indisputable that John Locke’s Second Treatise played an important role in shaping the political rhetoric of revolution. America’s Revolutionary Mind may well be the most original book penned on the subject in the past 50 years, but the logic of its argument stands or falls on how central Locke’s ideas were to that generation’s common thought and experience.

I argue that what Thompson calls “one of its corollary themes” is actually the lynchpin of his entire book. If you accept that Enlightenment thought—that is, systematic Lockeanism—dominated the thinking of the most important writers and statesmen in America before, during, and immediately after the Revolution (and that those thinkers formed the American mind at large), everything else in his book follows. He contends that his “exhaustive examination of the pamphlet and newspaper literature of the period demonstrates that American revolutionaries were unadulterated Lockeans.”

A legal historian might have looked to the deeper common law practices of the colonies to suggest the book doesn’t quite capture the common sense of the American mind. But I aimed my review squarely at what I believe to be an even weaker point in Thompson’s argument: his neglect of the role Christian belief and practice played in preparing the way for colonists to become rebels—and ultimately, independent Americans.

I called this a form of epistemic closure in my review because I have never seen a case where a student of American history read so many sermons for so little profitable understanding of their wider context and meaning. Of course, he’s right to point out that merely observing that most Americans still went to church in 1776 isn’t much of a case against him. But that is to ignore the substance of my point. (Thompson’s references to my desire to have the colonists’ arguments be “more inclusive of” Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin, or his bizarre attribution of motive in the final paragraph of his reply suggests he missed it.)

In the context of Thompson’s systematic Lockeanizing of American thought, I am at a loss to see where I misread him. Yes, it is true that the line Thompson says I misquoted occurs in a discussion of Enlightenment thinkers. It is also true, however, that it appears as part of a chapter-long syllogism that he draws between those thinkers and Thomas Jefferson as the most important thinker of the American Revolution.

Of course, Jefferson himself believed in “laws of nature” that follow the skeptical Lockean lines Thompson indicates. But it is also a fact that 17th- and 18th-century discourse concerning nature is far more complicated than Thompson indicates. Consider a few examples: Samuel Rutherford’s influential anti-absolutist tract Lex, Rex (1644) asks whether anyone can deny “the law of nature to be a divine law?” A similar, contemporary locution in Reformed circles is “the light of nature”—commonly used by Cotton Mather (in his Magnalia, 1702) and the authors of the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647, Q. 151) in terms that resonate quite deeply with the broader natural law tradition. Is it so difficult to imagine that when America’s leaders endorsed the Declaration and its “laws of nature and nature’s God,” they and those they represented did so in very different terms than Jefferson intended?

Throughout the book, Thompson crafts an argument by resemblance. Wherever an author writes “law of nature,” he must mean the phrase as Locke does. When colonists and rebels quoted Locke, they must have adopted his reasoning behind the quotes as well. The best text for Thompson’s case—the Declaration—presents an eclecticism that shows the cracks in this method. In tougher cases, this problem is even more acute: Thompson’s readings of political sermons consistently oversell the extent to which the sermonizer accepts (or adopts) any “Lockean” argument that contradicts Scripture. This is to say nothing of Thompson’s neglect of the much more substantial influence of unpublished sermons, which were overwhelmingly more likely to draw on theological rather than secular authorities.

But finally, I think Thompson is left with a significant problem in that many observers and participants in the Revolution don’t have a lot to say about Locke. They draw the same lines of continuity I identify but that Thompson disavows. Indeed, even Thompson’s favorite founder, John Adams, found Locke helpful, but unnecessary: he declared that John Poynet’s Shorte Treatise on Politike Power (1556) contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.” Even more strongly, in a letter to F.C. Schaeffer, Adams wrote, “I love and revere the memories of Huss, Wickliff, Luther, Calvin, Zwinglius, Melancton, and all the other reformers how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical & philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.”

All due honor to Locke, but the American mind owes just as much to other sources, and to advance a view to the contrary requires us to efface entire traditions of thought and practice from our common heritage. One needn’t yearn for theonomy or integralism to recognize this.

Federalists and Anti-Federalists

I am writing to defend one chapter in particular of my book, An Anti-Federalist Constitution, which Adam Rowe, in his thoughtful and fair review, finds to be “misguided” (“Noble Opposition,” Winter 2019/20). This chapter presents a counterfactual, an amended version of the Constitution that I present as one plausible version of the document the Anti-Federalists might have written and rallied behind.

One might certainly argue with the particular decisions I have made (and I welcome the debate), but it seems a bit harsh to suggest that this chapter reflects “careless indifference to the historical reality in which those ideas were expressed.” The specific example that Rowe offers, concerning the apportionment of the House of Representatives, illustrates this point. If the Anti-Federalists were writing their own document from scratch, the initial apportionment of House seats would likely have been different and the South would have likely sought protection of slavery through limitations on government rather than additional representation (if, as was likely, they couldn’t have both). If they were working from the proposed Constitution as a starting point, however, changing the proportions of the original allocation was likely a political non-starter.

Rowe is correct, of course, that most Federalists, including the framers themselves, saw significant faults in the proposed Constitution. Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that “They did not need the Anti-Federalists to help them identify its flaws.” Throughout the debate, the Federalists were frequently surprised by (and dismissive of) the extent of the problems identified by their opponents. Yes, the Federalists “benefited immensely from the goad the Anti-Federalists supplied,” but the Anti-Federalists presented a valuable political position in their own right. They saw government differently, and wanted a different form of government. That, fundamentally, is the whole point of my book, which aims to articulate that alternative vision. Their contribution was more than simply inspiring Federalists to do a better job of defending the Constitution.

Michael J. Faber
Texas State University
San Marcos, TX


Adam Rowe replies:

Professor Faber is correct that the words “careless indifference” were poorly chosen and unduly harsh, even though the same sentence in which they appear extols his “profound grasp of Anti-Federalist ideas.” I remain convinced that his counterfactual “Anti-Federalist Constitution” is misguided, or too far removed from the actual debate to be of much use. But I wish I had found a more precise and generous way of saying so.

My point about the apportionment of the House of Representatives was that his counterfactual constitution contradicts itself. Faber’s version apportions representatives on the basis of only free persons, eliminating the three-fifths clause regarding slaves, but gives Southern states the same proportion of representatives as the actual Constitution for the first Congress (before a census could be taken). In his letter, he explains that “changing the proportions of the original allocation was likely a political non-starter.” The idea is that Southern states would have accepted a permanent reduction of representation so long as it did not take effect until 1793. Only today’s politicians could make such an absurdly short-sighted bargain seem plausible.

Exceptional America

I thank David Goldman for a most generous review of Burdens of Freedom in the CRB’s Winter issue (“Cultural Realism”). He grasps the essence of my book—that it is a venture onto untrodden ground. I could only suggest the many implications of the research I had discovered on world cultural differences, as well as its radical implication: that America is not a universal nation, as our founders thought, but an exceptional one. The U.S. was built on the world’s most individualist culture, which is strange to the entire non-Western world. And from that has stemmed both our achievements and our challenges.

Goldman notes correctly that I do not fully justify the many conclusions I draw. For instance, I explain the idea that freedom, in Biblical terms, is not a right but an obligation, borrowing G.W.F. Hegel’s idea that outer freedom rests on inner discipline. To pursue the many inferences here and elsewhere would have required a much longer book.

I also feared to become trapped in over-specialization, a leading excess of today’s academy. Many scholars spend entire careers pursuing some small but important subject. My first priority was to paint the big picture. Goldman mentions the individualist side of Chinese culture while I emphasized Asia’s overall collectivism relative to the West. My question was: how different does the world look in general if we fully accept that the West’s individualism is the exception rather than the rule?

When Howard Carter broke into the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, he vastly enlarged the evidence we had on ancient Egypt. The full meaning took years to emerge. Similarly, world cultural differences must force many changes in what we thought we knew about our country. The fallout will take years to settle.

One question must be how important those differences, alongside other factors, are in shaping the fate of nations. Another is how feasible it is for cultures to change. In reconnoitering this new territory, I am honored to have David Goldman as an ally.

Lawrence M. Mead
New York University
New York, NY

Gone to Pot

John DiIulio, Jr., is arguing with a straw man in his review of Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence (“Reefer Madness,” Fall 2019). Although it is debatable whether smoking or ingesting marijuana makes users violent, there is no doubt that it makes them mentally impaired. It may not result in psychosis, but it certainly makes them unsafe drivers. As both sides of the debate concede, traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths all rose significantly after Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012.

Anyone acquainted with the drug scene, which exploded in the 1960s (being yet another indicator of societal decline), knows that those who indulge do so to “get high.” There is nothing comparable to the satisfaction of thirst in alcoholic beverages. Even with moderate use of pot—especially with the stronger stuff now available—the effects can last for weeks.

It is no accident that legalizing pot has become a cause for libertarians, who lack clear ideas of what freedom (much less law) is for. Even liberal California Governor Jerry Brown was aghast when Young Democrats in the state came out in favor of legalization, making the point that citizenship demands people who are not chemically impaired.

The law is an educator on morals, whether we admit it or not. The fact that people abuse alcohol is no reason to look the other way when they use marijuana for “recreation,” which has no purpose but abuse.

Richard H. Reeb, Jr.
Helendale, CA


John J. DiIulio, Jr., replies:

I kindly thank Mr. Reeb for his letter, but…straw man? Nobody doubts that marijuana use can result in being “mentally impaired” and behaving accordingly. But the central argument of the book that I reviewed is that regular marijuana use powers psychoses that fuel violent behavior. As the review documents, in light of the best available data, that argument is quite “debatable” indeed.

It is precisely because I do view the law as “an educator on morals” that I have over the last two decades embraced the marijuana decriminalization laws that I once eschewed. Morally, not just socially or economically, those laws have done more harm than good; and, it is time for our conflicting federal and state laws on the matter to speak in one voice.

Requiescat in Pace

Thank you for the thoughtful remembrances of Michael Uhlmann in the Fall CRB. Mike’s role as a colleague or mentor is missed daily by those who knew him. His loss will remain deeply felt throughout the conservative movement, especially at Claremont.

It will be his students, past and present, who will feel the loss most profoundly. They will be deprived of the continuing inspiration he routinely spread, and the truly infectious joy he reserved for his students—especially those who showed a spark or grit beyond the ordinary. Like a proud father, Mike lived to watch his students succeed. It’s left for us now to commit ourselves to his principles and memory. God rest his soul.

James Rockett
Napa, CA